TOPICS > World

Pulling the plug on rebel training, what’s next for U.S. in Syria?

October 9, 2015 at 6:45 PM EST
The Pentagon is canceling a program to train and equip moderate rebels fighting the Islamic State in Syria, after their efforts only produced a handful of fighters. Judy Woodruff discusses the decision with former State Department officials P.J. Crowley and David Kramer.
LISTENSEE PODCASTS

JUDY WOODRUFF: We take a closer look now with P.J. Crowley. He’s a former assistant secretary of state for public affairs during the Obama administration. He also had a 26-year career in the U.S. Air Force. And David Kramer, former assistant secretary of state during the George W. Bush administration.

Gentlemen, welcome to you both.

DAVID KRAMER, Former U.S. State Dept. Official: Thank you.

JUDY WOODRUFF: So, P.J. Crowley, what do you think? Is this a good thing, that this program to train the rebels in Syria is ending?

P.J. CROWLEY, Former U.S. State Dept. Official: Well, it was a failure.

It was a good idea, but was so heavily structured to try to avoid — so you would have assistance going just to the good guys with the white hats and avoid assistance bleeding over to the guys with the murkier hats. It was so heavily structured, it had very modest results.

I don’t think we’re surprised that this was not a program that was by itself going to tip the scales on the battlefield.

JUDY WOODRUFF: David Kramer, how do you see it?

DAVID KRAMER: I agree it was a failure and it should have been changed a long time ago. My concern is the timing of the announcement.

It looks like we’re retreating in the face of this Russian advance, the Russian military intervention. And it makes us look even weaker than we perhaps are. The program was a failure. It was just focused on the Islamic State. It wasn’t designed to deal with the Assad regime and the Assad regime is really the main source behind all the problems we’re seeing in Syria.

JUDY WOODRUFF: What the Pentagon is saying, they’re going to focus on arming these Kurdish rebels fighting ISIS in Northern Syria. Is that a good substitute for this?

DAVID KRAMER: This should have been done years ago. The fact that this has taken so long, that it has produced so few results means that it is a failure.

But pulling the plug now, announcing it publicly, I would have preferred they just did it without making a big public announcement about this. We just look like we’re running away from the Russians.

JUDY WOODRUFF: We look like we’re running away, P.J. Crowley?

P.J. CROWLEY: Well, I don’t put this in the context of a U.S.-Russian struggle over Syria.

We have our issues with Russia. I think they can be handled beyond Syria. But the context behind this is two judgments by the Obama administration. The first is that we want politically to get rid of Bashar al-Assad, the sooner the better, but militarily we’re not going to go to war with Bashar al-Assad to achieve that result.

Obviously, we have made that one judgment. Russia is making a different judgment. But in terms of the Syrian conflict, it’s not just one conflict. It’s several. And the Obama administration has yet to develop or see where there’s a military course of action that makes the situation better at an acceptable price or at an acceptable level of risk.

JUDY WOODRUFF: So you’re saying the administration doesn’t have an approach yet? Is that what you’re saying?

P.J. CROWLEY: The administration doesn’t have a military approach to Syria. It has a plausible military approach to Iraq.

But the reality here — and I liken this a little bit to the Bosnia experience in the early 1990s — is that we just may tragically have to wait a period of time before the opportunity presents itself for a peaceful negotiated settlement.

Unfortunately, all of the combatants in Syria now still believe that they can achieve their objectives through military action.

JUDY WOODRUFF: David Kramer, why isn’t waiting a good option now?

DAVID KRAMER: We have had 250,000 deaths already, people killed. We have half of Syria’s population displaced since this all started in 2011.

We now have Russian intervention. We have massive refugee flow into Europe. The Russian bombing is going to increase the flow of refugees going into Europe. Jordan is destabilized. Turkey is having enormous problems. Russia has violated its sovereignty and territorial integrity by invading its airspace. There are possible Article V implications for NATO since Turkey is a member of NATO.

