A picture taken on December 19, 2016 shows Mevlut Mert Altintas, the gunman who killed Russia's Ambassador to Turkey, in an attack during a public event in Ankara.

A picture taken on December 19, 2016 shows Mevlut Mert Altintas, the gunman who killed Russia's Ambassador to Turkey, in an attack during a public event in Ankara.

“Don’t forget Aleppo, don’t forget Syria!” The gunman shouted these words after assassinating Russia’s ambassador to Turkey yesterday in Ankara. This as tens of thousands of people were being removed from besieged Aleppo. The U.N. yesterday passed a resolution to send observers to monitor the evacuation, which is still underway. Then last night, an attack on a Christmas market in Berlin renewed questions about German Chancellor Angela Merkel’s liberal policies toward refugees, many out of Syria. The latest on the conflict in Syria, its international repercussions, and the humanitarian situation on the ground.


  • Faysal Itani Resident fellow, Rafik Hariri Center for the Middle East at the Atlantic Council.
  • Robin Wright Analyst and joint fellow, U.S. Institute of Peace and Woodrow Wilson International Center; author of "Rock the Casbah: Rage and Rebellion Across the Islamic World"; contributing writer to The New Yorker
  • Ambassador Nicholas Burns Professor of diplomacy and international politics, Harvard Kennedy School of Government; Former under secretary OF state (2005-08) and former U.S. Ambassador to NATO (2001-05)
  • Christy Delafield Spokesperson, Mercy Corps


  • 10:06:53

    MS. DIANE REHMThanks for joining us. I'm Diane Rehm. Nations near and far are feeling the effects of Syria's nearly six-year-old civil war. Russia's ambassador to Turkey was assassinated yesterday by a gunman shouting about Aleppo. And after a terror attack at Berlin's Christmas market, Germany's Angela Merkel is under fire for her liberal policies toward Syrian and other refugees.

  • 10:07:24

    MS. DIANE REHMHere to talk about the latest on the fallout from Syria, as well as the humanitarian situation in Aleppo, Faysal Itani of The Atlantic Council and Robin Wright of the U.S. Institute of Peace and Woodrow Wilson International Center. On the line from Harvard University, Ambassador Nicholas Burns, former undersecretary of state and former U.S. ambassador to NATO.

  • 10:07:54

    MS. DIANE REHMWe'll welcome your comments, questions. Give us a call at 800-433-8850. Send an email to drshow@wamu.org. Follow us on Facebook or Twitter. And welcome to all of you.

  • 10:08:13

    MS. ROBIN WRIGHTIt's great to be with you on your last week.

  • 10:08:15

    REHMThank you so much.

  • 10:08:17

    MR. FAYSAL ITANII agree. We're going to miss you, Diane.

  • 10:08:19

    REHMThank you so much.

  • 10:08:21

    AMB. NICHOLAS BURNSLikewise, and thanks for having me.

  • 10:08:22

    REHMYou're all very kind. Robin Wright, let's start with the news out of Berlin. What information do we have about who was behind the attack?

  • 10:08:35

    WRIGHTWe have absolutely no information about who was responsible. Angela Merkel, the chancellor of Germany, has now said that it was a terrorist attack. We know that it is very much like what has become a pattern now, whether it was at Ohio State, the attack last month, or in July, the attack in Nice when a truck driver drove into a crowd on Bastille Day. This is the kind of terrorist attack that both ISIS and al-Qaida has encouraged among either its members or its supporters.

  • 10:09:10

    WRIGHTAnd it's given very specific instruction in its publications about what kind of truck should be used. It should be doubled-wheeled. It should be able to jump sidewalks. It encourages outdoor markets, parades, festivals. In the al-Qaida publication last month, it actually ran a picture of the Macy's Thanksgiving Day Parade. So we know this follows a pattern, but we do not know yet who is specifically responsible or whether this was a lone wolf attack.

  • 10:09:42

    REHMFaysal Itani, Angela Merkel is facing a lot of criticism over these attacks. Talk about why.

  • 10:09:54

    ITANIWell, because I think these attacks are going to be associated with her quite liberal policy on accepting immigrants, Muslim immigrants, and Syrian -- sorry, refugees rather, not immigrants. And Syrian immigrants who have been -- who are now in much of the public consciousness associated with this sort of violence against civilians and soft targets. Therefore, the politics of domestic Germany and its refugee policy become intertwined with the terrorist problem and that's where the blowback comes from.

  • 10:10:25

    REHMNick Burns, should Angela Merkel be blamed for these attacks?

  • 10:10:33

    BURNSIt's very hard to say because as Robin just mentioned, the German authorities have not been able to conclude who is responsible. They held a suspect and now think that he was not the person who conducted the attack. So that remains to be seen. And I think we've got to be very careful, we here in the United States, to let the German authorities lead here and to give them unstinting support, because we're likely to see these types of terrorist attacks continue as ISIS is under pressure in both Syria and Iraq. As Syria, itself, implodes and there's thousands of disaffected Sunnis in that country, we'll see more of that.

