War in Ukraine: airstrikes, drones and a looming counteroffensive
This week saw heightened tensions in the ongoing conflict in Ukraine. A wave of drone strikes hit the Russian capital Tuesday morning, bringing the war to Moscow for the first…
The U.S. said it plans to send weapons to Syrian rebels. The Obama administration concludes Bashar al-Assad used chemical weapons on his people. The U.N. says nearly 93,000 people have been killed in the Syrian civil war. The Turkish Prime Minister invited protesters to his home for talks. Iran holds presidential elections today. Pope Francis was quoted as acknowledging a “gay lobby” and corruption within the Vatican. South Africa’s Nelson Mandela health is said to be improving from a lung infection. A panel of journalists joins Diane for the international hour of the Friday News Roundup.
MS. DIANE REHMThanks for joining us. I'm Diane Rehm. The U.S. plans to arm Syrian rebels after concluding the Assad regime used chemical weapons against its people. Turkey's prime minister met with protestors after two weeks of anti-government unrest. And the pope acknowledges a gay lobby and corruption exists at the Vatican.
MS. DIANE REHMJoining me for the top international stories on the Friday News Roundup, Nicholas Burns of Global Post, Indira Lakshmanan of Bloomberg News and David Sanger of the New York Times. I invite you, as always, to be part of the program. Give us a call, 800-433-8850. Send us an email to firstname.lastname@example.org. Follow us on Facebook or Twitter. Good morning to all of you.
MR. NICHOLAS BURNSGood morning, Diane.
MS. INDIRA LAKSHMANANGood morning.
MR. DAVID SANGERGood morning.
REHMNick Burns, welcome.
REHMYour new position as senior foreign affairs columnist for Global Post.
REHMGlad to have you with us.
REHMSo now, as a former diplomat, explain to us why President Obama has said he will now send arms to Syrian rebels.
BURNSI think he had to act, after delaying this for well over a year, for three different reasons. One, the humanitarian situation is now nearing catastrophic levels. The United Nations high commissioner for human rights said yesterday, at least 93,000 people have now been killed since March, 2011. She said that's a conservative number. The refugee totals are well over a million-and-a-half and according to the UN they could double or triple in this calendar year. That's number one.
BURNSSecond, the administrations' very concerned about a widening of the war. A threat now to Jordan because of the tremendous influx of refugees there. Threats to Turkey, Iraq, as well as a widening of the war into Lebanon. They're very concerned third, that this new axis, Hezbollah, Iran and Russia operating together to reinforce the Assad government is a threat to American interests long term in the Middle East.
BURNSI think they all combine. There's been disagreements in the administration about this. They finally decided to act. And I think it's a good decision.
REHMAnd Indira, Russia is saying that these reports of the use of chemical weapons are not to be believed.
LAKSHMANANThat's what Russia's saying. Now it's interesting because I was with Secretary Kerry when he was in Moscow in early May. And at the time, you know, Kerry made clear -- it was clear that the administration was planning to share with Russia the evidence it had about any kind of chemical attacks. And they were hoping that the Russians would agree with the evidence. Now, the problem is the Russians have now -- some of the senior leaders within the Russian parliament have come out on Twitter and compared this to faulty Iraq war intelligence and implied that the Obama Administration is looking for some kind of a false pretense for getting into a war.
LAKSHMANANBut, I mean, following on what Nick was saying, all of his points are completely correct. And we also have on the flip side the question that timing is everything. And, you know, one wonders whether what the administration has decided to do was too little too late. And particularly because one of the cautionary problems that the Obama Administration has had all along, and the president specifically is not wanting to arm rebels who might be anti-U.S. extremists like Jabhat al Nusra which has been the most successful arm of the revels fighting out there. And they are an al-Qaida linked group.
LAKSHMANANSo the problem is once, you know, you're in for a dime, you're in for a dollar, what happens and what are the ramifications of this? I think it's -- you know, there could be as many problems for getting involved as for not being involved.
SANGERWell, Diane, I think the irony of this is that the president has now finally taken a much broader step for the narrowest of reasons. And the reason that they cited yesterday was that they finally came to an intelligence conclusion that chemical weapons had been used in small amounts for a long period of time by the Assad forces against the opposition. they were not exactly rushing to this conclusion.
SANGERAs we discussed in an earlier show, I was in Israel in April when Israeli intelligence officials said publically the same thing. The Americans did not want to hear it at that time. It was a very tense conversation between Secretary Kerry and the prime minister of Israel, Benjamin Netanyahu in which Prime Minister Netanyahu said, I can't confirm these reports. Well, of course he could. Everybody in his office that day said to me that they thought the reports were right, but they needed to give the president time to catch up.
