Brian Katulis, Siwar al-Assad, William Morris
The following is an edited transcript of the eighty-second in a series of Capitol Hill conferences convened by the Middle East Policy Council. The meeting was live-streamed from the offices of the Middle East Policy Council in Washington, D.C., on October 20, 2015, with Richard Schmierer as moderator and Thomas R. Mattair as discussant. The video can be accessed at www.mepc.org.
BRIAN KATULIS, Senior Fellow, Center for American Progress; Board of Directors, Middle East Policy Council
I'm a policy analyst. I go to the Middle East once a month and try to conduct research and shape the debate and dialogue here. But sometimes, in forums like this and in antiseptic conference rooms in Washington, D.C., it's easy to get disconnected from the human tragedy. I think it's important to note this, as we have this discussion. My aim is to help to find a pathway toward peace and stability in Syria and Iraq and the broader region.
As we sit here today, tens of thousands of people are being murdered in Syria. Most of those deaths are committed by the regime, the government, in barrel bombings. Many of the deaths are caused by terrorist organizations and extremist groups. The deaths that we've seen over the last four or five years are just the most recent in a string of injustices and indignities that people in Syria and Iraq have suffered for decades at the hands of rulers who did not respect their basic rights. If we don't recognize this as the basic human dimension here, our policy discussions will be disconnected from that reality.
At the outset, my bottom-line assessment of the overall campaign against ISIS, more than one year since it began, is that the United States and its coalition partners have fallen short in their efforts to contain ISIS. I'm a U.S. policy analyst. My frame of reference is, what does U.S. policy do?
The next U.S. president will inherit the problem of ISIS, but the coming year offers an opportunity to make important course corrections. The United States mounted this anti-ISIS campaign last year in reaction to the group's surprising advances in Iraq and Syria in the summer of 2014. The campaign has helped key partners in Iraq and some countries in the region, like Jordan, develop a more effective response to the group's rise. Nonetheless, the campaign has not moved beyond a mix of tactical setbacks and tactical successes. The primary reason for this incomplete result one year into the campaign is that there is no single country that has made the anti-ISIS campaign its number-one priority.
The Obama administration's number-one priority in the region over the past year was securing a diplomatic deal with Iran on its nuclear program. The fact that the administration and Congress have not been able to develop a consensus on the authorization for the use of force more than one year since we've been using force in theater suggests that the anti-ISIS campaign has not been a leading priority for those in Congress either.
Key regional partners in the anti-ISIS coalition, including Saudi Arabia, shifted their focus just months into the anti-ISIS campaign and devoted resources to Yemen. The actions of a number of countries in the region, like Turkey, indicate that they also don't see the ISIS threat as their top priority. The actions of Turkey indicate that they see a bigger threat from Kurdish separatist groups and the Assad regime in Syria than they do from terrorist groups like ISIS and the al-Qaeda-affiliated al-Nusra Front.
But now that the nuclear deal is completed, there is an opportunity to shift the focus and to enhance regional security. The increased activity of countries like Russia and their bombing campaign in support of the Assad regime in Syria, I assess, is not likely to lead to greater stability. It's going to cause greater bloodshed, fragmentation and death.
A second key reason for the incomplete results in this campaign is the lack of capable and reliable ground forces that are motivated and equipped to counter ISIS effectively. Again, our framework here is to look at the anti-ISIS campaign. This, I conclude, does not mean that the United States or any other outside actor should send ground troops into Iraq and certainly not into Syria. Rather, we should learn the lessons of this past year, especially that the need to develop reliable and capable partners motivated to counter ISIS takes a long time. It's also very much connected to the internal political dynamics, the third reason I think the incomplete results of this anti-ISIS campaign are what they are at the moment.
There has not been sufficient attention paid to the political and power-sharing dynamics that have given rise to the sense of injustice, grievance and indignity among large sectors of the populations in both Iraq and Syria. I have my own views on what those formulas are for Iraq and Syria, which I'll provide towards the end. But, plain and simple, groups like ISIS have fed off the dynamic and exploited the political vacuums in key parts of Iraq and Syria.
The main remedy for this incomplete result that we've seen one year into the campaign is for the United States, with its coalition partners, to synchronize the various aspects of its anti-ISIS strategy with the recently proposed efforts to counter Iran's destabilizing regional role.
In essence, the United States needs to have a much more compelling and proactive strategy for engagement in the Middle East than what we've seen over the last decade, which has been largely reactive, ad hoc and crisis-driven. The recent proposals by the Obama administration to increase security cooperation and military transfers to partners in the region in the wake of the Iran deal merit some close consideration and must be analyzed in the context of what can be done to stabilize both Iraq and Syria. Sending arms without having a much more integrated political and diplomatic strategy for the region could actually end up contributing to greater fragmentation than we've already seen.
My second major point is that this anti-ISIS campaign is embedded in a broader and deeper historical context: that the Middle East's shifting environment today is very much related to a crisis of political legitimacy. The ongoing efforts in Iraq and Syria are part of a broader transformation in the Middle East. The region in the last four-and-a-half years has entered an unpredictable and fluid period of transition involving increased competition for influence among key countries and the growing power of non-state actors, including extremist groups like ISIS.
The region's top powers are engaged in a multipolar and multidimensional struggle for influence and power. It includes the Shia-Sunni sectarian divisions, which only seem to have been accentuated in the last few months by the actions of Iran and other countries in the region. It also involves different states in the Gulf and the GCC and Turkey over the status of Islamist movements. But, plain and simple, what we have going on inside of Iraq and Syria is deeply connected to a regional architecture and a set of regional powers that have been using their resources to fragment Syria and Iraq and murder the people in those countries.
A core part of the challenge of this current regional dynamic is a crisis of political legitimacy for some of the major states, including the current regime in Syria. Some governments lack support and a sense of allegiance from key sectors of their populations. They've lost the basic right to rule their people, in part because of their own actions through decades of murder and repression. This political-legitimacy crisis is linked to these governments' failures. Groups like ISIS, exploiting this lack of political legitimacy, have emerged over decades, again, because of the actions of regimes in the region.
A central part, in my view, of the long-term strategy for defeating ISIS and stabilizing the Middle East must involve some forward thinking about the possible governance structures that would most likely succeed in providing justice, law and order, and vital services, while also enjoying popular legitimacy. In both Iraq and in Syria, one possible sustainable end state is a decentralized federal structure of government, one that allows greater autonomy and a devolution of power from the center. But I want to be clear: this is not to suggest imposed partition or the breakup of these countries. Past experience of international actors trying to delineate new borders without the consent of the people or to pick leaders who appoint themselves without the consent of their people has contributed to the problems we have in the Middle East today.
