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Assessing U.S. Strategy In Syria


President Obama said today that it's, quote, "not conceivable," for Syrian President Bashar al-Assad to remain in power. And he said the goal of diplomatic talks in Vienna is to come up with a political transition. Michael Ratney is the State Department's envoy to Syria. He joins me now on the line. Welcome to the program.

MICHAEL RATNEY: Hi, good morning.

MARTIN: Straightforward question, is the U.S. priority in Syria defeating ISIS or getting rid of Assad?

RATNEY: Well, look, we have to do both. We're devoting a great deal of energy to the counter-ISIL campaign in Iraq and in northern Syria. But at the same time, finding a path to a political transition in Syria, a path away from Assad, a path to a better future for Syrians, is a big part of our efforts. And it's been a major focus of Secretary Kerry's efforts for the past few weeks. And certainly looking into the rest of November, December, January, this is where we're focusing a huge amount of energy.

MARTIN: But I imagine that complicates things, having to prioritize both at the same time. Last month, the administration said it was ending its program to train Syrian rebels in neighboring countries. Instead, the plan now is to directly support the groups in the country by sending them military equipment. If the U.S. government couldn't train the rebels, why do you arm them?

RATNEY: No, it's a complicated story. And sometimes, the explanations of what happened with that train-and-equip program aren't completely accurate. Look, still it's a huge priority of ours to find local partners on the ground willing, able, capable to fight ISIL. And those efforts are going to continue. The nature of the program has shifted a bit from the focus on bringing them out and training them to equipping those with whom we already have relationships. But obviously finding additional partners, that continues to be a part of the effort - partners internationally and partners on the ground inside of Syria. It's a central part of our effort to combat ISIL in northern Syria.

MARTIN: What does a political solution in Syria look like? I mean, why would Bashar al-Assad ever willingly leave power?

RATNEY: You know, I spend a lot of my time talking to Syrians, Syrians principally in the opposition. And one thing you get is an absolute determination, a sense that there is no political future. There is no path out of the mess - the hell, as the secretary has described it - in Syria, unless Assad goes. There's an enormous amount of determination. And ultimately, you know, he can choose to cling to power and to extend the misery of the Syrian people - and all you have to do is have one conversation with Syrians inside of Syria, and you know that's like - or he can be a part of a negotiating process. And that's the direction we're going, in which ultimately, his fate will be decided and his exit will be insured. Unless that happens, unless that political process starts, unless there's a willingness on the part of all the parties to this conflict to find some peaceful political path out of it, you know, the hell that Syrians are living in for the past four and a half years is just going to continue.

MARTIN: And then, briefly, what's the plan if he were to leave? Who takes over?

RATNEY: You know, there's a lot of very capable Syrians. And I've met a lot of them in the time that I've been in my position. The sooner that transition starts, the sooner the political process starts, the better chances there are of some kind of a managed, negotiated transition in which stability returns to Syria, security returns and some kind of a transitional body, transitional governing body as stipulated in the Geneva communique from 2012, takes over, there's path towards rewriting the constitution, towards elections pursuant to that constitution. It's not going to be easy - no kidding. But the alternative is pretty bleak.

MARTIN: Michael Ratney is the State Department's envoy to Syria. Thanks so much for talking with us.

RATNEY: My pleasure. Transcript provided by NPR, Copyright NPR.