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An American journalist held for nearly two years by an al-Qaida affiliate in Syria was freed yesterday. This comes less than a week after another American journalist, James Foley, was beheaded by ISIS. That’s the militant group now calling itself the Islamic State, which has gained ground in Iraq in recent weeks. The group is said to be holding three other Americans captive. To thwart ISIS, the U.S. has conducted limited airstrikes in Iraq, and it has been pressing the Iraqi government to do more. But the Obama administration is under growing pressure to strike ISIS on Syrian soil. A discussion of U.S. strategy to combat ISIS.
- Nora Bensahel distinguished scholar in residence, School of International Service, American University
- Eric Schmitt national security correspondent, The New York Times.
- Rear Adm. John Kirby press secretary for the Pentagon.
- Ambassador James Jeffrey the Philip Solondz distinguished visiting fellow at The Washington Institute; former U.S. ambassador to Iraq and Turkey
- Michael Leiter former director of the National Counterterrorism Center under President George W. Bush and President Obama; national security and counterterrorism analyst for NBC News.
MS. DIANE REHMThanks for joining us. I'm Diane Rehm. An American freelance journalist is free today after nearly two years of captivity in Syria. He was held by members of an al-Qaida linked group operating in Syria. The more extreme group called ISIS, or the Islamic State, is holding at least three other Americans. Yesterday, the U.S. launched additional airstrikes against ISIS in Iraq, striking ISIS in Syria is under consideration.
MS. DIANE REHMHere in the studio to talk about U.S. strategy to combat ISIS and the threat the group poses to Americans, Ambassador James Jeffrey at the Washington Institute. He's former U.S. ambassador to Iraq and Turkey. Michael Leiter, former director of the National Counterterrorism Center under President George W. Bush and President Obama. Nora Bensahel of the Center for New American Security and Eric Schmitt of the New York Times.
MS. DIANE REHMLots to talk about in this hour. I hope you'll be part of the program. Give us a call at 800-433-8850. Send us an email to firstname.lastname@example.org. Follow us on Facebook or Twitter. And welcome to all of you.
MR. ERIC SCHMITTThank you.
MS. NORA BENSAHELThank you.
AMBASSADOR JAMES JEFFREYVery good to be here.
MR. MICHAEL LEITERThank you, Diane.
REHMGood to have you all here. Eric Schmitt, what do we know about the release of journalist Peter Theo Curtis?
SCHMITTWell, Curtis was seized about two years ago in Syria as a freelance journalist doing work as many journalists were doing back then. He was held in some very austere conditions, even tortured by some accounts. But his family was pressing in a number of areas, both the U.S. government and other governments and it turned out a conversation that the family had with Samantha Power, the U.S. representative to the United Nations lead them to the Qatari ambassador at the UN.
SCHMITTAnd Qatar, a small country in the Persian Gulf, played a very important role, apparently, in mediating the release of Curtis from the custody of al-Nusra. Qatar has had relations, or some have said have helped sponsor, even finance, some of al-Nusra's operations, something that the Qatari government officially denies.
SCHMITTBut clearly, they had some influence in this case, in having Curtis released just a few days after the gruesome video that we saw of James Foley being beheaded by the other group that you mentioned, ISIS.
REHMIs there any indication a ransom was paid by any party in this negotiation?
SCHMITTWell, all sides say no, but in these kind of cases, as we've seen over the last several years, sometimes there are private arrangements made where ransoms are paid, whether it's by a government -- in this case, the U.S. government says it's the policy of the U.S. government not to pay ransoms or by a third party. The family says no, but that's something we'll still be watching for closely.
REHMMichael Leiter, do you believe a ransom was paid?
LEITERI think, as Eric said, it's certainly possible. It has been the practice of many governments, other than the United States and Britain, especially a number of those in Europe and some in the Middle East, to pay very significant ransoms, more than 5 million per person in many cases. So this is of great interest to the United States because the U.S. view is that paying such a ransom greatly contributes to further hostage-taking around the world.
REHMOn the other hand, other countries do pay ransom.
LEITERThey do and it's been a serious diplomatic issue between the United States and even close Western allies, like France and Italy. And we saw in North Africa in the case of the al-Qaida affiliate in North Africa for several years really financing most, if not all, of their operations through kidnapping European citizens, but notably not kidnapping American citizens under their belief that they couldn't get ransom payments.
REHMSo now, something new perhaps?
