President Barack Obama arrived in Northern Ireland this morning to attend the G-8 summit. Rapidly changing events in Syria, Iran and Turkey are likely to dominate the meeting’s agenda. In the U.S., some lawmakers are pressing the president to go beyond supplying Syrian rebels with small arms and to consider imposing a no-fly zone. But others warn about the consequences of playing a more active role in Syria without a long-term plan. In Iran, newly-elected President Hassan Rowhani vows his government will fix the country’s economy and reconstruct relations with the world. And violence in Turkey erupts again following a new government crackdown. Diane and her guests discuss the latest developments in the Middle East.
- Hisham Melhem Washington bureau chief of Al-Arabiya News Channel.
- Michael Singh managing director of The Washington Institute for Near East Policy.
- Jason Rezaian foreign correspondent in Tehran for The Washington Post.
- Gen. Wesley Clark former NATO Supreme Allied Commander and senior fellow at the UCLA Burkle Center.
- Trita Parsi president of National Iranian American Council and author of "A Single Roll of the Dice - Obama's Diplomacy with Iran."
- Robin Wright analyst and joint fellow, U.S. Institute of Peace and Woodrow Wilson International Center author of "Rock the Casbah: Rage and Rebellion Across the Islamic World."
MS. DIANE REHMThanks for joining us. I'm Diane Rehm. The U.S. weighs a no-fly zone in Syria, Iran elects a moderate conservative president, and violent clashes spread in Turkey. Joining me to talk about latest developments in the Middle East, Robin Wright of the U.S. Institute of Peace and the Woodrow Wilson International Center, Trita Parsi of the National Iranian American Council, Michael Singh with The Washington Institute for Near East Policy and Hisham Melhem of Al-Arabiya News Channel.
MS. DIANE REHMThroughout the hour, we'll take your calls, questions, comments. Join us on 800-433-8850. Send us an email to email@example.com. Follow us on Facebook or send us a tweet. Good morning to all of you.
MS. ROBIN WRIGHTGood morning.
MR. HISHAM MELHEMGood morning, Diane.
MR. MICHAEL SINGHGood morning.
MR. TRITA PARSIGood morning.
REHMGood to see you all. And joining us by phone now from Tehran is Jason Rezaian. He is foreign correspondent with The Washington Post. Good morning to you, Jason.
MR. JASON REZAIANGood morning, Diane. Thanks for having me on.
REHMCertainly. Jason, I gather the new president Hasan Rouhani has just given his first press conference. Tell us what the mood was, tell us what he said.
REZAIANWell, I think the mood was pretty festive, for lack of a better word. People are very -- some people, a lot of people in Iran are very excited about the change in government after eight years of Mahmoud Ahmadinejad. But I think the thing to most notice about the press conference today was the range of questions he got on so many different issues and challenges facing Iran, foreign policy, economics, relations with Syria, relations with the United States and Iran's nuclear ambitions. I mean, he's got a full plate.
REHMAnd, Robin Wright, you've read the transcript of that press conference. Tell us your impressions.
WRIGHTI actually listened to it live because it was posted on an Iranian website and translated. There were a number of things that he had said that were very striking on foreign policy, which, of course, is what the outside was going to be listening to. And he talked about creating new opportunities, about using wisdom and logic, having relations with all nations with no caveat. He did not mention or include Israel specifically in that, but the idea that anything was possible.
WRIGHTHe said there was a need to think about healing the old wound with the United States. And he said, this would not be easy, but he laid out three conditions, all three of which were very general and were not kind of confrontational. The first was the United States affirming that it does not intend to interfere in Iranian affairs. The second was recognizing Iran's nuclear rights under the non-proliferation treaty.
WRIGHTAnd the third was scrapping bullying policies, very vague, but also, not the kinds of things that are non-negotiable. I mean, this is, I think, something that's on the table for the United States as well.
REHMJason, how surprised are people in Iran at Rouhani's election?
REZAIANWell, I think people were very surprised, but if you've experienced an Iranian presidential election cycle before, it's a very quick sprint, about three weeks long. And anything can really happen. So this time around, there was a big push by people that supported the reform movement of the late 1990s, early 2000s to come out and vote. And it was very well organized. And, you know, judging by the turnout of 72 percent, a lot of people took part.
REHMTrita Parsi, how are the clerics likely to respond to this election?
PARSIWell, Rouhani himself is a cleric, and the idea that the clerics no longer could win the elections because of the people's resentment against the clerics may have at least found one exception because here's a cleric that won, got -- though he is not himself a reformist, he is a moderate, but he really won because of the reformist vote, because of the same vote that came out in 2009.
