RAND Corporation’s James Dobbins, CFR’s Philip H. Gordon, and the Institute for the Study of War’s Kimberly Kagan discuss the latest developments in the Syrian conflict and the prospects for the peace process. Using the early-2016 peace talks in Geneva as a framework for discussion, all three experts emphasize the fruitlessness of diplomatic efforts so long as the opposition remains fragmented and foreign powers can’t reach a consensus on the proper course of action.
CALABRESI: Welcome, everybody. Thank you. Welcome to today’s Council on Foreign Relations meeting on the Syria peace talks. Please? Thank you. Welcome everybody and welcome to those CFR members joining us around the country and around the world via livestream. As you all are aware, talks between the Syrian government and a collection of opposition groups were supposed to start this week in Geneva under the auspices of U.N. envoy Staffan de Mistura. The purpose of this meeting is to discuss those diplomatic efforts and to put them in the larger context of U.S. strategic interests in Syria.
We are fortunate to have with us today an outstanding panel to do that. Jim Dobbins, is a renowned and eminent figure in American diplomacy, having served in a variety of crisis management and diplomatic assignments from Somalia, to Bosnia, to Afghanistan and Pakistan, where he was the Obama administration’s special envoy. He now holds the distinguished chair in diplomacy and security at the RAND Corporation. Phil Gordon was, until last year, the senior White House official for the Middle East, North Africa, and the Gulf, the administration’s top expert on the region, and previous served in a number of top positions elsewhere and at the State Department. He is now with the Council. Kim Kagan is the founder and president of the Institute for the Study of War, a military historian who has served in a number of advisory roles for the Pentagon in the field in Afghanistan and in Iraq.
I think it bears repeating at the start both the human and strategic costs of the Syrian War. Hundreds of thousands of innocent people have been killed or maimed over the course of the war, millions have been forced to flee their homes. Human suffering on that massive a scale almost inevitably has strategic consequences. And indeed, neighboring states, as you all know, including a number of important U.S. allies, are being destabilized by the refugee flow out of Syria, a generation of young Muslims are being radicalized in the region and abroad, and the European Union is threatened by the refugee flow. And of course, we’ve seen the political and domestic security issues arising here in the U.S., including a surprising level of anti-Muslim sentiment around the country.
Against all that, we have this frankly rather sorry exercise unfolding in Geneva this week, where representatives of the Assad regime and the opposition can’t even agree to sit in separate rooms and have de Mistura shuttle between them. To be fair, the talks are the result of a prolonged diplomatic effort led by the U.S., springing from the thesis that the war in Syria will not end until Iran, Saudi Arabia, and now Russia, decide that it should end, which in turn produced, through diplomatic haggling, the U.N. Resolution 2245 last December, that called for a rather undefined transition period in Syria, which in turn mandated the talks.
So let’s turn to the panel now for sort of an update on where—how we got here. Phil, what is the state of the talks? And have they started? Are they going to start? What’s going on in Geneva?
GORDON: I’ll tell you that tomorrow, Massimo. Thank you, and thanks to everyone for being here.
Look, it had been, as you know, more than two years since there were peace talks, diplomatic talks, whether with the parties or the international community over Syria. Since the Geneva 1, started this in December of 2012. Then you had Geneva 2. And then a long hiatus. And finally, at the end of the last year, the United States and others managed to get the key external parties around the table in something called the International Syria Support Group, which met in October and November in Vienna, and then finally in December in New York, and launched the talks that are—they asked—they passed a Security Council resolution and asked that the parties come together under U.N. auspices to meet, they said in January, and finally got at least the beginning of this process going. That is what is supposed to happen this week.
The problem, and the reason why you say—in your tone and words show your skepticism, is that there were—there were and are two big problems for these talks. One is, if you’re going to have talks that include the parties, you have to decide who represents the parties. And that has been one of the obstacles, why they were delayed from January 25th to 29th, why we’re still not sure they’re going to come, because it has been very difficult for the opposition to decide—this fractured opposition, I’m sure we’ll talk about—to decide among itself and its various sponsors and all of the other countries that support it, who should represent it. So big problem one has been who represents the opposition.
There is a consensus that certain groups are definitely out, like ISIS and the al-Qaida-linked Nusra Front. But there’s a very different view on other Islamist groups, extremist groups, Kurdish groups. Some want them in. Others, like Turkey, want them out. And then there’s the so-called, everyone has a different version of it, opposition that is more sympathetic to Assad that the regime, and Russia, and Iran think should be there. And the other opposition says no. So that has been one of the reasons for the great difficulty in getting this to happen. It looks like there is some tentative compromise on who can show up. So that—
CALABRESI: Include the sort of HNC, the Saudi-backed group. Can you—
GORDON: The Saudis hosted a meeting in Riyadh, high negotiating committee agreed among themselves on who they believe. And there was a fair amount of consensus there, but you didn’t have the main Kurdish parties present. And the Russians in particular have been pushing that. How can you have peace talks without one of the main fighting parties on the ground? Ahrar ash-Sham, one of the key Salafist, Islamist parties on the ground, effective fighter, showed up in Riyadh, didn’t sign, and then their representative did sign. So it’s still sort of unclear the degree to which they’re in or out. Some of the parties in the region, like the Saudis, the Qataris, want them in because they’re a major player. Others, including the United States, are uncomfortable with a group that has had links to al-Qaida being represented in the talks.