Rather, the long-term strategy for stability in the Middle East will require the use of force against radical extremist groups and, in some cases, illegitimate regimes, and will require at a later phase extensive negotiations about the balance of power within key countries, including Iraq and Syria. In Iraq, that discussion has been ongoing for much of the past decade, and there's a much clearer pathway forward than in Syria today.
A couple of points on the anti-ISIS coalition. I think the Obama administration took some very important steps in building a large coalition of more than 60 countries to try to combat ISIS along five lines of effort: providing military support to key partners, impeding the flow of foreign fighters, stopping ISIS's finance and funding, addressing humanitarian crises in the region, and exposing the true nature of ISIS. In addition to building this coalition, the United States has worked with relevant international organizations, including the United Nations, to develop a much more effective response along these five lines of effort.
Overall, the coalition, as I mentioned at the outset, has not achieved the results that it could have in the first year of its campaign. We need much more effort to strengthen and coordinate all of its components. Much of the campaign's focus has been on military means, in particular an air campaign, without a broader diplomatic and political framework for discussions. We can discuss who the likely partners are and what the likely formula is for stability in both Iraq and Syria.
In Iraq, I think we've seen in the first year mixed results and an opportunity to move forward in the coming year. The center of gravity for U.S. policy in the campaign against ISIS has been in Iraq. It's the place where the United States has had the greatest room to maneuver militarily and diplomatically. Many people in this room served many years in Iraq and know the country very well.
Some of the lessons that we should have learned inside Iraq, particularly over the last year, is that the internal political dynamics can be shaped and influenced to achieve more positive political outcomes, but only within limits. The fact that the United States last summer, with other partners in the region, created incentives to motivate Iraq's leaders to make changes, including their prime minister and key posts in their ministries, demonstrates that we can achieve results. But it's going to be a long slog.
Iraq has many assets and structures in place that Syria does not. The United States has a deeper and much more extensive knowledge of Iraq, and we should continue the effort to degrade and ultimately defeat ISIS there, but with a focus on what can we do to help Iraqis create the most sustainable governance structures inside their own country. This needs to be negotiated. That means continuing a discussion that has gone on essentially since 2003.
Lastly, U.S. policy in Syria is in need of a major course correction. The current state of affairs is dismal; the overall structure of the conflict remains increasingly fragmented. I think the interventions by Russia and the reported interventions by Iran are unlikely to achieve greater stability inside of Syria. The Assad regime in Damascus, with support from the regional actors Iran and Hezbollah, has been able to remain in power longer than many people predicted. This does not mean that I think they have the legitimacy to actually bring stability to the country.
A couple of lessons from the past year on Syria. Number one, building alternative armed forces opposed to ISIS is difficult; it cannot be done halfheartedly and must be connected to a wider long-term strategy to produce peace and stability. The U.S. effort we've all read about to build an armed opposition to ISIS has not had a discernible impact on the overall structure of the conflict in Syria. The air strikes the United States and others have conducted have had some limited targeted impact on the movement and may have eliminated some terrorist threats, but it has not contributed to greater stability inside of Syria.
Another lesson is that ISIS is a leading terrorist challenge, but not the only one. Clearly Jabhat al-Nusra, the al-Qaeda affiliate, has been engaging in terrorism. And, quite clearly, the Assad regime has been terrorizing its population for years. Again, my view is that the regime and anyone closely associated with it, because of its brutal actions, not only over the last four years but over several decades, have delegitimized it in the eyes of the vast majority of Syrians. This is why the vast majority of Syrians are out of the country or displaced, and the majority of deaths in Syria are a result of the Assad regime's actions. I think it should be a goal to salvage key government institutions that are part of the current Syrian government, but we should be very careful about who we're willing to deal with. We should not be naïve about those who claim they can stabilize the country by working with the current leadership.
The continued breakdown of Syrian institutions will only accelerate the country's fragmentation. The things that many UN envoys — the current one and the previous one, Lakhdar Brahimi — have tried to do in negotiating and discussing what the composition of a transitional council should look like is a very important discussion. But we need to be very careful about whom we work with. If we pick individuals who have been associated with those who have committed war crimes, who have murdered thousands, the process will backfire and blow up.
In conclusion, in the overall campaign against ISIS, I think the Obama administration took a couple of steps in the right direction in Iraq. It did a good thing in building a coalition with partners in the region. But, because other priorities, including the Iran nuclear deal, outweighed the anti-ISIS campaign, we've not seen the results that I think we could have.
To me, the essence of the discussion needs to center around diplomacy. Who are the right actors that we should work with? In my view, conflicts like Iraq and Syria will not be solved unless we marginalize all of those extremists who have committed crimes over the past few years and build a sense of justice and accountability.
Any interim solutions that are built upon working with actors and individuals who have done so much harm to their own people will ultimately crumble and will feed the cycle of extremism and terrorism that we've seen over the last few years.
SIWAR AL-ASSAD, Managing Director, Alamia TV; Director, ANN Satellite Television
I belong to an organization called the United Nationals Democratic Alliance, an opposition organization, mainly in Syria. We call for gradual and peaceful change in Syria. This call was made 20 years ago by the organization that I represent today.
ISIS, the so-called Islamic State, is a terrorist organization, though terrorism is not an organization; it is an ideology. The ideology of ISIS is a perverted, dangerous ideology. I think it's more dangerous than the Nazis in the 1930s. And the world is not doing enough to stop this tsunami that the people of the region, especially Syria and Iraq, are seeing and have to deal with on a daily basis. ISIS is not only people with machine guns and beards who kill everybody who is different from them. ISIS is also people who can wear a suit and a tie, who can be in the United States or Europe or anywhere. They have different names; some of them are called the Muslim Brotherhood, one of the mothers of ISIS. So we need to combat an ideology, a very dangerous ideology.
What have we seen so far? Who is fighting ISIS today? Before the Russian intervention, we have seen the Syrian army, the Iraqi army and the Kurdish forces fighting against ISIS on a daily basis. They are also fighting against other al-Qaeda-affiliated rebels, like al-Nusra among others. It's very confusing; they have different names, and every day we hear about a new little army funded by a foreign government or group of people who live in exile.
Therefore, we needed American air strikes. They started more than a year ago and are very welcome. They are a sign of good intentions, but this is not enough. We cannot defeat terrorism from the sky. It's impossible; we have tried this. History taught us that it is impossible. We've seen the results in Libya: chaos. We don't want Syria to become like Libya; it would be a real disaster for all the countries of the region.
We have minorities, as well, in Syria that are extremely worried. They have been living together for hundreds of years, and they like the diversity of languages, ethnicities, religions, cultures — different people speaking different languages in a very small area. Even at the time of Jesus Christ, there were more than 60 languages spoken in a very small area in Lebanon and Palestine.
