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Russia’s stepped-up military actions in Syria are complicating an already complex and lethal situation: The U.S. says Russia is sending both combat weapons and troops to western Syria. Russia claims its efforts are aimed at Islamic State militants, but most analysts believe propping up Syrian President Bashar Assad is Russia’s main goal. Tensions are also on the rise following Russia’s recent incursions into Turkish air space. Critics of President Barack Obama charge that Russia is stepping into a power vacuum created by U.S policy, but others hold out hope that coordination with Russia could be positive. We discuss Russia’s military role in Syria.
- Fiona Hill Senior fellow and director, Brookings Institution's Center on the U.S. and Europe; co-author, "Mr. Putin: Operative in the Kremlin"
- Liz Sly Bureau chief, Beirut, Washington Post
- Robert Grenier Chair, ERG Partners, consulting for the intelligence and security industry; former director, CIA's Counter Terrorism Center (2004-2006); author, "88 Days to Kandahar: A CIA diary"
- Mark Mazzetti National security correspondent, The New York Times; author, "The Way of the Knife: The CIA, a Secret Army, and a War at the Ends of the Earth"
Video: NATO Responds To Russia In Turkish Airspace
MS. DIANE REHMThanks for joining us. I'm Diane Rehm. Some are calling Russia's military intervention a game changer in Syria's disastrous civil war, a conflict now in its fifth year. The U.S. and its allies are continuing to support rebel groups fighting against Syria's President Bashar al-Assad and ISIS, but Russia's stepped-up military efforts seem to be pro-Assad.
MS. DIANE REHMHere to talk about Russia's new moves and the U.S. response, Fiona Hill of The Brookings Institution, Robert Grenier, he's an intelligence and security industry consultant who was former director of the CIA's counterterrorism center. Joining us from a studio in Washington, Mark Mazzetti of the New York Times and from the NPR bureau in Beirut, Liz Sly of The Washington Post.
MS. DIANE REHMYou are always welcome to join us. Call us on 800-433-8850. Send an email to email@example.com. Follow us on Facebook or send us a tweet. And thank you all for being with us.
MS. FIONA HILLThank you, Diane.
MR. ROBERT GRENIERThank you, Diane.
MR. MARK MAZZETTIThank you.
MS. LIZ SLYThank you.
REHMLiz Sly, I'll start with you. You said Russia has taken the war in Syria to a new phase. Explain how. Oh, dear. I'm sorry, Liz. Would you be good enough to repeat that?
SLYYes, yes. Certainly. Can you hear me now?
SLYI think it's much too early to say whether Russia is going to bring enough force to bear to change the situation on the ground. But politically, it's certainly a game-changer 'cause what this means now is that anybody who wants to change the dynamic in Syria to challenge President Bashar al-Assad is going to have to take on Russia and we don't see a lot of will anywhere in the international community to do that and I'm not sure we have anybody on the ground capable of doing that.
SLYSo it changes the game in that sense, that Russia is now the one you have to go to if you want to remove Assad.
REHMAnd tell us where the Russian air strikes are taking place and to what effect?
SLYWell, most, the vast majority of them have been concentrated in an area of southern Idlib and northern Hama where rebels have been making gains over the past six to eight months. This is an area that the rebels had seized at the beginning of the revolution. The government had taken it back after they fought back. In recent months, the rebels have been creeping back into those areas again and they've been aided in that by U.S.-supplied missiles, anti-tank missiles.
SLYSo it's a very strategic area. If the government loses it, it loses control of its links between Damascus and its coastal heartland. And it looks like Russia is starting its war against ISIS by going after these areas.
REHMBut I gather Russia is denying what it calls volunteer troops to move in. What do we know about that?
SLYWell, that's all a bit hazy. There's been some talk in the Russian parliament that they're going to send volunteer troops. Russian government officials have denied that. But what we do know that both Putin and Lavrov have said you can't defeat ISIS with air strikes alone, which is clearly a jab against the U.S. strategy. So at some point, they themselves are saying that they're going to bring more to bear on this than just air strikes.
REHMAnd then, but there have been these incursions over Turkey, which Russia has said have been accidental errors. How accidental might they be?