SANGERAnd I think the issue now is sort of twofold. First, as Indira said, are they too light? And it's possible because in the past few weeks I think what really prompted them to move was not new intelligence, but the fact that Assad's forces were retaking considerable amounts of ground. And it's very possible that they weren't going to be giving that up.
SANGERI think the second thing that has really happened gets to Nick's last point, which is they're concerned about this mix of Russia, Iran and Hezbollah. You know, the Iranians are about to have an election. It started today. When they're done with this election period, which has made them be very, very inwardly focused, they're going to be turned outwardly again, both on the nuclear program and on Syria. And I think the administration wanted to get out ahead of that.
REHMAnd exactly who will the U.S. be arming, Nick?
BURNSWell, that's going to be a very difficult endeavor for the administration. They certainly are going to have to be very careful about finding moderate rebel groups that can be trusted. One of the issues here, Diane, is that the administration has apparently decided to provide small arms, perhaps anti-tank, which is desperately needed by the rebel army, but probably not anti-air. Anti-air because MANPADS anti-air device can be easily proliferated, sold in the black market. They can take down civilian airliners. So the administration, I think properly there, has said, we can only go so far.
BURNSThe other thing that's happening here is that the United Kingdom and France have made it very clear, they want to act to arm the rebels. Turkey and the Arabs already are, so there is a coalition that needs to be knit together to oppose this other coalition in a big bid for power in the Middle East.
REHMAnd so what happens with this planned peace conference, Indira?
LAKSHMANANThat's right. I mean, I was thinking about this myself that, you know, with all of the effort that Secretary Kerry has put into trying to have this peace conference co-sponsored by himself and Foreign Minister Lavrov of Russia. They met in early May with Putin's approval. They were going to try to have this peace conference. It was supposed to happen by the end of May, then it was supposed to happen by the middle of June. Obviously it hasn't happened yet.
LAKSHMANANAnd at a time when the U.S. has decided it is going to give military support to the rebels, it's hard to see how the Russians are going to be thrilled about that. At the same time remember, the Russians, you know, one of their biggest clients for military supplies all these years has been the Syrian regime. And they have reassured and reassured the U.S. Administration, look we're just filling out our old contracts. We're not selling them new weapons.
LAKSHMANANYou know, that may change now because one card that the administration had, so to speak, in the negotiations for this conference was, we're not supplying the rebels. We're not -- you know, we're neutral in this. We're only giving humanitarian assistance. It's only the Turks and the Qataris and the Saudis who are arming. We're not. Now they can no longer say that.
LAKSHMANANBut I do want to add that I think, you know, one cynical view of this is the kind of real politic view, which is that in a way there's not -- you know, you could make an argument for prolonging the war because you've got these Jabhat al Nusra, al-Qaida-linked types who are fighting with the assistance of Hezbollah and Iran and Russia on the one side. And then you've got, you know, against the Hezbollah and Russia and Iran. And there are some who say, well why not keep some of the United States' most active terrorist enemies on the battlefield.
LAKSHMANANI mean, it sounds like a very cynical view. I don't think that's the motivation of the Obama Administration, but there is...
REHMI wonder, I know that Senator John McCain has been pushing for exactly the kind of arming that we're talking about. He's also been pushing for a no-fly zone, which I gather is going to occur narrowly. But how much did Bill Clinton have to do with the president's decision, David?
SANGERWell, first of all, on the no-fly zone it was interesting. In the briefings the White House gave yesterday they all, but ruled out U.S. participation in a no-fly zone, which I thought was...
REHMAnd yet this morning, the Wall Street Journal and the New York Times issued a report...
SANGER...reported that -- the arming of the rebels. But in the no-fly zone area that requires -- would require a very significant commitment of air power that we haven't heard yet from the administration. Now to your question about Bill Clinton, I think he had a lot to do with it.
SANGERBecause, you know, think about what Bill Clinton said about his own term in office. He said his biggest single regret was not going into Rwanda. And that was an administration that, as I recall, Diane, had a few other regrets. So it was a pretty big statement. And yet, here with the headlines today that we're now at, what, 93,000. And who knows even if that is a full count. The president was in a position of having given a very vivid speech in March of 2011, when the United States committed military force to going into Libya, where he said, there are times when for purely humanitarian reasons, not for reasons that have to do with American national interest, we cannot stand by while people slaughter their own. And that was his justification.
