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Foreign Affairs/Syria Deeply Media Call on Syria

Speakers: Richard W. Murphy, Former U.S. Ambassador to Syria, U.S. Department of State, Richard K. Betts, Adjunct Senior Fellow for The Foreign Relations, Michael Weiss, Columnist, NOW Lebanon, and Gideon Rose, Editor, Peter G. Peterson Chair, Foreign Affairs Magazine
September 19, 2013
Council on Foreign Relations




OPERATOR: Excuse me, everyone. We now have all speakers in conference. Please be aware that each of your lines is in a listen-only mode. At the conclusion of today's presentation, we will open the floor for questions. At that time, instructions will be given as to procedure to follow if you would like to ask a question.

I would now like to turn the conference over to Mr. Rose. Mr. Rose, you may begin.

ROSE: Hi, everybody; Gideon Rose here, the editor of Foreign Affairs.

Welcome to our conference call on Syria Today. We have a truly interesting subject and a truly great group of people. Let me start by saying by this call is being held in conjunction with Syria Deeply, a -- a great site that is -- is really worth checking out and -- and following the crisis on.

Our participants today are a -- a great group of people from diverse backgrounds and perspectives; Richard Murphy, former high-ranking American Diplomat, Assistant Secretary of State for the Near East, diplomat with long-standing ties to the region and experience it.

Dick Betts, one of the mockers (ph) of international relations, a big shot professor at Columbia, and Michael Weiss, a columnist at NOW Lebanon and editor of the Interpreter. All of them for written for us on Syria over the years and -- with regard to recent crises and it's a great group, so let me get right to it.

Let me start by addressing a simple question, because the last few weeks have been pretty darn confusion. What do you consider American policy towards Syria and the Syria crisis now and how did we get here? In other words, is the last month a cunning plan that has essentially delivered results for a consistent policy? And if so, what is that? Or has it been a -- an amateurish series of -- of stumbles and mistakes that have allowed to escape a catastrophe, only though dumb luck?

Who wants to kick it off?

MURPHY: Well, Dick Murphy; I might start by saying I -- I gather that the discussions between Washington and Moscow have been going on, off and on for a year on the chemical weapons issue, as regards Syria, so it wasn't quite the rush and the spontaneity that it appeared to be when they reached that agreement last Saturday.

ROSE: And do you...

BETTS: This is...

ROSE: Dick Betts; OK.

BETTS: This is Dick Betts. I think, too, part of it is domestic politics in that the United States backed into the series of problems we've had in the last couple weeks, half by accident, because the President spoke frankly, rather than in normal, elliptical and squishy political terms and got into that box of deadline and all it implied. And then the Kerry exchange that led to the -- bringing up the possibility of negotiating a way the chemical weapons was almost fortuitous.

WEISS: Michael Weiss.

ROSE: Yeah, Michael.

WEISS: I think that you have to go back to the initial sort of crisis, or the uprising, which was in 2011. I mean we've reached a stage now where it seems that U.S. policy is almost fetishistically (ph) focused on disarmament of the chemical stockpiles, at the expense of any kind of broader solution to the war and the conflict in general.

I think the missteps early on were that U.S. policy thought that Assad could be persuaded from power or could adopt some kind of reform packet or some kind of transitional model, akin to that of, say Egypt or Yemen. And there was -- there was way too much focus, and -- and I think even despite all the countervailing evidence that that model simply would not work with respect to Syria; that policy was pushed well past its breaking point.

And I think now, we're kind of in an improvisational mode. Let's see what we can get and from whom we can get it. But again, I see nothing here that's going to address sort of the bigger issues, which I'm sure on the -- in the course of this call, we can get into. I won't, you know, spell them out now, but.

ROSE: Well that's actually -- let me -- let me follow up on that for a second with -- with you guys.

Is the best way or the most logical way to interpret what's happened over the last week as being that the United States has gotten progress on the chemical weapons front in return for backing off any kind of intention or desire to affect the outcome of the underlying civil war?

WEISS: Well I think that's the effect, if there wasn't any master plan that led to it, because part of the problem, since the American leaning against Assad so long ago, is that we've come to see the alternative to Assad is dubious, yet we're -- we're stuck still demanding Assad's ouster. So that bind of not being able to support either the incumbent regime or the probable replacement is now on the back burner, at least as far as public attention goes, because of the chemical weapons issue.

BETTS: But it could lead to -- and I say could; could lead to a much broader focus on getting to Geneva 2, moving on the issue of political transition. That seemed to be totally frozen.

ROSE: Do you actually think that's going to happen? Do you think this agreement, Dick, is going to move forward? I know, Michael, you were very skeptical about this and think it's going to explode. What do you guys think is going to happen now?

WEISS: You mean about the chemical weapons neutralization.

ROSE: Oh, the general partnership; the general partnership.

BETTS: Well, look, I mean (inaudible)...

WEISS: In the United States (inaudible)...

BETTS: If we read the signs from even, you know, the hours following the announcement of this U.S.-Russian deal, they're not good. The latest is that, well, the original one-week deadline for Assad to declare all of his chemical stockpiles, the locations, all the intelligence on where this stuff is throughout the country; well now that deadline has expired and the U.S. said well, in fact, it was never really a hard and fast deadline.

