Pulitzer Prize winning author Anthony Doerr talks about his new novel, "Cloud Cuckoo Land," and why he says his job as a writer is to reveal our interconnections as people, and as a planet.
Guest Host: Indira Lakshmanan
U.S. intelligence officials strongly suspect the Russian government was behind the hack of Democratic Party emails. The Kremlin called the allegations “absurd.” A Russian plan to create “humanitarian” corridors in Aleppo, Syria, to allow civilians and unarmed rebels to leave is met with skepticism by U.S. and UN officials. France is shaken by the murder of a beloved village priest during mass by men suspected of having ties to ISIS. And Turkey widens a crackdown on the media and military after the failed coup. A panel of journalists joins guest host Indira Lakshmanan 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.
- Nancy Youssef Senior defense and national security correspondent, The Daily Beast
- Christian Caryl Senior fellow, Legatum Institute; contributing editor, Foreign Policy magazine; author of "Strange Rebels: 1979 and the Birth of the 21st Century"
MS. INDIRA LAKSHMANANThanks for joining us. I'm Indira Lakshmanan, Washington columnist for The Boston Globe, sitting in for Diane Rehm. She's on vacation. U.S. officials say it's likely Russia hacked the Democratic National Committee's email, but who passed the stolen files to Wikileaks remains unclear. The Syrian government lays out a Russian-backed plan to take Aleppo from rebels and create a humanitarian corridor. And Turkey shuts down more than 100 media outlets as it continues its crackdown on the military and journalists.
MS. INDIRA LAKSHMANANHere to discuss this week's top international stories on the Friday News Roundup, James Kitfield of National Journal, Nancy Youssef of the Daily Beast and Christian Caryl of Foreign Policy. Welcome, you guys.
MR. CHRISTIAN CARYLGlad to be here.
MS. NANCY YOUSSEFHello.
LAKSHMANANGreat to have you here. And also, we, of course, always want to hear from our listeners. We'll be taking your calls, your comments and your questions throughout the hour. You can call us on 1-800-433-8850. You can send us an email to firstname.lastname@example.org. You can also join us on Facebook or send us a tweet to @drshow. All right. So let's start, guys, with the sort of national and foreign story mixed all in one, which is this incredible, you know, 21st century Watergate break-in, but with the twist of it being a foreign government, apparently, the DNC committee email getting hacked supposedly by the Russians.
LAKSHMANANHow certain are we, James, that Russia was behind it?
MR. JAMES KITFIELDThe intelligence agency seemed very certain about that. They've, you know, if they don't know, they don't usually say, you know, categorically one way or the other. They have said, categorically, a number of times to a number of reporters, this is Russia. Two private security firms who the DNC called in to try to trace this, also traced it to Russia. So I think we're pretty comfortable that Russia was behind this. What's interesting to me is we can't know how it got from Russia to Wikileaks, but we do know it was hacked roughly two months ago and then, they were released on the eve of the Democratic Convention.
MR. JAMES KITFIELDWhich, if you connect those dots, I think everyone can assume that, as one intelligence official was quoted, you know, Russia had the means, the motive and the opportunity here to sort of make the Democrats look bad on the eve of their big convention and they did that.
LAKSHMANANAnd you say the motive, to make Hillary Clinton and her party look bad because why?
KITFIELDTwo things. One of which, Putin hates Clinton. In 2011 or, I think, it was 2011/2010, Russian elections were, you know, categorically fraudulent and she called him out on that. A lot of people went to the streets in Moscow and he was very -- he's always been very upset about our "meddling in his domestic affairs" and also, Trump. They had this sort of weird relationship. Trump has said a lot of things that Putin loves to hear from a major American figure, like, you know, maybe I will or maybe I won't come to the defense of a NATO member if Russia attacks them.
KITFIELDYou know, he calls Putin a strong leader and maybe a possible best friend, if he would just come to my Miss Universe pageant in Moscow. So there is this strange sort of admiration society going on between Donald Trump and Vladimir Putin and you can imagine -- and I'm not sure -- I get the sense that maybe Trump is doing this for the headlines, et cetera, but Putin is not doing it for headlines. Putin sees someone here that he -- I think he could quite happily someone -- American president calling into question whether Crimea, you know, we should -- remain sanctions for their annexation of Crimea, calling into question whether the transatlantic alliances, you know, Article 5 bedrock commitment would be honored by the United States, so.
LAKSHMANANWell, you make a good point, that Donald Trump, this week, it's not only that he talked about the hack and seemed to be encouraging Russians to, you know, whether it's hack more or simply find any of Hillary Clinton's missing emails and pass them along, seemingly encouraging espionage by a foreign state, but also it is true what James said, that Vladimir Putin does have an antipathy for Hillary Clinton. Nancy, I'm thinking about how I went on several trips with Hillary as Secretary of State to Russia and I remember one where we had to go to Putin's villa and he made us wait an awfully long time.
LAKSHMANANAnd although it was a, you know, as you looked at them, a civil meeting, it was very chilly and so, you know, there's something in it for Vladimir Putin if he manages to get Donald Trump elected. Isn't that right, Nancy?
YOUSSEFWell, it's interesting because James points out something that I think was lost in all the controversy about him calling on the Russians to potentially find the missing 30,000 emails is that he said he would "look into" recognizing the annexation of Crimea, which has been a part of the Ukraine for decades. And that's a tangible, unequivocal, can't-argue-sarcasm foreign policy shift, a major one by the United States. Now, one of the things that I find interesting is there hasn't been as much consistency, I think, as people see.
