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The U.S. – Russian brokered ceasefire in Syria which went into effect at sundown on Monday is said to be, so far, mostly holding. Despite long odds for success Washington and Moscow hope their joint efforts can target the Islamic State and an Al Qaeda terrorist group while allowing for the delivery of humanitarian aid to thousands of increasingly desperate Syrian civilians: Join us for an update on the ongoing brutal conflict in Syria and prospects for this latest ceasefire agreement to hold.
- Liz Sly Bureau chief, Beirut, Washington Post
- Jason Cone Executive director, Doctors Without Borders
- 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
- Faysal Itani Resident fellow, Rafik Hariri Center for the Middle East at the Atlantic Council.
MR. A. MARTINEZThank you for joining us. I'm A. Martinez of Take Two on KPCC, Southern California Public Radio, sitting in for Diane Rehm. Now, the idea was for a new military alliance between Washington and Moscow, which would pressure all sides in the now five-year long brutal conflict in Syria to take a pause. And so far, the ceasefire put into place Monday evening seems to be largely holding.
MR. A. MARTINEZJoining me to talk about the ongoing crisis in Syria and prospects for that pause in the violence is Faysal Itani of The Atlantic Council. And by phone from Beirut, Liz Sly of The Washington Post. Welcome to both of you.
MR. FAYSAL ITANIThank you.
MS. LIZ SLYThank you.
MARTINEZLiz, let's start with you. What can you tell us about what's going on in Aleppo and elsewhere in Syria at this point?
SLYWell, today, we're hearing that everything is much, much quieter than it has been for a long time. The reports are that there have been no major violations today. There were a few last night when the ceasefire first went into effect, but as of today, most Syrians are getting out and about and enjoying a bit of calm from the terrible carnage we've seen for so long.
MARTINEZThe little incidents that you're talking about, how little are they? Are they little enough where it can be overlooked?
SLYI think the timing is critical. They weren't little incidents because they involved airstrikes and part of the ceasefire is to -- the biggest part of the ceasefire is to halt the horrible airstrikes that you've seen claiming so many civilian lives. And there were some airstrikes after the ceasefire went into effect. The could've been some parties trying to exert some last-minute leverage. It could've been some people getting out a bit late on their bombing runs.
SLYIt can't really be explained very well, but I think it's very good news to hear that today, things are much, much calmer.
MARTINEZWell, we're also hearing reports of Syria claiming they hit with a missile an Israeli war plane. Israel is saying, no, that's not true. How difficult is it right now to get reliable reports and what have you heard about that one, if you've heard anything on that?
SLYWell, yes, the Israelis completely denied that one of their planes was shot down. Are they lying? I don't know. I think it's quite unlikely that that would be the case. So why are the Syrian's claiming that this happened? I think what we're going to start to see and we're seeing it in some other statements they've made today is the Syrians are not very happy about this agreement at all.
SLYThey've been convinced by Russia, which is their main supplier, their main backer, to halt fire, to stop advancing on different fronts because they can't do without Russia and they are -- they really have no choice. But they're not happy with the details of this. And if I had to bet, I would explain that claim to be having shot down the Israel airplane in the context of Syria kind of trying to show off a bit, trying to claim it's still in the driving seat.
SLYIt has its own policy. It's not being subjected to Russia. And that was for public consumption.
MARTINEZDo you think it matters to find out the truth there or should everyone just let that one slide?
SLYI would be inclined to let it slide at the moment, mainly because I suspect that it is a sort of slight propaganda effort to try and save face with some of their own constituency. The Syrians have been advancing quite significantly on a number of fronts at the moment and they've also lost a lot of men in those battles. And so I think it's quite hard for them to sell this deal to their own people, to their own supporters and especially to their army.
SLYWhy send people in to fight for a big road, like they just did, and they won that battle after several weeks. They lost as many as a thousand men, we've heard, and now they're telling everybody they've got to stop fighting. So I think we're seeing a bit of fighting propaganda more than we are any actual incident here. Of course, if the Israelis had -- if the Syrians have shot down a plane, the Israelis could get very unhappy about that and we could see a new war taking place.
SLYAnd that's all part of the huge uncertainty of this field where many, many different strands to the Syrian civil war. There's no one direction that's going to solve it. It's going to be -- have to be solved in multiple different ways, lots of little loose ends to tie up and any one of them could flare up at any minute and disrupt this.
MARTINEZWell, Liz, let's get to the details of the deal for a second. What are the terms of the ceasefire and what's the timeline?
SLYWell, basically, you're looking at -- the Americans are insisting there should be seven consecutive days of calm during which aid flows unimpeded to besieged and hard to reach areas. These are mostly communities, but not exclusively, that are surrounded by the Syrian government and they don't have access to food. If you have those seven consecutive days of calm, then the Americans and the Russians are going to start working together on a joint plan to carry out joint airstrikes in Syria against mostly two groups, the Islamic State and also the former al-Qaida affiliate which was called Jabhat al-Nusra, and is now called Jabhat Fatah al-Sham.
