Guest Host: Tom Gjelten
The U.N. says a ceasefire in Syria is largely holding, but there are some reports of violations. A top E.U. official warns economic migrants against coming to Europe. The U.N. Security Council adopts new sanctions on North Korea over its nuclear weapons program. Moderates and reform candidates make significant gains in Iran’s national elections. And gulf Arab states declare Lebanon’s Hezbollah a terrorist group, a move signaling escalating tensions between Saudi Arabia and Iran. A panel of journalists joins guest host Tom Gjelten for analysis of the week’s top international news stories.
- James Kitfield Contributing editor, National Journal; senior fellow, Center for the Study of the Presidency and Congress.
- Nadia Bilbassy Washington bureau chief, Al Arabiya
- Paul Danahar Washington bureau chief, BBC; author of "The New Middle East: The World After the Arab Spring"
MR. TOM GJELTENThank for joining us. I'm Tom Gjelten of NPR sitting in for Diane Rehm. A tenuous in Syria is holding, as the parties prepare for a new round of peace talks. The UN approves harsh new sanctions on North Korea over its nuclear program. And a top EU official warns some migrants against coming to Europe.
MR. TOM GJELTENHere to discuss this week's top international stories on the Friday News Roundup, James Kitfield of The National Journal, Nadia Bilbassy of al-Arabiya, and Paul Danahar of the BBC. Good to see you all.
MS. NADIA BILBASSYGood morning, Tom.
MR. JAMES KITFIELDGood to see you.
MR. PAUL DANAHARGood morning.
GJELTENAnd the news roundup always generates lots of questions and comments. Of course, you can join our conversation by calling 1-800-433-8850. You can email us, email@example.com. You can share your thoughts with us via Facebook or Twitter or even our website where you can leave comments. Let's begin, Paul, with North Korea. So this -- two days ago, the United Nations imposes tough, tough new sanctions against North Korea, tough in theory anyway. Touch officially, we'll see how they're enforced.
GJELTENRemind us what lead up to those sanctions.
DANAHARWell, the North Koreans are just getting badder and badder and their young leader, Kim Jong-Un is becoming more and more like a spoiled boy. So he filed off some missiles that angered the UN and the Chinese who have been getting increasingly irritated with the young man. They used to feel they had some control over the grandfather and the father. They feel like they're slowly losing control of him.
DANAHARAnd in response, he's announced that his nuclear weapons are ready for any preemptive strike he made need to carry out. And I think -- I mean, the sanctions are tougher in the sense that what they're doing is -- in the past, it used to be if there was a reasonable suspicion, they could stop everything going in and out of the country. Now, they're just going to stop everything going in and out of the country.
DANAHARSo I think they have scared them. I think they are quite significant and they probably won't make any difference because there is no negotiation. There is no pressuring this guy. He's got everyone around him now in his camp. He's killed off everyone who was standing against him. So he really has a massive amount of power. And let's think about it. He's a young man. He's a young man with nuclear weapons. I mean, it's like sort of walking into a college and saying, hey, guys, who wants a nuclear weapon and then trying to negotiate with them afterwards.
DANAHARIt's really complicated.
GJELTENSo he said this week that the -- he ordered the nuclear weapons to be prepared for launch at any time. And this follows a test, a nuclear weapons test, last -- well, in January and then, as you say, this launch of this missile, which, in theory, they claim is long range ballistic missile that could actually -- we don't know if that's true or not. But some real provocative acts in that line.
DANAHARYeah, and I think -- but I think what we're waiting to find out, what we don't know is whether or not they can create a nuclear weapon small enough to put on the kind of missile system that they have. And the feeling is that they probably can't at the moment. That's what everybody's hoping. If they ever get to that stage, then they really will have an awful lot of leverage.
GJELTENJames, what do you hear about how much concern there is about how long it will be before North Korea actually could hit the United States with a...
KITFIELDIt's a huge concern. They have now successfully launched a number of -- which are basically intercontinental ballistic missiles. They say that they're putting satellites in space and a couple times they have, but basically, the multistage rockets that they're putting satellites in space with are intercontinental ballistic missiles. So the high bar now is can you miniaturize the nuclear weapon such that you can put that on a missile.
KITFIELDAs Paul said, we don't think they're there yet, but they're definitely moving in that direction and so this nuclear test in January, the long range test, and in February, you know, we've seen this play out before. When they get -- when they feel like they're being ignored, they do something provocative and then we either put sanctions on send someone over there to, you know, try to get back, for instance, this American student that they've arrested.
KITFIELDBut a couple of things in this new crisis that are particularly worrisome. One of which there is this party conference coming up on May 7, first one in decades. He's going to want to use that to sort of show his legitimacy so he is under a lot of pressure to sort of do something that sort of, you know, rouses the people to his side. And that -- and usually, North Korea, we know how it does that. It does something provocative against the west.
KITFIELDAnd the other thing is China really has -- I mean, if China lives up to these sanctions, these are very tough sanctions, not only inspecting everything that goes in and out of the country, but curtailing the fuel that its military uses to fly jets, et cetera. Cutting of its ability to sort of use commodities to get hard cash. So I mean, my question is, is China serious. 'Cause if China -- that's been the problem here is that China -- this is a client state of China and China has never been willing to actually do something that might roil the situation on the peninsula.
