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The U.S. and its partner nations, which include several Arab nations, dropped bombs on four oil refineries in Syria over the weekend. The facilities were said to have been in the hands of ISIS, the Muslim extremist organization that has taken control of large areas near the Iraq–Syria border. On Saturday, the Pentagon also reported strikes in an area of Syria controlled by Kurds but under heavy ISIS attack. Experts warn the effort to eradicate ISIS will be long, costly and extremely difficult. Diane and her guests discuss the fight against ISIS, what’s possible and at what cost.
- Lina Khatib Director, Carnegie Middle East Center in Beirut. formerly: co-founder, Program on Arab Reform and Democracy at Stanford University’s Center on Democracy, Development, and the Rule of Law.
- Ambassador James Dobbins Senior fellow, the RAND Corporation former assistant secretary of state for Europe and special envoy to Afghanistan
- Mark Mazzetti National security correspondent, The New York Times; author of "The Way of the Knife: The CIA, a Secret Army, and a War at the Ends of the Earth."
- Samer Shehata Associate professor of Middle East politics at the University of Oklahoma and author of "Islamist Politics in the Middle East: Movements and Change."
MS. DIANE REHMThanks for joining us. I'm Diane Rehm. The U.S. with support of its approximately 60 coalition partners launched more than a dozen air strikes over the weekend against ISIS in Iraq and Syria. Targets in Syria included oil refineries in an area close to the Turkish border where tens of thousands of Kurdish people face an ISIS assault.
MS. DIANE REHMJoining me to talk about the coalition and its objectives against ISIS, Ambassador James Dobbins of the Rand Corporation, Mark Mazzetti of the New York Times. Joining us by phone from London, Lina Khatib, director of The Carnegie Middle East Center in Beirut and from a studio at KGOU in Norman, Oklahoma, Samer Shehata of the University of Oklahoma.
MS. DIANE REHMAnd, of course, as always, your comments are welcome. Give us a call at 800-433-8850. Send an email to firstname.lastname@example.org. Follow us on Facebook or send us a tweet. And welcome to all of you.
MR. MARK MAZZETTIThank you.
AMB. JAMES DOBBINSThank you very much.
MR. SAMER SHEHATAThank you.
MS. LINA KHATIBThank you.
REHMGood to have you all with us. Mark Mazzetti, talk about the strikes that happened over the weekend and are occurring today.
MAZZETTIThe strikes that began early last week in Syria were aimed at a number of ISIS position in Eastern Syria. Over the weekend, you saw a number of strikes, as you pointed out, on oil refineries, the idea being that this is going to weaken ISIS's -- what it has captured in recent months, which is -- and it's economic positions, which is holding onto oil fields, holding onto oil refineries and these would be things that, over time, the administration would argue would weaken its ability to make money as part of what it calls its caliphate.
MAZZETTIWhat you also saw over the weekend was strikes along the Syria/Iraq border and also into Iraq where fighters -- ISIS fighters in Fallujah, near the city of Fallujah in Western Iraq. And we all know the history of Fallujah from the Iraq war over the last ten years. We are, once again, bombing in that area to sort of dislodge ISIS fighters who are pretty well entrenched in that area.
REHMI was interested in President Obama's comments over the weekend that the U.S. had underestimated the ISIS militants. In what ways and why?
MAZZETTIWell, President Obama cited remarks by James Clapper, the director of National Intelligence, in saying that they had underestimated the will to fight, just exactly what ISIS, what their goals were and how committed they were to the cause. And Clapper had said, we made the same mistake as we had in Vietnam with the North Vietnamese and the Vietcong and exactly how strong their will was to fight.
MAZZETTINow, I think that these statements need to be picked apart a little bit in order to say that -- I mean, certainly there were warnings to the White House, to the administration, about ISIS and this had been going on for several months. President Obama -- I guess someone infamously earlier this year described the Islamic State as "the JV team." In other words, they're not really al-Qaida. They're trying to be something that they're not.
