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The militant group Islamic State in Iraq and Syria released a video yesterday showing the execution of American journalist Steven Sotloff. U.S. intelligence officials confirmed the video’s authenticity early this morning. It’s the second beheading of a captured American journalist since the U.S. began airstrikes on Iraq on August 8th. In the video, a masked man with a British accent blames President Obama for what he calls an “arrogant foreign policy towards the Islamic State.” The White House announced yesterday it will send 350 additional troops to Iraq to protect diplomatic positions there. Diane and guests discuss the growing threat from ISIS and potential international response.
- Faysal Itani resident fellow, Rafik Hariri Center for the Middle East at the Atlantic Council.
- Tom Bowman Pentagon correspondent, NPR
- David Rohde investigative reporter, Reuters and contributing editor, The Atlantic; former reporter for The New York Times, author of, "Beyond War: Reimagining American Influence in a New Middle East" (2013)
- Paul Pillar non-resident senior fellow, Center for Security Studies at Georgetown University, and a former CIA National Intelligence officer.
MS. DIANE REHMThanks for joining us. I'm Diane Rehm. Early this morning U.S. intelligence officials confirmed the authenticity of a video released yesterday by the militant group Islamic State in Iraq and Syria. The film showed a beheading of American journalist Stephen Sotloff. The second such execution in less than a month. Joining me in the studio to talk about the growing threat of ISIS and the potential international response, Paul Pillar of Georgetown University, Tom Bowman of NPR, and Faysal Itani of the Atlantic Council.
MS. DIANE REHMI know many of you will want to weigh in. Give us a call at 800-433-8850. Send us an email to firstname.lastname@example.org. Follow us on Facebook or send us a tweet. Thank you all for being here.
MR. PAUL PILLARHello, Diane.
MR. TOM BOWMANGood morning, Diane.
MR. FAYSAL ITANIThank you, Diane.
REHMGood to have you here. Let's -- before we begin our conversation -- hear what President Obama had to say.
PRESIDENT BARACK OBAMAWhatever these murderers think they'll achieve by killing innocent Americans like Stephen, they have already failed. They failed because, like people around the world, Americans are repulsed by their barbarism. We will not be intimidated. Their horrific acts only unite us as a country and stiffen our resolve to take the fight against these terrorists. And those who make the mistake of harming Americans will learn that we will not forget and that our reach is long and that justice will be served.
REHMTom Bowman, there are lots of questions about when Mr. Sotloff was killed. Was he killed at the same time that the prior American was killed?
BOWMANWell, there have been suggestions that maybe they were both killed at the same time and that they were holding the video of Steve Sotloff's execution or murder, rather, until a later time. They're very savvy with media, with tweets and with videos and so forth. So there is speculation that they were killed at the same time.
BOWMANBut if you look at both videos, in the first video, with James Foley, you see Sotloff appears to be clean shaven. And in the second video where he's murdered you see him with a light beard. So perhaps it was done after the James Foley attack, but we still don't know.
REHMPaul Pillar, you heard the president say, "We will not forget. We have a long reach." What can and should the United States be doing now?
PILLARThere are two fronts, Diane, in which we can and are operating. One concern is the larger military conflict in Iraq and Syria. And as you know, we've already conducted airstrikes in Iraq. And there's a vigorous debate going on here in Washington right now about what, if anything, should be done militarily in Syria. So that's the military front. I should say an important supplement to that is the political front. And we've already acted with regard to political change in Baghdad.
PILLARThe other thing is a counter-terrorist problem. And we have had the reports that we've already, through Special Forces, tried to earlier conduct a rescue of Mr. Sotloff, which was not successful. And so we can be assured that our counter-terrorist officials in the military and in the intelligence services are doing what they can to identify the location of where hostages are held and where the hostage takers are so that there would be at least a chance of some kind of special operation that would preempt a further killing
REHMDo you believe that such an operation, given today's circumstances, could be successful?
PILLARIt's extremely difficult. Clearly, this group that we're operating against, as Tom suggested, is savvy in a number of ways. And one of those ways surely is operational security, doing everything they can to keep their location hidden. And therefore it's going to be very difficult to have success on that front.
REHMTom Bowman, how did Stephen Sotloff end up in the hands of ISIS?
