Growing Pressure On The U.S. To Respond To Events In Syria

MR. FRANK SESNO

10:06:57
Thank you for joining us. I'm Frank Sesno of the George Washington University and host of "Planet Forward," sitting in for Diane Rehm today. As a U.N. inspection team in Damascus comes under fire today, the U.S. is considering possible military action in Syria. Joining me in the studio to talk about allegations of a large-scale Syrian chemical weapons attack, growing pressure on the United States to respond, some of the strategic issues raised by all of this, David Schenker of the Washington Institute for Near East Policy, Susan Glasser of Politico and from a studio at KGOU in Norman, Okla., Joshua Landis of the Center for Middle Eastern Studies. Good day to all of you.

MS. SUSAN GLASSER

10:07:36
Thank you.

MR. JOSHUA LANDIS

10:07:36
Good morning.

MR. DAVID SCHENKER

10:07:36
A pleasure to be here.

SESNO

10:07:37
It is a pleasure to have you. And, Susan, congratulations. It's your first day at Politico. You're running long-form journalism and opinion there after a distinguished career at Foreign Policy. So all the best.

GLASSER

10:07:48
Well, thank you very much. It's gonna be a fun new project.

SESNO

10:07:50
We're excited to see what you can do and create. Susan Glasser, why don't you get us started then on what the latest is that we know out of Syria? There are a lot of claims and counterclaims here. So what do we know?

GLASSER

10:08:04
Well, that's part of the goal of a U.N. inspection team went out this morning after a delay of several days to investigate the alleged chemical weapons incident in which supposedly up to a couple of thousand, maybe 1,500 people in Syria on the outskirts of Damascus were subjected to a chemical gas attack. International medical groups have reported that several hundred were dead that they treated something like 1,400 people.

GLASSER

10:08:35
The U.N. inspectors today came under fire as they went out. The United States has already said they will consider this inspection because it was so belated to be insufficient regardless clearly Pres. Obama and his advisers are considering some sort of serious military response. Over the weekend, there have been numerous meetings. There have been consultations with Western allies, the British, the French, along with Pres. Obama.

GLASSER

10:09:05
So I think we're moving towards along to a day of reckoning with just what it would mean to have this red line, as Pres. Obama dubbed it a year, crossed in such a horrific way.

SESNO

10:09:17
David Schenker, to you, we had word just in the last little bit that the U.N. inspectors actually visited the site. They were shot at upon. They were fired on earlier, but they've actually visited the alleged site. Do you inspect anything to come from the U.N. mission?

SCHENKER

10:09:34
Not really. I think that there is an issue not only of chain of custody of determining after an event what exactly happened and who was responsible. But more so I think in terms of forensics, the longer the time gap is between the actual deployment of the weapon and the inspection, the harder it is to actually confirm with any certainty whether it actually happened.

SESNO

10:10:02
Joshua Landis, let me pull you into this conversation. From what we've seen and heard and from what intelligence officials surely around the world are examining, is there any way to determine what actually happened on the ground by virtue of what we've seen and heard up to now?

LANDIS

10:10:18
Well, it does seem clear that there's been a use of chemical weapons. Exactly what that is whether it's sarin or something else is not clear. But samples have been gotten to various outside the country, and it will be, you know, we'll wait and see. The point, though, is that the chemical weapons and weapons of mass destruction of the regime that the United States is so keen to uphold and to limit the use of these weapons is a very important interest for the United States, and it will want to take a firmer response.

LANDIS

10:10:53
The problem is that it could very quickly slip into a full bore military response to the Syrian civil war because separating out the human rights violations of the Assad regime which are multiple and many from the use of chemical weapons is a very difficult process, and it's a coldblooded process. And if America wants to respond and say, OK, you can't use chemical weapons, but you can go ahead and slaughter people, you know, that sets up a lot of difficulties on its own right.

SESNO

10:11:24
Well, that's a question I'd like actually to pose to the group. What is it about chemical weapons that sets this apart both in terms of international law, international response or that threshold? Because there have been no shortage of atrocities in Syria up until now, but is what is prompting the crossing of the red line, Susan, as you mentioned.

GLASSER

10:11:42
I think, first of all, let's step back and look we're now nearing the 100,000 mark in terms of casualties so far in the Syrian civil war. I saw something this morning that we're approaching comparable casualty figures to those in Rwanda which is widely considered to have been a horrific human rights abuses that the United States did nothing and stood by for. Pres. Clinton called that the greatest regret of his presidency.

GLASSER

10:12:09
And so why is it, you know, dead is dead, right? And so on some level, I think, there's already the moral question of have we left lapse our responsibility to protect which is an official U.N. doctrine, by the way, that was adopted by the international community several years ago in the mid-2000s and yet, of course, is being honored in the breach here. And so you have this question about is there a substantive difference.

GLASSER

10:12:34
And then you also have the political question. Pres. Obama got substantial pushback in the region a year ago. And remember, it was already one year ago when he outlined that this was a red line, the use of chemical weapons. And there were many people in the Middle East who asked at the time, well, what that does mean that it's okay for them to kill our children as long as they don't kill them with chemical weapons.

