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What Issues Have Stopped the U.S. and Russia From Seeing Eye to Eye on Syria?

September 12, 2013 at 12:00 AM EDT
The U.S. and Russia have been at loggerheads for years over Syria. What makes the countries seem more willing to work on a solution together now? Judy Woodruff gets debate from Angela Stent of Georgetown University and Andranik Migranyan of the Institute for Democracy and Cooperation.

JUDY WOODRUFF: So, can the U.S. and Russia, who have been at loggerheads for years over Syria, come to an agreement?

For some answers, I’m joined by Angela Stent. She’s director of the Center for Eurasian, Russian and East European Studies at Georgetown University. She has served in the State Department and at the National Intelligence Council. And Andranik Migranyan, he is the director of the Institute for Democracy and Cooperation, a nongovernmental organization that has close ties to Russia’s leadership.

Welcome to you both to the NewsHour.

Angela Stent, to you first. Why are the Russians deciding to get involved in this after all these years?

ANGELA STENT, Georgetown University: Well, I think President Putin has just seen a major opportunity.

I mean, for 20 years, the Russians have either complained and tried to block what the U.S. did, for instance, in the Balkans and Iraq, or they have gone along, but said they never had an opportunity to shape the agenda.

They have an opportunity now. There’s division in the U.S. The president has hesitated about what to do. Russia does have a special relationship with President Assad. And I think it’s — I welcome the fact that they have now tried to take the initiative, and find some solution to this awful situation.

JUDY WOODRUFF: Andranik Migranyan, so it’s just taking advantage of a window of opportunity?

ANDRANIK MIGRANYAN, Institute for Democracy and Cooperation: No, I don’t think so.

We have another perception. Yesterday, The Wall Street Journal published information that a year ago, during the summit of G20 in Los Cabos, Putin raised this problem of Syrian chemical weapons and proposed the idea to put these weapons under international control.

Even in April, when Kerry visited Moscow, they raised this question together with Lavrov, but, unfortunately, at that time, President Obama already said that Assad has to go. That’s why they didn’t pick this opportunity. Otherwise, a year ago, this process could start.

And, unfortunately, if Americans at that time agreed with Russians, they had to legitimize Assad’s power in Syria because you can’t put under the control chemical weapons if you don’t talk to the acting president. And this is the sad reality, which means Russia’s position always was constructive.

JUDY WOODRUFF: Well, let me put that — let’s come back to Angela Stent.

His version is that the Russians have been trying to do something here for years and the U.S. just hasn’t taken advantage of it.

ANGELA STENT: Well, I don’t really think that — I wouldn’t share that view.


JUDY WOODRUFF: Just a moment.

ANGELA STENT: I wouldn’t share that view.

ANDRANIK MIGRANYAN: This is yesterday’s Wall Street Journal publication.


ANGELA STENT: The Russians from the beginning have not wanted to see Assad go. And they believed that he could prevail. And maybe they’re right. Maybe he will prevail.

So they have been very reluctant to do anything to undermine his position there. But I think we have now gotten to the point where we know that chemical weapons were used, even though President Putin said in the article today that it’s the rebels, the opposition that used them, not the U.S.

But we’re now in a position where I think the Russians realize that something has to be done. They would still like to keep Assad in power and the way to do this is to try and get rid of the chemical weapons issue while they still supply conventional arms to Syria, of course.

JUDY WOODRUFF: Mr. Migranyan, what do the Russians want to happen in Syria?

ANDRANIK MIGRANYAN: Russia’s position is constant.

Russia’s position was that Putin is not stuck with Assad, and today he repeated that in his article. Lavrov several times said about that Russia was in favor of negotiated settlement when both sides involved in the conflict could participate in these negotiations.

But, you know, again, American position and Western position was, Assad has to go. But, listen, Assad enjoyed large support of the population over there, large support of ethnic and religious minorities. He enjoyed the support of his large army.