BOWMANWell, we know it was a year ago, I believe, he was in northern Syria. He -- a freelancer -- he worked for Time Magazine, Foreign Policy, Christian Science Monitor, other publications -- that he was taken somewhere in northern Syria. That's kind of all we know at this point. He was a freelancer, much like James Foley. And was taken by the Islamic State fighters and held there. And again, as Paul said, there was an effort to grab these hostages in early July. There was a special operations raid, helicopters went in.
BOWMANI'm told they had an AC-130 gunship above the helicopters to provide cover if needed. And I'm also told that 25 Islamic State fighters were killed in that operation. And one American had his leg shot, leg shattered -- it was a helicopter pilot -- during that operation. So the question is can you go in again and try to get these hostages. I think it'd be more difficult this time. Islamic State fighters know someone may come and try to do that same operation again. So maybe they've dispersed them. But it's very, very difficult to try to get them at this point.
REHMFaysal Itani, what is the message that ISIS is trying to send?
ITANII think there are two audiences. One is the United States audience and the U.S. government. It's a show of defiance. And, in a way, sort of macabre mockery of the United States, that despite the military action they're taking in Iraq, ISIS continues to be able to take defiant and bold action and humiliating action really in the context of what's going on in Syria. But I think, you know, it's not likely that they expected there to be a change in U.S. policy either way.
ITANII think mainly this was meant for the consumption of their audience itself. On the one hand the person's that they need to keep subduing in Syria because their primary threat is control of the population itself. And they struggled with that. So there's an element of sort of terrorism, intimidation, coercion, but also, I mean, strange as it seems to hear, there is some appeal to potential recruits, as well as members of the group itself, of this sort of kind of bold, high-profile, well-produced murder.
REHMSo you're saying their numbers grow as a result of these kinds of actions?
ITANII don't know on the balance whether they grow or shrink. I think they calculate that they gain more of the people they care about. And everybody else to them, including the Muslim population, is sort of a lost cause anyway and is part of the enemy. So I anticipate that they alienate more people than they attract, but that to them, the issue is are we growing this caliphate, this community of Muslims, and filling it with people who share our ideology.
REHMHow large a group is ISIS now? Can we calculate?
ITANII mean, I'm only aware of estimates. I don't have the information. But from what I hear it's anything between 10,000 to 15,000 fighters. But this is not just a militant group. It's also built a bureaucracy, a religious establishment, a government of sorts, as it were, and members supporting them in all sorts of capacities. And they continue to want to attract professionals, scholars, or what they -- what qualifies as scholars in their eyes. So I don't know really. I mean, they control right now at least three major urban areas and population of several million.
PILLARJust a couple comments on the overall strength. Of course this can be very squishy since -- if we look at the gains that the group's scored in western Iraq, this was due in large part to their getting the support and the active participation of a lot of disaffected Sunnis, including those associated with the former Ba'athist regime. So they've had people enlist in their cause that maybe, shall we say, soft recruits. And how much they would stay with the ISIS cause remains to be seen.
PILLARAnd I agree with Faysal on the messages being sent and how there's more than one audience. With regard to the message trying to be sent to us and to Americans, there are two sides to it. We can take it at face value and say, look, this is an effort to deter further U.S. airstrikes. That was explicitly the way it was couched in the videos. But it could be, to some extent, even the opposite of that. Trying to provoke us into getting more deeply involved, in a way in which this group ISIS can say, we are the ones standing up against and confronting the Americans. If they do that they're taking a page out of al-Qaida's book.
BOWMANAnd Paul raises a good point. The reason why the Islamic State has been able to expand is they do have support in the Sunni community, particularly in Iraq. And General Martin Dempsey, the chairman of the Joint Chiefs of Staff, said, "Listen, airstrikes are only a very small part of this. You have to get to the point where the Sunni community, from Damascus to Baghdad, turns its back on the Islamic State."
BOWMANThere are 20 million Sunnis in that belt. And I know the United States is trying to reach out to the tribal sheiks at Anbar Province, Iraq and to some of the, you know, tribal leaders. But, again, how do you get them away from the Islamic State? Part of it is a political issue now with the new Iraqi government trying to reach out to the Sunnis, but that really hasn't happened yet.
REHMPaul Pillar, how big a blow is this second killing to the United States?