MARTINEZIn terms of supplies, medical supplies, fresh food, what's the estimate, at this point, of the number of Syrians who are really just cut off right now?
SLYI think we're talking about more than a million Syrians who are in desperate need of food that is not reaching them in sufficient quantities. These are scattered all over Syria in different communities, but the biggest group of all of them, and the details of this deal are really focused very much on Aleppo, half of the city of Aleppo is surrounded by the government at the moment. It hasn't had sufficient access to food for a long time.
SLYThere were thought to be about 300,000 people there and getting food into Aleppo is really going to be a critical measure of whether or not this ceasefire deal is working.
MARTINEZAll right. Let's bring in Philip Gordon, senior fellow, Council on Foreign Relations. He's a former special assistant to the president and White House coordinator for the Middle East, North Africa and the Gulf region from 2013 to 2015. Philip, it's not the first attempt to have a ceasefire. What do you see as different this time around?
MR. PHILIP GORDONWell, that's what we're going to find out. And unfortunately, not a lot is different. The fundamentals of the issue are the same, which is that you have a regime with maximalist aims that is still, as of yesterday, saying it wants to take over control of the entire country and an opposition that is absolutely determined to have a transition in which the president of Syria, Assad, goes. So that's why it's hard to be optimistic that it will hold more this time than last, but I think it seems to -- all the parties involved -- worth trying because any de-escalation of the violence is a prerequisite for making any progress in Syria.
MARTINEZWell, John Kerry has compared this and he said this plan has a chance to work. A chance to work, Philip, does not sound like a ringing endorsement to me.
GORDONNo, and I think Secretary Kerry was rightly trying not to oversell because everybody knows this is a long shot. The only -- the question, though, a long shot compared to what? Doing nothing and just carrying on as we have for five years -- I mean, we've seen the consequences of that with hundreds of thousands of killed and displaced and destabilizing neighbors and radicalization. And so while it is a long shot, I think Kerry is right to say that even if you get a partial compliance and some de-escalation of the violence and some humanitarian aid in, you've made massive progress over a -- of an absolute tragedy that we've been living with for five years.
GORDONNow, the question is there any chance, Kerry also rightly said there's a shot. I think there's a shot because both sides know or at least should know that their maximalist aims are not possible. Assad doesn't have the manpower and doesn't have the strength to take over the whole country. And if he carries on as he has been carrying on, he's just going to see more war and more bloodshed and more costs. And the same with the opposition. I think realistically, they know that they're not going to bring about the full regime change that many of them would wish for.
GORDONAnd so maybe there's a hope that with exhaustion of the parties and everybody realizing how bad this is for everybody, they can, unrealistic to imagine, you know, have a comprehensive peace, but at least agree to wind down the fighting and let some people get some humanitarian assistance.
MARTINEZFaysal Itani, it's been five years. The underpromise, overdeliver position seemingly -- at least that's how I read John Kerry's statement -- is that safer to say at this point than to make more bold statements about how this thing can play out?
ITANIAbsolutely. I don't think he has an illusions about what's going on. These are two sides, as Mr. Gordon just said, who have incompatible goals. It would take a lot of creativity to understand how these goals could be reconciled. I don't think they can, but we'll see if the external circumstances change. What he has highlighted as the most probable outcome, which is a decrease in violence and civilian suffering and a resumption of aid flows, I think at least in the abstract it's possible and it's a good achievement in itself.
ITANIWhether or not that can lay the groundwork, A, for a larger settlement, I think that's unlikely, and B, aside from the details of the deal, which, by the way, we actually don't know what they are, at least as outsiders. We don't have a text to see what the details are and by many accounts, the opposition doesn’t know either nor do we know exactly what their position on the deal is. These are important caveats, but having said that, it does -- this package carries with it sort of hidden problems for them that I think pose at least a possible danger for their position long term.
ITANIOur position has been that we are treating this primarily as a CT problem to fight Jabhat al Nusra or Jabhat Fatah al-Sham. They, of course, I mean, that's a secondary concern for them. They want to fight the regime. And because these two things are still misaligned, I don't see this going much further than humanitarian relief and the decrease in violence.
MARTINEZRight, because decrease in violence temporarily, then to go in and get those terrorist groups, that sounds like would be violent.
ITANII mean, no, there's no...
MARTINEZThere's no avoiding it, right?
ITANIThere's no doubt about it that there's going to be, you know, offensive operations against jihadi groups and the opposition understands that. So does Russia, so does the United States. That's the point, in a way, or one of the points. The problem that this is another problem. The fact is that this is a zero sum war, right? I mean, the opposition sees this as whatever our views about the jihadis, if you're talking away their capabilities, you're taking away a capability of ours. And we know the regime is going to break the ceasefire at some point and we're going to be at a disadvantage. That's really what it's about at the end of the day. All the other stuff is bickering over details of the agreement.
MARTINEZComing up, more on our conversation on the Syrian ceasefire. I'm A. Martinez in for Diane Rehm.