These people need to be reassured. Today the state of Syria, led by President Bashar al-Assad, is clearly supported, whether we like it or not, by many people in Syria. But even these people who are supporting him, who have many differences, do not want to go back to pre-February 2011. Even people who are dying today, every day, fighting against fanatics and terrorists, want reforms; and, once the war is finished, they want to see things change. They fight under the leadership of President Bashar al-Assad because apparently he's able to get them all to fight a common enemy together. So they see in him a leader, for now.
The foreign policy of the United States toward Syria is confusing, but all policies are confusing where Syria is concerned. We see people fighting each other and doing business together at the same time. We see people killing each other and buying oil from each other and bargaining over other things.
We have heard many calls for President Assad to step down, but he clearly has not responded. I think it is time now, after more than four years, to understand that he will not answer these calls. We need to set priorities, and we need to be pragmatic. If the priority is regime change, we have to have a certain policy. If the priority is to fight ISIS, we have to have a different ideology. If, to succeed, we need to deal with the people who are in charge on the ground — in this case, one of them is President Bashar al-Assad — then why not?
Air strikes, as I said, are not enough. They have to work in tandem with ground troops if we really want to achieve something. I know that many times people have been armed and trained by Western powers, but we have seen that it was a mistake to spend so much money on it. It was not successful. People who were armed ended up giving up their weapons or selling them or even joining terrorist groups and al-Qaeda affiliates. It's very difficult to make the distinction between a potential terrorist and a non-terrorist in Syria, even for Syrians. How can an American or French or English person tell the difference? It's very, very difficult.
Now we have Russian air strikes, which many people are against, though others are for them. The reality is that we are seeing the army of the Syrian state advancing on the ground, advancing against ISIS. Many ISIS forces are being destabilized because of the strikes. We have even seen videos from the city of Raqqa of ISIS fighters running away and escaping. We've heard that many ISIS elements have crossed the border into Turkey. Many went to Iraq. In a way we have seen positive results. These air strikes are being coordinated with ground troops, Kurdish forces, the Iraqi army and the Syrian army.
With regard to solutions, in an ideal world, we would like all the great powers — and, of course, the number one is the United States — and the regional players to sit together and agree on priorities and work to achieve a specific goal. We think that we could see a positive result very quickly if everybody agreed. It could be very easy to cut the funding of the so-called Islamic State. It's very easy to close the Turkish border. It's very easy to coordinate satellite pictures, drones, air strikes and ground troops.
This would lead to political reform in Syria, a transitional government made of opposition forces and government forces. This is what my organization has been calling for more than 20 years now: a gradual and peaceful transition. This is the only way we will see change in Syria.
I am very optimistic. I've heard today that the Russians and the United States have reached an agreement on fighting ISIS in Syria. I think we need to wait and see what happens in the next month or two, but Syria will definitely change and become a better place.
WILLIAM MORRIS, Secretary General, Next Century Foundation
ISIS (the Islamic State in Iraq and Syria) is the original name the Next Century Foundation (NCF) chooses to continue to use for this group. The same group is often called ISIL (the Islamic State in Iraq and Levant) in the USA. The group themselves have now chosen to change their name to IS (the Islamic State) because of their hegemonic ambitions. It is a name we at the NCF choose not to use because to do so (as the BBC does with its compromise "The so-called Islamic State") is in some degree to acknowledge their success.
ISIS is a millennialist group, a group that believes these are the days of Armageddon. It has a very strong following throughout the Sunni Arab world. It believes that the world is divided into dar al-Islam and dar al-Harb: the house of Islam and the house of war — the world of Islam and the world of war. It regards everybody who is not part of their ideological approach as takfir, a word that comes from kafir, infidel. They base much of their ideology on the writings of a Saudi called Yusef al-Ayeri, who was killed in 2003. They currently oppose the Muslim Brotherhood, regarding them as sinners because they involve themselves in democracy. They regard democracy as sin. One of their main ideologues is the 33-year-old Turki al-Binali, a Bahraini. He is the most prominent of the younger generation of scholars who influence ISIS thinking at the moment.
Many of the people who have inspired ISIS's foreign fighters are Westerners — American, Australian and British thinkers. There are videos on YouTube. The main American ideologue doesn't actually back ISIS, but his spiritual thinking is followed by ISIS thinkers, and his lectures have a huge following on YouTube [Ahmad Musa Jibril, although no longer actively posting new items online, still has a large and growing following for his existing body of work on both Twitter and YouTube, and we believe that his Facebook page is by far the most popular on that networking site among jihadi fighters]. These Western thinkers are inspiring the Westerners who join ISIS. The ideology of ISIS is similar in some ways to Wahhabism, but it rejects the basic principle of Wahhabism: one ruler, one authority and one mosque, the idea that the Saudi king is in some way the new caliph. They believe that their caliphate is the only answer, and they oppose Saudi Arabia.
They place a lot of value on the Dabiq Hadith, a prophecy that the final battle will take place in an area called Dabiq in northern Syria. They executed a dear man, Peter Kassig, an American, in Dabiq as a symbolic gesture to say, "Come and attack us; this is the place of the last battle."
Al-Qaeda disowned them on the second of February 2014. They were excommunicated, partly because they simply weren't interested in following any al-Qaeda orders. Al-Qaeda had their own client group in Syria, Jabhat al-Nusra, because of which ISIS was very much against following the al-Qaeda line. They have their young thinkers, and they are not interested in the old men that run al-Qaeda.
A word or two about this campaign we in the Western world have against Daesh, as it's called in the Arab world. It doesn't matter what you call it, but bombing, except when it's been in support of ground forces, has been ineffective, and sometimes it has even been excessive. We've seen this bombing to liberate the North Syrian town of Kobani. You destroy 70 percent of the city of Kobani to liberate it. Is this the way forward? A lot of people have been made into refugees because of our bombing and that of our many allies — and the shelling. There's one town that I've often driven through just south of Baghdad, a little Sunni town called Jurf Al-Sakhar. It no longer exists. It's been wiped off the face of the map by bombing. I don't know that bombing is changing the tide of the war against ISIS.
The conditions in the refugee camps are atrocious; unbelievably bad in some of them. That is where ISIS recruits many of its fighters. If you're a young man living in the refugee camps in Turkey or living as a refugee in Lebanon, what future do you have? What life do you have? Better to go back and take $100 a month to fight for ISIS rather than the miserable pittance from the United Nations. They have no other way forward.
We could help a great deal by creating some safe havens in the region. We need to think a little about that; people are being forced to flee because they have nowhere to go. For example, in the Nineveh plain, there are little towns with a lot of refugees — al-Kosh, for instance, a Christian town, and Bashiqa, a Yazidi town. You could pump a little money into building some housing projects for some of these refugees, and people would not want to flee. We need to care a little for the vulnerable — the very old, the very young.
