Evidence that Syria has used chemical weapons against its people puts new pressure on the Obama administration to respond.


  • Robin Wright Journalist, joint fellow at the U.S. Institute of Peace and the Woodrow Wilson International Center, and author of "Rock the Casbah: Rage and Rebellion Across the Islamic World."
  • David Schenker Aufzien fellow and director of the Arab Politics Program at the Washington Institute for Near East Policy and former top policy aide on the Arab countries of the Levant, including Syria, at the Pentagon.
  • Elise Labott CNN foreign affairs reporter.
  • Jay Solomon Foreign affairs correspondent, The Wall Street Journal.


  • 10:06:56

    MS. DIANE REHMThanks for joining us. I'm Diane Rehm. Over the weekend, Republican Sen. Lindsey Graham said that if the war in Syria goes until the end of the year, the entire region will fall into chaos.

  • 10:07:12

    SEN. LINDSEY GRAHAMThere are more radical Islamic fighters there than there were last year. And if it goes on six months more, there are going to be more. Let's give the right weapons to the right people.

  • 10:07:21

    REHMJoining me to talk about growing calls for intervention in Syria: Robin Wright of the U.S. Institute of Peace and the Woodrow Wilson International Center, David Schenker of the Washington Institute for Near East Policy, Elise Labott of CNN and Jay Solomon of The Wall Street Journal. I hope you will join in the conversation. Give us a call, 800-433-8850. Send us your email to drshow@wamu.org. Follow us on Facebook or Twitter. Good morning to all of you.

  • 10:08:06

    MS. ROBIN WRIGHTGood morning.

  • 10:08:06

    MR. DAVID SCHENKERGood morning.

  • 10:08:06

    MS. ELISE LABOTTGood morning.

  • 10:08:07

    MR. JAY SOLOMONGood morning.

  • 10:08:07

    REHMJay Solomon, let me start with you. It's not only Lindsey Graham. It's other members of Congress. What are they calling for? What do they want to do?

  • 10:08:21

    SOLOMONWell, I think you're right. It's Republicans and Democrats now, particularly since this report came out last week that the U.S. intelligence assessed that chemical weapons have been used. So you really hear a groundswell this weekend from both Republicans and Democrats that something has to be done. On the more (word?) side, you've got Lindsey Graham, McCain saying, you know, we really need to start arming the opposition with our own weapons. We need to be involved -- be as involved as possible to shape these rebels.

  • 10:08:51

    SOLOMONYou know, they're -- we don't know who they are yet. A lot of weapons might be going to al-Qaida elements or to extremist groups. We need to be much more involved in getting weapons to the groups that we think will be the most moderate and the most secular and actually, you know, get a skid in the game, get involved and help shape this opposition. McCain also is calling for no-fly zones, zones to protect civilians from Assad's military.

  • 10:09:18

    SOLOMONAnd then, even from the Democrats, they say we need to increase humanitarian aid to the rebels and the refugees on the borders and to help create buffer zones to protect our allies in Jordan and Turkey and Lebanon. What is striking, though, is pretty uniformly, you still hear real weariness, even from the Republicans to any thought that U.S. troops would be involved. Even McCain talks about a no-fly zone, but he's -- if pressed, it doesn't really sound like he thinks necessarily U.S. war planes should be used.

  • 10:09:49

    SOLOMONMaybe it will be a mix of Patriot missile batteries or, you know, NATO Air Force or Turkey's air force which is right next door. So there is a much broader push now. But when you hear the debate, it's more refined in a lot of ways than you think there is still, even amongst Lindsey Graham and McCain, a wariness of getting our troops involved. And I don't think that's going to change despite this, you know, the chemical weapons revelation.

  • 10:10:14

    REHMElise Labott.

  • 10:10:15

    LABOTTWell, and if you look at what the administration is saying now about this assessment about chemical weapons being used, there are a lot of caveats in this letter that was sent to Congress, this intelligence assessment, that chemical weapons -- we're seeing a small amount of chemical weapons -- has been used with various degrees of confidence. There were all these types of caveats. And the problem is that President Obama has laid out this so-called red line, that the use of chemical weapons would be a red line.

  • 10:10:43

    LABOTTThis would be a game changer. But no one really knows, A, what that means. Is it one drop of chemical weapons? Is it a lot of chemical weapons? President Obama now is saying the systematic use of chemical weapons would not be tolerated. And also, what would he do if the red line has been crossed? And has it been crossed? So...

  • 10:11:03

    REHMDavid Schenker.

  • 10:11:05

    SCHENKERYeah. A big party of the problem is that there is a shifting red line. I mean, the first time he said there was a red line was back in 2012, in July, when he said that if chemical weapons were moved, that would constitute a red line. They were moved, and then they were actually mixed and deployed to an airfield. And that was not a red line.

  • 10:11:25

    SCHENKERThen he said, you know, again in March, that somehow that the international community would have to deal with the consequences of chemical weapons use, not the United States would necessarily -- that it was a red line for us, but that it was everybody's problem. And I think the view is that if it's everybody's problem, then it's nobody's problem.

  • 10:11:45

    REHMRobin Wright, what policy options does the president have?

  • 10:11:50

    WRIGHTWell, that's one of the big problems. The experience in Iraq, the experience in Afghanistan weighs very heavily in the decision-making process. The fact is the United States claim that Saddam Hussein had weapons of mass destruction, was using them, Colin Powell, with his famous little vial, standing up at the United Nations. And the Obama administration wants to make sure that it has indisputable evidence that can convince the international community. American credibility is very low.

