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Syrian Conflict Raises Thorny Issues Beyond The Mideast


This is TALK OF THE NATION. I'm Neal Conan in Washington. At the beginning of this week, as we absorb news of Israeli air strikes outside Damascus and questions about nerve gas and red lines, there was a report that a Shiite shrine near the Syrian capital had been ransacked by Sunni extremists and the body of a Shia holy man exhumed and hidden away.

Protestors in Iran bitterly condemned the desecration, and in Lebanon Hezbollah warned an attack on another, larger shrine would not be tolerated. There are massive refugee camps across Syria's borders, NATO missile batteries in Turkey, a Russian naval base in the Syrian port of Tartus. The Gulf Arab states funnel money and arms to the opposition, and President Obama weighs American options.

What happens in Syria no longer stays in Syria. So what do we need to take into account as we consider intervention? 800-989-8255. Email us, You can also join the conversation at our website. Go to and click on TALK OF THE NATION. Later in the program, how a Cleveland hero became a punchline.

But first Syria and the world. Ted Koppel joins us, NPR commentator and special correspondent for NBC's "Rock Center." He's at his home in Maryland. And Ted, always welcome back to TALK OF THE NATION.

TED KOPPEL, BYLINE: I'm always glad to be with you, Neal, thank you.

CONAN: And we have to begin with a news item. You may have heard on the newscast just a moment ago we're waiting for Syrian President Bashar al-Assad to decide his response to those Israeli airstrikes. According to Hassan Nasrallah, the head of the powerful Hezbollah militia in Beirut, he said in a televised speech today that Syria will give the resistance special weapons it never had before. He spoke of game-changing weapons, and this is the Syrian strategic reaction, more important than a rocket strike in what he describes as occupied Palestine.

So the escalation continues.

KOPPEL: The escalation continues, and as I'm sure you also read, either in the Wall Street Journal or the New York Times, Russia is talking about giving the Assad regime a more advanced, more sophisticated air defense system, which perhaps would have been able to prevent the Israeli airstrikes and more to the point from an American vantage point, might give the president some pause if indeed he is thinking of allowing American airstrikes at some point down the road.

CONAN: Interesting, that news came out just as secretary of State John Kerry was in Moscow arranging a conference a month from now to discuss cooperation on Syria.

KOPPEL: Exactly. And you know, the thing we always have to remember, Neal, and forgive me if I delve back into history a little bit, but some 60-or-so odd years ago the then Prime Minister of Israel David Ben-Gurion, who had had a very good relationship with the French president, Charles de Gaulle - and Israel had enjoyed a very good relationship with France and had enjoyed French support shortly after the declaration of independence - at some point a few years down the road, France began edging away from Israel and becoming more and more friendly with Arab states, because it needed oil, because it needed natural gas.

And Ben-Gurion wrote an anguished letter to de Gaulle, the essence of which was, I thought we were friends. And de Gaulle sent back a rather terse note to the effect that people have friends, nations have interests. And the big question right now is where do Russia's interests lie. Are they going to genuinely work toward some kind of a settlement between the rebel forces and the Assad regime? Quite frankly, Neal, at this point I doubt it.

I don't see where it's particularly in their interest to do so. It is in their interest to act as though they would support that, but I can't see them making any serious contribution toward an end of the hostilities there.

CONAN: And as we look at the prospects, though, of their ally in Damascus, he may not be toppled anytime soon, but he is unlikely to be able to resume full authority over the country in anything like the way he had before. He may be reduced eventually to a rump state of his Alawite minority on the coast of Syria, which would include the Russian naval base there at Tartus. Aren't the Russians worried about backing a losing horse?

KOPPEL: Well, they may be, and I think your assessment is exactly right. I don't see how Assad can ever hope to re-establish control over Syria. But you know, again, delving even further back into history, we look upon Syria today as being a singular state when in point of fact it was a state that was only created shortly after the First World War; it became a French protectorate, and the state that we know as Syria today is actually a relatively recent invention.

It is made up of all kinds, as we know, made up of all kinds of parties who really do not get along very well together. And American history, over the last few years in particular, ranging back to the time when we saw the overthrow of the shah in Iran, it's one thing for the United States to favor human rights, as it should; it's one thing for the United States to favor democracy, as it must; but we should have learned in Iran, in Iraq, in Afghanistan, in Egypt, and now in Syria, that the overthrow of a dictator does not necessarily mean his replacement by a democratic state.

