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Could Syria's Civil War Become A Large Regional Crisis?


This is TALK OF THE NATION. I'm Neal Conan in Washington. In a strange way, Barack Obama and Bashar al-Assad find themselves in the same dilemma today: initiate military action that both would prefer to avoid or look weak, even hypocritical. The American president faces a chorus of criticism after he decided to wait for more proof that Syria's government has crossed his red line on chemical weapons, while Syria's president must now decide whether to respond to Israeli airstrikes on his capital or leave his supporters to wonder why not.

Of course the stakes for Assad are much, much greater. He already faces a civil war that threatens his grip on power and must know that retaliation against Israel would invite a reply on his already hard-pressed forces. On the other hand, if he does nothing, Syria's unyielding anti-Israeli stance would be revealed as empty.

Israel's attacks also change the calculations for all the other players in a conflict that's already left more than 70,000 dead and has displaced millions more. Later in the program on the Opinion Page, an argument that the most important factor in minority unemployment isn't discrimination, it's favoritism.

But we begin with the escalating crisis in Syria. Andrew Tabler is a senior fellow at the Washington Institute for Near East Policy, author of "In the Lion's Den: An Eyewitness Account of Washington's Battle with Syria," and he joins us now via Skype from his office here in Washington, D.C. Good to have you back on the program.

ANDREW TABLER: Thanks very much.

CONAN: And let's start with those airstrikes in Syria. Damascus promises a crushing responses, says this is an act of war, yet they face difficult choices.

TABLER: It's - Bashar al-Assad's in a tough spot right now in that his relative military weakness is being exposed. I mean, the strikes that Israel carried out over the last few days, the last one at Qasioun, on the mountains overlooking Damascus, that's something - that's a hillside that everyone in Damascus looks at every night. It must have been quite a spectacle.

And the Assad regime has said it would respond. It has said similar things in the past, though, to Israelis strikes. Those strikes were not on Damascus, however. It will be very interesting to see what Bashar al-Assad does here in the coming days.

CONAN: Yet the conclusion is this is less about Syria and Syria's civil war than it is about Israel's ongoing battle with Hezbollah and Iran.

TABLER: It is, but it's also a factor of Hezbollah's increasing involvement in the Syrian conflict. A few days, Hezbollah leader Hassan Nasrallah went on television and gave a speech in which he talked about intervening in Syria, Hezbollah activities there, and particularly going forward. So it's harder and harder to draw a line between Hezbollah activities and those of the Assad regime, but it's right in the sense that Israel's are concerned about the Assad regime's behavior vis-à-vis Hezbollah and particularly the transfer of strategic weapons, surface-to-surface weapons, chemical weapons and so on.

CONAN: We should explain the strikes, both of them, were believed to be directed at surface-to-surface missiles, missiles with range to reach from southern Lebanon to almost all of Israel, certainly the most populated parts of Israel, and with greater accuracy than has been available in the old SCUDs that Hezbollah is believed to have now.

TABLER: That's right. They have increased sophistication. They also can carry CW - sorry, chemical weapons payloads. And again this is another area where the current issue concerning the Obama administration laying down a red line with the regime concerning chemical weapons use overlaps with another weapons system.

The Israelis are increasingly worried. This is not - you know, this is something - it's, you know, Israel hitting Syria is not unprecedented, but the kind of strikes we saw the other night certainly are, I believe, certainly under Bashar al-Assad's presidency. And I expect we'll see a lot more of it before this conflict settles down. And I don't see any hope of that, either. So it's going to be a pretty hot summer, I'm afraid.

CONAN: And another aspect of this is that Bashar al-Assad has always said that the rebels, he describes them as terrorists, are actually working on behalf of the United States and Israel. Doesn't this airstrike put the opposition in Syria in a sort of awkward alliance with Israel?

TABLER: Yes, but it's also taking place in a context where you have the Syrian regime trying to shoot the Syrian opposition into submission, over 76,000 killed, I believe, or thereabout. Those are the official numbers. When you start launching SCUD missiles on your largest city, Aleppo, it's hard to know how politically you come back from that.

