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Russia’s military buildup in Syria is causing serious concern in the U.S. Reports that Russia might be coordinating with Iran to help prop up Syrian President Bashar al-Assad are also troubling U.S. officials. Israel worries that advanced Russian weapons could wind up in the wrong hands, possibly those of Hezbollah fighters long in conflict with Israel. Europe is struggling to deal with a massive tide of refugees, many of them fleeing Syria’s civil war and the brutality of Islamic militants. We look at Russia’s actions in Syria and their implications for the U.S., Europe, the Middle East and the fight against ISIS.
- James Kitfield Contributing editor, National Journal, and senior fellow at the Center for the Study of the Presidency and Congress.
- Julia Ioffe Contributing writer for The New York Times magazine and columnist for Foreign Policy; former senior editor, The New Republic.
- Nathan Guttman Washington correspondent, Channel 1 Israeli News and The Forward.
MS. DIANE REHMThanks for joining us. I'm Diane Rehm. More than 200,000 people have died in Syria since their civil war began four and a half years ago. Some 4 million Syrians have fled, contributing to the refugee crisis in Europe. Now, Russia is building up its military presence in Syria as the regime of Russian ally President Assad falters.
MS. DIANE REHMJoining me to talk about Russia's actions in Syria, James Kitfield of National Journal and the Center for the Study of the Presidency and Congress, Julia Ioffe of Foreign Policy and the New York Times magazine and Nathan Guttman of Channel 1 Israeli News and The Forward. I welcome your questions, comments. Join us on 800-433-8850. Send us an email to email@example.com. Follow us on Facebook or send us a tweet.
MS. DIANE REHMAnd thank you all for being here.
MR. JAMES KITFIELDGood to be here.
MR. NATHAN GUTTMANThank you.
MS. JULIA IOFFEThanks for having us.
REHMJames Kitfield, Russia's actions in Syria, they've been described as major escalation. What's going on?
KITFIELDWell, and it is an escalation 'cause they've been backing Assad ever since this war started four years ago, but it's been pretty much in the background with some equipment, trainers, et cetera. In recent weeks, we've seen major deployment of at least a squadron of advanced fighter jets along with drones for targeting.
REHMHow many in a squadron?
KITFIELD28 jets, in this case. I'm not exactly sure how many drones, but the drones will be used to find the targets and the jets will attack them. Also, some armor. I think that's mainly, at this point, to protect the base where all these jets are located. But a major escalation and I think it's -- I think in your intro you said it just right. Assad's forces have been losing ground in a lot of places.
KITFIELDHis army is, by all accounts, pretty tired at this point after four years of this terrible conflict and, you know, Russia doesn’t want to let its client, in this case, falter to it's stepped in in trying to prop them up.-
REHMAnd Julia Ioffe, how badly does Assad need Russia's help at this point?
IOFFEPretty badly, I would say. He controls about 20 percent of Syrian territory if not less. You know, a lot of the refugees that we hear about fleeing to Europe and elsewhere are, in part, fleeing the draft. You know, he's running out of people to fight his battles for him. He's relying increasingly on Hezbollah, the Lebanese militia, on the Alawite militias. So he does need Iranian and Russian help even more to stay in power.
REHMAnd what about Hezbollah, Nathan? I think Israel is pretty worried about what's going on there.
GUTTMANWell, of course, it's interesting. There were reports out today that Hezbollah, actually, may downsize its operation in Syria. These reports are unconfirmed so far, but it does seem that Hezbollah is also taking a hit in Syria and it is reaching a point where it needs to calculate how much -- how deeper can it get invested in Syria while its main goal remains, of course, in Lebanon.
GUTTMANSo it's interesting to see the role they're playing there. But clearly, one of the concerns for the region and especially for Israel is that Hezbollah will, in a way, become stronger, thanks to this Russian intervention now and eventually could use its force against Israel.
KITFIELDWell, I mean, if there is a transfer of weapons. I mean, Israel has, a number of times, bombed convoys that were from Iran supplying them with these advanced missiles that they've had in recent years and have fought Israel to, if not a standstill, at least, you know, that's their sort of narrative on this. You know, there's a lot of weapons washing around Syria right now and Russia's pouring more advanced weaponry in there.
KITFIELDIf that were to fall in the hands of Hezbollah, sure, Israel would have a very good reason to be concerned about that.
REHMSo Julia, what about the idea that Russia and Iran are coordinating here to keep Assad in power?
IOFFEI don't think that's surprising. They've both been backers of Assad almost from the beginning. They've put their bets on that particular horse and if they want to maintain their influence in the region, they have to sponsor him almost to the end so that they can have a say in who comes after him, if somebody -- I mean, if there is a political solution and he goes so that they can have a say in who comes next.
