ISIS takes control of the ancient Syrian city of Palmyra. Several nations agree to take in Southeast Asian migrants. And the U.S. and Cuba move closer to full restoration of diplomatic ties. A panel of journalists joins guest host Indira Lakshmanan for analysis of the week's top international news stories.
Guest Host: Frank Sesno
Russia officially annexes Ukraine’s Crimean peninsula following a referendum — and the U.S. and European Union announce additional sanctions against Russia. The State Department orders Syria to suspend operations at its American embassy and consulates. Venezuela’s government targets city mayors who support the opposition. And an update on the Malaysian airliner that disappeared two weeks ago. A panel of journalists joins guest host Frank Sesno for analysis of the week’s top international news stories.
- David Sanger chief Washington correspondent, The New York Times; author of "Confront and Conceal: Obama's Secret Wars and Surprising Use of American Power."
- Nadia Bilbassy senior correspondent, Al Arabiya.
- Ernesto Londono Pentagon correspondent, The Washington Post.
MR. FRANK SESNOAnd thanks for joining us. I'm Frank Sesno, Director of the School of Media and Public Affairs at the George Washington University, sitting in for Diane Rehm today. She will be back on Monday. Well, the EU considers new sanctions against Russia. The State Department orders Syria to suspend operations at its US Embassy and Consulates. And the latest on the missing Malaysian airliner. Joining me for the international hour of the "Friday News Roundup," David Sanger from The New York Times, Nadia Bilbassy with Al Arabiya and Ernesto Londono at The Washington Post. Welcome to you all.
MS. NADIA BILBASSYGood morning.
MR. DAVID SANGERThanks. Good to be with you.
MR. ERNESTO LONDONOGood morning.
SESNOThanks very much for being in. Well, Russia approved the treaty yesterday to annex Crimea from Ukraine. The latest on the situation -- David?
SANGERWell, we're at one of those odd standoffs right now where the Obama administration has basically conceded that Crimea is gone.
SESNOAnd the rest of the world, too? The Europeans?
SANGERAnd the rest of the world, the Europeans, I don't even think had much of a doubt as long as the Obama administration did. And it was really remarkable about the travels that Vice President Biden took this week to reassure the European allies, was that none of them stood up and said very much about significant actions they had in mind, including sanctions.
SESNONobody said what George H. W. Bush said. This aggression will not stand.
SANGERWill not stand. No one has said that. And then you had the somewhat remarkable moment, I thought, middle of the week, when President Obama was asked by a local TV reporter, when he was doing some interviews, related to the healthcare project, about Ukraine. And he said there's no circumstance under which we are sending troops anywhere near Ukraine, which is obviously true, but not something that you usually hear from American presidents, where they rule out the possibility. They usually want to keep some level of doubt in the mind of an adversary, in this case, Vladimir Putin, about how the US would react.
SANGERAnd that's of particular concern with these roughly 60,000 Russian troops up along the border, but right now, the best American guessing is that they are there more for psychological reasons than for invasion reasons.
SESNOErnesto, we hear a lot out of Russia, of a defiant tone. However, Russian markets have taken another hit. On Friday, the stock index, the broadly tracked stock index fell two percent. Losses for the year down 14 percent.
LONDONOThat's right. And I think what we're waiting to see is whether you see an escalation in the sanctions game. So far, I think both sides have an interest in not ratcheting up the pressure anymore, not letting things boil over. Because both sides have considerable things to lose. Russia has tremendous leverage over many things the US has an interest in. You know, everything from the final year of the Iraq War, the United States depends on transit lines to get its equipment in and out of Afghanistan.
LONDONONuclear peace talks, Syria and its chemical weapons program. And, on Russia's part, an escalation of sanctions can really bite into their economy. So, I think at this point, it would seem both sides would like to see temperatures cool down.
SESNONadia Bilbassy, the President responded with some more fresh sanctions yesterday. How do they differ? What are they trying to accomplish specifically?
BILBASSYI think the first set of sanctions more symbolic than anything else, when you talk about banning certain officials from entering the country or freezing assets, et cetera. I think yesterday, the President, again, I mean his strategy is to isolate Russia and he keeps saying this move will isolate it internationally. Also impose economic sanctions that will hurt. It might have small teeth, but it will bite. And I think this time, when you talk about targeting a bank, just like in the old days when we used to hear about Iran, for example, which is Bank Russia, that it has an asset of 10 billion dollars there.
BILBASSYAnd now they're not allowed to deal with US currency. Today, this morning, Amex announced that they're not gonna services to them. And announcing, also, that they had targeted not just senior Russian officials, like the Chief of Staff to President Putin, but also what the new favorite buzzword in the White House, the cronies of President Putin. Every time you hear a briefing from officials, just like yesterday, after the President announced his new set of sanctions, they talk about these cronies.
BILBASSYI think it will bite, but again, the President warned that even this new economic sanction, it will hurt the world economy. I mean, we still need to recover from a recession in the United States, but also Russia.
