Media Call: Turkey-Russia Tensions and Consequences for Syria

Media Call: Turkey-Russia Tensions and Consequences for Syria

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Council on Foreign Relations experts discussed the consequences of Turkey’s downing of a Russian fighter jet for Turkey-Russia relations and for operations in Syria.


Philip H. Gordon

Senior Fellow, Council on Foreign Relations

Steven A. Cook

Eni Enrico Mattei Senior Fellow for Middle East and Africa Studies, Council on Foreign Relations


SCHMEMANN: Thank you very much. And good afternoon, everyone, and thank you for joining us today to discuss Turkey-Russia relations and implications for actions in Syria in the wake of the shooting down of a Russian war plane last week. I’m Anya Schmemann, Washington director of CFR communications.

And I am pleased to be joined by two CFR colleagues. Steven Cook is the Eni Enrico Mattei senior fellow for Middle East and Africa studies at CFR. He is an expert on Arab politics and U.S.-Middle Eastern policy. Philip Gordon is a CFR senior fellow and was most recently special assistant to the president and the White House coordinator for the Middle East, North Africa, and the Gulf region. Previously, he was assistant secretary of state for European and Eurasian affairs. Thank you both for joining me today.

So relations between Moscow and Ankara have deteriorated sharply since Turkey shot down a Russian fighter bomber near the Syrian-Turkish border on November 24th. The downing of the jet, which is the first time a NATO member has shot down a Russian plane since 1952 has damaged ties between these two key players in the Syrian conflict.

Steven Cook, if we could go to you first, Turkish officials say that the Russian plane violated Turkish airspace after being repeatedly warned to change its course. Moscow, on its side, says the aircraft was over Syria where Russia is carrying out an air campaign backing Bashar al-Assad. Putin has now accused Ankara of seeking to protect oil exports compromises. What is Turkey’s role and goal in the Syria conflict? And what do we know about this shooting down of the Russian plane?

COOK: Well, thanks very much, Anya.

Let me start with the easier part of your question, because—which is the second part, because the first part is a bit murkier about what exactly Turkey’s intentions are in Syria. First, I think what you said is what’s well-known, is that this Russian aircraft was violating Turkish airspace. The Russians had been warned. This was not the first time. In early October the NATO alliance issued a very strong statement in support of Turkey after repeated Russian violations of airspace. Clearly, some sort of agreement was worked out between the Turkish government and the Turkish military. And they decided to act. This was something that politically could not continue for the Turks, and they felt that they would get NATO backing if in fact they did what they did. And it turned out precisely to be the case.

It’s also clear that the Turks have been uncomfortable with the fact that the Russians have been bombing their allies in Syria, which leads to the second part of your question, which is what is it exactly that the Turks want in Syria? And I think there’s three things that the Turks want in Syria in orders of importance. One is to bring down the Assad regime. Two, to prevent the emergence of an independent western Kurdistan along the northern border of Syria, or what was Syria. And by bringing down—and let me just add, and they want to prevent Paris or Beirut-like attacks in Turkish streets.

Their working theory is that if you bring the Assad regime down, you go a long way to taking care of the ISIS problem. And this is why they’ve been largely cool to American policy in the region, and specifically the Obama administration’s anti-ISIS strategy, because they feel that it does not directly target the Assad regime. And as time has gone on, it has—it has—the strategy is directly engaging with Kurdish forces on the ground as the most effective anti-Islamic State forces. Those things are—make the Turks deeply unhappy.

And that’s where we are currently on—with Turkey on Syria, despite, you know, the strong statements of support of the president. And the two presidents, President Obama and President Erdogan, spoke again after meeting ahead of the G-20 summit in Antalya. And everybody said all of the right things, but these have been the divisions between Washington and Ankara.

SCHMEMANN: Thank you very much, Steven Cook.

Philip Gordon, let’s explore the role of the United States here. So the United States has supported Turkey’s right to defend its airspace. The Obama administration says it’s now important for Ankara and Moscow to take steps to de-escalate tensions on both sides. President Obama noted after meeting with the Turkish leader in Paris that we all have a common enemy, and that is ISIL. But is Russia, in fact, on the same page as the U.S.-led coalition?