PILLARI wouldn't describe it as a blow. And I don't think -- or I would surprised whether our officials were surprised. There was the explicit threat made when the earlier killing of Mr. Foley was done. Now, here we're seeing yet another threat, a follow on killings with the next hostage, who seems to be most threatened, being a British captive. Diane, this really goes back to a long-standing terrorist technique.
PILLARWe haven't been so used to it in recent years, bug going back to the hey-day of airplane hijackings in the late '60s and '70s. This was a common technique. Seize a group of hostages, make a threat to conduct killings seriatim unless demands were met. More often in recent years we've been concerned not about that kind of thing, but rather about terrorists going straight away and killing people, like in 9/11.
REHMSo you would expect ISIS to continue?
PILLARI think they've been very explicit about that. And I would not be surprised if we see another one of these videos with another hostage within the next couple of weeks.
REHMPaul Pillar of Georgetown University, Tom Bowman, Pentagon correspondent for NPR, Faysal Itani, resident fellow at the -- for the Middle East at the Atlantic Council. Short break here. When we come back we'll talk further, take your calls. Stay with us.
REHMAnd welcome back as we talk about the beheading of yet another American journalist by, Tom Bowman, apparently the same executioner.
BOWMANIt appears to be the same executioner. He's very tall, broad shouldered with a British accent. He's holding a knife in his left hand. And then he says in the statement on the video, I'm back, Obama. So presumably it was the same person from the previous video.
REHMAnd, Paul Pillar, our first email reminds us that President Obama dismissed ISIS a few months ago as junior varsity. A great deal has happened since then.
PILLARWell, the groups that were -- we've been concerned about over these last few years, including Lebanese Hezbollah on the Shiite side and of course al-Qaida, which has been our preoccupation now for over a decade, they're always changing. They're always evolving. And al-Qaida itself has evolved. ISIS, as we now call it and it now calls itself the Islamic State, began as al-Qaida in Iraq. I don't think, you know, any one snapshot in time evaluation really means a whole lot when things are moving so swiftly.
PILLARAnd in this case the swift-moving is totally wrapped up in events on the ground and in the political capitals of Iraq and Syria. The story of ISIS over these last few months has been one subtext, one chapter in the larger story of turmoil in Iraq and continued sectarian strife, and of course the civil war in Syria.
ITANITo a degree I agree. I think though that including several months ago late last year to early this year there was quite a bit of concern raised in some circles in Washington, including the intelligence community, but also in sort of the think tank community and the analysis community that this ISIS problem was quite real, that it was even independent of their sort of dramatic takeover of Mosul which, you know, very few people foresaw.
ITANIWhat they had been building in (word?) and Raqqah and northeast Syria was something, at least compared to their proximate rivals, was quite powerful, significant. And that it had endangered the trajectory of the uprising in Syria posing a threat to the opposition itself as well as Assad, and starting to build the means to pose a strategic threat to the Iraqi state and of course everybody else around them in the Syrian theater.
ITANISo I think it did seem like it was a problem but you had to be watching it on the level of preparation for posing a threat in attacking rather than sort of immediate threat to something like Baghdad or the city of Mosul.
BOWMANAnd it's important to note that one month after the president said the ISIS was the JVs, you had testimony on Capitol Hill by the heads of the intelligence community, Lieutenant General Mike Flynn in particular who just stepped down as head of Defense Intelligence Agency saying he expected this year that ISIS would take more ground in Syria and Iraq. So there were warnings about this. I don't recall that hearing any member of congress ever, you know, voicing concern about that or anyone else pointing to that as a concern.
BOWMANI think at that point they had hoped the Iraqi government could handle this, could do it on their own. And then of course Iraqi military collapsed around Mosul. And then the American advisors went back in -- the assessors I guess. And of course we've just sent in 350 more U.S. military personnel to beef up security in Baghdad.
REHMIndeed. Here's an email from Mike in Florida, "What about the possibility that the international community is allowing ISIS to develop to a point where they become an actual landholding state? Once a state, we would no longer be having to deal with the war on terror but could then actually have a real place to declare war on," Paul Pillar.
