Opposition Forces In Syria
MS. SUSAN PAGE
Thanks for joining us. I'm Susan Page of USA Today sitting in for Diane Rehm. Diane is on vacation. As Congress prepares to debate a limited U.S. military strike in Syria, there are questions about what groups there are on what side. In June, the Obama administration gave the go-ahead to the CIA to begin providing support to rebels fighting the Assad regime.
MS. SUSAN PAGE
But so far little has actually been delivered. Joining me to talk about the opposing groups in Syria and U.S. intervention strategy with me in the studio, Paul Pillar of Georgetown University and Robert Grenier, an intelligence and security consultant. Welcome to "The Diane Rehm Show."
MR. PAUL PILLAR
Joining us from North Carolina, Mark Mazzetti, national security correspondent at The New York Times. Welcome, Mark.
MR. MARK MAZZETTI
Thanks for having me on.
And by phone from Istanbul, Nour Malas with The Wall Street Journal. Thanks for being with us.
MS. NOUR MALAS
Hi. And thank you.
We're going to invite our listeners to join our conversation later in this hour. You can call our toll-free number. It's 1-800-433-8850. Send us an email at email@example.com, or find us on Facebook or Twitter. Well, Mark, we saw the Senate Foreign Relations Committee yesterday take the first congressional vote in favor of military action in more than a decade. They approved a resolution authorizing the president to take limited military action against Syria. What did the debate there and that vote tell us about the full debate we'll have next year -- next week in the House and Senate?
Well, it's certainly divided. You have a Senate that is clearly not unified on what to do on the best course of action, clearly not sure that taking a step to punish Assad for using -- allegedly using chemical weapons is the best use of U.S. military force because of the option -- the prospects of the U.S. getting dragged deeper into the civil war. So, I mean, you can expect that when the debate happens next week, it's going to be, to put it mildly, very lively. It's going to sort of probably air out all of the differences in the Senate in the same way that I think the country is very deeply divided over this.
Well, Nour, tell us how this -- what you're hearing from Syrians about this debate. I mean, there was a big expectation just at the end of last week that the U.S. would have undertaken military strikes already without congressional authorization. What's been the reaction in Syria?
Syrians are really divided about this as they have been from the start about, you know, foreign and Western involvement in their uprising. The sort of surprising thing, I would say, is that rebel groups have been uniformly pleading for help and intervention for two years. Now, themselves are split as well between whether they want U.S. strikes or any form of military action in Syria.
I would say that broadly the opposition is, you know, (word?) this kind of action. They've been asking for it and waiting for it for quite a long time. And they were absolutely stunned by President Obama's decision to seek congressional backing. Some of them think that this means that the administration is taking its time to develop more elaborate plans. So, you know, they're really still hoping on some kind of decisive action.
I don't think that within the opposition or, you know, Syrians at large, they do understand how deeply divided, you know, Americans are on this issue. And also, they're not clear as to what the objectives of a limited strike are. You know, they've been asking for the kind of help that would help them overthrow the regime. And they're not quite clear on what a limited strike that would perhaps just contain the regime's ability to use chemical weapons again might mean.
Well, Bob, I think that some Americans join the Syrians in not being clear on what a limited strike would do. What could it accomplish?
MR. ROBERT GRENIER
Well, I think it should -- it could go some way to degrading the regime's capability not only to employ chemical weapons but also to maintain the conventional operations against the opposition. It very much depends on not only the targeting but the duration of these strikes. And that is very much open to question right now.
Well, Paul, what do you think? Could there be a significant consequence from these strikes, or is it mostly almost a symbolic punishment?
I think first and foremost we are making ourselves feel good, feel moral that we are responding to what is generally agreed was an atrocity with regard to the use of chemical weapons, a nerve gas, against at least several hundred people. The main ostensible stated rationale, of course, has to do with upholding a norm of nonuse of chemical weapons.
But I think there are questions there as to exactly how effective it will be in that regard, particularly as far as the Syrian regime itself is concerned, which, after all, is fighting for its life, not only the regime's life but perhaps literally the life of Assad and other senior figures in it. So if the tide of the war were to go against them, I would not be too confident that they would really be deterred from using anything in their arsenal.
Could the kind of limited military strikes that the president's talking about could that turn the tide of the civil war?
Well, it's interesting. The resolution that came through the Senate committee, and reportedly especially at the behest of Sen. McCain, included this language that says exactly that, that it's supposed to tip the balance or something to that effect and not just send a message with regard to CW.