SANGERIn fact, we learned some things about sanctions during the long experience with Iran. And if you go back to the early Iran sanctions, the ones done during the Bush administration...
SESNOThey were highly targeted.
SANGERThey were highly targeted, they were against individuals and they didn't work. They didn't work for several reasons. First of all, it's one thing to go after individuals, it's another thing to go after a country's broad economic capabilities. And the Iranians didn't respond by coming to the table until their oil revenues were badly hurt, and they were down by 50 or 60 percent. The second thing we learned about sanctions is they only work when everyone does them together.
SANGERAnd so far, there's just so much sand in the gears among the European states and the former Soviet states that rely on Russia for so much of its oil and gas, so much of their oil and gas, that right now, you don't have a combination that I think sounds like it would be truly effective. The President had to leave himself some room, and he had to sow some doubt in the minds of investors. That may work.
SESNOSo, we have the markets going down, but here's something that caught my eye. The two Russian banks saying Visa and MasterCard no longer handling transactions for its account holders. And that affects several hundred thousand Russian consumers. Maybe something they brush off, but there is some effect there that goes beyond Putin's cronies.
BILBASSYRight. Right. And also, in addition to what David said, yes, we understand the European position and it has to be an international sanctions to be effective and working, but Angela Merkel said, and 30 percent of Europe is really dependence of intake of gas and oil comes from Russia. (sic) But Angela Merkel was briefing the Parliament, and she said, basically, that what they call the third set of sanctions is gonna be implemented, I think, in the future. And what she means by that, as David said, Crimea is gone. It's just gone. We're not debating it. We're talking about the eastern and southern part of Ukraine.
BILBASSYIf Russia makes moves of trying to annex it, if interferes further, I think this new sanction will apply. But the Europeans have not decided yet. In the US, you have one President, in the EU, you have 28 Heads of State, and their interests conflict with each other.
SESNOErnesto Londono, you're the Pentagon Correspondent for the Post, so you talk to people in the military all the time. What are they saying? What are they seeing?
LONDONOI think there's huge concern about the troops that are still amassed along the border. There's concern about...
LONDONOCorrect. There's concern about whether you could see this spreading. On the other hand, I think everybody has been really taken aback by the performance of Russian forces, especially on covert side. The way this has unfolded, over the past few days, has been remarkable. It was done very quickly and done very surgically. And we haven't really had an opportunity to see the Russian armed forces at work in an operation such as this in some time.
SESNOSo when you say taken aback, you mean impressed? Or what are you talking about?
LONDONOI would say so. I mean...
SESNOImpressed by what?
LONDONOBy how quickly and how effectively they were able to take control of Crimea.
SESNOWere they up against any opposition, though?
LONDONOWell, no. But, the way it was handled, writ large, strategically, I think, I think was fairly impressive.
SESNODavid, what have your national security sources been saying to you?
SANGERWell, here's what they're worried about. The -- we forget this in this globalized world, but in the world of international relations, geography still matters. And Crimea's still a peninsula, which means that the only way that the Russians can continue to supply Crimea is through gas pipelines that run through Ukraine, and the Ukrainians can turn off. They haven't yet built a bridge that would connect Crimea to the mainland part of Russia. So, the biggest concern, I think, that I hear in the national security world, is that you could see Putin move into parts of Ukraine, simply to create a land route in to supplying Crimea.
SANGEROf course, that would then require him to go into those Russian areas of Ukraine that Nadia referred to, and that could be significant trouble.
SESNOLet's come back to Vice President Biden. His message to Lithuania and Poland -- he goes there, and he says, and I quote, President Obama and I view Article 5 of the NATO Treaty as an absolute solemn commitment, which we will honor. Article 5 is we'll come to your defense if you're attacked.
SESNOAnd in Lithuania and Poland, they're real nervous about what they're seeing, especially in the Baltic States.
LONDONOI think, for NATO, this is a really fascinating dilemma. NATO, I think, finds itself in a bit of an identity crisis as the war in Afghanistan is winding down. And this presents many challenges and opportunities for the Euro alliance to really, sort of, shake up its politics, shake up its, you know, its DNA. Cause we haven't seen a case for a long, long time, where somebody in the region needs the alliance to bail them out, to really stand up for them. So, it's interesting. There's been a lot of support and a lot of endorsements out of capitals and out of podiums.
LONDONOBut on the other hand, you have President Obama, very recently saying that there's no consideration of putting troops on the ground.
SESNONadia, what did you make of the German Chancellor's comment that the Russians are, at least for the moment, are out of the G8, the group of eight.
SESNOThe group of nine. It was group of nine, now it's group of eight. Whatever. However you count. But they're not part of that club, because it's an important club.