  • 10:11:08

    BURNSAnd, you know, we've got one government at a time here. And President Obama is the official who should be reacting. I think it was very unhelpful and really unwise for President-elect Trump to get ahead this morning in a series of tweets, which seemed to blame it, he says, on radical Islamic groups, but the Germans have not determined that. The Swiss attack was on a mosque so you presume that was not a Muslim there. These are complicated issues. We need to be reserved here in the United States before we assign blame.

  • 10:11:35


  • 10:11:36

    WRIGHTYeah, and one of the problems is, because the Islamic State is contracting, because there is this greater fear factor, we're seeing the return of a lot of the ISIS fighters. The European Union now claims that there were 5,000 Europeans who went off and joined the Islamic State or other extremist groups in Iraq and Syria and that a third of them have returned now to Europe. In Germany, alone, 820 German citizens are believed to have joined the -- either the Islamic State or the al-Nusra Front, other extremist movements.

  • 10:12:13

    WRIGHTAnd 270 of them, two have returned. So you have, first of all, the hard core who may be returning and then you have the lone wolf factor, those who may be sympathizers because they're disillusioned, marginalized and feel sympathetic and read all of the literature that's now available in multiple languages on the Internet.

  • 10:12:32

    REHMAmbassador Burns, let's turn to the killing now of the Russian ambassador yesterday. We saw such graphic images. Talk about what happened.

  • 10:12:47

    BURNSWell, it was just horrible and just tragic to see Ambassador Karlov gunned down at an art exhibit in Ankara. And I, you know, you saw a very quick reaction, Diane, from the Russian and Turkish presidents, Putin and Erdogan, who said they would continue to proceed together in counterterrorist operations. You saw, rightfully, a denunciation of the attack by the Obama administration. And so this is separate from the attack, it's believed, in Berlin. It gets to the very difficult politics of Turkey.

  • 10:13:20

    BURNSTurkey has been besieged both by Kurdish terrorism and extremism, but also by Islamic State extremism. And the Syrian conflict, and Turkey's the neighbor, the Syria conflict has metastasized into Turkey, into Iraq, into Lebanon so it just stands to reason, unfortunately, that this kind of violence is going to be repeated in the future as the Islamic State is under siege.

  • 10:13:43

    REHMFaysal, how do you see it?

  • 10:13:46

    ITANIWell, I think, you know, from the purest nature of this, it's an act of revenge of somebody who is deeply aggrieved about what's been happening in Syria. And their perception, quite rightly, I think, that the Russians are complicit in this, as is arguably, actually, the Turkish government as well, but that's a slightly more different and complicated angle. So from a standpoint of revenge, it's easy to understand. If the intention is to sort of drive a wedge between the Turkish government and the Russian government, I don't think that's happening.

  • 10:14:18

    ITANIAnd, actually, I think this is one of the more analytically interesting things to come out of this, is that the Russians have gone to great lengths to describe this as an attempt to sabotage Turkish-Russian relations and have made the point that it's not going to work. And I think the Turkish government has made some of the same noises. If we actually end up seeing a closer cooperation between these two powers, then that would be ironic and it would be in line with a trend we've seen over the past year in Syria of close Turkish and Russian cooperation and coordination.

  • 10:14:50

    ITANIHasn't always made the headlines, but it's visible on the ground right now in what you're seeing in Aleppo.

  • 10:14:54


  • 10:14:55

    WRIGHTWell, Turkey and Russia have been -- long been at odds over Syria and that only began to change gradually about year ago. Today, it's very interesting that the foreign ministers and the defense ministers of Turkey, Russia and Iran are meeting in Moscow to talk about Syria, that they're -- they have different visions for the future. Iran and Russia have wanted back the Assad regime, which has been in charge of Syria since 1970. The Turks have long backed the rebels. But as this war begins to move in the favor of the regime in Damascus, I think there is -- and the humanitarian crisis becomes such a global agony, there is a greater interest in finding some kind of common ground, whether it's on the humanitarian dimension or on a political formula.

  • 10:15:45

    REHMSo do you believe the conversation among these representatives of Russia, Iran and Turkey will be different now as a result of what's happened in Turkey, what's happened in Germany, the refugees streaming out of Syria?

  • 10:16:08

    WRIGHTI'm not sure it's going to change because of the last 24 hours. I think it's been headed in a certain direction more recently, but I think that it does offer context and show the cost to all parties of the continuing crisis, that they're not feeling it not just in the overflow of refugees across borders, but to their own top officials.

  • 10:16:30

    REHMAmbassador Burns, do you believe they will truly listen to one another?

