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As many as 100,000 refugees have crossed into Turkey in the last three days, fleeing the violent onslaught of Islamic militants in Syria. With strikes against the group ISIS underway in Iraq since August, President Barack Obama has said he is ready to expand efforts into Syria. Yesterday, U.S. Ambassador to the U.N. Samantha Power suggested the United States has secured the allies it needs for a first wave of strikes. But now, newly-disclosed information suggests ISIS may not be the only extremist threat to the U.S. out of Syria, raising concerns that the American military focus is too limited. And questions remain about the long and expensive process of vetting and training moderate Syrian rebels in the fight on the ground. A look at the extremist threats from Syria, and next steps for the U.S.
- David Schenker Aufzien fellow and director of the Arab Politics Program at the Washington Institute for Near East Policy; former policy aide on the Arab countries of the Levant, including Syria, at the Pentagon.
- Michael Rubin Resident Scholar at American Enterprise Institute and author of "Dancing with the Devil: The Perils of Engaging Rogue Regimes."
- Shadi Hamid Fellow, Center for Middle East Policy at the Brookings Institution. He is the author of "Temptations of Power: Islamists and Illiberal Democracy in a New Middle East."
- Julian Barnes Pentagon reporter, The Wall Street Journal.
- Deborah Amos NPR correspondent reporting from Turkey, near the Syrian border.
MS. DIANE REHMThanks for joining us. I'm Diane Rehm, so glad to be back with you. President Obama says the U.S. is prepared to strike ISIS in Syria with the help of allies, but he's not given details or a timeline. As the U.S. moves forward with plans to arm and train moderate rebels on the ground, ISIS is making rapid gains in Syria.
MS. DIANE REHMJoining me in the studio to discuss threats in Syria and American involvement there, David Schenker of The Washington Institute for Near East Policy, Michael Rubin of The American Enterprise Institute, Shadi Hamid of The Brookings Institution and Julian Barnes of The Wall Street Journal. But first, on the line from the Turkish/Syrian border, NPR Middle East correspondent Deborah Amos. Deborah, thank you for joining us.
MS. DEBORAH AMOSThank you very much.
REHMDeb, you've been at the border all weekend watching Kurds from Syria cross. Tell me about the situation there and what you're seeing.
AMOSIt's been a remarkable exodus. We're talking now about 100,000 people who have been fleeing the border over the weekend. They are heading out because of an ISIS advance. ISIS has been menacing this Syrian/Kurdish enclave near the border with Turkey since June, came back in the last two weeks with tanks and artillery, outgunning the Kurdish militia who were protecting that town and that's why you saw this remarkable movement of people that has overwhelmed the aid agencies on the border, the Turkish police on the border. It's been really something.
REHMAnd that is the question. How in the world is Turkey going to manage this extraordinary influx?
AMOSThis is a tougher one than others because there is a political dimension. It wasn't that long ago that the Turks and the Turkish Kurds were in a very violent civil war. Those politics have been calmed, but this is inflaming tensions between the two communities. The Kurds will tell you that Turkey wouldn't let them in. The Turks will tell you that it was a riot on the border, that there are Turkish Kurds who want to go and fight in Kobani, which is the town that's under threat.
AMOSWe have heard that there are even Iraqi Kurds who are coming to fight because this is a strategic moment for both the Kurds and, in some ways, for the Turks. This town is about nine miles from Turkish frontier and if ISIS takes this town, they will control about 60 more miles along the Turkish border. So, you know, nobody on this side of the border wants Kobani to fall, but there politics involved and you can see that in the way that the refugees are being dealt with.
REHMWhat's been the reaction now that Turkish officials, who've been held by ISIS, have actually been released?
AMOSWell, there has been, of course, lots of speculation. All of these things are happening simultaneously. Turks will tell you that, "We did not pay a ransom. There was no military action to get our people out," that this was some sort of consultation. Now, ISIS has a Turkish (unintelligible) and on that page, the so-called or self-appointed caliph, Mr. Baghdadi, took credit for negotiating with the Turks.
AMOSHis position was they treated this like a state and they didn't join the U.S.-lead coalition. Turkey has been a reluctant partner in that coalition and has said all along that they didn't want to put their diplomats at risk. Now, we will see if Turkey's position alters now that the diplomats are out.
REHMYeah, that's the big question, whether Turkey will join that coalition now, as you say, that the diplomats are out. What about the situation on the ground for the Syrian rebels?
