Syrians carry aid, in the form of diesel fuel, delivered by the Qatari Red Crescent in the rebel-held town of Beit Sawa, on the outskirts of the capital Damascus on March 7.

Syrians carry aid, in the form of diesel fuel, delivered by the Qatari Red Crescent in the rebel-held town of Beit Sawa, on the outskirts of the capital Damascus on March 7.

Yesterday Russian president Vladimir Putin announced he would he would begin pulling some Russian forces out of Syria. He said their mission there has on the whole “been fulfilled.” The decision comes as representatives of Syrian President Bashar al-Assad and opposition forces gather in Geneva for talks. Hundreds of thousands of Syrians have been killed since the war in Syria began nearly five years ago and millions have been forced to flee their homes. Many hope the meetings in Geneva this weak can build on what’s been described as a ‘fragile two week cessation of hostilities.’ Please join us to talk about what’s ahead in Syria.


  • Tom Bowman Pentagon correspondent, NPR
  • Philip Gordon Senior fellow, Council on Foreign Relations, former special assistant to the president and White House Coordinator for the Middle East, North Africa, and the Gulf Region from 2013–15
  • David Schenker Aufzien fellow and director of the Arab Politics Program, Washington Institute for Near East Policy; former Pentagon policy aide on the Arab countries of the Levant, including Syria

A Look Back At Our Coverage

Understanding The Conflict In Syria: A Look Back At Our Coverage - The Diane Rehm Show

Armed conflict in Syria has been ongoing for more than five years, and during that time, global leaders have struggled to understand its intricacies. If you're looking for some context after our in-depth conversation from March 15, here are nine of our past shows covering the country's civil war and related international affairs.


  • 10:06:53

    MS. DIANE REHMThanks for joining us. I'm Diane Rehm. Russia's President Vladimir Putin said he was going to start pulling Russian troops out of Syria. It's a surprise move that may boost prospects for the tentative peace talks taking place between representatives of Syrian President al-Assad and opposition forces in Geneva.

  • 10:07:18

    MS. DIANE REHMHere to talk about what's happening in Syria and new efforts to address the crisis, Tom Bowman of NPR, Philip Gordon of the Council On Foreign Relations and David Schenker of The Washington Institute For Near East Policy. I do hope you'll want to weigh in. Give us a call with your ideas, your thoughts, 800-433-8850. Send an email to Follow us on Facebook or send us a tweet. And welcome to all of you.

  • 10:07:55

    MR. DAVID SCHENKERGood morning.

  • 10:07:55

    MR. TOM BOWMANGood to be here.

  • 10:07:56


  • 10:07:56

    REHMGood to have you. Tom Bowman, certainly Vladimir Putin's announcement yesterday, a big surprise.

  • 10:08:05

    BOWMANIt was a huge surprise. He said the main part of the Russian force would be leaving Syria and today, the first aircrafts started leaving Syria from the base in the Mediterranean heading back to Russia. Russia has roughly 40 to 50 attack aircraft and helicopters. We're not sure how many will be leaving. That's the key. One of the Russian defense officials said that we'll continue to fight the terrorists. Victory has not been assured.

  • 10:08:34

    BOWMANOf course, Russia sees a terrorist as anybody opposing Assad as well as al-Nusra and ISIS. And, you know, we expect that the attacks, as they say, will continue.

  • 10:08:48

    REHMWhat do you make of this, Philip Gordon?

  • 10:08:50

    GORDONSo I think for once, we can actually take what Putin says at face value, Which is to say he said his main goals were accomplished and I think his main goals were accomplished. He went in to preserve the Assad regime and make sure it didn't fall to the opposition and to prevent what he sees as these extremist jihadis from taking over Syria and another goal was playing a role and showing that Russia was key player.

  • 10:09:15

    GORDONHe did all of those things. His goal was not to go and become the Syrian air force forever and fight a war in Syria for the indefinite future. So in that sense, I think, it is what he says it is, which is mission accomplished and now reduce those commitments in Syria.

  • 10:09:34

    REHMSo David Schenker, what does that announcement mean for what goes on now?

  • 10:09:43

    SCHENKERWell, I think that depending on how many aircraft he leaves behind, that would change the nature of the Assad regime capabilities. They have been providing close air support for basically the remnants of Assad's military and the Shiite militias, the Iranian-backed Shiite militias from Iraq and from Lebanon, Hezbollah, as well as some Afghan forces that have been fighting against the rebels.

  • 10:10:16

    SCHENKERSo that's one. The other is the impact it'll have potentially on the negotiations, whether this will somehow put leverage or twist Assad a little bit to be a little more flexible in the negotiations.

  • 10:10:32

    REHMWhy might it?

  • 10:10:34

    SCHENKERWell, the Russians changed the tide of the war, depending on, once again, how many assets they leave behind, the rebels can reemerge. The rebels were really hurt by what the Russians did in combination with the ground forces. But without this air force, there will be a resurgence of these forces on the ground, both ISIS, Jabhat al-Nusra and the moderate Syrian rebels.

  • 10:11:00

    REHMIs there any sense, Philip Gordon, that what this does from President Putin is to put pressure on President al-Assad to really sincerely participate somehow in these negotiations?