  • 10:16:39

    BURNSWell, I think, you know, there's an axis right now, Syrian government, Russia, Iran, Hezbollah, all together, they've been fighting together on the ground. Turkey had originally hoped several years ago that the United States would be heavily involved in backing some of the Sunni rebel groups against the Assad regime. That didn't happen. The Obama administration essentially withdrew diplomatically from Syria and I think the Turks, as Robin as suggested about last autumn, decided they had to, at least, have a relationship with Russia in order to defend Turkish interests, which are to prevent Kurdish domination of the border region, to protect the ethnic Turkmen in the region and also try to prevent further Syrian refugees into Turkey itself.

  • 10:17:25

    BURNSThis leaves the United States in a very weak position in Syria. It's striking to have this meeting in Moscow of Russia and Iran and Turkey deciding the future of Syria. It's the first time in 40 years that the United States has been left out or left itself out, isolated itself diplomatically in this region.

  • 10:17:44

    REHMAmbassador Nicholas Burns, he's professor of diplomacy and international politics at the Harvard Kennedy School of Government. Short break. We are taking your calls, comments, questions. Stay with us.

  • 10:20:02

    REHMAnd welcome back, as we talk about the international implications of the six-year-old war in Syria. Robin Wright, one little girl has captured Western attention. She's been compared to Anne Frank. Why has her story resonated so?

  • 10:20:29

    WRIGHTWell, it's the miracle of social media. With the help of her mother, they tweeted what was going on in east Aleppo as they were under siege, in very simple, moving terms. And it captured the imagination of people around the world. In the same way that picture of the little boy in the ambulance, all encrusted with dust and dirt after he was pulled out of a bombing, in which his brother had been killed. It had a human face on it. And so little Bana came to represent the tragedy, the agony, the most unprecedented humanitarian crisis anywhere in the world, since World War II.

  • 10:21:09

    REHMWhat did she write?

  • 10:21:12

    WRIGHTShe wrote very simple things. She would write about where her father at one point was injured and she said, my father's been injured and I am crying. Or she would write about the latest bombardment, but in such basic ways that it resonated. You know, you had a feeling like you were there and you felt what she felt. And the wonderful thing is that she is now out. But that, of course, does not end the agony or the story of Aleppo, which is likely to haunt us for decades to come.

  • 10:21:41

    REHMAnd let's now turn directly to the humanitarian crisis coming out of Syria. Joining me on the line from Gaziantep -- that's it, Gaziantep, forgive me -- Turkey, is Christy Delafield. She's a spokesperson for Mercy Corps and is welcoming evacuees from Aleppo. Christy, thank you so much for joining us. Can you tell us, first, what you're hearing from these refugees. What have they experienced in Aleppo?

  • 10:22:28

    MS. CHRISTY DELAFIELDWell, it's a really difficult and intense series of emotions that we're hearing from people. Mercy Corps has now welcomed more than $3,000 refugees or evacuees out of the city of Aleppo into the Western countryside. And what we're hearing from them is that their experience in the city was deeply traumatic, was difficult. There hasn't been access to food for some time. People feel, I think, powerless. And while there's relief to be leaving and getting to a slightly safer location, I think there's also a deep sadness. As one of my team members told me, he himself a Syrian refugee, he said I know what it's like to leave your home. And they're sad, because this is the only home they've ever known, where they grew up.

  • 10:23:23


  • 10:23:23

    DELAFIELDAnd they're leaving most of their possessions behind.

  • 10:23:27

    REHMWhere are they going to go from here?

  • 10:23:33

    DELAFIELDThe individuals and families that we're meeting, many of them have relatives still in northern Syria. Everyone is staying in the country at this point, except for a few medical cases. And of the people that we've met, about half of them have someplace to go. And the other half are reaching out to us. And Mercy Corps and our aid agency partners are working with local officials to identify host families or to make space for them in local schools or mosques. We're bringing in mattresses and blankets.

  • 10:24:07

    REHMDo we have any idea, Christy, how many people are still trapped in Aleppo?

  • 10:24:18

    DELAFIELDIt's really unclear. Two days ago, the U.N. reported that about 50,000 people were trapped. And today, we're hearing from the Red Cross that about 25,000 have been evacuated. But as you can imagine, the prospect of doing a true census of this population in the midst of the literal frontline is very challenging.

  • 10:24:41

    REHMSo, finally, Christy, what do you want people to know about what you're seeing?

  • 10:24:52

    DELAFIELDWell, I want people to know that the people of Syria are an amazing people. That these individuals are courageously, courageously helping each other. And that there are two things that people can do to help. They can go to an aid agency like Mercy Corps, visit our website and donate. Or right now we're running a campaign -- you can learn about it also on our website, mercycorps.org -- people can tweet messages with the hashtag #dearaleppo, and some messages of support to those people who are suffering in this crisis.

  • 10:25:27

    REHMChristy Delafield is a spokesman for Mercy Corps. Thank you so much for joining us and thank you for the work you are doing, Christy.

  • 10:25:41

    DELAFIELDThank you, Diane.

