World leaders react to a historic shift in U.S. policy toward Cuba. Pakistan buries victims of a school massacre by the Taliban. And U.S. officials say North Korea is behind the hacking of Sony Pictures. A panel of journalists joins Diane for analysis of the week's top international news stories.
Guest Host: Steve Roberts
A panel of journalists joins guest host Steve Roberts for our Friday News Roundup of the week’s top international stories, including: Syrian President Bashar Assad’s reaction to the threat of Western action, rising militancy in Egypt’s Sinai and U.S. Defense Secretary Chuck Hagel’s meeting with Asian leaders over South China Sea tensions.
- Elise Labott CNN foreign affairs reporter.
- Abderrahim Foukara Washington bureau chief of Al Jazeera Arabic.
- Howard LaFranchi foreign affairs correspondent at The Christian Science Monitor.
MR. STEVE ROBERTSThanks so much for joining us. I'm Steve Roberts of George Washington University sitting in today for Diane Rehm. She's on vacation and will return in mid September. British Parliament rejects military action in Syria, but French President Hollande expresses readiness to push ahead and the Muslim Brotherhood continues protests in Egypt despite the deadly security crackdown.
MR. STEVE ROBERTSJoining me in the studio Abderrahim Foukara of al Jazeera Arabic, Elise Labott of CNN and Howard LaFranchi of The Christian Science Monitor. Welcome to you all, thanks for joining us.
MR. ABDERRAHIM FOUKARAThank you.
MS. ELISE LABOTTThank you.
MR. HOWARD LAFRANCHIGood to be here.
ROBERTS1-800-433-8850 is our phone number, as always join our conversation, email@example.com is our email. And Elise, the president this week interview with PBS said his strike if it came, he hadn't made up his mind that it would be decisive but limited. What are his military options here?
LABOTTWell, I think no one obviously is talking about any type of ground troops, not even a no-fly zone. We're talking, I think they've pretty much said it's going to be limited to some cruise missile strikes sea-based not using Syrian air space or anything like that.
LABOTTI think though, Steve, what's happening is the rhetoric is getting ahead of what's actually happening on the ground, you know. President Obama has said, Secretary Kerry in his remarks have hinted that there's going to be military action but now you see what's playing on the international stage and in Congress wants a more deliberative process.
LABOTTThe Brits have said that they're not with the United States, they won't be joining any military action and the question for the administration now is whether they're willing to go it alone.
LABOTTObviously, there's a group of states that are coalition of supporting nations but is the United States going to take military action in the Middle East by itself. The administration officials say yes but when it comes to the end of the day the question is are they really going to do that?
ROBERTSYou really, in your own mind, there's still a question as to whether they actually will launch a strike?
LABOTTNo, I think they will launch a strike. I think it's just a question of timing. The administration says it doesn't want a long drawn out process, it would like to get it done before President Obama leaves on Tuesday for a trip overseas to Sweden and then to Russia.
LABOTTSyria's closet ally, I don't think he really wants to be sitting at a table at the G20 near President Putin when missiles are flying. I think they wanted to get this done, the military is getting a little antsy. They think that it's important to strike soon because President Assad is moving things around.
LABOTTBut this international process, a lot of countries want more deliberations at the United Nations Security Council. That is holding things up.
ROBERTSNow, Howard, the news out of London yesterday very significant and somewhat surprising. It would appear that Prime Minister Cameron had the backing of his own party. He had been rather aggressive in supporting the notion of a Western strike against Assad and then the vote went against him. Why did that happen and is significant?
LAFRANCHIYes, I think perhaps we can reduce the why to one word, Iraq, and I think we heard from the labor leader. If you recall, Prime Minister Tony Blair back at the time of Iraq was very supportive of the invasion of Iraq and the labor party proceeded to lose after that and there seems to be great skepticism in Britain and in the public and I think that the British government was certainly taken by surprise just as much as Washington was.
ROBERTSAnd Abderrahim, what about France? They seem to be hanging in there but there have to be some jitters.
FOUKARAI think part of French public opinion seems to be a little bit undecided and unwilling but he, Hollande the French president, certainly seems to enjoy a certain amount of public support.
FOUKARAThe problem remains that France is not Britain for any military action that the United States might undertake. Britain is obviously the United States first ally in Europe and maybe all around the world and when it comes to military maneuvering and coordination the quality of the alliance with Britain is different from the quality of the alliance with the French.
FOUKARABut it's still a significant, France would still be a significant member of the coalition that President Obama is trying to build.