YOUSSEFFor example, last week, he was saying that all NATO members need to put forward their 2 percent of their GDP as required, otherwise the United States might not recognize or carry out its agreements with them.
LAKSHMANANMight not defend them if the Baltic states are attacked.
LAKSHMANANAlthough, I believe Estonia's actually one of the states that actually is paying its fair share. And he was asked about defending the Baltics. Actually, they are paying their fair share.
YOUSSEFOkay. But let's say that that goes through. A stronger NATO is not in Putin's interest and so there's a disconnect between -- week to week, it's hard to find a connective thread in terms of a foreign policy strategy. It appears to be very towards a closer alliance, a stronger relationship with Russia and yet, there are hiccups and inconsistencies along the way that makes it hard to actually construct a Trump doctrine.
LAKSHMANANChristian, we have an email from a listener, Scott, in Delaware who wants us to discuss the fact that, in his words, he says "most world leaders are for Hillary, except for Russia, who is for Trump." Is that true?
CARYLWell, I haven't polled all world leaders, but it would seem, I think, from what we do know that a lot of world leaders tend to favor Hillary, simply because she's a known quantity. I don't think that would be very surprising. A lot of them have done business with her and know her well. I just wanted to mention something else on the Trump/Russia issue. For me, I think the single most ominous thing in the past through days -- which is saying a lot because the things that James and Nancy mentioned are extremely serious -- Trump talks a lot, but what has he actually done?
CARYLWell, we know that one thing that he's done was to actually intervene in the formulation of the Republican party platform and water down the plank about coming to Ukraine's defense against Russia, supporting Ukraine against Russian aggression. And that, I find, particularly startling. It's one thing when people, you know, bluster and they act like blowhards, but this is one aspect, this is one area -- and this seems to be the one area in the Republican party platform where Trump felt like he actually had to do something and change it. And I find that extremely ominous.
CARYLWas he showing that he can deliver? I don't know. But that's -- it's very, very, very bad stuff.
LAKSHMANANIt's a very strange question because one wonders what would be Donald Trump's motive in trying to weaken the Republican platform in terms of its stance against Russia in terms of its strength about defending Ukraine and it relates to -- we have a listener, Karen, who's emailed in and says, you need to address the question of Trump's business interests in Russia and those of Paul Manafort," his campaign chairman. So James, tell us about that.
KITFIELDRight. So Paul Manafort, his campaign manager, has had dealings with a lot of Russian oligarchs. He's advised them. He advised the former president of Ukraine, who was a Russian ally who basically had to flee the country because of protests a few years ago. So there are these sort of not particularly clear sort of business ties. Trump, you know, had run his beauty pageant in Moscow. He has tried to buy buildings. So we don't really know 'cause can't see his tax returns. We really don't know what's going on there.
KITFIELDBut can I just make one point. I was in Estonia last year with the chairman of the joint chiefs and they are frightened to death, you know. We don't seem to -- the Trump camp doesn't seem to understand how their rhetoric is frightening our closest allies in NATO. When the Bush administration was distracted in 2008 and it looked like Georgia wanted to join NATO, they invade NATO, occupy two provinces of the Russian-speaking populations and nixes NATO's aspirations -- I mean, Georgia's aspirations so join NATO.
KITFIELDSame thing in 2014 with Ukraine, when the European Union was trying to draw it into the Western Sphere economically, you know, Putin intervenes, annexed Crimea, foments an insurrection in the Eastern Ukraine. They have their eyes now on the Baltics. They are very upset that the Baltics were allowed to join NATO. When the Estonians have the gall to move a Soviet statue in 2007, the Russians launched a cyber attack that crippled that countries infrastructure for more than two weeks.
KITFIELDWhen President Obama when to Estonia in 2014 to sort of calm their nerves after the Crimea annexation, the Russians attacked a border post two days after Obama left Estonia, kidnapped an Estonian intelligence officer, put him on a show trial. They have their eyes securely fastened on the Baltics. And if they see any weakening of our commitment to defend them, they may see that as an opportunity.
LAKSHMANANThey actually kidnapped that Estonian border guard just a couple days after Air Force One took off from Barack Obama's visit to calm Estonia. So pretty incredible slap-in-the-face timing. You wanted to say something quickly, Christian.
CARYLYeah, I just wanted to second what James was saying. You know, what I've heard from a lot of people in the foreign policy establishment is the fear that, you know, if the Russians move against the Baltics, it's not going to be some kind of outright invasion. It'll be more something like what they did in Crimea where they stir up something. Maybe there will be, you know, a problem and the Russian enclave next to the Baltics and then there will be a train going there through Baltic territory and it would derail. There will be some kind of extremely ambiguous situation where they can bring in troops.
CARYLIt's going to be very ambiguous and tricky and subtle. And Trump, by saying the things that he has said virtually invites them to try something like that because if he's going to leave ambiguity in the U.S. position, the Russians will totally exploit that.
LAKSHMANANHmm. Yeah, it's an interesting point, and when we come back, we're going to have to talk about how Russia has responded to all this. But first, we are going to have to take a short break and when we're back, we'll go to your questions and your comments. You can call us any time at 1-800-433-8850. Remember, you can send us an email to email@example.com and you can always join us on Facebook or send us a tweet to @drshow. We'll take a short break now. Stay with us.
