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Syria Burning: Charles Glass on the Roots & Future of the Deadly Conflict

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A new round of international talks to end the war in Syria could begin as early as this week. The four-year-old war has killed more than 300,000 people and left more than 7 million others displaced. On Friday, Secretary of State John Kerry met in Vienna with the Saudi, Russian and Turkish foreign ministers to discuss the crisis. Then on Saturday, Kerry flew to Saudi Arabia to meet Saudi King Salman outside Riyadh. That same day, Kerry and Russian Foreign Minister Sergey Lavrov spoke by phone. Lavrov has said the Kremlin wants Syria to prepare for parliamentary and presidential elections, a call that comes just days after a surprise visit by Syrian President Bashar al-Assad to Moscow. Lavrov also said Russia would be ready to help Western-backed Free Syrian Army rebels—if it knew where they were. Charles Glass, former ABC News chief Middle East correspondent, has just returned from Syria and Iraq, and joins us to discuss the crisis. His latest book is titled “Syria Burning: ISIS and the Death of the Arab Spring.”

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This is a rush transcript. Copy may not be in its final form.

AMY GOODMAN: A new round of international talks to end the war in Syria could begin as early as this week. The four-year-old war has killed more than 300,000 people and left over 7 million people displaced. On Friday, Secretary of State John Kerry met in Vienna with the Saudi, Russian and Turkish foreign ministers to discuss the crisis. Then Saturday, Kerry flew to Saudi Arabia to meet Saudi King Salman outside Riyadh. That same day, Kerry and Russian Foreign Minister Sergey Lavrov spoke by phone. In a television interview, Lavrov said the Kremlin wanted Syria to prepare for parliamentary and presidential elections.

SERGEY LAVROV: [translated] Even with still continuing anti-Assad rhetoric, democratization rhetoric, I think the correct understanding of the situation is developing, and this gives us hope to push forward the political process in the near future by using outside players and to bring all Syrians to the negotiating table, because outside players cannot decide anything for the Syrians. We must force them to work out their own future in such a way that the interests of any group, be it religious, ethnic or political, would be well protected. And, of course, we must prepare for the elections, both parliamentary and presidential ones.

AMY GOODMAN: Sergey Lavrov’s call for elections came just days after a surprise visit by Syrian President Bashar al-Assad to Moscow. Lavrov also said Russia would be ready to help Western-backed Free Syrian Army rebels if it knew where they were. The Syrian army has rejected the—Free Army has rejected the offer. Meanwhile, former U.S. President Jimmy Carter has just published a piece in The New York Times titled “A Five-Nation Plan to End the Syrian Crisis.” Carter calls for the United States, Russia, Iran, Turkey and Saudi Arabia to work together to end the war.

We’re joined now by Charles Glass. He’s the former ABC News chief Middle East correspondent. His latest book is titled Syria Burning: ISIS and the Death of the Arab Spring. He has just returned from both Syria and Iraq.

Welcome to Democracy Now!


AMY GOODMAN: It’s great to have you actually in our studio here in New York as you launch this book, Charles. Why don’t you start off by talking about these latest developments? What is being proposed?

CHARLES GLASS: Well, unfortunately, nothing is being proposed. The problem is that the two main parties backing the factions in Syria—the United States and Russia—have not budged from their positions. Russia’s position is that Bashar al-Assad must remain as president, and the American position is that Bashar al-Assad must go as president. And they haven’t seemed to have reconciled these two points of view.

Ideally, they should get all of the parties together, including Iran, to discuss a period of transition, but because the war has gone on so far, there are certain people who will not participate in discussions—i.e. Jabhat al-Nusra and the Islamic State. They will then—if there is an agreement on transition and elections and so forth, then you will find that the nonjihadist opposition would be fighting side by side with the Syrian army against those forces. But I don’t really see that happening.

AMY GOODMAN: What about this offer of Russia to support the Free Syria Army and the Free Syria Army saying no?