LEITERIt's, like many things in terrorism and national security, something new, something old. What we're seeing in, I think, both Iraq and Syria is the two values of terrorists taking hostages. First, if you get those ransom payments, it's enormously valuable to the organization and that is important to organizations like ISIS and the Al-Nusra Front. Second, if you can't get a ransom, clearly, from a propaganda perspective, you can produce very, very power images which can be translated around the world via social media and those can really be striking.
REHMAmbassador Jeffrey, tell us about the Nusra Front. Who are they and how do they operate and how are the different or similar to ISIS?
JEFFREYThey are a, if you will, homegrown al-Qaida affiliate that started life in the resistance in Syria to the Assad government about three years ago. As I said, they're homegrown, but like all al-Qaida movements throughout the Middle East, they received a considerable amount of support by individuals, either providing money to them or volunteers traveling to Syria and fighting with them.
JEFFREYThe difference between them and the al-Qaida affiliate -- former affiliate ISIS is that ISIS is what we used to know as al-Qaida in Iraq, AQI. It was, by 2010 when I was in Iraq, it was a splinter organization. It had been basically defeated militarily by the U.S. and the Iraqi forces. It had a new leader, al-Baghdadi who we had very little information on, although we had held him for some time under U.S. custody earlier in the war.
JEFFREYAnd they saw an opportunity in Syria to fight against the Assad government and compete with al-Nusra and the other organizations. By their extraordinary violence, they were able to seize a considerable amount of ground, particularly in the east of the country, but at the same time, their actions were so gruesome that the al-Qaida central authorities, al-Huri and others in Pakistan, basically ruled them out of the organization, somewhat complicating to us because now we're not quite sure whether we can call them an al-Qaida affiliate.
REHMSo to you, Nora, what do we know about any of the other Americans being held by militant groups in either Syria or Iraq?
BENSAHELWell, the U.S. government tracks those things very closely and people who are, you know, regionalists and experts are following those developments extremely closely. Much of that doesn't come out into the open press and for good reason 'cause those are very sensitive diplomatic discussions. I think that the point that these groups, you know, take hostages in order to raise money is true for many groups, but I don't think it's as much of a concern from ISIS at this point going forward.
BENSAHELIt may have been in the past, but they have actually managed to fund their operations tremendously through looting banks as they've moved into Iraq and also from other sources of funding that they create through the black market and oil smuggling. So they're one of the best financed terrorist groups that's out there now so that may be less of a motivation in terms of taking, particularly, American hostages.
REHMAren't they also taxing people?
BENSAHELYes, they are because they are controlling some territory now. And this is one of the interesting developments here. It's not, obviously, not a good thing that they control territory, but it does, in some ways, force them out into the open. They have to govern now. We don't like the way that they govern. We want them to, you know, be as powerless as possible, but it does have some advantages in terms of understanding their activities rather than a small group that hides in cells of, you know, a hundred that can be hard to detect.
REHMAnd Eric, what's the significance of ISIS taking control of a Syrian air base?
SCHMITTWell, what they've done just over the weekend, Diane, is seize this key air base, which pretty much consolidates their control of this important province, the Raqqah province in the far north, northeast. This is the province that abuts Turkey so it gives them easy access there if they need to cross in or draw in foreign fighters from there. ISIS is important as it's been a magnet for foreign fighters across Europe, the Middle East, North Africa and as many as 100 Americans who have either tried to travel or have traveled to fight in Syria there.
SCHMITTSo it's an important step and it also demonstrates the lack of a local ground force that can take them on. In Iraq, it's a little bit different now. The United States has said that it wants to help bolster the capabilities of the Iraqi army, shattered as it is, which is still formidable. But in Syria, you're looking at the possibility do you actually team up with the government of Assad right now to face what is arguably a more important threat to the United States and the United States homeland.
REHMHow serious do you think this takeover is, Nora?
BENSAHELI think it's significant, as Eric was saying, in term of consolidating their support inside Syria, but I don't think it fundamentally changes the dynamics of the threat that we're facing. I don't think it gives them huge new capabilities that they haven't had in previous days.
REHMAnd Ambassador Jeffrey, to you. What do you think the U.S. should be doing now about ISIS?
JEFFREYWell, first of all, we have a policy that the president laid out in June of stopping their march towards Baghdad, towards Erbil, slaughtering of innocents and that policy is in place and that's basically a good policy. The larger policy of rolling them back and eventually destroying them, to quote Secretary Kerry, that's a longer term diplomatic, political and military problem that we're going to have to have, as we discussed earlier, boots on the ground, local people who can fight with us.
