September 28th, 2014

Will Syria be “a long-term conflict”?

Today on CNN’s State of the Union with Candy Crowley, three different perspectives provide a comprehensive look at the U.S. involvement in the Middle East and the search for a military strategy. Senator Chris Murphy (D-CT), a member of the Foreign Relations Committee, voted against President Obama’s plan to arm and train rebels in Syria, fearing another open-ended U.S. involvement in the Muslim world.  Former Joint Chiefs Chairman Richard Myers and former Undersecretary of State Nicholas Burns further explain the long and short term consequences of U.S. involvement.



Senator Murphy  “Ultimately, I don’t think we have a partner in the Free Syrian Army who ultimately can win that fight militarily so I worry you get sucked into a long-term conflict”


Senator Murphy on Congressional authorization for military force: “That’s the check of a war without end is a Congress speaking for the American people that can put an end date on an authorization for military force or put a limitation so you can’t use ground troops”


Burns on allied commitment:we’re facing a combined threat in Iraq and Syria. We can’t protect the Iraqi state and prevent its dismemberment if we’re not effective in Syria.  And that’s the roll of the dice for President Obama. He’s right to strike Syria from the air. Will we be able to train enough Syrian fighters, with help from appropriations from the Congress, to make a difference in combating ISIS in its own backyard, which is Syria? Will we be able to get some of those European allies?”


Meyers on US strategy and exit plan: “when you start putting limitations on your strategy, especially in public, that’s beneficial to your adversary.”

A full transcript of the interview is available after the jump.



CROWLEY: Joining me now, former Joint Chiefs Chairman General Richard Myers, Nicholas Burns, former undersecretary of state, and Senator Chris Murphy, Democrat on the Foreign Relations Committee. Thank you all for coming.


And, Senator, I want to begin with you. This clearly is another front because they’re up there along the Turkish border. I want to show our audience a map again, just so we know what we’re talking with here in the expanding airstrikes with U.S. and coalition planes.


What are your concerns at this point?


SEN. CHRIS MURPHY (D), CONNECTICUT: Well, I have a number of concerns.


First, what we know is that you ultimately can’t defeat ISIS with a military strategy alone. You need a realistic political strategy. And I just don’t think we have that today in Syria right now, if we are betting on the so-called Syrian moderates to be able to defeat both ISIS and Bashar al-Assad at the same time.


I ultimately don’t think that that’s going to be how this ends up. But I’m also concerned about the fact that we’re not able to debate this in Congress right now, because there are some serious questions that we have to ask. You previewed one of them, which is, what is our endgame? How long are we going to be in Syria?


Are we ultimately going to be conducting airstrikes not just against ISIS, but against Assad, in furtherance of our new ally in the region, the Free Syrian Army? So my concern is that, ultimately, there’s got to be a political strategy, both in Iraq, which I can see if this new government actually is serious about reaching out to the Sunni moderates.


I don’t see the political strategy, at least a realistic one, in Syria. And then that begs the question, how long are we going to be there and is there any end? There’s just no appetite in the American public for an open-ended military conflict in Syria.


CROWLEY: And let — I want to bring both of you in, because there is a diplomatic component to this, a political component and a military component.


Would you agree, General, that an air campaign is not sufficient for a war here? And — and, if that is so, what is — what does an end look like?


GEN. RICHARD MYERS (RET.), FORMER JOINT CHIEFS OF STAFF CHAIRMAN: I would say, not only is an air campaign — campaign insufficient, but I think military action — I agree with the senator — is insufficient.


To defeat an ideology like al Qaeda, like ISIS, like all these very violent groups, you need a more comprehensive strategy that relies not just on the military instrument power, but, as the senator was saying, on diplomacy, on education, on the informational instrument of power. Only then can you get to it.


And I think success is when you have — you have contained it to the point where you don’t have many men and women that want to join jihad. And that’s always — that’s always the issue. And that will take — as the president has said, that’s probably many years, multi- generational, I would say.


CROWLEY: Nick, there is — and the administration has talked about these components. When you look at the region, who in the region, is it the Saudis, is it the Jordanians, is it the UAE, who steps forward and says, we want to speak to all of our young men out there and tell them that this is not Islam, we want to tell you, don’t go join, there are penalties for joining up with ISIS?


Who does that effectively enough to stop all of these fighters from coming to Iraq?


NICHOLAS BURNS, FORMER U.S. UNDERSECRETARY OF STATE FOR POLITICAL AFFAIRS: I think that is a key question. And Senator Murphy talked about it.


We need a diplomatic campaign, a big coalition of Arabs, as well as Europeans, to fight ISIS. And the Arabs have to take the lead. This is a battle for the future of the Sunni world. So it’s the Saudis, it’s the Emiratis, it’s the Kuwaitis. It’s especially the Turks, because jihadi fighters are coming across the Turkish border into Iraq.