GLASSER

10:12:55
And so I think you have this very difficult task of sorting through why it is even if we do undertake some sort of response, we should do so when you stood by while 100,000 people were killed.

SESNO

10:13:07
David Schenker.

SCHENKER

10:13:08
Yeah. It strikes me as quite a bit of an arbitrary trigger to have 1,000 people killed with sarin, and all of a sudden, we are gearing up for a tomahawk missile attack when you have stood by essentially for two years as 100,000 have been killed. But I'd make a wider point here which is that this isn't just about CBW. We do have a distinct interest in maintaining this chemical weapons regime, a WMD really just penalizing any states that do so and sending a very clear message.

SESNO

10:13:36
There are international treaties, and there is international law built around this notion of weapons of mass destruction, chemical weapons in particular.

SCHENKER

10:13:44
Right. Well, but you can go further than that. I mean this is a problem, but we have, as the United States, a set of very distinct national interests at stake here that go beyond the chemical weapons. This is the destabilization, for example, of Iraq. You're a resumption of a civil war that's spurred by the sectarian conflict in Syria. You're seeing a threat of resumption of the civil war in Lebanon being triggered by not only the refugees but also Hezbollah's participation and all the sectarian raw feelings in Lebanon over what's going on in Syria.

SCHENKER

10:14:20
You're seeing a million refugees in Jordan, financial crisis and any broad range of issues here that are really in, you know, get to the heart of U.S. interest.

SESNO

10:14:31
Joshua Landis, I want to come to you and ask you about this chemical weapons threshold.

LANDIS

10:14:38
Right. Well, there are two distinct interests from the United States. One is adjudicating a civil war and stopping human rights violations. And the two is upholding these chemical weapons and weapons of mass destruction regime. And they are distinct U.S. interests. It's possible that one can do something successful about the use of chemical weapons by striking at Assad and making him fearful of using them again.

LANDIS

10:15:06
Whereas trying to adjudicate the civil war, America has done this twice in the breach before it sucked us into a trillion dollar expense in both of the countries. And we didn't halt the civil war. In fact, it's unclear that we've actually made the situation better. So those are two distinct problems. It's very clear why Obama is loath to get in to Syria a full-bore occupation of Syria where he doesn't have a partner inside Syria, and he doesn't really have an international partner.

LANDIS

10:15:35
And he's made that sort of the bellwether of his foreign policy as America is not going to do another one of these things alone. And he's right I think in that sense to look for international support.

SESNO

10:15:48
OK. Well, let's talk about that for a moment because Pres. Obama in the last several days has spoken with French and British leaders. Defense Secretary Hagel has spoken directly to the Syrians themselves. Second of State John Kerry has been speaking with the foreign minister in Russia, and certainly, the Russians have kept this at more than arm's length. There was a very interesting comment today from Turkey's foreign minister who told a Turkish daily newspaper there that more than 35 nations are considering joining the United States and taking action.

SESNO

10:16:16
In Britain, The Daily Telegraph today reports that the Royal Navy may be on the move, and officials there are quoted as saying action could take place within a week. So behind the scenes on these international hotlines, a lot appears to be going on. What do we know beyond what I just recited about any of it, David?

SCHENKER

10:16:37
I think we've been trying for some time to generate a coalition of the willing, not necessarily a coalition of the willing that will be ready to go to war but an international type of consensus. This has been a key for Pres. Obama to take any type of military action.

SESNO

10:16:53
To take the lead. For the U.S. to take the lead?

SCHENKER

10:16:55
Well, not even to take the lead. I think if you go back to Libya as the model for the president, that is to participate in any way we need international consensus, international legitimacy, U.N. Security Council and Arab League support.

SESNO

10:17:09
Susan Glasser.

GLASSER

10:17:10
Well, and I think it's particularly urgent in this case because there's not going to be U.N. Security Council support for this. The Russians and the Chinese had made it very clear that they are not going to be supportive of any effort by the U.N. Security Council to sanction Syria even mild politically worded language to censure and reprove Assad has never been approved by the Russians who have been the single biggest supporters.

GLASSER

10:17:33
They have supplied the military of the Assad regime. They have basically enabled him to go on fighting. And so it's very clear that there's not going to be any U.N. Security Council support which makes it all the more important for Obama to have the cloak on an international coalition backing whatever action he takes right now.

SESNO

10:17:50
A cloak of international...

GLASSER

10:17:53
Well, it's unclear exactly who's going to actually do anything. In fact, most people envision that the United States military will undoubtedly be the vast majority of the military force behind whatever is contemplated. There are reports out of Britain, we discussed earlier, that the Royal Navy is also prepared to take part. I'm sure there may be participation by other allied coalition military forces, but undoubtedly, this will be a United States-led response to Assad.

SESNO

10:18:24
Coming up, more on the situation in Syria and the alleged use of chemical weapons there, the U.S. response and the role of Russia in all of this. More on "The Diane Rehm Show" ahead.

SESNO

10:20:05
Welcome back to "The Diane Rehm Show." I'm Frank Sesno, sitting in for Diane today, joined by David Schenker, director of the Arab Politics Program at the Washington Institute for Near East Policy, Susan Glasser, editor Politico -- first day on the job there -- and from a studio at KGOU in Norman, Okla., Joshua Landis. He's the director of the Center for Middle Eastern Studies at the University of Oklahoma.

