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tv   Atlantic Council Discussion on U.S. Policy Toward Syria - Panel  CSPAN  December 18, 2018 2:11am-3:27am EST

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senate as a check in the house. >> the fate of this country and maybe even the world lies in the hands of congress and the united states senate. >> the senate, conflict and compromise. a c-span original production exploring the history, traditions, and role of this uniquely american institution. >> please raise your right hand. >> wednesday, january 2nd at 8:00 p.m. eastern and spask on c-span. >> next a look at the situation in syria in an effort to tockment the various attacks carried out by the syrian government. from the atlantic council this is just over an hour.
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>> welcome to the u.s. policy oward syria. you can for those of you who are twitter literal, you can follow @mcmideast. and tweet there as whelm we have a busy agenda today. i'm going to be very brief. we have a hard stop for a break at 1:20. we've invited you here today for three purposes. the first purpose is to highlight some of the atlantic council's work on tracking regime atrocities and war tactics and strategies in parts of syria as a basis for accountability going forward. and also to speak with two experts on stablization in syria, a conversation that's
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been spurred by a new atlantic council report. but which, i'll say more. and finally, last but not least, you'll hear from ambassador james jeffrey, special representative for syria engagement. there will be opportunities after the discussions to pose questions to the speakers and to ambassador jeffrey. but for now, let me turn to mr. graham booky. he is the director of the atlantic council's digital forensics research lab. one question hanging over the syria policy portfolio is where does accountability fit into the scheme of the arena of stability and stablization. the team has done tremendous work documenting regime tactics and strategy and atrocities. to that end, the findings were cap chured among other things in two brilliant reports, titled breaking aleppo.
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that whichn breaking you see on the screen over there. graham will give you a snapshot. for now, i'll yield the floor to you. please. >> thank you, fazell. it wouldn't be the digital forensic research laugh if i didn't open up the laptop before we begin. so i apologize for that. let me begin by saying that the report was a body of work that is consistent with what the d.f.r. lab does, what we'll do today is we'll show a brief trailer and we'll take you line by line about what we found, and the reason why we put it in that order. the point, again as fisa mentioned ss accountability. this is one of the most hyper connected conflicts that we've seen in the history of the world. the evidence is right in front of it. and -- we will take that into
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account as we look at stablization in syria going forward. without fort worth adieu, breaking guida. maybe. -- without further ado breaking guda -- maybe. [laughter]
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>> the evidence won't let us forget in the context of accountability the ground in syria is nonpermissible. it's hard to get consistent verifyable information as as sad continues to control the sow and the east of the country. the d.f.r. lab has some experience withings in environment such as this. a brief moment about the history of our team, the d.f.r. lab was started in 2015. and that point i was actually sitting in the u.s. government and we knew for a fact that there were russian troops in the
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eastern ukraine. we couldn't call "the washington post" or the "new york times" and say that there are russian troops in eastern ukraine. i can't tell you how we actually know that. a group that would become the d.f.r. lab here at the council wrote a report and they wrote a report by looking at a lot of social media reports that troops happen to be posting while they were marching up and down the contact line in eastern ukraine. it was called hiding in plain state. and it was one place that literally used open sources that there were russian troops in eastern ukraine. the standard of evidence were selfies by russian soldiers. again, this is all happening right in front of us. the standard of evidence is pretty -- if you know where to look for it's easy to do. so that actually became a body of work that the council has invested in for two years were
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set up to two three things. first and identify and expose disinformation with an effort of explaining disinformation. we do that only using open sources. the point is to not say assume our own credibility. for instance trust us for the atlantic council. the point is don't trust us. look at all the evident and make a decision for yourself. at has been a body of work that has continue over time here and that has led to "breaking gouta." n the context of "breaking gouta" our team scow we ared the internet to disparate social media post to actors on the ground including those in the assad regime and in russia. as a logistical matter, and to fall, e story of gouta's
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we looked a the overall military tactics. and then within the overall military tactics we broke down a tax into specific categories varying legality. taken together each tactic created an increasingly dire humanitarian decision until the final militant group surrounded in early april. it was matched by consolidated and very effected disinformation campaign. disinformation has consistently been used particularly by assad and his russian allies and as an extension of the conflict. in the bigger point here and the point of the report is that there's a trap with this information. to get into a back and forth or he said she said about what is true and what is not. again, the point of this report is to rise above that back and forth to say, this is not a
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standing -- this is not a viewpoint. this is not an opinion. these are things that we can either prove or disprove and it's a body of evident that can be used going forward. in other words, a body of work to drive accountability that doesn't assume that we're credibility and meets evidentiary standards beyond a reasonable doubt useful for mechanisms. above all it serves as a reminder that the eyes of the world remain on syria. so tactics, first and foremost, the siege bombard and destroy. for the purposes of this presentation, we'll look at specific instances including the april 7 attack on dumba in eastern ghouta. chemical weapons were verifiably used and were used that as a tactic across syria. so in context, console dating the battlefield. -- consolidating the
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battlefield. it led to the fall of the entire southern front. so as the front overall in the conflict was consolidated from the east to the west and now to the west, eastern ghouta was a strong hold outside of damascus that led to the fall of specific fronts. >> you can see military movements going into this specific conflict. areas of control around eastern ghouta from january 25 through the fall in early april. so in the last six months of 2017, the number of attacks on ghouta was consistent but low compared to 2018. ,934 were a total of 16 documents in eastern ghouta from february 18 to april 8. an average of 345.6 per day. on february 21st, 2018, the
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heaviest days of strikes. 1,858 attacks were record. the majority used traditional weaponry. however, some involved more pernicious weaponry that falls outside of international law. and ghouta at least six chemical weapons attacks to recapture the area. five of them area. five of them have been attacked by images and statements following the attacks. the deadliest attack in which we will talk about in specifics, they did it one day later. as well as prompting nble outcrifmente >> on five days. were hit.ments most enjurying and killing individuals. the targeting of hospitals continued as well with the tax. and to the hospital on april 20 and april 7.
