Susan Glasser and Peter Baker are veteran political journalists who closely covered the presidency of Donald Trump, he as the New York Times chief White House correspondent, she as a…
French President Hollande meets with President Obama in Washington to seek additional U.S. support in the fight against ISIS in Syria, and NATO holds an emergency meeting over the downed Russian fighter jet: An update on international military strategy in Syria.
- Fawaz Gerges Chair, Middle Eastern Center, London School of Economics; author of "ISIS: A History" to be published February 2016
- Rosa Brooks Professor, Georgetown University Law Center; columnist for Foreign Policy; senior fellow, the New America Foundation
- Ret. Lt. General James Dubik, Senior fellow at the Institute for the Study of War; former commander of the Multi-National Security Transition Command in Iraq and former adviser to Gen. McChrystal and Gen. Petraeus
- Steve Pifer Senior fellow, Brookings Institution; served as U.S. Ambassador to Ukraine from 1998 to 2000 in the Clinton administration
MS. DIANE REHMThanks for joining us. I'm Diane Rehm. Prospects are dimming for a coordinated international effort against ISIS. Yesterday, Turkey shot down a Russian fighter jet it claimed had violated its airspace. Joining me to talk about the Russian jet, French President Hollande's appeal to the U.S. and threat posed by ISIS, Rosa Brooks of Georgetown University Law Center, retired Lt. General James Dubik the Institute For the Study of War, Steve Pifer of the Brookings Institution.
MS. DIANE REHMAnd joining us by phone from the London School of Economics, Fawaz Gerges. I invite you to be part of the program. Give us your thoughts by calling 800-433-8850. Send us an email to firstname.lastname@example.org. Follow us on Facebook or Twitter. And thank you all for joining us.
LT. GENERAL JAMES DUBIKThank you. Glad to be here.
MR. STEVE PIFERYou're welcome. Thank you.
REHMGood to have you all. Steve Pifer, I'll start with you. Turkeys says that the Russian plane flew over its territory. Russia says it did not, that it was flying into Syria. What do we know?
PIFERWell, there were these competing claims. The Turks put out their radar track which showed the Russian aircraft approaching Turkish territory and then entering Turkish territory for a small time. But the backdrop to this is that since the Russian air campaign in Syria began at the end of September, there had been a number of Russian incursions into Turkish airspace with very strong Turkish warnings.
PIFERAnd then, in October, the Turkish Air Force shot down a Russian drone over Turkey. So it may have reached a point where the Turks said the Russians aren't taking us seriously, that they got fed up and they did this to deliver a message.
REHMSo what's the backlash going to be?
PIFERWell, that remains to be seen. Yesterday, Vladimir Putin took a very hard line, said there would be tragic consequences, was the term he used, for Russian-Turkish relations. There was also a lengthy press conference today with Foreign Minister Lavrov in Moscow, but it seems, at this point, the Russian response has really been limited to three actions. First of all, Mr. Lavrov was supposed to be in Ankara today.
PIFERHe cancelled that visit yesterday. Second, the Russians are telling Russian citizens not to travel to Turkey. Of course, southern Turkey has been a desirable vacation spot for many Russians. And then, third, the Russian military has said that they're going to move stronger air defense assets, the S-300 and the S-400 surface to air missiles, into their air base near Latakia in Syria.
PIFERThat will be of concern to the Turks because those missile could actually reach into Turkish airspace, but so far that seems to be the limit of the Russian action. The Russians are not taking a military response to Turkey.
REHMAnd what do we know about the pilots?
PIFERWe've heard that one of the pilots was killed apparently after the -- both pilots were successfully ejected from the aircraft after it was shot down. It appears that one of pilots was actually shot while he was in his parachute and was dead before he hit the ground.
REHMBy Syrian forces?
PIFERBy rebel forces in northern Syria. And then, the other pilot appeared to evade capture and the Russians have announced today that they successfully recovered him, that he's been returned to Russian control.
REHMAnd turning to you, General Dubik, this is the first time in half a century, more than half a century, that a NATO member has shot down a Russian plane. So how significant does this become?
DUBIKWell, this could be very significant because we have now two NATO members, France and Turkey, who have been under attack, who have a reason to think about claiming Article 5 of the NATO alliance. And so the negotiations among the NATO members should be extensive and should be very explicit so that we don't back our way into something that none of the members want.
REHMAnd Rosa Brooks, explain how Turkey's interests are different from those of Syria and of those of Russia in terms of Syria.