MAZZETTISo I mean, there may be a little bit of pushing the blame away from that statement by the White House towards the intelligence community, but as, you know, Clapper admitted, there were mistakes all around in terms of assessing the real threat that ISIS posed.
REHMAnd to you, Lina Khatib, over the weekend, you had another militant group in Syria, al-Nusra, vowing to take revenge on the coalition partners. It makes us all wonder who we even know we are fighting against in Syria.
KHATIBThe problem is there has not been a thorough investigation of what is happening on the ground in Syria, despite several available sources of information on both ISIS and Nusra. I personally have had informants on the ground for the last two years and everything they have told me have been very accurate. And I can tell you, in my own personal capacity, I have spoken to U.S. government officials about this.
KHATIBI have spoken to the UK government about this. I think saying we did not know and we underestimated is actually not really reflecting the reality. The reality is no Western government wanted to really engage because of the scars of the Iraq war, because of political calculations by world leaders. And I was saying from the very beginning that this is actually a global problem.
KHATIBThe West cannot say this is something far away and it will go away on its own and it doesn't concern us and it's not in our national interest. So I think they knew very well who was on the ground, whether al-Nusra or ISIS. But the decision not to engage was very political and now we're all paying the price as a result.
REHMSo Lina, how many groups are we fighting against?
KHATIBCountless groups. The problem is ISIS is a very now deep-rooted organization. Al-Nusra is its key rival. However, there are, I would say, tens if not hundreds of small splinter groups that are all Islamist in meaning and that have pledged allegiance to either ISIS or al-Nusra. And these groups, now that both Nusra and ISIS are direct targets by the coalition, a number of these small groups are migrating towards these two larger umbrella organizations, terrorist organizations.
KHATIBSo we are seeing the membership of ISIS and Nusra actually grow as a result of the coalition attacks.
REHMAmbassador James Dobbins, you said that what's happening in the Middle East is a world coming apart. Is this why, that there's so many groups out there and we cannot get a handle on it?
DOBBINSWell, we're focused, currently, on ISIS, but I think we have to recognize that here are at least half a dozen different conflicts going on in the Middle East. There's the Arab/Israeli conflict. There's the Arab/Persian conflict. There's the Sunni/Shia conflict. There's the conflict between authoritarian governments and political Islam. There's the civil war in Syria and finally, there's the conflict between all the governments of the region and these extremist groups, like ISIS.
DOBBINSWe're focused on one of these conflicts. Every government in the region is involved in all six of these conflicts. And as soon as one enemy recedes, it turns to the next conflict, which means alliances are always temporary, engagements are always conditional and the picture is constantly shifting. Now, what's different now and why I referred back to the end of the first world war is that for the first time seriously, borders in the region are under serious question.
DOBBINSThis is particularly true of the border of Iraq, where the Kurds want to secede, where ISIS is now trying to establish a state that includes Syria, Iraq, Lebanon, Jordan and potentially Israel and the whole settlement that occurred at the end of the first world war with the collapse of the Ottoman Empire is now fundamentally under question.
REHMAnd Samer Shehata, what about Turkey? Turkey has a particularly complicated role here.
SHEHATAWell, Turkey has a very complicated role. Of course, Turkey has an immediate issue with Syrian refugees. They also know border the ISIS states and that causes all kinds of problems. Turkey has been involved in, of course, trying to support the opposition to Bashar al-Assad, but originally, for quite some time, that's meant allowing individuals, fighters, to go into Syria. And, of course, some of these people, of course, we know are ISIS and other radicals.
SHEHATANow, the Turkish situation is complicated for a number of reasons. I mean, the Turks, of course, are very concerned about and sensitive to issues of Kurdish claims for autonomy and independence because of their own Kurdish problem. And in the Turkish papers, at least, there has been some discussion, because of the number of extremists who have gone through Turkey, of sleeper cells in Turkey that could possibly to damage to Turkey if this escalates.
SHEHATAAnd, of course, as you know, the Turks had individuals who were in ISIS-control who were released earlier. So it's very complicated, I think, from the perspective of Turkey.