ROBERTSAnd of course France has a longer standing tie to the Levant as a power in Lebanon and Syria, there's a long history there.
FOUKARAThey were behind the political architecture as we know it today in terms of the geography of the country, in terms of who is in power, in terms of the Alawite minority being in power and so on. Yes, the French were originally behind it, the French and the British obviously.
LABOTTYou also have the Turks who have said that they are solidly behind the United States. It's possible that they could use Turkey as a base or...
ROBERTSThere's a major NATO base in southern...
LABOTTMajor NATO base and, I mean, France, I don't think, you know, clearly the French parliament wants to weigh in and now what they saw what's going on in Britain I think you might hear some more noise but France was really the leader in the campaign against Libya.
LABOTTObviously, the Brits did take part and I think the British involvement even though obviously, you know, strategically and coordination is very important I think it's also very symbolically important. If the Brits are not with the United States on this then, you know, I think that there's a lot of questions.
LAFRANCHII think it's worth remembering, if I might just add on, France was deeply opposed to the Iraq invasion a war that President Obama called a stupid war. But on the other hand, they have the recent experience of Mali, a different situation, but that was very popular with the French public that appeared to have gone well.
LAFRANCHIAnd so I think we see, you know, a president who's coming off of what was viewed in France as a successful intervention in a country in the region.
ROBERTSNow, of course, when we're talking about France and Britain we're talking about two countries that have veto power in the Security Council and normally you go back to Iraq, you mentioned Iraq earlier. Everybody remembers the American attempt, the appeal at the United Nations led by Colin Powell before Iraq.
ROBERTSBut and from a point of view of international law many scholars just said well the United States, the most appropriate thing to do would be to go to the United Nations, Howard. But that road has been blocked by Russia which also has a veto.
LAFRANCHIYes, not only blocked. I think the Obama administration has said that at this point it would be futile and useless to go to the Security Council. I mean, they've participated in discussions that have gone on there but the British made an attempt with a resolution that went nowhere.
LAFRANCHISo I think also but I think it's also interesting if you listen to President Obama. He uses the word international norms that that's what's being violated by Syria with the use of chemical weapons.
LAFRANCHIHe has stopped talking about international law and that international law is behind what he's contemplating doing. He talks about the norm and we heard Secretary Kerry talk about the moral obscenity of use of chemical weapons, but they're not talking about being justified by international law anymore.
ROBERTSAnd Abderrahim, also update us on the attitudes of Arab states in the region? I've always had mixed attitudes toward Assad. What are you hearing about, if they were the private conversations between Washington and Riyad and other countries what would we be hearing about this?
FOUKARAWell, obviously some of the Gulf countries want the intervention, top of the list is Saudi Arabia and the Egyptians are on the record as saying that they oppose any military strike against Syria and that they would not be part of it.
FOUKARABut the issue of Saudi Arabia and the Gulf states in my opinion takes us to the real issue here. What is the goal of this military strike? Because if it is to topple Bashar al Assad which is what many of the Gulf Arabs actually want...
ROBERTSWell, the president has explicitly ruled that out.
FOUKARAYes, he's ruled it out and he's on the record as saying that he's very worried about anarchy in Syria, post Bashar, weighed situation. If it is to help the rebels, the opposition, in order to reverse the gains that Bashar's army has made over the last few months, yes that's a worthy rationale particularly if the Obama administration is thinking that if the rebels reverse some of the gains that would put them in a much stronger negotiating position should there be negotiations down the road.
FOUKARAThe rebels have said Geneva is dead. Many other players have said that as far as they're concerned, after the chemical in (unintelligible) Geneva is dead. But that could still be rhetoric if the gains have been reversed they may be enticed to go to the negotiating table.
FOUKARABut that assumes that the strike would weaken Assad enough. Remember just quickly when the war between Iraq and Iran started, public opinion in the Arab region was on the side of Khomeini initially and then it changed.
FOUKARAAssad may be counting on that once the military strikes against Syria then support for the rebels would diminish throughout the Arab region.
ROBERTSElise, quickly before we take a break. What are the possibilities of retaliation here? Concern that Iran might close the Straits of Hormuz in Israel, reservists have been mobilized, patriot missile batteries moved to the north. What's the possibility that this strike could trigger a reaction?
LABOTTIran is stretched pretty thin right now in Syria. They have a lot of revolutionary guards working and helping Syrian troops. I think the bigger concern is Iran retaliating, and they've said that, you know, they've shown that they don't do it right away at a time everyone expects.
