From The Archives: A 2008 Conversation With Barbara Walters
A conversation from the archives with Barbara Walters about her 2008 memoir "Audition," a story of family challenges, celebrity gossip and blazing a trail in TV news.
On Tuesday, President Barack Obama and Russian President Vladimir Putin met privately for 90 minutes in New York, the first such meeting in two years. Earlier in the day, both spoke to the General Assembly of the United Nations. Obama said the U.S. would work with any nation, including Russia and Iran, to end the fighting in Syria; Putin spoke of creating an international coalition to restore order. But the two leaders differed sharply on whether Syrian president Bashar Assad should stay in power. What happens now? We discuss whether the two countries can work together toward an international response to the ongoing crisis in Syria and the threat of ISIS.
MS. DIANE REHMThanks for joining us. I'm Diane Rehm. President Obama and Russia's President Putin were among those who spoke to the UN General Assembly yesterday. Later in the day, they met privately. Here to talk about their starkly different views on dealing with the crisis in Syria and prospects for cooperation, Peter Baker of The New York Times, Paul Pillar of Georgetown University, David Schenker of The Washington Institute for Near East Policy.
MS. DIANE REHMAnd joining us by phone, Andrei Sitov of the Itar-Tass news agency of Russia. I do invite you to take part in the program. Give us a call, 800-433-8850. You can send us an email to firstname.lastname@example.org. Follow us on Facebook or send us a tweet. And welcome to all of you.
MR. PAUL PILLARGood morning.
MR. DAVID SCHENKERThank you, Diane.
MR. PETER BAKERThanks for having us.
REHMPeter Baker, I'll start with you. What do we know about the conversation that took place between Vladimir Putin and Barack Obama?
BAKERRight. Well, this is the first really formal sit-down meeting that these two leaders have had really in about two years, since before the Ukraine intervention and it was fraught with tension, fraught with a lot of preambles that indicated how far apart they were. They couldn't even agree on who asked for the meeting. So, you know, when they sat down for what was scheduled to be an hour, it went about an hour and a half, you can imagine that they had a pretty, you know, stark conversation about Syria and about Ukraine.
BAKERYou saw previews of that, in effect, in their speeches that they made from the well in the General Assembly. Neither one of them waited for the meeting to kind of have it out with each other. President Obama, in his speech, was pretty tough on Russia for its violation of sovereignty in Ukraine, for the notion that dictatorship, in effect, autocracy is something to be preserved in parts of the world, like the Middle East.
BAKERPresident Putin fired back and said, look, American interventions have been disastrous in the Middle East, in Iraq and Libya and what has that gotten us by abandoning President Assad in Syria? You have, in effect, he's arguing, created the opening for ISIS to exist. So I think you heard a lot of that behind closed doors. I don't think you got an agreement between the two. But for President Obama, what he really wanted to do was kind of take the measure of President Putin, get a better understanding of what the Russians are up to in Syria.
REHMAnd what did Russian President Putin want and get out of that meeting, Paul Pillar?
PILLARWell, let me refer, Diane, specifically to the Syrian issue, which is, of course, at the top of the agenda. And there's been a lot of speculation ever since the most recent Russian moves and escalating their military presence there as to exactly what Putin is up to. And I think the answer is not a simple one. It's multiple motives, many things that he wants to get out of it.
PILLARThere is a genuine concern that the Assad regime might be on the brink of collapse. There is a genuine concern, although we certainly shouldn't take Putin just at his word at this, but there is a concern about Islamist extremism and ISIS and how it will play, particularly in the Muslim inhabited areas of Russia, and there is the whole question of Russia's presence in the Middle East and making the point that we still are a world power, even though it's a far cry from what the Soviet Union presence was in the region back during the days of the Cold War.
PILLARSo these are all things that Putin is trying to achieve and I'm sure that objective applied to his meeting with Mr. Obama as well.
REHMAndrei Sitov, what would you say President Putin wanted and got out of his meeting with President Obama?
MR. ANDREI SITOVDiane, first of all, thank you for inviting me back...
SITOV...to your show. And I wanted to go back momentarily to what Peter said about the sides not agreeing on who invited whom. Basically, I know for a fact that the Americans invited the Russians, which is as it should be because the Americans were the ones who broke off the relations in the first place. And when the White House was denying this when then White House was saying that Putin asked for the meeting, they were not telling the truth.