REHMLina Khatib, back to you. Britain is one of the countries that recently agreed to be part of the U.S. coalition in Iraq, not in Syria and part of that justification was that ISIS was a threat to British citizens. What do we know about how much of a threat it is outside the Arab region?
KHATIBISIS has an estimated 500 British citizens fighting with it. It's unknown how many other people are in the UK or Europe or the U.S. or anywhere else who are sympathetic to ISIS and who could be sleeper members, not necessarily sleeper cells. Right now, we don't know. But what we do know is that from previous experiences, whenever there has been an attack on a terrorist organization similar to ISIS as we saw with al-Qaida previously, there is the risk of retaliation by member of these kinds of terrorist organizations in places outside of the areas of attack.
KHATIBWe saw that in Yemen. We saw that in Afghanistan. We saw that in Iraq previously. So it would not be unthinkable for even an individual who is sympathetic to ISIS who is present in Europe or the U.S. to try to engage in a terrorist activity as retaliation. I don't think we can expect to see a September 11th scale attack. However, I think small scale attacks are highly likely.
REHMLina Khatib, she's director of The Carnegie Middle East Center in Beirut. She joins us from London. Short break. We'll be right back.
REHMAnd welcome back. We're talking about the ongoing crisis in Iraq, Syria and really throughout the Middle East as ISIS and other groups spread their wings to include other smaller groups involved in strife in many countries. Here in the studio Ambassador James Dobbins, Mark Mazzetti, national security correspondent for the New York Times and author of "The Way of the Knife: The CIA, A Secret Army and a War at the Ends of the Earth."
REHMSamer Shehata is on the line with us. He's professor of Middle Eastern politics at the University of Oklahoma. Lina Khatib is on the line from London. She's director of the Carnegie Middle East Center in Beirut. Ambassador Dobbins, how much is an expanded coalition airstrike strategy likely to fuel even more potential threats beyond the region?
DOBBINSWell, I think it probably does cut both ways, as you suggest. On the other hand, the fact that the coalition includes a number of Arab governments makes it look less like sort of western imperialism. There's no doubt that part of the disorder in the Middle East is a revolt against authoritarian governments. And of course the governments that are on our side are all to one degree or another authoritarian. And so that element of the unrest will not be assuaged by the fact that Arab governments are on our side.
REHMMark Mazzetti, talk about the coalition at this point. How many countries are really with us? The administration has been saying there are 62 including the European union and the Arab League.
MAZZETTIRight. There's been different numbers put out there somewhere 50 or 60. And, as with all of these coalitions it's always important to sort of dig into what different people are doing and how much of it is symbolic and how much of it is real. Certainly as the ambassador said, you have Arab countries who are pledging their support who not only are pledging their support but who actually participated in some of the airstrikes last week in Syria. And which shows again, as the ambassador said, it's not just more of a western imperialism western military action as the Iraq war appeared.
MAZZETTINow, it was quite interesting watching some of these debates. For instance, in Britain last week, watching the debate in parliament about whether to engage in this action whether to join the action. And, as you said, it was ultimately -- they agreed to go to the war in Iraq but not in Syria. You know, to some degree as an American, you want to see more of that in the U.S. congress that you saw in Britain. But it's -- I mean, certainly there's a pretty wide coalition that's not going to stop the groups like Nusra, groups like ISIS, to paint rhetorically with propaganda that this is another American-led invasion of the Middle East.
REHMBut Ambassador Dobbins, you say that among all the Arab countries who've already committed, each is making only a conditional commitment because each, as you've already said, has a different set of issues and alliances.
DOBBINSI think they're heavily committed to the current conflict but as I suggested, to the degree that ISIS begins to recede, to the degree we begin to have success in pushing them back, their attention is going to drift to some of these other conflicts. And the coalition will begin to become less firm. So I think we have to understand that it's the urgency of the ISIS threat. It's the success that ISIS has had, the unanticipated success.
DOBBINSAnd the United States is not the only one who failed to anticipate their success or perhaps more accurately failed to anticipate the complete collapse of the Iraqi army and the weakness of the Kurdish forces that led to their success. That's the impulse for this current degree of solidarity.