GORDON: Thanks, Anya.

And the short answer to that question is no. We’ve been on significantly different pages for some time, and that’s indeed part of the problem. Russia is on a significantly different page from the United States, but it’s on a hugely different page from Turkey, and Saudi Arabia, and Qatar, and others. And by that, I mean, as Steven rightly said, the Turkish priority is to get rid of Assad, which they and others argue would be the key to getting rid of ISIS, which runs front and center up against Russia’s priority, which is preserving Assad. And that, I think, is the explanation of the Russian intervention in Syria, including the aspects of it that had had Turkish planes flying up, you know, around Turkish airspace.

It’s not that the Russians are huge fans of Assad, and if he chose to disappear tomorrow they’d be fine with that, but what they’re not fine with is a deliberate policy of regime change that they fear would not only give momentum to the precedent, which they hate everywhere, but would also open the question of who’s in charge in Syria. And they fear that the answer to that would not be a stable, moderate regime with which they could work, but rather chaos, and instability, and extremists, including ISIS, coming to power within the allies of their own domestic and neighborhood Islamic extremists.

So that’s why you see that Turkish policy runs directly counter to Russian policy. Turkish policy to change the regime; Russian policy to defend the regime. And in that sense, it’s not surprising that this ultimately led to a clash. I think while the details of the incident are murky—or, at least murky to the degree that Russia continues to deny that it was even in Turkish airspace—it does seem to be the case that the real issue was less a very brief violation of airspace, which probably did occur, but again, as Steven pointed out, the Russian activities against the very groups that Turkey is sponsoring in order to bring down Assad.

And I think the Turks decided they needed to send a message to Russia that it was not cost-free to attack those groups. My question about that, however, is what the Russian response will be. And it doesn’t appear that the Russian response will be to be deterred by this action and stop bombing those groups but, on the contrary, intensify the bombing and put sanctions on Turkey. So the loggerheads between those two countries goes on. And to end with, Anya, your question about the U.S., I mean, I see the U.S. role in this more than anything is trying to broker between these irreconcilable positions.

On the one hand, Russia, and Iran, and the regime refusing any political transition. On the other hand, Turkey, and Saudi Arabia, and Qatar, and other insisting on it. The U.S. has been leaning more toward the latter side and still to this day insists that Assad has to go. But what I think Secretary Kerry is trying to do in the Vienna process where all of the key players are meeting is to find some political agreement and way forward that would—that would start to wind down a war whose consequences are, obviously now, spreading now just in the region but beyond.

SCHMEMANN: Thank you. So the United States is trying to broker between these two very different positions, but in the very immediate future it’s also trying to broker relations between Turkey and Russia. And so just quickly to each of you, Steven first, you know, Russia announced an array of economic and travel sanctions against Turkey as a punishment for the shooting down of its jets. Both sides have said they are not going to apologize, and the rhetoric was rather heated, although there now seem to be some steps at if not a reconciliation at least, you know, a de-escalation. So what is your just, you know, very short term outlook for U.S.-Russia relations—oh, I’m sorry—Turkish-Russian relations.

COOK: Turkey-Russia relations. Yeah. (Laughs.) Well, I think you’re going to continue to see the kind of statements coming from Russian President Vladimir Putin accusing the Turks of enabling ISIS in the downing of a Russian jet in order to, you know, continue oil sales. And there are—you know, Putin is—has no hard evidence of this, but there’s enough evidence that the Turks have coordinated, provided material support for some extremist groups in Syria. That is, you know, plausible to some degree. So you’ll continue to hear some of that stuff while the Russians put up sanctions on the Turks and make it—and make it hurt. Already, you know, farmers cooperatives in Turkey, the Antalya Fresh Fruit and Vegetable Wholesale market has stopped shipping fruit and vegetables to Russia. They’ve got a boat in the water that is not getting into Russia. They haven’t been paid for previous shipments. So it will—it will hurt certain sectors of the Turkish economy.

I expect that this will likely go on for some time because neither leader is predisposed to—predisposed to backing down. What they’ve previously been able to do, however, is compartmentalize their relationship. As Phil pointed out, Turkey and Russia are on oppose ends of the Syrian conflict, yet they have continued to trade, they’ve continued to talk about expanding energy relations. Those things will in all likelihood come to a halt, at least for the short term.