So that’s one, and then the second, just so we can get on, but the second big challenge is—and the second reason for, I think, your appropriate skepticism—is that even if the talks—if the sponsors manage to get the talks to take place, the gaps among the external actors and the parties on the ground are enormous, particularly over the question of Assad’s future. And that has been—some of us, and Jim and I have written about this together, have focused on this issue of coupling the political transition, on which there is just not an agreement, with a ceasefire. And my own view, and I’m sure we’ll get to our own views, is that so long as the effort to have a ceasefire is coupled to the effort to have a political transition, the prospects for the talks will be very poor.
CALABRESI: OK. So in a best-case scenario, what do we get out of these talks. Let’s say that HNC and some other groups do show up. They sit in their respective rooms, I guess it’s supposedly for two to three weeks, with de Mistura shuttling between. What do we—what do we get out of it in a best-case scenario. Kim, do you want to take a crack?
KAGAN: I’m not sure that I’m going to be the radiant bearer of good news here, because I don’t actually think that the process as it’s set up right now is viable, for the reasons, actually, that Phil adduced. The great powers do not actually have common strategic objectives. And the parties on the ground have not agreed among themselves, or vis-à-vis even the great powers, what it is that they want to and hope to achieve. And so, although I have an incredible amount of respect for Ambassador de Mistura and the amazing work that he’s done in Iraq and Afghanistan, I think at best this could be the beginning of the process.
But the outcome of this process, the presupposition here, is that the great powers will determine the settlement. And I think that the situation on the ground will largely determine whether that settlement sticks. And whether or not conditions are set so that conflict can be avoided and averted and diminished over time—
CALABRESI: Let me just—so you disagree with the thesis that it’ll only end when the outside powers using it as a proxy war—you think it has to be a ground-up—ground truth settlement that drives it.
KAGAN: I think there needs to be—
CALABRESI: People need to be taken off the battlefield, or something?
KAGAN: I think people need to be taken off the battlefield. I think there is a role for a great power settlement. It has to happen. But I don’t think that it can actually be divorced from that situation on the ground.
CALABRESI: OK. So I think at this point it would be useful just to pull back and clarify, from, you know, the perspective of experience, the strategic interests of the U.S. and what our strategic goals there should be.
Ambassador Dobbins, what exactly should we be after at this point in Syria?
DOBBINS: Well, I think what the United States would like to see emerge from this process is agreement on a transitional government which would add elements to the opposition to the existing government, a ceasefire and a pathway toward legitimizing that new government, and a pathway toward Assad’s eventual departure. I mean, as I read it, that’s what the United States is looking for. I share both Kim and Phil’s skepticism that this is likely to be achieved any time soon. And we’ll get to it, the paper Phil and I did, which advocates prioritizing the ceasefire, stopping the violence, at least in significant parts of the country, and working on a political solution over a longer period of time.
In terms of U.S. strategic interests, it’s clear that the Syrian Civil War is at the kernel of the disorder, the violence, and the polarization and radicalization of the Middle East as a whole, and of Muslim populations around the world. The focus of American concern is the Islamic State, but the Islamic States is, at least to a significant degree, a product of the civil war in Syria. And it’s hard to see how that could be effectively addressed and eventually displaced without some kind of settlement of the larger conflict in Syria.
CALABRESI: So is it sufficient to cap the fighting, stop the refugee outflow, and leave a kind of Daytonesque soft partition in place to achieve those goals?
DOBBINS: Well, you know, my own personal approach to this is not from the standpoint of being an expert on Syria, but having a lot of experience in conflict resolution, post-conflict stabilization, peacekeeping, that sort of things. And experience suggests that even if you were able to get a political settlement, even if you are able to get a ceasefire, it’s unlikely that the parties would be capable of implementing it without a great deal of international oversight, that even if they were absolutely sincere in committing to whatever they had signed, they simply wouldn’t trust each other enough to undergo the process of disarmament and the various accommodations that would be required. And that therefore, some kind of international role is going to be necessary.
Now, the standard pattern would be, you get a political settlement. The combatants invite the international community to deploy a peacekeeping force. The peacekeeping force comes in. It becomes a neutral, trusted arbiter. It allows people to disarm and begin the accommodations in a safe environment. The problem is, of course, who would volunteer for a U.N. peacekeeping force in Syria?
CALABRESI: Pakistani battalions won’t be our first choice to deploy to Syria, as in Bosnia. (Laughter.)
DOBBINS: And therefore, you know, given the degree that this conflict has become internationalized, the degree to which it’s engaged nearly all of the great powers except China, as well as the major regional powers, the conclusion we came to is that a force that’s essentially made up of those great powers is going to be necessary to oversee and enforce any kind of ceasefire. But we also think that nobody’s going to put their forces in areas that aren’t friendly to them.
And so what you end up with a situation in which the Iranians and the Russian essentially assure that the Assad regime obeys a ceasefire, that the United States makes sure the Kurds obey the ceasefire, and that maybe the Jordanians in the south and the Turks in the north create a similar safe zones in the opposition areas. There’s all kinds of complications and objections to this. It’s not a solution that has a high probability of success. We just think it has a higher probability than the current effort, which links a ceasefire and a stop of the violence to a prerequisite for a political agreement on a transitional government, which we think is simply beyond the possible.