Yes, it was, if you listened to the Secretary of State when he announced it. So I see -- I mean, you know, my background is -- is I do two -- two things; Russia and Syria. And I see this as a very clever, masterfully played out gambit by Putin to essentially sort of delay and obfuscate and -- obfuscate and drag the conflict along long enough that he hopes that Assad can at least win back some of the territory that is most strategically vital to the regime.

I don't think that anybody has any illusions that Assad can win the war at large, but certainly -- I mean and if you look at what the chemical attack was -- was geared to do; flush out the rebel stronghold in Ghouta and in sort of the eastern suburbs of Damascus, which the regime simply cannot allow to have you know sort of a hotbed of anti-regime armed resistance so close to the lion's den.

I think that's what the Russians and Damascus are -- are -- are acting on. More time equals a better chance to expel these guys from that sort of crucial corridor that leads from the capital to the coast.

ROSE: Dick Murphy; you're -- you're the experienced diplomat here. Are you quite that cynical?

MURPHY: No, not -- not that cynical. But I think Putin does intend to continue political support and arms supply to Bashar. But you know, this -- the use of the gas in that quantity, with that destructiveness has to give even Putin some pause. It's not a great -- it's -- it's left -- Bashar is not the most attractive leader to continue to defend, though I think in the immediate, he -- the Russians will continue.

I think there's more question now about the Iranian attitude, which we'll -- we'll see how that plays.

BETTS: Well the Russian interest -- yes, the Russian interest in supporting Assad shouldn't be confused with any interest in helping to -- Assad to subvert the agreement. I -- I would imagine the Russians would like Assad to stay in power, but would like for him to get rid of his chemical weapons too.

The problem is whether the agreement will unravel quickly and -- and soon be revealed as a transparent ploy by Assad to buy time or will go forward in a stumbling way that's rough and dirty, but that plausibly is moving towards the neutralization of the chemical weapons. It's an agreement that really can't be verified in the strict sense, but if remote verifiability seems plausible, it'll fulfill the political function of keeping the -- the ball in the diplomatic court.

ROSE: Who is driving this right now? Obama? Putin? Assad? Nobody; everybody?

(UNKNOWN): Sorry, (inaudible), could you repeat (ph)...

BETTS: Well, they're all fighting for the steering wheel.

MURPHY: You know, they're all trying to put a hand on the wheel. I think the weakest is -- is Assad.

WEISS: Yeah, I would say that in the last week, it -- it's certainly been more Assad and Putin than anyone else. I -- I think, you know, they -- they sort of plucked themselves out of the soup. So did Obama, for that matter, and I think he got a helping hand from the Russians in this regard, but you know, if you look at Assad's media appearances lately, if you -- obviously, that -- that New York Times Op-Ed that everyone was talking about that Putin had written, there's a sense of triumphalism.

I don't think it's false. I don't think that they think that they've been had or that they're, you know, on borrowed time. I think that they -- they -- they do believe they have the momentum on their side. And again, just to come back to the earlier question, the Russian position is still that the rebels used chemical weapons.

They have doubled down on this assertion, in spite of mounting, almost, you know, irrefutable evidence now, even from the U.N. suggesting otherwise. So my question is, if the Russians are going to be credible partners at de-proliferation or decommissioning of chemical stockpiles, how do they propose to do that if they think the opposition is not running around with sarin gas?

That's another cause for great concern and alarm; at least from my perspective.

ROSE: Dick Betts, how would you describe or analyze the President's interactions with Congress on this issue? You've been a fan of non-imperial behavior by Presidents. Were you pleased that he went to Congress or do you think this whole episode shows why you shouldn't go to Congress?

BETTS: Well, it was a lose/lose situation in any of the -- the possible outcomes a week or so ago, before this diplomatic alternative seemed to raise its head. Obama's problem was he got out on a limb that he hadn't anticipated and going to Congress was a way to try to get more people into the hole with him that he'd dug. And ironically, what the negotiation over the chemical arms has done is to fend off the -- the moment of reckoning over whether Congress was going to repudiate him.

I don't know that it has any general lessons for whether Presidents should go to Congress or not, but at least one of them might be that if you're going to do it, which I happen to think is -- is normally a good idea, it -- it ought to be done early and on conditions where the outcome is -- is more likely to be calculable than it was in this case.

ROSE: Dick Murphy, you were ambassador in the region when the -- when Papa Assad massacred tens of thousands of people at Hama and Assistant Secretary of State right after, without the United States saying a peep.

As you look at American involvement in the region and the kinds of things that drive American policy, are you surprised at how much has changed in the intervening decades, when, in effect, the Syrian repression doesn't cause Washington to bat an eye in one decade and then it becomes a potential casus belli in another?

MURPHY: Yeah, well, our focus in the '70s, after the 1973 war, was on trying to get Syria into the peace process and Kissinger worked hard and successfully in getting that initial disengagement agreement and the -- the Syrians thought that that whole process would continue. I worked with Hafez in that period, '74, '78, and he -- he was very hopeful that he'd be getting all of his land back though American intercession.