MARTINEZWelcome back. I'm A Martinez with Take Two on KPCC, Southern California Public Radio, sitting in for Diane Rehm. We're talking about the Syrian ceasefire with four guests. Liz Sly, bureau chief, Beirut, Washington Post, Philip Gordon, senior fellow, Council on Foreign Relations, Faysal Itani with the Rafik Hariri Center for the Middle East at the Atlantic Council, and now, Jason Cone, communications director, Doctors Without Borders. And, as always, we'll be taking your calls and thoughts at 800-433-8850. That's 800-433-8850. And you can send us an email at email@example.com. Or you can join us on Facebook or Twitter.
MARTINEZJason, thanks for joining us, Jason.
MR. JASON CONEThank you for having me.
MARTINEZJason, how many people does Doctors Without Borders have in Syria at this point?
CONEWell, we are currently working with our national staff, so our Syrian staff. It's no longer very safe for us to bring internationals into the country. But we're running essentially six medical facilities across the north of Syria, that includes in Aleppo as well as in (word?) region. And then we support about 150 more health centers and hospitals across the country, many of them in some of the besieged areas that Liz was mentioning earlier, and that's providing them various medical supplies -- everything from surgical supplies to medication to treat chronic diseases.
MARTINEZAnd what are you hearing from them when it comes to the crisis there at this point? What kind of situation are people in Syria facing right now?
CONEWell, in -- as was mentioned I think earlier, in East Aleppo, we've got about 250,000 people that are essentially stuck in the so-called besieged areas. You know, the heavy fighting that occurred in mid-July really, you know, continued for weeks and there was only a very brief break in the siege where we were able to resupply one of the hospitals that we work in. You know, one of the facets of this war that has continued throughout has been really the ongoing attacks on medical facilities and doctors and ambulances. That's been very true in 2016. We've had about 31 attacks on facilities that are either run by my organization or supported by my organization in 2016.
CONEAnd we've seen in East Aleppo, just since mid-July, eight hospitals have been damaged and bombed, along with something like eight ambulances that have been struck since mid-July. So there really is no safe place for civilians to turn, even when they try and get medical attention.
MARTINEZIt's clear people are suffering, people need help. This ceasefire, will it be enough to relieve these people's suffering for even a little bit?
CONEIt remains to be seen. You know, right now, it hasn't necessarily changed the situation on the ground in terms of, for my organization at least, to be able to evaluate whether it's safe to increase our programs. You know, while I mentioned we were running these medical facilities and supporting over 100 others, you know, Syria, given the needs, really should be our largest program worldwide and that's not the case because of the really the lack of acceptance of humanitarian assistance, you know, from all sides. You know, the government has been, you know, certainly involved in many of those attacks I mentioned on medical facilities. So it is really difficult at this point to see what the ceasefire will produce.
CONEI think, for us, what is key is, is that the aid be able to cross frontlines, that neither of the parties, whether they be on the government side or the opposition side, remove items from any convoys that might pass through. We've seen this play out many times where things like surgical supplies are removed from entering areas that are besieged. And then I think, you know, we often talk about the need to bring the supplies into these besieged areas. But it's also incredibly important to allow people who need to be medically evacuated to leave. And that is one area where we've considered, you know, continually seen deficiencies, whether it's been places like Daraa, (word?) or other areas that are under siege.
MARTINEZLiz Sly, bureau chief, Washington Post, when it comes to actual information on what is needed in Syria, how difficult is it to get reliable information? I mean, could we really be maybe underestimating what the people of Syrian need there?
SLYI think we're totally underestimating the need and for similar reasons that were just explained by MSF, the Doctors Without Borders, access to information for journalists in Syria is also extremely inadequate. It is not safe to go there. It is safe to go to the government site, but the government doesn't issue visas to journalists, or very, very rarely does. And it has a lot of restrictions on who it issues visas to. For example, there's an outright ban on Americans at the moment. No American nationals can get visas to Syria. And then on the rebel side, we know what's been going on, on the rebel side. It did used to be safe to go. You could go and see how people were living under rebel control. You could see what the suffering was.
SLYBut we had the rise of ISIS -- we've had the rise of Jabhat al-Nusra. They kidnap foreigners who go there. And we know what happens to the foreigners who get kidnapped. So it just isn't safe to go. And therefore we don't really know -- none of us can ever really say how bad things are in Syria. And I think this is a huge deficiency. And it's one of the reasons why the, you know, we're five years into this war and they're announcing like only the fourth ceasefire attempt there's ever been, because haven't been paying attention because they don't really know how people are suffering there. And I think that's a huge lack in the world's understanding of how miserable and how bad things are inside Syria.
MARTINEZWell, let's get to the other big parties in this, the U.S. and Russia. How has their involvement changed things, made things better, worse, either one?