Turkey is allowing ISIS to sell on the black market its oil in Turkish markets. And Turkey’s not doing much about it. So I think that the diplomatic coalition is going to be essential here. The fight’s going to go on for here. The president really has a containment strategy in place.


The rhetoric is to defeat ISIS, but the policy, airstrikes, but no significant ground forces, means we’re really trying to contain it, to limit it. You need the Arab allies to step up. In the initial strikes against Syria last Monday night, there were three Arab countries that participated.


I just hope they will stay the course with us, but, more importantly, do the hard work on the ground.


CROWLEY: I do want to ask you about staying the course.


And, General, I want to you jump in on this, and then I have a question for the senator.


But I think it is true that we need the Arab countries to step up. This is their neighborhood, et cetera, et cetera. In the end, we don’t really need these Arab forces in the air, do we? And, in fact, the U.S. does this sort of thing much better than anyone else. They are important window dressing, but they are nonetheless window dressing, aren’t they?


MYERS: I would say — Candy, I would say they’re more than window dressing.


I think, when you’re going against a threat like ISIS or like al Qaeda, unity of effort is important. And for them to see that the international community is aligned against them, I think, is very, very important. So, maybe in a military sense, they don’t contribute that much.


CROWLEY: That’s I mean, militarily.


MYERS: But — yes, but in a sense of, can — is the world against you and this outrageous brand of Islam that you espouse, it’s really important there.


I will just say — just — let me just tack onto something that my colleague here talked about. And that is, you know, the biggest bullseye in the Middle East is probably on Saudi Arabia. That would be ISIS’ goal. And this all goes…


CROWLEY: Where Mecca is.


MYERS: And this goes all the way back to, you know, when the seeds were planted for Wahhabism in — on the Saudi Arabian peninsula.


That’s — that’s going to — they have to deal with that somehow internally, and not just live with it.


CROWLEY: Senator, what do you make of the coalition so far? Does it reassure you about some of your worries?


Because when Americans say we’re war-weary, when we use that word, what they mean is, we’re tired of Americans dying in other people’s lands and conducting their fights. So, as long as the U.S. is in the air, the risk is not minimal, but it is less than troops on the ground. Does that satisfy some of your concerns?


MURPHY: Well, I think the administration has done a very good job of building a pretty robust and unprecedented coalition.


And I think that that does answer a lot of the concerns of my constituents. You’re seeing broad public support for the president’s plan here because people do understand the threat that ISIS presents. And they are impressed with the fact that you are seeing a growing number of Arab nations, especially Sunni nations, growing — joining the fight here.


But the question is, how committed are they? Because, as much as Saudi Arabia says they want to take on ISIS, they’re still looking towards other enemies’ arrivals in the region that may have other interests, like Iran. You’re seeing the Turks hedge right now as to how committed they’re going to be to this fight because they’re worried about what will happen as a byproduct of this conflict to rise up the Kurdish constituency that presents a threat.


And so this is a very, very difficult job here. But I agree with the general that, in the end, whether or not these are significant military contributions, what happened in Iraq over 10 years of war was that it became the cause celebre, as the intelligence community called it, for the international terrorist movement, because you were fighting the United States. Well, if you’re not only fighting the United States if you’re joining up with ISIS, but all sorts of other Shia and Sunni partners, it becomes a little bit less likely that it’s going to draw terrorists from all over the globe.


CROWLEY: I want to — I’m going to take a quick break here.


And when I come back, I want to go to what is now sort of a theme here, which is, how do you get that coalition together over what everyone thinks is going to be a long haul?


Quick break.




CROWLEY: We are back now Nick Burns, General Richard Myers, and Senator Chris Murphy.


We were talking about this coalition. As we know, coalitions have a way of going away or saying, yes, we will — we are a part of the coalition; we just can’t carry weapons. All kinds of things happen.


Certainly, blood on the streets of whatever country it is can change countries’ minds. Certainly, when you look at alliances, that can change it. What breaks up this coalition, if anything, or what — what helps it stick together?


BURNS: Well, first of all, I would say, I think President Obama and Secretary Kerry have done a very good job in piecing together a coalition.


The question is, is it going to stay the course? In Europe, we have 27 NATO allies. I think five of them are in the fight, none of them willing to put their warplanes into Syria, the way the United States has been willing to do it. In the Arab world, we have a lot of countries saying they want to help, but are they going to be with us on the tough things?


Some private citizens in Kuwait, the Emirates, Saudi Arabia, funneling money to ISIS. Will that be stopped? Will the borders be closed? Will the intelligence work be sufficient? So, I think the policy of can we contain them is assured. To defeat ISIS, you are going to have to have a very strong coalition.