SITOVNow, about what Putin wants, I think, like everybody else, I guess, who have spoken so far, we all know what he wants. He wants the situation in Syria to be resolved and the conflict to stop because are dying. There is bloodshed there. There are millions of refugees and there is unspeakable barbarity on the part of the ISIS. So we all want this to stop. And I agree that Putin is arguing that we all need coordinate and to work together for this.
SITOVAnd I was very heartened this morning to listen to Secretary of State Kerry, who, unlike all of us, was in the meeting, when he basically said the same thing. He said, we need to unite. We need to find a way forward. Of course, there are differences on the outcome of this unified action, but at least there's been a beginning and Secretary Kerry called the meeting between our two presidents not only frank, which is the platonic speak for blunt, but also civil.
REHMThank you. David Schenker, how important is this question of who invited whom? We've heard a lot about that.
SCHENKERI don't think it's important at all, frankly. You know, the Russians have taken the initiative here by deploying to Syria. The United States, apparently, is missing in action in Syria. We've had this much ballyhooed train and equip program where we've spent $500 million and deployed exactly five Syrians into the battle. You know, the question of who invited who, whether President Obama wanted to have a chat with Putin or whether Putin, you know, wanted to have a chat, it's really the tertiary matter.
SCHENKERNow that the Russians are there, we have a whole bunch of issues we have to sort out that are increasingly going to be important to us. That is, matters of deconfliction, right? We are flying fighter jets bombing ISIS over Syria and the Russians now have 34 fighter aircraft that are based in Syria that they're going to be flying. So how are we not going to kill each other. There are other matters as well.
SCHENKERThe United States has said some time ago, President Obama said Assad had to go, right? The Russian force is now in Syria to preserve the Assad regime, right? So we have diametrically opposed, at least on the face of it, goals.
REHMAnd yet, we have similar goals as far as ISIS is concerned, Paul.
PILLARThere are certainly similar goals as far as ISIS and I would also say the goals are not quite as diametrically opposed as all that accusatory language in two presidential speeches to the General Assembly would lead us to suggest as it relates to Assad. You know, we've had movement in the west, particularly comments from Chancellor Merkel and Prime Minister Cameron, but also comments from Secretary Kerry, a moving away from the blanket Assad must go.
PILLARAnd I think if there's a point of convergence here, and I emphasis we're a long ways away from any kind of, you know, settlement or agreement here, but if there is a point of convergence on this key question of the future of the regime, it is the idea that, number one, Assad shouldn't go tomorrow if that means an utter collapse and a sudden collapse of the regime and the way that that would make the Syrian situation even more chaotic.
PILLARAnd I note that our president, President Obama, in his speech to the General Assembly used the phrase managed transition in referring to political change in Syria. I think that's an explicit recognition that the sudden collapse scenario would be a disaster. And the eventual compromise, if there is one here, is Assad not going immediately, but he's going to have to go sometime and he cannot be part of the long term political solution of Syria.
BAKERWell, I think that's, you know, there has been movement, as you say. Jeffrey Hammond (sp?), John Kerry and others have talked about the idea that Assad has to go, but not right away. And there has been talk by Russians...
REHMDo you see that, as Paul does, as a point of convergence?
BAKERTheoretically. I mean, in private, the Russians have said to western diplomats, look, we're not all that necessarily wedded to Assad, per se, and they've opened the idea that somehow they could see some sort of transition that didn't necessarily involve him, but it's not entirely clear who comes next. I mean, there isn't a person waiting in the wings that both sides could easily agree to, if only X could take over, everything would be fine.
BAKERSo I think it's still, you know, a pretty far out scenario that hasn’t, you know, gestated in a way that seems likely in the near term, but I think you'll see Secretary Kerry pursue it. He's energetic about these kinds of ideas and we'll have to see where they go.
SCHENKERYeah, I think that getting back to this issue of point of convergence, I mean, at the most fundamental level, we still have a disagreement here. The Russians believe that Assad and the Assad regime, the Iranian presence, et cetera, is a stabilizing presence and they also want to get rid of ISIS. But, in fact, the Assad regime, which is nominally a Shiite regime backed by the Iranian regime, which is Shiite, is fueling the support for ISIS in the region.