MS. ROSA BROOKSRight. I think one of the biggest problems here is that very few of the actors involved have the same interests. Turkey has, obviously, had a long-standing internal terrorist threat, an internal separatist threat from the Kurds who live inside of Turkey. Those very same Kurds are currently seen by the U.S. as our best hope in fighting against ISIS. So Turkey doesn't like the very same people we're supporting.
MS. ROSA BROOKSTurkey has not yet closed its border with Syria. The U.S. is very concerned that the flow of foreign fighters into Syria is coming through Turkey, but Turkey has, so far, been reluctant to do anything about that. Meanwhile, the French just want to go after ISIS and the Russians want to go after everybody except ISIS.
REHMAnd to you, Fawaz Gerges, French President Hollande's mission here to the U.S. comes on the heels of the awful attacks in France, apparently carried out by ISIS affiliated operatives. What is the latest on the investigations going on in both France and Belgium.
MR. FAWAZ GERGESWell, I mean, obviously, ISIS or DAESH has taken responsibility not just for the massive operation in Paris, but also the downing of the Russian jet over Sharm el Sheikh and Egypt and the massacre in Beirut a few days before the Paris attacks in which hundreds were killed and injured. What we have seen in the last few months, Diane, is that ISIS is devoting more and more resources to foreign targets, the so-called the far enemy, as opposed to keeping its focus on Iraq and Syria.
MR. FAWAZ GERGESAnd what it has done, it has basically succeeded in co-opting some radicalized young men and women, in particular, in Belgium and France. I mean, the fact is, ISIS would not have been able to do what it has done in Paris without having a foothold. That is, you have radicalized individuals, Belgians and French, plus ISIS has about 4,000 westerners who are basically fighting within its ranks. And one of the ISIS suspects, his name is Abdelhamid Abaaoud, basically returned from Syria and was able to organize the limited networks in Belgium and France that was able to basically carry out seven or eight suicide bombing in the heart of Paris so far.
REHMSo right after the attacks, you have President Hollande declaring that France is at war. Is that precisely what ISIS wants?
GERGESAbsolutely. I understand. I was in Paris during that evening and I go every Friday to Paris. And the city was traumatized. It really was a battle zone. For three hours, from 9:20 PM till 12:30 in the morning, at midnight, you have seven or eight, basically, killers terrorizing the city. The city is traumatized. The nation is traumatized. This is one of the biggest basically bloodbath in Paris in many years. So I understand the pain, but I think I'm afraid the that the French might basically commit the same blunders that we did after 9/11 by saying this is war.
GERGESYou're talking about limited criminal networks masquerading as basically an ideological and religious, I mean, ideology. This is not war. Yes, they represent a threat. Yes, they are dangerous, but that's exactly what ISIS is trying to do is to instill fear, to terrorize population, to force the Western powers, in particular the United States and France and England to basically send boots on the ground because they would change the narrative.
GERGESRemember, Diane, the strategic goal of ISIS is not to wage war against the far enemy, but rather to consolidate the so-called Islamic State that is the near enemy in Syria and Iraq. And by getting western troops -- if the United States or France decide to send troops, they would change the narrative. After all, they would stand up and say, look, we are defending the Muslim community, the homeland. The West is back at it again. And that's exactly what France and the United States and Britain should not do.
GERGESThey should not play into the hands of Abu Bakr al-Baghdadi, the leader of ISIS, as we had played into the hands of Osama bin Laden after 9/11.
REHMGeneral Dubik, is that how you see it?
DUBIKNo, I have a little bit different perspective. I certainly agree with Fawaz that the major objective is to consolidate and remain in Syria and Iraq and that the far objectives are as he describes. But I think it's disingenuous of us not to call this a war. I mean, after all, both ISIS and al-Qaeda are not merely criminal networks. They are also organizations, global organizations who have, as their objective, to depose standing governments they call apostates, and reestablish the political order.
DUBIKThis is classic use of violence for political means by more than just criminal organizations.
REHMHowever, can we consolidate U.S., French, British and Russian forces without Russia.
PIFERThat's gonna be the big question, when French President Hollande goes to Moscow tomorrow to meet with Vladimir Putin. And one of the problems, and perhaps the obstacle to a broader international effort against ISIS and against the Islamic State is, so far, when you look at what the western coalition is doing and what the Russians have been doing in military terms, they have very different targets.
