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.
Russian war planes continue to strike targets in Syria, including U.S.-backed rebels fighting the Assad government. Members of the U.S.-led coalition against Islamic State are calling on Russia to end the air strikes. Afghan government forces struggle to retake the city of Kunduz from Taliban fighters. In a fiery speech at the United Nations yesterday, Israel’s Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu condemns the Iran nuclear accord. And Hungary calls on countries outside Europe to share the burden of the ongoing migrant crisis. Guest host Melissa Block of NPR and a panel of journalists discuss the week’s top international stories.
Mapping the Battle for Syria: Russian Airstrikes Hit Rebel Areas
By Tim Wallace/The New York Times|Source: The Carter Center (areas of control) Four groups have claimed control over a divided Syria.
MS. MELISSA BLOCKThanks for joining us. I'm Melissa Block with NPR News sitting in for Diane Rehm. She's off today. Russian warplanes strike targets in Syria as the Pentagon warns caution. In Afghanistan, pockets of fighting continue over control of a key city seized by the Taliban. And President Mahmoud Abbas says the Palestinians will no longer abide by peace accords with Israel.
MS. MELISSA BLOCKJoining me to discuss this week's top international stories on the Friday News Roundup are Shane Harris of The Daily Beast, Kim Ghattas of the BBC and Yochi Dreazen of Foreign Policy. Welcome to the three of you. Thanks for being with us.
MS. KIM GHATTASGood morning.
MR. SHANE HARRISThank you.
MR. YOCHI DREAZENThanks, Melissa.
BLOCKAnd let's start with the Russian airstrikes in Syria. Russia, Vladimir Putin and his regime have said they are targeting ISIS, but the Pentagon and other countries dispute that. They say, actually, what they're targeting are the Syrian Opposition who are backed by the United States. Shane Harris, what's the latest on this?
HARRISWell, the latest is that the strikes started on Wednesday with very little notice to the United States. About an hour before they started, a Russian General showed up in our embassy in Baghdad and said, just a heads up, we're going to start air strikes in Syria. Please don't fly in the area. So far, they've been, reportedly, all in areas that are predominantly controlled by Assad opposition forces, more in the Western part of the country and notably not in places where there are strongholds of ISIS.
HARRISSo immediately sort of belies Vladimir Putin's insistence that they were there to fight the forces of ISIS. What's troubling here -- well, there's many things that are troubling, but immediately one concern is that some of the groups that they've been hitting are these US trained and backed rebel forces that are in Syria, not the military trained ones, but the CIA folks. So what it looks like now is that he's attacking both our forces that we've tried to build up there to go after ISIS and then any other groups that are opposed to Assad, to ultimately keep him in power. That seems to be what his goal is.
BLOCKWell, and Kim, Secretary of State John Kerry was meeting with the Russian foreign minister, Sergei Lavrov, at the UN this week. What are those conversations? I mean, how do these two countries reconciles what their goals are and what the state of play is on the ground in Syria and in the air?
GHATTASIt's very unclear how they reconcile their goals. They keep talking about deconfliction, my new...
BLOCKA new coinage.
GHATTAS...my new favorite word.
BLOCKI looked it up last night. It's a word that does not exist as far as I can tell.
GHATTASAnd, you know, there are some people who are quite sarcastic and say, yes, deconfliction. Basically, it means Russia telling the US stay out of the way. That's what deconfliction is going to mean in this case. For a lot of people, also, the visual of Mr. Kerry and Mr. Lavrov standing side by side on the day that Russian jets had struck CIA trained rebels on the ground in Syria, sent a very, very bad message to America's -- whatever was left of America's allies on the ground.
GHATTASThere have been a lot of meetings at the UN, not just the one between Mr. Kerry and Mr. Lavrov, but also between Mr. Kerry and allies in the anti-ISIS coalition and they've issued a statement yesterday or early this morning, I think, saying, you know, warning Russia that they should stick to targeting ISIS and avoid civilian casualties. I'm not quite sure what that statement actually achieves because the Russians have made very clear that they intend to continue with their military strikes.
GHATTASIn fact, this morning, the head of the lower house in parliament said that the campaign would last at least three, four months. And around all of this is also some kind of effort to try to bring all the sides back to the table and have some kind of meeting around a possible political solution in Syria. At this moment, it's very unclear how that could come together.
BLOCKAnd Yochi Dreazen, does there have to be some sort of communication between the US and Russia in coordinating air strikes to avoid the risk of just a terrible conflagration over the skies of Syria.
DREAZENYeah, there does in the same way that there is active cooperation and communication indirectly with Iran and Iraq. I mean, deconfliction, the last time we heard this weird word was in Iraq when you had Iranian militias on the ground, US planes in the sky trying to talk and it was like a game of telephone. Meaning in the studio now, I'm on one side, Shane's on the other, Kim's in the middle so in theory, Shane and I are not talking to each other, but that's what they do.
BLOCKYou're talking over Kim.
DREAZENThey would have -- the US would radio to an Iraqi. The Iraqi would whisper it to the Iranian and then both governments could say that they weren't talking.
GHATTASI'm I the Iraqi or the Iranian?
DREAZENYeah. You know, one point, the statement -- it's interesting in terms of the way this is being discussed, right? So the statement from the US and the coalition was relatively polite and it was diplomatic. We strongly condemn, we urge, whatever. Right as we were coming into the studio, a Free Syrian Army commander put out a video of his own in Arabic. It was on Twitter, on Facebook, from the Arabic media, using very different words, including words like this.