The challenge for the administration and for the war planners is to walk this fine line of coming up with an attack plan that is serious enough to send a message enough to tip the balance but not enough to simply cause the regime to implode or fall apart and then we'd perhaps have an even more chaos than we do today.
Bob, you're nodding your head. You agree?
Well, I do agree that that is what the administration seems to want. They're trying to pursue a very calibrated policy here where, as Paul points out, they weaken the regime but not so much as to bring about its imminent collapse. And, quite frankly, I think that this is a situation which will not admit of that sort of calibration and that, if anything, this very nuanced policy, which the administration is trying to pursue, is dragging this conflict out and bringing about much more humanitarian suffering than would otherwise be the case.
Well, Nour, tell me, you said that there was some kind of a surprising division with some rebel groups now opposing these strikes. Is that right?
Yes, absolutely. I actually just also want to say on tipping the balance I think that the wording was changing the momentum on the battlefield. And from where I sit -- so outside U.S. policy circles and in the field -- I think it's one of the most important questions that's really not answered very well. I mean, what does that mean?
As they say, does it mean changing the momentum so that rebels are allowed to storm the presidential palace in Damascus tomorrow? Or is it a matter of strengthening them over several months or years? But I just wanted to say that that remains, you know, I think, a central question, and also it's really hazy sitting all the way over here outside of Washington.
About splits on intervention, I think that they fall along a pretty expected divide. Islamist groups, jihadist groups are now taking a much stronger anti-intervention line than before. They don't want foreign interference. Other groups are saying, you know, thanks, but this help is coming too late. And others are, you know, have sort of a little bit more nuanced opinion. Again, you know, as we discussed, they'd like something that would be more decisive than just limited strikes that would send a message and, you know, sort of be a good moral thing to do.
Well, Mark, tell me -- Nour said that in Syria, the goals here seem kind of hazy. I have to say, in Washington, the goals seem a little hazy as well. What do you think the actual goal is by the Obama administration for these strikes, assuming they take place?
Well, as it has been said before, I mean, the goal really is to, it seems, to send a message to Assad that, you know, they should not use chemical weapons again to "degrade" the capabilities of Assad of using chemical weapons again. So there's those two things. But there's no question that it is very hazy. It's very -- anyone looking at this from the outside is going to say, so, OK, what is the plan?
I mean, the United States for two years has tried to stay out of this conflict. The Obama administration and President Obama himself have said basically this is not in the U.S. national interest. And then over the course of the summer, you gradually are seeing these steps for the United States to get more involved.
But then the question is, OK, so the United States wants to get rid of Assad. Well, not quite, right, because the U.S. is worried about what might come in after Assad. So it is -- there, you know, it's a cliché to say there are no good options, but there's also really not a very articulate -- clearly articulated policy here.
Yeah. And that's one of the problems, I guess, in going to Congress for authorization is that you have members of Congress as we've seen from the past two days really press senior officials, like the secretary of state and secretary of defense, for to clarify what their goals are. Well, so say we do undertake these military strikes. How will the Assad regime respond, do you think, Robert?
Well, this is very much open to question, and I think, as Paul has pointed out before, this is a regime which is fighting for its life. And it is capable of virtually anything if it thinks that it is in danger of imminent collapse. I think that initial instance they would hope to simply survive these strikes. I don't anticipate that they would try, for instance, to want to strike at Israel. But if they felt that they were in fact in imminent danger of absolute collapse, then I think they're capable of virtually anything.
What do you think, Paul?
I agree with Bob. I think what the regime does will depend on the overall course of the civil war, and the more desperate the regime sees itself in, the more desperation it feels, the more extensive and more intense will be its responses, including possibly more use of CW.
Nour, you spend a lot of time in that region. What do you think the Assad regime will do in response?
Well, I think we're in a very critical period where both the administration and the Assad regime are watching each other's statements and responses quite carefully. I think the regime is so far have been rhetorically very defiant. It's warned against this kind of attack. It said it will pointblank retaliate against even regional neighbors who, you know, help out or offer a staging ground for a strike. At the same time, I don't think that it's in their interest to escalate this. I mean, (unintelligible)...
All right. OK. We're going to just take a very short break. I apologize for cutting you off. We're going to take a short break and come back, and we'll continue our conversation about the opposition in Syria and the divisions among them. Stay with us.
