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Russia Begins Using An Air Base In Iran To Strike Syrian Targets


When President Obama leaves office, his successor will inherit some serious foreign policy challenges and one big one is Syria. In its fifth year, the conflict has drawn in Russia and Iran, countries that are fighting to keep Syrian President Bashar al-Assad in power. This week, the alliance between Russia and Iran crystallized in an unprecedented way. Russia began using an Iranian airbase to carry out its bombing campaign against Syrian rebels.

Let's talk about this with retired U.S. Navy Admiral James Stavridis, who served as supreme allied commander of NATO in Europe and who's been reportedly vetted for a post in a potential Hillary Clinton administration. He's on the line with us. Admiral, good morning. Thanks for coming back on the program.


GREENE: So Iran just doesn't do this, right, I mean, allow other countries to use military bases. Why Russia and why now?

STAVRIDIS: Well, first of all, you're exactly right. The Iranians are very, very pro nationalistic. It's quite shocking, in a geopolitical sense, to see them allowing external forces of any nation in, as you say. So why now? The answer is because they see Russia as the best chance they have of consolidating an axis that runs from Tehran through Damascus to Beirut - essentially the Sunni world. And they see Putin as a serious long-term player in the region, and they're signing up with him.

GREENE: I mean, given the fears that we have heard for so long from American officials, that sounds pretty ominous.

STAVRIDIS: I think it is, David. I don't want to overstate it, but let's step back and look at the larger region. The overlay here is the challenge of the Sunni-Shia rivalry - Sunni led by the Saudis, Shia led by the Iranians. And this brings a big power player into the middle of that in ways that, I think, are difficult to predict how they unfold.

GREENE: Well, I mean, speaking of predicting, if this bombing continues - that the Russians and also the Syrian government carrying out in the rebel stronghold, Aleppo - I mean, are we seeing an end game here? Could this civil war be over soon and Assad will be firmly in power?

STAVRIDIS: I think Assad is about to significantly consolidate power in western Syria. And he'll do that by taking Aleppo, and he'll own that north-south axis in the western part of Syria. Central and eastern Syria will still very much be at play, not the least of which because of the presence of the Islamic State. So this one has a way to go, but certainly the population centers in the west, I think, are trending - trending Assad at this moment.

GREENE: Is this increasingly lending credence to the argument of President Obama's critics that he's failed here in his goals in Syria?

STAVRIDIS: I think it is difficult to make a case that we're succeeding in Syria, that's certainly true. Probably the next step here is going to be a negotiation between the United States, Russia - Assad is a minor player behind the table on the Russian side - and of course the Iranians and the Iraqis. And if we're going to sort out Syria, in the end, David, it's going to be done politically and diplomatically, not the military way.

GREENE: You know, it strikes me - I mean, there has - many, like you have said, that there has to be some political solution that might involve the United States working with Russia and Vladimir Putin. And is that possible? And also isn't that something that the Republican nominee for president Donald Trump has been suggesting when it comes to looking at the future here?

STAVRIDIS: It is possible, but I would say it's unlikely at this point because of the larger set of factors that are at play here, not the least of which include the Russian invasion of Ukraine, the annexation of Crimea, the pushing against NATO all around the borders. There are so many negative factors on the table. It's going to be very difficult to get to that political solution.

You know, David, the thing to look at is 20 years ago in the Balkans, which looked a lot like Syria does today. And we had to eventually break apart the old Yugoslavia and we had to impose a solution from the outside. I think that's how this one ends. It won't be in the next few months, that's for sure. This will be on the table of whoever becomes the next president.

GREENE: But wouldn't a closer relationship with Russia and working with them be key in doing that?

STAVRIDIS: I think that it is important with Russia that we take a transactional approach at this point. In other words, when we can find a zone of cooperation - which we currently have, for example, in Afghanistan in counter piracy, in counternarcotics, in counterterrorism - when we can find a zone of cooperation, we should take it. But we must confront Russia when they violate international law, as an example, in Ukraine. And the problem in Syria is the behavior of Assad is such a violation of international law - the way he's conducting this civil war - that it's going to be very challenging to connect with them. So at the end of the day, we should confront where we must but cooperate where we can with Russia, transactionally, to build a relationship. Otherwise we are going to stumble backward into a cold war.

GREENE: Admiral, just about a minute left. I want to ask you - you're considered pretty close to Hillary Clinton. There's been talk of you serving in her administration potentially if she becomes president. How would she handle Syria differently than President Obama?

STAVRIDIS: I think we'd have to let her answer that if she becomes the next president. But my advice to whoever becomes the next president is use the international community here. We're not going to solve it unilaterally. Use interagency better, get our intel operating more coherently, get the private sector involved in everything from cyber to information sharing, and get a hold of the narrative - the strategic narrative. That's where we're really failing. So there's a basket of ideas.

GREENE: OK. Admiral, great to talk to you as always. We appreciate you coming on the program.

STAVRIDIS: David, thanks so much.

GREENE: James Stavridis is the former supreme allied commander of NATO in Europe. He's currently the dean of the Fletcher School of Law and Diplomacy at Tufts University. Transcript provided by NPR, Copyright NPR.