3:45pm

Tue June 4, 2013
Middle East

In Syria, Conflict Has Spread Throughout The Region

Originally published on Tue June 4, 2013 5:54 pm

The civil war in Syria is attracting fighters from all over, increasing sectarian tensions in other Muslim countries, threatening the region's tenuous stability, bringing the threat of Russian missiles, and leaving the U.S with few good options.

More than 80,000 people have been killed so far in Syria's civil war, and 4 million of Syria's 20 million people have been displaced. Robert Malley, the program director for Middle East and North Africa for the International Crisis Group, calls it "one of the most catastrophic humanitarian disasters we're facing."

He says that what began as a conflict within Syria has expanded in scope.

"This has become not just a war within Syria," he tells Fresh Air's Terry Gross. "It has become a regional, sectarian civil war. Perhaps the best way to put it is to say that what was a war in Syria with regional spillover has now become a regional war with a Syrian focus."

Complicating matters is that while the regime of President Bashar Assad is more powerful than the opposition and thus tends to be guilty of far more atrocities, both sides have been engaged in indescribable acts of brutality like cannibalism and the execution of entire families.

"I think it's hard to deny that the two sides are engaged in actions that are repelling ordinary Syrians who really don't know, many of them don't know which side to stand for anymore," Malley says.


Interview Highlights

On how the war in Syria is inciting sectarian conflicts in other countries

"This has become not just a war in Syria. It's become a regional sectarian war. ... Syria is the battleground. It's not the sole actor in this conflict. You now have many others who are engaged. And, in particular, this conflict between Sunnis and Shiites, this long-lasting conflict which has not manifested itself violently that much in recent history is now manifesting itself with a vengeance."

On how this is changing the understanding of borders in the region

"We really need to change our mental grid, our political compass. This is not a war that is being fought by nation states. Borders are being erased. Borders are becoming liquid in a way and ... [the Lebanese Shiite militant group] Hezbollah's fighting in Syria. We could also say that some Sunnis in Lebanon are fighting in Syria as well. Some Sunni rebels are firing back into Lebanon against Hezbollah targets. Iraqi Shiites are fighting on behalf of the regime, just as Iraqi Sunnis are trying to help their coreligionists in Syria. So I think you have to think of Lebanon, Syria and Iraq as one giant integrated area of conflict in which national boundaries count much less than sectarian concessional boundaries."

On what this means for Israel in terms of policy

"Israel has looked at its neighbors, and Syria in particular, with two principles in mind. One is the notion of red lines: There are certain actions. If you take them, we will strike — we, Israel, will strike. So, if chemical weapons or sophisticated weapons are transferred by the Syrian regime to Hezbollah, Israel will strike as it has struck in the past. That's one principle of its policy. The other one is a notion of an address. They think that they can deter the Syrian regime because it's a regime that has interests, that has a stake in its own survival. So they're the address. They're the ones you're going to threaten if they do cross the red line.

"What's happening now with this erasing of borders and with this very, very strong alliance between Iran, Hezbollah and the Syrian regime is that both those principles are being called into question. What does it mean to say the red line is a transfer of weapons when Hezbollah, Syria and Iran's military machines are integrated? Who's transferring what to whom? It doesn't make any sense any more. Hezbollah's weapons are Syria's weapons are Iran's weapons when it comes to Syria."

On the U.S. role in this conflict

"The United States — the administration — has a side. There's no doubt about it. It has a side. It has affinities with the opposition. It doesn't want to see the regime continue. President Obama said in August 2011, a few months into the uprising, when he said President Assad has to go. So I think there's no ambiguity about what side the U.S. is on. The question in my mind, one of the things that we have to bear in mind is we might have a stake in whether the Assad regime continues or not, but do we have a stake — or should we have a stake — in the broader Sunni-Shiite confrontation? Should we take sides in this religious war, which it has now become? "

On Russia's current alliance with the Assad government in Syria

"[I]f Assad has Russia completely on his side ... he won't budge. There's no reason for him to budge. You could say the same about the opposition, but clearly it's the case of Assad if he feels that he has Russia — let alone Iran and Hezbollah — strongly backing him, he has no reason whatsoever to compromise. So there needs to be an understanding between Russia and the U.S. at a minimum. Ideally, it would involve others as well, but let's start with what is more manageable, and even that's hard and hasn't been achieved yet."

Copyright 2013 NPR. To see more, visit http://www.npr.org/.