DREAZENThe Russians, the evil Russians their point -- this is another direct quote "to keep the tyrant, the killer of children, the butcher of women, the butcher of old people in control." And so you see the kind of fury that this is sparking among those who we see as our ally. One of the groups that was bombed is called (unintelligible) This is a group lead by a Syrian army defector, trained by the CIA, that have publically condemned ISIS and publically endorsed the US, which is very rare for an ally of any country to say in that region, we want to be a friend of the US. They have done that.
DREAZENThey are now being bombed. The US is not saying we're doing anything beyond very mealy-mouthed statements.
GHATTASI think that's the real tragedy here is that yesterday The Daily Beast quoted a Pentagon official saying that they are not about to go in and help or assist or protect in any sort of way those American-backed rebels on the ground. They're not about to shoot down, you know, the Americans aren't going to shoot down a Russian plane for them and they're also not going to be providing air cover.
GHATTASAnd I think that really leaves those people on the ground that Yochi just mentioned with a real sense of betrayal and disappointment. I think we have to give Putin credit, Mr. Putin credit for one thing and that is refocusing everybody's attention on this conflict because although there is no near -- no solution in sight, it has focused everyone's mind again on this conflict because for the last two years, basically since the last Syrian peace conference, if you want to call it that, in Montreux in Switzerland, no one's really done anything to convene a high level meeting on Syria.
GHATTASWe have one lone UN envoy desperately trying to go about negotiating local cease fires. And now, all of a sudden, because of Russia's action, I'm not saying it's a good thing, but it does mean that everybody's suddenly focused again on what do we do to end this conflict.
BLOCKLet's provoke the conversation. We will be taking your comments and questions throughout the hour. You can call us on 800-433-8850. Send us your email to email@example.com or join us on Facebook or Twitter. We would like to hear from you. Shane Harris, let me turn to you. Your assessment of Vladimir Putin's real intentions in Syria. We talked about this on the program yesterday as well.
HARRISYeah, I think we know that we have to and obviously it's always hard to see in the mind of Vladimir Putin. But we can look at what his actions have been thus far compared to what he says his intentions are. One thing he has said that appears to be backed up by his actions is that they're there to support the government of Bashar al-Assad. He said that he -- in his speech at the United Nations General Assembly earlier this week, he said that the United States and their allies were making an enormous mistake by not supporting what he sees as the legitimate government of Syria and working with Bashar al-Assad to form some sort of political solution.
HARRISPutin clearly wants a seat at the table and what that negotiation is going to be and to have a hand in saying what the future of Syria is going to look like. You're picking up signals, I think, not so subtly from Russia officials that they're not necessarily wedded to Assad, but Putin wants to have a say for what is going to be that sort of Syrian government infrastructure that comes after. But, you know, you're looking also at his broader statement of, well, we're going to go after ISIS and we're going combat the forces of tyranny of evil and all this and form an international coalition. Well, good luck, many US officials are saying, because that's something that we've been trying to do for about a year with very little success.
HARRISI think his goals are actually quite limited and mainly about propping up the regime at Damascus.
BLOCKYochi, what about that? I mean, is there a broader message here about Putin's world view and Russian hegemony well beyond its borders?
DREAZENYeah, there is. I mean, Russia looks back at the toppling of Gadhafi in Libya which was lead by the US, endorsed by the UN as betrayal. I mean, they say, you, the US, want -- you portray this as a human rights issue, that you were going to stop a massacre and that was it. Instead, you toppled the government. He wants to keep government in place, especially that of Assad which he sees as an ally. You know, to Kim's point about reframing the conversation, what he's managed to do incredibly well is now put something that was off the table and unimaginable a year ago, Assad staying in power at least for some short term, on the table again.
DREAZENThe US has kind of wink-nodded that maybe Assad could be there for some short period of time. The British have said it more explicitly. The French and Germans have said it. So people who were saying six months ago, precondition Assad goes, now are sort of, because of Putin, wink-nodding maybe Assad stays a little bit longer. You can also envision the outlines of a deal in which the US kind of either explicitly or wink-nods or the Israelis, for that matter -- Bibi Netanyahu was in Russia to meet with Putin. Those kind of meetings are often undercover where they say it's not Assad, but you, Moscow, get to pick.
DREAZENYou pick the next strong man. It's not going to be a Democrat. It'll be another thug, but you pick the next thug. We're find with it. And that's kind of what Putin wants.
BLOCKSo what then has happened to the Obama administration's stated policy, flat out saying, Assad must go. I mean...
GHATTASThere's so many red lines that have been ignored.
GHATTASOver the last few years. But I think, you know, Yochi is right because when you look at what kind of strikes the Russians have been conducting -- as we mentioned, they've not really targeted ISIS areas, although this morning there are reports of one target against an ISIS stronghold in Raqqah, but I was speaking to an activist in Raqqah this morning and he said we're not really sure who was bombing us, but we were bombed. It could be the Russians. It could be the Syrians. It could be the Americans. We just don't know.
GHATTASWhat the Russians have done is targeted rebels that are right sort of on the front line between -- in those areas between -- the front line, sorry, between the rebels and the Assad forces. So they're helping, in essence, the Assad forces push back or feel less under threat from those rebels that were making some progress over the last few months. I spoke to somebody in Damascus yesterday who said that the mood in Damascus over the last few weeks had really been one of wondering whether the regime was about to fall, whether this was really its last stretch.
GHATTASI know there have been many predictions about President Assad about to fall, but there was very much that mood in Damascus and what the Russians have done is made it possible for President Assad to have a stronger hand if there are negotiations. I think that is their first goal, to make sure that he and they get a seat at the table and a say.
