[Dean Sherry Glied] Tonight’s discussion will focus on America’s role in the Syrian conflict. We are pleased to welcome our expert debaters as they delve deeper into this important and complex subject. I want to offer a warm hello to Ambassador Ford, Mr. Derek Chollet, and Ms. Deborah Amos, and thank them for being with us here tonight. [Deborah Amos] This debate takes place at a time of profound tragedy for civilians who are trapped in East Aleppo. At one time, it was the largest City in Syria; it was the capital of the Country’s economy. In recent times, it’s now a place where every hospital in East Aleppo is now closed; bakeries do not operate. It’s a city that is under siege with medieval war tactics: besiegement, starvation. And, at the same time, 21st Century Technology means that we can talk to the people in that city every day. So, what is to be done? And, that is the question that our two panelists will be discussing tonight. I’m going to introduce them; each one will give an opening statement and a rebuttal, and then we’ll start with my questions, and then I’ll open it to the floor. [Ambassador Robert S. Ford] I’m not going to go through the numbers of casualties and the destruction and the mayhem. I would simply say that it is the worst humanitarian crisis since World War II: half of the Syrian population — HALF of the Syrian population — has been displaced; five million refugees, approximately; war crimes committed on a huge scale; violations of International Humanitarian Law committed on a vast scale, an enormous scale. [Derek Chollet] We have eleven coalition partners working with us in Syria, over the skies and some on the ground, and we owe over a thousand US troops right now in Jordan, helping protect the Jordanian government, and we have several hundred US forces in Turkey running air operations. The question we all have to ask ourselves [is], “In implementing a no-fly zone, are we ready to kill Russians?” Because we will, now. There’s enough Russians in Syria and military installations that we will kill Russians if we enforce the no-fly zone. [Robert S. Ford] Number one, we need a quality Syrian force that can contain extremists in Syria and can, over time, address and diminish recruitment into those extremist groups. And the second thing we need, in terms of American National interest, is a ceasefire in Syria, which will reduce these destabilizing refugee flows that go even up into Europe, will open the possibility over time — and I emphasize the word “over time”; not quickly — the possibility of a genuine political negotiation. [Derek Chollet] There’s no question the US can bring about a transition in Syria. If there’s one thing the US military has shown over the last fifteen years, is it can bring down governments. The problem is, in the examples of Afghanistan or Iraq or Libya, is those transitions are not very managed. What comes next is pretty rough. So, we have been debating how we’re in that, sort of, middle space in the tension between those two words; and, those who want to bring about change in Syria quickly will emphasize the transition, and those who are worried about what comes next and trying to seek a negotiated solution, where we have a viable opposition that is coherent and capable of running that country post-Assad, emphasized the diplomatic outcome, and that’s the “manage.” And, we have not found a way to reconcile those two competing tactics to get at that overall objective. [Deborah Amos] Where does that cost rise to the point of, you know, more intervention is less costly than not. [Derek Chollet] It’s a management of risk, and that’s why we have to be willing to, if we do more, be willing to accept the possible risk that that will lead to a situation in Syria that we are responsible for or running for quite some time. Now, history may look back on this period and say, “that was a risk worth running, and it was a cost worth enduring.” But I certainly know president Obama doesn’t believe that. I don’t believe that. I actually don’t think the American people believe that. [Robert S. Ford] I don’t know if people here know: we are spending 1.5 billion dollars a year on refugee assistance, just for Syria. 1.5 billion a year. The military operations in Syria — Derek, you will know better than me — but I’m going to guesstimate 300 to 400 million a year.
[Derek Chollet] Yeah. [Robert S. Ford] So, just to put that in perspective — I heard this on NPR, just the other day, talking about Trump — US federal assistance to cities like Chicago and San Francisco are roughly 400 million dollars a year. I would have much preferred that money go to American cities than be spent on US military operations, but it’s not working. And, so, we need to change. We need to change the strategy and we need to change the tactics, and more intervention — not a no-fly zone, not ground troops. Other kinds of intervention, I think are called for now. [Deborah Amos] To have closer relations with Russia, to make The Grand Bargain and end the war, have the ceasefire that Robert talks about: is that possible? [Derek Chollet] Well, sure. It’s possible.