Now, '82 hit with Hama. There was no American reaction as far as I recall and I certainly, when I went back repeatedly to Damascus on peace process issues in the '80s, it was never a subject of discussion between myself or the embassy of that period and the Syrian authorities.

We were -- we were not concerned. And then -- well, I guess the Arab Spring, as much as anything, following on the efforts that George W. Bush made to democratize the area and the -- the things that were stirred up, beginning in Iraq.

ROSE: Dick Betts, the credibility concerns about we have to act in Syria, because if we don't, Iran might take heart or we (ph) could (ph) know -- buy our promises or threats elsewhere. How much does one case actually affect another? You're an I.R scholar; is there any good, scholarly evidence for believing that if Obama had simply said, you know what? Oops; I made a mistake on my red line and I shouldn't have said that and I'm going to walk away from it. Would that have any effect on anything else?

BETTS: Well, the record's murky and complicated, but to a surprising degree, some research has indicated that concern for credibility often isn't borne out; that subsequent confrontations are more determined by assessments of interest at the time than by past performance. But still, in this case, in one sense, how -- whether or not it's crucially important, it wouldn't be a good thing for countries we're worried about in future crises to see the United States backing down from a threat.

So the problem's further complicated by what's going on in Tehran right now, in the sense that we are simultaneously concerned about maintaining credible deterrents with Iran at the same time that we seem to have an opening -- uncertain and vague, perhaps, but an opening with a new government in Tehran which might require moving in the other, more accommodating direction.

So credibility's all tangled up with other political currents and potential opportunities in a way that probably, on balance, reduce the salience of how tough we have to seem to be in this particular instance.

ROSE: Well let me do a follow-up on that with regard to the domestic front.

As other countries look at what happened in the U.S. over the last few weeks and did they appreciate what everybody here certainly did, which is that Obama was just about to lose a Congressional vote, like hammering (ph) him in an incredibly humiliating way? Or did they just assume that he ultimately would get it somehow; get what he wanted?

And does -- does the dissension between the President and the public at large and their representatives in Congress affect the ability of the President to make threats and promises credibly in the international sphere going forward?

BETTS: Well I'd imagine that varies a lot, depending on the country and the audience. I don't -- I think it would be reckless to generalize about how much the internal dynamics of our political process, which is pretty confusing, are appreciated abroad. But the -- the buzz around the United States is that Obama has shown weakness, but I think it's an open question how his image will look generally, abroad, depending on how the diplomatic initiatives pan out.

If through some semi-miracle, the neutralization of chemical weapons seems to work then I think he's going to look a lot better to most people who don't have a partisan axe to grind.

(UNKNOWN): And so (inaudible)

WEISS: I think what's actually very interesting from -- from watching this sort of -- these developments, the Russian position is -- and I think the New York Times or some newspaper reported this; Putin was actually amazed that Congress would actually undermine the President of the United States. I mean he thinks Congress works like the Duma.

You know, the -- the -- the leader says X and the parliament just does it, which is a lesson you'd think he might have learned from the Magnitsky Act and how, you know, the White House had one position and Congress went the other way.

But no, I do think that it does undermine the -- the credibility of the U.S. It certainly has a -- a -- has a deterrent power. If the President is going to consult with a Congress that is deeply and ideologically divided and -- and a -- a populous that's grown more -- I mean, I don't know what the preferable word here is; isolationist or war weary or whatever. Then, you know, when there is a military conflict or when there is a need to use force, he just has to take a plebiscite and if the plebiscite goes one way then -- then -- then the U.S. has to go that way.

I think -- I think that does bode ill for these stature with which the U.S. and -- and if a credible deterrent will be seen by some of our enemies. I mean I know the South Koreans are very upset by this, because they think that this is somehow emboldened -- emboldened Pyongyang. It remains to be seen. I mean it remains to be seen if any kind of diplomatic deal will be done with the Iranians.

But I think, look; the real issue to me is forget about what this means for future confrontations or future geopolitical issues. The real issue (inaudible) for Syrian. This is not a containable crisis. This is a crisis that has bled out into every neighboring country. I mean you saw, just the week, Turkey shot down a Syrian helicopter.

Every -- every trip I've been to Turkey, I see more and more evidence of just how badly this stuff has bled over, to the Turkish side of the border. Now you have Al Qaida overrunning a border crossing on the doorstep of a NATO ally. I mean this is just the latest development within the last 24 hours, so again (inaudible)...

ROSE: OK, so, Michael, let me...

WEISS: Yes, go ahead.

ROSE: Let me press you on that, before we throw it open to the participants; let me press you on that. OK, so these things have been happening if we don't get involved. Why would things look any different if we did get involved, except that we'd be in the middle of it?

Isn't this an example of sort of, you know, what offshore balancing should be, which is you let the literal countries fight things out on their own turf why you stand back and provide the sort of general collective goods of security and safety for -- for larger issues? Why -- what exactly does the U.S. get from getting involved in Syria, more deeply than it has been?

WEISS: Well, I mean I think the -- the -- the first answer to that question is we've seen what happens when the U.S. does not get more deeply involved. WMD get used. The country has become a haven and a gathering point for transnational, global jihadist organizations, which are, the last time I checked, still the number 1 international threat to the United States and -- and our national security.