SLYWell, it certainly looks like Russia is testing the limits here. Russia is clearly going after the anti-Assad rebellion, not just against ISIS. The anti-Assad rebellion gets its supplies across the Turkish border. Russia has been buzzing planes, flying very close, at least, to Turkish air space along that border. It looks like they're testing how far they can go to actually start bombing in that area to cut off rebel supply lines.
SLYAnd, obviously, this puts them up in confrontation with a NATO border and this is one of the reasons why this is so very dangerous and we really don't know where it's going to lead.
REHMTurning to you, Mark Mazzetti, now that you've got the Iraqis calling for Russian air strikes on the Islamic State in their country.
MAZZETTIRight. And to sort of reinforce a point that Liz made, the reason why this is so significant is because the stated goal of Putin is to go after ISIS. So you would have, you know, Iraqis asking for help on their end as well and so the official position between the United States and Russia is that we're on the same side fighting ISIS. The other motive, though, of course, is that Putin is trying to back up Assad.
MAZZETTIAnd what we've seen throughout this conflict over years is that the Obama administration has very, very little appetite to get involved in Syria, especially to try to raise pressure on Assad and to even bring down Assad. This has been going on for years. The only reason the United States got involved, really involved militarily last summer was to go after ISIS. So that's why you would see the Iraqis asking help of Vladimir Putin and why you see Putin's hand fairly strong because he knows that, and there's plenty of evidence of it, that the United States is very limited and has shown its limited willingness to really raise the pressure on Assad.
REHMTurning to you, Fiona Hill, at the UN meeting last week between President Obama and Russian President Putin, it was said that President Obama wanted to have assurance that President Putin would not be helping fight against those who are trying to get rid of al-Assad. He could not get that promise?
HILLI think it's certainly true that the Obama administration was hoping that the Russians would give them that kind of assurance. We certainly had that telegraphed very publically, not just privately by administration and their spokespeople. But there was obviously a lot of skepticism right from the first that the Russians only had goals against ISIS because the Russians themselves as we've all been saying, as Liz and Mark have also underscored, have been very clear that they intended to go after any of the opposition to Assad.
HILLThe way that they described their plans and talking about terrorists and if it looks like a terrorist and talks like a terrorist, their spokesperson has said that, again, then it is a terrorist. The fact that they really lumped a lot of the opposition into this, that they've been very critical about the idea that there was a moderate opposition and, in fact, that they'd made it very clear that they wanted to prop, as they said, the legal government of Syria, which is the government of Bashar al-Assad.
HILLSo the government -- our administration was very skeptical. They wanted to hear what Putin had to say. They did not get those reassurances and I think that, since then, they've been reassessing the situation.
REHMRobert Grenier, reassessing the situation?
GRENIERReassessing the situation in terms of what else we can do. Obviously, there are new pressures that are being exerted on the administration in virtue of Russia's aggressive involvement in the conflict right now. And I think that there are new options that are being looked at. Senator Kerry or former senator, now Secretary of State Kerry has asked for the U.S. military to take another hard look at possibly imposing no-fly zones, which could potentially put us in direct conflict with the Russians.
GRENIERBut I don't think that there's a great deal of enthusiasm on the part of the president to make any sharp departures in terms of U.S. policy in Syria.
REHMAnd Fiona, you've said we must be careful not to overreact. Would setting up or trying to set up a no-fly zone be overreacting?
HILLWell, it wouldn't have been overreacting, perhaps, at an earlier stage in the whole proceedings. Now, it's going to very difficult. This is precisely why the Russians have made the move that they have. They've actually prevented not just the United States from doing this, but also, as has been said, the Turks. I mean, for Russia, this is very much a multipronged action. It's not just against the United States. I mean, we have to be very careful about thinking this is just entirely directed the U.S. because Russia has other interests.
REHMWhat do they want? What do they want?
HILLRussia wants to make sure that if anything is going to be settled on the ground in Syria, no matter by who, that Russia is a central part of the debates going on and of the final settlement. And that means the Turks, also the Iranians, the Iraqis, anybody else who might have an interest in the conflict in Syria.
REHMSo Mark Mazzetti, what do we lose if it's perceived we're backing away and letting the Russians have at it?
MAZZETTIWell, I don't know. I mean, I think that the White House has been somewhat content to take the criticism that they have -- that they're not aggressive enough in Syria, that they're not supporting the rebels enough. I mean, this has been years of criticism. And I don't know whether it's -- I don't think that the White House is at all interested in a confrontation with Putin and especially over Syria. The United States has been trying for several years to use allies to support rebels.