SCHENKERThe presence in this country, that the Assad regime has killed, you know, basically 300,000 people, the vast majority of which are Sunni Muslims, this is what is fueling support for ISIS. So the longer the Assad regime is there and dropping barrel bombs on innocent civilians in Syrian cities with the Iranian support, the more support there will be for ISIS. There's just nowhere to turn for these people. There's no protection.
REHMDavid Schenker, director of the Arab politics program at The Washington Institute For Near East Peace Policy. We'll take a short break here. When we come back, your comments, questions, stay with us.
REHMAnd welcome back, as we talk about the meeting of President Barack Obama and President Vladimir Putin at the U.N. yesterday. They met for 90 minutes. They had been expected to meet for an hour but it did go on a bit longer. Here in the studio: David Schenker of the Washington Institute for Near East Policy. Paul Pillar, he's at Georgetown University. He is a former CIA National Intelligence officer. And Peter Baker, reporter for The New York Times. On the line, Andrei Sitov. He's Washington bureau chief for Itar-Tass news agency of Russia.
REHMAnd Andrei, yesterday President Putin said he believes that there should be an international coalition to deal with the conflict in Russia -- in Syria, forgive me. Can you give us some of the outlines of his plan?
SITOVWell, I don't know the outlines of his plan but we do know that they have already started working with the Syrians and the Iraqis and the Iranians. They are sharing intelligence information. They are working with the Americans. My understanding is, one result of the meeting yesterday was that the two presidents agreed for our military to work together more actively, at least to prevent misunderstandings from happening and to basically know better what each side is doing there, to not step on each other's toes, so to speak.
SITOVI should also mention that President Putin seemed very pleased with the results of his meeting. On his way back to Moscow, he was talking to reporters. We already have the transcripts. He said that the meeting was very useful. He especially enjoyed its being very straightforward and direct. And he said, surprisingly, there were many points of convergence in our views and assessments.
REHMPeter Baker, did you hear and read the same things?
BAKERWell, I think, look, you know, for President Putin this meeting was important, as Paul has said previously, for a number of reasons. One was to get out of the box on Ukraine. He's not talking about Ukraine, he's talking about Syria. The Americans went in saying, This meeting's about Ukraine. We're going to stress how much Russia needs to abide by the terms of the Minsk ceasefire and that's our main focus. The core message, they said, was Ukraine. But, in fact, as again Paul and David both mentioned, Syria was really the main thing on the table. And that was, by itself, a benefit to President Putin, because it means he's now an international player on a scale that he wants to be seen as a potent player.
BAKERWhat a coalition could look like, there's not a lot of precedent there, I think.
PILLARYeah. It certainly is in Mr. Putin's interest to play up the productivity of this kind of meeting. And I suspect if we get more from the American side of the nature of it, it might not sound, you know, quite as productive and quite as optimistic. But that fits into Mr. Putin's objective of being seen as a major player, reintegrated as one of the powers that really matter into the Middle Eastern scene.
SCHENKERWell, I think we're already getting a sense of what Putin's coalition looks like. The posters making the rounds in Syria right now are of Bashar al-Assad, Vladimir Putin, Ali Khamenei and Hassan Nasrallah, the head of Hezbollah. And it says underneath them (speaks foreign language) , these men bow to no one but Allah. I mean, this is the coalition that we are watching develop. And this is who Putin has decided to side with in Syria. The United States is going to have to make a decision whether we can stomach being part of that coalition.
PILLARWell, actually, I think the Russians have in mind a broader contact group and coalition. I mean they've spoken specifically about reenergizing a contact group that includes Turkey, Saudi Arabia, Iran and Egypt as well.
REHMAndrei, I know you want to jump in.
SITOVAll right. May I jump in with what Secretary Kerry said this morning? Secretary Kerry said that at the meeting they agreed that all interested sides, including the U.S., Russia, France, Germany, Great Britain, Saudi Arabia, Turkey, Jordan -- and he named somebody else, but the name was mangled, it was not in the transcript that I used -- so all of those countries are supposed to work together to find a way forward. Yes, Russia supports Syria. Yes, Russia supports Assad. Because we've seen what happened to Libya, we've seen what's happening to Yemen, we've seen to what's happened in Iraq and Afghanistan.