JEFFREYThe Peshmerga are able to do that, some of the Iraqi army units. But that also will require a political consolidation and a more inclusive government in Baghdad that can reach out to the country's Kurds and particularly Sunni Arabs and the priority needs to be, at this point, rolling them back in Iraq because we don't have the same basis for support in Syria as we do in Iraq.
REHMSo you don't think simply airstrikes could do it.
JEFFREYNo. They never could do it, even in 2004. We had to go into Fallujah with ground troops against al-Qaida at the time, although we had bombed them for many months. The Syrian Army uses airstrikes against ISIS including in this battle. ISIS lost 370 soldiers, reportedly. That's a lot of people, even for them, but they were still able to take over.
REHMAmbassador James Jeffrey, he's a visiting fellow at the Washington Institute, former U.S. ambassador to Iraq and Turkey. Short break here. We'll be right back.
REHMAnd welcome back. We're talking about the current situation in both Syria and Iraq and how the U.S. might counter the influence and the impact of ISIS in particular. Ambassador Jeffrey, you just said off the air that 9/11 was quite a stunning shock to all of us and here we are all these years later. Here's our first email, "Does ISIS pose a direct threat to the U.S. or is there impact purely regional? If they aren't considered to be a direct threat to the U.S., is the primary concern terrorist attacks? How much of the position is ISIS in to carry out a terrorist attack on U.S. soil at this point in time," Ambassador Jeffrey.
JEFFREYThey are a direct threat because of their intentions and their capabilities, the two things you look at in measuring threats. Exactly how that threat would materialize, we don't know yet because we don't have enough insight and intelligence on the organization. But even in the region, they pose such a dramatic threat, as President Obama said back in June, to international oil supplies, to our allies and friends and to the threat of terror against people in the region. But that amounts to essentially a direct threat to us as well.
REHMYou mentioned our intelligence and yet, Eric Schmitt, the effort to rescue James Foley and others, somehow our intelligence failed us. How well is our intelligence working as far as ISIS is concerned?
SCHMITTWell, Diane, it's not exactly clear that the failed rescue effort was a failure of intelligence. It can also be simply operational challenges of pulling off what is admittedly a very difficult mission. But there's no doubt that American intelligence is a little bit behind the ball. It has some understanding of the groups and the dynamics in Syria. I think many nonprofits have an even better understanding of what's going on in the region.
SCHMITTBut to actually get very granular intelligence to provide aide via covert action or offensive military action is a very different type of intelligence. And over the past two years, although that has been increased, those efforts have been increased, we are still not in a position to take very forceful action in Syria and against ISIS. And that is going to slow down any real policy option in my view.
BENSAHELYeah, there's a difference in what we know about what ISIS is doing in Iraq where we do have some better intelligence because of our long term connections there and our history of cooperation with the Kurds than what we know and what's going on on the Syrian side of the border. Although there have been press reports in the past couple of days about the CIA increasing its intelligence presence inside Syria.
BENSAHELYou know, the threat that ISIS poses is -- does cross both countries. A lot of people have been talking about this saying ISIS doesn't pay attention to the border, so neither should we. That may be true conceptually but it manifests itself very differently on both sides of that border. And that's one of the reasons, in addition to our long-standing support for the Kurds, why we've been able to have some effective airstrikes inside the Kurdish area of Iraq because we know what's going on there a bit better.
REHMEric, do you see the administration working towards more effective strikes in Syria?
SCHMITTWell, certainly the administration has been preparing this. And you go back and look at last summer when the president directed the military to come up with options in the event of strikes because of the chemical attacks the Assad government used. Now those of course would've been strikes against government positions.
SCHMITTWhat my colleagues have been talking about is a different matter. Now you're looking at how do you go after this kind of shadowy terrorist organization? And in a way it's not even your normal kind of generic terrorist organization as a terrorist army which has a lot of backing particularly in Iraq from disenfranchised Iraqi generals Ba'athists.
SCHMITTAnd so if you watch the movements that were taken in western Iraq going against the cities there earlier this year, and then of course in June when they swept down and took Mosul, the vanguard of this force were the ISIS fighters, many foreign fighters that came in. But they quickly linked up with Ba'athists who were very skilled in military strategies and tactics. And I think that's one of the biggest challenges it's now facing.
SCHMITTWhether it's the Iraqi government or the U.S. in support of that is that you have foreign military men now armed with equipment that the U.S. provided to the Iraqi government, making it much more difficult. As we saw in the exchange with the Peshmerga, normally a very capable fighting force, they were basically outgunned until the airstrikes started coming in on August 7.
