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The humanitarian situation in Syria has deteriorated in recent weeks and months. Airstrikes against civilians are occurring with more frequency. Refugees are fleeing to border countries, straining already tapped resources. And within the country, an estimated 9 million people are in need of life-saving assistance. As peace talks have stalled, the Obama administration acknowledged a need to reassess policy toward Syria. The president is faced with the same challenging questions from the last three years of the civil war over how to respond. But many observers say while the options are difficult, they do exist. Diane and her guests discuss the crisis in Syria and the world’s failed response.
MS. DIANE REHMThanks for joining us. I'm Diane Rehm. The Syrian government's use of barrel bombs is a start reminder of deteriorating conditions civilians are living under. In the face of the humanitarian crisis and failed peace talks, the Obama administration recognized a need for new policy toward Syria. Here to discuss the ongoing war in Syria and the world's failed response, syndicated columnist Michael Gerson, David Schenker of the Washington Institute for Near East Policy, Eliza Massimino of Human Rights First and Henri Barkey of Lehigh University.
MS. DIANE REHMThroughout the hour I'll welcome your calls, comments, questions. Join us on 800-433-8850. Send us an email to email@example.com. Follow us on Facebook or Twitter. Thank you all for being here.
MR. MICHAEL GERSONThank you.
MR. DAVID SCHENKERGood to be here.
MS. ELISA MASSIMINOGood to be with you.
REHMMichael Gerson, you just returned from a trip to Jordan. I gather you saw first-hand the refugee situation. Talk about what you saw and heard.
GERSONWell, I was with the United States Holocaust Memorial Museum. And we were up at the border, up at the eastern border where the refugees are just coming across. And many of them are from the besieged areas of Homs and Aleppo, the suburbs of Damascus, where the regime is using terror tactics -- things like barrel bombs -- but also starvation and isolating these communities to really try to terrorize whole communities into submission.
GERSONAnd so what we heard from the refugees is this is a terrible civil war where there are atrocities on both sides, but there is one side that is using mass atrocities as a tool of strategy to try to pacify whole communities, approximately 40 areas, these besieged areas. So these are terrible stories of suffering, really horror taking place as a tool of policy.
REHMSo it's not just the civil war that's happening to these people.
GERSONRight. Well, these are not the unintended victims of a civil war. They are the victims of one side in a civil war that's purposely attacking civilians as a tool of strategy and is not getting much criticism or opposition from the rest of the world for using this strategy of mass atrocity.
REHMMichael, describe these barrel bombs for our listeners. I think it's important that we all understand what they are.
GERSONWell, you know that the regime had used chemical weapons against civilians. And now they're not using chemical weapons, they're using other less objectionable to the world terror weapons. And these are oil barrels filled with fuel and metal shards, dropped from helicopters in residential neighborhoods, in order to kill civilians and to terrorize the population. So many of the terrified refugees we talked to talked of the random death that comes from barrel bombs, but also artillery and bombing and a lot of other methods to terrorize civilians.
REHMThese barrel bombs can weigh as much as 2,000 pounds.
GERSONRight. Yeah, they can destroy several houses. Many people had had their homes destroyed. Many people had been chased from place to place. So they had initially left their homes and moved to a farm area, which then came under siege. Then moved to other areas, sometimes three, four, five times before they finally made their way to Jordan.
REHMIt's so interesting to me that this situation has not gotten the attention that you believe it deserves. Why do you think that's so?
GERSONWell, one of the sad things in talking about the wonderful groups that help refugees there that we found was -- I'll give you one example without the specifics. But there was one organization that had raised in three weeks for the Philippines what they had raised in three years for Syria. There's very little attention, even on just the level of giving in the West and the United States.
REHMWhy do you think that is?
GERSONWell, I think people view the Middle East as complex and we've had exhausting commitments there. Some of it though is really this idea that they've been fighting one another for thousands of years. You hear that in America, which has racial tinge to it I'm afraid. But the reality here is we face a strategic nightmare, which is also geopolitical nightmare that's spilling out over the region and affecting American interests in fundamental ways.
GERSONSo I don't think we can -- from a moral or a strategic perspective -- ignore what's going on.
