The Roots and Future of the Deadly Conflict in Syria

A new round of international talks to end the war in Syria could begin as early as this week. The four-year-old war has killed more than 300,000 people and left more than 7 million others displaced. On Friday, Secretary of State John Kerry met in Vienna with the Saudi, Russian and Turkish foreign ministers to discuss the crisis. Then on Saturday, Kerry flew to Saudi Arabia to meet Saudi King Salman outside Riyadh. That same day, Kerry and Russian Foreign Minister Sergey Lavrov spoke by phone. Lavrov has said the Kremlin wants Syria to prepare for parliamentary and presidential elections, a call that comes just days after a surprise visit by Syrian President Bashar al-Assad to Moscow. Lavrov also said Russia would be ready to help Western-backed Free Syrian Army rebels – if it knew where they were. Charles Glass, former ABC News chief Middle East correspondent, has just returned from Syria and Iraq, and joins us to discuss the crisis. His latest book is titled “Syria Burning: ISIS and the Death of the Arab Spring.”

TRANSCRIPT:

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

AMY GOODMAN: A new round of international talks to end the war in Syria could begin as early as this week. The four-year-old war has killed more than 300,000 people and left over 7 million people displaced. On Friday, Secretary of State John Kerry met in Vienna with the Saudi, Russian and Turkish foreign ministers to discuss the crisis. Then Saturday, Kerry flew to Saudi Arabia to meet Saudi King Salman outside Riyadh. That same day, Kerry and Russian Foreign Minister Sergey Lavrov spoke by phone. In a television interview, Lavrov said the Kremlin wanted Syria to prepare for parliamentary and presidential elections.

SERGEY LAVROV: [translated] Even with still continuing anti-Assad rhetoric, democratization rhetoric, I think the correct understanding of the situation is developing, and this gives us hope to push forward the political process in the near future by using outside players and to bring all Syrians to the negotiating table, because outside players cannot decide anything for the Syrians. We must force them to work out their own future in such a way that the interests of any group, be it religious, ethnic or political, would be well protected. And, of course, we must prepare for the elections, both parliamentary and presidential ones.

AMY GOODMAN: Sergey Lavrov’s call for elections came just days after a surprise visit by Syrian President Bashar al-Assad to Moscow. Lavrov also said Russia would be ready to help Western-backed Free Syrian Army rebels if it knew where they were. The Syrian army has rejected the – Free Army has rejected the offer. Meanwhile, former US President Jimmy Carter has just published a piece in The New York Times titled “A Five-Nation Plan to End the Syrian Crisis.” Carter calls for the United States, Russia, Iran, Turkey and Saudi Arabia to work together to end the war.

We’re joined now by Charles Glass. He’s the former ABC News chief Middle East correspondent. His latest book is titled Syria Burning: ISIS and the Death of the Arab Spring. He has just returned from both Syria and Iraq.

Welcome to Democracy Now!

CHARLES GLASS: Thank you.

AMY GOODMAN: It’s great to have you actually in our studio here in New York as you launch this book, Charles. Why don’t you start off by talking about these latest developments? What is being proposed?

CHARLES GLASS: Well, unfortunately, nothing is being proposed. The problem is that the two main parties backing the factions in Syria – the United States and Russia – have not budged from their positions. Russia’s position is that Bashar al-Assad must remain as president, and the American position is that Bashar al-Assad must go as president. And they haven’t seemed to have reconciled these two points of view.

Ideally, they should get all of the parties together, including Iran, to discuss a period of transition, but because the war has gone on so far, there are certain people who will not participate in discussions – i.e. Jabhat al-Nusra and the Islamic State. They will then – if there is an agreement on transition and elections and so forth, then you will find that the nonjihadist opposition would be fighting side by side with the Syrian army against those forces. But I don’t really see that happening.

AMY GOODMAN: What about this offer of Russia to support the Free Syria Army and the Free Syria Army saying no?