GORDONWell, certainly the Russian involvement, especially when it became a direct military involvement last summer, put a real constraint on what the United States was trying to do. For -- since -- essentially since the beginning of the war, the United States and its key partners in the region have had a strategy of increasing assistance to the opposition and trying to unify it to the point that it would put enough pressure on the regime -- feeling even its military pressure -- to come to the table and negotiate a political settlement. That was already a long shot then, because Russia and Iran and Hezbollah were helping the regime.
GORDONBut once you get Russia on the ground undertaking active airstrikes on behalf of the regime, the Russian intervention has really made it even less likely that Assad would come to the table and you'd get this negotiated political settlement. So clearly, that one variable alone changes the trajectory of the conflict and reduces the options for the United States and its partners.
MARTINEZBecause I can't help to -- at least in some ways it feels, from an outside look for me, that this is an ego war, too, between the United States and Russia.
GORDONLook, there are so many levels of competition going on here. And one of them is, indeed, a geopolitical one among outside powers. I mean, I think the most important of those is actually between Saudi Arabia and Iran, which see this -- neither one cares particularly about Syria or its type of government or the people of Syria, frankly. They do care about their relative power in the region. And so they are prepared, in a way, to fight to the last Syrian, because they don't want to defer to the other. So you have that. You have the Turks and the Kurds.
GORDONAnd then, yes, as you say, you also have the Russians and the United States, where one of Russia's ambitions -- not, I don't think the only one -- but one was to stand up to the United States and say, you don't get to dictate...
GORDON...the future of countries around the world, and especially in our region. I think, frankly, among all of Russia's interests in it, it was their own sort of redline on the regime change that led to the Russian intervention. Because they hate it when the West and the United States comes to the aid of people who are trying to get rid of their government, whether that's in Georgia, Ukraine, or Libya, or Central Asia, or for that matter, as Putin sees it, Moscow. And I think one of the things we're seeing from Russia is just a way of saying, it's not up to you, Washington. We have a say too.
MARTINEZFaysal, how do you see the United States and Russia in achieving common goals? How many common goals are there?
ITANII'm not sure. You know, this competition -- we were seeing this ceasefire as something about Syria. It's, to a large extent, the U.S.-Russian dynamic playing itself out in the Syrian Civil War. And as a result of that, I think it's potentially both key and distracting. I mean, obviously Russia's intervention in Syria was the reason the regime didn't fall, essentially, or start to collapse last year. Having said that, given that key military dynamic, I think we are underestimating or understating the, A, the role of regional actors, like Iran and Saudi Arabia. And I actually do think the Iranians are the ones fighting this war on the ground here, not the Russians, and have a bigger say in what the regime does.
ITANIAnd second of all, I think we're simplifying or we're in danger of simplifying the sort of relationship between these proxies and what these countries outside do. The United States does not have a lot of leverage over what the armed-opposition groups do in Syria. It doesn't have zero leverage, otherwise we wouldn't be having this conversation. But it cannot press them to do something that they think is not in their interest. The same thing happens with the Russians and the regime. As Liz said, the regime are militarily doing well over the last few weeks.
ITANIAnd now they've had to stop, because the Russians are signing this deal with America. It doesn't mean that they're convinced that this is the right thing to do, which is what makes all this a bit more unsettling and what makes me think we shouldn't concentrate only on the U.S.-Russian dynamic.
MARTINEZHow much of a disadvantage is the United States when it comes to geography? Russia is closer. The United States is not.
ITANINo, I don't -- I...
MARTINEZIn terms of the U.S. interests in Syria.
ITANIAh, okay. You know, I see the U.S. interest in Syria as, I mean, there's a lot of controversy over this. The least common denominator is that we know that there's a terrorism problem in Syria. We can all agree that that stems from the civil war...
ITANI...and the collapse of the country, whatever it is we want to do about it. The Russian interest, I don't think the geography gives them -- gives it even more importance or facilitates their projection of power. I think it's exactly what Mr. Gordon said, which is that it's a sort of abstract power play for them. They don't want the United States to decide who stays and who goes. And this is what they're saying. If you -- that legitimate governments or central governments are the way this world is going to be organized and not by revolutions that the United States decides are serving their interests or serving their democratic ideals or whatever it is.
MARTINEZBecause, Philip, one of the things that we've seen with the Obama administration is talks of pulling ourselves out of things around the world maybe. But it seems as if we're injecting ourselves in a place that is far away and, for the average American, doesn't seem like something that really affects their day-to-day lives. So how does the U.S. sell this to the public in terms of like, hey, we need to be there, we need to be involved there?
GORDONWell, I think, clearly skepticism about being able to sell a direct military invention -- intervention was indeed one of the factors keeping President Obama from going down what he feared to be a slippery slope. You know, we saw the backlash after the Iraq War and not just the public backlash but the genuine conclusion among most Americans that it is beyond our capacity or interests to put in tens or hundreds of thousands of troops and try to change regimes and shape the future of Middle Eastern countries. So there was a real skepticism about selling it.
GORDONBut I think the case is actually an easy one to make, that we have interests in Syria, at -- even beyond, I mean, it should be obvious that when hundreds of thousands of people are killed or 12 million displaced, that we have an interest just on a humanitarian level.
