The Islamic State launches a counterattack in the Iraqi city of Kirkuk, as the battle to retake Mosul intensifies. Ecuador cuts off Internet access to WikiLeaks founder Julian Assange. And the president of the Philippines says his country is pivoting away from the U.S. A panel of journalists joins guest host Derek McGinty for analysis of the week's top international news stories.
The U.N. passes a resolution for a transitional government in Syria. Russia expels a suspected U.S. spy. And Nawaz Sharif is elected prime minister of Pakistan again. A panel of journalists joins Diane for analysis of the week’s top international news stories.
- Tom Gjelten NPR national security correspondent and author of "Bacardi and the Long Fight for Cuba: The Biography of a Cause."
- Indira Lakshmanan diplomatic correspondent, Bloomberg News.
- Thom Shanker Pentagon correspondent for The New York Times and co-author of "Counterstrike: The Untold Story of America's Secret Campaign Against Al Qaeda."
MS. DIANE REHMThanks for joining us. I'm Diane Rehm. Russia sent cruise missiles to Syria to help President Bashar al Assad. Nawaz Sharif was again elected prime minister of Pakistan and U.S. clothing companies opt out of a pact on factory reforms in Bangladesh.
MS. DIANE REHMJoining me for the international hour of the Friday News Roundup, Tom Gjelten of National Public Radio, Indira Lakshmanan with Bloomberg News and Thom Shanker of the New York Times. You're welcome to join the conversation, give us a call, 800-433-8850. Send us an email to email@example.com, follow us on Facebook or send us a tweet. And good morning to all of you.
MR. TOM GJELTENGood morning, Diane.
MS. INDIRA LAKSHMANANGood morning.
MR. THOM SHANKERGood morning.
REHMTom Gjelten, why is Russia sending more warships and better missiles to Syria?
GJELTENI think the short answer is that they are still allied with the Assad government and more importantly they do not want the Assad government overthrown by this Syrian rebel group. I think what they do have in mind is a negotiated settlement and we have actually seen, Diane, in the last couple of weeks I would say more interest on the U.S. side as well in a negotiated settlement and part of the reason for that is that the rebels have not been doing.
GJELTENThey have lost ground to the Syrian government and the fact that the Syrian, the Assad government is now going to be getting these advanced cruise missiles will make it more difficult for the United States and other countries to intervene in support of the rebel side.
GJELTENTherefore, the Russians might be thinking that this will actually improve the prospects for a negotiated settlement. And judging from what President Obama said yesterday in a press conference with Turkish Prime Minister Recep Erdogan it appears that the United States is inching toward that position as well.
LAKSHMANANWell, it's interesting because remember Secretary of State Kerry was just in Moscow last week meeting with the Russian, his Russian counterpart, Sergey Lavrov about this. And he was pressing him on the issue of weapons and remember, you know, Syria is Russia's closest ally in the Middle East and Russia has benefited from billions and billions of dollars in weapons sales to Syria over the last years.
LAKSHMANANAnd what's interesting is that, you know, Lavrov basically said to the question of why are you continuing to supply the weapons, he said, well, you know, we have contracts that we have to fulfill and we need to carry out the ends of those contracts for weapons they have paid for.
LAKSHMANANThat was one point and another point that they've made publicly as well is, well, you know, we have a long relationship with Syria but what about your allies? American allies such as Turkey, Cutter or Saudi Arabia, you're arming, your friends are arming the rebels side. And so unless you stop doing that why should we stop arming our side?
LAKSHMANANSo all this talk about trying to get to some sort of Geneva conference hopefully in early June is great but the question is, until then both sides are getting armed and there isn't a lot of, you know, proof in the pudding that we've seen of their willingness to sit down and talk.
SHANKERThe real challenge here, Diane, is that the Russians have been giving Syria a lot of defensive weapons, SA-17, SA-20 surface to air missiles that are an air defense weapon. Not helpful but not as large a threat as the newest shipment of a missile called the Yakhont.
SHANKERNow it is, as you said, a cruise missile and the new version that we are hearing is arriving now actually has advanced turmoil guidance and that could force NATO or any other country to keep its warships far out in the Mediterranean Sea.
SHANKERThis is the first weapon that Russia has given Syria recently that actually is more of an offensive threat to the United States and NATO and that is a real challenge. Although, as Tom said, it's probably Russia trying to strengthen its side ahead of diplomatic negotiations.
REHMAnd of course you've got this huge volume of refugees spilling into Turkey. President Erdogan has to be so concerned, not only about the human cost but indeed the cost to the Turkish treasury.
LAKSHMANANThat's right and that is part of, you know, the number one topic on the agenda between President Obama and Prime Minister Erdogan this week was definitely Syria. Now, you know, Turkey, it's an interesting case because Erdogan was an ally of Bashar al Assad's until, you know, this whole uprising began and Assad began firing on his own people and Erdogan turned against him.
