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Michael O’Hanlon Of The Brookings Institution On Syrian Intervention

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HH: Right now, I’m joined by Michael O’Hanlon, senior fellow at the Brookings Institution. Michael O’Hanlon, welcome, it’s always great to have you on, thanks for joining me today.

MOH: Nice to be with you. Thanks for having me.

HH: U.S. Senate Committee on Foreign Relations, 10-7 vote, what do you make of it?

MOH: It makes sense to me. It’s about what I would have expected, about what I would have hoped. This is an ugly situation. I don’t know too many people on any side of this issue, or any political persuasion, who are enthusiastic about any particular response we might or might not undertake. But I think the President’s made a reasonable argument as to why the chemical weapons usage threshold is one we’ve got to deal with. And yet, it’s not a slam dunk. It’s not an obvious argument. And I think it is a pretty obvious argument that Assad’s forces used chemicals in this atrocious way. But I don’t think it’s so easy to figure out what to do next. So I’m, you know, I welcome a close Congressional vote. And I also think the American people, while they’re interested in this Congressional vote, are going to expect the results of the strike, assuming it happens, to be effective. And that’s going to be their ultimate way of assessing whether or not it was a good idea, not some vote in advance. But obviously, the vote in advance matters, too.

HH: I was talking with Andrew Roberts this hour about a Foreign Affairs Magazine piece, Who Is Khamenei: The Mind Of Iran’s Supreme Leader, which is just out on newsstands by Akbar Ganji. How do you think that man is watching this unfold, Michael O’Hanlon, because to me, that is the most important question of all, because he is our biggest adversary in the world right now? I mean, I guess you could say Putin, but this is the guy I’m worried about.

MOH: Oh, definitely, a lot more than I worry about Putin. Putin’s a hassle to deal with, but he’s not an enemy. By contrast, the likes of the individual you just mentioned, that’s a pretty serious word. That is, for me, a big part of why I support what the President is proposing, because I do find the overall policy toward Syria frustrating, would have liked to see us do more and do more sooner, and I don’t have any illusions or delusions that this limited strike will affect the overall course of the war very much. But I do think we’ve got to send two strong messages. One is to President Assad, don’t do this again, and certainly don’t escalate even beyond this, but secondly, to the Iranian leadership, and also to a few other rogue actors around the world, don’t get confused about whether the United States will back up its words on an issue like weapons of mass destruction, proliferation or usage. And the nuclear issue is even more important. Iran’s an even more worrisome potential adversary, and so I think they need to get this message. It’s not going to solve the Iranian nuclear crisis to send this message toward Syria, but it will, I think, prevent the Iranians from drawing any wrong conclusions about whether the United States is still committed to uphold its international responsibilities.

HH: Now Michael O’Hanlon, I know you’re not partisan, but this is a conservative talk show. And the news today, of course, is that Marco Rubio voted against this. And Senator Rubio released a statement that says the only thing that will prevent Assad from using chemical weapons in the future is for the Syrian people to remove him from power. The strike the administration wants us to approve, I do not believe furthers that goal. And in fact, I believe U.S. military action of the type contemplated here might prove to be counterproductive. After a few days of missile strikes, it will allow Assad, for example, to emerge and claim he took on the United States and survived. And by the way, I also think this action could unleash a series of events that could further destabilize the region. What’s your reaction to that reasoning?

MOH: I think it’s a principled stand. I have no, and I respect Senator Rubio. I don’t agree with the last part of the argument. I think the likelihood of this unleashing even worse things than we’ve seen so far is pretty low, but I agree with the first part, that this will not likely affect the prospects for Assad holding onto power. And I think therefore, the overall policy of this administration toward Syria is frustrating, and overall relatively unsuccessful. Now that’s, you know, a policy that most Americans and most members of Congress haven’t really wanted to challenge or suggest that Obama get more muscular about. But I respect Senator Rubio for doing his own independent assessment. And there’s a chance, I think there’s a high likelihood that on that first part of his argument, he’ll be proven correct, that this will not make a meaningful difference in the war, and that we do need to think harder about means of helping the insurgency be capable of overturning Assad. So it’s one of those things, like I said at the beginning of the show, where it’s one of the reasons why this vote should be close, because there are good arguments on both sides of the issue, and it’s a tough call.

HH: Now what about the prospect here that nothing happens, that the President doesn’t get the AUMF, and he doesn’t do anything, like the British Parliament collapsed under the weight of public opinion and left Cameron high and dry. What does that do to the al Qaeda-inspired opposition, not the Free Syrian Army, but the al Qaeda elements? Do they redouble their efforts? Do they figure out that Assad is good for the going?