MAZZETTIThe Saudis, the Jordanians, the Emirates, but not have that direct a role until last year when it started this training effort by the Pentagon, which we now know has been very much a failure, with very few rebels trained. So I mean, I think the White House has been content over the years to take the heat from the critics who say that they are not aggressive enough, that they're not asserting enough U.S. influence.
GRENIERWell, you know, one of the things that I think we need to underscore here is that there is a great deal of inherent ambiguity in the U.S.
REHMHold that thought, Robert. We're going to take a short break here. When we come back, we'll continue.
REHMAnd welcome back. We're talking about Russia's incursions into Syria, what they might mean, and just before the break, Robert Grenier, who is a consultant for the intelligence and security industry, former director of the CIA's Counter Terrorism Center, you used the words inherent ambiguity. What were you referring to?
GRENIERWell, there is a great deal of inherent ambiguity in the U.S. position on Syria. We are not simply opposed to the Bashar al-Assad regime. Yes, we are opposed to it, yes we do want to see it replaced, but we don't want to see it fall precipitously or at all once. And in fact if the regime were to fall tomorrow with nothing in place to replace it, then not only would that precipitate an even worse humanitarian crisis, it would also be very negative for U.S. interests politically in Syria and the region because it would be the Islamic extremists, not just the Islamic State, but other Islamic extremists who are also opposed to the Assad regime who would be in the forefront and who would gain unambiguously from that situation.
GRENIERSo in point of fact, we don't want to see Assad fall precipitously, and it's the Russians who are in a much better position to make sure that that doesn't happen precipitously. They can do things that we cannot.
REHMDo you agree with that, Fiona?
HILLI actually do, and I think that that's been Russia's point right from the very beginning. The Russians have always said that they saw Assad as part of the solution, not just the problem in Syria. In many respects, we are on very much the same page that we want to see some kind of orderly, at least this point disorderly is inevitable of course, successful and transition in place. If it's not going to be Assad, the Russians want to know who precisely is going to take his place. They're looking for another strongman.
HILLAnd they also do not want, just like the United States does not want, any kind of extremist government emerging in that space, and they really firmly believe that the Saudis and the Gulf States like Qatar have been propping up a lot of these extremist groups and that they are likely to become the benefactors, or the beneficiaries rather, of a collapse of Syria.
REHMAll right, but give me an orderly outline. If in fact there were to be a stepping-down of al-Assad without a total collapse of the government, is anyone standing there in the waiting wings?
GRENIEROne of the brilliant things about the Assad regime is that it has managed to construct a system, which is entirely dependent upon Bashar al-Assad and his family and his immediate associates. That is the great problem here. The problem, as the Russians are very quick to point out, is that if he were to fall tomorrow, there is no responsible party that is able to step in and maintain the coherence of the Syrian state, as opposed to the regime. That's what really needs to be constructed.
GRENIERAnd Russian influence and Russian knowledge of both the regime and the state structure could be very, very useful to us in the long term in constructing that sort of an alternative to Assad.
REHMMark Mazzetti, we have an email here from David. He's in Fremont, New Hampshire. He says, is there any chance the U.S. will simply pull out and allow Putin to own this quagmire? I wonder how long the Russians can maintain a war effort given their weakened economy.
MAZZETTII don't see any kind of full American pullout from Syria, especially as it relates to what the United States wants to do in Syria regarding ISIS. I mean, I'm sure that parts of the thinking in the administration are that we'll, you know, let Putin have his Afghanistan if he wants to -- if he wants to own it and get bogged down. But I think the stakes are very high. Certainly -- and the White House certainly knows that it can't just pull out entirely.
MAZZETTII think that Bob made a really good point before about what the United States wants and what it doesn't want in terms of the collapse of the Assad regime. I think a few years ago it may have been sort of easy to think, well, anyone but Assad and a collapse would've been okay. I mean, remember President Obama in the early months of the revolution said, you know, Assad must go. I think, though, that we've seen in the years since not only the rise of ISIS and what could happen in a vacuum in Syria but also the Libya example of the fall of Gaddafi, and it creates this failed state that could be a breeding ground for all sorts of militant groups.
MAZZETTIAnd I think that the administration is very concerned about that. So just pulling out is I think something that is not seriously being considered at this point.