PARSIThe rhetoric, the language he was using in his campaign sounded quite a lot like what you heard from Mousavi and Karroubi four years ago. But he himself, it's important to note, is not a reformist, did not associate himself with the reformists, but is much more of a centrist.
REHMBut do you see that as a good sign?
PARSIThat he is a -- that he won the elections? I certainly believe that this is a very interesting opportunity. And I think the extent to which he can change things is also dependent upon how much of a cooperation he gets from the outside world. In the sense that if we take a fatalistic approach here from Washington's perspective, and we either miss or perhaps dismiss this opportunity, then I don't think any particular change will come about.
PARSIIt's very much about how we react to this as well. It actually reminds me of when Obama won in 2008, and the Iranians assumed that Obama simply could be no different. And they acted on that assumption, and they missed major opportunities in 2009. Hopefully, the outside world will not commit those mistakes.
REHMRobin, do you agree with that?
WRIGHTWell, one of the most interesting things during the campaign was when Hasan Rouhani talked about serious relation -- serious negotiations and that not just getting out and making pronouncements when they engage with the world's six major powers.
WRIGHTAnd that was a direct reflection on the current nuclear negotiator, Saeed Jalili, who, ironically, was one of the rival candidates in this president election who is infamous for going into these negotiating sessions and talking for hours and hours and hours, often the same thing, trying to talk about what Iran's positions are, to the point that there was a joke in Washington that the Unites States would not be all that disappointed if Jalili won just because they wouldn't have to then sit across the table and negotiate with him.
WRIGHTAnd so there is a sense that Rouhani, who is a nuclear negotiator himself, understands how much it takes and that this is a real skill, and that you can't just send someone who represents the thinking of one, you know, the supreme leader, that this has to be something that reflects the broad interest, political, economic and in terms of foreign policy of Iran and what he deems to be a great nation. And so I think there's a whole different world view. There's a different sophistication, a different experience that is being brought to this job.
REHMJason, were people excited about the election? Were they excited to go to the polls? What did you observe?
REZAIANI think people were very excited to go the polls, and I think since, you know, that was clear, for me, by the fact that there were lines until 11:00 at night on Election Day. And you know, I think that was big a surprise. I mean, nobody really expected it to turn out to be as high as it was, and I think that -- I think, it was very exciting last week.
REHMAnd what about the reaction from the Supreme Leader Ayatollah Ali Khamenei? Jason.
REZAIANI lost you there. I lost you there, Diane. Can you...
REHMOK. Sure. What about the reaction from the Supreme Leader Khamenei? No, he...
PARSIWe lost him.
REHMWell, I'm afraid we've lost him. Have we heard any reaction from him, Trita Parsi?
PARSII don't recall seeing any statement from him, but you have -- the IRGC has congratulated...
WRIGHTThe Revolutionary Guards.
PARSIThe Revolutionary Guards have congratulated him. And there seems to be very few major objections taking place. It is clear, the country is in a mode of trying to see if reconciliation is possible, and everyone seems to be giving that process a chance, at least at this stage.
REHMSo there is a certain optimism at work here with his election.
PARSIWell, people were dancing in the streets of Tehran in the last couple of nights, and the shocking thing, perhaps, is that who would have thought that in 2013, in the summer, there would be violent repression of demonstrators in Istanbul while people would be dancing on the streets in Tehran celebrating an election victory.
REHMTrita Parsi, he's president of the National Iranian American Council. He's also the author of, "A Single Roll of the Dice: Obama's Diplomacy with Iran." I do invite your calls, 800-433-8850. I wonder, Robin, is the expectation too great here with his election?
WRIGHTYes and no. Yes, we can't assume that this is going to make anything any easier. The fundamentals are shared by virtually everyone in Iran about its having the right to enrich uranium for a peaceful nuclear energy program. There's a sense that the issue for Iranians is not about the military option or national security. It's really about sovereignty, independence from outside influence and being able to have the rights of other nations who are signatories to the Non-Proliferation Treaty.
WRIGHTAnd the supreme leader is ultimately the supreme power in Iran. He has the ultimate say, and he is the one who is most skeptical about the United States, perhaps, most fearful of the United States and the potential influence. But I do think that there is something fundamentally important about this election, and that is we're kind of moving into phase two of change in Iran, that in 1997, when President Khatami was elected and inaugurated the reform movement, he was a dark horse who had been director of the National Library, came from nowhere.
WRIGHTNo one -- I think he was allowed to run, in part, because he kind of beefed up the numbers, but he didn't really -- wasn't really considered a serious candidate whereas Rouhani is a man who has had every major national security role, at least, you know, both within the military structure and in the foreign policy community, has credibility, is a cleric, is very much one of the early revolutionaries and so that we're getting someone that is more robust, more credible, more inside.