  • 10:11:21

    GORDONWell, I think, Diane, you phrased it just right. Participate somehow. We shouldn't have some wild expectation that with the Russians leaving, Assad is going to the table and be reasonable and agree to leave power. If that's what we mean by pressure, that's fanciful. But, look, the timing wasn't coincidental. I mean, to announce Russia leaving on the very day of the start of the talks wasn't an accident. It was a message, at least to Assad, that said, we are not -- if you thought that you could just stall on these talks and Russia will back you forever and help you take over the country, the parts that, excuse me, you don't currently control, the Kurdish areas in the north and the entire eastern part of the country, that’s not going to happen.

  • 10:12:01

    GORDONSo yes, show up at the talks, negotiate something so that we can get out of here and cut our losses. We're not going to help you take the whole country. Our goal was to keep you from falling. You fell. And I think what happens there, and that's what we need to see how it plays out in Geneva, is, in some ways, the best we can hope for near term is an extension of a cease fire in place where all of the parties continue to control the areas that they control, but let's not imagine that this is going to lead to a genuine peace agreement among all sides that sees Assad leave and a new government in Syria.

  • 10:12:36

    REHMHow much has this cessation of hostilities, Tom, actually worked?

  • 10:12:44

    BOWMANWell, you listen to Secretary of State John Kerry. He says that 80 percent of this is working. That there are some violations of the cease fire, but for the most part, it is holding. But, again, you know, Russia isn't leaving. I mean, they're still going to keep their air base open, their naval base. And as a defense official in Russia said today, we're still going to go after the terrorists, meaning the anti-Assad forces.

  • 10:13:10

    BOWMANSo I think everyone you talk with that knows anything about Russia is going to say, clearly this is an effort to pressure Assad, but again, they're not leaving. They're still going to help, in some way, and we'll have to wait and see what Assad does, if anything, at these talks. The Assad regime has basically said the presidency is not on the table. Whereas with the communique from 2012, it said a governing transitional body is part of this negotiation. So we'll just have to see what happens in the coming days.

  • 10:13:42

    GORDONSo Tom raised an essential point by reminding us that they said they're still going to go after the terrorists. Now, initially, when they went in, terrorist meant anyone who was fighting the Assad regime and that's who they were, indeed going after, including...

  • 10:13:54

    BOWMANAbout three-quarters of their air strikes were against anti-Assad.

  • 10:13:57

    GORDONRather than against ISIS, which was their sort of nominal purpose. Now, with this cessation of hostility cease fire agreement, they did sign onto the notion that they would only go after UN designated terrorist groups, ISIS and the Nusra Front, al-Qaida in Syria, which were listed by name. So that's going to be the real test. If this is a pivot from going after whatever "terrorist" they deem necessary to go after, meaning the entire opposition, if they are really willing now to limit themselves to ISIS and Nusra, then I think there's potential.

  • 10:14:29

    BOWMANBut it's important to note that al-Nusra is sort of wrapped in where some of the anti-Assad rebels.

  • 10:14:33

    SCHENKERThat's the problem.

  • 10:14:33

    BOWMANAnd CNN had some compelling video just yesterday of a marketplace being bombed by presumably Russian aircraft and numerous people have been killed, including children. So clearly, you know, Russia is saying we're going after Nusra, but you know, clearly, the moderate rebels, the anti-Assad rebels, are in that mix. They're being hit as well.

  • 10:14:55

    SCHENKERThey're not discriminating. In the end, they still want to provide this edge to the Assad regime. If you look at the broad swath of the 9,000 sorties they took and what they targeted since September, it has been primarily the moderate Syrian rebels. A little bit for Jabhat al-Nusra, almost nothing for ISIS. You know, by and large, they were whacking the people that we were supporting and the people that we'd like to see do well against the Assad regime, theoretically.

  • 10:15:28

    BOWMANAnd it's interesting that when Russia started this air campaign last fall, they were doing roughly 60 air strikes per day. It ramped up to 90. I was told by a Pentagon official that during the last round of peace talks, that spiked again to 120 per day during the peace talks.

  • 10:15:44

    REHMHuh. So who do we assume will go, will show up at these peace talks?

  • 10:15:53

    GORDONWell, that has been one of the thorniest things of all in getting the peace talks going in the first place, the lack of a unified opposition and a clear spokesperson for that opposition. You have such different disparate groups with disparate interests. The Saudis did put together a representative group, a more or less representative group, called the high negotiations committee, which, more than anything, represents most of the opposition, obviously not -- ISIS is excluded and the Nusra Front, the al-Qaida group is excluded.

  • 10:16:23

    GORDONAnd there are various other groups, the Kurds are not entirely welcome into this. But more or less, it is broadly representative. And they have shown up at the talks. They've been skeptical. They still demand that Assad leaves and there be a political transition, but, again, what's new and unique about this cease fire arrangement -- and, again, I don't want to overstate it, because as we've just been saying, there are a million ways it could break down, but for the first time, they have signed on and agreed to cease hostilities at least temporarily without that difficult political arrangement that's meant to go along with it.