And what happened in Iran, I mean what we have in Iran today is surely less in the U.S. interest than things were when the shah was still in power.

CONAN: On Monday we spoke with Rami Khouri of the Daily Star in Beirut, who told us this conflict in Syria involves the Sunni-Shia divide, the battle between conservative monarchies and secular Arab states, between a long-oppressed majority rising up against the ruling Alawite minority, and the - of course the old Cold War divide between Russia and the United States. He described it as the largest proxy war of this century.

And there an awful lot of interests involved here.

KOPPEL: There are indeed. I can tell you I was in Israel just a few weeks after the uprising began, so what are we talking about now, I guess about a little over two years ago.

CONAN: That's about right, yeah.

KOPPEL: And I spoke to some very senior Israeli officials at that time who to my enormous surprise were not all that thrilled at the prospect of the overthrow of Assad. And the point that was made to me repeatedly was, you know something, ever since the Golan Heights agreement was reached, the sort of stand-down, the truce between Syria and Israel that was negotiated by Henry Kissinger back in 1974, I think it was - we, the Israelis, have had a very quiet and stable relationship with Syria.

We're not all that sure that the people who are going to replace Assad, if in fact they do, will have the same kind of relationship with Israel, and the fact of the matter is the people who are supporting Assad right now are the Shia. The people who are opposing him are the Sunni states, as you correctly pointed out a moment ago.

But, you know, the grave danger is that you're going to have among those people who are fomenting the uprising and who are leading the opposition now, are many al-Qaida members, are many people whose opposition to Israel is perhaps not as pragmatic as Assad's has been.

CONAN: Another history lesson. One of the fundamental flaws of American thinking about Vietnam was lack of consideration about just how much the North Vietnamese were willing to sacrifice for victory. And the United States thought in a war of attrition if you killed X hundred thousand people, that would be enough. It turned out the United States did kill all those people, and it was not enough. The North Koreans were willing to pay that price.

As we consider the situation in Syria, the Alawite minority is fighting for its existence. If they lose, they face the prospect of either genocide or ethnic cleansing. The Iranians and the Hezbollah, allies of Syrian President Assad, they are in this for the long haul. They have made very heavy commitments. The United States needs to think carefully about that.

KOPPEL: I think you've summarized it extremely well, Neal, and in doing so I think you've made the case that President Obama is sort of implicitly making. He made a misstep when he talked about that red line and suggesting that the United States would become more directly involved militarily if in fact it could be shown that the Syrian government has used chemical or chemical weapons or poison gas.

The fact of the matter is, as the president considers what the outcome will be, no matter who wins in Syria, even if those whom we regard as being most favorably inclined toward the United States were to win, it's not altogether clear that they would be able to sustain control of Syria. And if the United States becomes militarily directly involved in Syria, I defy anyone to give a lucid, clear explanation of what is going to happen a year down the road, two years down the road, five years down the road.

If we haven't learned anything from our involvement in Afghanistan, from our involvement in Iraq, it should at the very least be that the consequences of U.S. involvement are not always predictable. And even when we appear to have done very well, as seemed to be the case in Iraq, a couple of years down the road the fact of the matter is that Iraq today probably has as close a relationship, if not a closer relationship, with Iran than it does with the United States.

CONAN: There is then the prospect, and in just a few seconds there's no answer to this, of standing by and watching another 70,000, another 80,000 people killed with nerve gas?

KOPPEL: You know something, Neal, we've had this conversation in a different context before. The issue is where American interests lie. And I know it sounds terrible to put it in those terms, but we have stood by with great equanimity while somewhere between three and five million people have died in Congo. But because U.S. interests are not directly involved in Congo, or at least don't appear to be, we've done nothing about it, absolutely nothing.

So the question needs to be, where do American interests lie?

CONAN: So when we come back from the break, we'll take your calls. What do you think the U.S. should take into account as we consider policy options in Syria, including intervention? 800-989-8255. Email us, Stay with us. I'm Neal Conan. It's the TALK OF THE NATION from NPR News.


CONAN: This is TALK OF THE NATION; I'm Neal Conan. Earlier this week, secretary of State Kerry met with Russian President Putin and Foreign Minister Sergey Lavrov to talk about Syria. After more than five hours, both sides agreed to tried to revive a transition plan for Syria, initiated last year in Geneva, which never got off the ground.