REHMAll right. And that is the voice of Robin Wright. When we come back, we'll turn to what's happening in Syria and in Turkey. Stay with us.
REHMAnd welcome back. There is a great deal of activity going on in the Middle East so far this morning. We've been talking about Iran. We'll talk further about Iran. But for now, Michael Singh, it's been a turbulent few days. Certainly, let's start with Syria here and the latest plans on a no-fly zone.
SINGHSure. Well, the situation in Syria has been getting worse from the U.S. perspective. We've seen the rebels lose a key battle over the town of Qusair. We've seen Hezbollah sort of surge support to the Assad regime, and we've seen Russia redouble its support for Assad as well. And it looks like this as much as this sort of finding that Assad used chemical weapons, led President Obama to make the decision he did reluctantly to provide arms to the Syrian opposition. Now, the question is, what difference will that make?
SINGHWhat will the support actually look like, and what difference will it make? It's not clear, I think, to a lot of people who are observing this, whether the U.S. is doing something to show that we are doing something, or in simply response to this red line of chemical weapons is being trespassed, or whether we have an actual strategy to achieve an outcome. And, of course, the type of military systems that we're talking about providing the opposition, largely small arms and ammunition, seems unlikely to really tip the military scales.
SINGHIt might help the rebels to contain regime advances but seems unlikely to tip the scales. And that's why people are talking about a no-fly zone because it seems, I think, to most who observe this that if you really want to change the equation in Syria, much more is needed than simply providing the rebels with small arms.
REHMAnd where do you come out on a no-fly zone?
SINGHWell, I think you have to first start with the question of, what's your objective? What are you trying to achieve by doing this? Because when we talk about foreign policy in terms of talking about tactics or actions first, we've already sort of gone down the wrong path.
SINGHIf the objective is to bring Assad to the table, bring the regime to the table and achieve a diplomatic solution, which I think is what President Obama wants, it's what he talks about, then I think what you have to do is disabuse the regime and its supporters of the notion that they can win militarily, that they can win on the field and basically convince them that they have no choice but to come to the table and seek compromise.
SINGHI think if you're going to do that, you really need to put a dent in the regime's military capacity. There are multiple ways to do that. You could do that through arming the rebels, which President Obama has done. That will maybe get you part of the way. But I think you also have to degrade the regime's military capacity itself. And to do that, I think, you have to think about something either like a no-fly zone or air strikes.
SINGHWe have to try to prevent them from being resupplied by Iran and Russia and so forth. I would say, to me, a no fly-zone seems not as good in this sense as simply air strikes on the regime's forces. And that might be harder to accomplish diplomatically because it will seem more offensive than defensive. But over the long run, it might be more effective and less costly for the United States.
REHMAnd, Robin Wright, where do you come out on a no-fly zone?
WRIGHTWell, I remember we had a no-fly zone in Iraq for five years between 1997 and 2003, and we still had to go in to topple Saddam Hussein. And that ended up having an eight-year presence and one of costliest modern wars for the United States. I think we need to be very careful that we are not, in effect, entering this conflict even with just small arms and suddenly owning it. Not only owning the fate of the rebels, the outcome of the war, but also what happens next in Syria and having to recreate it, rebuild it in a country that's been seriously devastated over the last two years.
REHMHow is President Obama being nudged or even pushed in this direction?
WRIGHTThere have been two kind of rounds of debate within the administration. And in the first round, he pushed back, supported by Susan Rice, who's his incoming national security adviser, Tom Donilon, his outgoing national security adviser, who were very reluctant to get involved. Those advocating for U.S. intervention included David Petraeus, who was then the CIA director, Hillary Clinton and Leon Panetta at the Pentagon.
WRIGHTNow, you find that there is, I think, because of the growing pressure from the Hill, because of the intervention of Hezbollah into the war, which complicates it profoundly and makes it not just a war about Syria but also a war about Iran's role in the region, the sectarian divide, that there is a sense that the stakes are bigger and the U.S. can't allow the rebels to lose, particularly after the United Nations comes out and says there are 93,000 people who've been killed.
REHMHisham, where are you on a no-fly zone?
MELHEMWell, I support a no-fly zone. I support robust American reaction. I've been calling for this for more than a year now, and I think the decision by the president to provide light arms to the Syrian opposition is too little, maybe too late. We don't know. Time will tell. The major difference between the friends of Bashar al-Assad and the friends of Syria is this, the friends of Bashar al-Assad, Russia, Iran and Hezbollah, are committed to see him win the war.