BILBASSYAnd this is one of the points that President Obama's gonna discuss next week in the G7 meeting, in the Hague. And you will have all the Europeans and the world discuss, will they go further and expel even Russia from the G8 altogether? And that will be, I think, a more of a severe punishment, if they realize that it's gonna be even more of Russian ambition and to do further, as Ernesto just said, if they have claims on trying to go to the eastern or southern part. But, I think the Europeans are in the weaker position, because primarily, they still have strong ties to Russia, in terms of supplying them with oil and gas.
BILBASSYAnd also because of this business community that has billions of dollars, I mean millions of dollars of contract with the Russians themselves, and there is a meeting that's coming actually between German business community and the Russians in April, I believe. And they've not suspended it yet. So, their moves are pretty timid, in comparison to what we hear from the rhetoric. But I think even the President keeps saying a diplomatic option is still there, because the options are really limited, apart from putting significant sanctions that will really hurt in the long process, if everybody's involved. I don't know what else they can do.
SESNOWe're in the midst of talking about the situation in Russia and Crimea. "Weekly News Roundup." We'll continue with our panel, take your questions for them on a range of issues in just a moment. I'm Frank Sesno, and you're listening to "The Diane Rehm Show."
SESNOWelcome back to "The Diane Rehm Show." I'm Frank Sesno sitting in for Diane today. Our guests as we discuss the world and what's going on in it in the Friday News Roundup, David Sanger, chief Washington correspondent for the New York Times, author of "Confront and Conceal: Obama's Secret Wars and Surprising Use of American Power." Nadia Bilbassy. She's the senior correspondent with Al Arabiya. And Ernesto Londono is the Pentagon correspondent with the Washington Post.
SESNOLet's turn to another story now that's taking place on the international landscape scene and that's Syria. The United States formally notifying Syria that it's got to suspend its operations at its embassy here in Washington. What's the point, Nadia? What impact is this expected to have?
BILBASSYWell, first off, let me just clarify that the diplomatic relationship between Syria and the United States is still intact. They have not severed that. All what they did is to suspend the operation of Syrian stuff in the embassy in Washington and two other consulates in Detroit and I think Troy and in Houston, Texas. The idea I think came as a tit-for-tat.
BILBASSYThe city and government themselves, a week before, they suspended the consular services to its citizens in the United States. And now we have a new envoy that replaced Ambassador Ford, Danny Rubenstein. So it was one of his acts mainly really. He was appointed on Monday, he came on Tuesday and he said that we're going to suspend this. It's more of a symbolic move more than anything else because the ambassador left almost in the early days of the revolt.
BILBASSYYou have, I believe, two Syrian stuff and also -- I mean, carrying Syrian nationalities. You have local stuff that will still carry on with the embassy. But the Americans are saying basically, what's the point of having two officials that do not provide services to the people in addition to the Syrian Americans who always complain that the Syrian government has been spying on them, harassing them and not even giving -- issuing visas to people who belong to the opposition.
SESNODavid, diplomatically from an intelligence point of view, does it matter?
SANGERIt matters not at all. I mean, the Syrian representatives in the embassy here in Washington were getting most of their information about Syria by turning on the TV and reading the newspaper. And they were not exactly linked in to what Bashar Assad's next strategy was. The broader problem, I think, that the administration has is this one, that James Clapper, the director of National Intelligence, in his test -- his threat assessment testimony a month or so ago in front of congress, said the obvious and true thing, which is that Assad is stronger now than he was last summer.
SESNOStronger now than he was last summer.
SANGERThat's right. And that was not what this combination of sanctions and forcing Assad to give up the chemical weapons was supposed to be all about. And he's stronger in part because the opposition has remained so divided and weak -- so divided and weak that the United States still hasn't really stepped up to arming them because they're not quite sure who to arm.
SESNOErnesto, Israeli airstrikes on Syrian army sites this past week has raised new issues and new concerns that Israel may be somehow being drawn into the mix of this civil war. Can you talk a little bit about that? As I understand it, this is the first airstrike where the Israelis have gotten in of this civil war.
LONDONORight. Sure. I mean, this frontier has been very, very closely watched and is of great concern. The Israelis have been very clear that they won't hesitate to strike if they perceive a threat to them. And they have carried out a couple strikes in recent months. But this one seemed more serious I think, because the strike, I believe, killed Syrian soldiers. And it was done in retaliation for an attack that Israeli says wounded some of its troops. So I think the concern would be if you see a substantial escalation, if you were to see sort of a broader tit-for-tat that then takes this conflict to a whole new level and makes it, I think, far more explosive.
SESNONadia, what do you make of it and how is the region responding?
BILBASSYI mean, it is the most serious in four decades basically since the end...
SESNOIn four decades.
BILBASSY...four decades since the end of the 1973 war. Because this frontier was basically quiet. And from the Arab perspective that basically Hafez al-Assad and Bashar al-Assad his successor and his son basically kept that peace with Israel. So the Golan Heights frontier has been very quiet.