BLOCKAnd Shane Harris, one other end result here is that this focus of Russia on Syria now has diverted attention from Russian aggression in Ukraine.
HARRISRight. That's, you know, that's kind of fallen off the radar, hasn't it? I mean, you see some of the daily monitoring reports coming out of there. It seems like maybe Russian activity has, you know, slowed down a bit. But yeah, now Vladimir Putin is engaged in two fronts and we're really only paying attention to one of them.
BLOCKAnd more on this in a moment. Coming up, more of the Friday News Roundup. This is "The Diane Rehm Show."
BLOCKWelcome back. I'm Melissa Block, sitting in for Diane Rehm, and joined here this hour for the Friday News Roundup by Shane Harris, senior correspondent with The Daily Beast, also Kim Ghattas, international affairs correspondent with the BBC, and Yochi Dreazen, managing editor for Foreign Policy. And, again, thanks to the three of you for being here. We'd also like you to join our conversation. We'll take your comments and questions throughout the hour. You can call us on 800-433-8850, send us your email at firstname.lastname@example.org, or join us on Facebook or Twitter. We would like to hear from you.
BLOCKI want to talk about what's been going on this week in Afghanistan -- some pretty stunning developments there, Yochi -- the Taliban talking control of the city of Kunduz in the north of the country earlier this week. There have been reports that Afghan forces, backed by the U.S. and NATO allies, have retaken Kunduz, maybe retaken parts of Kunduz. What's the reality there? The fighting is ongoing?
DREAZENThe fighting is ongoing. I spent considerable amounts of time in Kunduz, which had been a very quiet city. I mean this was seen as actually a safe place in and around Kabul where -- if you didn't want to see the fighting, you wanted to see other parts of Afghanistan -- you would go to.
DREAZENWhat's remarkable is that the Taliban control the south and have either de facto or officially for years. They're very strong in the east. They have not, until recently, been strong in the west, the north or the center. They're now hitting Kabul with impunity, they're striking in the west with impunity and now they're hitting in the north with impunity. They have retaken at times parts of Kandahar, a city in the south, other parts of Helmand, but Kunduz is a major city. This isn't like a random little town the Taliban rolled into, put the flag on a little building and called it a day. This is a serious, major large city. It has great restaurants, which I've eaten at. I mean, it's really kind of a -- not a pretty city, but I'd say a major city...
BLOCKAnd strategic too?
DREAZENStrategic in a sense that it's on a pathway into Kabul and strategic in a sense that it's a major city. For them to say they've taken it's a big deal.
DREAZENIt's also worth remembering that when the U.S. invaded Afghanistan in 2001, our allies were the Northern Alliance, because the north had been a hotbed of the anti-Taliban forces even before we got there. The north had always been a place that the U.S. could sort of reliably say, the West doesn't have to worry about it because the Taliban can't get there -- couldn't get there during the war, couldn't get there now. Now the Taliban is there. So in terms of strategic significance, it's on the outskirts of Kabul, you know, it's not far of a ride. They had not been able to get there before. And the Northern Alliance had been a strong force against the Taliban. The Taliban are now showing they can operate there with impunity.
BLOCKWell, Kim Ghattas, what is the message then? If the Taliban can operate in this part of the country with impunity, what does that mean?
GHATTASWell, it means that the narrative that had been put out that the insurgency was strong in the countryside but they weren't able to take over cities, I think that narrative is, you know, gone now. It is a real setback for President Ashraf Ghani, who marked his one year in power on Tuesday. Reports this morning from Kunduz said that the government had taken control of key areas of the city. So they have made some progress. They were helped by coalition special forces, including advisers who had called in airstrikes. So it doesn't appear as though it's a complete rout.
GHATTASBut it is a very symbolic victory for the Taliban, that they could take this city of 300,000, the fifth largest city in Afghanistan. And it is also strategic in the sense that it is on the route toward Tajikistan and it is a rich agricultural area. So it serves two purposes: It serves for revenue, they can tax farmers. And it serves to help the drug trade route to Tajikistan. And then there was a very interesting piece written by Ahmed Rashid, an expert on Afghanistan and Pakistan, who said it is also interesting for the Taliban because amongst, in their ranks, are Uzbeks and Chinese Uhghurs and other, you know, Islamists from, you know, those areas. And that provides a conduit for them to go to these countries as well and try to infiltrate back into those countries.
BLOCKShane Harris, should there have been signs earlier though that the Taliban intended to do this. And if there were signs that this offensive was planned in -- around Kunduz, why wasn't more done to stop it?
HARRISWell, I don't know if it should have been -- this is something that we missed or not. I mean, I think, as my colleagues have said to this, is it's striking because I think for a long time we assumed that they had no capability to do this. So clearly they've been underestimated, these Taliban forces. You know, the other thing that this does is immediately calls into question the Obama administration's plan for withdrawing our remaining troops -- we have about 9,600 or so troops that are there right now. They are kind of more in a advisory -- they're not -- at this, you know, not sort of in the combat formations that they were before but, you know, this happened while they were there.
HARRISSo it immediately raises the question of do we need to have more troops? Should those troops leave? Why is it that these Afghan forces were not trained and equipped properly to stand up to the Taliban? There's great frustration coming out of the Pentagon right now, looking at the way that these forces have not really stood up. And drawing analogies to what happened when ISIS took over key cities in Iraq and we said, Now wait a minute, this Iraqi military, which we spent all this time training you to stand up to these forces and these insurgencies, just melted away in the face of them. And of course the White House was criticized for having pulled out the troops from Iraq and somehow letting that happen.
HARRISNow this is going to immediately, I think, call into question whether or not those troops are going to be gone by the time Obama leaves office.