CHARLES GLASS: Well, Russia would be supporting the Free Syrian Army if the Free Syrian Army fought against the Islamic State, but Russia will not support the Free Syrian Army to fight against the regime that it has been backing from the beginning of the uprising. Russia has a—

AMY GOODMAN: Right, and they’ve said no, anyway.

CHARLES GLASS: And they’ve said no. But Russia—Russia has a lot invested in the regime in Damascus, and they’re not going to arm anyone who’s going to be opposing it, because they are now fighting everyone who’s opposing it.

AMY GOODMAN: What do they have invested in Syria? Can you explain this long relationship between Russia and Syria, and then Syria and Iran?

CHARLES GLASS: Well, it’s very simple. If you look at a map of the Arab world, there are about 22 members of the Arab League stretching from Mauritania all the way to the borders of Iran. Almost every one of those countries is an American client state. Only one is a Syrian [sic] client state. That’s Syria.

AMY GOODMAN: Is a Russian client.

CHARLES GLASS: Is a Russian, I’m sorry, is a Russian client state. And that’s Syria. So Russia isn’t going to give that up just to please the United States. It’s going to need something in return. Or it’s going to invest more and more deeply into Syria to keep that regime, which is its only friend in the Arab world. One of the effects, though, of Russia’s deep commitment is that it’s now developing better relations with Iraq. There was a Russian military delegation in Iraq when I was there. The Russians are now coordinating with the Iraqis in their fight against the Islamic State and against Jabhat al-Nusra and the other Islamic groups in Syria and Iraq. So Russia has, in fact, raised its standing in the Arab world by this intervention.

AMY GOODMAN: I want to ask about the role of Saudi Arabia in the ongoing conflict in Syria, as well as the negotiations taking place to resolve it. Speaking Sunday, the Saudi foreign minister, Adel al-Jubeir, said that Assad had no future role to play in Syria.

ADEL AL-JUBEIR: [translated] I believe that there has been some progress, and positions have moved closer on finding a solution to the Syrian crisis. But I cannot say that we have reached an agreement. We still need more consultations and negotiations to reach this point. … There are negotiations within the international community on how to apply the principles of Geneva I. We are committed toward that. The application of the principles of Geneva I involve the formation of a transitional body that will form a new constitution, govern civil and military institutions, prepare for new elections in Syria. And there will be no role for Syrian President Bashar al-Assad in the future of Syria. This is the position of the Saudi kingdom, and this is the position of most countries in the world.

AMY GOODMAN: That’s the Saudi foreign minister. Charles Glass?

CHARLES GLASS: Well, the Saudis have been consistent in their opposition to Bashar al-Assad since the beginning of the uprising, and they were instrumental in arming the opposition, which began originally as peaceful protests. They began funding and funneling arms to those who wanted to fight, and then enabling foreign fighters to come in through Turkey. So the Saudi position has been consistent throughout. However, I would think after four-and-a-half years of failing to overthrow that regime, that they should realize that it’s not going to fall overnight and that the real problem is the war itself, and the war must stop, even if that means keeping the regime in power for a transitional period. But they’ve rejected that consistently.

AMY GOODMAN: And what about the U.S. relationship with all the different players?

CHARLES GLASS: Well, the U.S. seems to have lost some control over its allies in the region. On the surface, the United States is fighting against the Islamic State mainly because it went into Iraq. They didn’t seem to mind it when they were just in Syria. But they’re still allowing Turkey to keep its border open for men and supplies to come into the Islamic State. And they still—if they’re fighting the Islamic State, they’re still allowing the Saudis to provide the Islamic State and its other—and the other similar jihadist groups of al-Qaeda to receive weapons, including anti-tank weapons, from the Saudis. And this is—either this is fine with American policy and consistent with it, or they’ve simply lost control over the course of events.

AMY GOODMAN: We’re going to go to break. When we come back, I want to directly address the themes in your book, Syria Burning: ISIS and the Death of the Arab Spring. This is Democracy Now! We’ll be back in a minute.