LAKSHMANANSo I think that was an additional slap on the face as far as the Syria regime is concerned. but Turkey has really borne the brunt along with Jordan of the refugees that have come. And let's not forget Turkey experienced this terrible series of this car bombing attack this last weekend in which more than 50 people were killed in a border town, a Turkish border town near Syria.
LAKSHMANANAnd they're blaming the Syrian regime or Syrian intelligence for it. they're also blaming some Marxist groups in Turkey who they say were working at the behest of the Syrian regime and I found it striking what the Syrian regime's response to it was, was basically Turkey has no one to blame but themselves, you know, this is Turkey's fault because they shouldn't be interfering and supplying weapons to the rebels.
REHMSo what is Prime Minister Erdogan hoping for from the U.S., Tom?
GJELTENWell, you know, this is the second time that we've had a leader from this region appeal directly to the United States for help in dealing with the refugee problem. They are, Turkey is looking at one to two billion dollars in cost for dealing with these refugees. 400,000 so far and it's expected there will be a million refugees from Syria in Turkey by the end of the year.
GJELTENAnd just a couple of weeks ago we saw King Abdullah in Jordan meeting with the Secretary of State John Kerry saying exactly the same thing, that we are being inundated by refugees and in both cases what these leaders are saying to the United States is, you've got to help us. We cannot afford to deal with this refugee influx, we need help.
SHANKERThere's one other spill, and there's one more spillover in fact that we haven't discussed and that's into Iraq where Sunni on Shia violence has really escalated over recent weeks, probably a direct result of the similar ethnic violence next door in Syria.
REHMNow, what about the so-called red line that President Obama had said could not be crossed, Indira?
LAKSHMANANRight, so President Obama had said first last year and several times since that the use of chemical weapons by the regime would be a red line. So everybody took that as a big neon warning for Assad against using any kind of chemical weapons. Nobody wanted a repeat of the kind of chemical attacks that his father had done, that Saddam Hussein had done against their own people.
LAKSHMANANFine. The problem is that since then U.S. intelligence agencies have said that with varying degrees of certainty that there were small amounts of chemical weapons used in they believe three cases. The problem is that the president has said since then, we need to know, although we have that evidence, we need more evidence. We need to know what was the chain of command. Who actually ordered and carried out these strikes.
REHMAt first it was said that the rebels had used it.
LAKSHMANANWell, the arguments are both ways.
LAKSHMANANAnd the problem is that a UN mission that is trying to verify this information and investigate it has not been allowed into Syria because the regime wants it only to investigate the place where it says the rebels did the attack. It doesn't want it to investigate the place where the rebels say the Syrian regime did the attack.
LAKSHMANANWhat I think is fascinating is the sort of optics of this. it makes the American president, you know, here we are the last superpower and it makes the American president look a bit wishy-washy. Like, he saying there's a red line but, you know, maybe it's a purple line or maybe it's a dotted line and he doesn't want to cross it. And it makes him look bad even if he had legitimate reasons for wanting to hold back and check, you know, check all the boxes. So it's a difficult one.
SHANKERWell, the use of chemical weapons or the threat of the use of chemical weapons should be a global concern I actually find this debate kind of a red herring over red lines. 80,000 people have been killed in this civil war, probably more. Those affected by this potential alleged act of chemical weapons is just in, you know, 10s or 20s.
SHANKERSo again, it's a terrible threat, it's a terrible risk but the debate over red lines is actually letting the international community off the hook for what's been mass slaughter for two years.
GJELTENAnd, you know, we've discussed this before, Diane, but apparently those statements by President Obama were a little bit extemporaneous and they beg the question of just what the United States is capable of doing if it wanted to sort of react forcefully to the use of chemical weapons in Syria.
GJELTENI can tell you and Thom covers the military more closely even than I do, there is no sense within the U.S. military that there is an option for them to go in and stop the use of chemical weapons. Boots on the ground, whatever, there's just no capability available right now to do that.
REHMNow, what about Prime Minister Erdogan saying he's going to Gaza and how that seemed to upset the White House?
LAKSHMANANWell, right, I mean, there were other issues on the agenda of course and let's, you know, let's keep in mind that one of the important advances that has been made just recently has been this sort of detente or, you know, semi rapprochement between Turkey and Israel who had a very bid dispute over this flotilla of protests ships and the firing upon them by the Israelis and finally, finally that seems to have been somewhat resolved.
LAKSHMANANI mean, look, you know, I think that the United States particularly John Kerry is trying to revive Middle East peace. He has said that he's going to be going next week to Israel and to the West Bank. I'm, you know, one of the reporters who'll going with him on that trip and so that's something that he's trying to do and, you know, Turkey, going and visiting Gaza of course throws a wrench into that.