  • 10:12:19

    WRIGHTAnd when it comes to specific options, the problem is no-fly zones are not simple operations. And Syria, while it's the strategic center of the Middle East, it is also the most complex country. It doesn't divide up neatly as Iraq did with the Kurdish North, the Shiite South. You have diverse populations in different places. And that it -- also, a no-fly zone involves taking out the defense -- air defenses of the Syrians in the -- and their ability to target certain parts of Syria, and that involves the military operations.

  • 10:12:53

    WRIGHTAnd whether it's the United States or its allies, this is going to be very controversial. And this gets to the fact that the international community is deeply divided, that you have this schism at the United Nations among those that have veto. The Russians and the Chinese are dead set just on imposing more sanctions. They're dead set against the use of military force. They feel they were duped in Libya, and they don't want to see a repeat of that in Syria.

  • 10:13:17

    REHMDavid, what are the consequences of not intervening?

  • 10:13:23

    SCHENKERWell, listen, I think Robin has it right. There's an issue of credibility. But the credibility is also with the president here. He has said that there is a red line. And other nations are watching, particularly on the issue of Iran. Remember, Secretary of State Kerry said, this president doesn't bluff. If the president is not going to take action after he's, you know, drawn a red line on Syria, then one wonders whether his red line for Iran stands.

  • 10:13:49

    SCHENKERBut beyond that, I mean, listen, chemical weapons is a problem. It's very nasty. But already al-Assad has killed 80,000 people in Syria. He's launching Scuds. He's using fixed-wing aircraft. This is a matter of modality more than anything else.

  • 10:14:06

    REHMWould you agree that the evidence of the use of chemical weapons is still very fragile?

  • 10:14:16

    SCHENKERAfter Iraq and the issue of U.S. credibility and intelligence, I think that there is a very high standard, and for good reason, but we've seen samples, whether they be body parts or blood samples or hair samples of victims of the chemical weapons that have been apparently verified. But we're not going to get the level of standard that is required, and that's the point. The U.N. inspectors that want to go in aren't going to be allowed to go in and take the soil samples that they want and have this chain of custody that would be beyond the doubt.

  • 10:14:48

    REHMSo let's be clear. What would you like to see President Obama do now?

  • 10:14:55

    SCHENKERWell, first of all, take it to the U.N. But second of all, if you cannot get -- and I don't think there's any chance you're going to get Russia and China to go along even if you have, you know, best-case scenario verification. They are dead set against, you know, some sort of intervention. So I think that you have to, you know, move along with a (unintelligible) with a coalition of the willing, with people that are willing to take action, to go a more robust policy...

  • 10:15:21


  • 10:15:22


  • 10:15:23

    REHMNow. Robin...

  • 10:15:23

    SCHENKERI think we should have done it a long time ago, frankly.

  • 10:15:25

    REHMRobin Wright, number one, are you convinced that chemical weapons have been used?

  • 10:15:34

    WRIGHTI haven't seen the evidence myself, so I -- you know, I can't put my reputation on the line over this issue. But I covered the Iran-Iraq War and the repeated use by Saddam Hussein of chemical weapons, and there are certain symptoms that are quite conspicuous when it comes to use of them. The question is, you know, who used them, under what circumstances? There are a lot of questions that aren't answered. This is not yet a black-and-white case.

  • 10:15:56

    REHMAnd why do you believe that President Obama should proceed cautiously?

  • 10:16:04

    WRIGHTYou have a tremendous challenge here for all of us, and that's dealing with the issue or morality versus reality. And the morality is obviously hideously unacceptable that so many people have died. Oxfam today reported 6.8 million Syrians are displaced and in need of international help and -- which is not getting to them.

  • 10:16:24

    WRIGHTYou have, you know, a million and a half refugees that are destabilizing three other countries in the region, one a NATO ally in Turkey. So the -- you know, this is unacceptable at anyone, but the reality is it's not so simple in terms of defining what the solution is. And so we have to move cautiously and deliberately with allies and not do it unilaterally 'cause this is not something we could do unilaterally easily.

  • 10:16:49


  • 10:16:50

    SOLOMONI mean, one point, too, is on the cautious side -- and we got a story about it today -- is our allies are completely split. I mean, amongst the Arabs and the Muslim countries, you basically got two blocks forming of different parts of our allied countries. You got Qatar and Turkey being very aggressive, but they're kind of more in touch with the Muslim Brotherhood. Then you have the big Gulf States like Saudi Arabia, the UAE who are so hostile to the Muslim Brotherhood.

  • 10:17:15

    SOLOMONAnd you can feel this big competition between the Saudis and the Qataris, playing out in the creation of this opposition group, of the creation of which factions of the opposition are getting armed. How are you going to create sort of this coalition when even our close Arab allies, the ones who have most at stake, haven't been able to agree?

  • 10:17:34

    SOLOMONI mean, they still don't really have a leadership of this opposition council that the current head Khatib keeps quitting and un-quitting, and the Qataris don't support them. The Saudis do. It's -- if you can't even get your closest allies who are -- who have the most risk together, it's going to be a very difficult operation.

  • 10:17:49

    REHMSo how do you proceed unilaterally, David?

  • 10:17:52

    SCHENKERWell, I'm not talking about unilaterally. Listen, we delegated, I think, the issue -- the matter of arming the rebels to the Saudis and the Qataris. And predictably, you know, the consequence was that the Saudis loved the Salafis and the Qataris loved the Muslim Brotherhood. And now we have the Islamists and the Ascendants.

