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A Conversation with Representative Adam Smith on Syria

Speaker: Adam Smith, Ranking Member, House Armed Services Committee (D-WA)
Presider: Jackson Diehl, Deputy Editorial Page Editor, Washington Post
November 14, 2013
Council on Foreign Relations

DIEHL: Good morning, everybody. I'm Jackson Diehl, and I'm here to moderate our discussion this morning with Representative Adam Smith about Syria. The format today is that Representative Smith is going to speak for a few minutes, giving his views about the situation in Syria. Then he and I are going to have a few minutes of conversation. And then we'll open it up to questions.

And before we start, I just want to emphasize that today's meeting is on the record and, in fact, is being broadcast on the web, so be aware of that when you -- when you make your comment or ask your question.

SMITH: Isn't everything on the record these days?

DIEHL: The Israeli ambassador told me the other day that he's discovered what the difference is between on-the-record in the United States and on-the-record in Israel, which is 24 hours.

So -- but a few minutes -- a few words of introduction. Representative Smith is in his ninth term as congressman from Washington. His district is on the Puget Sound between Tacoma and Bellevue, which is where he lives. He was elected in 1997. He since 2010 has been the ranking member on the House Armed Services Committee, the leading Democrat there, so he's very vitally concerned with these issues such as Syria and Iran and other issues in the Middle East.

So let me turn it over to you, sir, and...

SMITH: Well, thank you very much. Well, I want to thank the Council on Foreign Relations for hosting this event and this discussion. And I look forward to the conversation. Spoiler alert upfront. I don't have the answer for what to do in Syria. It is a very, very difficult problem. And I think it's also emblematic of some of the larger issues throughout the Middle East and North Africa, as we deal with the Arab Spring and the U.S. tries to figure out what the best policy and approach is to the region.

The first thing that I will say is I think the fact that there's, you know, efforts now underway to get rid of the chemical weapons in Syria is undeniably a positive step. As we were talking during the early days of the civil war about what instability in Syria could mean and all the dangers that come from it, one of the biggest ones was they have such a large chemical weapons stockpile. What are the risks that that stockpile could fall into even worse hands than it already is? What are the risks that they would -- the regime would use it? You know, as Al Qaida became more active, we became more and more concerned about them being able to get a hold of it.

So however we got there, the fact that there's now an effort underway that seems sincere and seems to be progressing to get rid of that chemical weapons stockpile is a positive. Unfortunately, that far from eliminates the problem in Syria. You know, the latest reports are that, you know, the chaos continues. The regime has had some success in the last couple of weeks in taking back territory.

But if you look at any of those maps that sort of show you, you know, who controls what in Syria, it becomes very clear that nobody at this point controls, you know, the whole country. The regime has elements, and then, gosh, a smorgasbord of different rebel groups who control a piece here and a piece there, and it changes daily. I took a trip to Jordan here a couple months ago, went up to the Syrian border and talked with the Jordanians about the various checkpoints along their border, that on a day in and day out basis will pass back and forth between the Free Syrian Army and the regime, depending on who has the upper hand that day. So it's a chaotic situation, and will be for a while.

Now, what are our interests in the area? I mean, obviously, we would like to see a peaceful resolution to it. We would like to see a legitimate government replace Assad. But one of the things I feel strongly about is that we need to be mindful of our limited ability to force that outcome. I mean, ultimately, this is something that's primarily going to have to be settled by Syrians and then, secondarily, by those in the region. The U.S. just isn't in a position to go in and force an outcome.

One of the lessons that I would hope that we have learned from Iraq and Afghanistan and even Libya is there is a limitation on what U.S. military might or other influence can do in order to force an outcome in another country, so we have to keep that in mind.

I think our biggest interests in the area beyond that is to try to contain the problem of Syria, so that it doesn't spread and destabilize surrounding countries, primarily Jordan, Iraq and Turkey. And the refugee crisis alone threatens to do that in all of those countries.

So I think we have been prudent in the humanitarian aid that we've been providing, efforts of USAID and our efforts working with the international community to try to provide for those refugees. I think the next step that we need to get better at is within Syria itself and the areas that are controlled by the Free Syria Movement, are there steps that we can take to secure those and make them more stable so you have fewer refugees pouring across the border?

Certainly, you know, working with the international community, working with various humanitarian groups, I think this is enormously important. I've also, however, long felt that this is something that the U.S. Department of Defense could be more actively involved in a very limited train-and-equip role, to help those folks within Syria who are obviously friendly to our interests -- and I will grant you that they're not all easily identifiable, but some of them are. We're working with some groups there. Obviously, we have some people in there that we trust and we need to work with them.

And the final thing I'll say, before turning it over to the discussion is, one of the other reasons that we need to work with them is, whatever the outcome in Syria, it does not appear that it's going to be quick. You know, there is a stalemate of sorts at the moment, and there's no logical point right now to believe that that's going to change.

Assad, I think, is feeling confident. He's unlikely to, you know, cut a deal that takes him out of power at this point, so this is going to be a protracted crisis. Al Qaida is a huge presence in that area. Obviously, Iran and Hezbollah are also huge presences in that area. We need friends there. If Al Qaida gets, you know, safe haven, we're going to need people who are, you know, friendly to us for whatever reason, whether it's because we're supplying them or because ideologically they're with us, or because the enemy of my enemy is my friend and they're fighting Al Qaida, we're going to need to build those relationships. And I think we've been a little slow to try and build those relationships, to recognize that we're going to need that help, which sort of ties me back to my original point, that the U.S. is not going to be able to simply show up and fix the problem. We're going to need to rely on regional partners and regional allies.

And if we don't help those folks within Syria right now who are most likely to be supportive of us, at a minimum, they're going to have a tough time surviving. I mean, I recognize that there's nothing we can do that would significantly tip the balance in their favor, but simply allowing them to survive and continue to be a viable option within Syria for right now is a very important goal, and there are steps we can take to make that more likely, instead of less. I think that's the direction we need to go in.

A lot more can be said about this, but I think it'd be better said in a conversation back-and-forth. So I'll stop now and leave it to Mr. Diehl.

