Senior Fellow, Council on Foreign Relations
Eni Enrico Mattei Senior Fellow for Middle East and Africa Studies, Council on Foreign Relations
Adjunct Senior Fellow, Council on Foreign Relations
Edward R. Murrow Press Fellow, Council on Foreign Relations
President, Council on Foreign Relations
CFR's Steven A. Cook, Philip Gordon, Farah Pandith, and Graeme Wood join Richard N. Haass, CFR president, to discuss the implications of the November 13, 2015, terror attacks in Paris for the global campaign against the Islamic State and youth radicalization. Wood, author of "What ISIS Really Wants" in the Atlantic, begins by considering what the attacks in Paris suggest about the Islamic State's command and control structure. Gordon reflects on his time in the Obama administration, outlining the extent to which U.S. policy is likely to change after Paris. Cook explains the Egyptian and Turkish perspectives on countering the Islamic State group, underlining that any change in the U.S. policy of arming the Kurds could jeopardize U.S.-Turkey relations. Finally, Pandith emphasizes the importance of U.S. and global efforts to counter youth radicalization through the Internet.
HAASS: Welcome to the Council on Foreign Relations. And what we do from time to time when really big issues and questions come to the fore is we try to bring together the community that is the Council. At our core we are a membership organization and we try to bring it together.
And we try to break down geography, so we bring together people here in New York, people in our nation’s capital, and people around the country and the world to participate in a session. And that’s what we are going to do here tonight to talk about the events in Paris, what we—what they tell us, what we should learn from them. And we’ll spend some time on analysis but also some time on prescription, what to—what to do, and perhaps at times equally important, what not to do.
We’ve got some incredibly good guides for helping us through this. And what I’ll do is speak to them in the beginning to get some analytical points and a few recommendations on the table. Then we’ll open up to our members, be they here in New York or Washington, or online.
We’ve got four real experts joining me here tonight. The gentleman on my left is Graeme Wood. Graeme is the Murrow Fellow here at the Council on Foreign Relations. Each year we have a media person. He wrote an article in the Atlantic that was seminal about the thinking and ideology that animates, motivates, and to some extent explains ISIS. He’s now turning it into a book. And we are extremely fortunate both to have him in residence for a year and to have him in residence this evening.
In Washington you see three individuals. Farah Pandith is one of this country’s real experts on the intellectual debate between and among Muslims in this country and around the world, and as you will hear has also thought harder about how to counter violent extremism, how to engage, if you will, the digital battlefield. And we will talk to her about that.
To her left is Steven Cook. Steven is a senior fellow here. And Steven is one of this country’s real experts not just on the Middle East but in particular two of the critical countries in that part of the world, one being Egypt, the other being Turkey, which as you know has been hosting the G-20 meeting.
Last, but far from least, is Phil Gordon. Phil served in two important positions in the current administration. He was in charge of European policy for, I think, four years or so from the—at the State Department, and Middle East policy for several years at the National Security Council—unless I got that backwards, but I think it’s right—and he has now recently joined us here at the Council as a senior fellow, mostly working on the Middle East but also keeping an eye on things European. And obviously what we’ve seen graphically demonstrated in the last few weeks or months is things Middle Eastern or things European, and the geographic divide, if you will, in some ways doesn’t dictate.
And I will chime in every now and then. I will overcome my reticence and shyness, and every now and then—(laughter).
I want to start with Graeme, which is, why did this happen now? For so long, you know, we thought of ISIS more in a geographical sense, obviously interested in creating and expanding what they considered to be the caliphate, and suddenly in the last few weeks we’ve had the bomb aboard the jetliner, we’ve seen the attacks in Beirut, now we saw the multiple attacks in France. Why do you think we’re seeing what appears to be—maybe I’m wrong—a change in tactics, or is it also a change in strategy? And what do you see as animating this?
WOOD: So first of all, I don’t think that it’s a change in ideology, foremost. That is, they said from the beginning they’re going to do this. Their propaganda is constantly showing pictures of the Eiffel Tower, the White House in flames. So some of the things have been very consistent, but as you correctly note, strategically something seems to have changed in a very big way. And, you know, they’ve had—they have 2,000 Frenchmen under arms right now who have gone to the Islamic State.
Now, at this particular juncture, they seem to have reversed the flow, at least in the case of eight particular individuals. So why do that? I think one answer might have something to do with the difficulty of getting to the Islamic State now. That is, the number of people who are going there as of just six, 10 months ago was far greater than before—far greater than it is right now, rather. And now that it’s more difficult they might decide, all right, maybe it’s not worth the effort. Maybe you should just activate in place, which is a tactical decision with, obviously, huge consequences.
But what’s really interesting from my perspective as someone watching the propaganda is that just a couple of months ago they’re showing images of people in—they’re showing how many swimming pools they have in the city of Mosul. They’re showing the nice greenhouses that they have in Raqqa. These are not the images that you would want to show if your emphasis is on attacking overseas, especially in ways that are going to get you attacked right back and perhaps deprive you of territory.
HAASS: Let me ask you to follow up, though. One of the schools of thought that I keep encountering is that one of the reasons they are attacking, if you will, in the beyond is because closer to home things aren’t going so well, that the area of territory they’re actually controlling is down by, I don’t know, 20, 25 percent in Syria and Iraq.
They’ve had some recent setbacks in Iraq, in particular that this is in some ways a change in tactics forced on them simply because the near battlefield isn’t going so well. So maybe it’s another way to show momentum, or possibly it’s a way to get outside countries, such as ourselves or France, to back off, to basically say the price of hammering us close to home will be too great for you. What about that sort of thinking?
WOOD: Yes, so it’s certainly the case that their territory—their expansion by conquest has been arrested and somewhat rolled back. So that at least takes off the table for them the possibility of using that as their method of expansion.
That doesn’t mean, though, that it would be cost-free for them to embark on a series of spectacular attacks in the West because they still have other modes of expansion through getting pledges of allegiance or through fomenting chaos in places like Saudi Arabia, like Egypt, like Turkey, and possibly profiting from that.
So I think that the way we should see this attack, first of all, is we’re still in the mode of analyzing what actually happened. And there are a few signs that it might not have been entirely centrally planned, provisioned, funded. And that would matter a great deal if we decide how to—how to react to it.
HAASS: I think it’s an important point because people think of it as an organization, but it’s also a bit of a network and a movement.
WOOD: And the way that it’s engineered these attacks in the past has been mostly through inspiration rather than through direct planning.
HAASS: Which is something of a distinction between ISIS, say, and al-Qaida.