MELHEMThe friends of the Syrian people, the Americans, the EU and even some Arabs, not all of them, are not as committed to making the rebels win decisively. That is the major difference. Now, America intervened in many conflicts in the past, and sometimes you are forced to intervene in conflict. Last time, I was here with two other guests. Two of them were opposed to intervention. But at the end, you asked us the simple questions, will he be forced to intervene? And the three of us said yes.
MELHEMThe use of chemical weapons will likely increase if we don't do anything about it. And already, the problem in Syria is no longer a Syrian problem. The problem in Syria is a regional catastrophe and not only waiting to happen, it is happening. And the United States cannot just sit and watch when it's -- the five countries -- I keep repeating this. Turkey has been affected negatively. Iraq is being drawn into the conflict. There are Shia Iraqis fighting with the regime. Jordan is very brittle.
MELHEMLebanon is beyond brittle. It is already happening. The war already spilled over to Lebanon. And you have a very disturbing situation on the Golan between the Israelis and the Syrians. So the president of the United States had to do something. Otherwise, the United States stature, its leadership, its reputation will be irreparably damaged.
PARSII agree with Hisham that this is a regional disaster. This started off as a struggle for democracy, and it's been hijacked by both regional as well as global rivalries. And right now, it seems increasingly as the true driving forces is this fight between the Saudis and the Iranians, and they're using Syria to fight it out, essentially. But at the same time, I think it is very difficult to envision any military victory for either side.
PARSII think those who are supporting Assad, they are mistaken if they think that he can win. But at the same time, those who thought that he would lose in the last two years have also been proven wrong so far. It seems very sad because essentially, there's more arms going to this fight for nothing more than to sustain a stalemate because no one's gonna win this.
REHMAnd that's the question, Michael Singh. What is our ultimate goal in Syria?
SINGHWell, I think that's right. And I think that often, you'll hear post -- that diplomacy and military assistance are somehow mutually exclusive options. But I think, you know, those of us who have engaged in diplomacy know that's not true. In fact, if you want diplomacy to succeed, often you have to have a strategy that includes military elements, sanctions, pressure and things like that.
SINGHAnd the question is if our objective here is to oust Assad, replace him with a regime which is not gonna be an ally of Iran and also not a jihadist regime, the question is, how do we achieve that? The president wants to achieve that at the negotiating table, which I think is correct. You know, we prefer to achieve it through diplomacy than through sort of Iraq-style invasion, absolutely.
SINGHI think one of the lessons of Iraq and Afghanistan, perhaps the most important one, is we have to have clear objectives and try to achieve them economically, efficiently as opposed to what -- the opposite. And here, I think -- look, the question is, what will it take for diplomacy to succeed? And I think you go back to what Hisham said, which is that Russia, Iran and Assad, they feel they can win militarily. They're committed to this fight.
SINGHAnd they haven't seen really anything from the United States that would dissuade them from that. So now they see, look, the United States is in this much more seriously. And they have to worry. For Russia, they have to worry, do we really want to confront the United States here in Syria, given all the other issues we have with the United States? For Iran, Iran has to, I think, worry about the same thing.
SINGHDo we wanna confront the United States quite seriously in Syria or not? And I think Assad has to worry, can I win militarily if the United States is now involved more seriously on the side of rebels. And that should all push the parties towards diplomacy, towards compromise. It may not, but I think it has a chance to.
REHMAnd how much will or might happen at the G8, Robin?
WRIGHTThat's pivotal. And in many ways, the debate has been armed or not armed, no-fly or no fly -- or no no-fly.
WRIGHTAnd the problem is there's a big middle ground here where I don't think the United States has used the muscle that it has, and the G-8 really is tremendously important. President Obama had an hour long video teleconference with the leaders, four major European leaders on Friday before this meeting in Northern Ireland to try to hammer out a policy. And the fact is we haven't done enough.
WRIGHTWe've allowed the Russians particularly to bully us. Putin and Foreign Minister Lavrov had basically drawn their line in the sand and said, you know, we're backing Assad. You have to tell us what the alternative. There have to be, you know, certain conditions that they set. And we haven't done enough in trying to mobilize the vast number of people in the world, major countries that are -- you know, who have said Assad has to go, including some of our Arab allies.
WRIGHTWe haven't kind of tried to forge the unity that we did in the -- when Libya was such a contest, so that there's one position. We've also allowed, frankly, the Syrian opposition to be so -- in such disarray that they haven't created a viable alternative for us. And I fear that the idea of getting us these small arms will not be enough and that -- I'm a Vietnam-generation baby. I remember being slowly sucked into Vietnam.