We need an end to the de-Baathification laws that were introduced by us, and for possibly good reasons. But it's time to end them; symbolically, they are now interpreted as anti-Sunni. And it's no good tinkering with the de-Baathification laws. They have to be removed if we want to bring the Sunni community in Iraq on board with the idea that there should be some alternative to ISIS, which they do in large numbers support. It's no good pretending that they don't.
We need to encourage the taking of prisoners. At the moment in this war, almost all prisoners are killed. The Kurds have recently started to take prisoners. Obviously, ISIS kills all its prisoners; everyone kills all their prisoners. It's an interesting phenomenon in terms of casualties. If you have been following the casualty figures from the Syrian war, in the early stages there were massive numbers of civilians killed; not so now. Why? Because most of the civilians in the areas where the worst fighting is taking place have fled. They're refugees. They've moved.
So the slaughter is actually of combatants. It's on a big scale, partly because you have to fight to the death. If you're captured, you're killed. We need to encourage our own allies to take prisoners so that people who fight for ISIS think there might be some benefit in surrendering in a ground battle.
We need ruthless training and restructuring. There's a major problem even with many of the Kurdish elite forces. If you're an officer, it's because you're from a good family. You're not an officer because you are a good commander. This needs to change. And many of the forces are just militias. Even the Kurdish forces are split. There's no unified command of the Kurdish forces, let alone any of the others. They're loyal to different leaders, totally independent of one another.
We also need to re-establish some sort of Sunni militia force that is an alternative to ISIS. We set up good groups at one time in northern Iraq, but Maliki ruthlessly demolished the Sunni tribal leaders. Many of them died. So there's no way forward, they feel, other than to back ISIS. So we need to provide backing for some other force.
In addition, we need to pressure Iran and Russia into backing reform in Syria. It's a great tragedy, in my view, that we missed the opportunity when we negotiated the nuclear deal with Iran, to pin that to reform in Syria. We should have. We didn't, but it's not too late. America and Iran do talk about the Syrian issue.
We need to talk to Russia. We need to talk to Iran and really bring them on board. It's my belief that they can be persuaded to back reform in Syria. I think we could see Bashar al-Assad go, with Iran and Russia agreeing to that. They would want some dignified way of removing him through perhaps NATO-supervised elections that brought in the whole diaspora of the Syrian community. There are ways it can be done as part of a negotiation.
There are many mechanisms for transition. I favor the military-council idea — which was being backed by the Saudis at one time — where you have a transitional caretaker government. But we need to have those conversations about ways forward with the Iranians and the Russians. We need to stop backing insurgents where we don't know who the insurgents are. We're being very dodgy about the way we behave.
We need to stop the Turks from bombing the PYD (the dominant Kurdish political group within Syria) in northern Syria. The PYD are fighting Daesh (ISIS). The PYD have brought stability to the area around Qamishli. We need to stop bombing the people who are fighting ISIS. Our allies are bombing them.
So we need to think about the Turks, who are a major problem. Sometimes I think we should actually remove the PKK (the dominant Kurdish political group in Turkey) from the terror list and shake the Turks up. Foreign fighters who go to fight with ISIS all pass through Istanbul Airport, present their passports, and then travel across the Syrian border and join up. And Turkey has bought vast quantities of oil from ISIS. It pretends it's bombing ISIS, but all it cares about is attacking the Kurds. I never see why Turkey is considered such an asset in NATO. I think Turkey has been a burden since day one, with the liberation of Iraq.
But there are things we can do. I don't understand why we can't take down some of these ISIS videos from YouTube. The American who is up there preaching away is not ISIS, but they like him. Why can't we get his stuff off YouTube? And we should arm the Kurds. They have a thousand-kilometer frontier with ISIS, and they're fighting them with small arms.
We need to support the real people who are willing to fight. There is a future, but we need to care for the local population — the dispossessed, the displaced. People cannot live in squalor. The squalid conditions in the refugee camps are an international disgrace.
THOMAS R. MATTAIR, Executive Director, Middle East Policy Council
Brian, you testified before the Senate Foreign Relations Committee recently, and you noted that we've fallen short in our attempt to implement some of the basic pillars of our policy, one of them being training opposition forces. We've just announced that we're abandoning one of those efforts altogether because it was so unsuccessful. But since this testimony, Russia has intervened in a big way and actually changed the situation on the ground. Do you think that this will motivate some of our regional partners to be more focused on helping us with some of these pillars, namely training ground forces that can change the dynamics on the ground and even help motivate the Assad regime to make concessions for the sake of the transitional government? The other big issue is that we can't deal with this without changing political structures in the Middle East and addressing grievances that motivate people. We have a better chance of doing that in Iraq than we do in Syria now, certainly.
Is the Russian intervention a game changer in terms of motivating some of our partners? Or are we going to have to work out compromises with Russia and Iran? Is their intervention going to inhibit our ability to carry out our policy?
MR. KATULIS: I think the Russian engagement, still in its early stages, is seismic. It's likely going to be a major rallying cry and recruitment tool for the cause of Sunni extremism. It may even rival the Iraq War in 2003, when the United States went in and essentially helped create a safe haven and a training ground.
One immediate consequence of any outside actor that contributes additional force in this way is to accelerate the fragmentation. It's likely to continue the death and destruction that we've seen. But it's important to remember that the vast majority of Syrians are killed by the Assad regime. That's why I'm skeptical about what our colleague said here about including Bashar al-Assad as a figure for transition.
To your question of how regional partners will respond, I think it's interesting to watch what's been happening over the last couple of months, some of the statements made publicly, including by the Saudi foreign minister, Adel al-Jubeir, about Assad's stepping down once a transition council is formed. This is where the devil is in the details. Your question to me of whether the United States should talk to Iran or Russia about this felt to me like the question people asked in the Bush-Cheney administration: should we do diplomacy with people we don't like and disagree with, and whose values we don't share? If the Iran nuclear deal, which I was a strong supporter of, did anything, it busted the myth that we can't advance our own national-security interests by talking with people.
Many people in the U.S. government have been talking to Russia, from Secretary Kerry on down, about the Syria problem for years. Actions speak louder than words, and I don't have great confidence in the way that Russia has portrayed this to other actors. Recall that Saudi Arabia, Jordan and the UAE sent their top leaders to meet with Putin before the UN General Assembly and before Russia's engagement here. Based on what I've heard, none of the recent actions were signaled by the Russian leadership to those actors. So have a conversation, but understand who we're dealing with: a regime in Russia that has used some of the most brutal tactics to try to crush terror. In my view, when you do that, you likely create more of it.