PIFERThe Russian military objective appears to be to bolster the Assad regime. So while they've conducted a few airstrikes against the Islamic State, most of those airstrikes are going against groups that are a much more urgent threat against Assad, including hitting groups that the west regards as more moderate opposition groups who have to part of the coalition. The question is, can we get the Russians to agree to hit Islamic State.
REHMSteve Pifer of the Brookings Institution. He was U.S. ambassador to Ukraine from 1998 to 2000. Short break. We'll be right back.
REHMWelcome back. We're talking about French President Hollande's visit to the U.S. We are talking about the shoot-down of a Russian plane flying over Turkey's border, at least that's what Turkey claims. Russia said it did not touch Turkey's border. What do we make of these differences, Rosa Brooks, in the attitude, and how do we know whether Russia actually flew over Turkey's border or not?
BROOKSYou know, that's a good question, and it is possible, I don't know, but it's possible that our own intelligence and surveillance equipment and agencies have some ability to answer that question definitively. But I don't know for a fact that we can answer it, and I'm not -- I don't know for a fact that if we can answer it that we will make that answer public. It may -- we may decide that it's better to keep it a little bit vague and let everybody back off from this confrontation.
REHMWhat do you think, General Dubik?
DUBIKWell I have seen, like most people, the non-classified tracks, and the track that the Turks released shows a very little bit of land, Turkish airspace, that the Russians violated. But as Rosa said, look, these things are not as empirical as they appear, and it could be that the -- the real investigation will find that they didn't violate the airspace.
PIFERYeah, the one thing that the Pentagon, though, did confirm is they said that they did hear the Turkish Air Defense Authorities give repeated warnings to the Russian pilot that you are approaching Turkish airspace and should turn south.
PIFERApproaching, and I -- the way I read the track, it looks like the warnings were given as the plane approached Turkish airspace. The Turks then say they shot it down after it entered Turkish airspace.
BROOKSAnd obviously one of the difficulties here is these planes travel so fast that the time lapse between you're approaching, and you're in it, and you're out again is seconds.
REHMFawaz Gerges, what does this rift between Turkey and Russia mean for a coalition to go after ISIS?
GERGESBefore I try to answer your question, Diane, the question is not whether the Russian plane or fighter jet basically crossed into Turkish territories, we have to wait and see. The question is why did Turkey decide to shoot down the Russian plane now and not before. And one of the contexts, the context is very important for your own listeners, in the last two or three weeks, the Russians had been bombing some areas in Northern Syria, where a community, an ethnic community called the Turkmen, who basically have close links with Turkey, this is a community that has many links and ties to Turkey, and the Turkish government has been very angry. In fact it called the Russian ambassador just a few days before the downing of the Russian plane, and it protested in very strong language.
GERGESAnd the Russia -- the Syrian army has made major inroads into this particular community, which is almost three kilometers away from Turkey. So you have a context here whereby -- regardless, I would say that the Turkish government and this analysis sent a very strong message. It wanted to send a message to Russia that Turkey has strategic interest in Syria, and there are red lines in which basically the Syrian army and the Russian forces did not really respect.
GERGESAs to your question, and this goes to the very heart of what's happening in Syria, we keep talking about Syria, somehow ISIS has been able to build, to take over almost 50 percent of Syria because of its strategic might, military might. One of the reasons why ISIS and al-Nusra Front, we're talking about ISIS, al-Nusra Front, the official arm of al-Qaeda, is as powerful as ISIS. The reason why they have done as well as they have, you have regional war by proxies.
GERGESYou have a war between Saudi Arabia, Sunni-dominated Saudi Arabia, and Shiite-dominated Iran. Turkey, the strategic goal of Turkey for the last four years is to bring the temple down on everyone's heads in Syria in order to topple Assad and prevent the Kurds from establishing an autonomous region in -- on the Turkish-Syrian borders. The Americans and the Russians basically have different, clashing interests, and that's why ISIS has been able to manipulate and exploit the cleavages, the divisions among the regional powers and get arms and money and resources and the global powers.
GERGESAnd what this means is that the so-called broadly based coalition, basically to take on ISIS now, it has received a major blow. How are you -- now Turkey and Russia -- I mean, you asked earlier, the first question you asked about what will Russia's response be, make no doubt about it, the response will be inside Syria. You're going to see qualitative -- more escalation that we have seen in Northern Syria because Putin -- basically this was a major slap in the face, and he will incite Syria not just in terms of economic and visitors, Russian visitors to Turkey.
REHMDo you agree, Steve Pifer?