PILLARActually, Mike makes an important point here in that we tend to, as we follow this ISIS story back here in the United States, be alarmed by the maps we see in our newspapers of ground being gained. And we try -- tend to equate that with threat to the U.S. but that's really a mistake. And I think what Mike raises is an important issue. We've often thought of non-state terrorist groups as having the advantage of, to use the cliché, no return address so they can do things without us striking back in the way that we would if the state would do it.
PILLARTo the extent that ISIS does establish and maintain some kind of mini state out there in that part of the Middle East, they've lost that advantage. They do have a return address and they're going to have to be focused much more. They're already focused to a large extent on maintaining and running that mini state rather than conducting terrorist operations in North America or someplace else.
ITANIYeah -- no. I think that's a great analytical point. I agree. I think the shear ambition of the project to build a state in sort of heart of the Arab Muslim world is very costly. It's very consuming. It's very complex to manage all these relationships with the local population. And it is a distraction whether or not you see that as on the balance of positive thing for U.S. national security or simply delaying the problem. I don't want to get into that argument. I think good arguments can be made on both sides of the equation.
ITANIBut it does open them to certain types of attack. It does create vulnerabilities when they hold large visible assets and very long lines of communication, very fraught relations with both the Sunni and Iraqi community -- Syrian and Iraqi, particularly the Syrian one where they are already, of course, fighting two wars at once with regime and the mainstream opposition, though on the balance was it a good or bad thing, it's an interesting new development who lends itself to different policy approach.
REHMHere is an email from Ed who says, "In the media echo chamber we hear only the voices of radicals. What about the small minority? What can be done to drown it with the voices of reason? How do we get the Muslim world to reject extremism and self correct this perversion of their faith?"
ITANIWell, there's two points here. There's sort of in the abstract, ISIS has raised a debate that is long overdue in the Arab Muslim world about what sort of relationship we want to have with Islam and politics. This is a particularly grotesque answer to it but ISIS's claim is that it's never been answered in a satisfactory way. And I think most Arabs would agree actually with that point. And most Muslims indeed would agree with it. Whether or not they would endorse that particular answer, no, I think not.
ITANIAnd to their credit, there are tens of thousands of Syrians who are fighting ISIS and have been doing so for several months there. We've done nearly nothing to help them so they have -- they are in a position to answer it. They've answered it with arms, they've answered it at great risk to themselves, but they lack means. They lack the means to roll them back and contain them.
ITANIIf ISIS right now wanted to suddenly take critical rebel territory in northern Syria, if they decided that that was their priority, they would do it. So I think it's a bit of a red herring to bring our hands over the answer whereas the only people in a position to hit back hard are persons we've essentially (word?)
REHMAnd do you believe the U.S. should go in there now?
ITANINo, but I think that if the Syrian population decides that this is a risk that they're willing to take on, I believe we should be doing everything we can to help them.
ITANIThat would require a very costly and long and complicated train and equip effort in northern Syria and southern Syria, that at this point up until now we've proven unwilling to take on. Whether that is because that would drag us further into the political question of what ultimately happens in Syria, whether that is just a step too far for this administration given its world view and its sort of tendency to want to pull away from this sort of -- exactly this sort of protracted complex conflicts in the Middle East. I don't know the answer to that. I do know, I think that regardless of these executions, that calculus hasn't changed in the White House.
REHMPaul Pillar, what do you expect the administration to do given President Obama's words early this morning?
PILLARThe administration is focusing very much on trying to put together international coalition, so it's not the United States, you know, doing all the heavy lifting. I think that's appropriate for a number of reasons, not just in terms of resources and risks that we in the United States take but also, as Faysal has just mentioned and as he was discussing, who really has to be out in front in, you know, fighting these particular battles.
PILLARAnd again I would emphasize, this is all part of a larger set of political equations. So one of the things that President Obama and his advisors are going to have to be, and I'm sure they are looking at very hard is not just what we have talked about in terms of possible special forces raids and all that sort of thing. But -- and Faysal touched on this a moment ago -- the basic political question of the political future of Syria. And what we've been saddled with is the goal of Assad has to go. And as long as we keep that goal, the situation is complicated.
REHMAnd joining us now from Washington, D.C., David Rohde, an investigative reporter for Reuters, contributing editor for The Atlantic. Back in 2008 Rohde was captured by the Taliban in Afghanistan, held for more than seven months. David Rohde, welcome back to "The Diane Rehm Show."
