Britain Watches As Others Call For Change In Syria

Originally published on July 14, 2011 6:56 am
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Is it clear to you that Assad must go?

ALISTAIR BURT: Well, as every day goes by, more and more legitimacy is lost by Assad and his regime. We've been very clear with a number of these insurgencies and revolutions; it's not for people outside to decide who should run countries. I think we've got to be very clear that these insurgencies have usually been spontaneous; they've been led by the people. But we have watched and seen the way different countries react, and we've seen legitimacy change over time.

INSKEEP: I want to explain legitimacy as it's used here, because we're basically talking about leaders of countries who may or may not be elected in any way. But if they're legitimate leaders, except that they are the leader of the country and that they ought to be the leader country, you're saying that Assad has lost that or is loosing that?

BURT: But what we can do see when we watch events unfold, is those who have had legitimacy, who have had the relationship with their people which just meant that some form bargain that has allowed the place to work, this has been shattered. This concept has been shattered in so many different places. And I think that's the extraordinary thing about what's happening in Syria. In the past, challenges to the Assad regime where met by violence, immediate repression, and that people were cowed by what has happened and it stopped. These days, that isn't happening.

INSKEEP: Let me give a couple of examples of other countries. In Egypt, the United States was seen as giving a nudge to Mubarak's regime at a particular time. In Libya, of course, bombs had been used by your government, as well as the United States and other governments, in an effort to influence the course of events. So are you saying that in the case of Syria, you're toothless? There's nothing you can do.

BURT: And I think, again, another thing that's desperately important here is the grassroots revolts that are there, they want their own legitimacy. We sometimes have to let people do what it is they need to do.

INSKEEP: I wonder if part of the calculations of Bashar al-Assad, at this moment, can be that he knows the West is not going to intervene militarily because just intervening in Libya seems to have strained everybody's resources, capacity and willingness right up to the limit.

BURT: Well, firstly, again, to emphasize, these two situations are very different.

INSKEEP: Granted it may not be that military actions even possible...

BURT: Correct.

INSKEEP: ...and the opposition doesn't control territory that you defend. Nevertheless, it seems that there's no room for the kind of action that was taken in Libya. There's no appetite for it.

BURT: I think that's correct.

INSKEEP: They don't have the ability to do it.

BURT: And if you're talking about stretched resources, I'd still reckon that NATO coalition resources have everything they need to ultimately deal with the situation in Libya.

INSKEEP: The American analyst and long-time former diplomat, Aaron David Miller, wrote, recently, that, like it or not, the Arab world is changing in ways that will make it more difficult for the United States to achieve its foreign policy goals in the region. And while those goals are not identical to Britain's, they are certainly compatible. Is your leverage being reduced in the region as time goes on?

BURT: I think it's an interesting observation. I can understand, entirely, where he comes from, but I think we would look at this rather differently. If our policies - if our foreign policy can only be pursued in a world where we rely on certain countries having a form of governance where the people are not consulted, where there is not consent, ultimately, either things is unstable. So, yes, it's going to be more difficult. But in the long run, if people are aspiring to the same things as we aspire to, if they have a determination to run their countries in a manner which reflects consent and they want peace with their neighbors, then it's going to be different. But actually, this may be more compatible with our aims in the future.

INSKEEP: Mr. Alistair Burt, thanks very much.

BURT: Thank you.

INSKEEP: He is Britain's Foreign Office Minister for the Middle East and North Africa.

INSKEEP: You're listening to MORNING EDITION from NPR News. Transcript provided by NPR, Copyright NPR.