AMOSI have been to the Turkish side of the border where you find many offices for rebel groups who have been vetted. There's about 18 groups that have been vetted by the CIA, have been getting arms in this covert program. There is something called the Mock (sp?) and it is an office where you -- it's a joint operation. You'll find Turks there, Saudis there, Americans there. They are anticipating a step up.
AMOSOf course, they would like it tomorrow and Kobani and this fight against ISIS right now is an example of why they're in such a hurry. They're up against an organization that has tanks and artillery and they're hammering them in Kobani. There's just not enough weapons. Now, interesting, this fight in Kobani. It is Kurdish militias. It's also rebels who go under the banner of the Free Syrian Army.
AMOSSo this is the first time we are seeing Syria's Kurds and Syria's Arabs fighting together against ISIS.
REHMDeborah Amos, she's NPR's Middle East correspondent joining us from the Turkish/Syrian Border. Thank you, Deborah, for joining us. I hope to see you before long.
AMOSThank you, Diane.
REHMAll right. And turning to you, David Schenker, as Deborah says, Turkey's been reluctant up until now to join forces against ISIS. Now that these diplomats are back safely, what will change, do you believe?
MR. DAVID SCHENKERWell, the kidnapped diplomats, I think, was a very useful excuse for the Turks not to be a full coalition partner, not to target ISIS. Turkish troops had entered into Kurdish areas to support the Peshmerga when it looked like the Peshmerga was under pressure from ISIS in Iraq. But Erdogan has always been a reluctant U.S. partner.
MR. DAVID SCHENKERThis is a sympathizer of the Muslim Brotherhood. He's been very tolerant of troops that are Islamist or, you know, jihadis moving across Turkish territory. And so for those who go down to the border of Turkey and Syria, for example, they compare these towns to, like, Peshawar in the 1980s where you have all these Mujahedeen. Turkey is a country of the serious army and a serious intelligence services and they have just not done or taken actions that would suggest that they view this as an existential threat.
MR. DAVID SCHENKERBut we saw the stories in the New York Times last week about ISIS recruitment in Turkey and I think this was a very shocking story and should be a wakeup call for the Erdogan regime.
REHMA wakeup call, Michael Rubin. I know you were inside the Syrian Kurdish enclave earlier this year and you're in touch with Kurdish Syrian fighters.
MR. MICHAEL RUBINIndeed. And one of the things to remember about Syrian Kurdistan, which the Kurds have called Rojava, it's not just Kurds who live there anymore. They've actually provided a great deal of refuge. Tens of thousands, hundreds of thousands of Christians, of Sunni Arabs and others live in these Kurdish enclaves. And so when you have this massive refuge swell and it's not simply Kurds affiliated with the Kurdistan Workers Party, the PKK, but it's also Sunni Arabs who've been under their protection but want to flee the Islamic State and so forth.
MR. MICHAEL RUBINNow, they've been claiming for some time that they are increasingly pressed for resources because they're under a complete blockage. The Turkish government has blockaded them because of the lengths to Turkey's Kurds which they distrust. The Syrian regime has blockaded them. The Iraqi Kurds, for a long time, have blockaded them as well, simply because the Iraqi Kurdish government doesn't want the competition.
MR. MICHAEL RUBINAnd you have the Iraqi government who also has blockaded them so they really have been fighting with great success against both the Islamic State, Jabhat al-Nusra, which is another one of the groups from which the Islamic State broke off and the Syrian regime to some extent. They say now they're simply out of ammunition. So one of the questions that, as a Kurd, is if the American were serious, if President Obama and the Pentagon were serious about taking military action inside Syria, isn't this a better time than any, given that now more than 100,000 people fled.
MR. MICHAEL RUBINAnd, of course, there's parallels here to the Americans inaugurating Operation Provide Comfort in 1991 when hundreds of thousands of Kurds started to stream across the Turkish border when Saddam Hussein sought to crush the uprising. The only difference now really is the Turkish regime.
REHMAnd Julian Barnes, there are other threat besides ISIS. Talk about those.
MR. JULIAN BARNESSure. As Michael mentioned, we've got a number of extremists groups inside Syria. The Nusra Front was what we were focused on for a long time before the Islamic State militants took this gigantic swath of Iraq and Syria. And we have seen in reporting over the last few days and weeks, Khurasan group come out, which is not a group that was widely discussed before.