  • 10:18:10

    SCHENKERThis is not going to end well. But on the moral side here, you know, President Obama touched on this in his speech. He compared Syria to Congo. Since 1998, you have, you know, 5 million people in Congo killed and displaced. It's horrible. But this is not Congo. This is in the center of the Middle East, and this is where 65 percent of the world's oil supply is.

  • 10:18:30

    REHMDavid Schenker, he's director of the Arab politics program at the Washington Institute for Near East Policy. Short break here. We'll be right back.

  • 10:20:04

    REHMAnd, of course, we already have many emails and phone calls. Here's the first from Robert in Taylor, Mich. He says, "I was in elementary school when we went to war in Afghanistan. I'm now 22 and watching as we slowly descend into war with Syria. America is so war-weary. It's sad. There is no point to go into Syria aside from the fear of more terrorists being created. The sad, ironic truth is more will be created regardless of our intervention or not. And regardless, they will hate and blame us for their pain and suffering." Robin.

  • 10:20:59

    WRIGHTAbsolutely. And the problem, as he points out, is, as our experience in Iraq and Afghanistan shows, we know -- we can figure out how to get in. What we're terrible about is, how do you get out? At what point do you -- are you able to resolve yourself of responsibility for recreating a country from the politics and the military and the economy? And so if we go in and help, the questions is what is our goal? And that's what we haven't had a national debate about.

  • 10:21:30

    REHMAnd setting aside the whole issue of chemical weapons, what about 70,000 dead, what about the morality of the issue? Elise.

  • 10:21:43

    LABOTTWell, it's a very good question. And in the beginning, you -- this was an issue of protesters in the streets fighting for democracy. And the administration would talk about we have to be on the right side of history, we have to support these Democrats in the streets. You really don't hear the administration talking about it in those terms anymore. You hear about the amount of refugees, which could destabilize the region. You hear about terrorists -- weapons falling into the wrong hands of terrorists.

  • 10:22:11

    LABOTTYou hear chemical weapons. You hear this more in national security terms. And while the U.S. is giving a lot of money, upwards of $400 million in humanitarian aid, I don't think you -- the administration is viewing this in terms of a moral dilemma. In fact, the head of the United Nations Commission for Refugees said, listen, there is no humanitarian answer to this problem. The only way to address the humanitarian situation is to stop it.

  • 10:22:38

    REHMDavid Schenker.

  • 10:22:39

    SCHENKERThis is, you know, not an easy choice here. But this problem is not going to age well, right? You're going to have this war in Syria go on. You're going to have, after Assad had vanquished, a fight between the Salafis and the jihadists against the more secular element for the Free Syria Army. You can have Jordan destabilize with a million or more refugees out of a 6.4 million population. You're going to -- and then you're going to have ethnic cleansing of Alawites in Syria. This is going to go on and on. Right now, we're choosing between bad and worse, and it's going to get worst along...

  • 10:23:11

    REHMAll right. So considering what you've just said, how useful, what is the efficaciousness of a no-fly zone, David?

  • 10:23:22

    SCHENKERWell, listen, over time, the Syrian air force has been degraded somewhat. You may now have 30 helicopters in Syria that can fly. But you do have the fixed-wing aircraft that are strafing and bombing the civilian population. This would help. We maintained a no-fly zone -- Operation Northern Watch -- from 1997 to 2003. We had no planes lost, I believe, in that operation, 45 aircraft to coalition. This can be done. The Israelis have now flown over Syria three times without losing a plane since 2007.

  • 10:23:56

    REHMRobin, what's wrong with a no-fly zone?

  • 10:23:59

    WRIGHTWell, look, the no-fly zone may be the most appealing option for us when it comes to the military side of it, trying to create a buffer zone where people can flee and live in peace, not -- but the problem is there is a fairly sophisticated anti-aircraft. And I lived in Beirut in the 1980s when the Syrians shot down an American plane and had an American pilot.

  • 10:24:21

    WRIGHTAnd Jesse Jackson had to go cap in hand and beg for his release. This is -- this -- if the U.S. is directly involved in using its war planes, this then makes us, you know, a player in what happens next. And remember Colin Powell's Pottery Barn rule, you break it, you have to fix it.

  • 10:24:42


  • 10:24:42

    SOLOMONI also think when you take a step back, you got to realize, too, this kind of the next front on a war that's been going on for 10 years. I mean, if we went in there, we'd be facing Iranian Revolutionary guardsmen, probably Hezbollah members, the Assad regime. I mean, it's very much some of the same guys who were helping the Shiite militias in Iraq.

  • 10:25:01

    SOLOMONI mean, I know the CIA and the Pentagon have very bad memories of the '80s when we sent forces into Lebanon to try to stabilize that war. We had the Marine Corps barracks bombing and the embassy bombing. I mean, the guys were behind are exactly the people who would be fighting if we -- I mean, there'd be other elements too. But that conflict with the Iranians that is regional would play out very directly in Syria.

  • 10:25:25

    REHMAll right.

  • 10:25:25

    LABOTTIt's a proxy word with Iran. That's what it becomes.

  • 10:25:27


  • 10:25:27

    SCHENKERIt already is.

  • 10:25:28

    WRIGHTIt already is.

  • 10:25:28

    REHMHere's what I want to understand: The president, others having have acknowledged that Bashar al-Assad does have a stockpile of chemical weapons. The question is, what can the U.S. do about that? Elise.