KITFIELDIf China really imposes these sanctions, you could see this thing escalating and we'll see where it goes.
GJELTENWell, and Nadia, as James says, these sanctions are tougher than any that have been enacted in the past and they did get China's support. How significant do you think that was?
BILBASSYIt's very significant because as, you know, James and Paul just mentioning, it's a lifeline for -- Pyongyang is dependent on China. But as many people will sum up, the Chinese policy towards North Korea, which is, you know, no war, no instability and no nukes. So in the end, they probably will be live with some kind of testing, as long as there is no regime change and there is no war because the state quo will benefit China, no doubt. And any change in the circumstances where you have an alternative to the current leadership, it will affect China.
BILBASSYBut yet, they are willing to go ahead and I think Samantha Power at the UN Security Council managed to galvanize all the support from member nations and using -- implying somehow some kind of fear that these missiles can reach, actually, any of the member states. And this is the country in the 21st century that still testing nuclear, you know, missiles here and there, but, you know, I mean, the regime is very erratic, very unpredictable.
BILBASSYAnd every now and then, he needs some attention and therefore, he fires these missiles, but it doesn't mean that you shouldn't take it seriously.
GJELTENWell, Paul, these sanctions, as James mentioned, mandate that any North Korean cargo entering and leaving a country must be inspected. If those sanction were strictly, strictly enforced, that would seem to have a pretty devastating effect on North Korea, would it not?
DANAHARI think it would. And I think what's interesting, if we look at the character of the Chinese leader, Xi Jinping, he is showing China that what he expects is to be in control of stuff. And the way that he's moved in the country to become more and more stronger, to really take control of all bits of the party. It's in his character to control stuff. And he's now got on his southern border someone he can't control and I think, in the past, there was a bigger dialogue between the Chinese leaders and the old North Korean leaders.
DANAHARNow, you've got someone that's not playing by the rules and I think China really will be tough on them because they -- Xi Jinping is a tough guy and he wants people to play by his rules and I think they will push and they will push, but not to the point where they destabilize the regime because they can't afford to have a flood of refugees coming across the border. It's a really difficult line to draw, but I think they will push...
GJELTENYeah. How hard is it to draw that line?
DANAHARIncredibly difficult because no one knows what's going on inside. The Chinese, obviously, have a pretty good idea what's going on inside, but they probably don't know how this guy's mind works because there's not that kind of relationship that there used to be so they're gonna be nudging and pushing and nudging and pushing and trying to work out when they're getting to the point where they could be overplaying their hand and then they'll probably stop.
DANAHARBut nobody knows where that line is.
GJELTENAnd meanwhile, James, the North Korean leadership and Kim Jong-Un love to have anything that they can grab as leverage against the west and they now have University of Virginia student whom they have arrested.
GJELTENHow likely are they to try to get more out of that. They've already go a so-called confession out of him.
KITFIELDWell, and again, we've seen this play out many times in the past. You know, we were saying it off the air, it astounds me that we still have students going over there and visiting North Korea and we know that it is a favorite tactic of theirs to take any American hostage, basically arrest them on trumped up causes, and use them as a pawn in this great game. And they'll do that again for this case for sure. You know, I imagine that Bill Richardson somewhere is, you know, making sure his passport's stamped up so he can go visit and maybe try to get this guy out.
KITFIELDBut that's, you know, they'll look for a high -- a sort of high level delegation of someone to come negotiate 'cause that looks good to them. They are being -- they are sort of forcing the international community to deal with them and that gives him his legitimacy. So we'll see this play out. In the past, and will hopefully in this case, too, we'll find some accommodation to get him back. But, you know, I'm sorry for the student's family.
GJELTENWell, let's turn now to another country in the so-called Axis of Evil, another country whose nuclear capability has been a big concern for the world and that is Iran. Nadia, pretty interesting elections this week in Iran. What did you take from them?
BILBASSYIndeed. I mean, look, I mean, it's good to have the so-called moderates gaining some seats in the parliament.
GJELTENWhich they did.
BILBASSYWhich they did. They got almost 60 seats, at least in Tehran. Probably more outside or less. But we have to -- not to dismiss the results at face value, but also not to exaggerate it because in the end, the so-called moderate or reformists are the one who kind of subjected to a vetting process by the hardliners. So if they were not good enough for the hardliners, they will be excluded from this election. But it shows that there is some kind of movement around President Rouhani and around Prime Minister Zarif.
BILBASSYThe nuclear deal might have some gain and support, but still, we have to put it in the context of economic reform. We don't expect any social or political reforms that's going to happen soon. Also, this consortium of different people who's winning this election -- although we have not known the total results so far because I think they declared 220 seats out of 290. They said 67 still contested outside because of independents.
BILBASSYIt's not like the U.S., for example, where you have a clear two parties. You have the Republicans and the Democrats. So these people are independent and we don't know how they think. We know that they're reformists. This is how Iran -- but it's not the bigger picture. One last point I'll make is also the institution, which is the most important institution in Iran is the judiciary and also the republican guards and the military. They don't subject them to any kind of election.
GJELTENWe'll pick up with the discussion after we take a short break. Nadia Bilbassy is Washington bureau chief at al-Arabiya. I'm Tom Gjelten. Stay tuned.
