Guest Host: Tom Gjelten

A Syrian civil defense volunteer stands on the rubble of destroyed buildings during a rescue operation following a government forces air strike on the rebel-held neighbourhood of Bustan al-Basha in the northern city of Aleppo, on October 4, 2016.

A Syrian civil defense volunteer stands on the rubble of destroyed buildings during a rescue operation following a government forces air strike on the rebel-held neighbourhood of Bustan al-Basha in the northern city of Aleppo, on October 4, 2016.

The Syrian civil war has lasted five years and claimed more than 400,000 lives. Since Russia entered the conflict a year ago, more than 3,000 civilians have been killed. Last week, a bombing of Aleppo by Syrian government forces killed hundreds, including more than 100 children. On Monday, Secretary of State Kerry ended peace talks following the Aleppo attack. In Tuesday night’s vice presidential debate, Governor Mike Pence called for a tougher approach to Russia and for the establishment of “safe zones” inside Syria. And Hillary Clinton has called for a no-fly zone. Guest host Tom Gjelten and guests debate what to do about Russia’s escalation in Syria and the humanitarian crisis there.

Transcript

  • 10:06:53

    MR. TOM GJELTENThanks for joining us. I'm Tom Gjelten of NPR. I’m sitting in for Diane Rehm. She's on a station to WYPR in Baltimore, Maryland. Russia began conducting air strikes in Syria about a year ago. It's supposedly targeting terrorists in support of the Syrian government. But those Russian strikes over the last year have killed more than 3,000 civilians. Bombings last week in Aleppo by Syrian government forces killed more than 300 people, 100 of them children.

  • 10:07:26

    MR. TOM GJELTENJoining me in the studio to talk about the battle for Aleppo, Russia's growing role in Syria and what the presidential candidates are saying, Paul Pillar of Georgetown University and Julia Ioffe of Politico and Foreign Policy. From a studio at Yale University, we have Robert Ford of the Middle East Institute and Yale University. He was also the last US ambassador to Syria. Good day to all of you.

  • 10:07:52

    MS. JULIA IOFFEHi.

  • 10:07:53

    MR. PAUL PILLARNice to be here.

  • 10:07:54

    AMB. ROBERT FORDGood morning.

  • 10:07:55

    GJELTENAnd, of course, we'll be taking your phone calls later in the hour. Our number is 1-800-433-8850. You can also email your questions or comments to drshow@wamu.org. You can join us via Facebook or Twitter. But right now, we have Liz Sly on the line from Beirut, Lebanon. She's the Beirut bureau chief for The Washington Post and she's been covering the war in Syria and also the wider conflict throughout the Middle East. Hello, Liz.

  • 10:08:27

    MS. LIZ SLYHello.

  • 10:08:28

    GJELTENThanks for joining us. So Liz, first off, I'd like to...

  • 10:08:31

    SLYThank you.

  • 10:08:32

    GJELTEN...I want to get your reaction to something your Washington Post colleague and our friend David Ignatius wrote in his column yesterday. He quoted US intelligence officials describing a Russian campaign to break the Syrian opposition's will, much as the United States and its allies did in the incendiary bombing of German and Japanese cities in World War II. Russian weapons, he wrote, now include thermal baric bombs, incendiary munitions, cluster bombs and bunker busters.

  • 10:09:05

    GJELTENThey are attempting to burn Aleppo alive. As ceasefire talks collapsed over the past two weeks, the Russians have struck hospitals, bread lines and bakeries, civilian neighborhoods. The message, says one US analyst, is surrender and you can eat again. Is that how it looks to you there, Liz?

  • 10:09:27

    SLYWell, yes, that's a very accurate description of what's been happening. There's actually a slogan that the Assad regime paints on the walls of cities it besieges, kneel or starve, which tells the people inside, either you kneel down to us or you will not eat. And this is tactic that has worked to clear the rebellion out of many areas in (word?) Syria around the capital, around the city of Homs, and now they’re trying to do it with the very large area of eastern Aleppo that they've got under siege.

  • 10:10:01

    GJELTENAnd the Syrian government forces, after this bombing of Aleppo and after those horrific messages that you just quoted has, of course, gotten a lot of international condemnation. There have been some reports that it is now -- the Syrian government is now backing off on its bombardment in Aleppo. Is there any evidence of that?

  • 10:10:20

    SLYWell, we can certainly say that for sure in the past 24 hours, we have seen fewer bombings on Aleppo. There were almost none yesterday and there were some reported overnight, but there haven't that many today. So it does make you wonder whether this sort of tougher line that the US and the international community has started to take, that's starting to revisit whether they should be taking action in Syria as opposed to sticking with the negotiations, whether that tougher line might not be having an impact.

  • 10:10:49

    SLYBut I think it's very early to say whether this was just a statement to head off those international condemnations and we'll just see the bombing come back again or whether they actually are getting anxious about this reaction.

  • 10:11:01

    GJELTENWell, what is the situation in Aleppo right now in terms of its defensibility? I mean, is there -- what are the chances that the city could actually fall to Assad's forces, you know, backed by the Russians?