We have just let this problem fester. It’s only gotten worse with time.

JUDY WOODRUFF: But what about the argument — P.J. Crowley, you were going to…

P.J. CROWLEY: I agree with everything that David just said, but it doesn’t lend itself to a clear position, unless we’re willing to insert ourselves into an Iraq-level effort to take control of the situation in Syria and try to impose a solution.

And, as we saw in Iraq, that has had very significant, you know, unintended consequences.

JUDY WOODRUFF: So, David Kramer, what about that? There is the real worry if the U.S. gets involved, it gets sucked in, dragged in, and can’t get out.

DAVID KRAMER: The Turks had indicated a long time ago that they were prepared to send forces in if the United States provided cover and support.

So, we should create safe zones. We should create no-fly zones. We should enforce those for any planes that would threaten people in those areas, whether they’re Syrian planes or Russian planes. We should give the Russians full notice that any violations or attacks on those zones would constitute an attack that we would have to respond to.

Nobody wants this. There are bad decisions that have to be made here, but that’s where we are right now. And I think unless we do that, we will continue to see people get killed, we will continue to see people flee Syria, so there aren’t any good solutions. We have to find the least worst options.

JUDY WOODRUFF: But my question is, isn’t that an entire new level of risk, U.S. planes get shot down, U.S. troops get potentially captured, not to mention a conflict, potential conflict with Russia, unintentional?

DAVID KRAMER: We have the Turks that have indicated a willingness to go ahead. We may have other countries, including from the Gulf, although they’re not great contributors to this kind of operation.

The United States could provide the air support, to provide the cover that way. I think there is a way of doing this without putting U.S. forces on the ground, but there aren’t any good options here.

JUDY WOODRUFF: Why isn’t that one approach that could work?

P.J. CROWLEY: Well, safe zones are an appealing approach, but it involves a decision to go to war against Bashar al-Assad. And that just has its own set of circumstances. You know, what the United States is…

JUDY WOODRUFF: What’s the biggest drawback to that?

P.J. CROWLEY: Well, it’s a very constrained space.

We see situations now where, you know, Russian planes, in doing what they’re doing, are bleeding over into, you know, Turkish airspace. The one thing we need to avoid above everything else is making a Syrian civil war into a direct conflict between the United States and Russia. We didn’t want to do that in Ukraine. We don’t want to do that in Syria.

So, I think the Obama administration has just decided, right or wrong, that there is not a military solution to the situation in Syria that has materialized yet, and so it’s showing patience. As David said, that is tragic for the Syrian people, but the United States in the meantime is focused on what it believes is its vital interest, defeating and degrading the Islamic State.

JUDY WOODRUFF: And what are the main concerns you have about doing that? What are the liabilities if the U.S. continues to wait, as P.J. Crowley says?

DAVID KRAMER: Despite what the president said in the “60 Minutes” clip that we saw, what Putin has done is demonstrated is he will come to the defense of his allies.

The United States is not coming to the defense of the forces that it tried to support and train. So, the image of the United States is we aren’t there, we aren’t reliable, Russia will be there in the greatest time of need.

That makes me incredibly uncomfortable. Putin is taking a bad situation and making the best of it. We are taking a bad situation, and I fear, making it worse by doing nothing.

P.J. CROWLEY: But Putin still has a bad hand.

And in the process, his ally is Iran. Our allies are our Sunni state allies. I think, over time, that is a more sustainable position. I do think we should confront Russia, but we can do it in other ways, avoiding making sure that Putin is able to play Syria off across Ukraine. We can impose costs on Putin, but that doesn’t mean we have to leap into the middle of a civil war.

JUDY WOODRUFF: A valuable conversation.

P.J. Crowley, David Kramer, we thank you both.

DAVID KRAMER: Thanks very much.

P.J. CROWLEY: Thank you, Judy.

SHARE VIA TEXT