SESNO

10:20:27
Joshua, I wanna start with you in this part of this discussion and talking a little bit more about the role of Russia in all of this. Not that it's a super power anymore, but we are encountering this crisis over Syria at a terrible moment in U.S.-Russian relations', as chilly as it's been, summit that was gonna take place between the two leaders put off to the side.

SESNO

10:20:47
And a spokesman for the foreign ministry in Moscow had this to say over the last couple of days, "We again resolutely call on all who are trying to impose the results of the U.N. investigations who say armed actions against Syria is possible to show common sense and avoid tragic mistakes." What's the role, what's the influence of Russia in all of this?

LANDIS

10:21:10
Well, the Russian role is quite big. And on your previous question, you know, everybody is trying to get America involved in this issue. It's a you-first issue. The United States spent the first two years of this -- of the civil war going to the Arab league -- Saudi Arabia, Turkey -- trying to get them to go in first with America following, even the Europeans, the French and the British. All of them see Syria as a swamp. They want the United States to fix their Syrian problem. They'll go in behind, but they want America taking a lead.

LANDIS

10:21:43
And that's really -- it's a you-first situation. Russia -- and part of the reason nobody wants to get involved is that Russia is against involvement and has already turned up the pressure by supplying -- increasingly supplying arms to Assad. And it gets us into a cold war situation. And the question for the United States is, do -- is Syria important enough to them to take on Russia, take on Iran, in a Syrian context, or do we not have an interest in Syria?

LANDIS

10:22:15
And that's been the big sort of national interest in Syria debate is, is Syria a, you know, is it important enough to take on Russia and Iran and Hezbollah and Iraq in a sense in this context or not? And that's, you know, that's what bedevils the United States 'cause Russia has tons of interest there. So it gives them a frontline on the Arab-Israeli conflict. They've got a military base, a naval base that's very important, the Mediterranean, only one they have. It's an old ally. And in a sense, they've drawn a red line there and say, we're not gonna give this up. And if they do give it up...

SESNO

10:22:49
They've drawn their own red line. Yeah. Susan Glasser.

LANDIS

10:22:51
They have.

GLASSER

10:22:52
Well, I think that's right. I think it's important to note that in many ways, Russia -- Sergei Lavrov, the Russian foreign minister, has almost made it a personal crusade to block and to stymie any U.S. action and Western action in Syria over the last two years. And he's done so quite successfully. In part, he's claimed that, you know, we were hoodwinked when it came to the Libya intervention.

GLASSER

10:23:13
And Russia famously abstained rather than used its veto in what became the resolution that triggered the allied support for toppling Gadhafi's regime. They vowed never to let that happen again. So that's one factor driving this. I think another factor is a very cold-eyed looked at the geopolitical swamp that the Middle East is re-emerging into. And I'm struck by the fact that it's not that no one has gone into Syria but, in a way, that everyone has gone into Syria.

GLASSER

10:23:43
And that's made it an even more volatile situation that early on when there was a question of whether the U.S. could come in as a sort of very dominant factor quickly and do something. Facts on the ground have led to the vacuum being filled, and inevitably, there's a fascinating piece in The Wall Street Journal today about the role of Prince Bandar, the Saudi intelligence chief, as really leading and trying to mount a campaign to get the U.S. involved, while at the same time not waiting for the United States supplying money, arms, training to the rebels in a way that has significantly, I think, confused the waters. The Qataris, the Saudi's rivals for influence in the Gulf, are in Syria as well, backing different rebel factions with money, arms and training.

SESNO

10:24:30
And not coincidently, David, it was in a Russian newspaper, Izvestia, that Assad himself gave an interview. And looking at his own version of geopolitics, he said that U.S. military intervention would bring, and quoting him here, "Failure just like in all previous wars they waged, starting with Vietnam and up to our days." You know, he's looking around at Iraq and some of these other places and drawing his own conclusions.

SCHENKER

10:24:52
Well, I think he can draw his own conclusions based on the fact that we have not, as 100,000 people been killed, gotten involved. He knows that we don't wanna do so, and he knows that the American people are war weary. The question, I think, getting back to what Josh says, is Syria important enough? Clearly, it's important enough for Russia. It's very important to Saudi Arabia. It's important for Qatar. But it should also be very important to us.

SCHENKER

10:25:18
I mean, let's imagine that Assad wins. What does this mean for Hezbollah? What does this mean for Iran, which is on the verge of getting a nuclear weapon? The whole region looks very different and not at all in the U.S. interest.

SESNO

10:25:34
Well, let's talk about the U.S. interest for a minute because this is very complicate, and the country is war weary. No one is talking about boots on the ground in the options that I have seen or heard. It's lobbying (unintelligible) and trying to figure out how effective they would be. But Edward Luttwak in The New York Times yesterday wrote a very provocative and some ways troubling piece headlined, "In Syria, America loses if either side wins."

SESNO

10:26:00
And he writes, "At this point, a prolonged stalemate is the only outcome that would not be damaging to American interests. It would be disastrous if President Bashar al-Assad's regime were to emerge victorious after full suppressing the rebellion and restoring its control over the entire country." He points Iranian involvement and Russian involvement.

