President-elect Trump chooses a retired Marine general to head the Pentagon. Syrian rebels agree to form a new alliance as the regime bombards Aleppo. And thousands of Cubans turn out to watch Fidel Castro's funeral procession. A panel of journalists joins Diane for analysis of the week's top international news stories.
The bitter two year conflict in Syria may be widening. Yesterday four rockets were fired into a Lebanon town near its border with Syria. Three Lebanese border guards were killed by an unidentified gunman, and on Monday three Lebanese civilians were killed by rocket fire. The recent attack is thought to be related to Hezbollah support of the Syrian government. President Obama is evaluating a range of options including a no-fly zone over Syria. Senator John McCain, who secretly met with Syrian rebels over the weekend, is among those pushing for more direct U.S. action. Please join us to discuss fears of a widening crisis in Syria and what to do about it.
- Hisham Melhem Washington bureau chief for Al-Arabiya News Channel.
- Ray Takeyh senior fellow at the Council on Foreign Relations, where he concentrates on Iran, Islamist movements, and Middle Eastern politics.
- Aaron David Miller vice president and distinguished scholar at the Woodrow Wilson International Center, and former U.S. Middle East adviser in Republican and Democratic administrations.
MS. DIANE REHMThanks for joining us. I'm Diane Rehm. President Obama gave a speech last week, highlighting the need to shift away from the long-running war on terrorism. But a more immediate crisis is at hand. The brutal battles taking place in Syria seem poised to spill over into neighboring countries with far-reaching consequences.
MS. DIANE REHMJoining me to talk about what's happening in Syria and the longstanding debate about what the U.S. can or should do about it: Hisham Melhem of Al-Arabiya News Channel, Aaron David Miller of the Woodrow Wilson International Center and Ray Takeyh of the Council on Foreign Relations. I know many of you have strong opinions. Give us a call, 800-433-8850. Send us your email to firstname.lastname@example.org. Follow us on Facebook or send us a tweet. Good morning to all of you. Thanks for being here.
MR. HISHAM MELHEMGood morning.
MR. RAY TAKEYHThank you.
MR. AARON DAVID MILLERPleasure to be here, Diane.
TAKEYHThanks for having...
REHMHisham, I'll start with you. What about this news over the weekend? Is the war in Syria spreading?
MELHEMIt's already spilled over to Lebanon. I mean, last week we had more than 30 casualties in fighting between Sunni groups and Alawite groups in the northern city of Tripoli. There's a deep division in Lebanon. Lebanon, as you well know, has a brittle political system to begin with, never recovered from its own civil war, and it's a very vulnerable country. And then you have a non-state actor in Lebanon, which is Hezbollah, that's hijacked the whole country, and now it's playing an important strategic role in Syria, supporting the regime on behalf of Iran.
REHMDo we know who launched the attacks into Lebanon?
MELHEMWhich attack, the...
REHMWho killed the border guards, who killed the...
MELHEMNo, we don't know. If you're talking about the three Lebanese soldiers who were killed recently, no, we don't know. They're investigating.
REHMAnd who launched the rockets that killed civilians?
MELHEMWe -- I mean, as I said, there's investigation going on. There are many groups operating. Hezbollah has many enemies in Lebanon. There are many people in Lebanon who believe, and in my opinion rightly so, that Hezbollah is dragging Lebanon into the whole Syrian cauldron. And Hezbollah has alienated many Sunnis in Lebanon who are also -- many of them or some of them are volunteering to fight on the side of the rebels.
MELHEMSo Lebanon is a bomb waiting to explode completely, and that's one of the reasons -- and Lebanon is the weakest link in the five states around Syria. Jordan is vulnerable, too. And one of the reasons why people said, you know, we shouldn't involve -- get involved in Syria because we don't have strategic interest. The problem is that the United States has strategic interest and good relationship with the five states around Syria.
REHMAll right. And this morning, we heard that Jordan is turning away refugees, Aaron, because they simply cannot afford to keep them, to provide housing, food, accommodations. How much of Syria does the Assad government control?
MILLEROh, I think it control -- forget territory which, in a conflict like this, may not be the critically important piece of it. This is a conflict in which the regime still maintains, by and large, the instruments of state power. Roughly -- perhaps more than 100,000 forces (word?) and guards the fourth divisions, the Jaysh al-Sha'bi, a determination to play in the fears of minorities in Syria.
MILLERYesterday, someone said that 20 percent of the Syrian -- 20 percent of the public loves our dear president, 20 percent hates him, and the remainder simply want to preserve Syria as a nationally coherent entity. What that means essentially is that the Assad regime has the acquiescence of a far larger bulk of the population than people believe.