  • 10:25:48

    LABOTTWell, they could have some aerial strikes or some, you know, sea-based missiles to take out some of the facilities. But the...

  • 10:25:57

    REHMBut wouldn't that again put us right in the middle?

  • 10:26:00

    LABOTTIt would put us right in the middle. And the problem is that there's evidence that regime is moving in around. So they have some kind of confidence about where these facilities are, but they don't necessarily know for sure. They don't know what the collateral damage was. You know, Assad could start using people as human shields. I mean, no one really knows what would happen.

  • 10:26:19

    LABOTTThe problem is there are a lot of options that the administration can undertake, but the fallout from those options are just as dangerous. And I think one of the things is with these chemical weapons, and David was getting it out a little bit, is it's a pattern what the regime does. They start and they test the international community to see what the international response did. When you first had the protest, there was small arm and there were arrests. Then that escalated with a real crackdown when rebels took out bombers.

  • 10:26:47

    LABOTTNow, they're Scud missiles and other types of heavy artillery against the people. So the question is, how much more is he going to have to use before the administration gets involved? And unfortunately, officials tell me he's going to have to use a substantial amount more before there's really a rally of the international community to go after it.

  • 10:27:07


  • 10:27:09

    WRIGHTThere's not question that Bashar Assad is the most brutal leader in the Middle East today. The Assad dynasty, generally, for 40 years, has ruled with, you know, unstoppable brutality. But the, you know, first of all, the collateral damage question is a big one. And what happens when American war planes are involved in something that leads to the first civilian death on the side of this -- the regime?

  • 10:27:36


  • 10:27:36

    WRIGHTAnd they, you know, they show those babies and children. And this is where we get back to the first questioner who talked about the war weariness in this country, that we all feel terribly challenged about what do we do in Syria that fulfills that moral obligation we have as a nation. But what do we do in a way that doesn't complicate it for us a nation whether it's politically in terms of our moral greatness, in terms of our economic strength and our military. Our military's drained pretty seriously, too.

  • 10:28:08

    REHMAll right. Now, moving on, should the U.S. be arming rebels? How do we know which ones to arm if we are moving in that direction? David.

  • 10:28:23

    SCHENKERWell, there's been a fairly free flow of rebel leaders that have gone into Turkey and to Jordan. And we have access to these people. I remember last summer, there was this article in The Washington Post about what we spell -- what we spend on U.S. intelligence. And the article after, you know, 20 pages came to the conclusion that we don't know. We spend so much that we don't know. Well, if we don't know who the good guys are in Syria right now, its' because we don't want to know. And frankly, there are still people, even...

  • 10:28:53

    REHMWhat do you mean we don't want to know who the good guys are?

  • 10:28:58

    SCHENKERWell, perhaps, it leads us to the information would make us responsible for actually doing something about it. You know, the argument has been, well, we can't differentiate the ideological backgrounds or proclivities of these different rebels, and therefore, the arms might end up in the wrong hands. And that's a leading rationale about why don't -- we don't do this. The fact is that Syria is wash in weapons, anyway. We can determine what type of weapons that we want to give.

  • 10:29:28

    SCHENKERThere are reports about single shot, anti-tank weapons going in that some people reported that might have been provided by the CIA. The reports were unconfirmed. But there are rebel leaders out there like General Idris, who's Supreme Military Command, who comes out and says, listen, we want to have a secular, more liberal, pro-West leaning Syria.

  • 10:29:49

    SCHENKERAnd we don't have any resources, and we can't compete against Jabhat al-Nusra and Ahrar al-Sham, who are getting all their money from Qatar and Saudi Arabia. And we're going to be outgunned, and the future of Syria is going to be determined by these militias on the ground when Assad is vanquished.

  • 10:30:04


  • 10:30:04

    LABOTTI'm going to tell you an anecdote. I traveled with Secretary Kerry to Istanbul, where they had this meeting of the small group of the Friends of Syria, and he was talking about clearly the State Department wants to arm the rebels a little bit more than the president wants to. And he said that he was talking to a senior commander, and the senior commander said to him, I can get these -- my field men are telling me they can get weapons from these extremists like that, whereas if I'm going to wait for you to give it to me or for it to go through some appropriate channels, it can take weeks and months.

  • 10:30:38

    LABOTTAnd so how do I tell my men to wait for the arms when they can get them right now and continue to fight this along? And I think that's one of the dilemmas. The extremists are the ones with the guns. They're the ones that are having the influence, and they're the ones that are going to have the power at the end if the U.S. doesn't get some kind of skin in the game and at least -- if the U.S. were to put in some command and control and help with some of this flow of arms, they might have more knowledge about where these weapons are going, I think.

  • 10:31:08


  • 10:31:09

    SOLOMONI also think, on sort of the broader political diplomatic level, the fact that we're so disengaged, it really is allowing Qatar, Saudi Arabia, Turkey to drive it. And you can talk -- you talk to Qatari or Turkish officials, it's -- there's no middle ground here. They've taken stakes, and they feel that if Assad is not basically dead, their whole regional situation is destroyed.

  • 10:31:32

    REHMBut even if he were, do we know how that country would or could come back together as a unified group?

  • 10:31:45

    WRIGHTGreat question, pivotal question. Between 1949 and 1970, there were a dozen coups in Syria. It was one of the most unstable countries in the region. And one of the reasons Assad was actually popular initially was he restored a sense of stability and economic health to a country.