LABOTTWould they go after Israel or American targets around the world, softer targets when they're not expecting it? I think that's what the real big fear is with Iran.
ROBERTSAnd what about oil supplies? The Straits of Hormuz always...
LABOTTAgain, I think Iran is stretched so thin between the sanctions that it's facing and what's going with Assyria. I think it's likely to take a non, you know, obvious tactic in terms of its retaliation.
ROBERTSThat's Elise Labott of CNN, Howard LaFranchi of Christian Science Monitor, Abderrahim Foukara of al Jazeera also with me. I'm Steve Roberts sitting in for Diane. We'll be back with your comments and your calls, stay with us.
ROBERTSWelcome back. I'm Steve Roberts sitting in today for Diane Rehm. This is our International Hour of our Friday News Roundup. And three reporters with me, Elise Labott of CNN, Howard LaFranchi of the Christian Science Monitor and Abderrahim Foukara of Al Jazeera Arabic. 1-800-433-8850 is our number, firstname.lastname@example.org, our email address.
ROBERTSLet's move on, Abderrahim, to Egypt. This week we had more arrests of Muslim Brotherhood leaders. Also even rounding up, I gather, some of their families. Give us an update on the situation in Egypt.
FOUKARAWell, first of all, today is Friday. It's the day of the big Muslim prayer, so obviously the numbers on Egyptian streets of people calling -- people who are opposed to the coup as they call it, is obviously much, much bigger than it would normally have been on a different day. But, yes, many of the leadership of the Muslim Brotherhood have been detained. But the movement, there's still some debate as to whether it should be outlawed altogether or not.
FOUKARAThe prime minister came out a few days ago, saying that he doesn't think at this particular point in time that it would be a good idea to ban the Muslim Brotherhood. So they're obviously trying to tell the Muslim Brotherhood and the Egyptians at large that the door remains open for some sort of political process with the Muslim Brotherhood being part of it. The thing is that you -- with these marches that have continued since basically the crackdown on the Muslim Brotherhood in those two major squares in Cairo, they've continued day after day in smaller numbers.
FOUKARABut still, they continue and they seem to adjust to the new situation to come up with new techniques for marching and making their views heard. But clearly, the military, I think it has come as a surprise to what extent they've actually been able to do what they said they wanted to do, which is to disperse the protesters two weeks ago come what may. And a lot has come since, but they're holding steady.
ROBERTSNow, Howard, another front in Egypt is in the Sinai. There's been arrest there, execution of several dozen police recruits and renewed focus on the Sinai, an area that has largely been ignored, and a spotlight on UN peacekeepers there. I bet most folks, including me, didn't know there was 700 Americans stationed in the Sinai still. Give us an update on that side of the Egyptian story.
LAFRANCHIYeah, I think that we are -- we know -- the Sinai for decades has been sort of, in many way, a lawless region. It's been -- but the one reason that the UN peacekeepers are there and of course the 700 Americans you mentioned, was to -- really as guarantors of the peace accord between Egypt and Israel. And clearly that's a concern. We do see this rising lawlessness, as you said, but also a growing Islamist militancy influence, what appears to be influence of maybe some al-Qaida affiliated groups.
LAFRANCHIAnd clearly it's one of the -- when the Obama Administration was talking about -- it seems like long ago but it wasn't. It was not so long ago, just before the August 21 chemical weapons attack in Syria, that we were really all focused on Egypt and what the Obama Administration was going to do about aid, cutting it off or not, to the Egyptian military. And one of the concerns was security in the Sinai. And, you know, certainly with what the regime is facing all around Egypt, this growing instability in the Sinai, it's not something that they can be -- that they're focusing on. And that's a growing concern for the United States, as you mentioned, with 700 of our own troops there.
ROBERTSAnd Elise, on the West Bank there's also been trouble this week, some shootings, as there often is. But tell us about the impact there on the peace talks. It's been kind of murky whether these fledgling peace talks between Israel and the Palestinians, are they on, are they off? What's your best reading?
LABOTTI really want to be optimistic about this because, you know, it's been a really long time since anybody has spent as much time and energy as Secretary Kerry is to try and get this together. I spent two months in Israel over the summer. I didn't get a feeling from either side that there was a serious intent and a real appetite to go at this and make the kind of compromises that are necessary. I think everything that's going on in the region right now, Israel is totally preoccupied. The status quo is fine for them. They're much more concerned on what's going on in their borders, what's going on in the Sinai, what's going on with Syria.