CALABRESI: Well, I’ve got a lot of questions about that, both about how a similar solution ended up—similar solutions have ended up working in other circumstances. But to begin with, maybe, it’s worth checking in on exactly what the state of the great power diplomacy is because, as Phil said, there’s still enormous gaps, right? I mean, the burdened word in all of the diplomacy so far is “transition.” We believe it means a transition to Assad leaving, and the Russians believe it’s a transition to him taking over the country again. So just how far are we from the point where international powers could agree to something like you’re describing?
GORDON: Well, quite far. And that’s the problem. And I think that is, for me, at least, the reason to think more creatively about alternative solutions, which may also not be perfect but are much more plausible. And the essential difference, there are lots of differences, but the core difference, as you said, Massimo, is what happens with Assad. The view of the United States, the Europeans, and the Gulf partners for nearly five years now has been that any solution to the war in Syria needs to include a political transition beyond Assad—he needs to go.
And over time, the definition of that has changed from, I think, early on people really thought we were going to change the regime and put in a new and moderate one. That obviously didn’t work out, and so now on the table are a range of ideas that are somewhere between immediate and complete regime change and leaving him in place, like a timetable of over 18 months whereby he goes, or a process whereby his powers are reduced and the constitution is rewritten and there’s an empowered executive authority. So they’re looking at different options in the middle, but the bottom line remains that Russia and Iran are absolutely committed to keeping the regime in power and refuse to lift a finger to push him. And I can talk about why they’re so committed.
Whereas others—you know, everyone to a different degree—but the Saudis, the Turks, the Qataris, and many others, believe that he has to go.
CALABRESI: What is our strategic reason for continuing to support that position, both publicly and I take it there hasn’t been sliding on that behind the scenes?
GORDON: I think the guiding assumption for the U.S. has been that the war can’t end so long as Assad’s there. He’s the magnet for terrorists and the radicalization, and that the opposition won’t stop fighting unless he is gone. That has been the driving assumption. And it’s a fair point. I mean, nobody thinks it would be easy if he is still in place to get a ceasefire and to get those providing arms and money to the opposition, or to get the people on the ground who have been fighting to stop. So that—
CALABRESI: Well, how much of that is driven by Saudi and other Sunni desire to get him out, just to bloody Iran’s nose? I mean, is it really a problem of having to convince the Saudis that he doesn’t have to go? What is the Saudi interest in keeping him there—in, I’m sorry—in getting him out?
GORDON: The Saudi interest in getting him out, I think, starts with Iran, more than anything. You know, frankly, if they could decouple reducing Iran’s influence and Assad, they would choose the former and stick with the latter. I don’t think it’s a principled opposition to Assad or the way he rules. It is the Iranian—you know, the notion of Iran controlling Beirut, Baghdad, Damascus, and so on. But for the U.S., which I think is more flexible on the issue, it is a combination of—and obviously different individuals have different views, but a genuine belief that so long as Assad is there the war will not end, because the opposition won’t stop fighting, and then on top of that, the partners that we’re working with trying to get it done.
But I’ll say, you know, last point of my own, I’ve been trying to analyze a U.S. perspective, but my own argument is that the strategic consequences of this conflict, that you began by enumerating, are now so great—the number killed, the refugees destabilizing neighbors like Jordan, Lebanon, Turkey, Iraq, the radicalization of Muslims elsewhere in the world, the consequences for the European Union, we could go on and on—are so great that sticking with this initial notion that we’re going to keep the war going and keep supporting the opposition until we get a comprehensive political settlement I think is a recipe not for a comprehensive political settlement, but for an ongoing war and more and more dreadful strategic consequence.
CALABRESI: Kim, your alternative, the ground up, what does that—what does that look like, removing people from the field?
KAGAN: I think the Syrian opposition has interests that are actually independent of its funders. This was actually an indigenous movement to begin with. It has certainly become internationalized. Regime change is actually universal on the wonderful chart that Genevieve Casagrande, who’s out there in the audience, has put together on the understanding war website, that shows what it is that different opposition groups want. I think that we have to recognize that Assad’s departure is a minimum requirement for most opposition groups, but it is an insufficient requirement for most of them.
And the long-term threat that I see to a political settlement that at best if a Band-Aid, is that there is actually an al-Qaida franchise inside of Syria, that will continue its insurgency against not only the Assad regime or its successor, but actually will continue its war against the West, and that we have an opposition that is sufficiently tenacious at this particular point in time, that it will continue to host a threat that is as grave as Jabhat al-Nusra, and the kinds of groups that support it.
As a result of that, the kinds of strategic mitigations that we hope to see from a negotiated great powers settlement, will actually be undermined from the ground up, and lead to the kind of al-Qaida recidivism that we are seeing. The idea that we can defeat perhaps an al-Qaida franchise in a location in a time, but then it will grow up stronger and more robust in a different manifestation, in a different place.
CALABRESI: So what is—how do you get total victory?
KAGAN: You don’t get total—
CALABRESI: So how do you—so what are you proposing?
KAGAN: The first thing I’m proposing is that we actually recognize that the problem is as multilayered as it is, and that ISIS is not the only threat, that al-Qaida is a threat right behind waiting for ISIS’ destruction. And that as we actually look at and set U.S. strategic objectives, we need to have in mind that we actually have two threats to take care of.