REHMSo Samer Shehata, how much success can we anticipate having pushing them back through airstrikes alone?
SHEHATANot enough. There has been so much talk, of course, about the insufficiency of airstrikes and the necessity of ground troops. Well, that's certainly probably the case. You can only do so much from the air. But more profoundly and more importantly no solution that is solely military will be sufficient to deal with these issues because underlying ISIS are political problems, political disintegration in Iraq and in Syria. And unless those two polities are put together again in a way that provides opportunities for Iraqi Sunnis that somehow puts together Syria in a way that is not chaos and industrial killing and so on, there will be no long-term solution to this.
SHEHATAAnd this gets back to something that Lina said a moment ago about the decision not to engage being, you know, one of the causes for this. I mean, when one thinks -- that was of course the unintended consequences of not engaging earlier in Syria, which I think was disastrous. But of course the unintended consequences of the 2003 Iraq war also led to this and so on. So I think we have to be conscious of how, you know, the U.S. and other countries have contributed to the current situation.
REHMLina Khatib, here's an email from Travis who says, "It appears the real moderates in Syria actually support the regime of Assad including most Christians and some Sunnis. How can we back any rebels and train them in of all places Saudi Arabia?
KHATIBIt is not true that most moderates in Syria back the regime. Syria is divided amongst those who back the regime and those who don't, yes. However, the backers of the regime also do so because of fear and because they don't see that there is a viable alternative to the regime. The Christians, for instance, only back the regime because the regime has promised to protect them. But now they are -- and even the Alawite community, which the Syrian president comes from, is becoming quite fed up with the situation in Syria.
KHATIBMost moderates in Syria are actually against the Syrian regime. The problem is the Syrian opposition has not been adequately supported. From the very beginning it has been divided and fragmented. And that's not surprising because Syria has not been a country with a history of political action outside of the umbrella of the regime because it's a dictatorship. So the Syrian opposition was not mature politically.
KHATIBBut when the west kind of decided to support it, it did not do so to the degree that would have allowed it to become a viable alternative to the Assad regime. And therefore it did not have the backing of Syria's moderates as much as it could have. So there was a really big lost political opportunity here.
REHMSo Ambassador Dobbins, what are the prospects for Syria? What do you see five years from now?
DOBBINSWell, I think the Nusra -- I think the Islamic State is probably somewhat fragile. And the combination of attacks on the ground by Iraqi forces. Kurdish forces and even Syrian government forces is probably going to beat them back significantly when combined with American airpower and the larger coalition. I think that that could well lead to their removal from Iraq. And Iraq has a new government which we should give some chance to see whether it can govern in a more equitable fashion than its predecessor.
DOBBINSIn Syria, the administration appears to have a two-step strategy. First, you defeat the Islamic State, Nusra and the other extremists. And then you build up a moderate anti-Assad force which can at least force a negotiated solution which removes Assad and brings together elements of the current Assad regime with elements of the moderate, if you will, opposition that the U.S. and others will be backing in a new government. I think that's the objective and that's where the administration would like to see Syria five years from now. It's going to be very difficult to reach that point.
REHMVery difficult, Samer Shehata?
SHEHATAWell, I think difficult with the limited commitment that we've seen so far from the administration and from other western countries. But the ambassador is completely correct that although it might seem stomach-turning for us, the idea of dealing with the Assad regime, I think that dealing with the Assad regime to find some kind of a way forward that'll mean, you know, dealing with people who we find quite, you know, horrific, not to support the regime but to find some kind of a way forward that leads to the reduction of violence, not only in Syria but also control basic state functioning and having some governing capacity over the entire country because the lack of that, that kind of political vacuum is one of the things that has led to ISIS and groups like ISIS.
REHMMark Mazzetti, do you see any indication from this administration of moving in that direction?
MAZZETTIWell, certainly you see an indication that they -- there's some commonality of interest right now where the United State and the Syrian regime certainly have the interest of beating back ISIS as the ambassador talked about the training of the rebels. You know, it is hard to see though five years from now, as you point out, that this is a rebel force that puts enough pressure on Assad that he would feel the need to step down, that there would be some kind of negotiated settlement.