LAKSHMANANBut, you know, it's a difficult one. I just wanted to say one thing about what Thom Shanker said and I totally agree that this whole question of, you know, if you're dead you're dead and if 80,000 people are dead and they were killed with bullets and mortars and grenades and not killed with chemical weapons, they're still dead. So I completely agree that it has become a red herring, the chemical weapons issue.
GJELTENWell, the thing about Prime Minister Erdogan going to Gaza is, of course, Gaza is ruled by Hamas and he says that he wants to negotiate peace. Not between the Palestinians and Israel but between Hamas and the Palestinian authority. And the United States, and this I think why the United States is upset by this.
GJELTENThe United States has wanted to marginalize Hamas and support the Palestinian authority and it seems that the beneficiary of this visit by Erdogan will be Hamas not the Palestinian authority.
REHMTom Gjelten, national security correspondent for National Public Radio, that's NPR. Short break here, we'll be right back.
REHMAnd welcome back to the International Hour of our Friday News Roundup this week with Thom Shanker, Pentagon correspondent for the New York Times, Indira Lakshmanan, senior correspondent covering foreign policy for Bloomberg News, Tom Gjelten, national security correspondent for NPR. Now, let's talk about the story behind the U.S. diplomat expelled from Russia, Thom Shanker.
SHANKERRight. Well, just in recent days, an American who was accredited as a political officer at the embassy was arrested by the Russian FSB, the successor to their KGB. He was accused of trying to recruit a Russian to be an intelligence operative for the United States. What was most interesting about it was the rather flamboyant nature of the release. Russian television was on hand. It looked like a scene from CSI as they put this guy on the ground and produced wigs and a compass and all this crazy stuff.
SHANKERWhat's fascinating, it came as the American and Russian security services were actually starting to cooperate a bit more after the Boston bombing, which of course was linked to two young men with ties to Chechnya, a restive region of Russia. I was a little surprised. Again, I first met Tom when we were in Moscow many, many years ago at the trade craft. And it almost raised questions whether the Russians had planted these wigs and compass on this officer, because it had this kind of Get Smart fumbling sort of aura to it.
SHANKERBut believe it or not, Diane, I was talking to a longtime friend of mine -- I spent time in Russia -- also a friend of the intelligence community, shall we say, who pointed out that the compass is actually pretty good trade craft. Had he had a GPS or if he was using a cell phone to navigate, that would've put out a signal. So actually the low tech compass might have been a proof of the veracity of what he was doing.
GJELTENWell, Tom said it looked like a scene from the CSI. I think he was being generous in that regard. To me it looked more like a scene from an Austin Powers movie, right, or as he said, Get Smart. I mean, there was a story this morning that the blond wig that this young guy was wearing had been spotted in an earlier caper in, like, 1986. So it's like they didn't even update their wig collection.
GJELTENThe broader context of this is this rising anti-U.S. sentiment in Russia. And there is a -- you know, there's been a very serious development there, which we all are familiar with, which is that NGOs, nongovernmental organizations that are doing important pro-democratic work in Russia, any of those organizations that have received any kind of U.S. funding have come under very stiff scrutiny, to the point that they're basically not allowed, not able to survive if they take U.S. funding anymore. So there is sort of a broader attempt here, I think, by the Putin government to really sort of fan this anti-U.S. feeling in Moscow.
REHMBut are you saying there is no chance that this man, Ryan Fogle, who was said by the Russian foreign ministry to be a spy, is there no chance that he was...
GJELTENNo. I'm sure -- I think it's entirely believable that he was. But the thing is about the United States and Russia is that we are -- both of us are aware that each other has spies in our capitals and there's kind of a modus operandi between these two governments. In fact, I think, you know, to an extent each government even knows the identities of the spies.
REHMAnd in fact, the CIA says he was CIA.
LAKSHMANANWell, I don't know. I mean, I know that the State Department has completely declined to comment on it at all. And they've said, you know, even though he was registered as a diplomat, they've talked continuously about, you know, we can't comment on intelligence matters, etcetera. I was reading some of the comments from the Russian bloggers after this case broke, and I thought it was fascinating.
LAKSHMANANThey were ridiculing this, you know, spy kit, this trade craft and saying it was so 20th century. So, you know, to the point that Tom Gjelten was making, they were raising questions about whether this was a legitimate kit. At the same time, you know, as we've said, there's no question that there're spies in each other's capitals. It just comes at an inopportune moment because it's a time when the U.S. is trying to get Russia to cooperate on the Syria file. Obviously there were some advances that were announced in cooperation in the aftermath of the Boston Marathon bombing, so they seem to be making advances on that.