I'm all in favor of engagement, but not naïve engagement. Similarly with Iran, there have been long-term discussions on the sidelines of a nuclear deal, the main event. The regional actors, including the ones that I think are more reliable and trustworthy, like Jordan and the UAE and a few others, need to be part of some sort of conversation.
But let's be clear. They're taking actions to reshape the battlefield. I don't think it'll succeed. It will actually cause more death and destruction. It's my view that, rather than being passive and standing back, notwithstanding the failure in trying to train some of the armed forces, the United States quite likely needs to do more. But ultimately it's not the outside actors that matter the most. The discussion that needs to be had is happening inside of Iraq. There is a debate. That dialogue is important because it connects to the issue of how power might be decentralized.
In Syria we're not very close to that, but it can't be negotiated solely by outside powers. Picking the right representatives of the key centers of power has been the crux of the problem inside Syria. We've had some very capable diplomats involved with this for years. It's hard to figure out, when a society is in meltdown, who the legitimate representatives of different factions are.
But when there are factions that have murdered thousands of their own people in Syria, they're not likely to have moral credibility. Nor the political staying power for any reconceived, decentralized, negotiated governance in Syria. It's quite likely that you'll have so much blowback in opposition from other sides of the conflict that you won't be able to even start the conversation.
We've had some false starts, like Geneva and Geneva II. We need to have these discussions, but we need to be honest about who's doing what to whom. The vast majority of Syrians who have been killed have been killed by this regime.
DR. MATTAIR: When I speak about our partners in the region stepping up their game, it's not only contributing ground forces or training them. There are a lot of elements to the policies that they need to be implementing against ISIS: discrediting the ideology and stopping the flow of fighters and money. Does Russia motivate them to do more there?
When it comes to choosing people who may be appropriate in a transitional Syrian government, do they know these people better than we do? Have we been listening to them when we've been trying to vet people? Can they do more to help us determine who should and should not be part of a future political structure in Syria? Turkey is blaming ISIS for the bombing in Ankara last week. Saudi Arabia has serious concerns about ISIS.Jordan has concerns about them on its border. So they all ought to be highly motivated. Are they going to be?
MR. KATULIS: It depends on which country you're talking about, but I suspect that those countries in the region that are part of our anti-ISIS coalition that oppose Iran and Russia, when they see them acting aggressively, it's not likely that's going to motivate them to do more to cut off funding to extremist groups.
After the September 2013 non-strike event, when the United States and others threatened the use of force in reaction to chemical weapons funding from private actors, perhaps from some countries in the region, flowed to a range of extremist groups. This was convenient for the Assad regime too, which let many of these extremists out of jail and helped to radicalize what was a peaceful opposition that they tried to crush brutally.
In an ideal world, the United States would actually try to work with a core member of the coalition. We've got more than 60 countries with different capabilities. But some are more active and visible in the air campaigns. Some are more active in the counterradicalization campaigns. Morocco is doing a lot to counter violent extremism. Even though it's far away in North Africa, it's using the tools that William and others have talked about.
Maybe we will see diplomatic moves on the part of some of the actors, such as Saudi Arabia. Some of the signals the United States sent in reaction to the first wave of bombing by Russia and some of the gestures we made demonstrated a little bit of false surprise: hey, we didn't really see this coming.
Turkey is a difficult ally, though they're a NATO ally. They clearly made the regime change of Assad and the Kurdish issue a higher priority than they did Sunni extremism, whether it's ISIS, Jabhat al-Nusra or others. That's why, when we talk about safe zones or no-fly zones, which is the new vogue for Republican candidates and some Democratic candidates, the devil is in the details of implementation. The United States can't do it in northern Syria without a viable partner that we trust.
I think the fracturing and fragmentation that we've seen, especially in Syria, is quite likely to continue, unless, we have a wakeup call from all of the parties. I think President Obama has been wise. He doesn't want to make the conflict in Syria a Russia-U.S. standoff. We've been a little bit slow to recognize what Russia's actions are likely to produce on the ground.
The end state that's likely in Syria is a negotiated, decentralized system of governance. Perhaps if one wants to look for silver linings in what Russia has been doing in the last few weeks, it could lead to a sense of areas that are more closely affiliated with the Assad regime than other areas that could be controlled by opposition forces. The structure of the conflict in Syria is very fragmented. Even the maps we see in the press betray the neighborhood-by-neighborhood sense of who controls what and the fragmentation that is going on here. Ultimately, my view is that in reaction to the Russian actions, the United States needs to redouble its efforts with the coalition, but it also needs to keep that door open for diplomacy. Ultimately, that is the only pathway to stabilizing the country.
DR. MATTAIR: Some of our partners in the region, when they see the Russian intervention on behalf of Syria, a client of Iran, are going to be doubly concerned about how this facilitates Iranian expansion in the Arab world. They are going to be as concerned about how this props up the Assad regime as they are about anything else, which can influence how they deal with the Islamic State, how seriously focused they are on that. William, you said that we need to pressure Russia and Iran to bring about political change in Syria. Can you talk about that?
MR. MORRIS: Russia and Iran are cooperating now in Syria in a new way we haven't seen before. The Syrian issue is in the hands of the al-Quds Force in Iran, and every al-Quds Force commander responsible for the Syrian issue is in Syria now.
There is a major ground campaign led by Iran. People have always talked about Iran fighting in Syria. Not really. There were a few units there, small scale. But Iran is making a big push at the moment. My fear is that this could expand into a wider regional war. It's a bit frightening. Countries like Egypt, Saudi Arabia and Turkey are on one side in a face off, and Russia, Iran and Hezbollah are on the other side.
Where are their war zones? They're fighting bloody wars in Libya, Yemen, Syria and Iraq. Everybody's supporting different factions, but in some instances they are actually bombing each other. It's not good.
I suppose the one bright light on the horizon, in a perverted sort of sense, is ISIS, because ISIS hates all of them — Saudi Arabia, Iran. ISIS is a common enemy for the lot of them. So maybe the fight against ISIS will stop a wider regional war, which could very well break out.
Iran is in the ascendancy. It is a major power in the Middle East that is increasing its strength. We've made deals with Iran that are taking the pressure off. Perhaps we were right to do so. But, nonetheless, we have a new geopolitical situation in the Middle East with a stronger Iran that's going to sell as much oil as it can and is going to be playing a bigger and bigger role.
We need to talk to Iran. We can't not. But we need to talk to Iran seriously about Syria, putting the right kind of pressure on Iran, putting the right kind of pressure on Russia. This is much more important than our squabble with Russia over Ukraine. I don't mean to say that we should sacrifice Ukraine in some way, but this is the issue that will affect world peace and stability. We really must take it to heart. It can affect the future of the world, this mess in the Middle East now. We don't want to see a wider war, but there is a risk that we might see one.