MILLERAnd I think that's one of the keys to its staying power. But it controls the guns. It controls the CW, the chemical weapons. It has important allies -- Hezbollah, Iran -- and has divided, self-interested and dysfunctional international community, which has not yet and may not yet develop a coherent strategy with regard to intervention.
REHMRay Takeyh, to what extent is Syria getting support from other countries?
TAKEYHWell, I think there is every indication that Iranians have made a fairly substantial commitment to preservation of the Assad regime for reasons that are fairly obvious. Syria is their gateway to the Mediterranean. It's their link to Hezbollah. And as -- where Iranians go, you begin to see Hezbollah come in as well with its own commitments and so forth.
TAKEYHAnd this is taking place actually in a region which is increasingly dividing against itself along sectarian lines and -- sort of like the 1960s when you had the division between the Arab radical republics and the conservative regimes, except this particular division is even more troublesome because it's underpinned by sectarian identities as opposed to some sort of imported ideology, which means all the conflicts in the region are likely to be more durable.
TAKEYHIranians will make whatever commitment they have to make, short of, I think, the deployment of forces in order to preserve the Assad regime. I think you see Iraq is being more involved in it. As Prime Minister Maliki always says, Syria is about Iraq. It's this Sunni block trying to reclaim the country because they lost Iraq to the seat of Shia power.
REHMAnd what about outside support for the rebels?
TAKEYHWell, again, as been suggested, you have various Sunni powers, Saudis, Qataris and others assisting them. Quite possibly, I think you may see Europeans engage in that activity too. But as Aaron was suggesting, the international community support is halting. It's tentative. Some cases, it's indifferent. And that's the problem you have with this persistence of stalemate.
REHMBut now you have the E.U. saying it's going to lift its arms ban on the rebels.
TAKEYHI'm not quite sure if that'll provoke, at least in the initial phases, a significant introduction of European support for the rebels because there's a lot of divisions within the European Union. Most European countries don't want to be systematically entangled in this particular conflict with some few exceptions here and there. And I'm not sure how much Europeans are going to do absent of some sort of an American signal on this.
REHMRay Takeyh, he is senior fellow at the Council on Foreign Relations. The question facing many, many people inside government and out is to what extent the U.S. and its allies should get directly involved in Syria's problems. Here we have Sen. McCain making a special secret -- not so secret trip, visiting with the rebels. What does that indicate, Hisham?
MELHEMWell, it reflects John McCain's views on Syria. The United States should have got itself involved in the conflict last year or when it began, supporting the rebels after you get their backgrounds and everything. And it has symbolic importance. The White House knew about it before. And it refocuses the attention on the conflict in Syria at a time when people are talking about the Geneva conference and...
REHMDo you think it's going to change anybody's mind?
MELHEMNo. I really don't think so. And I think John McCain probably knows that the American people are -- the public is not interested in getting involved in this thing. The problem is, here we have a conflict that is going to impose itself on you, and I see this president reluctantly -- very reluctantly being dragged into it whether he likes it or not. If you have use of chemical weapons in a way that is outrageous -- like the Halabja incident in Iraq in the 1980s -- it will be incredibly difficult for this president -- albeit he is very reluctant -- not to intervene.
MELHEMSo conflicts sometimes impose themselves on you. It's not a question of whether you like to -- nobody wants to be involved in another war in the Middle East, and obviously, nobody is asking the United States to send, you know, boots on the ground, to deploy troops there. But I think the United States should have acted last year. And let me say, this is in part a problem of leadership. There is no regional leadership. There is no European leadership. There is only American leadership whether we like it or not.
REHMJohn McCain has been pushing for a no-fly zone over Syria. Do you think that that's likely to be put in place, Aaron?
MILLERI don't. I think if and when the Geneva 2.0 fails, the administration will come into increasing pressure to do something else.
REHMThis is a conference that's going to take place in mid-June.
MILLERIf the regime, the rebels and the Russians -- the three Rs -- can somehow find a way to reconcile in a way to create a...
REHMBut there is no indication that everybody will show up.
MILLERNo. And even if -- even -- look, these conferences are good for one of two things: starting a process or concluding one. In this case, some of the parties don't want to start, and they have no idea how to conclude. No, I don't think McCain's visit will matter although I think he feels strongly that this is a matter of principle. I just think that you have a president who has willfully avoided intervention and who has drawn a lesson from Iraq and Afghanistan. By the way, it is not boots on the ground.
MILLERNobody who debates these issues is talking about boots on the ground. The Iraq and Afghanistan analogy is apt in only one regard, and that is the relationship between the application of American military power in the end state. What is that relationship? And it's the uncertainty over that, which in effect created, in my judgment, the disasters that are now Iraq and Afghanistan that are a cautionary note to this president.