SCHMEMANN: Thank you. And, Phil, do you think that Turkey and Russia will able to mend, or at least start to repair their relations?

GORDON: Not immediately. I mean, I would echo Steven’s diplomatic comment along the lines of neither leader is predisposed to backing down. I think that’s the least one could say about Vladimir Putin and Recep Tayyip Erdogan. They are—they tend to get deeply dug in and not to back down. And I don’t think either is prepared to do so anytime soon. You know, you mentioned the Russian demand for an apology. And, you know, having participated in a long, drawn-out process when I was at the State Department of working on an Israeli apology to the Turks, who insisted that that was the precondition for reconciliation, and knowing how hard that was, I fear we’re now—and there’s a certain irony here because this time it’s Turkey of whom the apology is being demanded. If that’s a prerequisite for reconciliation, I think we’re in for another long-term freeze.

These leaders are not predisposed to backing down, and that’s why the Russian response, as I said earlier, was not how to quickly make amends, but rather to double down—double down on the bombing of the Turkish opposition groups and to impose sanctions, even at a cost to the Russian economy. You know, the Russians stopped fruit and vegetable trade with Europe in response to Europe’s sanctions on Russia over Ukraine. And now they’re doing the same—you know, a lot of that trade went to Turkey. And now the Russians are blocking that very trade with Turkey, at a cost to the Russian consumer. But when the stakes are high, as they are over things like Syria, it is unlikely you’re going to see any Russian flexibility. So I’m afraid these countries are in the deep freeze, which will make the U.S. job of brokering something in Vienna all the more difficult, because Turkey and Russia are already on opposite sides of that diplomatic divide.

SCHMEMANN: Thank you. OK, for those who have joined us late, a reminder that this is an on-the-record CFR call about Turkey, Russia, and Syria, with CFR Senior Fellows Steven Cook and Philip Gordon. And additional resources and expertise are available via And with that, Operator, we will take some questions.

OPERATOR: OK. At this time we will open the floor for questions. (Gives queuing instructions.) We are currently holding for questions. And our first question comes from Somini Sengupta with NY Times.

Q: Hi. Thanks for taking the question.

You mentioned the next round of Vienna talks. What are the prospects of that happening soon? And what’s the point now, given not only that Russia and Turkey remain so far apart, and Russia and the U.S. still remain so far apart, and there’s no agreement on even which opposition groups are going to take part in it?

SCHMEMANN: Philip, let’s start with you.

GORDON: Sorry, should I start, Anya? Is that what you said?

SCHMEMANN: Yes, go ahead.

GORDON: Yeah. Look, no one should underestimate the difficulties and gaps at Vienna. I think it is an important first step because this is the first time that all the key external actors whose roles are critical to finding a way to end the war are at the table and talking for the first time. Previously the Saudis and the Iranians would not sit down together, and now they are. And even in these first two rounds at Vienna have even agreed on some core principles about the future of Syria and the desire for a ceasefire and ultimately elections. So it is an important step, I think driven by the realization all around that this crisis is really getting dramatic for everybody. It’s no longer just a local humanitarian crisis, but it’s undermining the neighbors and causing the growth of ISIS and terrorist attacks in Paris and Russian planes being shot down. But that sense of urgency I think has led to momentum and a new process.

But as I said and you said, the gaps are still very significant. And I don’t think anyone should imagine that in the next round—and I do think they’ll do another round at Vienna before the end of the year—they will be closed. I mean, they are less than they were before because the parties are now talking about what a transition would look like. The gap—I mean, let’s be clear. The biggest gap of all is over the disposition of Assad. As I said earlier, Russia and Iran, the regime continue to say it’s not for us to decide, and to prop up the regime, while many on the other side insist that without a clear path for his departure the war can’t end. But even that is, to a degree, a closing of the gaps because we’ve gone from a view early on that there needed to be genuinely regime change and new people in power throughout Syria and Damascus to discussions of who exactly it would leave while the institutions might remain in place, and a timetable whereby it wouldn’t have to necessarily happen immediately.

