Obama & Putin Far Apart on Question of Military Force in Syria

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This story is based on a radio interview. Listen to the full interview.

Audio Transcript:

Marco Werman: The war in Syria is not the first conflict to generate calls for outside intervention. You might recall the NATO airstrikes in the Balkans back in the mid '90s. Syria is a very different case of course, but journalist David Rhodes, who's covered both conflicts, sees some parallels. Rhodes was the first reporter to uncover evidence of the July 1995 Srebrenica matter in Bosnia, where Serbian troops summarily executed some 8,000 Muslim men and boys. It was a month after that massacre that NATO forces launched their bombing campaign against Bosnian Serb targets. Rhodes says the NATO air war is often incorrectly credited with ending the Balkan conflict.

David Rhodes: Everyone looks at Bosnia and they think American airstrikes turned the tide. That was just a few airstrikes. They clearly helped, but the key was this very successful ground offensive launched by the Croatian forces and also the Bosnian Muslim forces that took a ton of ground. And that's what allowed this you know, it really forced the Serbs to the bargaining table and let Richard Holbrook, you know, hammer out the peace agreement there. Clearly, you don't have that kind of arming effort going on in Syria. You know, what is similar and a broader thing (and it's a great question you're asking, I didn't expect it), but you did see a process with the Bosnian Serbs where inaction, when they would bomb a marketplace in Syria, well there would really be no response. Inaction did embolden them. You know, I'm deeply troubled by what to do in Syria. I feel we have to respond. It's just how do you respond in an effective way that doesn't arguably make things worse.

Werman: Can you just elaborate a bit more on the parallels you see between Srebrenica, as that moment in the Balkans, and these deaths of more than a thousand Syrians by what many agree were chemical weapons in this Damascus suburb.

Rhodes: It's interesting, in the post Cold War we really do live in this globalized community. The web is everywhere, news is everywhere and even in Bosnia in the 1990s, the world knew when thousands of people had been executed. You know, it was unquestionable photographic evidence. That's even more clear in Syria today, so both victims have an expectation. There's a belief among people in the Middle East and in Syria that their lives matter, so the world was watching in the 1990s. It was very slow to get a response. They did respond effectively. And I just have to be honest, again, I really felt like the failure to respond over several years in Bosnia did embolden the Serbs. It did lead to greater and greater massacres and that's where you finally have the tragedy of 8,000 men and boys being executed in Srebrenica after many, many other smaller massacres…smaller shellings that killed a few dozen people, you know, over a hundred at times. And that's a real dynamic we have to grapple with.

Werman: How much do you think the US being on pause on Syria for 2-1/2 years until this chemical weapon attack emboldened Assad or emboldened the rebels?

Rhodes: I think on both fronts, you know, we've had a very weak response. I think the lack of response to the smaller chemical attacks emboldened Assad and then you know, there was a decision and right or wrong, by the Obama administration, to not arm the more moderate Syrian rebels. That created a vacuum. The whole idea is we can step back and we'll just let Turkey, and Saudi Arabia, Qatar sort out Syria, that's been a disaster. The Turks have been ineffective and the Saudis and Qataris have armed Jihadists.

Werman: You've covered, David, intervention from so many different angles and so many different ways, in 2008 notably, you were kidnapped by members of the Taliban in Afghanistan. As I recall, you were in captivity, heard the drones going overhead and you thought you might be killed. How much did that experience change your ideas about the unintended consequences of intervention?

Rhodes: That experience and seven months with the Taliban made me honestly believe that there is a real threat. There are Jihadists that live in this alternate universe that think the 9/11 attacks were staged by the US and Israel, and it's all part of a campaign to occupy Muslim countries and obliterate Islam from the face of the earth. They are a threat. We should try and negotiate with them where we can, but some of them you have to respond in force, so I kind of disagree with those on the left that think there's no threat at all. The problem with watching these drones is that this sort of minimalist approach that we can solve these problems with a few you know, Tomahawk cruise missiles in Syria, that drones are gonna eliminate militancy, you know, isn't gonna work. You know, that's not true. It's wishful thinking. We need to sort of really sit down and think what should the US' role in the Middle East be? Should it be nothing? Can we just pull out completely and abandon Israel and not worry about supplies? You know, or is there some middle ground between Bush and invasions and Obama and sort of hands off and missile strikes…is there some more effective middle ground approach we can find.

Werman: Personally, David, does it almost jar you that you now see after all you've been through that military intervention, a strike is kind of the way forward?

Rhodes: I think the best solution is working with moderates in the Syrian opposition. I think we should have started that earlier. There are moderates in Afghanistan that I escaped with an Afghan journalist who was kidnapped with me. There was a moderate Pakistani army captain who took us onto his base and saved our lives. And you know, we're all a product of our personal experiences, so I saw Jihadists. I lived with them. They are a threat. I see another side in the region. I understand that many Americans don't. I wish the US media reported more about moderates, so I don't think the answer is American military force. I think it's a much more patient, long term US policy of strengthening moderates in the region, and engage in non military ways–economic ways, you know, training, education. And I again, I know there's huge cynicism about this, but I think we have to find new ways and simply declaring everything another Iraq, it's not realistic. There's more than we can do than massive ground invasions or nothing at all.

Werman: Pulitzer Prize winner David Rhodes is now a columnist with Reuters. David, thank you very much.

Rhodes: Thank you.


Marco Werman: I'm Marco Werman, this is The World. President Obama arrived in St. Petersburg today to take part in the G20 Summit. He was greeted by the host of the event, Russian President Vladimir Putin. The two men shook hands and smiled for the cameras, but beneath the smiles is a serious disagreement about Syria. The World's Matthew Bell is in the studio with me, and what are the chances, Matthew, that Obama can actually win Putin over and get the Russians to support military action against Syria?

Matthew Bell: Well, slim to non is the short answer to that question, Marco. And you don't have to look much farther than Putin's own recent statements to see why. Putin called Obama's assertion that the Syrian President Bashar al-Assad used chemical weapons to kill his own people absolutely absurd. Just yesterday, Putin was talking about John Kerry's appearance in congress. He called Kerry a liar. Today, at the United Nations, US ambassador Samantha Power accused Moscow of skirting its international responsibilities and because of that she said there's no viable path forward in the Security Council. So all in all, Marco, not a lot of common ground here between the United States and Russia on Syria.

Werman: Yeah, a lot of nasty rhetoric there between the two countries. The statistics in Syria are pretty shocking at this point. We reported on more than 100,000 people dead, 7 million people displaced externally and internally in Syria. Swaths of Syrian cities laid to waste. How do Russians really see the situation now?

Bell: I talked with a Russian journalist today and he was explaining it to me like this: Russia supports the Assad government, not because it loves Assad, but because it sees Russian interests at stake in Syria. The Russians' only naval base in the Mediterranean Sea is on the Syrian coast. Russian companies do billions of dollars of business in Syria. To understand the Russian view, there are two good parallels here, Marco: 1) when many Russians here US officials talk about using force in Syria, they just think Iraq 2003 all over again. The see the US just wanting to throw its weight around the Middle East and impose its will to serve American interests. The second parallel is Chechnya. Russians tend to look at Syria. They see a government fighting terrorism, in particular the kind of Islamic extremist groups that Russians fought for years, starting in the 1990s in and around Chechnya. So it does seem that the United States and Russia are on a collision course over Syria, it's just not clear how big that collision will be.

Werman: The World's Matthew Bell, thanks so much.

Bell: Thank you.