  • 10:11:15

    SLYI think this is a question that nobody can answer very clearly. This part of Aleppo has been under rebel control for the past four years. People have been going in and out. They've been crisscrossing the lines to other parts of Syria to join in fights elsewhere. We really don't know how many rebels there are in there. Many of them are just local guys who took up guns to defend their neighborhoods and they've been sitting on the front lines for the past four years without very much battle experience.

  • 10:11:45

    SLYI think nobody has a good sense of how good the rebels are in there and we don't have a clear sense, either, of how good the attacking forces are. So it could be one of those things that drags on and on and on. Some communities have been fighting a war for four years now and they still haven't surrendered. With Aleppo, if the government really bring all source to bear, will they be able to tip them over quite easily? It's quite hard to say.

  • 10:12:11

    GJELTENWell, is there -- you talk about neighborhoods controlled by the rebels. Are there fixed front lines? Are there front lines between government-controlled territory and rebel-held territory and are those lines shifting at all as far as you know?

  • 10:12:25

    SLYYes. Aleppo is a big city and it's kind of roughly divided in half between the eastern and western half. Now, through the middle of the city is a very jagged front line, a long which Syrian rebels and Syrian army soldiers have been facing each other for the past four years. The line has hardly shifted in the past four years. It has, in the past week or so, the government has made some very small advances into the rebel areas.

  • 10:12:54

    SLYNow, around the outside of Aleppo, the rebels are also surrounded by government forces, which is how they're under siege. And along this line, yes, there's a front line, a fairly static front line that has started to move the government's way.

  • 10:13:08

    GJELTENHave you heard anything, Liz, about whether Russia is moving a missile defense system into Syria, which, of course, could change the situation there as well?

  • 10:13:20

    SLYWell, the Russians have had 400 missile defenses since last year when a Turkish -- when Turkey shot down one of the Russian war planes. They have been adding to their missile defenses in recent days. They've announced that they put the S-300 system in and another system as well. And it does look to me like now that the negotiations failed, the Russians are saying, we better up our air defenses to make sure America doesn't take any military action.

  • 10:13:48

    GJELTENAnd is there any more news on whether the peace talks, the ceasefire talks between the United States and Russia that were halted earlier this week might actually resume at some point or is that a dead initiative?

  • 10:14:02

    SLYWell, it looks like a really dead initiative. The United States keeps saying, yes, we're still looking for a peaceful solution, but they've looked so hard for a peaceful solution for the past four years and have never, ever got anywhere close to finding one. It's really hard given the amount of violence and the level of bitterness of the discourse between the two powers to imagine that there is any kind of serious ceasefire or diplomatic initiative around the corner.

  • 10:14:31

    GJELTENWow. Okay, well, Liz, you are responsible for covering a terrible situation there. Best of luck to you and thanks so much for giving us this update.

  • 10:14:42

    SLYThank you.

  • 10:14:43

    GJELTENOkay, good talking to you. Ambassador Ford, so you were the last US ambassador there until 2014. What's your assessment, having just heard this update from Liz Sly, what's your assessment of Vladimir Putin's thinking about Syria? Was he uninterested in pursuing the ceasefire plan with the United States? How do you read his thinking?

  • 10:15:11

    FORDI think Vladimir Putin wanted to keep a couple of different options open until the last possible moment. So on the one hand, he's been increasing his military forces. You know, he brought in those newest surface to air missile defense systems before Secretary Kerry broke off the talks. So they've been sort of working on double tracks, both a military track, bombing and supplying weaponry to the Syrian army, providing political cover to the Syrian government at the United Nations, but at the same time, sort of hinting at the Americans that maybe they could do a ceasefire.

  • 10:15:50

    FORDMaybe they could get the Syrian air force to stop bombing for at least a week. In the end, the Russians clearly decided that the military option was the way to go. I wouldn't be surprised if, after Aleppo falls to the Syrian government forces and their Iranian-backed militia allies, that the Russians will come back to us and say, now is a good time to negotiate because they will be negotiating, they and their friends, their allies, will be negotiating from a position of greater strength.

  • 10:16:21

    GJELTENWell, Ambassador Ford, do you think that -- you've referred to after Aleppo falls. Do you think that's inevitable at that point, given the lineup of forces?

  • 10:16:30

    FORDYes. The military balance is shifting in the favor of the Syrian government and its forces on the ground. I don't think Aleppo will fall tomorrow or the next day or next week, might not even be next month, but several opposition strongholds in suburban Damascus and in the city of Homs have had to surrender in recent months and Aleppo, sooner or later, unless something changes on the military balance side, unless something change, Aleppo, east Aleppo, too, will fall.

  • 10:17:02

    GJELTENJulia Ioffe, you've been following Russia for a long time. What's your assessment? Do you agree with Robert Ford on Vladimir Putin's thinking here?

  • 10:17:11

    IOFFEI do. I actually think it's a very good point that Ambassador Ford has made. This is very classically Putin to keep all options open till the last possible minute and to decide almost reflexively, emotionally. And I think also what Ambassador Ford mentioned, this kind of double track, making sure that the military part is up to snuff and bringing in the surface to air missiles to make sure that, for example, the US doesn’t impose a no-fly zone.