REHMAnd speaking of Afghanistan, yesterday General John Kimball testified to the Senate Armed Forces Committee that he felt that the administration's plan to drastically reduce troop forces there was a mistake, and there was also talk about the deadly airstrike on a Doctors Without Borders hospital in Afghanistan. To what extent do we really have the facts on that, Fiona?
HILLWell, I think we're still trying to parse all of the information about this, but in many respects, if we put it into the context of what we're discussing now, we see that all of interventions are fraught with a great deal of difficulty, precisely because of all the things we've talked about, about the fluid dynamic of developments on the ground and how things change from day to day, not just from year to year, over the course of a conflict.
HILLThere's now a great deal now of soul-searching about the president's decision to withdraw on the timeline that was laid out a couple of years ago from Afghanistan, actually a lot of pressure, including even from the Russians behind the scenes, for the United States to stay in place because Russia has been actually very critical of the U.S. tendency to intervene and then pull out again, leaving, as Mark described quite eloquently there, a vacuum on the ground.
HILLAnd Libya has been a case in point, a very pointed case in point, and also references to Afghanistan by Mr. Putin in many respects about justifying Russia's intervention now in Syria.
GRENIEROn the other hand, however, the Russians, unlike us, are not at all shy about supporting brutal and repressive regimes. And you could state with a great deal of evidence on your side that the Putin regime is a brutal and aggressive one, particularly when we look at the manner in which they and governments before them have suppressed the Muslim Chechens within Russia itself. And therefore Putin is not at all shy about his unambiguous support for Assad. That is not a position which the U.S. can take morally or otherwise.
REHMBut Bob Grenier, you and others believe the U.S. missed a big opportunity early on in the Syrian crisis by not orchestrating a more aggressive response. What would you have had the U.S. do there?
GRENIERWell, let's think back to the very early day of the uprising against Assad. Initially it was a largely peaceful uprising against the president. It quickly became a militarized uprising against the president. But those who were in the lead of the opposition, the armed opposition to the Syrian regime in those days, were largely secular, and they were led by dissident elements within the Syrian army itself.
GRENIERAt that point, if we had come in forcefully, we may have been able to promote their success before a large political vacuum was created in the country, which was then very rapidly filled by Islamic extremists. Again, there may have been unintended consequences of those aggressive actions that we can't speak to right now, there always are.
REHMAren't there always?
GRENIERThat said, I felt very strongly at the time, and I think that the history is perhaps underscored, that had the U.S. been much more aggressive at the outset in supporting the armed opposition, history might have taken a very different course.
REHMLiz Sly, from your reporting, would you agree with that assessment?
SLYWell yes, I think it's fair to say that at the very beginning of this, there were -- this was a very organic revolution, from the grassroots, from little villages and towns around the country rising up to get rid of the government. Those people had no particular political agendas or Islamist agendas. They weren't influenced by anybody in particular. They just wanted a change of government. And I think if more had been done to help them much earlier on, we wouldn't be in the situation we are today, where you've got extreme radicalization on the part of some groups, quite considerable radicalization on others, and the moderates in the minority. And it might not be so complicated at this point to solve it.
REHMOn the other hand, where would the support have come from in this country, Fiona Hill, when you think about those in the American public who said no more, enough?
HILLWell, it's one of the things that the White House and the administration are reacting very strongly to, which is the lack of appetite in the American public in the period after the interventions in Afghanistan and Iraq and certainly the reaction towards Libya, which is still playing out, in fact, in the political campaign for the new presidency and also in Congress with all of the scrutiny to what happened in Benghazi.
HILLObviously in this kind of atmosphere, embarking on another venture, no matter what the case might be in favor of it, is very hard to contemplate, and I think the style of our president, which is very judicious, weighing up all of the different options and looking actually at the unintended consequence and trying to figure out, you know, how things can go wrong really pushed the administration in favor of trying to wait to see what would happen on the ground.
HILLAnd obviously we can make a very strong case for intervention now, but I think those who discussed it in the White House at the time were probably very mindful of the ways in which things could go wrong rather than being confident about the ways in which they might be able to turn the tide on the ground.
REHMMark Mazzetti, explain for us Russia's interest in Syria and why it has gone to such lengths to support the Assad regime.