PIFERWell, you saw reports today that there were Russian airstrikes again in Northern Syria, again aimed at the Turkmen population, which the Turks support. So you can see that kind of pressure building up there. And the question will be how do the Turks respond. My guess is with Erdogan the Turks are not going to back off. So you have again these two very strong egos in the form of Putin and Erdogan that may come to some kind of a clash.
REHMAnd General Dubik, you've said that without strategic goals, there is no military answer here.
DUBIKWell, actually without some kind of political -- some durable political solution that we are trying to achieve, it's hard to say what any military action is necessary, good, bad or indifferent because military action is an instrument to achieve a political outcome. I mean, political outcome is ambiguous. I think to Fawaz' point about the coalition, if the standard for a coalition is going to be a grand alliance which everyone agrees, we better lower our expectations and start figuring out maybe combinations of coalitions to attain different portions of the strategic aims.
DUBIKWell, you could ally with Saudi Arabia and Jordan in -- for one portion of a strategic gain, ally with Turkey with another, maybe exclude Russia for a time and include them in a talking arena. This is why we have really the good diplomats, to figure out innovative ways, short of a grand alliance, which no one should expect in this kind of case.
BROOKSI think you're letting us off the hook a little bit too much here. I'm going to be more blunt. I think -- I think number -- one problem we face, obviously, is the fact that all the other players in this conflict have conflicting interests, but problem number two, which is an enormous one, I'm not sure the United States has the faintest idea what our strategic interest is.
BROOKSAnd, you know, one possibility, and we say all of these things at different times, but in some ways they're mutually contradictory, we want to defeat ISIS, we want to stabilize Syria, we want justice in Syria, either e.g., the bad guy, Assad, is gone, we want to prevent or reduce the threat of global terrorism, and frankly some of those goals are probably in tension with others. So we don't even know what we want, which makes this all the more difficult.
DUBIKI'm with Rosa 100 percent on that not just in Syria but in Iraq and I think in the larger global war, counter to Fawaz' point, against al-Qaeda and ISIS.
REHMBut Steve Pifer, hasn't the U.S. in terms of what President Obama said yesterday, backed away just a tad from having al-Assad step down?
PIFERI think you've seen an evolution in the American position, a bit of softening where it used to be Assad has to go immediately.
PIFERTo this idea, there's now this process, which began in Vienna, where you brought a lot of parties together. And the question is can they agree on some sort of a set of principles for what a political transition process in Syria would look like? Now the American position seems to be, okay, Assad might be there at the start of that process, although clearly I think the Americans believe, as do the French and others, that Assad cannot be there at the end. But then this will be, I think, a second issue for President Hollande in Moscow, is not only can the West and Russia agree on Islamic State as the target for the military campaign, but can they also agree on some basic principles for what this political process that would hopefully result in some kind of a peaceful settlement in Syria, what that looks like.
REHMFawaz Gerges, is that all wishful thinking on the part of the U.S.?
GERGESWell, I think it's wishful thinking on the part of most powers because again, what you have in Iraq and al-Qaeda, you have raging civil wars. ISIS is not just a terrorist organization. ISIS is partly counter-insurgency. ISIS has been able to blend with local, poor, Sunni communities in both Iraq and Syria and Libya and basically depict itself as their sole defender.
GERGESIf you ask me how are you going to deal with ISIS, the military component is just one angle. The most effective means, if our reading of ISIS is correct, the difference between al-Qaeda central, al-Qaeda of Osama bin Laden and Ayman al-Zawahiri and ISIS is that ISIS basically has been able to blend in with local communities. It's part of the civil wars that are raging in the heart of the Arab world. Without resolving these civil wars, and how do you resolve these civil wars, it's -- they're all about identities, they're about ethnic and sectarian basically sentiment.
GERGESWithout bridging the divide between Saudi and between Iran, how are you going to basically stop ISIS and the other militants without basically meeting the strategic goals of Turkey? I mean, Turkey, yes, finally Turkey has joined the fight against ISIS, but the reality is Turkey's strategic goal is to prevent the Kurds from establishing an autonomous region on the Turkish-Syrian borders, even though they are interested now in taking on ISIS.
GERGESSo you have clashing interests. You have raging fires and civil wars. And again, these militant extremist groups are nourished in conflict zones, and without dealing with the root causes, that is the civil wars, that is the regional war by proxies, I don't think this particular thing called ISIS is going to be dealt with in a year or two, unfortunately.
REHMMoving on, Steve Pifer, a number of people have suggested a no-fly zone, that the U.S. move to establish a no-fly zone. Number one, how realistic is it? Number two, how would it be enforced?
