New York Times columnist David Brooks talks with Diane about what he sees happening inside Washington and around the country and why he thinks President Trump represents the wrong answer to the right question.
The Syrian civil war has lasted five years and claimed more than 250,000 lives. More than 12 million Syrians have been forced to leave their homes as opposition forces battle the Assad regime. This week, the conflict has escalated with Russia bombing targets in the city of Aleppo, killing hundreds of people. Tens of thousands of civilians have fled the city. And yesterday Turkey rejected demands to open its borders to refugees. Today, Secretary of State Kerry meets with Russian Minister Lavrov and other world leaders in Munich to discuss a possible cease-fire agreement. Diane and guests discuss the latest on the political and humanitarian crises in Syria and prospects for peace.
- Tom Bowman Pentagon correspondent, NPR
- Joshua Landis director of Center for Middle Eastern Studies, University of Oklahoma; he writes “Syria Comment,” a daily newsletter on Syrian politics that reaches over 100,000 readers/month
- Ambassador James Jeffrey distinguished visiting fellow, Washington Institute for Near East Policy; former U.S. ambassador to Iraq and Turkey
- Nancy Lindborg president, United States Institute of Peace
MS. DIANE REHMThanks for joining us. I'm Diane Rehm. Secretary of State Kerry meets today with Russian Minister Lavrov in Munich, Germany. The two are likely to discuss a possible ceasefire in the five-year-old Syrian civil war. A Russian offensive in the city of Aleppo has lead thousands of refugees to flee the city and converge on the border with Turkey, which is now closed.
MS. DIANE REHMHere to talk about it all, Tom Bowman of NPR, Nancy Lindborg, president of the U.S. Institute For Peace and Ambassador James Jeffrey of the Washington Institute for Near East Policy. Joining us from member station, KGOU in Norman, Oklahoma, Joshua Landis of the University of Oklahoma. And throughout the hour, I will certainly look forward to hearing from all of you.
MS. DIANE REHMGive us a call at 800-433-8850. Send an email to email@example.com. Follow us on Facebook or Twitter. And I have to tell you how happy I am to be back with all of you. Welcome to all our guests.
MR. TOM BOWMANIt's good to be here.
MS. NANCY LINDBORGThank you, Diane.
AMB. JAMES JEFFREYGood to be back.
MR. JOSHUA LANDISLovely to join you.
REHMThank you. Tom Bowman, I'm told that as we speak, Secretary Kerry and Minister Lavrov are meeting. Is there truly a hope for some kind of ceasefire offer to or from Russia?
BOWMANWell, there's been a lot of hope for week about a ceasefire, as we all know. The Russians have proposed March 1 as date the ceasefire would begin and also humanitarian corridors would open up at that time as well. I'm also told that there is a discussion, too, in their proposal who would not be part of this ceasefire. It would be the al-Qaida affiliate, al-Nusra Front and ISIS as well that you could basically still target them.
BOWMANAnd I'm also told by those who have seen the proposal that the Russians also wanted to be able to target some of the rebel groups aligned with Turkey and Saudi Arabia. The U.S. said that's a non starter. But they're taking this as a very serious proposal, that obviously comes with the support of President Putin of Russia and they hope to get something wrapped up. It could be as early as today. But, again, it's a hope.
REHMBut Tom, today is only February 11. If you're talking a ceasefire that doesn't begin until March 1, already hundreds of Syrians have been killed in this Russian bombing.
BOWMANAnd likely, hundreds more will die and likely tens of thousands will head for the exits, 70,000, I think, have -- are now on the Turkish border. Again, the U.S. would like to see this start maybe yesterday or earlier, but the Russians are in the driver's seat. Let's be frank about that. And they have been for many months when they entered the Syrian conflict. And the U.S. does not want to get involved militarily. They've repeatedly said that they want a diplomatic solution and that's why we're here now and Russia is driving this.
REHMAmbassador Jeffrey, a diplomatic solution between now and March 1, hundreds more likely to be killed. How do you get to a diplomatic solution when the bombing continues to go on?
JEFFREYThat's a very good question, Diane. The first thing is, you discard forever the administration's constant theme there is no military solution to this conflict or anything else because they are dealing with people, beginning with Putin and the Iranians, who believe that there are military solutions and they're, every day, getting closer to one. What they're looking for is a diplomatic solution to seal a military victory.