WRIGHTYou do a little bit, and then you end up doing a little bit more and a little bit more until it becomes an all-out war. And that's, you know -- I think we're gonna face some very fast decisions this time because of the looming battle of Aleppo, which is the New York of Syria and is the one that the Syrian regime is gonna go for next.
PARSII'd like to take it back a little bit to the region and perhaps not as of a D.C.-centric conversation because, frankly, I think right now, at least, the key players are not the United States. The United States may turn itself into a key player if it goes in militarily, but that has, of course, a lot of other repercussions.
PARSIThe fact that Rouhani was elected in Iran, and I don't wanna overstate, but there is a small possibility that because of his team's ability to have a more functioning conversation with the Saudis, that, I think, can actually create a far greater opportunity of being able to prepare the ground for some sort of a diplomatic solution because, ultimately, the Iranians and the Saudis have to stop fighting each other in Syria in order for this to stop.
PARSIThat may be a small opportunity that I think is more important as to whether the rebels get some small arms or if the Assad regime gets one of -- this or that from the Russians.
SINGHWell, it's an interesting point. I think this gets back to the question of how should we respond to Rouhani's victory? What will Rouhani's victory bring in Iran? And one thing that Trita said earlier was, well, the IRGC has congratulated him. I think, though, that if you look at that statement by IRGC in previous statements, they're also clear that the president needs to remain in Iran within the scope of his responsibilities, is what they say.
SINGHAnd it's very clear that in Iran, activity in Syria supporting the Assad regime -- or the nuclear program, for that matter -- is not within the scope of the president's responsibilities. That's controlled by the supreme leader, in the case of the nuclear program. It's controlled by the IRGC, in the case of what's happening in Syria and also Iran's activities in Iraq, for example. And the most interesting thing now to see will not be what does Rouhani say in a press conference.
SINGHWe know Rouhani. We've dealt with him before. The interesting thing to see will be what happens in terms of the power dynamics inside Iran? How much authority does he have to affect these issues?
SINGHYou know, does, for example, Jalili, Saeed Jalili, remain as the nuclear negotiator? These will be key issues.
REHMAnd you're listening to "The Diane Rehm Show." I know you wanted to jump in. Go right ahead.
MELHEMI think it's too late for the Saudis and the Iranians to reach a deal, and it may be too late for diplomacy in general. And I think the Iranians are already committed to this regime till the end, and there are reports that 4,000 Iranian men are going to Syria to help the regime. It is too late. And I'll tell you what, most civil wars are not finished at the negotiating table. My criticism of the president from last year is that he didn't move quickly and swiftly to help the rebels before the entry, the bigger entry of the radicals from throughout the Muslim world who are fighting on both sides.
MELHEMNow we have, what's taking place in Syria -- I keep repeating this. Syria is the Spanish Civil War in -- of the region, where Shia volunteers from Lebanon, Iraq and other places are fighting with the regime, and Sunni jihadists and nuts and crazies are helping the rebels.
REHMAll right. But -- all right. Hisham, given that you believe it's too little, too late...
REHM...what do you think the U.S. can accomplish in Syria?
MELHEMI'm gonna say something that is not kosher, that is not -- maybe a heresy here in Washington. One party has to win. If this thing drags on for another six months or to a year, what you will end up with is soft partition of Syria. You will have ethnic groups like the Kurds in the northeast, the Alawites on the coastal line and the Sunnis in the middle, and this country will be the Afghanistan of the 1990s -- of 1980s.
REHMGeorge Singh -- Michael Singh. Forgive me.
SINGHWell, I think that, you know, Hisham is right when he describes the stakes and the dangers here. But I think that we shouldn't let ourselves, again, think that diplomacy now somehow has to be put to the side now that we're more militarily involved. I mean, when you think about, for example, Iraq, so much of what we invested in Iraq, so much of what we accomplished in Iraq over the years in my view was undone towards the end by bad diplomacy.
SINGHDiplomacy is involved at every step along the way. And the question now for President Obama, I think, is he has made a step towards commitment in this Syrian crisis, and that could end badly or could end well. To end well, he now has to use this in a diplomatic process to strengthen his hand and to use it against Iran and Russia and so forth.
WRIGHTFirst of all, this conflict has devolved already because of the sectarian divide between Sunni and Shiite in a way that echoes back 1,400 years, and we have to be careful about getting sucked into something that is under the Islamic world. Secondly, Syria was an artificially created country by European powers a century ago, and I'm not convinced that it wouldn't fall apart anyway because of some of the centrifugal forces in the region.
REHMAll right. I want to be clear about something. I know what Hisham Melhem's feeling is. It's too little, too late, but we need to do something now. What is your feeling? Do we stay out completely and rely on diplomacy, Robin?