PIFERWell, I think that was a possibility until the end of September, and then when the Russian air force began flying missions in Syria, the no-fly zone, to my mind, became very, very hard to do because if you're going to have a no-fly zone, ultimately you have to be prepared to have the American Air Force shoot down planes that enter that zone. It was one question if you were talking about shooting Syrian planes down. It's another question if you're talking about shooting down the Russian air force.
PIFERSo my guess at this point, it's very hard to see how you could impose a no-fly zone over Syria, per se, maybe over some very narrow bands, but even that gets dicey when you have competing air forces operating in the same contested airspace.
DUBIKWell, I tend to agree with Steven on the difficulty of a no-fly zone, but I don't think we ought to throw it out just because of the difficulty. I think it is the case that to get it -- start getting at some of the political issues and social issues that Fawaz has talked about, you need a protected space to do that. And maybe that protected space is small to begin with, again it doesn't have to be a grand alliance, it doesn't have to be a grand no-fly zone.
REHMWhat would it take militarily?
DUBIKIt would take -- it would take commitment to protect the airspace, just as Steve has, and probably an agreement with Russia not to fly in that zone. That's a tough agreement in certain parts of Northern Syria. It's not tough in other parts of Syria, I think the south or east.
REHMHow do you see it, Rosa?
BROOKSWell, I think this gets us back to Fawaz' earlier point, which is how do we avoid playing into ISIS' hands, and indeed Jim's earlier point, that you can do all sorts of things militarily, but to what end? You have to know what -- how you're evaluating it. And my concern would be, is it militarily feasible for the United States to create and enforce a no-fly zone in a protected space? Yeah, at a certain amount of cost and complexity, it is feasible. But what does that do in terms of playing into the ISIS narrative, playing into the propaganda machine of, oh, here once again the United States is meddling outside of their affairs.
BROOKSYou're going to end up having to have people on the ground at some stage or another. You're going to end up having to destroy more targets on the ground, et cetera.
REHMRosa Brooks of Georgetown University Law Center, she's also a columnist for Foreign Policy. And you're listening to the Diane Rehm Show. I'm going to open the phones. We'll take some calls, 800-433-8850. Let's go first to Grand Rapids, Michigan. Charlie, you're on the air.
CHARLIEThanks for taking my call, Diane. Happy Thanksgiving weekend.
CHARLIEI'm calling because I've seen -- you know, we've all seen the French become more involved in attacking ISIS, fighting ISIS in Syria, which I applaud that there's more than just the United States. My question is how much involvement did they have prior to those bombings in Paris, and can you compare the French involvement before the bombings in Paris to the U.S. involvement because I see a lot of talking points that the French are decisively attacking ISIS, and they're so strong, and the U.S. is weak, and I'd like to understand more about how those two forces compare in efforts.
GERGESThank you for the question, and yes, Happy Thanksgiving. The United States so far has carried out around 8,000 airstrikes, give and take, in Iraq and Syria. After the suicide attacks in Paris, France has carried out about five or probably four attacks in Syria. So there is no comparison whatsoever. France has been basically involved mainly in Iraq, but again, there is no comparison between what the United States has been doing or its allies.
GERGESIn fact, probably more than 93 percent of all airstrikes in Iraq and Syria are by the United States because -- given its massive, you know, air fleet and its capacity. And this brings really a critical question. The question is, we know now that ISIS cannot be defeated from air, by -- through airstrikes. You need to dislodge ISIS from major cities and towns. You do it by -- in two ways.
GERGESYou either deploy Western boots on the ground, or you basically provide capacity to local forces, the Iraqi army, the Kurds in Iraq, the Kurds in Syria and of course various opposition rabble. This takes a long time. And this is really where Barack Obama is. I hate to say it here, but Barack Obama is correct. In fact, in order to really defeat ISIS, in order to hammer a deadly nail in the coffin of ISIS, you have to basically help local communities to stand up and dislodge ISIS from major towns and cities.
GERGESThis is the only effective strategic way to defeat ISIS once and for all. The question is, this a long strategy, and in the meantime, ISIS basically consolidates its Islamic State and basically expands and has affiliates in many countries to wage war against, I mean, a Middle Eastern state and also against Western powers, as well.
REHMSo Steve Pifer, he is talking about arming those who are there rather than putting boots on the ground.
