The Obama administration is stepping up support for rebels in Syria’s civil war. A panel joins Diane to discuss U.S. leverage in Syria and America’s role in the Middle East.

Guests

  • Kim Ghattas State Department correspondent for the BBC and author of "The Secretary: A Journey with Hillary Clinton From Beirut to the Heart of American Power"
  • Dennis Ross counselor at the Washington Institute for Near East Policy, former Middle East special coordinator, former special assistant to the president and National Security Council senior director for the central region.
  • Robin Wright journalist, joint fellow at the U.S. Institute of Peace and the Woodrow Wilson International Center, and author of "Rock the Casbah: Rage and Rebellion Across the Islamic World."

Transcript

  • 11:06:57

    MS. DIANE REHMThanks for joining us. I'm Diane Rehm. Syrian President Assad says his forces have defeated his opponents. His remarks came a day after rebel fighters announced they captured a key city and its governor. Secretary of State John Kerry says nearly all weapons supplied by American allies are going to moderates not extremists.

  • 11:07:23

    MS. DIANE REHMJoining me to talk about the conflict in Syria, BBC's State Department correspondent, Kim Ghattas. Ambassador Dennis Ross of the Washington Institute for Near East Policy and journalist Robin Wright of the U.S. Institute of Peace and the Woodrow Wilson International Center. Do join us, 800-433-8850, send us an email to drshow@wamu.org. Follow us on Facebook or send us a tweet. Good morning to all of you.

  • 11:08:01

    MR. DENNIS ROSSGood morning.

  • 11:08:01

    MS. KIM GHATTASGood morning.

  • 11:08:02

    MS. ROBIN WRIGHTGood morning.

  • 11:08:03

    REHMDennis Ross, how much of faith can we put into that statement by Bashar al Assad that that key city I spoke of, Raqa, has in fact been taken over and its governor arrested?

  • 11:08:23

    ROSSWell, I put very little faith in almost anything that Bashar Assad says these days. So I would take anything that he says with a huge grain of salt. This is a conflict that is not only ongoing for a long time but I think we're seeing a lot of moves happen on the ground. Sometimes just because the opposition or the rebels will take over a place doesn't mean they will necessarily be able to hold the place.

  • 11:08:44

    ROSSSo there can be, I think, movement back and forth but we should take these statements with a grain of salt, number one. Number two, we should see there is a general direction where Assad is losing more and more control over the country. In fact, has less and less control over the country.

  • 11:09:00

    REHMRobin Wright?

  • 11:09:00

    WRIGHTThe problem for the rebels is they often hold a piece of property at night and then the government comes back and bombs them during the day or shells them and they then are forced to move out of neighborhoods. So you see a lot of territory go back and forth.

  • 11:09:15

    WRIGHTDennis is right in identifying the general trend but the importance of Raqa was the fact that this would've been the first city that they actually held completely and they don't hold any city in Syria, even though they've made inroads in strategic places like Aleppo, which is the commercial center and the equivalent of New York of Syria.

  • 11:09:37

    WRIGHTThey've managed to make potshots in suburbs of Damascus, car bombs have gone off at government installations in the capital but they haven't made enough progress to actually threaten the centers of power, get the civil servants or the military to say the tide is turning and we have to, you know, either sit on the fence, push away from or defect from the regime.

  • 11:09:59

    WRIGHTSo we haven't reached that strategic turning point and Raqa was an important development but they have to hold it and actually begin to govern it or offer an alternative before we can take it really seriously.

  • 11:10:11

    REHMKim Ghattas?

  • 11:10:13

    GHATTASWell, I mean, I think what we're seeing playing out on the ground in Syria shows that it's a very uneven battle, of course, and it has been for the last two years starting out when demonstrators took to the streets and tried to keep this as a peaceful uprising against the president of Syria. And what we're seeing over the course of the last two years is turning, this turning into a government fighting almost a guerrilla warfare on the ground.

  • 11:10:40

    GHATTASYou know, they're fighting rebels who are putting together whatever they can when it comes to arms, who are not as well equipped as a traditional army. So it becomes very reminiscent, for example, to me having grown up in Lebanon during the civil war, to the sort of fighting that we saw in Beirut where people fought for control over territory and as Robin said, won it overnight, lost it in the morning.

  • 11:11:04

    GHATTASBut I guess that that's why the rebels who are fighting President Assad have been calling for the United States to help them get more and better arms, for direct arms from the United States because they say that it would help tip the balance but we're not there yet.

  • 11:11:20

    REHMKim Ghattas, she's State Department correspondent for the BBC. She's author of a new book titled "The Secretary: A Journey with Hilary Clinton from Beirut to the Heart of American Power." If you'd like to join us, call us, 800-433-8850. We have a report on Twitter that the Arab foreign ministers have formally granted Syrian opposition collation countries an Arab League seat. How significant is that, Dennis Ross?