Welcome back. I'm Susan Page of USA Today, sitting in for Diane Rehm. And we're talking about the situation in Syria this hour. Joining us from Istanbul, Nour Malas, a reporter with the Wall Street Journal. And from North Carolina, Mark Mazzetti, national security correspondent for The New York Times. He's author of "The Way of the Knife: The CIA, a Secret Army, and a War at the Ends of the Earth."
With me here in the studio, Robert Grenier. He's chair of ERG Partners. He was the CIA station chief in Pakistan and, after that, director of the CIA's Counterterrorism Center from 2004 to 2006. And Paul Pillar, he's a senior fellow at the Center for Security Studies at Georgetown University and a former CIA national intelligence officer. Well, I think we have to take a call from Harry because he's calling us from Cat Square, N.C., which is a great dateline. Harry, thanks for joining us.
Hello. Good to be on. Thank you for taking my call. I got a question. We are about ready to spend, again, hundreds of millions of dollars on an idea and a concept that I just do not understand. If we're going to promote a regime change and nobody really knows that, who in the world of the four or five groups -- and one of them being al-Qaida -- that are fighting each other are going to -- which of the groups is going to take charge after we set them up? And then what happens? You still have those groups that are still going to be fighting who knows indefinitely.
Harry, I think that's just a great question, and I wonder if somebody on the panel -- I think all of you -- any of you could do this -- could describe to us the divisions. We talk about the Syrian opposition. It's not just one group. It's several different groups with different goals. Who would like to just briefly outline the Syrian opposition? Robert?
Well, I think we would be at it for quite some time if we wanted to outline all of the different rebel groups active right now within Syria. It's quite a stew of different sorts of groups, but we can break them down along certain lines. And, of course, the ones that we, the United States, are perhaps most concerned about are the so-called radical extremist groups, the principal one among them, an organization called Jabhat al-Nusra, which is affiliated with al-Qaida.
In fact, they consider Ayman al-Zawahiri, the head of al-Qaida, to be at least the nominal head of their movement, of their organization. There are two other major so-called extremist groups within Syria who would like to establish an Islamic republic there. There are others that are of an Islamist cast but not as extreme as the groups that I've just mentioned.
And then perhaps the largest group, if we can refer to it -- it's certainly not a unified group -- is the Free Syrian Army. And they are much more moderate, much more secular, but also not nearly as organized or perhaps as well-led as some of the extremist groups are.
Well, Mark Mazzetti, there were questions for Secretary Hagel and Secretary Kerry yesterday about kind of the mix of good guys and bad guys in the Syrian opposition. Secretary Kerry said 15 to 20 percent were bad guys, are extremists. What's the kind of mix that you see when you look at the Syrian opposition?
I think it would be nearly impossible to put a percentage on it, a hard percentage on it, especially even trying to narrow it down between good guys and bad guys. It's just that complex, as Bob was laying out. I mean, you have the Free Syrian Army, which has been the group that the United States, the Obama administration has been the most connected to, the most -- the group that was going to receive this CIA support starting in the middle of the summer. As yet, it hasn't arrived.
But even within that group, there are factions, many layers, hundreds of different brigades that don't necessarily even take direct orders from the leader of the Free Syrian Army. So -- and one of the reasons why you have this intensification of the fracturing among the groups is that for two years, different countries with different interests have supported their own factions in Syria.
You've had the Free Syrian Army who has gotten some support from Saudi Arabia, from the United Arab Emirates. You've had Islamist groups that have had more direct support from Qatar, which has been arming through Turkey in the north. So each country that has been backing the opposition has kind of their own horse, and so it certainly doesn't lead to any kind of a unified front against Assad.
Well, Nour, tell us, Harry asked us, if Assad fell, who would take charge? What's the answer to that question?
Well, it's a very good question, and that's the reason I believe that U.S. policy is not aimed to help overthrow the regime overnight because, you know, it is not clear who would fill that gap. On a political level, you do have a coalition called the Syrian Opposition Coalition, which has, you know, existed for the past 2 1/2 years. And before that, there was a political opposition in Syria that operated largely from outside of Syria.
But you've brought these people together and tried to put them into an alliance that would be in a position to take over politically once the regime falls. The problem is what you do with, you know, the melee of anti-government fighters which, as all of us are pointing out, also include al-Qaida. It is very hard to quantify the good guys and the bad guys or even Islamist from non-Islamist.