SITOVI actually would be interested if your guest, Mr. Schenker, told me if those countries are better off because of all the turmoil that has been brought from the outside, frankly.
SCHENKERWell listen, I don't think anyone's going to argue that Libya looks a lot better than it did under Gadhafi. But Yemen, we have to remember, since 2009 Iran has been, according to the United Nations, providing weapons to the Houthis and training. Part of the problem in Yemen today is because of Iran. You know, yes, the region is in terrible turmoil and Syria is a complicated problem. But whether the answer to that problem is strengthening the Assad regime is something that I still have a serious problem with.
REHMAndrei, I have an email from Norbert, who says: Putin supports the regime of Assad for one main purpose, restricting the ability of the Saudis to build a natural gas pipeline into Turkey or the ability to sell into the European national gas market. How do you respond to that?
SITOVI respond to that by saying that my wife is also very fond of all sorts of conspiracy theories. I never discuss them with her. I immediately admit that I'm out of my depth. I simply don't know enough to talk about all sorts of complicated, intricate explanations like that.
SITOVI think we are facing a direct, immediate threat to security of all of us and our friends and allies. Actually, this morning, the breaking news right now is that Treasury has just sanctioned a number of new people for belonging to the extremist ISIS and they happen to be Russians, or at least like people from the former Soviet Union.
REHMPaul Pillar, President Obama himself said in his speech that the U.S. would be willing to work with anyone, any nation, including Russia, including Iran, to solve the problem in Syria.
PILLARYes. And we should believe him. I think that is consistent with the policy that has been highlighted of course by the Iran nuclear agreement, which was a multi-lateral endeavor involving working with our allies as well as working with a traditional adversary, the Islamic Republic of Iran. And one of the things that I think Mr. Obama wants to do and one of the things the Iranians want to do is build on that agreement, to have a less shackled, more comprehensive diplomacy to address a variety of problems of mutual concern.
PILLARThere are different views as to how that building might take place. Some people think, well, you know the agreement is fragile enough. We'd better just start with easy issues. Others say, let's tackle the hardest ones and Syria has got to be right at the top of the list of hard ones. So I think we should take the president at his word.
REHMDavid Schenker, cooperation with Russia or Iran a non-starter in your view?
SCHENKERListen, I think we're already cooperating with Iran. Certainly we've done deconfliction with Iran in Iraq. We've flown air support for Iranian-backed Shiite militias in Iraq. This is not something that I like but we're doing it. There may be areas to cooperate. But let me give you a scenario. You know, the favorite regime of the Assad -- favorite tactic of the Assad regime to date has been these -- dropping these barrel bombs. The international community has been talking for some time about perhaps a no-fly zone or preventing helicopters from doing that over Syrian cities.
SCHENKERWhat happens now when the Russians start flying, you know, aerial protection for Syrian helicopters, right, that are dropping these? These are going to be untouchable for the international community. I don't expect this type of tactic to stop. This is not something we want to be cooperating with or implicated in.
REHMDo you agree, Paul?
PILLARWell, we're -- it's going to be an important and interesting story in the weeks ahead as to exactly how the Russians are going to use these military assets. And Mr. Putin said, I think, in an interview with Charlie Rose -- perhaps elsewhere as well -- that Russian personnel were not the -- will not engage in combat operations for the time being. But he left open the possibility that may change. The issues that David mentioned of deconfliction are extremely important. And we've already had at least one conversation between the U.S. and Russian defense minister that marks the start of that.
PILLARI would say the political conversations will be at least as important. But there's a whole military story that's going to play out on the ground in the weeks ahead that we have to watch very carefully.
REHMSo, Paul Pillar, how powerful is ISIS in the region right now?
PILLARWell, right now, it, you know, if I had a crystal ball looking ahead to beyond the right now, they may be at their apex of strength. You know, they had this enormous surge of conquering real estate in Iraq and Syria. And I would point out, regarding a point that was raised earlier about what contributes to the growth of ISIS, it's not the existence of the Assad regime, it's the Syrian civil war. You know, it was only after the war broke out that ISIS was able to capitalize on that and to expand greatly in Raqqa and the areas that they have now in Syria. So it's not who the players are on the other side but the conflict itself and the vacuum of authority and the chaos that is involved in that.
REHMAnd you would agree that a sudden collapse of the Assad regime could really throw the area into total chaos.