DIEHL: Well, thank you. That was a very interesting and substantive start. Let me start the conversation by asking about the chemical weapons, which is where you started. Are you confident that this process is going to take care of all of the chemical weapons stock that Assad has? If he makes -- there's been scattered reports that he may attempt to hide some or that he is attempting to hide some and cheat. If he does that, do you think that the -- this is something that will be detected by the inspectors or by us?

SMITH: I'm more confident than I was when the deal was first announced. I think both Assad and, perhaps more importantly, Russia have an enormous stake in honoring this deal. Russia basically, you know, feels like, having brokered this, you know, has given them, you know, the level of international credibility that they haven't had in a while. If they were to fail to deliver, it would be a significant blow.

And at the end of the day, Assad does not need the chemical weapons. I think it was a major miscalculation to use them in the first place. So I'm more confident than I was, but, you know, look, there are no guarantees, and it's not 100 percent. There is that risk. But I think the deal was pretty strong. Like I said, I think both Russia and Assad, you know, have sort of put their credibility on the line to honor it.

DIEHL: I wanted to ask also about the humanitarian situation. We're headed into winter. The United Nations has been issuing some pretty dire warnings about what the winter is going to look like in Syria. They say there are -- among other things -- well more than 200,000 civilians who are trapped in areas that are being besieged by the government around Damascus in Homs, have not received any aid, any food. There are reports of starvation, diseases spreading, such as polio. Is there -- should the United States be doing something about this?

SMITH: Well, we are. I mean, we have, you know, spent an enormous amount of money working, you know, with some international organizations. About half the money for the refugee camps that are available in Jordan, I know, comes from the U.S. We also have various USAID efforts to get assistance into Syria. There are various different other, you know, international organizations, like CARE and others, who are, you know, trying to get in there, as well.

But, you know, it's a civil war. And it's not always easy to get aid to people in the middle of a fight. But, yes, I think there's more that we could do. I think we should work with our allies in the region, you know, Turkey and Jordan and Saudi Arabia, to see how we can do that. Absolutely. It's an enormous humanitarian crisis.

DIEHL: I mean, aid can't get into places if it's being deliberately blockaded by the regime's military.


DIEHL: So our aid really doesn't help with that. And, you know, the opposition seems to be saying they won't attend peace talks until some corridors are opened. So how -- I'm trying to understand, how do you get those corridors open?

SMITH: Like I said at the outset, there is no easy answer here. I don't think we get those corridors opened. You know, the best we can do is try to get humanitarian aid to where we can, like I said, try to help the groups that are -- that are friendly to us and offer a moderate alternative in any way we can to build up their strength so that they -- they can survive. But it's not going to be easy.

DIEHL: So if we see tens of thousands of people starving this winter, we'll just have to stand by and watch?

SMITH: Well, no. I said, well, we'll have to try to get aid to them. You know, but if you -- you're sort of going back-and-forth between two points. One, it's an enormous -- it's a crisis. We ought to do something. Two, there's nothing that we can do, so isn't that a problem?

Look, I mean, the thing we can do is try to get humanitarian aid to them and try to create a situation. It's not easy. I mean, it's regrettably not the only place in the world where that's true, but it's something we should attempt to do and we are attempting to do.

DIEHL: You've been saying and said again this morning that we need to do more to help the rebels that we support there. You know, back in September, at the time we went through the chemical weapons agreement and so forth, President Obama seemed to be saying that the United States was going to step up support for the rebels. So far as you know, has that happened?

SMITH: Yes. Not as much as it should have. We're working with our allies. I think we have a little bit more confidence now that Turkey at least is not just, you know, throwing weapons across the border indiscriminately to the point where the Al Qaida groups are more likely to get it, that they are targeting it more to better groups. We have -- I don't know -- we've stepped up some of the stuff on the top -- on the title 50 side. So we have done more, but I don't think we've done enough.

And I think, you know, to do enough, I think we're going to need to have a DOD title 10 piece to this, because they simply have more capability, in terms of, you know, providing weapons and providing training to the people who need it.

DIEHL: So what you're saying is that we should take what I guess has been a CIA operation to train certain groups of people and turn it into a Department of Defense operation that we would be larger and more high-profile, and I guess would also be public in that case, too.

SMITH: Yeah, at least supplement it.

DIEHL: Uh-huh. But is the administration not willing to do that at this point?

SMITH: That is correct. They are unwilling at this point to ask for it. Now, there's another piece of it. This would require congressional approval. And there was extraordinary reluctance in Congress to do this for a variety of different reasons. I think people were very, very squeamish about the president's request for, you know (inaudible) military strike. And folks more or less equate it. They don't -- they don't see a distinction between the two.

I do. And I think, you know, building partner capacity instead of us engaging directly into the fight has been something that's been an effective way to advance our interests in the Horn of Africa, in the Philippines, and a whole bunch of different places, and something that we ought to build on. And I think that's very different than us being the ones doing the fighting, whether it's with standoff weapons or, you know, boots on the ground, either way. I mean, that's far more problematic than helping, you know, friendly folks in the region to lead that fight.

DIEHL: So if there were a vote in the Armed Services Committee on this, what would happen?

SMITH: Oh, I try to stay out of the prediction business. It's hard to say. There would be some lobbying that would need to be done before we'd be able to make progress on it. There's no question about that. I think people are very concerned about the idea of getting involved in light of what's happened.

And also, you know, it's been a couple years now. I mean, there is a sense on the part of some that we've waited too long to be effective.

DIEHL: I also wanted to ask you -- you know, you said something interesting about Al Qaida. Of course, they appear to be consolidating control over one part of the country in eastern Syria. And you seem to be suggesting that the way -- the best way to handle that would be to work -- is to find a friend in Syria, find a force in Syria that we can support that would take on Al Qaida. Is that your sense of how to handle this?

SMITH: Well, at least in the short term, you know, find a force and a group of friends -- I mean, we don't have to find them. They're there. There's the Free Syria Movement, and there, you know, are sporadic instances where they're actually fighting Al-Nusra and ISIS and, you know, other extremist groups.