Then just after that agreement, which Kerry hailed as a breakthrough, the Wall Street Journal revealed this morning that Israel has warned the United States about a looming weapons deal between Russia and Syria that would arm Assad's army with sophisticated S-300 anti-aircraft missiles, a move Kerry says the United States has been crystal clear in opposing.

We're talking with NPR commentator Ted Koppel about all this, and we want to hear from you too. What should the U.S. take into account as it considers intervention? 800-989-8255. Email And let's go to Brian, Brian calling us from Fort Bragg in North Carolina.

BRIAN: Hey Neal, how are you doing? Thanks for taking my call.

CONAN: Sure, go ahead.

BRIAN: It's a great discussion. I just - the big thing I think we need to consider is the resentment that the Syrian people, the people in the Syrian opposition, have for Western power. I think we've stood by long enough for them to kind of ferment a hatred of us that is really going to make it challenging for military intervention to make a positive impact on their country in the aftermath of the fall of the Assad regime.

CONAN: So if we were to try to win Syrian hearts and minds, we should have acted two years ago?

BRIAN: Well, I absolutely think so. I remember sitting in - you know, it was March 2011 when the number tipped 5,000, and you know, that's more than we lost in, you know, Iraq and Afghanistan, and that was two years ago. And we've simply stood by and basically done nothing except say that chemical weapons are bad since then.

And, you know, that's - as an American that's upsetting. I can only imagine as, you know, a Syrian in Aleppo or Damascus thinking that no one's coming to help them while, you know, 70,000 or more people die.

CONAN: Ted, the period of waiting, some also argue, has allowed for the very small elements associated with al-Qaida to grow into much larger and much more effective elements, the al-Nusra Front.

KOPPEL: Yeah, I'm not sure that that's altogether a result of the United States having stayed back and done nothing. The fact of the matter is we did exactly the same thing in the late 1980s when Saddam Hussein used poison gas against some of his Iraqi Kurds in a place called Halabja.

As you may recall, the U.S. reaction at the time, and Saddam was just as nasty a guy back in 1988 as he was in 2003 when we invaded Iraq, the feeling back then was this was not something in which the United States could afford to become involved.

Everybody seems to assume, at least those who favor the idea of military, U.S. military intervention in Syria, everyone seems to assume that the response would not be costly to the United States. The fact of the matter is, I think the Iranians and the Hezbollah forces that are in effect cats' paws for the Iranians based in Lebanon, are now said to have somewhere in the neighborhood of - correct me if I'm wrong on this, Neal - but I think as many as 60,000 short-range and intermediate-range missiles of different kinds.

CONAN: That's about the number that I've read, yeah.

KOPPEL: The impact, if they - and quite clearly they are prepared to use them. Now, you know, what would happen? The Israelis would become involved. You would have a war that would spread out from Syria into Lebanon and Israel, very possibly also engaging the Iranians, and lord knows how much further it would go. If the Iranians are in, maybe the Saudis would be drawn in and some of the other Gulf states which are now supporting the rebel forces in Syria.

You know, when we are at this kind of stage where we're talking about the possibility of U.S. military intervention, I'm astonished sometimes at how short our memories are. We always think about it as though the outcome is a foregone conclusion. It isn't, it won't be. It will be terribly costly, and I don't see how the U.S. interest is going to be served by it.

CONAN: Brian, thanks very much.

BRIAN: Yes, sir.

CONAN: Here's an email that we have from Gloria in Portland: One must take into consideration the brutality of the previous regime and the difficulty of its overthrow have implications for the new states becoming democratic. Democracy requires the growth of democratic institutions. The longer the Syrian strife go on, the less probable the new state will be democratic. Very - I don't believe there's any tradition of democracy in that - in what is now Syria.

KOPPEL: No, there is not, any more than there - any more than there was in Iraq, any more than there is in Afghanistan. And we've already seen how very fragile the foundation of democracy that we built at great cost in Iraq over the last few years, how fragile that foundation is. And I wouldn't put a great deal of money on the survival of anything even approaching democracy in Afghanistan.

CONAN: Let's go next to David, and David's on the line with us from St. Paul.

DAVID: Neal, yes, thank you, and also to Mr. Koppel. I'm going to preface my remarks by saying that it's conversations like this, with people like Ted Koppel, that are going to prompt my renewal of my membership today on NPR. It's pledge week up here in Minnesota.