  • 10:17:43

    IOFFEThis is very, you know, it's good for them to either -- to keep the option to either crush the resistance, finish the war off or to negotiate and look to the world as if they're responsible and mature and capable of this kind of thing.

  • 10:18:00

    GJELTENJulia Ioffe, she's a contributing writer at Politico magazine and The Huffington Post, also a columnist at Foreign Policy. We're going to take a break right now. When we come back, we're going to resume this discussion. Stay tuned.

  • 10:20:02

    GJELTENHello, again. I'm Tom Gjelten from NPR and I'm sitting in for Diane Rehm today. And in this hour, we're talking about the horrific situation in Aleppo, which is the second-largest city in Syria. And just before the break we heard Ambassador Robert Ford, the last US ambassador to Syria, predicting that Aleppo is actually going to fall to Syrian government forces sooner or later.

  • 10:20:27

    GJELTENMy other guests here in the studio are Paul Pillar. He's a non-resident senior fellow at the Center for Security Studies at Georgetown University. Up until 2005, he was at the CIA where he was, finally, the national intelligence officer for the Near East and South Asia. Also Julia Ioffe, contributing writer at POLITICO magazine. She has the Highline long form journalism post there at The Huffington Post and she's a columnist at Foreign Policy.

  • 10:20:56

    GJELTENSo, Paul, what's your reaction to this idea that -- what would be the significance of Aleppo falling? How would that change what has been -- what Liz Sly was describing was a civil war with fixed front lines. How would the character, the nature of that war in Syria change if Aleppo were to fall?

  • 10:21:18

    PILLARWell, I don't think it fundamentally changes the character or the nature of the war. But it would be, as your previous guest mentioned before the break, you know, a change in the military scorecard that would, you know, influence any negotiations that took place afterwards. Aleppo has been, at least it was, you know, the most populous city in Syria. It has a great deal of cultural and historical significance.

  • 10:21:40

    PILLARAnd part of the reason, in addition to that, that there's so been -- been so much focus on it in terms of the military action and our own attention is the tactical situation which Liz Sly pretty much described, where you basically had two halves of the city, each under regime and opposition control, but each of which was surrounded or nearly surrounded by territory controlled by the other side. So it was ripe for this to be the, you know, the cockpit of the most intense combat and basically a militarily unstable situation.

  • 10:22:09

    PILLARSo I would agree that, you know, from the standpoint of the Syrian regime and its Russian backers, this would be a big notch on the military scorecard. So that when negotiations do resume -- and there are going to be some kind of negotiations to resolve this war eventually, there is not a military solution in either direction -- that that is part of the way, similarly to how compromise settlements have been reached in many other wars, where the military map does influence what the negotiators say and do over the negotiating table.

  • 10:22:47

    GJELTENWell, you said it wouldn't change the character of the war. But, I mean, right now there's an urban war. If the rebels were to lose Aleppo, would you not have some kind of rural insurgency, more like a guerilla war?

  • 10:22:59

    PILLARWell, fair point, yes. I was referring more to just, you know, how to interpret the overall prospects for settlement and so on.

  • 10:23:04

    GJELTENYeah.

  • 10:23:05

    PILLARBut in terms of military tactics, that's probably true. Aleppo being the primary place where you've had these urban front lines, as we discussed before. But some of the opposition forces -- including but not limited to the al-Qaida affiliate, the (word?) Fatah al-Sham, probably would rely more on what we consider a rural guerilla tactics rather than the urban warfare that we've been so much focused on in Aleppo.

  • 10:23:33

    GJELTENRobert Ford, I want your reaction to this argument that there is no military solution in Syria. We actually had a tweet from Ted, who says, it's sad to say but it seems the best outcome to end the civilian suffering would be an Assad victory. It seems to be that there is no military solution. And he means no military solution on the part of the rebels triumphing I guess. What if there, as Paul Pillar says, if there is no military solution, how does this war end?

  • 10:24:04

    FORDWell, as Paul said, there probably will be a negotiation, although I'm not sure there will ever be a negotiation that completely ends the fighting. I doubt it. For one thing, I don't think the armed opposition fighters will ever be able to go home again as long as the Assad government is in control of the cities from whence they came. They'll always have to worry about the secret police knocking on their door and hauling them away in the middle of the night. That was the problem that caused the uprising in the first place back in 2011.

  • 10:24:36

    FORDSo I think there is a sort of a military solution in the sense that the Assad government will probably control all of the major cities, certainly all of the major cities in the western third of the country, which is where the bulk of the population has long lived. And it will basically be able to sit tight and, as you mention, there might be an insurgency in some rural areas, a province up northwest called Idlib on the Turkish border and then out in the far eastern parts of Syria where the Islamic State is. The Assad government can live with that. It's a problem for the United States and its friends because it doesn't get rid of the extremism problem in Syria.

  • 10:25:20

    FORDAnd for our European friends, in particular, who have these waves of refugees, this kind of a situation where the low-level insurgency goes on and there's no reconstruction, very few of the refugees will ever go home again. And that will be a political problem for our friends in places like Europe.