WOOD: Yeah, very much so.
HAASS: Steven, that’s a perfect segue to you. Let me ask two questions. One thing Graeme said is he said that the flow of recruits seem to have come down a bit. Is that because Turkey is either—is doing a better job? And if so, if Turkey is doing a better job of controlling that route, is that because it’s developed new capabilities or it’s decided to apply itself more?
Hold it. We’re not getting any sound.
COOK: That’s unusual for me. Everybody can hear me no matter where I am. (Laughter.)
HAASS: Yeah, we hear you now. We’re good. We’re good.
COOK: OK, great.
It’s a terrific question. Turkey has both been a problem that has contributed to the phenomenon in its current form, as well as part of the solution. And as I think people well know, the United States and the European Union have been working very hard to get the Turks to control their border. Part of the problem is the fact that the Turks saw the flow of fighters who wanted to wage jihad against the Assad regime as a tool of their own statecraft in their effort to see the Assad regime come to an end.
That has obviously come back to hurt them. There were two spectacular bombings in Turkey this year that were directly related. At least the Turkish government says they’re directly related to the Islamic State. There has been an effort, though, to stem the flow of fighters. To some extent it has been working, but also keep in mind that there is an entire extremist infrastructure that has grown up along that border between Turkey and Syria, and the Turks have been somewhat reluctant to go after these networks and this infrastructure precisely to avoid the types of bombings that they’ve experienced recently.
So it’s been a very touchy subject with the Turkish public—with the Turkish government, and even members of the Turkish public, where there is soft support for the Islamic State. I think the hope is, is that after Paris, after the G-20 summit, after Angela Merkel’s offer—pre-election offer to President Erdogan to pay for refugees, offer Turks visa-free travel, that the Turks would get even more serious about sealing that border. And there were reports today that the United States is going to actively help them seal about 100 kilometers of the border that have yet to be sealed.
HAASS: Farah, let me push you for a second on the recruiting issue. Will something like what happened in Paris—is that going to be a boon for ISIS recruiting? Do we know—are we seeing signs already about how ISIS is using what happened in Paris in terms of its own messaging?
PANDITH: Sure. So let me use two words that were used already. One, you were talking about sealing the border. And you talked, Richard, about momentum. Both of those pieces are part of the recruitment process in the digital space, right? We’re dealing with millennial Muslims around the world. That is almost a billion people worldwide who are—who are able to get the ideas of the extremists in a platform on the digital battlefield. So there is no border you can seal. You can’t seal ideas. And secondly, it’s building emotional and psychological momentum that is taking place for these young people who are dealing with a crisis of identity.
So when you, Richard, are asking about how are they recruiting, that’s a much larger conversation, but it pivots on the fact that they are winning. They’re winning strongly. They’re gaining recruits. Their virtual armies are large. And that is the problem. If we are able to stem their recruits in the digital space, it will fundamentally change the game in terms of how we think about what ISIS is doing.
HAASS: Phil, why don’t you give us your take on what we ought to have learned from the last couple of days? Does this change things in our take on either the stakes, on the dynamics? If you were still in one of your old jobs, what would you be thinking or saying?
GORDON: Well, Paris is obviously a big deal and I wouldn’t want to say that it doesn’t change the way we think about it. This is a fundamentally different step in what we’ve already seen from this barbaric group.
One of the key takeaways, I would say, Richard, is that it underscores the degree to which this problem cannot simply be contained and mitigated. You know, our aversion to getting too much dragged into and bogged down on this was partly comforted by the notion that, as bad as it was, it was a geographical problem and there was a sort of limit to the degree to which it would affect us.
And I think that developments over the past month, not just Paris but if you go back to the way the refugee crisis spilled over into Europe—you know, everyone knew there were lots of refugees in the region and it was dramatic and it was a big number, but it became different when it started to affect European countries. And you saw these poor people trying to escape the hell in which they live and rushing upon European shores and provoking the sort of backlashes we saw in Europe. So that showed that you couldn’t just contain it regionally, and now Sinai and Beirut and Paris is also the same message.
You know, if you thought that this was just a bad problem but not your problem, you know, it’s coming to a theater near you. And we all know that Paris could be just the beginning. It could happen again in Paris. It could happen elsewhere in Europe. And it could happen here. So I think in that sense it’s not fundamentally different in that we knew ISIS was a threat. We knew it was barbaric. We knew we had to deal with it. But it feels different when the message comes home.
And I guess the last thing I would say, Richard, goes back to an earlier question you asked Graeme. It does seem to me that this stems from—this lack of containment of the problem stems from the degree to which we have significantly contained it geographically.
And, you know, you—someone cited the degree to which we’ve, you know, taken back territory. They can’t expand anymore. They tried to take Kobani and we collectively stopped them from doing that. Now a Kurdish and Arab force has taken Sinjar back. It’s more likely that they’re going to lose something like Raqqa or Mosul than that they’re going to take something new. But I think what they’re telling us in response is, maybe we can’t take more territory or cities, but we’re not done and we have other ways of hitting back.
HAASS: Well, let me then push several of you—I’ll start with Steven—which is, if they can’t gain more territory in the region through direct force, in some ways the way they’ve done it up to now, what about other ways? And potentially Saudi Arabia, is it vulnerable? Egypt has its problems, particularly in the Sinai. If someone from ISIS were a part of this conversation, would he agree, if you will, on the sense that they are now geographically limited in the region, or would they say no way, that you’re underestimating us?
COOK: Well, I certainly think in the core area that Phil and Graeme are referring to, they seem to be contained to some degree, although, you know, every time we talk about the retaking of Ramadi, it doesn’t seem to actually happen. That battlefield seems static.
What is of concern is the fight that the Egyptians have on their hands in the Sinai Peninsula, the fight that’s happening in Libya that no one is paying attention to, and the fight that could potentially happen in Saudi Arabia. And let’s just take the last example first. Can you fairly call yourself the Islamic State if you don’t control the two holy places, Mecca and Medina? It strikes me that Saudi Arabia is a prime target, especially if, in fact, our analysis is correct and they feel somewhat caged in by this static battlefield in Iraq in Syria.
The Saudis are worried about it. There is almost daily attacks on Shia mosques in Saudi Arabia looking to provoke a reaction. The Saudi clerical establishment is sending messages to Saudis that is not—it is actually a recruitment tool for ISIS, given the fact that ISIS claims to speak on behalf of Sunnis and their grievances around the region. So it strikes me that we shouldn’t feel at all comfortable with the fact that perhaps they may be contained in Iraq and Syria.