LAKSHMANANBut I also agree completely with the idea that Putin is, you know, advertising this and promoting this on his evening news, because it's a way for him to deflect attention away from some of the things he's doing and fan anti-U.S. nationalism. It's something that has been done in China over the last decade as well, to fan anti-U.S. nationalism within the country as a way to account for, you know, growing authoritarianism and crackdowns by the state.
REHMAll right. Let's talk about the fact that former Prime Minister Nawaz Sharif was elected president in Pakistan again. But there are allegations of vote rigging?
SHANKERRight. You know, Pakistan is probably the most volatile and dangerous country on earth, growing nuclear power, terrible internal insurgency, a rather difficult relationship with the U.S.. But, Diane, if there is some really optimistic news this week, it's the first time in the country's history that a democratically-elected government has ended its tenure and handed over control to another democratically-elected government. So I think we just need to pause for a moment and recall that.
SHANKERNow there are charges of vote rigging but the new prime minister really did try to reach out to the (unintelligible) visiting him at the hospital, delivering flowers, trying to build a coalition. I think the question is, even though he was democratically elected, will the state security services who are really the power in the country, will they let him govern?
REHMAnd of course he wants to turn the economy around. He faces enormous challenges.
LAKSHMANANRight. I mean, what's interesting about this election is that it was so much about the economy and about basic services, like electricity. I mean, one of the biggest problems that Pakistan faces is lack of electrification throughout the nation. And so, you know, it's a country of 180 million people. It's got a huge long list of problems, including its relationship with India, its relationship with the United States, the Taliban, the drone crisis, violence spilling over from neighboring Afghanistan and the feedback loop of that.
LAKSHMANANBut what people seem to be voting on was economics, pocketbook issues, electricity. And those are things that the People's Party of Pakistan, the PPP of outgoing President Zardari were unable, unfortunately, to deliver on. And that was really why they got voted out. And although there is the question about vote rigging, at the same time I've seen a lot of analysts saying that this was the cleanest election in years. By the same token, there were more than 40 people killed in electoral violence but that was a lot less than some of the predictions had been.
GJELTENWell, Diane, I think the fact that Pakistan is in such terrible economic shape and so desperately in need of international economic assistance could arguably be a factor in favor of positive developments in Pakistan. This could -- this kind of situation could encourage Sharif to, for example, support some peacemaking efforts with Afghanistan. He is in position to influence the Taliban in Pakistan and the Afghan Taliban to reach peace accommodations with the Karzai government in Kabul.
GJELTENAnd it is totally in his economic and Pakistan's economic interest right now to play a useful and constructive role in facilitating some kind of peace agreement between the Taliban and the Karzai government.
REHMAnd what about his relationship with the U.S.? How much of a change or an improvement might we see?
GJELTENWell, we saw virile anti-U.S. sentiment expressed in the course of the campaign. And of course a declaration more firm than anything we've ever seen before that Pakistan will not allow U.S. drone strikes on Pakistani soil. That was all -- and of course the New York Times correspondent was deported from Pakistan. So during the campaign there was all this stuff that was very worrisome.
GJELTENNow since the election, Sharif has come out and said that he wants to improve relations with the United States. So I think it's a little bit up in the air where the U.S./Pakistan relationship is going right now.
REHMWhat do you think, Thom Shanker?
SHANKERThat's exactly it. There are a lot of opportunities right now, but I think that the new Prime Minister will be looking domestically first. So his calculation is how does the tentative relations with Washington either help or not help his domestic agenda?
REHMAnd your reporter Declan Walsh, I gather he got a two-sentence notice saying, you're gone.
SHANKERExactly. He was packed and left. He's safely in London right now. And the newspaper, you can imagine, is working the issue with all of our resources.
REHMAll right. Let's talk about Afghanistan. Renee Montagne of NPR was talking to one of the generals this morning. And this week you had a suicide attack in the Afghan capital targeting a NATO convoy. So you've still got this ongoing violence, ongoing hostility. How is that going to change as U.S. troops begin to make their exit, Tom?
GJELTENI think the short answer is it's going to make it more difficult and awkward for the United States to leave with any kind of semblance or any kind of claim to have stabilized the situation. I mean, it'll -- I think it'll increasingly appear that the United States is leaving a bad situation, as bad as it was before. And I think that'll -- as I say, that'll make it more awkward for the United States to sort of justify its departure. But there is no evidence, that I've seen -- and Thom just back from Afghanistan -- there's no evidence I've seen that the United States is rethinking, you know, its decision to basically pull out almost all combat troops by the end of next year.
