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Stephen Cohen: Will Syrian State Collapse & Fall into More Chaos If Assad Is Toppled?

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On Wednesday, Secretary of State Rex Tillerson said, “I think it is clear to all of us that the reign of the Assad family is coming to an end.” But what will Syria look like if the U.S. pushes for regime change in Syria? Professor Stephen Cohen predicts Syria could fall into even more chaos.

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

AMY GOODMAN: Finally, Stephen Cohen, how likely do you think there is right now of a direct confrontation between the U.S. and Russia?

STEPHEN COHEN: If I knew the answer to that, I’d go to the racetrack and redeem a lot of the money I lost over the years. But I would say way too close, way too possible. The other new Cold War fronts are heating up. That’s the North Baltic area, the small Baltic states and Poland, where NATO is building up beyond reason, Ukraine, where the American-supported government in Kiev is melting down. But, of course, in Syria. We have a lot of troops there. We don’t know how many. They call it special op troops. But there’s probably more than they’ve told us. American airplanes are flying. The battle for Raqqa, which is the symbolic, or real, Islamic State capital in Syria, is coming up. Both sides want to take it—the American coalition, the Russian-Syrian-Iranian coalition. Ideally, they’d cooperate and take the city together. But if they compete to take the city, you’re going to have American and Russian aircraft flying in a very close area.

Do we have 30 seconds for a final word? Jonathan was right about the Russian unwillingness to abandon Assad. But I believe, in the Russian mind—and I believe it’s correct—it’s a broader, more profound issue. They’re not interested in Assad as a person. And they have said repeatedly, Assad can go, eventually. And they say leave it to the Syrian people. And, by the way, that’s what Tillerson said about it a week ago, until he flipped—leave it to the Syrian people. For Russia—and try to think about this—Assad is the Syrian state. These are highly personalized states in these regions of the world. If you kill Assad—and that’s what they’re talking about—or arrest him, the Syrian state will collapse, just as it did in Iraq and in Libya, when we basically assassinated the leaders of those countries. If the Syrian state collapses, it means the Syrian Army, which is doing most of the fighting on the ground against the Islamic State, will collapse. Many will desert to the Syrian Army. So I would ask you, I would ask all these Americans who vilify Assad, I would ask all your listeners and viewers: If you destroy the Syrian state, who’s going to do the fighting against terrorists in Syria? Do you ask—are you going to ask Russia to send troops? Are we going to send troops? So, for Russia—and this is the point—it’s not Assad. They could give a hoot about what happens to him and their family. It’s what happens to the Syrian state. And that’s why they will stand with Assad until there is some kind of military victory, and then a so-called political peace process begins, and then Assad is on his own.

NERMEEN SHAIKH: Well, one last question, Stephen Cohen. As you say, if, like the Russians say, that Syrians will be able to decide, or should be able to decide, what happens to Assad—well, first of all, Assad has not ceded power to his own people for many, many years.

STEPHEN COHEN: Yes, right.

NERMEEN SHAIKH: There’s no reason to think that his position will change. And second, I mean, it’s an argument that’s commonly made by the U.S. government when supporting dictatorial regimes, that that regime is the only thing standing between them and an Islamist, terrorist, extremist government.

STEPHEN COHEN: Well, it’s an old American habit. I’m older than you guys. But during the Cold War, we supported a lot of very bad leaders and said they stood between us and communism. I think—but we don’t get this clarity out of Washington, we didn’t get it under Obama, not getting today—that the number one threat to all of us in the world today is international terrorism. You know, couple weeks ago, there was the tragedy in St. Petersburg, where folks going to work, kids going to school were blown up and killed in a St. Petersburg, Russian subway. That could happen here very easily. You can’t protect subways. You simply can’t. The one thing the Russians have is immense experience in dealing with terrorism, inside their own country and abroad. They’ve had more, outside the Middle East, casualties of terrorism than any country in the world. We need an alliance with Russia. That’s what this is all about. Are we going to make an alliance with Russia to war against terrorism in Syria and elsewhere, or not? That’s the issue today.

AMY GOODMAN: Well, we want to thank you, Stephen Cohen, professor emeritus of Russian studies and politics at New York University and Princeton University. And thanks so much to Jonathan Steele, former Moscow correspondent for The Guardian, chief reporter at the website Middle East Eye.

This is Democracy Now! When we come back, Sean Spicer’s comments comparing Assad to Hitler, saying even Hitler, despicable as he was, did not use chemical weapons, did not use gas. Stay with us.


NERMEEN SHAIKH: That’s Stevie Wonder singing “Happy Birthday,” on this very special day, Amy Goodman’s birthday.

AMY GOODMAN: Oh, my god. OK. This is Democracy Now!, democracynow.org, The War and Peace Report. I’m Amy Goodman, with Nermeen Shaikh.

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