We can’t do all the work. We have got to rely on the Arabs and Europeans to do more, but there’s a question as to whether they will.


CROWLEY: General.


MYERS: I just think, you know, you have to start with a common definition of the problem and how serious a threat this is.


And this threat’s been around now for — for quite some time, almost two decades where we have noticed it, the threat from violent extremism. And we need an agreement among these countries about how serious this threat is and what it’s going to take to defeat it.


That’s a hard — that requires really difficult — that’s a difficult leadership problem for any country, and particularly for the U.S. in that region, but we have to show, I think, leadership to try to get people to agree on, what is the problem? Then you can start to develop the strategy to deal with it.


CROWLEY: Senator, one of the things — I think one of the things we learned from the Vietnam War is, you got to have an exit strategy. You got to know when to declare victory and get out.


When you look at the current strategy as it’s laid out, what do you see as the exit strategy? What is the U.S. going for?


MURPHY: Well, I think it’s clearer in Iraq what that exit strategy is, that if the new prime minister there truly makes a commitment to multicultural government, where he’s reaching out to the Sunnis, giving them a home — and he’s got to do real things there. It’s not just about saying he’s going to do it.


It’s about releasing the political prisoners. It’s about sharing oil revenues. It’s bringing more Sunnis and Kurds into the government. Then you can see an exit strategy in Iraq. Harder to understand the exit strategy in Syria right now, which is why I think we need to listen to some of our European partners, who are reluctant to engage militarily there, because, ultimately, I don’t think we have a partner in the Free Syrian Army who ultimately can win that fight militarily.


And so I worry that you get sucked into a long-term conflict. Here’s the only thing I would add in terms of how you keep the coalition together, which is that we need to make it clear that our military support is only dependent on the political reconciliation moving forward.


What we know from the Iraq war is that if we’re doing the right thing militarily, but the political leadership is doing the wrong thing politically on the ground, then there’s really not much of a reason for us to be there. And so we need to make it clear to the new government in Iraq that if you don’t show some real signs towards political reconciliation in the next several months, then there’s no guarantee that the airstrikes will continue to give you cover.


CROWLEY: So, just some final thoughts from you all as you look at this. This does seem to be a war without end.


MYERS: Well, I — I think this is a — you know, been a new threat, this non-nation state actor, if you will, actors that come upon the scene.


And I think — I think we will know when we have victory, and that’s when security and stability in the region can’t be disrupted by an extremist group. This group ISIS, the current iteration, is so large, it’s already disrupted the country of Iraq, certainly in Syria, Turkey, as Nick Burns just said. So I think we will know. But I think it’s going to take — it’s going to take time. And it could be multigenerational, because it’s not just the military piece. It’s the diplomatic piece. It’s the educational piece and so on.




BURNS: Candy, we’re facing a combined threat in Iraq and Syria. We can’t protect the Iraqi state and prevent its dismemberment if we’re not effective in Syria.


And that’s the roll of the dice for President Obama. He’s right to strike Syria from the air. Will we be able to train enough Syrian fighters, with help from appropriations from the Congress, to make a difference in combating ISIS in its own backyard, which is Syria? Will we be able to get some of those European allies?


Where are the Germans, where are the Italians, where are the Spaniards out of this to help us over the long term in Syria?




BURNS: So, I support what the president’s doing. I think the president has constructed the right policy. It does depend on an effective coalition in Syria, as well as Iraq. And I think that is the unanswered question.


CROWLEY: Then Syria is the next front, further into Syria.


BURNS: Exactly. Exactly. Yes.


CROWLEY: And, Senator, I would be remiss if I did not ask you, if for some reason today, you could vote on a War Powers Act, it sounds to me as if you would vote no.


MURPHY: You know, I think the reason that we need to have the debate is so that we can get a better explanation as to what the endgame is in Syria.


I have been very supportive of what the president has been doing in Iraq, less supportive in Syria. That’s why we have to have the discussion. And, really, in the end, that’s the check on a war without end, is a Congress speaking for the American people who can put an end date on an authorization for military force or put a limitation, so that you can’t use ground troops.


I’m certainly willing to support an authorization, but I think we need to hear more from the president as to what that endgame strategy ISIS.


MYERS: If I could just mention that — the one thing the senator said that I might disagree with or I will disagree with is, I think when you start putting limitations on your strategy, especially in public, that’s beneficial to your adversary.


And I just — I think we do that too much in this country. And, as a military person, you can have these limitations. They could be unspoken. They could be — people understand them. But to do them in public just — just makes…




MYERS: … more comfortable.


CROWLEY: Tells your enemy what you’re about to do.




CROWLEY: General Richard Myers, Nick Burns, thank you so much.


Senator Chris Murphy, thank you.