SESNO

10:26:19
But then he goes on to say, "But a rebel victory would also be extremely dangerous for the United States because extremist groups, some identified with al-Qaida, have become the most effective fighting force in Syria." Is he right that a stalemate is America's best friend there? What a mess.

SCHENKER

10:26:34
No. I think he's wrong. I think it's a very cynical and troubling piece, actually. You know, this is an issue that no doubt has no good solutions. But I would argue that an Assad victory is much worse than a rebel victory.

SCHENKER

10:26:50
And, in fact, had we been involved some time ago and not let the Saudis and the Qataris take the lead on arming the rebels, that is, because the Saudis love the Salafis and the Qataris love the Muslim Brotherhood, we wouldn't be in the situation we are today. Depending on how we view our strikes if we, in fact, do attack and respond to this WMD, we can focus on changing the balance of power on the ground.

SESNO

10:27:16
We're going to take your calls and questions in just a few minutes. The number here, 1-800-433-8850. That's 1-800-433-8850. Or you can email us at drshow@wamu.org. Joshua Landis, what's a good outcome here?

LANDIS

10:27:33
Well, Syria is a multiethnic, multi-religious country, and it's renegotiating. In the sense, the civil war is about coming to a new balance of power in Syria. And we've seen this in Lebanon. We've seen it in Iraq. And the danger for the United States is that it doesn't have a solution for this Syrian civil war. In Iraq, we gave a total win to the Shiites. And the downside is that the Sunnis have been completely excluded. They're all being radicalized.

LANDIS

10:28:02
They're joining al-Qaida, and we've made a mess of things. If we do the same thing in Syria and give a total win to the Sunnis this time against the Shiites and the other minorities, they're gonna be radicalized.

SESNO

10:28:13
But you're suggesting that we can give a total win to either side. I mean, how is that even conceivable?

LANDIS

10:28:17
Well, we could. Well, you destroy the regime. And this is the trouble with America entering in or an international coalition entering in is that you have to choose the winner. Who is gonna be your partner? Now, you could divide the county up like Yugoslavia and make a Kurdish state and an Arab-Sunni state and a Shiite state on a, you know, an Alawite on the coast, or you can try to nation-build like we did in Iraq and do a power-sharing situation, which didn't work out. But that's the dilemma for the United States.

LANDIS

10:28:48
We're getting into a nation-building but a new balance of power. In a sense, what's happening in the civil war is that Shiites and the minorities, which backed the Shiites and some of the rich Sunnis, are, you know, are losing power. And the Sunni-Arab majority is taking power away from these. But they're going to come up to some kind of new balance of power.

LANDIS

10:29:11
What would, you know, with the danger for America is that if one side wins a total war, you get ethnic cleansing. If Assad wins a total war, he is going to smash the Sunni-Arabs, and their rights are gonna be completely denied as David Schenker...

SESNO

10:29:24
Let me let Susan Glasser jump in here.

GLASSER

10:29:27
Well...

LANDIS

10:29:27
OK.

GLASSER

10:29:28
...just a couple of points. First of all, some people would say that an attack like the attack there the other day already suggests ethnic cleansing is occurring in some way. But I'm struck by the fact that this is pretty much the nightmare conversation that President Obama is exactly trying to avoid right now. Once you start talking about the United States picking winners and engineering a new reality and, you know, are we going to re-engineer the contours of Syria or redraw boundaries that have been in place unhappily in many cases in the region since the end of World War I?

GLASSER

10:29:59
This is -- are we nation-building? What kind of intervention are we gonna have? This is exactly the nightmare scenario that basically the administration's policy could be summed up over the last two years as buying time to avoid exactly this conversation. Frank, you pointed out earlier nobody across the political spectrum in the United States is particularly eager to support any kind of intervention of the sort that opens up that conversation right now.

GLASSER

10:30:25
That's why you see this very almost tortured discussion emerging from the White House and its allies, trying to suggest that there is a difference between a targeted cruise missile-type response to a chemical weapons use versus massive intervention in a civil war. Many people will not buy that, of course, if it occurs. Many people will point out the abundant historical analogies that suggest that once you get into a war, you end up not being able to predict what happens that you end up being...

SESNO

10:30:59
Libya is a perfect example.

GLASSER

10:30:59
...drawn in more deeply.

SESNO

10:31:00
We've seen it. We've seen, we've lived this movie before, it seems.

SCHENKER

10:31:04
Yeah. But I think we're equally gonna have problems if we go in and do an Al-Shifa pharmaceutical plant attack like we did in Sudan in 1998 after the bombings of the U.S. embassies by al-Qaida, where we just shot a cruise missile in the dark against one factory that's neither set al-Qaida back nor sent a signal that we were serious. We have to determine what our strategic interest is here, and we want Assad out. Do we want to effectively try and change the balance of power?

SCHENKER

10:31:37
Right now, the Islamist militias on the ground in Syria are doing better than the secular militias. And we can try through arming and other ways to change the dynamic.