MR. KATULIS: Just to demonstrate the complexity of the conflict right now, William mentioned Egypt on one side of this conflict. Since Russia started its campaign, Egypt, as recently as yesterday, has signaled its support for the Russian bombing campaign in a way that contrasts it with Saudi Arabia and others that have financially backed them over the last two or three years. This demonstrates your broader point about the complex arrangements between countries in the region. If Egypt does come out in favor of some sort of negotiated solution via Russia, and Russia leans towards the Assad regime in propping it up a bit and is also in the camp of Iran, it presents a quite curious point. The Egyptian state is surviving on the financial support of countries like Saudi Arabia and the UAE, who are part of the anti-ISIS and anti-Assad coalition.
MARK HAMBLEY, Former U.S. Ambassador to Qatar and Lebanon
None of you mentioned a role for the United Nations. Perhaps it is not the most popular forum, but when the United States closed its embassy in Damascus, along with many other Western countries in 2011-12, we lost our ability to communicate with the Syrian government directly or to any opposition that might have been in Syria at the time.
The United Nations, starting with Kofi Annan — through Lakhdar Brahimi and now Staffan de Mistura — has always maintained contacts with the Syrian government, with Iran, with all the players involved. They've received lukewarm support from the Security Council, and I think this might be one of the reasons this problem has gone into such a tailspin. If you don't support the UN representatives, it's very hard to see how you're going to come to an agreement that will bring progress.
But given the fact that it was the P5+1 that negotiated the very difficult deal with Iran — would it not be appropriate perhaps to try and get another P5 plus two or three — including Saudi Arabia, Turkey and others — to try and bring it under UN auspices as a diplomatic forum or try to bring some sort of resolution to some of these political matters that stand in our way?
DR. MATTAIR: I think if there is diplomacy and the Saudis and others are excluded from it, they're going to object pretty strongly. They didn't like being excluded from the nuclear negotiations. I'm having a hard time envisioning what kind of agreement we can get with Russia and Iran when our geopolitical interests are so different, when the Assad regime, in our view, has lost legitimacy and can't be part of a long-term transitional arrangement. It's viewed that way by our regional partners, so I think they would have to be there to have some assurance that they weren't being left aside and didn't have a say in it.
MR. KATULIS: I support UN engagement here. I think if you look at what happened at the UN General Assembly in the discussions last month, it's not that it wasn't discussed. It's what is a viable pathway at this moment. If you talk to the stream of UN envoys that you mentioned, who all have very distinguished backgrounds, their efforts to negotiate localized ceasefires and deescalate the conflict in certain places haven't yet produced a change in the structure of the overall conflict. It may help a few communities and a few people, and we shouldn't devalue that. One of my key metrics is, what do we do to stop the loss of human life, in addition to stabilizing the region?
The United Nations has also done tremendous work in responding to the refugee and displaced-persons crisis. I also did work a couple of years ago on the problem of Libya, serving on a UN panel, so I've placed a tremendous amount of value in the expertise of the institution. But I also witnessed that what was happening on the ground and what other actors inside of Libya and then regional actors were doing mattered a lot more than what the United Nations was trying to do.
That doesn't mean we should suspend what it's trying to do. But, whatever actions Russia, Iran, regional actors and the United States are taking, it all should be driven towards negotiating a political settlement. Quite obviously, the United Nations is one of the few institutions that has the skills, the experience and the knowledge to make that happen.
DR. MATTAIR: Siwar, do you want to comment on your view of a transition in Syria?
MR. ASSAD: I think it's very important to run the numbers of who killed how many and who killed more than whom. That's very important, but the priority now is to make sure that fewer people will die today, tomorrow and in the future, because while we're counting, people are dying. People are being displaced, people are suffering. They don't have heat, they don't have food. They don't have anything. They're losing everything.
So I understand. But I go back to what I said previously. Foreign policy was about regime change. Fair enough. But there has to be a time limit. We have to give it one year, two years, three years. We put all our efforts into changing this regime, but at some point we have to say it did not work. We have to be pragmatic and try to work on something else.
The whole point of finding a solution is to put around the table people who hate each other, people who went to war against each other, and have them talk and talk again and sit there and negotiate again and maybe disagree — but maybe then agree on a political transition, on a regime and an opposition government, and on a gradual transition. I think that's the only solution.
DR. MATTAIR: Well, specifically, who in the regime stays and who in the regime leaves?
MR. ASSAD: That's for the Syrian people to decide. The international community has a duty to make all the parties who are fighting each other in Syria sit around a table. It's the duty of the international community. Then these people will decide all together.
MR. KATULIS: But I don't understand. If the government is dropping barrel bombs on entire families and neighborhoods, if I were a Syrian, I just don't see much credibility in the proposition you offer there. You said we put all of our efforts into changing this regime. No, we didn't. If we really wanted to change this regime, we could.
MR. ASSAD: The question is why. Why did they not? That's the point.
MR. KATULIS: It was not a priority.
MR. ASSAD: Why was it not?
MR. KATULIS: It was not a priority because of all the concerns about the lessons we should have learned from the Iraq War and what happens when you collapse a regime. You suggest that it's still there after three or four years because we didn't put all of our efforts into it, but it's still there because it's murdered its own people. The people you know very well have murdered their own citizens, and they say we're still here; we're legitimate.
Are you're telling me that you're going to go to somebody, if you're the U.S. government, and say, OK, Syrian opposition, despite the fact that they kill innocent children, you should sit down with them. Numbers matter. You want to dismiss the numbers and who's doing what? It matters for the sake of structuring what diplomacy actually would achieve. I don't understand what you're actually proposing here. It wouldn't bring anybody to the table.
MR. ASSAD: It's very clear. The West has to make up its mind: regime change or being pragmatic.
MR. MORRIS: You have a civil war in Syria. We've seen civil war in Libya. We've seen civil war in Iraq. We've seen civil war everywhere. Yes, the Syrian government has slaughtered huge numbers, but there are huge numbers also killed by the various factions of insurgents. It's a bloody, brutal conflict. And we have not been that interested in resolving it. The United Nations has been disempowered. We had negotiations — Geneva I, Geneva II. They were ineffective and useless. Why? Because we didn't allow Iran to be part of those negotiations. They are, if you like, the enemy. They're on the other side in this war. We're being pragmatic now. We're dealing with Iran. America is being pragmatic, and maybe it's very sensible. In almost every nation in the Middle East there have been terrible killings; not every one, but there are many nations in the Middle East where there have been terrible killings carried out by various factions. Some of their governments have been destabilized, you could argue, by us. We made a bigger mess in Libya, and we haven't sorted it out. All I'm trying to say is, it's time to talk peace. It's time to talk solutions, and we need to talk with our enemies. Not talking to our enemies, we can't have a solution. We don't like Bashar al-Assad; we would like to see him go. I personally would agree with you, that that's part of the solution.