  • 10:16:57

    GORDONThat's what's different from all of the other attempts in the past. And so if we are modest and if the diplomats in Geneva are modest about what they can seek to accomplish, maybe they can extend this cease fire. Look, there will be violations on both sides. The Russians will hit targets that we think are crossing lines and hitting some of the moderate opposition. It's not real peace and it's certainly not an institutional stability in Syria, but it would be immeasurably better than what we've seen in that country for five years.

  • 10:17:29

    SCHENKERYeah, we're still seeing village being starved out by the Assad regime, Darya most prominently, but several others reportedly. This -- I don't know if I'd really call it a cease fire. You know, I think that even over states it. We have a cessation of hostilities, but we're listening right now Jabhat al-Nusra saying they start a new offensive the day that the Russians pull out.

  • 10:17:53

    REHMDavid Schenker, he's director of the Arab politics program at The Washington Institute For Near East Policy. Short break. We'll be right back.

  • 10:20:02

    REHMAnd welcome back as we talk about President Putin's surprise announcement yesterday of a reduction in hostilities. He is moving some of his forces out of Syria, leading to all kinds of speculation as to what it could mean for the Geneva peace talks, trying to get a handle on this five-year horrific war in Syria.

  • 10:20:41

    REHMHere in the studio with me: David Schenker, he's with the Washington Institute for Near East Policy. Philip Gordon is senior fellow on the Council on Foreign Relations. Tom Bowman is Pentagon correspondent for NPR. There's lots of speculation out there. Here's an email send from Greg, who says, Russia is feeling the economic weight of its military commitment. It probably just realized how expensive wars are, especially with the price of oil being down. Philip Gordon.

  • 10:21:28

    GORDONThat's right. The only thing I wouldn't fully agree with is that they were surprised by this. I think the Russians knew all along this was going to be a costly venture, strain on their armed forces, budgetary pressure with the oil price really devastating their budgetary picture. So they knew it'd be expensive. And on top of that, you have Western sanctions over Ukraine, which are hurting the Russian economy further. So I think they've known all along. And that's why I say they went in with limited aims.

  • 10:21:53

    GORDONAnd, remember, what did the United States say when Russia went in? It immediately started to focus on the quagmire scenario and reminding everyone that, you know, Russia has tried this before in Afghanistan to pacify a country against Islamist rebels and it turned out to be a disaster and a hugely costly one. So I think Putin was well aware, you know, he's not stupid. He was well aware of that risk. And so he went in with these limited objectives. I'm going to shore up Assad. I'm going to show that Russia's still a player. But what I'm not going to do is try to, you know, occupy and stabilize the whole of Syria.

  • 10:22:26

    GORDONSo I think that the timing of the announcement was indeed a surprise, took us all by surprise, didn't expect it yesterday. But I also didn't expect that Russia would plan on keeping a large military force in Syria forever. It was costly.

  • 10:22:41

    BOWMANRight. And as Putin said yesterday in his announcement, the objectives have been reached.

  • 10:22:45


  • 10:22:46

    BOWMANThey pretty much solidified the, you know, Assad in the western part of the country, you know, around Aleppo all the way down to around Daraa. So as he said, he's in a pretty good position now, much stronger as they head into these negotiations, these peace talks. And as far as their quagmire, you just wonder if it's a U.S. quagmire now, because they have to figure out what the way ahead and how to deal with this problem.

  • 10:23:12

    REHMA U.S. quagmire now?

  • 10:23:13

    SCHENKERWell, that's a little bit of an overstatement. But if you look at what Russia has accomplished here, basically by filling this vacuum, shoring up the Assad regime, I think at a relatively low cost. I mean, we'll never know what their casualties were. But we know maybe one or two fixed-wing aircraft and a helicopter have been destroyed. I don't know how many troops. But overall, to achieve these aims and at the same time, by keeping Assad in power over the past five years, helping to almost destroy the European Union. They're -- they've succeeded in weakening the Schengen Zone, perhaps, you know, fomenting a collapse of the EU with this refugee crisis, something that we certainly didn't take enough steps to prevent.

  • 10:23:57

    REHMAll right. We had some callers. Let's go first to Joe in Louisville, Ky. You're on the air.

  • 10:24:07

    JOEThank you, Diane. I apologize for my phone connection. I am having problems with the phone here in Louisville. Another scenario that we might also -- the guests there, I'd like to hear what they had to say -- if Putin has stretched himself so far because he's losing with his oil industry there in Russia -- the European Union seems to be falling apart, Britain might be coming out, the immigration problems coming in -- but this might be a prime time for him to push his advantage in the Crimea area, the Ukraine area and the surrounding neighbors there. If he can do that, with everybody else so distracted, it might be a prime time for him to use his advantage there.

  • 10:24:43

    REHMPhilip Gordon.

  • 10:24:45

    GORDONI don't know that he wants to push his advantage there. In some ways it may be the opposite, that he's feeling the heat. I mean, he's already consolidated the parts of Ukraine, you know, obviously the annexation of Crimea and Russian presence in the eastern parts of Ukraine. I don't think he wants to take more of it. But what he does want to do is limit the pain that Russia's feeling over the sanctions and the tensions with the rest of the world over that issue. So I don't believe that there was any sort of deal with Russia where, okay, if you pull your troops out of Russia, we'll lift sanctions on Ukraine.