GORDONBut we've now seen, beyond on the humanitarian level, the repercussions of this, which include radicalization and terrorist attacks in Nice and Paris and Brussels and Istanbul and Ankara and San Bernardino and Miami and so on. And so Americans are learning that, while it may be far away and while we may like to turn our backs on the Middle East, the reality is that this really does affect us and we have an interest in trying to bring it to an end.
MARTINEZI'm A Martinez. You're listening to "The Diane Rehm Show." And as always, we'll be taking your calls, 1-800-433-8850. That's 1-800-433-8850. Or you can send us an email at firstname.lastname@example.org. Or find us on Facebook or you can also send us a tweet. Let's go out to Jared in San Antonio, Texas. Jared, you're on "The Diane Rehm Show."
JAREDYeah. Before I make my comment, I just want to get it out of the way that, up until today, Syria was not a place of utopian religious co-existence like it's presented to be. Opposite, what I saw it from the '60s through the early '80s was brutalizing the Sunni population, just like we're seeing right now. But my point I wanted to make is that, is Russia planning to stay there? Because we saw, even with Hezbollah, even with Iran, even with the Iraqi militias that are helping him, he was going to lose up until the Russian Air Force came in and helped him. And so, in the long run, what is he going to do without the Russian Air Force? That seems like it's the only thing that's kept him in power.
JAREDAnd I also think, with talking about, you know, I think we could have taken out Assad's Air Force from the Mediterranean without even putting a plane in his airspace or a single soldier -- American soldier on the ground. And for Obama not to have done that was, at worst, supporting, at best, capitulating to him. And that's my point. I mean, at long term, what is he going to do without the Russian Air Force? Thank you.
MARTINEZAll right, Jared. Thanks a lot for the phone call. Jared is talking a little bit aggressively right there. And I don't know necessarily if that kind of attitude would be one where any kind of ceasefire would be supported. I mean, everyone has to kind of walk on eggshells, don't they, a little bit, Philip?
GORDONWell, there are a lot of elements in there. I mean, on the Russian piece, I don't think Russia wants to stay forever. I think Russian intervention is an important factor but it's not the only factor keeping Assad in power. You still have a regime backed, again, by Iran and by Hezbollah and by lots of minorities in Syria and frankly by lots of Sunnis as well, who fear that if Assad falls, you don't get this nice, stable transition to the democratic government we would like to support, but you get a hostile, jihadi Islamist sectarian group that threatens them. And they have good reason to be afraid of that.
GORDONAnd so it's not just a matter of Russia propping up this artifice. There is a lot of inherent support. And that's why many of them are willing to fight to the death. The only hope I see on the Russian front is, whereas Russia is clearly willing to intervene to prevent Assad from falling, I don't think they have any great appetite for staying forever and fighting a war to reconquer the entire country on behalf of Assad.
GORDONAnd that's where there seems to be some space, including on this ceasefire, if their core interests are protected, they get to stand up to the United States, they get to keep their base in Syria and they prevent what they consider as the bad guys taking over, then maybe they're willing to see a de-escalation in humanitarian assistance and some tentative ceasefire and truce. Because they don't want, to put it more briefly, another Afghanistan, where they're trying to help a shaky regime pacify an entire country where there are lots of insurgents.
MARTINEZShould we see any ceasefire, Faysal, in that area as a positive step? Even if it's only for seven days, even if it's only like a pause, as we've been calling it?
ITANIYou know, I analyze it on two different levels. You know, if less people are going to die and people are going to be saved, how can I say it's not a good thing? Especially if I'm not sitting...
MARTINEZYou're rubbing your head though, it's like a very tough question.
ITANIBut if there are certain things missing from it, then it might get us in trouble further down the line. That's all I'm saying. The issue is not just -- the issue is not as much a ceasefire as how the regime and the opposition calculate their situation, given that they expect the ceasefire to fall -- to break down. No one on the ground expects this to hold. So they are calculating like that. If we calculate like that, then we have to scrutinize much more what the terms of the ceasefire are, because there's not an end to the fighting. And then let's see what happens. It's a pause in the fighting. And that's how they're seeing it.
ITANIThe regime mindset is, absolutely, with any doubt -- and I'm saying this based on my conversations with (word?) and not based on a bias -- they think, A, they can win this war, even if it takes 15 years and they have to take the country one inch at a time. And, B, they think, in any case, we don't have a choice. We have to keep fighting. Because otherwise they'll eradicate us for a number of reasons. And I don't know whether that's true or not, but I can understand why they might feel that way.
MARTINEZComing up, your calls and questions as well, 1-800-433-8850. That's 1-800-433-8850. Email us, email@example.com. This is "The Diane Rehm Show."
MARTINEZWelcome back. I'm A. Martinez of Take Two on KPCC, Southern California Public Radio, sitting in for Diane Rehm, 1-800-433-8850, that's 1-800-433-8850. Send your email to firstname.lastname@example.org. We're talking about the ceasefire in Syria. Let's go out to Khalid in Michigan. You're on "The Diane Rehm Show."