Bashar al-Assad and his behavior, you know, is very plain for all Syrians to see. So it's true that Syrians are sensitive about Israeli involvement in Syria, but when their own regime is killing them far more than the Israelis are, I think that they probably are looking at their own lives first and that of their families, and that's a very human reaction, I think, to this bloody conflict.

CONAN: Aaron David Miller, he's vice president of new initiatives and distinguished scholar at the Woodrow Wilson Center, also a former Middle East negotiator for the State Department. He's on the line with us from his office here in Washington. Nice to have you back on the program.

AARON DAVID MILLER: Pleasure to be here.

CONAN: And it is a new dilemma that faces President Obama with Israeli intervention, he's had very little to say about it.

MILLER: Well, actually what he has said has been extremely supportive, and I think that's an interesting new feature here. And I think - I'm sure he's told Chuck Hagel and John Kerry both don't reset the reset with Benjamin Netanyahu. You're going to see increasingly close coordination and cooperation between the United States and Israel in the coming months.

This crisis will propel them into that greater cooperation. Iran certainly will. And as we approach the 2014 midterms, that will diminish any enthusiasm for essentially trying to open any daylight between Barack Obama and Benjamin Netanyahu.

I would like to make one broader point. You know, we talk about game-changers, and I think we really, really need to dial that down a few notches. The reality is, you know, we were told that the introduction of CW was a game-changer, chemical weapon, and the media now is beating the drum that these Israeli strikes are a game-changer.

Now the U.N. inspectors have a new quote-unquote game-changer in the fact that the Syrian opposition reports that they in essence have used sarin gas. I think you're dealing with a conflict, and Andrew knows this better than I do, which is going to have a series of outcomes and which, you know, as I look at this lacks the sort of comprehensive solution that will somehow be driven by any single game-changer.

I mean, John Kerry is going to Moscow to talk to Putin. That's been viewed by some as another prospective game-changer. I think Andrew's right, we're in for a long, hot summer, and while I do see the United States as becoming more involved in this, even on the military side, I'm not sure that even the application of the kind of military assets we're prepared to devote for this, to this is going to critically change the arc of the military conflict.

CONAN: Yet you read of increased administration willingness to consider intervention either in terms of sending arms to Syrian rebels or in terms of striking Syria's ability to deliver those weapons by taking out aircraft and missile sites.

MILLER: Sure, and I think we are on a sort of slippery slide here, although Barack Obama, I believe risk-averse, and I would agree with him on this, rather than risk-ready, will carefully calibrate what it is we do. Look, if the United States declared today that the removal of Bashar al-Assad and the devastation of the Syrian military were a core national interest of the United States, then let the United States develop and identify a military strategy designed to do that, including arming the opposition groups with the most sophisticated weaponry, including creating no-fly zones, offensive no-fly zones, along the Turkish-Syrian and Jordanian-Syrian and then bringing to bear in shock-and-awe fashion the kind of air power and cruise missile strike power that we are eminently capable of bringing to bear.

If you want a military strategy that would essentially take this conflict and produce a new outcome, the U.S. could deliver it. It's just I don't want to see America get stuck with the check on this, and this issue of our degree of responsibility will be correlated, frankly, to how intense, how encumbering and how committed our military intervention is.

The more Syria we break, and my former boss Colin Powell is still more right than wrong on this, the more we're going to have to pay for it.

CONAN: Let's bring another voice into the conversation, Rami Khouri, director of the Issam Fares Institute for Public Policy and International Affairs at the American University of Beirut and a columnist for the Beirut-based Daily Star, joins us from his office - from his home in Beirut. Rami, nice to have you back on the program, as well.

RAMI KHOURI: Thank you, glad to be with you and with my two friends.

CONAN: And I wonder: Is there some alarm in Beirut tonight?