REHMSyndicated columnist Michael Gerson. Turning to you, Elisa Massimino. This, as Michael says, has not gotten a great deal of attention, but there have been photographs.
MASSIMINOYes. Well, I mean, I think that's one of many exhibits in what should be an indictment for war crimes of the Syrian regime. This is the worst humanitarian crisis since the Rwandan genocide 20 years…
REHMWhat are we seeing in the way of these photographs?
MASSIMINOThey are photographs that were taken as evidence by the regime, bodies numbered, and the photographer was so troubled by what he had seen he leaked them out. And they've been analyzed by human rights experts and international war crimes prosecutors. And they show thousands of individuals, including some children that bear marks of bodies of starvation and torture. Incredibly disturbing and evocative, frankly, of the worst horrors of World War II.
REHMSo your organization, Human Rights First, is very concerned about these refugee crisis. What do you think the U.S. can and should do?
MASSIMINOWell, we had a team, essentially did the same trip that Michael went on, in the late fall and published a report with recommendations to the United States and to the broader international community. The neighboring countries have been incredibly generous, obviously. Jordan, Turkey taking in -- I think Jordan soon, if it hasn't happened already, a third of the population will be refugees. Those countries obviously need financial support. And the U.S. has been generous here, but has to keep doing that.
MASSIMINOBut, you know, the United States really, in order to lead by example, also has to commit to taking in some refugees from the Syrian conflict itself. And really hasn't even gotten above, I think, the triple digits at this point, if that. And a big part of the reason is that we have these very onerous restrictions on refugee resettlement of people who are deemed to have been somehow involved in terrorism. And that covers a very broad range of people, including pretty much anybody who has fled Syria, who either lived in an occupied area or took up arms against Assad.
REHMElisa Massimino. She's CEO and president of Human Rights First. David Schneker, the Obama administration has said their Syrian policy has failed. How would you characterize the policy up until now?
SCHENKERWell, the policy has really been one of trying to avoid involvement. To cauterize, as they would call it, the Syrian conflict. To ameliorate or mitigate the spillover into foreign countries and to take on some humanitarian funding and responsibility. Of course it's impossible to cauterize this Syrian war. What has happened is that you have spillover that has essentially erased the border between Syria and Iraq. And so you now have free flow of Jihadis, both Sunni and Shia, going across Iraq into Syria.
SCHENKERAnd a resumption of fighting that looks like 2006, 2007, a return to civil war essentially in Iraq. You have what appears to be -- after a million refugees have flown into Lebanon, which is basically now 20 percent of the Lebanese population, you have heightened tensions there because Hezbollah, the Shite militia, is an active participant in the conflict, they aid Assad regime, and most of the people that are flowing into Lebanon are Sunni refugees. And so you now have Sunnis that are attacking Hezbollah in Lebanon.
SCHENKERAnd we're seeing retaliation. And so you now have, for the first time, Lebanese who are suicide bombers attacking Hezbollah. This has not happened in some time. And so we look like we're hurtling back toward the civil war in Lebanon. And finally, Jordon, which already has 60 percent of the population being of Palestinian origin -- refugees originally. And you know have about a million refugees that have gone into Jordan, 600,000 or 700,000 of them being registered.
SCHENKERAnd it's having a huge impact on a country that has a poor economy, is one of the poorest countries on the face of the Earth in terms of water resources, with 15 percent unemployment, these Syrians are looking for jobs, the housing prices are going up, there's inflation, the food is costing more. You probably have 30 percent unemployment now, unofficially in Jordon. And there's a lot of social dislocation.
SCHENKERA year ago they had a 30 percent budget deficit in Jordan. And this is a country in crisis. And right now, everything is calm in Jordan, but I think the trajectory is not promising.
REHMDavid Schneker, he's at the Washington Institute for Near East Policy. He's former policy aid on the Arab countries of the Levant, including Syria at the Pentagon. We'll take a short break here. When we come back, we'll hear from Henri Barkey. He's professor of international relations at Lehigh University. Stay with us.