SANGERWell, at that moment, there was concern that maybe 10,000 people could've died in Benghazi had Gadhafi's forces gone into the city. And we're at 93,000 Syrians. And the president was actually having to go face externally, and I think even internally even from, you know, the likes of Susan Rice and Samantha Power, both of whom he's just nominated for critical posts. In Susan Rice's case appointed to a critical post, the question, you know, is a Syrian life worth less than a Libyan life to us under this?
SANGERAnd, you know, once you've started down the responsibility to protect, it's hard to know where you get off that train.
REHMDavid Sanger of the New York Times, Indira Lakshmanan of Bloomberg News, Nicholas Burns, senior foreign affairs columnist for Global Post. Short break, we'll be right back.
REHMAnd here's our first email from Kevin who says, "I'm somewhat perplexed by the timing of the in-house met on the U.S. arming of Syrian rebels. It seems a little misguided to do this while the elections are happening in Iran. Can you comment?" David Sanger.
SANGERWell, one of the first issues this raised is one we brought up at the beginning, which is, is the president acting too late to affect events, not at a moment when he can. Secondly, I can't imagine, given all that is going on in Iran and the debate -- internal debate about how much to stand up to the West on the nuclear issue, how much the domestic economy is in so much trouble, what the effects of sanctions are going to be, that the decision to arm the rebels is going to be anything but a very minor background issue in the Iranian elections.
SANGERThe Iranians are so consumed by their own domestic questions that, you know, we have a funny way of thinking that these elections are about us. they're not. They're about them.
REHMAnd Nick Burns, here's one from Steve in Canton, Ohio. "Does our strategic posture with Russia now have to become more alert since they're opposing us in Syria?"
BURNSWell, we have a complicated relationship with the Russians...
BURNS...particularly with Vladimir Putin who seems to wake up most days trying to prevent the United States from moving forward in any issue. We're going to have to work with the Russians on Iran. After these elections are over the Russians are going to be the key, I think, to whether negotiations can succeed, or if they fail, the United States feels compelled to turn in a more military direction, possible use of force. The Russians are also critical to Syria.
BURNSBut I don't think the Russians are in a mind to help us on Syria. In fact, they think that they've essentially given a tactical defeat to the United States. The Russians have now announced they're going to sell the S300 missile system to Syria. That's a direct threat to Israel. The Russians did not give us enough to hold this conference between the Syrian government and the rebel alliance. So you do have to triangulate in diplomacy. There is linkage from one to the other.
REHMYou know that well.
BURNSWe know it well, but in this case I think the administration has decided they really can't work effectively with Russia on Syria. They'll turn to Russia on Iran. The Russians will want to be with us to figure that out.
REHMAnd here's one more thought going to the point you made about Bill Clinton's regrets. "Your guest speaks of a humanitarian crisis in Syria. Please tell us why 93,000 in Syria are a crisis worth of U.S. intervention, but a million killed in the Congo are not.
SANGERYou could do that. You could ask the question why focus on this and not the gulags in North Korea. I mean, you can do this in almost any place around the world where you see widespread human rights abuses. And that's the intellectual box that the Obama Administration has been in for the past four years. It has a number of members -- leading members who came up and made an argument that President Obama made himself during the campaign, which was there are moments when the United States has to act as a force for good in the world even if we have the most indirect national interests.
SANGERAnd yet, if you look at the Obama doctrine as it's played out in reality, he has almost always -- and Libya was an interesting exception to this -- only acted with force when there was a direct threat to U.S. national interests. And, in fact, in the Libyan case he had to go deal with the secretary of defense in Bob Gates who said publically, there is no vital national interest in intervening in Libya. And when you've heard Mr. Gates be asked about Syria, he said the same thing.
REHMAll right. Let's turn to the election today in Iran. What's turnout going to be like after two candidates were barred from the ballot at the last minute? Indira.
LAKSHMANANRight. It's interesting because the supreme leader of Iran Ayatollah Khamenei has called for high turnout as a slap in the face to the West and the United States specifically saying, you know, come out and vote to endorse Iran and the Iranian system, you know, regardless of who you're voting for. I mean, let's keep in mind that this is an election that is very highly circumscribed. There were a number of candidates who put themselves up. And only about eight were approved. A couple have dropped out.
LAKSHMANANSo the guardian council, a group of clerics really led by -- chaired by the supreme leader himself, decided who was even going to be permitted to run. So Iranians have only a limited choice of who they can vote for. Now, there's been some divisions within the so-called reformers or, you know, those opposition-minded people in Iran, about whether to boycott the vote entirely or whether to try to vote for the most reformist among those candidates.