MR. JULIAN BARNESThe Khurasan is al-Qaida leaders who were close to Osama bin Laden and they've come to Syria. They have very close ties with Nusra. It's very hard to tell them apart. And so where ISIS or ISIL is focused on their caliphate and claiming and controlling territory, the Khurasan leaders and Nusra, to a large extent, much more of their energy is focused on attacking the West.
MR. JULIAN BARNESNow, that could be a plot against the U.S. homeland. That could also be a plot against U.S. interests in Europe.
REHMAnd Shadi Hamid, to what extent is Khurasan and its leaders involved with ISIS?
MR. SHADI HAMIDSo I think what we're seeing now is a kind of terrorist outbidding. Now that ISIS has become the premier terrorist and extremist organization in the world, al-Qaida has been a little bit forgotten and they're not getting as much attention as they're used to. So I think now al-Qaida is trying to find ways to regain the initiative and to be relevant again.
REHMShadi Hamid, he's a fellow at The Brookings Institution. We'll take a short break here. When we come back, we'll talk further, take your comments, your questions. Stay with us.
REHMAnd welcome back as we talk about Syria, the extremists there of various stripes. Here in the studio, David Schenker of The Washington Institute for Near East Policy, Michael Rubin of the American Enterprise Institute, Shadi Hamid of The Brookings Institution and Julian Barnes. He's Pentagon reporter for The Wall Street Journal. Shadi Hamid, just before the break you were talking about these various groups, how they may interact with one another considering the fact that this Khurasan group apparently is coming out of what was the al-Qaida leadership.
HAMIDExactly. So, I mean, now al-Qaida is trying to leverage its Syria network and the Khurasan group does have considerable capabilities when it comes to bomb-making and the kind of traditional terrorist activities that al-Qaida's known for. And as others have noted, ISIS is much more focused on capturing and holding territory and also on governing. I mean, the thing about ISIS is that it has aspirations to governance. It runs local administrations. It provides some degree of law and order in the territories it controls. That's not what al-Qaida is known for. So now they're trying to kind of double down on their comparative advantage and to kind of emphasize their threat to the west.
REHMNow, Michael Rubin, considering the fact that this information about Khurasan is just being made public. I wonder to what extent that knowledge changes our strategy toward ISIS?
RUBINWell, if there's one consistent mistake I see in the United States' outreach and strategy-planning when it comes to both terror threats as well as world regimes is sometimes we over-emphasize the importance of factionalization because we have a certain type of bureaucratic wired diagram in Washington. We tend to form a projected mental image that other groups in other countries will adhere to the same sort of wired diagram.
RUBINAll too often however we lose sight of the forest through the trees when we assume that just because there's more than one faction or indeed more than one group that they're not fissiparous, that they're not constantly shifting personnel back and forth or that just because there's one bad group doesn't mean that the other groups aren't somehow as bad. Ultimately, what this begs is for a strategy not simply against the Islamic State or against Khurasan, but a strategy to deal with all these radical Islamist and extremist movements inside Syria, and for that matter Iraq, which threaten us.
REHMThat sounds like a fairly huge endeavor, David Schenker.
SCHENKERYeah, it's quite a challenge. You know, these groups, there are many of them. there is an ideology that it's so pervasive. Part of the problem is and why these groups have been so attractive is that for the past three-and-a-half years you've had an Iranian-backed extensively Sunni -- Shiite regime -- Alawite regime in Damascus that has killed basically 200,000 Sunni Muslims in Syria. And so these Sunnis feel powerless. They're not getting any support really from the west.
SCHENKERAnd these groups, that we talk about, the moderate Syrian opposition has not been helped at all since day one by the West. And these were not, as we heard from President Obama, farmers and dentists. And, you know, the Washington Post said that -- commented -- they gave it four Pinocchios in their ratings. These were people who defected from the Syrian army primarily. And they were not backed. And the people that got the money, whether from Qatar or from Saudis, were the Islamists. They were not so discerning in who they gave money to.
REHMSo Julian Barnes, separating all these groups, identifying who is doing what becomes a huge challenge for the United States.
BARNESIt does. Now talking to defense officials right now, when the strikes start in Syria they will be specifically targeted against Islamic State militants and specifically aimed at weakening the Islamic State's position in Iraq much less focused on the Syrian civil war. Now, officials will tell you it's very difficult on the ground to tell if a group of militants is working for Nusra or working for the Islamic State. They're not going to lose any sleep if they hit a bunch of Khurasan or Nusra guys instead of the Islamic State. But this strategy for now is very much focused on the Islamic State.