  • 10:25:40

    GJELTENOne question. I could have asked this to Liz Sly, but I'm sure you know the situation as well. Who actually are the rebels in Aleppo? I mean there are such a, you know, the landscape of the fighting is so complicated in Syria. Who are the Russians and the Syrian government forces hitting in Aleppo?

  • 10:26:04

    FORDI'd love to answer that if I could, because I think it's not as complicated as many people say. Basically, if you can follow the baseball pennant race, you can follow the Syrian Civil War. There are a number of teams. In, if you like, Aleppo fighting, there are two big factions of opposition fighters. One is predominantly Islamist. And one has some Islamist and some more secular fighters. But there are two big coalitions. One is called...

  • 10:26:34

    GJELTENAnd when you say Islamist, you mean the al-Qaida affiliated group, al-Nusra or ISIS?

  • 10:26:37

    FORDNo. No, no. No, I would label them as a third group which I would just call extremist.

  • 10:26:43

    GJELTENOkay.

  • 10:26:44

    FORDAl-Qaida and there are some smaller groups that are allied with al-Qaida. But they are not the majority of the fighters in Aleppo. The majority of the fighters are either these Islamists, who want an Islamic state but do not insist on imposing it at gunpoint. Or their more secular factions, one is called Liberate Aleppo, that's the more secular faction. And the other is called Islamist -- the Islamist Front. And so those are the two big factions. They all cooperate on the ground with al-Qaida fighters because, although they don't agree ideologically with al-Qaida -- and even the moderate Islamists who don't insist on imposing an Islamic state at gunpoint -- they have disagreements with, ideological disagreements with the al-Qaida people.

  • 10:27:32

    FORDBut they all, together, face a bigger enemy, which is the Bashar al-Assad government and their Russian allies. And so despite their ideological differences, they do end up coordinating on the ground, as uncomfortable as that makes countries like the United States and Russia.

  • 10:27:48

    GJELTENYeah. Well, Julia, picking up on that last point, how uncomfortable is Russia, in fact, with the status quo in Syria? And what do you see as their desired end state?

  • 10:28:03

    IOFFEYou know, excuse me, that's the thing that really gives me heartburn, that makes me cringe reading these stories, is -- and I think for many people who have -- who are Russia watchers -- is that it, to some extent, it's reminiscent of the second war in Chechnya that the Russian government successfully fought. And in many ways it is similar. It started with a war for independence by secular forces that became increasingly radicalized and Islamicized. And Putin, when he came into power in 2000, essentially said, you know what? We're not going to deal with you. We're going to roll you into the ground essentially and a lot of -- and target the civilian populations that are your base of support. And I mean, this...

  • 10:28:50

    GJELTENJust flatten you.

  • 10:28:51

    IOFFEFlatten you in a really, really horrific way. And what you're, I think, to a lot of Russia watchers, watching the coverage out of Aleppo, knowing that the Russians are very much party to all of this with a lot of, you know, apparently Russian munitions being dropped on that aid convoy in September, is that it seems like he's not -- that Putin isn't just angling to change the facts on the going into the next round of negotiations. He might be.

  • 10:29:21

    IOFFEBut the negotiations he usually uses to stall, to play for time, or he's doing this to help Assad finish this thing and, like Ambassador Ford said, control the major cities, you know, and completely suppress any desire for people to rebel ever again, and have a loyal, strong man in power who crushes all dissent and all potential terrorist activities. I think it's interesting that we keep quibbling with the Russians about who is a terrorist and who isn't. And, you know, is Jaish al-Fatah, they have terrorists, are they? Or is the Free Syrian Army terrorist? To the Russians, these are all terrorists because they are fighting a legitimate, in their mind, a legitimate government. So to them, they are all terrorists.

  • 10:30:11

    IOFFESo us kind of splitting hairs with them, they're like -- they don't care and they're bombing them all anyway.

  • 10:30:17

    GJELTENRight. Yeah. So this is happening, of course, in the midst of a presidential election. And one of the big issues is Putin's view of US politics right now. Do you -- is any of his actions, and in particular the -- sort of the -- how he's dragging his feet on negotiations -- do you think any of this is meant to sort of send some message to American voters or interfere with the US, you know, campaign in some way?

  • 10:30:43

    IOFFEI think there is some meddling going on from the Russian side, but I don't think this is one of them. I think this is Putin very rationally assessing the situation and saying, either -- he's probably watching the same polls that we are and seeing that more likely than not Hillary Clinton is going to be the next president. He does not like her. She is more hawkish. She, when she was part of the Obama administration, was pushing for a no-fly zone, was pushing for arming, excuse me, the rebels -- Syrian rebels. So he knows that if, come January, if she's the president, he's going to have far less latitude.

  • 10:31:21

    IOFFESo, I mean, if I were him, I'd be trying to get as much as I could under, while you have a lame-duck president that even when he wasn't a lame duck was in no way interested in getting involved and probably wasn't really interested in these negotiations that Kerry -- Secretary of State Kerry was carrying forward, given that he was given no tools, no leverage to back up his position in the negotiations.