LAKSHMANANWelcome back. I'm Indira Lakshmanan, Washington columnist for The Boston Globe, sitting in for Diane Rehm. And joining me here in the studio today to wrap up the international news of this week, James Kitfield, contributing editor at the National Journal and senior fellow at the Center for the Study of the Presidency and Congress, and Nancy Youssef, senior defense and national security correspondent for The Daily Beast, and Christian Caryl, senior fellow at the Legatum Institute and contributing editor at Foreign Policy magazine.
LAKSHMANANOkay, guys. So let's get to the point of Russia. What's their defense against U.S. intelligence forces saying that they have hacked the emails. What do they say?
YOUSSEFThey were shocked. Shocked at such a suggestion that they would in any way be involved in this. Foreign Minister Sergey Lavrov, while meeting with Kerry in Laos, said I don't want to use a four-letter word. We had other officials calling it stupid. Not actually a denial but just a gasp at the suggestion that the Russians would in any way try to interfere with the outcome of the U.S. presidential election. And so they have suggested that any connection with them is essentially a plot against Russia rather than any evidence put forth, despite all this sort of electronic evidence to the contrary.
YOUSSEFAnd so the -- and at the same time you have WikiLeaks' Julian Assange coming out and talking about releasing these as -- because, as a part of a way to sort of point out problems in the campaign. And so, together, the Russians have been able to sort of take advantage of the ambiguity of who did what, to what end, if you will.
LAKSHMANANAll right. Well you mentioned electronic evidence. I think we have a call about that. We've got Wilson on the line from Washington, D.C. Wilson, go ahead.
WILSONHi. Thanks for taking my call.
WILSONYeah. I was just curious myself as to what evidence we have that Russia is responsible for this, or if it's not something -- it seems that we've taken away from the nature of the leak itself and discussing the aspects of what's being revealed. And we're just kind of blaming the responsibility of its surfacing.
LAKSHMANANBut so you want to know how do American security officials know that the hack came from Russia. Is that your question?
WILSONPart of it, yeah.
LAKSHMANANOkay. And the other part of it?
WILSONI'm just curious as to what the nature of the hack revealed? I haven't read it, or the leak, you know? What...
LAKSHMANANOkay. Well, we can review that the leak basically shows that DNC Chairwoman Debbie Wasserman Schultz and other DNC officials were essentially favoring Hillary Clinton over Bernie Sanders in the primary race, which they're not supposed to do. They're supposed to be neutral. So that was the embarrassing allegation that forced the resignation of the party chairwoman. But, James, tell us a little bit about the other part of his question, which is what is the electronic evidence and specific fingerprints, Cyrillic tracks in cyberspace. What -- how do officials know that Russia did it?
KITFIELDWell, and I'm not a cyber expert, but there -- the whole field of forensics on cyber attacks is one that we've been looking at for years now. We have a U.S. Cyber Command that's relatively new under the head of the National Security Agency. They spend a lot of time of looking at how you can trace where these things come from. And it's been pretty unanimous confirmation from both -- numerous intelligence agencies as well as private security firms that this was traced to an actor who used a certain, Guccifer was sort of his name on the Internet, that they have tracked in the past to Russian Intelligence Services. So they feel very confident.
KITFIELDAnd like I said, it's not in their -- if they're not sure or they have reason not to confirm, they don't normally confirm it. They confirm something, as a reporter, in my experience -- and I'd be interested to hear what my colleagues have to say, or you -- but when they confirm something this clearly, they usually have the goods.
LAKSHMANANWell, I have actually read also, and I think one of you may have written a story, that Russia also tries to keep an ambiguity about when it does things like this. They want to sort of let the Americans know, yeah, yeah, we did it, without outright saying we did it, as a way of setting them off balance. Was that your story, Christian, that I read?
CARYLYeah, that was my story. I found it very amusing that a lot of people were saying, oh, well, how could the Russians be so sloppy to leave their fingerprints all over this stuff that they've done. And I think the answer to that is, well, they may have just been sloppy because sometimes they're sloppy and you have competing agencies. In this particular case, there seem to have been two separate hacking groups from Russian Intelligence, from the FSB, the successor agency to the old KGB, and the GRU, which is Russian Military Intelligence. And it would seem, according to the experts, that these two groups didn't even know that their competitors were on the site as well, right?
LAKSHMANANOr their colleagues, let's say. Since they're all working for the same team.
CARYLExactly. Let's call them colleagues. So that's -- might be the source of this perceived sloppiness. But my -- I have my own theory and maybe it's a bit quirky. But in my experience -- and I've had a certain degree of experience as being a foreign, Moscow correspondent myself -- the Russians actually like to get in your head. They like to get upfront. When our Ambassador Michael McFaul had trouble with the Russians a few years ago, they just came after him. They were, you know, sending news crews after him on the street and surprising his family and they really wanted him to know that they were mad at him and they wanted to make his life unpleasant.
LAKSHMANANHmm. So some of it could be psychological warfare.
CARYLAnd I think it's the same thing here, frankly.
