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As Assad Makes Gains, Will New U.S. Strategy for Syria Change the Dynamics?

June 14, 2013 at 12:00 AM EST
The Obama administration says it will send help to the rebels after determining that the Syrian government has used chemical weapons. Jeffrey Brown assesses the decision and the risks with Vali Nasr, former State Department official, and former National Security Advisor Zbigniew Brzezinski.
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JEFFREY BROWN: And we return now to Syria and the options on the table for the U.S.

We invited a member of the Obama administration to discuss the change in Syria strategy. Our request was declined.

But with us now to assess the White House decision, Zbigniew Brzezinski, national security adviser to President Carter. He’s now a counselor at the Center for Strategic and International Studies. And former State Department senior adviser Vali Nasr, now dean at the Johns Hopkins School of Advanced International Studies.

Welcome to both of you.

Dr. Brzezinski, many questions still about how much, the timing, et cetera, but what’s your initial reaction to this announcement that the U.S. will be providing some arms?

ZBIGNIEW BRZEZINSKI, Former U.S. National Security Adviser: It’s kind of baffling because there’s no pattern of consistency.

You know, we started helping the rebels, whatever they are, and they’re certainly not fighting for democracy, given their sponsorship, Qatar and Saudi Arabia, as far back as early spring of last year, 2012, without saying it publicly. I assume there was a presidential finding approving it, but we’re doing that. Since then, I’m not at all clear as to what our policy actually is.

JEFFREY BROWN: So it didn’t — it wasn’t clarified by yesterday’s announcement?

ZBIGNIEW BRZEZINSKI: I think that was even more baffling, because it refers to a very small number of casualties allegedly inflicted by chemical warfare. It doesn’t refer specifically to the date involved, although the president drew a red line. It certainly is material to know whether those acts followed or preceded the presidential warning.

And, besides, why should that be the issue, especially if the scale of casualties inflicted by that kind of arms is so limited? Ninety-three thousand people, allegedly, have been killed, and, incidentally, not like what the official line sometimes is, by Assad and his henchmen, but by both sides. This is a civil war, a brutal civil war.

JEFFREY BROWN: All right, let me — Vali Nasr, you have been on the program. You have talked about wanting to see more action by the U.S. government. Is this the kind of first step or a step that you want?

VALI NASR, School of Advanced International Studies, Johns Hopkins University: Well, it is a step.

But I think it’s problematic, because, as Dr. Brzezinski said, it’s not clear what objective it’s supposed to serve. We haven’t said what it is that we want to accomplish by providing arms to the rebels. Do we want to just address the humanitarian issue? Is our objective to reverse the recent gains the Assad regime has made? Is this punishment for the use of chemical weapons? Is it to shore up our sagging credibility in the region?

So it’s not clear whether this is enough or it’s too late, unless you know what it’s for.

JEFFREY BROWN: Well, what do you think it should be for? Because there is a debate right now at the White House, right, about what to do and how to target it.

VALI NASR: Well, I think our goal was to try to arrive at a diplomatic solution to this crisis in Geneva.

We can’t go to Geneva for a diplomatic solution if Assad has just scored big gains on the ground. So our goal ought to be to reverse the gains that Assad has made on the ground.

So we have to be — if we’re going to do this, we have to do it with a view to change the dynamics of this war, at least in the direction that it’s going. And secondly, we …

JEFFREY BROWN: Does that include with weapons and even more weapons that they’re asking for?

VALI NASR: Well, it would require more weapons than we have announced.

It also would require probably a strategy about how we’re going to — who we’re going to give the weapons to, how we’re going to give it. And I think larger issue is that our credibility, the credibility of American foreign policy is now at stake, and then we have to essentially use any kind of intervention to reverse that.

JEFFREY BROWN: What do you think about a strong — more weapons, a stronger involvement, and this question of our credibility at this point? You raised the red line question.

ZBIGNIEW BRZEZINSKI: Well, weapons to whom, first of all?

As we know, there are a great many factions competing for power on the ground in Syria, and most of them are not very friendly to us. So, weapons for whom? It so happens, unfortunately, that those factions which we consider to be allegedly democratic are the weakest. So what are we going to accomplish by infusing a few more arms for groups that are the weakest?