WRIGHTThis is where the issue of morality versus reality keeps haunting all of us, that the -- it is unacceptable what's happening on the ground, what the Assad regime is doing...
WRIGHT...and I think we should do more.
WRIGHTI'm not sure, though, in terms of arming. There -- I think there are countries that are prepared to arm the Syrian rebels. I think we should do -- be doing more aid to...
REHMBritain, France and the like?
WRIGHTWell, particularly the Gulf countries, Saudi Arabia and Qatar, which have been the primary sources of funding and weaponry for the rebels so far. We have been very ineffective in pushing the Syrian opposition to form a viable alternative. We've tried over and over. We haven't tried enough. We have not done enough, I think, in -- on the diplomatic front in, as I said earlier, standing up to the Russians.
WRIGHTThere are roles that the United States can play without suddenly tainting the war and suddenly owning it. The middle -- the moment we do, we're in trouble.
REHMAll right. And that's Robin Wright and Hisham Melhem. We hope to hear from Gen. Wesley Clark. I'm going to talk about Turkey when we come back. Stay with us.
REHMWelcome back. And joining us now for the rest of the hour from Los Angeles is Gen. Wesley Clark. He's a senior at the UCLA's Burkle Center, former NATO Supreme Allied Commander. Thanks for joining us, sir.
GEN. WESLEY CLARKWell, it's good to be with you, Diane.
REHMThank you. Tell us your thoughts about the growing U.S. involvement in the Syrian conflict.
CLARKWell, you know, Diane, I was the NATO commander who did the operation in Kosovo. So I've done it. I've been there. I've combined force and diplomacy with tremendous leadership by President Clinton and Madeleine Albright and our NATO allies. And we actually did avert a civil war. We ended it diplomatically by the use of force, and we had some harrowing moments in that conflict, but it came out successfully. And Kosovo is now an independent nation.
CLARKSo in principal, what has happened is that when the president has -- President Obama has made the decision to begin lethal aid, he started a process which can leverage diplomacy. It has to be worked simultaneously with the diplomacy. And in Kosovo, what we did is we did continual escalation. We achieved escalation dominance. The United States is the dominant military power in the Middle East right now, and Russia knows it, Iran knows it, and Syria knows it.
REHMSo would you be in favor of creating a no-fly zone immediately?
CLARKWell, I think that the most important thing is to set the structure right, and what we're really looking for is a diplomatic solution, I think, which entails a ceasefire, the U.N. monitoring and observing force on the ground, disarmament. I think foreign fighters have to leave. And I think that as we move toward and get these conditions out there that I think the parties, provided the United States is firm and is willing to put its chips in play, that people will recognize the current situation is better than what they're heading toward as an alternative.
REHMBut, Gen. Clark, aren't you being overly optimistic about getting all these foreign fighters out and sitting down and speaking diplomatically? It would seem that the situation is gone beyond that, and that those who are calling for a no-fly zone realize that it's gone too far.
CLARKWell, you know, I think that many, many things are possible if parties work together and have common interest to do it. So there have been people calling for a no-fly zone for two years. So they're not calling for a no-fly zone now because they think things have gone too far for diplomatic settlement. There are many reasons to call for a no-fly zone, and certainly, one of things the president can do is he can call for the no-fly zone.
CLARKBut it's not going to be resolved in Syria by the military alone. So there's not gonna be a bombing campaign. There's not gonna be a no-fly zone. We're not gonna take out a bunch of air defense, and suddenly, that's the end of it. It's gonna be resolved when Bashar Assad realizes he doesn't have an alternative for staying in power.
REHMI have four other people here in the studio with me. Michael Singh, Defense Secretary Hagel has said that the tough questions aren't about weapon shipments, air strikes or no-fly zones. But what would happen then?
SINGHWell, I think that's a question you have to answer, obviously, before you engage in any of those activities.
SINGHAnd I would hope that the administration answer that question before they agreed to send arms to the opposition. If they haven't, then we're going down a dangerous road here. Look, I think, you look at the possible outcomes in Syria. It could be a sort of Assad-Iranian-Hezbollah victory. That would be terrible for United States' interests because it would strengthen those forces in the Levant. And Iran has talked explicitly about how it has a strategy to project power into the Mediterranean. And that's something we don't wanna see.
SINGHAnother possibility is to the see the breakup of Syria or a sort of jihadist-type state in Syria. That also is something we don't wanna see. So we're looking for something in between those two options. And I think that we need to start by saying, is that realistic? Is there, say, a moderate opposition which may not be sort of our best friends, who may not be the types of guys we wanna marry our daughters to, but who we can work with, who we can share interests with and so forth.