JEFFREYThat's not what we're looking for. If we want to change this equation, we have to use some of our overwhelming power in the region, which is many, many times what Russia has, to push back in various areas, such as a safe zone, such as providing more weapons and supplies to rebels, to do other things to make Russia and Iran realize they are not going to be able to save the Assad regime.
REHMJoshua Landis, how do you see it?
LANDISWell, I think that America have very limited capability in this situation. For the last decade, we've been trying to pursue a policy of regime change in the Middle East to bring democracy. And we've, frankly, made a mess of it. We've turned Iraq into a killing field, Libya and Yemen. I think it would be very foolish to try to take on Russia here. We've had five years to unite the Syrian opposition, bring together 1,500 militias, find the moderate ones of them and destroy both Assad, ISIS, al-Qaida in Syria that have become the dominant forces.
LANDISWe've failed to so this and the notion that somehow today we can sweep in and be more successful, I think we have to sit back. The Russians have decided they're going to fix Syria. Putin has said democracy has failed in the Middle East. The American method is not working. We know best. We're gonna put a strong man back in power. Now, America can fight him without any idea of how to win this war, in which would just prolong it for years more.
LANDISI think, at this point, we have to admit that we don't have a solution for Syria, stand back and see if Russia can do it. Russia says they're gonna take Assad to the finish line. They're gonna destroy ISIS. They're gonna destroy Nusra. And they're gonna use the Syrian army to take back all that territory.
REHMNancy Lindborg, it would seem that Russia's entry into the whole battle has changed the situation totally. Russia seems to want to take this to the finish line. Do you see that the U.S. has any negotiating room here?
LINDBORGWell, I think, as we've just heard, the complexity of this situation is part of what makes a solution so difficult and absolutely, the entry of Russia military might is a game changer and what they're doing now in Aleppo is the worst case scenario from a humanitarian perspective, that people have been hoping wouldn't happen for the last five years, were we've seen the relentless barrel bombing, the closing of vital supply roads and you have a civilian population that has been a pawn of this conflict for the last five years and they are now desperately trapped between the barrel bombs on the one hand, the relentless bombing campaign and on the other hand you have the extremist forces.
LINDBORGAnd the imperative is to find a way to increase civilian protection. March 1 is far too late. As you noted earlier, it is only February 11 and we are seeing, every single day, an increase of the death toll and people who are desperately escaping Aleppo only to find a closed border in a country that has 11 million people who have already been displaced, both inside and outside the country and a refugee population that's threatening European stability as well as completely saturating the region with numbers that are mind-boggling for us to consider, where one in four people in Lebanon right now is a Syrian refugee.
LINDBORGOne in four. That's as if the refugees were here in the United States, it was the entirety of California, Texas and Illinois were not entirely Syrian refugees.
BOWMANThat's right. I mean, this is only going to get worse. Somebody told me last year, Tom, this is going to get a lot worse before it gets better and it seems like every month I've been on here several times talking about this. It does get worse. I think there were, how many, 300,000 in Aleppo and they've lost their water I think just today or yesterday.
BOWMANCNN had a reporter there and people using generators for electricity. There seems to be food there, this reporter was showing, but that's gonna be running out fairly quickly so it's, you know, you have to open up these humanitarian corridors. And here's the other thing. They're proposing, the Russians are proposing March 1, clearly, to finish their job in Syria and around Aleppo.
REHMWhen you say finishing their job, what does that mean?
BOWMANTake back the city of Aleppo or destroy the rebel areas around there, capturing that whole region and...
REHMAnd insuring that Assad stays in power.
BOWMANAbsolutely. This would be a huge move in that direction for the Russians and for Assad to have Aleppo.
REHMSo they will just keep bombing between now and March 1.
BOWMANIt puts them in a better negotiating position. We have Aleppo. We have Damascus. We have this whole stretch from Turkish border down past Damascus south of there and the only area where the rebels are located would be in the southern part of Syria, around Dara'a and but there's been Russian bombing down there a well. I think there's a hope that after Aleppo, you'll be able to stop and reassess, but they could very well go down and start bombing in the south and the U.S. hasn't really done much about that either.