  • 10:25:43

    REHMTurning to you, Faysal, what is your reaction to what we've just heard from Christy?

  • 10:25:51

    ITANIWell, on two -- I think about this on two levels. On the first level, there is a highly, a great degree of uncertainty over where these people are going to go and what will happen to them the day after. I mean, they may have some sort of stop-gap measures with people they know. But you are not safe in Syria just because you've exited a besieged area. The war moves and the regime's priorities geographically move. And then you're going to end up trapped again, whether it's in northern Aleppo or, more likely, the province of Idlib in particular, where people have been sort of thrown in over the past year, amidst all these regime victories.

  • 10:26:28

    ITANIBut the other thing that strikes me is that the scale of the humanitarian problem that we're seeing now -- in Aleppo, around Aleppo, outside Aleppo -- whereas, I imagine, 15 years ago, it would have created a slight shift in U.S. -- at least American public sentiment, if not U.S. policy. It's striking to me that these things like the dead children or Bana, et cetera, no longer move us from, oh, that's really horrible, to, well, what can we do? I think this is sort of symptomatic of a malaise and lack of confidence over the Middle East and U.S. policy.

  • 10:27:04

    ITANII do wonder, now that there's a new administration coming up -- I don't expect humanitarianism to be the animating principle -- but I do wonder whether that sense of, what can we do, might change a bit and things might be done for reasons other than humanitarian reasons, but that could have humanitarian benefits. It's just something to keep thinking about.

  • 10:27:23

    REHMYou're speaking in political terms.

  • 10:27:27

    ITANIYeah. And that's -- I'm saying, there's a matter of policy. I do sense a discourse within some of the people in the incoming administration that we are starting to talk about Syria in terms of zones of influence, dividing the country, informally or formally, between the Turkish zone of influence, a perhaps Jordanian one, an American one, and a regime access one. And of those circumstances, there might be places where refugees can go and be safe.

  • 10:27:54

    REHMAmbassador Burns, your reaction.

  • 10:27:58

    BURNSWell, I think that Faysal's right. The war is going to continue, unfortunately. We're going to see the fighting probably center in Idlib province, as Assad tries to regain further territory. That is going to mean more refugees, more deaths. And, Diane, I have to say it, we have seen the most savage and merciless, I would say barbaric bombing by the Russian Air Forces and by the Assad regime over the last several months. There's no reason to believe that that will not continue in another city, as Jabhat al-Nusra and these other rebel groups try to resist the Syrian government.

  • 10:28:32

    BURNSAnd I think that is going to be an early challenge for President Donald Trump after January 20. It was interesting to hear -- this was a very fleeting reference to hear him say that we ought to consider at least safe havens in Syria. That would imply a no-flight zone. This is enormously difficult to work out. It's filled with risk. But if you're interested -- and we all have to be -- in doing something to help the civilian population. Obviously what Mercy Corps is doing on the Turkish border is critical.

  • 10:29:01

    BURNSBut if we could set up -- the United States, Turkey, some of the other Sunni-Arab countries -- safe havens and no-flight zones, a place on the border where civilians could go, that could make a great difference. But it's filled with risk. So it's going to have to be looked at very carefully by the new administration.

  • 10:29:17

    REHMHere's an email from Alex, who says, he is a 14-year-old fan of this show. He says, I've been wondering, what are the various opposition groups' goals, mainly in Idlib province? Do they really think they can oust Assad? Or do they want something else now? Robin.

  • 10:29:43

    WRIGHTOne of the limitations for U.S. foreign policy has been the inability of the various rebel groups to come together to form effective fighting organization. They've been disorganized. They have very disparate ideologies and goals and visions of what Syria should look like. Many of them have been or have become war lords. There's a great deal of corruption among some of them. And so when the U.S. looked at what are the alternatives, there -- we tried to invest in an array of rebels and they have never proved effective in fighting what was obviously the odds always against them with, you've got Russians and Iranian Revolutionary Guards and five day, thousand Hezbollah fighters from Lebanon. So you can't blame them completely.

  • 10:30:31

    WRIGHTBut the fact is, today you have one province, Idlib, that there are still a variety of fighters. You have the largest al-Qaida franchise in the world now being a dominant player in that province. They're not necessarily people the United States wants to back. And that has complicated what the United States can do. So there aren't a great deal of options. I think the goal now, by the regime, by the Russians and by the Iranians, is to conquer as much territory as they can before January 20. So they, then, present the Assad regime as a fait accompli, that there is very little then the United States can do.

  • 10:31:13

    WRIGHTThe idea of creating no-fly zones or little areas where the rebel -- the refugees can go or displaced people can go is now an illusion. There's very little territory to do that. And the United States, particularly, doesn't want to get involved in providing air cover, so that -- to keep the Russian war planes or the Syrians from those areas. It's a much more complicated option. We might have been able to do it earlier. I still think it would have been complicated then. But now it's virtually impossible. There's not enough territory. And the fact is, the Syrians have won back a lot of the major cities now.