Secondly, I think Ambassador Dobbins is right on the mark, that the kinds of political accommodations that we need from the Syrian opposition and from the backers of the regime are not superficial. They lead to the kinds of processes of DDR and others that are actually going to reduce the conflict over the long term. And therefore, we mustn’t simplify this into just defining the strategic and grand strategic problem that the U.S. faces, and trying to define solution sets for Syria. And we have not yet come up with a solution set, in two months of meeting. And many different considerations, from soft partition to hard partition, to backing Assad, to overthrowing Assad—there is no easy solution. And so we actually have to be very humble about the challenge ahead.
Secondly, I think when it comes to the kinds of peacekeeping forces that might be needed to enforce any of these particular settlements, you have to realize that Syria is bigger than the small areas of the Balkans that we’ve worked in, and has a problem set of greater magnitude. And therefore, if we are actually talking about international peacekeeping, the magnitude is hundreds of thousands internationally. It’s not—
CALABRESI: Hundreds of thousands of blue helmets?
KAGAN: Blue helmets.
CALABRESI: Got it. OK.
KAGAN: And that’s a big number.
CALABRESI: Interesting. Fortunately, with regard to humility, we’re in a presidential campaign year, so—
KAGAN: We’re good.
CALABRESI: —we’re overburdened with humility from our public servants. (Laughter.) But it’s worth actually touching on the domestic side. How hampered is the current effort, how hampered are alternatives this year? Is it as much as we can hope for us to kind of bumble along until we get a new administration, or what? Phil?
GORDON: I don’t think that’s the constraint, if I understood the question correctly about the political concerns—
CALABRESI: No, it’s not so much a constraint, just are they helping or hurting?
GORDON: I don’t think that’s the issue. People are always looking for the reason that President Obama hasn’t, you know, done what is necessary in Syria. And it’s not because of public opinion. It’s not because of the election. It’s not because of the Iran nuclear deal. It’s because when you go in the room to plan a military campaign for victory, you don’t find that path. And that’s what I was—and Kimberly said she and her tem have been at it for two months looking for it. We’ve been out it for five years looking for it, with some serious military planners.
And it’s not as if, you know, the president just said, well, never mind, take the military option off the table. There are a lot of military options. It’s just none of them necessarily lead to a better outcome. And this simplistic notion that, you know, you just apply a little bit of force and Assad’s going to come to the table, and, what, negotiate his own departure, just doesn’t add up. You know, I just reinforce that point. And that’s why, again, when some of us propose a diplomatic solution that is also far from ideal and difficult to achieve, that is only because the alternatives to it are so poor.
And even—no one should doubt, and I think Kimberly would agree, the United States has the military capacity if necessary to oust the Assad regime. We could do that. But you ask yourself what that then leads to. What happens in Damascus? What happens to the millions of Alawites, Christians, and Sunnis that have been with the regime, and probably don’t want to hang around too long? And I think the result—the least-likely outcome of that is that moderates take over Damascus and govern a stable Syria. The more likely outcomes are not very pretty.
CALABRESI: Right. So just further on your—on your plan—I’m trying to sort of expand it from the conceptual to the practical, and knowing that it is informed, clearly as it is, from the Balkan experience—the immediate result there, and indeed the long-term result, was a kind of freezing in place of the most extreme players. And indeed, politically the three parties that were most extreme ended up becoming stronger and more in control of their sections. Would one expect that it would play out similarly in Syria under your plan? And what would be the consequences? Would it be, you know, disastrous to have a permanent, essentially, you know, hostile series of groups essentially frozen in place by the international community?
DOBBINS: Well, when you’re talking about the Balkans, you’re really talking about Bosnia.
CALABRESI: Bosnia. Yes, of course.
DOBBINS: And Bosnia has been peaceful now for 15 years. Those populations are living, and to some degree intermixed, without significant violence. It still requires a very small international forces, which has no Americans in it. So, I mean, Bosnia is an analogy, but it’s—but as Kimberly said, it’s a much smaller society, more tractable society. Syria is infinitely more difficult. It’s ten times bigger. It’s ten times more violent. The antipathies and the complexities are much greater. So it would be nice if we could get to Bosnia. I think everybody would jump at that solution. But it’s not going to be that simple.
On the other hand, I do think there are incentives for what we’re trying to propose. It’s true that some of the Syrian opposition is focused on getting rid of Assad, but that’s actually a rather minority of the opposition. The Kurds don’t care whether Assad stays or goes, as long as they retain their autonomy. Al-Nusra and the Islamic State don’t care if Assad stays or goes. They would probably prefer him to stay, because it allows them to recruit and gain legitimacy. And they’ll continue to fight whether Assad stays or goes. So you are talking a rather—a relatively modest kernel of the opposition that are focused on Assad going.
Now, internationally you do have—and this is where the real obstacles are—the Saudi and Turkish feel very strongly about it. But if you look at what we’re proposing, the Russians and Iranians get to essentially keep what they have. So Iran gets a window on the Beqaa Valley and Lebanon. The Russians get bases on the Mediterranean. The rest of the country gets not to be barrel bombed, not to be bombed into submission, not to starve to death. And that’s probably a pretty strong incentive for many of them.
And you do have—we’re not suggesting that this become a permanent solution. We’re not suggesting a Dayton-type accord, which creates a framework which becomes unchangeable. We’re suggesting that it be paralleled by an ongoing political process. And we’re also suggesting that the international community undertake the job of displacing ISIS in the part of the country where it is, because if we leave that to the Syrians they’ll start fighting with each other over who gets to displace ISIS.