KHOURI: Oh there's been alarm in Beirut for a long time, probably three decades or so, because of the problems with Syria. Syria ran this place, ran Lebanon for 25 years or so, and then when it pulled out, there are still huge problems with Syria and Lebanon, partly bilateral and partly because of the rise of Hezbollah, which is part of the Syrian-Iranian lineup with Hezbollah.

So there's always concern in Lebanon about Syria among half the population, and the other half of the population wants to be close allies with Syria. So this is a chronic issue. It's not anything particularly new. What's new is that you've got Israelis bombing Syrians, and you've got Hezbollah sending some troops into Syria and Syria firing some rockets or some artillery into Lebanon and people on the border fighting each other.

So there's an escalation in the confrontations, but there isn't a significantly radical new element, I would say, that is so very different than what we've had in the last 20 or 30 years, other than the fear of Iranian-Israel-Hezbollah confrontation.

CONAN: Is there some concern that Lebanon, though, may be overwhelmed by refugees from Syria?

KHOURI: Oh yes of course. That's taken for granted. Jordan and Lebanon are both really suffering from the strain of the hundreds of thousands. The reported figures are 450. I'm told by some U.N. people that it's much more than that in Lebanon already because they're not all registered.

So you've got huge stresses. But these are kind of logistical stresses more than political ones. The refugees in Lebanon and in Jordan are pretty much kept isolated from the political systems. And they're very different, Jordan and Lebanon are very different political systems.

So yes, the refugees are a problem, and there's an assumption that this is only solvable or at least reduced as a problem with significant regional and international financial aid and logistical aid to deal with this flow. And the likelihood is that the flow is going to increase. There will be hundreds of thousands more, probably.

CONAN: Rami Khouri, Andrew Tabler, Aaron David Miller, stay with us please. After a short break, we'll talk more about how developments in Syria may affect the region and indeed the wider world. I'm Neal Conan. You're listening to TALK OF THE NATION from NPR News.


CONAN: This is TALK OF THE NATION; I'm Neal Conan. President Obama said that if the Assad regime used chemical weapons against rebels and civilians, that would cross a red line. But in an interview with Swiss television over the weekend, United Nations investigator Carla del Ponte said evidence of chemical weapons use points to rebel fighters.

CARLA DEL PONTE: We collect some witness testimony that's made to appear that some chemical weapons were used, in particular (unintelligible) gas. And what was - what appear on - to our investigation that was used by the opponents, by the rebels. And we have no, no indication at all that the government, Syria, the authority of the Syria government have used chemical weapons.

CONAN: Carla del Ponte went on to say that the evidence was not incontrovertible and that the investigation continues. Today the independent International Commission of Inquiry on the Syrian Arab Republic clarified no conclusions have yet been reached as to the use of chemical weapons in Syria on any side. And White House spokesman Jay Carney also responded, expressing a high level of skepticism about the claim.

Our guests are Andrew Tabler of the Washington Institute for Near East Policy, Aaron David Miller of the Woodrow Wilson Center and Rami Khouri, director of the Issam Fares Institute for Public Policy and International Affairs at the American University of Beirut.

Andrew Tabler, the - one question about Carla del Ponte's statements is if these chemical weapons were used by rebel forces, where in the world did they get them?

TABLER: Well, it's a really good question. Also, you know, you can't just take sarin and mix it together and sort of, you know, spray it around out of a coffee can or something. You know, it takes delivery systems, and - but also what is also very strange, the probe into the - the United Nations probe to date only involves the March 19th incident in Aleppo Province.

That team hasn't been able to carry out its investigation inside of Syria, and the scope of that investigation, according to the way it's written, does not allow them to assess blame or to assess who used them. So it sounds like something based off an anecdotal account. I'm sure they'll look into it, but I don't know - I think, you know, the United States government, as well as a lot of other governments, are right to look at the regimes - at the regime here either in a use of chemical weapons or a possible situation where the chemical weapons were fired, and some of the Syrian government soldiers who were affected were caught by - in a friendly fire incident. But we'll have to wait and see what happens with the investigation.