But we have heard estimates from intel agencies in the region and elsewhere and, let's say, of 100,000 anti-government fighters in Syria, which is kind of a middle-of-the-road estimate, I'd say our reporting shows and, you know, other reporting shows, there's maybe 15,000 or 20,000 jihadists in there. It's not clear how that breaks down into Syrians and foreigners, but I think one point to keep in mind is that these people have very different aims than those who started the uprising in Syria in March 2011.
They may be contributing to and, in many cases, leading rebel military operations now. But beyond that, they're really fighting a very different battle. And so I think any policy or military operation intended to either bolster the rebels or ultimately weaken, you know, the militants, the al-Qaida militants, if it ever gets to that point, has to have that in mind very clearly. There are many distinct but overlapping groups, and that's what makes, you know, the rebel situation in Syria so complicated.
Paul, could the successor to the Assad regime, if the Assad regime were to fall, be better for U.S. interest than the Assad regime?
Well, almost anything is possible because of the incredibly complex opposition picture. I would just add to what Nour, Mark and Bob all accurately noted, a couple of points. One is that the political structure that Nour mentioned is only very loosely connected to the resistance troops on the ground that Bob described. I mean, there's some connection, but it's -- even if there were some deal struck with the coalition that was set up last November, there's no guarantee that the war would stop.
The other point I want to make, Susan, is even if you just single out the Islamists, it is very hard -- and I agree with Mark. It's really impossible to come up with some percentage between good guys and bad guys. And one of the reasons for that is they simply haven't had an opportunity under the authoritarian Assad regime to demonstrate whether they're peacefully inclined or radical extremists who would use violence.
I would contrast Syria in that respect with, say, Egypt, where, under the Mubarak government, the Muslim Brotherhood, the best-known Islamist group, although it was legally prohibited, was, in fact, permitted to operate. Its candidates ran for parliament under the banner of other parties or as independents. Whereas under the Assads in Syria, the Syrian Muslim Brotherhood was the object not just of legal prescription but brutal crackdowns, including the massacre at Hama under Assad's father.
So they don't have the practice that some of the groups in Egypt would've had.
They definitely do not have the practice, and we do not have a basis for sorting out the violent extremists from the ones who might be the basis for a peaceful political system in the future.
Nour, you mentioned how different this is from the time when these protests began in 2011. Is there second thinking -- of course, hindsight is 20/20. Is there second thinking that we don't have to be in the kind of the no-win situation we seem to be in now if U.S. actions had been different over the past two years, or is this kind of an inevitable place for us to be?
It's a little bit of both because Syria is so complicated than it was from the start because of the nature of the regime, because of the nature of the opposition, because of the way things played out, you know, for both sides. And in many ways, the regime was able to capitalize on the weakness of the opposition at every point in the way. But, I mean, what I've seen on the ground is that what we like to call moderate elements in both the political opposition and also the rebel movement, these are military defectors.
They're not necessarily fighting to establish an Islamic state. They have the overthrow of the regime as their first priority. These people exist. They're still the bulk of the anti-government insurgency, and they have been there at every point or turning point of the past 2 1/2 years. At every point also, they've pretty consistently been trumped by someone with better access to money or weapons. And those people largely are extremists.
They benefit from, you know, much larger networks with aims and ideologies that aren't consistent with America's interest or really with the interest of most Syrians, though we have seen that happen. You know, the radicalization of the rebel movement has been dark, but it's also grown the longer this thing has dragged out. And, you know, one of the most sort of shocking things I hear, even from refugees, though -- this is not Syrians who are partaking in battle -- is that we will support al-Qaida, or we will support the most extremist guy out there if he's going to get us out of this mess.
You know, at the same time, obviously, this is just talks from people who have lost a tremendous amount and have the least to lose perhaps. But it is a common sentiment that if we need to put our eggs in this basket to get us out of the current situation, we'll do that. You know, at the same time, many of these people wouldn't have geared towards the most extremist groups or now wouldn't be lending them their support if other forces were empowered.
And, you know, it's no exaggeration to say that the moderates really lost out while the extremists just kept gaining strength, you know, taking over territories, setting up local councils. People on the opposition coalition always say, you know, we set up a council. We sort of tried to meet all the demands of our Western and Arab backers. And, for three months, we didn't see a dime, or we didn't see a single arms convoy come to Turkish-Jordanian border.