So, I mean, that's happening. And the question is, do you pick a side in that? And if it's a group that's fighting against both Al Qaida and Hezbollah, you know, I think that's a rather obvious side for us to pick. Now, in the meantime, for right now, it's not so much saying, OK, go take these guys on. Free Syria Movement, their whole territory, what can we do to help them, you know, continue to hold that territory, hopefully hold it in a way that provides greater safety for the population there that can then reduce the refugee crisis?

You know, those are tough steps to take, and I'm not going to imply at all that, well, if we do it, instant success. But I can assure you, the less we help these groups, the less likely they are to survive. I think that's, you know, difficult to argue with, as well.

DIEHL: And your point was that this -- this is likely to go on for a long time in Syria.

SMITH: Absolutely.

DIEHL: And if you have Al Qaida consolidating control over a part of the country over a period of time, is that something the United States should tolerate?

SMITH: Well, that's always a dangerous way to put the question, something we should or shouldn't tolerate. I think we get into trouble when we draw red lines and say, this shall not stand, because it always sort of depends on, well, what's necessary? What do you need to do to make sure that it doesn't stand?

The one thing I will say is it is definitely a threat that we would need to be concerned about containing. And there are a variety of different options, in terms of how we approach that. We've seen this, you know, arise in Yemen, for instance. Certainly, there's an Al Qaida presence in Iraq and in other parts of Africa. And sort of how we approach it from a containment standpoint is going to depend on a lot of factors. How strong are they? Are they transnational in their approach? Are -- more local? What allies do we have in the region that we could work with?

All of those things would be factors. But certainly, this is not a hypothetical. You know, Al Qaida is a presence in Syria. And as we try to figure out how to contain the larger threat of their ideology, Syria is on the game board, without question, you know, along with Yemen and Somalia and Mali and, you know, Pakistan, Afghanistan, and places where we know Al Qaida has a presence.

Now, they're all different. And they all respond -- sorry, require a slightly different response. But they're definitely an area we need to be worried about, in terms of the threat from Al Qaida.

DIEHL: Can you imagine a day when we'll have to be carrying out drone operations in eastern Syria?

SMITH: Again, hypotheticals. I'll deal what what's in front of us. And, you know, the drone campaign is limited, and limited for a reason. So I hope not. Let's put it that way. I hope there are better and easier ways to contain that threat, like I said, through working with local partners.

DIEHL: And I gather -- I mean, the -- what you seemed to be suggesting before, that this is going to go on for a long time, I gather then you really don't expect the whole Geneva II process to lead to much. Is that right?

SMITH: I don't. I think we have to pursue it. I think we have to continue that dialogue. But I think the two greatest flaws in it at the moment are, one, Assad isn't interested in cutting a deal that I can see. He doesn't feel sufficient pressure. You know, part of the reason I think that Russia was so quick to take the chemical weapons deal was because that took a little bit of the pressure off of the Assad regime from the international community and others.

And the second problem is, what's the reasonable alternative to Assad at this point? What would it look like if he stepped down? That has not yet been built. I think there's a concept that, you know, we would not, you know, totally get rid of everybody who's ever had anything to do with the regime. You would, you know, work with existing elements of that, existing elements of the Free Syria Movement, put together a government that was an acceptable alternative to Assad, you know, Assad would agree to it, and they would be put in place.

But for anyone paying attention to this, you know the holes in that argument are big enough to drive a truck through. You know, Assad's not going. What's that reasonable government look like, even if you get it? Al Qaida and these other groups are going to fight them just as soon as they're done fighting Assad. How do we protect them?

So I think it's worth having the conversation in Geneva, but it is -- but I don't think the U.S. should set up the expectation that we're going to force some deal that's going to solve the situation, because that's -- as I look at it -- a long way off.

DIEHL: And could you talk a little bit about the role of Iran in all of this? And they're obviously one of the major players in Syria. There's debate about whether they should be part of any settlement that is arrived at there. And at the same time, we're negotiation with them about their nuclear program. How do all these pieces fit together?

SMITH: Well, I think, under the circumstances, they would have to be part of any discussion. They are -- you know, they've got forces in Syria. They are clear allies of Assad. They're going to be, you know, a key player when he makes whatever decision he's going to make.

Now, there are some of our allies in the region -- Saudi Arabia and others -- who this is all about Iran. They want to weaken Iran. They figure if Assad's gone, Iran is, you know, by definition weaker. Maybe. But if we, you know, go all out in that direction, without thinking about what comes after Assad, the region may be plunged into chaos, you know, whether Iran's fingerprints are on it or not, that's bad for all of our allies in the region.

So trying to figure out how to contain Iran is a major threat. And that's part of the discussion in the nuclear deal. And it'd be -- you know, we can imagine, you know, wouldn't it be great if there was a different regime in Iran? But there's not. And the steps that would be required of us to try and force it would not be wise. They are a fact on the ground that we have to learn to live with.

And I think on the Iranian deal, that's going to be a big part of it. I don't want Iran to have a nuclear weapon. And if there's a way through the pain that the economic sanctions have caused to force them to the table to, you know, eliminate that possibility, then I think it's something we absolutely have to look at, because regime change is not happening anytime soon in Iran, and I don't want them to have a nuclear weapon. So you add all that up, and, you know, you've got to use the sanctions as leverage to get them out of the nuclear -- nuclear business.

DIEHL: Is part of that -- is part of making a deal with them on the nuclear weapons going to require acknowledging their interests in Syria and granting them a role, allowing them to keep Assad in there?

SMITH: Well, it's not ours to grant. They have a role in Syria, and they're playing it. So it's not a question of whether or not we grant them a role. It's a question of whether or not we, you know, try to shape what that role is, as best as we can.

And I think -- you know, I think Iran is just like Russia. They're not inclined to, you know, let Assad go, period, not now, anyway, not in this set of circumstances. And that, again, makes it very, very difficult going forward.

Now, the one thing I will say is this -- this is bleeding Iran a little bit. I mean, they're, you know, spending money, losing troops in the Syrian civil war. You know, I don't -- I'm sure the people of Iran are not thrilled about that. So they have some interest in trying to arrive at a peaceful conclusion. It's just hard to get there.