HAASS: Graeme, why don’t you—
COOK: I could go on and on about Egypt, but I think that the downing of the Russian airliner speaks volumes to the vulnerabilities of Egypt, both Egypt itself as well as international interests in Egypt.
HAASS: Thanks, Steven.
Graeme, why don’t you say something about to what extent a group that considers itself a caliphate and to be the Islamic State—to what extent—we all agree, and Farah underscored it, they need momentum as a recruiting instrument. To what degree is Saudi Arabia and Mecca-Medina essential ultimately to their momentum?
WOOD: So it’s certainly essential to the plotline that they’ve proposed as a prophetic group. They believe that they must eventually control Mecca and Medina. In some ways it’s better for them not to control these things because it allows them to have this purpose to continue to expand.
But as Steven was saying, it has for a long time been one of the two main modes of expansion that ISIS has had to—the first one being conquest of territory and the second one being the sowing of chaos, unrest that they can then capitalize on. And I think he’s right to propose Saudi Arabia as the main target for that.
HAASS: Let me pivot, as we say in another part of the world, to questions of prescription for about 10 minutes, 15 minutes, and then I want to save at least half our time for questions from our members here and elsewhere.
Let’s start with Phil. The president, in his press conference yesterday in Turkey, essentially pushed back against the—I don’t know if it’s a chorus of critics, but the many critics he has in this country that he—the United States has not been doing either enough of the right things or hasn’t been doing the right things at all. It just hasn’t—it hasn’t been forward-leaning enough. What is your take—what is your take on the president’s, if you will, defense of his—of his strategy? And let me sort of push you a little bit. What do you see as the strategy that he exactly was defending? (Laughter.)
GORDON: Thanks, Richard. And you probably won’t be surprised to hear me react in a somewhat similar way, at least to the degree that people seem to be saying: Well, now we’ve discovered that ISIS is a real threat. We need a strategy. And with that strategy we need to start thinking about doing things like conducting airstrikes and hitting their mobile oil refineries and cutting off the flow of foreign fighters and dealing with the financial flows and having a better propaganda mechanism.
And I think what the president was reacting to is that is precisely what we have been relentlessly been doing for a year. Now, I don’t think he would claim—and I certainly wouldn’t claim—that this has all been successful. But the striking thing about the critics or the new policy prescriptions, if you will, where you hear, boy, Paris was certainly dramatic; we need a strategy, when you press on what the strategy is it does sound an awful lot like what we have been doing.
And I think the president’s response reflected that, you know, the hours and hours and hours in the Situation Room with our top military brass and our intelligence people, trying to deal with these issues. And really, when you listen to the—OK, we’re in political season so there’s a lot of, you know—a lot of talk about what would be done differently. When you listen carefully, you don’t really hear a fundamentally different set of proposals.
You can always intensify some of what you’re doing, but in a way, on the political level, to his credit—if that’s the right way to put it—at least someone like Lindsey Graham is saying, I would put 10,000 ground troops in Syria. Now, that’s different, and that’s a legitimate debate that we should have, but when you look carefully at what most other critics are proposing, it’s just doing a bit more of what we are—what we’re already doing.
HAASS: Well, since I’m one of those who also argued, as did Lindsey Graham, that we ought to consider doing that, what’s wrong with both increasing the number of U.S. forces, advisers, trainers, people who would help organize tactical movements in Iraq from 3,500 more, get them—assign them even more with the Kurds rather than the national army of Iraq, and rather than sending 50 people to Syria send several thousand?
It doesn’t have to be just Americans. I expect now you would find the French willing to send their—some special forces. You could probably get some SAS from Britain. You could probably get some from at least certain places in the Arab world. What is wrong with organizing—whether it’s a coalition of the willing or something under NATO or U.N. auspices that is a larger military operation? That would be different. And what is wrong with going down that path?
GORDON: There is absolutely nothing wrong with it. And indeed, as the president said all along, he is open to every one of the measures that you just mentioned, and they have all been on the table and seriously scrubbed. And you always have to strike a balance between how much you get for doing a bit more—because, by the way, you can always—there is always—if you ask the military for a judgment, could they do a bit better if they had X more troops and were allowed to do a little bit more, the answer will always be yes. And it’s the president’s job to balance that against the costs and risks.
You might put in that many more people or some more forward air controllers, which would, by a certain percentage, increase the effectiveness of your airstrikes, but also by another certain percentage increase the risks that one of your people would be captured by ISIS and burned alive, with all of the repercussions involved in that.
So these are all legitimate areas for debate, and they have been debated. And, by the way, the trend has been to constantly do more. You know, we started with some airstrikes to protect our strategic facilities in Iraq, and gradually over time moved that on to protecting population centers and putting in 3,000 troops on the ground, and now special operations forces in Syria.
My bottom line on it, though, Richard, is, you know, we’ll all come down differently on which of these things we would do and which we wouldn’t do in terms of the added balance and the greater risk in cost, but the fundamental point to me is none of the things you and I are talking about now are going to fundamentally change this conflict. I mean, Paris would not have been stopped had we had a few more joint tactical air controllers in Iraq.
So that’s why I think the real debate here is, you know, back to the Graeme sort of thing: Is there such a fundamental threat that we need to revisit all of our assumptions and, if necessary, put 100,000 troops to seize territory and hold Raqqa? If not, these are, it seems to me, tactical judgments that will marginally help or marginally raise the risk, but they’re not going to change the fundamental essence of what we’re dealing with.
HAASS: OK, I disagree with several things you said. I think the kinds of thing Lindsey Graham and others are talking about is not simply doing a bit more. I don’t think also the choices between what we’re doing now and sending in 100,000 troops—that seems to me that’s a bit of a red herring. There’s lots of intermediate options.
And, yes, by doing more in the region we wouldn’t necessarily—it doesn’t solve the problems of homeland security, but we do face a multi-domain challenge. And to me it’s not an argument against doing something in one of those domains that it won’t solve your problems in all the domains. One has to deal with several things. But I don’t want to turn this into a debate between us, so let me bring a couple of other people here.
Steven, you alluded to it a little bit before, which was Turkey. What more can and should we do to get the Turks on board, and can we, given that in some ways the most important military partner we have on the ground in both Syria and in Iraq happens to be the Kurds?
And I would think that the biggest cause of concern for Turkey is not ISIS but it’s those very Kurds who we have been associating ourselves with. So can we have a policy that allows us to use Incirlik and be close to the Turks and get them to shut down recruits at the same time we increasingly turn to the Kurds are our ground partner?
