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U.S.-Russian Tensions Heighten over Syria; Roots of Conflict Stem from NATO Bombing of Libya

Web ExclusiveSeptember 06, 2013
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Part two of our conversation with Wall Street Journal national security correspondent Adam Entous. He discusses his latest article, “U.S. Decided Not to Horse-Trade with Russia on Assad.” Entous writes: “President Barack Obama’s 15 seconds of face time with Russian President Vladimir Putin on Thursday, while American and Russian warships patrolled the eastern Mediterranean, spoke to a deep chill that has created one of the biggest complications to the U.S.’s plan to strike Syria.”

Watch Part 1 of our interview with Adam Entous

AMY GOODMAN: This is Democracy Now!, democracynow.org, The War and Peace Report. I’m Amy Goodman, with Juan González. This is part two of our interview with Adam Entous, national security correspondent for The Wall Street Journal, who wrote the recent piece on longtime Saudi ambassador in Washington, Prince Bandar bin Sultan, called “A Veteran Saudi Power Player Works to Build Support to Topple Assad.” Adam Entous’s most recent piece is called “U.S. Decided Not to Horse-Trade with Russia on Assad.”

Adam, it’s great to have you with us. Explain what’s happening right now at the G-20 in Saint Petersburg. You open your piece by saying, “President Barack Obama’s 15 seconds of face time with Russian President Vladimir Putin on Thursday, while American and Russian warships patrolled the eastern Mediterranean, spoke to a deep chill that has created one of the biggest complications to the U.S.’s plan to strike Syria.”

ADAM ENTOUS: Right. Well, what you have, obviously, is a lot of tension there between the U.S. and Russia, stemming not only from Syria but also from the case of NSA leaker Edward Snowden. But really, you know, this is very Cold War in the positions that are being taken. The president of Russia, Vladimir Putin, has been an aggressive supporter of Assad, the president of Syria. And the president of the United States, Obama, has been trying, with very little effect, to try to bring Russia on board a strategy to try to isolate Assad. And that has been incredibly frustrating for the United States and undermined its efforts.

Most recently, you can see in Obama’s decision to go to Congress for authorization, he’s doing that, to a large extent, because he wants the political and legal cover of having Congress authorize these possible expected strikes, because the U.N. Security Council was not able to move on any resolutions as a result of Russia, you know, blocking any resolutions that would be brought up against Mr. Assad. And so—and then, on the ground, you know, in Syria itself, the Russians supplied Syria with very advanced, updated anti-ship rocket systems, called the Yakhont, which were upgraded in the spring. And that’s part of the reason why you’re seeing the four U.S. Navy destroyers keeping itself far from the coast of Lebanon and the coast of Syria, because the U.S. is concerned that those systems could be used against the Americans. To the same degree, you know, the U.S. believes that Russia is using its satellites, its radar systems and the seven ships that it has sent to the coast of Syria to effectively spy on behalf of Assad so that Assad will get a heads-up when the cruise missiles are launched. So you really do see an incredible dynamic between the U.S. and Russia that you really haven’t seen in a long time.

And where it stems from is Russia anger at the way—at the way the U.S. responded not only in Kosovo, but more recently in Libya, where the Russians feel that they were hoodwinked by the Americans, where they agreed to go on and support a resolution that authorized the use of force in Libya in 2011, after, they say, they got assurances from the United States that regime change would not be the objective. And really, the Russians just haven’t been able to move beyond that 2011 decision. And Vladimir Putin is very invested at this point in being a foil to the United States and, effectively, just trying to get in the way of what the U.S. is trying to do.

JUAN GONZÁLEZ: And when the Libya intervention happened, Putin was then only prime minister. Now he’s back, obviously, as president. And he—on Wednesday, he said the U.S. Congress had no right to approve the use of force against Syria without a decision from the U.N. Security Council.

PRESIDENT VLADIMIR PUTIN: [translated] Now we are all following Congress and Senate discussions on whether to sanction the use of force in Syria. This contradicts common sense. With the understanding of the international law, no congress in any country can approve such things. What are they approving? They are approving an act of aggression, because anything that doesn’t fit the U.N. Security Council framework is aggression except self-defense. Syria, as we know it, is not attacking the U.S., so we cannot talk about self-defense. Everything else without the U.N. approval is an act of aggression.

JUAN GONZÁLEZ: Adam Entous, what about this potential for a direct confrontation between Russia and the U.S., with, as you mentioned, Russian warships close to the—close to the area, and more and more American military firepower being trained on Syria?

ADAM ENTOUS: Right. I think the expectation is that there would not be any real prospect for there being an exchange of fire. These ships are—these ships are keeping a distance from each other. It’s—you know, what you see is, you know, the Russians have a base, a very small base at Tartus, on the Syrian coast in the Mediterranean. These ships are very close to that base. And the expectation is, is those ships are possibly resupplying the Syrians. And that’s what the Russians have been doing. They’ve been taking equipment out, bringing it to Russia, having the equipment repaired and maintained, and then resupplying and bringing it back to Syria. And that’s probably what these ships are doing.

