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The White House has announced plans to send up to 50 Special Operations forces to northern Syria to aid in the fight against ISIS. This is the first extended U.S. mission on the ground in the country – the administration says these troops will be there to train, advise, and assist local forces. The move signals a shift for president Obama, and comes amid renewed diplomatic efforts to resolve the Syrian conflict, worsening violence, and a continued migrant crisis as Syrians attempt to flee the chaos. A look at the decision to put U.S. boots on the ground in Syria, and what it could mean for America’s role in the region and the fight against ISIS.
- David Schenker Aufzien fellow and director of the Arab Politics Program, Washington Institute for Near East Policy; former Pentagon policy aide on the Arab countries of the Levant, including Syria
- Robin Wright Analyst and joint fellow, U.S. Institute of Peace and Woodrow Wilson International Center; author of "Rock the Casbah: Rage and Rebellion Across the Islamic World"; contributing writer to The New Yorker.
- Lawrence Korb Senior fellow at the Center for American Progress and former assistant secretary of defense in the Reagan administration
MS. DIANE REHMThanks for joining us. I'm Diane Rehm. The mission in Syria has not changed, the White House said on Friday, but the announcement that the U.S. is sending up to 50 special operations forces to the country feels, to many, like a shift toward involvement that President Obama has tried to avoid. Here with me to talk about the latest is David Schenker of the Washington Institute For Near East Policy, Robin Wright of the U.S. Institute of Peace and the Woodrow Wilson International Center and Lawrence Korb of the Center for American Progress.
MS. DIANE REHMI invite you to weigh in with your thoughts and opinions. Give us a call at 800-433-8850. Send your email to firstname.lastname@example.org. Follow us on Facebook or Twitter. Thank you all for being here.
MS. ROBIN WRIGHTGood morning.
MR. LAWRENCE KORBGood morning.
MR. DAVID SCHENKERGood morning.
REHMGood to see you all. Robin Wright, the White House says this is not a shift. How do you see it?
WRIGHTWell, it's a small commitment to try to help Syria -- help solve the Syrian crisis. At the same, you see a new wave of diplomacy, trying to get the major foreign countries involved in the Syrian conflict together around a table. Fifty special forces troops will not make a change in the balance of power in the broader strategy. They will serve largely in communication and intelligence and so forth. The problem, I think, for the U.S. long term is that it makes it vulnerable, is this becomes a rallying cry for ISIS to recruit foreign forces, that the U.S. is now, even though in a token way, committing forces on the ground.
WRIGHTDoes it make these forces susceptible to attack by ISIS? I mean, what would be more graphic for the American public than for ISIS to capture and, you know, torture an American soldier?
KORBWell, I don't think it's a change of policy at all. Remember, these special forces have been in and out of Syria for the last couple of years. They went in to try and rescue James Foley. They got one of the head of the ISIS. And I think what it is, basically, is to deal with the failure of their policy to train the 500 or so Syrians that they were going -- we spent $500 million trying to train them and it just didn't work because they wanted to fight Assad. So by putting these people in, you aid those Arabs and the Turkmen and the Kurds who are fighting ISIL.
KORBAnd I think it's important. We're not getting involved in Syria's civil war. Are they in danger? We are always in danger. I mean, we've got planes flying over there that, you know, the planes could crash. And so I don't think it really changes things that much at all.
SCHENKERThis is another half measure from the administration. I think they were dragged kicking and screaming into even the train and equip program with the Syrian opposition. We sent $500 million. We had five people that were deployed in Syria. This famous hearing that we watched from Lloyd Austin and Senator McCain going after him about how ridiculous this was. Very clearly, the administration didn't even want to do that, right? And they did it and this was part of their strategy.
SCHENKERThey said the boots on the ground are going to be the Syrian rebels and they just -- we didn't get them. We didn't train them up. We didn't support them. And they weren't there. And so now, with ISIS actually gaining territory, right, since the bombing campaign started a year and a half ago, they've expanded their territory, we have to have a change of tack on the ground. And even this, though, is such a half measure, really, to put 50, right? Now, I'd take our special forces against thousands of Syrian troops, no doubt, or against ISIS, but it's still only 50 guys.
REHMSo what are they going to be doing?
