tv Atlantic Council Discussion on Russias Influence in the Middle East CSPAN June 6, 2019 11:15am-12:44pm EDT
all for coming today and welcome, also, the people who are watching this on c-span or also streaming this on the atlantic council's website. we appreciate you taking your time out of your day today to talk about an important and increasingly important subject. how does u.s. policy meet the challenge. and this is part of a series that we at the atlantic council are doing on external powers in the middle east. next week i also, on thursday, we'll have an event on china's role in the middle east. so please do come for that one as well. one of the great accomplishments of u.s. diplomacy over my lifetime was encouraging the departure of the soviet union. in the late 1960s many in washington feared that the newly
independent states would come over soviet domination, but the stationing of soviet troops in key countries slowly declined. starting in the 1970s and through the 1980s, and after the end of the cold war the u.s. was left alone as the dominant external power in the region. long standing russian and u.s. interesting conflict more than they align and this was beneficial to the united states and i would argue to the region as a whole. but this accomplishment has been somewhat undone in the last five years. i think that we need to give some credit where credit is due, vladimir putin played what started as a relatively weak hand in the region very adeptly and has significantly approved russia's standing across the middle east. with what are still relatively
limited resources certainly when compared to the u.s. resources in the ref jogion, putin has defended his ally in syria at a desperate moment in stark contrast to the u.s. abandonment of egypt in a precarious time. he as expanded key russian bilateral relationships after incidents like shooting down of a russian aircraft. and now russia is playing a wider role in regional diplomacy. it also must be admitted that the u.s. disinclination to move if beyond rhetorical support set the stage for putin's success. this was driven by an assumption. by many u.s. leaders that putin's efforts in syria would fail. and sadly this era was
bipartisan. in october of 2015, for instance, president obama said that an attempt to prop up assad will get them stuck in a quagmire and not work. that same year donald trump spoke about putin's intervention and said watch, he'll get bogged down there, spend a fortune, and be begging to get out. four years later the opposite turned out to be the case. where do we go from here? that is the topic of our discussion this afternoon which brings a group that will discussion rengional influence throughout the nation. that brings up a report done by mark cats. when the friend of my friend is not my friend, united states, russia, and allies in the middle
east. we'll start our discussion today with katie katie is the only person in the government at the assistant secretary level whose portfolio covers russia and the middle east. she really has a unique perspective. he is has training from harvard high school, he is was president for litigation and a chief compliance officer and had a very impressive career in government both on the hill with the senate armed services committee, and the select committee on intelligence. after that keynote address we'll be joined in a discussion with dr. mark kats. he is the author of the report they just mentioned and which is
now available on our website. he is, in addition to being a nonresident fellow he is a professor at the school of policy and one of the fore most academic experts. . becca wasser is at the ran corporation. he is wo she worked at the snunt for st institute for strategic studies. please join me in welcoming first assistant secretary katie weilburger, thank you very much.
>> hello, good afternoon. i would like to discuss russia's role in the middle east and also dr. kats for drafting a very important paper and the implications for u.s. policy. thank you also to be hacca wass. i have here to discuss the evolving role of russia in the middle east. i hope my comments contribute to what has been a robust discussion forged by the great work already done today. the national defense strategy shapes the department's priorities and inspired a constant focus on russia and china as long term global strategic competitors. that does not mean we only focus
on russia, europe, china, and asia. we know we must compete with russia and china globally including in the middle east. the middle east remains a vitally important region to our national security interests. we deny safehavens to terrorists, and ensure freedom of navigation. we seek a stable middle east with enduring u.s. partnerships, we want a region that is free a future conflict. this is not only a strategy for the middle east but a global strategy. from the department's perspecti perspective, aides our necessary focus on rebuilding readiness, modernizing our forces, and out innovating our competitors. russia seeks to revive the world order and reject the international system that is enabled peace for decades.
russia sought to exploit chaos and advance their influence. expanding beyond in it's year abroad and has done sew wio wit focus on the middle east. it has not only allowed done that, but it has changed leverage over regional partners. in a manner that contributes nothing, but additional instability into the region and beyond. russia views it's syria operations as central to it's approach to the broader middle east. it is an opportunity to reestablish their great power status. demonstrate and approve their military capabilities, expand access to hold nato's southern
flank at risk. that should not imply that russia does not face their own challenges abroad. they have significant limitations. years of me in neglect that attrifed developments. highlights the united states maintains tens of thousands of choops in the region. a u.s. presence at numerous bases in the region. even for those countries that russia stated they will defend, strikes in syria continue to --
many middle east countries are reading that russia is not a reliable partner. they sense they are not building long-term relationships built on trust and mutual understanding, russia is attempting to be part of all players. it is a strategy likely to create distress. this is particularly important with the relationship with iran. they will continue to impact the security and stability of our partners. even understanding the historical mistrust between moscow and tehran, united states and the region must be mindful when revisionist powers cooperate. we are watching this relationship closely. in contrast to russia's approach, the united states is
committed to being a steady partner in the region. some key region operational examples, most of which you're probably familiar with. we mar shashaled a 79 -- rip relationships that we intend to be enduring. second we have a presence with our partners and we exercise it together to ensure long term capability and trust. and third our enduring presence can be rapidly augmented when needed aes recent events highlights to defend our partners from emanant threats and potential aggression in the region. russia uses their limited tools creatively. what we have seen in syria is the limited means can have outsized influence over global
issues in is where i would like to look at dr. katz paper. prioritizing competition with russia and iran in the middle east is in their interests, we agree with your conclusion. for our european partners i urge them to recognize that russia's role in syria is no less destabilizing than in eastern europe. undermine or return to u.n. peace negotiations and hypocritically use the internation nag law. the ramifications are no less profound. no one has to doubt the seismic shift in european politics and migrant crisis. they only need to recognize russia's role in these dynamics. russia's increasing cooperation with turkey and syria even if tense highlights a burgeoning relationship that should be