BLOCKAnd what about that question, Yochi, of the robustness of the Afghan security forces and the point that Shane makes. And will you see, as we did in Iraq, these trained security forces completely unable to hold territory?
DREAZENYou know, one thing, briefly, on a point Shane made. In an amazing bit of timing for journalists who want to cover this, John Campbell, who's the top commander in Afghanistan, will be testifying in Washington this coming week. So you can imagine there will be lots of questions...
BLOCKMaybe a little bit to talk about, huh?
DREAZENRight. You can -- I think we can assume this will come up. It is interesting, the joke for a long time in Afghanistan had been that the U.S. was arming the only Afghan man who didn't like to fight, you know, a sort of reference to the decade of civil war. The Afghan troops here fought better than the Iraqi counterparts had done in Iraq and actually took fairly significant casualties. They didn't simply flee like the Iraqis had done. The fact that they were able to retake the city, at least in part, within a day or two -- again, it's not Iraq. I think Shane's exactly right that in the Pentagon they're saying maybe it's not Iraq now, but we can't let it be Iraq, therefore keep more troops.
DREAZENBut the Afghans have fought better than they had a short time ago and certainly better than the Iraqis have at any point since the U.S. left.
BLOCKKim Ghattas, when you look at Taliban control of Afghanistan and what it means for civilian life, what is that picture?
GHATTASWell, in just the four days or three days that they controlled Kunduz, there were terrible echoes of the 1990s. The Taliban said that they were, you know, not going to loot or carry extrajudicial killings, but that was exactly the promise they made in the '90s and they did so anyway. There were reports of bodies, you know, lying on the ground, of banks being looted, buildings put on fire. And they were looking for anyone who worked with a center supporting women, for example, anything that had to do with women, they were after that.
GHATTASSo it brings terrible memories back for the people in the city. But as Yochi pointed out, I do think that the Afghan forces showed a bit more mettle than the Iraqis. And it's important to remember that it takes time, also, to develop the kind of structure, command leadership that is required in situations when they're really being put to the test for the first time. I think this is probably the first real test that the Afghan forces have faced in a situation like this when the Taliban are trying to take over a city. And we'll have to see how, you know, how it unfolds. There's -- the Taliban are still massing around Kunduz, so it's not as though they have given up.
BLOCKYochi, in your time in Afghanistan, I'm curious about this. I mean, there seem to be some degree of popular support for the Taliban, precisely because the government of President Hamid Karzai was so corrupt and was so completely unable to provide services. With the new regime now, of President Ashraf Ghani, is there any change in that? I mean, do people have any more confidence now in their central government then they may have before?
DREAZENI that'll be more obvious because he is not corrupt. But at the same time, he's so new. When I was there, what was often striking was less people discussing Karzai and therefore not liking them, and just more people didn't know Karzai. Kabul was an alien city that most Afghans had never been to...
DREAZEN...might never go to. Especially in the east, the valleys there are so isolated, you have people that I would meet routinely on combat imbeds with the U.S. who had never left the valley, let alone left the province, let alone been to Kabul, let alone had grand thoughts about the government of Afghanistan. Afghanistan is so canonized, it's so Balkanized in every sense -- I mean, ethnically, religiously, sectarian, but also geographically -- that you really literally have people from Kabul, it might as well be Detroit. I mean they will never go there, they've never heard of it.
DREAZENOne thing, we're all, I think, very reluctant -- all of us a journalists -- to ever say X is like Viet Nam.
DREAZENIt's lazy. It's cliché. One thing, though, that is kind of alarming to me, what you're hearing from the Pentagon more and more and more is: Well sure something horrible happened, but it's just a PR victory for the Taliban. It's just them trying to send a signal because they're desperate, on their last legs -- which is absurd. When the Taliban conquer a city, they're not conquering it so they could say: Look at us, look at us. We conquered a city and then that's the only reason. They're conquering a city because they can conquer a city. And when you hear the Pentagon try to spin this as: Well, it's just a PR loss for us. It's just a communications loss. That is absurd and that does make you have sort of faint echoes of the way the U.S. talked in Viet Nam.
BLOCKYeah. And Shane Harris, talk a bit more about what the conversation is, likely, behind the scenes here among policy makers and in particular the Pentagon and the White House, about U.S. presence in Afghanistan and what this portends.
HARRISWell you obviously -- we've heard comments coming out of the Pentagon now about whether or not these forces are up to it. McCain and Congressman Thornberry have come out publicly and questioned whether or not they were properly trained and why we are planning on taking these forces out at the end of 2016. So there is definitely going to be a conversation now about, you know, rethinking the policy. And to Yochi's point about, you know, why it's so clearly not just about PR, the neighboring towns around Kunduz are emptying out. I mean people are fleeing already. And there, that's what gives you a sign of both their lack of confidence, I think, in their military forces and in their central government.
HARRISAnd certainly the people on the ground do not see this as merely a PR strategy or a stunt. They believe that clearly these Taliban forces mean business and are extremely capable in a way that we had not anticipated, frankly, in the U.S. government.
BLOCKIs there public appetite for extending the U.S. mission in Afghanistan, Kim?
GHATTASI would say, no. But I leave it to Yochi to add.
DREAZENNo, I don't think there is public. I don't think the Congress wants to do it, certainly the president doesn't want to do it. It's not been an issue that's been on the campaign trail very much, which is interesting. And it'll be interesting to see if it becomes an issue that's talked about in 2016. Iraq is talked about. Republicans have been able to say: Let's not blame George W. Bush for Iraq, let's blame Barack Obama. And it'll be interesting to see if they try to now say the same thing about Afghanistan. Let's not blame anything Bush did in mismanaging it, shifting from Afghanistan to Iraq for the Iraq war. If they can just make this yet another issue where they say: Blame Obama, blame Obama, blame Obama. That may be the most interesting part going forward.
