High-level conferences are as common today as reruns of Law and Order. From TED and the Aspen Ideas Conference to the Clinton Global Initiative, individuals and companies plunk down thousands of dollars to hobnob with the people who are setting the agendas in business, government and the culture. Few, however, can sit in a ballroom and listen to a panel on the Middle East without feeling as if they heard it or read it all before.
That’s what didn’t happen at the Concordia Summit today in New York City when investigative journalist Michael Isikoff asked Mike Rogers, former chair of the House Permanent Select Committee on Intelligence, what the U.S. and its allies should do about Russia’s aggressive military moves in Syria. Rogers told a compelling story, which is summarized below.
We are all focusing on the wrong end of this discussion—where they are bombing today. That completely misses what the strategic thought pattern of why Putin is doing this. He wants to maintain weapon sales in both Iran and Syria. He’d sell Assad out for a dollar and a half if it suits Russia’s interests, but he needs to keep the government stable so he can move troops and arms in that country. That is all in Russia’s strategic interests.
Think where they were two years ago. They were losing most of their influence in the Middle East. Fast forward to today and they have huge financial contracts in Iran for weapons systems. They just signed a deal for building part of their nuclear program in Iran and you’re seeing those deals spread across the Middle East. They’re now building what we would call a dome-like air defense system in Syria, which is a strategic threat to the United States, by the way, and to our Arab League partners.
They're going to sit with the Shia end of this equation because it suits their interests today. That’s why Putin is protecting Assad’s troops. He’ll solidify Assad’s control and their military control then he may go after ISIS.
Isikoff: What should the American response be?
When our Arab League partners came to us three years ago for help because of the growing problem in eastern Syria, they were looking for leadership, logistics and Special Forces help. They were not looking for troops on the ground. We said unless you’re willing to sit at the table with us, you don’t get to tell us how to fight this. We watched that relationship deteriorate not from the 30,000-foot diplomatic level but on the ground. It was really turning into a mess.
If you were to look at this objectively, I don’t think you have a lot of hope other than to get a negotiated transition from Assad that is not going to sit well with our other partners. But I don’t see a lot of options unless you’re willing to have a military invasion in Syria ... and I think that would be a mistake.
The panel also featured remarks from HRH Prince Turki Al-Faisal, chair of King Faisal Center for Research and Islamic Studies, and Debbie Wasserman Schultz (D-FL), chair of the Democratic National Committee. You can find out more about the conference and this panel here.