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As Refugees Leave And Russian Airstrikes Land, What Are The Options In Syria?


Syria seems to spiral even further into blood and destruction. Russia has launched its first airstrikes there. And despite claims that they intend to target ISIS, the first bombs fell on rebels opposed to the regime of Bashar al-Assad. The United States is opposed to Assad, but has failed to support the rebels. And millions of Syrian refugees are now outside of their country, many dying as they try to get out, which inflames politics from the Middle East to Europe. Philip Gordon advised President Obama on Syria. He joins us now from the Council on Foreign Relations, where he's a senior fellow now. Thanks very much for being with us.

PHILIP GORDON: Happy to be here, Scott. Thank you.

SIMON: You wrote this week in Politico that you think what you call a messy diplomatic solution should be in order now. Why, and what is it?

GORDON: The point of what I argued is that sometimes when what you are doing is not working and has almost no prospect of working, it's time to think about alternatives to it. When you look at the failure of the train and equip mission, the Russians coming in to back the regime, which actually really shouldn't be such a surprise to people, and the ongoing terrible humanitarian refugee crisis, I think it is worth asking whether it makes sense to continue to double-down on a strategy that really has almost no prospect of succeeding.

SIMON: You just said we shouldn't be surprised by Russia's entry. I have to ask this bluntly - did you ever say to President Obama you've got to expect Russia to jump into this?

GORDON: As a specific military deployment, no. But the reason I say I'm not surprised is that from the start - understand, Putin hates the concept of democratic revolution, so we shouldn't be surprised that he will do everything in his power to prevent it here. So banking on Russia to be our partner in this operation was always a longshot. And that's why I think it's not surprising that as Russia worries even more that the regime could crumble and Syria could end up in even more chaos and extremism that you're seeing a direct military intervention.

SIMON: Vladimir Putin says that Assad is a bulwark against ISIS. Does Vladimir Putin make a point that Russian and U.S. interests combine on this?

GORDON: No, I think he's wrong about that. I think Assad is one of the main reasons for the growth of ISIS. And that's the message I would have for the Russians now. You know, if they think somehow that backing Assad without any prospect for political transition will succeed, I think they're wrong.

SIMON: But is there anything in Bashar al-Assad's profile that would suggest if he's able to hold onto power long enough to be part of a solution that then he just, you know, hops a plane for France and says you guys take care of it from now on?

GORDON: No, nothing at all, and that's precisely my point. You can achieve limited political objectives with support for the opposition and limited military force. But the ultimate political objective of regime change takes a lot more than we have been prepared to do.

SIMON: One last question. What would the messy solution you're talking about ideally look like in, say, six months?

GORDON: It might start with local cease-fires in one or two places, spreading to regional cease-fires, whereby the regime acknowledges that it's not in control of a certain part of the country and stops bombing that part of the country in exchange perhaps for opposition not launching attacks on the regime in that same part of the country. And it would include the beginning of a dialogue, whereby representatives of each side would start talking about local governance and constitutional change and measures that could be put in place down the line. In the article you mention, I made the analogy with Bosnia, which was also a horrible war that went on for several years. And there, too, we had an ultimate objective of making sure that there was a political transition and ethnic cleansing wouldn't be rewarded.

But ultimately, what ended up happening is we had to come to the table, including with the bad guys, so to speak. And we ended up recognizing 49 percent of the country going to the Bosnian Serbs, who had been guilty of these atrocities, including genocide. That's messy, but I think there is little prospect of making progress unless we get all of these powers around the table and start talking about some of these measures that, in a perverse sort of way, I think would actually bring us closer to the goal of getting rid of Assad than if we just keep insisting on it without actually having the means to bring it about.

SIMON: Philip Gordon, now a senior fellow at the Council on Foreign Relations, former White House adviser, thanks very much for being with us.

GORDON: Thanks for having me. Transcript provided by NPR, Copyright NPR.