COOK: Well, it’s a terrific question and I think it lays out a number of dilemmas that American policymakers face in confronting this problem on a variety of fronts. I have sympathy for my colleague here, Phil, who had to actually deal with these problems on a day-to-day basis.
The problem with Turkey, and the reason why we’ve have to negotiate with them and negotiate with them and they have been so reluctant to sign up to our anti-ISIS coalition is for three reasons. One, you pointed out the fact that they are most worried about Kurdish nationalism, and that remains their major threat.
They also believe that any anti-ISIS strategy that doesn’t directly go after the Assad regime and bring the Assad regime down is a strategy that is unlikely to work. That’s certainly a self-serving strategy—suggestion on their part, given how much emphasis they’ve put on the end of the Assad regime. And because they’ve allowed this extremist infrastructure to develop in their country, they’re worried about blood running in their streets, Paris style, or Ankara style for that reason.
I think with Turkey we have to get what we get and don’t get upset, and work around them. And that means directly arming the Kurds. And to some extent CENTCOM has sent a message that they’re going to do precisely that by air-dropping munitions right on the YPG, by working directly with the Peshmerga in coordination. We should probably drop out the fiction of a unified federal Iraq and understand where that situation is going, that ultimately the Kurds in Northern Iraq are going to be independent. And it provides a series of opportunities for the United States in the fight against ISIS, as well as in the region more generally.
But just one last point. We can talk about arming and stepping up our airstrikes and dropping a lot of ordnance on people in Mosul and Raqqa, but I think that we need to keep in mind that we can do a lot of damage and perhaps contain ISIS that way, but this is, at its heart, fundamentally a political and theological battle. And that’s what makes it so extraordinarily difficult. It’s not just the kind of political dilemmas that Tayyip Erdogan faces. I think the fact that—and I guess this is throwing it a bit back into Graeme’s area of expertise—is that this is a total ideology that is appealing to at least some people. And how we fight that to me is the biggest challenge, not so much how many airstrikes we can conduct on a daily basis.
HAASS: Well, let me turn to Farah first and then I’ll turn to Graeme, which is, Farah, what should we be then doing that we’re not if a big part of their—of ISIS’s lure, attractiveness, and their game plan is through inspiration rather than direct control, and not necessarily through returnees but, again, through inspiration of individuals or groups, what is it we should be doing that we’re not doing on the virtual battlefield?
PANDITH: So, a really important question. And I do want to say one thing about what you said in the last question about the spread of ISIS in different parts of the Middle East. Let us remember that ISIS has inspired local organizations, terrorist organizations all around the world who are claiming, like a magnet, to salute to ISIS. So whether it’s Boko or various other elements out there, you’re seeing the groundswell. So this isn’t just about ISIS. It’s ISIS-inspired allegiance as well. And I think that’s really important.
To return to your last question about what should we be doing, we need to be going all in, not just in the military war but in the non-military war. And we have not done that. We have not done that in any real way, neither in the Bush nor Obama administrations. Lots of really important talking, lots of really important pontificating, pennies on the dollar for the kinds of things we need to do.
Let me be super clear when I say that governments of any kind—our government or any other government in the world—has no credibility in the ideological space, but they do have the capacity to scale up grassroots efforts that we know 14 years after 9/11 are working in a way that actually, if done at a proportional rate, at scale can make a difference.
In the digital battlefield we need to be seeing the kind of digital army fighting ISIS the way they fight us. They are fighting young Millennials. They’re luring them in person by person. We do not have that kind of army working on our side. It is more common for a Millennial Muslim to go online and to hear the voices of ISIS than to hear those that don’t support ISIS. Why is that? How is that? They’re using the same tools that we have available to us, but they have determination.
So what I would say is breaking down the momentum psychologically and emotionally requires us to be in the game and to go all in. And with that kind of determination from the non-government sector and the support of the government sector by asking various elements out there in the private sector to help, we can do this.
And one last point. To date we have no rules in warfare in the digital space. We don’t. There are no treaties. There are no things that are out there. All things are available to us. Why would we not use them? I would absolutely say the moment we begin to see a diminishing appeal of the ideology is through data analytics that we can track in a digital way, and we can do this.
HAASS: Let me—
PANDITH: I fundamentally—yep. Sorry.
HAASS: Let me just follow up on the one thing. You keep using the word “we.” One of the questions I have is whether, quote/unquote, “we,” as in the United States or the West, can do this or whether this has to be something that Arabs and Muslims and people who are of that larger community have to wage themselves. So who takes them on?
PANDITH: So I’m so glad you said that. So obviously Muslims are in every country in the world. So there are Muslims here in America too. And there is a role for Muslims to play, and we can have an entire session on what Muslims have and have not done. I’d love to get into that. But for right now, the credibility piece, Richard, I would say in this way: From a diplomatic perspective, when we’re looking at seeing Muslim majority states in a fight militarily, it makes a difference.
But in the space of the ideological war that we’re fighting, the only thing that matters that I can say with an earnest and transparent piece here, because I’ve been dealing with it, is it doesn’t matter if a Muslim gets into the fight outside of it if they’re using credible voices. So former extremists, for example, who are the most powerful, effective voices to stop the recruitment for young people, can be supported by non-Muslims. It doesn’t have to be a Muslim needs to help a Muslim.
HAASS: Point taken.
Graeme, we’ve been talking a little bit about what we should do. You’ve also given some thought to what we shouldn’t do. Why don’t you speak a little bit about that? What kinds of things might be counterproductive?
WOOD: Yeah, well, one of the things that ISIS certainly has relentlessly told us we should do is to invade. And I think in some ways granting them their wish would have some very nice effects. It would have some negative effects too that I think are, at this stage, even now that we know that they’re—
HAASS: Why do you think they—I’m sorry to interrupt.
HAASS: Why is it—why would they want us to invade? Why would that, if you will, play into their hands?
WOOD: They want us to invade because of the image that that would promote. They have said from the beginning this is another crusade. This is crusaders versus Muslims. So they’re standing there ready with their high-definition cameras waiting to see U.S. Marines with crucifixes around their necks, if they’re lucky, to show up at the berm ready to attack them.
This would be the confirmation of their grandest narrative and their fondest dream. Whether it would actually turn out the way they hope, where they can actually hold their own—that is, the Islamic State could hold their own in battle—I can’t tell that.
HAASS: But if two things happened—if they—if the battle flow went against them, and if you had Arab participation in such a force, would that narrative hold up?