[Deborah Amos] Is it workable? [Derek Chollet] It might be workable. That doesn’t make it the right thing to do. So, currently, the US approach — what John Kerry’s trying to do, my understanding, even today — is to work to achieve, with Russia, a ceasefire in Syria, but at acceptable cost: one that may involve Assad transitioning out of power one day, one that keeps the opposition intact, one that stops barrel bombs, one that stops bombing of hospitals in places like Aleppo. But so far, the Russians aren’t able to deal. So, we could get a bargain with Russia, but it wouldn’t be much of a bargain from our end. It would just be a complete cave on our principles and what we believe is right, and just to go all-in with the Russians. [Robert S. Ford] Hope is not analysis. Really! Oh, we used to have arguments about this during the Iraq war, believe me. We wish Russia could deliver a ceasefire; it would be so much easier. But I have to tell you, having been in the room with them, and having talked to their officials in private, and then having watched what they have done for the last two years — Russia will not deliver a ceasefire. Russia and Iran must pay a price for continuing to support Assad’s war in Syria. Bashar al-Assad doesn’t want a ceasefire. He has said it over and over and over. There must be ways to give them longer range mortars, longer range rockets, so that they can hit airports and disrupt the very bombing missions, that we’re watching in horror on TV, that are being dropped on places like Aleppo. We have not done that. Let me say that again: We have not done that. [Deborah Amo] Is this accountability part of the problem; that in Washington, the way that things work on the ground are not taken into account? [Derek Chollet] You know, if you were to tell the US government, if you were to tell the CIA if you were to tell the US military, “you can do without any structures, you can arm anybody you want,” right? “you can give them whatever you want”; it’s a different ballgame. But then, we’re not acting like the United States; we’re acting more like some of our partners: Saudi Arabia, Qatar, and others. [Robert S. Ford] The CIA program is helping rebels who are fighting against the Assad government, and in many cases, also fighting against the Islamic State — especially up in the north and down in the south. They fight both, and that’s one of the problems they have, is they’re between the rock and the hard place: Assad on one side and the Islamic State on the other. The group that the Pentagon, Derek’s colleagues, were working on was specifically aimed only at the Islamic State — only at the Islamic State. And, in fact, they required Syrian volunteers for that force to pledge that they would not use any weaponry or training they had against the Assad government — against the Assad government. Not surprisingly, they only got a few dozen people to agree to sign up. [Deborah Amos] Should the incoming Trump administration draw a new red line for Assyrian President Assad that, if crossed, would trigger US military action, would be taken against his regime? [Derek Chollet] So, I would not advise any president — President Trump, any president — to draw red lines if they’re not prepared to follow through on enforcing it in some way. That enforcement may not necessarily be military action, but there needs to be a cost for enforcing it — or, for crossing it. [Robert S.Ford] I do think it would be useful to send a message, however, to the Russians and the Iranians privately, which says, “Excuse us, but there was a United Nations Security Council resolution number 2254, which specifically said that the Syrian government is not to use chemical weapons again.” And, I think it’s reasonable to say to the Russians and the Iranians, “If the Syrians keep eroding that international norm against any use of chemical weapons, then we reserve the right to use limited strikes to hit the Syrian units that are doing it. [Derek Chollet] So, we’ve gotta- I mean, this is- It kind of gets back to the “where does it end?” I mean, if we do that, I think we need to be prepared to own the outcome, even if we don’t like what that outcome’s going to mean in terms of our resources, blood, and treasure. I, personally, was a little more willing to push it, take the risk, because of concerns about escalation; the President, [and] others, were not. [Robert S. Ford] As I’ve said, I’m concerned about extremist recruitment. The American intervention should be aimed at promoting Sunni groups that are going to be best able to, [(a)] constrain and contain extremist groups, and (b) as happened in Iraq, will best be able to undercut their recruitment. The Kurds, unfortunately, can’t do that. [Derek Chollet] But the big question for the next administration, as I mentioned earlier, will be how we decide to ratchet up this assistance, perhaps in the service of taking back a city like Rocca, And, I take Roberts point; we could wait. There are some who argue we should not wait, particularly if we want to break the back of ISIL. The way we do it is by soon after retaking Mosul in Iraq, We take Rocca in Syria; when I say “we,” it’s the opposition forces with our support in the air and on the ground. But that will then raise this question of the Kurds. And this is the dilemma we’ve had in Iraq and in Syria, where our most effective fighting partners tend to be Kurds. [Robert S. Ford] Actually, I think the reason they’re more effective, Derek, is because they’re the ones who get the close combat air support from the United States Air Force. If we were to give that same close combat air support to other Syrian groups — Sunnis, who would undermine the recruitment better than the Kurds can — we would find that they, too, would be really effective against the Islamic State. [Derek Chollet] I think our goal — as I said, my understanding is — our goal is to, of course, build up the Sunni tribes as well as the Kurds because we understand, I mean, the US government understands, the problems that Robert has been talking about in terms of what happens inside Syria, in terms of trying to keep the extremist recruitment down, but then also the complications with the Turks. [Deborah Amos] Is there something that we can and should do for civilians in Aleppo as we watch these events unfold? [Derek Chollet] But I’m a hundred percent for more humanitarian intervention [Deborah Amos] But, there’s no way to get it there. I mean, we are in a moment when the Russians, the Iranians, and the Syrians have squeezed the city. So, that’s really not a solution. [Derek Chollet] So, I mean, this is the question: Do you want to shoot your way in? [Deborah Amos] Robert, do you?
[Robert S. Ford] So, no. I don’t. I do not think that, as horrific as the scenes on television coming out of Aleppo are, as horrific as they are, I do not think that it is worth the risk — and, a really serious risk — of a direct confrontation with the Russian Air Force. The policy now isn’t working. It’s not working for Syrians and, frankly, it’s not working for the United States. I mentioned six billion dollars in humanitarian assistance. Were watching the pictures in Aleppo; let me tell you, there will be more humanitarian assistance — billions more, and no end in sight. [Derek Chollet] What do you think the leaders in Beijing want us to do? I have a guess. I think they’d vote for more intervention in Syria. I think they’d love it if we spent the better part of the next decade wrapped up in the Syria problem, just like we spent the 2000s wrapped up in Iraq. So, the challenge for this president, the challenge for the next president, is going to be to find the right balance. And, the Syrian tragedy proves how hard that can be.