MR. DAVID ROHDEThanks so much for having me.
REHMTell us your reaction when you heard about this second killing of an American journalist.
ROHDEI was amazed, to be honest, about the courage and sort of poise and even grace that Stephen Sotloff and Jim Foley both showed in those videos. And I don't -- I just sort of desperately don't want those images to be the way they're remembered. Stephen Sotloff, as people have probably heard, you know, fell in love with the Middle East, you know, and loved journalism, dropped out of college. You know, did heroic reporting about the deaths of civilians in Libya and Syria and elsewhere.
ROHDEJim Foley, similar story, showed tremendous courage as a captive -- the captives that were ransomed -- the European captives that went home and talked about Jim always keeping the spirits of all the prisoners up and challenging the guards. And that may have been the reason Jim died first.
REHMWell, I want to ask you about a recent blog of yours questioning U.S. policy on paying ransom for hostages. Do you believe that that policy should be changed?
ROHDEI don't think the problem is necessarily the American approach. I think the problem is the international approach. There's no coordination whatsoever with Europe on how to respond to these cases. And that the sort of tragedy and the wake-up call with Steve and Jim's death is that, as I said earlier, several, you know, European hostage, six or seven of them, Spanish journalists, French journalists and at least one Danish journalist, were held by the Islamic state with the two Americans. And their governments paid ransoms. Those Europeans went home.
ROHDEAnd this is a growing problem. There was a recent New York Times story, that I know you -- I think you've talked about in the past, you know, that al-Qaida affiliates have received 125 million in ransom in recent years through kidnappings, mostly from European governments. France sort of leads in terms of paying $50 million. They recently paid 40 million for four hostages in Niger, France did. That's $10 million apiece. So when a government pays that much it skews the market and then makes it impossible for American families that the U.S. government does not pay. Families can try to pay but they can't come up with nearly that amount of money.
REHMIndeed. And you're listening to "The Diane Rehm Show." David, you were held for more than seven months by the Taliban in 2008. What do you think would have happened to you had you not escaped? And how did you escape?
ROHDEI was lucky enough to be helped by an Afghan journalist who was with me. You know, he was always smart enough to get the guards to take him outside to visit a doctor. Or when they bought food then he was able to figure out the way out of the town. And then at night we were able to climb down a wall and make it to a Pakistani base that this Afghan led me to. And it was just, you know, my luck of having him there.
ROHDEI may have been held for five years with Bowe Bergdahl whose case, you know, sparked such a controversy exchange for the U.S. soldier and the release of five Taliban prisoners. You know, I was -- we were lucky to escape just a few weeks before Bergdahl was captured. And once you're in one of these safe havens, whether it's in Pakistan where I was or in Syria, in West Africa, there's no pressure on these militants to reduce their demands. And, again, it's a growing problem.
ROHDEThe Bergdahl case, you know, was a wake-up call. And obviously these two deaths are a wake-up call. And we don't seem to be working with our allies again to have a clear strategy.
REHMSome people are calling the U.S. hypocritical because we did exchange five prisoners for Bowe Bergdahl and yet there is a female American aid worker being held by ISIS. What do you think the U.S. should do to gain her freedom?
ROHDEIt's an incredibly difficult situation. I don't think the United States can -- and look, I say this with an incredibly heavy heart, and I know that I could've been killed, and I was just lucky. We continued drone strikes in Pakistan's tribal areas when I was a captive. You know, I think that the best thing, you know, they can do is work on pressuring the Islamic state. It may not save her but it's really reducing these safe havens that addresses the problem the long term.
ROHDEAnd just to clarify, the U.S. policy is that the government will not pay but the U.S. government will sort of look the other way if a family or an organization can somehow come up with the ransom. But, as I said, these demands are so high now, the market's so skewed by European governments that there's very little her family can do.
REHMConsidering what has happened to these two journalists, do you believe that journalists in the future should avoid taking these kinds of risks?
ROHDEJournalists already area avoiding these risks. And, I mean, one of the sort of victims of these kidnappings is actually the people of Syria. First the Assad government, you know, targeted journalists. They killed Marie Colvin, directly targeting the position she was in with other journalists a couple years ago. And now they're -- on the other side militants are kidnapping them. We're not seeing the story in Syria. Look at the intensity of the coverage of, you know, Bosnia or Iraq.