  • 10:25:19

    GORDONI do think, though, that in the atmosphere, especially in Europe, with a lot of European countries keen to get beyond these sanctions anyway, a more constructive and positive Russian approach in Syria will make it harder to keep sanctions on in Ukraine. So in that sense, Putin may not be wrong if he's thinking, look, did what I needed to do in Syria and now, as I show myself to be more constructive there, the Europeans will gradually lift the sanctions.

  • 10:25:45

    SCHENKERYeah. I think that was certainly one of the calculations. It certainly was a distraction from the Ukraine to get into Syria. But one could argue that if the Russians persevered and continued on with this campaign in Syria for much longer, that people might have started talking about additional sanctions for what they were doing. They were using United Nations-banned cluster munitions on Syrian civilians, perpetrating all sorts of war crimes helping the Assad regime, which is, you know, has killed 300,000 basically innocent Syrians to date. So this all makes sense, them pulling out right now.

  • 10:26:25

    REHMWhat I don't quite understand, considering all the exclusions you mentioned from the so-called peace talks, who is going to be there? And how effective can those talks be without everybody having a say? I really do wonder about that, Philip.

  • 10:26:50

    GORDONWell, you're right to wonder about it. Because, again, you know, a peace deal like this is hard enough if there is one clear interlocutor on both sides. And even then, you don't know if they're going to be able to reach an agreement. Here, you have more or less one interlocutor on the Assad side and then dozens or hundreds, literally...

  • 10:27:07


  • 10:27:08

    GORDON...of interlocutors on the other side, with very different interests. When they're all fighting Assad, they have a common interest, which is fighting Assad. But that's about it. So you're absolutely right to wonder, which is why I don't believe that even a successful version of these talks leads to an agreed new constitution, a new government...

  • 10:27:26


  • 10:27:26

    GORDON...a parliament, the election of a leader where everyone respects that. That's just not going to happen.

  • 10:27:31

    REHMSo what could be a -- viewed as a successful peace talk?

  • 10:27:40

    GORDONI think a successful peace talk would start simply with extending the cessation of hostilities.

  • 10:27:46


  • 10:27:46

    GORDONCompared to the last five years, let's just reduce the violence and stop this war, which has been killing hundreds of thousands and displacing and radicalizing Muslims across the world and all that. Start with that. And then add on to that, humanitarian deliveries, negotiate prisoner releases. And then start talking about local governance, where each side agrees it's not going to try to take territory from the other, provide local services, elect local representatives. And then only over time, once the war has stopped for a considerable amount of time, people have consolidated, then you can start talking about a longer term political transition in Syria.

  • 10:28:20

    BOWMANAnd you just wonder, what is this going to mean for the situation on the ground, as al-Nusra starts -- if they start another offensive, let's say. They've already taken some weapons and some area from Western-backed rebels. You can imagine them starting that offensive, the Western-backed rebels press for more assistance, maybe finally shoulder-fired missiles, which the administration has said they would not provide. What exactly is going to happen on the ground, it's going to be interesting in the coming days and weeks, as they see Russia pull back but not pull out.

  • 10:28:51

    REHMAnd what about the refugees who've already been forced out? Would there be some way of negotiating their return, David?

  • 10:29:01

    SCHENKERWell, listen, I think that refugees aren't ancillary to this conflict. I think Assad had refugees as a central element of his strategy. You know, the Assad regime represents 8 percent of the Syrian population -- the Alawites, plus their Sunnian Christian allies. The Sunnis were 75 percent or 80 percent of the Syrian population. So he basically had a strategy to empty the country out of his enemies and improve the demographic balance. I don't think he wants them to come back.

  • 10:29:32

    SCHENKERBut in any event, there's nothing to come back to. Fifty percent of the housing in Syria is destroyed. When people left, their lands have been redistributed to Assad-regime supporters. This is just not a location that can support...

  • 10:29:46


  • 10:29:47

    SCHENKER...24 million people anymore.

  • 10:29:48

    BOWMANAnd also, if there's more fighting, you could see more people internally displaced or heading for the exits again as well. But we just -- again, we don't know the implications of this Russian announcement.

  • 10:29:58

    REHMAll right. Let's go to Al, who's in Indianapolis. You're on the air.

  • 10:30:04

    ALThank you, Diane. I am a Syrian American and I'm very aware of what's going on in Syria. And my question is about the credibility of the U.S. Initially, when the revolution started, everybody thought that democracy will prevail in Syria. It's going to be an ally of the United States. And the United States will step in and help. Unfortunately, the U.S. reaction was very weak and the Russians helped their allies. And this will send a message that the bad people, like North Korea, Iran, Hezbollah, are going to prevail and that their allies have more credibility. They will be there to help them. While the free world, the Western world, is not there to help the democratic forces.

  • 10:30:56

    ALIt was people rising up against dictatorship. They were asking for freedom. And now, all that people talk about is ISIS, which was a product of the failure of the U.S. policies.