REHMIndeed haven't some people begun to refer to ISIS as having established a government, Nora?
BENSAHELYes. And in some ways they are governing. I don't know if they have all the formal structures of a government but they do control territory and that directly affects the people living in those areas. The broader question of, you know, whether we should be conducting airstrikes against ISIS on either side of the border I think is very difficult to answer in isolation, especially after the gruesome video of the beheading that we've all seen. There's a desire to take action and I think that the Obama administration is feeling that pressure as well.
BENSAHELBut any sort of military action has to be understood within a broader political context of, does it actually help a long term solution? And in a broader regional context of how does this affect our allies? And it's not just a matter of intelligence why we haven't started striking inside Syria yet. There are some very, very strong reasons why the United States should be very careful about doing that. And I think that's reflected in the caution of the Obama administration.
BENSAHELWell, it would essentially intervene -- the United States would intervene on one side of a civil war, which has very long term ramifications beyond just Syria. And as Eric mentioned, it would, at this point ironically, targeting ISIS would actually be helping the Assad regime because ISIS has been aligned with some of the Islamist rebels going on in Syria.
REHMBut Ambassador Jeffrey, hasn't the Assad regime itself become fearful of ISIS. And wouldn't we, in some way, be teaming up with the Assad regime?
JEFFREYWell, the Assad regime, by many of its actions and its public position, has essentially in some ways given sustenance to the al-Nusra al-Qaida affiliate and ISIS by focusing attention and combat operations on the more moderate opposition in trying to brand everybody who's fighting Assad government as terrorists. It has served their purposes.
JEFFREYWe have to remember, with the casualty rate in Syria now of almost 200,000 people killed, many, many of them civilians, in terms of terror against civilians, ISIS could learn a lot from the Assad government. They're not our friend, they're not our ally. A victory by Russia, Iran and Assad in Syria is as much a threat to the region as ISIS.
REHMHow do you have the top general in the administration talking about how serious the threat is from ISIS, and even the U.S. Secretary of Defense talking in those ways, almost preparing the U.S. population for intervention in that area unless there were approval from the White House, Eric Schmitt?
LEITERBut it's Michael again. Sorry, Diane.
REHMI'm sorry. Forgive me.
LEITERSorry. Well, I think this is some of the internal tension which is now becoming external attention. And the fact is that the White House has approached Syria and Iraq relatively passively. It has not been uninvolved but relatively passively. And there have been parties within the administration, the State Department, the CIA, partially the Department of Defense that have wanted more forceful action out of the fear that without action in Syria the more extreme elements like al-Nusra Front, like ISIS would gain ground.
LEITERAnd in fact, although it's certainly unclear whether or not more forceful action earlier would've solved that problem, we now know that has been the outcome. So I think General Dempsey, Secretary Cary's statements understanding that there is no clear answer here are absolutely pushing for more forceful action because of direct threats to U.S. interests in the region and in the near to midterm, not long term, threats to the U.S. homeland from terrorism.
REHMMichael Leiter. He's senior counselor for Palantir Technologies, former director of the National Counterterrorism Center under Presidents George W. Bush and Barack Obama. Nora Bensahel, how do you see the statement of the top general as well as Secretary of State and Chuck Hagel, the Secretary of Defense?
BENSAHELThey clearly point to the long term threat that ISIS poses to the United States if left unchecked. And they talk about the need to defeat it. But if you go back and look at exactly what General Dempsey said, he talked about defeat being a long term strategy that can only come through political issues being resolved on the ground. He said, and I'm quoting him here, "ISIS will only be defeated when it is rejected by the 20 million disenfranchised Sunnis that happen to reside between Baghdad and Damascus."
BENSAHELSo this is not necessarily a strategy for defeat that involves the military as the strongest tool. It has to come from some sort of political resolution on the ground. And I think General Dempsey and even some of the others are being quite more conservative in talking about the military aspects of approaching that problem, really talking about containment from a military perspective while engaging diplomacy, economic tools of state craft and other things to try to change the political situation on the ground.
REHMEric Schmitt, is that how you interpret the statements made by top officials?
SCHMITTYes, I'd agree with Nora. That's, I think, where the Pentagon is. And clearly you have short term gains that airstrikes can have. I mean, I think what we've seen in northern Iraq, for instance, in defending Erbil, where you have hundreds if not thousands of American diplomats and military personnel as well as defending the Yazidis, the religious minority that was trapped up on a ridge there.