Transcript

TERRY GROSS, HOST:

This is FRESH AIR. I'm Terry Gross. The civil war in Syria has become a regional conflict that is attracting jihadis from all over, increasing religious and ethnic tensions in other Muslim countries, threatening whatever stability exists in the region, creating a new set of problems for Israel and creating complex options for the U.S.

The Assad regime has been strengthened by fighters from the Lebanese Shiite militant group Hezbollah. So far, over 80,000 people have been killed in the Syrian civil war. We asked Robert Malley to talk about the consequences of this widening war. Malley is the International Crisis Group's program director for Middle East and North Africa. He directs teams of analysts in Syria, Iraq, Israel, Egypt, Lebanon, Tunisia, Libya, Morocco and the Gulf.

(technical difficulties) reporting that both sides in the Syrian conflict are becoming increasingly brutal. Does that surprise you?

ROBERT MALLEY: No, I think that the curb of brutality has been, in a sense, since the very beginning, you know, one side has massively more power than the other. That's the regime side. So they tend to be guilty of far more of the atrocities. But both sides have now been engaged in acts that are almost indescribable, from acts of cannibalism to the execution of entire families.

GROSS: Both sides?

MALLEY: Both sides, yes, and I think, you know, human rights organizations and other have now documented that it's both sides. Again, you can't put them on the same plane because one side has far, far more power to exact those kinds of brutalities than the other. But at this point I think it's hard to deny that the two sides are engaged in actions that are repelling ordinary Syrians who really don't know - many of them don't know which side to turn to anymore.

GROSS: Let's look at what both sides in the Syrian civil war stand for now and what they want. President Assad, what does he want in addition to maintaining power?

MALLEY: I'm not sure there's much more he wants. I mean, this is a regime that whose preoccupation - if you're talking about the regime, there's some of its supporters that want other things, but the regime itself is intent on survival. Survival is victory, and victory is survival. And if they could live to fight another day, that's good enough for them.

Now again, there's some of its supporters who are rallying to the regime or backing the regime not out of any love or illusion about what the regime stands for but because, as we were just discussing, they see what's happening on the other side.

Perhaps they believed some of the excessive propaganda of the regime, but they also see what the other side is doing, and among the other side, and it's too simplistic to say that there are two sides - there are many sides in this conflict - but what they see on the opposition are some Islamists, some people who are very sectarian.

And so if you're a member of a minority community in Syria, you may not like the regime, you may fear the opposition even more. And so what they're fighting for to the extent they're fighting is to make sure that they don't fall under the rule of a regime that would be more sectarian, more Sunni Islamist and therefore more detrimental to minority rights.

GROSS: And who are the minority groups?

MALLEY: Well, there are several. The Alawites, which is the group that Bashar al-Assad and most of the top officials of the regime belong to, they're...

GROSS: They're Alawite Muslims.

MALLEY: Alawite Muslims, although some Muslims consider them heretics. They are considered by some to be an offshoot of Shiism, although the Shiites don't really consider that to be the case. So it's complicated, but they are today allied more with the Shiite axis and against the Sunnis. You also have Druze, you have Christians. So it's a pluralistic, multi-confessional society, although the vast majority are Sunnis.

The struggle didn't begin necessarily as a sectarian war, but it clearly and perhaps inevitably has morphed into one, and for the most part poses the minority Alawite community, roughly 10 to 12 percent, although there hasn't been any census recently, and on the other side the majority Sunnis. But there are many in between, some minority groups that feel closer to the regime and others who have allied with the Sunnis. It's not black and white. Not all minorities are on one side or the other.

GROSS: My impression is that the conflict in Syria started, you know, with people opposing the Assad regime, his - is it fair to call it a dictatorship?

MALLEY: I think that's fair, yes.

GROSS: OK, and then it kind of broadened into something more resembling an Islamist rebellion because you have now Islamists coming from all over the region. The rebels have support from groups including al-Qaida in Iraq. So what is the evidence that the rebels in Syria are becoming more Islamist?

MALLEY: Well, I mean, this is a multi-layered conflict. There is at one level an uprising by ordinary citizens against a regime that has been authoritarian, corrupt, disrespectful of basic human rights. But added to that have been several other layers of conflict. There is a sectarian conflict between Sunnis and Alawites and then a conflict both by - of Islamists against the regime but also of Islamists within the opposition against non-Islamists or different shades of Islamists within the opposition.

