New Indications Regime Ally Russia May Change Position on Syrian Conflict

JUDY WOODRUFF: For more on all of this, we turn to Dimitri Simes, president of the Center for the National Interest, a foreign policy think tank, and Steven Heydemann, a senior adviser for Middle East initiatives at the United States Institute of Peace. He's worked with the Syrian opposition on the challenges ahead if and when the Assad regime falls.

Welcome, gentlemen, to you both.

DIMITRI SIMES, Center for the National Interest: Thank you for having us.

JUDY WOODRUFF: Steve Heydemann, to you first.

What do you understand the situation on the ground to be right now in Syria?

STEVEN HEYDEMANN, U.S. Institute of Peace: We have seen in the past month a significant shift in the momentum of events on the ground.

We have seen the opposition increase the effectiveness of its tactics. It has acquired weapons that have permitted it to challenge the regime much more effectively across a broad range of fronts, ranging from the south of Syria to Damascus to the north. And we're seeing this reflected in the regime's response to the opposition's gains, including some of this activity surrounding movement of chemical weapons.

We don't know exactly what's exactly at stake, but part of the speculation is that they're putting themselves into a position in which they could create a defensive zone if it turns out to that they're unable to defend Damascus in the long run.

JUDY WOODRUFF: What is known about the evidence that the regime is looking — that this is a serious threat that they may turn to chemical weapons?

STEVEN HEYDEMANN: The intentions of the regime are uncertain. I don't think anybody knows what Bashar al-Assad has in mind, but there is very detailed satellite imagery available that provides very clear evidence that a number of sites in which these weapons have been stored have been — have had activity that is seen as very troubling by Western military analysts, because it suggests that they may be positioning themselves for some possible use of those weapons at some point in the future.

JUDY WOODRUFF: And you're saying this is taking place at a time when the opposition seems to be gaining the upper hand?

STEVEN HEYDEMANN: And when the regime, I think, is feeling increasingly insecure about its survival. And that's a very dangerous combination.

JUDY WOODRUFF: Dimitri Simes, you have been talking to people close to Russian President Vladimir Putin. How do the Russians see what is going on?

DIMITRI SIMES, Center for the National Interest: I think that they would agree with what Steve said. The situation on the ground in Syria is changing.

The Assad regime is losing. They're not yet at a point of collapse. But it's next to impossible to imagine how Assad can win.

Nobody knows for sure whether Assad will be able to survive for months, for weeks, because if a regime like that collapses, it may happen very quickly.

So, what the Russians obviously do not want to do is to be on the side of a failed tyrant and to be excluded from a future peaceful settlement.

JUDY WOODRUFF: So, this is a new posture on the part of the Russians. Is that fair to say?

DIMITRI SIMES: Judy, it is not entirely new.

I think the Russians were dealing to deal on Syria for quite some time. I think that they were willing to have Assad being removed from power as a part of a negotiated settlement for quite some time.

What is changing is the price they would require. The price, the Russian price for bending on Assad is going down as the situation on the ground is changing in the rebels' favor.

JUDY WOODRUFF: The price is going down. What does that mean?

DIMITRI SIMES: Well, it means that, for instance, they were saying in the past that they wouldn't be prepared to prejudge who would stay in power in Syria once negotiations would start.

A senior Russian official close to President Putin told me recently: We consider Assad a butcher, an inept butcher. He is a bastard. He has to go. But it should be decided by the Syrian people. Let negotiations start.

JUDY WOODRUFF: So if that, Steve Heydemann, is the evolving Russian position, how is the West, how is the United States prepared to accept that, to deal with that?

STEVEN HEYDEMANN: Well, the changing conditions on the grown have given considerable new urgency to conversations about whether a political solution is possible, whether there is a strategy that would bring about the removal of Bashar al-Assad from power, on what terms and what role the Russians can play in that process.

One of the big questions in Washington right now is whether Russia could deliver Bashar al-Assad, even if they were to accept a process of negotiation that envisioned his removal from power. Another big question is…

JUDY WOODRUFF: What do you mean deliver him? You mean remove him from…

STEVEN HEYDEMANN: Because it isn't entirely — it isn't entirely clear that Russia has the kind of influence over Assad that would persuade or compel him to accept a negotiation approved by the Russians, endorsed by the Russians.

JUDY WOODRUFF: Well, before you go any further, let me turn back to Dimitri Simes.

What's your sense of how much influence the Russians have?

DIMITRI SIMES: I completely agree with Steve.

The Russian influence on Assad is real, but limited. And there is another country which has more influence on Assad, and it is Iran. And the real dilemma for the Russians would be if we say, OK, let's have these negotiations. Let's have Russia at the table, but Iran should be excluded.

And Assad says, well, I am willing to be a party to negotiations, but not without Iran.

To accept the exclusion of Iran would be a difficult concession for Putin. And my impression is that the Kremlin is not quite there yet.

JUDY WOODRUFF: So, given that, again, Steve Heydemann, how is the West looking at that? This is all happening relatively fast.

STEVEN HEYDEMANN: It's happening very quickly. And it's a matter of enormous concern.

If the regime were to collapse in the absence of a political settlement, the potential for increased violence, the possibility that the opposition now taking shape in Cairo is not yet ready to govern, are seen as very serious considerations in Washington.

However, the question of whether it would be possible for the U.S., for example, to accept a negotiated process in which Assad himself were permitted to escape accountability is something that I think would be very hard to sell. It's a divide between the U.S. and certainly with the Iranians that will hamper efforts to put a political process in place.

JUDY WOODRUFF: So, at this point, what are the next steps that are happening at this point with the administration, with NATO? We saw President Putin in Turkey. So what are the next steps?

STEVEN HEYDEMANN: My own sense is that there will be accelerated efforts to explore with Russia what the contours of a negotiation might look like.

I think there will be an effort to clarify the terms on which Iran might be included, although there remains very deep reluctance to moving in that direction.

And I think, at the same time, efforts to increase pressure on Assad and to continue to develop the opposition will all constitute part of the diplomatic package that Washington is pursuing.

JUDY WOODRUFF: So, meanwhile — let me put the same question to you, Dimitri Simes. What are the next steps, as the Russians see it? And you have already brought up the Iran issue.

DIMITRI SIMES: Judy, there are two different games.

One is relatively easy — not easy, but relatively easy — is how to get rid of Assad. It's clear that he will go. The only question is how we're going to arrange it.

And I agree with Steve again. It would be better to have a negotiated solution, not a mess on the ground.

The second question is, do we want to use this crisis to remove Iran from Syria in terms of any influence and, more broadly, to remove Iran, at least to reduce Iran down to size in the region from, of course, its support of Hezbollah, Hamas?

If we want to do all that, then we would be asking Russia for a very major concession.

And I think that Putin is not quite prepared to do it at this point. The U.S.-Russian relationship remains problematic. They are difficult issues. My impression is that Putin would like to accommodate Obama, but not at any price.

STEVEN HEYDEMANN: And, if I may, at the same time, I think it would be very difficult for the U.S. to accept a framework in which Iran wasn't seen to pay a price for its support for the Assad regime.

JUDY WOODRUFF: Big, big questions remaining here.

Steven Heydemann, Dimitri Simes, thank you both.