DIEHL: And if I could ask you about one other thing, you mentioned our allies. You know, this has caused a lot of tension because us and some allies, especially Saudi Arabia. I mean, how much damage do you think there is here in terms of our alliances and the way we've handled Syria?

SMITH: You know, I think it's hard, because I mostly think whatever damage has been caused has in large part been caused by unrealistic expectations on behalf of those allies. You know, Saudi Arabia is unapologetic. They want Assad gone, and they would like us to commit whatever forces we can commit to make that happen.

But I find that somewhat ironic, because I remember, you know, after the Iraq war or during the Iraq war in, you know, '04 and '05, after our invasion, at any rate, you know, Saudi Arabia was none too happy that we had sort of dove into their neighborhood and stirred up the -- you know, stirred up the mud, as it were. And now they're thinking, OK, just go into Syria and eliminate one of their problems.

And I think -- and I suspect Secretary Kerry has had this conversation -- it'd be important for them to be a little bit more realistic, you know, about what we can and can't do in that region. I mean, their frustration right now is driven by the fact that we're not doing more. Well, you know, we have a limited ability to just, you know, force governments into -- well, anywhere in the world, but certainly in the Islamic world. And I think they should understand that and we should work towards a more limited role to move forward in our mutual interests.

DIEHL: And how about Israel? Is it -- is it hurting us with Israel that we're not doing more in Syria?

SMITH: I don't think so. You know, our problems in Israel have more to do with Iran right now. You know, Israel has, you know, a very sort of sanguine approach in Syria. As much as they don't like Assad, you know, any sort of all-out effort to, you know, stir the pot in Syria, you know, the chaos there is a threat to them, as well. So I think they would like to see a reasonable alternative before we press forward with just sort of blowing things up there. It's a great risk to them if Syria, you know, descends even further into chaos.

DIEHL: OK, well, I'd like to open this up for questions now. And I just wanted to state the usual policy, that when you ask your question, please wait for the microphone, and then please identify yourself before asking your question. Yes, sir?

QUESTION: Thank you. Richard Downie from Delphi Strategic Consulting. Thanks for a very interesting discussion. You know, we are where we are in Syria in terms of U.S. policy as the result of a number of decisions that we've made up to this point. I mean, you go back a couple of years. There was an issue of, should we intervene in Syria? President Obama said, no, we're going to support the rebel groups, which we didn't do very -- as you mentioned, with much enthusiasm.

SMITH: Very slow.

QUESTION: And -- but he did say, you know, we're going to have a red line just in case they use chemical weapons, and then, of course, they pushed -- they crossed that red line, and we were in another situation, and the Russians bailed us out. And here we are at this point.

And I wonder, with the benefit of hindsight, now seeing that two years has sort of -- we've muddle through to get to where we are, is there -- from your perspective, is there a policy objective that we should have had perhaps two years ago or a strategy that would have -- we could have followed that would have gotten us to a much better place than we are right now? Thanks.

SMITH: Well, I don't know about getting us to a much better place, because the fundamental facts, you know, on the ground in Syria, you know, would not have changed, as we mentioned, you know. Assad is a problem. There's not much of a reasonable alternative. Al Qaida is present there. It's a mess with difficult policy implications.

And whether we made decisions differently, you know, our allies would probably still be frustrated with us, because, like I said, there's this -- just somewhat unrealistic expectation that somehow, if we wanted to, we could show up and fix the problem. And I don't think that was ever the case.

Even if we had gotten involved earlier, I think it would have been better, certainly, for the Free Syria Movement if we had been able to help them in a train-and-equip sort of mission to help them move forward, but I think you still would have had -- I mean, with Hezbollah and Iran and, you know, Russia and everybody, you know, involved with Assad, I think you would still have, you know, a slightly different version of a stalemate.

You know, that said, I think clarity in our policy would have been helpful in terms of our allies. And I think it was somewhat unclear. There are a lot of conflicting goals in terms of what we're trying to accomplish in a variety of Arab Spring countries. And I don't think they were well articulated here. I don't think the red line was well-thought-out.

And I don't think you draw a red line like that that is not well-thought-out. You do not say, if you step across this line, we will commit U.S. military force unless you really mean it, unless you know the full implications of it. I think drawing that red line and saying to the world that the U.S. will now take responsibility for making sure that chemical weapons are not used by Assad was not the right approach.

If it hadn't been taken, how would that change things? You know, probably subtly more than dramatically, but at least it would have given us the benefit of consistent policy. And I think it also would have been good if we had said right upfront, you know, that our objective is to get rid of the chemical weapons. You know, and Assad basically has to get rid of them or we will strike. That, too, sort of looked like an afterthought that, well, oh, gosh, if he gets rid of them, of course we won't do this. Well, you should have said that right upfront when you articulated the policy.

And I think that lack of clarity in at least the appearance, that it was sort of being developed on the fly, did undermine our credibility. Now, again, no easy solution here. I mean, you can look at a bunch of different countries. I mean, Libya, you know, we -- we stepped up, we did something, we worked with our allies in a cooperative way, and, you know, Libya is far from a stable place right now. You know, in Egypt, we've sort of gone back-and-forth in a couple of different policies. It has stability problems.

Look, the problem in that region is not that the U.S. hasn't made the right policy choices. The problem in that region is that they are having a devil of a time putting together reliable governance structures in countries that in the past have relied on strong-armed dictators. You know, how do you go from that to (inaudible) and that's not because of anything we have or have not done.


QUESTION: Thanks, Jackson. Nelson Cunningham with McLarty Associates. Good to see you again.

SMITH: Good to see you.

QUESTION: I wanted to follow up on Jackson's question about the impact on our allies in the region. In the early Arab Spring period, a lot of us were looking at Turkey as a country that had built a brand of moderate Islam, secular government that could be a model for others in the region. President Obama and President Erdogan famously had a very close -- Prime Minister Erdogan famously had a very close relationship. It was said that President Obama spoke to no leader more often than he spoke to Erdogan.

Since earlier this year, with the Gezi Park protests and the heavy-handed response there, and clearly, Syria, where the Turks have felt that we have not listened to them in terms of the need for active engagement, that relationship is now strained. What is your vision for what our relationship for Turkey should be as a way to bring them back into being sort of the preeminent partner for us in the region for constructive engagement?