SCHENKERI gather they're going to be doing logistics, targeting, spotting, some sort of combat tactical stuff, advising on the ground, but this is not going to change a whole nature of the combat here, right? The fight, the dynamic will not change just because 50 American troops are on the ground, no matter how good they are.
REHMHas the administration made the right choice in doing this?
SCHENKERWe have to aid the Syrian rebels. I think that we have no leverage right now on the ground. These were, years ago, a viable fighting force. These were people who had defected from the Syrian Army, were committed. But are we doing to get enough of these people now when we make them sign onto only fighting ISIS and not going after the Assad regime? It's hard to find people that are willing to do that. These are not automatons. These are nationalists who want to get rid of Assad.
REHMHere's the part I really have a hard time understanding. Russia has gone in there with its own forces and air flights to try to hold Assad in power and the U.S. is sending 50 special ops to go in there trying to help those forces that are against Assad. How does this come out right?
WRIGHTI think we have to dissect exactly what each party is going. The Russians are involved, in part, for their own long term interests in Syria, the one country in the 22 nation Arab block that has been a consistent alley now, since the 1950s It's looking at its long term investment. It's also involved, primarily, along the western coast of Syria. That’s where its bases are. It wants to protect its naval port and so forth.
WRIGHTAt the end of the day, I think both the Russians and the Iranians are interested in stability in Syria, holding together Syria as one country, not seeing it fragmented. And that's why the diplomacy is important because that's the one common goal that every single country involved in Syria's future has in common. Now, the United States is involved, largely in a different part of Syria, along the northern and northeast border, with the Kurds and with the tribes. And its role is to coordinate them, to keep them as a viable force.
WRIGHTEverybody wants to kind of have enough pressure to achieve its -- to protect its interest in whatever happens next in Syria. And the problem is, it's going to take a long time, probably till we get so some kind of resolution, and the Syrians, in the meantime, are paying an extraordinary price.
KORBWell, I think it's important to keep in mind we don't want to get involved in Syria's civil war and the president's been very clear and I think correctly from that. We went back into the region when ISIL, which started attacking Iraq and of course then we had to go after them in Syria because that's where they have a lot of their headquarters and stuff. So we've never been involved in the Syrian civil war. I think Robin is right. Everybody agrees to go against ISIL, the Russians, the Iranians, us, the Saudis.
KORBWe all -- we have different views about how the civil war should end and I think at some point, you're going to have to come to a negotiated solution, which the president, you know, has been very, very clear about and Secretary Kerry's trying to get the talks going. But I think we've got to be so careful. And, you know, the last thing we want to do is get involved in another civil war.
REHMBut that's the part I'm having a hard time with. How do we make sure we are not involved in Syria's civil war, David?
SCHENKERListen, we are picking sides here. We're picking sides in the civil war. Everybody's picked a side, right? The Syrians are backed by the Iranians and the Russians. They are not only committed, as Robin said, to keeping Syria together, they're committed to keeping Assad in power or, at a minimum, the Alawites, right? Their interests in Syria are tied very closely to having this nominally Shiite regime there because 80 percent of the country is Sunni Muslim and this is a minoritarian, nominally Shiite regime.
SCHENKERThey need them. The Russians and the Iranians have helped kill basically 350,000 mostly Sunni Muslims. We are picking, though, these moderate Syrian rebels as the people that we want to do well and to play a role in post-Assad Damascus.
REHMI wonder exactly how this is going to play in the minds of the American public. They will, as I do, I'm sure, recall Vietnam and how Vietnam began with a certain number of special advisors on the ground, which expanded into an extraordinary bloodbath for Americans.
KORBWell, this is markedly different. We have a coalition of 60 countries that are going after ISIL, okay? In Vietnam, again, that's when we got involved in a civil war and we were trying to do nation-building and all of that. We are not good at that and I think the last thing we want to do -- we're only in there because ISIL could be a threat to the United States. We didn't get -- in fact, I remember when I was in Vietnam, we couldn't get anybody else to help us. Finally, you know, the Koreans did.
KORBBut the British didn't help us. The French didn't help us. And, of course, now we have this coalition to fight ISIL. And I think this is important. Yes, it's -- the battle is taking place partly in Syria, but it's mainly in Iraq that we've dealt -- we've killed 30,000 of the ISIL people in the last year. The problem has been because of their ideology, they're getting more people to come from around the world, but that's what's eventually going to beat them, if you will, is when you convince people in the Middle East and the Muslim world, this is not the future of Islam.