  • 11:12:06

    ROSSWell, I do think it's a symbolic development that demonstrates that the Arab League would be sending a message that they really, they no longer recognize the Assad regime and they're prepared to recognize an alternative to it. Robin made the point earlier, and I would describe it this way, that they haven't had the tipping point.

  • 11:12:24

    ROSSWhere those who sit on the fence within Syria decide that all right it's time to give up on Assad, it's time to somehow align with the opposition. Part of that is they're not quite sure themselves exactly who the opposition is and what the opposition's going to do. But the more you begin to create political symbols of legitimacy for the opposition the more you begin to give the kind of weight that creates a sense of inevitability to where this will eventually end.

  • 11:12:49

    REHMAnd we had a report this morning from NPR's Debra Amos that leaders of the political and military operation are going to make their first trip to Washington next week and the UN has reported that more than a million people have now fled the country. That coming to Washington for White House meetings, I would think, is rather significant, Robin?

  • 11:13:24

    WRIGHTIt's significant in that the United States has conferred its legitimacy with the opposition. The danger is that the United States also did that with the Iraqi National Congress, which turned out not to be representative of the Iraqi people at all and its leadership, some went on to be participants in the transition.

  • 11:13:45

    WRIGHTBut turned out not to have whether it was the political effectiveness or the military unity required. And the great, the greater danger is that the current military and political bodies are even more fractious than the Iraqis were. There are estimates that there are anywhere from 200 to 2,000 branches of the militias operating in Syria.

  • 11:14:13

    WRIGHTI was in Libya in November and there were 300 militias developed in only eight months in a country with only 6.5 million people. Syria has 21 million people and even more diversity in terms of whether its sectarian beliefs or ethnic identity and that plays out politically to one of the great problems, is that over the past two years you haven't had a united collation, political collation that was effective, that really reflected the inside of the country.

  • 11:14:43

    WRIGHTMost of them were exiles, now they've expanded that a little bit but there are still serious questions about whether the new political collation that has been formed really does reflect what's happening inside the country.

  • 11:14:55

    REHMKim.

  • 11:14:56

    GHATTASFor those who are living in Syria at the moment in the middle of this terrible, violent conflict that has killed, as far as we know, some 70,000 people, whatever the faults of the opposition in not uniting, they fault the United States and the international community more for not helping them. Because there is a tendency in the region to overlook some of your own failings and wonder why the outside world isn't helping you more and better.

  • 11:15:27

    GHATTASAnd there are differences in the perceptions of what the help should look like. You know, I grew up in Beirut looking towards the West because of where I was born because of where I grew up because I had a Dutch mother and I thought I knew what was best for my country. And when the United States said we stand by your country I had a certain vision of what that meant.

  • 11:15:49

    GHATTASBut I was young and I didn't realize that people who were on the other side of the divide listened to what the U.S. said about being by the side of Lebanon and they had a very different vision of what that meant and they may not have wanted the U.S. to be on their side.

  • 11:16:03

    GHATTASI think that we're seeing a progression in the way the administration is coming to terms with what it needs to or what it believes it is comfortable doing when it comes to helping the Syrians. But I think there will always be people in Syria who feel it's not enough or that it's too much and that the U.S. should stay away.

  • 11:16:22

    REHMDennis.

  • 11:16:24

    ROSSYou know, I think Kim actually makes a very important point in terms of what we should be focusing on. It's simple enough to talk about the failings of the opposition but what we're seeing should be a blight on the international conscience. We're talking about a million refugees and that probably understates it. There are more than 2 million who are displaced internally and the conditions that they're living under are frightful.

  • 11:16:50

    ROSSYou have at least 70,000 dead, that's the latest figure. It's probably higher than that. if you're looking at a total population, I think it's a little higher than 21 million, but if you're looking at a total population in the 20 millions you're talking about more than 10 percent of the whole population, actually you know, about 15 to 20 percent of the whole population that one way or the other is in a disastrous shape.

  • 11:17:10

    ROSSSo that has to be part of the focal point and that, I think, helps to explain what Kim was also suggesting, there is an evolution that's taking place, I think, with the administration's policy because it's clear what we have been doing clearly is not enough, more has to be done. It's not to say this is going to be a simple problem. It's not to say that there isn't a risk with action, there is a risk with action.

  • 11:17:31

    ROSSBut we're looking at what are the risks of inaction that are catastrophic from a human standpoint and I would even say from a regional standpoint. Bear in mind, I'd like to say the Las Vegas rules don't apply in Syria, meaning what takes place in Syria is not going to stay in Syria. And we're seeing its impact with Iraq, with Lebanon, in Jordan, potentially in Turkey and via Israel.

  • 11:17:53

    REHMAnd I guess what bothers the White House so much and all of us is not knowing exactly who these people are and which groups are really going to have the impact needed.