To my mind, look; this is becoming more and more difficult, if not quite impossible. And a lot of -- a lot of times it's been, I would say squandered here, where we could have gone in. We could have strengthened and empowered a -- I don't like to use the word secular opposition with respect to Syria, because I think it's a very fraught term, but certainly a more palatable and -- and pro-western opposition than what we've seen now.

All of that to one side, Gideon, I -- look, you know, the Supreme Military Command led by Salim Idriss is -- is very much a kind of political -- an aid clearinghouse, more than any kind of cohesive or co -- you know, military organization.

That said, and I mean I just read in the Times of London yesterday; CIA, U.S. official assessments of their capability are such that they think they're actually improving. The running of humanitarian aid, the MREs that have been delivered into Syria; the -- the -- the way that it worked was let's give the non-lethal stuff to these guys, almost like injecting a radioactive isotope into the body, and see where it lines up; what the -- what the -- the supply chain looks like. And they've been impressed; they, meaning Washington.

So it's not quite true that there are no actors on the ground here that can partner with us and that we can rely on or put any faith and confidence in. And again, look; I mean what are our national interests? I mean this is the President's own sort of litmus test for foreign affairs. What's our national interest?

Is it to see a -- a state that borders Iraq, Turkey, Israel, Lebanon and Jordan become a safe haven for Al Qaida and become sort of a rampant playground for every kind of warlord, international gangster and WMD seeking terrorist organization? Or is it to try and -- and resolve this crisis, you know, such that the good guys win out over the bad guys?

Now, again, I'm not saying that it's going to be -- see, I'm not saying it can even really be done at this point. But so far, our -- our current approach, our current strategy has failed. And I -- I haven't heard anyone on this call actually put much confidence in this disarmament plan actually working. The question is when it will implode; not if.

So then my question is well, what then? What's the next step?

ROSE: OK, with that, let's -- so the next step here; let's turn it over to some ongoing discussion with our audience. Operator, why don't you get things going so we can hear from some of the spectacular crowd we got on the call?

OPERATOR: Yes, thank you. At this time, we open the floor for questions. If you'd like to ask a question, please press the star key followed by the 1 key on your touchtone phone now. Questions will be taken in the order which they are received. If at any time you would like to remove yourself from the questioning queue, press star 2. Please limit your questions to one at a time.

Again, to ask a question, press star 1.

Our first question comes from Ashish Sen with Washington Times.

QUESTION: Hello. Thank you for doing this call. I wanted to ask you a little bit about a growing rift between the radical and relatively moderate elements in the opposition. And the rift, as one of you -- one of the speakers mentioned the -- the incident in Azaz, the town near the Turkish border yesterday.

What is the significance of this apparently growing clout of the Islamist; the more extremist screen (ph) in the opposition? Thank you.

WEISS: Well, if you don't mind, I'll take that question because I just got back from the Turkish border, including the Bab al-Hawa border crossing, which was car-bombed a few days ago. And I've been following this story very closely and including talking with the people close to the Liwah al-Tawhid Brigade, which has sent reinforcements to Hazaz to try and, in the short term, negotiate a truce, but in the long term, prepare for war with the Islamic state of Iraq and Al Sham, which is the ousted (ph) largest (ph) Al Qaeda franchise in Syria.

Basically, what's happening now is that Liwah al-Tawhid is sort of divided between two modes of though. One is let's construct a cease fire, because we cannot afford to turn our weapons ageists the Jihadis. The other is now is the perfect opportunity to turn our weapons against the Jihadis, because in the last few weeks in particular, the civilian populations that have been essentially governed by Al Qaeda have turned against them in a major way.

Al Qaeda kept (ph) doing all of the things it used to do in Iraq; it didn't take them very long to just kind of, you know, put aside their -- their sort of moderation or their, you know, stasis of sharia law. They've executed children. There have been reports that they're raping young boys; all the kind of stuff we saw from the Zarqawists are being replicated in the east and the north.

So now, the -- the moderate, or I would call them the pragmatic rebel group think that they might have actually struck an opportunity. And in the next few hours -- in the next day or so, I think what's going to happen is there will be an escalation in Azaz. I'm hearing that any kind of negotiations are -- are foundering at this point.

And this will be, not only an opportunity for the moderate to demonstrate their bona fides, if you like, but also for the west to decide, you know, are these the guys that we want to help and are they the ones we want to arm? I mean if there is lamis (ph) -- if there is lamis (ph) willing to turn their guns against Al Qaeda, perhaps they can be a short-term ally.

ROSE: OK. Let's go to another question.

OPERATOR: Thank you. Our next question comes from Hadon Khalil (ph) with Hess Corporation.

QUESTION: Can I be heard? Hello?

ROSE: Yes.

QUESTION: Oh, sorry. Yes, it's Kaldian Khalil (ph) with Hess.

This question's for Dr. Betts. Does it say anything about the Syrian regime's ability to overcome the rebels that it's openly negotiating strategic weapons, seemingly just to buy breathing room in the short term?