SCHMITTBut longer term, you're talking about this combination of effects. And not just that but also drawn in an international effort that deals with cutting off the financing of this group, cutting off their source of fighters that are coming in from all over the world really. I mean, this -- as I think Michael said earlier, this has not been a high priority for the administration and frankly for the rest of the world until just maybe a year ago with foreign fighters and the threat of these people returning home with the skills that they've learned and particularly threatening their homeland. I think it's finally caught the attention of some of these other governments.
REHMSo do all of you foresee that we may in fact be having returning individuals with U.S. passports reentering the country and raising havoc, Michael?
LEITERWe have fundamentally never had a terrorist-safe haven in the past 12 years since 9/11 where individuals from the west did not go train, fight, many of whom will stay in those areas but some of whom will try to get back to the United States. It's happened in Pakistan. It's happened in Afghanistan. It's happened in Iraq. It's happened in Yemen. It is likely to happen again here in Syria, first Europe and then the United States.
REHMAnd you're listening to "The Diane Rehm Show." And joining us now is Rear Admiral John Kirby. He is press secretary for the Pentagon. Thanks for joining us, sir.
REAR ADM. JOHN KIRBYThanks for having me, Diane. I'm glad to be with you.
REHMThank you. From the Pentagon's perspective, what kind of threat does ISIS pose to the United States?
KIRBYWell, they certainly pose a growing regional threat. And stability and security in that part of the world matters to American interests. So just from the fact that they're posing a significant threat inside Iraq and across that border into Syria so regionally, there's a concern to our interests as well.
KIRBYThey also pose a threat, as was just discussed on your show, this issue of foreign fighters. And I completely agree with the last speaker about the possibility, if not the likelihood, that many of these foreign fighters that they seem to be attracting will go back home and conduct terrorist attacks in their host nations, to include potentially the United States. And so when we talk about the immediacy, the imminent nature of the ISIL threat, we're doing it in that context as well.
REHMHow much intelligence do we have about those individuals who may have been there fighting with ISIS who may then return to the U.S. with U.S. passports?
KIRBYWell, we're -- I'd be -- want to be careful not to get into intelligence matters here. What I can tell you is that the inner agency, and that's the FBI, the CIA, the Pentagon, Department of Homeland Security, we watch this very, very carefully. We do know that there are some Americans who we believe have been attracted to that cause over there. But I would be hesitant to get into too much detail about it. We track it as best we can. It's a tough problem to get your arms around, quite frankly, because you never may know for sure where these people are and exactly what they're engaging in.
REHMFrom the Pentagon's perspective, how much does ISIS capture of an airbase in Syria affect the Pentagon's threat assessment?
KIRBYWhat their capture of that airfield in Syria, or what their capture of any facilities does, as far as we're concerned, is it just simply makes it easier for them to resource themselves. It makes them more capable. And so anything that contributes to their capability is a problem for us inside of Iraq, which is where we are dealing with the ISIL threat right now.
KIRBYThey are well resourced, they're well lead, they're well organized. And as you pointed out, unlike any -- many other terrorist organizations, they're actually grabbing ground. They're taking facilities. They want control over infrastructure.
KIRBYThere's a governance aspect to what they're trying to achieve which makes them even more of a threat than, like I said, many other terrorist networks. They have taken this caliphate vision of theirs to an extreme level. And so it's not just about killing and murdering and mayhem. It's about owning ground and territory and infrastructure. And again, that makes them more worrisome.
REHMAnd with regard to the option of limited airstrikes in Syria, what has been the Pentagon's advice to President Obama? And now I'm talking about top generals.
KIRBYRight. Well, as you might understand, we don't talk about the advice that we give to the commander in chief publically. What I can tell you is that the Pentagon is a planning organization. We have to be prepared for any eventuality. We have been watching -- and this is not an insignificant point to make, Diane. We've been watching the growth of ISIL for many, many months. It's not like this group has not been on our radar scope. We've been watching them very carefully.
KIRBYAnd we know that there's a porous, nonexistent border with Syria. We know that inside Syria they get sustenance. They train. They resource themselves. They supply themselves. We know that when they captured a lot of gear in northern Iraq, they moved it back over to Syria. So we're mindful of this. We're watching it all the time. But I wouldn't want to telegraph any punches that may come.
REHMRear Admiral John Kirby, press secretary to the Pentagon. Thanks for joining us, sir.
KIRBYThanks for having me, Diane.
REHMShort break, we'll be right back.
REHMAnd before we open the phones, I want to ask each of our guests, what do you expect in the way of a terrorist act? Ambassador Jeffrey, do you expect something like 9/11 to be repeated?