REHMSo the question becomes, should the U.S. be considering strikes against Syria now, Shadi Hamid?
HAMIDWell, I think this is where it's really striking just how detached our Syria policy is from what's actually happening in Syria. I mean, right now as we speak, the so-called moderate rebels are being sandwiched between ISIS and the Assad regime in Aleppo, Syria's second largest city. And they're begging for us to do more. And we've been pretty quiet on that. Or even in July where ISIS's forces were marching towards FSA-held territory in Deir ez-Zor. And again, they were pleading for international assistance which was not forthcoming.
HAMIDSo I think this is where we can't just be obsessed about ISIS. And we also have to look at the threat of the Assad regime. The Assad regime continues to target the mainstream rebels. And this is why I think General Dempsey's remarks in the congressional hearing last week were so troubling. He said that the U.S. is going to be training 5,000 fighters to fight ISIS and not necessarily the Assad regime.
HAMIDAnd God knows how you're going to convince Syrian rebels to hold their fire against what they consider to be their primary enemy, the Assad regime. So there's a real gaping hole in our Syria strategy right now.
REHMHow has Assad helped ISIS become the power that it has?
HAMIDSo for the first two years of the Syrian civil war, you know, the Assad regime was focusing so much of its effort on peaceful protestors, first of all and then the more moderate rebels. And it was actually, in many ways, allowing ISIS to gain ground.
HAMIDThat's not to say that the Assad regime created ISIS. That, of course, did not happen but they saw that they could benefit from ISIS's rise because now they were able to say to the international community, look, if we're the ones who lose out, they're the alternative to our regime. So in that sense, ISIS is a perfect foil for Assad. And that's why really ISIS-held territory wasn't being targeted by the Assad regime. And even now they're focusing a lot of their attention effort on the moderates.
HAMIDSo this kind of problem continues to this day where the Assad -- and that's why I think this idea that we can work with the Assad regime isn't, you know, a little bit absurd because they are -- the Assad regime is partly the root cause of the problem. And to ally with the root cause to address the symptom is not really a good way of solving problems.
REHMBut where else do you go, David Schenker?
SCHENKERWell, we have a problem, right. We have a coalition of many Arab states who are only willing to do so much on the ground. And you cannot eradicate a terrorist organization of ISIS proportions the air power alone. So we need people on the ground. The Assad regime isn't the answer. If we side with the Assad regime or if we only target ISIS in Syria, we'll convince the Sunnis that ISIS is, in fact, the answer. We'll drive the Sunnis writ large into the arms of ISIS. So we're going to have to eventually go after the Assad regime in addition to ISIS. We're going to have to help these rebels.
REHMThere's another question, Julian Barnes. Shadi Hamid mentioned the 5,000 troops that we hope to train to join this coalition. What about the vetting process? How can we possibly know who's real, who's not real? What is that vetting process going to consist of?
BARNESThis has been the main worry that officials have been wrestling with inside the Pentagon over the last year, as this policy was debated. And, I mean, originally this was held up as an expansion of the CIA program to target the Assad regime, then became something to counter ISIS. But no matter what the purpose of it, the vetting of how you figure out who's going to stick with you and not shift sides once they get their arms and go across the battlefield.
BARNESSo the real answer is they don't have a very good answer to this yet. What they're trying to do is slow down the process. It's going to be -- we're not going to...
REHMThey've said it could take up to five months.
BARNESFive months to get started and then eight months to train. So, I mean, we're talking about a year plus before troops are on the battlefield. We're going to have to be very reliant on other Arab intelligence services. This is going to be imprecise science.
RUBINWell, ultimately the problem is that when a definition of moderate becomes does not engage in cannibalism, you know you're in a pretty tough spot. We've had enough trouble also vetting folks in the United States. For example, the situation of the two Chechen brothers who staged the terrorist attack at the Boston Marathon a year-and-a-half ago. Well, if they had been in the United States for a decade and we couldn't adequately vet them, doing so in hostile territory in a foreign language to most American security professionals simply isn't realistic.