REHMRay Takeyh, how do you see it, a no-fly zone?
TAKEYHWell, I think, in one respect, Prime Minister Maliki is right. Syria is about Iraq because it's about Iraq for us. Iraq haunts this debate. The -- what people don't want to acknowledge is the solution to the Syrian problems doesn't lie in the middle but in the extremes. On the one hand, you can negotiate with President Assad in order to end the civil war with him actually preserving power. And you can talk about elections forthcoming. That's one extreme to end the civil war.
TAKEYHThe other one is a far more substantial American commitment, which would go beyond no-fly zones, beyond arming of the rebels. It could be to deployment of special forces, mobilization of regional intervention and so forth. Those are the extremes. That's where the Syrian solution lies. In the middle, in this murky zone of no-fly zone, yes-fly zone, air corridor, that air corridor, at this late stage of the civil conflict, it is unlikely to be resolved to such measures. Maybe a year ago, as Hisham suggested, such measures could have been decisive -- not at this point.
REHMRay Takeyh, senior fellow at the Council on Foreign Relations. Short break here. We will be taking your calls, questions, comments. Stay with us.
REHMAnd we're back talking about the ongoing conflict in Syria now spilling over into Lebanon involving a great many people and countries. Jordan is now turning away refugees from Syria. We know that Turkey has thousands upon thousands of refugees within its borders. Aaron David Miller, talk about the different options that the Obama administration is considering or may have to consider.
MILLERI mean, I think you have a range of them. Humanitarian assistance, working with the opposition to try to create more coherent identity, working with Russians, all of these represent -- and in the provision of non-lethal assistance to carefully vetted opposition groups. That's...
REHMWhat does that mean, that non-lethal assistance?
MILLERWell, it's body armor. It's communications gear.
MILLERIt's vehicles. It's things that, well, frankly are used in pursuit of a lethal conflict but may not be lethal in and of themselves. That notion is not going to significantly change the arc of this military conflict. So you're left with a variety of escalatory measures. There's provision of weapons and the right kind of weapons, the ones that we do not want to provide -- anti-air and anti-armor -- to these opposition groups.
MILLERThere is the institution of an offensive no-fly zone along the Turkish and Jordanian borders, no-kill zones, actually, in which you wouldn't just protect incoming -- from incoming missiles. You'd actually go after Syrian military assets. And then there's direct intervention with air strikes, cruise missile strikes against Syrian military targets, and even leadership targets.
MILLERAll of these things could be combined into a very effective military strategy along the lines that Ray has argued. And I think if the president declares that Syria is in the vital national interest of the United States, he would, in fact, create a military strategy around it. I mean...
REHMAnd that last phrase is what's important here: if the president declares it to be in its own interest.
MILLERAnd means it. But we talk about this discussion with whose point of departure is not the Middle East. It's the middle class. It's the middle class. The right perspective to understand why this president is behaving the way he does is the fact that he's a second-term president, one of only 17 in American history. The clock is ticking down on his presidency.
MILLERHis legacy is going to be a domestic one, if any, not chasing insoluble problems that cannot be resolved. You have the 2014 midterms coming up. Democrats are vulnerable in the Senate. They'll probably not take the House back. This president is the extricator-in-chief. His mandate is to get America out of long and ineffective wars, not push America into new ones.
REHMRay Takeyh, would you agree with that?
TAKEYHI think the president's position is contested in Washington but is politically unsalable in America. There is no clamor for intervention in Syria irrespective of the humanitarian calamity. And I think the president alluded to then in his New Republican interview, suggesting there is all kinds of humanitarian crisis taking place in Central Africa with little decompositional states affecting lower segments of populations. But there is no clamor in this country for that intervention, and that makes the president's position not politically vulnerable.
MELHEMSometimes presidents have to lead and have to determine what are in the best interest of the United States in the long run. And sometimes most people, most public opinions don't see the immediacy of the future, but, you know, but the job of the president is to defend American interest in the long run and to do the right thing. We did the right thing in Bosnia and Kosovo when there was no discernable strategic interest for the United States.
MELHEMI think we run the risk of allowing this conflict to fester if we don't intervene, and then you will end up with something similar to Afghanistan in the 1990s when we left and then the Taliban and all of these radical groups took over. The difference is Afghanistan is a landlocked country. Syria is right smack in the heart of the Middle East. It's on the Mediterranean. It's close to Southern Europe and surrounded by five states that are important.
MELHEMTheir future is important for the United States. You cannot allow Syria to become the incubator of another generation of radicals. Already, the radicals are in Syria. And they're going to hunt us. Last time I was here, I told you that the president over-learned Iraq, and I would repeat the same thing. He over-learned Iraq.