Superimposed upon it, there's a regional war between Sunnis and Shiites, between Persians and Arabs, and perhaps even superimposed upon that is now a cold war between - or a newly minted cold war between the U.S. and Russia. So the Islamist factor is a real one, and I think again all reports indicate that Islamists have gained greater power within the opposition but partly because they are the best, the most willing to fight and to sacrifice, but also because in periods of despair - we've seen this historically - people tend to turn to religion and to different forms of religion, and in this case the Islamists offer some solace, some refuge for people who living under absolutely intolerable, unacceptable, unspeakable conditions.

The Islamists also - some of the most extreme Islamists have had the ability to raise funds in Gulf Arab countries. Some of them have also been the best organized on the ground in terms of caring for people. Some of these groups, it may sound paradoxical, but some of the most sectarian groups, the most Islamist groups, are the ones who have been able to take care of those who they more or less govern in the areas that are more or less liberated and do it in a less corrupt, less violent, less chaotic way than the less Islamist group.

So it is clear that over time the most extremist, radical wing of the Islamists, those who go under the label of the Nusra Front, which is an offshoot and an ally of al-Qaida, they have gained in potency because they are better armed, they are better resourced, they have - they're better fighters, they're more mobilized, and so they attract more people to them.

They don't dominate the opposition. It's a very pluralistic, disorganized, chaotic opposition, but over time they have put their imprint on the opposition more than others.

GROSS: An Egyptian sheikh living in Qatar issued a fatwah, calling on Muslims around the world to support the Syrian rebels. He said this last week. And he called Hezbollah and Iran, quote, "more infidel than Jews and Christians." How do you interpret that?

MALLEY: Well, it is what I was saying earlier. This has become not just a war within Syria. It's become a regional, sectarian civil war. I mean, perhaps the best way to put it is to say that a war - what was a war in Syria with regional spillover has now become a regional war with a Syrian focus. And that sort of captures where we are today. Syria is the battleground; it's not the sole actor in this conflict. You now have many others who are engaged, and in particular this conflict between Sunnis and Shiites, this, you know, long-lasting conflict but which has not manifested itself violently that much over the - in recent history is now manifesting itself with a vengeance.

In Syria, what Sheikh Qaradawi, the cleric you referred to, said was extraordinarily sectarian in tone but, you know, matched by some of the sectarian pronouncements that other clerics on the other side have been saying. But what he said, and he's a very influential cleric, was quite frightening.

GROSS: But I'm also hearing to call groups of Muslims more infidel than Jews, that's a pretty strong statement coming from a sheikh in Qatar, isn't it?

MALLEY: Sure, sure, it is, and I think, you know, when Hezbollah, now the Shiite movement in Lebanon, is fighting Sunnis in Syria, in its own way it's saying that the fight against certain Sunni groups in Syria has taken primacy over the fight against Israel, who they're not fighting.

So, you know, they're waging the fight they can fight in the arena where they think they can prevail, and to that extent they're putting the Israeli question in brackets. You know, by saying that they're more infidel than the Jews, obviously he's saying that Jews are infidels as well, but he's saying that the priority fight today is against the unbeliever Shiite, and that's the fight that's the focus in Syria right now, which doesn't mean that they're prepared to ally themselves with Israel.

I mean, let's not be under any illusion regarding that; that the priority for them today, and the priority on both sides, is to fight one another, not to fight Israel.

GROSS: My guest is Robert Malley, director of the International Crisis Group's Middle East and North Africa Program. We'll talk more about the widening war in Syria after a break. This is FRESH AIR.

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GROSS: If you're just joining us, my guest is Robert Malley, he's the director of the International Crisis Group's Middle East and North Africa program. So you were saying that the war in Syria is not really like a regional war. Let's look at Lebanon, which has become involved in this war. Hezbollah has entered the fight in support of Syria's President Assad. Why has the leader of Hezbollah chosen to support Assad?

MALLEY: Well, first, I think we really need to sort of our mental grid, our political compass. This is not a war that's being fought by nation-states. Borders are being erased. Borders are becoming liquid in a way. And as you said, Hezbollah's fighting in Syria. We could also say that some Sunnis in Lebanon are fighting in Syria, as well.

Some Syrian Sunni rebels are firing back into Lebanon against Hezbollah at targets. Iraqi Shiites are fighting on behalf of the regime, just as Iraqi Sunnis are trying to help their co-religionists in Syria. So I think you have to think of Lebanon, Syria and Iraq as one giant integrated area of conflict in which national boundaries count much less than sectarian confessional boundaries.