GHATTASAnd I don't think there's any appetite in this White House to extend the mission or pour more troops in. And it'll be something that this president will leave for his successor to deal with.
HARRISAnd you could imagine sort of leaving a, you know, a small, nominal kind of force there, not quite taking them out and somehow handing the baton off to the next administration as well. I mean we only have 9,600 troops right now. They're not engaged in active combat. I think for most of the American public, we don't pay attention to what's going on in Afghanistan anymore. The question would be whether or not you would put more forces in and sort of reposition our strategy there. That would be, I think, the more politically higher wall to climb.
BLOCKI'm Melissa Block with NPR News. You're listening to "The Diane Rehm Show."
DREAZENJust one thing.
BLOCKAnd if you'd like to join us -- one second, Yochi -- you can call us at 1-800-433-8850. Send us an email to email@example.com. You can also find us on Facebook or send us a tweet. We'd like to hear your thoughts on this international hour of the Friday News Roundup. Yochi, go ahead.
DREAZENI'm sorry about that. Just a very, very quick add to what Shane said. I think so long as Americans are not dying, to be just cold and cynical about it, the American public doesn't care. Say, when you have incidents like today where you had an American cargo plane go down, roughly 13 people died, most of them American, then sort of there's, the public again remembers: Oh, we're at war and Americans die.
DREAZENBut otherwise, unless Americans die in Afghanistan, it's so off our radar screen people don't care.
GHATTASAnd it depends how strong the Taliban offensive will be and how will it unfold in the coming days. Because reports from Afghanistan -- and perhaps Shane and Yochi have more on this -- say that coalition forces did engage in combat when they encountered insurgent threats. So that -- those -- the rules of engagement do allow them to engage in combat if they face direct threat.
BLOCKLet's go to the phones. We have a call from Travis in Columbia, Md. Travis has a question, I believe, referring to our conversation earlier about Syria. Travis, you're on the air.
TRAVISHi, guys. Thank you for taking my call.
TRAVISI'm just wondering if you can discuss a little bit between the CIA militants, which are backed by the U.S., Turkey and Saudi Arabia, and ISIS? It would appear that all of the above are Islamist Jihads and that if there's a chance that we might actually be on the wrong side of this whole affair?
BLOCKOkay. Travis, thanks for your call. Shane, do you want to tackle that one?
HARRISYes. So here we get into the very difficult kind of taxonomy of rebel groups and what is a moderate rebel and who is a fundamentalist, et cetera? Right now, what the CIA has backed is this group of fighters that have said they are there to oppose ISIS and to stop the spread of the Islamic State. And they have agreed not to fight against the regime of Assad. So these are groups that we look at and we say: We can deal with you because we have the same goals and you've agreed to attack ISIS, which is what we want. And we don't want to go after Assad.
HARRISThen, in the mix, there are lots of other groups. There is ISIS, obviously. There's al-Qaida's branch in Syria, which is al-Nusra. And then there are other rebel groups fighting against Assad, some of whom have formed alliances with al-Nusra at times. In fact, the CIA group actually, that was attacked by the Russian airstrikes just this week, were found to be garrisoned in the same location as some al-Qaida fighters.
HARRISSo there are sort of blendings between all of these groups and they shift from day to day. It's very hard to keep track of it. But what the U.S. government generally has tried to do with the CIA program and the military program is just find these, like, rare subsets of people who will commit to doing exactly what we want. But I think we saw this week that even those goals have limits.
GHATTASThere are also the rebels who are in southern Syria. And they've been holding territory, fighting against Assad. Jabhat al-Nusra is present in the south of the country, but not ISIS so far. And these rebels have been, you know, at about 35 kilometers away from Damascus, so they do pose a threat to President Assad. And they are trained and armed by a coalition of countries led by the U.S. and the CIA, and the operations are run out of Jordan. So there are also those rebels that still pose a direct threat to President Assad.
GHATTASAnd I think, going back to the bit of our discussion earlier about, you know, what happens, you know, is there a solution possible? I think we need to take two things into consideration. One is there could be a political settlement negotiated at the top, but what do you do with these 7,000, you know, rebel groups that are on the ground? It's going to be very difficult to bring the conflict to an actual end. President Assad only controls 20 percent of the country's territory. And the other factor in all of this is what is the Saudi reaction going to be? Because they have been arming some of these rebels and that's why we've seen some of those advances that they made over the last few months.
GHATTASThe U.S. -- the Saudi Foreign Minister Adel al-Jubeir, yesterday at the U.N., was asked about his reaction to the Russian strikes. He said, this is a red blind. Asked whether there would be a military response, he didn't elaborate but he said, you'll see. So we have to take all those factors into consideration.
BLOCKAnd, Yochi, in terms of the U.S.-backed rebels. What are the numbers that we're talking about?
DREAZENSome of this is in the category of, it would be funny if it wasn't so sad. The U.S. has budgeted and spend roughly $500 million. This is the military side...
DREAZEN...separately from what the CIA is doing and spending, to train moderate rebels. There are about nine, single-digit, nine, who are thought to be...
DREAZENTotal, who are thought to be in Syria fighting. The first group that went in were immediately captured. Some were killed. Some are thought to have switched sides now and are fighting for ISIS. So you have $500 million budgeted, nine fighting and trained. The fury about this on the Hill among Democrats and Republicans is justifiably staggering. It's a fiasco, it's an embarrassment. These are the kind of words you hear from Democrats describing a program backed by the White House. You also have heard an amazing bit of White House spin. You've heard the White House say: Well, see, we didn't ever want to do this training program. You, Congress, wanted to do it and now look what happened.