  • 10:31:50

    REHMFaysal, do you believe this situation constitutes a, quote, "moral" failure on the part of the West?

  • 10:32:03

    ITANIThis is a really tricky question. If you're looking at international relations and American policy and obligations as a duty to prevent harm to vulnerable people, clearly, yes. And I do think that even at the sort of lower -- at the subliminal level, unconscious level, American policymakers, including in the White House, have begun to see the U.S. role in the world as something a bit different than that. So they would not see it as a moral failing, because they're not holding American foreign policy to that standard.

  • 10:32:36

    ITANIThe other question, which is, you know very complicated and debatable, is whether or not it's just bad for American interests, what has happened. And I think that's where the discussion has moved over the past few months. And this is, I think, what the discussion will be over the coming few months. I don't think the moral element has a sort of friendly, welcoming place in American foreign policy discussions today.

  • 10:32:59

    REHMAt all?

  • 10:33:01

    ITANIIt's -- I mean, at the margins, yeah. I mean, there are many people who feel that what's happening is an outrage. And even within the administration there are people who feel it's an outrage. But they don't link that feeling to what the United States should do in any particular scenario.

  • 10:33:16

    REHMAnd you're listening to "The Diane Rehm Show." Ambassador Burns, would you like to comment?

  • 10:33:25

    BURNSI would just say, Diane, that the primary responsibility for this unbelievable human tragedy in Syria has to be traced back to President Assad and his government and their merciless treatment of their own population. It has to be traced to Russia, since its intervention 15 months ago and its continuous bombing of civilian populations in cities like Aleppo. To Iran and to Hezbollah forces on the ground. But I must say, as an American -- and I'm a deep admirer of President Obama, I think he's been a successful president -- I think it was U.S. inaction in 2012, 2013, 2014. We didn't cause this problem, but we had an opportunity and we had the power and influence to try to arrest it and we decided that the risk was too great.

  • 10:34:12

    BURNSWith deep respect, I think that was a mistake. We should have supported some of the Syrian rebel groups in a much more vigorous way than we did. And once having drawn a red line against President Assad -- this is 2013 -- we should have made him pay for his use of chemical weapons against his own civilian population. So a lot of regrets here. But I don't think we're the primary party. The primary party is Assad and the Russians and the Iranians.

  • 10:34:37


  • 10:34:38

    WRIGHTWell, look, President Obama addressed this question in his final end-of-the-year press conference. And he said it was an agonizing choice, that it was something that he had to decide, were we going to own Syria? And the Syrian conflict might have been very different in terms of how it played out and the American role if it hadn't been for Iraq. There's a lot of blame of the Obama administration and that's fair enough. But the American public simply didn't want another Middle East war. And I think that the Obama administration understood the American will. It understood the fatigue within the U.S. military after fighting wars in Iraq and Afghanistan.

  • 10:35:17

    REHMBut is fatigue -- is fatigue sufficient on moral grounds to think about aiding people who are totally under fire?

  • 10:35:33

    WRIGHTAbsolutely not. This is a tragedy, a human tragedy that I think will go down in the history books in ways like Srebrenica. You know, this is one of these cities that has been destroyed. This is a biblical city, dating back 5,000 years, where, you know, Abraham is said to have grazed his sheep and Alexander the Great created a community there, and Shakespeare mentions twice in Macbeth and Othello. So this is a loss at a lot of different levels. It's human life. It's history. It's horrendous. The question always was, what could we do? And I would love to have thought that there were rebels who were capable of fighting and investing in.

  • 10:36:19

    WRIGHTBut the fact is, I interviewed 31 commanders from Aleppo, and I came away with feeling sick to my stomach about the fact that they were all very small in terms of their goal. They were fighting each other. Every time the outside world tried to coalesce them into one effective unit, they would break up, because one war lord wanted to have greater status than the other. The coalitions would last a week, a month, whatever, and then one would break away. You find, this weekend, more fractionalization, more splintering of some of those rebel groups. And that's why they haven't been very effective.

  • 10:36:54

    WRIGHTWhen we look for alternatives, just like we did in Iraq, we haven't been very good at identifying, who could create the alternatives to whether a Saddam Hussein in Iraq or a Bashar al-Assad in Syria? It's -- this -- what makes it this unbelievable conundrum, the horrible morality and the difficult politics.

  • 10:37:15

    REHMRobin Wright, analyst and joint fellow at the U.S. Institute of Peace and the Woodrow Wilson International Center. Short break. When we come back, your calls, your email. I look forward to hearing from you.