CALABRESI: So I’m going to open it up to questions, but one last one, on a—just a sort of a numerical thing. Do you agree with Kim that your plan would require a hundred thousand blue helmets?
DOBBINS: I don’t think it would require any blue helmets because I don’t see this as U.N. peacekeeping operation under U.N. control. How many Americans would it take to guarantee the Kurds get their part of the task? Not very many. So that’s—the American commitment is the Kurds will keep the ceasefire. How many Iranians and Russians will it take to make sure Assad does it? I suspect that the number they have there is adequate to that task. Yes, it would require—and this would be the most difficult task in some way—forces to try to establish a degree of security in the opposition areas to the north and the south. And that will be very complex because some of the opposition will sign up to the ceasefire and some of it won’t, and will try to subvert it. And that’s going to be a serious complicating effort.
Then the question, if the—if everybody stops fighting and turns against ISIS, I think the task of actually displacing ISIS and creating a regime in the very sparsely populated parts of the country where ISIS currently controls, is a relatively modest requirement, not requiring hundreds of thousands, but perhaps requiring tens of thousands of international troops.
KAGAN: But I think—I’m sorry, Ambassador, I didn’t mean to jump in like that.
DOBBINS: Oh, go ahead, go ahead.
KAGAN: I would just say, but Nusra is waiting in the wings in order to take over the gap left by ISIS, both in eastern Syria and in central Syria, and along—really along the urban corridor that is well-fought. And so I actually think that the requirement for settlement and the requirement actually to meet our vital strategic interests, which are the diminishment of the actual terror threat that emanates from this safe haven, is actually still pretty high because if we leave—if we sweep away ISIS and leave an emirate for al-Qaida, then we are actually simply creating the next problem for ourselves.
CALABRESI: Right, a balance of risk. I’m sure we’ll get to more of that. Opening up to members for questions. A couple of reminders. This meeting is on the record. Wait for the microphone, please, and speak directly into it. Stand, state your name and your affiliation, and limit yourself to a question. I’ll cut you off if you go on. So, yes, in the back with the blue tie, I think.
Q: Thank you for doing this. My name’s Igor Donevesky (sp). I’m a reporter for a Russian newspaper.
And my question is for Phil, it’s on your proposal to sort of separate these talks on ceasefire from talks on political transition in Syria. Don’t you think that by doing so—that by narrowing the goal of the negotiators in may also sort of cut off part of motivation for the sides to participate in the talks? Because, for example, my understanding is that Syrian opposition is taking part in negotiations taking, you know, in mind that it will allow them to finally have a political transition of Assad regime, and that’s why they go to negotiations? On the other hand, in last several days, several U.S. military officials recognized that Russian operation in Syria has sort of shifted the balance for the Assad regime to, like, gain some ground. So time plays in his hands. So how interested he is in ceasefire also? Thank you.
GORDON: That’s a good question. There is no question that the opposition, or the bulk of the opposition, is unenthusiastic about what I’m proposing, separating, because for understandable reasons they want the negotiation to include Assad’s departure. And they want—they don’t want any doubt in anyone’s mind that that has to be the goal. So I understand that. And therefore, yes, it will be difficult to persuade them. One of the—I think one of the best critiques of the proposal that we’re putting forward it, or questions about it, is could you actually get the opposition to go for it? And the answer may be maybe not. It may just be that they are just too focused on Assad and until—so long as they believe that somehow someone’s going to help them get everything, they’re going to fight on.
What I would say, though, is it has never been put to them. They have never had the chance to consider—of course, we know what they would like, ideally, but most of them are realistic enough to know that that’s not around the corner. What hasn’t been put to them is an agreement that would have support from Russia, and Iran, and even the regime, that there would be a ceasefire and the barrel bombs would stop, and the offensive operations would stop, and they would get agreed autonomy of the areas that they’re controlling, and there would be humanitarian aid coming in and prisoners released.
Now, is that the comprehensive political settlement that gets rid of Assad and builds a new Syria? I’m afraid it’s not. But it is a hell of a lot better than what they have now, and what they’re like to have for a long time to come. And that’s why I think it’s at least worth pursuing to see if we could get to the point where we could say, that’s what’s on offer. Now, if those talks were about that, I would say they’re still a long shot, probably won’t work, but I would say they’re really interesting because—
CALABRESI: What about Assad and he’s on a roll?
GORDON: Same thing goes. Can I guarantee that, you know, the Russians and the Iranians would go for this? Equally fair question. And in some ways, you know, they might be harder. But it’s also never been put to them. Look, they’re on a temporary roll, if you will, all right? The Russians have come in and they’re—but they can’t be feeling great about the long term. I mean, it’s still the case that you have a narrow Alawite regime that’s now reliant on Iranians and Hezbollah, which is not too thrilled about dying in Syria either, and Russians bearing costs and will no doubt be facing extremism and terrorism. And the long-term plan there, they can’t be sure, too, that they’re going to be able to establish control over all of Syria. So especially if the supporters of the opposition, including us, say: If you don’t go for something like this, then the war goes on. That’s not great for you either.
CALABRESI: There’s a line of thought that says it’s going great for the Russians now, but over time it becomes more and more difficult for them, and they become in fact ultimately more useful for a diplomatic solution because they have a strategic vulnerability over time.
GORDON: It’s a plausible—
KAGAN: I disagree with that, actually.