MAZZETTIBecause recall that, you know, Assad still has strong backers in Russia, in Iran. And Assad is right now quite pleased with this broad international coalition going after his primary enemy. So the administration is, you can see, moving in the direction of, at the very least, not to be working with Assad but there's certainly some interests that have aligned here. And it's one of the reasons why you see the Russians so, you know, vigorously backing the anti-ISIS coalition in part because it takes pressure off the removal of Assad.
REHMTo what extent is Russia backing the anti-ISIS group, Ambassador Dobbins?
DOBBINSWell, I think Russia backs the efforts against ISIS and Iran does so even more strongly and more effectively. In fact, they stepped in in Iraq before we did to defend some of the areas against ISIS. I think if you're looking again at the five-year horizon, it's not impossible that the U.S., Russia Iran could oversee a negotiation which led to a régime in Syria that combined elements of the opposition and the existing government which moved Assad aside and which stabilized the country, once the three of them along with the rest of the world had sufficiently beaten back the extremists. That at least is really the only hope for stabilizing Syria unless removing the grounds for the emergence of these extremist groups.
REHMAmbassador James Dobbins. He's senior fellow at the RAND Corporation. And you're listening to "The Diane Rehm Show." It's time to open the phones, 800-433-8850. First to Mark in Raleigh, N.C. Hi there, you're on the air.
MARKGood morning, Diane. Thanks for taking my call.
MARKYou know, I think first that U.S. foreign policy is completely adrift, especially regarding the Middle East. For the administration to come out now and cast a shadow for the intel community as if, you know, everyone was caught off guard by ISIS I think is disingenuous and a complete misdirection. I'm sure the National Security Council was well aware of what was going on on the ground and there were choices made not to engage. I think we made some mistakes by withdrawing forces out of Iraq too soon and being too late to address what's going on in Syria.
MAZZETTIThere's no question that President Obama, over the last couple of years, not only privately but very publicly, was skeptical of any good reason to get involved in Syria. He said it over and over again that this was not a war the United States should get involved in, not a war they could do anything effective in. And even as recently as August, he gave an interview where he dismissed the Syrian rebels as, you know, a coalition of doctors and pharmacists who could never sort of fight Assad.
MAZZETTISo the question of why now and why are we getting involved, because there has been this, you know, renewed interest in extremism and worry about a threat. But there's no question that the Syrian war has raged on. And up until very recently the Obama Administration, President Obama himself has been content to stay out of it fearing that there's nothing the United States could do.
REHMAnd surely the beheadings have had some spur, Ambassador Dobbins.
DOBBINSWell, I think there are enough mistakes to go around. I think it's clearly in retrospect, a mistake to invade Iraq in 2003. It was a mistake to leave in 2011. And that's a mistake that Obama and President Bush both share responsibility for because it was Bush who signed an agreement promising to leave in 2011.
DOBBINSIt was a mistake not to intervene in Syria before the extremists got a foothold when an American intervention might well have swung the tide for a more moderate regime under the reformers. And so there have been a lot of opportunities amidst. I don't think there's any doubt however that the U.S., the intelligence community, the NSC and everybody else were surprised by the collapse of the Iraqi army.
REHMAll right. To Pete in Inverness, Fla. You're on the air.
PETEThank you. This is a privilege. The administration is gathering a coalition and by definition some of the support could be considered token support for our effort. But yet ISIS and these other terrorist groups have vowed to strike back at members of the coalition. So in a sense aren't these smaller countries that are just making these kind of paper commitments, aren't they risking a serious reprisal from these terrorists at a very high risk of a reprisal with very little to gain? And I'd like to hear what the panel says. Thank you very much.
REHMThank you. And Samer, do you want to respond?