We've heard about this consistently over the past 2 1/2 years. And there's really no good explanation for why this process to empower the moderates has taken so long except, you know, what we're seeing in the past week is that the CIA and others in the U.S. are worried that, you know, they have to establish very secure pipelines and really get to -- exhaust a vetting process before they choose who to support.
I'm Susan Page, and you're listening to "The Diane Rehm Show." We're going to go back to the phones, 1-800-433-8850, or send us an email at firstname.lastname@example.org. Well, let's go to Lewis. He's calling us from Lancaster, Pa. Lewis, hi.
Hi. Oh, thank you for taking my call. I have a comment are two and also some questions. Number one, I'm the father -- my son is a three-war veteran. He's in the National Guard. He was part of the -- twice -- he was already twice in Iraq and once in the Gulf War. And so obviously, my feelings as a father, as a family member, is to stay away from all these wars. I think there's 40,000 people are dead in Iraq, and, you know, everybody knows that 250,000 coming back disabled is enough to say no immediately to any initiatives like this.
On the other hand, two points I want to make. Number one, I think we should stop here. I think we need to stop saying atrocity what has happened 1,429 people in Syria. This is a genocide. When you see those pictures, the videos, children dead because what this guy did, killing all these innocent people, that's a genocide.
That's not a -- that's genocide what this guy has committed. And I think, number two, the president of the United States has already mentioned a number of times -- and now Congress also going through the process of -- and make sure that happens also -- no boots on the ground. Believe me, if I knew my son was in plans also to go send there, possibility, I will be saying immediately, no.
But we could act the same way we acted before, strictly with drums or whatever, and do some serious damage without risking a single life or our American soldiers and beautiful women that are defending our country. So I think the question is, why is it that we keep saying -- using terms no real -- we should be -- why do keep saying atrocity? This -- I know it's atrocity, but basically it's a genocide. He's done it twice or three times already, I understand. And that's the question that I have for Dan.
All right. Lewis, thank you so much for your call, and thank you -- or thanks to your son for his service. Let me -- let -- give Mark Mazzetti a chance to respond to that comment.
Well, on the question of, you know, genocide, atrocities, I mean, there's no doubt that this is a brutal, brutal war on all sides, certainly, but that, you know, Assad especially has inflicted tens of thousands, you know, now over 100,000 killed in Syria. And so much of that is because of Assad's government forces. Some have raised questions about, you know, why does an attack on -- that killed 1,400 people precipitate an American response after more than 100,000 people have already died?
And that is to the question of the use of chemical weapons, as President Obama talked about international norms. But, I mean, there are very serious questions being asked. Why now after so many have been killed? I mean, the only thing that everyone can agree on, that this is a brutal war with brutalities on both sides, on all sides, 'cause there aren't even two sides, and that the use of chemical weapons in the -- in that one attack a couple weeks ago was incredibly, incredibly brutal.
I think observing that norm has not been as consistent as a lot of the rhetoric in recent days would lead one to believe. We should recall that during the Iran-Iraq War, there was large-scale use by the Saddam Hussein regime of chemical weapons, most famously against some of his own Kurdish citizens, but also very much against Iranian forces in the Iran-Iraq War. In fact, the Iranians still have observances marking the people who are still suffering, who were wounded by chemical weapons back then.
What did the U.S. do then? Well, during that time, the U.S. was tilting toward Iraq and against Iran in the Iran-Iraq War, and basically we said nothing. So I think as far as upholding norms and sending messages is -- are concerned, a lot of people, especially in the Middle East, would interpret a U.S. strike as not so much upholding a norm of good international behavior, but rather bashing a regime that we don't happen to like.
Well, with regard to red lines, I mean, any real red line here really has to be an international red line, not simply an American red line. And so the issue as to whether or not the United States should take action really has to do with the fact that no one else in the international community, and foremost the U.N., seems willing to do anything.
Seems to me that the U.S. would be in a far stronger moral position if, as Nour had suggested, they had taken effective action, beginning perhaps two years ago, to provide effective support to the moderate opposition. This is a regime which is heinous. It has always been so. It demonstrated its brutality back in the early 1980s with the attack by Bashar Assad's father on Hama. We know what this regime is capable of, and it seems to me that our opposition to it should be much less qualified than it has been.
We're going to take a short break. And when we come back, we'll talk about the terrible human toll in terms of Syrian refugees. We'll go back to the phones and take some of your calls and your questions, read your emails. Stay with us.