PILLARI think we've seen a somewhat of a preview of the dynamics of that in Libya. It would be different in certain ways. You know, Gadhafi's rule in Libya was even more personal than the Assad rule in Syria. But to have a complete breakdown of what passes for order in at least the regime-controlled areas of Syria would make things probably even worse.
REHMSo if the U.S. does decide to go ahead and work with Russia, how does this evolve, Peter Baker?
BAKERIt's a great question. You know, it's -- on the face of it, you can't see a diplomatic solution without Russia, right? That's the Obama administration's calculation at this point, that the road to a political settlement has to go through Moscow, which is why they decided to talk to them despite the continued tension over Ukraine. Beyond that, I don't know. I mean, deconfliction, obviously, we don't want our troops to be -- our air forces to be, you know, conflicting with theirs. But it's hard to imagine anything in a more tangible way on the ground.
BAKERI think that what Secretary Kerry is looking at is to find a consensus that ultimately gets imposed on Assad in a way that he may or may not be happy with but that he has not choice to accept. And only Russia, they feel, could participate in that kind of an outcome.
REHMAll right. I'm going to open the phones, 800-433-8850. First to Jacksonville, Fla. Paul, you're on the air.
PAULYes, Diane. You have a great show. You are a great radio host.
PAULI agree with Putin in keeping Assad because of what happened in Egypt and Libya. The devil you know is better than the devil you don't know. And we don't know what would follow Assad. So just -- the devil you know.
PILLARWell, it's interesting that Paul raises that phrase, devil you know, because one thing we haven't talked about is the Israeli interests here. And it was for many years, through the Assad regimes, father and son, that the Israelis enjoyed a lot of quiet on the Golan front. And it's only been more recently, after the -- in the last four years and when the war has broken out and the regime has lost some control over some of the Golan border areas, that the Israelis have had more to worry about. So the basic point, I think, is sound. But it's going to have to be more than just the Assad regime. It's going to have to be some future political formula in which Bashar Assad personally will not be president.
REHMAnd you're listening to "The Diane Rehm Show." David Schenker.
SCHENKERYeah. I had an old boss in the Pentagon named Peter Rodman who told the story of Averell Harriman, the U.S. ambassador to the Soviet Union in the 1950s, that Harriman most famously said: Stalin I can deal with, it's the hardliners in the Kremlin that scare me. But we have to remember that, you know, that Stalin killed tens of millions of people, right? So what we have is pretty bad as well. I'm not calling for an ISIS regime in Syria. But I do believe that the Assad regime is fueling support for ISIS throughout the region.
REHMAndrei Sitov, do you want to comment?
SITOVI just wanted to add, I forgot to mention that Secretary Kerry, when he named all those countries, he did name Iran. He said that he sees a role for Iran, even though not directly at the table in these discussions. And I'm glad to listen to this discussion because I think this is rational. You asked about the way forward for U.S.-Russian relations and cooperation. I must admit it's a very difficult situation in our ties at this moment. But I was very surprised by the radical turn for the worse after Ukraine. And I certainly hope for a radical turn for the better.
SITOVI think bureaucracies react very quickly to signals from on top. General Breedlove, who was like the bad guy -- the bad cop in harassing Russia over the last few months, was recently speaking in a very different tone. He was already speaking about the possibility of cooperation with the Russians through NATO. So it can happen quickly if there is political will.
BAKERWell, what Andrei just said, obviously, is exactly what a lot of people in Washington are afraid of, which is that there will be a softening on the resolve against Russia with regard to what they've done in Ukraine. That because, in fact, we need them elsewhere, we will collectively, you know, go light on them when it comes to their intervention in their neighboring country and their seizure of territory in Crimea. President Obama tried to make that clear he wouldn't in his speech yesterday. He went out of his way to make clear that that's still -- the seizure of Crimea and so forth is unacceptable. But if you listen to people in Congress and around Washington, that's a concern.
BAKERYou know, how do you balance a constructive relationship on some issues -- and Russia was said to be constructive on the Iran talks that led to the nuclear accord, for instance -- with a confrontation over, you know, a continuing violation of sovereignty.
SCHENKERI, that's right, it's the very same concern that people have with the deal with Iran, frankly, that we're -- now that we've got this deal with Iran, Iran will be insulated from all of the criticism, support for terrorism throughout the region and other destabilizing nefarious activities.