BILBASSYBut now because of the uprising we have seen for the first time ever -- by the way, it's not the first time that Israel attacked Syrians. They have attacked many times before and they attacked what they call shipments that -- rockets mainly going from Syria to Hezbollah. But this is the first time ever they acknowledged it. Israel never acknowledged military attacks in other countries or anywhere else in the world or even assassination attempts.
BILBASSYBut this time they did...
SESNODoing this why?
BILBASSYWell, I think because Prime Minister Netanyahu wanted to tell the Syrians, I'm going to make you -- hold you responsible for future attacks. And apparently...
SESNOSending a message.
BILBASSY...sending a message. And the other thing is apparently that according to some reports have seen that the Syrian government only controlled one-third of that border. And now you have all the Jihadists group, al-Qaida affiliates. They are worried that they actually will conduct even more. So it's not just Hezbollah but also the Jihadists.
SANGERWell, I think Nadia makes a very good point which his that until now the Israeli concern has pretty much been Hezbollah and the movement of missiles, particularly from Iran, that have made their way through. And I think that remains the number one concern the Israelis have. They want to make sure that there's no capability that the Syrians have or Hezbollah has to strike over into Israel. And they can't be 100 percent certain of that because clearly there have been a lot of missiles that have made their way through. So if anything, I think you're probably going to see an escalation of this in the next couple of months.
SESNOWhile we're in the region and while we're talking about what we're going to see in the next couple months, to Iran now. And David, let me start with you because this is your subject of so much of your writing and your books. And second round of talks on Iran's nuclear program ended with a degree of optimism despite what's going on and the fact that the Russians are at the table up in Crimea. Explain what's been happening.
SANGERWell, we're now into the substantive part of the talks about a real permanent agreement between Iran, the United States and its European allies on what the status of the Iranian nuclear program would be. The core problem for both sides is that in order to have an agreement that is truly meaningful, the Iranians would have to rollback big parts of the nuclear infrastructure that they have built up over the past 15 years, but particularly those parts that they have accelerated during the years of the Obama Administration.
SANGERBecause the Obama Administration needs to be able, if they get a final agreement, to go back and convince the American people and the Israelis that if Iran raced for a bomb, we would have a good long warning time to do that. The difficulty that the Iranians face in the course of this is that they need to make the argument that they're sustaining their nuclear program even while giving some assurances.
SANGERAnd so my guess is that of the three negotiations you're going to see play out over the next year, this one's the easiest. This is the one between the U.S. and the Iranians or the Europeans and the Iranians. The two hard ones are between the Iranians when they go home and they have to sell this to the Iranian revolutionary guard and the clerics.
SESNOThe negotiations between the Iranians and the Iranians.
SANGERThe Iranians and the Iranians. And then you want one really tough? The one between President Obama and congress, okay. And so you've got to think about this as three simultaneous negotiations underway. And the two that are taking place here and in Iran are a lot harder than the one taking place in Geneva.
SESNOIt's a fascinating take on it. Nadia.
BILBASSYI think while the European or the spokesperson for the Lady Ashton came and he said that this second round of the peace -- of the negotiation were constructive. They were long. And even the Americans who were led by Wendy Sherman said that they have 40 minutes -- 80 minutes, I think, of a long even in-depth discussion with the Iranians. They say they still hope that they will reach an agreement by the summer despite the fact that President Obama himself said the success rate is 50/50.
BILBASSYThey have huge obstacles to overcome. They said they talked about enrichment. I think they still have the heavy water reactor in Iraq that's very important and it's on the table. But the fact that they haven’t walked out, there was no angry shouting matches, etcetera on this date and the talks that's good enough.
SESNOErnesto, what are you hearing?
LONDONOWell, I think, you know, it's remarkable that the talks are still going on. I think, you know, when they started there was a lot of skepticism that you could really get traction. And I think we've seen unsteady progress but we've seen traction. And I think there's still a shot. I think there's concern that if the relationship with Russia deteriorates keeping them in the mix and keeping them as a constructive partner might be -- might become a lot harder. But, you know, we'll have to wait and see. I think it's always been a long shot and it remains so.
SESNOWe'll go to the phones in just a minute, and if you'd like to join the conversation, ask a question of our panel on the global scene, 1-800-433-8850 is the phone number. If you would like to email us a question, that can be done at email@example.com. If you'd like to watch us as we video stream you can go to wamu.org. The website is drshow.org. David, let's go to another topic, the missing plane. We see an awful lot of coverage on U.S. media, a lot of interest and search and rescue efforts -- search efforts unfortunately -- from the international community. Now the FBI is getting involved. What's the FBI role going to be?
SANGERWell, the FBI role I think kicked in when the Malaysians said that they believe this plane was intentionally diverted. We still don't know that for a fact. I mean, you can still draw a scenario under which, you know, the lithium ion batteries in the hold or something else caused the plane to have a catastrophic event. And then autopilot took it for the rest of the way. But certainly the timing under which these new instructions were typed into the flight computer would make the number one theory still that someone in the cockpit, either the pilot and copilot or someone who entered the cockpit, deliberately diverted the plane. That's where the FBI comes in.