GJELTENHello, again. Welcome back to "The Diane Rehm Show." This is the international hour of the Weekly News Roundup. I'm Tom Gjelten sitting in for Diane with my guests, James Kitfield from the National Journal, Nadia Bilbassy from Al Arabiya, and Paul Danahar from the BBC. And, remember, we'd love to have your input into our discussion, our conversation. Our phone number is 1-800-433-8850. Our email is firstname.lastname@example.org.
GJELTENPaul, we were talking just now about these are -- these were parliamentary elections and they were elections for a new Assembly of Experts. But there's a very important election coming up next year.
DANAHARYeah. Well, Rouhani will be looking to see whether he can become president again. He's going to through reelection. And I think the important thing about what's going now, with the parliamentary elections and also the selection of the Panel of Experts who actually pick the supreme leader, but it's basically consolidating the different bases. Because before you go into a president election, you want to make sure that you've got all your supporters in the right way, no one's going to try and upset you.
DANAHARSo I think that we'll see some -- what -- this is good news for him. Because if he can consolidate more and more people of a reformist type -- and we're even seeing some of the conservatives -- the conservative wing is even splitting a little bit between those conservatives who are willing to be a bit more pragmatic and those who are just not. So there is -- there does seem to be a bit of move in many areas towards that center. Because Rouhani is -- has managed to play the game quite well. He's managed to encourage very many young Iranians, in particular, that he can bring about some change. And it's been done without embarrassing the Iranians.
DANAHARI mean, I think the key thing with the Iranians is you've got to make people believe that you can do these deals and do these negotiations and still save face. And I think he's been quite clever at doing that. The hardliners were saying, you know, we're going to get sold down the river. America's going to control everything. I think he's managed, because of the way that the Americans have played the diplomatic game. They've not sought to embarrass the Iranians and him. He's managed to negotiate that quite well.
GJELTENNow, Nadia, these elections this week also chose people for the Assembly of Experts, which has a very important role in Iran, in that they are the ones who name the supreme leader. Now, Ayatollah Khamenei is 76 years old. He had prostate surgery a couple of years ago. So this election could also be significant in terms of setting the stage for the designation of a new supreme leader, who has so much power in Iran.
BILBASSYAbsolutely. I mean, he is the supreme leader. He's the one who calls the shot in everything. And just to add what Paul said, I think, I don't know if you were referring to the nuclear deal when you talk about not embarrassing everybody, but don't forget, every time this negotiation went through a bottleneck, Zarif will fly to Teheran to discuss it with the leadership there. So they're the one in the end, they will decide. But coming back to this point, for sure. Now, this body will choose the next Ayatollah. And basically, two of them, the most hardliners among the group, have been eliminated.
BILBASSYSo the chance is that, if he dies soon, as because he's in poor health, the chance is that you will have a little -- and I will put it inverted comma -- a little bit more of an open reformist or a little bit of a less hardliner, I think this is more -- the better phrase to use it, will be likely. So that will open more change. This is -- will couple with having Rouhani, if he's elected again, and this reformist movement that is in Iran.
BILBASSYBut, again, I just want to be cautious about the change. And it's not like we want it to be an the speed that the Iranian people wanted to see it, in terms of open out and having free and fair election. This election are not free or fair or transparent. Because, in the end, they are eliminating certain people that they cannot even contest the election (word?)
GJELTENYeah. How many did they eliminate?
BILBASSYThe number I've seen is hundreds.
BILBASSYThere were hundreds of them. It could be even thousands. Because it was just open election. Anybody can, as I said, they don't have solid, well-known political party.
BILBASSYThe good things is like the role of women, we were just talking about, they have 14 women who are going to be represented in this new parliament. And when you have the second round of this election in April, we expect even more women to be in the parliament.
GJELTENJames, let's broaden this discussion a little bit in geopolitical terms. In the background here is this old rivalry between the Gulf States and, in particular, Saudi Arabia and Iran, between the big Sunni powers and the biggest Shia power, Iran. Tell us what happened this week that gives us some sense of how big a rivalry this is and what is going on. What's the future of this contest between Saudi Arabia, in particular, and Iran.
KITFIELDWell, it used to be cold war and right now it's a hot war.
KITFIELDAnd they've got proxies fighting each other all over the place. You know, Saudi airplanes bombing, you know, the Houthis in Yemen who are backed by Iran. You've got Hezbollah, you know, a very big role in fighting on the side of Assad in Syria. That -- it's open war basically between the Gulf monarchies and the Gulf Cooperation Council, led by Saudi Arabia, and Iran. And what the Gulf Cooperation Council did this week was basically say, Hezbollah is a terrorist -- designate them a terrorist organization. Well, that's Iran's chief proxy, is Hezbollah, Lebanese Hezbollah. So it just goes to show you that this is getting more and more of an open conflict where it has, in the past, has been something more like a cold war or a cold war standoff.
KITFIELDThis is not good for the United States. We're trying to reach a deal with Iran on the one hand and not scare Saudi Arabia so bad that it goes off the reservation. Because it's doing things that we have great concerns about, in Yemen, for instance. We think that war is a disaster and that there -- it's going to probably go nowhere good for the Saudi Arabians. We're very worried about trying to make the cease-fire in Syria hold. Iran's a party to that -- was a party to the discussions that led up to that, a key player. So we're sort of uneasily in this bridge between the Shia and the Sunni divide, straddling that -- trying to straddle that divide and bring some stability back to the Middle East. And it's not working.