WRIGHTWell, first of all, I think there's a better comparison, in some ways, with what happened in the U.S. presence in Beirut in 1982 when we went in as peacekeepers. We ended up getting involved in its civil war and we had an attack 34 days later. That was the largest loss of U.S. military life since World War II. So there are, you know, the rippling effect is always the danger.
REHMRobin Wright, David Schenker, Lawrence Korb, they're all here to answer your questions. Give us a call, 800-433-8850 and stay with us.
REHMAnd welcome back. We're talking about the White House announcement last week that it is sending 50 Special Operations forces into Syria. Now, exactly what their mission will be, exactly when they will go is a question in an email from Alex. Do we know if it's possible this number could go up from 50 in the near future? And what is the timeline for the first 50 going in? Robin Wright.
WRIGHTWell, I don't think we know the exact timeline. One of the things that's so striking is that they announced that they were going in at all -- the big fanfare, the publicity, which is only going to draw attention and could end up...
REHMWhy do you think they did that?
WRIGHTI don't know. It's -- I thought it was a miscalculation. It's one thing to announce that you have warplanes that are going to be using Incirlik Air Base in Turkey, to show the level of cooperation, that the U.S. is doing more on the eve of negotiations, diplomacy and outreach, to kind of say, we're doing something that balances the Russians' new intervention in Syria. But it is baffling why they did it. And of course the answer is, you sent in 50. Well, you know, there may be 50 more, they need backup. There's no question that there are likely to be more forces down the road. The question is, what's the limit of the U.S. engagement? And that's what the White House has not defined for us.
REHMAnd, Larry Korb, explain to us the difference between advise and assist versus combat.
KORBWell, theoretically, if you're training the forces, the Free Syrian Army or -- and basically then you help them when they go out into the battlefield. But the whole thing about combat is really foolish. Again, if I -- I remember when I got to Vietnam in '65, before you could get combat pay, you had to say you were fired on three times in a month. We finally dropped that as long as you were in the theater. They are in combat. If you're in that part of the world, you're in combat and you're in danger. Because, if you send the troops out to fight and somebody comes and attacks from behind, you're basically are in conflict.
REHMAnd is it possible that these Special Ops are going out without weapons?
KORBNo, as we saw...
REHMOf course not.
KORB...as we saw down in Iraq her a couple of weeks ago, when that, you know, special -- the Delta Force master sergeant got killed, they went up there to try and rescue the hostages, and then they had to go in and fight. So, sure, I mean, as long as you're in the -- again, I think, what the president's trying to convey when he says this is he's just not going to have a prolonged ground war or sustained ground operations with divisions. That's what he's trying to do.
KORBBut, yes, they're in combat.
SCHENKERYeah, I mean, the danger to these troops is clear. I mean, there is no front line in Syria. You know, this is a civil war. This is not just Assad going out and attacking these troops. It's other militias going after ISIS and ISIS going after other militias. Plus, you're going to have the whole issue like we've experienced in Afghanistan and Iraq of friendly-on-friendly, you know, where we are working with a group and not everybody in that group is reliable. And they may not like Americans and you can get shot in the back. I mean, this is a great danger.
REHMAnd the other question, with Russian airstrikes going in, is it possible that one of these 50 Special Ops might be hurt, injured, even killed, by these airstrikes?
WRIGHTI suspect that the Russians and the Americans are trying to engage now in kind of communication about where they're operating. And they are operating in different parts of the country. The United States is up in this corner where there are disparate array of tribes and Kurds. And the U.S. function is, in part, to coordinate them. The militias have really been tied to neighborhoods. There are thousands of them. And they have never formed a united front, even sometimes within a city. It's very rare, unless it's a very small city, to find just one militia.
WRIGHTAnd so the United States is trying, in effect, to impose kind of a superstructure -- to coordinate, to communicate among them, to let them know what they're doing, to try to say, this is where you should be going -- because that's been lacking. Each militia has its own commanders, it's own goals, it's own little neighborhoods to protect, and that's been one of the problems that there hasn't been a force that has been viable. And we tried to build one and we couldn't. And the second round of groups -- of a group we trained, ended up turning over a quarter of the equipment that we had provided for them. So that route isn't viable.