SANGERBut, you know, even if you narrow the area to this area 1500 miles off of Perth in Australia out in the Indian Ocean, it just seems with this amount of time the chances of finding wreckage in something that deep are getting more and more remote.
SESNOIt's been two weeks, Ernesto.
LONDONOYeah, it's been a long time. I spoke to one of the Navy commanders who is taking part in the search out in the middle of the ocean. And he described this as truly a needle-in-a-haystack effort because the body of water that you have to play with is so large.
SESNOAnd the seas are rough.
LONDONOAnd the seas are rough. Yeah, the weather has not been an ally in this. So, you know, I think there's a reasonable chance that we might never find the wreckage of this plane.
SESNODo you agree with that?
BILBASSYYes, because with the French plane it took almost two years to find, and relatively didn't know where it fell. But just wanted to add something is all that we really know is that this flight took off from Kuala Lumpur just after midnight and heading to Beijing. We know that the transponder was switched off. We know that the background check against two-thirds passengers came up into nothing. And the rest of it is just speculation. We have absolutely no idea what happened after that.
BILBASSYAnd to be honest, I mean, I'm a little bit appalled by the speculation that we have seen on wall-to-wall coverage on American networks that everybody from, like, terrorist -- so-called terrorism experts to former captains and pilots to -- and theories that are so outlandish that you cannot believe that you're hearing that. And my heart -- let me just add one last thing -- my heart really goes for the families of the people who were on this plane.
BILBASSYI mean, there is time when there is their hope and tell them this plane landed somewhere, which is just almost unbelievable in today's technology that nobody can -- able to track one person somewhere if the plane did not crash and is not deep in the Indian Ocean -- at the bed of the Indian Ocean. That is not -- take us forever to find or even never find.
SESNOYou're listening to "The Diane Rehm Show." I'm Frank Sesno. And if you'd like to join us, please do so at 1-800-433-8850 or send us an email to firstname.lastname@example.org. Find us on Facebook or send us a Tweet. We'd like you to join the conversation. Ernesto, any indication that one or both of the pilots were involved?
SESNOI mean, your paper wrote this week -- and talk about media speculation, this is reporting but some would call it speculation -- but the Post wrote this week, evidence has mounted that at least one of the pilots reprogrammed the flight path, turned off various communication systems before the plane disappeared from civilian radar in the early hours of March 9. But, the article continues, it remains unclear whether the person at the control was acting voluntarily or under duress.
LONDONORight. The problem is we have no real hard evidence to draw any firm conclusions about intent. There's been other theories that, you know, this -- that the pilot may have done this because there may have been a fire. And this may have been an attempt to land safely somewhere. So, you know, I really don't think we know what was going on in these's pilots' minds. And I think at this point, based on the evidence we have, you know, a lot of speculation will be reckless.
SANGERAnd because the flight -- I'm sorry, the cockpit recorders only run for about two hours and we know the plane -- or we believe the plane was up and running much longer than that, it makes you wonder whether even if you recovered the cockpit recorder you would know the answer to that question. The flight recorders would be a different thing but as Nadia just pointed out, and Ernesto has, you know, you're in such deep waters that it's not clear you will ever quite recover. And if you do recover some of the wreckage, you may not recover the part that's got the flight recorder.
SESNOCNN is virtually wall-to-wall coverage on this story. The other cable news networks are all over it. It was the lead and dominated the program, for example, on NBC Nightly News last night with Brian Williams. It's occasionally on the front page of the New York Times but it certainly doesn't dominate the -- no banner headlines. What's the appropriate media coverage of this story, folks? You're three brilliant media practitioners.
BILBASSYWell, I think it looks like reality TV. It's just cheap coverage in a way. It's just one story that's easy to bring express and to talk about it. It's exciting because the plane has mysteriously disappeared in the 21st century. But I think we have to be responsible towards the families of the victims and towards giving the viewers some facts and not speculating.
SESNOErnesto, how does The Post come at this?
LONDONOWe've covered it very aggressively. I think there's a recognition that people love mysteries as news stories. And this is a fascinating mystery. But there also have been very interesting issues related to this search, for example, the U.S. presence in Asia and the Pacific region which the Obama Administration has made a priority. It's been a crash course for us in satellite technology and surveillance. And we've come to understand some of the limitations of this global system of surveillance and satellite technology that is, you know, to a great extent a secretive world.
SESNOLet me go to the phones now and bring our listeners in. Rachel joins us from Port Orange, Fla. Hi, Rachel.
RACHELHi. Thank you for taking my call. I'm really pleased that the panel is talking about the attack on Syria by Israel. I read about this five days ago in an Associate Press article that Israel started a series of intense airstrikes on a Syrian army headquarters training facilities, other targets. Israel said it was retaliation for an alleged roadside bomb left in the Golan Heights that injured several Israeli soldiers. It's not clear, in the article, who placed the bomb but Israeli is holding Syria responsible.
