Mitchell Reports | February 28, 2013
>> for the first time also in rome today the u.s. is going to provide direct aid to the syrian rebels fighting the assad regime, but it is nonlethal aide, not the weapons, that the rebels really want. john kerry made the official announcement in rome from the conference there with the syrian opposition leaders. nbc's ayman mojadin is in cairo. they have to put a good face on it because they need the money, but they may have wanted a whole lot more.
>> that's correct. in fact, they were threatening to boycott the meeting going into thursday's planned meeting in rome because they wanted guarantees that their demands were going to be met. now, among those demands, as you mentioned, theymented to tip the balance of power many terms of the fighting that has taken place on the ground. to do that they need the armed op sfwligs to have better weapons and to have more assistance in their fighting infrastructure. well, they didn't get that today, and so they were privately disappointed, but nonetheless publicly. they are describing the meeting as cautiously optimistic. in fact, i was speaking to the spokesperson of the coalition a short while ago. he said that there was a qualitative difference in how secretary of state john kerry approached the meeting. the seriousness was very different than what they have seen in the past, and they described this as the first of many steps to come in which the armed opposition is going to get some assistance from the united states and western allies . the next thing they are calling for is for the european union to lift the arms embargo on the opposition so that they can start acquiring the weapons they need to tip that balance of power . they say there is no way that a political solution can be reached inside syria , so long as president bashar al assad 's calculations aren't changed, and they say they will not be changed unless the opposition can step up the fighting and put more pressure on the regime. andrea.
>> thank you so much. now joining us for further p p guidance on all of this is a former ambassador to iraq christopher hill , who is now dean of the school at the university of denver , and also ambassador nicolas burns, former under secretary of state for political affairs , now with harvard ae kennedy school . welcome both. first of all, chris hill , to you. you were in iraq , and, of course, before that all during bosnia, that was part of your portfolio and other posts as well. we are told that it's going to be nonlethal aid, but at the same time no one is denying a report in the "new york times" today that there is already training of these rebels going on at a base somewhere in the region. chris, can you give us some guidance on that? there's a lot more here than meets the eye. we're also told, by the way, that france and britain are going to fill in the gap with other forms of military equipment .
>> well, it's hard to speak to all these various rumors, but i think you're absolutely right. there is more here than meets the eye. i think it's a very important step for the united states . it's obviously a step to get closer to these groups, closer to these groups on the ground, get a sense of who they are, and to some extent increase our leverage. i think it's an important policy step, and i think nabbedably it starts with nonlethal assistance, and i think we have to kind of take it one step at a time, but i suspect the movement will be more quickly -- more quick than it's been in the past. i think the real issue, though, is it suggests that there's a view in the u.s. government that if not getting to the end game or the beginning of the end , certainly there's a sense that the screws turn here and that we are moving on to a different era. i still believe , however, though, that even though there is no political solution there, it's very clear the assad regime really cannot be part of it at this point. i really do believe, though, that there does need to be an understanding of what the political arrangements are going to be in the future. what you like to do is get political arrangements so people understand what are the constitutional arrangements, how are they going to live under a sunni majority government ? how are the syrian christians , the kurds, et cetera , and the alawhites as well. there has to be some better articulation of what the political arrangements are so that once everybody gets what they're heading to, people don't want to be the last person to die in a civil war .
>> thn take it step by step . does that make sense to you?
>> i think it does. i think chris was saying this was a necessary course correction by the administration. the united states needs to be a more visible and active leader in uniting all those countries -- saudi arabia , turkey, qatar, the european countries -- that want to help push assad out as quick as possible and help to develop relationship with rebel groups so when assad does lee, we have a capacity to have some influence. it will push eventually the administration to do even more towards lethal aid, to more pragmatic and responsible rebel groups . the first is the presence of chemical weapons , a significant stock in syria . if they should go get into the hands of some of the radical groups, that's going to be a major problem for the united states . second, the prospect of a wider war. if this continues another six months, andrea, with all these refugees spilling across the border to turkey and iraq and jordan , there is the possibility of destabilization of lebanon . the united states does not want to see that happen. i think those two factors will lead us to eventually do more, and it's very important i think secretary kerry 's -- i think secretary kerry is pointing towards a much more vigorous role for us diplomatically that is badly needed, so i see this as a very good day for the united states , but more to come m future.
>> some would say already that this is too little and too late. marco rubio , this is what he had to say yesterday.
>> there are plenty of weapons in syria . they're coming from other countries and being confiscated. what the opposition really needs is access to ammunition. snoo what would be wrong in giving them ammunition and some of the other military equipment that they need? apparently we understand that other allies are going to fill in this gap, but why can't the u.s. be more forward leaning so we eventually have a better relationship with these opposition leaders who look like they will be the future of syria ?
>> well, again, i think that is what secretary kerry has initiated with this move. i mean, he is trying to get to know these people much better. there are a lot of different groups there, and some of those groups you do not want to be giving weapons to or ammunition to. i think the idea is to try to work with them, get a sense of how they see the eventual outcome and provide them with some of the equipment they may need. now, i can assure you, though, in the context of this nonlethal assistance we are very much taking inventory of what might be necessary in the lethal context, but i think this is a logical first step, and i think secretary kerry is putting pace on the ball here, and i think he is looking ahead. i any we need to be very xwernd what the affect is in western iraq and other -- and lebanon as well, and, again, we need to see what the final sort of political outcome is going to look like. are we going to hard wire into a constitution, the notion that the sunnis run the country and that the all owi tes have a position as head of parliament. are we going to hard wire it as it is in lebanon ? is it going to be soft-wired as it is in iraq where there's a kind of various factions? there has to be a real look at this and the way to get a look at it and the way to work with people is to begin to provide them assistance.
>> briefly, nick, is it already too late for us to have a big influence?
>> not too late. the united states has a lot of power in the region. i'm not sure it's as simple as senator rubio is suggesting. the syrian opposition is being outgunned. they need better technology. assad has air superiority , so he is pummelling civilian neighbors from the air. down the road alternative could be a no flight zone . i don't think that is something that can be cast aside. that would really neutralize assad 's military power .
>> nick burns , chris hill , two of the best. thank you very, very much.