KHALIDHi, so I have several -- several comments, and I'll make them very quick. I think President Obama lost the historical opportunity to get rid of al-Qaeda completely back in 2011, but when he chose not to act and to allow people face, children mutilated, women raped, getting killed, he really allowed al-Qaeda to come in a much uglier face with ISIS. And even when President Obama chose to act and support some of the FSA groups on the ground, it was -- this was last fall, basically the support was extremely minimal.
KHALIDI remember looking at the FSA and some of the support that they get. For a brigade with 3,000 soldiers, they will get 5,000 bullets in a month. So basically it was -- it's one of those things that the U.S. is supporting but just to say that we're doing something but it's with no real support.
MARTINEZKhalid, you had something on the ceasefire, though?
KHALIDYeah, let me talk about the ceasefire specifically. Lavrov just had a press conference today, where he said, you know, we like the ceasefire, we're willing to announce it, we're willing to go to the U.N. and actually have a U.N.-supported resolution to support that ceasefire. The Americans are, and this is what Lavrov said, the Americans are refusing to announce the details of the ceasefire. So for Syrian opposition, it's extremely difficult to really look at the ceasefire as something legitimate. That's number one.
KHALIDNumber two, if you're -- if you think that the goals of the ceasefire is to provide humanitarian assistance, to really stop the killing, well in that case you need to have a ceasefire all across Syria, even in areas that are controlled by JN, Jabhat al-Nusra. But the reality of, by -- when you're saying that no, Jabhat al-Nusra is going to still be targeted, that means you're inserting a political and military goal to the ceasefire, and that makes it extremely difficult because Syrian opposition looks at that and says, well, you know, those are allies. We don't like them, we have to work with them, but you're going to weaken them.
KHALIDAnd at the same time you're ignoring Hezbollah, which is a terrorist organization, according to the U.S. You are completely -- completely ignoring them. So it just makes it extremely difficult for Syrian opposition to take the ceasefire as something legitimate, as something that's really going to save -- save lives.
MARTINEZOkay, Khalid, thank you very much for the phone call. So let's unpack a little bit of what he said here. He's talking about the details of the agreement. Faysal, when it comes to the details, are either side not being as forthcoming as they need to be to truly make this an effective ceasefire?
ITANIAbout the details?
ITANIIt does create mistrust and uncertainty within the opposition, and in -- as a result of that, from the other side, you get vague statements from the opposition that could be read as endorsements of the ceasefire agreement or outright rejections or nothing. So it's not conducive to trust, most certainly not.
MARTINEZHe says the United States is not being as forthcoming, Philip, as they need to be.
GORDONI think both Russia and the United States are tending to blame the other for why the detailed agreement between the two is not public, and I can fully understand why outside analysts and members of the Syrian opposition are complaining. But I actually don't think that's the central issue about this because we do know, and they have been briefed on, the core ideas, in fact in great detail on everything that's in the ceasefire.
GORDONAnd on that, and Liz Sly earlier in the program described it very well. We have a good understanding of what the core issues are. So it's fair to be skeptical. The previous one broke down. It's fair to point, as the caller did, to all the holes in it and things you have to worry about it. But again as Secretary said -- Secretary Kerry said yesterday, compared to what.
GORDONIf you could get seven days of calm that allow the United States and Russia to start going after what we all agree are really horrible terrorist groups, and you're getting humanitarian aid to the opposition, then it's hard to argue that because we might have some questions about precise details that we don't -- we don't want to support this.
MARTINEZLiz Sly, Washington Post, when it comes to all the details of the ceasefire, how are Syrians -- how are people in Syria seeing this? Do they want more information? Are they -- are they not trusting it because they don't have the information? How is it working over there?
SLYWell yes, and I could imagine that distrust working on both sides, actually. I cannot imagine how they can really keep this deal under wraps forever because everybody's starting to say what's in this deal. The regime has reasons to be suspicious, as well. I mean, what they -- the regime is dependent on Russian help to fight, as other commentators have said. What they dread is a Russian-American alliance that could end up swinging against them. So they will want to know very much what has Russia given away here, what concessions has Russia made. John Kerry said the ultimate goal of this deal is to get rid of Assad. The Russians didn't say that. But did they say it in the agreements? We don't know.
SLYIf they didn't, why is John Kerry saying that it is a goal of the agreement? The opposition would like to know that. Is getting rid of Assad the endgame of this ceasefire deal? If it's not, then what is the point of it. So yeah, I can see all sorts of problems emerging down the line from not really seeing the full text of all of this agreement.
MARTINEZGo ahead, Phil, yeah.
GORDONIf I might jump in, see I think that set of questions underscores why both governments are reluctant to put out the text because that is a dynamic you also see in this sort of situation. If you do put -- we've heard the reasons why you -- why it's a problem if you don't put it out, but if you do, you immediately get each side saying we can't possibly agree to that. It doesn't say anything about Assad's future. So the opposition walks away. And if it commits that Russia will stop the regime from flying in certain areas against certain groups, the regime says we can't possibly agree to that.