RACHELI can't help but think about how opportunistic it was for Israel to have this attack while the world was completely distracted by the Ukraine and the missing plane.
SESNOOkay. Rachel, thank you so much for your comment. I'm going to ask our panel to respond to that, but, in just a moment because we've got to take a quick break. So folks, write Rachel's comments and question down. We'll come back to you. You're listening to "The Diane Rehm Show." I'm Frank Sesno. Be back in a second.
SESNOWelcome back to "The Diane Rehm Show." I'm Frank Sesno sitting in for Diane. She will rejoin you on Monday. You can call in and pose a question, a comment to our panel at 1-800-433-8850. You can email us at email@example.com. We are speaking with David Sanger, chief Washington correspondent with The New York Times, Nadia Bilbassy, senior correspondent with Al Arabiya, and Ernesto Londono, Pentagon correspondent for The Washington Post. Before the break, we heard from Rachel, who, Nadia, was talking about the opportunistic attacks that have taken place with respect to Israel and Syria.
BILBASSYActually some of the Israeli military match Rachel's point of view, because some of them said that the Israelis are going into this with open eyes -- that it might drag Israel later in a wider conflict with Syria that obviously the region does not really want. I -- I mean, that will be the case but obviously the prime minister wanted to make a political point to say, anybody who attacks Israel anytime, we have to defend. And that's been the Israeli policies for every prime minister.
BILBASSYThe only thing that they're holding the Syrian government responsible for that because it happens within their territory and they have nobody else to hold responsible, and this is why they're saying, it's you. The Syrian's responded by saying, after this victorious battle that we had in Yabrud, which is another town that they managed to secure militarily, that the Israeli's now wanted to show -- put us in a weaker position. They wanted to invite us to have another war with them to divert us from attacking the terrorists who was fighting in the country. I mean, they're referring obviously to the Free Syrian Army and to the conflict in South Syria itself.
SESNOTo the phones. Frank from Charlotte, N.C. Hi, Frank.
FRANKOh, hi. Okay, I have a question and a comment. One of them is I have an Americana Encyclopedia, 1979, okay? In it is a U.S. Geological report on Iran when they were our friends. And according to it, they have a very minimum amount of uranium ore. And I could tell you that it'd take 50 tons to make one bomb. And the other one is that we spent about $135 billion in the occupation of the Palestinian people and American people do not seem to care much about that. So whoever cares about Obama Care, they have a problem with it, too bad. Thanks. Bye.
SESNOSo what is your -- well, I guess you've gone, Frank. Lost the question there, David. But Iran and uranium?
SANGERThey do have some of their own uranium mines. But they've also managed to obtain uranium from the outside, including from China years ago. One of the American strategies in containing the uranium program has been to greatly limit their ability to go produce more. But they clearly have, if you just look at the amount of fissile material that's in the annual -- I'm sorry -- the quarterly inspectors reports, they have enough now, with further enrichment, to make seven or eight weapons. So, is that a big nuclear arsenal? No. It's approaching sort of North Korean size.
SESNOLet's go back to the phones and to Jim from Easton, Pa. Hi, Jim.
JIMHi. It's a pleasure being on your show.
SESNOWell, thanks for joining us.
JIMMy question is, what role do you think the United States played in instigating this crisis in the Ukraine? It just seems coincidental to me that three days after the pro-Russian Ukrainians, democratically, like the pro-Russian president, chose the Russian bailout package over the EU and American package, that these riots started.
SESNOOkay. Interesting question. What role did the West or the U.S. cause in instigating this crisis? Nadia.
BILBASSYI don't know if instigating is the words. I mean, it depends on which side of the conflict you stand and you can use this word. But there is no doubt that the West has interests of trying to get Ukraine into its side. And actually half of Ukraine almost, Kiev and the western part, identify themselves with Western values and they want to be part of Europe and, hence, the whole point of clash came over this deal that they wanted to sign with the West, while the Russians were offering them the $15 billion. And they wanted President Yanukovych, who rejected that, he wanted to be closer allied to Russia.
BILBASSYSo it, but the point is, Ukraine shouldn't be in a point of conflict, whether you ally yourself with the West or Russia. You could actually have both.
SANGERI don't think that there's been any evidence that the U.S. instigated this. I mean you could argue that the Europeans, in their approach to Ukraine to begin to integrate them more, hadn't thought through all of the consequences of that. I'm not sure that you could -- you wouldn't as a result blame the Europeans for Putin's response.
SESNOMight you not argue that if the word isn't instigate -- that's a strong word -- mishandled, misread...
SESNO...which then contributed to. Is there a legitimate argument there?
SANGERI think there's a legitimate argument there and it's one that you hear usually in background conversations from more than a few American officials.
