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On Syria, U.S. Must Weigh Risks of Involvement, National Interest, Moral Values

April 29, 2013 at 12:00 AM EST
How do the risks of the U.S. intervening in the Syrian conflict balance with the risks of doing nothing? For two perspectives, Judy Woodruff talks with Murhaf Jouejati of The Day After project and Joshua Landis, director of the Center for Middle East Studies at the University of Oklahoma.
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JUDY WOODRUFF: What should the U.S. do about the war in Syria? We get two views. Murhaf Jouejati is the chairman of The Day After project, an independent organization that advises the Syrian National Council on plans for a post- Assad government. He was born in Syria and is also a professor of Middle East studies at the National Defense University. And Joshua Landis is director of the Center for Middle East Studies at the University of Oklahoma. He also runs the website “Syria Comment.”

To both of you, welcome to the NewsHour.

Let me turn to you first, though, Murhaf Jouejati. Before we talk about what the United States should do, let’s look at whether the U.S. should go in. Are you convinced that at this point there’s enough evidence to warrant further U.S. involvement?

MURHAF JOUEJATI, Day After Project: I think there’s overwhelming evidence.

There’s overwhelming evidence — take away the chemical weapons we’re recently talking about. There’s overwhelming evidence that this dictator is out to kill as many Syrian opponents of his regime as possible. We’re now into the second year. There are over 80,000 people that have been killed. There are about five million Syrians who are displaced. That’s a quarter of the population. And, so, yes, the …

JUDY WOODRUFF: On moral grounds, are you saying …

MURHAF JOUEJATI: It’s not only moral grounds. On strategic grounds as well, it’s in the national interest of the United States to break that axis, that alliance between Iran, the Assad regime and Hezbollah. So, both in terms of American values and the American national interest, I think the U.S. should do more than it is doing.

JUDY WOODRUFF: Joshua Landis, both for moral reasons and as we heard him say in the national interest?

JOSHUA LANDIS, University of Oklahoma: I don’t think America should get tangled up in this. I don’t believe that the third time is a charm.

This is a national civil war that Syria has slipped into. It’s an ethnic and sectarian war. And America cannot solve it. We cannot stop this process. Syrians are going to have to come out the other end of this process and find out what kind of nation they want to be.

Everybody is blaming Obama for — saying he is not a leader, he is not going in, and it’s America’s fault for not intervening immediately, and that’s why it’s radicalized. But in Iraq, we intervened and in three short weeks, we destroyed Saddam Hussein’s regime, we Roto-Rootered the military and we dissolved the Baath Party.

And what happened? The country exploded into civil war, sectarian fighting, and radicalization that went on for years and is still going on. More and more people in Iraq are joining al-Qaida. There are car bombs going off every day. The United States spent a trillion dollars in Iraq and it couldn’t get the outcome it wanted.

JUDY WOODRUFF: His point is …

JOSHUA LANDIS: Neither in Afghanistan. And it’s not going to happen in Syria. This is a civil war.

In America’s Civil War, 750,000 Americans were killed in a population of 34 million. Syria has 24 million; 100,000 have been killed so far.

JUDY WOODRUFF: Let me bring it back …

JOSHUA LANDIS: This process cannot be solved by an outside power.

JUDY WOODRUFF: He is basically saying the U.S. cannot fix this.

MURHAF JOUEJATI: And he is basically wrong.

One, this is not a civil war. This is a national uprising against almost half-a-century of dictatorship. The United States can help solve this by assisting this free and democratic movement that has risen in Syria in order to level the playing field. The regime of Assad is supported by Iran, and Hezbollah and Iraq, and the rebels have next to nothing.

If the situation continues without U.S. assistance, what we have is the infiltration of radical elements into Syria. And should these radical elements be victorious, they will be in control of chemical weapons at the heart of the Middle East.

JUDY WOODRUFF: Joshua Landis, it is the case that in the last few weeks and longer, we have seen the infiltration by al-Qaida and by these Islamist groups into the opposition.

JOSHUA LANDIS: Look, an American no-fly zone is not going to stop al-Qaida from infiltrating.

In the northeast, where al-Qaida is most active, the Assad regime pulled out within the first months. It’s been hardly active. American no-fly zone wouldn’t stop them. They are crawling all over Iraq. Now they have got into Syria. Only American boots on ground going after al-Qaida is going to stop them.

Syrians are joining Islamist forces because they want to destroy the Assad regime and because many want an Islamic state. And this is not something that America can stop. We have tried to go to Afghanistan and stop Afghanis from being Islamists and we want them to be more secular. It’s failed.

JUDY WOODRUFF: Murhaf Jouejati, let’s talk about what the U.S. would do if it did go in. His — Joshua Landis is arguing — nobody is arguing for boots on the ground, but what about the no-fly zone?