And in the case of Hezbollah - and I think Hassan Nasrullah - the head of Hezbollah, sees in the fight in Syria a sort of preemptive war against his own movement and believes that if they lose in Syria, not only does he lose an ally, not only does he lose a conduit, a channel through which he's received weapons - Iran delivers weapons to Hezbollah through Syria - but he will have lost the first round in what he believes is a long-lasting fight.

Now in his mind the fight is against Sunni Islamists, it's against Israel, it's against the United States, but putting that aside, what matters for him, it's almost like President Bush's version or Nasrallah's version of President Bush's preemptive war. We have to wage war in Syria to defeat our enemies there because if we don't, if we lose Syria, we will be much more vulnerable to the next round of attacks, which could be waged by the U.S., could be waged by Israel, could be waged by Sunni Islamists. It doesn't matter. But we have to fight where we can at a time when we have more power because otherwise we're going to be much more vulnerable.

GROSS: What has Hezbollah sent in terms of men or weapons to Syria in support of Assad, and what kind of retaliation have the rebels waged across the border into Lebanon?

MALLEY: It's hard to - you know, the numbers are in the thousands, again according to Western officials and now according even to some people close to Hezbollah who are saying that they have several thousand in one particular village on the border of Syria and Lebanon, which is a crucial strategic crossing point for weapons in both directions.

And now claims that Hezbollah fighters are massing in the northern, most populated city of Aleppo, which is a crucial target, a crucial city for the opposition, which has been trying to occupy and which has made real progress. But there's now reports - again, these are some media reports and some others - that Hezbollah fighters are trying to come to the help of the regime to try to dislodge the opposition from Aleppo.

We don't know the numbers, let's say several thousand, and they are much more professional than the regular Syrian troops and certainly more professional than the militias that have been organized by the Syrian regime and even reports of Hezbollah fighters being, to say the least, disappointed, disillusioned and sometimes quite shocked by how unprofessional, amateurish their Syrian counterparts are.

So they're better, they're better fighters, they're more professional, they have a greater sense of hierarchy. And so where they fight, the regime seems to do better. But of course now there is retaliation by some of the Sunni opposition groups which are targeting Hezbollah strongholds in Lebanon firing from Syria, again showing that borders become increasingly meaningless because on both sides the war is being waged against the other.

Hassan Nasrallah had a statement recently in which he said we in Lebanon may disagree about which side we back in Syria, but let's fight that war in Syria, not in Lebanon, to which the Sunni rebels responded if you think you could fight in Syria and we're not going to respond and retaliate in Lebanon, think again.

So this really, of course, does have the risk of reigniting the civil war, the 15-year civil war in Lebanon that only ended in 1990. It could well reignite it. No matter where the conflict goes in Syria, the risk is very, very grave that Lebanon will relive one of its darkest chapters.

GROSS: That would be so tragic. That war went on for so long.

MALLEY: Well, and it's not only there. Iraq as well is just barely recovering from its sectarian civil war, and you're seeing increasingly mobilization of Shiite and Sunni communities in Iraq not only because of what's happening with Syria. There are problems in Iraq that were festering before the Syrian conflict began, but Syria is certainly heightening the stakes for Prime Minister Maliki, the Shiite prime minister of Iraq.

The notion that the Sunnis would gain power in Syria is viewed as a very, very dangerous threat, and for the Sunnis in Iraq, the notion that their co-religionists in Syria may prevail emboldens them and gives them a sense perhaps this is a time where they can exact revenge, as well.

GROSS: You were describing how the Syrian civil war has expanded into other countries and that it's really not about nation-states, it's about the groups within those states and, you know, Shiite siding with Shiite and Sunni siding with Sunni across national boundaries. What does this mean for Israel?

In some ways you could say Israel's enemies are at war with each other. Where does that leave Israel?

MALLEY: I think Israel has been in a very ambivalent position from the outset for many reasons. I mean, in some ways, as you say, to see your foes bleeding each other is not necessarily the worst outcome. On the other hand, it's caught between on the one side the Assad regime, which has been supporting Hezbollah, which is close to Iran and therefore is an enemy of Israel.

I mean, objectively, even though the border between Israel and Syria has been the calmest of any of Israel's borders, it nonetheless is a fact that the Syrian regime has been helping Hezbollah, and Hezbollah has been at war with Israel. The Syrian regime is allied with Iran, which is viewed by Israel as a threat.

So they don't - there's no love lost between the regime in Damascus and Israel. On the other hand, the opposition, some of its elements may be more or less acceptable, but there is this strong Islamist trend. There's a strong al-Qaida wing. That's not good news for Israel. I mean, if they were to prevail, or if they were at least to prevail in parts of Syria, if they were to prevail, if they were to have a position of influence on the border areas of Israel, that would be bad news, as well.