After that, I would say this. You know, we, as Ted said, you know, we often have this idea with regard to American military power as producing what we view as foregone conclusions with regard to outcome. Outcomes are a process in and of themselves, and that's I think the other piece that people don't understand. We don't have stop points.

I'm very concerned with the S-300 possible transfer, the S-300 SAM systems from Russia to Syria, but for - not just for the consequences for American air crews. I'm concerned with regard to when technologies of these kinds are transferred, there is an engineering infrastructure that goes along with it. And any program of American airstrikes, and it would have be regime, basically a process of American airstrikes, over Syria could possibly kill Russian engineers on the ground.

And that is something I definitely don't want to see, because there is a much larger Russian presence in Syria than most people are aware of. You mentioned it earlier at the top of the show with regarding a naval base at Tartus. But there are a lot of Russian engineers in Syria doing technology transfers and technology work of various kinds.

And the kinds of airstrike programs that we've seen over Iraq, that we've seen over - to a lesser degree over Afghanistan, we know what that looks like, and we know what kind of damage we do. And we also know that we don't have a whole lot of control about who's on the ground at the time in any given location.

And the conversation between Mr. Lavrov and Mr. Kerry and between Mr. Putin and between Mr. Putting and Mr. - and President Obama in the event that Russian engineers are killed on the ground, Russian personnel killed on the ground in Syria, is going to make what's happening now look like a picnic.

CONAN: That's an aspect - the transfer has not gone ahead, but you're right, there are an awful lot of Russians in Syria, and it's another aspect of the conflict. I think it was David - hanging up before we could get his MasterCard number on that pledge.

There is - as you look at this, it is unclear how much - you've asked the question before, Ted, how much Syria - excuse me, how much Russia is going to be invested in its ally in Damascus. That access to that port, a lot of Russians now say nice but not necessary for a modern Russia. It would have been more important for the old Soviet Union.

KOPPEL: Yes, I'm not altogether sure of what, I mean that I can explain what Russia's strategic interest continues to be in Syria except perhaps that they don't want to see the triumph of Saudi Arabia and Qatar and the Sunni states throughout the Persian Gulf, all of which are supporting the rebels in Syria right now. And I think also that the Russians calculate that keeping the United States off-balance in that part of the world and off-balance in large measure through what the Iranians are going to do next - we keep talking about, you know, Iran's nuclear program and the possibility of either an Israeli strike or a U.S. strike against Iran as sort of being the end of the process. That would simply be the beginning of the most expansive war that we've had in the Persian Gulf yet. And if we doubt for a moment what the Iranians are capable of doing, using Hezbollah, and using Hezbollah both as an agent of terrorism but also as a very capable fighting force can create an awful lot of mischief in that part of the world.

CONAN: Just to expand the universal news theory, the Russians also are opposed to the Saudis and other Gulf Arab states who they see as supporting rebels in Chechnya, who, of course, cause them a great deal of grief over the years. Here's a question from Matthew(ph) by email: If the Assad regime were to fall, could these chemical weapons fall into the hands of the rebels, and from there, could al-Qaida get a hold of them? And I think the quick answer is yes.

KOPPEL: I totally agree.

CONAN: And that raises another question and Mr. Nasrallah, everybody - the first assumption when he talks about special weapons that would be provided to Hezbollah by Syria in response to those Israeli airstrikes is that they would be those same kind of precision-guided missiles that the Israeli aircraft attacked and destroyed in a warehouse outside Damascus airport and in that other facility right near the capital, but they could be chemical weapons as well.

KOPPEL: They, you know, presumably, they could use chemical weapons. I'm not technically skilled enough to know how difficult it is to put chemical weapons in the nosecone of one of these missiles. But, you know, the fact of the matter is even though the Israelis have this much vaunted iron dome process - and what's the other anti-missile program? It's the American missile program.

CONAN: The arrow missile. Well, there's the arrow missile, and there's Patriot missiles.

KOPPEL: Actually, I have - the Patriot, yeah. I was thinking of the Patriot missiles. You know, the fact of the matter is if your enemy has 60,000 missiles, I don't care how capable your anti-missile program is, some of them are going to get through. And if some of those that get through have chemical weapons on them, it's, Katy, bar the door. I mean that is a scenario so horrific, that is the one thing that I have to believe both the Russians and their counterparts in this country are eager to avoid at all costs.