SINGHAnd in my view and in the view, I think, of many others, there is this Assyrian opposition that looks like that. And so we have to have a strategy to strengthen that opposition, to convince Assad and his supporters that they can't win and to essentially have a diplomatic path towards the government, which is not going to be a problem for us.
REHMAnd, Hisham, how do you react?
MELHEMI'm willing to give this approach a try. I mean, I'm willing to see the president seriously arming the opposition. We know some of them. We vetted them. The Jordanians know their background. So -- I mean, this whole notion that everybody who's fighting in Syria against the regime are crazy Islamists is really incredible and has no basis in reality.
MELHEMThis moral -- creating this moral equivalence between the brutal regime using systematic attacks to kill civilians in Syria, more than 100,000, and a bunch of jihadists who came there and -- just to reduce the conflict to these two types of fighters is really deceiving people. There are people in Syria who want a modern Syria, who want a pluralistic Syria, and we need to help them. And by helping them, we will be helping ourselves in the future.
MELHEMNow, if this approach doesn't work immediately -- and I have no illusions about it -- people should be ready mentally and politically to the fact that, in the end, sometimes conflicts are resolved militarily 100 percent. Take the Civil War in America. Take the civil war in Spain. These things happen that way.
WRIGHTI don't think that there is a winning military option in Syria, unfortunately. My fear is that the Syrian opposition looks much more like the Iraqi opposition that we supported than the Libyan opposition. The Libyans got their act together, operated inside the country. The Iraqis were -- turned out not to represent and have almost no following inside Iraq. And as a result, we kind of -- the United States did not get its allies to be the winning players in the political field. The Syrian National Coalition is very divided. It's proven to be feckless.
WRIGHTThe Syrian Military Council is very divided. It doesn't include the Al-Nusra Front, which is under U.S. sanctions. These are rebels who are sanctioned as terrorists and extremists by the United States, and yet they're on the side that we want to run. This is where we, you know, we just don't have it together when it comes to figuring out what we do next and what role we should play and what we want Syria to look like. We're kind of entering something without thinking it through, and that's what concerns me the most.
REHMAnd does that concern you as well, Gen. Clark?
CLARKWell, of course, it concerns me. I think it's a huge problem. But I think that we've made some progress over the last year and a half in working with the Syrian opposition. We know there are reasonable and responsible people in there, and I think it's possible to use the leverage generated by the president's commitment to send lethal aid along with training programs and our allies to further strengthen the moderate opposition.
CLARKI think it's possible that if it's done the right way, we can strengthen that opposition and still take action against Al-Nusra as appropriate and still head off the break up with Syria or the win by Bashar al-Assad. I don't think all is lost there, but I -- I think it's late in the game, but I don't think it's lost.
REHMAll right. I want to bring up another issue, and that is your expectations, Gen. Clark, for an outcome in Turkey. President Erdogan has cracked down once again on these protesters and yet seems to be offering an olive branch. What's your thought?
CLARKDiane, are you asking me?
CLARKYeah. So I'm concerned that Erdogan has overreached, and he's getting backlash at the -- his growing sort of dictatorial tendencies on social issues. There were things wrong in Turkey. People supported that. But even people who voted for him think that he's overreaching on the emplacement of the mosques and the elimination of these public parks and so forth. I think he needs to work very carefully on this. Turkey is a secular country.
CLARKIt has been a secular country since Ataturk. And it's a growing country. It's got a lot of prosperity. It's got a lot of future. So he needs to handle it very diplomatically.
REHMAll right. Michael Singh.
SINGHWell, I think the real concern here is that, you know, in Erdogan's version of democracy, it appears that he thinks that since he won the election, he can now do what he wants. And I think one of the most concerning things we've seen is, in the last day or so, the mobilization of sort of AKP supporters, the supporters of the prime minister's party against the protesters is oh, this is kind of the Erdogan majority against other Turkish citizens.
SINGHThat's very alarming if you care about civility and democracy in Turkey. I think it's alarming to see doctors being arrested for treating the protesters. It's alarming to see the hotel owners being targeted in the way they are. And I think that, you know, this type of appalling behavior, I think the West, you know, Europe, United States, really all democratic countries, need to say, this is not how democracy works. And they need to hold Prime Minister Erdogan to a democratic standard.
MELHEMWell, I mean, Turkey has democratic institutions. And Erdogan won three elections. He is the most consequential Turkish leader since Mustafa Kemal, and yet he's destroying his legacy by his own autocratic approach. He's acting like some -- he reminds me of some of those Arab leaders who were overthrown, the way he is demonizing the opposition, the way he is acting, just because, you know, he believes in majoritarianism. He doesn't believe in democracy the way we do.