REHMAnd what is Iran saying about all this, Nathan?
GUTTMANWell, Iran, as Julia mentioned, has its own interest here. They would like to see the Assad regime survive or at least whatever comes after that Assad regime it be as friendly as possible to the Iranian interests in the region. So definitely if Tehran is looking at this situation, they can be pleased by the fact that the Russians are stepping up their involvement in Syria because it could help them at least in the short run of insuring that Assad survives or enters this final stage of some kind of a resolution of the conflict with a stronger hand.
GUTTMANOf course, down the road, the Russian and the Iranian interests won't necessarily be the same, but right now, they're sharing the same interests.
REHMThis really puts the U.S. in a very strange position. I mean, you've got U.S. coming up with this agreement with Iran on nuclear weapons and yet, here is Iran, in partnership, if I can go that far, with Russia to prop up Assad and the U.S. has been fighting to bring Assad down. It's a very confusing situation.
KITFIELDIt's an absolute witch's brew and it has been for a while and everyone's backing different proxies, many of whom are at cross purposes. You know, I will say this. This is a very dangerous moment because there is a sense -- and I was just on a trip overseas with chairman of the joint chiefs, Martin Dempsey. There's a sense there's an inflection point here and it has to do with this refugee crisis, which is really hitting Europe where it hurts 'cause they have this humanitarian sort of instinct, yet they're being overrun by refugees from this.
KITFIELDAnd there's a sense that, you know, Russia, certainly what it's doing in the Ukraine and it's concerned all of our eastern allies in NATO and this very Cold War feel in eastern Europe now reminded me very much of the Cold War. You know, they want deterrents. They want containment, things you haven't heard about in a while from Russia. So now you have Russia entering a combat zone where we are flying hundreds of mission and they're going to start flying their own missions.
KITFIELDIsrael is flying in that same airspace to bomb so, you know, for 50 years of Cold War, we never put our own forces in proximity to Russian forces in a combat place because the two nuclear powers of the world didn't want to get drawn into an escalating fight. So now, we're in a very close combat area and we're talking to them about deconflicting, but I mean, this is very dangerous to have two nuclear powers on the opposite sides of a proxy war where their own forces, not proxy forces, U.S. jets, Russian jets flying in the same airspace and not sure if they really have the same targets in mind.
KITFIELDWe say we're fighting ISIS. They say they're fighting the terrorists, but they include the rebels that we support in that definition. So it's a very, very dangerous situation.
IOFFEAt the same time, I don't think it -- in some ways, it gives America or the Obama administration, rather, the out it's always seemed to crave. I mean, the missions we're flying in Syria were doing, you know, the rebels we're training, the Obama administration is doing a kind of holding its nose. They're doing kind of the bare minimum to answer critics at home and critics in the region, but not really doing enough to tip the scales.
IOFFESo I think the more that -- in some ways, I think it's a kind of a welcome development for the Obama administration wanting to get out of this region. When you have Russia stepping in, Israel stepping in, it does kind of open the door for the U.S. to pull out a little bit more.
REHMDo you agree?
GUTTMANWell, to a certain extent, I think we have to make the difference here, again, between the short term and the long term. And definitely, in the short term, you can envision this kind of cooperation even if it's not spelled out as cooperation between the Americans and the Russians because everyone right now wants to fight ISIS. That's the main goal right now.
GUTTMANAnd if the Russians keep to that mission right now, it could help the U.S. in the short term. However, in the long term, of course, what America will have to deal with is a Russian presence in Syria, which means that whatever the final resolution is, Russia will be part of shaping that resolution and that is definitely not in the U.S. interest.
IOFFEOne thing I wanted to say about the Russian presence in Syria, we're talking a lot about them propping up the Assad regime, but they're also feeding the other side of the conflict. There was a great piece of investigative reporting that came out in Novaya Gazeta, an opposition Russian newspaper this summer, detailing how the FSB is helping fighters from the Muslim north caucuses, it's an area in southern Russia that has long been fraught with an Islamist insurgency, it's helping -- I mean, handing out passports, helping these guys get on a place 'cause they're itching to fight.
IOFFEThey're itching to fight for an Islamist state and they're saying, great, just don't do that here. They help them get out of the country, then immediately open a criminal case to prevent them from coming back. And by official Russian counts, nearly 2,000 Russian citizens are fighting with ISIS and other Islamist groups in Syria. So they're playing a really crafty...
REHMJames, that sounds even more confusing than I thought.
KITFIELDPutin Machiavellian, who would've guessed it.