REHMDavid Schenker of the Washington Institute for Near East Policy. More of your calls, questions, when we come back. Stay with us.
REHMAnd welcome back. We'll go right back to the phones, 800-433-8850, to John in Alexandria, Virginia. Hi, you're on the air.
JOHNHi there, thank you so much for having me on.
JOHNI was wanting to call -- your guests were just commenting about the concerns in Washington and in Congress about us abandoning Ukraine because of the Syria crisis, and it was previously mentioned that Putin sees us talking about Syria as a victory because he's not talking about Ukraine. It seems that both sides, U.S. and Russia, are ready to abandon Ukraine, that, you know, Russia has suffered significantly economically because of Ukraine, and U.S. is embarrassed because we weren't able to defend a European country and a major NATO ally. So is Russia becoming involve in the crisis? Is that going to be the vehicle by which Russia and the United States abandoned Ukraine?
REHMAndrei Sitov, do you want to comment?
SITOVRussia will never abandon Ukraine. Ukrainians are our brothers and sisters. My heart aches for Ukraine. We will always be neighbors. We will always be kin. We will always be friends. The current episode is an aberration. Ukraine is not a major NATO ally for the U.S., which is good, because otherwise the Americans would be facing a war with Russia.
SITOVI -- speaking in general, since this is like a sort of a general-type question, the way it is framed by President Obama and others in Washington, if Russia breaks the rules, my question is what rules and who made those rules. Basically the answer to that is that for the Americans, it's the rules Americans made, and Americans -- if Americans want to break those rules, they do break them, as Edward Snowden has shown all of us.
SITOVThere are minor examples, like benign examples. We were talking about manners at the beginning of the show, who invited whom. Yesterday at the U.N. meeting, there was a time limit for all the leaders. The speeches were not supposed to be over 15 minutes. Putin spoke for 20. He went over the limit. But Obama spoke for 40. Why? Why is it that -- and I mean, I can go on and on and on about it.
SITOVBut the basic point here is that we need democracy in international relations.
REHMAll right. Peter Baker?
BAKERWell, I understand Andrei's point, and I've certainly heard that a lot when I lived in Russia. You know, it's all -- there's always this equivalence, you know, you can't criticize us for this because you did that. I think that there's a significant difference between going over a time limit and sending troops into a neighboring country, and I think that when you say who wrote the rules, I would say Russia agreed to the rules when it came to Ukraine when they agreed to the Bucharest agreement back in the 1990s, in which they agreed, along with the United States and other powers, to respect Ukraine's sovereignty and current borders. That's something Russia hasn't done.
BAKERNow you can -- Russia will say America has done the same thing. That's a different argument. But you can't say that Russia didn't agree to those rules back in the 1990s.
REHMAnd where we are now, Paul Pillar, is how will the negotiations with Russia over Syria affect Ukraine.
PILLARWell, it was interesting before the break, Diane, both Peter and David each made an observation about a Washington concern, about spillover or non-spillover. And what Peter mentioned was on Ukraine. The concern is that there will be spillover from what we do with Russia and Syria to Ukraine. David expressed the concern that there won't be spillover from the compartmented nuclear agreement with Iran and attention to what Iran is doing elsewhere in the region.
REHMAnd where do you come out?
PILLARWhere I come out is the U.S. administrations, not only the current one but most past ones, both Republican and Democratic, have demonstrated their ability to walk and chew gum at the same time and to isolate or not isolate issues as they see fit in terms of U.S. interests.
PILLARAnd I think that applies to Ukraine, as well as dealings with Iran.
REHMLet's go to Chapel Hill, North Carolina. Nino, you're on the air.
NINOHello, Diane, it's Nino. Thank you for another great and really timely discussions.
NINOAfter listening to Republican presidential debates in which candidates seem willing to start wars with at least five or six different nations, I was surprised -- it was surprisingly refreshing to hear President Putin on CBS "60 Minutes." I think that since the fall of the wall, U.S. has been looking at the world at it wished it would be as opposed to as it is. Consequently, we have been behaving like an elephant in the china shop with disastrous results. Our actions in Iraq and Libya, I'm not going to mention Ukraine, are -- to mention just those two, have destabilized major, major areas on two different continents.