concerning to nato. russia's offer to turkey for their s 400 missile defense system. it is likely their need factored into their defense relationship with russia. completion of this transaction would be devastating. not only is the f 35 program, but it would rupture turkish inner operability. it is incon siekoconceivable th would not take advantage of that collection opportunity. their intervention in syria has caused rippling ramifications and facilitated one of russia's key goals under mining nato cohesion. finally to our european partners, we urge them to see that russia is an unreliable
partner. russia shows they cannot be trusted when true choices need to be made and friends need to be known. unlike the relationship with the united states it's military sales do nots come with long-term commitments of maintenance and sustainment. russia is a transaction all in partner seeking their own benefit. they thrive in chaos and they do not seek the best interests of their transactional partners. any regime that thrives in chaos cannot be trusted to strive for stability. related to this i want to highlight the adversaries through sanctions act. this law requires the u.s. government to sanction countries engaged in significant transactions with russia. if the law exists for a good region. they seek to exploit partner vulnerabilitie vulnerabilities. in the process we strive to
und undermine the inner operability. russia knows they have huge ramifications for their partners and their relationships. the united states cannot accept russia's encroachment and opportunisms. we remain clear eyed about russias aims and intentions in the middle east. we cannot doubt that they will thwart our own. from the department's perspective, we must take this evolution seriously and seek to counter russia's near term influence. we strive to be the more
trusting, more reliable, and more enduring partner in the region. i will close as i began, the middle east is a vitally important and remains so to our national security interests. under the guiding framework the department is well positions to address the number of issues facing the united states in the region including great power competition. russia's great power status remains largely aspirational. the gains made by russia, syria, and with our partners are with the department of defense because we prioritize regional stability. our partners are the most important asset we have in the region. we seek deep and daily to strengthen our partners. we want not only to protect our own capabilities and interests, but those of our partners as well. i thank again the atlantic sill for hosting this event today. thank you dr. kats for your
paper, i look forward to the discussion and your questions, thank you. >> at this point what i would like to do is start by asking mark and becca to in turn give a little built of their perspective on this issue and response to what we just heard. then we will start taking questions from the floor. i think i may start with some of my own questions first, but i know that is something everyone wants to jump in on. >> okay,ly keep this brief. katie did such a great job in
terms of outlining what problem is so i don't need to emphasize how much russia causes problems for us in the middle east because he is has already done so. what i think is important to highlight is how do we deal with that. countering russia in the middle east is complicated by the fact that we have good relationships with russia. allies elsewhere are far concerned with their policy. putin benefitted from the fact that u.s. allies, most concerned about iran, have actively cultivated good relations with russia despite the close ties to tehr tehran. there is several possible reasons for this. i think one is that at a time when there is u.s. and middle east allies perceive the u.s. as
disengaging, they're reaching out to russia maybe intending to persuade washington to do more for them. another reason is that u.s. and middle east allies cooperate because they understand how opportunistic it is. there was a time maybe a decade ago that some of our allies thought they could wean russia away from iran by buying more, by investing more from it, that has not worked. they know that has not worked, but they still cooperate with it because i think they anticipate that powerful russian interest group, pe trotroleum, they will that iran doesn't do anything to harm them. third, u.s. middle east allies
cooperate with russia to reduce iran's confidence. one of the reasons we talk about the possible russian armed sales to turkey, talking about s 400s so saudi arabia. iran has the s 300, and just today there was a bloomberg report that the iranians asked to buy the s 400 and putin turned them down if is being celebrated i'm sure among our gulf partners there is a signaling forward iran itself to under mine it's confidence about how much is russia going to support them. this is a successful line of reasoning or not with another issue, but this, i think is what they're trying to do. outside of the middle east some u.s. allies are more fearful of
russia, neither group is especially fearful of iran. iran is lower on their priority list. the question is what is to be done? now, i won't go there all of the different options in the paper, but it strikes me that there are two basic choices. it is that some of our allies in the region worry more about iran and less about russia. some of our allies elsewhere worry more about russia and less about iron. we could work with each set against the target their most worried about and different coalitions of the willing, if you will. the problem with my view is that russia and iran are, despite whatever differences they have had in the past and continue to have now, that effectively they are allies in the region. that they are helping each other and that certainly i think in
terms of our middle east allies, that working with russia, you know, hoping that somehow the russians will limit iran, i'm not sure it is going to be very successful. and i think tha -- anecdotal evidence. you're better off worrying than if we're not. this line of argument has unfortunately, i think, been, if not completely more persuasive than it should be. i think as casy indicated a par better policy that we need to convince our middle eastern allies and our allies elsewhere that russia and iran together are a problem for us and that basely we have to work with them. those who are concerned about russia also need to be concerned about their relationship with
iran. and those in the middle east need to understand that working with russia is not necessarily going to help them with iran. why don't i stop there. >> thank you very much. >> i'm going to broaden the aperture a little bit. ly look at what the challenge is that is posed to the united states and i will identify some of the relationships, and it lends themselves to a certain number of policy recommendations. so russia's renewed engagement really stepped up after 2005 or so. and it is really been driven by stated foreign policy principals that you often here in the statements, but some of the drivers happen to be regaining a great power status, and from
where russia sees it, all great powers are in the middle east. the lord knows there is a lot of negotiating tables. they're also in the region for economic gain and the middle east provided a really ripe region for them to try to make up some of the short falls they're feeling economically. as well as to try to circumvent sanctions. the last reason, which is not so much a driver of russia's engagement in the region, but almost an added bonus of being there, is to complicate u.s. policy and to under cut the united states when they had the opportunity to do so. these drivers really speak to what i believe russia's regional strategy is. in a report in 2017, my
coauthors and i said it is a resource and opportunity dependent approach that seeks to maximize short term, economic, and political opportunities. russia's approach is very traps actional, and it is focused on their own immediate gain. despite that it presents a number of challenges for u.s. policy. russia entered into a number of highly visible big ticket item arm sales with the gulf states. particularly the uae and saudi arabia. some of the armed sales are m.o.u.s but they're a financial boom. in addition to that they undercut the united states. it's a win-win for russia. they're undercutting the u.s.