Nour, you've done a lot of reporting for The Wall Street Journal from the region, including from a place that has become, I guess, the third biggest city in Jordan. It's a refugee camp. Tell us about that.
Sure. It's called the Zaatari camp, and by some estimates, it's Jordan's fourth largest city now. When it first opened up last summer, it was meant to hold 5,000 Syrians, and that was because they were starting to come out in bigger numbers from the southern provinces of government focused on military operations there. And, today, it's home to 130,000 Syrians.
So it's really been this extraordinary experiment in setting up a refugee camp in the middle of the desert that's now, you know, this bustling urban community. There's a huge market in the center. Syrians have set up shops and businesses because many of them, you know, have come to terms with the fact that they might not go back, not anytime soon, maybe not ever. And so they need sources of income, and this is their life.
Mark, what's the impact on the region of this huge exodus of refugees in Syria?
Well, Nour is saying that -- I mean, the country that has been the most taxed by this outside of Syria is Jordan, that they have taken the vast, vast majority of the refugees. And there is real serious concern inside the U.S. government and other Western governments about just how much Jordan can bear during this situation. They have -- obviously, they're not the most economically prosperous country in the region.
And they have very serious concerns about whether, you know, if Syria were to -- will fully collapse, even if the Assad regime were to collapse, whether it would put even greater strain on Jordan and just how stable Jordan would be in the future, so that is -- that's the number one concern. There's been Jordanian officials who have come to Washington to make this point, and that's the most immediate concern of at least the Obama administration.
Here's an email from Patricia. She writes, "Why are we not hearing more about the option of charging Assad with war crimes in the international court as Sen. Tom Udall has propose?" Paul, why have we heard more about that?"
Well, probably haven't heard more about that from our own policymakers in Washington for two reasons. One is the United States is not a party to the international criminal court, and so things always get very dicey when we talk about international judicial proceedings where the U.S. government, through several administrations, has had various problems.
The other reason is, to be, you know, quite blunt, you know, what the U.S. administration is doing, what it is doing now, not because it's seeking a new Middle East war but because it's been under pressure now. And the CW incident was sort of the tipping point for this pressure to do something forceful about Syria. And somehow, you know, bringing a judicial proceeding to tribunals that we aren't even a party to would simply not have the kind of impact or satisfy the kind of demand that the administration is trying to satisfy with what they propose to Congress.
Robert, here's an email we've gotten from Kurt who writes us from Houston, Texas. He writes, "Pretend for a moment that somehow in the foreseeable future, the fighting in Syria would magically stop and the Assad regime step aside. What would be the plan going forward to re-establish the nation of Syria? Who would manage the process? What form would a Syria of the future have? Does Syria have a constitution that on paper protects human rights and a body of law to maintain the peace and allow commerce to resume?"
Well, I think that the shorter answer is that there isn't anybody who can mediate that sort of a process. And when the regime goes, if, in fact, it does -- and we hope that it will be in the near future -- that will be the start of the process, not the end of the process.
And these various groups that we've been talking about who have been working at least in rough concert with the aim of overthrowing the regime then would be in a very strong competition, which is already underway in some areas to win the hearts and minds of the Syrian people and to decide how their country is going to be ruled in the future. Yes, I'm sure that there are a number of nominal productions in the current Syrian constitution, none of which are observed.
So they really will be starting from scratch. And it seems to me that one of the rationales for U.S. engagement with the moderate opposition now is so that we will be in a position to help reinforce those groups, those organizations that will help to move the country in what we would regard as a constructive direction and keep Syria from becoming a safe haven for terrorist groups in the future.
Well, Nour, if the Assad regime were to fall, how much influence would the U.S. have at this point with the opposition, with the groups that would be vying then to take over the country?
Well, I think there's no good template or really accurate parallel for all the different ways that, you know, the day after could play out. I think if we look at Syria's early post-independence period, there were a bunch of military coups. I mean, people used to actually joke at the time that you could sleep and wake up and there would be a, you know, another military coup and a new man in charge. I think we might be looking at a similar scenario as for, you know, the U.S. influence and how much kind of influence it'll have over these groups.
There's definitely select parts of the opposition that it has wooed and courted pretty closely, and I think that the administration's decision to get more involved with the armed opposition over the past six months or so is important to make sure that it has allies on the grounds to enforce security. But, you know, it's really very hard to tell because there are so many players involved in Syria at this point that the opposition is being tugged in a bunch of different directions at the same time.