KITFIELDOne point on the election of moderates to the Council of Experts. I did some reporting on this week. You know, this council is supposed to choose the next leader. But they didn't choose the supreme leader -- this supreme leader. When he was, you know, chosen, it was in a backroom deal and they basically rubber-stamped it. So, you know, as Nadia said, every time you say something positive about what's happening in Iran, you have to qualify it.
KITFIELDThat's a big qualifier.
GJELTENYeah. Let's -- but let's stick for a second on this Iran-Saudi Arabia contest. As James said, Paul, it's had a kind of a cold war aspect to it. One of the places where you've seen that competition in non-kinetic terms or not in a cold war sense in Lebanon, where you have -- you saw both the Saudis and the Iranians sort of vying for influence within Lebanon itself. And now the Saudis are apparently pulling out of Lebanon.
DANAHARWell, this deal -- they've just halted a $3 billion military aid package to the Lebanese government about two weeks ago. I mean, the thing about Lebanon is, it's a really fragile place politically because -- the way that it's political situation is set up. Everyone has to -- the Christians and the Shia and the Sunni all have to kind of have a political role within the government. That was a way that they managed to end the 15-year-long civil war in Lebanon. I mean, the thing about the way that these -- Iran and Saudi Arabia have been playing the game, is it's all through proxies, all via other countries. Everything they've done has been via another -- they haven't kind of attacked each other directly but they go for the proxies.
DANAHARThey go for the -- they're fighting each other in Yemen effectively. They're fighting each other in Syria effectively. And they are fighting for political influence in Lebanon. So this kind of...
GJELTENAnd Iraq, by the way.
DANAHARAnd Iraq, of course, yeah. So I mean you've basically got this massive kind of fight, undeclared war going on, effectively. And everybody else is dying for this conflict.
GJELTENNadia, you grew up in that region. How do, you know, what are your feelings...
GJELTENWhen you look at this now?
BILBASSYWell, I mean, I just wanted to add one point here, which is, you know, Tom, generally in the West they always like to portray any conflict in the Middle East as clear-cut between Sunnis and Shiites.
BILBASSYBut let me just add, there is -- the picture is much more complicated and there is nuanced arguments. And I'll give you one. For example, Hezbollah in Lebanon is being seen as a proxy for the Iranians.
BILBASSYThey are there to implement their agenda in Syria and in Lebanon. But do you know who is the major ally of Hezbollah in Lebanon? It is the Christians, a block led by Michel Aoun, General Aoun. He's the one who is blocking the nomination of a president to the country for almost a year and a half. He's the closest ally. So now is nothing to do with the religion and nothing to do with Islam and it's sects. It's actually to do with a pure political interest of each party there.
DANAHARI think that's true of every -- I mean, you know, the president was criticized for saying these things go back for a millennia. This -- what we're fight -- this is not, in many ways, religious. It's about power in the region. It's about countries exerting their political influence. And so the backdrop often is the kind of religious divide. But it's so much more complicated.
DANAHARI mean, in every way, Gaza is complicated by the...
GJELTENI was going to say, the Palestinian territories.
BILBASSYOh, absolutely. I mean, I can't start -- I don't know where to begin. I mean, if you talk about the Palestinian issues or about Syria or Iraq or -- I mean, the only thing is I will say that, in the long run, none of these countries will -- they will cease to exist the way we know them. Because, as most people, that they are false borders that were created by the Sykes-Picot Agreement and therefore they were forced to live together. And if you wanted to impose some kind of a system, which is Arab nationalism, that's led by actually Christian intellectuals in the Middle East and the Ba'athists, who turn out to be fascist parties, whether it's in Syria or in Iraq. It didn't work.
BILBASSYSo in the end, you have tribal lines that is divided and is being drawn by this (word?) , whether it was the British or the French at the time. And now you have people who benefit from their religion. I grew up -- I agree with you. But there is a political party that they use religion to further their gains and to say, all of a sudden, you guys are not Lebanese or Iraqis. You are Sunnis or you are Shiites or you are Christians or whatever. And, of course, when you have a terrorist organization like ISIS, who are determined to target people because of their ethnicity, then it's very easy to play this card.
GJELTENOkay, James, we have to turn our attention now to Syria and the war that has dominated our discussion of international news on the Weekly News Roundup for so long. We finally have something that is being called a cessation of hostilities. How real is it?
KITFIELDYou know, I can say for the first time probably in three years, four years, that it's probably the most positive development I've seen. And that's not saying much. It's a very low bar. But it has held for a week -- for a week, Sunday. It has led to a dramatic decrease in the fighting and the bombing and the violence. It has led to the U.N. being able to reach a dramatic -- hundreds of thousands of people who were basically starving, because starvation has been used as a weapon in this terrible war. So, you know, let's take that and say that is a very, very good thing. You know, there is all the -- most of the players involved were members of the talks that led to this cease-fire. So you can only hope that it holds.