because the u.s. is the primary security guarantor. they're deeply involved in building gulf military capacity. so the introduction of the equipment into these arsenals really complicates u.s. efforts towards interoperability, and it could be used to erode the u.s. technological edge. you to look at why the gulf states are buying this equipment. it's not because they need it and it's not really because they want it. what they're doing is sending a signal to the united states through the arms sales and that is usually trying to voice some displeasure about a u.s. policy decision or to find away to have a type of leverage to shape a outcome of a policy decision. our partner's use of russia as a
hedge in this case really ends up complicates u.s. security decision making. so at first glance it looks like the strategy is a winning one. russia is seemingly everywhere from north africa to the gulf and it is exchanging in economic sales, russia deals, to you know stabilizing oil prices and other types of energy cooperation. at the same time it deepenned partnerships with what seems to be regional rivals like iran and israel. cooperating but also separate. russia is also playing a very important role when it comes down to determining the future of the region by sitting at the negotiating table for regional disputes like yemen, the gulf crisis and through all of these
activities russia really presented itself and presented a narrative to being an appealing partner to the states in the middle east. and this is for a power vacuum that the u.s. has left. so at the same time you have to take a step back. when you take a step back and you look at what russia's regional strategy is, you see that it has a number of constraints, and there are a number of risks that will playout over the long term. russia for now can engage multiple players in the region, but it is walking a tight rope as it balances the interests of saudi arabia and iran. at the same time it doesn't want to be beholden to either side. it is a deconomy that is really struggling under sanctions. which is going to constrain the
activity activitys that it can do in the region and what it can sustain in the long term. furthermore russia's approach is largely dependent on the economic opportunities created by other forces. sometimes unfortunately this is washington's missteps, but it also suggests that russia is beholden to other actors if is really the middle eastern stays that determine their depth with moscow, and it struggles to create their own openings and it is truly the exception to the rule rather than the norm. so russia cannot create outcomes. they look like they're willing, but it's really because if you look at it the bar is set so much lower if moscow than it is for washington. so russia may be achieving great deal but still playing with a limited hand. it's working for now have, but
it is unclear whether or not it will continue to work in the future. so we are creating policies to better compete with russia and the middle east, the u.s. ought tostep back and look at the challenge posed by moscow. we need to make sure we're not accidentally making russia ten feet tall in the middle east. russia is unable to supplant the u.s. as the primary security guarantor in the middle east. it's not going to happen now or in the future short of any decision that washington may make. so we need to recognize the existing limits of russia's approach and rather than being reactive we should look out over to the long term because the limits will become more pronounced and clear overtime. dr. katz you suggest that strategic patient is one
approach that the u.s. might seek to adopt. i think that is quite a good suggestion. there is a lot that needs to be countered, but every little single thing shouldn't. if we try to respond to it all it becomes a cost imposing strategy on washington. and something sthat will furthe constrain what we can achieve. the u.s. has not achieved all of the tools in their tool kit yet. capping sanctions, previously mentioned, up with of the reasons i don't think it is used is because it is more likely to degrade the regional partners. so in my opinion, staying the course and continuing our regional diplomatic engagement,
security cooperation, economic partnerships with regional partners is the best way we can compete against russia and the region. our consistent engagement with regional partners may reduce the amount of hedging they try to do with russia, and because they have made maybe some of the most gains related to the perception of u.s. disengagement from the region or coming disengagement from the region, we need to continue to reassure partners that the u.s. is not going anywhere and that the focus on near peer conflict does not mean a pivot to europe or asia. >> thank you very much. very interesting perspectives here. i know it is the moderators prerogative and ask a few questions. let me pick up just where you left off be have, cca on the sa.
