CNN speaks with Fareed Zakaria about the situation in Syria, military action, and what Russia fears happening.
What is the president supposed to do if, for example, the House of Representatives says no to what he wants on Syria? Should the president go forward or should he just forget about it?
It's a very tough question. I think this is the risk he ran when he took on this course. I would think that he should do something anyway, because he has kept stressing that he has the authority. He has said that he thinks this is in the vital national interests of the United States.
Whether you agree with it or not, at this point, for him to have to back down in a humiliating fashion because he faced a divided vote in Congress would undermine the powers of the president of the United States, would undermine the president's ability to conduct these kind of operations with or without congressional approval.
Remember, for the last 30 years, the president of the United States has launched many military strikes against many targets around the world without congressional authorization. So, it would de facto change the rules of the game for the exercise of presidential power, which I think would be a bad thing for America's global leadership.
You see all of this as ill-planned, and that the president had plenty of time to think about it and perhaps should have taken a different route?
Well, if you think about it, once he laid out this red line, you would have hoped that the administration would have had a game plan. On the assumption that al-Assad would violate it, what would they do? What would the first few steps be? How would they gather an international coalition? Would they strike first and then present the evidence? Would they first present the evidence, then strike? Would they go to Congress? You know, you would have expected there would have been a sequence of events that had been planned out. Instead, when it happened, it appeared to many of us as if the administration was caught flat-footed and was unsure what to do, and then first decided they were going to act, then decided to go to Congress.
Did the president get zero out of the G20 summit? Do you think this would be, on the world stage, a huge failure for the United States?
No, it's always a struggle. We're always out there alone, certainly, in the first few rounds of these kind of international negotiations when it comes to the use of force. And it’s worth pointing out, the principal reason we are having so much trouble, both in the United States and around the world, is because of Donald Rumsfeld's legacy, that is to say, Iraq.
Can you explain what you mean when you suggest Syria is imploding?
You know, we tend to think of what's going on in any country as good guys and bad guys and democrats and dictators. And there's some of that. But at heart what's going on in Syria is you have a minority regime – that is the Alawites, of which al-Assad is a member of – ruling Syria, and they have ruled it for five decades.
What’s happening is a lot of the majority Sunni population is rebelling against it. We have seen this movie before. There are three such regimes in the Middle East. The Christians used to rule Lebanon, and it took a 15-year civil war to displace them from power. A majority, in effect, took over. The Sunnis ruled Iraq. We got rid of them, but it still took a 10-year civil war, a battle between the Sunnis and the Shias – and it's still going on, by the way. Iraq is still the second most violent place in the world.
The third such place is Syria, where you have this minority regime. And my point is this is a great internal struggle that’s going to take probably 10 years. It’s going to be very messy and very bloody. And the idea that we can from the outside, particularly with limited interventions like no-fly zones and cruise missiles, that we can shape the outcome is somewhat arrogant and is likely to be disproved by events.
This is going to take its own course, its own internal course. It's almost like a forest fire. We can contain it, we can try to help, but the idea that we can go in there and figure out who the moderate opposition is and fund them and put in place a new democracy in Syria that will respect all minorities strikes me as a fantasy.
What’s at stake for Russia in Syria?
Well, it's an interesting question because objectively it isn't a huge relationship. They do have defense exports. The Russians sell the Syrians stuff, but not a whole of a lot. The part I think may be at the heart of this is the Russians worry that if al-Assad falls in Syria, a whole bunch of Islamic militants will come to power and start spreading Islamic militancy and jihad into Russia. Remember, Russia is very close to Syria and remember where the Tsarnaevs come from – the Chechnya Dagestan area. That's where they are worried. It will become a kind of conduit of Islamic radicalism right up into the heart of Russia.
That concern of who takes over if al-Assad falls is also a shared concern of many lawmakers here in Washington, here in the United States on Capitol Hill in their opposition to U.S. action in Russia. But what do you think are the main reasons for Russia's opposition to going into Syria?
Well, the first part that Russian officials have told me often is they feel they got tricked in Libya. In Libya, the United States went to the U.N. and asked for what they claimed was a limited mission to protect civilians and turned it into a regime change strategy to get rid of Gadhafi. The Russians don't like that and they feel like they were tricked so they're probably not going to fall for the same trick again in their words.
Russia has also tended not to like the idea that the U.N. can interfere in the domestic affairs as they see it of other countries. This is a longstanding position the Russians and the Chinese have. Part of it is look, Vladimir Putin doesn't want the U.N. looking at what he does to his internal rebellions and revolts, whether in Chechnya or protests in Russia. I think difficult to see why they would do it because this kind of Russian nationalism is very popular in Russia. When Putin stands up to Obama, the Russians say he's a strong leader. He’s standing up to the super power and Putin made a reference to it. He said, you know, he was not elected to be nice to the Americans and Mr. Obama was not elected to be nice to Russians.
What is at play here has to be the relationship with China that Russia has, and maybe more importantly Iran.
Right. Russia at the end of the day has carved out for itself a set of relationships all of which revolve around many similar issues, protection of sovereignty and things like that. It's an old alliance with Syria. It's one of the last Cold War alliances Russia has. So when everything else crumbled maybe this is why they hold on.
The relationship between the U.S. and Russia has really disintegrated in spectacular fashion since the reset. I mean, they say the worst since the Cold War. What's behind all that do you think?
Well, let's remember to begin with, it was only good for a short period of time when Boris Yeltsin was president, when they needed us. They needed Western cash desperately. When the price of oil was $20 a barrel, and now it's $100 a barrel.
And there are so many tension points including obviously one thing that comes to mind Edward Snowden.
Right. So you have the Snowden issue where the Russians have ended up giving this guy asylum. This is a normal Cold War style spy change. Frankly, if we had gotten a Russian Edward Snowden, I very much doubt we would have handed him back, but that's a source of enormous irritation.
And these two men are very different personalities.
You couldn't script this differently. Obama is the city boy, community organizer, law professor, what he likes to do in his free time is play basketball. Putin is a KGB agent who spent years deep in the heart of the soviet empire. What he likes to do in his free time is wrestle tigers, ride horses, do judo.
All of this just really shows what's at stake and really everything that's at stake for the president.
It's the challenge. Remember, you can often have all these differences and that's where diplomacy comes in – you can still find some way to strike a deal.