KITFIELDYou know, I would disagree with Julia on just one point. You know, I talk to a lot of senior military officers, including our chairman of the joint chiefs, including the Supreme Allied Commander of NATO. No one thinks this is a good development. No one thinks this is going to be an excuse for us to pull out of Syria. In fact, if you look at The Post today, we're looking to sort of ramp up because we think we may have some proxies on the ground that are worth sort of fighting as their airpower.
KITFIELDSo it's complicated, but I don't see us sort of ratcheting back and letting Russia take the stage.
REHMJames Kitfield of National Journal, Julia Ioffe of Foreign Policy, Nathan Guttman of Israeli News. Stay with us.
REHMAnd welcome back, as we talk about Russia, questions about its escalation of forces in Syria, it's efforts to prop up President al-Assad and Iran's entering into that fray with Russia as well. Here's an email from Jason. Talk about Machiavellian, he says, is there any evidence that the U.S. is coordinating with Russia or sharing intelligence regarding ISIS targets in Syria? Nathan.
GUTTMANWell we know that there were conversations between the secretaries of state and secretaries of defense regarding this new Russian presence in Syria. But these were described mainly as deconflicting -- making sure that each side knows the boundaries that American planes don't enter any kind of conflict with the Russian fighter jets or air defense systems. So on that level, there is coordination. I did not see anything to indicate that they're actually coordinating in terms of choosing targets on the ground or sharing intelligence about ISIS. Maybe that will happen further down the road, but I don't think we're there right now.
REHMAll it takes is one accident, if you will.
GUTTMANOf course. And the more fighter jets you have there in the region...
GUTTMAN...which is already complicated, the more likely it is for some kind of mistake or accident to happen.
KITFIELDWell, I mean, there's already deconfliction and tacit coordination between us and the Assad regime to a certain degree. I mean, Assad's got an air defense system. We're flying all around his territory. He's not shooting missiles at us. That's not an accident. That's an -- we've told him, you know, we're after ISIS in this fight right now. You leave this area, allow -- and don't have any of your air defenses, you know, operate beyond this coordinate.
REHMSo are we now supporting Assad?
KITFIELDNo. What we're -- it's a witch's brew, like I said. We, you know, our main priority is ISIS. It's a symptom. You know? Assad is the cause, it's a symptom. But it's a symptom that we've decided after almost took over Iraq, that we had to act against. So we're acting primarily against ISIS. But some of the groups that we're supporting have a main goal -- including our NATO ally, Turkey -- of seeing Assad go.
KITFIELDLet me just give you one scenario here that, you know, this could either be a very negative thing, what Russia's doing, which I think -- because if it props up Assad and prolongs this war, you'll see more and more of these refugees. It's just going -- everything that's happened that's been bad will just get a lot worse. You know, at some point, it may become clear to the Russians that they've backed a loser here and that they are really coming in to sort of leverage this guy as a chit and that they could help ease his -- this is clearly what Kerry was intimating when he, over the weekend, had discussions with the Russians and said, you know, we're very flexible on our timetable, but Assad's still got to go.
KITFIELDIf Russia can help make that happen and segue into whatever comes after Assad. I mean, there's a possibility here that, I think, that that could be helpful, actually.
REHMJulia, what are Russia's motives in trying to move in here?
IOFFEI was going to say, what James said about Assad being a chit, I think, is absolutely right. It's not about Assad. It's about Russian influence in the region and in the world. Putin has long maintained that he is against a unipolar world, a post-Cold-War world where only -- there's only one superpower, the U.S. He has tried to make Russian foreign policy a counterweight to American foreign policy. And he has really stepped that up in his third presidential term, which began in 2012. So this is about making Russia an important player -- an adult at the adult's table, not just a spoiler but somebody you have to do business with, somebody you have to approach that has to be part of the solution.
REHMTo what extent is he trying to distract from what Russia is doing in Ukraine?
IOFFEI don't think he's trying to distract from it. I think it's part of the same game. It's about projecting Russia's influence on the world stage and saying that Russia is a strong power, it's one to be reckoned with, it's one to be afraid of, and that you can't do that much to stop. That you have to -- that it's not just a weak vestige or, you know, vestigial limb of the Soviet Union.
GUTTMANIt's also interesting to see this in how this whole conflict is being viewed from the Middle East. There is this perception out there that the Obama administration is weak, that it's reluctance to use military force has reached a point in which everyone in the area already knows that there is no way in the world that Obama will send troops. And on the other hand, you have the Russians just doing it on the ground, while the U.S. is spending tens of millions of dollars and years in training five Syrian fighters to enter back. Putin is just sending forces there. Within a week -- he started with four planes, now he already has 28 planes on the ground.