LAKSHMANANAnd what's stunning about this election to me is that the man who's being held up as the so-called reformer of this election, Rowhani, is someone who ten years ago in Iran would've been considered, if anything, a pragmatic conservative. But it is really a sign of how much the political space in Iran has been really, you know, shut down and shrunk by the supreme leader of the guardian council, the IRGC, such that the only spectrum we're looking at now is from the -- you know, the hard right to the very hard right.
LAKSHMANANSo, you know, if we're looking at who are the top three candidates, that's what people are talking about now, we have Jalili who has been the nuclear negotiator. So he's someone who's well known to the United States. We have Qalibaf who is an IRGC commander and mayor who's seen as sort of a strong man in having some administrative credentials. And then we have Rowhani, who people are talking about.
REHMDo we expect a runoff, Nick, between the top two?
BURNSI think it's likely that no one will get above the threshold today. There'll be a runoff in a week between two candidates. But you know, Diane, I think a lot of people agree, these are highly controlled elections. The supreme leader Ali Khamenei does not want to see a repetition of June, 2009 when millions of people went into the streets in opposition to a stolen election. Whoever emerges from this very carefully selected group of people is going to be subservient to the supreme leader.
BURNSAnd he increasingly has a radical agenda. It's tied up with the Revolutionary Guards. They're the people who are fomenting now the Hezbollah introduction into Syria. And they're the people driving the Iranian nuclear program so...
REHMSo you would not see any expected change with the West on the basis of this election, David.
SANGERWell, if you listen to these three lead candidates, it's been a question in the campaign of which one could describe a tougher position against the West. I think that Mr. Jalili probably won that competition in the course of the back and forth, talking about how he would never give an inch and so forth. But even the reformists out here that we were discussing, Mr. Rowhani, if you go back into the memoir that he wrote after his previous time in government.
SANGERHe wrote extensively about how the two-year hiatus in the production of enriched uranium -- which appeared a time when Nick was still in office and they were trying to work their way through this problem -- was used by Iran to build up their nuclear technology quite convincingly. And so if that's what he reported in his memoir, you can sort of imagine what the policy will be.
SANGERWhat this means is that the supreme leader will no longer have a critic sitting over in the president's office. And you'll remember that it was only a year or two ago that the supreme leaders forces were suggesting that maybe the best thing to do with the job of the president of Iran is eliminate it.
LAKSHMANANI've been grappling with this question myself from the sort of Washington point of view of how is this election going to affect U.S. policy. And my conclusion is that really in terms of nuclear policy, it's not going to affect it because it's the supreme leader who decides the nuclear policy in any case, not the president. So while the supreme leader may give any president a bit of leash, it's no question that no president -- I don't care who's elected -- is going to be able to make that decision to make concessions and have a deal with the West over the nuclear program on his own. So in that way it really doesn't matter.
LAKSHMANANAnd in another sense, there are those who say that those in Iran who want -- you know, who want a deal can't deliver it. And those who can deliver a deal don't want one. So, you know, I think it puts us very much in the same place of probably continuing with sanctions, probably continuing down the same sort of path with a real blockage and no light at the end of the tunnel. If -- the Ayatollah has been constantly talking about a resistance economy, not about what can we do to get rid of these U.S. sanctions about the nuclear program, but how can we resist them. And the others have been echoing his same points.
BURNSWe're about to enter a very dramatic period in U.S. Iran relations. We haven't had, you know, a substantive continuous conversation in 33 years. I think the Obama Administration will give diplomacy a real chance...
BURNS...after these elections. But I don't think that any of us believe that the probability of success is very high. Because the Iranians have been very resistant to make the kind of compromises that the Russians and Chinese and the Europeans, not just the Americans, are demanding. And so we've got to hope that this period of time is going to -- that diplomacy will have a chance. The Iranians reconsider the options. Because if diplomacy fails, I do think that the president is going to turn towards at least considering tougher sanctions, as Indira has said...
BURNS...and the use of military force. There's a very interesting op-ed in the Washington Post this morning by Steve Hadley and Jim Steinberg and former Senator Joe Lieberman saying, we need to make that threat of military force visible and clear as a way to motivate the Iranians. And I think the Iranians need to understand, this is the atmosphere in Washington.
REHMAre we really prepared to do that, David?
