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‘No end in sight’: More than 191,000 have died from conflict in Syria

August 23, 2014 at 5:34 PM EDT
A new United Nations report says that more than 191,000 people have died during the conflict in Syria. Douglas Ollivant, a senior national security studies fellow at the New America Foundation, joins Hari Sreenivasan from Washington to discuss the situation as the United States considers its options against the Islamic State.

HARI SREENIVASAN: Good evening, thanks for joining us.

We begin tonight with Syria where the extremist militant group ISIS has increased its control in parts of that country and in neighboring Iraq. The Syrian government continues to battle the militants who have taken control of three military bases in recent weeks.

Late this week the government sent in reinforcements to maintain control of the Tabqa air base in Eastern Syria, the government’s last stronghold in the region. After ISIS released a video on Tuesday showing the beheading of American journalist James Foley, the Obama Administration announced that it is reconsidering its military strategy including the possibility of airstrikes in Syria.

This following a new United Nations report which puts the death toll from the conflict in Syria at more than 191,000. In the last year the number of casualties has more than doubled.

For some analysis of the Syrian situation as the United States considers its options against ISIS, we are joined from Washington by Douglas Ollivant. He is a Senior National Security Studies Fellow at The New America Foundation and a partner at Mantid International.

Doug, let me start with that U.N. report: 191,000 dead just to put that into perspective that’s the entire population of Salt Lake City, gone.

DOUGLAS OLLIVANT: Syria just continues to bleed. This civil war goes on and on. New reinforcements seem to be coming to each side and there does seem to be no end in sight. It’s a continuing humanitarian disaster.

HARI SREENIVASAN: And so how significant is it if they gain control of this airbase?

DOUGLAS OLLIVANT: Well, anytime you lose a piece of infrastructure, it’s very serious. And this appears to be the government’s real last stronghold in the east and they’re directly confronting ISIS for control of this key terrain.

HARI SREENIVASAN: And what kind of control does ISIS have in the entire country? Is it just basically the entire northern end that they’ve taken control over, similar to Iraq?

DOUGLAS OLLIVANT: Well, they certainly have loose control over much of the northeastern part, everything between the regime and the Kurds, with occasional smatterings of Free Syrian Army controlled areas and Islamic Front controlled areas, but in short, they have some contiguous territory in Syria that adjoins that that they control in Iraq.

HARI SREENIVASAN: So what are some of the options here for the U.S.? Airstrikes have beensomething that’s been considered and we are hearing conversations now of trying to ask Congress for the authorization of unlimited uses of force.

DOUGLAS OLLIVANT: Well, I think as the administration looks at the problem as a whole, the ISIS threat in both Iraq and Syria, you start to realize that if you only attack them in Iraq and leave them a safe haven in Syria that’s just not going to work.

We have precedents for this: the Taliban and the Haqqanis having their safe havens in Pakistan and going back further the Viet Kong with their safe havens in Cambodia.

You just strike them on one side of the border and leave them a place where they can rest and refit and be safe, your chances of success are very slim.

HARI SREENIVASAN: You know, yesterday Ben Rhodes made this quote he said “We are not going to be restricted by borders,” which is a fairly aggressive foreign policy stance.

DOUGLAS OLLIVANT: Well, that’s certainly the first time we’ve heard that and I think the administration is starting to recalculate exactly what’s involved and some of its internal preferences it may have to overcome to effectively confront the ISIS threat.

HARI SREENIVASAN: OK, and here’s how it gets a little tricky in the Middle East in the sense that last year there wasn’t enough support by the international community to go after the Assad Regime, and now, if we essentially attack an enemy of our enemy are we essentially helping Bashar Al Assad?

DOUGLAS OLLIVANT: The short answer is yes, and that’s what makes this so complicated.

This is why we’ve not struck ISIS in Syria is no one has wanted to give the appearance of giving aid and support to the Assad Regime.

I think we’re now coming to a reluctant acceptance of the fact that as bad as the Assad Regime is–and no one is downplaying how awful the Assad Regime is–the ISIS threat is both worse and a more real danger to the United States and it’s interests.

HARI SREENIVASAN: Douglas Ollivant joining us from Washington, thanks so much.