I can not imagine that the Russians would see their interests in any way enhanced by the kind of expanding war that would flow out of the use of chemical weapons against the Israelis.

CONAN: We're talking with NPR commentator Ted Koppel about Syria and the ramifications of U.S. policy options in the, well, current crisis. You're listening to TALK OF THE NATION from NPR News. And let's see if we can get Ester(ph) on the line. Ester is on the line with us from Lakeland in Florida.

ESTER: Hi. Thank you for taking my call. And first, I'd like to say that I'm very sad that soon there will be no TALK OF THE NATION in the afternoon.

CONAN: Thank you. Thank you for that. But go ahead with your question.

ESTER: Yeah. The question I have is it was a while ago, a few - maybe a week or two ago, when John McCain was being quoted constantly saying that we needed to find who we could trust in Syria and deal with them. And nobody seems to call him out on that and I just - haven't we learned anything? Everybody that we trust over in that part of the world, you know, I mean Hussein was our guy. Bin Laden was our guy. We can't say, oh, well, we trust this guy and make him up to be our guy. And so I just like Mr. Koppel's take on that. Thank you.

CONAN: OK. Thanks.

KOPPEL: Well...


KOPPEL: ...when you say bin Laden was our guy, I think I owe you a word of explanation so that people don't think you've totally lost your mind. The fact of the matter is that back in the days when the Soviet Union was still in Afghanistan and the United States, the CIA was supporting the mujahedeen, one of those who was at that time in Afghanistan and who enjoyed the support of the United States in terms of being armed by the United States...

CONAN: Indirect support.

KOPPEL: ...was a fellow - indirect support - was a fellow by the name of Osama bin Laden. So it's true. The fact of the matter is you don't know your sort of quasi-ally of the moment where he or she may be six months or six years down the road. And I think it's a point well-worth making.

CONAN: Let's see if we can go next to - this is - ah. There we go. Larry(ph). Larry is with us from Sheridan in Oregon.

LARRY: Thanks for taking my call.

CONAN: Go ahead.

LARRY: It's said in the eyes of the world that the U.S. lost a lot of face and lost a lot of strength as a moral power with our operations in Iraq. How much of our strength, the reputation, validity, credibility, whatever you want to say is jeopardized by our or President Obama's fickleness of the moving red line and his lack of action? Is there a balance there?

KOPPEL: Well, is there a balance there? I think the duty of the president is to consider first and foremost where the national interest of the United States lies. And as I began to say earlier in the program, there are any number of examples all around the world of terrible instances of tens of thousands, hundreds of thousands, millions of people - Sudan was one example, Congo is another example - dying but because the United States national interest is not the directly engaged, we don't become involved.

And quite frankly, very few people in the United States feel that the United States needs to become militarily involved. Do we have a moral obligation to do what we can from a humanitarian point of view? Obviously, yes, we do. But before you commit U.S. forces to yet another ground war in the Middle East, I mean the one that's still going on in Afghanistan, the one that only just ended a couple of years ago but the impact of which is still being felt in Iraq, I don't think we really want to be in such an all-fired hurry to get engaged on the ground or militarily with a war the outcome of which we can not possibly judge and where U.S. national interest is not all together clear.

CONAN: And no one at this point is advocating U.S. forces on the ground in Syria, but, Ted, as you point out, unintended consequences, things can change.

KOPPEL: Well, you say no one is advocating it. The fact of the matter is if, indeed, chemical weapons are being used by Assad's military and if that can be demonstrated to the satisfaction of the president, the only way - you can't deal with chemical weapon simply by doing what the Israelis have done a couple of times over the past week now. You can bomb convoys, you can bomb installations where they're being constructed, but you can't destroy all chemical weapons with bombs from the air. Some of that would have to be done with special forces, special operations forces on the ground. And once you put boots on the ground, there's no telling where that will lead.

CONAN: Ted, always a pleasure to speak with you even when the subject is so grim. We appreciate your time.

KOPPEL: Thank you very much.

CONAN: Ted Koppel joined us from his home in Maryland. When we come back, we'll look at what it means when clips like local hero Charles Ramsey's interview about the Cleveland kidnappings go viral. Stay with us. I'm Neal Conan. It's the TALK OF THE NATION from NPR News. Transcript provided by NPR, Copyright NPR.

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