SANGERWell, the difficulty that the president faces is that the Iranians believe that a president who has been so reluctant to go into Syria, only wanted to be in Libya briefly, clearly has not confronted the North Koreans over what's been two nuclear tests during President Obama's time, is not prepared to go do that. And the box the administration is in is that if your opponent doesn't believe you're going to go do it, then in the end the incentive for them to actually move isn't that great.
SANGERAnd the next step in sanctions is one that would take you right to the possible brink of conflict, because they've done almost everything they could do except intercept actual shipping going in and out of Iran. And that is, you know, right on the edge of an act of war. So that's going to be their hardest single problem. So what have they looked to as alternatives? Well, three years ago the U.S. conducted what was the biggest single cyber attack one state has ever done against another. It slowed the Iranians for a while but you can only do that once before your opponent sort of sees that coming.
SANGERAnd the Iranians have started their own cyber units which have been striking back against Saudi Arabia, the United Arab Emirates and banks in California. So there's a limit to how much you can use that lever as well. The president here does not have as many options as I think he thought he did when he came in in 2009.
REHMDavid Sanger of the New York Times. You're listening to "The Diane Rehm Show. Nick, let's talk about Turkey unrest going on there for weeks now with this park, about which the Turkish people either feel so strongly or using it as a pretext for their opposition to President Erdogan.
BURNSWell, you're right, Diane. There are two issues here. The narrow issue is the fate of this park. And the protestors are taking the position that the park should remain as it is. Prime Minister Erdogan has a personal interest in seeing this park transformed into a monument to the glory of the ottoman empire. And so that's the narrow issue.
BURNSBut the much broader issue here is this, secular opposition to the increasingly Islamist and autocratic character of the Erdogan rule. He's been in power for ten years now. On the one hand, he's a very dynamic charismatic and visionary leader. Turkey has grown in importance around the world because of his leadership. But on the other hand, he leads the world in arrests of journalists. He's arrested over 100 generals. And he's begun to act more like, as David's newspaper said this morning in a very insightful article in the New York Times, the Times said more like the mayor of Istanbul than the leader of Turkey choosing, you know, the architecture of some of these new monuments for Taksim Park.
BURNSSo you have that narrow issue. You have the broader issue. You have the fact that Turkey is really trying to go in two directions. Lots of people wanted to retain its Ataturk tradition of being a secular Muslim country. Many others follow Erdogan and say, no we must be Islamist in character. That's what's at stake in Turkey right now in this very dramatic scene.
LAKSHMANANWell, I think that Nick is absolutely right. And I think that, you know, what we're seeing is the Gezi Park and Taksim Square protest as a sort of metaphor or, you know, a way of amplifying the greater concerns about what some people see as growing authoritarianism.
REHMBut at the same time, last night he did meet with some of those protestors.
LAKSHMANANThat's right, he did. He said--he did and he said, you know -- he's gone from sort of like the school principal of like, I'm telling you one last time, this is the last warning. You know, obviously his government used, you know, in the view of many in the International Community, excessive force. At the same time they have, you know, stopped short at the end now by saying we're going to have a referendum. And we're going to observe what the referendum says.
LAKSHMANANAnd so I think that will go some way to satisfying people, if that is carried out. But I think it's part of a larger problem. And if the justice and development party -- or as it's know, the AKP -- is seen as stretching beyond the bounds of what modern Turks want in their government, if it's becoming too Islamist, too authoritarian, that's not something people want. They want Turkey's profile risen internationally but not in all of the ways that he's doing.
LAKSHMANANI mean, one thing I thought was interesting was the student protestors appropriating one of the words that he used -- a Turkish word that he used to mean looters and riffraff. And they've now appropriated and embraced it as their own to mean those who support environmentalism and the Green movement. And that was very interesting.
SANGERWhat I thought was fascinating at last night's meeting with the protestors was it's the first time that we have ever seen the Turkish government, Mr. Erdogan in particular, take a step backward. You know, he said first, I'm going to let the courts make a ruling on this. And if the courts conclude that this park should not be destroyed, we'll put the whole thing to a referendum.
SANGERThis is not a man who you often hear talking about leading referendums. And more to Nick's point, from that same great article that Tim Mirango (sp?) did, he said that not only has the prime minister been looking at the architectural issues here. It says, he has said which shawarma and kabob shops should be demolished. And given his input on the lighting for a new bridge over the Bosphorus. Okay. Now that is to define micromanagement. And, you know, he sees himself in, you know, the model of, you know, the great Turkish strongman leaders. And on the other hand, he's thinking in the back of his mind that, you know, this didn't go over so well in Egypt.