MR. KATULIS: It's not about us. It's not about what we like or dislike.
MR. MORRIS: But it is about us, because we are the big players.
MR. KATULIS: The Syrian people are run out of their country and murdered every day.
MR. MORRIS: Right. So how can the Syrian people decide unless there is some stability imposed by the international community, who are the big players in this game?
It's all very well to say the Syrian people are going to solve this; the Syrian people must choose their future. But first we have to make a deal that results in some sort of end to the killing. You can't have this go on, and that means you have to negotiate. You have to talk to these people. You have to talk to Iran. And, yes, I think part of the deal is that Bashar al-Assad should go. Who comes in? There are many models. There's the model that Siwar mentioned, power-sharing with the opposition. There's the model of a transition military council. There are many models. Really I don't give a damn. What we need is a discussion. And we're not serious about that. If we want the United Nations to do it, we have to empower the United Nations to do it. And we're not.
MR. KATULIS: When you say you don't give a damn, that demonstrates to me a lack of clarity about the actual proposed solution. And this is where the real conversation should be. Pointing to something you just said two minutes ago, I agree, Iran should have been part of the conversation. We should give a damn.
If we want to be serious about a political solution, we need to be very precise about who is best suited to be at that table. It's not just letting everybody come together. If you end up inviting individuals or factions who are viewed to have engaged in war crimes, they will lack legitimacy. That's where I think the real trick is.
As I stated, you want Syrian government institutions to be intact. You want individuals who know the country, who know how to run ministries and other things. This is where the real discussion should go. But what about the melange of different opposition groups, many of whom are self-appointed? We have a lot of self-appointed people in the process; a country is actually fragmenting and breaking down.
My main point is that we need to be very precise about what regime transition and transformation mean, not that we don't care what the process or the conversation should be. A bad conversation could actually lead to further distrust and to actions that destabilize the situation.
MR. ASSAD: Any player should be invited. That's my opinion — any player.
NABEEL KHOURI, Non-Resident Senior Fellow with the Atlantic Council's Hariri Center (DC), former U.S. diplomat
Siwar, the problem with the proposition you make — the Syrian people will decide this — is that much depends on the balance of power on the ground when you have such discussions. And here Brian's point about who has killed how many is relevant. If the war stopped today and the Syrian factions on the ground met, given Iran and Russia and Hezbollah's support to the Assad regime, the regime would have the upper hand. And the bulk of the Syrian people would have no way of imposing their interest on such a discussion. Assad would be able to maneuver himself into being reelected.
MR. ASSAD: What's the alternative? To continue the war?
MR. KHOURI: The alternative — no. The alternative is to consider what's happening on the ground. Right now, Russian intervention is changing the strategic balance on the ground in favor of the regime, and they are doing this very deliberately. If you don't change this militarily or you don't come to an agreement with the Russians to stop what they are doing and put some pressure on Assad rather than helping him, then you would be guaranteeing a result that's pro-regime.
MR. ASSAD: But the United States is a great power. They can talk to the Russians. They can reach a solution with the Russians. I'm sure they can.
MR. KHOURI: The Russians have beaten the United States at the game of chicken. They've stepped in with their forces before the United States could step in for its side. Therefore, the Russians are ahead in the game. I have no confidence in this administration's being able to play power politics with Putin right now.
MR. ASSAD: Then what do we do? We wait a year and a half for a new president?
MR. KHOURI: I think Mark's suggestion of a P5+1 type formula is quite relevant. I think it will be part of the solution, the framework once the guns have fallen silent. Right now, the Russians and the Iranians will not stop until they have guaranteed a slice of Syria that includes all the major urban centers and protects access to the sea and to the Lebanese border for the Assad regime. So let's be conscious of the power play that's going on right now and of who's winning.
MR. KATULIS: I think that's right, but let's also be conscious of the broader field of play here. Russia has gotten very good press in the last four or five weeks. But when you look at where Russia's position is strategically across the region and compare it to what the United States has — its alliances and partnerships across the broader region —structurally and strategically, Russia is trying to claw its way back into Syria from a position of weakness. It intervened when Assad was seen to be weaker and they needed support inside of Iraq, but also in the Gulf and even in places like North Africa.
The conception that Russia is even close to being a U.S. rival when it comes to partnerships and networks — again, what we have in place over decades, not specific to this administration, but if you look at Israel, Qatar, Saudi Arabia, Turkey, Egypt still to this day, despite tensions in the relationship, all of these countries are much closer and I think potentially closer to the U.S. point of view structurally.
Inside of Syria, I don't think Russia has a clear plan for what it is doing at this point. I think it's trying to salvage the Assad regime and gain a foothold. But there are limits to how far it could actually project its power. Certainly the Jordanians are not looking favorably at its intervention; nor is Turkey, when it's seen Russian fighters coming up to its borders.
America's conversation seems strategically constrained in the Middle East right now because we haven't done that much and we've failed for the last decade or so to have anything but a tactical and reactive posture. We moved from a policy of dual containment of Iran and Iraq to something that contributed to today's chaos, but we're still structurally in a better position to respond. The real discussion should be about the United States, Russia, plus the region, talking about what we can do to effectuate a transition — to move all of this talk about talk into real action.
DR. MATTAIR: This brings us back to your testimony before the Senate, when you made recommendations about course corrections. Nabeel is saying the situation on the ground favors Russia and Iran temporarily. Just in the last weeks, Syria has made advances that it wasn't making before the Russian intervention. Do you see any commitment on the part of the people you were speaking to on the Hill or the administration or our partners to be more aggressive about what we say is our policy and change the situation on the ground so that we can get a diplomatic solution that's more satisfying to us than the one we could get if we went to the table right now?
MR. KATULIS: On the Hill, I don't see much consensus, unfortunately. I see a lot of concern and complaints about the current policy; nobody thinks it's optimal. But it is nothing like what I saw in 2006 or 2008, when you had clear opposition to the Bush administration's Iraq policy that built a strong consensus within one of the parties and even got some bipartisan consensus. The fact that we don't even have an authorization for the use of force is a signal that there's really no political will in the members of Congress to deal with this.
As to your question on whether the administration is focusing on this at the highest levels, you can assess President Obama's appearances on "60 Minutes" and his press conference and how he characterized his reactions to Russia's engagement in the Middle East. I don't see any major strategic shifts on the horizon, quite frankly, when it comes to Syria.
