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Syrian Regime Makes Advances In Rebel-Held Area Of Aleppo

ARI SHAPIRO, HOST:

Syria's government is making grinding advances through the city of Aleppo, chipping away at the half of the city under rebel control. Through the rubble and bodies, it seems that President Bashar al-Assad may be on the path to winning Syria's five-year-old civil war. Winning is a relative term here. If Aleppo falls, Assad's forces will control Syria's five largest cities, though rebels still hold large areas of the country.

Ambassador Ryan Crocker is a veteran diplomat who has served in the Middle East and joins us to discuss what the next phase of this war might look like. Welcome to the program.

RYAN CROCKER: Thank you, Ari.

SHAPIRO: If Aleppo falls, where does that leave the country?

CROCKER: It will be a major gain for the regime obviously and its Iranian and Russian backers and a major setback for the armed rebels. But it isn't going to end the civil war. Bashar, even with his recent gains and his external support, simply hasn't got the muscle power to retake the whole country.

You know, I'm a veteran of the Lebanese civil war. I spent six years there on two different tours. That war took 15 years to play itself out. Syria is even more complex. So yes, a gain for the regime, a loss for the rebels - but the war will grind on.

SHAPIRO: You once called Bashar al-Assad the least-bad option of a lot of bad options. He has used barrel bombs against civilians, chemical weapons, torture against his own people. How can the country of Syria go forward with this man in power?

CROCKER: Oh, I don't think it can. I made those comments about 225,000 dead Syrians ago. The notion of supporting a mass murderer like Bashar is unthinkable as far as I'm concerned. That's something the Russians and the Iranians would do, consistent with their own moral codes. That's not who we are, what we should do.

SHAPIRO: Who we are is changing. Donald Trump takes office as president January 20 and has shown an inclination to be more sympathetic to the Russian approach in Syria. How do you see the U.S. approach to this war changing?

CROCKER: Well, you know, we're not to January 20 yet. What I would expect is that we will have a president who is going to ask a whole lot of questions and then make his judgments predicated on that. I would not leap to really any prediction of what he might do vis-a-vis Russia, Syria or anything else. You know, he is moving from being the candidate to being the president. Those are those are two different worlds.

SHAPIRO: Given that you say Assad cannot continue to rule Syria and yet his government continues to make advances with the support of Russia and Iran, what do you think the U.S. should be doing?

CROCKER: Well, there are several things I've suggested over the past couple of years or so. I have argued strongly but unsuccessfully for a no-bombing zone - not a no-fly zone but a no-bombing zone. That would provide some very critical de-confliction with the Russians. We don't want World War III obviously. But it would let the Syrians know we're going to hit them, and we are going to hurt them if they keep killing their own citizens.

The Syrians and the Russians don't want to negotiate now. Why should they? They're on a roll. But we might be able to take actions at minimal risk that would cause them to recalculate and might make a political process possible.

Look, Ari; I don't suggest for a minute that this is a - snap your fingers; let's go shoot some missiles, and all will be well. It would have to be very carefully considered. Any military intervention should be very carefully considered. I would just like to see it get that consideration again both for moral and humanitarian reasons and national security reasons.

SHAPIRO: That's Ryan Crocker, former U.S. ambassador to half a dozen Middle Eastern countries including Syria. Thank you very much.

CROCKER: Thank you. Transcript provided by NPR, Copyright NPR.