DREAZENWhich is kind of remarkable to say: It's not us. You wanted it. The fact that it's not going well, blame yourselves.
BLOCKThat's Yochi Dreazen, managing editor with Foreign Policy. Also joined here this hour by Kim Ghattas with the BBC and Shane Harris with The Daily Beast. Coming up, your calls and questions for our panel. Thanks for listening. We'll be right back.
BLOCKWelcome back, I'm Melissa Block with NPR News, sitting in for Diane Rehm. And we invite you to join our conversation. We will take some of your comments and questions. You can call us on 800-433-8850. Send your email at firstname.lastname@example.org. Or of course join us on Facebook or Twitter. I'm joined for this international hour by Shane Harris with the Daily Beast, Kim Ghattas with the BBC and Yochi Dreazen with Foreign Policy. Let's go to the phones, and I'm curious to bring into the conversation Ben in Atlanta, Georgia. Ben, you're on the air.
BENYes, ma'am, thank you for taking my call, Melissa.
BENI was wondering basically a question because it just, it seems that everywhere we have backed up removing somebody from power that it hasn't -- it's just contributed to further destabilization in the area and that it just hasn't worked out so well, and perhaps this thing with Putin may be just a choice between the lesser of two evils. And I'll take my answer off the air.
BLOCKOkay, thanks for your call, Ben, and for your question.
GHATTASI think it's a very valid question. I think that President Putin actually alluded to that in his speech when he said that looking at what the American strategy had been in the Middle East to try to promote democracy, it had only led to violence and social disaster, and anyway, nobody cares a bit about human rights, including the right to life. That was Mr. Putin's reaction to what America's strategy has been in the region.
GHATTASI think it is a very valid question, but it's also very important to remember that this started as a civil uprising against a ruthless ruler. You know, Syrians had lived under the rule of the Assad family for over three decades, four decades, and there was a reason why they took to the streets demanding more rights, demanding more freedom, demanding more justice.
GHATTASUnfortunately, it, you know, turned into a civil war, and then it became a proxy war with all those different players getting involved. But that is definitely what some Western leaders are thinking. That's what Mr. Putin is thinking, that, you know, Mr. Assad is the lesser of two evils, you know, the main threat is from the Islamists, the radical Islamists that are ISIS, the Islamic militants that are holding territory in both Syria and Iraq, but for a lot of Syrians, you know, the majority of Syrian casualties are still taking place because of a bombing by Assad forces.
GHATTASSo it's a very hard sell for the Syrian people to accept that Mr. Assad should remain in power.
BLOCKYeah, and Yochi, what about Ben's point that the alternative to Bashar al-Assad could very well be worse?
DREAZENYeah, I think Ben framed the question perfectly. It is possible that if he fell, he would be replaced by somebody much worse. It's also possible that if he fell, whatever chemical weapons might still be in the country would end up in the hands of groups like ISIS. But we have an interesting test case for where the U.S. had the choice about backing a strong man or a democrat and did what I think many cynics would've expected them to do, which is Egypt.
DREAZENYou had Mubarak fall. You had a freely democrat, the elected Islamist, pushed out in a coup, a word the U.S. wouldn't use -- wouldn't use and replaced by a man who's an autocrat. Abdel Fattah el-Sis arrests journalists, sentences thousands of people to death with show trials. He is so far from a democrat it's almost spinning to the other extreme, and the U.S. loves him. He is our ally.
DREAZENAnd the other Gulf Arab states love him. So it isn't simply an abstract choice. When the U.S. is now getting actual choices, they are choosing autocrats.
BLOCKLet's take another call now. I'd like to hear from Zafar in Fairfax, Virginia. Zafar, you're on the air.
ZAFARHi, Melissa, thanks for taking my call.
ZAFARI am an Afghan refugee myself, and so I can't help but see the parallels of Syria to Afghanistan, and Afghanistan, over a million have been -- lost their lives fighting America's battle with Russia. And I can't help but the same thing is happening in Syria right now. And what I'm amazed at is the media not holding the people in power responsible. Why are we framing about oh, Putin or Obama? This is nothing to do with Putin, nothing to do with Obama.
ZAFARIf we are not arming the Free Syrian Army, which back in Afghanistan we called them the freedom fighters, but as we all know, most of them turned out to be terrorists. So your two callers previously mentioned nothing we have done before has worked, and what if we are backing the wrong side, which I will say we are, guaranteed we are backing the wrong side, but the media, can we hold the people in power responsible instead of being a mouthpiece and pitting Russia against the United States, which is just going to make it worse for the Syrian people? Let the Syrians figure it out themselves.
BLOCKOkay, Zafar, thank you for your call. Shane Harris, what about that?
HARRISYes, two thoughts. In response to the comparisons to what's happening now with what happened in Afghanistan, where of course the Russians fought a long war, and we armed Mujahedeen rebels there, there are several people in the administration, including in the White House, who are I think secretly hoping that this is a repeat of that and that would like to see Putin get bogged down in the quagmire of Syria just the way that his predecessors did in Afghanistan.
HARRISIt's a bit of a cavalier kind of attitude in my opinion, but there are people who are sort of betting on that. And on the question of, you know, getting behind certain groups, you know, the Obama administration has long said Assad must go, and if there has to be a political solution, but when the question has come up internally in meetings about this and famously did so when Obama had his national security advisors with him, about this question of arming the opposition more broadly, the president asked his advisors, name me one instance in which U.S. intervention in arming an insurgency has worked out well and solved the problem. And no one had an answer.