BETTS: Well, Assad probably figures that, all things considered, he's better off playing for time, getting international support indirectly, and keeping American military forces off his back by promising to get rid of the weapons. Whether he ultimately sees it in his interest to follow through on that for the same reasons or to renege; I -- I could see -- I could see him going either way, depending on different sets of calculations.

But I don't think it's a clear choice for him about whether to go forward with negotiations and sacrifice other strategic objectives or not, given -- given the bind that he's in.

MURPHY: But he doesn't need the chemical weapons. He's -- he's got a kill ration of 100-to-1 using non-chemicals.

BETTS: And he can go a long way towards appearing to fulfill the commitment to get rid of chemical weapons while still keeping a whole bunch of them in reserve in case things go bad and some situation in the future he things he needs them. There's, I doubt, any plausible way to truly verify that, in the end, they will have given them all up and secured them elsewhere, so he might be able to have it both ways.

OPERATOR: Thank you. Our next question comes from Jenny Nguyen with Voice of Vietnamese Americans.

QUESTION: Thank you. You know today, right now, Secretary Kerry is meeting with the Chinese Foreign Minister, Wang Yi. What do you think we can actually, between China, Russia and U.S. in resolving or making better advancement in the situation with Syria and Iran and (inaudible)?

ROSE: So China's role in the region; who wants to tackle that?

MURPHY: Well China's role has been minor in the region to date; supportive of the Russian position, but outside (ph) they should not intervene to dictate leadership of other countries. But it's pretty...

QUESTION: But right (ph)...

MURPHY: ... limited to that.

WEISS: To my mind, you know, China's role with respect to Syria was best encapsulated when there were reports that rebel groups had been brandishing Chinese rifles and this led, on the front page of Chinese state-controlled newspapers as a sort boasts; our weapons are going to both the regime and the opposition.

I mean I see it as more, you know, it's a -- it's a hands-off approach in terms of, you know, geopolitics, although the -- you know, we will back the Russian position because we're against intervention at large, but at the end of the day, it's still transactional. They were proud when the rebels were using their weapons. I mean, you know they've made a lot of money from this regime. They've been selling, I now sniper rifles and such, for many years to the Syrian army.

But again, I don't -- I don't see China as the main stumbling block here. I think it's -- it's most certainly Russia; at least within the -- you know, the U.N. Security Council.

MURPHY: I agree.

BETTS: Um-hmm.

QUESTION: Economically, though, China is also supporting Syria and Iran, so it can have a very strong voice.

MURPHY: They haven't used that voice if they have it.

ROSE: Next question?

OPERATOR: Thank you. Our next question comes from Evelyn Leopold with Independent U.N. Journalists.

QUESTION: Yeah, chemical weapons; what do you think of Foreign Minister Lavrov's statement that the (inaudible) in the Damascus tragedy, which the U.N. report certainly doesn't point to? Is it hurting (ph) the wars (ph) or do you see any evidence of this?

WEISS: No. And if looked deeply into, at least with what is available in the public domain in terms of Russian evidence to suggest that any actor other than the regime used chemical weapons. They seem to reply quite heavily on the testimony of Mother Agnes, a Carmelite nun who is effectively a pro-Assad agent. She also blamed the Houla massacre on the rebels.

And the (inaudible) notes she was nowhere near Ghouta or was not an eyewitness to any chemical attack, so where she's getting her information, you're free to guess. And also some very murky online news -- or quote, unquote, news sources that I do not put any credence or -- or -- or, you know, credibility in whatsoever.

So it's bizarre to me that the Russians are still digging in on this line (ph) that -- that it wasn't the regime, because again, the U.N. report; they put a lot of stock in waiting for that report to come back and now they're coming out and saying well, it was prejudiced and it was -- their methodology is -- is all wrong. But again, there's no credible alternative information.

QUESTION: Yes, I agree.

MURPHY: But the goal is to keep us and British and the French getting wording into a resolution endorsing if Syria is noncompliant.

WEISS: Right.

I mean, the framework agreement stipulates that this would be conducted a Chapter 7 resolution, which technically could -- could authorize the use of force in the result of noncompliance, but there's a kind of winking agreement between the United States and Russia that should the regime be found to not comply with this agreement, we're talking about other punitive measures; probably sanctions, if that. No force.

MURPHY: And this position also helps lay the groundwork for a veto; justifying it if -- if it comes to that.

WEISS: Exactly.

ROSE: Next question.

OPERATOR: Thank you. Our next question comes from Victoria Kupchinetsky with Voice of American Russian Service.

QUESTION: Yes, hello. Thank you so much for taking my call. I would like to ask the distinguished experts to talk a little bit about the role of Israel in this whole situation. We know that straight from the Geneva -- Geneva from meeting with Minister Lavrov, Secretary Kerry flew to Jerusalem.

And Israel seemed to be -- if I can use this word, pushing for the military intervention on the U.S. part and now they seem to be disappointed that this military intervention is not happening as of yet. Why do you think Israel believes that military -- U.S. military intervention is in its interests?

BETTS: Well, this is related to Israel's conflict with Iran and they naturally have an interest in showing that American deterrent threats against Iran are credible, so they probably, more than anybody opposing Syria, has -- has an interest in avoiding a situation that looks like Syrian victory in staring down superpower threats.