JEFFREYI don't think something of that scale could be repeated. But they'll find other ways to hit us. In particular, look at how they go after infrastructure in Iraq and in Syria -- the Haditha Dam, the Mosul Dam, the Basra Refinery -- not only as economic tools, but also as threats. They blew up the dam near Fallujah and flooded much of the area south of Baghdad. That was also a fear that the president had with the Mosul Dam. We have to protect our infrastructure because the hit on a major refinery or electrical generating system would really do tremendous damage to the United States.
LEITERI think two things are most likely, Diane. One, a small-arms attack or simple, improvised explosive devices in a European capital, whether it's London or Paris, but that could just as easily be the United States, because it's very difficult for us to see with granularity the differences in plotting. The second would be another attack against aviation -- something like the Christmas Day bomber. Al-Qaida is very focused on aviation and they know it gets lots of damage. What I would also stress, Diane, is we're talking about ISIS. We're talking about Al-Nusra Front. It's so hard to keep this straight to the average listener.
LEITERThe fact is, both these organizations, although there are some differences, are 100 percent aligned with al-Qaida's ideology of attaching regimes in the Middle East that they don't believe in and they think are apostate, and ultimately attacking the West. These are fundamentally al-Qaida organizations, even if not in name.
BENSAHELI agree with all of that. I think Europe is at much more immediate risk than the United States is because of the flow of those foreign fighters. Most of the people holding Western passports that have been coming in and out have been reportedly European and Russian rather than American. And so that means, when they flow out, that's where they're likely to go. But it is a globalized world and, you know, that doesn't protect the United States. But I don't think, you know, I think it's much more likely we'll see some sort of attack in Europe that's of the scale of some of the metro bombings that have happened there rather than another spectacular 9/11.
BENSAHELThough, of course, you know, you can never rule that out because our -- the terrorist organizations are creative and adaptive. And we wouldn't have foreseen 9/11 either.
SCHMITTAnd just to build on these -- my colleagues' comments, I still think the foreign fighter aspect is very important. And the idea that you can turn people around with Western passports, bring them back -- whether it's the United States or Europe -- and whether it's with random attacks -- they're given general guidance. Or if you have an actual cell, which we've reported in the past, where ISIS or the groups in Syria are actually looking at developing external operations where they have individual planners who are looking at vulnerabilities -- whether it's infrastructure or aviation -- but specifically using some of the individual who've come over and then sending them back with specific instructions.
REHMI asked Admiral Kirby about our intelligence about these people. How good is it, Michael?
LEITERThe U.S. is now better than any country on earth at identifying bad people -- people who they think pose a risk -- and keeping them from traveling to the U.S. and screening them additionally. The difficult piece, Diane, is figuring out who those people are in the first instance. Once we know that Diane Rehm is associated with a terrorist organization, we can stop her from getting on a plane. We can screen her.
LEITERBut figuring out what Americans who have traveled to Europe and maybe gone to Turkey and then passed over a porous border into Syria and have fought with these groups in Syria -- figuring out who that person is in the first instance, that is very, very difficult, not just for the United States but for Western capitals as well.
REHMHere's an email from Steven who's listening online from France. "Please ask your guests to define what a victory of ISIL would look like and what would fill the void?" Michael.
LEITERWell, I think in ISIL's views, they've already had a victory. They have declared an Islamic State. They are the caliphate in their view. So they've had a great victory. And the victory they have had attracts more recruits. And that is a huge problem. Now what a victory over ISIL means, that's much more difficult. But certainly, I think, offensive action to reduce the near-term threat of attacks in the West, to keep them off balance and to reduce their ability to control territory -- that is what our near- to mid-term goal should be -- with longer-term political solutions in places like Syria, which clearly is a very uphill battle.
JEFFREYMichael has it exactly right. Containing ISIS at this point, now that they are a quasi-state, is not sufficient. They'll start acting like a state. People will start paying homage to them. They'll start negotiating while continuing to be a terrorist organization primarily. They'll reap some of the benefits of a state status. They are our enemy. We have to treat them like the enemy. We have to push back against them. It'll take time.
REHMBut do we have the capacity and the wherewithal to remove them?
JEFFREYWe -- first of all, we have our own military capabilities. But the American people are very reluctant to use them, particularly ground troops. We do have allies on the ground. And we can build these allies up to do more Mosul Dam victories over them. That's what we have to do, step-by-step, push them back. They are very sensitive to this. That's why they did the Jim Foley video, because they had lost a lot of status, a lot of prestige as well as territory when they lost the Mosul Dam, thanks to what we did.