CHARLES GLASS: Well, Russia would be supporting the Free Syrian Army if the Free Syrian Army fought against the Islamic State, but Russia will not support the Free Syrian Army to fight against the regime that it has been backing from the beginning of the uprising. Russia has a –

AMY GOODMAN: Right, and they’ve said no, anyway.

CHARLES GLASS: And they’ve said no. But Russia – Russia has a lot invested in the regime in Damascus, and they’re not going to arm anyone who’s going to be opposing it, because they are now fighting everyone who’s opposing it.

AMY GOODMAN: What do they have invested in Syria? Can you explain this long relationship between Russia and Syria, and then Syria and Iran?

CHARLES GLASS: Well, it’s very simple. If you look at a map of the Arab world, there are about 22 members of the Arab League stretching from Mauritania all the way to the borders of Iran. Almost every one of those countries is an American client state. Only one is a Syrian [sic] client state. That’s Syria.

AMY GOODMAN: Is a Russian client.

CHARLES GLASS: Is a Russian, I’m sorry, is a Russian client state. And that’s Syria. So Russia isn’t going to give that up just to please the United States. It’s going to need something in return. Or it’s going to invest more and more deeply into Syria to keep that regime, which is its only friend in the Arab world. One of the effects, though, of Russia’s deep commitment is that it’s now developing better relations with Iraq. There was a Russian military delegation in Iraq when I was there. The Russians are now coordinating with the Iraqis in their fight against the Islamic State and against Jabhat al-Nusra and the other Islamic groups in Syria and Iraq. So Russia has, in fact, raised its standing in the Arab world by this intervention.

AMY GOODMAN: I want to ask about the role of Saudi Arabia in the ongoing conflict in Syria, as well as the negotiations taking place to resolve it. Speaking Sunday, the Saudi foreign minister, Adel al-Jubeir, said that Assad had no future role to play in Syria.

ADEL AL-JUBEIR: [translated] I believe that there has been some progress, and positions have moved closer on finding a solution to the Syrian crisis. But I cannot say that we have reached an agreement. We still need more consultations and negotiations to reach this point. … There are negotiations within the international community on how to apply the principles of Geneva 1. We are committed toward that. The application of the principles of Geneva 1 involve the formation of a transitional body that will form a new constitution, govern civil and military institutions, prepare for new elections in Syria. And there will be no role for Syrian President Bashar al-Assad in the future of Syria. This is the position of the Saudi kingdom, and this is the position of most countries in the world.

AMY GOODMAN: That’s the Saudi foreign minister. Charles Glass?

CHARLES GLASS: Well, the Saudis have been consistent in their opposition to Bashar al-Assad since the beginning of the uprising, and they were instrumental in arming the opposition, which began originally as peaceful protests. They began funding and funneling arms to those who wanted to fight, and then enabling foreign fighters to come in through Turkey. So the Saudi position has been consistent throughout. However, I would think after four-and-a-half years of failing to overthrow that regime, that they should realize that it’s not going to fall overnight and that the real problem is the war itself, and the war must stop, even if that means keeping the regime in power for a transitional period. But they’ve rejected that consistently.

AMY GOODMAN: And what about the US relationship with all the different players?

CHARLES GLASS: Well, the US seems to have lost some control over its allies in the region. On the surface, the United States is fighting against the Islamic State mainly because it went into Iraq. They didn’t seem to mind it when they were just in Syria. But they’re still allowing Turkey to keep its border open for men and supplies to come into the Islamic State. And they still – if they’re fighting the Islamic State, they’re still allowing the Saudis to provide the Islamic State and its other – and the other similar jihadist groups of al-Qaeda to receive weapons, including anti-tank weapons, from the Saudis. And this is – either this is fine with American policy and consistent with it, or they’ve simply lost control over the course of events.

AMY GOODMAN: We’re going to go to break. When we come back, I want to directly address the themes in your book, Syria Burning: ISIS and the Death of the Arab Spring. This is Democracy Now! We’ll be back in a minute.