SHANKERYeah, Diane. I just returned this week from a week in Afghanistan traveling with special operations forces. And the military has a habit, whether Iraq or Afghanistan, saying that the next six months are the most important of the war. That's not untrue but it's kind of always true. So it's rather insignificant. But the past ten days has been the most violent of the entire year. The fighting season has begun. And what we're seeing, Diane, is the insurgency testing the Afghan security forces as the U.S. begins the withdrawal in earnest.
SHANKERAnd that's all about the insurgency's trying to show that the Afghan security forces cannot protect the country. And so these high profile dramatic attacks, killing dozens with a bomb packed into a Toyota is all about shaking the confidence of the government, of the security forces and of the population. And at some point the number of Americans is irrelevant to that internal dynamic.
REHMAnd what about President Karzai saying that the U.S. is going to maintain nine bases within Afghanistan?
SHANKERRight. I wish I had a chalkboard that your listeners could see, but it's kind of a hub and spoke system with Kabul being the center of the wheel and spokes at all of the compass points around the country. What was most interesting is Karzai said this after a period in which he has been harshly and caustically critical of the American military. So he too is calculating a domestic political analysis of showing his people that they have reason to be competent. That even as the American numbers come down, some force will be sustained.
SHANKERAnd it's worth recalling that after the Soviet withdrawal in '89, the Soviets left no advisors but money, fuel, weapons. The Najibullah Regime lasted for three years. So after the collapse of the Soviet Union and Yeltsin was pressured by Washington and Germany to stop funding, that the regime collapsed in 90 days.
REHMAnd you're listening to "The Diane Rehm Show." Does that imply, for example, that the $35 million in cash that's already gone to Karzai, that that money is likely to continue big time?
SHANKERI think if there is a long term solution to the Afghan problem, it's not American troops, it is funding and it's training and it's all this kind of support for years and years to come. The good news is, it would be in treasury, not in blood.
LAKSHMANANYeah, I want to make one point about this, which I think is really important, is that it's not just about the White House or the Defense Department having buy-in to this money which, you know, Karzai has described publically as suitcases of cash getting delivered to him over the years in the presidential palace. It's also about congress.
LAKSHMANANAnd I was up on Capitol Hill this week for a few hearings that had to do with Iran and it was striking because, you know, prominent senators and congressmen were grilling Wendy Sherman, the number three person at the State Department, the undersecretary of state for political affairs. She was supposed to be sitting there in the hot seat about Iran, but they were grilling her about the suitcases of cash to Karzai.
LAKSHMANANAnd she wouldn't comment and she kept saying, we need to talk about this in classified session, but it something that a lot of congress -- you know, members of congress, particularly John McCain, Bob Corker are very upset about this. And they want to hear more about these suitcases of cash and what's being delivered. And so the aid part of it, if it's coming from Treasury and not from blood and resources, I mean, that's also a question that will be somewhat up in the air.
REHMLet's turn to Bangladesh. Tom Gjelten, the Obama Administration may strip Bangladesh of import breaks. What would that mean?
GJELTENThat would be devastating. Bangladesh is the leading garment exporter in the world. And this is absolutely key to Bangladesh's economic fortune. And if the -- if anything were to happen, whether it's losing the trade benefit that the Obama Administration is threatening to take away or if you have garment makers shifting to other countries to have their garments made, this would be devastating to the Bangladeshis.
GJELTENBut I think the idea here is that there has to be a pressure on Bangladesh authorities to enforce the labor standards that are already on the books there that are not being enforced. I mean, you've seen the statistics, Diane. They have just a tiny number of inspectors who are assigned to these facilities. And they can't possibly carry out the kinds of rigorous inspections that would be needed in order to enforce these standards. So it really is incumbent on the government there to get the situation under control.
REHMAnd as now they're saying as many as 1100 people died in that most recent factory fire. But here you've got U.S. retailers wanting voluntary standards to improve the safety in those factories. You've got UK retailers saying, we're going to pull out. But you've got U.S. retailers saying, we're going to stay there.
LAKSHMANANYeah, I think there's a double-edge sword here. Because, as Tom Gjelten points out, on the one hand you don't want to pull out major U.S. clothing manufacturers from there because, first of all, it takes away our ability to influence the situation. If we're no longer there it devastates the economy...
REHMBut we have influenced them enough...
LAKSHMANANThat's exactly the point. And this question about the safety standards, which U.S. retailers have refused to sign onto, it's kind of stunning. And the question is litigation. The U.S. retailers do not want to be sued for, you know, not living up to certain standards which they would have signed onto. And I think...
REHMWell, why is the UK going in there in its...
LAKSHMANANMany Europeans are. It's a global pact to which 30 companies have already signed on, including H & M, a major retailer which you see all over the United States. It's interesting that Calvin Klein and Tommy Hilfiger had already signed on to this pact before the Rana Plaza collapse. So there are some U.S. retailers who are in this. I think it's striking because I think listeners are going to know, wait, Wal-Mart refused to sign on, Target, Gap.