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it had been used in 25 attacks during the ground organization against ghouta with weapons being di ployed against urban areas. massast two of them caused civilians. and killing 100 civilians. the offenses concluded with the largest force population traps fehr recorded throughout the conflict with this placement of rebel-held 0 to north. that's an average of 345.6 a day. and the civilian zone, using weapons that don't respect whether you're a militant or not or at least don't have the ability to be precise in a way that you would be april to differentiate. total number of recorded attacks in eastern ghouta.
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there again, you can see that spike on february 21st. and just again as a run-down a few statistics to keep in mind. >> 16, 934 documented strikes in 49 days. :58 ay tacks recorded on record. there were at least six chemical weapons attacks, five of which were verified. multiple cluster munitions activated on five days of the offensive. hospitals were targeted hamdon. arbin and 66,000 people displaced from their homes. today we're going to focus on because of time cob strabettings, we're going to focus on chemical weapons attack. here's a map of the six chemical
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weapons attacks. and specifically there's been widespread use of chemical weapons? >> it's generally gried that chemical weapons have been used in syria. at the same time we run the risk over a seven-year conflict of saying something like chemical weapons are being used in syria nd not understanding what that means and exactly what the impact of that -- on civilians on the ground is. again, there's been wide spread use. during the conflict in syria. the o.p.c.w. joint they will investigate and confirmed. have you used both the nerve agent as chemical weapons. the united states nations independent international commission on the squarey. so the documented dozens of
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attacks. while other allegations higher numbers for example this many d march 2018 by the syrian medical society. when we talk about the evidence, it's important to talk about where it comes from. here you have three very specific pieces of evidence that were aggregated, both local activists on the ground and verified by independent journalists. when we talk about not assuming our own credibility, the point is to look at these verified not only the pictures of munitions used but also the locations they're being used in. so on the -- on the left rather, my right, your left, the photograph of the chlorine rockets used january 22nd attack of dumba. there you have a modified
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iranian 177 millimeter rocket with the war head with a gas cylinder with additional tail fins added. they have been wildly used. these weapons have a distinct olive color scream which sounds a little bit ridiculous to talk about anton colors while we're talking about iran emissions. it's useful to verify exactly what we're looking at. and text as you can see in english which includes the name of the rocket. , the lot numbers number, and likely a serum number. is makes it easy to verified -- to verify what was being used. you can see the cylinder just above the tail fins is covered in frost. and that indicated that it released a pressurized gas which
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head known as auto circulation. and in other images from the attack pressure filling valves from the front of the war head are also visible. on the right end, you see photos from attacks on the other day. and basically it -- the standard of evident is that they're the same. here, you can see a munitions that didn't explode with civilians. same munitions. on april 7, aircraft spotters orking at hollis systems ack spotted two helicopters who were used by them. moving towards douma at 7:16 p.m. continue -- ll
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helicopters were seen. the two were modify with structures at the tail fins. so there you can see in the top photo the exact location of where that actually occurred. and on the bottom fow toe, you can see exactly what that musicians -- muenisses means. inside the building showed zens of bodies many of which burning. the reason this was so deadly was that chlorine gas is heavier than air. so everyone looking for cover within that building on april 7, took cover in the bottom reaches of the building. chlorine sunk down and killed everybody within.
