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What increased Russian support for Assad could mean for Syria

As one of the catalysts for the mass migration happening in Europe, Syria's civil war has displaced millions of people. If recent reports that Russia is stepping up support for Syria's Al-Assad are true, Secretary of State Kerry warns things could get a lot worse. Anthony Cordesman of the Center for Strategic and International Studies, joins Alison Stewart from Washington with more on the war.

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  • Alison Stewart:

    The biggest catalyst for the mass migration to Europe is Syria’s civil war, which is believed to have killed 250,000 people and driven an estimated 11 million Syrians from their homes.

    Secretary of State John Kerry warned Russia’s foreign minister this weekend about reports of Russia increasing specific types of support for Syrian President Bashar al-Assad’s regime. Kerry says the increased support could escalate the conflict and the refugee crisis.

    Joining me now from Washington to discuss the war in Syria is Anthony Cordesman, who is the Arleigh A. Burke Chair in Strategy at the Center for Strategic and International Studies.

    Sir, let’s begin with Secretary of State Kerry’s concerns. At this point in the conflict, what would a Russian infusion of support for Assad’s army and his regime mean?

  • Anthony Cordesman, Arleigh A. Burke Chair In Strategy, Center For Strategic International Studies:

    People are concerned, as there’s evidence that they may be providing — or Putin may be providing something like a thousand people’s worth of prefabricated housing.

    That has led some analysts to believe that Russia may be deploying air units and modern combat aircraft or a new kind of advisory team. Any buildup will help Assad ride out or survive, at least for awhile, the opposition.

    Any kind of active air presence would present serious problems for the United States, for Turkey, for the other coalition countries flying air sorties because of the risk that there might be some kind of incident between the Russians and the air forces operating against the Islamic State.

    And no matter what happens, that kind of operation would present problems for the United States because our Arab allies, particularly Saudi Arabia, Kuwait and the United Arab Emirates, are supporting some of the forces on the ground that are opposing Assad directly.

  • Alison Stewart:

    This conflict began in 2011. It is 2015. At this point, what stands out to you as the major issues keeping us from a diplomatic solution here?

  • Anthony Cordesman:

    Well, I think there are several reasons, but the most important one is, no one has emerged as a credible alternative.

    Syria is now divided really into four parts. There is a Kurdish area. The Kurds have no great incentive to be part of Syria. They were treated as second-class citizens before this began. And many didn’t even have identification papers.

    You have the Islamic State, which occupies a significant part of Eastern Syria, particularly along the river area. It’s not a densely populated area, but it’s one the Islamic State can actually control. You then have a mix of some 26 to 35 different opposition groups that are doing most of the fighting against Assad.

    They are more in the central, heavily populated areas of Syria, but they have almost nothing in common with the Assad regime, with the Islamic State or with the Kurds. And while there are groups outside Syria that claim to represent the opposition, the fact is that many of them were tied to more moderate, secular military movements which have effectively been defeated and virtually disappeared.

  • Alison Stewart:

    There has been quite a bit of criticism about neighboring countries not stepping in to help ease the humanitarian crisis, Saudi Arabia, Qatar, United Arab Emirates.

    What is your analysis as to why these countries have not stepped in and stepped up?

  • Anthony Cordesman:

    All of them, frankly, are deeply concerned at what these refugees might be and who they might have alignments with.

    All of them are dealing with their own problems, Iran, Yemen, Islamic State groups, al-Qaida in the Arabian Peninsula. And all of them tend to be relatively closed societies, where security puts very tight limits on any form of immigration.

  • Alison Stewart:

    Anthony Cordesman, thank you so much for helping us understand it a bit more.

  • Anthony Cordesman:

    Thank you.

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