WOOD: It would be much more difficult for it to hold up. They’ll certainly be selective about the images that they choose to present what this war is. And if we did undertake an invasion like that, we ought to be awfully careful about the way we do it. But ultimately, though, I think the reason that invasion—certainly a quick invasion would be a worrisome development would just be getting ahead of the equally important—at least as important diplomatic aspects of this.
HAASS: And I want to turn to—like I sort of say, I don’t think anyone is talking about a large-scale invasion on the scale of either the Gulf War of 25 years ago or 2003. It’s incomparably more modest. And it would be in part for domestic political reasons, but in part for exactly the reasons you’re saying, that it would be strategically, if you will, counterproductive to do that. So I don’t think that’s a serious option. Again, the real idea is what would be the content as well as the packaging of something more modest?
WOOD: And as far as I can tell, that’s the sensitivity that is well understood by the government at this point.
HAASS: I’m sorry. I interrupted you. You were going to say something else.
WOOD: And just finally that, you know, the problem also is what we would inherit after that happened. And that part of the puzzle is not anywhere close to being ready to put into place. That’s something that we’d have to do really, really fast—
WOOD: —once we finally saw the end of the Islamic State’s control.
HAASS: Well, that puts the last issue on the table that I wanted to put on before we opened it up, which is in Vienna there have been these meetings where you have representatives, I don’t know, roughly, what, 15, 20, 25 countries talking about the future of Syria, which is a big part of what we’re—of the equation here.
Phil, let me turn to you there, which is your reading of where that stands, and what, if any prospects there are for a diplomatic dimension on top of the digital, on top of the military, that there could be significant movement towards political change in Damascus in a way that would actually help rather than make a bad situation worse.
GORDON: You know, Richard, I’m glad you raised that because I think that of all the things that we have discussed, the war in Syria is probably more responsible for the growth of ISIS than anything else. It is the daily pummeling of Sunni Muslims in Syria by a regime sponsored by Iran and Hezbollah and Shi’ism that has exacerbated this sectarian tension and combined with a similar feeling of Sunni Muslims in Iraq that another Shia-backed, Iran-backed regime is excluding them from their politics is fueling this fire.
And so you have these tens of millions of Sunni Muslims from Baghdad to Damascus and a couple of other millions across Europe and elsewhere feeling resentful and angry and being persuaded by this sick ideology. So that’s why I think the question is important.
The specific answer to your question I think is Vienna is an important step, but let’s be honest; it’s a small step. It’s important because it’s the first time we’ve had all the key actors on the table. And I think it really is critical to have Iran there and Russia there, along with the Saudis, the Qataris, the Turks, and everyone—
HAASS: But we didn’t have the Syrians there.
GORDON: —or this doesn’t get solved.
HAASS: One key actor wasn’t there.
GORDON: No, but it’s definitely not a sufficient condition but it’s a necessary one to have the sponsors of the proxies there, because without it, you know, as we’ve seen—because we tried for four years to do it without them, and our efforts to support the opposition has only led to increased Russian and Iranian and Hezbollah backing for the regime and escalation. And the escalation is fueling this problem even more.
So it’s important that they’re at the table. The reason I say it’s a small step, though, is there is still an enormous gap on the key question. The key question is what happens to the regime and what happens to Assad? And for Russia and Iran, the answer to that question remains it’s not for us to push him out. In fact, we need him there, because without Assad the regime falls. And if the regime falls, there is chaos and extremism and even more of a problem beyond the general aversion to regime change that you happen to get in both Tehran and Moscow.
So they’re deeply dug in that Assad and the regime needs to stay, but the Saudis, the Qataris, and the Turks, to name just three, are equally dug in that this doesn’t end unless he’s gone. So I don’t in any way—while welcoming and applauding the existence of Vienna, I don’t want to minimize the enormous gaps that are still there.
But look, one thing at a time. We’ve got to start somewhere, and it is heartening at least that there is a process that is now going on that is talking about ceasefires and talking about transitions. It’s going to be hard as hell. It may not work soon or later, but it’s indispensable if we’re going to make any headway in dealing with what I think is the beating heart of the cause of ISIS.
HAASS: I was with you until the last sentence, because if your analysis is right, and I tend to think it is, that this was an extremely small step—and I am at the bearish side of the projection, particularly given, even more than Russia, I think Iran is quite wedded to the current regime.
Then it seems to me we’re looking at a Syria, for the foreseeable future, of parts. So rather than thinking of Syria as a single national entity, we’ve got an Alawite governmental part controlling, I don’t know, what, a fifth, for argument’s sake, of the territory. You’ve got ISIS controlling what it controls. You’ve got groups like Nusra controlling what they control. You’ve got the Kurds and others we’re working with who control what they control.
So while we try to push the diplomatic—which it would be ideal to get a post-Assad government we could work with as a partner we all agree, but we can’t—we can’t snap our fingers and bring that about. So it seems to me that while John Kerry tries to do what he does, those who have the burden of day-to-day policy making have to operate under the assumption that they’re not going to have a post-Assad government they can partner with.
And as a result we’ve got to design a Syria policy and an anti-ISIS policy while Assad still sits in Damascus, the regime still is there, the recruiting tool of Assad is still there, and that’s the reality. So it’s almost a, yeah, we push the diplomacy, but in the meantime, to operate on the assumption that diplomacy will succeed seems to me wishery and not strategy.
GORDON: Let me be blunt and brief. It depends what the goal of the diplomacy is. I completely agree with you, well, first, on the bearish assessment but specifically on the Syria is broken and is not going to be put back together soon, neither under a reconsolidated Assad regime, as Russia and Iran might like for the regime, nor under some reformulated opposition that takes over the country and manages to bring all of these parts back. That is not going to happen anytime soon. That is why I believe, because the priority needs to be on stopping the conflict, that that needs to be the priority.
Let us take the coming years and years to hope to re-bring Syria back together with some sort of agreed governance. If we make stopping the war conditional on an agreed political framework that’s agreed by the Assad regime, Russia, Iran, Hezbollah, Turkey, Qatar, Saudi Arabia and us, we are just asking for the war to go on indefinitely.
So I think we need to accept that, live with it, deal with it, focus on a ceasefire, and then work on a political transition over time that will be more likely, if you get the ceasefire, than pretending somehow we can get everyone at the table to agree on a comprehensive plan now, because they’re just not. And by the way, even if they did, translating that onto the ground and persuading the thousands of different opposition groups fighting the regime, that just seems to me a misplacement of (effort ?).
HAASS: Yeah, but let me sort of raise the question—because I don’t understand—it seems to me there’s zero chance—not .001 percent chance but zero chance—you can get a ceasefire given the constellation of players, given the Assad regime, Nusra, ISIS and so forth. These are not, shall we say, status quo or groups, entities that are prone to compromise. So I start from that.