YOUSSEFI think it's worth noting that there -- this is not without precedence. The Joint Chiefs of Staff was hacked last year and there were suspicions that the Russians were involved. Other U.S. Government agencies have been hacked and the Russians were suspected behind it by law enforcement. And now, a Reuter's report from yesterday saying that the Democratic Congressional Campaign Committee has been hacked in an effort to see who the donors were. And already there are suspicions that the Russians were behind that. So this is not in isolation, but part of a broader pattern that has been going on for years.
LAKSHMANANWell, we have a couple of listeners who want to really drill down a bit more on the Putin economic ties, if there are any, to Russia. Jason in Frankfort, Ky., is saying that his ties to Russia need to be seriously examined, not tossed off like a joke. And Sharon emails us and says, Trump needs to release his taxes. What is he hiding? Are they loans from Soviet oligarchs? The press needs to start a drumbeat to force him to release those. James, what do you say?
KITFIELDWell, I think the press has tried. And he sort of shrugs it off and it doesn't seem to hurt his polls. So I don't know -- we, you know, we haven't had a presidential nominee who didn't release their taxes in modern times. So it's extremely unusual. And these kind of instances tell you why. We should know if this candidate has a, you know, close economic ties with an adversary who has declared that NATO -- and we are the leading member of NATO -- is its enemy. And they put that in, you know, bluntly into one of their strategic white papers last year, for the first time, calling NATO the enemy.
KITFIELDSo if we're Putin's enemy, then you would expect him to try to hack various of our institutions. We do know for a fact that Mr. Trump had a house that he -- down in Florida that was -- he's, you know, bought for $41 million and sold for $100 million to a Russian oligarch, netting, you know, $60 million. So maybe -- that's -- he is good at real estate. So I'm not saying that is a nefarious tie. But we do know there have been ties between him -- he has tried to build, in Moscow. We don't know the details of that because, again, he hasn't released his taxes. So something's -- some of this you can't know until you actually get a chance to look at his tax returns.
LAKSHMANANAnd his campaign manager, Paul Manafort, has done a lot of business with Russian oligarchs as well as with Viktor Yanukovych, who was the previous pro-Putin Ukrainian leader, before he fell and then Putin went in and seized Crimea...
LAKSHMANAN...from his successor.
KITFIELDRight. I mean, there are these ties between the inner circle of Donald Trump and Russian oligarchs. And, again, there has been this strange sort of back-and-forth between him and Vladimir Putin. It's hard to get to the bottom of it. I mean he -- unless, again, I think the tax returns. And I take the listener's point, I think with this -- the strange things he's been saying about Russia, including calling into question the fundamental American commitment to NATO, I think the drumbeat will increase, that we -- show us your taxes. We need to make sure that there's not something here that we don't know about.
LAKSHMANANWell, it's interesting because a lot of the military leaders who formed this array, this phalanx on the stage of the DNC last night, you know, surrounding retired Marine General John Allen to testify for Hillary, a lot of them said they were doing that because of the things that they see as wild, out-of-the-mainstream utterances from Donald Trump. And many of those include, as you say, his saying that he would reconsider the NATO commitments.
CARYLA few years ago, Trump's son said, we are getting a lot of investment from the Russians. He said that on the record. And The New York Times, I think, has documented one of the most interesting examples. As James says, you know, without the tax returns, we really can't know a lot of stuff for sure. But to me the most interesting case was this case, very well documented by The New York Times, from a couple of years ago when Trump actually had to settle a lawsuit out of court from some -- with some disgruntled buys of condos that he had developed, with a company that was financed by Russian and Kazakhstani money and which included several people with criminal backgrounds.
CARYLAnd it's, again, very interesting that he settled this case out of court, because the people who were suing him were threatening to illuminate the backgrounds of those people and all of the dicey dealings that were involved in this particular deal. And there is also some suggestion that the Russians kept financing this company that was his partner. And that money then, you know, perhaps being laundered from various sources in the former Soviet Union, was going into Trump's coffers. So, again, we don't know that part of the story. But we do know -- and he's had these very dubious dealings with specific people from the former Soviet Union.
YOUSSEFI just want to address the military because I spend a lot of time with the military. And remember, that for generals and leaders, precision, honoring deals is a very key part of what they do, planning for operations. If you have a leader saying we're perhaps going to allow Putin to annex Crimea for an organization where a lot of these generals came of age at the end of the Cold War, when there were tens of thousands of troops in Europe as a precaution against Putin, you can imagine that this just runs against all their training and all their instincts in terms of how to plan for military operations, naming an adversary, planning for an adversary, and just how they plan for protecting their allies and protecting U.S. interests.
KITFIELDA former chairman of the Joint Chiefs told me once that, you know, people think that we're sort of warmongers. But the uniformed military is like the most moderate group you'll ever find. And it's true, they're very cautious people. They're very -- they want certainty in their leadership. And so when Donald Trump says I'm going to torture terrorism suspects again, something we...
LAKSHMANANAnd I'm going to order the military to do it.
LAKSHMANANHe said, if I'm the commander in chief, they'll have to do it.
KITFIELDAnd kill the family members of terror suspects.
LAKSHMANANThe wives and children.
KITFIELDI mean, that sends a blaring alarm out if you're a military person, that this guy might be more erratic than you've -- anything we've seen come down the line before.