RUBINBut if I can pick up on something which Shadi said that just highlights the lack of coherence of U.S. policy. If we are worried that these 5,000 troops are going to target the Assad regime, well, one -- aren't going to target the Assad -- or are going to target ISIS and nothing else, well, the reason why we didn't invite the Kurds, who have been fighting ISIS, to the Geneva Conference is because we were criticizing them for striking too much of a truce with the Assad regime and spending all their time on ISIS. Which just adds to the confusion with which the Syrians now interpret our policy.
HAMIDYeah, I just wanted to add, I think Michael raises a really good point about this whole moderate construct. And I actually prefer not to use the word moderate because many of the groups that hate ISIS the most and want to fight ISIS are actually Islamist in orientation. So they're quite religiously conservative. They want to implement Sharia Law to one degree or another. And that's where it becomes very complicated. And we keep on talking about moderates as if the only people that we're willing to work with are these kind of nice fluffy secular English-speaking rebels. We have to stop projecting in that way.
HAMIDThe fact of the matter is that religion has become very important on the battlefield. And we've seen an Islamization of the rebel forces. So I think that's where we have to be very careful to make nuance distinctions. Islamists write large aren’t the enemy. There are bad Islamists, there are worse Islamists, there are Islamists who are willing to fight against ISIS. So it is complicated in that respect.
REHMShadi Hamid. He's a fellow at the Brookings Institution. He's the author of "Temptations of Power: Islamists and Illiberal Democracy in a New Middle East." And you're listening to "The Diane Rehm Show." David Schenker, would things have been different if we had moved ahead with arming rebels in 2012?
SCHENKERI think absolutely. You know, back then we had defectors from the Syrian army. ISIS Jabhat al-Nusra was not the force that it became so predominant. I think part of it is that people lost hope and became nihilistic on the ground. But the other part was that Jabhat al-Nusra was actually paying salaries. You know, ISIS provides stipends to its fighters. The Free Syrian Army (unintelligible), they have nothing from the outside so they could not attract followers on the ground even if they had military victories.
SCHENKERSo I think it would've made a great deal of difference. And I think we wouldn't have gotten to the 200,000 dead. I think we wouldn't have gotten to 40 percent of the housing being destroyed, 5 million Syrians driven out of the country in such a state of desperation.
SCHENKERWhat's more, and I think just from strictly U.S. interest point of view, if the Assad regime had been toppled, even if we didn't get a Democratic regime that followed, can you imagine the turn and the benefit to the United States of having Iran's best 30-year strategic ally disappearing from the map? That would only leave North Korea for Iran and it would change the nature and the dynamic of our nuclear negotiations right now with them. And it's amazing that we didn't see the potential benefit of this strategically for the United States from the very beginning.
REHMAll right. We're going to open the phones and go first to Syracuse, N.Y. Hello, Rick, you're on the air.
RICKYes. Hi, Diane.
RICKThanks for taking my call. I hear an awful lot of talk about military strategy, aligning ourselves with the right guys on -- you know, in that conflict. I don't hear an awful lot about efforts being made at socioeconomic development there that would give people an alternative to picking up arms for pay, as was just mentioned by one of your guests. Can any of your guests talk about Syria's efforts being made in that department so that the ISIS and like-minded efforts at war would -- may have a chance of kind of caving in and clashing on themselves because people aren't interested. They're living good lives...
REHMAll right. Michael Rubin.
RUBINWell, it's a very good question from Rick from Syracuse, but there's one major problem here. When we look at terrorism, there's two major ways to look at terrorism. One is that terrorism is motivated in grievance, for example, poverty and other aspects. And the other is that it's motivated in ideology. If you believe that the root cause of terrorism is too much poverty, for example, then it makes sense to want to address that poverty. The problem with the Islamic State Jabhat al-Nusra and others is that it's much more ideologically-based.
RUBINAnd if you want to just look at the facts, most suicide bombers, most terrorists are quite well-educated. They're coming -- they're being recruited from middle class backgrounds, not the most impoverished backgrounds. And therefore, there's some evidence that suggests that that won't be enough. And practically speaking, it's impossible to have a marshal plan and development boom in the middle of an active civil war.
REHMWhat kinds of promises are made to those who give their lives for their ideology?
RUBINWell, if the promises are religious in nature they're promised eternal salvation. They're promised paradise and so forth. Others are promised that they simply will have their families taken care of. And so at that case there's a little bit more of a material gain.