LABOTTAnd, I mean, I don't think -- they're all kind of related in a way. The U.S. isn't going to cut aid to Egypt because, exactly as Howard said, they're very concerned about what's going on in the Sinai. They have to make this decision and they don't want it to be tied to military action in Syria. They don't want it to happen altogether. They want to get the Syria attack out of the way and then they want to move on to Egypt.
LABOTTAnd then when you have what's going on in the Sinai with all of these groups, why has the Sinai become such a dangerous place with all of this Islamic activity? It's because the regime is totally -- the Egyptian military is totally preoccupied with what's going on in Cairo with the Muslim Brotherhood. And they do not have the wherewithal, which is to really patrol that area, which is very concerning to the U.S. and to Israel.
ROBERTSNow, Abderrahim, I'd like to get your take on yet another part of the world where we had some news this week, and that is Afghanistan and Pakistan, President Karzai of Afghanistan made this two-day trip across the border to Pakistan and seemed to come home rather empty-handed. The previews indicated that he was -- had some hopes that Pakistan would serve as a broker in terms of fostering talks with the Taliban. Of course, Karzai is kind of a short-termer. His term ends next spring. What's your read on what happened in the Karzai visit to Pakistan?
FOUKARAWell, my read is that in the long term -- and this is what we read in the Pakistani press -- in the long term warming up to the visit of Hamid Karzai in Pakistan is a positive thing. But other than that, I think that Pakistan and -- Nawaz Sharif and Karzai seem to be talking across purposes. Because Karzai wants the Pakistanis to help with the peace process in Afghanistan but Karzai is -- Nawaz Sharif is also worried about the cozying up by Karzai to India, Pakistan's nemesis. And I'm not sure...
ROBERTSThe oldest story there is.
FOUKARAYeah, the oldest story there is. So from the Pakistani point of view, as long as Karzai stayed close to India, obviously they do not see any reason why they should help him with the peace process in Afghanistan. Although they are verbally rhetorically at least saying, yes, they're willing to do it. But Karzai obviously doesn't believe them.
ROBERTSAnd what are you hearing about the situation on the ground in Afghanistan? I gather there were several reports this week of Taliban attacks out of the ordinary, business as usual. What's your reading?
FOUKARAWell, the Taliban have made it clear for a long time that their approach is two tracks. One is that they're going to try and pursue the peace process on one level. But the other one they say, which would give them leverage in their pursuit of that peace is to continue military activities. And what we have seen in recent days and weeks is a continuation of that old policy that they have pursued for several years now.
ROBERTSAnd I'm sorry, go...
LABOTT...there are also increasing attacks against civilians in the last couple of weeks. In July, the UN put out this report that civilian attacks have increased. Six UN workers were killed in the last week or so. They were working for a UN project. And this is all to try and sew fear among the population, that the Afghan government and Afghan security forces will not be able to protect them when U.S. forces leave. So that kind of tries to bolster their own credibility in a way in terms of you can't rely on the Afghan government.
ROBERTSAnd let me ask you, Howard, about one other story in the far east, and that is Secretary Chuck Hagel was out in that part of the world in Asia at the meeting of Asian countries. And tensions over the South China Sea -- again an old story, nothing new about that -- but countries like Vietnam and Philippines worried about what they see as a somewhat more aggressive posture from China. Talk about what that issue is and how Hagel tried to address that.
LAFRANCHIYes. Well, yeah, Secretary Hagel was in the region for a week on a long-planned trip. And he very openly spoke during that trip about, you know, how he was there to sort of push forward what the administration calls the rebalancing of U.S. security and defense posture, interests into the Southeast Asia region. And I would say the Obama Administration, they're trying to be careful. They keep saying that the specific conflicts that we see popping up over islands, whether it's between China and Vietnam, China and the Philippines, that the U.S. intends to stay out of those, but that they have to be settled through negotiations, not through hostilities.
LAFRANCHIBut again, at every stop that Hagel made, Tokyo and the Philippines, Brunei, Indonesia, he spoke about this rebalancing and clearly that the U.S. is looking to cooperate with allies and partners to sort of -- to have a more robust presence in a region.
ROBERTSAnd given the fact that so much of the public attention got refocused on Syria, even against in some ways the will or the strategy of the administration, that made his presence there somewhat more important, Elise, right?