  • 11:18:12

    WRIGHTYes, you get down to this core issue of morality and the fact we're all haunted by the cost to the Syrian people, unbelievable, versus reality. And those are very different factors and I think for now the administration is trying to kind of balance somewhere between the two.

  • 11:18:32

    REHMRobin Wright, she is a journalist, the author of another book. It's called "Rock the Casbah: Rage and Rebellion Across the Islamic World." Short break.

  • 11:20:06

    REHMAnd welcome back as we talk about the ongoing struggle in Syria. We talked in the first segment about a key city that Syrian rebels took near total control of Raqqa the northern city strategically located on the Euphrates River near the Turkish border. And now the President Assad's statue of his father was toppled and defaced. But yesterday Assad told a Lebanese newspaper, his regime has defeated the conspiracy against Syria. Kim Ghattas.

  • 11:21:01

    GHATTASThe conspiracy and the plot. There is always a plot that everybody loves to talk about in the Middle East. And I understand where that's coming from. I grew up wondering about those plans that were hatched in Washington. And having reported on the other side of the story from this perspective here at the State Department, I have a new appreciation for how difficult it actually is for American officials to get anything done on the ground. That's not to indicate that America is powerless at all, but it is much more difficult than we believe -- or that we want to believe in the United States.

  • 11:21:37

    GHATTASBut I think that going back to the point that Robin was making about the opposition, how divided they are, I think it's important to remember where President Assad comes from and how long his family has been in power and how good they are at maintaining their grip on power and outwitting everybody repeatedly again and again. And using the rule of the -- you know, the approach of divide and rule.

  • 11:22:05

    GHATTASI mean, part of the problem inside Syria at the moment is that there are a lot of people who are potential leaders, who are secular, who have a vision for the country, who have been detailed or killed in the fighting. And there is method to that madness unfortunately. And people have seen that happen in Lebanon during Syria's invasion of Lebanon and during Syria's occupation of Lebanon.

  • 11:22:32

    GHATTASSo, you know, I remember having conversations with people in Washington back in July, 2011, so just six months into the uprising in Syria, where I said, you know, I see a scenario where it could look like Lebanon. President Assad will burn down the country before he gives it up. And people said, no that's insane. What are you talking about. That's sandbox logic. But it is a certain logic and it's important to understand, you know, whether you agree with President Assad or not where he's coming from...

  • 11:23:04

    REHMThe hold on power.

  • 11:23:06

    GHATTASThe hold on power. You have to understand that perspective. And that's kind of what, you know, John Kerry is referring to when he says you have to find a way to change his calculations. It's easier said than done but there is a reference there to tipping the military balance on the ground and signaling to President Assad that he is on the losing end, again not advocating one way or another but this is, you know, the debate that is being held in Washington. How do you do that?

  • 11:23:31

    REHMIs that possible, Dennis?

  • 11:23:35

    ROSSI think it was possible earlier. Whether it remains possible, I don't know. I would say this. President Obama identified a redline which was if chemical weapons were used. What that implies, there's a point at which we would actively intervene.

  • 11:23:51

    REHM...militarily.

  • 11:23:52

    ROSSWell, that's what it implies.

  • 11:23:53

    REHMYeah.

  • 11:23:53

    ROSSIt's not explicit but it certainly implies that. The one thing I would like to see us do is position ourselves -- and I think we are beginning to move in that direction -- so that rather than being driven to act we are positioning ourselves in advance of that to try to affect the balance of forces in the opposition, to try to affect the landscape there. We're dealing right now with a perception that is twofold. One, most of the Syrian public I think blames us. Whether it's fair or not is beside the point.

  • 11:24:26

    REHMBlames us for...

  • 11:24:28

    ROSS...for being inactive, for sitting on the sidelines. Here again you have the perception of American power that oftentimes is greater than the reality of American power. And therefore there's a sense that somehow we could do something about this and we've chosen not to. That's one side of this. The other side of this is, again, if only the most extreme elements, the al-Nusra Front and others are the ones that are getting the weapons and the money, then the balance of forces in the opposition is going to favor them.

  • 11:24:55

    ROSSAnd what you see, certainly from Secretary Kerry's trip, is a very deliberate effort to send a message that we're going to try to take steps to strengthen the more moderate elements of the opposition.

  • 11:25:05

    REHMRobin.

  • 11:25:06

    WRIGHTLook, the great problem or conundrum of Syria is that it follows Iraq and the sense that the old pottery barn rule, that if you break it you have to fix it. And United States never calculated when it went in to Iraq that it would be there basically a decade. And that it would leave with, whether it was higher unemployment, greater crime, greater instability, greater sectarian strife and so forth.