REHMAnd welcome back. We're talking about the ongoing crisis situation in both Syria and surrounding areas where the refugee situation has just become gigantic. Before the break we talked with syndicated columnist Michael Gerson, David Schenker and Elisa Massimino. Now to you Henri Barkey. You disagree, I gather, with arming rebels or providing any support to rebels.
DR. HENRI BARKEYNo. I disagree with arming rebels with sophisticated weapons like antiaircraft missiles because I think those will be used outside the region. All it takes is for one commercial airliner to go down for chaos to reign in the international airline system. So it's not that I'm against arming rebels, per se. I'm against arming with sophisticated weapons and I'm also against any type of direct American military intervention in this conflict.
DR. HENRI BARKEYI don't think we should get involved. I think this is a regional conflict. I think the countries in the region have a lot more to lose. And let's face it, yes, countries around Syria have taken refugees, but why is it that the United States is the largest donor to the refugee crisis when you have Persian Gulf countries and Saudi Arabia, in particular, who are leaking out billions of dollars in oil revenues and are not being very generous? They are supporting only the long specific interests in the region.
DR. HENRI BARKEYEvery country in the Middle East, whether it's the Turks or the Iranians or the Saudis or the Persian Gulf countries, all have their own proxies, their own clients in Syria. And the United States getting involved militarily will be going into essentially a completely chaotic situation in which we will become the targets.
DR. HENRI BARKEYAdmittedly this administration from the beginning did not take this very seriously. Everybody -- I mean, this administration, like everybody else, made the mistake that Assad would be gone in six months, didn't understand the tenacity of this regime and how willing it is to fight on. So there were lots of policy mistakes. And, you know, David is right. I'll take it one step further. The biggest mistake this administration made was not to realize the spillover effect from Syria into Iraq. Because now we have Iraq, which is far, far, far more important to us than Syria is, also going down the drain, so to say.
DR. HENRI BARKEYAnd intervening in Syria is not going to help us in Iran because, yes, there's a spillover but in many ways it's also independent of each other.
REHMAll right. So considering the refugee situation you've heard our guests speak of, what would your reaction be? How would you assist that process without becoming militarily involved?
BARKEYWell, we are seeing a little bit of a move in the United Nations to provide more specific -- maybe even open up humanitarian corridors where you can do it without necessarily introducing troops. But I would definitely put enormous amount of pressure, but not just from the United States, but international pressure on the Persian Gulf countries first of all to spend a lot more money than they are now. I mean, money is not the answer to refugee crisis but at least it can alleviate in the short term many of the problems that Michael and David and Elisa explained. They're not doing it, but it's their problem. This is on their doorstep, not ours.
REHMIt's on their doorstep, Elisa?
MASSIMINOWell, I certainly don't disagree that we ought to be pressuring, you know, the Gulf States and the neighboring countries to be stepping up and doing more. There's, I think, nobody who would argue with that. But it's also, I think, becoming clearer that not only is this a moral imperative for us to get involved, but the U.S. has very strong interests in making sure -- now it may not have been true at the beginning but it's becoming increasingly true now that...
REHMGet involved how?
MASSIMINOWell, in changing the calculus somehow on the ground. I mean, we've talked about -- you know, we put our eggs in the basket of the Geneva, you know, peace negotiations which, you know, Lakhdar Brahimi has said are a complete failure. The Russians have not delivered what they said they would. And so we have to -- there's -- Assad will not be going anywhere unless there is a change in the balance of forces on the ground. So the question is, how do you do that?
MASSIMINOAnd there are some nonmilitary -- I think the U.S. is already starting, by the way, to -- you know, the intelligence chiefs of the region were gathered in Washington. And I believe that now there are some -- you know, there are some coordination and perhaps even arming of the moderate rebels. But there are other things that the United States could be doing that are nonmilitary that could change the calculus.
MASSIMINOFor example, looking at -- you know, mass atrocity situations like we have in Syria are organized crimes. And they require a supply chain to support them, both money and arms. You know, until last -- the end of last year, the United States had a $1 billion contract to buy helicopters from Rosoboronexport, the Russian State arms agency that is the chief supplier of arms to Assad.