REHMAnd it's going to affect people's buying decisions.
LAKSHMANANAnd I think, you know, the more this issue stays in the news, the more it will affect people's decisions.
REHMIndira Lakshmanan of Bloomberg News. We've got lots more to come, your calls, your comments. I look forward to speaking with you.
REHMAnd it's time to open the phones. Let's go first to Richmond, Va. Good morning Michael you're on the air.
MICHAELHi Diane, thanks for taking my call.
MICHAELMy question is in regard to Syria. At the outset, it seemed as though the uprising was by Syrians in protest of the crackdown over the Arab Spring protests, but the Assad government asserted that it was terrorists and outsiders playing.
MICHAELNow since the conflict has gone on, it seems as though with the influx of weapons from Arab states such as Qatar, the secular elements of the uprising have been marginalized. And even as France and Britain and people in the U.S. are talking about sending weapons over to the Syrian rebels, it seems as though more and more every day it is becoming a sectarian conflict such as the one in Iraq.
MICHAELAnd I was wondering if there's going to be any re-evaluation by France and Britain and the people within the U.S. who want to arm the rebels.
SHANKERWell, I'm not sure there's been a re-evaluation in the U.S. because the problem as you so perfectly describe it is exactly what's going to handcuff the administration. I mean, who do you arm there? And even if you try to identify a secular, moderate group of rebels, how would you make sure the weapons didn't end up in the hands of the more radical and militant types?
SHANKERSyria is fracturing right now and it's almost impossible to imagine what kind of structure could reintegrate the country. You have a Sunni portion. You have a Kurdish portion. You have a Shite Alawite portion and that's what makes intervention so, so difficult right now.
REHMAll right to Woodbridge, Va., good morning Richard.
RICHARDGood morning, Diane, thank you for taking my call.
RICHARDJust a quick comment and then also a quick follow-up question for your guests whoever wants to answer. By the way, I love your show.
RICHARDI've heard that the CIA, the person that got caught in Russia actually had an offer letter from the CIA for a double agent. If that's true, that's absurd to the point to where it would almost be meaningfully absurd, like it would be meant to be absurd.
RICHARDSo if that's the case, I mean, obviously we don't -- that's obviously not going to be a real (word?) person. I mean, I don't know anything about intelligence, per se, in terms of, you know, working with anybody like that, but I mean, I just wouldn't think the CIA gives out offer letters and carries them around in suitcases.
GJELTENThat certainly was reported, Diane, that he was carrying with him a typewritten letter offering a $1 million retainer to this person that he was trying to recruit to serve as a double agent and in fact this -- Richard is -- I mean, all I know is what has been reported. I haven't actually sort of gone into intelligence sources to sort of get the lowdown on this.
GJELTENBut it was certainly reported that the agent that he was trying to recruit was, in fact, an agent for the Russian intelligence so he was trying to get him to flip, to be a double agent and he was allegedly carrying a letter offering $1 million as a retainer for that service.
REHMAll right, here's an email from Rebin who says: "Is the U.S. capable of creating a no-fly zone in Syria?" Thom Shanker?
SHANKERThe answer is yes, but it would look exactly like going to war again in a Muslim country. It would be air caps. It would be strikes. It would be virtually indistinguishable from an air invasion and I don't think the U.S. wants that right now and it's a very, very problematic decision.
LAKSHMANANAnd to add to that General Martin Dempsey, the chairman of the Joint Chiefs of Staff actually used the word complicated. He said it would be very complicated to enforce, to execute, a no-fly zone and he also said it would have limited impact because Syrian air power has only accounted for about 10 percent of the opposition casualties.
LAKSHMANANSo 90 percent of the rebels and government opponents who are being killed are being killed by direct fire and artillery so that wouldn't even be affected by a no-fly zone.
REHMAnd here's another question from Charles in Friendswood, Tx.: "How are chemical weapons defined? What if it was tear gas or pepper spray? Is that worth getting militarily involved in Syria? What do we know? Tom Gjelten?
GJELTENWell, Charles' question is actually a good one because in old Soviet military doctrine, any kind of chemical agent to include tear gas and pepper spray would be considered a chemical weapon. However the United States has made it clear that's not the definition that it is going by.
GJELTENAnd we should also clarify that what we have seen so far is clearly not the effects of tear gas. There was a very dramatic report, a BBC reporter who was on ABC last night, with very dramatic footage showing a helicopter dropping a canister and there was film of the canister landing, smoke going up and people being immediately affected in terrible, gruesome ways and some of them died.
