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U.S. Policy On Syria Marked By Caution, Official Says


The militants who are attacking civilians in Iraq are also fighting in the Civil War next door in Syria. There the U.S. has backed moderate rebels who were battling against the ISIS extremists and the regime of Bashar al-Assad. But some say it's not enough. NPR's Michele Kelemen tells us about a case where the U.S. did get involved in Syria and what is says about American options in a world of many crises.

MICHELE KELEMEN, BYLINE: A top State Department official who plans to leave office next month says, the U.S. has to take risks in diplomacy. And, he says, Syria is the perfect example. Rick Barton who runs the Conflict and Stabilization Office talks about one program he started to pay the salaries of 1,300 police officers in Aleppo who opposed the Assad regime.

RICK BARTON: Giving these people a chance to provide for whatever local safety they can. Understand that we weren't stopping the bombing, which was the number one threat to people's lives, but the number two threat was - how do I conduct my daily life here in this place?

KELEMEN: The idea faced some troubles in Washington where a U.S. government review called on Barton to vet the officers. He says, the police chief in Aleppo saw that as an insult so the State Department official posed this question to his colleagues.

BARTON: Are we more worried about $100 a month going to somebody who could be a terrorist? Or are we more worried about losing 1,300 people who could be a firewall against thousands of terrorists?

KELEMEN: His argument went out and with some limited vetting the program went forward. Now the Danish government is footing the bill. But that was a small victory and one that may not last. A former State Department Advisor on Syria, Fred Hof, who's now with the Atlantic Council says, those police officers in Aleppo and other opposition figures are under threat from the Assad regime and from the Islamic State, or ISIS militants.

FRED HOF: So while ISIS assaults on the ground and the regime, you know, drops barrel bombs from helicopters we may find a situation in the not-too-distant future, you know, where the opposition to both ISIS and the regime is effectively eliminated on the ground in the Aleppo area.

KELEMEN: The the police program highlights the debate in Washington on how active the U.S. should be in the region. While Hof thinks the state department tried to be imaginative with its programs like the one in Aleppo, it was too limited to make a difference. He believes the U.S. made a mistake by not doing enough to arm and train the Syrian opposition earlier. The Middle East Institute's Daniel Serwer adds, small-scale initiatives won't work without a strategy.

DANIEL SERWER: We haven't supported them either on the civilian or the military side in a way that would enable them to actually govern and deliver services to the people who support them.

KELEMEN: Serwer, who teaches at the Johns Hopkins School of Advanced International Studies, says, this is part of a broader problem in the U.S. government. Which, he says, is reluctant to take on, as he puts it, nation-building projects.

SERWER: The world is a difficult place and the threats that we're facing are mostly coming from weak and fragile states. And to allow them to continue to produce an Ebola crisis, the Civil War in South Sudan, an Islamic State in Syria and Iraq is a mistake.

KELEMEN: The Assistant Secretary for Conflict and Stabilization Operations, Rick Barton, has a more positive outlook, though, as he prepares to leave office.

BARTON: This this is high risk work. It's venture capital. If we succeed in one out of every five or six or 10 places we will be a huge contributor to world peace. And we have to recognize that as opposed to sort of a risk-free model.

KELEMEN: Barton has a name for this - Asymmetric diplomacy. Michele Kelemen, NPR News, Washington. Transcript provided by NPR, Copyright NPR.

Michele Kelemen has been with NPR for two decades, starting as NPR's Moscow bureau chief and now covering the State Department and Washington's diplomatic corps. Her reports can be heard on all NPR News programs, including Morning Edition and All Things Considered.