PIFERAnd that's probably the way to go. There is no enthusiasm in America or Europe to put large numbers of Western ground forces into Syria or into Western Iraq. So if you're going to assemble a ground force that complements the Western air campaign, you are looking, as he said, you're looking at the Iraqi army, you're looking at the Kurds, you're looking at opposition groups on the ground.
REHMAnd we'll take a short break here. More of your calls, comments when we come back.
REHMWelcome back. General Dubik, I know you wanted to follow up on the idea of training local forces to resist, to fight. But you're saying in order to do that, you need US trainers.
DUBIKWell, you need trainers, US or other coalition members. They have to -- this is a very human, face to face confidence building activity. If I'm going to be sent in to train someone, it's not like a bass fish, where I catch and release it, I train it and release it. I stay with them, I build their confidence, I increase their capacity of fighting while they're fighting.
REHMSo, you're differentiating between a few advisors and massive groups on the ground.
DUBIKYeah. No, exactly. Exactly.
REHMHow effective, Fawaz Gerges, do you believe that would be?
GERGESWell, by the way, we don't have just a few trainers. We have almost 4,000 trainers in Iraq. In fact, one of the major problems faced by the military and speak to the American military, is that they don't have enough recruits in Iraq. So, this is not about the question of sending 4,000 trainers. You can train 50, 60, 70,000 local forces in six or seven months. And American officials have been complaining about the fact that they don't have enough recruits.
GERGESPoint one. In Syria, it's a very complex situation. It's a very complex situation, because you have -- Syria has gone to a million pieces. The question of vetting the rebels. You have thousands of warlords in Syria. You have regional war by proxies. At the end of the day, if you send American boots on the ground, you're going to make a huge quantitative difference in terms of defeating ISIS. The question is, how about the, I mean, the implications? The repercussions. How would ISIS and Al-Nusra Front exploit this particular decision by the United States and the western powers to send troops?
GERGESMy take on it is that the next American president, most likely, will inherit this particular portfolio and might decide on increasing the number of American boots on the ground in both Iraq and Syria.
REHMAnd what would you, if you had the power, Fawaz Gerges, what would you be doing right now?
GERGESWell, you know Diane, I am an academic. And it's very easy for us to bark and be critical. This is, you know, we master the art of criticism. But it's really, really a very complex situation. And this is -- it is much more complex than you and I think. You're talking about deep cleavages, you're talking about the breakdown of institutions. You're talking about the social fabric that, you know, the ties that bind are very thin, the lack of trust.
GERGESYou're talking about, I mean, remember, the reason why non-state actors, including ISIS and others, have been able to really create such, I mean, a huge mass. Because the system is fragile, and when the system, the political and the social system is fragile, basically all kinds of social academics infiltrate the system. What we need now is to really invest diplomatic, political and social capital in rebuilding the institutions. Rebuilding the state system, and this is a very complex path.
GERGESIt's not just about the military mission, it's about how do you rebuild the fragile institutions? And as we all know, it's easy said than done. This will take years, really generational. I know it's a cliché. You're talking about a decade or so to rebuild the state system, the broken state system in that part of the world.
REHMAll right. I'll go back to the phones to Kathleen in Dayton, Ohio. You're on the air.
KATHLEENHi. Thanks. I worked for and voted for Obama both times, but, you know, has their foreign policy strategy in Syria been disastrous from the very beginning? I mean, all we heard was Assad must go, Assad must go over and over again. And according to the Leveretts, Flynt and Hillary Mann Leverett at Middle East Experts, four and a half years ago, they were writing about negotiate with Assad. Okay, he's a murderer, and, you know, a bad guy, but, but, if, with negotiations, is it too late to still negotiate? And wouldn't have negotiations have kept the doors closed to ISIS getting in to Syria?
BROOKSIt's possible. There's obviously no way to know, at this point. I do think it's fair to say that the Obama administration's policy on Syria has been a mess, really, from day one. And one thing that has been clear to me is that some early opportunities were lost and, you know, whether we could have found some way to avoid getting Assad backed into a corner and prevented a lot of the bloodshed that's occurred, I don't know. Maybe, maybe not. Whether we could have intervened early on the side of the group that, at the time, we did have some more secular, more moderate Syrian rebels.
BROOKSCould that have made a decisive difference? Maybe it could have. The trouble is now, obviously, it's -- we are where we are. And my concern right now is that we really, if anything, almost need a sort of strategic pause here. Because we do not know what is going on and one of the painful lessons that we should have learned from Iraq and many other situations is we can train lots of local forces. They will fight as long as they think it is in their interest to do so, but they will not risk their lives to defend what they see as our interests.