SMITH: I don't have anything particularly profound to say about that, other than, you know, Syria is an opportunity and we should work more closely with them. And we haven't been thrilled with the way they've handled it, either. They have been, you know, allowing weapons to go to some very questionable groups in that area, in some cases directly, in other cases just somewhat carelessly. So I think that the path forward is to work more closely with them on who we should support and how and, yes, step up more of our support, but also make sure that support is going to the right people.

You know, and then look for whatever other opportunities there are, because I think you're right. I think that is a key strategic relationship, you know, as sort of the -- you know, right there in the middle of it all, you know, in Europe and Asia and the Middle East, and we should try to look for ways to enhance that relationship.

I think Syria's an opportunity early on that didn't go well because of those things I just mentioned, and I think we should try to, you know, reset that, restart that, and I think we have. I think there -- you know, I know Secretary Kerry has had many discussions, and I think it's going better now than it was and we should build on that.

DIEHL: Yes, over here, please.

QUESTION: Mark Jacobson from the German Marshall Fund. Congressman, I would like to ask you a little bit about force structure and the implications of what's been happening in Syria for the Department of Defense. As you know, the department's about to run up to the QDR process. Hopefully soon there will be an authorization bill.

But what I wonder is, what do you think the department is poised to do well in terms of balancing force structure in terms of more conventional threats in the future and, frankly, the managed chaos that you've described in terms of Syria? And what concerns you the most?

SMITH: Well, I think what they're poised to do well is on the special operations partnership building side. I think we've been very successful in that in the Horn of Africa, working with Yemen directly, but then also with Ethiopia and Kenya and Uganda and Burundi, some of the surrounding countries, to help contain the threat in Somalia. You know, we've made that into a force multiplier. With a fairly limited amount of our forces, we've worked with them to build partner capacity. And I think we've done that well there. We've done it well in the Philippines, also (inaudible) is to have a large physical presence in parts of the world.

As the defense building goes down, we're going to have fewer ships. We're going to have fewer ground troops, both Army and Marines. And there's going to be less of that presence, and there's going to be a perception that we are less able in our -- with our force to deter aggression. And I guess -- you know, I'll use an analogy to Asia.

You know, one of the most useful things we do is we are the guarantors of the security of South Korea and Japan. And that has been a limiting factor on North Korea's aggression. I mean, they're still not the most stable country in the world, and they still do aggressive things, but they haven't invaded South Korea, they haven't invaded Japan, they haven't started a major war over there, and I think in large part that's because they know that we are there as a strong deterrent. Well, as the size of our force shrinks, we will be less able to be that deterrent in other parts of the world.

Now, obviously, we will also be less able to do things like, you know, Iraq and Afghanistan, but I don't think that's a bad thing, because I don't think that a large-scale military effort to reshape a country is a wise approach. And I would hope we have learned that lesson. So that will be shrunk.

But, you know, the thing we'll be good at is sort of the preparation of the environment, as SOCOM describes it, by building partnerships and building relationships. And, again, even in the Middle East, with Syria and elsewhere, those are the opportunities we should look for.

DIEHL: Yes, in the back?

QUESTION: Thank you, Jim Sciutto with CNN. You essentially map out a containment policy for Syria, right?


QUESTION: With regards to the extremist groups there, but also with the wider civil war, the administration's stated policy remains removal of Assad. I wonder if you believe that, if not as a stated policy, as a practical matter, the administration goal here has essentially become containment? And if not, do you think that should be the more realistic goal, that should be the policy?

SMITH: Well, I think the long-term goal still has to be the removal of Assad. I just think we need to be more realistic about the timeframe for that happening and that the first step in getting there is containment of the threat from Al Qaida and containment of the threat from spreading to other countries.

But I think we need to be realistic about the fact that, for all the reasons that I've stated -- and I don't think too many would disagree -- that, you know, we're just not -- you know, Assad's not going anywhere anytime soon. So how do we take steps that move us to the point where we're in a better position to do that, all the while being realistic that, look, there are a lot of goals in life that you have to say, you know, it's a goal, but we're aware of the fact that it's going to be difficult to achieve in the short term. And I think this is one of them.

QUESTION: (OFF-MIKE) removed, you know?

SMITH: I think that's fair. And I think in the short term, it would be fair to say that containment is the central policy, building towards a reasonable alternative. Like I said, I think there's no harm in pursuing the Geneva II process, you know, and continuing to try to look for openings, and you never know when those openings are going to come about. We don't see it right now. But you continue that process and, you know, work on containment, while trying to get to the point where the longer-term policy is more achievable.

DIEHL: I just want to follow up on that, because you've said, and it's a very interesting statement, that you think we should step up support for elements of the Free Syrian Army, we should be doing more, but we shouldn't expect that our support can really make a difference in the outcome of the war. And I just want to press you a little bit on that, because...

SMITH: Sure.

DIEHL: ... surely there's a level of support in which we would tip the balance for the Free Syrian Army, that there is X we could do for them that would cause them to start winning the war. And so I wonder, when you say something like that, are you really saying we should support these forces because we need to have allies in Syria, but we don't necessarily want them to win right now, because we're not sure that we would like the outcome if they won.

SMITH: I don't accept your premise, that there is some level of support that we could throw in there that would tip the balance to the Free Syria Movement, because keep in mind, you know, we are not popular in Syria. If the Free Syria Movement simply becomes, you know, the force that America is pushing, then that has the potential to strengthen it. It's the lesson again that we've learned in other countries, that us showing up militarily to tip the balance -- and this is an underlying assumption that from the very beginning in Syria that a lot of people had that I thought was wrong the first time I heard it, was that basically if the U.S. simply wanted to, we could go in and remove Assad and put in place another government.

I think that is believed by a whole lot of people, and I think it is absolutely wrong. And I can't believe we haven't learned that lesson, that the U.S. cannot simply show up in any country, particularly an Islamic country, force one group out, force another group in, and go, "All right. They're in charge now. It's all good." That simply is not within our capability. And I wish that more people would become aware of that rather fundamental reality.

