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Should the U.S. change its Islamic State strategy in Syria? – Part 2

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  • GWEN IFILL:

    Now for a closer look at the administration's strategy to defeat the I.S. group inside Syria, we turn to former U.S. Ambassador to Iraq James Jeffrey. He's now a distinguished fellow at the Washington Institute for Near East Policy. And Phyllis Bennis, director of the New Internationalism Project at the Institute for Policy Studies.

    Ambassador Jeffrey, is our strategy, such as we understand it to be, the same for defeating the Islamic State as our strategy in Syria?

    JAMES JEFFREY, Former U.S. Ambassador to Iraq: No, it's quite different.

    First of all, as both secretary Hagel and General Dempsey said, we have an Iraqi-first strategy, but importantly Dempsey underlined it is not an Iraq-only strategy. And, therefore, for example, we have put considerable resources into stopping ISIS in the Syrian Kurdish town of Kobani.

    Nonetheless, dealing with Assad is very, very difficult because he's entrenched in power. He's one of the generators of this entire conflict and the growth of ISIS. Yet we don't have any capable allies as we do, to some degree at least, in Iraq. Thus, we're starting in Iraq trying to push against ISIS, and there's been several offensives to the north of Baghdad and the south as well that have been pretty successful.

    So I think that this is a smart approach to first start in Iraq, and then we will see how the situation develops in Syria, where we have multiple enemies.

  • GWEN IFILL:

    Phyllis Bennis, is our strategy correct in that respect?

    PHYLLIS BENNIS, Director, Institute for Policy Studies: No, I don't think it's correct.

    It's correct to not be trying again to carry out regime change in a country where we are not appreciated, where we are not being asked for regime change by everybody. There are some, clearly, who are asking for direct U.S. military engagement, but if we look at our history of regime change in that region, it's not a model that I think anybody's going to want.

    Do people want to end up like the situation now in Libya or in Iraq, where you end up after regime change with more violence, more chaos, more extremism, not less? So that part I think is true, is correct.

    I just don't think that we should be saying that that's the next stage. I don't think the military approach here is going to work at all in either Iraq or Syria.

  • GWEN IFILL:

    Well, let me ask Ambassador Jeffrey about that.

    Is there a bad track record for the U.S. in engagement in the kind of countries that Phyllis Bennis mentions? And should we be thinking of a different approach? Is that what the White House is doing now?

  • JAMES JEFFREY:

    Absolutely. She's absolutely right, and I have been involved in some of those bad approaches.

    But that doesn't mean that you simply sit back and walk this thing. Secretary Hagel said today that there is no purely military approach. I would add a corollary to that. There is no political approach at this point with a foe like ISIS that doesn't have a military component.

  • GWEN IFILL:

    And a foe like Assad?

  • JAMES JEFFREY:

    And a foe like Assad, you also need a military component, but somewhat differently.

    The president's mission to the U.S. military is to destroy ISIS. He hasn't given the same mission to destroy Assad. What we need to do there is to provide credible support to an opposition which is not some people in Syria. It's basically the entire Sunni population, with a few exceptions — to stop Assad from winning this thing.

    If you can generate a stalemate, then we can get back to Geneva, where we failed twice, and get some kind of political resolution. I think that's goal he's looking for.

  • GWEN IFILL:

    Phyllis Bennis, finish — you can respond to that. Then I have another question for you.

  • PHYLLIS BENNIS:

    Sure.

    I think that the question of negotiations is crucial. There was a failure twice in a row in Geneva, but the failure had everything to do with the restrictions that were put on the nature of these talks. When we have talks that start with Iran can't be at the table, we're guaranteeing failure because Iran is a major player, whether we like them or not.

    When we start with a criteria that says everyone at the table has to start by acknowledging that Assad must go, that says that Russia and Iran are not going to be there, let alone the regime itself, so that whatever is agreed to is only going to be agreed to by one side.

  • GWEN IFILL:

    Except that allies like Turkey, sometimes allies like Turkey, asking for no-fly zones, seem to be quite unhappy with our current policy.

  • JAMES JEFFREY:

    They are. And, in fact, the Russians did show up in Geneva, but the question whether Iran should show up or not is a very tough one because of exactly what you said.

    That is, the Sunni Arab states in the region and Turkey see Iran as much of a threat as they do ISIS. So, therefore, again, we have multiple enemies in the Syrian front.

  • PHYLLIS BENNIS:

    This is not an enemy.

    If we're serious about diplomacy — and I think we have to be — number one, every bomb that we drop drives some people into the arms of ISIS. When we look at Iraq, if we're talking about — the ambassador mentioned the need for an inclusive government, the new prime minister is saying some of the right things, but who does he appoint as the minister of interior?

    The head of the Badr Brigade, one most sectarian Shia militias in Iraqi — in recent Iraqi history. That wasn't a good message to the Sunnis of Iraq. So that's one part of it. The other part of it is we're looking at a scenario where we have to be serious about diplomacy, not as a subset of the military, but instead of the military.

    If we really want to solve the problem, we can't bomb extremism. We bomb cities. We bomb people. We kill people. We don't bomb extremism. Sometimes, we hit extremists. Sometimes, we don't.

  • GWEN IFILL:

    Just seems to be a unique set of circumstances. We're not talking about one country that — where we're talking about a regime change in. We're talking about a region and we're talking about allies who are not necessarily on the board in the way that maybe they have been in past incursions.

    So, I wonder what the — if you had to give the administration advice about what the one thing they should be reconsidering at this stage, what would it be?

  • JAMES JEFFREY:

    It would be move a bit faster on putting advisory teams out with these Iraqi units. I think they're going to need them, from my experience there.

    But, again, the administration is not just looking to the military, as, again, Hagel and Dempsey pointed out today. They have a broad program, and they understand you can't defeat extremism with bombs. But you can defeat people in gun trucks and in tanks and artillery with bombs.

  • GWEN IFILL:

    Briefly.

  • PHYLLIS BENNIS:

    But I think that we can't expect that this is going to work. If we are serious, we have to do diplomacy that is not bound up with the military.

    We heard about $5.6 billion more to pay for the military. We didn't hear about any additional funding to pay for more diplomacy. That's what we need.

  • GWEN IFILL:

    Phyllis Bennis of the Institute for Policy Studies and Ambassador Jim Jeffrey of the Washington Institute for Near East Studies, thank you both very much.

  • PHYLLIS BENNIS:

    Thank you.

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