The power of words:
Well, first and foremost, let’s understand what’s happening in Syria and how we got here. What started off as peaceful protests against Assad, the president, evolved into a civil war because Assad met those protests with unimaginable brutality. And so this is not a conflict between the United States and any party in Syria; this is a conflict between the Syrian people and a brutal, ruthless dictator.
Point number two is that the reason Assad is still in power is because Russia and Iran have supported him throughout this process. And in that sense, what Russia is doing now is not particularly different from what they had been doing in the past — they’re just more overt about it. They’ve been propping up a regime that is rejected by an overwhelming majority of the Syrian population because they’ve seen that he has been willing to drop barrel bombs on children and on villages indiscriminately, and has been more concerned about clinging to power than the state of his country.
So in my discussions with President Putin, I was very clear that the only way to solve the problem in Syria is to have a political transition that is inclusive — that keeps the state intact, that keeps the military intact, that maintains cohesion, but that is inclusive — and the only way to accomplish that is for Mr. Assad to transition, because you cannot rehabilitate him in the eyes of Syrians. This is not a judgment I’m making; it is a judgment that the overwhelming majority of Syrians make.
And I said to Mr. Putin that I’d be prepared to work with him if he is willing to broker with his partners, Mr. Assad and Iran, a political transition — we can bring the rest of the world community to a brokered solution — but that a military solution alone, an attempt by Russia and Iran to prop up Assad and try to pacify the population is just going to get them stuck in a quagmire. And it won’t work. And they will be there for a while if they don’t take a different course.
I also said to him that it is true that the United States and Russia and the entire world have a common interest in destroying ISIL. But what was very clear — and regardless of what Mr. Putin said — was that he doesn’t distinguish between ISIL and a moderate Sunni opposition that wants to see Mr. Assad go. From their perspective, they’re all terrorists. And that’s a recipe for disaster, and it’s one that I reject.
So where we are now is that we are having technical conversations about de-confliction so that we’re not seeing U.S. and American firefights in the air. But beyond that, we’re very clear in sticking to our belief and our policy that the problem here is Assad and the brutality that he has inflicted on the Syrian people, and that it has to stop. And in order for it to stop, we’re prepared to work with all the parties concerned. But we are not going to cooperate with a Russian campaign to simply try to destroy anybody who is disgusted and fed up with Mr. Assad’s behavior.
Keep in mind also, from a practical perspective, the moderate opposition in Syria is one that if we’re ever going to have to have a political transition, we need. And the Russian policy is driving those folks underground or creating a situation in which they are de-capacitated, and it’s only strengthening ISIL. And that’s not good for anybody.
In terms of our support of opposition groups inside of Syria, I made very clear early on that the United States couldn’t impose a military solution on Syria either, but that it was in our interest to make sure that we were engaged with moderate opposition inside of Syria because eventually Syria will fall, the Assad regime will fall, and we have to have somebody who we’re working with that we can help pick up the pieces and stitch back together a cohesive, coherent country. And so we will continue to support them.
The training-and-equip program was a specific initiative by the Defense Department to see if we could get some of that moderate opposition to focus attention on ISIL in the eastern portion of the country. And I’m the first one to acknowledge it has not worked the way it was supposed to, Julie. And I think that the Department of Defense would say the same thing. And part of the reason, frankly, is because when we tried to get them to just focus on ISIL, the response we’d get back is, how can we focus on ISIL when every single day we’re having barrel bombs and attacks from the regime? And so it’s been hard to get them to reprioritize, looking east, when they’ve got bombs coming at them from the west.
So what we’re doing with the train-and-equip is looking at where we have had success — for example, working with some of the Kurdish community in the east that pushed ISIL out — seeing if we can build on that. But what we’re also going to continue to do is to have contacts with and work with opposition that, rightly, believes that in the absence of some change of government inside of Syria we’re going to continue to see civil war, and that is going to turbocharge ISIL recruitment and jihadist recruitment, and we’re going to continue to have problems.