AMY GOODMAN: “Every Wall,” Free Radicals, here on Democracy Now!, democracynow.org, The War and Peace Report. I’m Amy Goodman. In our next segment, we’re going to Jerusalem to speak with Rabbi Arik Ascherman, one of the founders of Rabbis for Human Rights, who this weekend experienced an attack by an Israeli extremist who tried to knife him. He’ll talk about this. The video has gone viral. But right now we’re staying with Charles Glass. Charles Glass is the former ABC News chief Middle East correspondent. His latest book is called Syria Burning: ISIS and the Death of the Arab Spring. He’s just returned from Syria and Iraq. Why do you call it Syria Burning?

CHARLES GLASS: Well, we had to come up with a title that would sell, really. It was—but it’s appropriate because Syria, since late 2011, has been on fire. And we see the evidence of this in the fact that more than half of the population is now homeless—7 million people internally displaced, and 5 million people have fled the country altogether. And it’s because this country is being rapidly destroyed in a conflict that probably should never have happened.

AMY GOODMAN: Why did it happen?

CHARLES GLASS: It happened for a number of reasons. One, in 2011, there was a great wave of protest sweeping the Arab world—Tunisia, Egypt, Libya and then Syria. The Syrians were part of that wave. But there, in Syria, because the opposition took up arms, which never happened in Egypt or Tunisia—they seem to have gone more for the Libyan model, where they did take up arms—it led to chaos, because the opposition itself was very fractured. You have to remember that in Syria political opposition was always suppressed, particularly democratic opposition, and they were not unified. And so, within the first 18 months, according to IHS Jane’s, there were already more than a thousand armed groups in Syria, sometimes fighting one another, which was very good for the regime, sometimes fighting the regime. But the anarchy was destroying the country. Now there are fewer groups, because they’ve coalesced into various Islamic fronts. But still, the destruction is unprecedented, and Syria will probably never recover from it.

AMY GOODMAN: And talk about the factions and how Bashar al-Assad hangs onto power.

CHARLES GLASS: Well, Bashar al-Assad hangs onto power, first of all, because he inherited a very effective security state from his father. Remember, between 1949, when the CIA overthrew Syria’s elected government in order to put an oil pipeline from Saudi Arabia through Syria without Syrian preconditions—from 1949 until 1970, when his father, when Hafez al-Assad, took power, there had been a coup d’état in Syria almost every year, and the instability was crippling the country. His father, who was a great conspirator, had been minister of defense and was from the Alawite sect, which is a subbranch of Shia Islam, which is very secretive, because they don’t really want the Sunnis to know all of their beliefs. They were very conspiratorial anyway. So they were the most conspiratorial people in the regime, and they were able to take over the regime and solidify the regime. And there hasn’t been a military coup since. So, they were very strong, well prepared to overthrow—to face that kind of thing. And then they had a Muslim Brotherhood uprising between 1979 and 1982, which they suppressed. So they were, effectively, very strong, in addition to which they had enriched a lot of the Sunni Muslim Arab middle class in the big cities, Aleppo and Damascus, so they had support. Now, if the Sunnis—if some Sunnis did not support them, they wouldn’t be there.

They then—when they faced this armed opposition, they had a strong army that did not crack, as the United States predicted. Its officers didn’t defect to the Free Syrian Army. And so the country—the state institutions, unlike Iraq, held together. And they’re still holding together. I mean, the rebels hold perhaps 65 percent of the territory, but the regime has between 60 and 80 percent of the population.

AMY GOODMAN: And what about the outside forces and the role, for example, that the U.S. has played, the role that Iran has played, the role that Russia has played?