CONAN: And Aaron David Miller, does this change the president's calculation at all?

MILLER: Well, I think it's - in one respect certainly, particularly if we're contemplating military action based on the violation of a so-called red line, which is clearly - and I'm not criticizing the president for this because I'm not sure - I don't know what he could have said in response to statements or questions made with respect to chemical weapons.

I mean, most normal human beings, and obviously he's the president of the United States, would have probably said something along those lines. But if in fact CW is going to be the pretext, justification, you know, reason for being of an American military response, we've got to find out exactly what transpired because what we don't need is another Iraq redux in which the international community calls into question our commitment, our credibility, the consistency of our intelligence and the clarify of the information that we provide.

It is mandatory now, I'm afraid, for those who have been urging quick action, that the Syrians open up the doors and let these U.N. investigators - not much of a chance of that, I might add - try to figure out where - what exactly happened and let the chips fall where they have to.

CONAN: Rami Khouri, in Beirut is the use of chemical weapons considered a red line or a game-changer or something particularly atrocious?

KHOURI: Well, it's certainly considered atrocious. It's a repulsive weapon and clearly against international humanitarian laws and all that. There's a lot of bewilderment across much of the Middle East, as I traveled around in the last couple months talking to people. They keep asking, you know, we all agree that chemical weapons are terrible, and they shouldn't be used, but what about the 70,000 people who were killed with normal, with other conventional weapons and these ethnic cleansing and massacres and butchering people and cutting off their limbs and all these other awful things, torture that have been done.

So there's a kind of moral quandary across the region about why suddenly the chemical weapons become the red line, and the mass killings of tens of thousands do not become red lines. That's an issue that I think the world really needs to talk about. Whether the chemical weapons fears are because they might get into the hands of some of the terrorist groups, the jihadi militant groups, whether it's a threat to Israel or a threat to allies of the U.S. like Jordan, there's - we don't really know.

I think the Americans need to give us a moral explanation, as well as the normal kind of political confusion that we're hearing from Washington, and I think that's something the U.S. needs to pay attention to.

CONAN: Is there much appetite for American intervention in Syria?

KHOURI: It's split. There's a lot of people in the region who definitely want the United States to do something, whether to set up a no-fly zone or to attack some of the military installations of the Syrians and things like that. Others want the U.S. - there's a big demand for the U.S. to give weapons, advanced weapons, particularly anti-aircraft weapons and intelligence, to give that to the rebels without the U.S. itself getting involved.

And I'm also wondering why is the emphasis so much now the U.S. because there's, you know, 180 other countries in the world, many of whom want the Syrian, most of them want the Syrian regime to leave, too. I think it's a bit unfair to put so much emphasis on the U.S. This isn't the U.S.'s war. The U.S. clearly has responsibility for many things in the region, but so do the Russians and so do many other people in Europe.

So I think one has to be a little bit more fair about not just asking what the U.S. is going to do but I think the wider community. And the regional powers, the Saudis, the Turks, the others, they're all playing a role of some sort. The Jordanians and the Turks are already involved, and Saudis, Qataris and others. I don't think we should just ask about the U.S. The U.S. has made a mess of most of the things it's done in the Middle East, especially when it fights wars. So I think the last thing people want is another American-led military adventure.

But as part of a legitimate international operation sanctioned by the Security Council, I think that would be something that a lot of people would like.

CONAN: Getting the support of Russia and China on the Security Council would prove extremely difficult, Aaron David Miller, and it's interesting, you wrote in a piece I think last week that if the United States has chips it wants to spend with Russia and China, it would like to save them for what might be a confrontation over Iran.

MILLER: I can't prove this, but it's always been my sense that the president wanted to avoid military action and pushing the Russians to the brink, and the Chinese, to the extent they matter as much as the Russians do on this issue, in large part because he essentially wanted to preserve as much latitude, leeway and flexibility to try to get the Russians and the Chinese onboard if in fact, if in fact there is no diplomatic settlement to the nuclear issue so that he would have a freer hand and a much better hand.