  • 10:32:03

    WRIGHTAnd the danger is that because of the divisions we see -- whether they are sectarian or ethnic, whether they're among the militias, whether among the exiles who were leading the Syrian national coalition and the internal players who feel they're the ones who put their lives on the line -- that we could see a real clash, politically, of what happens next and that we know it's going to be messy. The question is how messy, and what role can we play in trying to push them in the right direction? We...

  • 10:32:34

    REHMIf any.

  • 10:32:35

    WRIGHTIf any, and that's the danger. We have tried for two years to get a Syrian coalition that could agree with each other, and the Syrians themselves, particularly the exiles, deserve some of the credit for the mess we're in because they haven't been able to unite, come up with a common agenda. And that's led to the fracturing politically. It's also led the militias to divide up among themselves. They've tried to create one Syrian free army when, in fact, there are probably somewhere between 200 and 2,000 branches of militias in this country.

  • 10:33:07

    REHMRobin Wright, she is joint fellow at the U.S. Institute of Peace and the Woodrow Wilson International Center, and you're listening to "The Diane Rehm Show." I know you wanted to add something, David.

  • 10:33:24

    SCHENKERYeah. No, I agree with Robin that the opposition political echelon is hopeless, but -- and part of this was, I think, fomented by Turkey, which has been the -- sort of the central location of opposition organization. And Turkey, from the very early stages, according to a lot of people in the Free Syria Army and the opposition, the political opposition, tried to Islamicize and shove in more Muslim Brotherhood members into the opposition. So they're hopeless. But this is also the product of a dictatorial government that, for decades, has destroyed all political quality in, you know, the nature of Syrian politics.

  • 10:34:03

    REHMAll right. To what extent is this whole issue being politicized in this country because -- and to what extent has President Obama played into that politicization by painting himself in a corner, Jay?

  • 10:34:25

    SOLOMONYeah. I mean, like most of his big foreign policy issues, it does get politicized. He's been getting, yeah, attacked by McCain, Lindsey Graham. I mean, these guys are attacking him on everything. But I do think the White House thinks they made a bit of a mistake or they boxed themselves in by setting this red line because now it's, yeah, it's out there. It's set. And even people in his own party said, you know, you set it. You've got to act, and that gives, you know, his opponent...

  • 10:34:52

    REHMSo what could he do to act to at least satisfy his political opponents now, Robin?

  • 10:35:03

    WRIGHTWell, that's a tough question because the instinct so far has been to help on the humanitarian side, to...

  • 10:35:08


  • 10:35:08

    WRIGHT...provide whether it's meals ready-to-eat for the refugees and some communications gear for some of the rebels so they can communicate between Turkey, where the leadership, military leadership, is headquartered, and some of the branches inside the country. But that's clearly not enough. Clearly, there is momentum in this country, for the first time, to do more. And that...

  • 10:35:28

    REHMMomentum coming from politicians, not from the people.

  • 10:35:32

    WRIGHTActually, I think the president is very isolated on this issue even within his own administration. You saw over the summer Gen. Petraeus, Hillary Clinton, Leon Panetta all supporting a plan to arm the rebels. My understanding -- the State Department clearly is on the side of arming the rebels. And even some of the president's closest advisers are saying, maybe not lethal arms, but we clearly need to ratchet up.

  • 10:35:58

    WRIGHTThis was a real split within the administration. You had Tom Donilon, his national security adviser, who was dead set against it, Susan Rice. There were a lot of voices. This was a deep split. And the -- Petraeus, David Petraeus, who was then the CIA director, was the leading advocate. And part of the argument was this was a way of getting to know the militias, the people inside the country, and that really is not the best way or reason to arm so you get to know who they are.

  • 10:36:25

    LABOTTWell, also to gain influence, though...

  • 10:36:27


  • 10:36:27

    LABOTT...to kind of have a little bit more influence in the day after.

  • 10:36:31


  • 10:36:31

    LABOTTThere's all this focus on the day after Syria. What happens when Assad falls? What kind of government institutions are we going to have?

  • 10:36:38

    WRIGHTBut at the...

  • 10:36:39

    LABOTTBut the longer that this goes on, I think they realize -- and that's one of the reasons, I think, that they're ramping up their support to give body armor, night vision goggles because they need to have a hand on the ground now.

  • 10:36:49

    WRIGHTThat's not going to make a difference, though. That's very minimal.

  • 10:36:51


  • 10:36:52


  • 10:36:52

    SCHENKERAt a minimum, you're going to want to be able to know the people out there and talk to them so they don't commit atrocities. We're talking about ethnic cleansing of 11 percent of Syria's population here at risk.

  • 10:37:04

    SOLOMONI mean, I find one of the more interesting elements, too, now is our closest ally in that region is Israelis, and you cannot get a coherent response from them on what they think we should do either. And they have...

  • 10:37:17

    REHMWhat's the range of options...

  • 10:37:20

    SOLOMONI mean, the Israelis were interesting because when Assad was in power, it was almost like a battered wife syndrome. They hated him, but that -- the Golan Heights was quiet for 40 years, and that's not the case anymore. But they're worried, if we get dragged in, the whole Iranian situation gets more complicated.

  • 10:37:34

    REHMJay Solomon, foreign affairs correspondent for The Wall Street Journal. When we come back, it's time to open the phones. I look forward to speaking with you.

  • 10:40:05

    REHMAnd welcome back. We're going to open the phones now first to Elkhart, Ind. Good morning, Randy. You're on the air.