LINDBORGWell, I think that Josh raises an important point in terms of the Russians are trying to drive this to a conclusion. However, I think it is important to consider that if Assad were to stay in power that there would be continued unrest, fighting. I mean, that will not end it. And so there are still so many regional and international powers with proxy forces with interests inside Syria that there will ultimately need to be a larger political solution to end this.
LINDBORGOn top of which you have people throughout Syria where social cohesion is completely broken down. There is deep mistrust, hatred and suspicion among all the community members.
REHMNancy Lindborg, she's president of the U.S. Institute For Peace. We're going to take a short break here. You can join us, questions, comments by phone, by email, Facebook or Twitter. Stay with us.
REHMWelcome back. Joining me here in the studio, as we talk about the really horrendous situation in Syria: Tom Bowman, Pentagon correspondent for NPR, Nancy Lindborg, president of the U.S. Institute for Peace. Ambassador James Jeffrey is here. He is the former U.S. ambassador to Iraq and Turkey. He is currently at the Washington Institute for Near East Policy. And joining us from KGOU in Norman, Okla., Joshua Landis. He's director of the Center for Middle Eastern Studies at the University of Oklahoma.
REHMI wonder, Ambassador Jeffrey, do you believe that the U.S. has been totally on the wrong track right from the start as far as Syria is concerned?
JEFFREYIn terms of trying to halt the civil war, we did not intervene in an effective way. We intervened in a feckless way with a CIA covert program that didn't do very much and a overt military program that never produced more than a few soldiers. Then, when the Russians came in, our first action was to declare that poor Putin, he's going to get into a quagmire. We're not saying that anymore four months later. And then we started a diplomatic effort, but without any sticks.
JEFFREYYou cannot do diplomacy -- I did it for 35 years in the foreign service, you cannot do diplomacy if you don't have some clout: economic sanctions, such as we had on Iran, military threats, as we've done in other areas to get the Soviets to pull their missiles out of Cuba. That's how you negotiate.
REHMJoshua Landis, do you believe the U.S. has no clout as far as Russia is concerned and its new entry into the Syrian conflict?
LANDISWell, I think that America has considerable clout. We've done quite a bit. We organized the Friends of Syria. We tried to get the entire international community behind this revolution and bring unity. We failed to bring unity to Syrians, in the same way we failed in Iraq, Yemen, Libya. And the result has been this blossoming civil war, where we have failed to present a democratic government in exile that has muscle on the ground. Instead, the extremists have taken over on the ground, in the same way they are doing in Libya and elsewhere.
LANDISAnd so, today, the Saudis, the Turks, many other Sunni forces, want us to go in even stronger and to supply advanced weaponry, take down Russia, take down Assad and impose an American peace on Syria. Nobody's going to do that in America. The notion that we're going to even contemplate such a thing, it seems to me to be -- Ted Cruz said that Obama has pursued exactly the wrong policy by not supporting dictators. He said that regime change has failed. We've created chaos, extremism, failed states. He supports the Russian policy in essence. What about Trump? Trump is -- had a little love affair with Putin. He doesn't want to take over Syria.
LANDISAnd Bernie Sanders said, let's not get stuck in a Syrian quagmire. That leaves us with Clinton, who has been the most favorable to the rebels, said a no-fly zone early on, but has not repeated that since the Russians went in. She does not want to waste her presidency, if she gets one, in trying to sort out Syria. So I don't see -- I think that trying to arm up a revolution against Russia, to frustrate them and sink them in a quagmire, is only going to increase the suffering for Syria, prolong it for years. This is like taking off a bandage. One needs to stand aside, let the Russians try. If they fail, then we're in a whole different ball game.
REHMWhat if the U.S., Secretary Kerry and Minister Lavrov do reach some kind of agreement today, Tom? What might it look like, other than a ceasefire on March 1? What would be involved?
BOWMANWell, another part of that would be opening the humanitarian corridors to help these 300,000 folks in Aleppo and that surrounding -- more in the surrounding area. But, again, will this happen March 1? Will it happen before then? Or if you get to March 1 and the Russians and the Syrians say, well, we just have to do some mopping up around Aleppo. Let's say they start bombing again. Well, outside of, you know, people complaining about it in the United States, what exactly will happen?