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>> the reason why those photos matter so much is because this is not the first time we have seen photos like this. this is aleppo in 2017. isng into exactly why this so difficult to prove, here is how we geolocation things. these are photos taken from the day of posted on twitter. ta.eakingghou -- you takeogether, those photos, piece them together into a wider scenario, against- cross verify open-source satellite imagery, and spot exactly what happened. that is the evidentiary standard we are looking at and why this is important. again, the evidence will not let
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us forget. in terms of how we actually get a number of other pieces of evidence, here's a pretty good example. this is footage from the russian military that was posted on rt. as you can see, or -- i will tell you, it's an airbase in syria. munitions loaded onto the plane are active. as you can see, using the same methods that i just described we have a serial number, an exact munition match, and that happens to be an incendiary bomb of russian make and model. hen rt posted this they did not actually mean to. here is an edited version as soon as they realized they just admitted to using incendiary weapons and syria -- in syria. [laughter]
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aside, using every single source available to us is extremely important across the conflict. noty source of information, to take it at face value, but say ok, this is something we can work with, and a higher competence assessment of facts on the ground, as is completely important. one of those sources is the russian and syrian regime. the facts of the attack, and i would encourage you to read the report, because it goes into details about cluster munitions, it incendiary munitions, all of it. there has been a widespread disinformation campaign. the commander of operations in syria said it on record, very useful. they are very forthcoming on tactics and behavior. in the context of the april 7 attack, the precursor for the attack included a widespread disinformation campaign.
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that's in part while we are having this conversation today, because they are still doubts about whether this actually happened or not. dated -- it did. here is how the disinformation works. as international attention was drawn to the chemical use weapons in syria and stakes were heightened, the russian government and its networks began a parallel disinformation campaign ahead of the stack. attack.s attack -- this i was in kiev last week working with folks who track this information and learned a term called news of the future. i think it's a technical term that's a very useful in this case. ahead of this attack there were narratives saying that we have seen rumors that the syrian rebels, the white helmets, activist groups on the ground are preparing a chemical weapons attack. that's a narrative that sounds ridiculous to a room mike this.
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is also a narrative that gets widespread coverage, gets consistent pickup among different information environments, particularly in syria and russia. state media it reported a workshop by foreign backed militants to manufacture toxic chemical weapons in ghouta, and then the douma attacks. the regime and its allies, specifically russia, called it a complete application, something they did to the state -- until the state. that sounds ridiculous -- they do ti this day. that thousand ridiculous to a low mike this test to this date -- to this day. that sounds ridiculous. so that's a very specific case. i would encourage you to read the entire report.
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is a part of a wider body of work that the atlantic council does on a regular basis, not only between the middle east lagrams, but also the dfr b. i cannot say it was a pleasure to write this report. it was a pleasure working with our colleagues, including faisal , which contributes to this work. this is a hyper connected conflict. the evidence is right in front of us, as you can see. if we ignore it, that's on us. thank you. [applause] >> thank you for the tremendous
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report. i encourage you to read those reports. now we focus on the problem of stabilization in syria. the stabilization of assistance review of 2018 defined stabilization has inherently political and on endeavor that requires aligning u.s. government efforts, diplomatic, engagement for assistance and defense. -- is something we have been working on for a couple of years and throughout since we started the rebuilding syria initiative. throughout the two years we have gained much more certainty about the geopolitical context in syria, and also about our policy. we have to and what the policy is this year, at least what it is on paper, which is enduring defeats of isis, getting
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iran. at a syria the stabilization -- out of syria. we will give you a very brief version of their bios. we have a senior fellow at the brookings institution and former deputy assistant secretary. we have the professor of middle east studies at smith college. he has held leadership positions at the united states institute of peace, including the day after project. they have both done far more than this. these are not therefore biographies. let me start by -- therefore ie f --uies -- theie their full biographies.