MELHEMHis obsession is to end the War in Iraq. And he did. His obsession is to end the Iraq -- the war in Afghanistan. And he did. And last week, he was telling us that his -- the war against al-Qaida has to come to an end. The problem is I want that war with al-Qaida to come to an end, but al-Qaida has a say, unfortunately. You cannot declare that -- an end to a war when the other party is still shooting at you.
MILLERYou know, I am a diminished minority, I think, in this town of people who are mightily trying to resist the uncertainties of American intervention. Nobody since this debate has began -- begun over the last two years has identified a compelling strategy that would, in effect, allow the United States using its military power to affect the endgame. Barrack Obama does not want to get stuck with the check on Syria, and frankly, as an American, neither do I.
MILLERIt's not that I'm insensitive to the barbarity of what's happening. Upwards of 100,000 Syrians will be dead by the end of the summer. You've got radicalization, fragmentations. Syria is hemorrhaging refugees, internally displaced individuals. You're destroying a political culture and its architecture. You'd have to be a non-sentient human being not to understand all this.
MILLERThe question becomes, how do you create and effective strategy to essentially address the endgame? Ray is right, in my judgment. Either get in and do it in a way that will be not swift but compelling and effective or stay out. Do not talk about no-fly zones and vetting this group or that because in the end, Diane, that is not going to work. And that is the problem. Ray, I think, is 100 percent right. Either stay out, or craft a serious strategy, mobilize the allies, and, as Hisham has made clear, lead.
REHMIs there a strategy that you see that addresses the endgame, Hisham?
MELHEMNobody. Nobody can tell you with any certainty what is the outcome 100 percent. We did not have that certainty when we intervened in Libya. We did not have that certainty when we intervened in Iraq and other places. You don't have 100 percent certainty. That's the problem. But leadership means that you make the right decision based on the best information you get, what are your capabilities and what is your willingness to pay a price.
MELHEMLook, if we are not going to play a role on the international scene, then we shouldn't be in the business of being a great power. You know, sometimes -- I always say, call it the burden of leadership. Call it the burden of empire. There are certain things only the United States can do. And let me remind people, most civil wars end with a victor and a vanquish, not in a Geneva conference.
MELHEMThey end with a victor and vanquish -- the sad, ugly reality of Syria. There is an ugly civil war going on there, and we have to make a moral, strategic choice, which party we should support. The way -- I mean, this is like the Spanish Civil War in the 1930s.
REHMAll right. Hisham, 12 years on engagement in war. How are the American people feeling, Ray Takeyh?
TAKEYHI think with some measure of indifference. Whether that's morally justifiable or not, we can debate that. Also, when we -- Hisham mentioned Libya. A lot of people in the administration knew Libya that has become an arms depot for radical actors across the region not necessarily a story of successful intervention.
TAKEYHAnd in terms of Syria, as Iraq demonstrated -- and I don't want to stretch the analogy too much -- the difficult task of American engagement becomes a day after President Assad is deposed because then you have to mediate this conflict, these sectarian issues. You have to rebuild national institutions which have been destroyed. You have to essentially bring it together. And that actually requires deployment of external forces to police this particular conflict. And it was regional forces, U.N. forces. American forces would have to participant in that.
REHMHere's a tweet -- you mentioned humanitarian aid -- a tweet saying, "What challenges are associated with providing humanitarian aid? Why is there only a focus on supplying weapons to the region?" Aaron.
MILLERI don't think there is a focus just on weapons. I think ICRC, Refugees International, a variety of other U.N. agencies are trying to cope with a situation that is simply overwhelming them. In addition to refugees, two-plus million who are outside the borders, you got internally displaced people in Syria. The population of Damascus has swelled. If there is a struggle for that city, Jordan and Turkey may find themselves literally overwhelmed with additional refugees. So I...
MILLERAnd Lebanon. Lebanon, excuse me. Lebanon. So I don't think there's an absence of focus on the humanitarian side. I think it's a logistics problem. I think it's a problem of access and simply a problem of a society in the process of implosion.
REHMAnd here's another tweet: "What impact, if any, have Israel's multiple strikes into Syria had on the conflict?" Ray Takeyh.
TAKEYHI think Aaron can talk about the Israelis more. I think Israelis are desperately trying to stay out of this particular conflict, in some respects, and I'm not quite sure if the kind of intervention they're doing is necessarily helpful. But, again, as this particular conflict goes on -- and Hisham is right in one respect -- it will suck in all the other regional actors who all have a stake in this. Iranians have a stake in it. The Saudis have a stake in it. The Turks have a stake in it. The refugees, Syrian refugees, now constitute like the fifth largest city in Jordan.