on the new sanction tools and on existing sanctions on russia as well. katie let me ask you first, you know, what kind of messages are you trying to send with these new tools, that is question one, and question two on this, is the existing sanctions that are on russia, sanctions are such an important tool of the trump administration's policy on a variety of respects. are we looking to enforce them with our partners as strongly as completely as we are say the iran sanctions, or are they getting messages that one matters more than the other. >> with respect to your first question on the mutuals, as i said in my remarks, we try to be
exceptionally clear to the region and particularly when it comes to certain transactions that it is a tool we will use. we used it against china. we are pondering using it against have -- you know, ther some discretion involved. there is a waiver that congress did give us in certain situations where we really want to use it to address new relationships with russia, while traditional partners with russia, we want to see them limiting that exposure over time. so that's why the s 400 in particular with turkey is such a monumental challenge for us and it is also one that we try to be very clear to turkey in particular that it's not just in the executive branch, it's hands on. this one is u.s. congress, bipartisan basis are pretty opposed to this potential transaction. if we don't do the sanctions they said they will just pass them into law and make us do it. so we have sent that message i
think as clearly as we can in nurmerous forum. with respect to other partners in the region thinking about buy a vaare kw oo blah tha tha tha blah that it allows or the complication that it provides the united states. it's not in their best interest to have a defense relationship with russia. so much in the region is a security architecture and interoperability that we provide them, particularly on missile defense systems that once you introduce russian systems, it undermines our ability to help them defend themselves. that is something we try to make clear. with respect to the existing
sanctions, i think with respect to the ongoing sanctions against russia, european unity in particular against russia post on sanctions has been very key. we continue to, whether it be in a bilateral basis or multilateral basis with our european partners, impress upon them the importance of maintaining the sanctions until we see a concrete change in russian behavior. that was the genesis of the sanctions as well. i certainly don't think there's any appetite in the administration to see one is more important than the other i certainly don't think there is any appetite in the administration to see the one as more important than the other in terms of the pressure we are applying to iran with respect to the sanctions there with the sanctions with respect to russia at this time. >> thoughts on how the country's
leadership in the region will react to a potential new sanctions regime? >> they are obviously not going to like it. that is for sure. what i think is that in a certain sense we have to make it clear what things are not acceptable. i think s 400 in particular are not. i think that we also do need to sort of let them sort of realize on their own, in other words, that if the russians are telling them that we can help you with the iranians, et cetera, at some point, are they going to produce? they will tell you now that it was a mistake to have broken relations with israel. but now the shoe is on the other foot, that russia can talk to
everyone and america won't talk to certain actors therefore russia is in the position to bring about conflict resolution. that argument might be very appealing except for one thing. that is that it is not good enough just to be able to talk to all sides in order to bring about conflict resolution, that conflict resolution diplomacy includes a combination of carrots and sticks which russia doesn't have. i think what is interesting is the camp david accords in 1979, we have agreed to provide substantial economic assistance to both israel and egypt. and we are still doing it 40 years later. russia is not willing to do this. i have been to the conferences in the middle east and moscow. and the point that they keep making is that the stabilization of syria is a global public good
therefore it has the stabilization of syria. if the west does, the middle east does. everyone but russia has to pay for it. i think that that sort of shows you the difference between sort of great power approaches. this is not very useful because i think so long as the assad regime behaves as it does, there is not going to be spublt even if they have won the battle. there are not going to be stability. think we have to -- did indicate that our middle east allies are increasingly understanding that russia doesn't deliver. and i think that's simply a message we have to keep hitting home on. >> along those lines, something you referred to in your talk is the fact that russia's approach is generally to have good relations with everybody in the
region. is that a vulnerability at the end of the day? if they are not picking sides on certain issues that countries find to be vital national security interests of their own, then it inherently limits their influences. >> absolutely. i think that's one of the top limitations that you're going to see over time. i think even now you can see a little bit of this with the gcc crisis where russia is trying to play it as though it has been an advantage to moscow. that being courted by saudi arabia and the uae on one side and qatar on the other has been great. they have been able to sign mous, made new investment deals and signed energy deals. it's wonderful. the money will come rolling in except for the fact that it won't because the money is not real. all of these are mous. it is the idea of playing one side off of the other when both
ryad a ryad -- they are trying to make them choose a side. that is continuing over time. russia thought that it was going to take a back seat and dissipate, but it hasn't. you can see that as being an example of how being beholdened to different actors on different sides of the table are going to really constrain what russia can do over the long term. >> one last question before i go to the audience. if i can ask you, this changes on a day to day basis, but can you give us an update on russia's most recent activities inside syria and in particular with idlib and how the department of defense looks at those activities? >> we continue to call on all parties to exercise restraint and to avoid significant escalation of conflict. there is a tenuous agreement between russia and turkey on how to go about the crisis. we see it as sort of a potential
flash point that will have significant concerns for the stability of syria, turkey and the region. so i think right now things are relati relatively haven't been provoked in the last few days. it is a measure to consistently send to all parties. either party would have monumental consequences and for turkey in particular. it's something to impart to them. a moderated approach to addressing terrorism concerns that they have on the southern border is appropriate otherwise they will see a flood of refugees or migrants in a way that will continue destabilizing them in an unhelpful way. >> thank you. let's go to the audience for questions. let me say a few ground rules. first, please wait for the
microphone to come to you. we have people walking around so that everyone can hear you. please introduce yourself and your affiliation so that we all know who is talking. please keep it brief. ask one question. this is not an opportunity for long winded pontifications about subjects. with that, let me go to the back. >> thank you. my question is for the panel as a whole. can you speak to russia's impact at all on violent extremism in the region? if you don't want to answer that, do you see any areas of cooperation between washington and moscow in the region? thank you. >> i will start. i think our challenge with russia's approach to violent
extremists is the behavior. i think we saw at the beginning of the inkurgz into syria in particular that its rhetoric was jointly focussed on isis, but they were really addressing the moderate opposition that was having significant success at the time against assad. the operational challenges that assad was facing at the very time that putin decided to intervene particularly with air power changed the dynamic of the battlefield significantly and that was not against isis. that was against again a direct involvement in the syrian civil war. we are careful about suggestion of cooperation with russia because we don't see eye to eye on what the nature of the threat -- >> let me basically add to that that certainly this is what we saw when putin spoke to the u.n.