RUBINBut when you actually look at, as Shadi was talking about, between the conservative Islamists that are opposed to ISIS versus the Islamists which join ISIS, when you actually look at the twitter wars that are being conducted between these two camps, it's quite interesting to see how many of the conservative religious Islamists are simply telling the ISIS extremists that what they're doing is completely out of line. It's not based in any sort of adequate reading of the Quran and so forth. So you have ideological battle continuing.
REHMMichael Rubin. He's with the American Enterprise Institute, author of "Dancing with the Devil: The Perils of Engaging Rogue Regimes." Short break here and when we come back, we'll read your email, take more of your calls, your postings on Facebook, your tweets. Stay with us.
REHMAnd during the break, we were talking about passports, freedom of people, certainly within Europe, to pass from one country to another. We were also talking about what happened in Australia and how. Julian, can you explain?
BARNESSure, what -- the easiest way for a terrorist group to gain access to a country is to use a national of that country, somebody who holds a passport. And so if you have an Australian radical, they're most able to mount -- attempt an attack in Australia. The Khurasan groups very -- their planning centers around Western passport holders...
REHMStrategically planning around those passport holders.
BARNESThat's right. They believe that is the way to overcome the post-9/11 security changes and mount an attack. Now this group believes that attacks against U.S. or European interests in the Middle East only gets you so far and that if you really want to mount a campaign of terror, you need to at least attack in Europe, if not the United States.
REHMAnd they, as far as we know, are actively planning such an attack.
BARNESU.S. officials have told us, at The Wall Street Journal, the Khurasan is setting up camps specifically to train Western passport holders in Syria for the purpose of mounting these attacks.
REHMShadi, how do they accomplish that? Are these individuals who have left the United States to join these radical groups and therefore already have passports, how do we screen those folks out?
HAMIDWell, I think it's -- it's very difficult, obviously. And that's where our intelligence gathering becomes quite important. But it's not just rebels who are returning to their home countries. I mean, for example, in Australia, what appears to have happened is you have ISIS sympathizers who live in Australia and they were kind of acting not necessarily according to clear directives from ISIS.
HAMIDThere's kind of the vague directive that you want to kind o take the fight to the U.S. or to the West. And I think that's what's very concerning now, that as the U.S. gets more involved -- and I support greater U.S. involvement, but I think we also have to be very honest -- the more we're part of this story, the more -- potentially the more anti-Americanism there might be.
REHMAnd that's exactly the subject of this email from Jeff, who says, "Speculate as to why ISIL has gone to such great lengths, including beheadings, to really inflame U.S. passions. It would seem, by any measure, this a poor strategy, unless you want the U.S. to get more involved. Until those videos came out, the U.S. plan appeared to be sitting on the sidelines." David Schenker.
SCHENKERWell, I think the person who writes in makes a great deal of sense. They -- this is intended not only to inspire some of the militant support, but also to goad the United States into a fight. That could potentially draw more supporters. But I think, you know, if we go back to the beginning here, they have a beef with us no matter what. And so, there are going to be people that want to harm to the United States regardless of whether we're involved or not. And I think the primary, you know, driver for ISIS and for Jabhat al-Nusra and Khurasan, is that the Sunnis are being slaughtered largely by Shiite regimes in the Middle East.
SCHENKERAnd we see this with the Maliki regime treating Sunnis badly in Iraq. We see this with the Assad regime backed by Iran slaughtering Sunni Muslims. So I think that this was going to be our destiny anyway, to have a problem.
REHMAll right. Let's go back to the phones to Dallas, Texas. Hello, Sabri, you're on the air.
SABRIHi, Diane. Hi. Thank you and your guests for such an informative program. We really appreciate it as your listeners.
SABRIMy question is, in Syria we are looking for moderate opposition. And as Michael Rubin mentioned, the Syrian Kurds have been left out of all calculations. But they're the only group who are respective of the Christians, who give administrative and military positions to the women, and who have never targeted any Europeans or Americans. And my question is, why are we insistently (sic) leaving them out of the equation and not helping them out?
RUBINWell, this is one of the ironies, Sabri, that American policy is now more Turkish than the Turks. We have a situation where, initially, the objection to helping the Syrian Kurds was their close relations with the Kurdistan Workers Party, the PKK, which as Shadi have waged an insurgency in Turkey from 1984 until quite recently. Now, the United States is coasting on that, if you will, almost a Cold War dynamic. But over the last two years, the Turks have opened up peace talks with the Kurds. They've actually had a ceasefire. And it just seems that American policy, frustratingly, isn't keeping up.