So there's another factor, as well, which we really have to bear in mind as we try to, as I say, come to terms with a new region. I mean, this is not - this is a region which is not what it was three years before the Arab uprisings. It's certainly not what it was, like, 10 years ago. Israel has looked at its neighbors, and Syria in particular, with two principles in mind.

One is the notion of red lines. There are certain actions, if you take them, we will strike; we, Israel, will strike. So if chemical weapons or sophisticated weapons are transferred by the Syrian regime to Hezbollah, Israel will strike as it has struck in the past. That's one principle of its policy.

The other one is the notion of an address. They think they can deter the Syrian regime because it's a regime that has interests, has a stake in its own survival, so they are the address. They are the ones you're going to threaten if they do cross the red line.

What's happening now with this erasing of borders and with this very, very strong alliance between Iran, Hezbollah and the Syrian regime, is that both those principles are called into question. What does it mean to say the red line is a transfer of weapons when Hezbollah, Syria and Iran's military machines are integrated? Who's transferring what to whom? It doesn't make sense anymore.

Hezbollah's weapons are Syria's weapons are Iran's weapons when it comes to Syria. So that's the first issue that becomes difficult for Israel to grapple with. The second is the notion of an address. The more the Syrian regime disintegrates, becomes a collection of militias, a fighting force more than a state, the harder it is to deter. I mean, what are the targets? Who is the address to whom you're addressing your threats?

So it may well be at some point that Israel finds itself dragged into this war because it can no longer conduct its strategy the way it used to, which is by dictating red lines and threatening central addresses. The address is now becoming much more decentralized, and the red lines are becoming much harder to enforce because, as I said, it's much harder to know who has the weapons and where they're being transferred.

GROSS: It seems Israel really has no side to support in the Syrian civil war.

MALLEY: That's a very good question. I think it applies in some ways to more than Israel. It applies to the West as a whole. It's hard - you know, they're not - there's not one side that is pristine. Now there may be a side that is morally superior, that is more appealing, but there's no doubt that there's now both ugliness on both sides and dangers on both sides.

Again, I'm not - it's not a matter of moral equation. One could be far worse than the other. But nonetheless, if you're sitting in Jerusalem, if you're trying to make a decision, and you're trying to weight the alternatives, the survival of the Assad regime weakened on the one hand, yes, but still it would be a victory for Iran and Hezbollah, or the victory of the opposition which would be a blow for Iran but could empower Islamists at a time when Islamists are gaining ground in Egypt, when they're gaining ground in Tunisia, when they're gaining ground in Libya.

If they're gaining ground in Syria, could Jordan be that far behind? And then Israel is facing something that it may consider far more dangerous than what it's facing today. So yes, I think it's a very difficult decision for Israel, and I think Israel has so far tried to stay out of the conflict as much as possible, has sent messages through intermediaries to the Syrian regime saying we're not after you, we're after some actions that you're taking, for example the transfer of weapons to Hezbollah. But we don't have a stake in this struggle, whether you survive or lose, according to the Russians' messages that are being conveyed. But no, this is - you know, in a way Israel is caught between a rock and a hard place.

GROSS: Robert Malley will be back in the second half of the show. He's the director of the International Crisis Group's Middle East and North Africa Program. I'm Terry Gross, and this is FRESH AIR.

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GROSS: This is FRESH AIR. I'm Terry Gross. We're talking about how the civil war in Syria has widened into a regional war, and what the consequences are in the region and for the U.S. My guest is Robert Malley, the director of the International Crisis Group's Middle East and North Africa Program.

You were discussing how Israel really doesn't have a side that it can support because both sides pose potential threats to Israel. Let's extend that to the West in general and the United States in particular. What are the potential problems that the United States faces in deciding what if any further action to take in Syria?

MALLEY: Well, first I think, yes, the United States, the administration has a side. There's no doubt about it. It has a side. It has affinities with the opposition. It doesn't want to see the regime continue. President Obama said in August 2011, a few months into the uprising, when he said President Assad has to go.

So I think there's no ambiguity about which side the U.S. is on. They may not be - there's more ambiguity in the case of Israel. In the case of the U.S., I don't think there's any ambiguity. The question in my mind, one of the things that we have to be careful about, that we have to bear in mind is, is we may have a stake in whether the Assad regime continues or not. But do we have a stake, or should we have a stake in the broader Sunni Shiite confrontation? Should we take sides in this religious war which it has now become? Should we take sides in this war, not against Iran's policies, but against Iran per se? I mean, there is antipathy towards Iranians, which or Persians that Arabs want to contain and suppress any Iranian influence in the region. Again, we have legitimate problems with the shape of Iranian rule, the character of its regime, with the nuclear program, but do we have a problem with Iran per se as some of the Sunni Arab states do?