GJELTENThere was no question that that was not tear gas. That was not pepper gas. It certainly appeared that that was some kind of deadly, chemical agent, like Sarin or one of these other nerve agents.
LAKSHMANANLet's not forget that there was also a brouhaha over the last week over this video that's been circulating on the internet of an alleged opposition commander eating the heart of a dead Syrian soldier. And that has circulated. The United States has condemned that.
LAKSHMANANThe United States has said that that. They've essentially verified the identify of that opposition commander and said that when they questioned it, that Syrian rebel forces told them that he had been ejected from his corps for having committed other atrocities beforehand, but, you know, this guy is still out there.
LAKSHMANANSo this is, you know, the reports of the chemical weapons, the video of the heart being eaten, these kinds of things are, you know, more and more pressing people towards, again, trying to find a diplomatic, negotiated settlement. The question is I don't know how likely it is that this conference which we're hoping for in Geneva will actually bring about a settlement if, after two years, they haven't been able to do it yet.
REHMTo Dallas, Tx., hi Matt.
MATTHi Diane, I just got back from Turkey last night and I'd like to share a couple of sentiments and outtakes from Turkey and from Syria. I had two friends who went to fight in Aleppo, Syria, last weekend. A couple of things that I got from them, one of them is that there are about 110 different groups fighting against Shabiha and the Syrian army.
MATTAnd there are a couple of funny things, like when these guys are fighting the other people, they're just going on with their daily lives and these guys can even order kabobs and they deliver kabobs to where these guys are shooting at each other.
MATTAnother thing is Shabiha is like the front line and the Syrian army is at the back so the front lines are being exchanged between either Free Syrian Army or other militants on the Sunni side and then Shabiha is on the front line on the Syrian Army side.
MATTWhat they told me is there are tons of Hezbollah and lots of Iraqi and Iranian Shia and militants are coming in there now. One of the main reasons is they're basically angry that the al Nusra or the al-Qaida group who meant to destroy their shrine recently and now they're talking about destroying Zaynab, another shrine that Shias.
REHMAll right, thanks for your call and your firsthand account. Just outlining how complex this whole story is. Thom Shanker?
SHANKERWell, that's exactly right. And the military has done extensive planning trying to identify the various groups, trying to look at options if chemical weapons are used, how one would go about securing them both in a passive and in non-permissive environment and the reason there is such heartfelt reluctance to do anything is because it's just so complicated, Diane.
GJELTENAh, Diane, Matt mentioned. We should just clarify some terms here. Matt mentioned Shabiha. Shabiha is this very, aggressive militia group that is allied with the Assad government and they are the ones that have been accused of the most atrocities.
GJELTENBut he also mentioned al Nusra and Hezbollah and, of course, al Nusra is allied with al-Qaida and it's sort of, in some ways, an offshoot of al-Qaida in Iraq. And the Hezbollah, which, of course, are supported by Lebanon and in Iran. And I think that Matt's observation shows how this conflict is beginning to evolve into a war, for example, between al Nusra, the radical Sunni groups allied with al-Qaida and Hezbollah, the militia allied with Lebanon and Iran.
GJELTENIt has already become a -- it's no longer just a Syrian civil war if it ever was, it is really now a proxy-war between these two fearsome groups, both of which are enemies of the United States. Hezbollah and al Nusra, you know, it's hard to choose between those which is the sort of the bigger enemy, but it just shows how complicated that it's become.
LAKSHMANANYeah, a point on that is that there's all this enthusiasm on Capitol Hill for arming the Syrian opposition. There's a lot of pressure on Obama that he should be arming them and a bill was just introduced this week by Senator Menendez, the chairman of the Foreign Relations Committee...
REHMBut how could we possibly know?
LAKSHMANANWell, that's the counterpoint to it and that's what the White House has been saying all along is that if we arm the rebels, we don't know who we're arming and we could get ourselves into a situation, just as we did with the Mujahedeen in Afghanistan during the opposition to the Soviets when we ended up arming people who later turned out to be al-Qaida and Osama Bin Laden and who used those very same American weapons against us in the, you know, search of their goals.
LAKSHMANANSo the whole problem is, you know, although there are many on Capitol Hill and many throughout Washington who think that the U.S. should be arming them, there's a very strong case to be made that we don't know where those weapons would go. We wouldn't have control over them and what if we're feeding them straight to an al-Qaida-linked group?
SHANKERWell, and that's absolutely correct, but the counter-argument is for the U.S. to do nothing when this does sort itself out, have we automatically rendered ourselves a pariah to whatever Syrian government does succeed Assad by not having tried to stop the bloodshed?
REHMHere's an email from Chris who says: "Can someone explain why Middle Eastern countries have not had an impact on Syria? Why hasn't Saudi Arabia had some influence with Assad?"