Mark, we've had two years of a president who's been very reluctant to get involved in Syria, as Paul said, really pushed to this point by rhetoric that he used a year ago. What do you think the president's attitude is toward this? Do you think he has a clear vision in mind that he's trying to pursue, or is it not really quite that?
Well, you had to just basically go on what the president has said publicly. They -- he has said that the United States needs to take action to, as we've said, enforce this international norm. He has not talked about regime change. Obviously, he's -- he said there needs to be, you know, punishment for an act or a number of acts that Assad has carried out.
The -- President Obama, in several occasions over the last year, has said that, you know, the United States should not get directly involved. So there has certainly been nothing from the White House that would indicate that they have a clear vision of what they want for the day after Assad. And there's even pretty good body language that nobody really even wants to contemplate the day after Assad quite yet because they don't know what will happen or what could happen or who could come into place.
So, I mean, the people who have been counseling getting -- staying out, period, of Syria, have basically boiled this whole thing down to one side is supported by Iran and Hezbollah, the other side is supported by al-Qaida. Why do we want to get involved, period, you know? So it's very simplistic way to put it, but there is some truth to it. So that is sort of been, I think, behind what really the president's caution about getting involved in any way.
Well, I disagree actually. I think that the administration has been pretty clear, both from it has said and what it has refrained from saying, that what they would like to see in Syria is a negotiated solution. They don't want to see a complete collapse and end of the Assad regime. The president has been very clear in saying that Bashar Assad must go.
That would be he, his family and his closest associates, presumably, but they don't want to see a complete collapse of central government authority in Syria. And so I think that they're hoping against hope by calibrating U.S. involvement as well as the involvement of some others, that you'll have a negotiated solution between elements, at least, of the opposition and elements of the regime that will keep a complete political vacuum from forming in Syria.
Let's go back to the phones. We'll talk to Jim. He's been holding on from Gainesville, Fla. Jim, hi. You're on the air.
Thank you for taking my call. I believe the U.S. has been slow to intervene in both Egypt and Syria in fear of the emergence of a new regime's posture towards Israel. This has been a reactionary policy. It makes Obama look paralyzed and vulnerable to a moderate GOP struggling to remain relevant. And in regard to Syria, I think that we should, you know, realize that change is inevitable.
And we should be thinking about tomorrow. And I would suggest that we go in and pick a winner that will give us what we want more than anything that would demonstrate a Syria that would be, you know, friendly to our interests, especially vis-a-vis Israel.
And that would be somebody who would be willing to give us permanent annexation of the Golan Heights to Israel and showing that, you know, they're going to keep, you know, the region stabilized and still and able to have a more progressive regime put in place rather than, say, as, you know, the previous commentator to me, that we are looking to keep, you know, the Ba'athist machinery in power.
All right, Jim. Thanks so much for your call. So, Paul, we should pick a winner. What do you think?
We could try to pick winners. We would fail dismally. I mean, it's not up to us. And we don't have the power to determine what the preferences of the Syrian people are. This incredibly complex assortment of opposition groups that we've been describing this hour reflects a comparable assortment of views, ethnicities, sectarian groups, and many other variables as well. And to try to pick somebody out of that and say, well, this is the -- our new guy who is not only going to take charge in Syria but is going to be able to do something like write off the Golan Heights is, I'm afraid, simply unrealistic.
Let's talk to Mohammad. (sp?) He's calling us from Boston, Mass. Hi, Mohammad.
(unintelligible) Yes, hi. How are you?
OK. I have a question for you. Why are we really are supporting the opposition? We know the biggest elements are a Muslim front, and we know those guys are al-Qaida's, like, second name for al-Qaida technically. We know what's going on. If Assad collapsed tomorrow, I'm not sure who's taken over. The Free Syrian Army is very weak, and they have so many, like, leaders.
There's really no reason for us to be involved in a civil war like this. And if we want to really fix the problem, we should sit down with the Russians and talk and have Saudi Arabia stop supporting terrorists and going attacking Christians and Alawites and other minorities. The minorities have been slaughtered. We know -- we have so many reports about churches being burned, Alawites being kidnapped and killed. Why are we not talking about that? You know al-Qaida's going to take over. We know that. You guys -- you going to just -- you got to talk a little bit with honesty.
All right, Mohammad. Thanks so much for your call. Nour, you're there. What do you think about Mohammad's comments?