So this is one of the major problems I think in devising a policy, is this entanglement between our fights, our legitimate fights and the fights that others want us to be dragged into. Others want us to be dragged into the sectarian struggle between Sunnis and Shiites in which I would argue we don't have a stake. We don't want to take sides.

GROSS: Who are the others you're talking about?

MALLEY: Whether it's Sunni Gulf Arab states. I mean, many those were - many were - supporting the opposition in Syria have an agenda which is their agenda, which is to end, to suppress Shiites in the region, to suppress Iran's influence in the region. That's the agenda. I mean, you mentioned the Egyptian cleric who lives in Qatar. He was expressing a view that others had, which is this is a fight to the death against Shiites. That is not America's fight.

In the case of Iraq, we helped the Shiites come to power - as, you know, they were the majority. So we don't have anything against Shiism, per se. We don't have anything against Iran per se. We have something against specific policy. And that's how do we, how can we be smart enough to be part of a struggle but not, but be part of our struggle, defending our interests and not letting us be dragged into a fight in which we don't have a stake? People are trying to drag us into their wars. And that's, I think that's really one of the main issues we have to bear in mind.

GROSS: Well, some people here want us to get involved in the war. Senator McCain has been urging military intervention.

MALLEY: Right. And that's a - but I mean I think Senator McCain would say he's doing this because he wants to help the people of Syria have a more democratic, productive future. I mean, he has - obviously, he also wants to weaken Iran, but he has, you know, his view and I think it comes from a very a valid concern, which is the extraordinary death toll. And we didn't speak about the refugee crisis and, you know, one-and-a-half million refugees, more or less, four million, if not more, displaced persons out of a population of a little over 20 million. I mean, we're really talking one of the most catastrophic humanitarian disasters we're facing. So it's understandable that some people want to act.

What I'm saying is we have to be careful about understanding that this is not - in its entirety it's not our war. There may be pieces of it that are our struggle but this is not a war in which we have a real stake. There is enough reason to be cautious, to think hard. To think also what are the interests that we are pursuing? And there's a whole list that we could be pursuing. Ending the violence and the killing; very noble effort to try to try to end the slaughter. Or is the goal to end Iranian influence in Syria? Is it to avert regional instability? Is it to promote democracy? Is it to minimize or end the - to make sure that chemical weapons are neither used nor transferred? Is it to make sure that jihadists don't have a hold in Syria? Is it to limit Russian influence? All of these interests arguably are defensible. All of them can be justified. But you can't pursue each and every one of them simultaneously because they are in conflict with one another.

If, for example, your goal were strictly to end the violence and the killing, then maybe you'd be prepared to agree to some form of compromise that would entail some degree of continuation of elements of the current regime and some degree of continuation of Iranian influence in Syria - if your only goal was let's end the violence. If your goal is to end Iranian influence and to deal Iran a real blow in Syria, then certainly, you can't accept that. Your goal then is to defeat Iran and Syria.

So we need to decide before we jump to whatever action we're going to take: what are our priorities, what resources are we prepared to expend in order to achieve them, and what is the likelihood that by expending these resources we're going to get the result we want? Again, that doesn't prejudge the outcome of this thinking process, but it means that we can't want everything at all times and think we can achieve them because these are competing interests and some of them should take priority over others.

GROSS: So you've just spelled out some of the problems we'd face with military intervention. Secretary of State John Kerry wants to organize an international peace conference to resolve the civil war in Syria. But he says we're late, it's a little late to be starting this. Again, getting back to what you were saying about this is really widening into a conflict of militias and sectarian fighting that crosses national boundaries. So what are the odds that your traditional peace conference with heads of states or their appointees would reach any lasting agreement?

MALLEY: Nobody has ever lost any money betting on failure in the Middle East in general, so obviously, there's room for skepticism. I think what Secretary Kerry's intuition was - and I think it's the right one - you know, again, it's not, doesn't mean that Geneva is going to succeed. There's every reason to believe that it's going to fail. But given how complex the situation is on the ground, given how regional the conflict has become, given how global it has become, what you feel you need to have is an agreement between Russians and Americans on what the outcome needs to look like and then you try to expand the circle of getting others to buy into it. We're not there yet. We're not there yet.