REHMBut, you know, I think we have all perhaps stood in that park. And that park is extraordinarily important to everybody. Short break here and when we come back we'll open the phones.
REHMAnd welcome back, it's time to open the phones. First to Cleveland, Ohio. Good morning, Howard, you're on the air.
HOWARDWow, Diane, I am so excited to speak with you. I love you.
REHMGood, thank you.
HOWARDJust wanted to try to make a comment talking about arming the rebels in Syria, both. I'm an Afghan and an Iraq vet and part of my job was to run around the country with my counterparts picking up arms and munitions that we and other nations had given these nations at some point and another.
HOWARDAnd at one point, I had the opportunity to pull about 20 some cases of American-made Bouncing Betty landmines off of the battlefield. So as we give these arms to different countries we have to be aware that we don't know how they're going to be used and at some point possibly my kids are going to have to go out there and pick these things up off the battlefield.
REHMHoward, thank you for your service. Indira?
LAKSHMANANHe makes an excellent point and I would point to Afghanistan as the strongest example of this when throughout the whole Soviet occupation when we were supporting the mujahideen, many of whom who later turned into al-Qaida, including Osama Bin Laden himself, when we were supporting the mujahideen with weapons.
LAKSHMANANLater, we are having to deal with those same weapons on the battlefield when we're back in Afghanistan all these years later. So I think he makes an excellent point and it's one that the Obama administration has wrestled with and why they've delayed decisions about arming because of worrying who it's going to.
SANGERIndira's just right. And the only piece of good news here compared to 1989 when we saw all of that happen in Afghanistan is that today there's an app for that as they say and for some of the larger weapons systems particularly the anti-tank systems it is now possible to put on electronic systems that you can turn off if you think that the weapon has gone into the wrong hands.
SANGERNow this is not possible with a lot of small arms. These are things that of course you always run the risk that they could go wrong but we're not living in the old analogue age. And you know, we've done this for a long time with nuclear weapons in case they can get loose, with other weapons and for some of these larger systems there's going to be a big switch downstairs in the basement in the Pentagon.
BURNSProliferation is a major concern here. That's why Indira's right. That's why there's been a delay in this decision but if we don't act the humanitarian situation gets worse. Iran, Hezbollah have a dominant position in the heart of the Middle East, Israel is increasingly threatened by S-300 missiles.
BURNSI think those are compelling reasons for us to act and the president is not talking about putting American troops on the ground. This is very much an indirect, almost standoffish approach because he's learned the lessons I think. He's really internalized them of what happened to us in Iraq and Afghanistan.
REHMAll right, to Pleasant Valley, Ala., good morning, Chris.
CHRISHey, how are you doing today?
CHRISI think we should have planes flying over, dropping off pallets of food, emergency rations. Are you there?
CHRISOkay. And we should take the Golan Heights and make a refugee center out of it with the 82nd Airborne and on one side, Israelis on the other side so refugees would be safe and there should be pamphlets and everything that we drop off saying that our hearts go out to you but we're not getting involved in a religious war. We'll feed your soul and your body but we're not feeding your military aspects of wiping everybody out that's not a Sunni.
REHMAll right, to Indira.
LAKSHMANANWell, the U.S. has already spent more than $500 million on humanitarian assistance to, you know, those affected by the Syrian conflict so there's no question that the U.S. has been all in, in the humanitarian sense and has been also supporting the refugee camps in Jordan and in Turkey and trying to help all of Syria's neighbors.
LAKSHMANANI mean, I don't know that we really would have the ability to take over the Golan Heights and turn it into a refugee camp as the caller is suggesting, but you know, I think there's also the question of whether there's an obligation to stop further humanitarian suffering once the U.N. has said that the numbers have gone up to 93,000 or beyond that.
LAKSHMANANBut you know, the caller makes, you know, outlines the case that some in the administration have been making that you know, we need to keep a hands-off approach because it's getting sectarian between Shia and Sunni. I think that the chemical weapons issue though was the decisive factor in changing that.
REHMAnd here's an email about that very point which says: "We've been down this road before, weapons of mass destruction, chemical weapons. We don't even know who the good guys are." The emailer goes on to say: "I voted for Obama because I hoped he would not expand our military operations and what about Iran? Do we end up there too?" David?
SANGERFirst, on the chemical weapons we put them in the category of a weapon of mass destruction but it's just barely in that category and probably some would argue shouldn't be in that category at all. In fact if you listen to the White House briefing their summary of the intelligence that they delivered to us yesterday, they said that over the past year maybe 150 deaths.