and talked about the need for coalition against isis, what we actually saw was instead of targeting isis forces in syria, that they targeted other groups that were more threatening to the assad regime and that basically what i think what putin wanted to do was to destroy any sort of moderate opposition in order to make the argument that the only choice in syria is either assad or isis. that's it. unfortunately, russian actions actually served to make that true, unfortunately. i don't think they are so much a partner against isis and in general i think that while isis may be a common enemy, that these situations russia pursues a buck passing strategy. >> i agree with everything that
you both haved. i just want to point out that countering violent extremism is one of russia's rationale for being in the region. it is part of all foreign policy documents and something you routinely hear is that this spread of violent extremism not only into russia's border but also what it views as near abroad. >> the ones i saw was the gentleman in the striped tie there and then the young lady in the turquoise shirt. and then barbara and then we will get to the next group. >> very interesting. i work in energy and international affairs, teach in berlin, but i am here as a kennedy fellow at wilson. my question is this as to -- well, is this a possibility? three times i know of putin
dumped the iranians. each time after negotiations when the americans wanted to put sanctions, two george bushs and with clinton. one time it was wto and one time it was fuel rods. and another time it had to do with missiles. he has much more capital now. and the united states really wants to go after iran. is this, again, a possibility? it's very difficult to isolate iran if the russians don't want that to happen. so that's my question. >> you know, i'm one of these people who hoped that something like that would be possible. i have been proven wrong year after year after year that there are instances in which putin has done things that the iranians dislike. that's for sure. in my view, it tends to happen when putin calls upon the iranians to do something and
then they don't. for example, i think it was 2007, putin had a solution to the iranian nuclear crisis and that was that russia reprocesses all of iran's enrichments and fuel. and the response was that is a great idea, but we would want to do some of it ourselves. it was then that they start suddenly being more supportive in the u.n. i think, though, that the real issue is that so long as both russia and iran prioritize the united states as an adversary that they're both going to de-emphasize each other. iran is not really a threat. for iran, there are certainly over the years, it is very unpopular with the iranian public, sort of a litany of sins that the russians have committed.
much longer than the sins that they talk about the u.s. centuries longer. that being the case, the iranian leadership has basically decided that they are going to essentially down play this and focus on the common complication with the yooinzunited states. i would like to see this happen. unfortunately, i don't see either side is willing to play this. >> any other comments before the next question? >> i'm from the -- my question, you say russia -- everyone in the middle east knows that. the strategic communication for the last three years from the d.o.d. white house is very conflicting. it also is not about u.s. presidents there. it is transactional is the word
sometimes i would use myself. so the question is, putin showed he sticks to bashar al assad even if he personally dispieesp of him. we are sending him out. what is your strategy in syria? what do you want to achieve? you can summarize and show us the way. >> we have successfully entered control of isis. the other two key objectives is returning to the u.n. to negotiate a peace process that will result in a stable, secure and legitimate syrian
government. and the third is to limit the iranian president in syria. those are the three policy objectives with respect to syria in particular and it has been reconfirmed in statements from the white house to our congress that that's where we are even with the decision that allowed us to -- the reversal that allowed the residual force in syria. i would highlight with respect to the middle east broadly was precisely what becca said, as well, which is great power competition or the national defense strategy's focus on russia and china means we have to stay focussed in the middle east, as well. we have tried to impart to all of our partners the united states remains committed to the region. we have remained committed to our partners there. part of our strategy over time
altering our posture is to build up and integrate better our partner's capabilities and capacity in the region to ensure their own defense over time more fully. again, so that's something that takes time and something that takes our continued commitment which we try to impress upon our partners consistently that we have been with them for decades. as you pointed out, the amount of financial resources that the american taxpayer has been willing to contribute to security and stability in the region is far unmatched by any country's capabilities and something that will be enduring even as our specific force postures change over time to respond to global threats. . >> any other thoughts? >> as you know the national defense strategy is predicated
on global competition between -- is this working all right? which i think is both misleading and dangerous because competition implies if not a sporting metaphor, it implies, rules, fairness and a winner and loser. we can't define that. so my question really to all of you is would you please define what we mean by competition with russia in the middle east? what are we trying to achieve? what can we compete? where are we competing. does it make sense? what katie said in terms of objectives has nothing at all to do with competition. it has to do with imposing a measure of stability. i would like to know with some degree of clarity, please tell me how you think that a military, economic, psychological level we should be competing with russia. >> good question. obviously, now that we are in the implementation phase is something that the department of
defense takes very seriously as we grapple with the global question of how we compete. i would take issue with one, understand the word competition means winners and losers. i think of it more as a consistent continuous game where you're not going to be -- there is not going to be a final outcome. our attempt and effort -- i like that you highlighted that this is a whole government approach in terms of insuring our influence in the region to our own national security interest and ensure security and stability of partners and allies. i do think that when i highlighted the policy objectives with respect to syria that there is a competition angle there, of course. maybe it is just a word choice that is not preferable by some. our challenges as i explained in the opening, russia has very successfully with very limited resources been able to take the
global community out of the game in terms of bringing an end to the civil war. that's something if we are going to compete with russian influence i think we need to build a stronger, multi lateral effort to take it out of the process and have russia largely be irrelevant and have it back into a larger community effort to bring us to a close. i don't see how that is sort of not competition. i appreciate your perspective that we are not going to end up -- it is a competition against the range of activities. so it's not just in the event of conflict, though we do want to align the capabilities of our forces to win if we have to reach conflict. much of it is an influence challenge to avoid conflict in the first instance. that is insuring whether it be key choke points around the world or key partners. i want to make clear it doesn't mean that we are sort of running
after china and russia where they find their most important attributions. us defining where we need to have influence and presence and posture to be able to defend ourselves and allies and partners. that is how we think about implementing the national defense strategy. >> a comment from the nature of competiti competition. >> what you were starting to get at was something that the nds does. this is really the first one that prioritizes. it is prioritizing where the u.s. needs to be. treej competition as katie mentioned still in the implementing phase. we are still trying to figure out exactly what that means and exactly what that looks like. it is much more preferable to other terminology that we often use. we are not trying to defeat russia in this case. i find competition to be a much
more palatable word in that respect. and i think i'll leave it at that. it's better than zero operations. how about that? >> that's a great distinction. >> i like to just add something. i think that in terms of -- you raise an interesting question, what does the competition consist of? if you look at it from the russian perspective that they think of themselves as engaged in competition. if one talks to various middle eastern actors about what it is the russians say to them that they make it clear that they want others to join the process because they don't want the u.s. involved. in other words, they want to have sort of a russian-dominated process, in other words, that they definitely want to see us out. i'm not saying that they can do it. this is what they are aimed at.