REHMBut, despite all that, you do not see -- or do you see a role for the U.S. now?
TAKEYHI think if United States wants to play a role, it has to play a decisive one, and I don't see the president or the nation mobilizing behind that.
REHMAll right. What about Israel's strikes into Syria?
MILLERYou know, I think the Israelis are part of the neighborhood. Unlike the United States, they can actually get away with a lot more in terms of taking military action. I think the Israelis have three red lines: number one, cross-border exchanges over the Golan Heights, which had been the quietest space in the Middle East since 1974, the using or losing of chemical weapons into the hands of their adversaries and, finally, transfer of sophisticated, high-trajectory weapons from Iran via Syria to Hezbollah.
MILLERThose are the three red lines, and I think the Israelis will act. I agree with Ray. I think they will act very deliberately and with a view toward trying to stay out, not get in.
REHMAll right. Here's an email from Paul, who says, "As a retired officer, former Vietnam veteran, McCain is not representing the best interests of the American people. Syria will cost countless American lives, billions of dollars with little, if not, adverse consequences. On this one, Obama is right on target." Hisham.
MELHEMWell, I'm -- I disagree with that assessment. Nobody is talking about billions. Nobody is talking about long-term commitment.
REHMBut how can you know?
MELHEMObviously -- no, no. Obviously, this is a messy situation that is going to require regional intervention after, let's say, assuming the fall of Assad in the foreseeable future. It will require aid from the Europeans, from the Arabs, maybe from the Americans, the World Bank, rebuilding Syria. It's not going to be easy.
MELHEMIt's not going to be neat. It is going to be messy. This is a civil war, and we've seen it. And countries go through difficult transitions after a civil war. We've seen it in our own country. So anybody who thinks that there's going to be a silver bullet and an immediate resolution, you know, will be disappointed.
REHMAnd you're listening to "The Diane Rehm Show." Going to open the phones now, 800-433-8850, first to Jim in Kent, Ohio. Good morning. You're on the air.
JIMYes. I'm very strongly opposed to our involvement in the Syrian civil war. I mean, they didn't get involved in our civil war. We have no business being over there and giving our tax dollars to people who cut out the hearts of their enemies and eat them on camera, like they did two weeks ago. It was -- NPR did not report at all, but BBC covered -- reported -- had -- extensively. And I think that these people that we call rebels, who Kelly McEvers thinks are heroes, are really terrorists.
REHMAll right. Thanks for calling. Aaron, do you want to respond?
MILLERI mean, I think that comment reflects, by and large, a seminar view which is the prevailing one in this country. Governing is about choosing. We have debt. We have deficit. We have dysfunctional politics. We have a deteriorating educational system. We have a dysfunctional, deteriorating infrastructure in this country.
MILLERAnd we're coming off the longest two wars, profit -- among the most profitless wars, I might add, in American history, where the standard for victory was never could we win, never could we win, but when could we leave. And this notion that extrication is something that we should use as a performance standard to measure the behavior of great power, I disagree. Syria is not an opportunity. It's a trap…
MILLER...and it will prove so for the United States.
REHMTo Orlando, Fla. Good morning, Chris.
CHRISGood morning, Diane. I love your show.
CHRISMy comment is how about drones, this provision not to have boots on the ground, but to participate in this in a meaningful way?
TAKEYHWell, again, it constitutes -- as far as I know, probably drones are active in this conflict, but it constitutes one of the halfway measures we're talking about and measures that will enhance the military capability of the rebels, may enhance some of their operational capacity, but are unlikely to nudge the stalemate in one direction or the other in a decisive manner.
REHMWhat about drones, Hisham?
MELHEMDrones should be part of a package, if you will, of military options that probably could include, in my opinion, the use of cruise missiles to disable command and control centers, to crater the few military airports that are being used now by the regime. And this...
REHMBut wouldn't that be inching our way in?
MELHEMWe did that essentially in Libya. We did not get involved. I think the cost was 1.5 billion. We didn't lose any men, and we changed the regime. Now, Ray was talking about the post-Qaddafi Libya, which is not a great place, but it's much better than Libya under Qaddafi.
MELHEMAnd for anybody to think that -- again, transitional periods are extremely difficult, and you cannot just sit in Washington and say things have to be extremely neat. Otherwise, I will not get involved. Then we shouldn't be in the business of being great power.