BOWMANNow, it's interesting that Kerry said in an interview that, listen, if negotiations don't work for a ceasefire, there's always Plan B.
BOWMANWell, he never articulated what Plan B is. I'm told that one of the options could be, you know, providing more arms to the rebels, including maybe shoulder-fired missiles that would be obviously used against the Syrian helicopters, maybe some of the Russian aircraft. But one of the questions is, is it too little too late to help the rebels? I think Brett McGurk, the special envoy, estimated there were 70,000 or so rebels supported by the West in Syria. If you gave them some MANPADS, as their called, these shoulder-fired missiles, would it be a game changer? Would it matter? Or would the Russian aircraft just continue to bomb at higher levels?
REHMWell, that's exactly what I was thinking when you described the kinds of aircraft that the Russians are using, the kinds of weaponry they're using on civilians, what kind of a deterrent could hand-held missiles really have against that kind of weaponry, Nancy?
LINDBORGWell, you know, there's been -- civilians have been besieged, bombed. They have been total pawns of this conflict since the very beginning. And they're -- as we look at what the options are, I think an imperative has to be putting some teeth and muscle behind what the U.N. Security Council has agreed upon countless times.
REHMWhat does that mean?
LINDBORGOn humanitarian issues. Going back to February 2014, there was agreement, the Russian's signed it, that there had to be access to besieged areas, to hard-to-reach areas. We have, today -- estimates vary between 400,000 and 500,000 people who are not able to receive humanitarian assistance.
REHMAnd you've got Turkey cutting off any access outside the Syrian border.
LINDBORGI mean it's a terrible moral dilemma because, on the one hand, you have Europe that is saying, we can't take anymore. There have been approximately a million refugees who at great risk have reached the shores of Europe. Turkey already has 2.5 million refugees. And Europe is saying, please keep your border closed because we can't have anymore flow through. And then you've got, of course, Jordan and Lebanon that are completely saturated to the point of instability there as well. So the nightmare of people fleeing the bombing and coming up against a closed border requires a different kind of international attention and focus to provide civilian protection.
REHMYou're not just putting the weight on the U.S. but you're saying you've got to have an international response. What about that, Ambassador Jeffrey? I mean, for all the time that Syria has been under siege by one group or one country or another, there have been calls for international involvement -- not just U.S., but international. What has happened?
JEFFREYNothing. Again, this isn't a humanitarian effort. This isn't a fight against Ebola. This is a military problem. And it is a very serious military problem of the sort we haven't seen since the 1980s. The existence of countries are at stake. Turkey, the Saudis and others feel that they're -- that they are being threatened by this Russian-Iranian-Syrian axis.
REHMSo, Joshua Landis was talking about the various Republican candidates and what they've had to say. As I recall, Mr. Trump said something like, we ought to go in and bomb the blank out of them. Is that what you're talking about?
JEFFREYNo, that's -- I think that was Ted Cruz. He was actually referring to ISIS. I'm not suggesting, as Mr. Landis said, that we should push for a military solution. What we need to do is to ensure that Russian doesn't have a military solution. I'm still trying to compose myself from what he said -- Mr. Landis, a few minutes ago, that we should just step aside and let Russia do this. I can understand -- I don't like it -- that the American people might decide they don't want to get engaged in another Middle East war.
JEFFREYBut anybody who in any way, shape or form can think -- after Georgia, after Crimea, after Eastern Ukraine, after Chechnya -- that the Russians can offer any solution other than mass refugee flows, mass slaughter of civilians, mass violation of international law to any international solution, I think needs to go back and check modern history.
LANDISYou know, we just -- if we look at Iraq, tremendous refugee flows out of Iraq, tremendous killing in Iraq and destruction of that society. We just helped a very sectarian Shiite government in Baghdad take Ramadi. Not one house, according to most reports, was left standing. The entire city was devastated. Tikrit, the previous city that was taken back from ISIS, the same thing. It was bombed. This is like Fallujah in 2004. There -- how do you take back cities from rebel groups that have become ensconced in them in the Middle East? America's not going to go street-to-street killing ISIS. They bomb from the air. They use 500-pound bombs and they blow out entire buildings wherever there's a sniper.