SESNO

10:31:49
I'm Frank Sesno from the George Washington University, sitting in for Diane Rehm today. You're listening to "The Diane Rehm Show." And if you'd like to join us, please give us a call at 1-800-433-8850, or send an email to drshow@wamu.org. We'll move to your phone calls and questions in just a moment. But before we do, and, Joshua, let me come back to you and quickly move around.

SESNO

10:32:11
Let's, for a moment, pause and think about what are some specific military options that exist. What would -- what kind of thing are we talking about here? Joshua, you wanna lead that off?

LANDIS

10:32:25
Well, in order to dissuade Assad from using chemical weapons, you have to hurt him, and you have to hurt his military and his military -- his ability to function militarily.

SESNO

10:32:35
So what do you target?

LANDIS

10:32:38
Well, you do what the Israelis did, which is to hit his intelligence centers or to hit some of his advance weapons that he needs to use and then you just -- you make it very costly for him.

SESNO

10:32:49
Susan.

GLASSER

10:32:49
Well, that's an important point, actually. By the way, the Israelis have already launched at least a couple of air strikes into Syria without getting into a broader involvement in the civil war up to this point. So there certainly is the possibility somewhere between doing nothing and American troops invading Syria. Let's be real. There are a lot of different options. President Assad's command and control. You could target very specifically the unit or units that were believed to be involved in these chemical weapons attacks.

GLASSER

10:33:22
In fact, I would imagine that that would certainly be part of the target list. There's been a long and ongoing conversation about whether to disrupt or destroy the Syrian regime's ability to use its air force and its airpower because the escalation of the war over the last year really has involved using that Syrian air force against its own civilians. And so that seems one fairly obvious target of an American-led air war possibility into Syria.

SESNO

10:33:51
David Schenker.

SCHENKER

10:33:51
Yeah. No, I think that these are all the appropriate targets to consider. I would say that it's obviously very complicated to target actual WMD facilities. At the time the war started, the Assad regime is known to have about 40 facilities that stored chemical weapons. They've moved these things around. If we are keeping track, we can target them, but it is technically complicated and dangerous because you can get a plume. They are in civilian areas.

SESNO

10:34:18
How much better is the intelligence out of Syria than it was in Iraq? We went to war in Iraq saying that they had all these terrible weapons of mass destruction, and none were found. Do Western and other intelligence agencies know exactly what, or, if not exactly, roughly what the Syrians have and where they have them?

SCHENKER

10:34:35
I think that there was a pretty good knowledge at the time, about two years ago when it started. But with all the movements, I think it's very difficult to keep track. And no doubt the regime has been very careful about where it's putting these weapons.

SESNO

10:34:49
Let's go to the phones and start taking a few calls. Al from Indianapolis, you're on the phone with us. Thanks for calling.

AL

10:34:56
Thank you. Question and comment. First, the question is about Lavrov, the foreign minister of Russia. He said today that Russia will not go to war over Syria. So I think that's a sign of something, and I would like to hear your comments about that. The comment I have is I have relatives that -- in one of the areas that was hit by the chemical weapons. The -- I talked to family members there.

AL

10:35:25
What they told me exactly what happened at 2 a.m. on Wednesday morning, they hear three rocket explosions. People were sleeping, and they started to have shortness of breath and convulsions and vision problems. I have a cousin, his wife, who's pregnant, and all her family died. The only one left is a young girl.

SESNO

10:35:48
Where exactly do they reside?

AL

10:35:51
It's an area called Zamalka, and there are...

SESNO

10:35:57
And they called you after the attack? You called them? How did you speak to them in the middle of all of it?

AL

10:36:01
I -- we have family members there who survived, and we talked to them about it, and they told us that this is exactly what happened. Actually, the cousin that I'm talking about, initially we thought he's missing. And then the next day, it was confirmed that he died with his wife.

SESNO

10:36:21
And where -- I'm very sorry to hear that. Where are your surviving family members now?

AL

10:36:27
They are still there, and...

SESNO

10:36:30
And have they gone back to their home? Can they inhabit the home where they were?

AL

10:36:35
You know, the -- I don't have communication with them all the time. So we got really worried when we heard about it on Wednesday morning. So we tried everything to get a hold of them. And then we were able to talk to them, but they don't have, like, cellphones or Internet connection all the time.

SESNO

10:36:56
OK.

AL

10:36:56
So the information I'm getting is not continuous, if you know what I mean. But we are able...

SESNO

10:37:01
Well, I certainly do. Thank you very -- I'm sorry, I wanna get to Susan's response to your question. But good luck with your family, and good luck with all of this as you communicate with them. Susan, your response specifically to the question about the comments from the -- from this -- from the Russians?

GLASSER

10:37:20
Yeah. You know, the unfortunate bottom line is that the Russians have been crystal-clear. And if anything, over the last two years, I've been struck by the fact that the Americans have been willfully misreading for the whole first year. The question was -- well, we're making some progress with the Russians. They're really gonna do something now. Obviously that's not the case.

SESNO

10:37:38
More on "The Diane Rehm Show" and the situation, the crisis in Syria after this short break.