MASSIMINOYou know, we finally, after two years of fighting, got that cut off. But now I think the United States has to think seriously and join with other countries to go after the Russian banks that are essentially fronting for the Syrian Central Bank, basically the banker for Assad. The Russians should be cut off from doing banking in the United States and the broader international community.
REHMMichael Gerson, is Russia the key here?
GERSONI think it is. I mean, you have an alliance of Russia, Iran, Hezbollah and the Syrian regime that has been very successful in pursuing their policy. And one of the real challenges here is that one huge cargo ship coming in from Russia to the Syrian government is equal to months of what we can do across border in this circumstance. So it hasn't been a fair struggle.
GERSONI was in Zaatari Camp talking with refugees, you know, that had just come in the last couple of months. They know the strategic situation. They told me, we are not just fighting Assad. We are fighting Russia, Iran and Hezbollah and we don't have allies in that fight. The question is how -- you know, the U.S. government officials in the region believe it might be possible to be more aggressive in helping, particularly in southern Syria where there are less foreign fighters -- they're really located mainly in the north in Daraa and these regions -- that it might be possible to be more aggressive.
GERSONAnd there is more cooperation going on with Saudi Arabia and the Gulf States in order to try to change that balance of power on the ground. I think the administration has moved that direction.
SCHENKERAnd I think the Assad regime views this as an issue of communal survival. They will not make any concessions. You know, there are 11 percent minority, the Alawites in Syria. The vast majority, 75 percent of the country, is Sunni Muslim. And they recognize from what they've done that there will be most likely ethnic cleansing when it's all over. So they're going to fight to the end unless something changes on the ground. And that has to be the military balance.
SCHENKERIf you hope that there will be a chance for diplomacy to work then you're going to have to change the calculus, the balance on the ground, which means essentially that the United States is going to have to get skin in the game. That means providing serious support to the moderate Syrian opposition. I'm not talking about man pads, but I'm talking about heavy antitank weapons, operational intelligence.
SCHENKERI mean, if we're talking about the humanitarian crisis and we're talking about wanting to stop barrel bombings, why are we not providing operational intelligence to the free Syria army to target regime helicopters with mortars? Why are we not providing operational intelligence to help the opposition target helicopter pilots? What are we not, you know, making -- helping them with the technical abilities to call the pilot's cell phones and warn them and help them to leave? We don't see Syria right now flying fixed-wing aircraft because most of the pilots have defected. I mean, there is a lot we can do.
BARKEYLook, as David said, this regime is fighting for its life. This community's fighting for its life. It's not going to give up that easily. And on top of this, when you look at the coalition that's behind this regime, I think the most critical country is not Russia. Russia provides support at the security council, yes, provides arms, but (word?) is Iran, that's the critical country. Now, when you look at the regional situation, the Iranians actually are now starting to realize, and you are seeing signs, that they are losing in this battle. Because if they lose Syria then they will lose Lebanon and then they'll lose Iraq.
BARKEYSo they are not necessarily weathered, I think, to Assad. They are looking also maybe for a solution. This is why I think this -- when I say this is a regional problem, that we need to look at it regionally and we need to get the regional countries to talk to each other and to start working this out, because all of them are losing. The Sunni Shiite sectarian conflict that is becoming really, really strong, really deep is going to bring an enormous amount of violence into the region no matter what happens in Syria.
REHMBut why are the Gulf States not participating more? Why are they not putting more pressure in the game at least to stop the kind of horror that's going on?
BARKEYBecause I think there's a free rider problem. From the beginning, everybody turned and said -- from the Turks to the Saudis everybody said, look the Americans will solve this problem. And so the free -- they don't think they have the capacity. They don't have the willpower. And I'm not sometimes sure that they are really interested in solving this because this is kind of pushing the problem away from them. I think now they're realizing that, as I said, nobody expected this to last this long. Everybody expected Assad to be gone.
BARKEYIt's only now that people are starting to realize, we need to do something because this regime...
REHMBut then what do we do at this point?
BARKEYWell, I think -- look, we need -- the Iranians are critical here. We need to figure out a way to -- and we are talking to the Iranians on a whole series of other issues. The Rouhani government in Iran is showing signs that it is interested in a different way of thinking about this. There are all these signs coming out of Iraq. We need to explore those things. We need to be able to talk to them about these issues.