LANDISThis is a horrible dilemma. We're facing a war against Mosul, a city of a million-plus, in Iraq this summer. And we're trying to get organized for that. And everybody is terrified. All the Sunnis are terrified in Iraq because they're worried that their city is going to be like Ramadi and it's going to be completely devastated.
JEFFREYI was just in Iraq and of course I was there for three years during the war. We made a lot of mistakes but we actually stabilized the place finally. As far as Tikrit goes, Ms. Lindborg's organization, USIP, has been very helpful in getting the Sunni population back to Tikrit with the help of the government. This idea that because we did show some real courage and some real effort in Iraq and it has worked in Tikrit, it will work in Ramadi. It's already underway. And it would work in Syria if we put anything like the same amount of effort into it.
REHMTom Bowman, can it work?
BOWMANWell, that's the big question. There is no appetite, first of all, to send any American troops into Syria and really none into Iraq as well. So you're looking for local forces to do this. That's one thing. The Saudis have said they would send troops in, the Emirates as well, if the U.S., you know, provided -- it led some sort of a ground force. That seems highly unlikely. So here we are. A Plan B that might provide more weaponry to the rebels. Others are talking about what the -- since the Syrians are using helicopters to drop barrel bombs, just take out their helicopters in the fields themselves, rather than have a no-fly zone. Just take them out while they're sitting there.
BOWMANSo, I think people are grappling with how to handle this in a military way. But, again, this administration, which wanted to leave Iraq and wanted to leave Afghanistan, there's no appetite at all for sending in American troops or pushing a larger military option here. They also don't want a safe zone, because it, they say someone would have to make it safe. You were talking about ground troops again. And people toss that term around, safe zone, no-fly zone, but it's easier said than done.
REHMAnd you're listening to "The Diane Rehm Show." We do have some callers. Let's open the phones, 800-433-8850. First to Fort Wayne, Ind. Bronson, you're on the air.
BRONSONHi, Diane. I just want to say real quick that I am a big fan of the show.
BRONSONMy comment is, I didn't catch his name, but I completely agree that we should step aside and see what Russia can do. We have tried other things in, you know, Afghanistan and Iraq and it's just caused more problems. So why not let Russia take a stab at it, you know?
REHMWhat do you think, Nancy Lindborg?
LINDBORGWell, I would remind us that you have a country that feels abandoned by the international community. Fifty percent of Syrian refugees are under the age of 18. Most of them have been out of school for the past five years. There is a generation that, if they survive, their dreams are completely shattered, their lives are disrupted, they've lost many friends and family. So they're -- the fact that the world is standing by and the U.S. seen as a world leader is not doing more for civilian protection, is something we need to pay very close attention to. That's not what we did in Bosnia or Kosovo.
REHMSo what about letting Russia just do it, Ambassador Jeffrey?
JEFFREYGosh, I thought I just answered that question. That would be a mistake of historical proportions. That would be like, in the same city, another negotiation 70 years ago -- Munich -- letting the Germans deal with the Czech problem. And we know what happened out of that.
REHMAll right. To Apopka, Fla. Joseph, you're on the air.
JOSEPHYes, good morning.
JOSEPHThank you. First of all, I think we should mention the fact that hopefully we've learned a lesson, putting ourselves in the Middle East there, in the middle of a 1,500 year religious feud between the Sunnis and the Shia. And going forward, we should use a great deal of discretion. I want to mention an idea that I think is related to Joe Biden's idea about Iraq. Specifically, that Iraq really is not one, single country. And the Kurdistans have always wanted independence. As a matter of fact, about a year ago, they sent their diplomats here to try and educate the American people about Kurdistan's aspirations for independence. Perhaps we should support that.
BOWMANThat's a question I hear all the time from my neighbors...
BOWMAN...and people I know.
BOWMANAre we at the point where these countries just don't exist anymore and what's the way ahead? He's right. Vice President Joe Biden talked about just splitting up Iraq into threes -- the Kurds and Sunnis and Shia. I was on a trip to the region back in December where a lot of people were saying, Iraq doesn't exist anymore. And Syria clearly is along those same lines as well. You have a Kurdish area in Syria now. You have an area along the coast in the western part of the country controlled by Assad. Are we just at the point now where they -- the borders don't exist anymore and these countries are gone?