LABOTTThat's right because the U.S. has been wanting to look toward Asia, this so-called pivot on economic trade, security. This is really supposed to be the great game of the 21st century, everything in Asia. But these conflicts in the Middle East keep drawing them back. And Hagel, even though he's trying to talk about bolstering these trade and security ties in Asia and the U.S. -- this is a long term project -- he keeps getting asked about Syria. So it kind of seemed a little bit, you know, off that he was over there, even though these are such important issues.
LABOTTHe's talking about, you know, bolstering ties with Indonesia military ties, with the Philippines but, you know, keeps getting asked about Syria. And there are a lot of issues with China that they have to be dealing with.
ROBERTSIn fact, he even was roped in on a conference call to help brief members of congress, sitting there in Asia trying to focus attention on those relationships and he had to talk about Syria from (unintelligible) .
LABOTTIt happens to everybody. It happens to Secretary Kerry when he's in Asia. There's always these conflicts in the Middle East which show that until, you know, some of these are dealt with in a more substantial way, you know, other priorities around the world are going to just be second fiddle.
ROBERTSI'm Steve Roberts and you're listening to "The Diane Rehm Show." Let me read some emails from some of our listeners. Joshua writes to us, "I still have not heard a good explanation as to why the Assad regime would use chemical weapons. Deliberate provocation? This entire situation seems suspiciously illogical." Abderrahim.
FOUKARAYes. I mean, it's -- a lot of people have difficulty understanding that. A lot of people also have difficulty understanding why would Assad cling to power at the cost of over 100,000 people and at the cost of the destruction of his entire country? So obviously these things do not have an easy logic, but from an American logic what we heard from Secretary Kerry the other day, is that the Syrian regime, because it is in charge of these chemical weapons, it is now accused by the Americans of having committed the atrocity in Ghouta.
FOUKARASo to the American government, directly or indirectly, they are tied to what happened in Ghouta. There have been reports, many of them over the weeks, that it's sometimes the opposition, it's sometimes al-Qaida, various other players. But I think regardless of what the Obama Administration says or does not say, ultimately when people in the region -- they look at what's been happening in Syria over the last two-and-a-half years, they see this systematic destruction of Syria. And they say yes, you have -- all sorts of people have moved into Syria from outside. Ultimately it's Bashar's country and it was his own responsibility to protect his own country.
ROBERTSLet me read another email. "I've heard," writes our listener, "I've heard it said that there have been 15 documented attacks and yet the UN hasn't made any concrete statements about their findings." Of course there are inspectors on the ground right now and we expect to hear from them shortly. Email continues, "There is an abundance of pictures and video footage coming out of Syria of people clearly suffering some kind of chemical poisoning. But there's still debate as to whether chemical weapons have been used. Why is there such a wide discrepancy between narratives? How hard is it to prove whether or not a chemical attack has occurred, especially if there have been more than a dozen of them?" Elise.
LABOTTOkay. I don't think there's any doubt that chemical weapons have been used. That's first of all. And I think that when you look -- and this is certainly the case that the U.S. makes -- when you look at how they were delivered and who has access to these chemical weapons, they were delivered by artillery, the type of equipment that the opposition doesn't have access to. You kind of make the circumstantial case that, well of course, if the regime is the only one that has access to it and the means to deliver it, of course they did it.
LABOTTBut I think when you see -- we're going to see this U.S. intelligence assessment that's going to be released in the next couple of hours, there is some pretty strong evidence that the regime -- at least the U.S. says it has -- that the regime was involved, that senior Syrian regime officials were talking about preparing for a massive chemical attack in the area, talking afterwards that they didn't realize that it was going to be so -- they didn't realize the extent of the damage that they thought. And maybe it might be best not to do something so major next time. And then shelling it in the area.
LABOTTSo I think the U.S. doesn't -- you know, while there is a lot of open sores, as you say evidence, videos, I think when the U.S. makes its case that chemical weapons were used, they want tissue samples, they want satellite imagery, they want the kind of things that doesn't just, you know, show circumstantially -- well, you know, it's obvious that it was used.
LABOTTAnd there are about ten or fifteen cases that have been documented.
ROBERTSNow, Howard, one of the important players here are the UN inspectors who are also on the ground there. But their mandate is to really just say whether this happened, not assign blame. And that of course makes it more difficult for the United States to make its case.
LAFRANCHIYes. They are scheduled to finish up their work today, come out of the country tomorrow. And Secretary General of the United Nations Ban Ki-moon says that they are to render their report very quickly to him. The Obama Administration has already said that it's a moot point because all they are tasked with doing is affirming whether or not chemical weapons were used. The Obama Administration cited they already have. So...