So whereas the gap was once seemingly unbreachable, it’s now, you know, at least on the table to come up with some question of what the process would look like and how solid would be the commitment that Assad would leave. Now, again, I don’t want to mislead. At present, the Saudis, and the Turks, and the others want—insist on a very short-term transition with an ironclad guarantee that he leaves. But that’s still closer to where the other side is, because the other side is also saying now there can be a process, there needs to be a transition, there might be elections. So you can start to see glimmers at Vienna that seem to me, at least, make it worth pursuing without in any way underestimating how hard it’s going to be to finally close those gaps.

And then, of course, even if the powers at Vienna agreed on this, there’s a question of translating it into action on the ground and controlling all of the different groups that would have to abide by a ceasefire, which is going to be another enormous problem. But, you know, first things first, one step at a time. And having the right people talking at the table is better than not talking at all.

SCHMEMANN: Mmm hmm. And, Steven, prospects for Vienna talks?

COOK: Well, let me just highlight one thing that Phil just said, which is translating whatever transpires in Vienna to what’s happening on the ground in Syria. And I think that that’s going to be extraordinarily, extraordinarily difficult to do, and one of the reasons why I wonder what the point of it all is. But the other thing that I think is important to recognize is that—you know, let me just say that I’m deeply sympathetic to the plight of Secretary Kerry, because he is dealing with people who are essentially lying to him at Vienna. I would not take at face value what any of the major players are saying in Vienna and would pay much more attention to what they’re doing on the ground, which is continuing to pursue their interests as they have defined them. And that has not changed as a result of talks in Vienna.

Now, one might say that that is a great negotiating strategy on the part of the Russians, the Iranians, the Turks, and whoever, but the fact of the matter is that they’ve been largely consistent all along and it does not strike me what anybody can do or say at Vienna to actually move these groups from their starting position, which is: Assad must go, or Assad does not have to go. And so I’m deeply, deeply pessimistic that this will bear another other than statements.

SCHMEMANN: OK. Thank you. Next question.

OPERATOR: Our next question comes from Sharon Behn with Voice of America.

Q: Hi there. Thanks for taking my question. I’m curious, doesn’t it seem that the shoot down of the Russian jet, you know, rather than being what many have called a harsh reaction or an overreaction to a violation of airspace—isn’t this more in fact the result of a broader clash of Russian and Turkish interests inside Syria? I mean, aren’t—isn’t this a reflection of the geopolitical forces clashing inside Syria?


COOK: Well, I think—yeah, I think it absolutely is the case. I think the Russian taunting of the Turks with previous violations of their airspace, them being—the Russians being on the opposite side of the conflict, the Russians bombing Turkish allies in Syria all speak to the kind of geopolitical issues that are at stake here when it comes to the Syrian conflict. And it is absolutely a reflection of that. There is also the very immediate issue of the violation of Turkish sovereignty, and the fact that it was happening over and over again. And keep in mind that President Erdogan needs to maintain his posture, you know, as a strong leader, cannot be humiliated. And these things were popping up in the press. And how were they popping up in the press? Well, the Turkish military was leaking this stuff to the press. So he couldn’t—he couldn’t not respond to these events.

SCHMEMANN: Phil, do you want to weigh in on this as well, or?

GORDON: Yeah, let me just—yeah, I’ll just add—no, I agree with that. I mean, let’s be clear, this was not Turkey defending its airspace in the sense of an aircraft violating it, Turkey fearing that action might be taken against Turkey, and then in self-defense shooting down the airplane. This was a response to, as you rightly described, the geopolitical competition and Russia’s action against Turkey’s friends on the ground, and a shot across the bow—in this case, you know, more than that—to Russia that its political actions would have consequences.

So in that sense, it really does reflect the war in Syria as a geopolitical competition. But I don’t think it necessarily means that, you know, it escalates and, you know, this is how world wars start, when there’s a geopolitical competition with a military force and then each side feels it has to do one more thing. I mean, and the analogy in this case would be, so, you know, Turkey shoots down Russia’s plane. Russia continues to violate against Turkish forces. Then the Turks would have to hit, you know, Russian air defenses and you get military escalation. That’s how previous wars, including between Russian and Turkey, have started.