KITFIELDThere are multiple problems because we haven't gone into negotiations of what comes after a cease-fire. And that's where it keeps breaking down. Because we want a transition. It's part of the deal that was reached in Geneva between us and the Russians and the Iranians and everyone. That is part of the deal. We think that means a transition away from Assad. The Russians and the Assad regime haven't agreed to that. So, you know, this is not to be confused with a peace deal. But as a first step in trying to tame the fires that have killed more than 250,000 people and sent more, you know, migrants running across Europe than since World War II, it's a tentative, good first step.
GJELTENJames Kitfield is contributing editor at the National Journal. He's also a senior fell at the Center for the Study of the Presidency and Congress. I'm Tom Gjelten. This is "The Diane Rehm Show."
DANAHARI think the other thing that...
DANAHARI think the other thing that's just quite important is you mentioned the refugee crisis. This has been a -- this whole war has been allowed to bubble along for years until it affected Europe. Until we had people turning up on the doorstep of Europe and going into Germany and creating this chaos, there was a feeling that this was a war that could be contained. And the Western world, effectively, just sat back and looked at it get worse and worse and worse. We've only got this urgency now. Because the European diplomats -- and I've spoken to some of them privately -- they're petrified of the idea if they don't get something sorted out now before the summer comes, there'll be another wave of refugees coming in.
DANAHARAnd there's a real concern in Europe that it's changing the identity and the nature of the European Union, politically and the way the individual cultures see their own identities. It's a really big moment for Europe. And that's what's driving this. It's more about Europe and concerns in Europe than it is about concerns for the Syrian people.
GJELTENWell, what does that mean in terms of what they're -- what they are willing to accept. I mean, you know, does that mean that they're sort of ready to kind of accept any kind of deal that would stop the fighting and stop the flow of migrants, regardless of the justice of it?
DANAHARI don't think justice is going to be the big defining factor in this. Because, at the end of -- and I think they're wrong on many levels. Because even if the fighting ends, Assad owned big chunks of Syria. And most of these people have been running away from Assad, not running away from ISIS. So if Assad is in charge, you're still not going to get millions of people wanting to go back again. Because he's -- his regime will control access to anything to do with your health care, anything to do with your safety, anything to do with your schooling for your kids, to your food. And these people mainly ran away from him. Getting them to go back again will be incredibly difficult.
BILBASSYAlso, the phrase is again, never again injustice. When you talk about conflict like Syria, it doesn't really apply. I wanted just to pick up a few points about the agreement. It's not a cease-fire. It is a cessation of hostility basically. It's negotiated for two reasons. Number one, is to allow humanitarian access to areas that's being besieged by the Syrian regime and to a lesser extent by the opposition. Towns like Madaya, we have seen children and older people and young people starving to death in the 21st century. We have seen pictures coming like from a concentration camp, under the eyes of the international community.
BILBASSYWe -- the other reason also was to build what they called good faith or, you know, good building measures, confidence measures, so they will take it to negotiation table when they talk in Geneva. Justice doesn't apply. When Assad was accused of crimes against humanity, as the Congress did yesterday actually, there was a resolution in the House, if you are aware of it, that they want to try not just Assad but Assad and Russia and Iran for crimes against humanity. And they want to take them to International Tribunal. So, but instead of that, you're taking him to Geneva to negotiate an end to this conflict. Because, as you said, there is no good outcome from it.
BILBASSYSo for the time being, it's holding. The Russians called the upper hand because, anytime they want, they can restart this agreement -- these hostilities. And, you know, that both ISIS and Jabhat al-Nusra, which is an al-Qaida affiliated group, are excluded from that. So these people can cause havoc soon as well. I mean, it is -- for the time being, it is as good, as James said, it's the best news we heard in the last five years. But everybody is not optimistic. I mean, it's the same. I talked to many diplomats, including Arab diplomats yesterday, nobody is expressing hope that this cease-fire will hold for a longer period.
GJELTENWell, James, the Syrian Network for Human Rights says that it has documented 35 violations of the -- of this cessation of hostilities. But none of these violations have been verified by this -- there's a -- the United States and Russia have set up a taskforce to monitor the situation. Does that taskforce really, you know, does it have -- is there a temptation there, maybe, on the part of that taskforce to overlook minor violations in order to sort of continue with this line that the cease-fire, the cessation of hostilities is holding?
KITFIELDThe short answer to that is, yes, there is that temptation. And, yes, it may be happening, especially if it's not considered the big players making major moves. So it's not Russia bombing around Aleppo. It's not doing barrel bombs from the Assad regime. There is something like hundreds of these different factions and groups within Syria now. And if, you know, some firing back and forth between some of these factions are not going to be considered by the major powers as a huge break in this. So we'll see. I mean, I'm -- you can -- it's -- you -- never, you know, lose money betting against something good continuing in the Middle East right now. So we'll see.
KITFIELDI will make a point though on what Paul was saying about immigration. The immigration crisis caused by this has the potential to basically fracture the European Union. It strikes at the heart of what the European Union says it's about -- open borders, collective action. It has -- there is no collective answer within the EU to this crisis because the countries don't agree on it. So we now see Austria closing its borders, we now see Macedonia closing its borders, basically, backing up tens of thousands of these migrants in Greece. Turkey is kind off the reservation. So this is really an existential threat to Europe.
GJELTENAnd we had a European Union official yesterday distinguishing between people seeking asylum and people migrating for economic reasons. And he was saying, we don't want any more economic migrants. Okay, we're going to take a short break right now. When we come back, we're going to go to your phones and we're going to continue this discussion. Stay tuned.