Yes, absolutely. There have been appalling levels of violence on both sides of this war. And we do see rebels, (unintelligible) to what he's referring to, adopting the very same brutal method that they're fighting against. Some of them do have very specific agendas against the Alawites. And, you know, we've seen these incidents from the very start, though they used to be far and few between.
And now they're surfacing more and more. I do think it's a testament to the relative restraint from the rebel side that those incidents of attacks against Alawites and the churches and whatnot have held out and begun to surface two years later. That's one point. The second point is, yes, there is an al-Qaida component to the insurgency.
However, al-Qaida is not running amok all over Syria. In fact, if you look at a map of Syria now, you can pretty clearly map out where al-Qaida, their affiliates on the battlefield, and Islamist extremists are in charge, and where they're trying to consolidate or extend their grip and where they have absolutely no presence. It's -- that's not a problem.
You can map that out quite clearly. It's complicated because, often on the battlefield, all sorts of groups work together. But when it comes to the day after, I think it's too soon to say that, you know, the most extremist elements, you know, have their eyes on or their designs on all of Syria or, in fact, really even want to be in charge politically.
Mohammad, thanks for your call. I'm Susan Page, and you're listening to "The Diane Rehm Show." Here's an emailer, Dick, who writes us, "Why is no one mentioning the financial implication of taking action in Syria? Congress is locked in the sequester dilemma. Domestic spending has been cut in most areas that benefit our own citizens, and yet politicians who can't even agree on our budget are proposing that we again spend unlimited amounts of money for another war." What do you think about that, Mark? Is that part of the debate here?
You hear it a little bit, but it's not central. I mean, I think the way that they've categorized it -- and obviously the Obama administration keeps saying limited. They say targeted strikes that it would be, you know, cruise missiles, which are obviously expensive, but they are not, you know, even close to the expense of deploying, you know, 58,000 troops to a country or 100,000 troops to a country. So it's not nothing, but the cost has not been central to the debate in part because the way the Obama administration has cast what kind of an offensive that this is going to be.
You know, Paul, I wonder if you think that this debate and what action the United States ends up taking sets a precedent, a kind of a post -- we're just out of the Iraq War. We're getting out of the war in Afghanistan after more than a decade of war. Is this setting a precedent for how the U.S. will behave in the world -- what role the United States will take in the world going forward?
A lot of people are looking at that -- at it that way. And the one thing we haven't mentioned so far in this hour, that is of high concern to a lot of people, is Iran. This is a particular concern to Israel. We saw AIPAC, the lobbying group, weigh in specifically on this issue earlier this week. And I think the main concern from those quarters and those who identify with them is that, unless the United States follows through on President Obama's red lines regarding CW and does something forceful in Syria that we will appear weak to the Iranians.
Now, I hasten to add that's not argument I subscribe to. I think one can argue more persuasively that the use of U.S. military force would be, if anything, a stimulant to those in Tehran who see the need for a deterrent to protect themselves against a possible U.S. attack. But Iran is the big issue that is hanging out there as far as precedents are concerned with regard to what we do in Syria.
You know, Iran's a big issue. Also, I think a lot of Americans are remembering our recent experience in Iraq. Do you see parallels or potential parallels, Robert, with the situation in Syria and the experience United States has had with Iraq?
Yes. Of course, the circumstances will be entirely different in that Iraq was ours to sort out. We had U.S. boots on the ground there obviously in a major way, and that no one contemplates seeing that in Syria. But with regard to the political evolution that we can foresee post-Assad regime, I think there are some very clear parallels between what's happening now in Syria and what has happened in the past and, in fact, is still ongoing inside Iraq.
And there is going to be a struggle among groups, the more Islamist-cast and others whose vision of the political future of Syria is far more secular to win the hearts and minds and to demonstrate to the Syrians that they are capable of governing that country. And that's the process that I think we need to be in a position to influence, albeit on the margins in the future.
You know, we have a -- just -- we'll close with an email we've just gotten from a listener, who writes, "I am listening to this debate, and I am torn as to what we as a country should do, as many people are. Certainly a complicated issue." My thanks to the guests who have joined us this hour.
Paul Pillar and Robert Grenier here with me in the studio, Mark Mazzetti from The New York Times, joining us from North Carolina, and Nour Malas, reporter with The Wall Street Journal. She's joining us from Istanbul. Thank you all for being with us this hour. I'm Susan Page of USA Today, sitting in for Diane Rehm. Thanks for listening.
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