ROHDESo sadly it's working and journalists are being more careful. And still some end up kidnapped.
REHMDavid Rohde. He was captured by the Taliban in 2008. Thank you for joining us, David.
REHMAnd welcome back. We're talking about ISIS, the execution of a second American, Stephen Sotloff, that occurred, we think occurred, yesterday. Here's an email from John in Missouri. "What is everyday life like for the average citizen who lives in an ISIS-controlled city?" Faysal.
ITANIIt depends which ISIS area they live in. In the major cities that ISIS has prioritized, controlling tightly, life is quite harsh. I mean, they have provided very sort of crude type of law and order, as they define it, but otherwise, you know, these places are all, you know, kind of miserably deprived and there's a lot of coercion and a lot of torture, a lot of violence.
ITANIThis is something that sort of happened to them and they're daily life was never that great to begin with. Now, it's gotten that much worse, but somehow a bit more predictable than it was under the vacuum that emerged after these places collapsed. And in the less -- the areas ISIS seized, the less important, sort of the rural villages, et cetera, they don't really feel the impact that much because ISIS has sort of taken the colonial approach where they work with locals who they see as acceptable to sort of keep the order or, you know, reap the spoils economically as long as they don't rebel against ISIS.
REHMAnd Tom Bowman, you've been reading accounts around the country in reaction to Stephen Sotloff's execution. What are people in this country saying? What are newspapers saying?
BOWMANWell, they the New York Daily News and New York Post today both had Stephen Sotloff on the front page and one of the papers said, "Do You Have A Strategy Yet, Mr. President?" So you could see some growing anger about what some people see as a lack of resolve, a lack of a strategy, pressure to do more, whatever that more is. We have Senator Bill Nelson, a Democrat from Florida, already saying he's gonna introduce a bill calling for air strikes in Syria. So we'll just see what happens.
REHMDo you think ISIS would publically execute a woman and what might the reaction be if they did? Paul Pillar.
PILLARIt depends on just how much more severe a reaction ISIS wants. I think they're smart to realize that that would step up the emotional response here in this country by several steps. There's no question in my mind that would be the case. Whether ISIS would want that as a provocative move, perhaps so. And I think it's most likely if they were feeling the pinch more on the ground with regard to perhaps reversals in Northern Iraq and they wanted to mix it even more.
PILLARBut I think they're smart enough to realize it would have a tremendous impact with the American public.
REHMAll right. Let's open the phones. We'll go to Baltimore, Maryland. Treyna, you're on the air.
TREYNAYes. Thank you. Most of the 9/11 hijackers came from Saudi Arabia, yet right after the attacks, Saudi officials were given safe passage by plane out of the United States. And when Bush's national security advisor, Condoleezza Rice, was questioned by the 9/11 commission if she had any knowledge regarding specific Saudi anti-American activities, she answered no on all counts.
TREYNAThere's also been speculation that the Saudis have funded ISIS. Why do the Saudis always seem to get a pass?
REHMWhat do you think, Faysal?
ITANIWell, you know, I -- the immediate sense, no, they haven't funded ISIS. There have been some private donations from wealthy individuals in that part of the world going to ISIS, but they never represented a critical part of the revenue stream. ISIS is essentially, financially self-sufficient. You could argue sort of in the broader, historical and ideological sense that a lot of this ideology sort of Wahhabi ideology, hard line Islamism originated or at least was empowered by Saudi Arabia over decades.
ITANIAnd the jump from that philosophy which actually protects the Saudi royalty in a sense to sort of violent (word?) jihadism that you're seeing on the part of ISIS is not a very far one. So yes, there is some sort of complicity, but I think, you know, they're not funding ISIS nor is this their project in any way.
REHMHere's an email from Patrick. "Why haven't some Arab states that will be threatened by ISIS stepped up to the crisis? We buy their oil. They have our military weapons and planes and well-trained military, but they expect the U.S. do to it." Patrick says, "I'm baffled." What do you say to Patrick, Faysal?
ITANIExcellent question. Partly, it's because they are actually just -- they don't have what it takes to do this. Not in the sense of they don't have the military hardware, but what this would take in Syria is a very sort sophisticated effective engagement with the local Sunni population and the militant groups in the North and of the East that are actually fighting ISIS and taking on the brunt of the effort to fight them.