  • 10:31:11

    REHMAll right, sir. Thanks for your call. Tom.

  • 10:31:14

    BOWMANWell, you know, I think historians will look back at what happened earlier on in this conflict, when then Secretary of Defense Leon Panetta, David Petraeus, Hillary Clinton said, arm and train the rebels. The White House decided not to. At that time, ISIS was in its infancy. Assad appeared to be on the ropes. So that's something people will look at, I think, not only now but years down the road. Could that have mattered if they'd provided a lot of support and assistance to the rebels at that early stage? Now they're providing some training, some weapons here and there, but clearly not enough. And as we've been saying since this program began, Assad is in a much better position than he was just six or nine months ago.

  • 10:31:57


  • 10:31:57

    GORDONWell, look, Al has a fair point. And no one comes out of the Syria question looking good, including the United State. Obviously, when you see what the situation on the ground is, nobody can be satisfied with that. And I think a lot of us have replayed this in our mind. As Tom said, you look back over these five years, were there moments there, things that could have been done differently? I do continue to question, however, the idea that there was some clean path where the United States, you know, as Al put it, standing by its friends, could have done something early on that would not have led to the very same regime-Russian-Iranian-Hezbollah reaction that we saw.

  • 10:32:35

    GORDONBecause the truth is, the United States did support the opposition, in ways that it detailed, in ways that it didn't detail. And it did everything it could to bring together these disparate groups, even though you've had Saudis supporting some factions, Turks and others, Qataris and others. And foreign fighters coming in with their own agenda and sometimes a terrorist agenda. And so the effort made, short of a direct military intervention -- which was an option, but then you could -- you'd have to talk though all of the costs and consequences of that. And I don't think anyone should imagine that that would have been a solution.

  • 10:33:07

    GORDONSo as many times as we play it over, we should avoid the what I think is a sort of fantasy that there was some step the United States could have done that would have made this regime disappear and put stable, moderate friends in power in Syria.

  • 10:33:21

    REHMAnd you're listening to "The Diane Rehm Show." I know you wanted to comment, David.

  • 10:33:29

    SCHENKERYeah, that -- listen, I differ from Philip on this greatly. I think that we really could have made quite a big difference had we jumped in and supported the moderate Syrian rebels back then. We had the president say, well, we can't arm these people. They're farmers and dentists and lawyers. The Washington Post, which is not exactly unsympathetic to the administration, they gave that, I think, three out of four Pinocchios. The fact of the matter was, these are people who had defected from the Syrian Army and were willing to fight. They were not Islamists.

  • 10:34:01

    SCHENKERAnd today, if you look at the progression, you have Lavrov saying that we have a division of labor with the Russians in Syria. That we're taking care of the opposition, ISIS, in the east, and the Russians were taking care of Jabhat, the al-Nusra, the al-Qaida affiliate, and every other opposition group in the west. And together, we are cooperating to keep Assad in power. And that, you know, is a pretty ugly picture. And it's not exactly accurate that we're cooperating on doing this but this is the end effect.

  • 10:34:29

    REHMAll right. Let's go to Jarius in Ann Arbor, Mich. You're on the air.

  • 10:34:37

    JARIUSHello. Actually, that's an interesting point. I'd like to piggy-back off that. One of the things I always think about when I think about the Middle East is that obviously this all started when we decided to go in and destroy Iraq and destabilize the entire region. ISIS wouldn't have any leadership if it wasn't for the fall of Saddam Hussein. This is just fact. The idea that we want to go in and get Assad out, I think that this is incredibly foolish. And I think that this is a narrative that we all have to say because he's a bad guy. We don't like him. Obviously we don't. But the entire place has been an absolute mess for 100 years. Who's to say that we actually can do anything about that? I totally agree with Philip on that point.

  • 10:35:20

    JARIUSAnd my second point and I just wanted the guests to comment on, was Jeffrey Goldberg's interview with Obama about the Obama Doctrine. And I thought that it was a brilliant piece in the sense that it, for the first time, gave some airing to the notion that America's non-action is actually incredibly wise. Again, we think that we can walk in and do everything and fix the show and it's just absurd in the light of history. And Obama's like, listen, I know everybody has a drum beat going for war. Everybody is willing to sacrifice everybody else's son in order to have like accomplished some sort of very short-term goal.

  • 10:35:57

    JARIUSBut, hey, I'm going to sit back. We have to look at this like rational people. Yes, it would be satisfying to bomb someone right now. But it will only destabilize things in the future.

  • 10:36:06

    REHMAll right. Philip.

  • 10:36:07

    GORDONSo I think Jarius makes some good points. Look, almost everyone has concluded Syria would be a better place if -- that Assad is a dictator who should be brought to justice. He has done some horrible things. But to make an absolute priority, at whatever cost, of getting rid of him also has consequences, as the Iraq precedent suggests.

