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Applying Lessons From 9/11 To Syria

September 11, 2013 1:34 p.m.


Ric Epps, Political Science professor, San Diego State University

Ibrahim Al-Marashi, Asst Professor of Middle East Studies, Cal State San Marcos

Related Story: Applying Lessons From 9/11 To Syria


This is a rush transcript created by a contractor for KPBS to improve accessibility for the deaf and hard-of-hearing. Please refer to the media file as the formal record of this interview. Opinions expressed by guests during interviews reflect the guest’s individual views and do not necessarily represent those of KPBS staff, members or its sponsors.

CAVANAUGH: Our stop story on Midday Edition, ceremonies of remembrance are once again marking the anniversary of the attacks of 9/11. And once again, military is contemplating a military strike against a country in the middle east in retaliation for a deadly attack. This time, of course, it's an attack alleged by the Syrian government against its own people. But the pair elements are strong enough, after two wars, are thousands of lives lost, billions of dollars spent, is the world a safer place for America? Do we know any more about the people of the Middle East than we did 12 years ago? And what are the consequences of another U.S. military intervention? My guests, Ric Epps is a former SDSU political science professor, and analyst for local fox news.

EPPS: Good to see you again.

CAVANAUGH: Ibrahim al-Marashi is a professor of middle east history at UC San Marcos.

AL-MARASHI: Thank you.

CAVANAUGH: President Obama addressed the nation last night to make the case that the U.S. should be prepared to strike Syria in retaliation for chemical attacks. What was your reaction to that speech?

EPPS: I thought the president did a very good job of laying out the groundwork for what actually is -- are the two choices we have in front of us. The step toward diplomacy, which we all hope work, but also if it doesn't work, this is the other option, and this is why we need to consider this other option that is an unthinkable option. I think he did a good job of laying out the fact of saying this is not about starting a war, but a protracted sort of slap on the hand to say we can't afford to let our guard down any longer and allow for these types of regimes to exist that violet international law. It's a complicated topic, but it's one that we have to talk about in the big picture.

CAVANAUGH: Ibrahim, what was your reaction?

AL-MARASHI: I was looking -- it was how he first laid out that the military option is still on the table, but in light of the chemical weapons use, the Russian initiative is going to be pursued. Two points I thought that were missing in that speech, No. 1, did al-Assad actually order those weapons? He's facing this military strike on the intelligence he has. It was ambiguous. He just said that chemical weapons were fired from a regime-controlled area. And what I was looking for, the most important thing, has the command of control of chemical weapons in Syria broken down? And the second is what will be needed by Russia and Syria in terms of handing over their deadly weapons in order for this to succeed? Does America, Russia, and Syria have different expectations of what it means to hand over the weapons?

CAVANAUGH: What is your take then on the Syrian government's offer to hand over the weapons are they in control of them?

AL-MARASHI: I think we have to look back at the president. In the first case, which was pretty straightforward, Libya did the same thing. Gaddafi said we are renouncing our chemical weapon, and the issue was resolved. The other case of Iraq. After 1991, it had to hand over its chemical weapons. That was an example of different expectations. What the Iraqis wanted want to hand over and what the U.S. wanted to be handed over were two very different things that were touching upon issues of Iraqi sovereignty. This issue began because the U.S. believed there were some sites that Iraq hadn't allowed access to. And that can be the sticking points in Syria.

CAVANAUGH: We heard a report today that the idea of Syria handing over its chemical weapons might be a very long and complicated process. That may or may not satisfy President Obama when it comes to stopping Syria from using weapons or not satisfy his criteria for handing over chemical weapons.

EPPS: That's part of the other sticking point here, the question of how, when, where. And if you're going to have access to them during a civil war, what's the mechanism to have that happen? And the next thing is how are you going to destroy them? Are you going to destroy the infrastructure so they can no longer manufacture them? So that's a lot of things that are problematic. And the resolution that's been put forth by the Russian side of the equation is to suggest that they want a nonbinding resolution for Syria, which basically says you get -- we're not going to hold you accountable of the whereas the UK, France, and the United States have said we want a binding United Nations resolution that suggests if you don't comply, we will then take a step to make you comply. And that's a sticking point with this whole issue. So it's really a much more complicated step getting down this road to resolution than people actually give credence to. And it's important that they have this time. And now with secretary of state Kerry meeting tomorrow for a couple days to discuss the point, that's a telling point.

CAVANAUGH: Let me take a step back from our discussion about this and pose the question of how good our intelligence is about chemical weapons in Syria. When we look back to what our intelligence was on whether Saddam had weapons of mass destruction after the nines of 9/11. I know that one of the research papers that you used, Ibrahim, to report on what the intelligence capability of the Saddam regime was was misused in the lead-up to the Iraq war. What kind of intelligence do we have now? Is it better?

AL-MARASHI: It's interesting you bring that point. When the Syrian president was giving that interview, he specifically referred to Collin Powell's speech, and how the intelligence was faulty. And it was during that speech that he was using a U.S. British dossier that had been plagiarized from my research. That's why I'm key to have Obama say who was responsible. I'm trying to -- I'm trying to leverage the intelligence. Let me put it this way. On the eve of the 2003 Iraq war, there had been UN weapons inspectors on the ground in Iraq for about a decade who had literally seen Iraqi WMDs. And even then on the eve of the war, the intelligent didn't indicate that Saddam had really given up his WMD program. So with that experience, we still didn't know as the governments in Ithe U.S. and UK. With Syria, it's much more opaque. The material on their chemical weapons program is quite outdated and is based on guesses. So I'm curious what new intelligence has been obtained that demonstrates the chain of command in this attack.

