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U.S. Looks For More Help To Fight ISIS, End Syria's Civil War

STEVE INSKEEP, HOST:

So a planner of the attack is dead, although the group he represented remains in Iraq and Syria. President Obama has warned this week that it will take time to destroy ISIS, and we asked U.S. Deputy Secretary of State Tony Blinken what that means.

What should the American public be prepared for?

TONY BLINKEN: This is a very resilient enemy. And they have one particular thing going for them, and it's horrific, but it is powerful, and that is, as the president said, you have people who are willing to murder other human beings without thinking twice about it and are willing to kill themselves in the process. So I'd love to be able to say that this is not going to happen again, but the reality is somewhere, somehow, it probably will.

INSKEEP: Such an attack probably will happen again, he says, during the long, long process of building a coalition to destroy ISIS. We reached Tony Blinken in Jordan. He's working to coordinate strategy with several of Syria's neighbors. One huge challenge is resolving the chaos of Syria's civil war, chaos in which ISIS has thrived. Rebel groups and the government fight each other instead of ISIS. Outside nations work across purposes, with Russia intervening to support President Bashar al-Assad while the United States wants him gone. Tony Blinken's boss, Secretary of State John Kerry, recently attended talks that included Russia. Afterward, Kerry contended the world may be weeks away from a big transition, suggesting that Assad would step down, leading all parties to unify against ISIS. That led us to a question for Tony Blinken.

What did he mean by that?

BLINKEN: There are two things going on at the same time, and they're closely related. One is the campaign to degrade and ultimately defeat ISIL, but at the same time, there is the profound problem of the civil war in Syria that was instigated by the actions of Bashar al-Assad, that in order for that civil war to end, there needs to be a political transition in Syria that results in the departure of Assad. As long as he's there, there will not be peace. And for the first time, we've gotten all of the important stakeholders around the same table and starting to move in the same direction.

INSKEEP: If I can, though, Secretary Kerry's counterpart from Russia says you're not moving in the same direction. He has said this week that the West has to drop its demands about Bashar al-Assad stepping down. He said there's no agreement about Assad's political fate, and that's the transition that Secretary Kerry thinks is weeks away. How can both of those statements be true?

BLINKEN: Well, look at what they agreed to just this week during the Vienna talks. First, there was an agreement including the Russians and the Iranians that we would work to begin formal negotiations between the Syrian opposition and regime representatives by January 1. So everyone agrees on that. There was a reaffirmation, including by Russia, of a transitional government.

INSKEEP: A transitional government that may include Assad, though, right?

BLINKEN: Well, no, the transitional government includes people by mutual consent of both sides. So it's kind of hard to see the opposition consenting to Assad's participation in such a government.

INSKEEP: Is the Russian foreign minister then incorrect to say there's been no agreement on Assad's future? Because you're making it sound like there is an agreement.

BLINKEN: No, I think he's correct in the sense that the Russians and the Iranians do not in any way want to prejudge Assad's future. And I think that's what he's talking about. But there is large agreement on a way forward. We've got to see if we can work the details. Let me add one other thing, Steve.

INSKEEP: Sure.

BLINKEN: Here's what's really changed over the last month. I think one of the reasons why there is a greater prospect than there's been for a political transition is actually Russia's intervention in Syria. When it went in much more heavily and directly militarily, two things happened. One, it increased Russia's leverage over Assad. He owes them for getting him out of a really urgent jam. But at the same time, it has increased the leverage of the conflict over Russia. And by that, I mean that I think the Russians are recognizing that they can't sustain this. Having intervened the way that they did - that is, defending Assad as opposed to going after ISIL - they are now perceived as being in alliance with Bashar al-Assad, with Hezbollah and with Iran. And for large segments of the Sunni Muslim world, that is profoundly objectionable, the perception that they are propping up Assad who is using horrific force, including barrel bombs, against the Sunni Muslim population. The Russians risk reopening that can of worms. So I think they have a much greater interest than they had, ironically, before this intervention in finding a political way forward.

INSKEEP: I want to play you a piece of tape, if I can. Senator John McCain spoke with us this week, and he argued that the president is misstating the choice facing the United States. Let's listen.

(SOUNDBITE OF ARCHIVED RECORDING)

JOHN MCCAIN: You can fight them there, or you can fight them here. That's your choice now. That's your choice and obviously, the president wants to fight them here. But I would rather fight them there, and I would rather have United States presence, I would - I have U.S. trainers, I would like to have U.S. capabilities there, along with other nations in the region, to take ISIS out.

INSKEEP: Now, McCain wants more troops. He argues the president is making this a false choice between hardly any U.S. involvement on the ground and an army of 100,000 people. McCain says there's something in the middle that can be more effective. Do you see something in the middle between those two options?

BLINKEN: Well, I think that's exactly what we're doing. We have, in Iraq, established important training sites, and we have our forces on the ground working closely with the Iraqis. And certainly, Senator McCain is absolutely right about this. Our strong preference is to fight them in Iraq and Syria, and to defeat, ultimately, ISIL where it's trying to form its caliphate. But at the same time - and Paris unfortunately underscores this - we have to be ready and effective in dealing with ISIL wherever it manifests itself. But if you cut off their base, if you take away that foundation, the edifice will crumble.

INSKEEP: Deputy Secretary of State Tony Blinken talking with us from Amman, Jordan. Thanks very much.

BLINKEN: Thank you, Steve. And we're in Paris this morning, following breaking news that the man who carried out and planned the attacks in Paris, Abdel Hamid Abaaoud, was killed in a police raid yesterday. We will be following that story from Paris all morning. Transcript provided by NPR, Copyright NPR.

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