GUTTMANThis really -- the optics of this is very troubling for those in the Middle East who are looking at the Obama administration.
REHMHow many planes does the U.S. have in that region?
KITFIELDA lot more than 28 Russians. And we have aircraft carriers -- that, alone, is probably 80. And we have an airbase in Qatar. So, and now we also have a base in Kuwait. Now, whether we're flying aircraft from that, I'm not 100 percent sure. You know, I think that -- Russia has a naval base and has had in Tartus for a long time. So this is -- Syria has always been its last sort of toe-hold in the Middle East. I don't think that we really care a lot about that. They're not -- it's not like the Russian fleet, you know, going to the Middle East or something that sends shudders through the Sixth Fleet. So, you know, if that's what they're after -- if they're after some sort of residual influence where it keeps a military base there, I mean, I think we can talk turkey.
KITFIELDWatch what happens with the sanctions about Ukraine though. Because if the deal is that Russia helped ease Assad, they're want a quid pro quo for that. They're going to want the sanctions lifted that were put in place because of what they've been doing in Ukraine. And that, you know, that would freak out our Eastern NATO allies. So there is a lot of moving parts to this chess game. But Russia definitely has moved a piece forward and we've got to figure out what that means.
IOFFEWell there are some people in the State Department who believe that the reason that Russia cooperated on the Iran deal was so that we basically write off Crimea. That we -- that it becomes an undisputed territory, that the -- and, you know, that it's integration into Russia is a done deal and we look the other way. I think that, to some extent, what Putin is doing in the Middle East is clawing back the influence that he lost after 2003 with the fall of Saddam Hussein, in the Arab Spring, when he backed a lot of the wrong, you know, the losing side in a lot of these conflicts. This is him filling the space that the U.S. has been gradually leaving behind.
REHMAnd what about Prime Minister Netanyahu's meeting with Russian President Putin, Nathan?
GUTTMANNetanyahu went on a kind of a surprise visit -- it was announced just a couple of days before -- to Moscow for a meeting with Putin regarding the Russian presence in Syria. And a lot of it was framed as a meeting to discuss practical issues on the ground. How to deconflict. How to make sure that Israel -- with it's very limited military operations in Syria, but still it does have a military interest there -- how to make sure that it doesn't conflict with the Russians on the ground and how to make sure that Hezbollah doesn't use this opening -- this shelter given by the Russians to transfer arms through Syria into Lebanon.
REHMBut what about the current role of the Israeli forces?
GUTTMANWell Israel, at least formally, it says that it's not for or against Assad. Israel, as we know, had a fairly reasonable arrangement with Assad throughout all these years. The northern border of Israel was quiet. Assad did whatever he wanted inside Syria and that worked well. Since this war broke out, there were several very limited attacks by Israel -- about ten attacks, targeting mainly convoys taking arms from Iran through Syria into Hezbollah and Lebanon. These are mainly advanced rockets and missiles that Israel sees as a threat to its northern border. And there have been a few border skirmishes in the Golan Heights, things that Israel refers to as spillovers of the conflict, which were also very limited and constrained to this small area there.
GUTTMANSo there is a lot of concern -- security concern in Israel but not too much activity right now.
IOFFEI was going to say that one of the ways that you can really gauge what the Kremlin is trying to project is to look at Russian TV, most of which is controlled by the Kremlin. 94 percent of the Russian population gets -- uses the television as its main source of information. So last night, the television report on the main Kremlin evening newscast about Netanyahu's visit was about what a great partner Russia can be for Israel because the U.S. partnership has left it high and dry. And it said that the -- Israel's continued partnership with the U.S. has left it constantly exposed to the threat of Islamist terrorism, whereas the Russians are a far more reliable ally.
IOFFESo you're really seeing Russia move into, you know, quote, unquote, "traditional spaces" in the, U.S. spaces in the Middle East.
KITFIELDIt'd be an interesting alliance. I don't think -- as bad as the relationship is between Netanyahu and Obama, I don't think that Israel yet is willing to jump into the lap of the Russians. I think they understand that Russia has a propensity to back the losers of history. And they're doing it again in Assad. I mean, Assad is not the future. But what Russia may be -- I mean, Russia may be anticipating that Syria never gets put back together again. There's going to be a rump state in the Alawite section along the coast, where their base is, by the way, and where this new airbase is. And that, you know, we're backing Kurdish forces in the north, near the Turkish border that are probably going to be their own part of this, you know, this imploded Syria.
KITFIELDSo they may be thinking a couple of moves down the road of how they can have, you know, at least a rump, proxy ally in this region.