ROBERTSThat's Howard LaFranchi of the Christian Science Monitor. Also with me, Elise Labott of CNN and Abderrahim Foukara of Al Jazeera Arabic. I'm Steve Roberts sitting in today for Diane. We're going to be back with your phone calls, so stay with us.
ROBERTSWelcome back, I'm Steve Roberts sitting in today for Diane and this being Friday and hour two of our "News Roundup" focusing on international issues. Elise Labott of CNN is with me and Howard LaFranchi of The Christian Science Monitor and Abderrahim Foukara of Al Jazeera.
ROBERTSAnd I have just been handed a news update from MSNBC. It says: "North Korea has withdrawn its invitation to Ambassador Robert King to travel to Pyongyang." King was scheduled to arrive in North Korea on Friday to seek the release of an American prisoner, Kenneth Bae.
ROBERTSIn a statement to the AP the State Department spokesperson Marie Harf called the announcement surprising. It said the U.S. was disappointed by North Korea's decision. Elise Labott, what do we know about this story?
LABOTTWell, they had invited him on a humanitarian mission and the State Department said he was going to be focused solely on securing Bae's release. He was sentenced in April to 15 years of hard labor. They had accused him of subversion and spying and it's a further setback for, you know, the U.S. efforts to try and reach out to Kim Jong-un the new leader who has since taken office really, you know, and put the international community on a rollercoaster ride with its nuclear program and with provocative actions.
LABOTTIt is surprising because North Korea has previously used, detains Americans as bargaining chips in the standoff with the U.S. so the fact that he was invited there showed that maybe they were ready to, you know, get back to talks, some kind of rapprochement, so it doesn't look good for any kind of engagement with North Korea anytime soon.
ROBERTSLet's go to our callers, Frank in Charlotte, N.C. You're on "The Diane Rehm Show," welcome.
FRANKOh hi, okay. I was wondering where Sadat (sic) or the guy from Syria where he got his chemical weapons from and I'd like to make a comment. Okay, during the Israeli invasion of Gaza they used chemical weapons that actually killed children. That's a war crime. Are we going to be bombing them too? That's what I'd like...
ROBERTSThank you very much. What do you think, Abderrahim?
FOUKARAThe source of these chemical weapons exactly I don't know. I know that there's been some question about how effective these chemical weapons would be given how old the possession is in Syria because they've had these chemical weapons for several decades.
FOUKARAI don't know if they've been updated by many of Bashar's allies, such as the Russians. It wouldn't surprise me that some of them at least originally came from the old Soviet Union.
FOUKARAThe issue of, you know, Bashar has been saying if the other side can get help from the outside world, whether they call them terrorists coming across the border from Iraq and other countries, whether they call them the Zionists, whether they call them the Americans, so can I. I am entitled to get help from Iran, Russia and so on.
FOUKARABut, you know, this discussion about if you bomb here why not bomb there, you can have this conversation till you're blue in the face. The fact of the situation is even before 1,400 people were gassed, and I think this is what a lot of people in the region have a problem with, you had 100,000 people killed in Syria.
FOUKARAMillions displaced inside Syria and outside Syria, now how red does that line have to be to call it a red line? You actually have to wait until the tragic killing of 1,400 people by chemical weapons. A lot of people saying something has to be done but a lot of people have questions. Is it now maybe too late to get something done? And we don't know if the U.S. intervention is going to make things better or worse.
ROBERTSLet's turn to Dave in Alexandria, Va. Dave, you're on "The Diane Rehm Show."
DAVEThanks. I'm following up on the previous question. I'm assuming that the Russians have supplied them chemical weapons. I'm also assuming that the Russians have military advisors on the ground in Syria now and they've also supplied their air defenses.
DAVESo the first thing is, I don't understand why the Russians, no matter what source, don't take control of all the chemical weapons and, two, why we -- we have been told this thing about the F-22 being such a great aircraft and the Soviet Russians supplied air defenses that the Syrians have. Why aren't we using the F-22 to demonstrate to the Russians that we have the superior military power?
ROBERTSThank you, Dave. Howard?
LAFRANCHIWell, we do know that actually Bashar al-Assad's father, Hafez al-Assad, began converting fertilizer plants way back when he was in power to chemical weapons production. I mean, some of these stockpiles they've had for four decades so they're not necessarily -- I don't think it's accurate to say that they're supplied by the Russians.