Some of them are also intelligence collection ships, so they have sensors that would pick up American launches. And, for example, earlier this week there was a missile test that was conducted jointly by the United States and Israel, which briefly rattled world markets after the Russians made it public that they had detected a rocket launch in the Middle East from the Mediterranean. American and Russian analysts believe that was a message that the Russians were trying to send to the United States, that its radar systems were very sensitive and real-time and able to pick up on these launches. And, you know, U.S. officials that we spoke to in the last few days are of the mind that the Russians are going to be tipping off the Syrians in advance. But the American officials who are working on these plans for these strikes think that there’s little impact that this heads-up is going to really have on the operation itself.

You know, Assad has already been taking steps to move his sensitive equipment, such as helicopters, around the country to try to put them under hardened bunkers to make it harder for the United States to destroy them. And likewise, you see the Americans taking steps to prepare for a wider set of strikes as a result of the Syrians making these moves to hide their equipment. So that’s why now you’re seeing that the Americans are looking at using bombers, for example, B-2s from the United States or B-1s, B-1 bombers, which are already in Qatar, and also B-52 bombers, which, in particular, can carry these cruise missiles that would be used and could be used to carry out strikes from outside Syrian airspace, so there wouldn’t be a need for the U.S. to immobilize Syria’s air defenses, which of course were also supplied by the Russians.

AMY GOODMAN: Adam, you also point out that Mr. Putin said that Russia would complete delivery of advanced S-300 air-defense systems to Syria if the U.S. strikes, which could shift the regional military balance.

ADAM ENTOUS: Right. The S-300s are a very advanced system. American officials compare it to the American Patriot 3 batteries, which can be used against aircraft very effectively and also against incoming cruise missiles. So this is a very, very advanced system that the Russians had thought about and had threatened to sell to the Iranians. There was an effort by the Saudis to try to block that.

And, you know, bringing it back to Prince Bandar a little bit here, Prince Bandar was in Russia in July to meet with Putin to try to get them to not deliver these systems to the Syrians. You have—these systems, if they were to be delivered, would create a problem, if the United States were intent on doing a campaign using aircraft over Syrian airspace. With the way the current operation is conceived, these systems would not be a factor, but it would limit the ability of the United States and Israel, to a certain extent, to penetrate Syrian airspace in the future, if they decided to mount campaigns in Syrian airspace.

JUAN GONZÁLEZ: Adam, you mentioned again Prince Bandar. I wanted to ask you about one of the interesting aspects of your—one of your articles about the cracks in the pro-intervention coalition, that includes Qatar and Saudi Arabia with the United States. You mention that at one point Prince Bandar, in an angry phone conversation, derided the government of Qatar, saying, “That’s not a nation. That’s 300 people with a television network,” referring obviously to Al Jazeera. Could you talk—


JUAN GONZÁLEZ: What’s the source of that conflict between those two countries?

ADAM ENTOUS: Right. Well, they’ve been regional rivals for a long time, both of them jockeying for influence. Qatar has tended to be much more willing to support more Muslim Brotherhood-connected groups. And that isn’t just in Syria, for example, it’s also in Egypt, where you saw Qatar supporting Morsi, the former president that was recently brought down by the military. So this is a—this is a regional—a region-wide power struggle between Qatar and Saudi Arabia for influence. And, of course, Turkey’s—Turkey’s Erdogan is connected to the Muslim Brotherhood, so is more naturally aligned with Qatar, whereas the United States aligns itself more closely with Saudi Arabia in this.

So the—what I was going to say is that the—what you found in the case of Syria is Qatar moved very quickly to try to influence the rebels, whereas Saudi Arabia initially had an internal debate about whether or not to get in with arms and money. And so, Qatar played a very important early role in the rebellion inside of Syria, whereas the Saudis were on the outside largely. And that’s part of the reason why Bandar was brought in by the king. The previous intel chief for the Saudis was, you know, a very interesting guy, a wine connoisseur, very mild-mannered, but the king felt that he wasn’t the kind of guy who could really rattle things and make things happen like Bandar is able to do. And that’s why Bandar was brought back.

AMY GOODMAN: Very quickly, “Bandar Bush,” as he was affectionately called by many in Washington, very close to the Bush family, also had a history with the Iran-Contra scandal. Can you explain what that is, Adam Entous?

ADAM ENTOUS: Right, yeah. He—what he was—what he was doing was, is he was working with the CIA, after the CIA was supposedly not delivering money and arms to the Contras, and he was helping with bringing the—bringing the money to that group. And it really was very similar to his role with the CIA in Afghanistan. Of course, that was more clearly authorized, right up to the top, including presidential findings that were signed, first by President Carter and later by Reagan, which gradually expanded the role of the United States in supporting the rebels. In the case of Afghanistan, and just like now in the case of Syria, you had Prince Bandar and other Saudi royals urging the United States to provide Stinger missiles to take out aircraft, to take out the Russian aircraft. This is back in the early 1980s. And the CIA and the White House reluctantly agreed to that. And that’s, again, a reference to the Charlie Wilson role here, which, of course, you know, helped—the CIA believes, really helped tip the scales against the Russians.