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i will pose the first question to you, steve. how would you define, as you see it, u.s. interest in stabilization in syria? >> my thanks to you for your help with the report to the atlantic council and for all the assistance they have provided in putting this together. i think there are number of u.s. interest that -- number of u.s. interest in stabilization syria. -- in syria. i think it is in the u.s. interest to be actively seen as supporting efforts to respond to the damage caused in our campaign against isis in eastern syria. at they cannot only because it demonstrates to the population -- i think not only because it demonstrates to the population that the u.s. has a commitment
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to restoring some degree of shortcy in a relatively order, which will contribute to the stabilization of the geography that the u.s. has been active in in its military operations, but also because quite frankly, u.s. support for stabilization poses a very important contrast to the way in the regime have responded to the areas in which it has conducted military operations with far less regard for responding to the distraction that has resulted from their activities in those areas. -- destruction that has resulted from their activities in those areas. addition, and here building on what you noted as u.s. now that the trump administration has set out a strategy that rests on three broad policy goals, reducing,
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,emoving iranian influence preventing the resurgence of isis, and achieving an irreversible political transition. . as a very strong interest on the part of the u.s. in acquiring the leverage -- there is a very strong interest on the part of the u.s. in acquiring the leverage to advance those objectives, on a number of different levels. stabilization could become a very effective mechanism in support of these broader policy aims. in order to achieve that, i think we need a stabilization policy that is aligned with those objectives, and that has been designed and implemented in a way that reflects an understanding of how our work on the ground can feed into our broader policy purposes. one of the arguments i make in the papers that we are not there. really taking full
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advantage of stabilization operations on the ground. as a result, we are in fact missing opportunities to fully exploit stabilization in support of our bigger policy aims, but we can pursue that. both with respect to our local activities, local operations, and broader policy, there is a very clear interest in taking stabilization susan. >> thank you -- stabilization seriously. >> thank you. what do you think? >> the purpose of stabilization is to prevent conflict relapse, right? aboutk what is important the definition of stabilization in the u.s. government stabilization of assistance review is that it recognizes explicitly that that is political. that is not just about reopening roads and getting the power back on, and getting kids back in school. is political, inherently. i think does precisely what's
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next, stabilization -- that's precisely what's next, stabilization done an appropriate manner to the political objectives -- in an appropriate manner to the political objectives the u.s. has announced in syria. it is the symbol -- the syrian civil conflict that enabled the formation of isis. it is the syrian civil conflict that invited russian intervention. and so unless and until that civil conflicts can be thosegfully resolved, negative possibilities, or current negative realities will remain. the challenge for the united states is that it only has the ability to pursue that kind of stabilization policy, even if it's designed in the most effective manner. it follows -- even if it follows
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your eczema recommendation, it can all -- excellent recommendation, it can only follow those policies into thirds of the country. of howes the question even a successful implementation of the stabilization policy would interact with what else is happening in syria. >> we will actually returned to the question of what are the implications of this conversation in had about one third of the country. the question for you, steve. the subtitle you wrote in your report is towards a human security varying work -- framework. ore about what you mean? >> human security is a field that developed out of a recognition is that there are conflicts in a number of conflict prone countries around the world in which it is state
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institutions, state actors, who constitute the most significant threat to the security of communities. syria is widely understood to be one of the most visible examples of this kind of a setting, in which the biggest threat to the security, to the stability of local communities is the behavior of the assad regime. when we begin to think about stabilization operations, one of the questions we need to wrestle with is whether we have an opportunity to use stabilization operations to improve the capacity of local populations to build governance institutions, to put in place security and justice institutions that will strengthen the odds, or improve the prospects that they will be less vulnerable to the kinds of security threats that originate from their own leaders, from the
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institutions of governance like the military, a justice system law in anrly uses arbitrary had coercive weight -- and coercive way. to what extent can stabilization be used to give communities some sort of protection from those kinds of interventions on the part of an authoritarian, coercive regime. case, had the syrian an opportunity to use stabilization to advance those cans of positive purposes -- kinds of positive purposes. one of the critical pathways towards achieving that goal is by implementing stabilization operations that more fully reflect the stabilization doctrine that you referenced in your opening
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comments that emerged from the stabilization assistance review that was released in june, july 2018. one of the principal findings of that review is that stabilization operations must prioritize development of what is described in that document as locally legitimate political authorities capable of mitigating conflict and providing security. yetense is that we have not fully embraced that objective in the way we conduct stabilization in eastern syria. there are reasons for that i can go into. i don't know how much time you want to allocate to this question right now, but i think one of the principal obstacles to a program that fully embraces that sar doctrine is our as thee on the sdf agents of local governments in
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areas of u.s. operation. what we have done his outsource ,ocal governance to the sdf which functions in effect as an and as a of the pwd, result, the governance structures we have established in our areas of operations cannot truly be considered locally legitimate. the local arab communities in those areas do not regard stf authorities and local legitimate authorities as locally legitimate. ,> my question to you is whenever you have a policy puzzle like this, you have two fronts, the syrian front, and the washington front. >> at least two fronts. >> at least two. that's true. what are the main challenges to the kind of approach that steve outlined? >> one of the clear implications of the definition of