  • 11:25:32

    WRIGHTAnd there's a -- because Syria is the strategic center of the Middle East with huge influence on what happens to many of our neighbors -- many of its neighbors and all of our allies, that if you get involved in trying to put the opposition in power, then you have to go in afterwards and bear responsibility for creating an alternative. And this is where it's quite interesting. The Russian objection to doing more on Syria is in part because no one's defined what's next.

  • 11:26:03

    WRIGHTAnd in some ways that's a legitimate concern because no one has really described what's next. You've had the opposition so divided that they haven't come up with kind of rules of the game or a basis of governance. They haven't figured out how to create a shadow government in the way that even the Iraqi national congress did. And so there's this conundrum of -- for everyone, not just the United States but the Europeans and the other major powers who make decisions at the United Nations, what will work in bringing down Assad.

  • 11:26:33

    WRIGHTI think no one believes that he's going to survive now, that -- politically if not physically. And the challenge becomes what's next. And no one's done a very good job about that. And the United States has proven both in Iraq and Afghanistan that it has problems in nation building.

  • 11:26:50

    REHMNow, Kim Ghattas, President Assad gave one of his very first interviews to the Sunday Times of London. And he says, if anyone wants to genuinely help Syria and help cessation of violence in our country, he can do only one thing. He can go to Turkey and sit with Erdogan and tell him to stop smuggling terrorists into Syria, stop sending armaments, stop providing logistical support. He can go to Saudi Arabia and Qatar, tell them to stop financing terrorists in Syria. Why did he give that kind of interview and what is he telling the world in that interview?

  • 11:27:51

    GHATTASTwo things. He gave that interview because from where he's standing, he's the President of Syria. He believes that he was chosen by the people to represent them. He still believes that clearly. And there is division within Syria, as we've heard from Dennis. You know, there isn't -- you know, we don't know exactly how many people stand in support of him or how many people don't. There is clearly a lot of violence. There's clearly a lot of division but you can't say, you know, by now 70 percent of the population wants Assad out. We simply don't know.

  • 11:28:23

    GHATTASSo from his point of view he still represents the Syrian people and he sees the Turks and the Saudis interfering and fueling an insurrection against what he sees as a legitimate rule. The other reason why President Assad speaks in those terms is because we've often heard Syrian officials warn that while they can help bring stability to the region, they can also help ignite chaos. It's sort of the firefighter arsonist approach to the way they rule over Syria. And we've seen that before and we heard one of President Assad's relatives at the very beginning of the uprising say, if Syria goes down it will be hell all over the region. So it's a veiled warning.

  • 11:29:08

    REHMHe had even harsher words for Britain, Dennis Ross. What did he have to say?

  • 11:29:18

    ROSSWell look, he's held that the British and the United States are frequently blamed for everything in the region. It goes back a century. So A. this is not new. I'd like to actually again focus on something. The longer this conflict goes on, we've seen the situation get dramatically worse. And it's not just getting dramatically worse within Syria, it's getting dramatically worse around Syria. The estimate right now is that there are 400,000 refugees within Jordan. This is something that Jordan can't possibly handle.

  • 11:29:50

    ROSSThe numbers in Lebanon may be higher because nobody actually knows. And what this will do within Lebanon is separate what is a very delicate balance to begin with. We're seeing now what's happening across the border in Iraq. You actually had Syrian soldiers killed in Iraq. You have Al-Qaida in Ira going into Syria. You have radical Shiite groups from Iraq going into Syria. This is a border that's going back and forth.

  • 11:30:17

    ROSSMy point is that we can sit here and we can talk about how difficult the situation is to effect, which is a fact but the longer it takes to try to do something to effect it, not only does the human catastrophe become dramatically worse, but we're seeing every day that it destabilizes the region.

  • 11:30:34

    REHMRobin, what about the support Assad is getting from Russia, from Iran, from Hezbollah? How is that all affecting how he's thinking and how he continues to move?

  • 11:30:51

    WRIGHTWell, Syria has done something quite interesting in terms of the International Community. You're seeing two different axis form. You have Russia, Iran, China in the background, Hezbollah, Lebanon Shiites, the region Shiites backing the Assad government. And then you have kind of everybody else, the West, Europeans being active with the opposition. And the danger is that the repercussions are not only for the region but it also have to do with what happens next on Iran and what happens kind of in policy about the outlook of the future of the Middle East at a pivotal turning point.

  • 11:31:29

    WRIGHTRussia is in a kind of twilight in terms of its policy because at first it very firmly stood with Assad. And then it began to talk about, well we want a political transition. And now it's even begun evacuating some of its nationals from Damascus and wider Syria. So it has clearly begun to see the writing on the wall as well. It is reportedly continuing to provide some kind of military equipment, but we think not to the degree it was before.

  • 11:32:04

    WRIGHTThe real key ally here is in Tehran. But in terms of equipment, training, strategy, remember the Iranians put down their own green movement protests that lasted some eight months after a contested presidential election in 2009. And it was that kind of strategy that the Syrians were using to try to put down the initial protests on the streets, not successfully of course.