BARKEYAs I said, the Iranians are not winning. Hezbollah is deeply committed in Syria. As David also said, it's creating a huge counter reaction in Lebanon. In Lebanon, Hezbollah is ultimately going to lose at this rate. So it is not in the interest of the Iranians to see this continue. Similarly in Iraq the regime is also in deep crisis. So we need to work politically. Militarily, yes, we can do stuff on the margins but none of them are going to change the calculus on the ground unless we commit with huge numbers of troops and we start bombing Syria from top to bottom.
REHMDo you think the American people would go along with that at this point?
BARKEYNo, because we -- there's the Iraq fatigue. There's the Afghanistan fatigue, which is also one of the reasons why the administration has not wanted to get much more involved in this. And you can understand this. I mean, the crisis -- the cost of Iraq and Afghanistan economically, in human terms for us has been very, very drastic. And people are tired of this. You can't expect the administration to go against that.
REHMAnd you're listening to "The Diane Rehm Show." Michael Gerson, who do we involve the Iranians?
GERSONI don't know. I mean, it's a situation where you have so many other strategic equities right now, particularly related to the nuclear program. That -- and I'm not sure that Iran views what's going on as a failure right now in Syria. I'm not sure that that's an accurate analysis. But ultimately I think pressuring the sponsors of Assad's regime is very important. But Assad's regime itself is in the fight for survival.
GERSONAnd so far there's been really no cost to the use of chemical weapons. There's been no cost to the use of mass atrocities as a tool of war. There's been no cost to cheating the system in getting rid of chemical weapons so far, from what we've seen. Their strategy is succeeding on the ground.
REHMBut would you put American boots on the ground?
GERSONNo, I don't think anyone would put American boots on the ground. The question here is whether it's possible to more aggressively support people who want to engage in this fight. I'll give you one example. I talked in Zaatari. The sentiments of the people in that camp were very much for the free Syrian army, which is a more moderate force, not perfect but a more moderate force in this effort. But then I asked them, well what do you think about al-Nusra, which is a more radical element? And the response I got was, they give us help. They give us food.
GERSONThey had an advantage on the ground because they had more resources in this battle. And it's been a serious long term problem that the more radical elements have had better arms, better ammunition. If you're a tribal leader in these areas, you're asking the question, who's going to give me more help?
REHMBetter money altogether, Elisa.
MASSIMINOI do think one of the traps -- well, I fear Henri's skepticism that military help around the edges is going to completely solve the problem. Or, you know, I think that's been part of the paralysis here is that there's a skepticism about, you know, anything that we could do, would it really save -- Syria's house on fire at this point. And, you know, short of something like that or even including boots on the ground wouldn't save it at this point.
MASSIMINOAnd so I think we've been trapped into thinking that therefore, you know, we can't do anything. And that's just -- that's not true. I don't think that we're doing all we can even in the nonmilitary sphere to change the calculus on the ground. I agree that, you know, Russia's not the only actor here and we ought to be looking more broadly at how to influence Iran and others. Yes, of course we ought to be doing that.
MASSIMINOBut we have now a -- this is a national security question for us now. There are more than a million children who are growing up in these refugee camps who are -- we are looking at a real long term disaster for U.S. national security. And we have to get involved in that.
REHMHow long do you believe those folks will be in those camps, David Schenker?
SCHENKERWell, obviously most of the people are not in camps that are refugees, right. In a place like Jordan they're living in cities. There's only a couple hundred-thousand out of the million or so. And in Lebanon they're not living in camps at all, just living off the land. But the fact is that the estimates are that more than 30 percent of the housing in Syria has been destroyed, right. Now just say, best case scenario, that Assad is toppled. All right, then you're going to have a fight for the future of Syria potentially between al-Qaida factions and the free-Syria army, if I -- basically for the future of the Sunni Muslim community in Syria.
SCHENKERI don't envision the refugees returning home for a decade or more. This is a long term problem. And so, you know, the goal is not only to help the refugees. The goal is to end the war. If you want to -- so you can start moving these people back, reconstructing Syria, changing the facts on the ground.