SHEHATAYes. I think certainly the caller has a point but some countries, you know, have a greater risk than others certainly. And the thing is also that, as was mentioned, ISIS and what ISIS stands for goes against the state structure in the region. And therefore all of the nations, if you can imagine, from Iran to Turkey to Saudi Arabia and so on, feel that ISIS is a challenge. But with regard to the specifics, possibly more of a danger for Britain than Qatar, for example.
REHMSamer Shehata of the University of Oklahoma. More of your questions, comments when we come back. Stay with us.
REHMAnd welcome back, as we talk about the ongoing crisis in the Middle East, not only ISIS but al-Nusra and other groups as well. Here's an email from Marty. He says the Arab League nations need to lead in the war against ISIS. They need to put their boots on the ground. Ambassador Dobbins, what do you think?
DOBBINSWell, the only boots on the ground at the moment are Arab -- Iraqi and Syrian.
REHMBut isn't that somewhat misleading? We do have advisors on the ground. How many, Mark?
MAZZETTIThere's now several hundred American military advisors in Syria -- sorry, in Iraq, not in Syria.
REHMAnd isn't that -- couldn't that be the beginning of so-called mission creep?
DOBBINSWell, I think, you know, it really depends on what your definition is of boots on the ground. Are you talking about infantry that are taking and holding territory and engaging in firefights? Are you talking about forward air-controllers who are simply pinpointing targets? Are you talking about advisors who are going out with the people they're advising? Those are the kinds of missions that can get people killed and probably will get people killed, but in very small numbers. Because they'll only be small numbers and because they, themselves, won't be leading the charge, taking houses, you know, rushing into firefights.
DOBBINSI think that what the president is saying when he's saying no boots on the ground is, we're not deploying infantry whose job it is to take and hold territory.
REHMDo you believe that that, in the end, will remain so?
DOBBINSI think it's probable. And I think that the Arab states and regional states, including Turkey, can provide that kind of capability.
MAZZETTII think it's interesting. What you saw a couple weeks ago was, it seemed a little bit of a disconnect between the White House and military advisors about what exactly boots on the ground meant and the role of combat. And President Bush in his -- sorry, President Obama, in his speech to the nation said, no Americans in a combat role. But the question is, as the Ambassador points out, what exactly is combat? If you have advisors on the ground? If you have been calling in airstrikes? If they're in an urban environment? Certainly they're at risk of being killed.
MAZZETTIAnd I think what President Obama wanted to do was raise this idea that Americans are going to be in Iraq but there's not going to be body bags coming back. It's not going to be like the last time. But at the same time, it doesn't mean they're not under risk and it doesn't mean that Americans won't -- could not be killed.
REHMLina Khatib, here's an email from Chris who says, "I don't understand why we cannot cut off ISIS funding. How are they able to sell oil? Who is buying it? Can't the U.S. put sanctions on countries helping to fund ISIL?"
KHATIBThe sources of funding are varied. They range from ransoms -- because ISIS has kidnapped several mainly Western hostages and exchanged them for millions in dollars in ransoms -- to imposing taxation on the local population, to bank raids, to of course the sale of oil. Now a key thing here, which should always be emphasized, the Assad regime buys oil from ISIS. So from the very beginning, the Assad regime contributed to letting ISIS grow. Because ISIS was convenient for the regime in fighting the Syrian opposition. In a way, it was doing the dirty work on the regime's behalf in an indirect way.
KHATIBSo Assad turned a blind eye to ISIS and bought oil from ISIS, because he thought this would be a convenient way to get rid of the opposition. And then later on he would be able to eradicate ISIS. The situation now is that ISIS has grown too strong for the Assad regime and even the West to be able to eradicate swiftly. The regime continues to buy oil from ISIS regardless. Oil is being smuggled across the border to Turkey to be sold on the black market. And Turkey has finally started paying attention to this problem. Because Turkey, in the beginning, did not distinguish between ISIS and other Syrian rebel groups, thinking that this would be a good way to get rid of the Assad regime and consequently let this black market happen.
KHATIBSo I think today there is a wake-up call that is being seen visibly in Turkey about this. But also for us, when we think about working with the Assad regime to eradicate ISIS, we have to bear in mind that this will not work because Assad has been capable of activating similar cells and will likely continue to do so if this is a way for him to guarantee staying in power and to continue to present a terrorist problem to the world while presenting himself as the solution to this.