So the real question is, again, what one does about the regime. And you’ve had people like Mike Morrell and others recently suggest that a collapse of authority in Damascus would be a calamity—I understand that—that you can’t persuade the Russians or Iranians to part with Assad anytime soon. And what they’re basically saying is better to prosecute the current struggle against ISIS with Assad in Damascus than not. And so you’re beginning to see a slightly different debate. If the diplomacy doesn’t look promising, what about living with the devil you know, because at least it’s better than a kind of Libya scenario where authority collapses in Damascus and the black flags march into town. What about that?
WOOD: That scenario is one that I could imagine playing out. That is, you could attack ISIS. You could watch ISIS shrink. You could certainly watch its global prestige erode as it ceases to be a kind of inexorably expanding entity. But, you know, I think still, as you say, all the work is still ahead of you when it comes to the rest of Syria. There are so many other types of calamities, not just the collapse of the Assad regime but some of them involving the continued existence of it, that would still be ahead of you. So I think that’s a plausible scenario but hardly one to be sanguine about.
HAASS: You’re all Middle East experts. I want to turn to a question from Emile Nakhleh, who is out in New Mexico, who raises what I think is one of the most interesting questions about the future of the region. And the question is, can one talk about defeating terrorism and the rest without addressing the more—another fundamental related question about reconstituting these countries? Or essentially, is Sykes-Picot, the post-World War I agreement, is that dead?
Or I can just ask it more baldly: Do any of you think you will see a Syria as a single functioning entity, and an Iraq as a single functioning entity, and a Libya as a single functioning entity, and a Yemen as one in the next decade, in your lifetimes? And do you basically think that Middle East is essentially gone, and as analysts and policymakers and rest we now have to deal with what I would call the post-Sykes-Picot Middle East? Is that too pessimistic, or is that just good old-fashioned realism?
We’ll turn to people in Washington first because they’re closer to the seat of power. (Laughter.) Steven.
WOOD: Go ahead, Steven.
COOK: I think we cannot think—it’s the height of fantasy at this point to think about Iraq, and the same thing about Syria. I think that what the future is—though it’s not a neat one; it’s not the, you know, Kerry-Lavrov-what’s the French foreign minister’s name—Fabius plan. It’s not going to happen. What I think the best we can think about in terms of an independent Kurdistan in northern Iraq, the rest of Iraq contested for as long as we can think of. And Syria I don’t see—I think the Turks and the Iranians and even Baghdad can accommodate themselves to that outcome. I don’t see how people can accommodate themselves to the destruction of Syria as easily as that.
I think we can’t underestimate the importance of Damascus in the Sunni world. I think the conflict will burn for a very, very long time. And I don’t see how you can reshape Syria. So I think what we’re going to be confronting—regardless of what the diplomatic process is, no matter whether we weaken ISIS or not—the multiplicity of the actors and the fact that the Iranians, and the Russians, and Hezbollah, and the Qataris, and the Saudis have vested interests in certain groups and certain things that are going on now, as well as the Assad regime—I think all of the incentives, at least for the foreseeable future whether you define that as 18 months, three to five years, or a decade, all lead to more violence in the country.
Remember just by way of analogy, and it’s probably a bad one, but that the Lebanese civil war didn’t come to an end for 15 years, and it was only after an Arab League-sanctioned Syrian invasion of Lebanon that brought it to an end. I think the stakes are actually much higher in Syrian and Iraq. And I just can’t imagine. I think we—my kids will be learning about a different Middle East than I learned.
PANDITH: So could I just jump in from a—from a very impolite perspective? The world that we know in the Middle East is based on a lot of really old guys, OK? And they’re not going to be there forever. And the young people that are growing up are growing up with a very different reality about identity, about what it means, and about connecting to each other. So I think that the jury is out on what it is going to look like in 15 years or 20 years as these kids are having children. But I think that as we stage it, as we try to understand the impact of identity, the impact of how they think about things, there’s one piece that has been missing. Are there new leaders that are going to come to the table that we don’t yet know?
HAASS: Let me—lots of big questions. Let me open it up next to someone here in New York. Yes, sir, in the third row. Just introduce yourself. Let us know who you are.
Q: Hi. Bill Spindle from The Wall Street Journal.
None of you have talked about the no-fly zone option. I’m sort of curious whether that might make a reemergence as a—as some sort of way to both put pressure on the Assad regime on the one side, to put perhaps some pressure on ISIS on the other, to provide a place for refugees to go, and perhaps to give a large disenfranchised Sunni population some hope of staying in the country and building it. In a world of horrible options, is this one likely to reemerge?
HAASS: Phil, you want to take that? Because you probably wrestled with it.
GORDON: Absolutely. We wrestled with it intensively for several years, and never found the version that we felt met our interests. And what I mean by that—I mean, I think the question was well-asked, because there are a lot of different versions of no-fly zones. And you first have to understand what it is you’re talking about. The most comprehensive is the notion that over the whole country we would just stop anyone from flying. And the logic of that was sometimes to put pressure on the Assad regime, strengthen the opposition so that the Assad regime—it would balance things out, right, because the opposition didn’t have an air force, Assad has an air force. You take away his air force, the opposition gets stronger and you get closer to a political settlement.
I think we were never convinced—and I think that that the way this has evolved on the ground underscores why—that that would have led to the political settlement. So, yes, it would have relatively weakened Assad vis-à-vis the opposition, but he still would have had his army, still would have had his artillery, still would have had his Scuds. Most of the killing was done by all of those things. It could—don’t get me wrong—it could have lessened some of the atrocities from the barrel bombs and things that he’s been doing. But it would not have—I think it’s an illusion to believe that—what it would have done would lead the regime to say, OK, now that it’s balanced on the ground let’s have a political transition and Assad will go. I think on the contrary, it would have led to what we have seen, which is Russia and Iran doing what they need to do to bolster the regime with just a different kind of level of violence.
In any case, that debate is now even more complicated because the Russians are there. So what was already a hugely complicated issue of, you know, there’s no easy way to do this, you have to take our Syrian air defenses and be willing to go down a slippery slope, now it would entail either persuading the Russians not to fly or shooting their planes out of the sky. And they’ve got ships in the Med with S-300s. So you would presumably have to take those out or just trust that they wouldn’t shoot your planes. So that comprehensive no-fly zone I think has a lot of problems with it, and most importantly I think you can make the case that it would have saved some lives by taking away Assad’s air power, although he could have easily replaced it with other things. I don’t think you can make the case that it would have resolved this conflict by getting Assad to give up power.