MURHAF JOUEJATI: Nobody is arguing for boots on the ground. And the Syrian opposition doesn’t want American or any other boots on the ground.

The Syrian opposition wants support in neutralizing Assad’s air force. Assad is using fighter jets to bomb civilian neighborhoods. He’s using Scud missiles to bomb the same civilian neighborhoods.

JUDY WOODRUFF: So, what could the U.S. do?

MURHAF JOUEJATI: The U.S. could give air cover.

JUDY WOODRUFF: How?

MURHAF JOUEJATI: It could establish a no-fly zone, for example, in the south of Syria, much as it had done in the north of Iraq and here.

Let me remind our American audience that zero American pilots have been killed in the no-fly zone in the Iraq. So in the absence of this, at least, at least, the minimum can provide the rebels with ammunition for them to defend their families and their civilian brothers and sisters.

JUDY WOODRUFF: Well, let’s take that one at a time, Joshua Landis. What about supplying — let’s take this question of supplying ammunition and other equipment to the rebels?

JOSHUA LANDIS: Well, we’re already supplying. We’re helping get much more sophisticated arms to the rebels already.

One of major problems is the rebels, there are over 1,000 militias in Syria. The moderate rebels that Murhaf Jouejati is talking about have had three different leaders in the last two weeks. There is complete chaos. The United States is not confident that if they give them real anti-aircraft weapons, they won’t share them with al-Qaida, which is what has been happening.

And this is the dilemma for the U.S. regime. It’s not a good answer. The U.S. can do — excuse me — the U.S. government can do a lot more to help the opposition. The problem is, is that the real fighting forces on the ground in Syria, the most effective forces are Salafist movements, the Islamist front, and the al-Qaida affiliates.

And that’s what the United States is frightened of. Israel is frightened of it. And they don’t want us to give more weapons. So, we’re in a bind.

JUDY WOODRUFF: What about his earlier point that if you give ammunition, weapons to the rebels, it falls into the hands of the wrong people?

MURHAF JOUEJATI: One, not necessarily.

And recently the decision by Friends of Syria has been taken to pour the assistance into the Supreme Military Council, which will channel it to the good guys within the FSA.

JUDY WOODRUFF: You are saying you can make a distinction?

MURHAF JOUEJATI: Absolutely. And the U.S. has vetted the FSA and knows who the good guys are and who the bad guys are.

The — the — I want to go back also to an earlier point. I don’t know why Professor Landis wants to equate Syria with Iraq. In Iraq, it was a foreign intervention. In Syria, this is again a national uprising against dictatorship. And there are civilians that are dying to the rate of 150 per day.

And the longer we wait, the longer the radicals and the Islamists are going to jump in. The longer we wait, the worse it’s going to be, not only for Syrians, but also for the region and the United States.

JUDY WOODRUFF: Joshua Landis?

JOSHUA LANDIS: Look, the average cost of Iraq and Afghanistan for the American — each American household has been about $40,000 dollars of debt for every household, $1 trillion dollars in Iraq, $1 trillion dollars in Afghanistan.

We hardly changed the outcome in those two countries. We did change it because we have spent a thousand — we have spent a quarter of a billion dollars in Syria so far, almost nothing. We could pour in a number more billion dollars, but the question is, what kind of outcome are we going to get?

This is a civil war. And it’s pitting two different sectarian groups against each other, and the United States, if they get in and get a Sunni Arab win over the minorities, which is what Murhaf is calling for, in a sense, there could be ethnic cleansing. There is going to be a lot of there — there is going to be a lot of things that go on that we didn’t plan for, as had happened in other countries.

JUDY WOODRUFF: Well …

JOSHUA LANDIS: We could provide a no-fly zone, but the no-fly zone is for humanitarian reasons to stop the killings. If the killing doesn’t stop, as it probably won’t, then the next — the mission creep is tremendous.

We will have to go start — we will have to go hunting Assad and kill him. And in Libya, it took two days really to go from a no-fly zone to a kill-Gadhafi zone. And that’s what is going to happen in Syria. And then we’re going to have boots on the ground, and we’re going to be mediating a very tough civil war.

JUDY WOODRUFF: Very brief response.

MURHAF JOUEJATI: In Iraq and Afghanistan, it was very costly because there were boots on ground. Syria doesn’t want boots on the ground. It wants a protection for the civilian population and for the Free Syrian Army to be supported in order to collapse this murderous regime, so that the Middle East can see stability again.

JUDY WOODRUFF: The debate goes on.

Murhaf Jouejati, Joshua Landis, we thank you both.

JOSHUA LANDIS: Thank you.

MURHAF JOUEJATI: Thank you.