  • 10:40:15

    RANDYGood morning. Alone among all the nations in the Arab Spring, Syria has a major Russian base. By comparison, when Fidel Castro dies, will we allow Russia to put a no-fly zone over Cuba where we have Guantanamo? The only way this stops is when refugees from homes of other cities go unarmed to the Russian base as refugees. Either they shoot them all dead until they run out of bullets, or they start to put pressure on the leader of Syria.

  • 10:40:51


  • 10:40:52

    WRIGHTRussia is such an important player right now because it's been the obstacle. And we tend to think of Russia's involvement in terms of that port which it uses, its only Mediterranean port, or its arm sales to Damascus or the fact that Syria's its only Arab ally when, in fact, for Russia, this is a domestic issue.

  • 10:41:12

    WRIGHTSenior officials will say that quite openly that because they have such a large and restive Muslim population and because they also don't like the principle established at the United Nations that if there's protest and the international community stands, that there's a right to intervene or side with and help in any form the opposition.

  • 10:41:31

    WRIGHTAnd the Chinese are the same way. It is one of the five largest Muslim countries. And after Tiananmen Square, they're very sensitive to the issue of protest. And so for both countries, the Syrian issue resonates in terms of their own domestic stakes.

  • 10:41:46


  • 10:41:47

    SCHENKERYeah, I think Robin's right. Russia wants to be able to pull at Georgia at any moment without international condemnation or at least have a free hand, but I want to make a sort of quibble. Tartus is not a major Russian base. It is a small port that happens to be -- it's only one on the Mediterranean, but it's not got a whole lot of staffing there.

  • 10:42:08

    SCHENKERIt's not all that important, but they use it to ship arms. But they also have their leading intelligence facility in the Middle East based in Syria. This is their hub for Russia. And they sell $5 billion worth of weapons to Assad, you know, sometimes they don't get paid, but they already lost 4 billion in arm sales to Qaddafi. So Russia has other interest in Syria as well.

  • 10:42:28

    LABOTTBut I think also, they also look at the Arab Spring, and they don't think it was such a good idea. I mean, they are -- when you talk to U.S. officials, they say, listen, Russia has real concerns about instability. They tend to be a status quo power. They're worried about the Iraqi scenario, which we've all talked about, where you destroy the institutions of government, and you have a bunch of enclaves. And there is a very, you know, very strong historical connection between the Russian Orthodox Church and Alawites who would be really on the losing end of this.

  • 10:43:01

    REHMAll right. Here's an email from Joan, who says, "Why aren't the Saudis or one of the Middle Eastern states we sell weapons to stepping up and doing a no-fly zone or some other intervention? Why the U.S.?" David.

  • 10:43:21

    SCHENKERYeah. That's a great question. You know that Jordan, the UAE and Qatar all flew planes in the operation to topple Qaddafi. Arab states have war planes. They have F-16s. They have Emiratis...

  • 10:43:33

    REHMSo what's the answer to the question?

  • 10:43:35

    SCHENKERWell, of...

  • 10:43:36

    REHMWhy aren't they?

  • 10:43:36

    SCHENKERWell, of course, they couldn't had done it without U.S. "support." But, yeah, they do have capabilities, they do have Special Forces, and they could do a lot more. But the start really should be that they should get it together in the Arab League...

  • 10:43:50

    LABOTTAnd in the U.N.

  • 10:43:50

    SCHENKER...to find a consensus.

  • 10:43:52


  • 10:43:52

    SCHENKERU.N., I don't think is possible, but certainly at the Arab League.

  • 10:43:55

    WRIGHTWell, that's the fundamental point. And the fact is the Arab League was the starting point for the Libyan operation and intervention, and it was there that it was the genesis for then go into the United Nations and saying the Arabs speak with one voice in this and then the Arabs obviously don't.

  • 10:44:07

    WRIGHTBut the problem with the other Arab air forces intervening is that, remember, it was the Americans who went in in the early stage of the Libyan operation to clear out the air defense systems and the intelligence headquarters, so that then the others could move in and patrol. We played that heavy-hitting role at the beginning...

  • 10:44:26


  • 10:44:27

    WRIGHT...and so that's not really a viable option as an alternative.

  • 10:44:30

    REHMAll right.

  • 10:44:30

    SOLOMONAnd I also think in Libya, if you look at it, it was -- we went in and some of these countries did come in. But I remember talking to Pentagon officials. The sense was the Arabs did not want to do anything until they saw which way it was going. Once they saw this, we were going to win this thing. They're -- OK. OK, we'll get involved. But even despite the Arab League involvement early on, actually getting involved militarily was something they were watching and waiting till they could say, OK, this thing's going to go in operation.

  • 10:44:53

    REHMAll right. Let's go to Jenison, Mich. Good morning, Andre.

  • 10:44:58

    ANDREGood morning. Where is the money going to come from and the budget for our new war, scrapping, massing, giving up the fantasy by the right and left wings for Mars colonization? That is, by the way, better than Dracula's door nail.

  • 10:45:13

    REHMAll right. Thanks for your call. Jay.

  • 10:45:16

    SOLOMONWell, I assume something really did happen here. There is the first Gulf War where you could -- if you could get unity, you could get the Qataris and the Saudis and maybe the Emiratis to fund the big part of this war or whatever military operations.

  • 10:45:28

    REHMRobin, you're shaking your head.

  • 10:45:31

    SOLOMONI mean, it worked in the first Gulf War.

  • 10:45:32

    WRIGHTWell, wait a minute. Look at the second Gulf War, the Iraq War, and the fact that Paul Wolfowitz got up there and said, this war is going to pay for itself, right?

  • 10:45:38

    REHMYeah. Right.