TAKEYHI think Hisham is right in one sense that if we wanted to intervene in Libya, we should have made a more extensive commitment to post-war Libya, which we have not because -- for all the reasons that Aaron mentioned. As Jack Kennedy used to say when people used to come to him about intervention in Vietnam, he used to say it's like taking a drink. The effect wears off. You have to take another one. Incremental intervention will get you in in an incremental way and in an indecisive way at the end.
REHMWhat about drones, Aaron?
MILLERIt's a tactic and a -- it's a halfway measure. It would be part of a more comprehensive military strategy, which I hope the president does not adopt.
REHMAll right. And quickly to St. Louis, Mo. Good morning, Milo.
MILOOh, yes. Hello. My comment is it just seems that it's al-Qaida versus Iran right now in there, and I don't think we should intervene. I think -- actually, it seems like in -- I heard a comment -- a quote from Nasrallah, this guy from Hezbollah, that he said kind of the same thing.
REHMAll right. Iran versus al-Qaida, we'll talk more about that after a short break. Stay with us.
MILLERCan I address...
REHMAnd as we talk about the ongoing struggle in Syria, our last caller raised Iran and al-Qaida. And you, Hisham, very much want to respond.
MELHEMThis is really a simplification of a very complex conflict. For the first six months of the conflict of the uprisings, we've seen something very admirable. We've seen thousands upon thousands of Syrians in many Syrian cities walking peacefully on the streets, calling for political change, calling for empowerment, calling for democracy, for dignity, ending a brutal regime that's been going on for 50 years. The regime militarized the conflict.
MELHEMThe brutal use of military power against civilians drove people to seek an armed response. This, unfortunately, opened up the gates for groups of radicals from the Middle East and from beyond the Middle East, from the Caucasus, from the Gulf, from North Africa, you know. And in every civil war sometimes you find "volunteers."
MELHEMThere were 45,000 internationalists fighting in Spain, including the famed Lincoln Brigade, the American famed Lincoln Brigade. Three thousand of them have -- half of them died in Spain. But to reduce the whole struggle of the Syrian people for dignity and empowerment and representation to a bunch of al-Qaida, and just because one of them a brutal animal and a brutalized Syrian sorcerer that was killed, he should not become the signal...
MELHEM... or the symbol rather of the Syrian struggle for freedom and independence.
TAKEYHI think that's right. However, it has to be said that these sort of radical Islamists groups are always the most effective fighting groups, and they tend to, therefore, have the most presence in military campaigns. This is the kind of a problem because they tend to be more ideologically committed to the struggle. The Syrian quest -- the Syrian population's quest for liberation that Hisham talked about six, seven months was, unfortunately, subsumed in a larger regional conflict that pits various sectarian groups against each other.
TAKEYHIt's the Iran and Saudi competition that plays itself out of Lebanon, in Gulf principalities and in Syria. This -- what has happened to the Syrian quest for having a more representative accountable government, it's now something else. It's -- now takes place in a Syrian context and the regional context which has deformed what initially was a movement for more accountable regime in Syria itself.
REHMAnd here's an email for you, Aaron, from Dwayne in St. Louis, Mo., who says, "I think this panel has highlighted the glaring reality of this administration, which is its inability to lead or make the hard choices. This president seems disconnected or unwilling to look at the reality of being a superpower and the responsibility that comes with it and is too worried about us acting like an aggressor."
MILLERInteresting comment. I think a case can be made that the lessons of Iraq and Afghanistan were over-learned. I think that's an argument...
REHMHow can 12 years of war be over-learned?
MILLER...an argument worth having. Well, because you can't draw the wrong lessons from a particular conflict. I mean, I believe that the same basic problem that we confronted in Iraq and Afghanistan, we confront now in Syria. And that is the relationship between the use of military power and the deployment of American military assets and the political endgame that we want to achieve.
MILLERI could not argue that the price we have paid in Iraq and Afghanistan was worth the return that we actually got. When America acts, it has to ask itself two questions, not just, can it accomplish it? If we wanted to unseat the Assads, we could do it. The question is not just that, it's what will it cost? It's the second question that always needs to accompany the first.
REHMYou said earlier you find yourself in an increasing minority. What does that mean? Are you saying that more and more legislators want to send us into Syria?
MILLERNo. I mean, look, for 25 years, I was part of the private conversation at the Department of State. I'm now part of the public conversation for better or for worse. And the reality is that the chattering classes, the commentariat, in this town, I would argue by and large, favor a much more muscular intervention as policy and in the part of the administration.
REHMWho are they? Who are they?
MILLERWell, they're -- it is a marriage...
REHMI mean, are they the same people who took us into...
REHM...Libya, Iraq, Afghanistan?
MILLERWell, the same on Libya perhaps, but not on Iraq and Afghanistan. It is a marriage of liberal interventionists on one hand and the neoconservatives on the other.