This is where, sadly, most of the American public is. People from outside the United States can come and say, the United States is the great power and it can do this and that. But when it comes to a lot of issues in the Middle East, Republican or Democrat, there's not much inclination to get deeply engaged in these conflicts that have animated much of the region.
I think that's wrong. I think the United States should probably lead here with a much more effective response. Clearly, we're doing more with Kurdish forces in northern Syria, and we'll see some activity there, but I don't know if any of those tactical shifts will change the structure of the conflict towards what I think there's consensus about: the need for a political solution.
Every time I think there's a wakeup call — whether it's a three-year-old boy face down in the surf or 70 dead migrants packed into a truck in Hungary, or barrel bombs dropped on people lined up to get bread — that strikes our moral outrage and then our strategic conscience, it just doesn't happen. I think part of it is the post-Iraq War hangover. People fear that any step we take, whether it's a no-fly zone or a safe zone, could lead to a slippery slope that gets us back to where we were in 2005 and 2006.
MR. MORRIS: We ought to be careful all the time about occupying the moral high ground. Our allies are barrel bombing. We've seen the barrel bombing of Fallujah Hospital, for instance. I'm sorry, but that's our allies doing that. There have been a number of similar incidents.
We can bring Russia to the table. They are hurting; the economic sanctions on Russia are really biting. They're in a lot of pain at the moment. And we have stuff that we can offer Russia to help bring them to heel. Crimea, for example, why not? It was historically theirs. Let's move on. My favored model for the future of Syria, let me be clear, is some sort of negotiated end to the war and then an election imposed on Syria that takes in all of the diaspora, not just states that have Syrian embassies; everybody in the camps, everybody in the wider Syrian diaspora everywhere.
UN polling stations in every country where anybody who has Syrian heritage and a Syrian birth certificate or a Syrian passport or a Syrian ID card can come forward and vote. Then we might see a fair result. I believe that with the right kind of pressure on Iran and Russia, we could bring them on board for that type of solution. I think it's the only type of solution, actually. And while we're waiting for those elections, after we have imposed some sort of stability as best we can, there can be a transitional government, whether it's a military council or shared arrangement or coalition or whatever.
We gathered here to talk about Daesh or ISIS or ISIL. We need that conversation. We need to bring everybody on board — the Russians, the Iranians — and we have to deliver our part. We have to rein in Turkey. That's one of the major diplomatic moves that's needed in order to put an end to ISIS expansionism, because it is massively dangerous. It's a real threat to the wider region, and we ignore it at our peril. Heaven knows there are enough people in the wider Sunni world, including young men in Saudi Arabia, who are loyal to ISIS. If we ignore this problem, we're in real danger.
MR. KHOURI: Siwar, in your presentation you stressed the connection between ISIS and the Muslim Brotherhood, a linkage for which there is no evidence that I'm aware of. But you mentioned nothing about the linkage between Bashar al-Assad and ISIS, the linkage for which there is much evidence. Why is that?
MR. ASSAD: I have not seen any evidence of linkage between Bashar al-Assad and Daesh. Daesh is killing Syrian soldiers. It's not reasonable to think that there is any linkage. Do I have any linkage with someone who's trying to kill me and who kill my people?
Q: You said it was a complicated relationship.
MR. ASSAD: I talked about the business relationship between the Kurds and ISIS, between the Turks and ISIS, between the Syrians and ISIS, of course. Buying oil. But at the same time, the Syrian government has been paying salaries four years and a half now to civil servants in the city of Raqqa, a city 100 percent controlled by ISIS. It's trying to remain a state with institutions. It's trying to show the world that it is a state.
MR. KHOURI: Without going into detail, the linkages between Bashar al-Assad and ISIS go back to the foundation of ISIS and the relationship between the Assad regime and the infiltration of foreign fighters into Iraq to fight American soldiers there. That linkage has been well established. The other linkage is the release of ISIS leaders from Bashar's jails just as things were heating up between him and the opposition. He wanted to have ISIS there to say to the West, it's either me or the terrorists. He played a clever game, and it's more or less working for him.
MR. ASSAD: I'm not sure about this; I'm not aware of what you are saying, but even if it were true, we need to do something about it today. We need to be pragmatic today. And being pragmatic means to choose. Do we want regime change or do we want a real solution? If we want a real solution, I'm sorry, but we cannot exclude anybody.
MR. KHOURI: Including Bashar al-Assad in a discussion of transition is one thing. Choosing between him and ISIS is something else. If you're implying that we need to choose, either have ISIS dominate Syria or Bashar al-Assad, then this is not a choice.
MR. ASSAD: I've never implied this. I'm only talking about transition.
MR. KHOURI: Transition is not a problem. The problem is getting to a point where the balance of power allows both sides to have a strong negotiating position.
MR. MORRIS: Nabeel, you are right in some ways about your historical issues. Every ISIS general is a Baath general. And, of course, Syria is ruled by the Baath party. But there have for decades been divisions between the Iraqi Baath and the Syrian Baath. It's a complex issue with historical roots. Doubtless the generals in the Syrian army will know generals in ISIS because they're all old Baathists, that's true. Having said that, we need a way forward. Siwar's right. It's my opinion that the symbolic issue of Bashar al-Assad going is vastly important. Then the question is transition, how we handle it, and so forth. But we still must remember that the big crisis is Daesh. We could see the whole Middle East turn into a war zone. It's heading that way. If we ignore the ISIS issue, we're in real trouble here.
MR. KATULIS: I agree with that. Any transition in Syria needs to have a discussion about justice, accountability and holding people to account for their war crimes, including the regime, but actors like ISIS as well. It shouldn't be simply a negotiation over power and who sits in what seats — and that's the first step, obviously — it should include discussion of who has brutalized whole communities. Much of this is recorded. People are watching this. I think there's been the use of not only drones for surveillance to examine the security situation. A lot of hands are bloody.
I think there's an opportunity in Syria that wasn't seized in Iraq or Libya or other places, to have the conversation about holding people to account for crimes that are playing out today and crimes that played out years ago as well.
MR. MORRIS: Cast back a few years to 2003 and the liberation of Iraq. The State Department had good committees working here. One of them was on a kind of truth and reconciliation. It was Iraqi-led, an Iraqi committee of the Iraqi opposition. They did great work on a truth and reconciliation committee for Iraq. Then the Defense Department took over and disbanded it.
There is blood on so many hands — Bashar al-Assad, Maliki. God knows. Where are we going to stop? What I would favor is revisiting the idea of a truth and reconciliation committee. I do agree that we need to look at justice, but we have to be careful about retribution. It can create new grievances, as it did in Iraq. Part of what motivates these Sunnis seems to be this sense that they're the victims here.