IOFFEBut they're also probing. They're probing to see where they can pick up...
IOFFE...the pieces that the U.S. has...
KITFIELDSure. I just don't think -- I just don't think Israel's going to be very optimistic about that.
REHMHere's what I don't understand. You have Secretary Kerry saying that the U.S. would accept a resolution to end the civil war, that allowed Assad to remain in power until free elections could be had. Is that really going to happen, Julia?
IOFFEI don't know how you would -- where in Syria would you have these elections?
REHMWell, that's what I don't get.
IOFFEIn the parts controlled by ISIS? I mean, it's not a country anymore.
GUTTMANIt's not. And the vision of having free elections is not realistic, of course. Secretary Kerry was saying, well, don't mean that he needs to leave the first day. It can be the first month. It can be the first year. But there is no practical way, right now, of holding elections.
REHMSo you've got Russia propping up Assad. You've got Kerry saying we've got to deal with ISIS or else, if ISIS stays in that region and Assad falls, you have the influence of ISIS spreading across the entire region.
KITFIELDAnd you have a third player, Europe. Europe is very, very -- Europe, I mean, I can't stress this enough, Europe is totally in disarray over this refugee crisis. But they understand where it's coming from. It's coming from Syria. So you've had recently Turkey open up its Incrilik airbase to us and also starting its own air strikes against ISIS. You've had the French and the Brits say they're going to step up their attacks against ISIS. You have the Germans, of all people, actually training and equipping and arming the Iraqi Kurds in northern Iraq. So Europe is not content either with the status quo anymore. This, you know, this is an inflection point. Whether it's for good or for ill, I'm not sure.
KITFIELDBut, really, this thing is escalating because the symptoms have become so horrible that everyone understands that the status quo is unsustainable.
REHMAnd is the danger that the U.S. will move in?
KITFIELDAs far as ground troops? I still don't see that as a real possibility. But what I do see as a real possibility is this idea of a buffer zone in northern Syria that is defended by proxy forces on the ground -- Syrian Kurds, this new Syrian-Arab coalition force they're talking about of a few thousand people. They have had some success against ISIS recently. I could see a buffer zone patrolled by U.S. aircraft and NATO aircraft, with some proxies on the ground that would be sort of a part of a new rump state.
REHMAnd you're listening to "The Diane Rehm Show." We've got lots of callers., 800-433-8850. Let's go to Tampa, Fla. Nate, you're on the air.
NATEHi. Thanks, Diane, for taking my call.
NATEJust had two questions. How does Russia -- and not trying to be sympathetic -- but how does Russia backing Assad compare to the United States backing Mubarak or the Shah in the past? One of your panelists talked about, you know, Russia just trying to get a foothold and trying to be a second superpower. And that kind of seems to make sense.
NATEAnd then the second question, another panelist had talked about it being very dangerous right now, with the two nuclear powers playing proxy wars. But how does the Cold War culture from the past compare to now? And is it really that dangerous? Is Russia really going to do something like that?
REHMTake that last question first, James.
KITFIELDWell, you know, the -- I think the Cold -- I think it is Cold-War-like, because Russia has an ideology, it's not just mucking about. Russia has an ideology and it is that it, you know, it wants it's near abroad to be basically looking to Moscow for its direction. And Russia is a very authoritarian country. It's not -- and it's not a democracy in any way, shape or form.
KITFIELDSo, you know, they were willing to gut Ukraine rather than see Ukraine spin into the European Union's sphere of influence. Now, that -- they annexed Crimea. They're gutting eastern Ukraine. And they're making their -- our allies in the Baltics very, very nervous, who now want U.S. presence as trip-wires, in case they start to do the same thing to the Baltic countries. That starts to look a lot like the Cold War at some point.
REHMAnd his first question: How is Russia backing Assad different from the U.S. backing the Shah?
GUTTMANWell, I'm guessing the question is about the moral aspect of this. And it's hard to find morality in international relations. You could just look at the cold numbers. And of course, the United States backed the Shah and his secret police and thousands of Iranian were inflicted by that. However, I don't think it really matches the atrocities of the Assad regime that we've seen in the past four-and-a-half years, including the chlorine bombs, the use of chemical weapons against its own people, starvation, attacks all that. So even though, morally, all these things are really questionable. I think that Assad stands out in terms of his war crimes.
REHMHow do you see it, Julia?