If we’re going to engage in political warfare with a strategic outcome, and we insist on a victory for those who allegedly are with us and a victory particularly for us, we have to do it whole hog, not just from the air, not just by supplying some arms to some not particularly strong groups, but we have to do it by, in effect, invading the country.

If we invade the country, will it just stop with fighting in Syria? Might we conceivably collide with the Iranian forces? Do we really want that at this stage of history in the Middle East, as we are getting ready to disengage from Afghanistan?

JEFFREY BROWN: All right, what’s the response to that?

VALI NASR: Well, those are all dangers that are on the table and we have to take them into consideration.

The Syria crisis has now become very complex, with many issues that we have to be able to sort out and address. But, going forward, you know, essentially, we’re dealing with dynamics of two separate wars and two separate issues here. One is the war between the rebels and opposition and the Syrian government, in which we have said that we would like the rebels to win.

The second one is really the war between the different factions within the opposition, the jihadis and the extremists vis-a-vis the other ones. So the key question is, which one are we trying to influence? Are we trying to influence generally the rebels as it stands against Assad, which has all the dangers and problems Dr. Brzezinski says? Who do you arm? How do you arm them? And what is the danger of having to confront the Iranians and the Russians?

And the other argument is that, regardless of whether Assad survives and leaves, ultimately, there’s going to be a battle between different factions of the Syrians. And the question is, do we want to arm a faction of the Syrians that would be sort of the counterpoint to the jihadis? If so, is this the right time to start building those relations?

JEFFREY BROWN: Is there an alternative? Because, if the U.S. does little or nothing, and the Syrian government wins, as now the battlefield perhaps looks like it’s been turned, doesn’t that affect our interests in the region and the world as well?

ZBIGNIEW BRZEZINSKI: Well, of course, it doesn’t affect them positively.

But we have to think of the alternative consequences. If we get involved in a protracted war, we are again in a war in the region, this hurts us also in Afghanistan. Secondly, if that war produces a collision between America and Iranians supporting Assad, is that better than an outcome in which perhaps Assad stays in power?

Better still, of course, an international Geneva conference. But let’s just think of who ought to be there. Should we be there with the French and the British, the two countries which are most hated in the region, former colonial powers? Are these the right countries with whom we ought to be dealing? Of course, Turkey ought to be there.

What about China, what about Japan, what about India, all of which are dependent on a stable flow of oil from the region? They have stakes in that region. They might prefer some sort of a compromise solution and might be prepared to give the political support for it. They might also be able to influence the Russians.

But to simply go in on the hope that, somehow or other, by doing something which is not very precisely described for groups which are not very powerful — and, in fact, the one that favors us is the weakest — is not a strategy. It’s an evasion of strategy.

And there’s a kind of lack of clarity which has defined our posture there for the last two years.

JEFFREY BROWN: Just in our last minute, what about the prospects of this international conference, which is supposed to be later in the month? Who should be there and what are the diplomatic possibilities at this point?

VALI NASR: Well, I think the diplomatic possibilities are limited. I think Dr. Brzezinski is right that it cannot be just the French and the Russians, who actually drew …

ZBIGNIEW BRZEZINSKI: The British.

VALI NASR: The British — who drew these borders that are now being contested.

But the key question is also, what is our objective out of the conference? We’re trying to go to a conference saying that the result of the conference would be removal of Assad from power. That’s not being supported by developments on the ground. He’s actually winning.

So, you know, even our conception of the conference is wrong. And I think the best purpose for the conference would be to try to arrive at a cease-fire, try to create certain traction for the international support for a political settlement, and ultimately find a way that the worst that’s happening in Syria doesn’t impact the entire region.

I think the best we can hope for at this stage is to contain Syria and then find a way to maybe gradually wind down this conflict.

JEFFREY BROWN: All right, very much to be continued.

Vali Nasr, Zbigniew Brzezinski, thank you both very much.

ZBIGNIEW BRZEZINSKI: Thank you.

VALI NASR: Thank you.