  • 10:31:46

    GJELTENWell, Paul, actually Hillary Clinton still seems to be advocating this idea of a no-fly zone. And in the vice presidential debate a couple days ago, Governor Pence talked about establishing a safe zone in Syria. I know that there are a lot military figures that cringe when politicians throw around these terms because they don't really deal with the practicality of establishing zones like that. How do you see those options?

  • 10:32:13

    PILLARThere was a lot of cringing that should have gone on listening to the vice presidential debate, because these terms like no-fly zone, safe zone, humanitarian corridor, were tossed around, conflating each of those terms with each other as well as not talking at all about the military implications. I mean we have had our military leaders, such as the former chairman of the joint chiefs, General Dempsey, you know, some time back when he was still in office, talking in congressional testimony about some of the implications in terms of the degree of military involvement and the just monetary expense, let alone the military risk, that would be involved in something like a no-fly zone.

  • 10:32:48

    PILLARBut there are all kinds of unanswered questions here. I mean, just take the no-fly zone, even without getting into those other concepts that were used so loosely in the debate. Number one, there are big questions about what this means in terms of the risk of confrontation in the air, especially with, you know, the air defense system that was mentioned by Liz earlier, and the possibility of Russian versus US direct combat in the air. And then there are even bigger questions in terms of what goes on on the ground. If you're preserving a piece of ground from air support, well who is doing the fighting on the ground to preserve whatever you're trying to preserve?

  • 10:33:25

    GJELTENPaul Pillar, he is a non-resident senior fellow at Georgetown University. I'm Tom Gjelten. You're listening to "The Diane Rehm Show." So, Paul, if those aren't practical ideas, what?

  • 10:33:38

    PILLARWell, you know, one of the frustrating things -- the main frustrating thing about this whole topic is, you know, there is this understandable urge, as reflected in things like the current campaign, to do something. You know, to do something to deal, first and foremost, with the human suffering that we read about in places like Aleppo, but also, you know, more largely, you know, can't we push back against Putin? Can't we do something?

  • 10:34:01

    PILLARWell, you know, one of the problems is to think that when there is a big problem out there, there is, number one, a solution, and number two, the United States has the solution. That's not the case here. I mean, it simply isn't. I'm pretty pessimistic about the overall course of this Syrian Civil War. I think it can trundle on maybe as long as the Lebanese Civil War did, which went from the '70s...

  • 10:34:25

    GJELTENHmm.

  • 10:34:26

    PILLAR...you know, into the '80s. Until, out of sheer exhaustion from all sides, with a little bit of mediation help from the outside -- which involved the Syrians, by the way -- it finally more or less tamped down without totally resolving the issues that are still there at Lebanon. That's not a very encouraging scenario. But it doesn't mean the United States has some means to deal with that.

  • 10:34:48

    PILLARYou know, with regard to the US versus Russia in Syria, one thing we have to keep in mind, while we're focusing on all the tactical things going on right now in Aleppo and so on, to bear in mind the long-term Russian interests here. You know, they have had Syria as their, basically, sole foothold in the Middle East for decades, going back to the Soviet era. So from the Russian point of view, you know, maintaining a friendly, even client regime in Damascus, even if just control is over part of the country, that's just maintaining the status quo.

  • 10:35:21

    PILLARSo they have an interest in doing that with their naval presence at Tartus and so on. And they have an interest in showing themselves to be a vital player, that can't be ignored and can't just be isolated and sanctioned. Those are the long-term objectives. And I think the Russians still have an interest, eventually, in being part -- a diplomatic as well as a military part of at least tamping down this conflict, if not, as Robert Ford correctly said, totally ending the fighting.

  • 10:35:46

    GJELTENYou're nodding your head, Julia.

  • 10:35:48

    IOFFEI, excuse me, I am. Because all of this talk in the US about that Russia has, you know, Russia's interest is the military base in Tartus. I mean, that's partially true. In part, it's also, at a time when you have an administration in the White House that sees this as perhaps a repetition of the Lebanese Civil War, that's -- that we don't have a solution to, that might just drag on for years and years, and why get our hands even dirtier, get even more entangled?

  • 10:36:23

    IOFFEThis is creating a lot of space for the Russians to act in the Middle East and to show themselves to other players in the Middle East -- to Israel, to Saudi Arabia, to other US allies in the Middle East who are getting frustrated with what they see as inaction coming out of the White House -- to show them as a -- themselves as a doer and as a potential ally, as an alternative to these -- to the American alliance.

  • 10:36:52

    IOFFEAlso, Vladimir Putin, you know, for us it's like, well, you know, the people of the US are war weary. They don't want to do anything. They already see the US military is overextended. Putin has the luxury of not having to make those political calculations. And Russians generally very much support him because they like having a big idea of empire to support, even if they suffer economically.

  • 10:37:17

    GJELTENYeah. Julia Ioffe, she's from Politico magazine and Huffington Post. We're going to take a short break here now. Remember our phone number is 1-800-433-8850. We're going to go to the phones after the break. I have an email here from Jim who says, it's time to take out Assad directly via a cruise missile into his palace. Do you agree with that? Or what do you think, if anything, the United States should do in Syria? Stay tuned.