IOFFEI don't -- yeah, I agree. It's not that different. It's about, you know, your morals kind of go out the window when you're trying to play these kind of regional chess games. At the same time, you know -- getting back to what we were talking about with Kerry saying that Assad can stay, but then at the same time he says Assad must go, just maybe not right now. There's not really much coherence to the American policy on Assad and hasn't really been for the last four years. And so, to some extent, we end up -- because of this incoherence, we end up backing him and by extension the use of chlorine gas barrel bombs, et cetera.
REHMJulia Ioffe of The New York Times magazine. She's also a columnist for Foreign Policy and former senior editor for The New Republic. Short break here, more of your calls, your email, when we come back. I look forward to speaking with you.
REHMWelcome back as we talk about a very complicated world in which Russia, Iran, the United States and most especially Syria are playing very important parts. Here are two comments from listeners, one an email the other on Facebook. The first, Russia's actions in Syria vindicate President Obama's decision not to provide greater support to rebels early on because Russia and Iran were never going to let Assad fall. They have a greater interest in Assad's survival than the U.S. does in his defeat. The situation is similar to Russia's interest in Ukraine.
REHMAnd yet here on Facebook, Hazam says, Russia has entered Syria to keep the crumbling Assad regime afloat. I'm sure Russia will target the Free Syrian Army forces fighting Assad in Idlib, Aleppo, Daraa and the Guta around Damascus. Putin is sure anything he wants to do he can do in Syria without risking any consequences from the impotent Obama administration. James?
KITFIELDYou know, I think the truth actually lies in between those two. I mean, the Obama administration clearly made a couple of strategic miscalculations. The first was pulling all our troops out of Iraq and assuming Iraq would stand on its own feet. And the second was you could contain the Syrian civil war because we weren't -- and your listener is right. There is an asymmetry of interest here. The Iranians have a much stronger interest in Syria than we do. And the Russians have shown that they have a stronger interest than we do, too. They're willing to put boots on the ground in Syria. So there is an asymmetry of interest.
KITFIELDBut the -- you know, those were miscalculations because -- for one reason. If you had told anyone three years ago the Obama would be bombing in Syria and have American boots back on the ground in Iraq, that's a pretty clear sign that they mis-stepped and are now trying to contain and rescue a pretty bad situation. So we're back involved, we're back in combat, we're back with boots on the ground in Iraq, and the question is where do we go from here.
KITFIELDBut there were some miscalculations there. Another hand, it was always a problem from hell. This was always a problem from hell, and there was no easy answer.
REHMAll right, let's just take a wild guess here. Suppose Assad steps down. Then what happens? Nathan?
GUTTMANThen you have to figure out a way of either rebuilding Syria, which seems impossible right now, or chopping it up into several federations, independent states, autonomous regions.
GUTTMANRuled by whoever, an Alawite area with loyalists of Assad along the coast, a Kurd area, a Sunni area, having the country basically fall into parts, and...
REHMAnd where is ISIS in the midst of all this?
GUTTMANAll over the place, and that's exactly the problem.
IOFFEYou know, I was -- just winding back to what your -- the first listener comment you read, it's hard to -- you know, I was speaking to an administration official, who was saying if Syria looked the way Libya looks now, we'd be in great shape. But that's -- I mean, that gives you an indication of where you are, but it also gives you an indication of how difficult it would have been to sell this politically, to sell any kind of action in Syria politically because it's hard to prove a counter-factional, right. You know, had we not enforced a no-fly zone, had we not done this and that, we would have had hundreds of thousands of refugees pouring out of there, a satanic death cult controlling big swaths of the Middle East.
IOFFEIt's hard to predict and sell that. You can't sell a counter-factual politically.
KITFIELDThe only point I would make is I don't think ISIS ends up ruling large swaths of territory.
KITFIELDNo, I do not.
KITFIELDBecause I've said all along, we can -- we can live with a Middle East where the Sunni, Sunnistan breaks away from the Shiitestan and breaks away from Kurdistan. That's probably more likely to happen than not. I don't see -- if that doesn't happen, it would mean Iraq and Syria get put back together again. It's kind of hard to see. But we cannot live with a country that is ruled by the likes of ISIS because they will come for us, they are expansionists, they are genocidal, and they are virulently anti-Western, and believe me, they will find a way to provoke us.
KITFIELDI do not see that happening. We know their like. We've dealt with al-Qaeda. They're al-Qaeda 3.0. If they are ruling large swaths of territory, we'll be fighting them.
REHMAll right, let's go to Conrad in East Lansing, Michigan. You're on the air. Go right ahead.
CONRADThanks, Diane. Perhaps my question has already been partially answered, but it seems to me that Assad bought some forbearance from the United States by giving us the chemical weapons, frankly the concession that I don't think President Obama is given enough credit for, given the prospect of chemical weapons falling into ISIS' hands as an alternative. But now his actions with his population are now destabilizing substantial portions of Europe. What bad things would happen if the Obama administration was to simply say time's up, Assad, and start attacking him and command and control structures directly?