  • 10:45:39

    WRIGHTExcuse me, it didn't.

  • 10:45:40

    SOLOMONYeah. But the Arabs were all against the second Gulf War. There were for the first Gulf War, and they financed it. In this situation where they're begging us to go in, I think it could be a very different scenario than the second one where...

  • 10:45:50

    WRIGHTWell, but we're talking about a very different operation.

  • 10:45:53

    LABOTTYeah. Exactly.

  • 10:45:54

    WRIGHTThe liberation of Kuwait was a tiny city-state, and you have one, you know, the dynamics are just totally different. The numbers are different, and look, it's just not a realistic option to think that the Arabs at this point are going to finance it. Remember, Saudi Arabia's got its own domestic political problems that...

  • 10:46:12

    REHMThat's for sure.

  • 10:46:13

    WRIGHT...it's funding, pouring in $136 billion just to pre-empt an Arab Spring uprising or protest movement in its country to try to buy out its own people. It's getting to the point that it's close to breaking even in terms of what it makes on money just to, you know, not having a whole lot of extra. So we have this unrealistic belief that the Arabs, because of their oil wealth, can finance anything. And Syria is not going to be a 15-day war. We're talking about something that could end up being quite much longer term.

  • 10:46:44

    REHMAll right. Let's go to Cleveland -- no, sorry, Cincinnati, Ohio, to Bassin. (sp?) Good morning. You're on the air.

  • 10:46:54

    BASSINGood morning, dear Diane. I've watched your show -- I've listened to your show quite often, and I've always enjoyed it.

  • 10:47:02

    REHMThank you.

  • 10:47:03

    BASSINMy comment regarding the Syrian situation is that this whole situation to Syria was designed to divide Syria up based on sectarian lines and to do this in favor of removing any enemies of Israel that...

  • 10:47:20

    REHMJay, any comment?

  • 10:47:23

    SOLOMONI don't know. To think that the U.S. or the Israelis have that much influence or ability to dictate the events on the ground, I think, is much to -- giving too much credit.

  • 10:47:31

    REHMBassin, tell me why you believe that to be true.

  • 10:47:36

    BASSINExcuse me, please?

  • 10:47:37

    REHMI said, why do you believe that to be true?

  • 10:47:41

    BASSINBecause I've read many reports about the situation here, and this is not -- I mean, the so-called opposition are not even united as to how they're going to run the future country. (unintelligible) don't get divided -- you know, there's going to be a section for the Alawites, section for the Sunnis, a section for the Kurds, and it's been talked about in media circles for quite some time.

  • 10:48:08

    REHMAll right. Elise.

  • 10:48:09

    LABOTTWell, look, it is true that there are many sects in Syria, many religions, it's a very ethnically diverse country, and I think one of the big concerns that is if the country breaks up, you'll have these enclaves. You have the Kurds in the North. You have the Hezbollah and the Shiites, and there -- and the Alawites who, again, would really just have -- face a lot of retribution.

  • 10:48:32

    LABOTTBut I think to argue that this was designed, you know, to help Israel in some way might not necessarily be accurate. And, in fact, that was one of the things that Assad said when this whole civil war started was, you know, you're -- that this could break up the country and that, you know, is what he said he wanted to avoid.

  • 10:48:50

    SCHENKERSyria was ruled by a minority government. 11 percent are Alawites, 75 percent Sunni, who have been oppressed all these years. But in any event, the defining factor perhaps or characteristic of the Arab Spring has been this resurgence of Sunni-Shia conflict, and you're seeing this play out in Syria. This is not an Israeli plot.

  • 10:49:13

    SCHENKERIn fact, as Jay mentioned earlier, the Israelis are quite comfortable with Assad even as he was arming Hamas, the Palestinian terrorist organization, and Hezbollah, the Shiite militia in Lebanon. He -- under Assad, the Golan was Israel's quietest border. For 40 years, it was quieter than Jordan with -- and Egypt, two states with which Egypt -- Israel has (word?).

  • 10:49:36

    LABOTTIt is still pretty violent.

  • 10:49:37


  • 10:49:38

    WRIGHTOne of the great dynamics in the region today spilling over from our original intervention in Iraq, in the Gulf War is this whole question of the Shiite-Sunni divide, and how does Syria play into this, and does sectarianism get so divisive in the region that it not only ends up dividing up Syria but ends up changing the borders of the entire face of the Middle East? And the danger of U.S. involvement getting sucked into a conflict that dates back 14 centuries is something we have to consider very seriously.

  • 10:50:13

    WRIGHTThere are those who would like us to get involved because of the Shiite-Sunni dimension, and that plays out then on Iran as well, the largest Shiite state, but a minority in the - in absolute terms in the region. And so the questions are not just the immediate Syrian challenge, it is the bigger picture of the future of the Middle East that we have taken so far country by country, but there are other forces that are defining the region and defining its compass.

  • 10:50:39

    REHMAnd certainly, one of those forces is Iran. Jay, talk about the role Iran could be playing in this whole conflict.

  • 10:50:50

    SOLOMONI think it's pretty -- I think that our intelligence services, Jordanians, Israelis, are pretty confident. They know the Iranians have been shipping weapons into the Syrian regime since this conflict started. And I don't think people realize how highly unified the Revolutionary Guards and the Syrian security forces and intelligence and Hezbollah was before this conflict.

  • 10:51:11

    SOLOMONThey were almost fused in how they operate in Lebanon. They cooperated extremely closely in arming the Palestinian so that that kind of unified command was already there. And as this conflict has gained strength, you see weapons coming in from the Iranians and trainers, and Hezbollah fighters actually acting inside Syria.