REHMAnd that is a question that not only our caller has but probably lots of other people as well. We're going to take a short break here. When we come back, more of your questions, comments and perhaps we'll even get an update on this Kerry-Lavrov meeting. Stay with us.
REHMAnd as of yet, we have no updates on the Kerry/Lavrov meeting. I thought I should just put out there for the sake of historical reference, the fact that my parents were both born in Mersin, which was at the time, within Turkey, before Syria had even come into existence. Then my father's family moved to Beirut, Lebanon. My mother's family moved to Alexandria, Egypt. My father came here in 1911, then went back to Alexandria, Egypt to marry my mother and bring her here. That was 1929. I was born in 1936 here in Washington, D.C.
REHMI've never quite known what to call myself. Syrian, Turkish, Lebanese, Egyptian. You said cosmopolitan.
BOWMANI think we settled on Ottoman.
REHMThat's it. Ottoman. An empire that no longer exists, Ambassador.
AMBASSADOR JAMES JEFFREYThat's true.
REHMAnd perhaps considering what we just heard from our caller, you may see these countries somehow fall, Tom.
BOWMANThat's right. I mean, look at the map now. Who controls what area and what's going to be the future. Does anybody really think that Syria will retain its borders? Maybe the Ambassador can jump in on this, or Joshua Landis, but everyone I talk with say Syria doesn't exist anymore. So, what comes after you take out ISIS? What happens then? I find that to be an absolutely fascinating question.
JEFFREYThe problem, Diane, as I spent the 90s not in the Middle East, but in the Balkans, when Yugoslavia decided, another part of the Ottoman Empire, it was no longer a state, we in the rest of the international community spent seven years in two major and several minor wars trying to sort that out. There's no easy solution to any of this, including separating states, because they won't agree on where their borders are.
LINDBORGI would also note that I was in Iraq late last year as well, and there is a despair, that mosaic of many different religious and ethnic groups, particularly in the north of Iraq, is under siege and in danger of all leaving.
REHMIs it religion or is it ethnicity?
LINDBORGWell, it's a combination. And it's communities that lived side by side in peace for centuries that have now been whipped into mistrust and suspicion because of the conflict and the violence that has been going on for, in Iraq, for the last decade.
REHMJosh Landis, on this question of what comes next, do you see the disintegration of a country like Syria?
LANDISWell, I've tried to describe this as a great sorting out. And I've compared it to the countries of central Europe. All of these countries, from Poland to Palestine, were created, were in the class of 1919 at the Paris Peace Conference out of multi-ethnic, multi-religious empires. Whether it's the Austria Hungarian, Russian Ottoman Empire. And we saw, in Europe, the great sorting out in World War II, in which the borders of these countries were not changed.
LANDISThe people were changed to fit the borders. Poland, 64 percent Poles before World War II, 100 percent Polish by the end. Czechoslovakia, 32 percent minorities, all wiped out. And we're seeing the same kind of great sorting out going on today in the Levant. And your family is a perfect example of that. A Christian family from Mersin who, a Levantine family, and they left and we're seeing the same sorting out going on today in Iraq and Syria and Palestine. And what has happened, you can see that religious identities are replacing secular, ethnic identities.
LANDISAnd they're becoming ethnic identities in a sense. Shiites, Sunnis. The Christians are abandoning the Middle East in great numbers. And we see the rebel territory. There are no Christian communities left behind, rebel territories. Even ISIS or even the more moderate ones that America supports. Idlib, the center of rebel life today, was taken over by rebels and within one day, the 100 Christian families fled, the Druze who were there were forced to convert to Islam. Their shrines, some of them, were blown up.
LANDISThey've remained, some of them, by converting to Islam. But this is the kind of sorting out that's going -- we saw this with the Azidis, the Ismailis are fleeing. The Alawites are fighting to retain Syria and Assad is an Alawite. And this is an existential crisis for them. They know if they lose they're going to be driven out. And so they're fighting. And this -- if we make a win for the rebels, then those minorities are likely to get wiped out. And we've seen the same thing happen in Iraq, where we essentially catapulted the Shiites from the bottom of society to the top and through the Sunnis from the top to the bottom.