GUTTMANWell, it's not a question of political will here in the United States. Can you actually muster the public support into a major ground campaign to ouster Assad? And, you know, it hasn't been so long since the United States was involved in two major military operations in the Middle East or in the broader Middle East. So it's hard to see that happening politically, and it's hard to see a successful campaign to topple Assad without having troops on the ground.
REHMLet's go to Upper Marlborough, Maryland. Let's see where he is. Samuel, you're on the air.
SAMUEL…Diane, good morning. How you guys doing?
SAMUELI don't see how nobody in the panel -- the United States is responsible for what's happening in Syria. We made statements loosely by letting Assad go and don't know the culture and what was going to replace him. We did the same thing in Libya. We cannot just make statements and destabilize these countries and just expect them to be okay the next day. They have different cultures, different religion, different tribes. So my opinion was we should have supported Assad actually. I really believe that we should have supported Gaddafi, stabilize the situation and then change it later on.
SAMUELBut we're -- we're not going to let rebels -- they're rebels. They don't have no control, no command center. We're just letting them loosely having weapons and destabilizing these governments. These are the type of government that these people's culture calls for. They're not the United States. They can't have the type of government we have here.
REHMAll right, James?
KITFIELDWell, if you remember when President Obama said, you know, Assad has to go, it was the height of the Arab Spring, it was a very hopeful moment. We had gotten rid of one dictator in Tunisia, another dictator in Egypt. And there was -- within the Western world, there was a hope that you would not stand in the way. So you would keep -- you would make sure that there was no dictator who was the high water mark because of his brutality to turn back the entire Arab Spring.
KITFIELDThe Libya example was a very unsatisfactory -- NATO got involved in disposing Gaddafi and did not have a plan for what would happen the day after he was gone. And that discouraged President Obama and everyone else in the Western Alliance from actually getting involved in Syria. So, you know, I'm actually forgiving of making that comment because at that time, I think the Arab Spring was something worth trying to nurture.
KITFIELDUnfortunately, exactly what we were afraid would happen has happened. After Syria and Assad turned back the Arab Spring, the tide has rolled out. Egypt has now, through a military, turned it back. The only country really left that still has any kind of an optimistic future from the Arab Spring is Tunisia, and it's, you know, the subject of a lot of terrorism. So the Arab Spring turned into an Arab winter, and it was very unfortunate.
IOFFEWith all due respect to Samuel, I don't think that these statements were the things that unstabilized these regions. These -- the statements were often hapless responses from Washington to internal political processes that were already happening in these countries. So like James said, we -- I mean, we didn't get rid of dictators in Tunisia and Egypt. The people there did. Unless you subscribe to the theory that, you know, we -- that the CIA sponsored these movements, which I don't think it did.
REHMAnd to Ann Arbor, Michigan. John, you're on the air.
JOHNDiane, it's a very good show, and thanks very much for taking my comment.
JOHNI don't understand what the Russian thinking is in terms of what they are trying to achieve in Syria. But based on what I know and what people told me on my fourteenth trip to Russia last May, I have a strong sense of what has prompted Russia to act in the way it has. One, our mishandling of and skewed explanation of the February 2014 Maiden coup, and, two, a strong belief in Russia that Obama is both weak and incompetent.
JOHNUnless and until our liberal media and the Democratic leadership are willing to face up to the fact that this president has been, in a descriptive sense, criminally incompetent in handling the Syrian-Iraqi situation, things are only going to get worse.
REHMAll right, criminally incompetent?
GUTTMANI think it's easier to look at it in terms of interest. And clearly Russia has its interest in re-establishing a foothold in the Middle East, in channeling some of the Islamist extremists it controlled in diverting or having a bargaining chip regarding its involvement in Ukraine. Russia has its interest in Syria, and the United States frankly doesn't have the same interests there. And therefore it's not necessarily an issue of projecting power or getting involved for the sake of getting involved. It's a question of what can you get out of it for the sake of the United States.
IOFFEI don't think Obama has been criminally incompetent. He's done quite a good job of following America's interests as he see them. He believes that it is not in America's interest to be deeply enmeshed and involved in the Middle East. He does not want to spend blood, American blood and treasure in the Middle East. He doesn't -- he has no interest in, like Nathan said, projecting U.S. power of projecting power. He is carrying those things out quite well.
IOFFEWe're still not heavily involved. We still haven't paid a heavy price for it. He's -- he's doing what he was elected to do, essentially.