GJELTENHello again, I'm Tom Gjelten, this is the Diane Rehm Show, and we're talking about the international news of the week with our panel, James Kitfield from the National Journal, Nadia Bilbassy from Al Arabiya and Paul Danahar, who is the Washington bureau chief at the BBC, and Paul is also the author of "The New Middle East: The World After the Arab Spring." I mentioned, Paul, just before the break that the European Union is getting very nervous about how many migrants are coming, trying to come into Europe.
GJELTENWe had the European Council president, Donald Tusk, yesterday warning illegal economic migrants against coming to Europe. He said, quote, do not come to Europe, do not believe the smugglers, do not risk your lives and your money, it is all for nothing. There's a little hint of desperation in that statement. They really want this migration flow to stop, don't they?
DANAHARThey really do, and they really do worry about what it's going to mean for the long-term viability of the European Union, politically and economically, because everybody in Europe looks at the identity of the European Union in a different way. The British see it more as an economic thing. The French and the Germans see it as intrinsic to their identity post the second world war. The states that joined from the Eastern European Bloc see it as something else. And there's this kind of paper over the top, where everyone pretends it's one big happy family.
DANAHARAnd that, the refugee crisis has ripped the paper away and shown all the divisions, and like in America, where you've got this kind of angry politics that's going on at the moment, you've got the same angry politics in Europe, and that's changing the people, changing the nature of how people are voting. It may change the nature of how the British, for example, decide to vote in June when we have a referendum about staying in and staying out.
DANAHARSo it could fundamentally undermine this big political move there's been over the years to try to make Europe a kind of powerhouse in the world.
GJELTENWell, that's what's at stake here sort of philosophically, conceptually, as far as Europe's identity is concerned. Let's talk, Nadia, about what is at stake here from a human perspective. Donald Tusk, this European Council president, made that comment after meeting with the president of Greece, and Greece is the sort of the front line of this migration crisis. Tell us what the situation is with migrants stuck in Greece right now.
BILBASSYIt is actually the frontier country. By the way, I just Googled where he's from. He's Polish.
BILBASSYSo Greece has been, probably many times on this show actually we spend time talking about how the EU, especially Germany, are trying to bail out Greece and to keep it in the Eurozone. So it's already been financially strained before anything could've happened of this -- I mean of this colossal burden that the refugees have caused Greece. To start with, as we speak now, there is 7,000 refugees have been stuck on the border between Greece and Macedonia.
GJELTENSeventy, 70, right?
BILBASSYSeven thousand, I think.
KITFIELDI think it's 70.
BILBASSYSeventy thousand, I'm sorry, 70,000. And you've seen the picture, it is a horrible picture of kids being tear-gassed, you know, people are so desperate, and they wanted to make it not to Macedonia, not to, you know, Belgrade or Croatia, they want to go to Germany, they want to go to Northern Europe, they want to go to Sweden because this is a country who has been very welcoming to them.
BILBASSYBut going back to Greece, they were saying that you have to do something, and now the European Council came, and they said, okay, we're going to give you some money, I think it's about $700 million euro that they were giving them. Now will this be enough? I'm not so sure because, as I said, the country is strained already, and they have to deal with this large number of people. Meanwhile, the Europeans, as Paul was saying, since it's a huge problem for them, they wanted somebody else to take care of this problem, and they turned to Turkey, and said Turkey is already housing two and a half million Syrian refugees.
BILBASSYAnd they're saying, you know what, we're going to give you money. We can give you three billion or whatever. We don't want you to be part of the European Union, because remember Turkey has been trying for years to be a member, but if you can look after these refugees and keep them in your country, then that will take some of the pressure from us. To the degree you're talking about the division, one last point I'll make, is Angela Merkel has threatened other European countries to penalize them if they don't take their share, what they call, of the refugees.
BILBASSYAnd they had a meeting in Vienna, in Austria, which I think they took 90,000 refugees so far in 2015, and they didn't even include Germany and Greece, who are the two countries who are the recipients...
GJELTENTaking in the most.
BILBASSYOf taking the most and dealing with the most of it. So that shows the division.
KITFIELDNot to make things even worse, but things are even worse that it's been described here, and this gets to the counterterrorism problem. You know, no one likes to talk about this, but even before this crisis blew up, there was a huge issue of the unassimilated Muslim people in Europe, especially in France but also in UK and a lot of other places.
KITFIELDWe've now got two million more refugees, almost all of them Muslims. These societies are not that good at assimilating these populations. We know from the attacks in Madrid, the attacks in London, from the attacks in Paris, that disaffected, first-generation men, you know, from sort of disaffected populations of Muslims who haven't been assimilated in Europe are a big problem. It's going to become a much bigger problem, even with -- if it stopped today, and it's not stopping today.
KITFIELDSo there is all kinds of dimensions to this issue, and that plays into Paul's point that it's going to lead to the rise of right-wing, xenophobic parties. We've already seen that in Denmark, in Holland with the (unintelligible) in Germany, in Britain, in Greece. So this is, like I said, an existential issue for Europe.
GJELTENLet's go now to James who's on the line from Clinton, Maryland. Hello, James, thanks for calling, sorry you had to wait so long.
JAMESHi, good morning.
GJELTENDo you have a question for us or a comment to make?