they want to see our influence diminished to the extent that they can do that. now, i don't think they can do that unless we somehow cooperate, but that this is, in fact, i think, a lot of their goal. also, i think, that their view is not one of stability. i think that as katie mentioned in her remarks, that they, in fact, drive on chaos and in other words that's not going to bring stability around. in other words, they're not actually trying to resolve conflicts between iran and the saudis and iran and israel, they are simply trying to benefit from the continuation of these conflicts. and i think that they don't treat their friends well. just in today's national interest there was an article about india which has long had a close relationship with russia that in terms of selling an aircraft carrier, that the russians gave them one price and once they put their money down
suddenly the price has risen dramatically. if they want the aircraft carrier they will have to pay far, far more. they think they are being very clever in doing this. they don't seem to think that there will be any negative repercussions. where else are they going to get one? this i think is part of the problem. in other words, it's not a vision that they have that involves you know establishing stability even when dominated by them. it's one of simply managing continued chaos. i think -- and, we know that what they don't juan is actual conflict resolution. that's not a big risk at the moment. but also i think that the risk by doing this is that conflict will escalate. we know in the past that when the soviets have done this between different parties whom they support within each other inevitably one side or the other
will go for broke and attack the other and establish -- i think we don't need that. the middle east doesn't need that and i think ultimately russia really doesn't need it. this is what the policy will result in. >> barbara then the gentleman in the blue shirt, then the lady in the red sweater. >> thanks. from the atlantic council. this interesting discussion brings together several of my interests. do we still have 2,000 troops in syria? if so, is there any plan to reduce that number? or will they stay? how are the kurds in syria relating to russia. it seemed kurdish groups were running to moscow. and given sanctions on russia, sanctions on iran, is there a danger that we are creating a coalition of the sanctioned that
will have long-term consequences for the region where essentially iran -- and you touched on this a little bit -- iran and russia are kind of forced to stick together, and you can add china to that, as well? it reinforces the look east point of view that has always distrusted the west. thanks. >> thank you for that question with respect to syria. unfortunately, i'm going to be some unsatisfactory. i'm not going to answer the specific numbers we have there. i can attest that we are implementing both presidential decrees which are changing our force posture, remove some of our forces while still maintaining residual presence. and the numbers are based on what the requirement is on the ground. so there has been some retrograde of some forces. we maintain a force there now and i think our perspective is
it will endure as long as we need to address the threat that continues to remain. primarily seeking to avoid a reconstitution in significant ways of the isis threat. with respect to the sdf, our kurdish partners on the ground, i think we always over time recognize that they needed to have open channels of communication with all of the relevant players in the country. we were from my perspective astounded that during the period of time when there was some uncertainty that their focus on the mission was unbroken. the energy and i think the success that they had, the moral that they had to continue to get after the threat was remarkable for us to see. so i think that's one of our key messages is that we want the partners that we build and work with in the region to understand that we want a long term cooperative relationship with
them and that we will be seeking to do that through a host of means whether it be military or financial support over time. >> you know, i think you raise an important point about if we sanction russia and sanction iran and help create an alliance of the sanctioned. and that i think is a result of our policy. on the other hand, i think that what we have seen is that it doesn't necessarily help, either. in other words, russia and iran are both basically oil exporting economies and so they are competitors. and what we have seen is that whenever the russians offer you know to help the iranians alleviate their situation, it's never on very good terms. in other words, it's not terms that the iranians are really interestinged. the chinese are not shy about taking advantage of either, it seems to me.
that's not such a terrible thing from our perspective, but that -- there is one thing that kate had mentioned in the previous press conference about iran. i think that one of the things that we saw with the iranian nuclear cores is an agreement on the regional issue. and of course we now want to bring that into it. this reminds me so much of the early 1970s when the nixon administration you know pursued first nuclear agreements with the soviet union, but we didn't have agreements on the regional conflicts and it was these regional conflicts over the course of the 1970s that continued to escalate and hence undermined the arms control agreement. and i think that we are seeing
something similar now, that it's very difficult, you know, rightly or wrongly, it's very difficult for cooperation to occur in the strategic arms realm but not in the regional conflict realm. and so i think that one way or another this issue does have to be addressed. i'm not quite sure what the right way to do it is, but it will have to be addressed it seems to me. when i look at the history of the middle east, i see the gulf wars, the invasion of iraq. we have the civil war in syria. we have the conflict between the palestinians and israel. i can go on and on. what i can understand is u.s. has been a power broker for the last 50 years. so with all the violence and
conflict and instability, how can we say that the u.s. has brought peace and stability to the middle east? [ laughter ] >> i take your point that the region remains a volatile, instable location. i think our efforts -- it's hard to do the counter factual of what it would have looked like without u.s. participation. i would say our day to day efforts are to continue to putress our partners to minimize the potential for conflict. i would like to add something. you point to an important problem. that is that we've tried to develop -- i guess in response i
say at least we had tried. in fact, i think that we have had some degree of success. certainly, you and i are both old enough to remember that there were four interstate arab israeli wars. we don't have those anymore. the israeli palestinian conflict still takes place, but we don't have the kinds of israeli arab conflicts as we have had in the past. i would say that sort of what we are seeing now is really quite interesting. that is that certain -- in the past what we strived to do is to get our arab allies you know to either cooperate with israel or at least sort of tolerate israel. we are at a point where several of our arab allies are working with israel.