  • 10:40:01

    GJELTENWelcome back. I'm Tom Gjelten from NPR. I'm sitting in for Diane Rehm today on the Diane Rehm Show and we're talking about the situation in Syria and specifically the situation in Aleppo. With my guests, here in the studio, Paul Pillar from The Center for Security Studies at Georgetown University and a former CIA officer for the Near East in South Asia. And Julia Ioffe, who is a contributing writer at Politico Magazine, also at Huffington Post and Foreign Policy.

  • 10:40:29

    GJELTENAnd from a studio at Yale University in New Haven, Connecticut, Ambassador Robert Ford. Senior Fellow at the Middle East Institute and currently visiting fellow at Yale University's Jackson Institute. And remember, you can -- we're going to go to calls, phones in just a minute. But first, Ambassador Ford, so you left in 2014 and anytime a senior US diplomat resigns from the Foreign Service, there's often a story behind it. We're going to ask you about that.

  • 10:41:00

    GJELTENYou know, some people are saying this is Obama's Sarajevo. And there were a lot of Foreign Service officers that left in protest over US inaction in Bosnia. How do you see the situation in Syria right now and did it have any factor -- did the failure, let's say, of the US to do more in Syria, factor into your decision to leave the Foreign Service?

  • 10:41:27

    FORDIt's not a secret that there's a lot of unhappiness inside the Department of State about the American policy on the Syrian Civil War. You will recall, I think it was in June last summer, 51 American diplomats signed a message through a descent channel inside the Department of State to Secretary Kerry, urging that the United States take a more forceful stand on the -- the Syrian conflict in order to get to a political negotiation that everybody wants. I myself decided in 2014 that I was not going to be able to defend the American policy on Syria any longer in public.

  • 10:42:11

    FORDI didn't feel my personal integrity would allow me to do that any longer, and therefore, it was time for me to leave the Department of State.

  • 10:42:19

    GJELTENAnd what did you think then should have been done and now, two years later, what should be done now?

  • 10:42:27

    FORDThings are a lot harder now in 2016 than they were in 2013 or 2014. I guess, right now, what, what the United States public needs to decide and the United States government needs to decide is whether or not getting involved in Syria in a more serious way is worth it. If we don't, what that means is that there will continue to be an extremist base of operations in Syria as far out as the eye can see. There will be more refugees, including coming to the United States.

  • 10:43:01

    FORDAnd there will be no reconstruction in Syria, which means there'll probably be more refugees over the medium and longer term. So, on the other hand, there's no risk free way to get to the political negotiation and settle the crisis. Using military force has its downsides, some big ones. Arming the opposition to try to put more pressure on the Syrian government and the Russians to get to a negotiation is not easy. I personally think it's a little better than leading first with direct military operations.

  • 10:43:38

    FORDBut it too has its downsides. There is no quick fix, there is no for sure solution, and there is no policy option that does not have downsides now.

  • 10:43:50

    GJELTENWell, Paul Pillar had a similarly pessimistic viewpoint of our options in Syria a little earlier. Let's go now to John who's on the line from Arlington, Virginia. John, welcome to "The Diane Rehm Show." Thanks for calling.

  • 10:44:03

    JOHNThank you. A quick couple observations, just to set it out a little bit. One, the Russian relationship with Syria goes back to the 50s. It isn't, you know, 20 or 30 years. It goes back -- they were selling weapons, the Iranian relationship goes back to the Iran/Iraq War in the early '80s. It's kind of like the Pakistan/China relationship. It's a long term, and it's important. Secondly, the -- we can't just put on a no fly zone like we did in Iraq or Libya. The Russians truly felt double crossed in Libya.

  • 10:44:39

    JOHNAnd Syria's been their friend, and if we don't recognize Russian core interests, or Ukraine's one, Syria's another, we are going to get ourselves in a lot of trouble. Dropping a couple bombs on runways, stuff like that, isn't going to work. I think we should think a little outside the box right now, diplomatically. And one way would be to have a total ceasefire. And unfortunately, that would include ISIS and a bunch of other people but that way, you wouldn't get this problem we had this last time where forces got mixed up.

  • 10:45:11

    JOHNAnd the Russians took advantage of it. Have a total ceasefire, maybe have the UN send in some observers to all sides to see that things are not being done politically really nasty stuff. But do something like that. Include everybody. If you don't, you're not going to really get a solution. You're not going to get a ceasefire and it's just going to go on until somebody gives up.

  • 10:45:36

    GJELTENOkay, let's get some reaction to that. First of all, you made a couple of points, John. And Julia, his first point was that the United States and other governments should recognize Russia's interests here. And what's your reaction to that?

  • 10:45:49

    IOFFEWell, I think to some extent we are. That's in part why we're not getting more involved, especially after the Russian entrée into this conflict a year ago. But another Russian interest in this we didn't get to this before the break, is making regime change look as unattractive as possible to America and the West. And finally, and...

  • 10:46:11

    GJELTENPointing out, pointing out the risks of going down that road.