JAMESMy comment really is, is I've been calling this show a couple of times, we should have supported Assad from the beginning. See, Russia came in, do some bombings. Guess what happens? Ceasefire, everybody stopped. When the United States went in there, all we wanted to do was arm people we don't know to keep on fighting and making, you know, reckless statement like Assad has to go without no plan of knowing what will happen after he goes.
JAMESSo I'm thinking, and Europe sometimes deserves the amount of refugees they're also getting because they're the one that also supported that same ideal, Assad has to go, and bring a civil war, supporting a civil war without knowing what to do after that. So I don't feel sorry for Europe for getting this many refugees, and I applaud Russia for doing what they are doing by letting people know that you don't stop the fighting, we will bomb you until you're dead, and guess what happened, they stopped, and we have a little ceasefire. Regular people are eating now because of that ceasefire. So I applaud Russia, I'm sorry.
GJELTENPaul, what's your reaction to that argument, that the only reason that there's a -- let's not a ceasefire, let's call it a cessation of hostilities, that the only reason this has happened is because of Russia's entry into this war.
DANAHARUnquestionably Russia has changed the game, and I think there is an argument that the listener makes that's true, in the sense that there was no plan. I mean, you know, they had -- Assad had to go, and the idea was at the beginning that he was ousted by the Sunni businessmen and some of the other men around him. They didn't have a plan for what happened afterward. So in some ways it was a bit like Iraq, you know, let's -- we want to do this, and then no one thought about what happened after you did it. There was that lack of planning again, like about what you do in Syria.
DANAHARI think that the important thing now is when we're talking about the refugee situation, what the European Union wants to do is be able to distinguish between the Syrian refugees and all those others that are coming from North Africa and Afghanistan because if they can keep the Syrian refugees in one place, albeit Turkey, they then have a much easier political time keeping out what they can then say are economic migrants.
DANAHARAnd what they want to be able to do is hand pick the Syrians from everybody else, and then it'll be much more politically easy to say these guys can't come in because they're not running away from the war in Syria.
GJELTENNadia, I want you to react to an email we've got here from Claire, who says, the Russian economy is hurting badly with the oil price downturn. How long can Russia maintain its level of military commitment to Syria, given their economic problems? And isn't this in part why the Russians are now agreeing to a possibly negotiated political settlement, because they are -- the assumption here is that it can't continue this military operation in Syria indefinitely.
BILBASSYWell, this is exactly what President Obama thinks. He said from the beginning, when, you know, the Russians started building up this military capacity in Syria, well, let them go and see, and they're going to be stuck, and it's going to be Afghanistan, and the cost is going to be enormous. So I mean, it could be, but, you know, for Russia, they want -- it's more than just military power for them. Syria is vital. It's the last Middle Eastern ally. They wanted to have access to the Mediterranean. It's the last navy base for them.
BILBASSYIt's also -- as long as Putin is in power, the idea of resurrecting this old Soviet Union dominance, that everything has to go to Moscow now, if you want any decision to be done in Syria or, you know, maybe elsewhere in the Middle East, you have to go to Moscow. You've seen this alliance has been shifted. I mean, the Saudis have been going to Moscow, the Israelis have been going to Moscow, they're dealing with Putin. He made himself relevant because of this Syria crisis unfortunately at the expense of millions of Syrians and hundreds of thousands who have been killed, but for him, yes, they can sustain it for a while.
BILBASSYDid they agree on this cessation of hostility now because of the economic situation? Perhaps. It might be a part of the calculation, but it's really hard to predict how Putin thinks.
GJELTENLet's go now to Joe, who's on the line from Beaufort, North Carolina. Hello, Joe, thanks for calling us at "The Diane Rehm Show."
JOEYes, good morning. I have a comment. You know, we've seen these kind of things in the African colonies and in the Middle East going on for years and years, and as much as I hate to say it, these people who are causing these problems know only force to straighten things out. And I think the United Nations needs to change their tack. We need a world court or something like that to make decisions on who's right, and who's wrong, and then go in and do something about get it over with so these people can stay in their own countries.
JOEYou know, we have the same thing going on in Central America, and it just, you know, it's our own fault because we're handling it the way we're handling it.
GJELTENI'll tell you, you know, one thing we have not seen a shortage of in Syria is force. I mean, there has been a lot of force employed on all sides. And, you know, with the level of disagreement between Iran, Saudi Arabia, the Russians, Europe, the United States, it's hard to imagine any kind of international organization sort of deciding who gets to win in that war.
KITFIELDI can tell you, that will not happen. So anyone who thinks the U.N. is going to have -- because the U.N. is only an expression of the collective will of its Security Council. It will do nothing. We've seen it do nothing in Syria for five years. Can I just push back a little bit against this idea that somehow Syria is President Obama's fault because he said, you know, Assad must go? Listen, that -- whatever Obama said, rightly or wrongly, Syria was going to implode. The question is what do you do about that.
KITFIELDAnd the Arab Spring presented agonizing choices. You know, first we tried to get on the right side because it gets to our values versus our interest and stability. When democratic movements are moving against authoritarian people like the president of Egypt or the dictator in Syria, it's very hard for us to say, no, no, put them down. So we were hoisted on our own petard, this democratic promotion idea that's kind of cooked into our DNA that we support people who try to sort of -- you know, self-determination in the world. But the Middle East was going to implode whether we did something or did not.