GORDONSo sometimes in diplomacy, while it's very frustrating to people commenting on the radio and calling in, sometimes it is actually in your interest to do it differently because you could blow it up by putting it out for political reasons, and it takes me back to what I said earlier. We know the core of it, and if you could get a ceasefire, humanitarian aid and going after these groups, that would be a good thing.
MARTINEZSo sometimes it's better to be on a need-to-know basis.
MARTINEZSometimes -- because all I hear from everyone is tension. I mean, that's -- now I'm hearing from Syria is tension, tension, and a lot of it has to do with maybe not knowing everything. But I mean, how much do we really need to know? When it comes down to it, how much does everyone truly need to know about the ceasefire?
ITANIEveryone involved or everyone...
MARTINEZYes, everyone, all of us.
ITANIWell, we don't need to know anything, but they need to know that -- what the enforcement mechanisms are, whether there are any penalties for violation, et cetera. The real problem here is this, though. The problem is that the people most aware of the reality they're in are the belligerents of the conflict on the ground, the regime and the opposition. For them, whatever it is that's agreed is all well and good, but they know what to expect from the other side, or at least they think they know.
ITANIWhat they think, what the opposition expects from the regime is to cheat, and they are calculating that if the opposition is allowed to cheat, and the coalition or America and Russia are allowed to bomb Jabhat al-Nusra in the process, they end up on the losing side. The other side is important but secondary, I think.
MARTINEZThe second part of Khalid's question had to do with a wider ceasefire range when it comes to this. So -- go ahead.
ITANII did want to comment on that, actually. Well, the ceasefire is supposed to be national, not just -- not just in a particular geography.
MARTINEZIt seems like it's a sliver, though, that's what it seems like.
ITANINo, that's the specified resumption of humanitarian aid flows, not the ceasefire. The ceasefire is national. It's not -- it's not limited to a particular geography. It came into place yesterday evening, it's supposed to last for another six more days, and then more things are going to happen with U.S.-Russian coordination against Jabhat al-Nusra. That's what it is.
MARTINEZBecause when the information comes down, and I actually kind of see Khalid's point a little bit in that it seems as if it's only for the area where the humanitarian aid is going to go. That's what I mean, until, I guess you unpack it even more, but...
ITANIIt's a little bit more ambitious than that.
GORDONIt is more, as Faysal says, it's more ambitious and more national. There is a circumscribed geographical area in which Russia and the United States will fly and are being clear that the regime will not fly. But that doesn't mean that there's not a national ceasefire.
GORDONThe broader point, you can come back to that, but the broader point about, you know, details and what we know is if you wait to have a national ceasefire until all of the questions about Syria are answered, we're going to be talking about this in five years. And one of the problems prior even to the previous ceasefire is that both sides, including the opposition, including people we support, were saying we won't even have a ceasefire until we have clarity on what happens afterwards and Assad's future and the future constitution and governance.
GORDONAnd it turns out that that was such an intractable issue between us and the Saudis and the Iranians and the Russians and everybody else that that just basically meant the war would go on and on and on, and the progress of the last ceasefire, even though it didn't hold, was that parties finally agreed, you know what, we can't answer those questions for now, let's see if we can get some calm, get some humanitarian aid in and then start tackling those really difficult questions, but if we make them conditional on answering every question about the future of Syria, the war is going to go on indefinitely.
ITANII'd like to add something about the issue of geography and scope. I think the caller also mentioned that there would be continued airstrikes on Jabhat al-Nusra by Russia and America despite the fact that there was a ceasefire. I don't think this is a geography issue for Russia and America. The regime is the one that's circumscribed by geography, where it can attack. The Russians and Americans can attack wherever are the mutually agreed targets, anywhere in the country, and Jabhat al-Nusra is part of that target set.
ITANIAs a Syrian, I can completely understand why you would not want that to happen at -- given the current balance of power in the country. Obviously the United States is not going to not do that. So, you know, this is where the interests don't exactly intersect.
MARTINEZJason Cone, communications director, Doctors Without Borders, so okay, so if the ceasefire is supposed to be for all of Syria, will -- will all this humanitarian aid be able to get to all of Syria, or are we just still talking about a very small part of it?
CONEWell, I think just it's an important sort of broader point, which is that, you know, the different belligerents have a responsibility to let aid come in regardless of the status of the ceasefire, and that is -- it's incumbent on them as a basic sort of foundational principle for international law, and it's what as an organization we do every day in places like Yemen, South Sudan, the Congo, et cetera. You know, they are supposed to allow the facilitation of aid. It should certainly not be bound to the broader questions of the political process and ending the war. It definitely (unintelligible) although we hope it would be, you know, creating a pathway to that.