But the Israelis are in a bind in that they have to be careful to not be seen as the driving force behind American intervention, because that's not only bad for them in the region, but it could undercut the position they normally hold of substantial influence in Washington.

MURPHY: And they still...

WEISS: On that point, I would say the administration didn't do the Israelis any favor by trying (inaudible) PAC into supporting the congressional authorization to go to war.

I think another point, though, is this isn't just a kind of long-term deterrent issue for the Israelis with respect to Iran. Israel sees Syria as not being run -- the security portfolio not being run by the Assad regime any longer. It sees it being run by the Iranian Revolutionary Guard Corps, which are training up quite a number of statarian (ph) militias to effectively inherit the responsibility (ph) once held by the Syrian Arab Army, which is now being killed and -- and a lot of them have deserted and defected and is not the fighting force it was in -- in 2011.

But I -- I quite agree; they have to be careful. And you know, the Israeli security establishment isn't really of one mind on this issue. Some people tend to think well, if Al Qaeda and Hezbollah are killing each other then that's good for us. I mean why should we get involved? What -- what need do we have for military intervention?

But I think the threat of chemical weapons, particularly falling into the hands of some of these actors, especially Hezbollah, deeply, deeply terrifies Israel.

MURPHY: Also, Israel recognizes that the President has delivered what the U.S. public wants, which was no military strike and general support for this U.S.-Russian cooperation agreement on chemical warfare.

QUESTION: May I just ask something; ask a follow-up question. There is an opinion and, definitely, it's the opinion of the Russian side in this conflict that the -- for example, the -- the change of regime in Syria will destabilize the region even further. So I'm just curious how -- how -- how this could be beneficial to Israel; the further destabilization of -- of -- of its neighbor.

BETTS: Well how destabilizing it is or isn't depends on exactly what would replace Assad and that's very murky.


BETTS: Certainly, if it were the opposition that we favor, the odds might look better than if it's the opposition that seems to be most potent on the battlefield at present.

WEISS: Yes, and again, I mean it -- you know, the -- the test for the Syrian opposition I would argue is -- is -- is happening now and will happen in the -- the weeks and months to come, which is, you know, as Al Qaeda sort of throws their weight around and as they show their true selves on -- on -- not just on the battlefield, but particularly in -- in the realm of civil society and de factor administrative -- administrative governance, will these larger moderate brigades take the on?

And if they do then I think -- then this will be, you know, a sort of advertisement, not just to the west, but also to the Israelis that, you know, we might not like these guys ideologically; they might not be friends, but they -- they perhaps could be allies.

And again, it depends on which -- which faction on the ground you're talking about and, you know, even among (inaudible) groups fighting the regime, you know, the definition of whether or not they are nationalists or trans-nationalists is very important here. Do they want to see the fight extend beyond Syria's borders or do they want to fight the regime?

Now obviously Al Qaeda is looking to establish a (inaudible), which, you know, not just the Israelis, but the Turks and the Jordanians and the Iraqis do not look favorably upon. So you know, it is very complicated; I agree. But again, I don't see it becoming less complicated as time goes on, but only more complicated.

QUESTION: Thank you.

WEISS: Sure.

OPERATOR: Thank you. Our next question comes from Margaret Talev with Bloomberg News.

QUESTION: Thanks for doing the call. And before I ask my question, I just to preface it by saying I had to step away for a second for a work thing, so if you already answered it, just tell me. I'll pull it out of the transcript; I'm sorry.

Next week of course is the UNGA and I wanted to ask you how much you think that Syria will shape the landscape and the tenor of all of that? Do you think that the President's handling of the situation so far has sort of weakened him internationally or maybe that's the wrong question? And do you think Syria, in fact, will be the dominant issue at UNGA or do you think it will be Iran or something else?


MURPHY: I can't see it dominating the whole session of the G.A. up through December. Let's -- let's see what happens in these first steps to get international inspectors into Syrian, get that inventory done. I think that the G.A. will have a number of -- of other issues to deal with than Syria. And I -- I honestly don't think that America has suddenly appeared as a weak state.

QUESTION: Tell me how -- how you mean, Ambassador.

MURPHY: Well, I mean there's -- there's these accusations or allegations that we acted in a confused, weak manner and we now will have less credibility as a state. I think -- I think we've got plenty of credibility as -- as a power in the world and as a -- as a (sic) ability to influence developments. I'm not worried about that.

This -- it's been a very peculiar chapter; I'll (inaudible) that.


WEISS: Yeah, I think that, you know, the United States is not going to become the paper tiger overnight and I think that would be certainly to (inaudible). What -- what concerns me more is, you know, the allies we may have alienated at the expense of cutting deals with, if not outright enemies, then let us say rivals.

Reuters had an excellent piece of reportage on the sort of rise and fall of Obama's war plan, in which it -- it suggested that France, in particular, which has been quite hawkish on Syria, feels as though it's been left out, twisting in the wind.


WEISS: And all in order to allow the U.S. to cobble together a deal with the Kremlin that nobody things is going to work.