SESNO

10:40:04
Welcome back to The Diane Rehm Show. I'm Frank Sesno, sitting in for Diane. Today, we're talking about the situation in Syria, the use of chemical weapons there and the possible U.S. and allied response to it. Our guests are David Schenker, the director of the Arab Politics Program at the Washington Institute for Near East Policy, Susan Glasser of Politico, and Joshua Landis, the director of the Center for Middle Eastern Studies at the University of Oklahoma.

SESNO

10:40:29
We wanna go to some more comments and phone calls now. But folks, I wanna share an email with you that -- from Chris in Cleveland who pushes back and asks a question that should be asked and that we should not just avert our eyes from even just because maybe the Syrian president himself may suggest this. He writes, "Since the Syrian rebels have the most to gain from the U.S. getting more involved in Syria, how do we know it wasn't the rebels who used these weapons in an effort to draw the U.S. into the war? Is there evidence that this was the work of Assad?

SCHENKER

10:41:03
I don't think there's any evidence whatsoever. This is the line I think that the Russians are pedaling to try and muddy the waters. I don't see it happening.

SESNO

10:41:12
You don't see what happening?

SCHENKER

10:41:13
I don't see that the rebels have gained control over Assad's chemical weapon stockpiles to date.

SESNO

10:41:19
So what you're saying is you don't think it's credible that they could have had these weapons. We just heard a caller who says his family was there. They heard three explosions. Is it not possible that they could have obtained three weapons of some sort?

SCHENKER

10:41:32
I guess, technically, anything is possible. But this does not seem to be credible though the regime has been moving these around and moving them out of areas actually that are coming increasingly under rebel control. So I think they still have a hand on these. But in any event, if it were the rebels or not the rebels, this is the responsibility of the Assad regime. If they cannot any longer maintain control of their chemical weapons stockpiles, this requires international action.

SESNO

10:42:01
Joshua, what's your response to the question?

LANDIS

10:42:04
Well, both the Israel and the United States have said that they don't believe the rebels have chemical weapons yet, and they believe it's the regime's use. On the other hand, the only suggestion was the last time this happened, the U.N. muddled the situation a little bit by -- a high official said that they weren't sure that it was the regime. And Turkey claimed that they captured in Ankara al-Qaida people who had possession of chemical weapons explosives. But nothing has been heard of that since.

LANDIS

10:42:37
And the regime, you know, these were fairly -- seemed to be fairly sophisticated rockets that were sent from cannons and possibly airplanes. But mostly, it seems that they were launched by cannons. And that's, you know, there's a lot of people pushing back and saying it could be rebels, but we've seen no evidence of that.

SESNO

10:42:58
Susan, what is the burden of proof here? I mean, we are talking about potentially opening up another front in this long war in the region, marshalling an international coalition, well aware of the criticisms when the last one was marshaled, and Colin Powell went to the United Nations and said there is definitive proof of weapons of mass destruction, and there was not at the end of the day. What is the burden of proof?

GLASSER

10:43:24
Well, look, first of all, the burden of proof is high. There had been notable examples across many administrations of taking action without having the full information available. That tends to backfire. That being said, I don't think anybody is suggesting that there was not a chemical weapons attack that occurred last week. I think there are questions about the scale and scope of it, about exactly who launched it and to what end. But I don't think that there has been any kind of credible effort up to this point to really discredit the fact that an attack occurred.

GLASSER

10:43:56
And it's notable in that sense because before, the Syrians did deny an earlier smaller, more targeted cases where U.S. allies said that chemical weapons had been used. The Syrians did deny it at various points. I don't think anyone thinks that's the case here. So we're trying to establish things like chain of custody, who exactly launched the attack, which are more nuisances. But I believe that already, the U.S. is signaling a much more proactive response than it has to the previous smaller scale incidence.

SESNO

10:44:28
David, an email from Byron is Dallas, "Could the U.S. use drones in Syria?"

SCHENKER

10:44:33
Yes. The U.S. could use drones. It could use the Predator. It could use Global Hawk. It could use any number of systems. And as we seen from the Israeli attacks on Syrian targets so far, they didn't even have to cross into Syrian airspace. They did this from over Lebanon.

SESNO

10:44:49
OK. Back to the phones. Alex from Southfield, Mich. Go ahead.

ALEX

10:44:53
Hi. How are you?

SESNO

10:44:54
Very well. Thanks for calling.

ALEX

10:44:56
Thank you. I just wanted to make a comment by, you know, some people like, you know, your guests and many others talk about morality in the situation in Syria. But I think what, you know, states or center powers, what motivates them is interest rather than morality. So, you know, we have many examples historically that can support that. When you take, for example, Saddam Hussein of Iraq, so long -- like in 1982, he was taken off the list of where the states are harboring terror because he was the fall of Iran and a lot of aids and military and otherwise was pouring in. And Cuba replaced Iraq as, you know, in that year too. And he was like flooring his own people, nobody said anything.

SESNO

10:45:43
Right.

ALEX

10:45:43
He was, you know, supported by the United States and many others. And then in 1990 when the sanctions where imposed in Iraq, actually, they were hurting the people not the regime itself.

SESNO

10:45:58
OK. David Schenker wants to jump in there. David.