I don’t—I think in this case both sides realize the need to avoid such an escalation, but we should also acknowledge that, you know, this is what happens in war. And even, you know, speculation about the United States upping its military role or putting in a no-fly zone now would come directly in conflict with Russian air defenses and Russian planes. So it’s a dangerous situation. One hopes that the leaders realize that and will limit themselves to rhetoric and sanctions. But you know, when you have NATO allies and Russians flying in the same airspace, you do have to worry about accidents and inadvertent or deliberate escalation.

SCHMEMANN: OK, thank you. We’ll take another question.

OPERATOR: Our next question comes from Ilhan Tanir with Cumhuriyet Daily.

Q: Hello. Thanks so much. It is Cumhuriyet and Haberdar News Portal.

I have couple of questions. First one would be for Phil Gordon. And this has been a great insight, thanks so much. Among all of the very important stuff ongoing around, the question about the freedom issues in Turkey and the human rights issues apparently. We see that President Erdogan becoming more and more authoritarian. As a former official, can you give us—what should we expect from the administration? Is this the most this administration can do when it comes to serious human rights issues, or? That would be great, if you can give us some insights.

And second question—

SCHMEMANN: OK, we got that. Your second question? Yes. Your second question?

Q: The second question is the Syrian Kurds within Syria—do you expect or should we expect Russians partnering with Syrian Kurds? And also, can you tell us, do you think that Turks didn’t really think about their role within Syria, that Turkish role seems to be extremely limited now that Russia’s hitting Turkish convoys and humanitarian trucks and all that? Thanks so much.

SCHMEMANN: OK, got it. So, Philip, the Erdogan regime.

GORDON: Yeah, I mean, it’s an important, but a separate issue from the one that we’re discussing. The United States has always made clear its concerns about the state of democratic expression in Turkey and press freedoms and journalists being arrested or imprisoned, and has raised those issues very frankly with the Turkish government, and will no doubt continue to do so. But I don’t see it as linked to the set of issues we’re discussing here about Syria and the plan. I don’t know if that was what was intended by the question, if somehow the two things were linked. But I think—I think they’re not, and the United States will take care to keep them separate—even though, as I said, it does take very seriously the concerns about press freedoms in Turkey.

On the Syrian Kurds, you know, the United States has also made clear that we need partners who are willing to fight ISIS. And it so happens there aren’t a whole lot of them in Syria, and among the best partners and potential partners have been the Syrian Kurds, who have actually been willing to fight ISIS, and in some ways inflicted its biggest defeat, around Kobani. So the United States has proven willing to partner with the Syrian Kurds, even understanding Turkey’s concerns about that. I think we’ve made clear that we support Syria’s territorial integrity, and therefore oppose a separate Kurdish entity in Syria. But if there are partners on the ground who can help us fight ISIS, we’re going to work with them. I think that, to a large degree, helped explain why Turkey then stepped up and offered more use of Turkish airbases and to be—to play a greater role in the campaign against ISIS, because they realized that if Turkey didn’t step up as a partner, the United States would work more closely with the Kurds as a partner. I don’t think the two are mutually exclusive because we continue to work with the Syrian Kurds, and that remains a source of tension with the Turkish government.


And, Steven, on the Kurds?

COOK: Well, let me just—let me just go back to one question that Ilhan had about the kind of hollowing out of Turkish political institutions and Erdogan’s quite clear authoritarian turn. And you know, he’s asking why—in essence, why the United States has done little about this. And I think that, you know, one, it’s—it is something that the administration has addressed itself to, although not in any kind of public way. And then I think also the Obama administration is determined to be accommodating to Erdogan, particularly since it got—and it has been accommodating all along, but particularly since it struck the agreement last July that allows the anti-ISIS coalition to use Turkish airbases, something that is quite valuable in the fight against ISIS.

And I think the concern is, is that to take Erdogan to task on some of these things that he’s done at home, which are pretty bad—I mean, Turkey 10 years after getting an invitation to join the European Union looks more like an old Arab autocracy than it does a European liberal democracy. But I think the concern is that Erdogan, in a fit of anger, would do things in response that would undermine both U.S. interests as well as Turkish interests just to demonstrate that he can. And I think that’s the thing that is—that is putting the brakes on the United States making more affirmative statements about what’s happened inside of Turkey.