Now you have a very similar dynamic going on again, where Prince Bandar and Adel al-Jubeir, the current ambassador here in Washington, had been pressing the Obama administration to allow what’s referred to now as MANPADS, which are also shoulder-fired anti-aircraft weapons, to be given to the rebels. And again, you have the same dynamic, where the Obama administration doesn’t want that to happen, and the Saudis are pushing it. And so, really just the comparisons to the 1980s are fascinating and very interesting, and so many parallels across the board, not only the same—many of the same players, but really the same issues, about how the U.S. is—how willing is the U.S. to provide advanced—more advanced systems to the rebels to try to tip the scales.

AMY GOODMAN: Adam Entous, I wanted to go back to Russia right now, to Saint Petersburg, to the G-20. I mean, clearly a key time, if President Obama wasn’t pushing for striking Syria, to negotiate. I mean, here is the main sponsor of Syria, Russia. President Putin is there. As you point out in your article, there are many issues to negotiate over. I mean, mostly you negotiate with your enemies, so it could be about the—NATO, about weapons that are pointed at Russia, something that has certainly always—annoys Russia, things they don’t want to be happening. Even the—even the Winter Olympics could be raised. Why isn’t this negotiation going on, having the other world leaders there, as well?

ADAM ENTOUS: Well, I mean, the early—what we found is that early in 2012 there was a—there were a group of White House and State Department officials who did a brain—a brainstorming exercise. They asked themselves, you know, what would the U.S. be willing to give up or compromise in order to bring Russia on board with isolating Assad? Maybe pare back plans to expand NATO. Maybe not deploy some of the elements of missile defense which the Russians are opposed to. And basically, what happened was the White House concluded that those national security initiatives, like NATO expansion and like missile defense, were actually more important than Syria, at that point in time, in the way the White House prioritized its national security interests. Of course, now—

AMY GOODMAN: That was a year ago. We’re talking now.

ADAM ENTOUS: Yeah, now, obviously, as we’re at the brink of military action in Syria, that, you know, lack of an ability to bring Russia on board has really created a lot of problems for the United States, both in terms of legal issues—not having U.N. Security Council backing for this operation, which Obama’s own lawyers, you know, have acknowledged basically skirts international law—and, more directly, you have this—you have a system where literally if American warplanes do have to enter Syrian airspace, that the threat that they’ll be facing will be Russian arms, these anti-aircraft systems that the Russians have been maintaining for the Syrians.

So, you know, bottom line for the Americans is they just—they were never able to sort of figure out what it would take to bring Putin on board. And they figured Putin had no incentive to get on board. He’s sort of cast himself as the anti—the anti-Obama in many ways. You know, he gets a lot of points at home, political points at home, for standing up to the Americans. And he doesn’t seem to have any interest in changing that. You know—

AMY GOODMAN: Obama had the CIA do a psychological profile of Putin?

ADAM ENTOUS: Yeah, well, this is done by the CIA of most world leaders. But the one of Putin that was done, I think, was rather interesting. It describes him as somebody who was likely bullied as a youth and is not particularly self-assured, is very sensitive and prickly. And you sort of—if you look at the way the president interacts with Putin, you can tell that—or at least it suggests that he took the profile to heart. For example, when they met last time—I believe it was in the spring, late spring—you know, the president made kind of self-effacing comments about how his basketball skills were rusty, while Putin is excellent at judo and other sports. You know, you just have these references that the president would make to try to kind of show publicly how Putin is very virile and strong. And I’m not sure if those are—that that’s because he took to heart the CIA’s profile, or if that’s just the way he interacts. But you can just tell the Americans have really struggled to make a connection there with Putin, and realizes that it’s just he wants to look tough, and he’s not backing down to the United States.

AMY GOODMAN: We’ve covered a lot of NSA spying stories. You also report that the Russians are spying on the G-20 summit.

ADAM ENTOUS: Sorry, no, the Russians are—I’m sorry—spying on the—on American warships—


ADAM ENTOUS: —that are positioned in the eastern Mediterranean, in order to provide intel to the—provide intel to the Syrians. But I would be shocked if they weren’t spying also on the G-20, as I’m sure the Americans are spying on the G-20, as well.

AMY GOODMAN: Adam Entous, we want to thank you for being with us and for your excellent reporting, national security correspondent for The Wall Street Journal, has written a number of pieces. The most recent piece that he did on the Saudi ambassador is called—Prince Bandar bin Sultan—it’s called “A Veteran Saudi Power Player Works to Build Support to Topple Assad.” And his piece on the G-20, “U.S. Decided Not to Horse-Trade with Russia on Assad.” Thanks so much.

ADAM ENTOUS: Thank you.

AMY GOODMAN: This is Democracy Now!, democracynow.org, The War and Peace Report. I’m Amy Goodman, with Juan González.

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