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stabilization that has now been embraced by the u.s. government is that stabilization is a long-term exercise. the biggest challenge that i think the united states has had in syria generally since it actively intervened against isis, let's remember, is that it has made clear in a variety of ways that its intentions are not long-term. timelines mismatch of that i think has gotten in the way. it was true during the obama administration. it has been true in the trump administration. i think one of the things that steve's report illustrates well and is important to emphasize is that you are describing an opportunity that exists within a narrow window right now. which is a moment when the presence of american forces and
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other american personnel on the ground creates a meaningful deterrent against the syrian regime trying to reimpose its authority. that creates a window for the establishment of other kinds of political and economic realities on the ground in these areas. on theat window closes assumption that the united states is not stained in these inas over that -- staying these areas over the long-term, and despite his policy objectives announced, the trump administration has cut off its own funding for stabilization. thathe president insists he wants to bring american troops over from syria as soon as he can, that the war against and as almost won, time is coming. that window we can expect is going to close and the syrian
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regime is going to be in a position where it can either corse in a brutal way -- or it canrutal waye bargain. it's a lot cheaper to retake these areas through negotiated agreement. steve is trying to lay out the possibility for the united states to help set some of the conditions under which the syrian regime is going to make those choices. in which circumstance the united states is not committed to syria in the long-term, which i think is realistic, steve's approach can make things better than they otherwise would be. >> i also think that we have to emphasize the corrosive effects of this uncertainty about the timeline of the u.s. presence in eastern syria. again, without suggesting that this is going to be permanent, or even that the longer-term extends indefinitely into some 5, 7, 10 year kind of
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commitment. one of the affects is that we reduce the incentives of local partners in the area to commit to constructive engagement with u.s. actors on the ground in eastern syria by making clear that our engagement with them is entirely instrumental, entirely short-term, and we begin test will begin to wind down as soon as their support for the anti-isis campaign is complete. and will be interesting to hear how your dresses that in a moment -- he addresses that in a moment. it increases the incentives for local actors in eastern syria to begin making alternative derangements come -- arrangements, to begin withdrawing loyalties already from the u.s. as a partner, and shifting them elsewhere, and particular in the direction of the assad regime. eastern syria is aggressively in play at the moment. i tried to highlight in the
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report some of the ways in which the assad regime is working to reconnect itself and reinsert itself into the network that it used to control that area before the syrian uprising began, and it's having success. this is a perfectly rational response on the part of local actors. if you are not confident that the u.s. will be there to have your back, as you try to build conditions that will give you some degree of bargaining ,everage over the longer term you are going to make other arrangements for yourself. we see that happening all the time in these areas, even as the u.s. continues to claim that it is working to support these local communities. >> perfect time to after this question, which you talk about -- ask you this question, which you talk about a lot in your report. the policy elephant in the room
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is the pyd. with have an alliance built with -- we have underlined built with the pid -- on alliance built with the pid. have you think this impacts the stabilization agenda -- how do you think this impacts the stabilization agenda? >> i think that relationship has all kinds of problematic implications on the stabilization agenda. i think we have to understand where the decision to focus so heavily on our relationship with the pyd came from. as clear as the u.s. became more engaged in eastern syria we were looking for a reliable local partner who could support the ini-isis campaign, but addition we were looking for a local actor who could play a critical role in maintaining stability and providing services , in offering some measure of
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local governments in the areas that have been cleared of isis. from a u.s. perspective, the local partner that was easiest and most readily available to work with was the pyd. that had the benefit, by the way, of removing responsibility for local governments from direct u.s. -- as a direct responsibility of the u.s.. the aligned neatly with very deep skepticism and reservations that had emerged within the state department, within the policy system about direct u.s. responsibility for local governance resulting from experiences in iraq, afghanistan, and elsewhere. this notion of working by, with, and through local partners emerges as a solution to direct u.s. control over local governance, local service provision, local justice provision. in allocating that role to the sdf, we have opened up pandora's
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box, in a sense. we have given the sdf responsibilities in an area -- in areas that are -- areas in which kurdish authorities have never exercised authority. the sdf's behavior has amplified and reinforced those ambitions. we have created local perceptions of stabilization as a project of sdf. i think that is profoundly counterproductive to some of these other goals that we have attached to stabilization, especially if we imagine using it to advance the larger topline policy aims of the u.s., as they are now defined. think one reason why that happened the way it happened is because when the united states went into syria it went in with a very narrow
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policy goal, which was the defeat of isis. that alliance that was forged appropriately for the policy objectives then set, prioritize the defeat of isis, prioritized establishing relations with partners who could be affected in that project, and what happened after that was not within the stated goal of the intervention. now american policy aims have expanded. the strategy needs to be reevaluated, and the partners and to be reevaluated, but i do think there are two assumptions embedded -- i don't know if they are embedded in the policy, but they are deeply embedded i think in the way the united states engages in this environment, not only in syria. i think it's worth making them explicit. one that you hear from u.s. isitary all the time, which
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understandable, which is dense with the one that brought you, basically. comeught with these guys they did the job we asked them to do, we owe them our loyalty and support. therefore, a lot in recognition of their military power, they get political power, ok. the second assumption it, is one c doctrinec,d in which is order versus chaos. or -- areas overrun by groups ,ike isis are ungoverned spaces and you have to establish order, and you have to hold. a hold requires order. any order is better than order -- no order. these guys provide order. it does matter what kind of order you provide.