Also, I mean I can tell you from my own experience in the region, Gulf Arab States, and Turkey in particular -- or Turkey, in addition to which (ph), I should say, are -- perplexed would be putting it mildly; deeply, deeply exasperated, I think, with the way the U.S. has handled this.

Now, that being said, Turkey is not going to go to war with Syria unilaterally. Saudi Arabia is not going to go to war with Syria unilaterally and Saudi Arabia won't even arm people unless it gets a by-your-leave from the CIA. And I've -- I've interviewed countless Syrians; people working in the opposition who tell me, you know, it's like spigot. They turn it on, they turn it off, and it's because the Americans apply (ph) pressure.

So, you know, there -- there are certain, you know, constraints here that just -- you know, is (ph) the U.S.' stature and position in the world. But again, you know, when it comes to can we trust Washington to help us out; I don't know what the long-term effects of this have been.

QUESTION: Thank you.


` OPERATOR: Thank you. Our next question comes from Rula Jebreal with MSNBC.

QUESTION: It's related to our allies in this adventure in Syria, and especially the Saudis and the Qataris. Obviously their endgame for them is not to have a democratic, multi-sectarian, inclusive state, but to have more Islamic and they're looking for Sunni supremacy; it's clear.

Are -- is the Obama administration any -- in any way concerned about that? And is that affecting -- are they talking about it with -- with the Qataris and the Saudis? And on the ground, I mean obviously the weapons are going to the more Islamist part of the opposition.

WEISS: Well, I think, you know, the premise of the question needs restating, if I might. I -- you know Saudi Arabian Qatar are by no means allied on what needs to be done in Syria. And in fact this has been one of the -- the most ferocious geopolitical rivalries, if you can even call it that. I mean, Saudi Arabia looks at Qatar the way that a New York Yankees fan might look at a Red Sox fan. Maybe the Ambassador can appreciate that more than anybody.

You know, the Saudis are...

QUESTION: Yes, but in Syria, they are financing the same group, more or less.

WEISS: No, they're not financing the same...

QUESTION: Yeah, Turkey and...

WEISS: Qatar is financing mostly Muslim Brotherhood-aligned groups. Saudi Arabia is financing mostly -- or arming mostly SMC-aligned groups. Saudi Arabia prefers to deal with defectors. It's true it deals also with some Islamist groups; Liwah al-Tawhid, the Farouq Brigades are being -- are getting most of their stuff from Qatar.

But I mean, you know, they are -- they do not see eye-to-eye on which sort of ideology should be ascendant (ph) in Syria. In terms of Sunni...

QUESTION: And (ph) I agree that they are not financing Islamists or -- they are financing Islamists; not secular.

WEISS: Right. But again, Islamists is a -- is a grab-all term and there are varying shades of Islamism and it depends. You know, the Muslim Brotherhood is different from some of the independent Islamist brigades and they're quite hostile to them, in fact, on the ground.

But look, I would say this. The United states spent quite a great deal of time, if you recall, in the first two years of this conflict, putting an emphasis on minority rights, in particular the Alawis (ph), what will happen to them. They are, you know, a minority governing a majority and these things don't tend to end will.

So absolutely, the U.S. is concerned about this. But so far -- I mean, according to John Kerry and his -- his congressional testimony, he sees that at least the Syrian opposition coalition that has been recognized by the west and -- and the regional powers has made, you know, good faith efforts to try and expand its ranks. They're reaching out to the Kurds, or at least the non-PKK-aligned Kurds. They're, you know, reaching out to Alawites on the ground and so on and so forth.

But I mean, I agree with you that it's a grim prognosis. I don't think -- I mean I really do not think that there is not going to be reprisal killings or sectarian bloodshed, whichever way it goes. I mean Sunnis have been ethnically cleansed in Syria for the last 2-1/2 years and I -- I don't think that they're going to forebear if they get the chance to unleash hell on -- on their adversaries, much as I'd like to not see that happen.

QUESTION: Is the administration from now talking to the opposition, which we didn't do in Iraq, but are they talking to Idriss -- General Idriss and his company that, eventually, if, in the future (inaudible)...

WEISS: General Idriss is -- General Idriss is incredibly frustrated with the U.S. approach. And you can see it in every press release he gives. The State Department has not granted him a visa to come to Washington D.C. for reasons I can only imagine. There (ph), they don't want to hear what he has to say, because he's going to say we're not getting the support that we need.

But no, absolutely the U.S. does maintain contact with the SMC; the CIA in Turkey and Jordan in particular are -- I mean all over the ground and working with these guys. The question is what are we providing them? And even made the announcement in the last week and a half that lethal (ph) aid is starting to drift in.

I mean, I -- as I said, I was at the border of Turkey. I was talking to SMC-aligned rebel groups. They told me nothing is coming except from the Gulf States. So -- and even if some stuff does manage to work its way in, we're talking light arms; AK47s, RPGs, not anti-tank, not anti-infantry, and certainly not anti-aircraft (inaudible), which is what they need the most.

So there is a level of frustration here, which -- which comes back to the original problem, which is if Moscow and Damascus and Tehran are reading from the same hymn -- hymn sheet on this issue, but the United States' own client doesn't really trust or have confidence in the United States, you have a problem. And this is what worries me. If we need the SMC, we have no skin in the game, as the administration likes to call it.