So then—and I’ll be brief because we could take a whole hour on this—the other version of the no-fly zone that you hear is we’ll just protect a safe area. You know, we don’t stop him from flying and doing everything but, like our Turkish friends suggest, let’s have a strop along the border where we stop him from flying to make it safe. There too—and, again, you know, we dealt with this in a very rigorous way. And when you—when you get beyond the headline it becomes more complicated. I mean, when you just say, have a safe zone, who could be against that? Refugees can go back. He stops bombing people. The opposition trains there and then maybe you rebalance it on the ground.
But it’s way more complicated than that. Declaring it safe doesn’t make it safe. And on the ground underneath that area in which they might not be flying you’ve got ISIS, you’ve got the Kurds, you’ve got Turkmen, you’ve got Arabs. So these—refugees are not going to go back there unless somebody goes in on the ground to actually make it safe under this zone that you’ve declared safe, but isn’t safe. And then there too, if that’s all you’re doing, you can debate whether there’s some humanitarian benefit—again, I doubt it unless you put in ground troops because I think refugees are better in the Zaatari Refugee Camp in Jordan or in Europe somewhere then they would be on that strip along the Syrian-Turkish border, just because we declared it safe. But even if it did provide some humanitarian benefit, again, it doesn’t change the fundamental conflict with Assad. So these things merit debate, but as we looked at them we never found the version that even accomplished the humanitarian goal, let along the strategic one of dealing with the regime.
HAASS: Just 30 seconds of what I think could happen, which is a little bit in that direction, because I don’t disagree with what Phil said. But if you have groups like the Kurds begin to control significant territory, then you’ve got your control of the ground. Then I think that becomes a de facto zone. You’re not creating it from the top down. It gets created from the ground up. And one of the big policy questions we’ll have to make is not necessarily whether we provide air cover—though that could be one—another would be also whether we give them the means to protect themselves from anything from the air. And that seems to be—
COOK: I would say, Richard—
HAASS: Pardon me?
COOK: I’m sorry, go ahead.
HAASS: But I think that’s the direction we’re going to go in, that rather than artificially declaring this area to be a zone and having to think about how we then protect it—and as we learned in Bosnia, to call places safe and not make them safe is a disaster—what I think will happen is certain areas will become de facto safe because of the capabilities, say, of Kurdish ground elements and perhaps some of the Arab tribes—the Sunni tribes they’re working with. And then the policy challenge is a much smaller one, which is how to reinforce that so it genuinely is safe. And I think that kind of a ground-up approach is—it’s also much more consistent with the Syria of parts, which is the way I believe Syria will look like for years if not decades to come.
Steven, you wanted to chime in or can I get another question?
COOK: No, I—just to add a level of complexity to that, I think that that’s probably right. But we have to be prepared to lose Incirlik and the other bases that we’re using because the Turks have said—like I said, they can accommodate themselves to Kurdish independence in Iraq, but they’re not going to do that in Syria. And President Erdogan has been very, very clear that they would crush it. And his whole idea about a safe zone in Syria was an effort to prevent a western Kurdistan from coming into existence. We certainly could do it from other places, but we would lose that access.
HAASS: Again, that’s one of the potential tradeoffs.
I want to—why don’t see—you call on somebody in Washington and then we’ve got a lot of hands here in New York.
COOK: Yes, Washington. Right here in the corner. Ma’am. Right.
Q: Eileen O’Connor.
You had said there’s no rules regarding the ideological conflict, but actually practicing in government I found ourselves confronted by a lot of rules basically around privacy laws—the data analytics, gathering information about potentially good networks to counter the dark network. So could you and maybe Graeme and Phil give maybe some, three, concrete suggestions that you would take that may be policy changes or practical steps to fight the ideological fight?
PANDITH: So I want to be clear, I said that there were no rules in the digital war that—
Q: That’s what I mean, the digital war. But the problem is we’re constrained even to begin—
PANDITH: No, I understand. Believe me, I understand that. And I think there are legitimate and real constrains within government that we need to keep. I completely—I’m not suggesting we go crazy. And by the way, the things that I’ve been talking about is the white world strategy. I am not getting into what’s happening in other parts of the world. I’m talking specifically about what young millennials are seeing and what we can be doing in terms of building the kind of momentum that we need to go in, to build the kind of machinery. That machinery cannot be built by government, it cannot stay in government by any stretch of the imagination. That’s the change that needs to happen.
When you’re saying prescriptively, what can the U.S. government be doing? Now, I just said I don’t want government involved in this, but here’s where I think government dollars can make a difference. They can give money to things on the ground that work, that go towards the core—the core of organizations, not the messaging, not who’s out there, but the core to build them up. That hasn’t happened at scale. The second thing is I said we need to go all in. We do not have any kind of momentum and will to really go into the ideological war. We haven’t unleashed what’s possible.
And the third thing that we absolutely can do that we have not is to integrate the strategy of hard and soft power. You cannot say people need to be doing things over here, but by the way we have very specific and very elegant conversations about the military. They need to be interwoven. And soft power has got to be given as much respect as the hard power, because they’re integrated.
HAASS: Let me—we’re going to have a whole separate meeting on dealing with some of those issues, as well as the privacy versus collective security issue, refugee issues, and all that. So I want to—we don’t need to solve that tonight.
Jim, you had your hand up.
Q: Yes. Jim Zirin.
HAASS: Why don’t you wait for a microphone, Mr. Zirin? It’s a new rule here at the Council.
Q: Oh, I need a microphone. I was curious about money. No one has really mentioned money, although Phil adverted to it sort of in passing. And where does ISIS get its money from? Graeme has said they get it by taxing their people, but Putin says there are 30 nations that have funded ISIS. And Rhodes repeatedly says we have to intensify our efforts—they use the word intensify in the administration over and over again. Can we intensify our effort to choke off funds to ISIS?
HAASS: So, Graeme, how does ISIS—how do they get their money?
WOOD: So a lot of people seem to think that ISIS gets most of its money through oil. And it does. There are these trucks that go back and forth, sometimes to Assad territory, and trade black market oil. But as far as I can tell, that’s a pretty small amount of its actual operating budget. And as Mr. Zirin said, taxation, or you might just call it confiscation, is pretty much how they’re getting their money. It’s not, in other words, that they’re getting money that’s just flowing in from donors, from the Gulf, or any of the other villains that you might expect. It’s in fact just—it’s an ability to find economic activity that’s happened there, people who have property that ISIS can simply take and use. This is not, I should say, a sustainable economic model for what intents to be an imperial power. And that’s good news.