SANGERWho wonder whether or not the Europeans had sort of thought through all the ways they would handle the diplomacy about beginning to integrate Ukraine, and given what Putin had said about Ukraine and Russia just in the past.
BILBASSYAlso, I mean, I think the point of hastening this conflict was the departure of President Yanukovych overnight, basically. And Russia lost its man in Kiev. So all of a sudden, the choices for Putin looks limited. So he had to do something and he had to do something fast. But also some people say that this is Russia's Ukraine. It's on the border of it. It's a huge country of 46 million people. NATO is getting closer and closer to them. And one of the strategies on behalf of the Russians was to make the Ukraine disputable, that it will never join NATO and threaten Russia.
SESNOGary from San Diego joins us. Hi, Gary.
GARYHello. Thanks for taking my call.
GARYMy question is also on the subject of Ukraine. And that is, so far, in this discussion of our response to the Russian aggression there, I haven't heard anything about Turkey's role in this. Now, I know that they're a very large purchaser of Russian natural gas, but they also control the Turkish straits. And whereas Russia violated their 1994 agreement with Ukraine, I'm wondering why nobody's discussed the possibility of working through NATO to suspend Russia's privileges under the Montreux Treaty of 1936?
SESNOThanks, Gary. I appreciate that. Ernesto, in talking with the military officials at the Pentagon, are you hearing anybody talking about Turkey and the role that Turkey and the Turkish straits could play?
LONDONOI have not. It just hasn't come up. Maybe there has been some talk, but it's not an area I'm an expert in, so I'll have to take a pass on that question.
SANGERYeah, and the big issues surrounding Turkey right now really have to do much more with Syria. And the Turks recognize the degree to which Russia is central to a Syrian solution here. So Turkey's got a set of constraints on it that go beyond just the gas supply.
SESNOFaisal joins us from Dallas, Texas. Hi, Faisal. Thanks for the call.
FAISALThanks for taking my call. My theory or my thinking about the missing plane is till -- I'm assuming that they have landed that plane somewhere in a place that we don't still think well.
SESNOSo you think -- you think the plane is intact and people are alive and that's landed someplace?
FAISALThat's perfectly what I am thinking so far.
SESNOAnd what do, just if I may -- if I may, Faisal, what do you base that on?
FAISALI'm based on -- I mean, why I'm saying that, is that what you're asking me?
FAISALBecause, you know, these people, if they -- if people who are trying to do this, they're capable of doing a lot of things. If they turned the plane to a different -- divert the plane to a different direction and then do that technical stuff -- and I'm thinking that they well planned previously. And then, if they turn that plane down in a different direction, they may have another plan to land it, too. If they want to crash it, they can crash it anywhere.
SESNOOkay. Let me turn to the panelists and ask them that. Because, Ernesto, you're at the Pentagon. You talk to military. The military has incredible resources. David, you talk to intelligence sources all the time. You know a lot about that. How feasible do they think it is that this plane is still out there, intact, landed, hidden someplace, waiting for something else, presumably nefarious, to take place?
SANGERI mean, I think it's certainly a possibility that experts and government officials and took seriously -- they took varied pains to see if countries in the broader region had noticed this plane coming into their airspace. I'm sure there's been an effort to track through satellite imagery any possible stretch of, you know, sort of land where an aircraft of this size may have landed. I don't think it's really that feasible to put down a plane this size safely in an area or, you know, some sort of a landing strip that we wouldn't have eyes on.
LONDONOThis, you know, we'd all love -- this would be the perfect outcome, because it would make you think that, you know, many of these passengers could well be alive. I do not -- I've not run across anybody who thought that this was a likely outcome, especially as time goes on, because it gets harder and harder to hide both the plane and the people.
SESNOBack to the phones and Eugene in Bridgeport, Texas. Hi, Eugene. Oop, let me get -- see if Eugene is still there. Eugene, you with us?
SESNOThere we go.
EUGENEThese sanctions we're putting on Russia, it's the worst possible thing we could have done. The East helps -- I mean the West helped destabilize that area and spooked Putin. And, if you remember the saying, "A horse, a horse, my kingdom for a horse," this is, "A seaport, a seaport, my kingdom is the seaport." That's what it's all about. And we started it. And (word?) an apology for this.
SESNOOkay. Let me ask Ernesto to respond, because you're a military correspondent. It is about a seaport, it's the Naval base that the Russians have held dear for centuries -- all for a horse?
LONDONOWell, I think, again, I think, you know, diplomatically and militarily, there's no desire to see this become a war situation. The U.S. and NATO Allies have made a huge effort over the years to build a constructive relationship with Russia. And I think the desire would be to find an off-ramp to get off this sanctions path and to deescalate the situation. So I think you're going to see -- you're going to see efforts for constructive dialog. You had Secretary Hagel yesterday call his counterpart. And we got a readout that said that the secretary asked him very tough questions and that there was a very candid exchange between the two leaders.