  • 10:36:27

    GORDONSo when we have this argument -- and, you know, kind of back to David's point about supporting the opposition earlier -- I think it is just not credible at all to imagine that a modest amount of support to this opposition -- again, faced with a regime that has a standing army backed by Russia and Iran and Hezbollah troops at the ready -- would somehow, if we had done more and more publicly earlier, done anything different than it did in the years that followed, when everybody knows there were a lot of arms flowing to the opposition, a lot of support for this revolution. And instead, you got escalation leading to Iranian troops, Hezbollah troops and Russian bombers.

  • 10:37:07

    GORDONSo then, if that happens then -- and I don't know why it wouldn't have happened then as we saw it happen in subsequent years -- then you have to make a choice. Do you escalate further and take down Assad directly? And I hope we can come back to that point after the break.

  • 10:37:19

    REHMAll right. We'll take a short break here and, when we come back, take up that point with your view, David Schenker, and yours as well, Tom Bowman. Short break. Right back.

  • 10:40:02

    REHMAnd welcome back. We have a call, an email from Carla, who lives in Berlin, where she says we have something like 70,000 of Germany's one million refugees, mostly from Syria. I'm not surprised, she says, that those who want to sit down with Assad and the Russians cannot find representatives of a unified resistance. Syrians here tell us everyone is part of the resistance. In essence, Assad is at war with his own people, just about all of them. My question, with one million Syrians in Germany, many of them professionals, do they get a seat at the table? Are the Europeans involved in getting the Russians to stand down? Tom Bowman?

  • 10:41:09

    BOWMANWell, I think the Europeans would, you know, clearly like to see this resolved. But again as the fighting continues on the ground, you're going to see more refugees heading into Europe, clearly. And as we've been saying earlier, Assad's in a much better place. Russia has the leverage, and we'll just see what happens with these talks. But, you know, I think most people believe that not much will be accomplished with these talks. We'll just have to wait and see.

  • 10:41:39

    REHMIs that your belief, that not much will be resolved?

  • 10:41:42

    SCHENKERWell, you know, define much. I mean, if again anyone expects that these are going to agree on a political transition, a new institution for Syria, it's not going to happen, and that's why I've said we need to make sure that the parties understand that and the negotiators and the U.N., that that should not be the prerequisite for maintaining the ceasefire. If it is, it will fail, and we'll be back to this disastrous war.

  • 10:42:06

    REHMSo the perfect should not be the enemy of the good.

  • 10:42:09

    GORDONRight, I think we should be going into this with low expectations. I mean, we have Staffan de Mistura, the U.N. envoy on Syria, talking about the political framework and that we have to get to the political framework and transition, and he's right. We have to get back to the Geneva principles, which talk about the transition and Assad leaving power. Meanwhile the Russians, the Iranians and the Syrians are talking about presidential elections in Syria coming up and parliamentary elections, and if those are next month, we know the result now, Assad's winning, he gets more votes, like his dad, than Allah.

  • 10:42:46

    REHMWhat about presidential elections in this country? We have a tweet from Dan, saying most U.S. presidential candidates support U.S. entry into the Syria quagmire. First of all, is that true? I don't think so.

  • 10:43:04

    GORDONI don't think that's right. There have been some vague statements from some of the Republican candidates in particular that we're going to destroy ISIS, that kind of comment. I don't think anyone has been calling for any serious U.S. intervention, ground troops, into Syria. It's more just vague.

  • 10:43:20

    BOWMANYeah, actually I think the most robust policy prescription we've heard about Syria comes Secretary Clinton, who seems to want to take up a more forward-leaning role on U.S. in Syria. But if you look at the Republicans, the frontrunner, Donald Trump, I think actually the closest candidate that he resembles in his prescription on Syria is the president, President Obama. He wants nothing to do with it.

  • 10:43:46

    SCHENKERThat's, you know, one of the interesting things about this debate about intervention if you think about it is how little advocacy there was for going into Syria, even in an election campaign, where people are usually free to say, you know, something that they might feel sound good. But for all the criticism of Obama and denunciation of U.S. weakness and all the rest, few -- I mean, Lindsey Graham, at least, you know, to his credit in a way because he was consistent, was talking about putting 10,000 troops in Syria. But that actually, you know, is the exception that proves the rule. One marginal candidate was talking about putting a small number of troops into Syria. I think it suggests that these candidates...

  • 10:44:23

    GORDONBut no one else, no one else echoed that comment.

  • 10:44:27

    SCHENKERNo one echoed it, and no one doubled down on it.

  • 10:44:28


  • 10:44:29

    GORDONSo for all the hawkishness, there doesn't seem to be a whole lot of enthusiasm about going in.

  • 10:44:30

    BOWMANI mean, the most interesting thing to me is that, you know, our focus, like everybody else's focus, is on ISIS. And ISIS is a terrible organization, human rights abuses, et cetera. But they've killed about 5,000 people on the ground right now. We have to remember the Assad regime have killed like 300,000.

  • 10:44:51

    REHMHere's an email from Melissa in Thomasville, Georgia. She says, looking ahead to Geneva, how likely is it that the current borders of Syria will stay as they are? Perhaps borders more in line with the ethnic and religious areas would be more stable.