  • 10:46:14

    IOFFERight. Well, I mean, you heard this in Vladimir Putin's speech last year at the UN General Assembly, where he said you thought you were going to bring democracy to Iraq, to Libya. You got rid of these dictators and have you finally looked at yourselves and asked yourselves, what have we done, was what he said. And in part, this is a self-serving message on his part. He is very afraid of regime change encroaching into the nearer broad in Russia and Ukraine and Georgia. In Kyrgyzstan.

  • 10:46:47

    IOFFEThese color -- so-called color revolutions that he saw as very much bankrolled and supported by the US government and the CIA. And I think he wants to show that these are -- and, in part, he has a point, that these are very complex societies and that the American dream of well, just get rid of the strong man, and the people will immediately create a western style democracy is just unrealistic. So, be careful when you just lop off the head of a state. You might get this kind of chaos and it's to make it look as unappetizing and complicated and messy and bloody as possible.

  • 10:47:21

    GJELTENPaul, John suggested that the final solution might well involve some kind of partition. This seems to be a very popular solution that people come up with in the midst of civil wars. We heard that in Bosnia. We heard that in Iraq. But this is so much more complicated. Is there any kind of partition that would actually end the fighting in Syria?

  • 10:47:41

    PILLARWell, it's much more plausible than the idea that, you know, a military solution, and this is the way I was using the term earlier, means somebody wins totally. It means Assad makes good on his promise to regain every inch of Syrian territory. He's not going to be able to do that. I mean, at a minimum, the Kurdish militia in the north are not going to go away. And then we haven't even talked yet about when ISIS is subdued, when Raqqah is recaptured, who exactly does the recapturing?

  • 10:48:07

    GJELTENYeah.

  • 10:48:08

    PILLARWho takes over that territory? I think, John, I agree almost with everything that he said in his call. With regard to a total ceasefire, I think there's a very important point here. One of the deficiencies of what Lavrov and Kerry negotiated and which broke down was it was a purely US/Russian sort of thing. And I think to have any kind of ceasefire that's going to really hold, you do have to have observers. I think Ambassador Ford has made that point elsewhere, as well.

  • 10:48:35

    PILLARBut you also need to involve the other players, and I'm talking about the Turks, the Gulf Arabs, the Iranians, as well as the regime and the forces that we need to deal with on the ground. ISIS, that's a different issue. You know, I think we can call it a not quite total ceasefire and ISIS is still too much beyond the pale. There's simply nothing to negotiate with them, given their objectives. But beyond that, it has to be more comprehensive than just the Russian and US foreign ministers.

  • 10:49:00

    GJELTENLet's go now to Samuel who's on the line from Upper Marlboro, Maryland. Hello Samuel, you've reached the Diane Rehm Show.

  • 10:49:09

    SAMUELHi, good morning. How are you doing?

  • 10:49:10

    GJELTENI'm all right.

  • 10:49:12

    SAMUELFirst question I want to have, why don't you guys -- it's a show, and it's a Democratic show, why don't you guys have somebody with an opposing views of what you guys are talking about? It seems like everybody wants to take Assad out that's on the panel. Everybody. Why? You should have somebody that probably would defend some of the views of Russia or Assad. Second thing I want to say, the United States has no moral grounds to tell Assad not to do what he is doing when we are supporting Saudi Arabia doing the same thing in Yemen with our weapons.

  • 10:49:40

    SAMUELRussia is just doing the same thing for Assad. This is all our fault. I called this program the first month when this war started saying, we should support Assad and stop the protest. Because the protest will turn into war like it is, and we will not be able to support these people militarily to take Assad out. It's impossible. And we did it for Jordan. We did it for other countries that started their own protest and we killed it down. And make it died out. Even in Saudi Arabia, we did what we had to do to make sure there was no bloodshed.

  • 10:50:11

    SAMUELAnd kept those kings or dictators in place. Why do we want to destroy Syria so bad? And we know militarily we were not going to support these people. They're just going to keep dying.

  • 10:50:22

    GJELTENOkay. All right, Samuel. I want to correct you on one thing. We actually have -- we've had quite a little debate here around this table about whether a military solution is feasible or not. So it's not like everybody is calling for a military solution, but you did make an important point, that maybe the United States has some responsibility for this. Maybe the United States should have been on the side of Assad and you even suggested there's some hypocrisy on the part of US policy.

  • 10:50:51

    GJELTENAmbassador Ford, what would have been the costs or implication of giving more support to Bashar al-Assad from the outset of this conflict?

  • 10:51:06

    FORDI think it's important to remember. First of all, in 2011, it wasn't the United States that told Syrians to go out onto the streets and protest. Syrians did that. They had watched on their televisions as millions of Egyptians took to the streets and protested peacefully and compelled then Egyptian President Hosni Mubarak, who had been President 30 years, they compelled him to resign. And the Tunisians had done the same thing through peaceful protests in Tunisia a month before that.

  • 10:51:41

    FORDSo they all thought, and I talked to a lot of them, they all thought, well, if they took to the streets in big enough numbers peacefully, that the government in Syria would quit. When the fighting started in summer of 2011, when the government started shooting at people and literally killing dozens each day when people went out to protest. And the protesters started to shoot back, that's what set off the spiral downward into the civil war that we have now. But to suggest that the United States somehow controlled it is to completely misunderstand the dynamics of what's going on.