KITFIELDWe tried to do something in Libya, it imploded. We tried to do nothing in Syria, it imploded. The question is what are your interests. Our interests now, as we discussed here, is immigration, the rise of really, you know, existentially threatening Islamic terrorist groups like ISIS. Those are direct national interests that we have to come to a response to.
GJELTENJames Kitfield is contributing editor at the National Journal. I'm Tom Gjelten. You're listening to the Diane Rehm Show. And let's go now to Trudy, who's on the line from New York, Rochester, New York. Hello, Trudy, thanks for calling "The Diane Rehm Show."
TRUDYThank you for taking my call.
TRUDYYou know, I'm originally from Germany. My family lives in Germany. I've been over there just recently. There are so many refugees. We talk about the European Union, but has this country done anything to take refugees in? And the other thing is, we talk about Assad. Now why don't we talk about the king in Saudi Arabia? The king in Saudi Arabia is the worst dictator. He's our friend, so we support him. You know, we have to change. We have to see the truth. And to me, just accusing the European Union, they are overloaded with refugees.
TRUDYBush did the whole mess in the Middle East, you know, and no one says anything about that. That's my comment.
GJELTENOkay, Trudy, two really important and good questions here. Thank you, Trudy. The first one is maybe the United States should be taking more of these refugees, Nadia, and reduce the burden on Europe. And of course we have seen, particularly on the Republican side, a great deal of resistance to bringing in these refugees. So it's hard to see that happening, but it's a good point.
BILBASSYAbsolutely. Well look, statistically speaking, the United States takes more refugees than any country in the world. On average they take 70,000 a year from everywhere in the world, and this year, President Obama said they would increase the number of Syrian refugees to 10,000. The reason that the refugees...
GJELTENThat's a lot fewer than Germany has taken.
BILBASSYWhich is very few, oh absolutely, I mean, Germany took over, almost a million.
BILBASSYBut the reason that the refugees from the Middle East go to Europe is geography. I mean, the United States is separated by oceans. So that's the reason they don't come here.
GJELTENThey can literally walk to Europe.
BILBASSYAbsolutely. Some people actually walk to Europe. So it is a shared, collective responsibility, and the most important thing that if you give people a choice where they want to go, they want to stay in their own country, but the important thing is to bring a peaceful process where they can stay. As for the -- for Saudi Arabia, look, I mean, allies are different. The United States has allies with all kind of countries for all kind of different reasons.
BILBASSYAnd they shift, they change. Sometimes you are happy, sometimes you are not. Sometimes you criticize their records. Sometimes you tell them publicly or not publicly. But look, I mean, this is politics. I mean, I agree with James on the points that he mentioned about Assad, and there is national interest involved here, and nobody's naïve about that. But also we have values, and this country, if you don't stick up to your values, there's no difference between you and China and Russia.
GJELTENPaul Danahar, you wrote a book, "The New Middle East: The World After the Arab Spring." What's your thought on Trudy's point that we are way too focused on Iran and not sufficiently focused on Saudi Arabia as a source of problems in the Middle East?
DANAHARWell, let's be honest. I mean, a lot of the problems we have now is the -- goes back to 2012, when the international community basically left the decision on how to oppose Assad to the Gulf Corporation Council and in particular they allowed the Saudis to fund many of the Salafist groups and allow the Qataris to work with the Turks to fund groups allied to the Muslim Brotherhood.
DANAHARAnd what you basically had was a situation where there was no control over the funding of these groups. And I spoke to someone in the U.N., and he said to me, the problem was, if you were -- if there were two brothers in a brigade, they realized that if they both split, they could both get funding. And then if they split, they could -- and you ended up with a situation where the U.N. was trying to pull everybody together to have a group, but the funding model that was used to fund the opposition, once the Sunni businessmen ran out of money, created this incredible fracturing of the opposition group.
DANAHARAnd so another European diplomat said to me, at the end of the day, the U.N. walked away, and the U.S. walked away, and this conflict was in many ways radicalized by the Gulf and the way that the Gulf was on one side, randomly throwing money at things, and you had the Iranians funding Hezbollah and the Russians backing Assad, and it just, it fell apart because there was no broad idea about what to do.
GJELTENDo you agree with that, Nadia?
BILBASSYBut it's -- no, I mean, just one final point I want to make. You can criticize the Gulf states and Saudi Arabia, but it's absurd to compare them to what the Russian -- I mean, the Assad regime did. Most of the killing in Syria is done by Assad, and his militia is -- some people it's 500...
GJELTENAnd this started as a popular uprising against him.
BILBASSYAbsolutely. People are demanding legitimate rights, and now the U.N. stopped counting the dead, and some people say it could be half-a-million people.
GJELTENNadia Bilbassy is Washington bureau chief at Al Arabiya. My other two panelists are James Kitfield, contributing editor at the National Journal, and Paul Danahar, who is the Washington bureau chief at the BBC. We've been talking about the international news, always sort of a depressing topic on this Friday news roundup, but we try to do it intelligently. I'm Tom Gjelten. Thank you all for coming in.
DANAHARNice to be here.
BILBASSYThank you, Tom.
GJELTENThanks for listening. This is "The Diane Rehm Show."