MAZZETTIWell, I mean, Russia has longstanding ties to the Assad regime and has made it known for years that it was -- would go to great lengths to support the regime. It considers itself an ally in a very, very unstable region and that it is a bulwark against the forces of Islamic extremism that President Putin is quite concerned about. I mean, we should not forget that even before this recent Russian intervention in Syria, for years the Russians have been supplying the Syrian military and helping Assad fight the rebels.
MAZZETTIIt is -- they made no secret about this. Russia and Iran have been the biggest backers of the Syrian regime. So this is something that they have shown great consistency about. And I would like to, if I can, add on to talking about consistency, the issue of what the United States and what President Obama has thought about this war from early on, whether intervening early might make a difference. I think that what has been said, you know, there is a good case that early intervention may have made some kind of a difference, but the president has said throughout that this is a -- or said early on this is not our war. He was in the business of getting out of wars, not getting back into wars.
MAZZETTIAnd he likened it to the Congo and to the revolution and the civil war in the Congo. Now of course the rise of ISIS changed things, and it got the United States to intervene, but this is something that President Obama has channeled, I think thinking that the American public could not stomach another drawn-out ground war with American troops in the Middle East.
REHMAnd you're listening to the Diane Rehm Show. You know, what makes me wonder is why Russia would want to get involved in this to this extent, considering the experience they had in Afghanistan. Fiona?
HILLWell, I think Rob put his finger in part on this when he talked about Chechnya and the brutal war that Putin pursued in Chechnya the second time around, the second conflict in Chechnya. There's a very close link between what was happening in Chechnya and what's actually happening now in Syria. There are Chechen populations there. There is a lot of back and forth between extremist groups moving between Syria and Russia. In fact, there's large numbers, Putin has given various figures. I mean, I think it's probably hard to say exactly how many there are, but of foreign fighters coming from Russia.
HILLNot all Russian Muslims, but also converts and following the pattern from other countries -- Muslim and other fighters from around the periphery of Russia. The countries in the Caucuses and Central Asia are also fighting there. And during the war in Chechnya, the Russian secret services, the operatives, took out one of the Chechen leaders in a car bomb attack, it was proven that it was Russian operatives, in Doha in Qatar in February of 2004, who was recruiting actively in the Gulf and collecting money to send back to the Chechen rebels.
HILLAnd Assad, Bashar al-Assad, was one of the people who helped Putin in his pursuit of a victory in the Chechen war to cut off the supply lines to the Chechens in the 2000s. So there are lots of linkages there. Putin is very worried, like everyone else is, about the blowback from this conflict. And he also has gone on record multiple times as saying that he will also protect particularly an ally, the legal government of an allied country against any kind of opposition and any attempt to overthrow them.
HILLAnd he's pretty convinced that by doing this, he's sending a very strong signal to his own domestic audience and also to all of the other governments around like Egypt, Iran and others where Russia has very strong ties, that Russia will actually stick by its commitments to other governments.
REHMAnd Liz Sly, that's my next question, which is, how are the governments in the area, how are they reacting to what Russia is doing there, already problems with Turkey. What else do you hear?
SLYWell, basically a lot of the governments in this region are completely stunned. They cannot believe that a world they knew in which America was the only superpower, in which as long as you had a good relationship with America you were going to basically be safe, is now being turned upside-down by Russia wading in, contradicting American policies, taking matters under its own -- into its own hands. And so we actually saw quite a lot of silence for a while because people didn't quite know what to say.
SLYAnd what I think we're seeing now is that this is deeply polarizing the region yet again, as if the region could be even more polarized than it already is. Whereas, as you actually pointed out, some of the Shia pro-Iranian parliamentarians in Iraq saying they want Russia to come in and take over the Islamic states from America because they don't trust the Americans anymore.
SLYYou've got Turkey and Saudi Arabia hoping for some American pushback, but they -- I think they're feeling a big disappointed that there hasn't been a lot of pushback yet. And we've seen Egypt welcome these Russian strikes because Egypt also has very strained relations with America at the moment and has been warming its ties with Russia. So it's really a bit too early to tell at the moment, but it's certainly turning upside-down an established order in the Middle East that was already wobbling, but now it's really up in the air.
REHMAnd what about Turkey, Bob?