this is sort of the culmination of a successful american diplomatic effort it seems to me. maybe there are people who don't like that. but it strikes me that in that sense we have been fairly successful. so i think that the problem is that it's -- we can't sort of koint out to the conflicts that we avoided but that at least we have tried. i think that someone said long ago that the thing about the middle east is that you may not actually be able to get conflict resolution, but if you don't try you will get conflict. so i think that you know we have had some relative success in this regard. >> ma'am, and then we will go to the back. >> hi. i'm professor at george washington university and combat veteran. my question is about egypt. egypt is a very important partner when it comes to the
gcc. stability matters to the gcc. so with regards to russia and their emergency cooperation with cairo, what is your view about that and also how does egypt pretty much feel about russia's role in libya especially with the recent offensive? >> i think obviously our egypt relationship is a pillar of our security cooperation in the region. it's one as was mentioned, significant contributions over the years to their security. i think with respect to their perspective on russia, we share with them our concerns in particular the arc that russia seems to be providing around the eastern medto around northern africa. with respect to, you know, the situation in libya, we continue to impress upon all of our partners in the region that the
solution to the libya challenge is not a military one, that it's one that needs to be brought together with all sides with a political resolution. we recognize that they have a role to play in that solution, but it is not one that we want further conflict or further operations. that is our duty position with respect to all of our partners with respect to libya. >> so russia and egypt, it's a pretty long story. russia feels as though it should have greater in roads in egypt and not the relationship that it has. egypt is actually the big prize for russia to grab. the one that it wants to be able to hide off from the u.s./europe influence. russia has been a great example of how russia has tried to position itself as sort of of the opposite of the u.s.
there is the narrative of we are such a stable partner for you. we don't care about those. when the u.s. withheld an arms sale from egypt on the basis of human rights russia stepped in to try to fill that gap and fill the need. not all of the equipment has showed up since 2014, but it is something that russia has try today position itself to do. find a vacuum left by the u.s. and fill it. >> if i can just add briefly. i think that what we're probably not going to see is egypt switching alliances. in other words, i think that to the extent that the egyptians move closer to the russians it was because of their unhappyphasis with the obama administration policy of cutting back on arms sales in 2013. i don't see egypt as willing to forego the assistance it gets
from the u.s. through the camp david accord process. noe in other words, i think that what we are seeing is cairo wants to work with both sides. but they are not willing to give up the relationship with the u.s. >> my question will be f, does e u.s. take into consideration the public opinion of the nations in the middle east and north africa when deciding on policy towards the region? for example, when we talk about the case of libya and we all know how it ended, the intervention in 2011 that brought the dictatorship of gadhafi regime down and then the
country went into the chaos which the russia government was against, does that maybe make the u.s. consider degrading public opinion in those nations in future policy towards the region? thank you. >> thank you for your question. i can't speak specifically to the decision-making calculus that went into the previous administration's decision to intervene in libya and how they factored the libyan public opinion, but i can most definitely assure you that the societal and population view of u.s. actions and our support for governments in the region are a key point of our policy-making process. i can give you numerous examples of that. a key example would be sort of the importance of our enduring relationship with iraq for
regional security and for their own security. it's a key importance to us to make sure that the iraqi population understands there what we are doing and also what we are not doing and that we are there at the invitation of the iraqi government to ensure that their security forces have the capability and the capacity to take on threats that are threatening to iraq and to the iraqi people. that's just one example of absolutely daily it's an important part of our thinking and policy-development process is how our various activities, actions and words would be interpreted and understood by the populations in the region. >> i think we have time for two questions left before everyone goes. sir, you have been very fact. and then, sir, you have also been very patient. if you both just ask the question and then we will have the group answer both questions before we close. >> atlantic council.
the question that's still in my mind is, so the u.s. had free rein essentially after the end of the cold war in the middle east for 34 years. and it is in a much, much, much worse situation than it was when you inherited it. so what is the vision, what is the doctrine that drives u.s. policy in the middle east? is it just take care of our client states? or is it really to build some type of a middle east that really matches the values, the human right values and political values of the u.s. itself? and within that context, what are we doing with respect to yemen? it's a horrible situation that we're faced with.
and do we think that with respect to iran, tearing up the agreement that we signed with them is going to allow us to sign another agreement with those folks? >> thank you very much. we have one more, sir. >> independent consultant. i think i addressed this to katie. the topic of idlib has come up a couple of times. my question is how do you view the perception of the u.s. by the states in the middle east in regard to this idlib situation? over the last two to four weeks this is spinning out of control, threatening to become a total disaster. and because of the time, i won't list 100 reasons.