Now, on the Kurds, look, the—going back to 2003, the Turks made very few friends within the U.S. military, and that has carried over into the fight against the Islamic State. I outlined the reasons before why the Turks have been cool to the American strategy, whereas the Kurds have been effective fighters. And the U.S. military has been, obviously, given the mission of defeating ISIS, and they’re working with the people who they want to work with. And those are Kurds of all stripes and political affiliations, as long as they’ve been effective against ISIS. I think that there’s very little sympathy for the Turks within the U.S.—within the U.S. military on this, and we will continue to do so as long as—as long as that’s the mission and as long as there are no other forces on the ground with whom the United States can work.

SCHMEMANN: OK, thank you.

Operator, could you remind our listeners how to get in the queue for questions, please?

OPERATOR: (Gives queuing instructions.)

SCHMEMANN: And we’ll take the next question.

OPERATOR: OK, the next question comes from Garrett Mitchell with The Mitchell Report.

Q: Hi. Thanks very much for doing this.

I’ve been reading the piece that Phil did and thinking about this conversation and the host of conversations on this subject, and I guess I come back and—to what seems to me to be the basic question. And that is, was there ever a point at which, from a sense of political realism in this country, that the United States might have been able to provide the leadership of a coalition of some sort to, A, remove Assad; B, create a truce on the ground; and, C, do so so that a peacekeeping force of some version could have taken up residence in the country? So that we aren’t in the place where we are today, which on this conversation and hundreds of others that I think we’ve all participated in, what we keep hearing is, there are no good solutions. And I just wonder—I mean, to me, the real question is, what have we or what are we doing to learn from this? But the way I want to pose it is, was there ever a point at which U.S. leadership could have kept us from getting to the point where we are today?


GORDON: Was there ever a point? Yeah, look, I’ve run that—I’ve asked myself that question many times, obviously, because no one can be satisfied with where we are. And so you wonder, was there anything we could have done differently or could do differently now? That’s why it’s relevant, not just for history’s sake. And many times, as I’ve re-run the play, I don’t see that path.

You know, U.S. politics, I think I said before, has consisted of—initially, I believe, there was a certain maybe excessive optimism that Assad would just go. We had seen Ben Ali and Gadhafi and Mubarak and Saleh all be chased from power by their populations. There was a certain giddiness about the Arab Spring. And I think there was—there was optimism that the same thing would happen in Syria. But it overlooked the structure of the regime, the strength of the regime, the support that the regime had from minorities and others, the support that the regime had notably from Iran and Hezbollah and Russia, which meant that it was not going to simply fall because of nonviolent street protests.

So then the question becomes, had we done more, could we have joined the opposition militarily to push out the regime and, to follow your logic, Gary, remove Assad, create a truce, put in peacekeepers? And as many times as I’ve asked myself that question, I just don’t see how that would have led to anything other than the escalation we’ve seen. And one reason we know that is because over time we did escalate and we did provide more support to the opposition. And the result of that was not the regime or Russia and Iran capitulating and getting rid of Assad, but doubling down. And then we would have to double down. And as we’ve increased our support for the opposition—and you know, we all know a number of countries in the region have been supplying significant support to a deep and wider range of opposition groups than we have—it has consistently led to Iran and Russia doing more for the regime, and then most recently direct Russian military intervention.

So to argue or to suggest that there was a time where if we had just done something else this transition would have been smooth and Assad would have gone and it would have been peaceful is hard to—is hard to explain. It’s hard to picture how that process might have worked.

So the easiest thing, you know, of course, is to—and a lot of people do this—suggest that, you know, if only we had set up a no-fly zone early on or given more arms to the opposition, we could have avoided this mess. And I’ve seen that written, and I just have to say I don’t see the logic of how that would have led to a different outcome. It would have led—if we had done more earlier, especially while the regime was in even better shape than it was in more recent years, because of the Russian and Iranian stake and because of the significant support for the regime in certain quarters, it would have led to a counter-escalation, just as it—as it did.

And so it’s a fair question and one we always need to ask as we face this type of challenge elsewhere. But I would be careful about the notion that, you know, there was some moment in time where there was something the United States could have done and Assad would have gone easily and the place stabilize. That is not particularly persuasive to me.