WRIGHTSo we're now looking for those who have fought, do have a track record on the ground, and might be worth helping in some capacity.
REHMDavid, would you say that this constitutes actual cooperation between the Russians and the U.S.?
SCHENKERWell, listen, in the region, I think it's wildly understood that the United States and Russia, right now, are cooperating to keep Assad in power, right? The United States is targeting ISIS and the Russians are targeting every other opposition group in the country. And the end result of that...
REHMBut doesn't that seem at total cross purposes?
SCHENKERWell, it does, if you actually believe that the administration wants to see Assad go. But I don't think anybody really believes that the administration is committed to seeing Assad go, right. This is not something they're willing to fight for, certainly. But I do think, if you look at what the Russians have done to date, they have not targeted ISIS particularly in Syria, right? They have gone after, more than anything else, the moderate Syrian rebels, right -- the ones that we're going to be helping, including groups that we have provided equipment to and support to.
WRIGHTThe United States does not want to see Bashar Assad stay in power. One of the most interesting things we've seen in the last couple of months is this transition, as you're beginning to see a gelling of positions. President Obama talked at the United Nations Security Council in September about a managed transition in Syria, which means, in some ways, an honorable exit for Assad, rather than the kind of ouster we saw either with Gadhafi, in Libya, or Mubarak in Egypt. And so the negotiations really center around, how do you create an alternative, when there are no -- whether it's rebel groups or Syrian opposition groups or Syrian exiles that are viable.
WRIGHTAnd yet you prevent the kind of problems we saw in Iraq, with the collapse of the army, the banishment of the army, the banishment of the Ba-ath Party. The U.S. goal is to -- and I think everyone's goal now, is to keep the institutions in as strong players, while watching the exit of the Assad mafia.
REHMBut how do you do that? Who is there to step in behind Assad and keep that body together?
KORBWell, I think the Russians, their main goal is to maintain their naval base and their interests in the region. The Turks have suggested that Assad step down after six months, when you have this transition. And the Iranians, they can maintain their influence even without Assad. And so I think that's basically -- everybody agrees on, you know, what Robin has said. And you need to find a, you know, a face-saving way out. Like we took the President of the Philippines, Marcos, and sent him to Hawaii. I don't know, maybe they can send him to Sochi or something like that after he retires.
KORBBut I think the Russians don't -- because the longer this goes on, the more money the Russians spend. And the Iranians, you know, they don't want to just keep doing this forever.
REHMAnd how about the U.S.? David, we saw the U.S. commit $100 million to support the Syrian opposition this weekend.
SCHENKERWell, that was, I think, something they had to do as a hat tip to the Saudis, to get the Saudis to sit at the same table as the Iranians in Vienna. I mean, I don't know if you can imagine this, right? A year ago, the Iranians were completely isolated, you know, diplomatically isolated, financially under these huge constraints. Now we've signed a deal with them. We've released, you know, $50- to $150-billion dollars. That's going to be sanctions relief. And now we're inviting them -- looking at them as a force, potentially, for regional stability. I think it's remarkable and actually it's ill advised.
WRIGHTWell, Iran, yes, is the benefactor of a lot of the instability in the Arab world. I mean, ironically, it does look more stable than a lot of the other countries in the region. But Iran is also paying a very heavy price in Syria. And we shouldn't underscore the dangers to the Russians and the Iranians. In the last two months -- the last year, Iran has lost seven brigadier generals and one major general in Syria. They have deployed, largely, senior officers to try to be military advisors to the Assad government.
WRIGHTAnd, in part, because I think the Russians and the Syrians say, we'll look for something else, but until you present an alternative, we're going to back the Assads. But they're paying a price for it and the question is how long they're going to be willing to pay a price. There is an incentive for every party in the region to find a solution. And Europe now, because of the migration crisis, feels tremendous pressure. The spillover from the Middle East is affecting everybody.
KORBWell, we empowered Iran, not with the nuclear deal, but when we went in and overthrew Saddam Hussein. And basically they became a player in Iraq and they're going to, you know, they are a player in the region. And I think Robin's right, you know, the late Yitzhak Rabin, whose, you know, death we just, you know, tragic, we memorialized, I remember once, he said, when somebody asked him about, well why do you -- can you negotiate with Yasser Arafat? He said, you've got to negotiate with your enemies. I mean, your friends, you just talk to. So, yes, you have to negotiate. And so this whole idea that somehow getting the Iranians, their players -- and it's more critical to them than us what happens there.