HARRISAnd that has sort of been the stopping point for this administration. And so we make these public calls for him to go, we want a political solution, but there is a point up to which we are only going to get so involved. And this administration has just never had an appetite for arming any of those groups, and it's why the ones that we do work with, who fit these narrow criteria, are, you know, truly numbering in the hundreds or thousands, that's it.
BLOCKThere was an email that came in from a listener named Jim in Ohio, who asks this, fight ISIS, face their wrath. Leave them alone, still face their wrath. We should simply cut our losses, take the hit to our dignity and prepare for whatever is next. His question is this. Are there any U.S. politicians saying as much? Yochi?
DREAZENYes, Donald Trump is one of them. Rand Paul is another. During the Republican debate, Trump's kind of -- in his typical, bombastic, hand-waving way, was basically let them fight it out. We should not get in the middle. Let them kill each other, let them fight themselves to a bloody standstill, and then we can swoop in and do what we need at the end.
DREAZENBut it's becoming a very popular point of view across -- even in a hawkish party like the Republicans, to say nothing of the Democratic Party, where you have a strongly isolationist way of this has not worked for us, we've been in Afghanistan 13, 14 years now, Iraq we've been there since 2003, it's not working in either country, it's not working in Syria, let's just get out.
BLOCKAre we hearing that from other members of Congress besides Ran Paul, Kim?
GHATTASI'm not sure it's such a clear-cut possibility. I just don't think that it's possible for the U.S. to cut its losses and leave. I take the point that it hasn't paid off in the past to arm rebel groups, that this is not, you know, America's fight, let them fight it out in the region, but the fact is that the U.S. is involved, there is a coalition that is fighting ISIS.
GHATTASThe U.S. has armed rebels. President Assad has called -- President Obama has called on President Assad to step down. So it's a little bit too late now to say, you know, we're just going to wash our hands off of this. And it is also cavalier for people in the DOD to say, well, you know, we hope that this becomes another Afghanistan for Putin. There are 17 million people in Syria still suffering. There are 4 million refugees in neighboring countries. There are almost 2 million refugees who have arrived in Europe since 2011, 2012.
GHATTASThere are 12 million people in need of assistance in Syria, 9 million internally displaced. This is a global tragedy of -- the likes of which we have not seen since World War II, and that cannot be ignored. There is need for global leadership, as well.
BLOCKWell, let's talk about that migrant crisis and the recent flood of migrants, especially, to Europe. This was supposed to be a key topic at the U.N. General Assembly this week largely overshadowed by the more recent pressing news of what's going on in both Afghanistan and in Syria, Shane?
HARRISYeah, I think this was the point at which, you know, the world is coming together for the General Assembly, that you would have thought this would have been addressed. And instead what you see is, you know, the president of Hungary coming out and talking about, well, why aren't more countries, you know, why aren't the Americas taking more, why aren't Middle Eastern countries taking more. You're talking about, you know, putting -- he's sort of not calling it a refugee crisis but a mass migration movement, and so even bickering over what the definitions we should be using are.
HARRISI think Yochi was mentioning earlier, I mean, the numbers of people who were staked out for the press conference on the refugee crisis compared to the number that were staked out for Putin and Obama...
BLOCKYeah, what happened there, Yochi?
DREAZENIt was really striking. A colleague of mine was at the U.N. There were about 100 reporters, 150, who were waiting for this very odd John Kerry-Sergey Lavrov meeting, which was -- we can come to it maybe in a later call. Then at the same time there's another stakeout for the end of an emergency meeting on the migration crisis, and there were about six reporters.
DREAZENAnd when the officials came out of the room and were asked questions, they basically said, we didn't accomplish anything, we're going to have another conference in a month maybe to schedule another conference after that and maybe a fourth conference after that, and maybe we'll have something to say at the end of the fourth conference.
DREAZENMeanwhile you have leaders like the leader of Hungary, who is putting in a quota system, who has his troops at the border with Billy clubs, with barbed wire. So you're beginning to see open talk from him and others saying Christians are welcome, Muslims are not. You know, Kim's point on the human toll, it's staggering. It's threat to the future of the EU, staggering. And the kind of overt racism and xenophobia of saying Christians, yes, Muslims, no, it's so deeply unpleasant.
DREAZENI mean, just as a Jewish person, thinking about the kind of language that was used in the '30s about Jews, hearing that same language about Muslims, again not saying that we are in the '30s again, but that same sort of echo of just blind ignorance and hatred, it's really discomfiting.
BLOCKAnd what does it say, do you think, that that issue, which was -- which is so vital and has drawn so much attention, was largely overshadowed, and so few people were paying attention to it at the U.N.?
DREAZENI think it's because nobody wants to deal with it. Nobody wants to spend the money. Nobody wants to open their borders, except for the Germans, who are willing to accept 800,000. But there's no -- not even a silver bullet. There's not even a box of bullets to pull bullets out of and hope one of them is silver because nobody wants to deal with it. They want to just hope it goes away.
BLOCKAlso at the U.N. this week, the Palestinian President Mahmoud Abbas had warned before his speech that he would dropping a bombshell during his speech on Wednesday. Kim, was there a bombshell?
GHATTASWell, it depends whether he's going to actually do what he said he was going to do. He told the assembly that the Palestinian authority would no longer be bound by the Oslo Peace Accords, which are basically the cornerstone of the peace process. The accords were signed in 1993. But if he doesn't want to abide by those accords anymore, he actually needs to take some steps. He needs to basically dismantle the Palestinian Authority and hand over the West Bank to the Israelis, and there is no sign that he is willing to do that.
