Will U.S. military and diplomatic efforts help resolve the Syrian war?

How significant is the Obama administration decision to send special forces into Syria to help combat the Islamic State? And how does the move impact diplomatic efforts to end the war? Judy Woodruff gets reaction from Joshua Landis of the University of Oklahoma and Michael McFaul of Stanford University.

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  • JUDY WOODRUFF:

    So, just how significant a move is this decision to send these special forces into Syria? And what impact will it have on trying to end the war diplomatically?

    For that, we turn to former U.S. Ambassador to Russia Michael McFaul, and Joshua Landis. He's the director for Middle East studies at the University of Oklahoma.

    And we welcome you both back to the program.

    Ambassador McFaul, let me start with you.

    Before I ask about these diplomatic talks in Vienna, what effect do you think this operation, this announcement of putting special operations forces into Iraq is going to have on any effort to resolve Syria diplomatically?

    MICHAEL MCFAUL, Former Ambassador to Russia: Well, I think it will be in the margins, but not a direct effect.

    I think it really does have to do with the desire by the Obama administration to be more effective against ISIL. As Secretary Kerry said today, under Operation Inherent Resolve, they have now attacked — they have had 7,300 airstrikes, to little effect. And now I think they're doubling down, in particular with the actors that they think have been most effective before.

    But it was a station identification for our Russian interlocutors and for everybody else that we are involved in Syria and that our people and our partners in Syria have to be part of a negotiated process.

  • JUDY WOODRUFF:

    Joshua Landis, how do you see this move by the U.S. to put less than 50 special operations troops in? Is it going to have an effect on resolving what's going on in Syria?

    JOSHUA LANDIS, University of Oklahoma: It's not going to resolve anything. It's going to have a slight effect, but America is saying that we're here.

    They have had a lot of criticism, President Obama's had a lot of criticism, not only internally, because 50 intelligence people said that his administration was trying to gin up a success against ISIS, and it wasn't having a success against ISIS. So I think he's responding to the internal criticism he's had in the United States, but also in the region.

    Saudi Arabia and others are saying Russia's moved into the region because Obama's got a very light footprint, and that there's a power vacuum, and, therefore, Russia is going to come in and displace the United States.

    So I think he's trying to turn up the heat a little bit without getting America fundamentally stuck in a third war in the Middle East, because he's discovered how difficult it is to get out of Iraq or Afghanistan, and he doesn't want to leave the next president with a real American presence in Syria.

    So it's doing a little bit, but not a lot.

  • JUDY WOODRUFF:

    So, let me ask you both separately then about this meeting in Vienna wrapped up today, two days. These were representatives of 17 countries, plus the U.N. and the E.U.

    They basically came out with an agreement, they said, to launch a new peace effort involving the Syrian government, Syrian opposition groups.

    How do you read — Ambassador McFaul, how do you read what they're saying in Vienna?

  • MICHAEL MCFAUL:

    Well, first of all, it's always good to talk, it's always good to negotiate, as opposed to not talking.

    Second point, I think the hidden news in the statement today was that they said they're going to explore modalities for a cease-fire, but not against ISIS. And if they do that, that's a big objective, it's a big success for the administration, because, before, the Russian forces were attacking the folks that we were supporting in Syria, and not really attacking ISIL. So that would be a breakthrough, in and of itself.

    But to your bigger question of will this be a resolution, this is just the start of what would be a very long process. If you saw the exchanges about should Assad stay or go, we were all reminded that we have a long ways to go before you get a process in place.

    I was part of Geneva I and Geneva II, the failed processes before. I guess this is now Vienna I. And, you know, I'm skeptical that it will be easy to do, but I applaud the efforts for trying.

  • JUDY WOODRUFF:

    Joshua Landis, do you see — getting back to what the ambassador said a moment ago, do you see this as a potential breakthrough in here somewhere in dealing with Assad, President Assad?

  • JOSHUA LANDIS:

    Well, like the ambassador said, the two sides are worlds apart.

    What they do agree on is that there has to be a political solution. What the Russians and Assad believe a political solution is that, essentially, Assad will conquer the country, and they will kick out the jihadists, and they will have a political solution with the more moderate militias by bringing them back in from the cold and having them accept an Assad regime again.

    America, of course, sees a political solution as Assad stepping down, having regime change that will bring eventually a semi-ascendancy to Syria. And those — the two sides couldn't farther apart on this. So, I don't think we're going to see a resolution any time soon.

    What will see is, in a sense, the United States has said that Russia is getting into a swamp in Syria. The big question is, do they work for a cease-fire or does America and its allies, Saudi Arabia, Qatar, Turkey, throw in more arms, TOW missiles to fight the Russians and make sure that they sink in that swamp?

    Or do they not throw in those weapons and allow Russia to really dominate Eastern Syria — Western Syria, excuse me.

  • JUDY WOODRUFF:

    Yes. There are some real options there for the parties to consider.

    But, Ambassador McFaul, where do you see the U.S. going from here? Do you see Ambassador Kerry — I'm sorry — Secretary Kerry engaging, putting the U.S. more on the line in Syria in order to find a solution?

  • MICHAEL MCFAUL:

    Well, two things.

    Again, I want to stress the importance of this possible cease-fire, because, before, the Russian attacks were primarily against moderate Syrian groups that we were supporting.

  • JUDY WOODRUFF:

    Right.

  • MICHAEL MCFAUL:

    And we just couldn't let that go on. We just cannot allow the Russians to kill the people we're supporting. So that could be an achievement.

    With respect to the second thing, yes, Secretary Kerry, he's going to fight for this. He's going to be engaged. It's the way he does business. And there is no doubt in my mind that if he sees even a glimmer of hope, he's going to try to get these parties together and work towards a political transition.

    My heart's with him. My head suggests that it's going to be a long, difficult fight.

  • JUDY WOODRUFF:

    And you both seem to agree on that.

    Joshua Landis, you both are saying they're very far apart, but there are some possibilities here. What are the possibilities that you see both sides working on that could turn this into something positive?

  • JOSHUA LANDIS:

    Well, it really comes down to this — these more moderate militias that are in the west of the country that Assad wants to take. That's Aleppo and it's Idlib.

    And Russia thinks — and the Syrians are all saying, you know, people in Damascus are telling me, we're going to take Aleppo in three months. Within a year, you are going to see us mopping up in this area.

    They think they're going to do this. Now, it's quite clear, from what the ambassador said, that America is not going to allow that to happen. If they're really going to support their allies in that region, they're going to have to send in more arms in order to scuttle the Russians' plans and to suck them into the swamp, so that they will come back in a year's time on bended knee and say, OK, let's talk cease-fire.

    The question of where that cease-fire is going to be, what lines are going to be drawn between sort of Sunni Syria and regime-dominated Syria is what it's all about today. And that's going to — a lot of that's going to depend on military power.

  • JUDY WOODRUFF:

    Huge challenge, and a lot of questions remaining. And we thank you both for helping us at least explore this as it gets under way.

    Ambassador McFaul, Joshua Landis, thank you.

  • JOSHUA LANDIS:

    Pleasure. Thank you.

  • MICHAEL MCFAUL:

    Thank you.

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