CALABRESI: Good. Let’s hear it, yeah.
KAGAN: I think that superficially it seems to us in Washington that there is a commonality of objectives between the United States and Putin and Iran. We all agree that ISIS is a problem and is a threat. But our prioritization of that threat is actually different. And so it is a wonderful lever and excuse for Putin to engage in behavior that is enlarging of the grand strategic and strategic objectives he laid out just a few weeks ago in his new strategy, but it’s not actually his primary purpose for being there inside of Syria.
It is actually a really low-level investment of forces and resources to maintain what it is that he needs to maintain, which is an airbase where he has an airbase. With the cost of the resources that he’s put in, he’s able to maintain with 40 airframes, based on the Mediterranean. And so I think we can overestimate the cost that Putin is having to sink into this. And I think he’ll leave his allies hanging if he needs to. But what he needs to get out of this is actually fairly minimal, and is something that, I think, at least for the nonce, he can afford.
GORDON: Can I add one thing to this, quickly? I know there’s a lot more there.
CALABRESI: Sure. Go ahead.
GORDON: I agree that we shouldn’t be overoptimistic about Putin getting impatient, but the critique that this sort of approach isn’t viable because Russian and Iran won’t agree to it, so we should ask for even more from Russian and Iran? I mean, that’s the problem I have with that. If they won’t even agree to this, which allows them to maintain their role, Russia keeps its base, Assad stays in power, Iran has its land. If they won’t even agree to that, when they keep all of that, so under what circumstance are they going to agree to what we’re really asking for, which is comprehensive political transition? Don’t underestimate the amount of military force that would be necessary to bring that about.
CALABRESI: Yes, yellow tie.
Q: Bill Courtney, RAND Corporation.
In the mid-’80s, the Soviets lost confidence in Babrak Karmal in Afghanistan, and replaced him with Mohammad Najibullah, who they considered to be more effective and more inclusive. And he turned out to be that, pretty much. In Syria, in recent months, it looks like the Russians have begun to lose more confidence in Assad, including most directly in Putin’s BILD interview, in which he criticized Assad a couple weeks ago. Will the transition—let’s say through the ceasefire to the democratic transition that the U.S. proposes—is that likely to be long enough that there’s going to be a need for another strongman who’s more effective than Assad to hold on? Because the Russians are kind of worried that, you know, if Assad is still there they may lose enough group that they’d have to put in more forces to stabilize the situation, or whatever. So they might at some point be interested in proposing a better strongman.
CALABRESI: Any indication the Russians will pull the plug on him.
GORDON: Well, I can start with that. Not really. We have hoped for almost five years now that the Russians would come around to the view that it was in their interest to get rid of Assad. You know, I said, you know, the opposition supporter perspective on this has really evolved from changing the regime to they’ll get rid of Assad and his cronies and the institutions can stay, and maybe even other Alawite generals can stay. But even with the bar that low, the Russians have never really been interested. Not, I think, because they love Assad.
And you’re right, there are indications they’re tired of him and think he’s a problem. But they have never believed in the scenario whereby you get rid of Assad and the regime stays and thus their interests stay. They’re afraid of a scenario where you get rid of Assad and then everything crumbles and their interests crumble. So we’ve long hoped for that. You know, who knows. You never know. But they’ve never really given any indication that they’re prepared to help with that process because they just don’t believe that—so you get rid of Assad—
CALABRESI: Is there Alawite depth behind Assad?
GORDON: It’s not a deep bench. The family’s been around for decades, not with an interest in empowering deputies and, you know. And that’s just the Russian fear, that the core of this regime goes and then actually the whole thing goes, and then you get this free-for-all for Damascus.
CALABRESI: No more spies on the Mediterranean.
In the way back.
Q: Thank you. Richard Downie from Delphi Strategic Consulting. Thank you for a very interesting discussion.
And my question actually builds a little bit on the previous one. If, for all the reasons that you’ve mentioned that Assad must go, I mean, the opposition will continue fighting if he’s there, one of the arguments that’s always been raised about keeping Assad there was that if he left there would be tremendous chaos, and this vacuum that would be out there. And I wonder if, whether they like Assad or not, the Iranians and the Russians, does their presence, if they help stabilize the situation should Assad—should they decide that it’s time for Assad to go, and whether they pull somebody off that Alawite bench or not, can they help stabilize the situation sufficiently that things don’t fly out of control? Thank you.
CALABRESI: Anybody want to take sides of usefulness on the Iran front?
KAGAN: I’ll take sides on that, because I think it’s a reasonable question, and one that we should ask in many ways, as we actually go back to fundamentals and try to find our way forward. I simply think that the requirements to—the requirements for Assad, even backed by the Russians the Iranians, to re-secure Syria are extraordinarily high, and exceed what the Russians, Iranians, and the Assad regime have right now in theater. So even were those partners willing to ditch the man, I think that they would be faced with a problem not only in Alawite lands, but actually throughout Syria. The requirements are high, which I’m sure is why in part we have a proposal on the table for some soft partition, because retaking of Syria seems very difficult.
That said, there is no will. The Iranians do not want Assad to go. And I think it is just important actually to recognize that, and to call a spade a spade, to recognize actually, which we have not done in this discussion, that the Iranians and Russians are belligerents in this conflict, that they have a very vested interest, a military interest, in Assad’s survival, and that they’re not neutral parties at the negotiating table. Now, I’m not saying that the Saudis are neutral parties, or the Turks, or the Qataris. I simply want to point out that we are talking about an international discussion as though all the parties are the same, when in fact there are combatants on the ground very much in support of the regime with Iranian patches and, indeed, with Russian patches. And we need to recognize that as we talk about an international settlement.
