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World

Israeli Defense Minister Gives Grim Assessment Of Syrian Civil War Amid Talks

STEVE INSKEEP, HOST:

Israel is watching Syria's war from an especially close seat. It's visible from Israeli-controlled territory, the Golan Heights, not far from Damascus. Even as key parties are meeting to talk about the war, we heard a grim assessment of the conflict from Israel's defense minister. Moshe Ya'alon talked of Syria's war when he met us in Washington.

What realistic possible outcome would be best for Israel?

YA'ALON: I'm not sure because I can't see any good outcome from the current situation in Syria with the Russian involvement, with all the Russian involvement. Actually, the choice of today is between Iranian-backed regime...

INSKEEP: The government that Iran supports on one hand.

YA'ALON: ...And Daesh on the other hand.

INSKEEP: ISIS, right.

YA'ALON: Bad choice.

INSKEEP: Ya'alon is hoping for a stronger third choice, more moderate rebels who've been sporadically backed by the United States.

YA'ALON: The many Syrians, Sunni Syrians, part of them are part of the Free Syrian Army, fighting the regime, fighting Daesh. I claim that they should be supported.

INSKEEP: In intervening on behalf of the Syrian government, Russia's President Vladimir Putin has suggested that that government is the only realistic choice, that whatever you may think of Bashar al-Assad, he's better than any possible alternative, certainly better than ISIS. Is Putin right?

YA'ALON: Bashar al-Assad is controlling now less than 30 percent of the former Syrian territory. I can't see even with the Russian support any chance which will allow, which will enable, Bashar al-Assad to gain back control on Syrian soil. I can't see any political resolution who is going to bring into the table Daesh. So Russian involvement now is to support Assad, to keep him in power. It serves Russian interests, of course, (unintelligible) interest. I can't see a political settlement of this civil war, and I'm afraid that this intervention is going to keep the war continuing for a longer period of time. That's why we see now Syrian refugees fleeing from Syria out of the country to Europe and (unintelligible).

INSKEEP: You made a reference to supporting Sunni Arabs inside Syria who don't support the regime but also aren't part of extremist groups. How would you grade the performance of the United States in advancing some kind of settlement in Syria?

YA'ALON: Without talking about the U.S. performance in the region, it's very clear that there is no new geopolitical division in the Middle East.

INSKEEP: He sees a basic divide all across the region. Sunni extremists and Shia-dominated Iran are opposed to Israel and the United States. Sunni-led nations like Egypt and Saudi Arabia share common interests with the U.S. and with Israel.

YA'ALON: Common enemies, United States should lead this camp. Someone has to orchestrate or start (unintelligible) the Middle East in order to allow this camp to prevail.

INSKEEP: Have you been saying that to your American counterpart, Ash Carter?

YA'ALON: Here I...

INSKEEP: Hey, United States, step up.

YA'ALON: Here...

INSKEEP: Be more of a...

YA'ALON: Here...

INSKEEP: ...Leader in the Middle East.

YA'ALON: Here I am to say it.

INSKEEP: You just said it to me, and you said it to him.

YA'ALON: I said it, yes.

INSKEEP: That's Moshe Ya'alon, Israel's defense minister during a visit to Washington this week. Transcript provided by NPR, Copyright NPR.