  • 11:32:31

    WRIGHTBut the interesting thing is that there are reports now that the Iranians are actually talking to others, that they may understand that Assad long term can't survive. They may still be betting that they would like him to but looking at what are the options as well, as the Iranians are very good at doing.

  • 11:32:46

    REHMRobin Wright. She is a joint fellow at the U.S. Institute of Peace and the Woodrow Wilson International Center. And you're listening to "The Diane Rehm Show." Kim, what can we expect from President Obama's visit to Israel, the Palestinian Territories and Jordan in two weeks? How could that affect the situation in Syria?

  • 11:33:20

    GHATTASI've spoken to a lot of people in Washington and in the region who feel that on one level -- because there are several aspects to the visit -- on one level President Obama's visit to Israel is more of a PR visit. There isn't going to be necessarily -- and Dennis may know more about this -- there isn't necessarily going to be a renewed forceful reconfiguration of efforts to, you know, start a peace process. But there is definitely some talking that needs to be done with the new prime minister of Israel if he forms a coalition, Benjamin Netanyahu, that's still a little bit under doubt.

  • 11:33:57

    GHATTASHe will be talking to the Palestinians as well, President Obama, to see, you know, what they would be willing to do in terms of restarting peace efforts. And of course when you look at the bigger picture of Syria and where Israel fits in, there is of course a lot of concern about the long term security of Israel. And in Jordan, President Obama will be talking to the Jordanians about their role in helping with what's going on in Syria. We know that Jordanians are helping with training of Syrian rebels on their territory. And they're of course hosting several thousand -- several hundred thousand refugees.

  • 11:34:34

    GHATTASBut I think -- I just want to make a point about how American policy is perceived in the U.S. -- in the Arab world and what the dangers are, whatever the U.S. does, because there is unfortunately a situation where the U.S. is saying that it's damned if it does, damned if it doesn't. Whatever the U.S. does someone will be unhappy with it.

  • 11:34:54

    GHATTASBut if you look down -- one or two, three years down the line and you imagine that the situation in Syria continues to deteriorate the way it does, and that groups linked to Al-Qaida take the upper hand in the fighting, and that it becomes a threat to Israel or to U.S. national security interests, and that you suddenly have drones flying over Syria to take out a militant, the narrative that this will drive is the narrative that is always there in the Arab world, and it will be reinforced, is that the United States only gets involved to support and protect Israel and to fight Al-Qaida.

  • 11:35:32

    GHATTASAnd that is an unfortunate message that gets sent to the Arab world, whether it is accurate or not. Obviously people in the U.S. who want -- people in the Arab world who want the U.S. to be on their side don't always understand what other interests the U.S. has to protect or deal with.

  • 11:35:49

    REHMDennis.

  • 11:35:51

    ROSSIt's an interesting point and it's true that that's the narrative that is out there. Historically of course when it comes to protecting Muslims -- we did so in Bosnia, we obviously did so...

  • 11:36:02

    GHATTASBut people forget.

  • 11:36:02

    ROSS...in Kuwait -- I'm not disputing the narrative. I'm just sort of saying there's a historic reality, there's a subjective reality. And again, it's one of the reasons I would say I think -- and Kim identified this earlier -- it does appear as if there's an evolution in the administration's approach to Syria. You certainly see it in what Secretary Kerry has been saying on this trip. Every day, as the trip went forward, you saw him become a little bit more forward leaning in terms of what we're prepared to do.

  • 11:36:30

    ROSSFirst we heard we were going to provide nonlethal assistance.

  • 11:36:32

    REHMRight.

  • 11:36:32

    ROSSAnd then you heard more about how arms going to the opposition is something is something that we're not objecting to. So that is really, I think, an evolution and it -- from my own standpoint it makes sense because, as I said, if you do little, the situation gets worse anyway. So the question is, how do you reconcile both the risks of action and the risks of inaction and what's happening in the region as a whole?

  • 11:36:57

    ROSSAnd you really don't want to see Syria become a failed state. Now I don't know if we're already too far along those lines. I do say at a minimum, we need to try to affect the outcome so that it doesn't become a failed state, but we may also need to have a hedging strategy where we develop a containment approach so that what is in Syria doesn't, in fact, destabilize all the neighborhood.

  • 11:37:17

    REHMDennis Ross. He's counselor at the Washington Institute for Near East Policy, former Middle East special coordinator and former special assistant to the president and National Security senior director for the central region. Short break here. When we come back, we'll open the phones.

  • 11:40:02

    REHMAnd it's time to open the phones as we talk about the latest developments in Syria. First to Mystic, Conn. Good morning, Greg. You're on the air.