REHMDavid Schenker. He's with the Washington Institute for Near East Policy. Short break here. When we come back, we'll open the phones.
REHMAnd as we talk about the ongoing and very complex situation not only regarding what's going on in Syria but around Syria, we'll open the phones now. First to Arnold in Brookline, Mass. You're on the air.
ARNOLDYou've made my day, Diane.
REHMThank you. Go right ahead, sir.
ARNOLDI'd like to point out one -- two major points. One is that the U.S. Congress has authorized a lot of money for arms. President Obama has refused -- he's deep sixed most of the arms authorization because he's fully aware that there are no moderate rebels. That the only way you'll find the moderates are the Syrian national coalition, but they do not control the rebel forces whatsoever. So I'd like your guests to comment on that.
ARNOLDI'd like to make one more point. And the reason why these using bombs -- it's not that he's using it against the civilians is that you cannot differentiate the civilians from the rebels because the rebels are using those houses as fortresses to attack, you know, the official army. So...
REHMAll right, sir. Thanks for your call. First of all, who is supporting the good rebels, the not-so-good revels, Michael?
GERSONWell, this has been one of the main problems is that some of our allies in this circumstance are supporting the not-so-good rebels, whether it's the Turks or the Gulf States or others. And it's very hard to determine these things because they're -- it's not just one area with one control of this group and one area with control of this group. It's very, very mixed. But the government officials that -- U.S. government officials that I talked to when I was there think that it is possible, particularly in the south near Daraa, to identify those elements, particularly the free-Syrian army that needs support and are more responsible.
GERSONNow, they're -- in the north and in other areas you have tens of thousands of foreign fighters that have been attracted here. And that's going to be a long term problem for Syria. You know, you can't minimize that, including a couple of thousand with European roots. The question is, where will they go after a conflict like this? And -- but the problem is that the other side, the other strategic partnership here has been very determined in supporting its proxies. But that, you know, the more favorable proxies in here have not gotten a significant amount of support.
SCHENKERYeah, early on I think the United Stated chose to delegate the responsibility of supporting the moderate or the rebels at all to the Qataris and the Saudis. And the problem is that the Saudis, like the Salifis and the Qataris love the Muslim Brotherhood. They were not discerning. And although some of this money has gone to the free-Syrian army, the vast majority has gone to these al-Qaida affiliates or Islamist groups. And therefore we see their ascendants on the ground. These guys pay salaries and they also have weapons. The free-Syria army doesn't have that.
REHMHow in the world did all this get sorted out, Henri?
BARKEYWell, it's very difficult to see how it gets sorted out except here's my proposition. The longer this goes on, the bigger the refugee crisis becomes. As the other guests also pointed out, all of these countries around Syria are reaching their breaking point, if not they have already passed their breaking point. So that's why I think we need to mobilize, I mean, in a constructive way. We need also to mobilize European and other international support.
BARKEYI mean, look at the Asians. They have been completely irrelevant in this conflict, except for the Chinese who go along with the Russians. Look, the Russians, at this point, are not about to change their policy. We have to figure out another way because, look, the Russians have two issues here. One is they think that if Syria falls into the hands of the Jihadists that the next battleground will be the Northern Caucasus. Whether this is true or not, they seem to believe that.
BARKEYSecond, Putin wants to make life difficult for us. Russia is a declining country that has nothing to offer to the rest of the world except becoming -- annoying the hell out of us. And especially after Ukraine now, I don't expect Putin to do us any favors.
MASSIMINOWell, I don't expect him to do us any favors but I would bet that if the Treasury Department announced publicly today that it was going to -- that any international banks, including Russian banks, that are still doing business with the Assad regime or helping the regime disguise its financial transaction will no longer be eligible for bank privileges in the United States, that would get his attention.
BARKEYLook, I think the Russians make money by oil sales and gas sales. I think that's not relevant. I think what is more important, if we could get tens of thousands of people out in the streets protesting the Russian role in Europe, elsewhere, in the United States, put the kind of public pressure, maybe that will make a change. But I think putting sanctions on Russians where the Russians can retaliate against us in different ways will not, I think, do much.