NINOI think it's time to start looking at the world as it is and slowly nudge it, however frustrating that must be, and slowly nudging it forward. Thank you.
PILLARWell, the caller is following the same technique as President Putin in making maximum use of the rhetorical points that can be made, given the foibles of past U.S. policy. And the reason they are effective rhetorical points is there is a large degree of truth in them. And I think with -- I would draw a distinction between Libya and Iraq, although I think, you know, both of those, you know, involve serious mistakes. But as an initiator or as, shall we say, a prime catalyst for a lot of instability that we're dealing with now, including what is involved with ISIS, there's no denying that what happened in March 2003, you know, was the start of a great deal of messiness in Iraq that has now spread over into Syria and elsewhere.
PILLARI mean, there's simply no way around that, and we will be hearing that from now to kingdom come from Mr. Putin and from others, as well.
REHMSo two questions. First, what can we gain by working with Russia to defeat ISIS? Second, how do we stay out of each other's way to accomplish that? Paul?
PILLARWell, on the staying out of each other's way, the military deconfliction that we mentioned earlier is a big part of that.
PILLARBut I would make a couple observations about this Russian military buildup in Syria as it relates to the wisdom of working with the Russians not only on ISIS but the larger Syrian problem. It does two things, basically. Number one, to the extent that the Assad regime has become more dependent on the Russians with this greater military aid, that presumably, and I think it will give Moscow more leverage over that Assad regime, to bring in the line into some possible settlement or formula that might be worked out in these multilateral diplomatic conflicts...
REHMSo you think it's basically a positive.
PILLARYes, I think we need to -- well, bearing in mind every minute that Putin has his own motives, many of which do not converge with ours, it's a fact, and there are ways in which we can leverage that. The greater leverage over Assad by the Russians is one of those things. Another thing is that with the escalation of the involvement, Putin and the Russians have a bigger stake in trying to tamp down this conflict.
PILLARPutin is smart enough to realize that for him to indefinitely support a beleaguered Assad regime for years and years would be an awful drain on Russia. It would do them no good at all. So he's got even more stake than he maybe did two months ago in trying to resolves this conflict.
SCHENKERWell, I think it's an interesting question about leverage and whether that will be used, and if so how. But, you know, I'm more questioning of the whole premise that the Russians are in Syria to go after ISIS. I think it has nothing to do with ISIS. I think it's purely about strengthening, solidifying the Assad regime hold on the territory that it remains under control. I think that we're more likely going to see the Russians help the Assad regime go after opposition forces in Homs, Aleppo, Idlib, areas that have what we would define as the less militant of the opposition right now. This is not ISIS-controlled territory. This may be Jabhat al-Nusra, which is an al-Qaeda affiliate, but also Ahrar ash-Sham and other groups, some of which we may not have that much of a problem with, relatively speaking.
BAKERI think the other thing that's important to remember is the pressure that President Putin is under at home. General Petraeus, used to be the head of the CIA, testified in Congress the other day that Russia is down to reserves around $200 billion. He estimated that that would burn out within about two years. The economy is already fragile in Russia. So there's a large incentive on his part to get out from underneath the sanctions and the economic limitations that have resulted from the Ukraine conflict.
BAKERSo the move at least can't be divorced from this larger pressure that he's feeling, and I think we have to see it in that context.
REHMAndrei, how about that pressure?
SITOVTwo things. On economy, of course nobody likes sanctions, and they are burdensome. They are also helpful in devaluing the ruble and spurting the growth. I understand that there is a huge increase in revenues for the Russia ruble-based companies, which we will see how it works out. I've been covering the IMF for 20 years. I know that it never comes out as the pundits expect.
SITOVOn ISIS, I could not disagree more. It's a huge problem for Russia, as I already mentioned. There are -- Putin said there are about 2,000 Russians fighting in ISIS. We don't want them to come back, and even if they don't, what Kerry said this morning, what we know without Kerry, what I know from my talking with my Russian friends in Moscow and here, is that people are mostly worried that now that Russia has joined -- is joining the fight against ISIS and Syria, that ISIS will be coming for the Russians in Russia.
SITOVSo it's a danger, but Russia is willing to risk it because we see the need for all the world to deal with the problem of ISIS and other violent extremism. But we need to be treated equally and fairly as partners for that, and we come back to the issue of manners. If the Americans did not want to work with the Russians, they are welcome to stay by themselves.