  • 11:40:17

    GREGYeah, I'd just like to make two points. First I'm highly skeptical of John Kerry's claim that the U.S. is only arming moderates. I just can't imagine that it's that simple to pick and choose who will be getting our weapons. And secondly, I'd also like to point out that, you know, we really do have to be careful about the repercussions of arming the rebels because while it may (unintelligible) the protagonists right now, if the regime is to fall, that means the probably complete annihilation of the Alawite community. I can just see just (unintelligible).

  • 11:40:57

    REHMAll right. Thanks for calling. Kim.

  • 11:40:59

    GHATTASI think the question drives precisely to the point that is, you know, the debate that is being held in Washington on a daily basis over the last two years and there are no easy answers. Is it better to arm the rebels or is it better not to arm the rebels? And that debate, I mean, it didn't start out about arming initially, but over the course of the last year it certainly became the conversation within the administration. And we've seen now that Hillary Clinton, the former Secretary of State, Leon Panetta, David Petraeus did argue in favor. But obviously I wasn't in the room, but my guess is that they didn't put a plan on the table to the president and say this is full proof, if you arm the rebels, it will work, they'll be our friends forever, we should do this.

  • 11:41:44

    GHATTASAnd the president decided to reject their advice. I don't think that's how it went. I think they said this is one of the options. This is how it could work. There are no guarantees. We've seen in the past how arming allies in Afghanistan or even today in Mali can lead to, you know, consequences that are outside of American's control. And that's why these choices are so difficult. And I do think -- I just want to make one more point, which is it's very important I think to remember the impact that statements by American officials have on the ground with raising expectations of the people who are waiting for you to help or waiting for you to leave them alone.

  • 11:42:27

    GHATTASAnd I was very struck by something that Hillary Clinton told me in one of the interviews that I did with her, where she said, you know, it'd be very easy for me to say, yeah, sure, let's go them, let's arm the rebels and let's, you know, bring down President Assad. If I don't have what it takes to implement that, to, you know, put my money where my mouth is, what's the point of letting people on the ground believe that the cavalry is coming when it isn't. And it's that terrible dilemma that I've come to appreciate it reporting from Washington.

  • 11:42:55

    REHMRobin.

  • 11:42:56

    WRIGHTWell, I think Gen. Petraeus was particularly articulate in advocating arming the rebels, but perhaps for a questionable reason. And that was, that was a way for the United States to have influence and to get to know the opposition. And the fact is we actually don't know enough about them. And when it comes to this question of arming, who are we arming, we throw out terms like moderate Arabs. And I think it's kind of an illusion to put them in these categories that are comfortable for us and our Western minds, but may not apply when it comes to the ground.

  • 11:43:33

    WRIGHTYou find many stories now coming out of Syria of young fighters who will have joined Al-Nusra Front, which the United States has now put on the terrorist list, and other Islamic groups because they are better armed, more disciplined, less corruption, about taking aid that they have resources, and they think that whatever their own personal or political views that this is a much more effective arm in fighting Assad.

  • 11:44:03

    WRIGHTAnd that when we talk about moderates, that there are some among the moderates who are not quite as clean and who may be sectarian in their own ambitions, and they are anti-Alawite, or the minority that has ruled Syria now for 43 years, and that we need to be very careful about throwing out terms, who are the good guys, who are the bad guys, who are the moderates, who are the Islamists, that it's much more complicated.

  • 11:44:35

    REHMOf course.

  • 11:44:35

    WRIGHTAnd I think that's one of the reasons the administration has been reluctant.

  • 11:44:39

    ROSSLook, there's no question that there's a terrible dilemma here. You don't have -- you can't have a kind of certainty that you'd like to have. When you make policy, you're frequently confronted with what are the least bad of the options you have. And you end up taking the least bad of the options you have. What we've seen here is from day one the situation has gotten worse and worse. You know, the fact is that this didn't have to be violent if Assad had responded to peaceful demonstrations with nonviolence, but he didn't. And over time what we've seen is the situation has gotten dramatically worse. Every day that goes by, it isn't getting better, it's getting worse.

  • 11:45:16

    ROSSSo the question is given the options you have, what can you do to try to affect the situation? I would suggest, you know, the following. I agree that we shouldn't simplify this and say, gee, we know...

  • 11:45:29

    REHMWho?

  • 11:45:30

    ROSS...one group is good and...

  • 11:45:30

    REHMYeah, right.

  • 11:45:31

    ROSS...the other is bad. But the fact is, you know, it is possible to sort of deal with some groups, see who's prepared to make commitments to us about inclusiveness, non-sectarianism. See, you know, if you provide -- you don't start by providing all the full array of arms. You create some tests. You provide smaller amounts of lethal assistance. You see how accountable they are. You see if they fall through in their commitments. And if they do, you can provide more.

  • 11:45:59

    REHMBut realistically, Dennis, isn't the U.S. doing that surreptitiously right now?