CONEThe reality is that yes, it's incredibly difficult right now, and we don't see any major shift on the ground in terms of the ability to provide aid, and we'll see in a few days whether there is major differences. We've largely been talking about Northern Syria, but it's also important to know that there aspects about this entire crisis, which is that it's more and more difficult for people to flee, flee Syria. So they can't even -- oftentimes can't get into Turkey anymore. We have a situation in Southern Syria on the northern border with Jordan where there are currently 75,000 people who are essentially stuck at the border, Jordan closed the border in late June following a bombing that took place at one of the border crossing points.
CONESince June 21, 75,000 people have been stuck in the desert. Three-quarters, four out of five of those people are women and children. And they are literally a stone's throw away from getting back into Jordan and getting some safety and getting all the aid they need. Currently the only water that's coming is essentially small lines of water going over what is a sand berm that was created by the Jordanian government to create a sort of demilitarized zone in that area.
CONEBut, you know, we talk about hopefully getting supplies into Aleppo, but we're talking about 75,000 people who are within an arm's reach for getting aid, if the border would just be re-opened. So the situation is quite unique in each of the locations we're talking about, the breadth of Syria's conflict and its individual environments, but right there is really testament, as we're only a few days away from a major summit in New York on the U.N. on refugees and migration. We're going to have 75,000 people who are essentially stuck and who are going to be dying of starvation and lack of access to water, four-fifths of those women and children.
CONESo it really is just emblematic of how challenging it's been to get aid to the people who need it and also the political choices that are being made that also prevent people from getting assistance.
MARTINEZI'm A. Martinez. You're listening to "The Diane Rehm Show." All right, Philip, so give us a sense of what is supposed to happen beyond the next seven days.
GORDONWell, first things first, the United States at least says it needs to see some sense of seriousness on both sides of this calm. After the seven days passes, and have no doubt, there will be violations, it's a question of if -- are they so egregious that you really can't continue, or has there been enough reduction in violence that we move to the next phase. In the next phase, the United States and Russia would then set up this joint center, where they would share information and agree to go after the groups that are designated by the United Nations Security Council as terrorist groups, as discussed, that's the Islamic State and formerly Jabhat al-Nusra, which is the al-Qaeda affiliate, now Jabhat Fatah al-Sham, and together the United States and Russia would start hitting them.
GORDONAnd in theory then -- so that's just humanitarian aid is going in, there is a ceasefire between the regime and the opposition, we are together going after the terrorist groups, and then, according to the plan, you would start focusing on the political aspect of this, because everyone knows ultimately you need a political settlement in Syria. To be honest, if we could only get to that, the other would be the least of our problems, you know, because that's going to be a whole other level because there are still fundamentally no -- not even close to a consensus on what sort of political governance in Syria you need after this.
GORDONSo I think that's where the parties have sort of said let's just put that off. Kerry referred to it yesterday and said, you know, it's still critically important that we then work on a political transition. I am personally deeply pessimistic about that phase, but I think it would be heroic to even get to the point where there's a national ceasefire, and we're together targeting terrorist groups.
MARTINEZWell, that leads me to this email from Morgan. Has the American government completely doubled down on the ousting of Assad? It seems to me we're caught in a Catch-22 with a desire to fight both Assad and the Islamic State. Do your guests think that the government might need to conclude that ISIS is the greater evil on the global security scale and thus the real target?
GORDONI mean, the normal criticism of the administration recently is the opposite, that far from doubling down on getting rid of Assad, it is backing off of that and doing, in a way, just what the emailer suggests, which is primarily going after ISIS. I don't think the United States has given up on the ambition to get rid of Assad, and I think the United States is right when it says that long-term, there is not a stable, peaceful, united Syria so long as Assad is in place.
GORDONBut I do think we're seeing is a recognition that there is not going to be a near-term transition beyond Assad and focusing on shorter, more interim, less ambitious goals, which include a ceasefire and a prioritization of the threat from ISIS.
MARTINEZFaysal, is Bashar al-Assad on the back burner right now?
ITANII don't think it's a priority. I think in principle, obviously our position is that he has to go. But our policy and strategy is not working toward that end, even if it's, you know, sort of a principle desire. I think right now, the idea for the civil war component of all this is to tamper down the violence so that the terrorist -- the counterterrorist campaign can be fought with maximum effectiveness, ideally with some local partners, if not then alone with Russia.
ITANII don't know that we are caught in such a Catch-22, though, and I don't mean this to sort of -- in a glib way. I really do think these problems are the outcome of a civil war, whether it's Jabhat al-Nusra or ISIS. ISIS is an easier problem that you can sort of fix, even if the war is still going on, because of the way they have positioned themselves in Syria. They have too many enemies that control territory, et cetera. Nusra has made itself part of this war. It's going to be very hard to beat them without ending this war, and ending that war means answering the question, one way or the other, about the regime.
MARTINEZFaysal Itani, Philip Gordon, Liz Sly and Jason Cone. My thanks to all four of you.
MARTINEZI'm A. Martinez of Take Two on KPCC, Southern California Public Radio, sitting in for Diane Rehm. Thanks for listening.
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