GRENIERWell, the Russia intervention is certainly not welcome by the Turks. And the Turks, like other of our allies in the region, have a different conception of the so-called hierarchy of threat. We are focused very much on Islamic State, ISIS, and secondarily the other Islamic extremists. The Turkish regime is very much focused on the overthrow of Assad, and that puts Russia directly opposed to them.
REHMRobert Grenier. When we come back, it's time to open the phones. I look forward to speaking with you.
REHMAnd it's time to open the phones, 800-433-8850. First let's to go Tampa, Florida, Alatabi, you're on the air.
ALATABIYes, Diane, I'm honored to speak with you.
ALATABIAnd your guests. My comment here, and I will leave it, I'll take the answer off the air, it's why we should trust the U.S. policy of defeating ISIS for when they've proven over these years they're not effective, apparently not in Iraq, not in Syria, why we should be trusting at this time and whey we should blame Putin for stepping down to help defeat it, where there's no other alternative, there's no other option besides that.
REHMNo other option beside Russia, Robert Grenier?
GRENIERWell, part of the difficulty here is that this fight against ISIS, upon which many of those who are nominally on our side and those who are opposed to us share as a goal also cuts across a broad regional difficulty between the Shiite and the Sunnis. And what the Russians have now done is they've come into that regional Sunni-Shiite divide unambiguously on the side of the Shiite. And I don't think that they're going to be able to prevail unilaterally.
GRENIERWhat the U.S. has tried to do has been to sort of bridge the divide, if you will. One of the reasons, for instance, that the Shiite-led Iraqi parliament is clamoring, at least some of them, for more Russian involvement is because they would rather come in unambiguously on the Shiite side and try to thoroughly defeat not only ISIS but the Sunnis who at least tacitly support them.
GRENIERWe in the United States certainly don't think that that is a prescription for peace and stability over the long term. Again, our policy is much more ambiguous one and I think properly so.
REHMInteresting. Here's an email from Nathan. He says, when your enemy is making a mistake, get out of the way and let them. If our leaders thought we would get bogged down if we had a military buildup, why do we think Russia will fare any better? This will weaken Russia to our longer-term benefit. Fiona?
HILLWell, I think it's a very good question about whether Russia can succeed, and it's precisely on this point about stepping in, as Rob says, quite unambiguously into this divide between Sunni and Shiite, which is extraordinarily dangerous for Putin, and he knows this. So I mean, I figure that he's calculated in many respects, at least in the short to medium term, that they might be able to pull something off. I mean, it would be a good question to know exactly what he thinks is the long-term solution here, of course.
HILLBut the Sunni population of Russia, the Sunni Islamic population, is the majority Muslim population of Russia itself. Russia has an enormous population of Muslims. There's some debate about exactly how many. But Moscow has just built one of the largest Sunni mosques in Europe, which was partly inaugurated by a visit by President Erdogan of Turkey just to try to improve relations, whether on Muslim population in the wake of the war in Chechnya and elsewhere. So this is really going to play right into the sectarian politics of Russia, as well, and I'm really not sure how that's going to play out over the longer term for Russia's own domestic politics.
REHMLiz Sly, Russia says that the only people on the ground from Russia are so-called volunteers. What can you tell us about that?
SLYI'm not sure we've seen the actual arrival of Russian, of so-called volunteers yet. We've heard some talk in the Russian parliament that they will be coming. We know that there are Russian troops on the ground because they've posted video of themselves on YouTube, on the front lines, hanging out with Syrian soldiers. The Russians certainly have special forces here. There's a lot of rumors today that a Russian officer was killed in this big battle that started today.
SLYI'm not sure if that's true, but we do know that Russians have had at least advisors with the Syrian military for some time.
REHMAnd here's an email from Del in Pittsburgh, who says, according to Saturday's Wall Street Journal, Iran has sent as many as 7,000 Revolutionary Guard soldiers to Syria. These joined 20,000 Shiite fighters from Afghanistan, Pakistan and other countries. Hezbollah has a substantial force supporting Assad. In addition, Iran has trained up to 190,000 Alawite militiamen in Syria. Iran is in the ascendency as a ground force in the region, appears also to be in an informal alliance with Russia to resolve conflicts with military power. These are the most disastrous outcomes of America's wars that could be imagined. This bodes ill for us all if Russia, Syria and Iran try to become the arbiters of the Israeli-Arab conflict. Mark Mazzetti?