RUBINBut even if the Americans still continued to have a beef with the PKK, ultimately Syria should present us with a choice. Do you want this territory controlled by a secular group that you don't like but that doesn't threaten the United States, or out of deference to Turkey, are you willing to cede it to the Islamic State, Khurasan or Jabhat al-Nusra? And unfortunately, our policy seems to be in the camp of doing the latter. Hopefully that will be corrected.
REHMAll right. Here's another email from Sam. I don't know this to be true, but perhaps you do, Julian. Sam says, "Obama is trying with the U.N. Security Council to put a resolution in place to create laws to deter people from traveling abroad to join terrorist organizations. Any chance this will make a difference? The flaw in that thinking is, who's going to say, I'm going abroad to join a terrorist organization?"
BARNESRight. Obviously the foreign fighters issue is on the public agenda of the U.N. General Assembly meetings in New York this week. Obama is talking about that. But it's a, you know, it's a huge problem. You know, the other panelists may know more than I do on the chances of any of these specific proposals working. But, you know, the reason this is so appealing to terror groups is that it is just very challenging to put everyone on your no-fly list...
BARNES...and keep them up to date and all that.
REHMAnd, Michael Rubin, I gather the problem is there's also no definition of terrorism at the U.N.
RUBINWell, that's absolutely the case. It reminds me of that old Potter Steward Supreme Court quote about the definition of pornography. I can't define it, but I know it when I see it. Frankly speaking, Western security agencies have over 250 definitions of terrorism as of 2006. Most countries take an a la carte approach. They will condemn terrorism, except for those groups that do it in the cause they like. Ultimately, what I would argue is the United States shouldn't give counterterrorism assistance until those countries that receive it sign on to a definition which the United States puts forward.
REHMAll right. To John in Ann Arbor, Mich. Thanks for waiting.
JOHNAnd thanks for taking my comment and question, Diane.
JOHNIn the weekend issue of The Wall Street Journal, Peggy Noonan wrote that the essential problem with Obama is his very poor judgment. That certainly is true of his Middle East policy. In addressing the question of what our Middle East policy should be, don't we need to address the question first, of what can be done about this? What ideas to the guests have on this?
SCHENKERAh, you know, I think there are many people, John, who have been frustrated with the president's and the administration's Middle East policy -- that we've been distant, that we've been late in acting, that we've not seen what our interests should be or where they are.
REHMAt the same time, his actions or lack thereof have been consistent with what the American people said they wanted.
SCHENKERRight, the president was elected on a platform of basically downgrading U.S. presence in the region. And he has done that in line with what many Americans say is the right policy. The problem is, he's elected to be our leader, not our follower.
HAMIDSo, you know, I think that to some extent the damage has already been done. And that's why I'm not very optimistic. I mean even if Obama did the full list of what us four would like him to do, it still wouldn't be enough. And that's the problem with waiting and dithering and failing to act early on. You wait and wait and then, finally, when you act, things are much more messy. And there aren't any clear answers at that point. And I, you know, I really, you know, I hate to say this, but I think in some ways ISIS might turn out to be Obama's Iraq. And this will be one of his legacies and will haunt this administration and future administrations, too.
HAMIDI mean, Syria will never be what it was before. Iraq will never be what it was before. And ISIS will probably live on for quite some time. I mean they hold large swaths of territory, almost the size of Britain. You can't overturn that overnight. So we're actually dealing with a situation where ISIS might be a proto-state for three, five, ten years, you know. So that's what we're facing.
REHMDo you expect an attack from ISIS here in the United States?
HAMIDI think at some point they're going to try. And they've been very clear about that. They've issued warnings saying that America's time is coming. I feel, now they're very focused on holding territory in Iraq and Syria. But at some later point -- and again, it doesn't have to be specifically organized by ISIS central -- you have ISIS supporters and fan boys all over the world, and we just, you know, there's no way of controlling that. So I think we have to be prepared for the likelihood that there will be attempts at the very least.
REHMAnd, David Schenker, you said earlier that things would have been different if we had moved ahead in 2012 with arming the rebels. But how could we possibly know that arming those rebels wouldn't have been arming ISIS?
SCHENKERWell, ISIS wasn't the problem certainly back then. And I don't...
REHMHow do we know?