REHMAll right. We have a number of callers. Let's open the phones, 800-433-8850. Robin, you'll need your headphones. Let's go first to Louisville, Ky. Hi, Joe, you're on the air.
JOEHello, Diane, and very much appreciated your wonderful guests today. Maybe they can help me with this problem. The Soviet Union got entangled with the Mujahidin -- actually they helped create it -- in Afghanistan in the '80s. And they attracted a lot of the jihadist teams -- Osama Bin Laden, and some of those guys -- to their cause at that time. And it became their Vietnam, the Soviet Union, and it cost them dearly, militarily and financially. And now, they've reappeared in Syria and they've become the great Satan again, I would think, along with the United States.
JOEAnd now, the jihadists all over the world have got -- put the two great Satans in Syria. Is this going to attract more jihadists to come to Syria to fight both of these guys, the United States and the Soviet -- or Russia?
WRIGHTIf I were a betting woman, I'd put a quarter on exactly that. I think there's a real danger that the jihadists will use both the Russian intervention and this miniscule American commitment as rallying cries to recruit even more. That's the core danger -- it's the psychology of the commitment rather than the physical numbers themselves.
SCHENKERYeah, I think that's absolutely right. I mean, the Russians are concerned with -- about the jihadis. They have their own -- Chechnya, they have a large Muslim population. And their embassy in Damascus has already been shelled. And then, lo and behold, when his airliner went down over the Sinai...
SCHENKER...just this weekend, the Russian airliner, people are saying, well was it ISIS, you know, now that they're a target. Okay, it doesn't appear to be ISIS. But, nonetheless, they are a target because of what they're -- their support for the Assad regime is, you know, is looked about, you know, very problematically.
KORBWell, that's why it's so important that the United States has a coalition. Remember, we don't want it to be seen as the United States against the Muslim world. And that's why you've got the Saudis and the UAE and countries like that involved with us, which I think is a smart thing to do. But you're right, there always is this chance of what we call blowback. You go in, you solve one problem, and then you can create another. And by the way, ISIS is taking credit for shooting down that airline. I don't think they did but they're taking credit for it.
REHMAnd you're listening to "The Diane Rehm Show." I just wonder about that because didn't they find one victim of that airliner crash some three miles away? Would that not indicate -- what would or might it indicate, Robin?
WRIGHTThere is news this morning from authorities investigating that it looks like an external cause was involved. Now we don't know what that means. The groups that operate in the Sinai are not believed to have missiles that can reach that altitude. It was near 30,000 feet and their missiles can only fire about 10,000. We don't know what the capabilities of a lot of these guys are. We don't know if they have some new equipment. And the question is, what is an external cause?
REHMDoes it also imply there could have been a bomb onboard?
KORBOh, I think that's much more likely, that there was a terrorist with a bomb onboard that got it. Plus, you've got a -- and this is typical of the Russians, everybody talked about how powerful they are -- this plane probably shouldn't even have been flying, if you go back and you look at its safety record. And, you know, interesting enough, in Syria, they have a lot of planes that they used when they were in Afghanistan.
REHMBut they had no call from the pilot that any problem existed onboard.
SCHENKERI think it's more likely that it was somebody with a bomb onboard that did it.
REHMWell, but leaving -- I mean, wouldn't security have somehow discovered some of that? What a terrible tragedy for these families and for all involved. And let's go to Lewisville, Texas. Tom, you're on the air.
TOMHi, Diane. Thanks for taking my call.
TOMI just want to say, first, you are one stand-up woman. That's all I got to say.
KORBWe agree with that.
TOMYeah, my -- just a couple of comments here. I'm a veteran of the Southeast Asian war games and I would just like to go back and state that those who don't study history are doomed to repeat it. As in, they dropped a team in -- they didn't call them Special Ops back then -- but they dropped the Deer Team in to Vietnam in 1945, to train Ho Chi Minh and General Giap and his boys in small arms and tactics, okay? And look how that turned out. Okay? Look how that turned out, okay? And the -- my main deal is, looking back on these past several years, we were better off or the countries over there were much more stable when Gadhafi and Saddam were still in power.