  • 11:46:08

    ROSSI think that we're doing -- we have been probably. I don't -- the short answer's I don't know. My guess is we're probably doing certain things. John Kerry suggested as much by what he's been saying publicly about arms going from others and he's even saying that maybe we can't account for every weapon, but the -- he did the use the word moderate. The moderates basically are using the arms effectively. If that's the case, if we had that kind of confidence, and you think we would be doing much more.

  • 11:46:37

    REHMAll right. To Cleveland, Ohio. Rema, you're on the air.

  • 11:46:43

    REMAYes. Hi. Thank you for taking my call. I am calling because I am -- I agree with Dennis 100 percent. The longer we sit and wait, the longer Syria is going to fall into the hand of radicals. Syrian people are not radical. Syrian people are moderate. And the Syrian people are good people. And they were looking up for us to help them. For two years we stood by, the whole world stood by and let the children and let Syria be dissolved to a dictator who ruled us for 33 years. I am so upset the whole world let Hitler again do this to his own people. And I cannot understand why when we -- when Hezbollah and Iran is fighting on the side of Assad, how can the whole world sit by and let this happen.

  • 11:47:34

    REHMRema, I can certainly hear the passion in your voice. And I gather that you have family there in homes and that family is in disarray. It's hard to hear those stories, Kim.

  • 11:47:54

    GHATTASIt's very hard. You know, I have a chapter about Syria in my book. And it was the hardest chapter that I wrote because it brought back memories of the war in Lebanon where I lived for 15 years. And I have reported on Syria extensively. And it breaks my heart as a human being, as a reporter, as an Arab woman to see what is happening there. And I have really struggled writing this book trying to understand the dilemmas that policymakers in Washington face. You know, the dilemmas that Dennis had to face in his position, the dilemmas that Secretary of State had to face when she was trying to figure out what is the way forward.

  • 11:48:33

    GHATTASIt is heartbreaking and it doesn't make it any better to understand -- it doesn't make it any easier to accept the reality, but it helps to understand what are the dilemmas that foreign policymakers in Washington are facing. And, you know, it is heartening, however, to speak to people like Hillary Clinton, other officials in Washington and realize that they are also agonizing over what is happening on the ground. I've had many emotional conversations with Mrs. Clinton about what was happening in Syria and how frustrated she was that there wasn't an easy solution, that there wasn't something that could instantly be done to fix it, to solve it.

  • 11:49:12

    GHATTASBut I just want to briefly go back to a point that Robin was making about moderates. It is a term that can be misleading. You know, remember President Assad and President Mubarak of Egypt were the moderates. They were supposed to be the good guys in the eyes of the West because they spoke English, they wore suits and ties, they were clean shaven, they had beautiful wives who spoke English. It doesn't always work like that. The world is full of gray. It's not black or white. And the moderates today in Syria may have beards and carry guns, but they may have a good heart or they may not. It's simply not possible to put people in neat boxes to fit a stereotype.

  • 11:49:50

    REHMAll right. To Little Rock, Ark. Good morning, Mazan. You're on the air.

  • 11:49:55

    MAZANHi, good morning. Good morning. Thanks for taking my call.

  • 11:49:57

    REHMSure.

  • 11:49:58

    MAZANI have a couple short comments. As for the notion that Secretary Kerry had mentioned that we need to try to change the calculations of President Assad so he can come to the table and work on a political solution. I think history provides very, very little support to this theory. Saddam Hussein never responded to political pressure in '91 and in 2003, despite hundreds of thousands of American international troops in the region. Melovich (sp?) did not respond to political approach. Gaddafi never responded to political approach. These dictators respond only to violence.

  • 11:50:41

    MAZANAnother point is to try to have influential people in the regime abandon effort. I think that we should not put much faith on that theory either because those hardcore fighters are all part of Assad family and minority Alawite. And they don't all -- they're not only fighting to keep power, but also they think that they are protecting their families from Sunni retaliation.

  • 11:51:07

    REHMDo you want to comment, Robin?

  • 11:51:09

    WRIGHTSure. I think there is a real danger that Bashar al-Assad will not respond to political pressure, in part, because he is a weak leader. He was not the designated heir. His older brother died in a car accident. He's an ophthalmologist. He was not the dynamic politico. And he also has inherited the legacy of his father. Thirty years in power, he was one of the visionaries of the region, even if you didn't agree with him, he had -- he was called the Lion of Demakis. He was widely believed to be looking for a strategic balance with Israel. He had a sense of security issues, conflict, politics and so forth.

  • 11:51:45

    WRIGHTBashar al-Assad, his son, is not effective at all in kind of getting the new Middle East, understanding the dynamics, even though he's one of the second generation leaders. There was great hope that he would be a reformer. And John Kerry, ironically, in an early meeting with him came away and said he is one of the reformers, and now is having to eat those words.

  • 11:52:06

    REHMSo how is it that Bashar al-Assad has been able to hold together this top group of leaders that continue to dominate his regime?

