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Putin says the end of the Syrian civil war is in sight. Is he right?

Russian President Vladimir Putin declared the end of Syria’s civil war was in sight as he hosted Iran’s Hassan Rouhani and Turkey’s Recep Tayyip Erdoğan at the Sochi Summit, a meeting that didn’t include the U.S. As Syrian opposition members prepare to meet, many wonder: what’s next? Judy Woodruff hears from former state department official Vali Nasr and Faysal Itani of the Atlantic Council.

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  • Judy Woodruff:

    Now- the nearly-seven year war in Syria has left an estimated half-a-million dead, has displaced millions more, and become a proxy conflict among great powers.

    Today, one of the main drivers of the war these past two years, Russia's President Vladimir Putin, began an effort to put a greater political stamp on what comes next in Syria.

    It was a confident Putin who declared the end of the Syrian civil war is finally in sight, and he was clear about who gets the credit.

  • President Vladimir Putin (through interpreter):

    Large-scale military action against terrorist groups in Syria is coming to an end. Thanks to the efforts of Russia, Iran and Turkey, we have managed to prevent the collapse of Syria, and a real chance has appeared put an end to a war which has lasted for many years.

  • Judy Woodruff:

    Putin hosted Iran's President Hassan Rouhani and Turkey's President Recep Tayyip Erdogan at the summit in Sochi. The trio represent the main backers of the warring parties. Russia and Iran support the Syrian regime, Turkey the opposition.

  • President Vladimir Putin (through interpreter):

    We can state with certainty that we have come to a new stage, a possibility to initiate a real political process of settlement. It is obvious that the process of reforms will not be an easy one. It will require compromises and concessions from all of its participants, including, of course, the Syrian government.

  • Judy Woodruff:

    Putin said Syria's President Bashar al-Assad is prepared to enact constitutional reforms and to hold U.N.-supervised elections. It remains unclear whether Assad would agree to step down, something the U.S. and opposition groups had once demanded.

    On Monday, Putin greeted the Syrian leader warmly at a bilateral meeting. Assad, in turn, praised Russia's military support for saving his regime.

  • President Bashar Al-Assad (through interpreter):

    Today, after more than two years, the results on the ground are obvious for everyone, and this is due to the Russian air support for the Syrian Arab army in countering and fighting terrorism.

    On behalf of the Syrian people, I would like to thank and salute you and every officer.

  • Judy Woodruff:

    Since Russia's intervention in 2015, the Syrian government has regained control over broad swathes of the country. In the Northeast, Kurdish fighters backed by the U.S. have taken territory from the Islamic State.

    ISIS still holds areas in the southeast, although greatly reduced, and rebel groups have been pushed from all but a few pockets. The United States wasn't included in today's Sochi summit, and has been largely quiet on the Russian-led talks. Putin did phone President Trump yesterday, and they spoke for more than an hour.

    In a readout afterward, the White House said, "Both presidents also stressed the importance of… [ensuring] the stability of a unified Syria free of malign intervention and terrorist safe havens."

    All this comes as members of the deeply fractured Syrian opposition are meeting in Saudi Arabia. They hope to agree on an agenda and a delegation for peace talks in Geneva later this month.

    For more on Syria, Russia and Iran's role, and where this leaves the United States, I'm joined by Vali Nasr. He is dean of the Johns Hopkins School of Advanced International Studies. He served as a senior adviser in the State Department under President Obama. And Faysal Itani is a senior fellow in the Rafik Hariri Center for the Middle East at the Atlantic Council. It's a Washington think tank.

    And welcome to both of you to the NewsHour.

    Vali Nasr, to you first.

    Is President Putin right that military conflict in Syria is just about at an end?

  • Vali Nasr:

    No, probably, this war will continue in fits and starts for some time.

    But he would like to tell the world that the major reasons as to why the war was going on, in other words, the fight against ISIS, is over. And the other important message is that, if the war was really about removing Assad from power, he wants to say that effort is over as well.

    So, it's a major signal he wants to send that, as far as Russia is concerned, we're moving to the next stage.

  • Judy Woodruff:

    As far as Russia is concerned.

    To Faysal Itani.

    And Russia is the most influential factor in the war at this point; is that correct?

  • Faysal Itani:

    They are the reason that the war took a turn from the regime being at a disadvantage to the regime now being in a consolidated position and secure.

    They aren't the single most powerful actor in Syria, but they're the reason things took that turn, and now they're trying to capitalize on it diplomatically.

  • Judy Woodruff:

    So, what's the significance, Vali Nasr, of this meeting in Russia, Vladimir Putin inviting first President Assad and then today meting with Mr. Erdogan from Turkey and President Rouhani of Iran?

  • Vali Nasr:

    Well, I think two things.

    One is that, by making a declaration, in a sense, that the war is over — at least that's what Putin is saying — everybody should focus on postwar, he's trying to change the psychological dimension of this conflict, get other leaders in the region, actors, Syrian opposition, et cetera, to sort of accept what he thinks is now the facts on the ground, that the war is over.

    Secondly, this is a big moment for him. He is now taking that role that has traditionally been that of the United States, the power that brings everybody together, charts the way toward a peace process, imposes a political settlement, and ends a conflict.

    So, this role has now been completely abdicated by the United States and is now Putin's moment, if you will, to say, I'm going to be deciding the fate of Syria and, by extension, the fate of the Middle East.