LANDISAnd today, we are involved in trying to help the Shiites smash the Sunnis. We say we're not, we want power sharing, but in essence, that's what we're involved in and it's a very bloody, great sorting out.
REHMAll of which leads you to believe that we should, in effect, step aside.
LANDISWell, we didn't manage to sort out Central Europe, even though we took on Hitler and we killed him. But you know, to get back to this analogy of Hitler, is today's Syria the Hitler moment, which is what Ambassador Jeffries is -- I would suggest it's more like Afghanistan, 1979. When we decided to take on the Russians, drive them out, they were trying to take the veils off of women and institute secular education in Afghanistan. We drove them out, fired up the Mujahedeen, and what did we get?
LANDISThe Taliban, 9/11 and Al Qaeda. We have, in a sense, a similar choice today in Syria. We can drive out the Russians because we know better how to deal with Syria than Russia does. But I don't think we're gonna get a better solution than we got in Afghanistan.
JEFFREYYeah, gosh. This is the first time I think I've ever heard of Russia as a civilizing and Westernizing force in Afghanistan. I think a lot of Afghanis would have, Afghans would have difficulties with that analysis of Russia's motives in 1979. But leave that to one side. I don't think any rational person, who knows the region, is advocating America go in to win in Syria, to drive Russia out of its base. To even eliminate the Alawites around President Assad.
REHMWhat do you want to see?
JEFFREYA stalemate on the battlefield that would then allow a diplomatic solution where everybody...
REHMHow do you create that stalemate?
JEFFREYAt this point, by some American military intervention with Turkey along the border that is still to drive ISIS out. Because they're still along the border and that's an important secondary thing. And more weapons to the remaining rebels, whether it's too late for that or not, we don't know yet.
REHMToo late or unwillingness? Tom Bowman.
BOWMANWell, there is some unwillingness to do that. Again, Secretary Kerry and the administration are still pushing for a diplomatic solution. They repeatedly have said there's no military solution here. There is debate, still, within the administration, about providing more weaponry, again, those shoulder fired missiles so they can take out aircraft. But there's no sense of, you know, of whether that will happen or not. And then again, getting back to the no fly zone, there's no support for that. There's no support for a safe zone.
BOWMANAgain, that would require someone to make it safe. This isn't like going into a suburban area. This is -- you're going into a war zone. There's some people you want to make safe and some people you maybe want to go after. How do you separate the two and who goes in? This President has already said no boots on the ground.
REHMAnd here is a series of questions, which I think get to heart of this. Margaret, in Hampton, Virginia, says who are the rebels we support so wholeheartedly? We give them weapons which end up in the hands of ISIS. We support Turkey, which apparently still allows ISIS members across its northern border and wants to wipe out the Kurds, the most effective fighters against ISIS. Meanwhile, Europe will continue to suffer with our very counterproductive policies. Nancy.
LINDBORGWell, the rebels are, at this point, have fractured into dozens and dozens of different militia groups.
REHMHow does anybody tell who is what?
LINDBORG...I would build on what Tom was saying by noting that, at this point, I think we need to focus on staunching the bleeding and creating some space so that there is the opportunity for the Syrian voice to come forward. We talk, Joshua noted this great sorting out, but this is being done by external powers. And as we see in Iraq today, there are Iraqis, there are Iraqi civil society who are pushing for a different kind of country. There are many people...
REHMHow many of them exist and how much strength do they have to speak out?
LINDBORG...in Iraq? Quite a bit. In Syria, the problem is that there is such a dire humanitarian crisis going on, there have been valiant heroic efforts by city councils, by a group called the White Helmets that organized to do their own rescues after a building has been bombed. I mean, what we don't hear and see enough is that there are, in fact, Syrians who have a vision for a better and different country. But it is completely consumed by regional and international power interests, plus splintered groups and foreign fighters coming in, so their country's overrun.
LINDBORGWe need to stop the bleeding. We need to create some space for the longer term solution to emerge.
JEFFREYMs. Lindborg's been on the ground in Iraq. I agree completely with her assessment. It's much better in Iraq in terms of civil society and holding groups together than in Syria. The difference, America engaged in Iraq and we're still engaged there. We still have 3500 troops working to try to defeat ISIS. It hasn't been perfect. As a guy who's seen it, I can attest to that. But the difference is, we did try in Iraq and we made, we had some success. We haven't tried in Syria, and the mess we see to a significant degree is what happens when we don't get involved and others do.