LAKSHMANANAnd that was part of what last night on the big stage at the DNC that the retired General Allen said, which is, if Hillary Clinton is president, I'm confident we're not going to be told to torture and that we won't treat our foreign relations like business dealings. I'm Indira Lakshmanan and you're listening to "The Diane Rehm Show." If you'd like to get in on our conversation, you can call us at 1-800-433-8850. You can send us an email to firstname.lastname@example.org. And you can always find us on Facebook or send us a tweet to @drshow.
LAKSHMANANI'd like to bring in a listener, David from Kalamazoo, Mich. David, go ahead.
DAVIDI was calling -- I was just wondering, because I think, you know, as Americans, we've always taken for granted above-reproach integrity that our military demonstrate, including staying out of our political election, you know, when they're in office. And I'm just curious what the panelists believe, you know, what kind of turmoil would we stir up electing a commander in chief who might put the integrity of our military officers at risk and potentially, you know, stir up some kind of no longer following directions?
LAKSHMANANAll right. Well, thank you.
DAVIDAnd something that's never happened with us before.
LAKSHMANANThank you, David. Nancy, you cover the Pentagon.
YOUSSEFI do. And Marine General Joseph Dunford, who's the chairman of the Joint Chiefs of Staff, has put out an order repeatedly to the rank and file that they are not to speak about political matters. He refuses to address anything related to politics. He has been adamant about that in an effort to protect that wall. It's interesting, I did a story a few months ago talking to the troops and there were some who are talking about how they're going to leave the military if Trump's elected. There were some who were really enthusiastic. It's a fascinating mix that's going on within the building. I don't want to over generalize, but generally speaking you'll find that general officers are more inclined to be worried and rank and file are more likely to be enthusiastic.
YOUSSEFNow, to the caller's question about the military -- the wall between politics and the military, remember these are retired generals. And we've seen retired generals pop up in politics before. We've seen them as presidents. We've seen them as presidential candidates. But there is a really aggressive effort happening within the Pentagon to keep that wall up. And it's becoming harder and harder because this is such an unusual campaign and it's just dominated so much of the discussion. And you have military planners who, in some ways, might have to already start planning for some of these proposals that Trump is putting forth. So it's -- you find that there's a wall there, but there's a real aggressive effort to keep it intact.
LAKSHMANANOf course, we can't forget Dwight D. Eisenhower himself. He was a general. And General Allen, who we're referring to, is retired. All right. Let's look at another subject. Russia, of course, is linked to this topic too. But it's about the Syrian government and Russia announcing a plan to create safe corridors in Aleppo, Syria, to allow civilians and unarmed rebels to leave the area. They're calling it a humanitarian operation. Tell us about the plan, Christian, and why the U.S. and U.N. officials have expressed skepticism about it.
CARYLWell, the plan is actually coupled with the most recent moves by the Syrian government and the Russians. The Russians have been conducting a very, very effective campaign of airstrikes to defend -- to help the forces of President Assad. And with that help now, the Syrian Regular Army has now succeed -- and militias, its allied militias, some of them Iranian supported -- have now succeeded in almost completely closing the ring around Aleppo, which is a major source of resistance to Assad.
CARYLSo this proposal to open up a humanitarian corridor and let civilians out is one of those things that looks good on the surface. You know, it's always nice to hear about a humanitarian corridor. If I were a Syrian of any kind -- civilian or rebel -- in Aleppo, and if I'd bombed into the ground by the Russians and Syrian Air Force over the past couple of years, I would think very, very carefully about trying to use this corridor to leave the city. There are a lot of questions about how reliable any Russian and Assad promises are in this respect.
LAKSHMANANBut it does include an amnesty offer.
CARYLYes. Assad has issued this amnesty...
LAKSHMANANHey, James is laughing at this. Okay, James, why are you laughing at the amnesty offer?
CARYLYeah, James. Go for it.
KITFIELD(laugh) We know from very brave journalists who took the pictures and were inside their little Gulag in there, that they torture and kill their prisoners in great, great numbers. We know this to be a fact. So if you're a rebel -- and what's interesting about this humanitarian corridor, there's three corridors they're offering. One, if you're a foreign fighter -- I mean, not a foreign fighter -- if you're a rebel fighter, you have your own little corridor. And you can't go to rebel-controlled territory. You have to go into the loving arms of Bashar al-Assad. I don't know many people who would want to take that bet, that he's actually going to live up to his claims.
KITFIELDI think this Russian and Syria -- they're going to put a siege on Aleppo. They're -- and they -- their modus operandi is to starve these places out -- I think they're trying to say, well we gave you your chance. We'll see. I mean, I hope that, you know, in the United Nations they're saying, okay, let us run the corridors. Let us be in control of this. So we'll see. But there's plenty of reason for skepticism.
LAKSHMANANWell, and I just want to make clear to listeners that that was a rueful, bitter laugh on your point -- on your part. You were not laughing, certainly, at the Syrian War...
LAKSHMANAN...by any means. Okay. So we're going to take a short break. And when we come back, we'll have more of your calls and your questions. You can reach us at 1-800-433-8850. Stay with us.
LAKSHMANANWelcome back. I'm Indira Lakshmanan, Washington columnist for the Boston Globe, sitting in for Diane Rehm. Joining me here in the studio are James Kitfield, contributing editor at the National Journal, Nancy Youssef, Pentagon correspondent at The Daily Beast, and Christian Caryl, senior fellow at the Legatum Institute and contributing editor at Foreign Policy magazine.