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we learned the lesson in afghanistan and iraq that it matters what kind of order you provide. we have to reapply this lesson in syria, which is why the definition of stabilization is important, and is to be applied in practice. correct toit is not say that any order is better than no order. it matters very much what kind of order. >> ok, right. what we are seeing under sdf authority is a form of order that has turned out to be an extraordinary driver of local grievances. the sdf is governing in a heavy-handed fashion. it has involved charges of arbitrary detention, forced conscription, of inappropriate treatment of critics detained by of heavy-handed management of local affairs in the council that the sdf has
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established. we have seen mass resignations of air participants in some of these local councils. we have privileged a form of order which in my view is having extraordinarily counterproductive effects on the possibility for stabilizing conditions in these areas that will prevent the resurgence of by the extremism, that will -- violent extremism, that will contribute to local security and stability in the longer. i think many ways this emphasis will turn out to be one of the choices the u.s. has made that we may come to regret, and i think in the not-too-distant future. >> let me ask you a geopolitical question. this one cannot be ignored. the role of turkey and the prospects of our stabilization cap and with respect to turkey
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-- campaign with respect to turkey and our relations to them , given what you have just described about the foundation of our current policy. let me list to ways in which the recommendations i mentioned might help mitigate current tensions with turkey. signal from clear the u.s. that it is committed to building locally legitimate governance structures anchored in the representatives of arab majority communities now within areas of u.s. operation. that will signal to the turks that we are prepared to constrain the role of kurdish actors in local governments, in areas beyond those where they played that role for an extended period of time. addition, the idea that we
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are devolving authority away from the sdf, that we are focusing our partnership with the sdf on the anti-isis campaign, is directly responsive to concerns president erdogan mentioned only a day or two ago, mentioning we will not tolerate state like structures in east and northeast syria. what we are making clear through the shifts in policy is that we kurdishful that ambitions to build a permanent or semipermanent political that vastlyareas exceed those in which it has traditionally played a role does not have u.s. support. it seems to me that while stabilization policy will not be the instrument for addressing u.s.-turkish concerns, it could send some constructive signals about the direction the u.s. is moving.
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>> your thoughts? >> i think this gets caught up in a broader dilemma for the united states, in approaching the unitedh is, does states have a strategy towards syria, or is its strategy towards syria merely a subsidiary of a counterterrorism you egy, an iran strategy, know, of its concerns for the interests of partners like israel in the south, turkey in the north. one of the things that is implicit in these reports is that the united states needs a strategy towards syria. it now has a policy it has articulated, but has not yet enunciated a serious case, how it will achieve the policy
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objectives, what tools and resources it will apply, and in what manner. so it's very hard to answer the question you are posing, how did this relate to the u.s.-turkey relationship, to turkey's interest, because the american strategy is not really visible yet, and perhaps in a few minutes we will get greater clarity. i hope so. >> that is the idea. [laughter] >> i will take some questions from the audience. raise your hand if you have a question. a microphone will be brought to you. please give your name and affiliation briefly, and please try to be brief, and ask a question to take advantage of their expertise and leave room for other people to ask as well. barbara slaven, from the atlantic council. thank you so much. this is very interesting. when the u.s. got involved in syria, initially with military aid, it gave money and weapons
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to a lot of individuals who turned out not to be reliable. many of them wound up defecting toward islamic fundamentalist groups of one sort or another. so if we were to adopt your strategy and not dance with the one that brought us, but look for new partners, arabs representing these various areas what is the assurance that that assistance would not go to support al qaeda, for other fundamentalist related groups? >> and the gentleman all the way in the back, standing up. >> thank you. sorry -- [laughter] or something we should think about, the arabs or buildrian arabs failed to governing structures in idlib.
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they failed. they got all the money and support they needed from the united states, and they failed. the kurds, they do the structure. now, if we believe it is good or bad, they have structure. they are running the area very well. so if we go to challenge that how dore, the newcomers, we know they will have structure, governing? are we destroying a project to bring another project? do we have the time to make that big risk? thank you. >> barbara, there are so many ways in which a policy of devolving authority from the sdf to a wider range of local actors can go wrong that i would not want to underestimate the possibility that we could make
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mistakes in how that process of devolution moves forward. i acknowledge that, and therefore it is quite open about the challenges involved in building locally legitimate governance within communities, in a context in which there are dense, overlapping local rivalries, in which we have a variety of actors competing to a prominent roles in local government structures, in which we can anticipate all kinds of mal intent in efforts to secure important positions in local government structures. i don't think that distinguishes eastern syria from many of the other contexts where the u.s. has worked over the years. but let's also knowledge, the u.s. has had a presence on the ground in eastern syria since 2015, working closely with local actors there. we have been able to build
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connections, understanding, knowledge that i would hope would inform the way in which we went about those efforts. i would also hope we would use whatever leverage engagement with the u.s. offers as a means downwardge in our relations with local actors on the ground. facto that we are not in without means to try to build structures that are going to be less likely to collapse into the kinds of problems you described than otherwise. but the possibility exists. in response to your question, i don't think it is a choice between the pyd and a blank slate in eastern syria. history of local authorities exercising significant influence in government affairs in those areas, especially tribal authorities. we should not imagine that od before 2011iu
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worked inssad regime those areas without transactional bargains between the regime and local actors where there was significant a time to meet, decision -- au tonomy, decision-making at the lower-level. many of those tribal systems have been destabilized by the conflict, but they have not disappeared. so i think we have to avoid the impression that we would be starting from scratch. there are local actors, local authorities, established figures who continue to command influence and have their own resources, who could serve as potential partners for the u.s. this in poses on us, as i tried to say in response to barbara, an obligation to be very careful in how we go about managing those relationships. and we will get it wrong. there are times we will get it
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wrong. i would like to help we can get it right more than we get it wrong. >> let me just ask one sentence, if i may. my one hesitation about the direction you are recommending, steve, is that it is so complex, and challenging, and i think to determine, i think it is nearly impossible for the united states, even with knowledgeable folks out in the field, even working carefully and trying to make its best evaluations about how relationships have been altered by the conflict context, it is very, very difficult for the united states to accurately determine who is a legitimate leader in a local context, who can effectively provide security that a population perceives as legitimate?