SANGERThat's 150 too many but in a conflict that has cost 93,000 lives it's hardly, you know, it's hard to make the case that the chemical weapons are really what's triggering the U.S...
REHMAnd how is it provable?
SANGERWell, it's provable that they were used. It's not provable how they were used or who used them, but there's no evidence that anybody has seen that I could find, the Israelis, the Americans, the Turks that have suggested that any of these chemical weapons have gone into the hands of the opposition. So if they were used, they had to be used by somebody.
SANGERThe second point your caller makes is about Iran and nuclear weapons. That's a completely different set of issues and while certainly there are huge lessons to be learned from the Iraq War in the case of the Iranian if we have inspectors going in and out of Iran all the time there's a fairly good understanding of how much nuclear material they have.
SANGERThey see this nuclear material every couple of weeks. The question is how close do they get to a bomb and then if they do have that capability whether or not that changes the dynamic within the Middle East.
BURNSI think it's natural for any American that Iraq and Afghanistan would be the reference point, the prism for which we view Syria. And yet there's another model for us. We went in, in the Clinton administration into Bosnia and Kosovo and stopped two wars not by putting American troops in the middle of battle but using selectively-sanctioned air power, threats, our political muscle.
BURNSIt's essentially the challenge the president has now. He's not going to put American troops into Syria. He's been very clear about that but if we don't act there's a real price for us to pay both on a humanitarian basis and a strategic basis.
REHMAll right, to Rochester Hills, Mich., Cecil you're on the air.
CECILHi Diane, (unintelligible) excellent.
CECILI just wanted to make a point that it seemed like your commentators there, they're biased against our Prime Minister Erdogan from Turkey. They failed to mention that he was elected with, I think, over 50 percent of the vote a couple of years back.
CECILAnd this is in a parliamentary system not a presidential system. In addition to that you know, they mentioned briefly you know he's arrested hundreds of generals as if that's a bad thing. But in Turkey that's an awesome thing because he demoralized the military. He prevented them from taking power again which in Turkey if you look at the history of Turkey generals have been taking power over for the past 90 years, the last time in 1997.
CECILSo it just seems that you know we should start looking at these Turkey protests through the prism of the Turkish people, instead of here and that's just, you know, criticizing, criticizing, criticizing.
REHMAll right, Cecil, thanks for calling in. Indira?
LAKSHMANANWell, I mean, it's certainly true that Erdogan has been re-elected a third time. I think that that is not inconsistent with people being frustrated about aspects of his governance. And you know, one of the things that has frustrated people, and there was an interesting op-ed in The New York Times about a week ago on this, was this notion of the culture war against the country's secular classes and an illiberal form of democracy that he was advancing.
LAKSHMANANSo he's been trying to sort of forge this Muslim moral majority and that rubs, you know, many of the modern people in Istanbul and in Ankara sort of the Turkish middleclass the wrong way.
REHMCan you give me some specific examples of what he has done that have angered people?
LAKSHMANANHe introduced legislation to curb the availability of abortion through Turkey's national health insurance system so that's one example. That's something that's seen as hurting poor women more than the wealthy because the wealthy could still get abortions in any case.
REHMWas there any talk about the burka?
LAKSHMANANI mean, I don't know about the burka, per se, but I think there's certainly been efforts to, you know, certainly now in Turkey you see more women veiled than you saw ten years ago when he first came to power. There's no doubt about that.
LAKSHMANANThere has been an increase in, you know, Islamic aspects of his governance just in the way that you've seen that in Egypt in the last several years and not just since Morsi came to power. You also saw it before.
LAKSHMANANSo I think part of this has been about the micro-management of people's lives and that's what, you know, we've talked about with the park as well.
BURNSAnd the press crackdown as well, I mean, you know which has been pretty remarkable. You talk to Turkish journalists and they'll tell you stories of reporters, bloggers who've been, you know, dragged off to jail.
REHMAll right. And to Mustapha in Peoria, Ill., you're on the air.
MUSTAPHAHi, how are you?
MUSTAPHAAs a Turkish who is living in the United States for 17 years and has been watching the situation in Turkey, from an inside perspective, I think I agree with everything the previous caller has said. And at the same time, you know, we're talking about this Islamism in Turkey and I think it is completely different from what is in Middle East and even in Egypt.