  • 10:45:14

    SCHENKERSyrians traditionally live together, mixed towns, villages. There were some areas that are known, Sunni heartland, the Alawite coast, the Kurdish areas. But by and large, historically, they've lived among one another. One of the things that's happened with this war is that the Assad regime has engaged in ethnic cleansing to clear out areas lest the outcome of the war, and if the Russians didn't get involved and bail out the Assad regime, the Alawites were preparing for this statelet along the coast, something that was defensible and their ancestral homelands.

  • 10:45:51

    SCHENKERSo we do have areas that have been cleansed, but even the largest town, Lattakia, on the coastline, is -- has a huge Sunni Muslim population. So it's hard to do this. But on the other hand, it's hard to understand how, you know, this conflict, which the Holocaust Museum says resembles a genocide, right, that is the Alawite slaughter of Sunni Muslims, that Sunnis, this 80 percent of the population, will live side by side with Alawites when it's all done.

  • 10:46:21

    REHMWhat about, what about the Christian population?

  • 10:46:24

    GORDONWell look, I don't think anybody is going to start redrawing formal borders and say the Christians live there, and the Alawites live there, and the Sunnis live there, and the Kurds live there, and I don't think anyone is going to redraw the external borders of Syria in the Middle East. Once you start down that road, you know, you would never finish. You would have, you know, 100 million statelets. But what David said is right. Unfortunately, tragically, the war has started to separate those populations increasingly, and that's why I think any settlement is going to have to reflect that in some way, not fragmenting Syria into, you know, dozens of little states but a very decentralized Syria.

  • 10:47:09

    BOWMANAnd I think that's one of the more interesting questions here. Are we at the point where Syria doesn't exist anymore, it's going to be partitioned, and neighboring Iraq is the same way. I was over there back in December, and Kurdish officials and others were saying Iraq doesn't exist anymore, it's over.

  • 10:47:22

    REHMWith the reduction in hostilities, is some aid getting through?

  • 10:47:33

    BOWMANA good amount of aid is getting through, but hundreds of thousands of people in besieged areas are not getting aid.

  • 10:47:37


  • 10:47:37

    BOWMANThey're starving, there's malnutrition, there are reports of babies and children with distended bellies, as you'd see in some famine areas in Africa. It's a huge problem, and we don't see that ending anytime soon.

  • 10:47:54

    REHMAnd is it because some portions of those supporting Assad will not allow the aid to get through?

  • 10:48:04

    BOWMANI think that's part of it, and the Assad regime is also slow in allowing some of this aid to get into other parts of the country, particularly around Aleppo.

  • 10:48:10

    REHMAll right, to Zacharia in Tallahassee, Florida. You're on the air.

  • 10:48:15

    ZACHARIAHi Diane, thanks for taking my call.

  • 10:48:18


  • 10:48:19

    ZACHARIAI've got a comment and kind of a question. I am a graduate student at FSU, and Syria and the Syrian uprising was my research project and question for my semester. One of the things that I think that gets over-attributed to the Syrian uprising is America's war in Iraq. They looked at historical record in the Ba'ath Party, and natural resource exploitation and groundwater exploitation, you saw massive agricultural and livestock die-off through 2006 through 2011, which is correspondent with the drought that took place there.

  • 10:49:02

    ZACHARIASo my comment is, one, we need to look more at the Bashar al-Assad and Ba'ath Party policies in terms of natural resource use, which essentially exploited the Syrian population.

  • 10:49:18

    REHMAll right, David.

  • 10:49:18

    SCHENKERWell, you make a couple good points there. There was a drought in Syria. You also had, you know, back in the 1980s they had a civil war between the Assad regime and the Muslim Brotherhood, and a lot of people stayed home and made babies, and these babies came of age, you know, in their 20s and 30s just now, the people that launched this revolution against the regime. So that's part of it.

  • 10:49:42

    SCHENKERBut I think really the origins of this ultimately go back to the Maliki administration in Iraq, and the Assad regime, the nature of these regimes and how viciously sectarian they were and how they treated Sunnis badly, and Maliki basically undid the gains of the surge, and we didn't stop it.

  • 10:50:05

    REHMAnd there's an email here from Alan, saying the events in Egypt might also be cited as a cautionary tale to back Philip's point about the consequences of removing Assad from power. Here's an email from Mike, who says Obama was right, Russia would never have withdrawn had Obama established a no-fly zone. Do you agree with that?

  • 10:50:39

    GORDONI'm not sure really what that -- I mean, had Obama established a no-fly zone, presumably Russia wouldn't have been there in the first place. If Russia would have withdrawn if Obama had done a no-fly zone, I don't really see the connection.

  • 10:50:53

    REHMYeah, I'm not sure if that is true or makes sense.

  • 10:50:56

    REHMAll right, let's go to Rami here in Washington, D.C. You're on the air.

  • 10:51:02

    RAMIYes, hello. I just want to address some of -- I feel like this panel is very biased. In general the discussion around this has been, first of all, the 300,000 that David keeps throwing around, that's, that's a total lie. Syrian Observatory for Human Rights, which is not a biased source, if you could look it up, a third of those who have been killed have been Assad loyalists, military people, a third have been jihadists, and a third have been civilians. So let's be clear about that.