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the extent to which existing social and power relationships have been disrupted by this conflict, given that extent, the only way to do it is bottom-up. i mean, your main critique of the approach so far is how top-down it is. that requires going so slowly, so small, so local, your three guidelines, that at what point are you crawling forward so slowly that you actually have stopped moving? >> you know, again, i am the last person to underemphasized the difficulties this kind of alternative has. but i think we have to recognize the trade-offs. if we avoid engaging in an weort to reorganize how pursue stabilization operations
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in eastern syria, i think we can already see the pathway ahead. and i think it contains an enormous number of problems and challenges for the u.s., the biggest of which will be the extent to which it directly undermines our efforts to achieve topline policy goals. so if we want to think about alternatives, i think we need to begin exploring where the opportunities are to shift how we do stabilization operations in these areas, along a different path. it is going to be slow. it is going to be difficult. i don't underestimate those concerns one bit. but i would just call our attention again to the larger trade-offs involved of staying on our current path. >> thank you. >> the gentleman in the blue shirt. >> ken meyer. i produce a tv show. shouldn't we be brought before
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the international criminal court for violating syria's sovereignty with our incursion into its territory? >> and you serve, in the black -- you, sir, in the black sweater. >> from the media network in iraqi kurdistan. you said you find it problematic for sdf to roll predominantly arab areas. but i don't know if there are any credible polls to suggest arabs in those areas are actually not happy with sdf, because sdf is led by the kurds. i haven't seen any credible polls like that. sdf might be opposed because of its authoritarian character, not because, it is kurdish because it is not a kurdish nationalist group. there are lots of kurds not
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happy with sdf. just saying it is wrong for the areas, wee those are wrongly assuming it is a kurdish nationalist group. thank you. >> the gentleman in the blue jacket? >> thank you very much. my question is about a shift in the mindset between the military mindset with the syrian democratic forces. it's very challenging, because from one side they are very empowered. we were on the ground and we fought isis, 10,000 people killed, and we know the work before us. but at the same time, we tried to work with them. by the way, exit strategy for fornortheast does not work because the regime will be there in a week. they understand that. they get it. but they don't know how to do it. there is a lot of education to
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be done, and i don't understand how that could happen in the short term. look, the question of sovereignty -- i don't think the u.s. should be brought before the international criminal court. this was a space in which the assad regime has not exercise any sovereignty for many years, and the challenges of confronting the rise of isis and others arose from the retreat of the syrian regime from those areas, leaving them under local control and understanding what happens. the idea that we acknowledge sovereignty as an absolute and total a stick construct -- totalistic construct that has to be recognized in every circumstance flies in the face of things like responsibility to protect. i would view our presence there certainly as problematic in many respects.