That is to say he's not going to get the Russians and the Chinese to go along with pressing certainly an American military intervention or action in Syria and Iran. And I can't prove that, there's no indication publicly that that's the case, but he's got so many issues, there are so many headaches in this region. I mean, the Arab spring is going in the wrong direction.

The Israeli-Palestinian conflict shows no signs of getting to a serious and consequential phase. Iran continues to get closer to its capacity to produce at least a nuclear weapons capability. And now, of course, you have Syria at the - and the president who is, I would argue, believes that in the end his legacy is not going to be in foreign policy at all, but on a domestic side, is being (unintelligible) by a public opinion in this country which I would argue rightly believes that America needs to address its own broken house before it starts sailing off into the, you know, great blue beyond in trying to fix everybody else's. So I think he's shown remarkable discipline and restraint here, but he's going to be hammered for it. He's being hammered for it now and when he leaves the office, the presidency, I suspect, will be hammered for it then too.

CONAN: Andrew Tabler, another factor in this calculation, if the administration is considering providing those high-tech weapons, particularly surface-to-air missiles or the man-portable, shoulder-fired missiles that the opposition so dearly wants, it's - the calculation is that even more so than even six months ago, they would likely fall into the hands of radical forces like the al-Nusra front.

TABLER: There's certainly a risk of it, and they have brought an influence. But, you know, a couple of factors. One, you know, those weapons that are being provided, you know, not all these weapons are the same. For example, the one weapon that they really want, an SA7 or, you know, a Strela, for example...

CONAN: That's a Soviet-made missile, yeah.

TABLER: That's right, a shoulder-fired missile. You know, the world is full of those things. They were invented before I was born. They were used in Vietnam. You could buy them in Lebanon for about 6,000 bucks, at least on my last trip. Now, the reason why I'm bringing this up is I think they're going to get them anyway, and I think that there are - there certainly are downside risks to providing them and providing other kinds of anti-tank weapons. They would have to be weighed against the scene that we have in Syria.

And what I see happening is just the country is just melding down, and it's melding down into not just one Syria but three general Syrias in which U.S. terror, you know, designated-terrorist organizations are ascended. You know, the regime area with Hezbollah, the Sunni-Arab area, which is atomized, and we have the Nusra Front, which is an affiliate of al-Qaida Iraq, and we have the Kurdish area in which a part of the PKK, Kurdistan Workers' Party, and this local affiliate are also active.

This combined with the fact that the regime is losing control of or transferring, you know, its chemical weapon stockpile, the largest in the Middle East, and perhaps its missile systems to others, this doesn't look like something that's going to go away anytime soon. And since there isn't a political settlement in sight, I don't know what else to do but I - what I do know is - at the moment is if we keep on doing what we're doing and hoping for a different result, we're not going to get it. Something more assertive is in order, and I think that's the reason why the president is looking at his options right now.

CONAN: But do you foresee any situation in which the fighting would end and one side would emerge triumphant? It doesn't seem like either side - doesn't seem like that's in the cards.

TABLER: No. And that's the reason why - you know, we've been putting the cart before the horse, I'm afraid. We've been putting the - we've been, you know, it's true it would be better if we could get the regime, the opposition, all of its parts to negotiate and come up with a plan to get Assad to step aside and full transfer. That's not going to happen anytime soon, right? The country is instead breaking into parts. Maybe that will happen at the end of this when the contours between the opposition and the regime areas sort of solidify and people feel relatively safe to be able to negotiate.

I don't think we're there yet. So why don't we focus on dealing with keeping people from leaving their homes, keeping people from running away, keeping people relatively safe, and that's where we're looking at enforcing redlines and things like safe zones. And they're, you know, they're expensive, but they'll keep the displaced persons in Syria - about half the population of 22 million - from overwhelming our regional allies and running for, you know, for safety there.