REHMHere's an email from Doug who says it would have been relatively easy to enforce a no fly zone in Syria before the Russians got involved. Now it's too late. Trained and armed refugees could have been the boots on the ground for an invading force, but I don't believe they would fight for their country. We lost this one. Tom Bowman.
BOWMANSome would argue that's the case. I think it was four years ago, the entire national security establishment, then Defense Secretary Leon Panetta, then Joint Chiefs Chairman Marty Dempsey, David Petraeus, Hillary Clinton, all said arm the rebels, you know, train them, and the White House decided not to. And the person who sent the email is correct that, you know, could you have set up a no fly zone before the Russians arrived and it would have been easier? There's no question it would have been easier, but it was not done and here we are now.
REHMBut you would still have had to have some way to enforce that no fly zone. Wouldn't that have gotten us involved willy nilly?
BOWMANYou would be involved, and again, one of the proposals back then, four years ago, was take out Assad's helicopters that are dropping these barrel bombs. And then you wouldn't really need a no fly zone, because everything that flies would be evaporated.
REHMAnd you're listening to "The Diane Rehm Show." Let's go to Grants Pass, Oregon. Hi there, Richard. You're on the air.
RICHARDYou know, this whole thing started with us going into Iraq. And replacing Saddam Hussein. As bad a guy he was, he was the guy who kept everybody in check in that entire region over there. Now, now that we've taken him out, it's just utter chaos and it's going to continue to be chaos because of the religious factors, tribal factors. You know, even if we take Assad, even if Assad was to be taken out, we don't have anybody to take his place that could absolutely keep control of Syria. You know, we can't even control...
REHMWhat about that, what about that, Ambassador Jeffrey?
JEFFREYThere were a lot of mistakes done in taking down Saddam, but Saddam wasn't controlling anybody. Saddam Hussein kept control of that country by killing over half a million Shia and Kurds, including with chemical weapons. He launched invasions of Iran and Kuwait and rained SCUD missiles on Israel. This was not a guy who was part of the solution to a stable Middle East. I'm sorry, and Assad is in the same category.
LINDBORGBut Richard makes a good point in that we have a significant concern of chaos on the ground. We were talking earlier about the existential fear that the Alawites, the Christians, you know, various groups feel. And there is conversation going on right now with the UN and others about how would you monitor a cease fire and how would you be able to provide the kind of confidence to these various groups that they won't be slaughtered in ensuring chaos? And so this is part of what we need to grapple with as well.
LANDISAnd that could be part of the negotiations going on today in Munich, that if it's an agreement with the Russians, you need some sort of a body, the UN most likely, to sort of enforce the cease fire.
REHMSo, let's see. Tim in St. Louis says, they keep referring to this as a civil war. It's not a civil war. It's an invasion. A civil war is something from within the country. This is from the outside. It's both, isn't it?
LINDBORGWell, it started, remember, as a peaceful protest of people demanding a better life under a very repressive government that turned into an armed rebellion, that turned into a civil war that has metastasized into a proxy battleground for all manner of regional and international interests.
REHMWhat's the best, you believe, you can hope for at this moment?
LINDBORGThe very best that I would hope for at this moment is we staunch the bleeding, that we get some breathing space to stop this terrible humanitarian catastrophe so the longer term work of finding a solution can proceed.
REHMDo you believe Russia will agree to stop bombing? Tom.
BOWMANIt's hard to say. They've proposed March 1st. Again, it's here we are. It's February 11th. So, clearly they want to spend the next couple of weeks cleaning up...
BOWMANRight. And just pushing their advantage and clearing out Aleppo. And at that point, a lot of people would argue that the rebellion is over.
REHMTom Bowman, Pentagon Correspondent for NPR, Nancy Lindborg, President of the US Institute for Peace, Ambassador James Jeffrey, he is former Ambassador to Iraq and Turkey, now at the Washington Institute for Near East Policy and Joshua Landis of the University of Oklahoma. Thank you all so much.
LANDISGood to be here.
REHMAnd thanks all for listening. I'm Diane Rehm.
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