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i do not endorse an open-ended, indefinite u.s. presence in that area. likely is the most outcome over the medium to longer term in eastern syria is the reimposition of regime control over those areas. i made clear my move a unitary syrian state should continue to guide u.s. policy choices in that area. so, i think we have to distinguish between the context in which sovereignty was compromised in large part by the behavior of the regime itself, in many ways compelling u.s. action in that area, and a longer-term context which i anticipate will bring about the restoration of syrian sovereignty over that area, although i hope with very different conditions on the ground as that occurs. so, i agree, i think that the sdf absolutely looks at its role in the region through the lens you described, and this is one
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of the critical challenges the u.s. faces. of do you have that kind interaction with the sdf in which this process of the devolution of authority over local governance becomes something the sdf is willing to accept, without also concluding this represents the abandonment of the sdf by the united states. this is a very significant challenge, and i forgot the third question. [laughter] >> ethnicity versus authoritarianism? the issue with the pyg. is it about kurdish versus arab, or authoritarianism? sdf has a think the very different conception of how to build local government structures than what would emerge from the bottom-up, so what we're seeing is a conflation, integration of
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concerns of styles about government on one side and the identity of the government on the other. the closer those become intertwined, the more difficult it becomes to separate them, and it ends up looking like a, another round of a long-standing kurdish-arab conflict, which i don't think it needs to take on that form. anything to add? >> in the back, please. >> thank you. bbc. i think it is important to remember that equipping and training program led by the u.s. was problematic by itself. this is where it started. not because the people chosen for this program were not qualified or were not good, but the program itself was
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automatic. i have a question. thank you, steve, for the report and the brief. looming,nothing saying the u.s. policy in eastern syria is efficient until now, or will succeed in the short term and future. in the current situation where hed, theng is demolis social structure in eastern syria is demolished, no clear policy toward rebuilding eastern syria, what is the future in the short term? how do you see eastern syria in two or three years? thank you. >> [inaudible]
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the three of you actually mentioned about stabilization. you addressed governance in syria and the u.s. perspective, but the e.u. seems to be drifting from their position towards assad. we have seen that kind of uniformity from their perspective toward the legitimacy of assad, speaking about kind of normalization of atrocities in syria. honestly speaking, after a 15-day trip between europe, lebanon, i came back recently, and i can say there is literally a lack of strategy in the eyes of the e.u., and they probably the result or solution for all this chaos in the region. the, would that leave
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united states as the only voice against assad? thank you. >> you know, i think one of the things that comes through in that i think is evident from a real look at what the united states is doing on stabilization now, the current approach on the ground in eastern syriai is a tacit acceptance that the united states' goal of a meaningful political transition is never going to happen, and that the u.s. is essentially acquiescing eventuals reacquisition of control over these territories, and thereby if not creating a self of filling prophecy, at least sort of enabling one. whereou know, if that is
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the united states is in a cold-eyed assessment of the future of syria, then it's policy does not match its an assessment. so either it has some other assessment by which a meaningful political transition can be achieved, in which case it shouldshare that, or it have a policy that is in line with its own realistic assessment of the situation. which gets back to the point and made earlier, the fact we have policy goals but we don't have a strategy. you are correct to say the e.u. also doesn't have a strategy. therefore, in this reactive mode, seeing assad with tremendous russian and iranian support reacquire control over most populated areas of the country, they are acceding to what they see, reacting and acceding. part of the value of steve's
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report, he illustrates the way in which not just declaratory policy but actual, programmatic work on the ground is reinforcing a reality that the united states says it doesn't want. so we can quarrel or quibble or be skeptical about the policy direction steve is proposing for stabilization assistance. it is hard, complicated, we could get it wrong, it will take a long time, it requires re-engagement in ways we are not sure there is political will to support. all of that might be true, but let's at least recognize the political and policy consequences of what we are currently doing. that is important to start. >> and if we don't, what will eastern syria look like in two or three years? i would expect two principal trends to dominate the trajectory of that part of syria over that time frame. one is a continuation of the
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negotiation between the pyg and the regime that have already begun. they have not proven very effective as yet. visions about what the future of the pyd's role in northeast syria should be differ enormously between them and the regime. but i would expect a continuation of those negotiations, and perhaps the achievement of a mutually agreeable compromise about some limited level of local economy for the pyd in some areas in the northeast, with a dominant regime presence in that area. irther to the southeast, would anticipate a parallel process managed by the regime engaging with local elites, notables, tribal elders, to rebuild structures of authority and control that will advance a reimposition facto
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of the regime and reconsolidation of government arrangements that look a little like those that existed before 2011. don't make the kinds of shifts we have been discussing this afternoon, that is my sense of what the trajectory is most likely to look like. in terms of the e.u., absolutely there is a debate within the e.u., differences of opinion. there are never states that would like a process of normalization. there are significant conflicts within some governments about how relations with the assad regime should develop. france is one of those countries, where macron is surrounded by a variety of interests pulling him in different directions. i think that for the time being the policy of no reconstruction without meaningful political transition holds. it is being chipped away at.
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i don't feel it has yet been undermined to the extent we will see an e.u.-wide policy shift in the near future. however, there is a date to watch that will tell us whether that policy will hold. may 2019, the next e.u. parliamentary election. there's very strong concern the populist trend within the e.u. will actually produce majority representation in the e.u. parliament for right-wing, populist parties. if that happens, i would thecipate that support for prior policy would erode more quickly. >> that's a good diagnosis. >> excellent. on a positive note, as always. [laughter] we do have to break until 1:30, but thank you both for your time, for the discussion. i urge you to read steve's excellent report.
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thank you all for joining me. please join me in thanking them. [applause] [captions copyright national cable satellite corp. 2018] [captioning performed by the national captioning institute, which is responsible for its caption content and accuracy. visit ncicap.org] [indistinct conversation] >> hello, everyone, and welcome again to the atlantic

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