ITANIThat is something that the Gulf States, who would be best positioned to do this financially and resource-wise, seem incapable of doing. Their relationship with these groups is we arm and train who we like at any particular point in time. We're much more interested in building clients than we are in building an effective fighting force in Syria. They just don't do it very well. I mean, the Iranians do it well, but the Arab States don't.
REHMAnd where are we with Iran on ISIS, Paul Pillar?
PILLARWe're basically on the same side. I mean, to begin with, as part of a sectarian split, which is so important in the eyes of the Iranians, the Saudis and the Qataris and many others, even though we don't have or shouldn't have a stake in that particular sectarian fight, but there's no question that on this particular issue, ISIS is bad news from the Iranian point of view as well as ours.
REHMSo to what extent is Iran willing to step up?
PILLARI think Iran is very willing. We're the ones who are less willing to be partners and looking particularly at the Syrian equation as it involves politics as well as the military situation. Again, this gets back to the question I touched on before of, you know, what's the political goal in Syria. We, of course, have resisted having Iranian involvement in discussion of Syria's political future. That's a mistake, in my view.
PILLARIf we do have success with regard to these nuclear negotiations, which are supposed to culminate by November, that might be a stepping stone toward a more flexible and more open approach toward doing business with Iran on issues like this where we have parallel interests.
REHMAnd the other question, if the U.S. were to go into Syria with air strikes, Assad were taken out, who would step up in his place?
PILLARWell, it would be complete chaos, everybody thinks. The Alawite community may push up some general or some supporter of Assad, of the family, but clearly, it would just really -- the country'd just dissolve into more fighting, more deaths of civilians and just more chaos.
ITANIYeah. I mean, different things would happen in different parts of the country. In the South of Syria, you have a sort of healthier political security environment where some of the brigades that were at least nominally aligned with -- do have some sort of control over territories, the presence of the population. In the North, it's much more fragmented. You would see infighting, but you're already seeing infighting now.
ITANIThere would be -- if that sort of thing were to happen and the Alawite community were to perceive that they're losing, then there would be serious questions over whether or not betting on Assad and his inner circle is good for the future of the sect. They do have -- there is some talk within the community of possibly, and it's very low profile talk and it's talks that they've had with the Syrian opposition, of possibly countenancing an alternative that would push Assad out of the equation and allow the Syrians to sort of coalesce into a coalition to fight ISIS, at least in the future.
ITANII don't think that it would be the worst possible outcome. Yes, there would be an escalation in violence in the short term. The question is, this is right now a sort of deadlocked situation where the mainstream opposition is being eviscerated by Assad and ISIS and now, we're left with Assad and ISIS, neither of which, I think, are particularly palatable options.
ITANISo I hesitate to recommend a situation that would create yet more uncertainty, but I think that might be a sort of rite of passage we need to go through to reach some sort of resolution to how Syria, after this war, is going to look.
PILLARYeah, it, unfortunately, is, to a large extent, Assad versus ISIS and the sort of the next most potent force is probably the al-Nusra Front, which is an al-Qaida affiliate and which recently, you know, seized Fiji and UN peacekeepers, along the Golan Heights. We keep talking about, you know, the moderate opposition that we'd like to make strong and important, but so far, it's not strong and it's not a major factor.
REHMTo West Palm Beach, Florida, hi there, Tim. You're on the air.
TIMGood morning, Diane. How's it going?
TIMI think last week, a Saudi king came out and also announced his fear of ISIS as well and mentioned that it was a threat, but also I was reading the Daily Star out of Lebanon and one of Hezbollah's leaders came out also and looked at ISIS as a threat and there's possible discussion of Iranian involvement in fighting ISIS as well. So it looks like some strange bedfellows are starting to emerge.
REHMWhat do you think of that, Faysal?
ITANIWell, I mean, Hezbollah and the Iranians have been fighting a broad spectrum of Syrian rebels from the beginning and they've been doing their utmost, and I really stress that, everything they can to keep that position shored up. They've done quite effectively in certain parts of the country, less so in others. I don't imagine that the can do much more than they're already doing in Syria.
ITANIThe Saudi King's position, I think he wants to sort of highlight that his isn't an ally of theirs by any means and this is an idea that's gained traction for a number of reasons.