CHARLES GLASS: Well, they’ve—Russia and the U.S. have played equivalent roles on opposite sides, so Russia consistently arming, supporting the regime at the U.N., and the U.S. doing the same for the opposition—without actually meeting to discuss ways so that this is not going to be resolved by war. The regime was never going to lose a war, can’t win a war, because both sides are equally strong, which means the war goes on and on. But the problem for the Syrians is that they’re facing a proxy war, as well as their own local war, as well as a regional war between Saudi Arabia and Iran, between Sunnis and Shia, because the Saudis now perceive Bashar al-Assad as an Alawite usurper. They want to see a Sunni running the country, because 65 percent of the population is Sunni, and they will settle for nothing less. But actually, it’s really up to the Syrians. It should be up to the Syrians to decide who is going to lead them. And inevitably, because Assad has been so strong, he’ll have to be part of the transition, not because you like him or dislike him, but because he’s held on.

AMY GOODMAN: I wanted to turn to the Democratic presidential debate. And this is Governor Martin O’Malley criticizing Hillary Clinton’s call for no-fly zone in Syria.


MARTIN O’MALLEY: And we hurt our—yes.

ANDERSON COOPER: Does she want to use of military force too rapidly?

MARTIN O’MALLEY: I believe that, as president, I would not be so quick to pull for a military tool. I believe that a no-fly zone in Syria, at this time, actually, Secretary, would be a mistake. You have to enforce no-fly zones, and I believe, especially with the Russian air force in the air, it could lead to an escalation, because of an accident, that we would deeply regret.

HILLARY CLINTON: Let me say—because there’s a lot of loose talk going on here—we are already flying in Syria, just as we are flying in Iraq. The president has made a very tough decision. What I believe and why I have advocated that the no-fly zone, which of course would be in a coalition, be put on the table is because I’m trying to figure out what leverage we have to get Russia to the table.

SEN. BERNIE SANDERS: Let me just respond to something the secretary said. First of all, she is talking about, as I understand it, a no-fly zone in Syria, which I think is a very dangerous situation, could lead to real problems.

AMY GOODMAN: That was Bernie Sanders at the end, and, of course, before that, Hillary Clinton and Martin O’Malley. Charles Glass, your response?

CHARLES GLASS: Well, Turkey has been pushing for a no-fly zone and safe havens in northern Syria from the very beginning. The U.S.—the Pentagon originally opposed it because it would mean taking out, in the first instance, all of Syria’s air defenses, which were put in by the Russians, so not an easy task. And some of those air defenses are probably now manned by Russians, which would mean, in order for U.S. planes to fly safely over the country, possibly killing Russians in those air defense zones. Second, the idea of these safe havens means that people would be fleeing there for safety, just as they did in Bosnia. And we remember what happened in Srebrenica. There is no such thing as a safe haven. And you’d have to commit tens of thousands of troops to protect those areas from either side that might want to come in and massacre them. And it would then be troops on the ground from Russia and the United States in a very, very confused and dangerous situation.

AMY GOODMAN: You just did a piece for The New York Review of Books, and in it you write, “Major military decisions come from the Iranian General Qassem Soleimani, the astute commander of the Iranian Revolutionary Guards’ elite Quds force, rather than from Syria’s discredited officer class.” Explain.

CHARLES GLASS: Well, because the Syrian army lost so much territory in the early phases of the war—I mean, it lost control of Homs, the third major city in the country—they had to turn to the Iranians. And the Iranians weren’t simply going to throw men and weapons at Syria without some control over them. So that has given—that has given Iran a decisive say in Syrian military strategy. Without—I mean, I should say that without Iran and Russia backing the regime, the regime probably would have fallen. But they’re now there, and they are trying to take control. They’re now—the Russians are taking more control from the Iranians, because they are becoming more decisive as the leading ally of the Syrian regime.

AMY GOODMAN: And what do you think will happen? And what do you make of this meeting right now in Vienna?

CHARLES GLASS: Well, I would like to hope that they’ll meet in Vienna and come up with a formula that they can impose on the Syrian parties to end the war. I happen—but based on the failure of Geneva I and Geneva II, my fear is that they will simply stick to their old positions and not come to an agreement, not impose a settlement, and then go on arming both sides, destroying the lives and homes of the Syrian people.

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