i'm sure you know what's going on. so you know no matter what you say about the process, at least somebody made the effort. i think we had the deputy of foreign minister of turkey speak here in d.c. a couple months ago. he is their lead negotiator. i think he would definitely disagree that it is a russian-dominated operation. but in any case, whether it is or not. so the point is they see us doing nothing. and this thing is about to blow up and make libya look like child's play. and so maybe it is not going to work. but there was some serious effort put in there at least if you believe the turks or the russians. >> why don't we start with katie and go down the line to answer those questions and give final comments that you might want to provide. >> sure. i appreciate this is sort of around the region question. i'll start with the u.s. image of the middle east. i would most definitely say we
don't see these as client states that we are just working with transactionally. it is a challenge because the region is so volatile and there are so many different centers of power, so to speak. but our image is really to try to build our security architecture with those countries that we can work with, that overtime they work successfully together to sure up their own defenses and see that cooperation with each other is better than fighting each other. i will say from a d.o.d. perspective, we just come out with the tools that we have. you know, a point that we like to make and i actually think it's true is that if you can build a certain amount of respect for security services and ministries of defense that are run appropriately and are non-corrupt and employ the right people with the right qualifications, the militaries can be exemplars for the rest of society in terms of the way government is supposed to work. it's a challenge. it's hard, but that is our
mission that's nested within a larger interagency process that obviously has a lot of other tools to bear whether it be humanitarian aid or other kinds of state-led assistance. i know it's not a completely satisfactory answer given the challenges that we face in the middle east, but that is how we see our fundamental goal. with respect to yemen, completely recognize the humanitarian catastrophe that is happening there. we see that our role is really to play -- because the u.s. government, our military is not involved in the civil war. we have very consciously not been involved in the operational challenges in yemen except for one extent. we continue to do the counter terrorism mission against al qaeda and isis particularly in the southeast, but with respect to our conversations with the saudi-led coalition, we really
do see our influence there trying to keep them from in many ways making it worse and trying to get both sides to the negotiating table. we are completely in support of the u.n. efforts led by martin griffith. we have seen some positive signs coming out of the swedish negotiations that happened in late december. the huthys were not really compliant with most of their commitments, but there was a cease fire. i mean, not all violence ceased. violence significantly went down after december. and then we have seen progress in the last couple of weeks in terms of there being a retreat which is one of the conditions where the commitments that were made in sweden and then further negotiations and discussions about what the security force that would remain there because it is such a key point of the civil war writ large. we are striving to impress upon our partners in the region on
ways that they can continue to negotiate to get this civil war to a close. and most prominently ensure that the humanitarian aid gets to the yemen people that it needs to get to and that actions are not taken to make humanitarian crisis even worse than it is. with respect to iran, you know, our president made a decision on the jcpoa. that is what it is. our position was that it did not particularly with the sunset clause did not sufficiently address the nuclear challenges we face much less address the range of challenges that iran presents to the region and to the world. our policy position is one of diplomatic and economic pressure to encourage iran to come to the negotiating table for a comprehensive deal. our military position with respect to this is to ensure the defenses of our forces in the region and to disswayed further conflict from brewing. that's the d.o.d. position with
respect to iran. finally, with respect to idlib, take your point that turkey and russia are doing something about it. i think our frustration in many ways is u.s. has been challenged to do more because of russian conditions and inability to take more action. i don't want to get into much more there, but russia has created in many ways what the world is facing. >> with regard to the end of the cold war, the cold war did indeed come to an end, but tension in the middle east did not. i think that sort of -- what was the cold war? cold war was an interaction between a worldwide soviet american conflict on the one hand and a host of regional and local conflicts on the other.
there were different regional actors aligned with different superpowers in pursuit. so i don't think that the united states was in the position to resolve all the middle east conflict. in other words, those simply carried on. they are still there. it's just that russian-american competition has also come back at least in this particular region. so i don't see that there was this great missed opportunity that if only we had done things right that things would have been different, that tension remained in the middle east. and it's a difficult place. i think also just back to the previous question -- point about
libya, i think that it's important to remember that the u.s. didn't just haul off and intervene in libya on its own, that there were other people, other parties, arab actors in particular, our allies which were encouraging us to intervene and to get rid of gadhafi. he was deeply unpopular, certainly with most of our arab ally governments, and not exactly popular with the arab public. i don't think there were many tears shed over the demise of gadhafi. obviously, it did not go as planned, but i don't think that one can characterize the intervention in libya as sort of a u.s. -- we were responding to our arab allies and some of our west european allies who were also very enthusiastic at the time for this to take place. now, with regard to is the
process a russian-nominated process or not? i think that one thing for sure is that it's a process that is excluding the united states. that's certainly one of the goals. i think from the turkish point of view, i think that these comments to you reflect a certain legitimate frustration on their part. in other words, if russia, in fact, is a great power, why is it pressuring its ally assad to make concessions? either it can't or it won't. i don't know what the response is, but that's i think sort of the fundamental point about the russian-led processes is that they are not in fact really intended to bring about a conflict resolution. they are simply about conflict management. >> just to quickly piggyback on the point made about yemen. so the u.s. military is not involved in the yemen conflict. one thing we have is long-standing security cooperation relationships with
the uae and saudi in particular. i can't speak to the uae case but i know that in saudi, one of the sort of general security cooperation activities that we take is defense education. and we have been essentially trying to teach the saudi military about things like what is civilian casualty? what are some terms of international law? what are you allowed to do and not allowed to do when it comes down to targeting? not specifically in the military sense but more general imparting knowledge sense. that is something that actually does reflect u.s. values. it is something that i think ought to continue. just to build upon your point about the cold war, i think a lot of times when we talk about the cold war and we think about u.s. and soviet competition, we really frame it as a zero sum game. what we see today, the u.s. and russia are not in a zero sum
game. you have the middle east states themselves pretty much having greater agency than perhaps we have even discussed today and we are more likely to start to determine outcomes on their own and flex their muscle in a variety of different ways which we have seen. i think we need to keep that in mind when we talk about what this competition presently looked like. >> thank you very much. let me ask everyone to join me in a full round of applause for our panelists and our key note. thank you very much and thank you all for making the time. really appreciate it. ap.org] president trump joined french president macron and other world leaders today on the beaches of normand