MILLERAnd they have found common cause in part because the neoconservatives despise Barack Obama and his foreign policy and in part because the liberal internationalists are fundamentally and profoundly disappointed in a man they voted for, who they believe have let them down particularly the interventionist -- the responsibility to protect groups who see that we are "leading from behind" -- an unfortunate use of words for sure -- and advocating our responsibilities.
TAKEYHThere is a story in The Washington Post today about the liberal interventionists not necessarily coming along on this particular conflict and the numbers that you have seen before. And in terms of the political parties, if you recall, Gov. Mitt Romney's position was not to arm rebels. He was the standard bearer of the Republican Party. His position was that the president has mishandled this, but I'm not for arming the rebels.
TAKEYHAaron might be in minority in this city. He's well within the vast majority of the American people in Cleveland, in Chicago, in San Francisco. Aaron's position is almost redundant only in this city. And increasingly, I think, the politicians are sensitive to what's happening beyond Washington. As I said, at the end of the day, Mitt Romney represented the Republican Party in the last national election, and his position was not for intervention in Syria.
REHMAll right. Let's go to Newport, R.I. Good morning, John.
JOHNGood morning, Diane. I'm just wondering whether the panel would like to comment on the recent Russian statement of their intent to deliver service to air missile to Assad, and is this not part of the Russian chess game on the international scene and now they've put the USA and their allies into check?
REHMWhat to do you think, Hisham?
MELHEMI mean, this is typical cynical Putin-Russian foreign policy in the Middle East. They really don't care about the suffering of the Syrian people. They believe that we need to deny the United States and other victory, and they feel that the fall of the Assad regime will give the United States another victory after Libya. This is really not a principal position anyway. They are interested in cash. They are interested in having access to naval base in Syria.
MELHEMAnd I think they are gambling that -- and also because of -- they believe -- they wanted to believe the fiction that this is a struggle against extreme Islamist, and we've seen what they've done to Chechnya and what they called their own radical Islamist in Pakistan and in Chechnya. So it fits in with the view of -- Putin's view of the world. And, you know, it's sad when you look at what Assad did to some of those great old Syrian cities, and you look at what the Russians did to Grozny, the capital of Chechnya, you can see a lot of similarities.
REHMAll right. To Austin, Texas. Patrick, you're on the air.
PATRICKAll right. Thanks for taking my call.
PATRICKMy question actually regarded with one of the gentlemen said a moment ago. He was talking about how they began as a peaceful uprising and how it kind of morphed into this horrible thing. The gates were opened and all these horrible, you know, jihadist came in, and it's kind of gotten out of control. Don't you think that if Assad is ousted since they are the best fighters, they'll take over? And, I mean, wouldn't that be bad for everybody in the regions, like, aren't they the first people that are going to go after Israel?
TAKEYHWell, if and when President Assad leaves power, the Alawite minority still there, it has to have some sort of a role in the -- but then, you're going to see the second phase of the civil war, namely, how do you reconstitute national institution from this debris that is left from these animosities that have been honed, from these atrocities that have been committed?
TAKEYHAnd that requires a substantial degree of interaction by the international community not just in terms of provision of economic assistant but also in terms of troops to patrol this. I mean, one thing we saw in Iraq is deployment of forces was necessary in order to mediate these conflicts and have some sort of a national institutions come to power. That's the next and more protracted phase of the civil war as it goes on.
REHMSo how would the Syrian relationship with Israel look from that perspective?
TAKEYHI suspect for quite a while, Syria is going to be involved in its own internal struggles as Iraq is as opposed to fashioning some sort of foreign relations. It's going to be involved in its own conflicts and its own struggles, and all the other actors are going to be part of that. So you're going to have to see -- you won't necessarily have a coherence during foreign policy for some time to come.
REHMHas Israel played any role in keeping President Assad in place? Aaron.
MILLEROnly if you argue that somehow the Israelis should be involved in an active or proactive effort to undermine the Syrian military and defeat him. No. I think the Israelis recognize their own intervention in Lebanon way back -- Hisham knows the story as well as I do -- in the early '80s, I think, cautioned them about the consequences of Israeli intervention and to do essentially what we tried to do in Afghanistan, Iraq and Lebanon, which was nation build.
MILLERThis time around, the Christian minority never had the confidence of the majority of the Lebanese people. So, no, I think Israelis learned their lessons the hard way between 1982 and 1984.
MELHEMI mean, if I can address the issue of radicals winning. Because I don't want the radicals to win, I'm hoping that United States will level the battlefield, so to speak, as they say the playing field.
REHMBut can it?