REHMAll right. To Cleveland, Ohio. Hi, Sam. You're on the air.
SAMGood morning, Diane. And good morning to your guests. Thank you for taking my call.
SAMIt's great, I mean, as we start hearing about the humanitarian crisis, about what's happening in Syria. And it's awful. I mean, there are too many refugees outside Syria, but nobody mentions the 6 million refugees inside Syria, which includes my immediate and extended family.
SAMAnd so on most of these -- and actually, the vast majority of these refugees internally displaced are Sunni Muslims, which actually proves that this is not a civil war. This is a proxy war. The Sunni -- the (word?) did not flee to Tutsi areas in Iran (unintelligible) genocide. The Sunnis are on scale 3 to 1 are fleeing to government controlled area. And I would call for your guests to -- you can go and visit the many schools in Tartus, (word?) or Damascus who are filled with hundreds of thousands of refugees and mostly Sunnis.
SAMThis is a proxy war and if you really care about Syria and Syrians and you care about these refugees, why don't you lobby the United States government to pressure the terrorist -- to support terrorism supporting states like Saudi Arabia and Qatar and Turkey to stop the flow of...
REHMAll right, sir.
SAM...service and the money.
REHMAll right. Thanks for calling. Michael Gerson.
GERSONWell, first of all, the basic insight there is exactly true. I mean, the biggest problem here is not the refugee problem. It's that there are 9 million people in need of humanitarian assistance within Syria. And the war has made that very difficult.
REHMMichael, let me...
GERSONBut the regime has purposely made that difficult in many areas as a tool of policy so that...
REHMLet me interrupt you for one moment. Someone who has recently been there has said to me, you can be in one small town in Syria where the nightclubs are open, the restaurants are open. And just downtown, as it were, is totally a wreck. How can this be, David Schenker?
SCHENKERWell, I think that there are areas where the rebels have strength, more strength than others. There are some people in Syria that still obviously support the regime. And they're not just all Alawites. There are some Christians in Syria who view the secular Alawite regime as being preferable to a potentially Islamist al-Qaida type of regime. And so there are pockets where the fighting is going on. There are areas where you can just go about your daily business.
SCHENKERBut just in terms of what your caller mentioned, if I might, I think it's important to remember that, you know, we're talking about all these foreign fighters of Sunni providence, the al-Qaida guys that are coming from Saudi and elsewhere. There are an equal, if not larger number of Shiite foreign fighters now in Syria coming from either Iraq, the revolutionary guards in Iran, Quds Force, and of course Hezbollah, which is all in, as you might say, in Syria back in the regime.
REHMAll right. To Charlotte, N.C. Hi there, Frank.
FRANKOh, hi. You know, I believe our President Obama would like to end the violence over there in Syria. All he would need to do is get in his plane, fly over to Iran and sit down with the supreme leader and discuss it. Because the supreme leader has actually fought in wars and his friends have been killed with chemicals that were provided by the United States. So it's not them that are basically the violent people. I think it's us that are providing stuff that has shown people inhumane just like our support for Israel that persecute the Palestinian people.
FRANKAnd that's what we need to do. We need to do that.
REHMAll right. Thank you, Frank. David Schenker.
SCHENKERWell, I wish I was as confident as your caller about Iran playing a positive role in Syria. Iran has -- is very much compartmentalizing its issues with the United States. It is negotiating with us, some say in good faith, others say not, on the nuclear program, but is very much invested in the survival of the Assad regime. This is the tie to Iran, to the Levant, its regional influence at stake. And also has to do with Iraq for Iran. So they are not backing off any time soon. We're not going to do a package deal of rapprochement on Syria and on the nuclear program with Iran.
REHMTo Al in Lafayette, Ind. You're on the air.
ALHi, Diane. Thank you very much for taking my call.
ALMy question is, there is a parallel between what's happening in Ukraine right now and what happened in Syria in the beginning. Remember it started as just as peaceful uprising by people demanding political change. It wasn't rebels, it wasn't fighting, it wasn't a civil war or anything like that. Just people demonstrating in the streets. But the United States elected not to do anything at that time. Unlike what's happened in Ukraine, President Obama picked up the phone, talked to Putin and you see the result in Ukraine. Why this did not happen in Syria in the beginning? Does the United States and President Obama have some responsibility there?