QUESTION: Was it a mistake to have done that in Libya?

SMITH: Well, I don't think what we did in Libya was to say that, you know, we're going to fix everything. I think what we did in Libya is we had a militarily achievable objective. You had a clear group of people on one side of the country that were opposing Gadhafi, who was clearly getting ready to destroy that group of people. Now, you know, once Gadhafi was gone, you know, a whole lot of different groups emerged and so forth, but at that time, we were in a position to militarily achieve the objective of protecting that population from Gadhafi.

I don't think we have a military objective, given the fact that Syria is a vastly more militarily capable country than Libya was and given the fact that the opposition is far more fractured, and Al Qaida is a far larger presence now than was the case when we got involved in Libya, they're two entirely different situations from the military standpoint.

DIEHL: Larry?

QUESTION: Larry Korb from the Center for American Progress. Do you think President Obama's decision to ask Congress for permission to launch the cruise missile strikes was necessary and/or wise?

SMITH: Like I said, I disagree with the notion to begin with that we should have drawn the red line the way we drew it. Having drawn it that way, having made that decision, I think it was unwise of the president to come to Congress.

And there's an interesting little back-and-forth debate on one side of that about how, you know, well, Congress is always saying they should be more involved, shouldn't he have done it, versus, well, that's his policy, no other president has really done this, they've always done it going forward. And I got to confess that I could be pulled either way on that debate. As a member of Congress, you know, obviously, one of the criticisms that a lot of people have consistently had of presidents is that they should seek more congressional, you know, approval for their military actions.

But as a matter of history, that's never been the case, and I've come to peace with that, that basically, you know, when you're electing a president, be mindful of the fact that given, gosh, probably 200 years worth of history, one of the things that you're electing them to do is occasionally make decisions to engage military forces without the approval of Congress, because just about every single one of them has done it. And I'm sure just on that fact alone, they've had their reasons for doing it.

But the reason I would say unquestionably it was unwise is there was no way on Earth they were going to get the votes. And anybody who had been paying 10 seconds of attention to the relationship between the White House and Congress prior to that should have known that. So what was the thought? Was the thought that, you know, we'll ask them, they'll say no, and then we'll say, "Well, they stopped us, so we can't do it"? Was the thought, you know, "We'll ask them, they'll say no, and we'll do it anyway"?

I mean, I had this conversation, tried to explain to them -- to this day, I'm sure if the White House, you know, they would disagree with me. They'd say, oh, we could have gotten the votes. I think that is wrong, let's just put it that way. Strong words occurred to me, but, you know -- and given that, I mean, you're betting a huge chunk of your presidency on a vote that you're probably not going to win. In that sense, you know, I clearly think it was unwise.

DIEHL: Yes, ma'am? Wait for the microphone, if you don't mind.

QUESTION: Eugenia Kimbell (ph). I'm in transition. I want to go back to this containment question and your follow-up. It seems to me that you're describing a situation where there are a lot of parties that have an interest in stability, if not for the long run, certainly for the short run. I don't know if you want to call that containment or what, but -- and that includes Israel, includes us, if you will. If we didn't want stability, we'd be pouring a lot more money into the rebels than we are.

So if you have three choices there, one is Assad, one is this elusive democracy that everybody would like to see that isn't going to happen and we have a lot of experience with the rest of the Arab Spring in terms of that not happening, so everybody's very cautious about that. And then a rebel situation, which could be largely dominated by Al Qaida.

So my question is this. Since Putin has moved in to the role of being the lead on this, and we have a new government in Iran, do you think there's any possibility at all that anybody could get through to Assad, that maybe he ought not to be the same evil demon that he has been for this period, so that he could survive, and that he would see that as in his self-interest?

SMITH: I think it's, you know, certainly worth having that conversation, you know, with Russia and potentially with Iran, depending on how the nuclear talks go. And I think you described the situation aptly. You know, we've got nothing but bad choices here. I think the one thing, again, we should keep in mind is it's also -- it's not entirely our choice. It's not like we could just pick one of those three options, that the outcome is going to be determined by others, not by us.

So, yeah, I mean, there's -- if part of it is, we could try to, you know, convince Russia to make Assad more reasonable, there's no point in not trying. I'm not optimistic on that front, either. I think Assad has adopted his father's approach, which is at all costs, stay in power. But, you know, if they move to a more reasonable place, that would be, I think, a preliminary step, frankly, towards getting a different regime. And so that's a conversation worth having.

DIEHL: Mike?

QUESTION: Hi, I'm Mike Abramowitz from the U.S. Holocaust Museum. I just wanted to follow up on the question of the military discussion you and Jackson were having. On the humanitarian front, Jackson alluded to the fact that there are about several hundred thousand Syrians who are being obstructed from getting humanitarian aid by the Syrian regime. In your discussions with the U.S. military, in your considerations with the Armed Services Committee, are there any realistic options, military options for relieving that obstruction that you can see of? And would any of those options have any support in the Congress?

SMITH: Not that I'm aware of. And, no, I don't think they would have support in Congress. Like I said, the best thing we can do is help those who are fighting in Syria, you know, be in a better position to protect those populations, you know, whether it's through training, equipping, humanitarian assistance, whatever. But I have not seen -- like I said, that's the big difference between Syria and Libya, to my mind, is there is no obvious militarily achievable objective that could improve the situation, I mean, that I have seen. It's simply too chaotic.

DIEHL: Elise?

QUESTION: Elise Labott with CNN. Thank you for being with us, Congressman. I just want to do a little CNN tag team and follow up with my colleague's question. When you were here a few years ago, I was fortunate enough to moderate the discussion, and I sensed at the time a little bit -- much more of an optimism that this was going to draw to a close in Syria fairly soon. The rebels were just starting off, but showing great gains.

And I sense almost now a little bit, with all this talk of containment, of this managed chaos that my colleague phrased it, more of a fatalism about it all, that there's nothing that the U.S. really can do to tip the balance, when at the time we were talking about much more robust things the U.S. can do to boost up the moderate opposition, in terms of political development, in terms of other things. Has the situation just reached the point where you feel as if it's a lost cause? Or is it that Al Qaida has -- is it because of the growth of Al Qaida?