SITOVIf they do want, they invite us, we are willing to come over and improve the relations. Putin said that he is all for improving relations with the United States.
REHMAll right, to John in Hoffman State, Illinois. You're on the air.
JOHNHi, thank you so much for taking my call.
NINOMy question is, is when this conflict settles down, to me it seems as though most of Syria is very much destroyed, there's not much left to salvage. Will Assad or Putin want to take on any kind of responsibility for such a huge mess in that part of the world? And I'll...
BAKEROh, well, I would say no, I find that hard to imagine, but I think that they would try to build up -- if they could find a way to either keep Assad in or to keep a government similar to Assad's in, they would obviously do what they could to help them. But they're not going to go in and be nation-builders. That's just not their history. And frankly, that's not the interest in the United States at this point, either. There's not a great appetite here for that.
REHMPeter Baker of the New York Times, and you're listening to "The Diane Rehm Show." Peter Pillar, you wanted to add something.
PILLARWell, of course Syria's going to be a tar-baby for anyone who assumes most of the responsibility for it, but the destruction but the depopulation. And there it's the enormous, you know, migrant and refugee crisis, which has become the single biggest foreign policy problem for the European Union. So there's a huge set of motivations there among our European allies to try to reconstruct Syria in a way that many of those people might be tempted to go back.
SCHENKERYeah, we've got half of the housing destroyed in Syria. We've got 4 million refugees out of the country and half of the remainder of the 24 million that were there before internally displaced. Syria is, it's hard to see this country being put back together. What's more is that these refugees, and we know from experience that they stay out of the country for more than a decade or so, they're never going back home.
REHMSo if you don't put it back together, what happens to it, Paul?
PILLARWell, different scenarios have been talked about, none of which look very good in my eye. There's the one that involves an Alawite, you know, mini-state redoubt on the mountainous coastal area. I think that's a formula for continued instability. Diane, I -- despite comments about trying to build on cooperation with the Russians, there's, plenty of reason to be very, very pessimistic about the prognosis for this conflict. I think of it in the same terms, say, as the Lebanese civil war, which broke out in the mid-1970s, and went on for 14 or 15 years, until it sort of petered out just through sheer exhaustion and also with the help of some external mediation by Syria and Saudi Arabia, interestingly enough, working together at that point.
PILLARIt didn't completely resolve the issues. Lebanon is still a very fractured, divided place. I wouldn't be surprised if the Syrian conflict starts to resemble that?
SCHENKERWell, we have to remember the Lebanese conflict, the civil war, ended with Syrian occupation of Lebanon for another decade and a half.
REHMAndrei Sitov, what do you see as the future of Syria?
SITOVYou know, I was -- Diane, I thank you for asking me, but I was just thinking that I'm no match to your experts, your guests in the studio who actually know the region. I'm not an expert on Middle East, on Syria in particular. I've been covering the U.S. for all my professional life. And I've already said that I do hope that we find a way for an accommodation and understanding between our two nations to benefit us and the world.
REHMPeter Baker, what options does President Obama have if he does not work with President Putin?
BAKERThere aren't a lot of good options, obviously, and he doesn't think that there are a lot of good options. I mean, what's interesting, what's defined President Obama's view of this crisis for almost, for four years, is that it is a -- it is a cruddy problem, to use a nicer phrase than he uses, that defies American solutions. And then we can try the various things, and he will continue to try various things, but he doesn't have, I think, a whole lot of optimism that there are going to be successful.
BAKERThe train and equip program, which we've seen recently, had resulted in only a handful of actually trained fighters, has now obviously come and gone. They're talking about, you know, doing more to bolster the Kurds as sort of the ground force. You know, that's been the only successful, arguably, ground force in Syria on the side of the anti-Assad, anti-ISIS point of view.
BAKERBut they're going back to the drawing board, and I think that they're scratching their heads, and they don't -- I don't think that they see a lot of easy options here and that they're trying to manage a problem and keep it from being worse rather than thinking that there is some grand solution in the offing in the near term.
REHMPeter Baker, Paul Pillar, David Schenker, Andrei Sitov, thank you all so much.
REHMThanks for listening, all. I'm Diane Rehm.
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