KORBWell, I think Tom makes a great point. First of all, we did train Ho Chi Minh because he was fighting the Japanese. And then, of course, we were foolish, you know, not to -- to allow the French to go back in there to reimpose their colonial rule. If we had recognized Ho Chi Minh as the ruler, we would have saved a lot of problems. And he's right, I mean, it's one thing to overthrow a government. I mean, if you have to ask yourself, what comes next? Saddam was terrible. Are we better or worse off, you know, in Iraq. The same way Gadhafi was terrible, it was Libya. And I think this -- we need to do it -- our policymakers need to know, what are you going to do the day after?
REHMLawrence Korb. He is senior fellow at the Center for American Progress, former assistant secretary of defense in the Reagan administration. More of your calls and comments after a short break.
REHMWelcome back, as we talk about the Special Ops going into Syria to advise and assist, whatever that means. Let's go to Joe in Newport News, Va. You're on the air.
JOEHi. I don't know why we're not talking about whether it's even legal for us to be there in the first place. Because the first time Obama wanted to go into Syria, people protested and he passed the ball to Congress. And then, after that journalist was beheaded, then he just skipped Congress, because ISIS kind of gives us carte blanche to invade anywhere we want to. All we've got to say is, you know, ISIS is there. So how is it -- how was he able to -- why did he ask Congress the first time but not the second time?
KORBWell, he is arguing -- and I think, Joe, you've got a good point -- that it's -- he's using the authority under the, what we call the authorization of the use of military force back in 2001, that these groups are sort of an offshoot or related to al-Qaida, even though al-Qaida has kicked them out. But basically he has proposed something for the Congress, but the Congress won't take it up because you've got a lot of people who don't want him to do what he's doing, you know, and a lot of people who want him to do more. And so his proposal was it to be a three-year fight but it never got any place in the Congress.
REHMHere's an email from David in South Bend, Ind., who says, it starts small, then something happens. The president sends in more troops. Very soon, we're up to our necks. The administration has a good excuse, saying, we were just reacting to the Assad-ISIS-Russian aggression. We're not escalating.
WRIGHTRemember where this all began, when the United States invaded Iraq in 2003, claiming that there was an al-Qaida presence, when in fact there wasn't.
WRIGHTI mean, that there were weapons of mass destruction, when there weren't. And because we dismantled the state that existed there, left no infrastructure, we had to -- we created, from scratch, a new state. It became very controversial, the way we did it, the number of troops we had there. And in the end, al-Qaida actually formed a branch in Iraq and that then led to the morphing of an extremist movement that became the -- became ISIS. So we've, you know, we're now in many, many, many layers later of an ever more complex crisis that spans the whole region, involves thousands of little militia groups and, you know, a threat that's far graver than al-Qaida ever was.
REHMDavid, you were just in Lebanon. What struck you about what people there were saying?
SCHENKERWell, I think the Lebanese have this incredible joie de vivre, but they're really depressed right now, looking at what's going on next door. Of course, Lebanon only has, you know, 4.5 million people that live there. And now they have, on top of that, about 1.5 million Syrian refugees. It's the fastest growing country in the world. So they're looking next door and they're saying, well, this isn't going to be solved anytime soon. People are trying to get out of Lebanon, dying enroute to Europe, including not only Syrians but Lebanese, right? You have Lebanese going out and getting Syrian identity cards so they can try and get to Europe. It's really incredibly tragic.
SCHENKERWhat's more is that you have now the Sunni Muslims in Lebanon, who have decided that the only way to maintain security in Lebanon right now is to cooperate with Hezbollah. And they've made this sort of security pact where they're all going after the takfiris and the threat posed by ISIS and Jabhat al-Nusra in Lebanon. But of course, this is generating some anger among Lebanese Sunnis in the north, in particular.
REHMWalter in Manassas, Va., writes, please ask your experts, for the benefit of the audience, the very basic question -- why does Russia support Assad in Syria? Robin.
WRIGHTIt's a long-standing relationship that dates back to the 1950s. And Russia is looking at its strategic position in the Middle East, a region that has been overwhelmingly aligned with the United States, particularly those countries that have the oil riches that have some of the greatest influence. To lose Syria would be to lose its, you know, kind of hold in the Middle East -- it's one naval port in the Mediterranean. Strategically, economically, this has been a place where it's been able to sell arms, had a very close diplomatic relationship. It gave Russia an entree into the Middle East and it doesn't want to give that up, even if it's willing to give up Assad in the long term.