CAVANAUGH: I want to play a clip from the president's speech.

NEW SPEAKER: Many of you have asked a broader question: Why should we get involved at all in a place that's so complicated? And where, are as one person wrote to me, those who come after Assad may be enemies of human rights. It's true that some of his opponents are extremists. But Al-Qaeda will only draw strength in a more chaotic Syria if people there see the world doing nothing to protect innocent civilians from being gassed to death.

CAVANAUGH: What role is Al-Qaeda playing in the Syrian civil war? Do we know?

EPPS: We don't know to the fullest extent because there are several fringe militant groups that are part of this entire equation for the free Syrian army. But I agree with the president on this point. I agree with him on the fact that you have to be able to give due diligence to the concern of the risk and threat of opponents like Al-Qaeda. But I also do agree that it's in the economic and social degradation of a civil war that Al-Qaeda and military groups can gain greater ground because they gain ground by giving you food and money. They don't win your loyalty because you love them. They win your loyalty because they take care of you. And that's a big part of what the chaos that is ensuing right now drives.

CAVANAUGH: What can we say about the strength of Al-Qaeda in that region?

AL-MARASHI: Obama's speech is an indication of where Al-Qaeda is more than a decade after the 9/11 attacks. Al-Qaeda was a transnational network based in Afghanistan. Where are we now more than a decade after 9/11? Al-Qaeda is now a global franchise. What was confined to the case of Afghanistan, and of course sleeper cells all over the world, new has official branches in Syria. And the branch in Syria is really the variable how we analyze the equation of intervening in Syria. Not only that, that branch came from the branch in Iraq. And the branch in Iraq was created in the chaos of the 2003 Iraq war. Now you have a branch in Yemen, Somalia, north Africa, be and this gives us an idea that even though Osama Bin Laden has been killed, the infrastructure or the idea of Al-Qaeda, if you will, has now embedded itself in the Middle East much more than it did prior to the attacks of 9/11, more than a decade ago.

CAVANAUGH: We're hearing a lot about unintended consequences, whether or not it would provoke Bashar al-Assad to intensify his military attacks. What else might be the fallout from that kind of thing? I'm thinking about back in 2011, the U.S. and international forces helped Libyan rebels overthrow Gaddafi. And a year ago, the U.S. ambassador and three others were killed in an attack in Libya. What does that tell us about the consequences of intervention?

EPPS: Well, this is when we call blowback, right? On one hand the United States is great at going in and bringing the might of the military and help sort of unravel the bad guy, if you would. The problem here is that we aren't very good at nation-building. And if you talk about nation-building, you have to rebuild infrastructure, and you have to get people jobs and all the things that make people want to not want -- everybody wants stability. And they're not getting stability, so they go to these more radical factions who gain greater footing with most of the populations. They look for hope, don't see it, and they see the west is not doing as much as they think they should, and the other people here, the militant Islamist groups are doing more, and then that creates more chaos. And it really creates a longer problem. And you see this playing out over and over again. And there really isn't an answer that we can have. And I would say that our foreign policy agenda for the Middle East is complicated because it needs -- it's hard to have a long-term policy. You really almost need to have an incremental short term policy to gain traction. It has to be short and flexible. And that's what we need to work toward. And we don't have that right now.

CAVANAUGH: Let me flip the question around, Ibrahim. What happens if America -- if we disengage from the region? Let the people of the region sort out the politics for themselves. Is that a viable option?

AL-MARASHI: I think the issue is being misunderstood. Engagement is equated with military engagement. And there's other forms of engagement that could be a lot more constructive. And of course with the Syria case, while military disengagement might be better in the long-term, in terms of -- because usually military engagement produces unintended consequences such as blowback. And that term came from when the U.S. administration was helping Afghan rebels, and in the case of Afghanistan Osama Bin Laden allowed the network of Al-Qaeda to take root. Engagement in terms of humanitarian efforts, helping the refugees, educational initiatives would mean that America isn't disengaging from the Middle East. It's just using its other early means of what's called soft power to have the American presence felt in the region in a lot more constructive role.

CAVANAUGH: Let me ask you both since I'm coming up against the clock here. The Middle East, I think anybody would realize, no matter how many similarities there are, it's changed a great deal since 2001. What changes do you find helpful for both the people in the region, and the safety of America?

EPPS: It's a complicated question. The Arab Spring was supposed to be this push toward democracy. And in some ways, it raised the consciousness level of the people in the region to sort of synthesize their own level of what democracy and freedom should be in their own way. It may not look like our democracy, but they're heading toward their own directions. There are unintended consequences like we see happening in Egypt, and growing pains with this. But I do think they have made some steps in some countries greater than others toward their own grassroots versions of an Islamic democracy that might work for them.


AL-MARASHI: The only encouraging sign I see in the middle east, and what is being lost in the -- let's say that the Arab Spring was a letdown, at least by western commentators. A growing civil society across the Middle East is a positive sign. And regardless of the chaos unleashed by the Arab Spring, the emergence of stable organizations in the Middle East is better for the Middle East in the long-term.

CAVANAUGH: Thank you both so much.

EPPS: Thank you. A pleasure.