SCHENKER

10:46:00
Yeah, absolutely. I think that Syria actually is one of the few, the rare cases where U.S. humanitarian interest intersect with our national security interest. We didn't intervene in Congo where five million people are killed. We didn't intervene in Rwanda. But Syria sits, you know, on the cusp of 40 or 50 percent of the world's oil and gas supplies. And it's neighbors with Iraq, with Jordan, with Lebanon and Turkey, all countries that we have big interest with, not to mention Israel.

SESNO

10:46:33
Maria is on the phone with us now from Rocky Mount, N.C., on this point. Hi, Maria.

MARIA

10:46:39
Hi. How are you?

SESNO

10:46:40
Good. Go ahead with your question.

MARIA

10:46:42
Well, it's not a question and a statement actually. I just listen to your show all the time. And I'm just wondering why the United States can't mind its own business. And if our business is oil and money and whatever we throw into all these countries to secure our borders and our oil and -- etcetera, I think the United States can do anything it wants to do if it has the funds and the backing of the people. And, you know, we could be self-sufficient on our own if we just take all these moneys that we give to everybody else and do it.

SESNO

10:47:25
OK, Maria. Thank you very much. And it's absolutely a sentiment that a lot of people have as we've seen the United States wandering the world, paying in blood and treasure for a lot of these activities and ending up where. And people can rightly say, is Iraq a better place now after all these years of war and suffering? And what are we really after in Syria? So Maria captures a powerful sentiment. Susan, David, Joshua, jump in.

GLASSER

10:47:50
Yeah. You know, I think it's an important point. Think about the previous caller who referenced the U.S. and its previous support of the Iraqi dictator Saddam Hussein before he invaded Kuwait. And that included during a period when there was a horrific series of chemical gas attacks in the northern part of Iraq, in Kyrgyzstan. In Halabja, there was a terrible massacre.

GLASSER

10:48:15
There's a fascinating and really distressing story on my former website forum, policy.com, today that looks in great detail at some new evidence about just how involved U.S. intelligence was in actually giving Saddam information about Iranian positions at the time of those chemical weapons attacks.

SESNO

10:48:36
David.

SCHENKER

10:48:38
Yeah. I agree that there is a strong sentiment in United States. We're war weary. You don't wanna involved in these things, and we do have -- we're on the cusp of being energy independent after all the fracking fines. But I'd say that it won't be in our interest if Jordan is toppled. It won't be in our interest if there's civil war in Lebanon. And it certainly won't be in our interest the longer this war goes on if al-Qaida gets chemical weapon.

SESNO

10:49:02
All right, to the phones. And, Joshua, I'll start with you out of this one. Bill calls us from Concord, N.H. Hi, Bill.

BILL

10:49:08
Yeah, hi. You know, the militants that are fighting the regime in Syria, they're called rebels but they just kind of appeared out of nowhere. They don't seem to have the support of the people. Not as though it was a revolution, you know, it's like, where do these people come from, and who are they? Everyone seems to be very vague on that.

SESNO

10:49:33
Great question. Josh, you can tell us who they are.

LANDIS

10:49:38
Well, there's a big spectrum. There are well over 1,000 militias, and that's the real problem of the United States.

SESNO

10:49:43
A thousand separate militias.

LANDIS

10:49:46
And they don't cooperate well. In fact, al-Qaida militias, Al-Nusra issued a statement this morning saying that if the United States strikes Syria in response to the chemical weapons, it may also be striking at al-Qaida bases, and so it warned its people to keep a low profile. So we -- this is why Obama has been very reluctant to get in because he doesn't feel that there is a firm partner that could take over Syria and govern it in a pro-American fashion.

LANDIS

10:50:16
And that's the dilemma right now is trying to develop an opposition that is unified and that is pro-American. And so far, the West has failed to do it. And, you know, the argument of many people who want greater intervention is that if America had done it quickly, we would have been able to consolidate the situation, but we did it quickly in Iraq, and there were no rebels there. And what happened?

LANDIS

10:50:45
The country became splintered and people were -- became extremists. And that's the danger -- is if America goes in, many people in Syria will be shooting at Americans and at which ever army goes in to impose a solution.

SESNO

10:51:01
David.

SCHENKER

10:51:01
I find that to be a bit of a straw man argument here, you know, Samantha Power who said -- who wrote the United States should not frame its policy options in terms of doing nothing or unilaterally sending in the Marines. You know, nobody's talking about boots on the ground here. What we do know is that this is a problem that has not aged well, and it will not age well.

SESNO

10:51:22
But the question is, David, how will it age if you enter, you know, cruise missiles into the equation? Does that somehow convince Assad to hold elections and become a democrat and not shoot chemical weapons at the opposition anymore?

SCHENKER

10:51:37
No. Assad's gonna have to go, but the question is if we're gonna send in cruise missiles, we shouldn't do some half-hearted measure. We should target the regime, make them feel serious pain and perhaps change this patriotic balance on the ground so that the rebels or that the regime will be compelled to enter into some sort of talks with the rebels.

SESNO

10:51:57
Susan Glasser.

GLASSER

10:51:58
Well, unfortunately, though, we don't need to look any further than right next door in Lebanon for a terrible example of what happens when you have 1,000 different militias, you don't speak to each other who are fighting a civil war with very varied goals, aims and tactics. The result may simply be the collapse of the Assad regime but the continuation of the civil war for years, even a decade or more. And I think that precedent certainly exist within the framework of right next door.