MUSTAPHAAnd what we have in Turkey is completely different. I think the population in general is accustomed to a democratic way of electing and replacing people the same way and there is no issue of burka, in terms of pushing people and wearing and if people choose to wear one, that is perfectly fine. I think the main push is that in '97, for instance, or before that, any democratically-elected person who is wearing head cover was forbidden to enter into parliament because of simply her dress.
MUSTAPHAAnd before that, girls who were not able to go to middle school, high school and colleges just because of the headdress. And this is not Turkey becoming an Islamic country, but it is in Turkey's nature that's 99 percent Muslim and among them the whole variety of people in terms of how they believe in practicing their religion.
REHMAll right, sir, thanks for calling. Nick?
BURNSThese are very interesting questions. And, Diane, I think Erdogan is a very impressive man and he's a historic figure in Turkey. Turkey now is more powerful in the Middle East and the Balkans and Central Asia than Britain, France or Germany. That's a big achievement.
BURNSAnd Erdogan is primarily responsible for that but he's taken on, he's crossed the fault line in Turkish politics. He's taken on this big issue. He's challenging Ataturk, the founder of modern Turkey back in 1922 and the tradition that Turkey should be resolutely secular. And Erdogan, and he has a right to his point of view, says no, we should also be Islamic in character, Islamic in social and cultural values and that's why you're seeing this turbulence in the streets of Istanbul.
REHMNick Burns of Global Post and you're listening to "The Diane Rehm Show". A couple of other topics, the Vatican, Pope Francis was quoted referring to a Vatican gay lobby and corruption inside the Vatican. What do we know, Nick?
BURNSWell, Diane, I should say I start this as a Catholic and I am myself and I find this to be extraordinary, the remarks that the Vatican has not denied that the pope made, that there is a crisis of corruption. There's a lobby of corrupt individuals inside the Vatican itself.
BURNSWhat it says to me, is it reveals that under Francis' time, but particularly under Bartholomew's time, a real crisis of governance inside the Vatican and I would say in the church as a whole worldwide. And it's going to be a great test of Francis' courage and effectiveness and dexterity in taking them on.
BURNSHe's appointed this eight-person council to advise him. One of the people advising will be the Archbishop of Boston, Sean O'Malley who has also been an anti-corruption leader from the United States and it will be very interesting and I hope important to see that this succeeds, this drive against corruption by the pope but difficult to manage.
REHMBut what does he mean by a gay lobby?
BURNSI don't know what he means by that. I mean, obviously, that was left out from this very good New York Times piece that all of us have read this morning. I don't know what he means by that, but I was also intrigued that he said there are holy people in the Vatican but there are corrupt people in the Vatican.
BURNSCan you imagine any previous pope saying that? This is drawing a line in his papacy, in the first months of his papacy to say this will be my central issue.
LAKSHMANANWe don't know yet really. It hasn't come out what exactly, in detail, he means by this so-called gay lobby and I don't think -- I mean, what one person said is it's a question of blackmail and who can be blackmailed. It's not a question of homosexuality, per se.
LAKSHMANANSo there may be certain people who happen to be trying to blackmail others over this question of homosexuality, it seems to be. But I also thought it was interesting, I mean there is the question of whether these corrupt and entrenched interests were part of what made the previous Pope Benedict, why he was forced to resign unexpectedly.
LAKSHMANANPerhaps that may have been part of it and one of the other things aside from appointing this group of eight cardinals to advise him on how to overhaul and reform the Vatican is that also the head of the Vatican Bank has recently given a whole series of interviews to journalists and that's pretty unprecedented because it has been such a closed institution so that's a new openness.
REHMAll right. And let's finally talk about former South African President Nelson Mandela. There was a caller on the line from Sherman, Tx., Lander, I know you're concerned about Mandela.
LANDERYes, indeed. I'm very pleased to hear that he's improving, but my sense in being there and talking with people is that there's a very widespread sense of discomfort throughout the country and a widely-held belief that most government officials are corrupt and have learned their corruption from their predecessors during the apartheid era.
LANDERAnd so I wonder if perhaps upon his unfortunate death, if there may be a good deal of disruption.
REHMOh dear, are you thinking in the same way, David?
SANGERWell, you know, while Mr. Mandela has obviously not been in office for some period of time, he has really been the emotional glue that has held the country together. And that's why I think there's so much concern about it and when you talk to people in the White House, already planning for how the president himself, President Obama would make his way there.
REHMDavid Sanger, Indira Lakshmanan, Nicholas Burns, thank you all.
REHMAnd thanks for listening, have a great weekend everybody. I'm Diane Rehm.
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