CALABRESI: If the question was whether Iran and Russia could play some positive role in stabilizing a post-Assad Syria, I think the answer is potentially yes. And, of course, we’re proposing that they do so in the paper that we’ve written. I frankly, personally, think that whether Assad goes or stays makes only a marginal difference in terms of resolving the conflict in Syria. I think even if Assad were to have a heart attack or take a dacha in Sochi, the antipathies, the tensions, and the conflicts in the society are such that it would be extremely difficult for them to move forward toward any kind of reconstituted, reimagined Syria state, particularly given that there are elements in that society, including al-Nusra as well as al-Qaida as well as the Islamic State, that will do everything to counter it. So I really find the Assad going or staying something of a red herring in terms of trying to address and think through how this conflict could actually be ended.
Q: Margaret Warner from the PBS NewsHour.
We haven’t had any discussion yet about Turkey’s role. And of course, we all—or, I should say, Erdogan’s Turkey, which seems to be there for quite a while. We all know they’re obsessed with the Kurds, not letting them establish a complete foothold in Syria. But beyond that, what is really driving them? How do they see their own strategic interests? And has that shifted at all?
CALABRESI: Phil, you’re the Turkey guy.
GORDON: Well, I can start. Kimberly said something earlier about prioritizing threats, right? And I think what’s most relevant about Turkey is we have some common threats and adversaries in this issue with Turkey, but we prioritize them very differently, almost in an opposite way. If the United States, if it’s fair to sort of say, we’re mostly focused on ISIS. And then we’re also very much against Assad. And the Kurds are our partners.
For Turkey, you turn that over, the Kurds are the overwhelming threat by far. They’re in war with them that’s killed 30,000 people. And that’s their priority number one. Then Assad, for different reasons, they want to get rid of. So that’s priority number two. And ISIS is further down the list, not because they like them, but compared to the Kurds—you know, ISIS is a potential threat, radicalizing Turks and blowing things up, and we’ve seen terrorist attacks from ISIS.
So their attitude there has been more to avoid a conflict with ISIS, and to make sure the Kurds don’t get sort of political autonomy out of this. And that’s why it’s been so difficult for us to work with the Turks on this issue. And yet, it’s essential, because they’re the ones, you know, with the border for hundreds of kilometers. And they played a major role in supporting the opposition. And so we just have a different—a fairly fundamental difference on the approach.
KAGAN: I’d love to commend a little paper that Chris Kozak, one of my analysts who’s here in the audience, put together in our larger paper on our strategy in Syria. And he did a wonderful little four- or five-page essay on Turkish interests. And I think it’s just as Phil said, with a very neo-Ottoman grand strategic perspective.
Q: (Off mic.)
CALABRESI: The NSC, from which optimism of all sorts of is constantly emerging, so. (Laughter.)
Q: (Off mic.)
CALABRESI: Yeah, yeah. Anything? Any signs of—
DOBBINS: Yeah, I mean, you know, since ISIS has conducted several terrorist attacks in Turkey, they’re taking it more seriously. It’s risen in their prioritization, although it still probably doesn’t surpass the Kurds, or getting rid of Assad.
CALABRESI: Can I just follow-up on Turkey? You know, we have, as we’ve said, a number of different strategic interests. You know, losing what remains of our alliance and cooperation with Turkey, and the process of Syria further coming apart presumably is a concern. How are we doing in the larger relationship with Turkey at this point?
KAGAN: I think Turkey is quite challenged by Russia’s presence inside of Syria. And I think we need to be really open about that. Russia has opened the southern flank of NATO. We haven’t talked about that since Cold War days. But in some respects, Putin’s move is brilliant if you do think that destabilization of Europe, the dissolution of the European Union, and the collapse of NATO might be among Putin’s grand strategic goals. He has actually opted for a pressure point vis-à-vis Turkey that is different from the Eastern European border that is causing neuralgia. That is quite serious, and frankly has put the question of the alliance and its vitality on the table.
And I think therefore there is an inherent tension between the tolerance that the United States seems to be showing for Russia’s presence inside of Syria and—
CALABRESI: But doesn’t Russia’s presence drive Turkey closer to the U.S.?
KAGAN: Only if the U.S. does anything for Turkey.
CALABRESI: I see.
KAGAN: And if the U.S. does not do anything for Turkey, then in fact it is alienating Turkey from the value of the NATO alliance. And so I fear that whatever happens in the short term, the long-term value of the alliance for Turkey may seem to diminish, as Putin takes a bigger hand.
DOBBINS: I mean, short of the use of nuclear weapons, the Turks can take care of themselves, as regards to the Russians.
CALABRESI: Ah, yes.
DOBBINS: As they’ve shown. (Laughter.)
Q: Lloyd Aberdeen (ph).
Phil and Jim, let’s assume tomorrow God takes Assad away and you have a new military junta in power, and a ceasefire doesn’t hold. At that point, what will the U.S. do? What will the international community do? But let’s remember one thing, Arab civil wars are cruel and long. You know, there was an ISIS in 655. It took the governor of Damascus 40 years to eradicate them. And then you have the culture of revenge. So we have to take all of these factors into account. You know, the Arabs are not Americans. We had a civil war here, and then—(off mic)—
CALABRESI: So what was it? I’m sorry.