SESNO

10:52:25
And I'm Frank Sesno. You're listening to "The Diane Rehm Show." Our conversation about Syria. And, David, back to you, I wanna follow this up for just one moment before going to the phones. You said enter some sort of talks with the rebels. You just -- we just heard, there are 1,000 different militias, some sort of talks to do what with whom?

SCHENKER

10:52:42
Well, listen, the Assad regime is gonna have to go. But the regime, I think, if it's incredibly weakened, they already view and understand based on what they've done to the rebels that there's gonna be a certain amount of ethnic cleansing. If they continue -- if the Assad regime continues to slaughter hundreds of thousands of Sunni Muslims, they will be cleansed. And at a certain point, they may decide that it's better to cut their losses than to be exterminated.

SESNO

10:53:07
Let me throw two questions on the table from our audience, from email, and let you all go at them as you will. One from Joe, "What did Assad have to gain by a chemical attack? He's winning or was winning, so why even risk outside intervention?" That's quite a question number one. Question two from Anthony in Sarasota, Fla., "What does it say for President Obama's and U.S. leadership that the slaughter of tens of thousands by Assad is going on for two years and come to this catastrophe without any action being taken?" He says he thinks it's a complete failure of leadership.

GLASSER

10:53:39
Well, I think that that's certainly the case that the Saudis, for example, are making to President Obama right now is that you have no choice but to do something because if you lay down red lines and you don't do anything about them, the United States will no longer have its credibility in this region, never mind more broadly in the world. So that's number one. Number two, I think your -- the listener makes an important point about why use a weapon so considered so horrific. And I think that perhaps does get back to this question about Obama and his willingness to engage, his willingness to lead right now because...

SESNO

10:54:12
What, you're saying Assad used the weapons because Obama was projecting weakness?

GLASSER

10:54:14
Well, you know, what I would suggest is that remember, this didn't come out of nowhere. In fact, there's a horrifying predictability to the fact that this occurred. Assad has been using these weapons by all accounts for the last nine months or perhaps years.

SESNO

10:54:30
So this was just an escalation?

GLASSER

10:54:31
And he's escalated it. Each step along the way, the red line was crossed and nothing occurred.

SESNO

10:54:35
Joshua, let me let you jump on these questions we've got on the table.

LANDIS

10:54:38
Well, unfortunately, in a war situation like this that's gone on for two years, people are gonna escalate. We've seen this in every war that's gone on, and United States has used horrific weapons. Of course, one can't make that. The problem is that in a terrible war like this, it's going to escalate. And hundreds of thousands of people are gonna be displaced. There's -- already, a third of the country has been displaced in Syria, and well over 100,000 have been killed. And how do you stop escalation in a civil war?

LANDIS

10:55:07
In the United States, 750,000 Americans were killed during our civil war. And our country was only 30 million. Syria is 24 million. About 150,000 have been killed so far. How do you stop an escalation?

SESNO

10:55:19
We've only got -- Joshua, let me just interrupt because we only got a couple of minutes, and I'd like to first thank all the callers who so patiently called in and waited. We couldn't get to many of you. Obviously, this is a very complex topic. I think you've explored this brilliantly to the extent possible during this conversation. Let me ask you, in about the 90 seconds remaining, each of you, what you expect to unfold over the coming few weeks, when, what kind of decision from President Obama? David, you wanna lead it off?

SCHENKER

10:55:48
It's tough going first. It's always hard to predict the future, right? Listen, I would say that the administration (unintelligible) to do anything. I think this has been the hallmark at a policy they wanted to cauterize. They're not gonna wanna go full in here. I think, you know, if I had to predict based on past policy, I think they're gonna do one of these off-shift tomahawk attacks on a couple of targets.

SESNO

10:56:12
Susan.

GLASSER

10:56:13
Yeah. Sen. Bob Corker, the ranking Republican on the Senate Foreign Relations Committee, said again this morning, he believes some action is imminent. I think that you hear the noises out of France, Great Britain suggesting action is well. That is a clear-cut way the administration trying to signal to us. They don't want it to come out of the blue when they let the missiles fire. But I do agree that you're likely to see something far sure of a massive war in Syria on the part of the United States.

SESNO

10:56:38
Joshua Landis from Norman, Okla., you get the last word here.

LANDIS

10:56:41
Well, I think I agree with both the other people here because Obama will do something in order to preserve the chemical weapons regime, but he is showed over and over again that he does not want to get stuck in Syria.

SESNO

10:56:59
To David Schenker, to Susan Glasser and to Joshua Landis, many thanks for joining us and sharing your observations and perspectives on the situation in Syria. I'm Frank Sesno. This is "The Diane Rehm Show."

ANNOUNCER

10:57:10
"The Diane Rehm Show" is produced by Sandra Pinkard, Nancy Robertson, Denise Couture, Susan Casey Nabors, Rebecca Kaufman, Lisa Dunn and Danielle Knight. The engineer is Erin Stamper. Natalie Yuravlivker answers the phones. Visit drshow.org for audio archives, transcripts, podcasts and CD sales.
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