REHMHere's a tweet from Dury. If this coalition is so large, why do we, the U.S. have to be the main country involved? Larry.
KORBWell, I think there are two reasons. Number one, we are the world's preeminent military power. And the other is, I think, we're the only one who could bridge the gap between all the various countries involved. As I mentioned earlier, I think it's much more psychological than military, because we're providing the vast majority of the airstrikes. Interestingly enough, the new prime minister of Canada wants to send troops to help train in Iraq, which I think is -- that is a good step because, again, it doesn't look like it's just us doing it.
REHMSo here's an email from John in Manchester, Mo., who says, is it possible that, at least up to now, Obama's hands-off policy in Syria was a conscious decision to force more countries to get involved so the U.S. wouldn't have to go it alone again in the Middle East? David.
SCHENKERWell, at the most basic level, I think that the narrative of the administration was that they were getting out of the Middle East. Right? They were going to withdraw troops from Iraq, they were going to withdraw troops from Afghanistan. They didn't want to be involved in any Middle Eastern wars. And Syria -- well, actually, Libya was sort of an aberration. They got involved, that didn't end well. And then you have Syria. And they've -- it has been a conscious policy, no doubt, not to get involved.
REHMAll right. And then the question becomes, how much of an impact could these 50 Special Ops have?
WRIGHTI suspect not as much as we would like or hope, considering the disarray among the forces on the ground. The rebels have just not been able to step up, except for some very small Kurdish groups who operate in isolated towns along the border. There, you know, we hope -- we keep hoping that something we do will galvanize them. We know that they can't win. The United States and every major country involved in Syria has acknowledged that there is no military solution to the conflict. But everybody's getting engaged -- ever more engaged now to stake a claim to what happens next in Syria. And, you know the prospects of us being able to make a difference with 50.
WRIGHTNow, the other thing the United States announced, and it's not been receiving as much attention, is the deployment of some of its warplanes to Incirlik Air Base in Turkey, which brings us closer to the targets. It means we don't have to fly three hours from some of the bases, refuel enroute. But the amazing thing about the airstrikes is that over 75 percent of them are returning with their bombs, because the targets are so difficult to find. The targets move. Many of them are within heavy urban areas. They don't want to create what's called collateral damage, collateral deaths of civilians by striking what is an ISIS target but buried within -- whether it's a suburb, a school, a hospital or whatever.
REHMAnd wait until the first Russian and U.S. plan collide.
KORBWell, obviously, that would be a danger. Robin mentioned before and everything I know, they're making sure that this won't happen. But I think what's really significant in the planes they put to Incilik, is you've got the A-10, which is something that supports ground troops. The other planes, the F-15s and the F-16s are, you know, flying at high altitude. They could make a difference on the battlefield for the people who are actually engaged in the fighting.
REHMAll right. Let's go to Flint, Mich. Hi, Daniel. You're on the air.
DANIELHi, Diane. Love your show. I was listening to NPR the other day and I heard the announcement of the 50 troops going to Syria, the Special Forces troops. And my initial reaction was, frankly, concern for them. I had been hearing from your reporting that the Russian planes had been bombing not just ISIS, but moderate Syrian forces. And if the ultimate ideology of America is at some point to have democracy, those troops are at risk. And what concerned me of our troops going there, the 50 American Special Forces, was that I believe that they're not just there for advising, but in a way to provide some shelter from Russian bombers to the Syrian moderates. In a way, if you want to call them, mini human embassies.
DANIELBut I perceive that there is something in a strategic Russia-United States type of post-Cold War, quasi, I don't know -- I just perceive that there's something going on where those troops are in danger and at risk and they're there to shelter and pass on good data as far as the air motions of the Soviet bombers.
SCHENKERYeah. I think that no doubt we are probably trying to let the Russians know where we're operating to prevent this. But, you know, there is the possibility that, in war, stuff happens. And U.S. troops can be in harm's way. But these troops would serve, in a way, as a trip wire.