GROSS: Why start it that way? Why started, you know, not getting Assad to the table but getting Russia to the table?

MALLEY: Because if Assad has Russia completely on his side, completely on his side, he won't budge. There's no reason for him to budge. You could say the same about the opposition. But clearly, it's the case of Assad. If he feels that he has Russia - let alone Iran and Hezbollah strongly backing him - he has no reason whatsoever to compromise. So there needs to be an understanding between Russia and the U.S. at a minimum. You know, ideally it would involve others as well, but let's start with what is more manageable, and even that's hard, and hasn't been achieved yet, an understanding on what the outcome, the endgame would look like, what does it mean for the survival of the Syrian state? What does it mean for the army? What does it mean for the political system and the fate of individuals as well, Bashar among them? If they could reach an agreement there, then perhaps they could each exercise pressure on other allies of the respective sides and then on the sides themselves.

GROSS: During the Cold War, there were a lot of regional wars, especially in Africa, that were proxy wars for Russia and the United States. Is it starting to look that way again, like there's a potential of this becoming a proxy war where the U.S. and Russia are on opposite sides and that could lead to lead to very bad relations between the U.S. and Russia?

MALLEY: It's a good question and certainly, there are echoes of it. I mean, even if you really want to stretch the analogy of the Russians sending advanced anti-air missiles to Syria is that echo of the Cuban Missile Crisis, where the Russians are going to say, we will send these missiles, unless you commit not to attack Syria? And President Putin of Russia does seem to have sort of a Cold War streak in him. And my sense is the Russians see Syria not so much, it's not so much for them about Syria; it's about Western intervention in third countries, it's about revenge for the humiliation that Russia has suffered over the years, it's also about the fear of Sunni Islamism. I think Russians truly believe that the U.S. is being naive in allowing or acquiescing, or condoning the rise of Sunni Islamists through democratic means in the region. The Russians see them as a mortal threat in their own neighborhood. So I think there's a lot of that. But one of the themes I think that is that runs through Moscow's attitude in this is a very anti-American notion that the U.S. can't be allowed to win this regime change fight in Syria.

So yes, you're right. I don't think we're going to go back to the Cold War. Russia doesn't have the means. Russia doesn't have the means to conduct that kind of fight. But certainly, it looks more like that than it's looked for some time.

GROSS: My guest is Robert Malley, director of the International Crisis Group's Middle East and North Africa program. We'll talk more about the widening war in Syria after a break. This is FRESH AIR.

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GROSS: If you're just joining us, my guest is Robert Malley. He's the director of the International Crisis Group's Middle East and North Africa program, and we're discussing how the conflict in Syria is becoming a widening war in the Middle East.

How do you see what's happening in Syria and the spread regionally of that conflict being connected to the Arab Spring?

MALLEY: First of all, I think we should bury the term Arab Spring once and for all. I mean, it never was the right term. It didn't happen in the spring. It doesn't have any of the springtime elements one in the West would associate it with, and it wasn't exclusively Arab because Kurds were involved. So I think what we're seeing is a confluence of upheavals in the Arab world, one of which is a sentiment of a repulsion, disgust and revolt against authoritarian regimes, which is the one that most people focused on, particularly in the West, at the beginning because it was the most positive one. But all these elements, all these other elements, have now glommed onto it and there is a sectarian struggle, there is this regional struggle, there is this newly-minted Cold War, there's this jihadist - I mentioned.

So there are positive elements. There are many frightening elements. I just think we have to stay away from a simplified prism of seeing it simply through - merely through the lens of the Arab uprising, which does conjure up more positive images and neglects and ignores all these other dimensions, which were very, very quickly present.

My colleague, Hussein Agha and I wrote two years ago, early on in the uprising, we wrote a piece which we called "The Arab Counterrevolution," pointing to all these other factors, and then eight months ago a piece called, "This Is Not A Revolution," trying to make the point that you can't simply look at this as a Revolution. We were, it's sort of a take on the French painter Magritte's painting of a pipe, in which he said this is not a pipe, but they said this is not a Revolution but it's also not a Revolution.

There are many other things that are happening and I think we have to be aware of them and I think at this point many are, and not simply try to look at it as a democratic uprising by people who are fed up with totalitarian rule. That's one element. Unfortunately, today it's no longer the more dominant one.

GROSS: So when you look at the Syrian conflict and see how it is widening to different religious groups in other countries, what are some of your worst fears of what might happen?