LAKSHMANANWe were talking before the break about the Syria situation, and one new thing that happened this week is the rebel group known as al-Nusra or Jabhat al-Nusra, is severing its ties with al-Qaeda. Why, Nancy?
YOUSSEFWell, they formally announced that they were denouncing their relationship. Remember Jabhat al-Nusra was al-Qaeda. And this week they announced that they were denouncing their relationship with al-Qaeda, that they were forming a group called Jabhat Fateh al-Sham, saying that they are no longer part of al-Qaeda. Now it's an interesting time that they're doing this because for years and years, the moderate, so-called moderate opposition have been calling for them to do so.
YOUSSEFJabhat al-Nusra has been the most effective fighting force against the Assad regime, but of course they are affiliated with al-Qaeda, which meant that the U.S. couldn't provide them supplies or weapons or in any way be affiliated with them, and neither could the moderate opposition receiving U.S. benefits, if you will. And so for years the opposition has been asking Jabhat al-Nusra to distance itself. It did it this week, at a time when Russia and the United States are talking about increasingly coordinating with one another, sharing intel, sharing targets, to target Jabhat al-Nusra.
YOUSSEFAnd so Jabhat al-Nusra, it's a smart decision because what they're saying is how can you, U.S. and Russia, strike us when we're no longer affiliated with al-Qaeda and in fact are an effective fighting force against Nusra. Now -- excuse me, against the Assad regime. Now the U.S. is saying we don't buy that, we think this is -- this is just rhetoric and that they're saying it to save themselves from any strikes and that as soon as they are no longer needing to distance themselves, they will realign with al-Qaeda.
YOUSSEFAnd it might appear that way because the head of al-Qaeda, Zawahiri, put out a statement, and a few minutes later the head of then Jabhat al-Nusra put out a statement in what appeared to be a coordinated effort. And so are they really separate or not? We'll see. They put out the first...
LAKSHMANANOr is it just rebranding.
YOUSSEFYeah, to spare themselves from potential U.S. and Russian air strikes. They put out their first press release they think this morning, our time, and said we have no aspirations outside of Syria in an effort to say essentially we're not a threat to you. But where it goes, we'll see. But General Votel this week, who is the head of Central Command, said, look, we're not buying it, and this doesn't change our plans at all.
LAKSHMANANSo the rebranding hasn't worked for the -- from the American point of view. I mean, one really striking thing here is that with all of this fighting and all of this targeting of rebels, whatever they're named, the civilians are still paying the price. There -- a Syrian activist group said that the U.S. coalition air strikes that were meant to target ISIS have actually killed 28 civilians. What do we know about this?
KITFIELDI saw that report, and I have not seen anything confirming it yet. So I don't want to -- you know, if -- it will be investigated, I'm sure, because they have investigated past claims of this. So, you know, it's certainly possible. We also learned this week that another hospital has been bombed. I think it's the fifth hospital that's been...
LAKSHMANANBy the Assad regime.
KITFIELDBy the Assad with the Russians, which it's unclear. So again, you go to that skepticism about when they start offing humanitarian corridors, if they're bombing hospitals as a regular modus operandi, it makes you wonder how much humanitarian thought they're giving this.
LAKSHMANANAnd Human Rights Watch came out with this report yesterday documenting 47 different cluster munitions attacks across three parts of Syria since May, that basically they're saying that Russian and Syrian air forces are using cluster bombs and killing and maiming civilians.
YOUSSEFSince May 27, and remember that cluster munitions are banned by 119 countries, even though Russia and Syria are not signatories to the convention that bans the use of them. What's -- now the Russians and the Syrians will say that's -- we're not using them, but one of the things that the Human Rights Watch report had, which was so interesting, was really specific details. For example, they cite a July 11 incident in which the munitions were dropped from an SU-34, which is an -- only a Russian jet. And so they really offered specific details.
YOUSSEFThe other interesting thing about this is that the report found from September 30 to February 27 there were 34 munitions attacks. And now remember since May 27, there were 47 more, and what happened in between them was a ceasefire. So not are they saying there are munitions attacks but that they're getting more aggressive as the war is closing in on Aleppo. As they said, the majority of these attacks were in Aleppo.
LAKSHMANANWell, let me ask you, Christian, you know, all of this ignores the essential elephant in the room here, which is what about the peace talks. I mean, that's what Kerry and Lavrov are supposed to be talking about all the time is that effort to really end the war and have a peace that's been going on ever since Hillary Clinton was secretary of state. Is that just dead?
CARYLWell, that's a good question. I think it's little early to say that it's dead, but it certainly doesn't look very encouraging at the moment. I think my colleagues are better qualified to talk about the details.
KITFIELDIt's on life support. Basically...
LAKSHMANANReuters was quoting someone saying if it's not dead, it's pretty badly wounded.
KITFIELDIt's -- you know, Assad's winning this war. He's -- the biggest rebel-held area now is Aleppo, they've surrounded it. They are winning this war, and there is almost no leverage we have to convince them, you know, Assad to come and reach any terms in a negotiated peace settlement until you change the dynamic where he thinks he's winning. And oh, by the way, he is winning. So, you know, we have to admire John Kerry's persistence in trying to reach this peace deal, but now he's proposed this latest thing, where we'll have a joint military command with Russia where we attack al-Nusra, but the Syrian air force has to stand down and be grounded as part of that.