Q: Thanks.

SCHMEMANN: So, Steven, without going too far backwards, do you think it’s time for the U.S. to step up its intervention in Syria?

COOK: Well, I think the question that policymakers need to ask themselves is, what interest is it serving and how many people do you need to make a difference. And I’m not sure that anybody’s actually answered the question, other than fighting ISIL, fighting ISIL, fighting ISIL, and we have to do more to fight ISIL. Because we’re not going to bomb the Islamic State into oblivion. There’s a powerful war of ideas and a theology that needs to be dealt with that is not one that can be taken care of by dropping more ordnance on people.

So I’m not—and you know, at one point you could understand how Syria touched on a variety of different American interests. It’s hard now, in kind of pulling apart what’s happening in Syria, understanding what specific interest intervening in Syria in a bigger kind of way, what it serves at this point.

GORDON: Can I just jump in again just to add? I mean, you know, we—nobody denies that we have interests in Syria, especially now that it’s starting to spill over. I mean, we always had a humanitarian interest in just avoiding the tragic death of so many people, or the 11 million who’s been displaced either internally or externally. Now that the refugee crisis is spilling over to Europe and leading to terrorist attacks around the world, including what we saw in Paris, clearly we have an interest in bringing this war to a close. The question is how we can do that. And that’s the part that I’m questioning.

I don’t have any—I am willing to pay a price. I think we have an interest, and there is a lot that we should be prepared to do if we think it would help bring this war to an end and choke off ISIL. But the problem is, those things are only worth doing if they actually lead to that end.

So on this get rid of Assad question, well, we know that or we should know by now that there was never an easy way to do it, where we give a little—you know, some arms to the opposition or take a couple of airstrikes and he goes. That wasn’t going to happen. So you have to be prepared to say you would be willing to do whatever it takes. So if whatever it took would be massively arming the opposition; taking out first Syrian air defenses and now, you know, somehow Russian air defenses; using our military power to wrench power from Assad—because let’s not, again, pretend that there was some way in which he would go easily. Look at Gadhafi, who had no support, no external support, nowhere near the backing or the armed forces of Assad, and there it took seven months of a massive NATO bombing campaign and bulk arming of the opposition on the ground. And it didn’t lead to a political transition; it led to Gadhafi being shot and dragged through the streets.

So let’s not pretend there was a low-cost way to do it. And if you did it the heavy-duty way, even if you succeeded—which I have no doubt we ultimately would have, or would—what are you then left with? If it’s a violent overthrow of the regime, you probably get several million new refugees of those who were supporting the regime, who don’t trust that the new regime is going to be particularly kind to them. And you get a battle for power in Syria, which, chances are, the extreme groups would be more likely to win. And then, you know, do we go after them and find ourselves bombing both sides, or do we let it be a free-for-all, which is, frankly, the more likely outcome?

So that’s where—I don’t—I don’t—I certainly don’t defend the status quo, which is miserable. And I don’t question whether we have interests. I do question whether using American military power to overthrow Assad is the right way to satisfy those interests.

SCHMEMANN: OK. Let’s take another question. Thanks.

OPERATOR: Our next question comes from Jill Dougherty with CNN.

Q: Oh, hi there. You know, I got in on the call late. I’m actually in Moscow and couldn’t quite make it to the top, so you may have talked about this. If so, you can ignore the question.

But you know, President Putin is saying that the reason that plane was shot down was Turkey’s desire to protect oil routes coming from ISIL. And I notice that President Obama even, you know, was pretty overtly talking about the necessity to close the borders with Syria, Turkish borders with Syria. He was referring to foreign fighters going to join ISIS, but of course you can get oil across too. So the Russians are saying the U.S. has done almost nothing during its air campaign about ISIS oil, and the implication is you’re protecting that trade, you are in cahoots. So I guess the question is, you know, why didn’t the U.S. go very strongly to destroy those—any source of oil that ISIS has?

SCHMEMANN: Thank you. Yes, Steven, what about these claims of oil? Erdogan says it’s slander.