MAZZETTIThere's a lot in that.
REHMA lot in that.
MAZZETTIThe -- I mean, if you -- focusing on Iran, their position has been pretty unambiguous throughout. They have supported the Assad regime. They have -- there has been Hezbollah on the ground, as obviously Liz can speak to, for some time. The extent that Revolutionary Guard forces, it does appear that they are increasing their presence. Qasem Soleimani, the head of the Revolutionary Guard, is overseeing this. And so the email is correct that Assad now has a good deal -- you know, it would seem to have a great deal of support in his corner not only with increased Russian support but also with Iranian support.
REHMAnd do you agree with those numbers, Robert?
GRENIERWell, I'm not so sure about the numbers, and I think that the numbers, in this case, as in virtually all aspects of this struggle, are somewhat ambiguous. But there's no question that Hezbollah is involved in support of the Assad regime in a very big way. I'm not so sure about the involvement of Shiite from Afghanistan and Pakistan, for instance.
GRENIERBut one of the things that I think is really important to pick out of this is that it is all too easy to look at the struggle in sectarian terms within Syria as pitting the Shiite, or rather a Sunni majority against an Alawite/Shiite minority when in point of fact there are a great many in the broader Sunni community who are aligned with the regime.
GRENIERWe talk about the role of Hezbollah, for instance, in training these local militias. For the most part, they are members of what are referred to as the National Defense Forces. Well, many of these National Defense Force militias are, in fact, Sunni in character. And so again, it just adds to the complexity of what we're dealing with her.
REHMWhat more complexity, Fiona Hill? The question of Russia's support for al-Assad, what could that mean for Israel as far as Russia is concerned?
HILLWell, it's a really good question, Diane. We saw, of course, that Benjamin Netanyahu had a visit to Moscow quite recently and had discussions with Putin on this and other issues. It seems from those discussions, at least some of the reports coming out of that, that Netanyahu was giving Putin a very clear message that whatever happened on the ground in Syria should not spill over into Israel, that there should be no maneuvers by Russia that would threaten or violate in any way Israeli airspace or any of Israel's concerns in the region.
HILLAnd this is one of the dilemmas for Russia and its involvement. Russia has very important relationships not just with Egypt but also with Israel. And if you try to figure out, you know, how you balance all of that out, it's -- I think it's a real conundrum for the Russian government of how to play all of this. They are not, in many respects, unambiguously throwing in their lot with Iran or with the Iraqi Shiite or with -- even with Assad. They're protecting Russia's own interests there.
HILLAnd if Assad becomes a real problem for them down the line, I'm sure that they will be looking very hard for another solution here. So Russia itself has a lot of balancing it has to do because it has a lot of different interests, but they're worth protecting, which is why it's moved into Syria to try to set the agenda itself.
GRENIERIn fact, I think Fiona has put her finger on one of the potential long-term benefits, if we want to think about it that way, of the Russian involvement in Syria. There were going to be unintended consequences for the Russians, negative consequences, of their heavy involvement in Syria. There's no question about that. And I think that they are going to discover, if they don't understand already, that they cannot unilaterally assure the survival of the Assad regime.
GRENIERI think that they -- sooner or later, they are going to come to the conclusion that while the preservation of the state is in their national interest and something that they must continue to pursue, in order to achieve that goal they're going to have to engage constructively with the United States, with elements within Syria and others in the region to help bring about some sort of an orderly transition of power, which will not leave Bashar there for the long term.
REHMAll right, to John in Raleigh, North Carolina, you're on the air.
JOHNThank you, Diane, I absolutely love your show.
JOHNIt always challenges me to think in ways that I wouldn't have otherwise.
JOHNIt seems to me that Russia is giving the United States an out that it dearly needs, given its history in the region. The idea that there would be a smooth transition of the Syrian government, if Assad, you know, was removed seems a bit of a fantasy, and at the void left there, you know, as distasteful as Assad is, what's left if he's gone? And it seems to me I've not heard a good, clear articulation of what the region would look like after that.
GRENIERWell, certainly I would have great difficulty painting a positive picture what the region would look like after a precipitous fall of the Assad regime. The -- it would be Islamic extremists, not just Islamic State, but Jabhat al-Nusra and other members of the so-called Islamic Front who would benefit disproportionately from a precipitous fall. They are in the lead of the rebel forces. Their first order of business would be to sort out the Alawites, and I think that we could see a bloodbath. That's one of the, if you will, positive aspects of a strong Russian military presence in and around (unintelligible) .