KITFIELDWell, I haven't seen any indication that the Syrian air force is willing to be grounded or that Russia is willing to pressure Assad to do that. So I mean, this peace deal has been violated, every term of it has been violated continually by the Russians and the Syrians, and they think they're winning. So unless something happens to change the dynamic and the momentum on the battlefield, there will be no peace deal because they think they can win.
LAKSHMANANBecause Assad thinks he can win. Okay, we have one caller, rather one listener related to Syria. Puge in Cary, North Carolina, wants to know about the substance of Hillary Clinton's emails on Syria. Do any of you know what the emails of Hillary's that were released in the State Department investigation, that were made public, about what Hillary said about email in email -- Syria in email.
LAKSHMANANDo any of you know?
KITFIELDI don't remember seeing anything on that.
YOUSSEFI don't remember anything significant, or it doesn't...
LAKSHMANANOf course the focus was on Benghazi and on Libya of those investigations.
KITFIELDI mean, it was very clear that Hillary Clinton as secretary of state, and this had been stated by her and others, that, you know, she was much more aggressive early on about arming the quote-unquote moderates. And at that time there was peaceful demonstrations, so there were more moderates, if you will. That was something that the Obama White House went against the administration -- I mean the advice of almost all its senior national security leaders.
LAKSHMANANRight, in the same way that she pushed Obama on supporting air strikes in Libya that led to the fall of Gaddafi, she also pushed -- she pushed Obama to try to support and arm rebels and be more forward-leaning in Syria, but he chose not to do that.
CARYLAnd to her relative hawkishness on these issues is again one of the reasons why the Russians don't like her and don't trust her because they have -- they have the opposite position on all of these issues.
LAKSHMANANAll right, let's talk about this Islamic State-inspired attack in France this week, a small village near Rouen in which an 80-something-year-old priest was attacked during the middle of mass, Nancy.
YOUSSEFHe was finishing mass, Jacques Hamel, an 85-year-old priest. Two men come in with knives. They tell the priest to kneel. He resists. They stab him. They take a nun and some of the worshippers hostage, and there's eventually a standoff with the police in which they were killed. Both 19-year-olds who, in a video subsequently released that was prerecorded, they declared an allegiance to ISIS and what appeared to be an effort to sort of start up a religious war between Christians and Muslims. We've seen this sort of play out in the region, as we've seen the Diaspora of Christians in places like Iraq. We haven't seen it in Europe in this way.
YOUSSEFAnd what was interesting one of the attackers of the priest said in the video that there were going to be more attacks like this in France. And remember that France has taken a really -- has sustained a number of attacks, of course what happened earlier this month in Nice, the Charlie Hebdo attack of January 2015, the November 15 attack on the three locations in Paris. And this attack, coupled with those, has really stoked real frustrations amongst the French.
YOUSSEFPeople who saw rightwing politicians as sort of going too far are suddenly more receptive to them. These two -- at least one of them, excuse me -- had -- was being monitored by the French authorities since March and was still able to perpetuate this attack. And so I think the audacity of the attack and the fact that it came just a few weeks after what happened in Nice has really started a national conversation and put President Hollande's tenure in jeopardy, as people see him as being too weak on these issues.
LAKSHMANANYou make a good point that the Nice attack and the Bataclan and the theater attacks killed hundreds of people between them, and this is one priest being killed, but he's an 85-year-old Catholic priest whose throat was slit during mass. It seems like that would touch a really sensitive sort of cultural chord for people.
CARYLYes, I think again it's important to remember what terrorist attacks are designed to do. We tend to forget the larger context, which is they're not just intended to, you know, cause -- cause casualties. They're intended to generate a reaction, right. And in this particular case they specifically target a Christian cleric, right, and this to me represents a kind of escalation. It’s not something I've seen them do before. They're clearly trying to -- to deepen the polarization in France between Muslims, non-Muslims, between secularized Muslims and religious Muslims, more division, more polarization.
LAKSHMANANTo do what? To trigger the French government to crack down on Muslims, to therefore create a backlash by Muslims? Is that the idea?
CARYLPartly, I think. I think that's very much of it, to trigger a backlash, certainly, to contribute to the erosion of civil liberties, to, you know, encourage these nationalists like Marine Le Pen, which deepens the divisions in society.
LAKSHMANANThe French rightwing politician.
LAKSHMANANAnd we have to remember this is coming on the heels of these small but also deadly attacks in Germany. Within a space of one week there was the axe attack on a train, the mass shooting in Munich that left nine dead, the suicide bomb in Ansbach. So little cases like this are being repeated across Europe.
KITFIELDOh, and you're going to keep seeing them, unfortunately. To the point of why they're doing this, I mean, and they're not shy about saying this in all literature. They want, you know, to start a war between Islam and the West. That is their ultimate strategic goal. And if they can create a backlash against Muslims, where Muslims feel like they have no place in the West, that'll greatly facilitate their war against the -- between Islam and the West that they are sure they're going to win by divine providence.
KITFIELDSo I mean, this is out of their playbook, and when they, you know, pushed hundreds of thousands of immigrants and refugees into Europe, they created a problem that's going to last years and years and years, just like al-Qaeda did in the 1990s when it kept putting out cells from people they trained in their training camps in Afghanistan. It's taken years and years and years to clean that up. It'll be the same here.