GORDON: Hey, Richard, can I add just one thing on that?
GORDON: And by the way, I don’t think we were the first administration to intensify what we were doing more than once. (Laughter.) But we’ve actually done pretty well on the money front. You know, when ISIS first surged in Mosul, they took a bunch of money in bank vaults, and that was the bulk of what they had. But cash you spend down. It disappears over time. They used to get money from hostages and ransoms. And we did pretty well in curbing that flow. As was already noted, they used to—they have these mobile oil refineries, they used to sell oil. They’re still doing a little of that, but that has significantly been curbed. And we’ve done OK in stopping funding from going—so, in a way, it’s a little bit surprising that they’re sustaining their operations as much as they have. But on this intensifying thing, those as the things that we collectively set out to stop and slow. And we did a lot of that. And there’s only so much more you can do to choke it off.
HAASS: OK. Raghida.
Q: Yeah. Raghida Dergham of Al-Hayat and Beirut Institute.
To the policy options you were discussion, Richard, you’re absolutely right on what to do with the Kurds and how to deal with the Kurds. And you’re also right in distinguishing between how much is Russia attached to Bashar al-Assad versus Iran. So the point is that there is a policy option in forcing Iran to drop its insistence on Assad, A, because of the fact that the Iranians are illegally, and against internationally law due to a Security Council resolution, fighting directly and indirectly through Hezbollah in Syria, therefore that’s one tool. And secondly, I mean, after all this deal, and I mean, at least there should be some influence on Iran to say this is a fight about ISIS. This is not about you winning the game.
And to the point of Steven, I think when it comes to Egypt you’re right, Egypt is vulnerable, so is Libya. And there are policy options there. I think, you know, the U.S. should consider really strengthening Egypt instead of picking a fight with them right now, no matter how wrong Sisi is. And on Libya, I think it’s time to think of arming—of allowing the government to get the lifting of the arms embargo, so that they could fight ISIS and their likes in Libya. Thank you.
HAASS: I’m going to give everybody, then, a last word, because Raghida raised several issues. And we’ll start with our three friends in Washington. And react to any part of that that you choose. Or not.
COOK: Fine, I will, since these guys—we’re going to argue here and take up time.
Two things that Raghida said that struck me as interesting and important. The first was the question of how to deal with the Iranian after the Iran nuclear deal. I don’t know if this is prescriptive, it’s more analytic, but it seems to me that we should have been prepared for the fact that—and this isn’t a—it’s not a criticism, Phil. I don’t want to put you on the defensive. It’s just an observation that the Iranians would step up and try to press their advantage once they had this agreement. I’m not sure what leverage we have over them given the fact that they are essentially in control of Damascus, as well as Baghdad and Beirut and Sana’a. They don’t seem to be overstretched. They don’t seem to be spending down money. And I think that the Iranians are a fundamental problem here. That agreement is done. I don’t know how we use it. Maybe Phil or you, Richard, have an idea how we use to move them on this—on this issue.
The other thing is strengthening Abdel Fattah el-Sisi in Egypt. And I think—you know, I have been on record to say that we should, that the Egyptians are in the same fight that the Iraqis are in, that the French are now in, that others are now in, and that the Iraqis are doing it with Shia death squads. And at least the Egyptian military is doing it with its military, and that it deserves aid and to rebuild trust. But Abdel Fattah el-Sisi and the—and the leadership in Egypt make it extraordinarily difficult for us to do this when they’re out arresting journalists, they’re going after peaceful opposition, they are trying to clear the field of anybody who would raise a question about the quality of politics in Egypt.
And it makes it difficult for those of us who make this argument that this is an important fight, it’s a strategic fight because of a discourse, a kind of nationalism that has emerged in Egypt that if you raise a question about the current direction of things in Egypt you are a terrorist, a member of the Muslim Brotherhood, which makes you no different from the people that they’re fighting in the ISIS—in the Sinai Peninsula, and the people that they will eventually fight in the western desert.
GORDON: I’ll just be very brief on Raghida’s three points. I would love to persuade Iran to back off of Assad and support a transition. That has been our policy. I just don’t know how to do it. I mean, we sanctioned Syria, we supported the opposition, we increased all sorts of support to raise the costs to Iran, and we had very significant sanctions on Iran. They happen to feel very strongly about this, and are willing to sustain that pressure. And I don’t know how far we would have to go to really persuade them to back off of Assad. The nuclear deal, as everybody knows we did because we didn’t see any other way of dealing with the nuclear question. And does it have consequences, in the way Steven said, of maybe making Iran feel the wind in its sails and have more resources? It probably does, but that’s something that we felt was the cost of dealing with the even more important nuclear question.
Egypt, just one sentence. I mean, we have cooperated with the Egyptian government. For all the concerns about the domestic policies, the Obama administration essentially said: Egypt’s a strategic partner. We’ll restore the assistance. And we’ll continue to say what we think about the consequences of the domestic policies, but I don’t really see any—you know, any issue there. And then on Libya, let’s just say I’m skeptical that investing in one side militarily—this would be the parallel of Egypt—in an effort to stabilize that country, when we all know that the other side would then get its own sponsors and support and have more weapons and money, would probably not lead to the stability that we seek under the side that we back, but actually fanning the fuels—or pouring fuel on the flames there.
PANDITH: So the only quick thing I’d say that sort of the element that we talked about just briefly was the Sunni-Shia component. And the ripple effect of how that plays out in the Middle East is really speaking to the global communities of Muslims around the world who are seeing this in real time and feeling very strongly about their identity in that way. So what she was saying about sort of engaging all the different elements in the Middle East are really important, that we’re not seen as being pro this or pro that. That we are really having a comprehensive way of looking at that sectarian piece.
HAASS: Just I’d say one thing, because I agreed with what I just heard, the irony of Iranian policy. Iranian diplomats and others will say the greatest threat to the Middle East is Sunni extremism, yet Iran is fueling Sunni extremism by its support of the Assad government, and by the role of Shia militia in Iraq and Syria. And the result will be an even more violent, more polarized Middle East for years if not decades to come, all of which is yet another joyous note on which to end the meeting. I don’t think this will be the last session devoted to these issues.
I want to thank, again, all the talent that we had here in Washington and New York, four individuals who—all of whom are real experts. And I want to thank you all coming out on such short notice tonight, here in New York, here in Washington, and here around the country and the world. So thank you very much. (Applause.)
This is an uncorrected transcript.