COOK: Well, it’s not slander. I think it—and that’s why the president said what he said. I think that the Russian president is making—is taking a number of different facts and suggesting something more than actually is happening, which is what he often does. But it is true that there are Turkish smugglers who have traded with ISIS and brought ISIS oil back across the border. That’s certainly been the case.

There’s no evidence that the Turkish government is abetting this type of activity in the way that it has abetted and provided support for other extremist groups, whether it’s Ahrar al-Sham or—and indirectly Jabhat al-Nusra. There are obviously questions about Turkish border security. Both the United States and the European Union started hammering the Turks on this in 2012. But the Turks made the determination that, absent a Western—that is, an American—invasion of Syria, that foreign fighters and extremist groups would be an instrument of Turkish statecraft.

As far as why the United States has not disrupted the oil trade up until now, I’ll leave that—I’ll leave that to Phil. I have no real insight into why, if we knew those targets were there and it was going on, why we didn’t do anything about it.

SCHMEMANN: Phil Gordon?

GORDON: I can pick that up. And I’ll—but I’ll start, though, with some of Jill’s comments about the Russian position. I mean, there’s a lot of nonsense being tossed around, and you know, we’ve seen before that Putin is prepared to throw whatever invective or adjectives at his enemies—you know, that all the opposition are terrorists. In this case, I think this is a—it is in that category.

Suggesting that Turkey shot this plane down because it was defending an ISIS oil smuggling route sort of avoids what is more obvious. And before you got on the call, Jill, I said at least that it seemed to me that what this was about was, in the narrowest of sense, defending Turkish sovereignty and airspace, which has been violated multiple times; but in a—in a broader and more important sense, it was about standing up to Russia’s use of airpower against opposition groups—which, again, the Russians are painting with a broad brush and calling them all terrorists—but opposition groups that Turkey has been supporting. And so Turkey went out of its way to take advantage of a minor violation of Turkish airspace, which was not likely to threaten Turkey, but to make a statement that it was not prepared to just sit back and watch while Russia took out these groups.

So I don’t think you need the oil smuggling explanation, and I don’t think that is the explanation. That doesn’t mean that there aren’t cases, as Steven said, of oil smugglers going across the border. But the idea that that’s what this was about seems to me far-fetched.

On the, you know, why haven’t we done more about their oil, this is something we were obviously very well aware of from the start. And as we considered how to deny ISIS finances—you know, we knew they had a lot of money from extortion. They had a lot of money from banks that they had just grabbed in places like Mosul. They were making money from ransoms. But we also knew they were making money from oil, and set out to deny that to them while trying to balance that denial with avoiding civilian casualties and turning populations to work with ISIL. So we did take out some of the oil refineries and other parts of their infrastructure, but it’s also been the case that they used locals—civilians, if you will—to drive the trucks. So they’ll force a, you know, father of a young family to get in a truck to go and drive the oil, and have him deliver the oil and bring back cash, and if he doesn’t successfully do that then his family can be killed. And so hitting a truck that isn’t necessarily delivering a certain amount of—a significant amount of money, but at the price of civilian casualties and turning locals against you, is just a balance that has to be taken into account as you decide how to deal with this revenue stream that everyone agrees needs to be stopped as much as possible, but not necessarily meaning hitting everything and anything in that sector, regardless of the civilian and environmental consequences of those actions. It needs to be—it’s a cost/benefit analysis, and are you denying them enough revenue that it’s worth the negative consequences of some of the actions that you might take.

SCHMEMANN: Phil and Steven, I will give you this opportunity to say any closing words here. Phil, let’s start with you.

COOK: Just that with all of the discussion about, you know, how to—how to counter ISIS and all of the discussion about stepping up military activities against the Islamic State, it’s important to remember that this is at its heart a political and a theological problem. And as I said before, no amount of warheads on foreheads are going to defeat the ideology. We could kill Abu Bakr al-Baghdadi in the same way that we killed Abu Musab Zarqawi and ISIS will continue.

SCHMEMANN: Well, thank you all for participating today. And thank you to Steven Cook and Philip Gordon. We will post the transcript from this call online at You can also find a number of other resources there—writings, backgrounds, expert briefs, and the like—and additional experts on these areas. So, again, please do visit for more.

And with that, thank you all, and have a wonderful rest of your afternoon.


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