How do gains by al-Nusra affect U.S. strategy in Syria? – Part 2

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    Joining me to help explain how the U.S.-led effort to destroy the Islamic State is affecting dynamics on the ground are Joshua Landis. He's director for Middle East studies at the University of Oklahoma. And Andrew Tabler, a senior fellow at the Washington Institute for Near East Policy.

    And welcome to both of you back to the program.

    Andrew Tabler, let me start with you.

    This is almost an alphabet-like collection of groups in Syria. So I'm going to keep it simple, for my own sake. How significant is this latest news that al-Nusra has routed the Free Syrian Army, which the U.S., at least in part, has been supporting?

    ANDREW TABLER, Washington Institute for Near East Policy: Yes, I think it's significant, in that it's routed two primary groups in the Free Syrian Army, both of which the United States had supported in a covert program. So, it's a setback for those moderate rebels.

    There are moderate rebels, though, elsewhere in the country, so they're down, but certainly not out. I think the bigger question is what the implications of this all are for a different program, which is proposed by the Obama administration, and that is the train-and-equip program that has been — that has been earmarked and is going ahead that will be organized in neighboring countries.


    The same question to you, Joshua Landis.

    First of all, how significant do you see this development that al-Nusra is gaining in parts of Syria that we — the U.S. considers strategic?

    JOSHUA LANDIS, University of Oklahoma: It underlines how difficult the U.S. is going to find trying to find partners in Syria altogether.

    Our partners are not popular in Syria. Today, the broad sentiments among Sunni Arabs who support the rebellion is that the United States is trying to find hired hands. And most Syrians don't like them. We're bombing Nusra. We're bombing — this is the al-Qaida groups. And we have killed a number of people with the Islamic Front who are allied with them, a very popular, broad-based group.

    So, in — the general sentiment, I think, amongst the rebels is to turning against the United States, believe that the United States is helping Assad, and this is going to make life very difficult in trying to produce a Syrian army that's going to have any effect on the real balance of power on the ground.

    And we have only spent — we have only earmarked half-a-billion dollars. That's less than — that's about a third of the endowment of the University of Oklahoma.


    You mean — he raises the question, how does this affect what the U.S. is trying to accomplish?



    The goal of training and equipping the opposition continues and will go forward. The overall allocations will depend — the initial allocation to train 5,000, that could be rapidly increased. The problem remains, what are the forces that would go into the Euphrates Valley and take care of these jihadists and jihadists in general, like Jabhat al-Nusra, that are spreading inside of Syria?

    And so far, the regime isn't just the solution. So, that's the reason for the train-and-equip program. And finding allies would be — I think it would be harder if all Syrians still lived inside of Syria. But half of Syrians are actually outside or in the border areas of their country. So, actually, in a way, they could harness that power going forward. But it will be difficult, and it will be part — but it will be a key part of the U.S. strategy going forward.


    So, Joshua Landis, how clear is it then what the U.S. should be doing and who the U.S. should be helping right now?


    What we're going to see is that the Obama policy turns into really what he's doing in Afghanistan, Somalia, Yemen, which is hitting, degrading ISIS from the air, as he's doing presently, with drones and airplanes, and not really trying to fix Syria.

    And that's the cheap method. What Andrew is proposing and what many people are talking about in Washington is building a Syrian army that can take on ISIS and Assad and put Syria back together again. I just don't see any resolve to do that on the part of the president or, more importantly, on the part of the American people.


    And is that right? Are you — is that what you're suggesting? And…


    No, I think the president's plan is clear. The White House says it's clear.

    Now, the speed at which they can ramp this up, I think that there's a recognition on the part of the White House, not that they're not paying attention to Syria. It's just the political solution isn't clear there. Also, the indication is that the war is going to go on for a very long time. So I think that that to me indicates we could have a divided Syria for quite some time.

    And that would be where the FSA enters first and then going forward, there could be some kind of settlement.


    Again, the Free Syrian — that's the Free Syrian Army.


    Yes, the Free Syrian Army could have some kind of settlement with the Assad regime going forward, but this is very far off in the future.


    Joshua Landis, for Americans, for anyone watching this who is wondering what is the United States' stake right now in Syria, how do you see that? How do you answer the question, why does this matter for the United States?


    Well, I think it matters because a few Americans got their heads chopped off, and U.S. intelligence is telling us that there are people in al-Qaida in Syria who are trying to put together bombs and teams that will bomb the West.

    Now, they're trying to run a counterterrorism operation, and, increasingly, that looks like it's limited to that. They want to shove ISIS out of Iraq. The president's been pretty clear about that. But Syria, we have a muddled message. Today, the Free Syrian Army groups that America has been supporting maybe control 1 percent of Syria, 2 percent.

    I don't know how much it is, but it's really nothing. And to imagine that America is going to somehow transform them into conquerors of half of Syria or even the whole of Syria, it begs the imagination.


    Let me just get Andrew Tabler for the last word here.

    Why should Americans believe there's any U.S. stake at this point?



    Well, there is the terrorist threat. That's — you know, that's for sure. The other problem is that this is about a regional war that's been going on by proxy, which the president has talked about on a number of occasions, between Iranian-backed regimes in Baghdad and in Damascus, and the Sunni-backed rebels inside of Syria.

    And that's a much larger issue, given energy prices, given a whole slew of other things, including our treaty obligations. So, unless you solve Syria, you can't solve or eventually not only degrade ISIS, but you can't destroy it. And without doing a deal on Syria, we're not going to be able to deal effectively with jihadists, not only in Syria, but Iraq and throughout the region.


    And it's looking more and more complicated almost by the day.




    Andrew Tabler and Joshua Landis, we thank you.

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