BARKEYLook, I think the situations are very, very different. What happened in Syria when the rebellions or I should say the peaceful revolts started, we were dealing with a regime that was willing to use excessive force no matter what to save itself. And remember that the Syrian regime has been -- readied itself to fight a Sunni insurgency ever since 1982 when Bashar al-Assad's father fought in Hama and destroyed the city of Hama in order to squash a Sunni rebellion.
BARKEYSo we're talking about two very, very different types of regimes. The issue in Ukraine was about becoming part of Europe or not becoming part of Europe. So it's not initial way that you are going to see the kind of violence that the Assad regime used on its own people. And I think in the case of Syria, I think a conversation with Putin would not have decided the fate of Syria. Because in some ways what Assad is doing is what Assad and his followers, the Alawites want him to do. And they want to fight because they think that if the Sunnis win, they will be dead. It's as simple as that.
REHMHenri Barkey. He is professor of international relations at Lehigh University. And you're listening to "The Diane Rehm Show." Here's an email from Pat in Rochester, Mich. who says, "How do these folks know for sure that the U.S. is not providing covert help? How and who would these folks choose to support among the groups fighting the government in Syria? Can the U.S. actually support any particular group? The Middle East is a difficult place even without war, so many factions," David Schenker.
SCHENKERWell, we had, about a year-and-a-half ago, the unusual announcement that the U.S. had actually -- there was a funding to provide covert assistance. You know, it's not great to have these things be announced publicly or leaked out of the White House, that we would provide covert assistance. But most of that apparently was in the form of sleeping bags and meals ready to eat to the free-Syria army as opposed to heavy weapons.
SCHENKERIt seems that the administration is starting to ramp up its program of providing, train and equip to vetted members of the free-Syria army both in Jordan, and there's an opportunity perhaps to do that in places like the UAE. Hopefully we can get Turkey onboard with this. But this appears to be something we are starting to ramp up.
MASSIMINODiane, I think that that question really does encapsulate the dynamic that we see and that has caused the paralysis here. It is the sense that -- you asked the question earlier, why is this crisis not getting more attention, the humanitarian crisis. And I think, you know, it is the sense that it is so complicated over there and that we've devolved -- even this conversation we're having here today is really kind of -- very quickly goes to should we get involved militarily or should we do nothing?
MASSIMINOAnd I really want to urge us to see that there are many, many things that we could be doing to -- yes, they're not going to solve the situation themselves but they will change the calculus on the ground. And that's what needs to happen if this is going to get solved.
REHMThere was a UN resolution...
REHM...reached over the weekend involving humanitarian aid. But even that aid is being balked.
MASSIMINOWell, I think that, you know, that was -- that resolution 2139 -- and I give a lot of credit to our ambassador Samantha Power there for doing the heavy lifting to get that unanimously approved. The sad thing is that of course it reiterates what's already the law -- international law on -- and it reads like an indictment of the Assad regime. The most important piece or line of that resolution though is that the -- the very last one which hints at the possibility of future action if the resolution is not implemented as it was...
REHMDo you see drones or airstrikes being carried out here, Michael?
GERSONWell, the president of course was on the verge of airstrikes just a few months ago and faced opposition from the congress. And I'm not sure how much of an option that is. In an odd way it's -- you know, it's a discreet commitment for the U.S. to take out helicopters or aircraft. It would really reduce the range of the regime's attack to the range of its artillery.
GERSONYou can make these arguments but that isn't -- it's an act of war. It's a very difficult step for the president to take.
REHMAnd indeed you've heard the conversation this morning, very, very complicated. Michael Gerson, David Schenker, Elisa Massimino, Henri Barkey, thank you all. I want to let listeners know I'll be taking some time off for a voice treatment. I'll then go on vacation. I'll be back late in March. So some of my wonderful colleagues will be sitting in for me. We will continue to bring you the most informative programs we can possibly do. Thanks for listening all. I'm Diane Rehm.
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