LONDONOAnd I think you're probably going to see more of that in the coming days, not only at the Pentagon but also at the State Department.
SESNOI'm Frank Sesno and you're listening to "The Diane Rehm Show." And our conversation today is with David Sanger, chief Washington correspondent at The New York Times, Nadia Bilbassy, senior correspondent with Al Arabiya, and Ernesto Londono, he is the Pentagon correspondent for The Washington Post. Let's go to another story that's gotten relatively little attention in the United States because of the dominance of the plane in Syria, and that's Venezuela. So what is taking place there is remarkable. President Maduro is arresting and detaining opposition mayors across the country, often with the stamped seal of approval of the Supreme Court of the country.
SESNOWhat's going on? Nadia.
BILBASSYWell, he's -- he moved in to arrest mayors that actually allied themselves with the demonstrators and with the revolt from the beginning. This with the uprising started almost a month ago, actually. And people were demanding an end to violent crimes, high inflation. They talked about basically standing in the line for four to five hours to get basic commodities like flour or sugar or cooking oil, et cetera. And the government or President Maduro accused this young, charismatic leader, Mr. Lopez, of fomenting the violence. And actually they arrested him almost a month ago on the television screen.
BILBASSYAnd these mayors lied to him. So basically it's a hit not just against the mayors and where one of them actually in the city that the trouble started, and I think it's called Cristobal or San Cristobal...
BILBASSY...San Cristobal and the other one is San Diego. So basically he's saying that, you have violated the law because you refused to remove barricades from the street, et cetera. So I have the Supreme Court to validate that. So he doesn't show it as if it was politically charged accusation against him. But he's saying the law is on my side and therefore I have to do it. But, I mean, the riot is still going on to the little attention of, as you said, the outside world. But I don't think they are big enough and large enough to threaten him or to undermine him.
BILBASSYHe still has control. And there is people who are pro-government has been demonstrating in his support to say, this is a great food subsidies that he's giving to the poor and we're all with him.
SESNOErnesto, does the United States have any leverage in this situation?
LONDONOWell, they haven't been terribly visible on it. I think there's been a concerted effort to, you know, denounce what's been going on -- denounce the crackdown. But I think the U.S. must recognize that if they were to meddle very forcefully into this, they could end up helping the government there, because anti-American rhetoric has been part and parcel of the Chavez and the Maduro brand, and I think holds great appeal still on the street there.
SESNODavid, this guy Maduro has nowhere the charisma that Hugo Chavez had, where he was so firmly in control.
SANGERYou know, I think that gets at one of the central issues that you've seen happen in a number of different countries, but Venezuela's the biggest example, certainly this week, which is there's a conversation that now needs to take place between leaders and the people they're ruling over that is a far more complex one than it was 10 or 15 or 20 years ago. And, you know, you've seen that in the Ukraine, you know, where there was an uprising where the leader misjudged it. And you may well be seeing the same thing here.
SESNOLast one to you, last topic, Nadia, in the few minutes remaining. President Obama and the Palestinian Authority's President Mahmoud Abbas had a meeting at the White House on Monday. Significance of this?
BILBASSYIndeed. It didn't go very well. I don't think so, because afterwards his chief negotiator, Saeb Erekat did some briefing with Arab journalists and he told us basically that the meeting was long and it was in-depth, et cetera. But I think it's significant because this deal -- that, what we call the framework agreement that Secretary Kerry has been working tirelessly during his endless travel to the Middle East hoping to achieve by April -- April is the deadline -- and so far no agreement has been presented.
BILBASSYThe parties are far apart from each other on the final status issues. And on top of that, to complicate it, Prime Minister Netanyahu has put in a new condition, which is the recognition of Israel as a Jewish state.
SESNOAs a Jewish state, not just as a state.
BILBASSYPalestinians refused that because they said, we already recognize Israel in all international treaties in '88 and '93. And even when Prime Minister Netanyahu comes to the U.S. he travels on a passport called the State of Israel. It does not say the Jewish State of Israel.
SESNODavid, the president said, President Obama, we're going to have to take some tough political decisions and risks if we're going to be able to move this forward.
SANGERThat's right. And the "we" in this is interesting. It means that he's got to get Abbas to move. And Abbas is not in full control of the situation. And he's got to get Prime Minister Netanyahu to move. And Prime Minister Netanyahu, as we've discussed earlier with Syria, certainly with Iran, has other priorities of which this agreement, I think, ranks a lot lower for him than it does perhaps on the American agenda.
SESNOErnesto, last word, very briefly, on the outlook for these talks.
LONDONOI thought it was interesting. Abbas returned to the West Bank to a very defiant tone. And, on the Israeli side, we've also seen very stark talks. So there's really no sign that these parties are any closer to moving forward.
SESNOTough slog ahead, on a lot of issues in a lot of places around the world. David Sanger, Nadia Bilbassy and Ernesto Londono, thank you both -- thank you all very much. I'm Frank Sesno for Diane Rehm.
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