REHMAll right. Let's go to Pat in Manhattan, N.Y. You're on the air.
PATYes, ma'am. Hello. Good morning, y'all.
REHMHi. Go right ahead, sir.
PATYes, ma'am. I was wondering, who would be a viable alternative if Assad was taken away? Who would we put in charge afterwards?
REHMWhat would happen, Samer, if al-Assad were to fall?
SHEHATAWell, I mean, this is another major fear, right? One has to be careful what one wishes for. And I think this gets to the point that the Ambassador and others have raised about the kind of transition that one would like to see in Syria. I think no one would like to see the disintegration of the regime and chaos spreading throughout the country in an ungovernable area where 100 ISISs and other groups could emerge. So that's one possibility, of course, with the collapse of the Assad regime. And no one, I think, would feel that that would be, you know, an ideal situation obviously.
SHEHATAAnd that's why changing the dynamics of the Assad regime's calculations, so that they see that a negotiated solution with Assad's removal from power, but nevertheless guarantees for the Alawi, Christian and other communities, that is the best solution forward. And many states, including the United States, have talked about that kind of a transition. A transition that leads to a state with full rights for all religious minorities. And not a state that sees, for example, score settling against the Alawi population. So that's why a transition is crucial in an orderly manner as opposed to, you know, what would result from simply chaos.
REHMAnd here's an email from Dale who says, "The Middle East, as it is now composed, is inherently unstable. ISIS is a symptom. We need a new map. We need to find a way to accommodate Iran somehow and reconfigure the whole region. The U.S. position on this doesn't even begin to address this." Ambassador Dobbins.
DOBBINSWell, I think there's two things there. One is changing the nature of our relationship with Iran. And the other is the question of whether we draw boundaries in the region. Iran doesn't have any territorial claims on anybody. So rearranging our relationship with Iran doesn't have anything to do with changing the map. It has to do with overcoming the differences over its nuclear program and beginning to cooperate on the issues where our interests are largely -- coincide, which includes both...
REHMAnd do you see out -- do you see that happening?
DOBBINSI think there's a chance that it'll happen. There's a chance that it might happen in the next week or two. There is a deadline in November for the conclusion of these negotiations on the nuclear. I wouldn't bet a lot of money on it. But both sides, I think, would like to conclude the negotiations. They are still quite divided however. And if we can, then our largely coincident interests in both Afghanistan and Iraq can come to the fore and there's a chance of some cooperation. On terms of the map, first of all, the Middle East is highly unstable. It hasn't always been. It's been one of the most stable regions in the world for most of the last 100 years.
DOBBINSBut it has become highly unstable. I don't know that redrawing the map will solve that. First of all, it would lead to massive population transfers, ethnic cleansing, even genocide, as populations were moved back and forth. It's not clear what kind of change in the map would actually stabilize the region as opposed to leading to even more conflict. But clearly there does have to be solutions in the countries that are most divided, which allows adequate autonomy and a feeling of safety for the minority populations -- the Kurds, the Christians, the Alawites and others.
REHMSamer, you're shaking your head.
SHEHATAWell, the Middle East has not been stable over the last decades. There was a kind of false stability, because regimes lasted a long time, or seemingly a long time. But that false stability came from authoritarianism. And we know now -- before 2011, that authoritarianism, the lack of the rule of law, human rights violations -- these kinds of things do not lead to stability. And so the solution is not redrawing the map, maybe with the exception of the Palestinian case, so the state can come into existence. The solution is democratic regimes, citizenship, the rule of law, and employment and jobs and opportunities for people, so that they do not then resort to violence and extremism. That's the solution to stability.
REHMAnd Lina Khatib, you argue that a military strategy without a political strategy to go with it is doomed. Is that really possible?