MALLEY: We touched upon a number of them already. I mean, whether we spoke about Lebanon, the most fragile both far of Syria's neighbors. Iraq, which again, just still licking its wounds from its own sectarian civil war. Jordan, we didn't mention Jordan, but certainly, Jordan, which has always been relatively fragile is looking with great alarm at what is happening to its north because instability in Syria could trickle down into Jordan and it's itself a very fragile concoction that doesn't quite, you know, hold together, given the divisions between Islam, Islamists between Palestinians and Transjordanians. And, of course, you could and Turkey, which has gone through its own convulsions. But, you know, you could weave extremely catastrophic scenarios which are not wholly unrealistic. We spoke about Israeli intervention. You could imagine Iran, if it feels like things are really taking a turn for the worse, pouring in troops directly into - more directly - and in greater number into Syria. You could imagine Iraqi Shiite militias coming in and then again Sunni militias fighting it out.

It's almost impossible to end this worst-case scenario exercise. I'm not saying they're the most likely, but certainly the ingredients are there for the kind of regional conflagration that some people have been speaking about for some time. They thought it would be launched more - it would be triggered by an Israeli-Iranian confrontation, and that is one of the layers of what's happening, certainly. But you now have this old Sunni-Shiite sectarian fight, which is metastasizing and which could take on - and what's hard to see is what's the endpoint? Because neither side can accept the victory of the other. So either there's going to be - and this again is where this notion of diplomacy is so key, and it's hard to do in the abstract and it's hard to do when the balance of power is what it is today, with President Assad feeling quite emboldened.

But only a diplomatic settlement in which all sides' core interests are respected is one that could put an end - at least a temporary end - to this conflict because each side is viewing it as so existential, that they cannot accept defeat.

GROSS: So, say the conflict leads to another civil war in Lebanon and increased sectarian fighting in Iraq and other countries. In your description, there are still civil wars within countries. But at the same time, you're discussing a war that, you know...

MALLEY: Transcends boundaries.

GROSS: ...transcends boundaries. Exactly. So do you see, you know, like Sunnis in Iraq fighting Shia in Lebanon? I mean, do you see this all morphing...

MALLEY: It's...

GROSS: ...into one big regional sectarian war?

MALLEY: There are certainly signs of it already. I mean, we've mentioned Hezbollah fighting across the border in Syria. There are Lebanese fighting in Syria on the Sunni side. There are Iraqi Shiites fighting to protect Shiite shrines in Syria, but they may do more than that, and there are jihadists. We didn't mention this phenomenon - I mean, that's probably not the right term - of jihadi tourism, of jihadists who are flocking to Syria because it has become the location, the arena, of choice for the Islamist fight, for the jihadist fight.

It is - it's already surpassing Iraq in terms of the number of jihadists who are - foreign fighters who are coming in. I was just in Europe and the Europeans are alarmed by how many of their own are now going to fight in Syria and then coming back. And Syria is much, much easier of access than Iraq ever was for jihadists. In Iraq, there was only one country through which they could go, really, which was Syria.

Syria's borders are - I mean, on Syria's borders are many countries that are allowing or can't do anything to prevent jihadists from coming in: Turkey, Lebanon, perhaps Iraq. So Syria is not just going to be a place, location, for this transnational war between Sunnis and Shiites, but jihadists also are finding it a very attractive place to wage war.

And as you say, this - it could potentially, as already we're seeing signs of it - the borders become simply passageways, gateways that fighters have to go through in order to wage the fight in any one of the arenas. But there are factors of restraint - let's not forget them - that each of these actors has limitations. Each of them knows that if it goes too far, it may be courting disaster.

So there's some degree of self-restraint, but the factors that are pushing towards greater regional conflict at this point seem stronger ones.

GROSS: The pressures towards greater regional...

MALLEY: Greater regional confrontation.

GROSS: Yeah.

MALLEY: I mean, so far, those are the ones that seem to be prevailing, even though, I mean, we could go through each actor one by one and understand and see why they wouldn't have an interest in seeing this happen, but wars often happen against the better judgment of its protagonists.

GROSS: Robert Malley, thank you so much for talking with us.

MALLEY: Thank you.

GROSS: Really appreciate it.

MALLEY: I enjoyed it very much. Thank you.

GROSS: Robert Malley is the director of the International Crisis Group's Middle East and North Africa program. Coming up, our TV critic David Bianculli reviews the new season of "Arrested Development." Six years after being cancelled on Fox TV, it's returned with new episodes on Netflix. This is FRESH AIR. Transcript provided by NPR, Copyright NPR.

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