Q: My question is, what happens if Assad goes and the fighting continues? What do you do?
GORDON: Is this in the scenario of already having a ceasefire, or just now?
Q: Let’s assume tomorrow we have a ceasefire—(off-mic)—
DOBBINS: Well, I think we’ve written a paper on this. (Laughter.) I mean, you know, that the major powers who have engaged themselves have to cooperate to sustain that ceasefire, which essentially means deploying forces and helping the indigenous locals adhere to the ceasefire, vis-à-vis those who’ve agreed to the ceasefire, and continue to combat those who are trying to undermine the ceasefire, which will certainly include the Islamic State, al-Nusra, and maybe other more extreme groups. So it’s going to be a combination of peacekeeping and counterinsurgency, and frankly, clearing and holding operations as regards Raqqa and Palmyra, and the other populations.
GORDON: But I think the other point, the real point, is it doesn’t change the fundamentals. I mean, Jim made this point earlier. It’s not as if, if Assad were hit by a truck tomorrow we could then segue towards an agreement where the regime extends its writ over the Kurdish areas and the east and the south. It doesn’t just—it doesn’t change that at all. That scenario where Syria is reunified under an Assad-less regime is just not there, nor does it mean that, well, without him the two sides come together, there’s a transitional government, and they work it out. So that’s the reason why I question making that so central to our diplomacy, including the willingness to sustain the war or escalate, when its resolution wouldn’t necessarily make things any easier.
KAGAN: There’s something that we haven’t talked about in ceasefire and soft partition that I feel obliged to raise. We’ve talked about whether or not the Iranians might, with Russian help, guarantee the Alawite regime. We can talk about whether the United States might keep the Kurds in check. Who secures the Sunni? Who secures them? They are the majority. They are large.
CALABRESI: By secure?
KAGAN: I mean, who actually guarantees their security? And who actually guarantees that they are not preyed upon in two ways—in many ways, actually, but the—
DOBBINS: The Sunni powers.
KAGAN: But there’s this magical myth of these Sunni powers that are going to come galloping in with their Arab armies to help. And I feel like—
DOBBINS: Well, and Turkey.
KAGAN: You know, it may be that the Turks can do some, but I think we need to be realistic. Our Arab partners, particularly Saudi Arabia and the Emiratis, are actually bogged down in a war in Yemen that they consider to be a more important priority than the war in Syria. It relates very fundamentally to Saudi succession and to a host of other issues that are very core. And so I think we need to be really realistic—
CALABRESI: The other question to follow on with that one is it’s not just a matter to guaranteeing their security, from our perspective it’s a matter of keeping them in line, right? And so, you know, the Jordanians may be a presence that one could rely on to be interposed between some threat to the Sunnis and them, but probably the people you’re going to want, you know, necessarily—
GORDON: But the premise here is a peace agreement. And the regime, which is currently bombing and invading and sending artillery, agrees that it is no longer going to try to exercise its writ over those areas. That’s how they’re secured primarily.
KAGAN: But there’s such a lethal opposition within the opposition.
DOBBINS: That is a key point.
KAGAN: And that’s, I think, the problem. Right now we have the Jordanians supporting a moderate opposition that we could deal with. And yet, they can’t actually protect the security of that moderate opposition from predations by ISIS and from Jabhat al-Nusra. In fact, I think the biggest risk that we face over the next year is that the combination of Assad regime backed by Iran and Russia, and ISIS, and Nusra, will whittle away the moderate opposition so that it no longer exists to work with.
CALABRESI: But your proposal, Jim and Phil, is that there’s ongoing, as you said, counterinsurgency and other things, so it’s in fact the U.S. that’s providing the security for good Sunnis versus bad Sunnis in that scenario. Is that right?
DOBBINS: No. Well, I think it’s the U.S. and other international forces that are reoccupying the areas that are currently governed by the Islamic State. The actual security of the opposition areas that sign up to the ceasefire, our proposal is that the moderate Sunni states provide the core of that peacekeeping. Now, I think Kim is right, that given the degree to which the extremists and the most moderate elements are intermixed, this is going to be an extremely complicated problem. To the extent there is an international campaign that’s rolling up ISIS, that’s going to take some pressure off.
The moderates themselves are going to have to turn their guns away from the regime and against those who are disrupting the ceasefire that they’ve agreed to, and which they want to keep. And so to some degree, there will be a continued conflict within the Sunni community between extremists who want to disrupt the ceasefire and moderates who want to keep it. And the moderates who want to keep it will be getting some external help, but will have to do most of the fighting.
CALABRESI: Final thoughts, Phil?
GORDON: No, that’s—you know, we recognize it’s a challenge. There’s a challenge for any of these paths. But you start with, again, for the first time an international agreement that the military conflict between the opposition and the regime is agreed to end. And then you have a much more manageable conflict—challenge of dealing with counterinsurgency, the terrorist groups. But it’s a lot more manageable in the context of a nationwide ceasefire, and an agreement to allow in international forces, than it is in the current free-for-all where we have no one on the ground and the forces that are radicalizing these people are even greater than they will be.
CALABRESI: All right. Well, I’m afraid that’s all we have time for. Thank you very much to our panelists. A fascinating discussion. Thank you all for your very good questions. (Applause.)