MELHEMAnd part of the problem there is, yeah, he won 50, 51 percent, fine. But how are you going to deal with the 49 percent who are opposing you and dealing with them politically? I mean, when he rallies his own supporters, he's acting like an opposition leader. I mean, I have my troops, too, and your troops too. And then, you know, they will meet, and they will probably clash. And this is very likely to happen, by the way. And I think he is threatening the whole -- his legacy.
WRIGHTWhat's happening in Turkey has broad repercussions for the entire region. This is very much about this argument about Islam and democracy that's playing out across the region. It's about how far can an Islamic leader go in trying to deal with Islam in society, in politics. And he went too far. He's become increasingly authoritarian. And ironically just a year ago, everyone was talking about Turkey as the model for the Arab countries going through transitions. This is kind of a lesson. You know what, the Islamists may do well in politics, but they're going to be held to account too.
REHMAll right. To Arlington, Texas. Good morning, Paez. (sp?) You're on the air. Hello?
REHMYes. Go right ahead.
PAEZHello. Yeah. This is Paez. I'm calling from Texas. I have a question. The question is this -- we're all talking about political situation in an area where there is no political compromise. My question is this, how do you bring in the leaders of the Sunni and the leaders of the Shiite to join together and live peacefully in this region?
PARSII think it's very interesting because this idea that there is the Sunni-Shia conflict in the region was more of a political discourse up until Syria. With Syria, you have seen this discourse really take root in the region, and increasingly, a Sunni-Shia prism is viewed, is used to be able to see the region through.
PARSIAnd again, I think it goes back to the very central issue that unless you bring in some of these key players in diplomacy, however difficult it may be, you're gonna have just more fighting without any real prospect for victory. The idea that one side has to win, reality is that for many people, that sounds as if there has to be ethnic cleansing and essentially eliminate them. When they have that perception, you just see a perpetuation of the warfare.
REHMAnd you're listening to "The Diane Rehm Show." Michael Singh.
SINGHI think it's, you know, this question of how do you broker peace between these kind of sectarian factions is an important one in this region because you don't have many pluralistic societies or governments. The Syrian regime, for example, was essentially a minority Alawite regime ruling over Syria and staffing kind of the key positions of power largely with Alawites and so forth, which means that the Alawite minority, the Christian minority in Syria is sort of still clinging to supporting the regime because they worry about what will happen to them if the Sunni rebels are victorious.
SINGHAnd I think they worry rightly. And so part of our strategy has to be, how do you reassure these minorities? Can you reassure these minorities? They then oppose Assad's Syria. Their interests will be protected. They'll be included in government. I think that gets back to what Gen. Clark was talking about. I think that probably requires you to say, well, we're going to have international peacekeepers on the ground. And will people accept that as a credible reassurance or not? And I think this is one of the most difficult questions about the diplomacy here.
REHMAll right. A caller in Silver Spring, Md. Good morning, Joan.
JOANGood morning. What I often wondered was where did this leader of Syria -- where did he stow his family away? Are they still living in the palace or whatever it is there in Syria?
REHMDo we know where they are, Robin?
WRIGHTI think it's believed his mother is out of the country. But I think his wife and children are believed still to be inside the country. There've been various reports over time that they'd fled to a country in the Gulf. But I don't think we've seen any trace of that. I think they've stayed.
REHMGen. Clark, I want to ask you before we end about your reaction to the election in Iran.
CLARKWell, I think it's a very, very good sign. But the question is, will the new elected president have any real authority over the issues that count? He doesn't control the Revolutionary Guards. He certainly doesn't control the nuclear program. And he's going to be hemmed in at all points where he tries to work internationally. So I think it's an expression of intent by the people of Iran. The Iranians that I've talked to are surprised at the outcome of the election.
CLARKIt seems that votes were actually counted. The question is, will it have any impact on the policies that America and the region cares most about. That remains to be decided, but I'm not optimistic about it.
REHMLast word, Michael Singh.
SINGHWell, I think the results of the Iran election poses a real challenge for the Obama administration because on the one hand, they'll be -- they'll see the election of Rouhani as a potential opening, as opening to be probed. And the question is, how do you do that without essentially being tricked into softening your negotiating position and so forth, without, you know, without sort of throwing him concessions which ultimately get you nowhere?
SINGHAnd so this is a real challenge for the Obama administration. How do you reach out without appearing weak, without sort of compromising your own interests? And we'll see what they do.
REHMMichael Singh, Hisham Melhem, Trita Parsi, Robin Wright, Gen. Wesley Clark, thank you all.
REHMAnd thanks for listening. I'm Diane Rehm.
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