REHMAnd Mark asks, "Why is it U.S. responsibility to fight ISIS? Isn't ISIS a threat to European countries and interests? Why can't European forces fight them also?" Eric.
SCHMITTWell, I think you're seeing the Europeans joining in. Certainly you had European countries...
REHMStarting to step up.
SCHMITT...just in the last couple of weeks -- even countries like Germany, saying they would supply arms to the Peshmerga in northern Iraq. But you have to look at the facts. The United States has the most capable military in the world, not just in terms of the combat type of operations, but just in the kind of nitty-gritty things like logistics and how you move and ferry people around, how you train individual forces on the ground.
SCHMITTAnd so it takes American leadership to rally some of these European countries and other countries against a threat and really highlighting what that threat exists. It's not just a threat against Syria or Iraq. But it's a threat that opposed to all these countries. And I think that's a realization that many countries now are finally coming to.
BENSAHELUltimately, the only people who can get rid of ISIS as an organization are local people on the ground who make a decision that they don't want to support them and live under their governance anymore. That is very, very difficult in the coercive state that ISIS governs with, with its brutal ideology and execution of that ideology. But I think, for that reason, what you're going to see greater pressure from the United States on -- a greater involvement of the United States, in helping train and advise local forces, particularly on the Iraqi side of the border, to help prepare them to be able to take on ISIS militarily to the greatest extent possible.
BENSAHELAnd the U.S., I think, will be looking for opportunities to do that with Syrian allied forces on the Syrian side of the border. That's going to be very, very difficult though, you know, parsing out who's going to be aligned with the Assad regime, who's going to be aligned ISIS and so on. But I think the U.S. is going to try to gather as much intelligence on that as possible to set that up over the longer term.
REHMHow do you feel about that, Ambassador Jeffrey?
JEFFREYWell, I think that you do have to go after ISIS. I think that, as you just heard from Nora, you have to have local people on the ground. And we had them in Mosul Dam. It's not going to be impossible to get them in other areas. The Iraqi Army actually is holding its own in Anbar province to the west of Baghdad.
REHMBut what about Syria?
JEFFREYIn Syria, that's a longer term problem. But let's -- let's consume this thing one bite at a time. We have the possibility to roll them back in Iraq. And psychology is very important in war -- when we're in a war with these guys. If they start losing territory and losing support in Iraq, that will have an impact on Syria and make the eventual fight in Syria easier.
LEITERI agree with Jim. And I think the president has slowly moved in this direction. He did request the $500 million of aid to Syrian rebels, to start arming more forcedly. But it isn't just a question of strategy now. It is a question of forceful execution on that strategy. And we've had a number of statements over the past two to three years about how we will get more involved, how we will support the moderate opposition in Syria. And I think the moderate opposition has not felt that. The region certainly has not seen forceful U.S. engagement. And if we are going to be serious about rolling back ISIS in the long term, we now have to show the world that we're serious about that [word?.
REHMAll right. Let's open the phones. First to Coram, N.Y. Hello, Paul. You're on the air.
PAULYes, good morning, Diane. It's a pleasure talking to you.
REHMI have the question, which developed into just a comment, second of all. You know, this that's occurring in Iraq is something that I believe was foreseen by the -- by the past administrations. Even the present administration had doubts that if the U.S. left Iraq, something of a revolutionary attempt would occur and the country would be taken over by forces other than what the United States had placed in the country.
PAULKnowing that, or having suspicion that that might occur, leaving the amount of hardware that the United States left was very disappointing to hear, especially since we had those suspicions. Are there any steps being taken to prevent that from occurring again, is my question.
JEFFREYPeople did see the risk of something like this happening, although not in such a dramatic degree, which is why President Obama and I, when I was ambassador, and General Austin, as the local commander, all tried to keep American forces on the ground. The military equipment we've given them, by and large, the massive equipment they seized in Mosul are small arms, some mortars and other equipment, and a lot of light armored vehicles. The core equipment we've given them, the Abrams tanks, the heavy artillery pieces, the Iraqi Army still holds on to that.
REHMAll right. To James in Detroit, Mich. You're on the air.
JAMESThank you, Diane, for taking my call.
JAMESIt seems like we've heard this before when you all are taking (word?) out of the George W. Bush administration when they were trumpeting the reason for war in Iraq. And that now, because a new organization who supposedly poses an immediate or some sort of possible immediate threat to America, Dick Cheney was saying that the terrorists might get in boats and follow our destroyers home as a means to possibly coming here.