Somebody had to represent these groups of people. You can’t say, just go. Who is coming next? This is Russia’s position. That’s why Russia was very constructive in the sense, because Americans showed a very bad credit history within this region, because their involvement in Iraq was disaster. Involvement in Libya was disaster. Involvement in Egypt was disaster.

That’s why this is the time to listen to Moscow, not to the United States, but just follow…


JUDY WOODRUFF: I hear the message, and — I hear your message, and I want to give Ms. Stent a chance to respond.

ANGELA STENT: Well, we are listening to Moscow.

So, you know, they had — we had insisted before that we thought Assad had to go before you could have any solution. It’s clear that at the moment, that’s not going to happen. I mean, obviously, the United States has had to modify its position there because of events on the ground and because Russia has blocked any U.N. resolution to anything that would in fact enable one to talk about a transition away from Assad.

And I think, in the end, maybe we and the Russians don’t share such a different view of what we would like to happen in Syria eventually, which is a stable government not controlled by extremists. The problem is how you get there, and this may be a first step toward getting there, but we do have to wait and see how this is going to pan out and how sincere this is.

JUDY WOODRUFF: But, if that’s the case, if the goal is the same, why haven’t the two sides been able to get together, do you think?

ANGELA STENT: Well, I think because it has to do with a — with Assad himself, with a diagnosis of what is the problem, and I think with the Russian concern, which Mr. Putin expressed in the article and Mr. Migranyan is expressing, what comes afterwards and the fear that extremist Islamist elements can come to power in Syria, which will threaten the region and threaten Russian itself.

JUDY WOODRUFF: So, Mr. Migranyan, do you accept the idea that what the U.S. and Russia want ultimately in Syria is a stable country, and so maybe the interest is shared; it’s just how do you get there that’s different?

ANDRANIK MIGRANYAN: That’s true, and I absolutely agree.

But the only problem is that Russia knows better the region and Russia always thinks, what comes next? Because Americans and Westerners killed Gadhafi, country is in ruins. Washington demanded Mubarak go, and the country is in chaos. And that’s why one must be very cautious making statements which then it’s hard to play back. That’s the reality.

JUDY WOODRUFF: Mr. Migranyan, what do you think the prospects are that the two sides will come together, that Mr. Kerry, Mr. Lavrov, the U.S. and Russia will be able to come to some agreement that will actually manage to separate the Syrians from their chemical weapons?

ANDRANIK MIGRANYAN: I think that if Congress will be determined not to give authority to president to strike against Syria in this case, we can have a success in diplomatic area.

Otherwise, if — I am afraid — and I dare to say if Obama enjoyed the support of Congress, he could ignore Security Council, as that happened with Reagan, with Clinton, with Bush Jr., and could unilaterally act against Assad because he once said that he is crossing the red line. Fortunately, Congress is making more sober Washington policy vis-a-vis the region.

JUDY WOODRUFF: So, Angela Stent, it sounds as if he is saying if the threat of military force is taken off the table, maybe they can come together. How but do you see it? What do you think the prospects…

ANGELA STENT: Well, I think the prospects at the moment, let’s be optimistic, but it’s a question of timing. How long is it going to take, first of all, for Syria to sign this convention, then to allow — to show where its chemical weapons stockpiles are, and then to start getting rid of them?

And one can foresee a situation, a scenario where this could keep dragging out, and at some point the president has made it clear that he would act even without Congress’ support. I mean, he made that clear in his speech. And then I think it’s a serious question, can you have a U.N. resolution that doesn’t have some sanction against Assad if you don’t say, if he doesn’t comply with this, the threat of force is always there?

If Russia doesn’t agree with that, then how much leverage do you have? But I think we have to sit and step back and wait and see what Mr. Kerry and Mr. Lavrov can accomplish, but I think timing is going to be the major question here.

JUDY WOODRUFF: We hear you both. Angela Stent, Andranik Migranyan, thank you.