REHMExactly. And how do you feel about that, Fiona? Do you agree?
HILLI do actually. I mean, I think that if we -- that was the point that we said at the very beginning about not overreacting too much.
HILLI think we have to really assess this situation and look at all of the dimensions here because there could very well be some positive attributes. I don't think that Russia has moved in precisely to avoid a bloodbath, but they've certainly signaled that they foresee this eventuality, in other words an even further stepping-up of the conflict. And they have felt that they have to take action to preserve some semblance of the Syrian state. I see them as creating a bulwark, a fortified small version of a Syrian state that they can build on in the future.
REHMYou're listening to the Diane Rehm Show. So do you agree, then, with President Obama's position of not going in there with troops, not trying to over-fly and indeed come in conflict with Russia?
HILLWell, I keep thinking of that expression fools rush in where angels fear to tread. Mr. Putin is not an angel, so I don't think he's being very fearful about treading there, but I think President Obama is trying very hard not to be a fool. And I think that that is actually a very advisable situation.
REHMMark Mazzetti, would you agree?
MAZZETTIWell, I think that I have yet to see any strong case made for how large American military intervention in Syria would make things better, would achieve outcomes desirable to the United States. Now that doesn't mean that -- do nothing, but it does appear that -- I mean, the instinct of keeping, of not having another Iraq, not having another Afghanistan in Syria, I think there's a lot of merit to that.
REHMIt seems to me there are very few options here for the U.S. It's such a quagmire, Liz Sly. How do you see it? Liz, are you there?
SLYCan you hear me?
REHMBob Grenier, how do you see it?
GRENIERWell, I think that in fact there are few good options for the U.S. We can try to roll back history and talk about, you know, the what ifs. What if the U.S. had come in more forcefully?
REHMBut they didn't.
GRENIERBut they did not. And in fact even when we talk about coming in more forcefully in the early days, just as now, we are not -- we ought not, I think, to be talking about the introduction of large numbers of conventional U.S. forces. I don't think anybody thinks that would be a positive development. The question is, could the U.S. be getting more actively involved using intelligence assets, using Special Forces in support of more moderate elements?
REHMBut how do you get those Special Forces and intelligence assets on the ground without loss of more life?
GRENIERWell, in point of fact, and this may be less the case in Syria, I don't think anybody is talking about direct involvement of U.S. boots on the ground in Syria at this stage, at least, we're able to use our presence in Turkey and particularly our presence in Jordan to try to affect what's happening on the ground in Syria. It's a different situation, obviously, in Iraq, where we do have U.S. boots on the ground. But you make a very point, and that is that more aggressive U.S. involvement, even in those limited ways, are likely to bring about American deaths, and that's just something that if we want to get into that game we simply have to face up to.
REHMAnd do you believe that that would actually happen, that ultimately because of Russia's actions, the U.S. is going to be forced to put troops into Syria?
HILLActually, I don't believe that that's inevitable. I think there could be some other outcome here, which I think we've all been skirting around, that it's possible that if Russia is on the ground setting the agenda that there might be a way of being involved in some longer-term process here. Now, we have the difficulty, the stumbling block, of what we do in the future. We don't have a clear plan. That's why, you know, as the questioner said, he doesn't see why we don't have one.
HILLPutin has a limited plan. He doesn't have a plan long term for the whole of the country, and I think Bob is right. Bob is right. Eventually he will have to have one. This is like Yugoslavia. In that case, Putin found himself following along, this is of course a much larger scale at this particular point, this time he wants to set the agenda, and the question is whether we can find a way now of working with whatever he does on the ground to make it a little bit more of a positive outcome than it's likely to be, at least initially.
REHMAnd on that very question, we'll have to leave it and watch as the outcome unfolds. Fiona Hill of the Brookings Institution, Robert Grenier, he's with ERG Partners, a consulting firm for the intelligence and security industry,, Mark Mazzetti of The New York Times, author of "The Way of the Knife: The CIA, a Secret Army, and a War at the Ends of the Earth." And Liz Sly, bureau chief of Beirut for the Washington Post. Thank you all. Thanks for listening. I'm Diane Rehm.
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