MOH: I don’t know how it affects any of their calculations. I think they are, you know, fairly committed already. But it will probably affect the way we’re seen more generally around the world, that will probably affect the way some of the insurgent actors who might want to work with us will see us in the future. You know, I don’t think that in and of itself, we have to react here just to prove to any one or another Syrian insurgent that they can trust us as a friend. We should make our own calculations in a very hard-nosed and hard-headed way. But I do think that if we let this go unpunished, then Assad has no reason not to kill 10,000 people with even more chemicals next week, and the Iranians have less reason to worry that Obama will stand by his word on preventing them from getting a nuclear weapon. And they’ll be more likely, therefore, to consider racing for the finish line on their nuclear weapons program.

HH: A minute to the break, and I’ve got to ask you, I hope to connect with General Keane next hour. Are there insurgent actors who are responsible?

MOH: Yes, absolutely. But they’re weak, and the only hope here is in strengthening them. And I don’t know, frankly, if it’ll work. But I think we’ve been too remiss about not trying. And what we do know is that the current approach of largely hands-off has led to the strength of al Qaeda growing and growing and growing within that insurgency.

HH: Where are they? Who are they, Michael O’Hanlon? That’s very unfair to ask with 30 seconds, but I will.

MOH: That’s okay. They’re largely Syrian, but they’re also broader Middle Eastern Arab populations. Some of them, of course, come from Iraq. There’s a lot of crossage, crossing of the border between Iraq and Syria, a lot of sharing of expertise and operatives across the al Qaeda movements across Iraq and Syria. And it’s a group that is present in a number of the Syrian cities, but also in the eastern parts of the country, and it’s probably, I don’t know, 20-30% of the insurgency strength at this point.

— – – –

HH: Michael O’Hanlon, what if we did support the Syrian Army, to use a really terrible transition from the bump music, that’s really good bump music? Who would we give it to? Is there like a guy that, like, remember the Lion of the North with the Northern Alliance, Massoud? And we knew who the good guy was when we went into Afghanistan, except they blew him up before we went in. There was a Northern Alliance there. Is there such a person?

MOH: Absolutely not, and that’s one of the hardest things about Syria. And I believe it’s one of the reasons why the administration has backed off from any strong support. But I also think it’s one of the reasons why you can’t back off, because if you let this thing sort of go on its own trajectory, you have the possibility of the al Qaeda affiliates becoming even stronger. If you get your hands dirty and you get more involved, I think you have a greater likelihood of being able to arm the groups that you favor. Now they’re probably going to share weapons with the al Qaeda extremists, and so you’ve got to track things, and you probably can’t give the highest quality, most portable weapons up front, and maybe never. But I think it’s all the more reason to get involved, because the moderate, or relatively moderate forces within the insurgency, need strengthening. And if we don’t do it, it’s not clear, if there’s any way at all to contain al Qaeda’s influence.

HH: Now given all that you know, and all the trips that have been made back and forth to Jordan and to Iraq, those moderate elements, what sort of ideology do they have? Even if they don’t have a post office box that we can send bazookas to, what do they believe? Who are we talking about here?

MOH: Well, they obviously hate Assad. Some of them are true democrats. Some of them are Sunni extremists who view not just Assad, but all of his fellow Alawites who as you know lean towards a more Shia type of persuasion, you know, in sort of zero sum terms. And so a lot of these insurgents, I worry would actually, if they ever toppled Assad, keep on going, and go after a lot of his fellow Alawite allies, and you’d have a Bosnia or a Rwanda style ethnic or sectarian civil war that goes way beyond just trying to overthrow one dictator. So there are a lot of motives, and not all of them are good, and it’s even tougher than just saying that some of these people are al Qaeda. And that’s one of the reasons why I think our role has to be not just to help them win, but to endorse a certain kind of political outcome. We say we’re in favor of power sharing and a negotiated settlement. I don’t think that’s enough. I think someday down the road, maybe in a couple of years, an international peacekeeping force will have to be part of any peace deal. And I know most Americans definitely don’t want to hear that talk, but that’s my strategic assessment of what will be needed at some future date if we’re going to prevent Syria from being the next Somalia.

HH: You know, Michael O’Hanlon, Americans don’t want to hear that, but as Andrew Roberts said, there is only one superpower. And if we don’t do it, nobody does it. Michael O’Hanlon of Brookings Institution, thank you so much. Sober assessment.

End of interview.

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