LAKSHMANANAlthough interestingly if they're trying to get the policy on refugees to change, Angela Merkel, who has really taken a leadership role, the German chancellor, said that despite these attacks, she's not going to change her policy on admitting Syrian refugees, Afghan refugees in Germany, which is a very interesting and I imagine politically difficult stand for her to take.
KITFIELDShe might not get re-elected with that stance.
LAKSHMANANIt's a very -- you know, it's a very moral stance, but as you say, it might be a politically difficult one to maintain. I'm Indira Lakshmanan, and you're listening to the Diane Rehm Show. All right, let's talk about Turkey. Of course there was that failed coup a couple weeks ago, Turkey shut down dozens of media outlets in its ongoing crackdown on both the military and the media. Tell us what the latest is, Nancy.
YOUSSEFWell, we saw 16 channels, 45 newspapers, 26 publishers, 15 magazines shut down, allegedly for their allegiance to Gulen, who is suspected as being behind the attack. But there's a real concern that Erdogan is using the coup as a way to crack down on opponents of any kind and sort of grouping them all together as being aligned with Gulen. This came up...
LAKSHMANANYou mentioned Gulen. He's the man, we should say, the Islamic cleric who's in hiding -- I shouldn't say in hiding but who's living in exile in the Poconos Mountains in the United States, and of course Turkey's Prime Minister Erdogan has called for him to be extradited. The U.S. has not done that. Sorry, president.
YOUSSEFThat's right, and so any -- this has become a day-in-and-day-out crackdown on anybody suspected of being in any affiliated with Gulen, who I should point out at one point was an ally of Erdogan's, but of course that has since collapsed. And so this was on the heels of what appeared to be an increased crackdown on the military, as well. We saw 1,700 personnel purged from the military. In all we've seen thousands of teachers, government employees, police officer, soldiers purged from their positions and more than 9,000 arrested.
YOUSSEFAnd so I think for Americans in particular who value their First Amendment so much, seeing a crackdown on the media I think was particularly onerous.
CARYLIt really is quite extraordinary. Nancy was just citing some of those numbers. One of the most astonishing numbers I saw recently was that every dean of a university in Turkey has lost his or her job, 1,500 people. So we expect, right, after a coup attempt, we expect to see them purge some people from the military, maybe from the other security forces. But this is the media, it's academia, it's business.
CARYLThe judiciary. It's across the board. It is really extraordinary.
LAKSHMANANI wonder whether President Obama and John Kerry are regretting at all the fact that they sort of took a stand to back Erdogan, who was of course democratically elected.
KITFIELDWell, I mean, it's -- Turkey is a NATO ally. It's very hard to say you support a coup in a NATO ally. It's totally against our principles. But they know for a fact, and we all know now, if we didn't know before, that Erdogan is an authoritarian, he's on the way to becoming a dictator of a country that would be laughable to call it a democracy. If you don't have any free institutions, you don't have an independent judiciary, if you don't have a free media, you're not a democracy.
KITFIELDAnd it's in the club of democracies in the NATO alliance. It's going to make Turkey -- I mean, it can forget...
LAKSHMANANIt has wanted to enter the EU.
KITFIELDIt can forget about that. I mean, there is no way -- if you ever read the bylaws of the EU, Turkey just doesn't meet any criteria now. The question is what do you do about NATO because this is really a dictatorship that's been forming right in front of our eyes, and it's in an alliance that is of democracies. And, you know, it's an important -- it's an extremely important ally, but it's -- I mean, we have to look at this with a lot of concern.
LAKSHMANANQuick thought, Nancy?
YOUSSEFThe U.S. has already signaled that it has less leverage. General Votel, the CENTCOM commander, said that a lot of those who were purged in the military were people that the U.S. worked with. And so they've lost that sort of channel of communication through this -- these actions by Erdogan.
LAKSHMANANWell, many of our listeners are still fixated, and I don't mean fixated in a bad way, are still really interested in Trump and the Russia connection. We have one email from Tom in Florida, who says no classified information briefings should be provided to Trump, the candidate, because we can't trust him over Russia. And we have another listener, how says is it possible that the Republicans paid Russia to carry out the hack on the DNC and also the DCCC, the Democratic Congressional Campaign Committee, which just announced that it has been hacked, Christian?
CARYLWell, I can address the last one. There is some evidence that the Russians have hacked Republican institutions, as well. We haven't really seen much about that. I don't know how much material from that has been made public. Maybe we'll see some of that farther down the road or after Trump becomes president, if that happens.
LAKSHMANANSo you think unlikely that the Republicans would be paying Russian hackers to do this.
CARYLI think it is unlikely. I don't think that's the motive for the Russians here.
LAKSHMANANAnd the intel briefings, quickly?
YOUSSEFWhich start next week. I talked to someone at the Department of Homeland Security. What they're measuring -- what they're going to determine is intent, and if there's an intent to do harm, that affects it.
LAKSHMANANBy Donald Trump.
YOUSSEFThat's right, but as of now there's no intention to in any way alter those briefings as of today.
LAKSHMANANThat's Nancy Youssef of the Daily Beast. We also heard from Christian Caryl of Foreign Policy Magazine, James Kitfield of the National Journal. Thank you all so much for joining me today, and thank you so much to our listeners for tuning in and sharing your thoughts and your questions. I'm Indira Lakshmanan, sitting in for Diane Rehm. Thanks for listening.
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