  • 11:52:21

    ROSSWell, I think -- look, the key is this, it's because he is the leader of an Alawite regime. The Alawites have basically controlled Syria since his father's time, and even a little before that. So it goes back to the late 1960's, 1970. They represent 12 percent of the population. And they from the beginning, and certainly he created the great sense of sectarian divide, because this was the one thing he knew he could count on. He wanted to create the impression that if he goes, they go. Had we been able earlier to find ways to separate the Alawite community from him, then this would've been something that could've been done, you know, I think everything would've evolved much more quickly.

  • 11:53:02

    REHMAnd you're listening to "The Diane Rehm Show." To Dallas, Texas. Good morning, Damien.

  • 11:53:11

    DAMIENGood morning, ma'am. I'm humbled by talking to you and your guests. And just when I was about to make Mr. Dennis Ross a write-in for Secretary of State, it seems like he's drinking the same Kool-Aid as John Kerry when he says that we need to provide weapons based on them living up to arrangements. Now, we should all know that that's not going to happen and the result is going to be -- even if it is a democracy vote, it is going to be -- it's going to be like the same thing that's going on in Gaza where we don't approve of the government so we have a problem with them.

  • 11:53:45

    REHMDennis.

  • 11:53:47

    ROSSWell, again, I sort of am looking at the alternatives. And I'm not suggesting that there's any alternative that's an easy alternative, but I come back to reality. Every day that goes by, the situation gets worse. And this has been a picture that one has seen and been able to predict for some time.

  • 11:54:01

    REHMAll right. Let's look at what could happen and a question from Mack who's in Lafayette, Ind. You're on the air.

  • 11:54:11

    MACKHi, Diane. Thanks for taking my call.

  • 11:54:13

    REHMCertainly.

  • 11:54:14

    MACKFirst, you should see my face. I was crying when Rema called and she was having that passion in her voice because I understand. Those people who have beards in Syria right now probably have beards because they do not have money to buy razors to shave, and just to put it in a funny way. I'm sorry. My question is, what will happen if Assad wins? You know, we know from before that they took revenge against everyone who stood against them. What will happen if Assad ones? Is he going to take revenge against everybody in Syria? And the other question is, what if the opposition wins? How are they going to make peace with the rest of the region and probably make Syria be kind of democracy?

  • 11:55:06

    REHMAll right. Thanks for your call. Kim.

  • 11:55:10

    GHATTASThere are no easy answers in either scenario. I'll start with if the opposition wins, I think it will be very messy. I think there's no guarantee that even if they win with some support from the West and the international community that they will necessarily be friendly to the West. That is part of the concern here in the United States. They've seen that in Afghanistan. They've seen it in Iraq. It's not because you arm and back a group that they become your best friends. And that's one of the concerns when a decision has to be made about arming the rebels or not.

  • 11:55:40

    GHATTASI like Mack's point about the rebels in Syria. They're often, you know, not clean shaven, they have beards, because they're busy fighting, they don't have the money to get razors, they don't have time to shave. You know, I have lots of friends in Lebanon who have beards. They're just as moderate and, you know, open minded as the next person. If President Assad wins, I don't know how you would define the win. I mean, he could certainly hold on to power for still quite a long time because they are experts at that, but I don't know how you would define winning.

  • 11:56:12

    GHATTASBut it would certainly be -- if he gains the military upper hand decisively somehow, I think he will be very isolated politically, and I think that there could be a lot of retribution. But it is already ongoing. He is already jailing and killing his opponents in the country.

  • 11:56:28

    REHMRobin.

  • 11:56:28

    WRIGHTThe opposition is not one opposition. That's one of the problems. Assad can't win politically. The country has really crossed a threshold. There's no going back to the Assad era.

  • 11:56:41

    ROSSHe is already exacting his revenge on the Syrian people even now. The only thing he can do is try to hold onto a narrow enclave. Eventually he will be out.

  • 11:56:50

    REHMYou do believe that?

  • 11:56:52

    ROSSYes.

  • 11:56:53

    REHMHow long?

  • 11:56:54

    ROSSYou know, I doubt he will survive this year, but it's very hard to say because, again, if he's in a very narrow enclave, maybe he can last longer than that.

  • 11:57:02

    REHMDennis Ross, counselor at the Washington Institute for Near East Policy. Robin Wright, she's of the U.S. Institute of Peace and the Woodrow Wilson International Center. And Kim Ghattas, State Department correspondent for the BBC, author of "The Secretary: A Journey with Hillary Clinton from Beirut to the Heart of American Power." Thank you all.

  • 11:57:36

    ROSSThank you.

  • 11:57:36

    WRIGHTThank you.

  • 11:57:36

    GHATTASThank you very much.

  • 11:57:37

    REHMAnd thanks for listening. I'm Diane Rehm.

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