BROOKSIf their interests differ from ours. Right now, we have lots and lots of actors on the ground with conflicting interests. We have very few people, we've, you know, 50 special forces, special operations troops on the ground in Syria. We don't know who the players are, we don't really know what they want. We don't know how loyal they're likely to be to our interests. And their interests are not the same as ours. I think that that's a situation where, as Fawaz says, you focus your energies on diplomacy and political solutions rather than on blundering in with more military action without a clear sense of what we can achieve or indeed what we want to achieve.
PIFERYeah. No, I would agree. I mean, I think the Obama administration probably let its understandable abhorrence for the Assad regime. Remember, this guy is responsible for the deaths of tens of thousands of Syrians. He's responsible for the fact that millions of Syrians have had to flee the country. But that probably became a roadblock to engaging in some way. And there was one question. I'm not sympathetic to a lot of the Russian views on Syria, but there was one question that we never really had a good answer for. When the Russians would say, if Assad goes, what comes next?
PIFERAnd we didn't have a strategy, we didn't have a way of answering that that made anybody particularly comfortable.
REHMDo we have a clearer answer to that question now?
PIFERI sure don't. I mean, when you look at the mess on the ground in Syria now, I think it's very hard to project what comes next.
DUBIKThis has been one of the problems with building, quote end quote, a free Syrian army. An army is an entity that fights for political organizations, political community. You can't create an army without a political community, yet we tried for years. And so, you know, in this regard, because of the complexities that we're all acknowledging, it really does, I think, suggest to start small, not large. And to focus on local communities and build from there rather than try something grand and work down.
REHMTo John in Arlington, Virginia. You're on the air.
JOHNGood morning, Diane.
JOHNI wanted to make two quick points and one major point. Point one is that the overall problem is the slow dissolution of the state system in the Middle East and that can't be good. And there's a lot of people to blame for that. Point two is the Russians have been in Syria forever, meaning since the mid-50s. The Iranians since '80, basically as a block against the Iraqis. So, that, people don't understand that that's a long term relationship that you just can't kind of sever and say, you know, it's okay.
JOHNYou got a problem there. Thirdly, as far as this Russo-Turkish thing, this isn't about legalities, this is about power. The Turks cross the borders on a regular basis to attack the PKK in northern Iraq because of that -- the group supported the local rebels in Turkey. So, you know, I'm not sure what borders mean, but as far as the Russians go, it's quite clear that while there may have been minor incursions, the Turks again are involved in interference in Syria.
JOHNAnd I suspect the Russians, in addition to putting those anti-aircraft missiles, are going to come down very hard on the Turks in northern Syria and they're going to tell the Turks, okay, now what are you going to do?
REHMInteresting. What do you think, Steve?
PIFERAs I said, I think today, you saw Russian airstrikes focused at that Turkman population in northern Syria. And Turkey will react badly to that. So, the question is, can Ankara and Moscow keep their differences here somewhat bounded?
REHMDo you expect that they will?
REHMFrom the rhetoric today, it sounds as though they might.
PIFERI think that both sides recognize, both in Moscow and Ankara, that they don't have an interest in seeing this spin wildly out of control. But also, you have two leaders who are also interested in portraying domestically that they are standing up for their country, they are standing up for their country's positions. And has that pushed them to do things that, you know, in a calmer sense, they might not otherwise choose to do.
REHMAnd speaking of being on the defensive, what about ISIS Fawaz? Some people have said ISIS is indeed on the defensive.
GERGESIt is on the defensive. ISIS is losing territory in both Iraq and Syria. ISIS is besieged. You're talking about more than 15,000 of its fighters and mid-level leaders have been killed. The Americans have been gradually and systematically increasing the pressure on ISIS. In particular, on its economy. It's oil economy. But it's a slow process. ISIS is not imploding. Because of the regional war by proxies, because of its ability to manipulate and exploit the divisions in both Iraq and Syria. So, at the end of the day, this is a very slow, prolonged complex strategy.
GERGESAt the end of the day, I think Barack Obama is correct. ISIS will be defeated, make no doubts about it. The question is, what will be the cost and how long? And in the meantime, are we -- can the international community afford the cost given the fact that ISIS now has been able to co-opt recruits and networks in many countries in the Middle East. And, in fact, in European countries, in particular in France and the United Kingdom where I live. And Belgium and other places.
REHMAnd you've also said, Fawaz, that ISIS has been able to undermine Al Qaeda. What do you mean by that and what is the significance?