Now, last point I just want to make about this — because sometimes the conversation here in the Beltway differs from the conversation internationally. Mr. Putin had to go into Syria not out of strength but out of weakness, because his client, Mr. Assad, was crumbling. And it was insufficient for him simply to send them arms and money; now he’s got to put in his own planes and his own pilots. And the notion that he put forward a plan and that somehow the international community sees that as viable because there is a vacuum there — I didn’t see, after he made that speech in the United Nations, suddenly the 60-nation coalition that we have start lining up behind him.
Iran and Assad make up Mr. Putin’s coalition at the moment. The rest of the world makes up ours. So I don’t think people are fooled by the current strategy. It does not mean that we could not see Mr. Putin begin to recognize that it is in their interest to broker a political settlement. And as I said in New York, we’re prepared to work with the Russians and the Iranians, as well as our partners who are part of the anti-ISIL coalition to come up with that political transition. And nobody pretends that it’s going to be easy, but I think it is still possible. And so we will maintain lines of communication.
But we are not going to be able to get those negotiations going if there is not a recognition that there’s got to be a change in government. We’re not going to go back to the status quo ante. And the kinds of airstrikes against moderate opposition that Russia is engaging in is going to be counterproductive.
throughout this process, I think people have constantly looked for an easy, low-cost answer — whether it’s we should have sent more rifles in early and somehow then everything would have been okay; or if I had taken that shot even after Assad offered to give up his chemical weapons, then immediately things would have folded, or the Assad regime would have folded, and we would have suddenly seen a peaceful Syria.
This is a hugely, difficult, complex problem. And I would have hoped that we would have learned that from Afghanistan and Iraq, where we have devoted enormous time and effort and resources with the very best people and have given the Afghan people and the Iraqi people an opportunity for democracy. But it’s still hard, as we saw this week in Afghanistan. That’s not by virtue of a lack of effort on our part, or a lack of commitment. We’ve still got 10,000 folks in Afghanistan. We’re still spending billions of dollar supporting that government, and it’s still tough.
So when I make a decision about the level of military involvement that we’re prepared to engage in, in Syria, I have to make a judgment based on, once we start something we’ve got to finish it, and we’ve got to do it well. And do we, in fact, have the resources and the capacity to make a serious impact — understanding that we’ve still got to go after ISIL in Iraq; we still have to support the training of an Iraqi military that is weaker than any of us perceived; that we still have business to do in Afghanistan. And so I push — and have consistently over the last four, five years sought out a wide range of opinions about steps that we can take potentially to move Syria in a better direction.
I am under no illusions about what an incredible humanitarian catastrophe this is, and the hardships that we’re seeing, and the refugees that are traveling in very dangerous circumstances and now creating real political problems among our allies in Europe, and the heartbreaking images of children drowned trying to escape war, and the potential impact of such a destabilized country on our allies in the region. But what we have learned over the last 10, 12, 13 years is that unless we can get the parties on the ground to agree to live together in some fashion, then no amount of U.S. military engagement will solve the problem. And we will find ourselves either doing just a little bit and not making a difference, and losing credibility that way, or finding ourselves drawn in deeper and deeper into a situation that we can’t sustain.
And when I hear people offering up half-baked ideas as if they are solutions, or trying to downplay the challenges involved in this situation — what I’d like to see people ask is, specifically, precisely, what exactly would you do, and how would you fund it, and how would you sustain it? And typically, what you get is a bunch of mumbo jumbo.
So these are hard challenges. They are ones that we are going to continue to pursue. The topline message that I want everybody to understand is we are going to continue to go after ISIL. We are going to continue to reach out to a moderate opposition. We reject Russia’s theory that everybody opposed to Assad is a terrorist. We think that is self-defeating. It will get them into a quagmire.
Wretchard has more on this bizarre performance.
Super fun update: if you’ve given a lot of serious thought to the differences between Kirk and Picard, you might be too weird to win the presidency. On the other hand, reading all of the above somehow reminds us of Mr. Spock.