  • 10:40:02

    REHMWelcome back as we talk about the international repercussions of the war in Syria with Faysal Itani of the Atlantic Council, Robin Wright, she is a contributing writer to the New Yorker, and joining us from Harvard, Ambassador Nicholas Burns, professor of diplomacy and international politics. He was undersecretary of state from 2005 to 2008 and former U.S. ambassador to NATO from 2001 to 2005. Here's an email from Michael in Baltimore, Maryland, who says, since President Obama failed to lead in Syria, Russia took the opportunity to lead in Syria. Jihadis will probably be justified in killing citizens of the U.S.A., too, because we could have done something, but President Obama chose to do nothing. Faysal?

  • 10:41:21

    ITANIWell I'm not sure they'd be justified in doing it, but we could understanding sitting where they are and viewing U.S. policy as they view it, which is not in a very informed way to begin with, and seeing what's been happening to their country why they would conclude that the West is an enemy of the Syrian people, so to speak, or at least parts of Syria that are with the revolution.

  • 10:41:45

    ITANII think that will happen. I think there will be that backlash. Whether or not I think it's justified is actually immaterial. It's going to happen. And the only way to stop that from happening is both go on the offense and change the circumstances in the country that would lead that sort of narrative to make sense to a certain amount of Syrians.

  • 10:42:04

    REHMLet's go to Harrison in Fayetteville, North Carolina. You're on the air.

  • 10:42:10

    HARRISONHi, thank you so much for having me.

  • 10:42:13


  • 10:42:14

    HARRISONMy question touches on what Ms. Wright, as well as the ambassador and Mr. Itani were talking about before the break. Ms. Wright was talking about how difficult it was for any of the Syrian groups to organize, and my question is really was there ever a possibility of the U.S. affecting the situation that we see now and preventing, for example, the tragedy in Aleppo, given that there didn't seem to be viable alternatives to the Assad regime and that the United States really on no level had an appetite to go to war with that region.

  • 10:42:45

    REHMIs it correct that you are an Army officer, sir?

  • 10:42:50

    HARRISONThat is correct. So I'm quite personally an intellectually tied to this issue.

  • 10:42:55

    REHMThank you so much for your service. Ambassador Burns?

  • 10:43:03

    BURNSThis is an outstanding question, and I would just say this. I think the window of opportunity for the United States was 2012 and 2013, some years ago, before the Russian entry into the war when President Obama did draw this public line twice in 2012, he challenged President Assad and said if you use chemical weapons, I'm -- you're going to have to pay for that. And Assad used chemical weapons, and we did nothing. I think that was a great diplomatic mistake. If you don't want to honor the red line, you shouldn't have drawn it in the first place, a mistake by President Obama.

  • 10:43:37

    BURNSWe could have bombed the Syrian air force on the ground in 2012 or '13. We could've taken the air force out of the war. The air force has, of course, been dropping the barrel bombs on civilians for years now. This is well before the Russian entry. We'll never know what would have then happened. I think President Obama, again whom I deeply admire and support, he talks about this, as he did last week, as either two options.

  • 10:43:58

    BURNSOne is full American commitment to own Syria and be fully involved or doing nothing. There are options in between, and I think he's constructed a false set of scenarios here. But again, this is all kind of water under the bridge right now. We have very little influence and very little inclination, very little public support. Donald Trump will be left with huge problems.

  • 10:44:19

    BURNSWhat does he do, and we have to wish him well in this, to help the Syrian people on a humanitarian basis. How do we fight ISIS effectively? How do we get engaged in diplomacy, or next secretary of state, to end the war? Because that'll be the best way to help the civilians. So this is going to be front and center for the Trump administration.

  • 10:44:36


  • 10:44:36

    ITANIYeah, on a policy basis, I absolutely agree about what awaits next. But I want to clarify something or at least chime in on it. The idea of effectiveness of rebel groups or viability of alternatives, these rebel groups were plagued with problems from the start, as Robin said. However, having said that, one year ago they were beating the Assad regime, and that was why Russia intervened and why Iran doubled down on its investment in Syria and why the tide turned militarily.

  • 10:45:05

    ITANISo it's not like the other side was a supreme military juggernaut that could not have been taken out without an enormous U.S. effort and occupation of the country, et cetera. Now whether or not there were alternatives or not, we had a policy from the beginning of the war that the alternative to the Assad regime was a political process, based on mutual consent and negotiation, called the Geneva II Accord. That's obviously been given up on. The reason that we ultimately didn't go into Syria is because changing the outcome would've meant investing amount an of energy, particularly against the Iranians, that we didn't want to invest.

  • 10:45:44

    ITANII don't think any constellation of rebel groups, frankly, would've met the requirements that would've pushed the president to say okay, it's worth that risk, and I just want to say -- I just want to put that on the record.

  • 10:45:57

    REHMAll right, and we have an email from a listener in North Carolina, saying CNN has published a story that the events happening in the world today are reminiscent of the events that led to World War I. Comments, Robin?