REHMYou know, I think, we have to pick up on something Daniel said regarding the idea of democracy. It does seem to me that, after everything that's happened in the Middle East, we need to understand that other cultures have their own approach to governing, and that we cannot impose something on them that they are not ready for or even interested in.
WRIGHTAbsolutely. And that was the case, particularly in Iraq...
WRIGHT...where we tried to create a new democratic country and we didn't know how to do it. We played -- we got bad advice. We picked bad actors. But the subtext of everything that's happening in the Middle East, is what do we want the Middle East to look like? And it plays out on the issue of, what's our priority? Is it stability? With, whether it's the autocrats, like Gadhafi and Saddam, or it is democracy, reflecting our own values? And we went out there in saying Mubarak had to go in Egypt, on the grounds that we wanted democracy to flourish. We wanted to reflect the peoples' will.
WRIGHTAnd now, of course, we see in power in Cairo, a former general who is as autocratic if not more than President Mubarak was. And we're buddying up to him because, again, we are attracted by the idea of stability. So it's this eternal conflict of what is it that we want to see and where do we want to use our muscle, our might, our diplomatic leverage? And the second question is, what is -- do we want to use all of our resources to protect the borders defined by colonial masters a century ago? Or do we want to see these countries break down into what may be more natural parts? I'm not here to decide. The United States shouldn't be there to decide. But that's -- those are the two big issues that are the subtext of everything in the region.
REHMRobin Wright of Woodrow Wilson Center and the U.S. Institute of Peace. And you're listening to "The Diane Rehm Show." A caller in Boca Raton, Fla. Tim, you're on the air.
TIMOh, hi, Diane. A real pleasure to speak with you and your guests today.
TIMI was struck by the comment of I think it was Mr. Schenker, who said that the people in the region have the perception that the U.S. and Russia are effectively propping up Assad. And as the -- our most important ally in that area, I'm just wondering how that's being perceived by the Israelis? And has their thinking since the beginning of this, you know, that trade-off that was mentioned just a minute ago between stability and maybe the next evolutionary step of government in Syria, where are their heads at?
SCHENKERI think the Israelis have vacillated back and forth between whether Assad should go or whether he should stay. The Israelis traditionally have liked to have an address. They like state systems, so that they can hold a party accountable. It's a lot harder, as they've learned, in places like Lebanon, where you have limited assets, you're targeting the state or are you targeting a terrorist organization or what? They liked Assad in that regard, even though Bashar al-Assad was quite reckless in the weapons that he transferred to Hezbollah, higher grad weapons, top-of-the-line Russian Kornet anti-tank weapons, et cetera, that really were game changers. Nonetheless, I think the Israelis now are comfortable with the situation almost as it is.
REHMAnd one last caller. Al from Dallas, Texas, you're on the air.
ALYes, hi, Diane. I believe one of your guests mentioned that the key to fighting ISIS is for most Muslims to not believe that ISIS is the future of Islam. And as a Muslim myself, who is very involved in the Islamic community, I can assure you that that's not the case at all. I just don't want that misconception to be out there, that there is a battle for the identity of Islam or the ideology of most Muslims. The majority of the world's Muslims have, you know, no sympathies whatsoever for Islam or for, you know, violent Islamist groups at all. A lot of these political conflicts, politically conflicts are actually, you know, miles away from the daily lives of the world's majority of Muslims.
REHMAll right. Larry Korb.
KORBI think Al is right. But the fact of the matter is, over the last couple of years, you've had like 30,000 people from other countries come to join the fight. And that's what I'm talking about. It's not Muslims, generally, but you've got to -- this small faction that, you know, wants to come and join them. And we saw, for example, when they came into Iraq, a lot of the Sunnis didn't fight them, because they preferred that to the government, you know, the Maliki government.
REHMSo where do you see this going from here? Fifty Special Ops forces in there. What happens next?
WRIGHTWatch the diplomacy rather than what's happening on the ground. The military balance of power is not likely to change in any major way in the next few weeks, maybe even the next few months. I think the most important thing about the future of Syria really is playing out. For the first time, you know, serious diplomacy, with all the foreign powers involved in Syria at the same table. That's the only way out. All of them know it. The question is whether they can get there.
REHMWell, let's keep our fingers crossed. Thank you all so much.
REHMRobin Wright, Larry Korb, David Schenker. And thanks to all of you for listening. I'm Diane Rehm.
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