GERGESYou know, Diane, Al Qaeda no longer exists as a centralized organization. It's gone. Because I think the Americans have been able to dismantle the centralized organization by killing the top leadership, the mid-level leaders. In many ways, ISIS has basically taken leadership of the global jihadist movement. Quickly, I know we don't have the time. Give you an idea. At the height of its power, Al Qaeda never numbered more than 2,000, 3,000 fighters. Al Qaeda never controlled land or people. ISIS has an army between 30,000 and 100,000 give and take.
GERGESISIS controlled the lives between five million and eight million people. ISIS controlled a state as big as where I live in the United Kingdom. And ISIS now, it has the narrative of triumphalism, of winning. And that's why its message appeals to some deluded men in many parts of the world. And that's why the flow of fighters. So yes, and that's why we are seeing now Al Qaeda, the various Al Qaeda divisions are trying to compete with ISIS, stand up and say, look, we still exist.
GERGESMy take is that the Mali attacks a few days ago, was a kind of message on the part of the Al Qaeda to say to ISIS, yes, you did the Russian jet, yes, you carried out the suicide bombings in Beirut and the massacre in Paris. But here we are. We still have capacity. We still exist. You cannot dismiss us as you have done in the last three years or so.
REHMFawaz Gerges is Chair of the Middle Eastern Center at the London School of Economics. He's the author of "ISIS: A History" to be published in February of 2016. And you're listening to The Diane Rehm Show. Rosa, you've said that defeating ISIS will not make terrorism go away.
BROOKSNo. I think it's a pipe dream to think anything other than that. Terrorism is a method. There have been terrorists in the world for thousands of years. Obviously, ISIS has superseded Al Qaeda. Before we had Al Qaeda, we were worried about terrorist threats from Hamas and Hezbollah. Before that, it was the Abu Nidal group, Black September, et cetera. There have been Basque terrorists, IRA terrorists, Sri Lankan terrorists. Terrorism is a tactic that's embraced by relatively weak actors who don't have strong conventional militaries.
BROOKSAnd sometimes by states, usually with some degree of covertness. Because it's cheap and it's effective. And I think we, in the, in the panicky reaction to the Paris attacks, which were terrible, but not an existential threat to any country in the West, we see exactly why groups resort to terrorism. It works. It scares the heck out of people and they overreact. And they do self-destructive things.
REHMSo, General Dubik, in your mind, do we still have the possibility of creating a coalition against ISIS?
DUBIKI think yes, as long as you understand, as I do, that it's not going to be a grand alliance. I think part of the discussion about the strategy here is to recognize that we are currently on a strategy of attrition, which makes three assumptions. Number one that we, the coalition of the United States, have more resources than the enemy. Number two, we're willing to use those resources longer than the enemy's willing. And three, we have the will to use those resources longer than the enemy.
DUBIKAnd I think all, the first one, in terms of resources, no question. The other two, I think, are in question. And so a strategy of attrition may not be the best choice for us in the long term.
REHMAnd to you, Ambassador Pifer. What do you see as the US strategy in the long run?
PIFERWell, I think it's going to have to be very much a long term effort. We're not going to be able to defeat ISIS or terrorism overnight. I think as Rosa said, we're going to, even if we beat ISIS, if we eradicate it, there's going to be some other group that's going to embrace terror tactics. So, it's a long term campaign and we have to just be prepared to continue to deal with it.
REHMAnd finally, to you Fawaz Gerges, in just the few seconds we have, you say that alienation of the Muslim world could be the final nail in the coffin. What do we need to do to separate our interests from defeat of ISIS from our belief that most Muslims are not part of terrorism?
GERGESYou know, Diane, first and foremost, this is a fight for the Arab and Muslim world. All the western powers, including the United States, can do is to step forward to assist, to help, to provide capacity. The good news, and I want to conclude on a piece of good news, is that ISIS, like Al Qaeda, is its own worst enemy. It has mastered the art of enemies. It has made enemies of the entire world including the Muslim community. Its viciousness, savagery and ISIS is going to be defeated not because it's evil, and it evil.
GERGESBecause ISIS really does not have a strategic vision. It does not have a positive, a blueprint for governance. And at the end of the day, it's gradually alienating not only mainstream Muslim public opinion, but even some of its fighters that they have been fighting with within the last two or three years.
REHMAll right. And we'll have to leave it there. Thank you all for being with us and happy Thanksgiving to all of you. I'm Diane Rehm.
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