ROSE: OK, let's just take a couple more, because everyone has busy days.

MURPHY: Hey, don't -- so don't -- don't -- don't forget that the major Saudi concern in this is doing something to limit the Iranian -- the expansion of Iranian influence in the region.

OPERATOR: Our next question comes from Halden (ph) Khalil (ph) with Hess Corporation.

QUESTION: OK, I guess it got back to me, so I'm sorry. My -- my question is if we decide to intervene in Syria, you know, how -- how are we going to go about it? I mean is it going to be a back all comers against Assad kind of thing or just arm a specific group? Is it just going to be a weekend of missile strikes, if that would accomplish anything? I'd -- I'd like an idea from the panel how -- how they would see it to be in -- you know, what would be an intervention that would be in our interest?

Thank you.

MURPHY: Well, so far, in principle, the United States wants to support the opposition and has declared it will do so and there's controversy about whether or how expeditiously it's doing it in terms of supplies; nonlethal and weaponry. The -- the question that was dominating the debate here until a week ago was about more direct intervention with U.S. forces and that's an entirely different question.

If that were to happen, I think it's almost universally accepted it would be air attacks alone. Everybody's gone out of their way, across the political spectrum, to utter that mantra about no boots on the ground and the problem I think is that direct intervention by air attacks alone is not likely to accomplish much strategically, other than to punish the regime within limits and to make a statement, but it's not likely to spell eh difference in who wins the civil war.

ROSE: Dick, let me do -- it's Gideon here. Let me do a follow-up on that.

The U.S. military has sent pretty clear signals; everything from body language to surrogates to -- to say that they basically feel exactly as the questioner just said and as you just suggested, and essentially moved into a different place from their political superiors. And I know that somebody feel this has been something of a crisis in U.S. civil-military relations over the last few weeks.

Do you agree?

MURPHY: Well this is a pattern that hasn't been absolutely consistent, but it's fairly common in recent decades, and that is uneasiness in the military about belligerent decisions by civilian leadership, for fear that they're going to be told to do something that is not militarily feasible and that they'll be left holding the bag of an indecisive and messy result.

This happened in the various points in regard to Iraq and Afghanistan and -- and plenty of incidents earlier. So it's a -- it's a natural concern and it may be aggravated or heightened in this case, because the administration went to such extraordinary lengths to indicate the limits of whatever it wanted to do militarily; the most notorious example being Kerry's statement about the stretch being unbelievably small.

So the -- the military's concern generally is being told to do something that they don't think will have an effective result; effective in terms of resolving the conflict.

ROSE: Hey, I think we have time for one more question, operator.

OPERATOR: Our next question comes from Bernd Debusmann, independent.

QUESTION: Yes, thanks for having the call. I wonder whether anyone on the panel would be prepared to hazard a guess as to how long Assad is going to be in power, given the fact that, at least for the time being, he's needed to implement the Russian-American weapons deal.

ROSE: That's a nice, big, general question; look -- forward-looking one to end on, so why don't we have you each take that?

WEISS: I would say the answer is indefinitely. There is -- there is no end in sight for his reign of power, at least at this point.

BETTS: Yes, I'd agree. It looks like a stalemate and that's one of the frustrating things about the prospect of American intervention if all it does is fuel a stalemate. But for the war to be resolved, for Assad to be thrown out or to be secure is going to take a much bigger change I the balance of forces there is.

MURPHY: Yes. And he does have hardcore supporters, which we neglected to take into consideration 2-1/2 years ago in saying it was time for him to step aside. He has instead talked of -- of an election next year; his term is up. Well, for over 40 years no Assad has lost an election.

QUESTION: Precisely. Can I have a follow-up?

ROSE: A quick one.

QUESTION: Yeah. Assad the elder was never held to account for Hama. Do you any of you think that Assad the younger will be held to account for what he's been doing since 2011?

WEISS: Well, in order to get into The Hague, you know, you kind of have to be in Damascus and arrest him. He's not going willingly. So the answer is, the current track, I would say, of U.S. policy and -- and diplomacy is, you know, try to negotiate some transitional model in conjunction with this disarmament plan, but you know, it -- it is impossible for me to fathom anything of the sort that wouldn't include amnesty for him and his family.

So whether he's given safe haven in -- on the Black Sea or somewhere in Saudi Arabia, I don't know. But I -- I -- look, I think he's going to die in Syria. He says that that's his plan. I think that that indeed is -- is going to be the case and you know, it -- it remains to be seen which party will be responsible for it, or if not, just the force of nature itself.

(UNKNOWN): (Inaudible)

ROSE: No (ph). On that note, let me thank Dick Betts, Dick Murphy, Michael Weiss, all of our participants. It's been a very interesting past several weeks and we'll all follow the story closely going forward and we look forward to hearing from you and talking with you on future calls. Thank you very much.

WEISS: Thank you.

BETTS: Thanks, Gideon.

MURPHY: Thanks, Gideon.

OPERATOR: Thank you. This concludes today's conference. You may now disconnect.

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