  • 10:51:41

    RAMIThis is a war that -- where the Islamists and the jihadists have threatened -- I'm from Lebanon, and we've had, you know, suicide bombings and quite a bit of instability, and this all was initiated in Iraq in the U.S. invasion and has spilled over. And U.S. support for Saudi Arabia has made it worse. Saudi Arabia's role is not being discussed in this. You know, people talk about Russia and what an authoritarian state. It's nothing compared to Saudi Arabia.

  • 10:52:18

    REHMAll right, and your comments, Philip?

  • 10:52:22

    GORDONWell, I mean, clearly I think people have said, and rightly so, that the Assad regime is responsible for the bulk of the killing and, as I said myself, I think needs to be brought to justice. It is a useful reminder, as the caller says, that this is not simply the regime against a democratic, peaceful opposition, where the regime has killed all of these. They have killed a lot of regime members and supporters, as well.

  • 10:52:51

    GORDONSo in that sense, you know, the caller is right to underscore that this is a war now of almost all against all and some backed by Saudis some backed by Qatari, some backed by Turks, some backed by the regime. It's not simply, as bad as Assad is, it's not simply Assad crushing the democratic people.

  • 10:53:09

    REHMAnd you're listening to the Diane Rehm Show. David?

  • 10:53:15

    SCHENKERWell, I'd say that Saudi definitely has interests in Syria, there's no doubt, but Saudi hasn't deployed Saudi troops in Syria like Iran has. Iran has deployed revolutionary guards. Hezbollah said it was something like 2,000 revolutionary guards. You've seen a dozen senior Iranian military officials killed in action in Syria. There are -- we talk all the time about Sunni foreign fighters, people that go to join ISIS. We should also be talking about Shiite foreign fighters. These are the ones, the Iranian-backed Shiite militias, that are deploying from Iraq, and of course, as Rami knows, Hezbollah in Lebanon that has 5,000 troops or 6,000 troops at any one time rotating in combat through Syria.

  • 10:54:01

    REHMFinally, what are the ongoing terms of this so-called cessation of hostilities? What -- who is not doing what, and what could happen to break that up, Philip?

  • 10:54:20

    GORDONWell, the main thing that is not happening, not entirely, are the offensive operations from both sides. And that's -- again what is different over the past two weeks than the previous five years is that you no longer have active offensive attempts to take territory from the other side. And as imperfect as that is, that's the main achievement.

  • 10:54:38

    REHMBut are people still being killed?

  • 10:54:40

    GORDONPeople are still being killed, but in numbers, as I think Tom said, you know, 80 percent less than when the active war was still going on, and people should be killed. ISIS is doing terrorist operations, and the U.S. is actively striking ISIS. So that part of the war hasn't stopped.

  • 10:54:54

    BOWMANRight, that's continuing.

  • 10:54:55

    GORDONAnd shouldn't stop.

  • 10:54:57

    SCHENKERAnd Russia air operations that actually kill collateral damage.

  • 10:55:00

    BOWMANAs we saw in the CNN at that marketplace that was hit by presumably Russian airstrikes.

  • 10:55:06

    REHMSo all of it's still going on, just diminished?

  • 10:55:08

    BOWMANWell, greatly diminished, but it's definitely still going on, and as we were talking about earlier, the al-Nusra Front, the al-Qaeda affiliate, says they're going to start a new offensive. So we could see in the coming days and weeks more of this happening.

  • 10:55:21

    REHMEven while these talks continue?

  • 10:55:24


  • 10:55:24

    REHMSo how long would you expect these talks to go on?

  • 10:55:31

    GORDONLook, in some ways, we are -- it is a positive surprise that the cessation of hostilities has lasted this long. You know, I think the first day or two, we were all, like, who's going to break it first.

  • 10:55:40


  • 10:55:41

    GORDONAnd then, you know, al-Nusra Front will launch one operation, and then the Russians will respond, and it'll all blow up. So knock on wood it has extended this long. I don't know how long the talks will go on. As I keep saying, I would be happy for these talks to go on essentially forever. If the fighting is stopped, you know, then talking in Geneva is better than what we have seen before it.

  • 10:56:03

    GORDONThey will inevitably go on for quite a long time, hopefully making progress along the way on things like delivering humanitarian aid, circumscribing how we can collectively go after ISIS and the Nusra Front but not the other parts of the opposition, negotiating prisoner releases, negotiating local governance and delivery of services. So if this turns into a long, boring, painful, U.N.-led process that goes on and on but makes incremental process, that for me is a huge success.

  • 10:56:35

    REHMAnd all the while Assad will sit tight.

  • 10:56:42

    SCHENKERHe'd be happy to stay there, strengthening, consolidating the gains that Russia has provided him, along with Iran and these other militias.

  • 10:56:49

    BOWMANAgain, he's in a better position than he was six, nine months ago.

  • 10:56:51

    REHMTom Bowman, Pentagon correspondent for NPR, Philip Gordon of the Council on Foreign Relations, David Schenker of the Washington Institute for Near East Policy, thank you all so much. We shall keep watching. And thanks, all, for listening. I'm Diane Rehm.

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