SCHENKERWell, we know what the dynamic was on the ground. It might have still developed, no doubt. And many of these militias that we might have armed, may not have been pro-West. But the fact is that there's an 11 percent Shiite majority (sic) killing a 75 percent Sunni majority in the country. And I'm no fortune teller, but back in 2012, I and many other people were writing that this is exactly what was going to happen. I wrote it in the New Republic. I wrote it in The Weekly Standard. And I mean, this -- you didn't need to be a Middle East expert to see this coming.
REHMAnd you're listening to "The Diane Rehm Show." So, Michael Rubin, if you were President of the United States, what would you do now?
RUBINFirst of all, all -- I mean military strategists talk about DIME paradigm. Every model should have a diplomatic, informational, military and economic component. The economic component is easy. We talk about ISIS having taken $425 million from Mosul banks. The Foreign Policy magazine said they were the world's richest terrorist group. Well, if they're selling $3.5 million a day in smuggled gasoline, that adds up to more than $100 million a month, more than $1 billion a year. Our allies -- either the Iraqi Kurds, the Turks or perhaps the Jordanians in this case, probably the Iraqi Kurds and the Turks -- are the ones buying that oil.
RUBINTurkey has been playing a double game. It's become Pakistan on the Mediterranean, if you will. We can't -- one of the lessons we should have learned from the war in Afghanistan is we can't gear our policy, calibrate our policy to what we want our allies to be. We actually have to view them with the reality they are.
REHMSo what would you do?
RUBINClose that border. Close the Turkish-Syrian border. Period.
HAMIDSo I think we also have to look a little bit more strategically about the long run. And what worries me here is that we're allying with some of the most repressive regimes in the region to fight ISIS, such as Saudi Arabia and Egypt. And that's something we have to do. We live in the real world. But I'm worried that we're adopting this narrow counterterrorism approach without looking at the longer term consequences. And if we acknowledge that lack of democracy and repression is one of the contributing factors to extremism and terrorism, then it is problematic that we're allying with repressive regimes.
HAMIDAnd it concerns me that Obama isn't talking about human rights, democracy, failures of governance. That is the broader context in which ISIS has risen to prominence. So I think addressing that. But on the kind of more tactical level -- or strategic, I should say, we have to have a Syria strategy. And right now there's a total mismatch between means and ends. If it is, in fact, our goal to defeat ISIS in Syria, then we do have to train and equip much more than 5,000 fighters. And in addition to that, we also have to consider air strikes, not just against ISIS, but also against the Assad regime.
SCHENKERShadi's got the point here. That is, if we just target ISIS, we will convince the Sunnis in the region that we are siding with the Shiites. We have to, but we can't allow ISIS to have a safe haven in Syria. We're going to have to go after ISIS there. But what's more is that, while we're doing it, we're going to have to hit Assad regime targets. If we don't, this is going to make ISIS a more potent and popular organization.
REHMWhat about the prospect of many civilian casualties?
SCHENKERWell, we've had that problem. Until now, with 170 airstrikes or what not -- a very small number of airstrikes against ISIS in Iraq -- we've not experienced this high level of collateral damage that we have in killing civilians in Afghanistan. But ultimately this may happen. But we have to remember how many people have been killed so far. It's not going to be a clean operation.
REHMSo training 5,000 of their own people is not going to do it for us. Is that right?
RUBINNo, it's not. And I think David had a very good point here, in that, if we're not prepared to do the job ourselves with boots on the ground, then we have to acknowledge what we're going to get is not shock and awe. But if ISIS is going to be defeated, it's going to be more like Stalingrad.
REHMDo you believe there will be U.S. boots on the ground, Shadi?
HAMIDWell, there's already talk about having close-combat advisers. And now there's a kind of interesting debate about what actually constitutes boots on the ground. I mean you'll likely have to have some special operations forces. But I think that Obama is very concerned about mission creep and there's limits to how far he'll go.
REHMJulian Barnes, what do you think the administration is likely to do?
BARNESWe have to remember right now that this is really an Iraq strategy. It's not a Syria strategy. And so they're very focused on Iraq. On the question of combat troops, as long as Obama is president, there will not be combat forces on the ground. Our special forces may get a little closer to the front lines, but it's not going to be combat.
REHMJulian Barnes of The Wall Street Journal, Shadi Hamid of the Brookings Institution, Michael Rubin of the American Enterprise Institute, David Schenker of the Washington Institute for Near East Policy -- thank you all.
REHMAnd thanks for listening. I'm Diane Rehm.
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