MELHEMYes. I think it can. I think it can. If this great power cannot do something like this to influence events on the ground in a country like Syria, then as I said, we shouldn't be in this business of being great power.
REHMDo you believe, if there were the will on the part of the American government and the American people, that we could go in and defeat Assad?
TAKEYHI think as Aaron said, we have the capabilities. If United States wants to deploy its forces, it can actually replace the Assad regime. And then that wants to engage in occupational of Syria, it can potentially, at some point, create some sort of a national institutions in that country. We're just not in a position where we want to do that. There's been a lot of discussion here about Syria. There is -- I mean, to be fair, there is a humanitarian crisis here, and human beings are dying in large number. They're going to die more. And eventually, they're going to die at the hands of chemical weapons.
TAKEYHAs the conflict goes through, you're going to see both sides using more extreme, radical measures to break the stalemate. And, unfortunately, this conflict has come to a country that's war weary. And, to be frank, there is not that many strategic interest that are identifiable and discernable to the mass of American people as they look at Syria. And that's just the way it has come to -- about.
TAKEYHSyria now shares a distinction with a lot of African countries that have gone to the conflicts with American indifference, European indifference and so forth. So it takes this place in that long, gray line of crisis that essentially American people are not paying attention to or concerned with just because of their own predicament and as a result of 12 years of conflict that this country has undergone in the Middle East.
REHMAnd you're listening to "The Diane Rehm Show." Let's go now to Indianapolis. Good morning, Charles.
CHARLESGood morning, Diane. And hello to you and your guests.
CHARLESI would like to know, what is the United Nation's appraisal of the current situation? And wouldn't it be more appropriate for the United States to accomplish its goals through that organization?
MILLERSure. But the problem, unlike Libya, is that two members of the -- permanent members of the Security Council, the Russians and the Chinese have no intention of acquiescing, let alone actively supporting a U.N. resolution to allow the United States to do that in order to create a multilateral coalition in order to do that.
REHMAll right. And to Washington, D.C. Good morning, Michael.
MICHAELGood morning, Diane. I was just wanting to make the observation that the extraordinary amount of media coverage of the situation in Syria, and the coverage on NPR in particular seems in some ways could be contributing to a crime in which there may be an inclination to do something to intervene militarily.
REHMTell me how you see that, Michael. Explain that.
MICHAELWell, I mean, there's no doubt that it's an extraordinarily tragic situation. There's been a lot -- people are being injured themselves by the regime, and this creates understandable humanitarian concerns. But...
REHMBut are you saying that you believe the media should not be covering it, that NPR, the BBC, the CNN should not be reporting on it?
MICHAELI wonder if maybe it's just a question of perspective, maybe a little bit less would do.
MILLERYou know, look, there is no gold standard for objectivity in human beings, and there's certainly no gold standard in the media. There are imperfections and biases in coverage of any issue. And it goes up and down given what's happening domestically. Newtown, the Boston massacre at the marathon, you have all of these events which can, in fact, eat up airtime and crowd Syria.
MILLERBut Syria is a story that will continue. It is a wound that continues to bleed. And ultimately, even though I'm against intervention, I suspect the United States -- if Geneva 2.0 fails, we will be drawn in probably along the lines of providing some lethal assistance to the opposition.
MELHEMWe have an average of 200 people being killed on a daily basis in Syria. We have not seen massacres on the scale of (word?), you know, with 7,000 people. But with the potential use of chemical weapons -- and there are indications that chemical weapons have been used by the regime -- you have -- you know, we are waiting for a huge catastrophe to happen.
MELHEMSo you expect the media to ignore this? I mean, obviously, sometimes you ignore it because of other things, because we are concerned by immediate challenges in our lives here. But this is a huge story that deserves a great deal of media attention and scrutiny.
REHMDo you believe in the end, as Aaron has said, that the U.S. will go in in some way?
MELHEMEven this reluctant president will be forced at one point to intervene.
TAKEYHYeah, I do. I agree with that. I think it's going to be in the context of Geneva. American policymakers love to track policies. They always say, if we're going to negotiate, we have to have a robust military component to it or a complement to it. So I suspect in context of Geneva, the president would prefer to lead from behind, so he'll press for Europeans to begin to on the rebels. And gradually, I think, you'll see some sort of an American arms provisions to the rebels. That's going to prove indecisive. There'll be another show about what to do after that.
REHMRay Takeyh, senior fellow at the Council on Foreign Relations, Aaron David Miller, vice president, distinguished scholar at the Woodrow Wilson International Center, Hisham Melhem, Washington bureau chief for Al-Arabiya News Channel, thank you all.
MILLERThank you, Diane.
REHMAnd thanks for listening. I'm Diane Rehm.
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