SHANKERWell, not so much with Assad because he's simply not listening or answering the phone, but they're very involved in the covert shipment of weapons to the various militia groups that they support so their influence is being felt in bullets and blood on the ground, but diplomatically your listener is correct, they're not having an influence.
REHMAll right, to Flushing, Mich. Hannah, you're on the air.
HANNAHGood morning, Diane, thank you and good morning to all the guest members you have there. I'm originally from Aleppo, Syria, and it's just frustrating to hear all this talk going on of what we're going to do, what's going to happen and in the meantime, for the past two years, children have had their necks slit with knives.
HANNAHDay by day massacres are happening and talk is talk and we need to walk the walk and do something about it. It's enough to just say red lines, and we need to do something. Something has to be done and something has to be done quickly.
GJELTENWell, my heart goes out to Hannah and anyone else who, you know, has roots in that conflict and knows firsthand what atrocities have happened there. You know, the phrase something has to be done is one that is reminiscent of so many conflicts that we've seen over the last 20, 30 years when there is a sense that this is an intolerable situation and it's easy to say something has to be done. It's something else entirely to decide what it is that has to be done.
REHMAnd you're to "The Diane Rehm Show." Indira, you wanted to add?
LAKSHMANANI think that's a really good point that Tom Gjelten makes because there's the question of, you know, what examples does the Obama administration look to in recent history? And if it's looking to the examples of Bosnia and Rwanda, then the argument would be intervene before there's even more of a humanitarian disaster and even more genocide than has already happened.
LAKSHMANANIf they're looking to the example of Iraq, that's a different message and we know from people inside the White House at the highest levels that one of the, you know, counter examples that is most frightening to them is the sectarian violence that broke out in Iraq after the U.S. invasion in 2003 and, for them, that's a big cautionary tale.
LAKSHMANANSo you know, it is a question exactly as Tom said, we want to do something but what is the right thing to do and which lesson book are they looking at?
REHMYou know, I find myself wondering -- you mentioned Bosnia, I find myself wondering if Richard Holbrooke were alive, how would he be advising the White House? Thom Shanker?
SHANKERWell, I think that's a fantastic question and I would love to channel his spirit right now for you and I think one thing he might say is that the Bosnian example really isn't fair because as bloody as it was and as violent, there was not the outside powers shipping in the weapons.
SHANKERWe talked earlier about Russian arms coming in. We're talking about the Gulf powers arming another side. As awful as the Milosevic and the Karadzic regimes were they had simply limited firepower. And I think the lesson of Bosnia which again is not applicable today is that Milosevic was a bully and that once NATO punched him in the nose he sort of. He didn't stop but we all got to go to Dayton.
SHANKERI just don't think that kind of situation exists in Syria today for the exact reasons that Tom described. This is becoming a regional, if not a global proxy war, that the war in Bosnia never was.
GJELTENRichard Holbrooke was brilliant in his Bosnian diplomacy and deserves a lot of credit for bringing that conflict to an end. But we have to remember that the last mission he had was in Afghanistan and Pakistan and he was far less successful there. So even a brilliant diplomat who succeeds in one conflict, there's no guarantee he'll be effective in ending another one.
REHMI want to end on an up-note and that is Prince Harry and his visit to the United States this week. How do think his reputation fared Indira, considering those films and photographs that were taken on his last visit?
LAKSHMANANYeah, well, I was going to say, no one could argue this was a much more successful image burnishing trip than the Las Vegas hotel hijinks, which didn't do anyone any favors. I mean, you know, a lot of this was about optics and symbolism.
LAKSHMANANHe was in New York with Prime Minister David Cameron riding on a shiny, new double-decker, red British bus and they were basically trying to export the idea of Britain and getting more Americans to come to Britain. I think, you know, they did a good job. He had crowds of young women screaming his name and fainting...
REHMSwooning, I'm sure.
LAKSHMANAN...swooning in front of him and he came as an asset.
GJELTENAnd Governor Christie who knows an asset when he sees one, was very, very quick to put himself alongside Prince Harry and take him on a tour of the New Jersey shore.
REHMAnd he did visit those areas of New York stricken by that terrible storm?
SHANKERThat's exactly right so he was a substantive ambassador as well and also here in Washington, he visited an exhibit of land mines up on Capitol Hill so it wasn't all fun and games, although I think that the royalty that Governor Christie really wants to spend time with is Bruce Springsteen.
REHMAll right and we'll leave it at that. Thom Shanker, Pentagon correspondent for The New York Times, Indira Lakshmanan, she's senior correspondent covering foreign policy for Bloomberg News and Tom Gjelten, national security correspondent for NPR. Have a great weekend everybody.
GJELTENYou too, Diane.
REHMAnd thanks for listening. I'm Diane Rehm.
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