JAMESIt's -- I'm just amazed that after all we've been through and after we've just heard this before, you know, that they're somehow trying to bring us back into a conflict in the same area that we just left for a second time, to fight an enemy that was born indigenously from the area.
REHMSo from James' point of view, there's a certain skepticism.
SCHMITTSure. And I think that's -- obviously you see that in the polls of the American public, not wanting to go back into Iraq or basically into any foreign engagement right now that involves military forces. If you listen to the president, he says over and over again, there will be no more American boots on the ground. I think the most you might see right now in Iraq are American advisers on the ground and perhaps some covert operations, whether it be by the CIA or Joint Special Operations forces carrying out very targeted raids. But the idea that large-scale American Armies are going to be going back in the Middle East just isn't going to fly I don't think.
REHMDo you agree, Michael?
LEITERI do. I think Eric is right. I think we will see a surge of intelligence resources, covert action and support through Special Operations Command. And I also...
REHMDo you think that's going to be enough?
LEITERI think it is enough to keep ISIS and the Al-Nusra Front off balance and reduce the likelihood of a significant attack. It is not enough to win the war.
REHMAll right. To Kathy in Prescott, Ariz. You're on the air.
KATHYGood morning, Diane.
KATHYFirst time caller. I'm wondering, how many other countries in the world -- especially those close to the Iraq area -- are being pulled into our concerns with ISIS, and more specially, those countries that are willing to pay ransom for their captured members that supply arms and other benefits to ISIS?
LEITERWell, the region has been deeply involved in Syria in some unproductive and productive ways for three-plus years. Saudi Arabia has been deeply concerned about the flow of ISIS into Iraq. They had been funding some of the opposition. And both the Saudis and the Qataris and the Turks have been providing funding to organizations that we don't want to see funded. So at the same time, they had been urging, I think, quite forcefully, the U.S. to be more involved since 2011.
LEITERAnd they have not viewed the U.S. as playing the leadership role that they hoped. Now part of that is because there's a complex situation with competing sides on both -- competing interests on both sides. But I think, as a general matter, the region is now -- recognizes how dangerous these groups -- Al-Nusra and ISIS are -- and are both willing to pay and in some ways will provide some military support, I suspect the Turks and the like.
SCHMITTWell you even have the incredible picture in Iraq of the two rivals, if not enemies, Iran and the United States, essentially aligning on the same side of fighting ISIS in the north. Where you even had questions come up to people like Admiral Kirby, is the United States coordinating their special ops or their training with the Iranian Quds Force. I mean, this is something you just couldn't even imagine a couple of years ago. So, yes, the region is getting engaged. It's far from perfect though. And ISIS is taking advantage and they have the momentum right now.
REHMSo what do you see as next steps for the U.S.?
SCHMITTWell, I think what we're going to see is what we've been discussing. You'll see the first steps in Iraq, whether it's bolstering the capabilities of Iraqi forces, the targeted airstrikes to blunt the offensive of ISIS. But also watch for a replay of 2007, the extent that the U.S. can try and peel away some of the other Sunni groups that might start feeling disaffected under the very harsh conditions that ISIS is bringing.
SCHMITTIt's going to be much more difficult this time around because those Sunnis feel burned. They've been living under the Shia government that didn't do them any favors over the last several years. But that is what it's going to take. Peel the bulk of those away and then you're left with basically a foreign vanguard inside of Iraq that can be more narrowly targeted.
BENSAHELFor that reason, you're going to see a lot of pressure on the new Iraqi prime minister to take measures towards reconciliation, towards bringing the Sunni population into the structures of government, into the military and so on, as a first step towards that. There's been a lot of hope placed on that. And I think President Obama was right to not -- to sort of hold out the prospect of Prime Minister Maliki leaving as kind of a precondition before there would be U.S. intervention.
BENSAHELBut sometimes I get concerned that there's a little too much optimism that the new prime minister will be able to deliver on these things, even though the rhetoric is right and there will be enormous pressure from the United States on him.
LEITERI think in the near term, the threat will go up to Europe and the West. With deeper U.S. involvement in the near term, Al-Nusra and ISIS will be motivated to try to attack us.
JEFFREYThey're already motivated to attack us. They'll be more motivated as we go after them. But we have no choice in the end, going after them. The best defense is a good offense.
REHMAmbassador James Jeffrey, Michael Leiter, Nora Bensahel and Eric Schmitt, thank you all.
REHMAnd thanks for listening. I'm Diane Rehm.
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