  • Judy Woodruff:

    Faysal Itani, is there any argument that President Assad is going to remain in power?

  • Faysal Itani:

    Well, no, I think he is going to remain in power. I think that's clear.

    All the major backers of the insurgent groups that were pushing them to confront him militarily, that confrontation is over. I mean, of course there are going to be some holdout groups, some extremist groups, like HTS.

    But all the people who would…

  • Judy Woodruff:

    HTS being?

  • Faysal Itani:

    Hay'at Tahrir al-Sham. It's an al-Qaida offshoot, essentially.

    But without Turkey and Saudi Arabia and Qatar actively trying to hurt the regime, and without Jordan at least agreeing to it, there is no significant military threat to the regime.

  • Judy Woodruff:

    And what's the significance — Vali, you have — Nasr — you have referenced this a couple of times. The U.S. doesn't have a significant voice at this point in what's going on. How did we get to this place?

  • Vali Nasr:

    Well, I think it started under the Obama administration, where the administration policy was that Syria is not really worth an American effort.

    And also I think the Obama administration underestimated Putin's tenacity and willingness to shape this war, and sort of thought that this is a fool's errand and Putin is going to crash and burn.

    And then the Trump administration, which has a very different approach to Russia, in the sense that they're not concerned about Russian — Russia coming out of this conflict stronger, but, at the same time, they, much like the Obama administration, are not willing to really put the resources on the ground that would make the United States a factor.

  • Judy Woodruff:

    How much difference does it make, Faysal Itani, that the U.S. doesn't have a major voice at this point?

  • Faysal Itani:

    I mean, for it to have a major voice, it would have had to have had a major impact and influence on the ground at the military level and diplomatic level.

    This is just a reflection that we don't have any of that. Now, we played the diplomacy game for a few years in the conflict, even though our commitment to shaping it militarily was much weaker than everybody else's.

    Now what we're seeing, after five , six years, that's run out. Now the diplomatic situation reflects who has got skin in the game. The United States doesn't have it, and the others do.

  • Judy Woodruff:

    But does that matter, Vali Nasr, that the U.S. doesn't?

  • Vali Nasr:

    Well, there is a larger audience than Syria. This is not just about Syria.

    So, this is the second major event in the region in the last month that the United States has had no role. So, first, you had the Kurdish referendum. Iran was the decider of the outcome. Now, with the war in Syria, Russia is the decider of the outcome.

    So, you have — there is an audience across the region of governments, of opposition forces who are watching this, and they're deciding that the United States now is a spectator, is not a decider.

  • Judy Woodruff:

    And so where does that leave Syria? I mean, you both — we have talked about Iran. Iran continues to play a significant role in Syria.

  • Faysal Itani:

    Yes, absolutely.

    Where it leaves Syria is, you have to desegregate the divide between the conflict over the survival of the regime between the opposition and the regime. I think that's more or less over, at least for now. We don't know what is going to happen, obviously.

  • Judy Woodruff:

    With Assad staying in power.

  • Faysal Itani:

    With Assad in power.

    And the other half of it is what happens to the territories that we and our allies took in the process of fighting ISIS? And that's a big chunk of territory. That — the fate of that area is, I think, much more uncertain than the one that the regime controls.

  • Judy Woodruff:

    How do you see that playing out, the non-Assad — we showed this map a few moments ago. But the part of Syria that Assad doesn't control, what happens there?

  • Vali Nasr:

    Well, I think the goal for the alliance behind Assad and Assad is to gradually eat up that territory as well, or neutralize it.

    And I think the assumption of Putin and his allies is that, once they make it clear that they are going to shape the future of Syria, the United States would be even less incentivized to put resources on the ground and is going to completely abdicate any role in Syria, which then gives them the free hand, let's say, over five years, six years to do mop-up operations and take over the entire territory.

  • Judy Woodruff:

    In the longer run, with the U.S. out of the picture, Faysal Itani, in terms of deciding on Syria's fate, is that good for U.S. interests overall or not?

  • Faysal Itani:

    If — even if you think Syria itself is unimportant — and there have been arguments made that it's not on the U.S. side — Jordan is important, Israel is important, and even leaving all that aside, the future of Turkey is important, and the Iranian presence and control, an unprecedented one, from Iraq, Syria, running all the way through Lebanon, that's a new geopolitical reality.

    And it does affect American interests. I don't know how long it will take for something to happen to make the United States realize that that's not an acceptable situation, or at least one that needs a tough plan to manage. That hasn't happened yet, for whatever reason, but it's still early.

  • Judy Woodruff:

    So, you expect — so, the U.S. may end up having to get involved again. Is that what we're saying here?

  • Vali Nasr:

    I think it's going to be very difficult for the U.S. to get involved.

    I think Putin is now creating a situation that the United States would have to go against Russia to get involved in Syria, if the Russians are deciding that.

    But the larger issue for us is that Putin has — and Iran and Assad have now shown a way in which you could shape the future of regions and marginalize and exclude the United States.

    And this will play out in Asia. It's going to play out in Europe and Ukraine. It's going to play out in other regions of the world. The audience for Syria is much larger than Syria or the Middle East.

  • Judy Woodruff:

    Big implications that go well beyond the Middle East.

    Vali Nasr, Faysal Itani, we thank you both.

  • Faysal Itani:

    Thank you.

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