But I do sense from you much more of a fatalism about what's happening on the ground there and that the -- that at this point there's nothing really the U.S. can do to help.

SMITH: As I said, there are certain things we can do to help the Free Syria Movement. And...

QUESTION: But not to tip -- but respectively, not to tip...


SMITH: Respectively, I listened to you for a long period of time. Can I at least get a thought out and then you can challenge it? You know, I think enabling the Free Syria Movement to survive is an important goal, enabling them to hold territory in a more substantial way so that there's less likely to be a refugee crisis, is a very, very important goal. That's not fatalistic. That is something that we can do to move forward.

As far as before, I don't recall ever being that optimistic that it was going to end soon. Certainly, a couple years ago, if we had helped the Free Syria Movement more at that point, they were in a better position to hold more territory and to achieve more. Whether or not they were ever in a great position to ultimately win and toss Assad out, I don't recall ever being that optimistic about that.

But clearly, a couple years ago, before Hezbollah poured all the troops across the border, before Iran started sending in advisers, before Assad stepped it up, before Al Qaida -- before the foreign fighters started coming in, in the numbers that they did, certainly in that timeframe, the types of policies that I'm still talking about would have been more likely to be more effective in terms of how the balance of power was, no question about that. But I think they still can be effective in that limited sense.

And also, I don't think there's anything fatalistic about saying that, you know, if we can find a way to stop Jordan from being destabilized, you know, to stop Iraq from being further destabilized by a refugee crisis, then that is a worthy goal. I mean, to dismiss that as fatalistic containment I think is to miss how important that policy objective is.

Look, you know, I -- if you want to ask me whether or not I'm optimistic that I can bring peace to the world through some policy, you know, set of policy things, then I guess you can go ahead and call that fatalistic. It's never happened in the history of the globe, so I don't presume to think that I'm the first person who's going to come up with the way to make it happen now. But that doesn't mean that we can't take policy steps that advance our interests and put us in a better position to reduce the violence and reduce the problem.

And those are the steps that I've attempted to outline and what I attempted to outline whenever it was we had that conversation a couple years ago. So that's the way I would explain it.

DIEHL: In the back, ma'am?

QUESTION: Hi, Margaret Brennan from CBS News. Thanks for doing this. You mentioned earlier that there might be an appropriate sort of title 10 role here when it comes to our work with the Free Syrian Army. Can you describe what form of sort of industrial strength training that might take? What would you like to see there?

And you said there is some validity to the claim that we don't quite know who all of the opposition is. Is U.S. intelligence three years in still that weak on Syria?

SMITH: No. The situation in Syria is still that confusing.


You know, because groups on a regular basis change. I mean, you know -- I mean, I think there's a tendency on the outside to view this in sort of ideological terms, as if we're -- you know, as if in Syria they pick sides like it's a pickup basketball game, and then, OK, well, I'm Al Qaida, and you're over here. You know, I mean, it's a whole series of different groups that are getting help from a wide variety of different people, and I'm pretty sure that none of them care where the guns come from. They just want them. None of them care where the food comes from. They just want them.

So if you've got a group of people that are taking guns from, you know, Islamist extremist groups, and taking food from them, does that make them Al Qaida? Maybe yes, maybe no. It depends.

Now, the one thing I will say -- so that's sort of the explanation for -- I mean, I don't think we should dump on our intelligence folks for not being able to somehow magically figure that out. But the one thing I will say is, there are clearly identifiable people who we know are sympathetic to us. We've been working with them. We've been providing them humanitarian aid. We've been providing them aid in other ways that I can't talk about specifically. But we know there are some.

And the way I've always explained it is, you know, when I was over there, I've heard anything from, well, it's 30,000 to it's a few thousand to it's a few hundred. It is some number, OK. Nobody disputes that. And whatever that number is that you could be confident in, then help them. And, you know, as that number expands, you get more intelligence, you get more people you can rely on, then that's fine, too.

And I also don't think that we should hold this up to the standard that, if we ever back the wrong person, then by definition it was a mistake to back anyone -- 90 percent, then the 90 percent that you're helping becomes a very, very important 90 percent, because in the face of Al-Nusra, in the face of ISIS, in the face of all these other groups, they can survive. They can be a reasonable alternative to those groups that are gaining in strength right now, not so much because of their ideology, but because people perceive them as being the most effective.

That is something that we can have at least the small impact on shifting it. And as far as what DOD can bring to it, I mean, just -- you know, look at the DOD budget, even in sequestration times, and all the training experience they have, and it's just -- it's the size issue compared to what we could bring from other portions of the government, the ability of them to provide, I think, robust and helpful training an equipment could make a significant difference.

DIEHL: We had another question way in the back, ma'am.

QUESTION: Thank you, Congressman. My name is Gina Witt (ph) with Voice of Vietnamese Americans. I thank you for pointing out the important fact that we need to build the local capacity, and you also talk about regional coordination, and then you mentioned Russia.

So you said you not -- you deny the further risk-take (ph) approach, so I would say that there are optimistic consequences coming out from the Syria situation. The first thing is that Russia stepped in and we have brought it into the United Nations' involvement, and we do have many other partners internationally looking to and help with the chemical weapons, which is the first ever positive step. So I think that is a very good step for us, as we should consider that a victory of the U.S., because we truly was in leadership, and we were able to work with Russia.

So my question to you is, as the congressman, a key leader in the House, where do you see the House can take this step and support the leadership of the U.S. in fostering the involvement with China as a rising partner? They have a lot of stakes in the Middle East, in many different ways. And with Russia working with us, Russia and U.S. in the Middle East, I know that China has taken some market in the Middle East, as well. Where do you we can involve China?

So there are three steps. How do we involve China, Russia and all the allies in the Middle East? How do we balance our DOD budget and leverage that with the Asia Pacific, especially...

SMITH: I think I...

QUESTION: ... that is Asia.

SMITH: Right, I'm with you.

QUESTION: Thank you.