GHATTASThere was, you know, one positive moment at the U.N. on the Palestinian issue, which was the raising of the Palestinian flag at the U.N., as well...
BLOCKFor the first time.
GHATTASFor the first time ever. That comes after, in 2012, the U.N. General Assembly voted to upgrade the status of the Palestinians to that of non-member observer state. I think there is a lot of frustration amongst Palestinians, both the leadership but also the people, that this conflict of their has taken a backseat to all the other crises that are unfolding around the world.
BLOCKI'm Melissa Block, and you're listening to the Diane Rehm Show, Joined here again this hour by Shane Harris with the Daily Beast, Kim Ghattas with the BBC and Yochi Dreazen with Foreign Policy. Let's go back to the phones and take a call from Richard in Raleigh, North Carolina. Richard, you're on the air.
RICHARDYes, we find ourselves in a maelstrom that it seems no one has a grasp on between the administration, the military, the intelligence group, Congress. And I was wondering if any of your guests see any exit from this. And when will President Haliburton Chaney and his minions finally be put in the deepest, darkest prison we have?
BLOCKAh, okay, okay, Richard, thank you. We've got two very different questions there. I think, Shane, probably you can tackle the first. I'm not sure about the second.
HARRISYeah, maelstrom is a great way to describe this, and we're literally sitting here, by the way, as a hurricane is bearing down on the East Coast, as if we needed more metaphors colliding. But no, I don't see the exit, and frankly I don't think anyone in the administration does, either. I mean, we talked earlier about the way that this has focused the mind on the crisis in Syria. It has also focused attention on the fact that there really is not a coherent strategy right now in Syria and the administration, which I don't say this as a political critique, it is just simply a reality.
HARRISIf you talk to people in the intelligence community in the White House, in the State Department, in the Defense Department, you will get very different views, and what you will find is that there is confusion about what we are really doing. Vladimir Putin's entry has not only kind of focused attention but has completely changed the calculus now to -- my colleague in the Pentagon remarked that she talked to a defense official this week who said that he was watching President Obama's speech at the U.N. General Assembly to find out what our Syria policy is and to get some clarity on it. That's astonishing.
GHATTASI think that there is -- there are two things that various Western leaders should be looking at, and one is the dismal record in terms of responding to the appeal, the U.N. appeal for assistance to Syrian refugees. You know, a lot of the refugees who are heading to Europe are also leaving from those neighboring countries where they've been, Lebanon, Jordan and Turkey. And that's because the U.N. appeal for aid for Syria is only 38 percent funded, 38 percent.
GHATTASThat is rather shocking. It's very difficult for these host countries to deal with this on their own, as well. So that is one way that people can feel like they're actually doing something and contributing positively to trying to solve at least the humanitarian disaster and try to stem the flow of refugees towards Europe.
GHATTASAnd then there are those, like David Miliband from the International Rescue Committee and Hillary Clinton, presidential candidate, yesterday saying perhaps we should still look at a no-fly zone, which would at least allow people within Syria to come to safety on the territory. But I think that the entry of the Russians into the Syrian skies has made that a moot option.
BLOCKYochi, what would that mean, a no-fly zone over Syria? What would the implications of that be in practicality?
DREAZENIn practicality it would mean that the U.S. would theoretically be able to be shoot down helicopters or planes belonging to Bashar al-Assad. In theory also planes belonging to Russia. Turkey has wanted this for a very long time, and the U.S. has...
BLOCKThis is not a new idea.
DREAZENIt's not, and the U.S. has steadily said no. We are now in a de facto alliance with the Saud, we're in a de facto alliance with Iran in both Syria and Iraq, and we're in a sort of odd potential alliance with the Russians. So the reason why it hasn't happened is that the U.S. didn't want to fight Assad, in part because Assad was doing what we hoped he would do on the ground, and at least to some degree fighting ISIS.
DREAZENWhat's scary to me is not so much that there's a lack of a strategy, although that is -- Shane is exactly right. It's that when you talk to people in the military, you don't hear confidence. You don't hear people in the military say if we knew what the strategy was, then we could stop ISIS. You hear people in the military say also, we don't know if we can do it, we don't know if we can win. That's very different than what you heard before the Iraq surge, very different than what you heard before the Afghan surge.
DREAZENHere you hear real doubt even within the military about its own capabilities, and that's very jarring.
BLOCKShane Harris, you get the last word this hour.
HARRISYeah, I think that that's -- Yochi's put it just right. And I think that look, this is -- we're going to find out in the coming days what the world is going to look like. I mean, we're sort of living in Vladimir Putin's plan right now. It's difficult to overstate the degree to which he seems to now very much be the decisive figure at the table here, and I don't think any of us would've expected that, waking up to that reality a week ago.
BLOCKThat's Shane Harris, senior correspondent with The Daily Beast. He's also author of the book "At War: The Rise of the Military-Internet Complex." Also Kim Ghattas was here. She's international affairs correspondent, with the BBC and author of the book "The Secretary: A Journey with Hillary Clinton from Beirut to the Heart of American Power." And finally Yochi Dreazen, managing editor with Foreign Policy, also the author of "The Invisible Front," a book about a family fighting against military suicide. And Yochi, that book is out in paperback next week?
BLOCKThanks to the three of you for being with us.
DREAZENThank you very much, Melissa.
BLOCKI'm Melissa Block with NPR News, sitting in for Diane Rehm. Diane will be back on Monday. Thanks so much for listening.
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