  • 10:52:19

    FORDNot only in Syria, but in the region, and I worry a little bit that people say, well, the United States should accept a zone of influence that the Russians have there. You know, it really doesn't matter if the Americans accepted it or not. What matters is whether or not the local people accept it. At a certain point, people in Algeria got sick of 130 years of French occupation and after a long and bloody war, they threw the French out.

  • 10:52:44

    GJELTENYeah.

  • 10:52:45

    FORDI'm not saying that's what's going to happen in Syria, but what local people think really matters. And ultimately, they are the ones that are going to decide this. Not the Americans, not the Saudis, not the Russians, for that matter.

  • 10:53:00

    GJELTENAnd Robert Ford knows what he is talking about from experience. He was the last US Ambassador in Syria. I'm Tom Gjelten. You're listening to The Diane Rehm Show. Let's go now to Mike, who is on the line. Mike, you're calling, it says here, from Washington, D.C. Welcome to the Diane Rehm Show.

  • 10:53:21

    MIKEYes, thank you very much, and also, just please accept my compliments on an excellent panel on a very important topic.

  • 10:53:29

    GJELTENThank you.

  • 10:53:29

    MIKEI just had two points to make and I wanted to also say that I'm a big fan of Paul and Julia's work over the years. I'm wondering if the United States has, to some extent, lost the capability to distinguish between what are our core, vital national security interests. In that category, I would put, for example, avoiding a nuclear confrontation with Russia. Verses things that are important, but perhaps less so, which are getting rid of Assad and that's the first part.

  • 10:54:03

    MIKEAnd then the second part is with all the talk of a no fly zone and military action of some sort, I wonder if, and this is maybe more for Julia. Mr. Putin seems to have a lot easier time making decisions, as the sole decision maker in Russia. And he also seems to have a lower threshold for risk calculus, as we saw in jets buzzing US warships and so on. So, if we were to increase the military component of our involvement in Syria, isn't there a greater risk of miscalculation, especially with somebody like Putin, who seems to be not as worried about backing down. And I'll take my answer off the air. Thank you so much.

  • 10:54:45

    GJELTENWell, thank you Mike, for some really thoughtful questions to set up our final minutes here on "The Diane Rehm Show." First to you, Paul.

  • 10:54:52

    PILLARWell, I would agree with Mike's observations, not only because of his kind comment about me, but I think his most important point was to keep in mind the core interests. You know, what are US interests, at bottom? When a situation like this, like Syria arises, we get into this habit too easily of seeing it as some kind of, you know, board game where we have to win or we have to lose on this particular field. And we forget why are we worrying about this at all?

  • 10:55:21

    PILLARIn Syria, I think US, the US has interests that are related to ISIS and the extremists about terrorism and things that could affect us in the West. The US does not have a core interest in the particular political coloration of whatever regime survives in Damascus. We can all, you know, agree that the Assad regime has been a brutal regime. There are brutal regimes all over the world that we don't try to go bumping off. So, I think, bearing that in mind and bearing in mind what Ambassador noted that ultimately, it's going to depend more on what the people in Syria think.

  • 10:55:55

    PILLARIt is so easy to lose sight of those core interests. And those core interests do not point us into regime change in Syria.

  • 10:56:00

    GJELTENFinal thought, Julia.

  • 10:56:02

    IOFFEWell, on Mike's point about Putin's decision making process, so far he has been, in Syria and in Ukraine, he has been able to make these decisions quite easily, because they've come at a pretty low cost to him. Especially in Ukraine, using this kind of asymmetrical hybrid warfare, as it's known now. It doesn't cost him all that much money. It doesn't really cost him in men. He's lost maybe a dozen people in Syria. What we saw in Ukraine is the second that the sanctions really kicked in, not just from the US but from the European Union, which is a major trading partner.

  • 10:56:38

    IOFFEAnd one of the main markets for Russian energy. The conflict in Ukraine froze, but not just because of the sanctions, but because Putin had already accomplished his goal of disqualifying Ukraine from NATO and EU membership because they had created a territorial dispute on their territory. So Putin's decision making is easy when the costs are low and when the motives are fluid. So he can -- he's happy getting out if he accomplished, you know, 50 percent of what he wanted.

  • 10:57:06

    GJELTENJulia Ioffe, she writes thoughtfully about Putin and Russia issues for a variety of publications. We also had Paul Pillar here, Center for Security Studies at Georgetown University, former CIA officer. From Yale, we heard from Ambassador Robert Ford, the last US Ambassador in Syria. And now a Senior Fellow at the Middle East Institute and a visiting fellow at Yale University's Jackson Institute. We had, at the beginning of the show, Liz Sly, Beirut Bureau Chief for the Washington Post. Thanks to all of you for coming in and sharing your thoughts.

  • 10:57:39

    PILLARThank you.

  • 10:57:40

    GJELTENAnd thanks to our listeners. I'm Tom Gjelten and this is The Diane Rehm Show.

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