KVUE's Mark Wiggins interviews UT Professor Jeremi Suri about the situation in Syria.
MARK: The president is going to talk to the American People today. What does he have to do when it comes to selling a conflict, whether it’s a limited engagement, or whether it’s a broader military engagement? What role does him addressing the American people play?
JEREMI: I think it’s absolutely crucial. I think the president has to do three things tonight to succeed. One, he has to outline a clear objective. Americans need to know what it is we are aiming to achieve. Second, he needs to show a viable path to that objective. He needs to show that he has a plan and that we are going to use our capabilities in specific ways to achieve that objective. And then third and most important of all, he has to show that it is something that is going to be worth the cost to us. Americans are hyper-conscious now of the cost of our engagements in Iraq, Afghanistan and elsewhere. So he has to not only show that the objective is worth pursuing but that it’s worth the cost in lives and money to us.
MARK: What do you think it says about the fact, [specifically] the opposition, to a military engagement. This seems to be the first issue in five years that both parties agree on.
JEREMI: It tells a lot particularly about the emphasis on cost. It also tells us that people are very focused on the last two wars we fought in Afghanistan and Iraq, and the ways they haven’t turned out in the ways we wished they would. And that prior history is bringing people together who differ on so many other things.
MARK: What role is intelligence playing here, and will it play, when the president speaks tonight? Do you think because part of this rests on the assumption that these weapons were used by the Assad regime?
JEREMI: So, intelligence is crucial in this debate and it cuts both ways. On the one hand, intelligence does show a great deal of evidence that the Assad regime, or those within the regime of some kind, used these weapons. And there’s a lot of evidence there that’s emotional as well as concrete evidence. On the other hand, there still is a lingering distrust of intelligence, and a lingering sense that the intelligence doesn’t tell us always what it claims to tell us. So it cuts both ways for the president. He can’t always oversell it, but he can’t neglect it either.
MARK: What are some of the historical examples of that? The first things I think of are the WMD’s in Iraq and the Tonkin Gulf.
JEREMI: The Tonkin resolution is another one. During the Korean war there were all kinds of allegations of chemical weapons used there. Sometimes allegations that the United States had used them, sometimes that the Chinese had used them. Almost every war has these issues, what has changed since the Iraq war really is the sense that there are these big weapons that we are told have been used, or will be used, when it turns out that is not the case. That skepticism is higher now than I think it’s been in a long time.
MARK: Are we in a unique position? I guess in one sense, these are the people that we trust to tell us what we know, and yet they’re the only people who know whether or not that’s the case. That hasn’t changed has it?
JEREMI: No, it hasn’t but the stakes are much higher now because we’re talking about American intervention, we’re talking about weapons that are potentially much more destructive. We’re also in a world where there is so much more information. And it’s not just that some of this is secret, it’s also that it’s so technical. That it’s so overwhelming. The truth is that even if they showed us everything that they had, we might not be able to decipher what we’re looking at.
MARK: What do you think of the role Russia is now playing?
JEREMI: Well, Russia is playing a fascinating role, I think. First of all, Russia wants to do everything it can to keep the Unite States out of Syria. Syria is one of Russia’s last important allies in the region, and it’s an important strategic position for Russia.
MARK: Before we go further, why?
JEREMI: The Russians believe that their future interests are tied up with having influence in the Middle East. They want access to the oil. They want access to the various groups in the Middle East. And most of all, they want to be able to sell their goods in that region. They sell a lot of weapons, for example, to the Syrians and others. So they want to make sure they retain a few strong allies in the region. They’re fearful that they’re losing them. Syria is one of the last allies they have and Assad has been pretty loyal to them, both father and son. The Russians see themselves as trying to stop the United States from getting more involved. They want to cement their alliance with Assad, and they want to increase their prestige and credibility in the region. At the very least, they want other countries to take them seriously as a big power.
MARK: Is that something that, you know because a lot of the conversation that I hear is, you know, first of all, you know how odd is it that now Russia, and in particular a former member of the KGB in the Soviet era, is now playing the role of international peace keeper with the Americans as the aggressor. And, can we trust those intentions, given the historical background of that country, and that particular leader?
JEREMI: We have to be very wary of the Russian leadership. In part because of its own history, but also because its interests are at odds with us. The Russians want to increase their influence in the region. They want to decrease our influence. They are not interested in democratization in the region, they want to keep dictators like Assad in power. So we have to be very, very wary. Now, the Russians do not want to see war, so we can potentially work with them. But we have to make sure that any agreement on the side of chemical weapons is monitored by someone other than the Russians. And that there are mechanisms in place to take actions if the Russians don’t do what they claim they will do. It would not be the first time that they would defect on their agreements.