  • 10:46:16

    WRIGHTWell, the New York Times has a front-page story saying in fact it doesn't reflect what happened in the run-up to World War I, or it's not a parallel sequence. But it is clear that the kind of asymmetric warfare, the world instability, is -- does -- is reminiscent of earlier times. Terrorism has been with us through the ages and will be for the foreseeable future, but it is coming at a pace that is fast and furious and scary when you look at three big incidents in Berlin, in Ankara and of course in Zurich in a matter of hours yesterday and this sense that we are crossing a threshold where this is the kind of warfare we see more regularly and that they're not the crisp, front lines and a warzone over there that it plays out, whether it's in shopping malls and Christmas markets, you know, on a college campus, near a mosque, in an art gallery yesterday in Ankara that public places are vulnerable everything.

  • 10:47:21

    WRIGHTAnd that -- that is likely to be the pattern of warfare for the foreseeable future.

  • 10:47:25

    REHMDo you share that pessimism, Faysal?

  • 10:47:28

    ITANIYeah, I agree that it's not a good parallel with World War I. What I think is, I think America for the first time since the end of World War II doesn't know what role it wants to play in the world, hasn't figure it out, and the rest of the world knows that America doesn't know. And at the same time, we have the problem of terrorism, which is a real one. So I think we're sort of in a phase of disorientation and disorganization and chaos, not a phase of a knife-edge, sort of great-power rivalry, which may not be as destructive outright in immediate terms but is just confusing an risky, I think.

  • 10:48:03

    REHMNick Burns?

  • 10:48:06

    BURNSMark Twain said that history does not repeat itself, but it rhymes, and I agree with Faysal and Robin, it's too simplistic to say that somehow we're repeating World War I. But what we are seeing is the disintegration of civil order in the Lavant, in Syria, in a way in Lebanon, on the Turkish border. That's what happened 100 years ago when the Ottoman Empire collapsed. It's note exact, but we're seeing a completely destabilized political order, and I think what that means is more terrorism, unfortunately, more refugees.

  • 10:48:39

    BURNSAnd so ultimately where Donald Trump needs to go, I think, is to put the United States back in as a diplomatic actor, not so much as a military actor, to argue that there has to be some kind of political process leading to a ceasefire and the end of the war. It's going to be enormously difficult, but we've got to try that.

  • 10:48:54

    REHMTo Tom in Miami, Florida, you're on the air.

  • 10:48:58

    TOMHi Diane, I just had a statement that, you know, liberalism worldwide will be brushed aside because they're still trying to sell, you know, photos of little kids getting killed in the war. I think Russia has set the example how to defeat ISIS, and it's brutal, and it's bad, and they don't allow now Islamic people in their country, not cutoff on immigration. They've presented a winning formula, and leaders worldwide ware going to copy that formula, and then they're going to brush aside liberalism.

  • 10:49:33

    TOMAnd I don't agree that this is terrorists. I don't agree it's terrorist. It's warfare. It's...

  • 10:49:38


  • 10:49:40

    ITANILook, I don't know whether or not it's going to work. I don't think so. I think we don't really -- no one has a plan, really, for how to get rid of the ISIS problem long-term or the Islamist jihadi problem. However, insofar as the Russian campaign against is concerned, the overwhelming majority of Russian energy and regime concentration, anti-Iranian concentration, is not against ISIS. It's against the non-ISIS opposition in Syria.

  • 10:50:07

    ITANIAnd I understand why they're doing that. They're doing that because their goal is to restore Assad as a sovereign over the entirety of the country. But this is not a counterterrorism agenda. That's a geopolitical agenda. ISIS is part of the obstacles that are standing in Assad's way, but had they been the priority, they would have gone after it from day one, all out, and concentrated on building coalitions against it, not breaking everybody else.

  • 10:50:30

    REHMIf Assad is fighting to regain more and more and more of the country, do you see anything like the possibility Ambassador Burns was talking about or you were talking about, splitting up the country into various portions?

  • 10:50:55

    ITANII see the possibility, but I think that this would take a sort of regional and international power accord that would be imposed on the country as a sort of matter of fact. I don't see Assad ever willingly agreeing to this possibility. Another -- another possibility is...

  • 10:51:11

    REHMSo he'd have to be gone before that possibility could come to pass?

  • 10:51:16

    ITANINo I don't think so because if he's gone, then you're on to a different set of problems, but that particular problem has been solved. What I think is he would have to have his own turf and that Iranian interests in the area would need to be recognized, and then the rest of the country could be -- could be sort of tackled one bit at a time.

  • 10:51:34

    ITANII'm not endorsing this particular political outcome, but I do think that's the next agenda on this discussion between the United States and Russia.

  • 10:51:41

    REHMAmbassador Burns?

  • 10:51:44

    BURNSRussia is not fighting ISIS. The United States coalition is fighting ISIS. Russia has enormous problems with its own Muslim population in the North Caucuses. It's not an example for the United States at all.