LAFRANCHIOn the other hand, the Russians have supplied military equipment, financing, but also remember that the Russians have held back on delivery of a sophisticated anti-air system, an air defense system, and the Russians have also pulled out some of the material that they have in their base in Syria.
LAFRANCHISo I think the Russians are being a little bit careful. They're being very supportive of Syria on the international stage, but they're not supporting the Syrians with material and certainly not advisors or troops in the way that the Iranians have.
ROBERTSLet's turn to Linda in Midwest City, Okla. Linda, you're on "The Diane Rehm Show."
LINDAWell, thank you for taking my call. My question would be if we were to strike the sites where the, you know, the sarin gas is, is there anything that we could then -- or put over to prevent the cloud from going to other people, to neutralize the, like, sarin gas cloud? And also is there any way that they could maybe take all the gas containers and give them to the U.N. and the Security Council then neutralize them?
ROBERTSThank you very much. Elise, this is one of the questions about the -- if there are these attacks, what are they aimed at and what could be part of the fallout? And one of these questions as our caller raises is can you attack these facilities without a secondary effect?
LABOTTI think that's one of the biggest concerns and that's been one of the biggest concerns all along in terms of military action is the, you know, do you lose control? You know, Assad -- and we clearly, as we'll see in the intelligence that will show, has had very strict control over these chemical stockpiles and that's why they were very reluctant to get involved.
LABOTTI think it will probably be more about commanding control, air defenses, the means of delivery, and strategic assets by Assad that would prevent him from delivering these chemical weapons again. I think it's going to be one of the main issues that the U.S. has been grappling with, with its partners and they've been working with, you know countries like Jordan on how to secure those chemical weapons.
LABOTTI think that they'd be very reluctant to strike those chemical weapons sites because they would fear, A, that there would be residual effects of those chemical weapons in the air and could cause civilian damage and, B, that there would be some kind of chaos and there would be, you know, a free-for-all in terms of trying to secure them by the al-Nusra Front, the Islamist, al-Qaida-related group or other or Hezbollah or other, you know, how they would work with them in the future.
ROBERTSIn the president's interview that he gave this week to PBS, as part of the rationale for contemplating a strike, he talked about the possibility of these chemical weapons falling into the hands of al-Qaida affiliates and other Islamic fundamentalists that could then be used against the United States.
ROBERTSWe could probably anticipate that part of the argument that will be made is that American national security can become engaged here because of the nature of these weapons and whose hands they might fall into.
LABOTTExactly. And some might have argued that we wouldn't, that they wouldn't be in this position if there was action, as Abderrahim said, was taken in advance to kind of prevent this type of use of chemical weapons to stabilize the country in advance.
LABOTTI think that that will be among the cases that are made but I think that's the problem right now is that President Obama really needs to make a cogent case not just about the intelligence that is provided but what the aims are of any type of military action, what the goal is. Is it related to some larger Syria policy that the U.S. has struggled to define for the last two years?
LABOTTI don't. No one is talking about regime change. No one is talking about dramatically affecting the change on the ground. So how is a limited strike that you're advertising to Assad that's not going to be very big really going to strengthen U.S. national security?
ROBERTSLet's turn to Don in Jasper, Fla. Don, you're on "The Diane Rehm Show."
DONThank you. What I'd like to know is why we can leave our boys to die in Benghazi and not help them, but possibly light the fuse on World War III by siding with terrorists who are trying to get a foothold in another country that we don't have any interest in and who might possibly have set off the sarin gas themselves in order to get us to do their bidding?
DONAnd I know earlier it was mentioned that it would be, if somehow al-Qaida, in all these years, hasn't been able to get an artillery piece in order to fire it around, but I'm pretty sure they're real good at making IEDs. And since they control the area, they could do it themselves.
ROBERTSOkay, thank you very much, Don. This issue has been raised, Abderrahim, that possibly the allegation has been voiced as our caller did that it wasn't the Assad government, but it was, in fact, the rebels who were the cause of this attack. What do we know?
FOUKARAWell, we don't know for sure at this particular point in time. I mean, the problem that the Obama administration faces is that even if it comes up with what it may call solid evidence that it was Bashar al-Assad's regime that did it, given what happened with Iraq, we later on found out that that evidence was faulty and false.
FOUKARASo you know there are no, there are no certainties here but I think what the caller has just said about, you know, allying the United States, allying itself with al-Qaida and so on. You know, this is part of the conundrum that, you know, people, the world faces in Syria because what is Bashar al-Assad actually reading in the U.S. position?