SMITH: And overall, I have a sort of cooperative model of our interests in global security. And, yeah, I think this is one of the big shifts that we've sort of made from the Bush administration in the Obama administration was, you know, my model is not that the U.S. should strive to become so dominant that we can force our will wherever we force it in the world. I just never thought that was practical. I mean, obviously, you'd love to always get your way, but that's not the way the world works, first of all.

Second of all, there are, you know, a lot of countries, China -- China and Russia being two amongst them -- who are major powers in their own right, who have influence in other parts of the world, and wouldn't it be wise to figure out ways where we can leverage that power and work with them? Because we do -- we have differences, without question, but that's true in any relationship, in any contractual relationship you try to put together.

But we also have things in common, certainly containing, you know, extremism, wanting, you know, stable markets in different places in the world. So, yes, I think we should look for opportunities to work with China and work with Russia, not, you know, with a blind eye to the fact that we're going to disagree, but that we should look for those opportunities to do that.

DIEHL: Yes, sir?

QUESTION: Hi, Doug Ollivant with Mantid International. It's conventional wisdom here in town that, had there been a vote in the House of Representatives on the missile strikes, that the White House would not only have lost, but lost badly.

SMITH: Correct.

QUESTION: Even those representatives who were initially inclined to take one for the White House had to recant once they came back from their districts and experiences the significant level of -- from their constituents.

SMITH: Right.

QUESTION: Do you think this was a particular judgment that, you know, even grading on the Syria curve, the policy as it had been explained to the American people didn't make sense, wasn't coherent? Do you think this is a slightly more broad -- there's a -- where the American people are reticent (inaudible) North Africa. There's not a buy signal there, in their thoughts? Or do you think we are now -- have just a very, very (inaudible) for the next decade or so?

SMITH: I think the latter is the most important factor. But I think -- I would put it differently than war fatigue. I think it is more that we looked at the wars that we engaged in, it did not feel (inaudible) we learned the limitations, as I said earlier, of U.S. military might to simply force our will on different parts of the world.

It isn't so much -- well, it's hard to speculate. If we thought it was working, if we thought it was effective, I mean, there would still be war-weariness, without question, because this is a terrible, terrible cost, even if you're successful. I think this country would be reluctant to pay it.

But even over and above that, there is a sense that it does not achieve the ends that it sets out to achieve. And so, yes, it was a combination of those factors have set a much, much higher bar on what is acceptable military action, without question.

And then also, yes, as I mentioned earlier, the policy was not very clearly explained, and that certainly didn't help. And the other thing that doesn't help is that there is that lack of a relationship between the national security team and the White House and key congressional leaders. You know, they -- certainly, the Republicans have their reasons for opposing seemingly everything that President Obama does, but there's been a lack of an effort, I think, to build support, specifically within Congress, for different policies, by reaching out early and aggressively with members of Congress.

And I frequently draw this contrast. When George W. Bush was, you know, trying to figure out what he was going to do about Iraq in late 2008, before he announced the surge policy, there was a very aggressive effort to reach out to Congress. I was in the West Wing no less than three times, you know, with the president, with the vice president, with the national security adviser, a number of phone calls, you know, from the national security adviser, again, because they announced the surge policy. Now, obviously, once they announced the surge policy, they then aggressively pushed for it.

This White House -- the different model is, they figure out the policy, they announce it, then they come tell us what it is. And I get that. They don't trust us. That's not completely, you know, without reason.

So -- but if you don't have those conversations upfront -- now, I mean, I don't know. You could -- maybe they could have had, you know, 100 conversations with all of us and the result wouldn't have been any different. You know, I can't predict that. But I will certainly say that you have a better chance of success if you include the key policymakers in Congress in the decision-making process, instead of trying to get them to buy into the decision after the fact.

DIEHL: Well, we're just about out of time, but given everything that you've said today, I just wanted to conclude by asking you what might be called the David Petraeus question, which is, how does this end?

SMITH: Oh, gosh. I don't think, you know, any individual human being is qualified to explain how this ends. That's just the nature of the world. It is uncertain and unpredictable. And, you know, a significant chunk of it, frankly, doesn't end. I mean, what's going on in the Middle East, in North Africa, in terms of trying to develop, you know, new ideologies and new governance structures is going to be a process for a very, very long time, and I think we need to take the long view of it, not try to imagine that we can force it to a specific conclusion.

And I, you know, understand that, you know, in America, we want to know, you know, what's the score? You know, who wins? I think we need to be more like international soccer, I guess, where occasionally it's a tie. That's not Americans' outlook.


But -- in fact, there's a hysterical video of -- they imagine if this guy being a U.S. football coach, going over, taking over a U.S. -- or, sorry, an English Premier League soccer team, and he just can't understand, you know, how they do things over there.

But the point is, I don't think our policy should be focused on, all right, everybody, huddle up, this is where we got to get, we're going to push the call across the goal line, then we're all going to celebrate and go drink champagne. I think our policy needs to be, how can we set in place a series of policies that will best advance our interests towards a more positive place?

And, you know, occasionally, you know, if that leads to a specific end that's a clear victory, well, great. That just doesn't happen very often. So we need to think more in terms of, what are the right policies to best advance our interests? And what are those interests?

You know, clearly, you know, containing extremism in that part of the world, we want stability. We also want, you know, fair and representative government that respects human rights. You know, but we also have to understand that occasionally those three things are going to conflict, and we're going to have to make some tough decisions. And I think we need to do a better job of explaining to our allies that.

I think there's a tendency in all three of those things, whenever one of them becomes ascendant, we tend to want to say, this is our policy. You know, this is always our policy. We want human rights. We want -- you know, and then the next day something pops up, where one of the other three becomes ascendant, and people rightly go, well, wait a second. You said that this was your policy.

So I think even when you have a situation where one of those three is ascendant, we should never talk about one without mentioning the other two and saying, in this particular decision, we're making this choice because on balance that's where we see the correct decision to be, but don't think that we don't have these other things that we have to balance.

You know, you can look at any one of the countries in the Middle East that we have relationships with and talk about where we sort of on all three of those objectives, going way one way or the other, and I think we need to be more honest about the balancing effort that we're trying to make.

DIEHL: Great. Thank you. This has been a really substantive discussion. Thank you very much, Congressman.

SMITH: Thank you. Appreciate it.

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