You know, I think these are - this is part of the mix. It's not going to be like Iraq. There are similarities between Syria and Iraq, but I don't see American intervention in Syria like Iraq. I see the situation as very different, and I think we need to look at the current conflict for what it is and think about, you know, creative solutions to come up with things that the United States can live with in the long term in Syria.

CONAN: Andrew Tabler, a senior fellow at the Washington Institute for Near East Policy; also with us, Aaron David Miller, vice president of new initiatives and a distinguished scholar at the Woodrow Wilson Center; and Rami Khouri, director of the Issam Fares Institute for Public Policy and International Affairs at the American University of Beirut. You're listening to TALK OF THE NATION from NPR News.

And, Rami Khouri, I wanted to go back to you on the point that you brought up earlier. This is not just about Syria. It is about Lebanon and Iran, and it's about the larger struggle between the Shias, headed by Iran, and the Sunnis, who are championed, I guess, by Saudi Arabia.

KHOURI: Yeah. And it's about a lot of other things too. It's - this is the biggest proxy war over the last century in the entire world, I think. You've got every single major player in the region - Iran, Turkey, Saudi Arabia, Qatar, Israel, Jordan. All of the players in the Middle East are involved in this directly or indirectly. You've got the two greats - biggest powers, the Russians and the Americans and then the Chinese in a more quiet way. And you have these lingering Cold War - regional Cold War issues of Saudis versus monarchists, conservative monarchists versus nationalist republics.

You've got Iranians versus Arabs, Shiites versus Sunnis. Now, you've got Kurd versus everybody else. I mean, every single possible confrontation of the last half century has now - have now come together in this mother of all proxy wars, and it's not going to be resolved easily. I don't think Andrew's scenarios - I wish it were true. I don't think it's going to happen where there will be stabilization, where they'll eventually agree on how to resolve this through a negotiated transition to a new government.

This is - proxy wars end usually by one side beating up the other, as happened in Vietnam and other places. So I think this is an existential battle. The Iranians and Hezbollah has a lot to lose if Syria falls. They're going to put everything they can into this. The Saudis and others on the other side, the Turks, they're all doing what they can. The Israelis are now getting involved. So this is a bunch of gladiators now, and some of them are going to win, and some of them are going to die.

There's not going to be a negotiated settlement. There's not going to be a - this isn't going to go on for a long time, I don't think. But it's - this is a war that will result in one side completely defeating the other. It's also the - this is the last Stalinist state almost in the whole world, and the West wants to smash this Stalinist state. So you've got every conceivable proxy war going on here at the same time, which is what makes it so difficult. And there's no easy solution.

I wish some of us could come up with easy ideas, but I think it has to - if the West and the Arabs and the Turks and others are serious about wanting to get rid of the Assad regime, then they should put their weapons where their mouth is and give weapons to the opposition in Syria. And it's because they didn't do that early enough that the Islamist militant terrorist groups, al-Nusra and others, grew. These guys weren't a factor a year and a half ago, but they are now a major factor. So I think it's going to - it's - a lot more people are going to get killed. It's going to get ugly, but this is - we're reaching the moment of reckoning in the greatest proxy war of our century.

CONAN: Rami Khouri, thanks very much for your time as always.

KHOURI: Thanks for having me.

CONAN: Rami Khouri, in addition to his other job at the American University, is a columnist with the Beirut-based Daily Star. Our thanks as well to Aaron David Miller. Thanks again.

MILLER: Appreciate it, Neal.

CONAN: Aaron David Miller of the Woodrow Wilson Center, former Middle East negotiator for the State Department. Andrew Tabler of the Washington Institute for Near East Policy, thanks to you as well.

TABLER: Thank you very much.

CONAN: Up next on the Opinion Page, favoritism and social networks. Nancy DiTomaso joins us to argue that social networks drive black unemployment. She's not talking about Facebook. She's talking about friends and family. Stay with us. I'm Neal Conan. It's the TALK OF THE NATION from NPR News. Transcript provided by NPR, Copyright NPR.

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