  • 10:51:31

    REHMAnd what about Israel? What's the discussion going on inside Israel?

  • 10:51:39

    SOLOMONIt's very, very split. Like we've all said, they were comfortable with Assad despite sort of hating him. And I think in the early kind of months, they thought, well, maybe this guy could hold on. It's better than the alternative. Now, they know he's not going to make it. But, you know, if you tell the -- or support a U.S. intervention, it could get very nasty, and their hopes to attack -- take out Iran couldn't happen.

  • 10:52:01

    REHMAll right. President Obama is currently holding a news conference. The first question at that press conference was about Syria. The president says, use of chemical weapons would be a game changer not just for the United States but for the international community. He also said, what we have now is evidence that chemical weapons have been used inside Syria, but we don't know how they were used. Elise.

  • 10:52:40

    LABOTTThat's a very key point. They're not saying who used them. They're not saying who they used them against. And he is saying that the use of chemical weapons would be a game changer. A game changer in what way, the way the U.S. views this as a national security threat, the way that the U.S. is going to get involved? I mean, these are, you know, really strong statements that make a point but not necessarily sure if you read the fine print.

  • 10:53:02

    REHMAnd you're listening to the "The Diane Rehm Show." How do you interpret those comments, Robin?

  • 10:53:09

    WRIGHTI think he's leaving it open, that there is still a lot that has to be decided, proven. And that to take it to the international community because of Iraq, we have to have indisputable, rock-solid evidence that will nudge, if not convince, the Russians.

  • 10:53:25

    REHMAll right. To Cleveland, Ohio. Good morning, Reema (ph).

  • 10:53:29

    REEMAHi. I'm calling about, you know, I just can't believe all the excuse the whole world has used so far. You know, the red line was craft from the first time as Assad starts shooting his own people from the first demonstration, and it's, to me, is really outrageous. We are still waiting to see what should we do. After 100,000 people has been killed, Syria is demolished? And, you know, that you answer the question earlier about who is going to pay for this war.

  • 10:54:02

    REEMASaudi Arabia and Qatar are willing to pay for this war from the beginning, and it's not a war. It's going to be an intervention which not going to cost us anything. It's just giving them the right tools so the Free Syrian Army can do it. And it's a shame on the whole world to sit by for two years and let 100,000 people being killed, thousands are tortured and the whole house is -- and their infrastructure is destroyed.

  • 10:54:26

    REHMReema, thank you for your very passionate call. David.

  • 10:54:31

    SCHENKERI think I largely agree with Reema. It -- this is tragic and I think that it's born partly of our experience, but this is not going to be cheap. And there are questions about what the cost will be not only in terms of financial resources, but in terms of, you know, what it's going to cost the United States potentially, strategically and in terms of military costs, the bottom line.

  • 10:54:57

    REHMAnd here is a final email. Let's see. I don't have a name here. It says, "Listening to your guests only deepens my own sad prediction about the situation's outcome. Do any of today's experts believe a path to more representative government? And stability is ever achievable for Syria given the jihadist commitments of so many combatants in the rebels?" Robin.

  • 10:55:33

    WRIGHTOh, boy, that's a tough one. I don't think that we can see the -- we can predict the kind of stability we'd all like in Syria any time soon. Even if Assad were to go tomorrow, there are just so many fundamental differences in this country. It was an artificially created country by the Europeans. The divisions have been there all along. We've seen it in -- throughout Syria's independent history and it breaks your heart. And I agree with Reema, it is shameful. The problem is it's just so hard to figure out what's viable.

  • 10:56:02

    REHMDo you think anything will be done, Jay?

  • 10:56:06

    SOLOMONI think you'll see, maybe, kind of a ratcheting up of arm supplies to the rebels in a very, sort of...

  • 10:56:13

    REHMBehind the scenes.

  • 10:56:14

    SOLOMONNo. I think -- well, I think, eventually, the administration will be pushed to sort of say, OK, yeah, we'll let certain arms go to certain groups that we had more heavily involved. I'm still skeptical that you will see an, you know, a no-fly zone or that type of kinetic intervention unless there is, you know, some huge massacre with chemical weapons or there are -- that the threat...

  • 10:56:33

    REHMBut hasn't there already been a huge massacre, 70,000 people?

  • 10:56:38

    SCHENKERNo, it's -- yeah. I guess in some ways, it's more about what's going to happen to the region, that this is really going to threaten Israel, Jordan, Turkey in a more direct way, then the dynamic will change in my perception.

  • 10:56:52

    REHMWhat do you think is going to happen in the next few month?

  • 10:56:56

    SCHENKERWell, I think Jay essentially got it right here. I think that we're going to watch as the region is further destabilized and their friends are destabilized. And eventually, we're going to do the right thing, probably with some weapons but probably not much more than that right away.

  • 10:57:11

    REHMDavid Schenker of the Washington Institute for Near East Policy, Jay Solomon of The Wall Street Journal, Robin Wright of the U.S. Institute of Peace and the Woodrow Wilson International Center and Elise Labott, foreign affairs reporter for CNN. Thank you all.

  • 10:57:35

    SCHENKERThank you.

  • 10:57:35

    WRIGHTThank you.

  • 10:57:35

    SOLOMONThank you.

  • 10:57:36

    LABOTTThank you.

  • 10:57:36

    REHMAnd thanks for listening. I'm Diane Rehm.

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