  • 10:51:57


  • 10:51:58

    WRIGHTWell look, the United States is the one that made -- created a coalition that has made the biggest impact in fighting ISIS, and in the last few months ISIS has lost almost 30 percent of its territory in Syria and more than half of its territory in Iraq. The caliphate is a fraction of what it was. The Russians have almost no role in this. And so when it -- when you look at what is the means of fighting ISIS, the U.S. has a much more effectively formula. The problem is that's killing off jihadis. It doesn't deal with the bigger idea of what will work, what political solution, whether it's in Iraq or Syria, will create the sense that people believe in their governments, they feel they're represented.

  • 10:52:46

    WRIGHTAnd so the ideas really are the hardest part of dealing with this challenge.

  • 10:52:52

    REHMAnd you're listening to the Diane Rehm Show. Ambassador Burns, from what we've heard from President-elect Donald Trump, how do you expect him to move forward on these issues?

  • 10:53:11

    BURNSIt's a very -- it's very difficult to know, Diane, because he said very little about Syria during the campaign. He has had that one reference just in the last week to whether or not we should consider safe havens. A lot will depend on his team. His new secretary of defense, General Mattis, is a very deeply respected figure who knows the Middle East, he's a former CENTCOM commander.

  • 10:53:29

    BURNSHis new secretary of state, on the other hand, Rex Tillerson, if he is confirmed, he doesn't have that kind of background, and the new national security advisor, General Flynn, does have a deep background in counterterrorism. I think they're going to focus what they've said on the battle against the Islamic State, but as Robin just suggested, there are other issues here.

  • 10:53:50

    BURNSIt can't just be about that. That's a primary focus, but you're going to have to think about how we weigh in diplomatically with the Russians, with the Iranians, with the Syrian government, eventually, to try to end this fight. I think Syria, this whole complex of issues is going to hit the administration hard early. They're going to have to focus on it.

  • 10:54:08

    REHMAll right, so what do you expect?

  • 10:54:11

    ITANINo, I agree. I think -- I don't know -- I can't really, with any confidence, say what they're going to do. I do detect a strain of sort of Realpolitik that runs through a lot of the members of the Cabinet that have been assigned or nominated. What that translates into in Syria, I do see there's going to be a tendency for more cooperation with the Russians.

  • 10:54:33

    ITANIHow they square this exactly with their animosity towards Iran, I don't think they've figured that out yet. But it'll be very interesting to see -- to see which side they come down on. They could end up concluding that, you know, what Russia, Iran, they're all a problem, and we have to do our own thing, which brings us back to square one. Or they could end up building a very loose coalition of our NATO ally, Turkey, Russia, the Jordanians, the Israelis and coming up with a sort of patchwork solution to the country.

  • 10:55:01

    REHMBut how firmly do you think Donald Trump believes in NATO?

  • 10:55:05

    ITANII don't think it's so much a NATO issue for him as it is a question of our strategic allies in the region. I think he does think in those terms, in terms of our partners, in terms of regional counterterrorism allies and participants. NATO as an ideological idea I don't think is the issue, but I think we're going to be pushed back into the sort of classical power politics, whereas with the current presidency, we did see some skepticism, if not outright suspicion or contempt, from the White House towards our old allies in the region. I don't think that will apply as much.

  • 10:55:44


  • 10:55:45

    WRIGHTThe thing that scares me the most is that not one of the Cabinet appointments, has had any experience in making policy. The military generals carried out policy, Rex Tillerson as secretary of state spent his entire life -- he started out as a production engineer, he's never made government policy, and in fact sometimes his corporate policies challenged government policies.

  • 10:56:07

    WRIGHTAnd the problem with Donald Trump...

  • 10:56:09

    REHMBut isn't that absolutely what Donald Trump wanted, something brand new?

  • 10:56:16

    WRIGHTI think he wanted something brand new. What scares me a little bit is that policy takes a long time to make. A new administration comes in, does a policy review, and then it takes sometimes up to six months before it comes up with what it wants to do in kind of broad-brush strokes. My bigger fear is that Donald Trump sees things in black and white, and as Nick Burns will tell you, diplomacy is about gray. It's about compromise. It's about nuances. And it's brokering the different interests so that you carve out some area of common good, even if it's not a perfect solution.

  • 10:56:45

    WRIGHTAnd that's the danger of what lies ahead.

  • 10:56:48

    REHMRobin Wright of the Woodrow Wilson International Center, contributing writer to The New Yorker, Faysal Itani of the Atlantic Council and Ambassador Nicholas Burns of Harvard Kennedy, thank you all so very much.

  • 10:57:08

    WRIGHTThank you, Diane, for all you've done for all of us.

  • 10:57:09

    ITANIThank you.

  • 10:57:11

    REHMOh thank you so much.

  • 10:57:12

    BURNSYou're a great public servant, Diane, thank you.

  • 10:57:13

    REHMThank you very, very much. And thanks for listening, all. I'm Diane Rehm.

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