KHATIBIt is possible but very difficult to implement. As we have been discussing, the Syrian opposition is very weak. However, there is light at the end of the tunnel. And that light does not lie with the Syrian domestic contacts as much as it does in the regional contacts. And by this I mean, Saudi Arabia and Iran. Yes, Iran has been a key backer of the Assad regime. However, Iran is now starting to think long term about its own interests. Saudi Arabia, which had for, you know, basically throughout its existence, wished Iran away, because Iran is a key rival for Saudi Arabia in the Middle East.
KHATIBNow, Saudi Arabia is beginning to recognize that it has to be pragmatic and acknowledge that Iran also has regional interests in the Middle East and before a result of this beginning of a compromise in Iraq, where both Saudi Arabia and Iran agreed that the current government in Iraq is one that they would be happy to live with. So if Iran and Saudi Arabia can agree on a political solution for Syria that would involve a compromise to create a transitional government that retains certain members of the current regime who are open to change as well as members of the Syrian opposition. This way, we can have a solution that would stabilize Syria further down the line.
KHATIBAnd I think this is the track that we should be working towards. And I think the Russians are also onboard with this, as they have indicated in private conversations, whereby they said that they are not wedded to Assad himself, but would accept, you know, an alternative as long as it maintained their interests.
REHMLina Khatib, director of the Carnegie Middle East Center in Beirut. And you're listening to "The Diane Rehm Show." We have an email from Shelly, who says, "The American public needs to be informed that we are at war. In fact, it is probably the beginning of World War III. These are not conflicts. Real people are dying. After the elections -- when, not if, the Republicans take both houses, we will have the ubiquitous boots on the ground. Mark Mazzetti, are we more likely to have U.S. boots on the ground if, in fact, Republicans take over both houses?
MAZZETTIWell, ultimately the president is going to be the arbiter of this. And he's going to be in office for another two years. And he has made this stance that there's not going to be boots on the ground, whatever anyone's definition is of boots on the ground. I think that the pressure will certainly escalate if the Republicans take over. I think they will be questioning whether the -- this air campaign, in and of itself, is having any impact.
MAZZETTIBut the caller's first point about the American public's first need to, you know, right to know all this. I'm all for the public's needing to know, especially on these issues of war and peace. This is war. Certainly the United States is now at war in Syria. They're back at war in Iraq. However, whatever euphemisms are used about counterterrorism operations or things like that, this is war and it will have consequences. And I do think that there needs to be more public debate over the reasons for it, as well as the threats that underpin the justification for war.
REHMSamer, would you agree that this is the start of World War III?
SHEHATANo. I wouldn't go that far really. I think that, as Mark has said, this is war and certainly there needs to be a public discussion of this. And it's also going to not end in six months or seven months or so on. But I don't think this is the beginning of World War III.
DOBBINSNo. It's certainly not a war that's going to spread beyond the Middle East. And it's probably not going to spread beyond Syria and Iraq. So I think that's, you know, that's a wild overstatement to suggest it's World War III.
REHMLima Khatib, how do you see it?
KHATIBAgain, I agree. No, this is not the start of World War III. But this is the start of a protracted conflict that will involve several regions in the world -- namely, the U.S. Europe and the Middle East itself. And we should not underestimate the global impact of what we are witnessing today and equally claim responsibility for why we are here today and reflect on the political mistakes that seem to be being repeated again and again, mainly by U.S. administrations regarding engaging in the Middle East.
REHMMark, do you think that Congress is likely to come back and debate this issue?
MAZZETTIThey will debate it. Whether they'll come back before the election, it seems unlikely. And how vigorous the debate will be is always a good question when it comes to Congress. But I mean, the president, you know, made his point that, I've got the authority to do this. And it's all a question of whether you, the Congress, want to tell me that I have the authority.
REHMMark Mazzetti of The New York Times. He's author of "The Way of the Knife: The CIA, a Secret Army, and a War at the Ends of the Earth." Ambassador James Dobbins of the RAND Corporation, Samer Shehata of the University of Oklahoma, and Lina Khatib, director of the Carnegie Middle East Center in Beirut. Thank you all so much.
REHMAnd thanks for listening, all. I'm Diane Rehm.
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