Obama Administration Looks To Ramp Up Syrian Strategy

Aug 6, 2016
Originally published on August 6, 2016 8:05 am
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SCOTT SIMON, HOST:

The Obama administration is still trying to work with Russia to stop the war in Syria. Secretary of State Kerry spoke with his Russian counterpart yesterday again. Our next guest says outreach doesn't seem to be working. It's time to start bombing Syrian government positions to end Bashar al-Assad's authoritarian government, the war and the flood of refugees. Dennis Ross, a former senior Middle East adviser to President Obama and other administrations, is in our studio. Thanks, Mr. Ambassador, for being with us.

DENNIS ROSS: Nice to be with you. Thank you.

SIMON: You made your case in an op-ed in The New York Times. What do you think bombing government positions would accomplish?

ROSS: Well, the essence of what I'm suggesting is not that we just go and bomb, but that there was a cessation of hostilities that basically the Russians had negotiated with us but they never fully implemented, and they allowed Bashar al-Assad pretty much to violate it. And that's what we've seen. The siege of Aleppo is a manifestation of that. What I'm suggesting is - this joint implementation agreement that we are negotiating with the Russians, which is supposed to restore that cessation of hostilities - what I'm suggesting is the Russians should understand that if they don't conclude the agreement now, after having pretty much been prepared to finalize it, one of the consequences may be we be - we will be left with no choice but to go ahead and begin to hit the airfields of Assad so they can't continue to use helicopters to drop barrel bombs.

So they can't continue to use airpower to hit civilian areas. If the agreement is finalized and if the cessation of hostilities is restored, again, we wouldn't be bombing. But the Russians would understand that if, in fact, Assad goes back and violates these, that would be the consequence. One of the premises, I think, of the administration approach is not just to try to reduce the level of violence in Syria, which is an abomination and it's understandable they would try to do that, but there is a presumption that somehow Vladimir Putin is interested in limiting his involvement in Syria.

Now, if that's truly the case, if Putin understands this would be the consequence of non-compliance with an agreement that supposedly they have a stake in, that gives him an incentive to ensure that Assad complies. For those who say Putin doesn't really have the leverage on Assad, he does the minute he picks up the phone and he says to Assad, the Russian planes are no longer flying.

SIMON: Yeah. Do you think the United States and Russia have the same interest?

ROSS: I think that we have an interest in bringing this to an end and focusing on the Islamic State, on ISIL. I think the Russians have an interest in demonstrating that they are the arbiter of events in Syria. Now, if what we're doing is consistent with that, that's fine from their standpoint. But if what we're doing doesn't fit with that, they will continue to exert pressure on the ground and continue to change the realities on the ground, the balance of power on the ground. And that's what we've seen the Russians do.

SIMON: What do you say to those people who might be listening and have become reflexively skeptical about talk of using force over the past 15 years or say, look, doesn't work out, it's a slippery slope?

ROSS: Look, I understand the fear. There's good reason for that. We have effectively been at war, in one way or the other, since 2001 in the Middle East, and none of those conflicts have come out very well. The problem that I see is that when you look at Syria, our hesitancy to be involved is what produced the vacuum that has been filled by the worst forces. And the consequence of that has been not only a humanitarian catastrophe in Syria, but a humanitarian catastrophe that isn't contained to Syria and has produced this massive refugee problem.

Sometimes you weigh the costs of action, but you also have to think about the costs of inaction. And I'm afraid, in Syria, if we don't do more, it will be very difficult to bring this conflict to an end. I'm not suggesting use force to change the regime. We've seen the regime change, if you don't know what comes afterwards, creates the worst of all situations and contributes to vacuums that are filled by the worst forces.

What I'm suggesting is think about how you use the threat of force as a lever to try to get a political process. Because right now, that political process isn't working. The costs are becoming worse and worse, higher and higher, so this is a different way to proceed.

SIMON: Dennis Ross - his latest book, "Doomed To Succeed," about U.S.-Israeli relations. Thanks very much for being with us.

ROSS: My pleasure. Transcript provided by NPR, Copyright NPR.