FOUKARAWe've got to focus on your ability to deliver chemical weapons. They're reading would be, so if it's anything else other than chemical weapons, we'll allow you to use it to kill Syrians. I think that's part of the reading of the message in Damascus.
FOUKARAAnd then a lot of people would say, okay, the only way to deal with this is to get rid of Bashar. The Obama administration is countering with if we get rid of Bashar, what we may get in his place could be 100 times worse. In the meantime, Syrian civilians have been decimated in Syria.
FOUKARAThis is not the issue about what we did in Libya or not. There are innocent civilians by the hundreds, thousands being killed Syria every day.
ROBERTSI'm Steve Roberts and you're listening to "The Diane Rehm Show." One of the questions that the caller raises, and Abderrahim does too, Howard, is the nature of the rebel force. Sometimes this gets very over-simplified, but for all the talk about intervention, one of the questions that has to be raised is if you were to intervene, on whose side you would be intervening on and who are the rebels you would be helping?
ROBERTSAnd what Abderrahim is raising, the question that this is quite a mixed force and a very mixed picture on the other side and it's not a simple one.
LAFRANCHIYeah, well, I think it's worth remembering that the first time the administration claimed that president's red line was crossed which was in March with attacks that had occurred from December through March the response in June then was for the administration to announce that it was in response to that small-scale use of chemical weapons they were going to start arming the rebels.
LAFRANCHIBut from what we've heard as of last week those arms are still not reaching any rebel groups and you know why is that? The United States remains very concerned about where those arms would go. The rebels, it seems that really those with the upper hand, the stronger, are groups that the United States has no interest in strengthening, in arming.
LAFRANCHIEven the groups, as Elise mentioned, like the al-Nusra Front that the United States considers terrorist organizations. Those seem to be the groups that are really gaining the upper hand among the rebels.
ROBERTSWe have time for one or two more callers and let's bring in Thomas from Baltimore, Md. You're on "The Diane Rehm Show," Thomas.
THOMASRegarding, it's my understanding that the Saudis don't like Assad. Now the Saudis have been buying American weaponry for decades and the Pentagon trains them in the use of it so presumably they're competent. So why can't they be the ones to send Assad a message? Why does it have to be the West?
LABOTTAh, actually behind the scenes, the Saudis are working intensely on this. Prince Bandar, you remember the old Saudi ambassador to the U.S., a real legend in his time in terms of being a power broker kind of faded from the scene for many years, but now he has a very big, national security role and has been traveling the world, was recently in Moscow talking to the Russians, working in France.
LABOTTAnd I think the Saudis, while they may not be active in any type of strike, certainly are paying a lot of money to the opposition, arming the opposition. And I think if the U.S. were to take military action, they'll be right there at the back door trying to the help the opposition capitalize on it.
ROBERTSAh, and one other factor here that keeps getting debated, Abderrahim, is what happens the second day if there are strikes? Is there a larger strategy? We've been talking about what's not part of the strategy. Regime change is not part of the strategy. Even intervening on the side of the rebels is not part of the strategy.
ROBERTSYour best expression, what the goal of -- if there is a strike and it looks pretty likely, what's the goal here?
FOUKARAWell, nobody knows what the goal is. I mean, there's speculation that if Bashar goes then the country may splinter into different countries. There's a goal that there may be total anarchy. But there's also another perspective on this and I keep circling back to it, which is the perspective of Syrians in those parts of Syria who are opposed to Bashar and his regime. Their complaint is that nothing worse than Bashar could come to them.
FOUKARAAnd obviously, there are a lot of other people including the U.S. government telling them that they're not convinced that would be the case.
ROBERTSFinal word, Elise, what do you expect the president to say as his goal here? What's his goal?
LABOTTI think his goal is to show President Assad that the use of chemical weapons is unacceptable, show them there's a cost, prevent him from doing this again and also weaken him in relation to the opposition but not strong enough so that he as Abderrahim was saying, not strong enough so that it topples Assad.
LABOTTSo at the end of the day, this is, you know, pretty much a slap on the wrist, stopping him from doing it again but not part of some larger policy to end the civil war there.
LAFRANCHIThere's a message to Iran as well.
ROBERTSI'm sorry. Elise Labott from CNN, Howard LaFranchi of The Christian Science Monitor and Abderrahim Foukara of Al Jazeera Arabic, thank you so much for being with us this morning. I'm Steve Roberts from George Washington University sitting in for Diane. She's away on vacation and will be back in mid-September. Thanks for spending an hour of your morning with us.
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