REHMSecretary of State John Kerry spoke a few moments ago, calling for global coalition to fight ISIS and he made that statement early this morning from Estonia on the Sotloff killing saying the killing by the Islamic State was an act of medieval savagery by a coward hiding behind a mask. What do we know for sure about the man wielding the knife, Tom Bowman?
BOWMANWell, he's believed to be a British citizen. I think that's all we have at this point. The British intelligence is trying to figure out who that person is. I don't think there's any sense yet that they know his identity, but clearly they're looking at that, you know. I don't know if Paul has any more on that.
PILLARNo. We can assume that the counterterrorist people in Britain and in the United States are feverishly trying to assemble all the information they can.
REHMDoes it raise even more worries about people going and coming, belonging and then coming back to their home countries?
BOWMANAbsolutely. It's been a huge concern of U.S. policymakers of having United States citizens go over there, fight, and maybe become more radicalized and come back to the United States. We've had people from San Diego now and Florida go over there and fight, both of whom were killed. We had, I believe, a French jihadist kill several people in Paris and now Britain, of course, believes there are hundreds of British citizens fighting over there in Syria. They're very, very worried about it.
PILLARThis is long been a concern, of course, even before we ever heard of ISIS, going back to the fights in Afghanistan and so on, but there are a couple of points I think we need to bear in mind, Diane, to keep this into perspective. One is the overall pattern has been already radicalized individuals seeking out groups rather than the other way around. When we had somebody like Nidal Hasan, the Fort Hood shooter, he was repeatedly trying to make contact with Anwar al-Awlaki, the radical in Yemen, rather than the other way around.
PILLARThe other part of the pattern we ought to bear in mind is that these people go over and then they are grunts, as the military would call them. They are fighting on fields of battle and some of them dying. They are relatively naive people, for the most part, who become cannon fodder. So it's not a matter of any one group first serving as a pied piper and second, serving as an expert trainer of sophisticated operators who can do terrorist operations in the West. That simply has not been the pattern before and I don't think it is with ISIS.
REHMAnd you're listening to "The Diane Rehm Show." Faysal, you wanted to comment.
ITANINo, I absolutely agree with them. And I'd add one more point, which is that, for whatever reason, these gentlemen don't seem very interested in coming back once they're in Iraq or Syria or in the caliphate, as they call it, because they belong to a community of like-minded people. They feel that they're establishing the Muslim community back after hundreds of years of disarray and they feel they're part of a historical project. I imagine some of them couldn't be happier.
REHMTo Carlton, Texas. Hi, Jim, you're on the air.
JIMHi. How are you doing?
JIMThe comment by Secretary of State Kerry brings to mind my major concern, is that the people who are in ISIS do not realize how brutal Americans can be when pushed to it. Have they forgotten what we did to the Indians? I'm afraid this is going to start World War III.
REHMIs anyone else fearing World War III?
BOWMANI wouldn't fear World War III. I do fear and I do see already happening, an emotional response, the idea of, well, Mr. President, you may not have a strategy, but we've got to do something or, Mr. President, I know you don't want to do anything stupid, but let's go ahead and do something stupid anyway because we got to do something and we're angry and we're upset. That's the wrong way to do it.
BOWMANAnd I think President Obama, right now, has the burden, I think that's the right word, the burden of being the cautioner in chief in trying to hold back against this kind of thing. World War III, no, but the prospect for doing some really stupid and damaging things to U.S. interests, yes.
BOWMANIn a long term strategy, as the president has said and others have said, that this is not just about a few air strikes. It's about coming up with a coalition. It's about diplomatic outreach, financial outreach, going after the financial...
REHMI think people are impatient about diplomatic outreach. I think they feel we've waited so long.
BOWMANRight. No, I think you're absolutely right. I mean, the reaction of the American people will be interesting to watch in the coming days and weeks. If they continue to kill more Americans, that feeling of we have to do something is going to get louder, I think.
REHMTom Bowman of NPR, Paul Pillar of Georgetown University, Faysal Itani of The Atlantic Council, thank you all.
REHMAnd I want to let listeners know, I'll be going off as of tomorrow for a voice treatment and we'll keep you informed. I hope to be back with you as soon as possible. Thanks for listening all. I'm Diane Rehm.
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