KITFIELDYou know, we came -- we've come -- we're coming out of the longest period of wartime in American history, and we're entering a period of retrenchment. It's what we've done after every war and especially unsatisfactory wars. In that sense, this is not unlike the period in the 1970s after Vietnam. We are reluctant to get involved. In that sense, Putin is correct in smelling some weakness in us to get militarily involved.
KITFIELDJust like in the '70s, when -- and the Soviet Union reacted to that retrenchment by invading Afghanistan, they'll keep pushing until we've figured out that we don't want to retrench anymore. And, you know, I actually sense that inflection point coming. I think it's coming for Europe because of the refugee crisis. I think it's coming to America because of the horror of this human tragedy, the likes of which we haven't seen since World War II.
KITFIELDSo I do think -- I think we're going to come out of that. Whether it's going to take a shock, like a terrorist attack, or whether it's something that Russia does, but they do smell a period of retrenchment because we're in one.
IOFFEAnd we're already seeing in the 2016 campaign, you're hearing the Republican contenders for the job of president already talking about things that were anathema in 2012, 2013. They're talking about boots on the ground in Syria. Polls are starting to show that the American people are hungry to get involved to see some action in that part of the world.
REHMAnd you're listening to the Diane Rehm Show. The question becomes how successful Russia can be dealing with ISIS and protecting Assad. Julia?
IOFFEThis is a difficult question because they're kind of -- those two goals are kind of at cross-purposes to each other. Assad arose in part because of what ISIS -- I'm sorry, ISIS arose in part because of what Assad was doing in Syria. So training rebels and making them sign a pledge that they won't fight Assad, that they'll only fight ISIS, doesn't really work because Assad is part of why ISIS exists. Assad is part of the problem.
REHMBut then what is Russia going to do?
KITFIELDWell, this is risky for Russia, too. I mean, we shouldn't make it seem like Russia's got all the chits here. Russia has inserted itself into a virulent civil war of which, you know, there are so many cross-purposes. It is not a rich country. It's an oil-based economy that has been suffering from low oil prices, suffering from U.S. sanctions and European sanctions because of Ukraine.
KITFIELDIt's still spending a lot of money on the military. So Russia's not in some sort of great position here. But they are -- you know, he's, as we've discussed here, Putin has a penchant for playing a weak hand pretty cleverly, and I think he's trying to do that, but there is risk for Russia in getting overextended her and getting caught up in a civil war that it can't decisively change the outcome of, at which point, and I go back to the chemical weapons thing, when Russia came in with that idea of together pulling the chemical weapons out of Syria, at which point Russia might be willing to deal Assad.
KITFIELDIn that case it could be a hopeful thing. It could be that, you know, they finally figured out, you know, we're backing a loser, we can leverage him now at maximum leverage, let's cut a deal with the West about, you know, easing his passage, let him live his life out in Moscow if they want, in exile. But they're going to want to cash that chit in before it's worthless, and so I think there's -- it's not inconceivable to me that a deal gets cut that eases Assad out.
IOFFEYeah, the Russians -- yeah, I think we shouldn't give too much credit to the Russians or to Putin because even though he's playing a weak hand well, he also tends to do very poorly when it comes to strategy, as opposed to tactics. He's not very good at thinking long-term. So for example, the Russian economy is cratering. It's been on the decline since 2012. Oil prices are in the mid-40s.
IOFFEAs recently as 2012, Russia needed oil to cost at least $85 a barrel to balance the budget. The budget is pegged to the oil price. That said, Russia, you know, doesn't see a problem of stepping up, you know, stepping up its military modernization, its military involvement abroad, even as its economy suffers, as its people suffer. You'll recall that when Russia invaded -- first invaded Ukraine and was threatened with sanctions, one of the deputy prime ministers of the Russian Federation said the Russians are used to tightening their belts for a worthy cause.
REHMLast comment, Nathan?
GUTTMANI think Putin's best bet right now isn't whether he'll defeat or not defeat ISIS, it's whether he will be a player in the final -- in the endgame of Syria and will be able to establish Russia once again as having presence, as having interests in the region. But what he should take into consideration, and maybe he is doing that, is that this conflict is driven by events that are sometimes unrelated to what happened.
IOFFEOne of the reasons we're discussing Syria and Russia now is because the body of a three-year-old toddler was washed to the shores, and that's -- that raised international interest. So things can change very quickly with the refugees, with events on the ground.
REHMNathan Guttman, Julia Ioffe, James Kitfield, what a complex and fascinating situation. Thank you all.
IOFFEThank you, Diane.
REHMThanks for listening. I'm Diane Rehm.
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