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Atlantic Council

Press Call – US-Turkey Cooperation in Syria

Frank Ricciardone,
Vice President and Director, Rafik Hariri Center for the Middle East,
Atlantic Council

Frederic C. Hof,
Senior Fellow, Rafik Hariri Center for the Middle East,
Atlantic Council

Samia Yakub,
Associate Director, Communications,
Atlantic Council

Time: 9:00 a.m. EDT
Date: Tuesday, July 28, 2015

Transcript By
Superior Transcriptions LLC

SAMIA YAKUB: Hello, everyone. Good morning. This is Samia Yakub with the Atlantic Council’s Rafik Hariri Center. I’m joined by Ambassador Francis Ricciardone, who is vice president here at the Atlantic Council and director of the Hariri Center; and Frederic Hof – Ambassador Frederic Hof, senior fellow here focusing on Syria.

We just want to – I just want to give you an explanation of the call, how it will go. If you all could mute your lines, it sounds like there’s quite a few people joining so that would be helpful just to minimize the feedback. We have members of the press. We have our Atlantic Council members joining today. We will be speaking on the record. We’ll begin with 15 minutes of opening remarks and 15 minutes of Q&A. If there are further questions, we can certainly accommodate for anyone who wants to stay on the line.

We’ll start with Ambassador Hof speaking about the safe zones that have apparently been agreed, and also the developments of the latest agreement on the use of bases against ISIS in Syria. So I will pass the floor on to him and he’ll speak for about seven minutes, and go from there.

FREDERIC C. HOF: Thank you, Samia. And hi to everybody.

What I’m going to try to do very briefly is summarize what we know, what we don’t know, and what it all may mean.

Washington and Ankara have agreed, at least in principle, to protect a zone in northern Syria stretching from Jarablus, a border town on the Euphrates River, some 68 miles west to the vicinity of Azaz, and then an unspecified distance south into Aleppo Province, perhaps as far south as the Syrian town of al-Bab. Just to give a sense of distances, al-Bab is about, oh, roughly 23 miles south of Turkey. The city of Aleppo, which seems not to be within the protective zone under consideration, is about 30 miles south of Turkey.

The stated purpose of the initiative is to exclude ISIS from the Turkey-Syria border along this 68-mile stretch and become a protected zone or a safe zone, dimensions yet to be decided, inside Syria. Within this safe zone, nationalist Syrian rebels, being trained and equipped to fight ISIS, would be protected by coalition aircraft and perhaps (INAUDIBLE) by Turkish artillery. The idea is to create a safe haven for these nationalist rebel units so that we see newly trained and equipped personnel from Turkey defend against ISIS ground operations and serve as a ground combat component against ISIS in conjunction with coalition aircraft.

My understanding is that discussions between Washington and Ankara about creating an anti-ISIS safe zone have been going on episodically for many months. Obviously, Washington has been seeking Ankara’s full and enthusiastic support for the war against ISIS. Coalition use of the airbase at Incirlik has been a major issue. Enhanced Turkish efforts at sealing the porous border with Syria has been a major issue. And likewise, the creation of a safe zone in Aleppo Province where ISIS could be excluded and an inside-Syria connection to the train-and-equip program has been a major issue.

I understand that in late 2014 an agreement was almost reached between Ankara and Washington on this safe zone issue. My understanding is that it foundered on two Turkish demands: the United States – (off mic) – formal no-fly zone, and that the city of Aleppo be included within that zone. Turkey’s concern was that Assad regime barrel-bombing of civilian areas would not only kill lots of people, but send additional streams of refugees in the direction of Turkey. Washington’s concern, especially in light of the then-ongoing nuclear discussions with Iran, was to keep the focus on ISIS and avoid direct confrontation with Iran’s client, the Assad regime. There were also concerns in the Pentagon that a formal no-fly zone would necessitate a massive air campaign aimed at neutralizing Syria’s large and overlapping air defense network.

Now it appears that these differences have been bridged. Certainly Turkey’s enhanced concerns with ISIS have played a role. Perhaps Turkey also sees agreement with Washington (INAUDIBLE) for stepped-up operations against the PKK in Iraq and within Turkey. Ankara may also see this agreement as a way to water down or mitigate Washington’s current dependence on the Kurdish PYD in Syria to provide ground forces to fight ISIS.

What may also be in play, however, is a passive understanding between the two sides that the creation of this safe zone and an accompanying aerial exclusion zone would have the effect of sharply reducing the barrel-bombing of Syrian civilians by the Assad regime air force. Obviously, the United States would take the lead in keeping non-coalition air assets out of the safe zone. If, for example, al-Bab is within the safe zone, then the Assad regime will be denied a favorite target for barrel bombs. And an aerial exclusion zone could – would probably cover an expanse of Syrian airspace well beyond the safe zone itself because coalition aircraft would not want to wait for hostile aircraft to enter the safe zone before reacting.

What I’m trying to say is that this Washington-Ankara initiative may be far more than a chapter in the ground war against ISIS. Both sides know that every barrel bomb dropped by the Assad regime is a victory for ISIS. Every such bomb is a boost to ISIS recruitment, both within Syria and around the world. What Washington and Ankara may have found is a formula to cut off a major part of the barrel bombings, but to do so in the context of protecting an area from which anti-ISIS operations would be launched. Although I have no idea how far beyond the safe zone an aerial exclusion zone would extend, I would note that Aleppo is just a few miles south of the safe zone under discussion and the city of Idlib is only 35 miles from Aleppo.

So to sum up, I’m not – I’m not totally sure that this is an entirely done deal. But if it is, it seems to me it could be much more than a launching pad for Syrian rebels helping us fight ISIS. Potentially, it’s a major step towards protecting Syrian civilians, which is a sine qua non not only for the fight against ISIS but for setting the stage for a negotiated political transition in Syria.


MS. YAKUB: OK. I’ll pass the floor on to Ambassador Frank Ricciardone here, a former U.S. ambassador to Turkey before joining the Atlantic Council last year.

FRANK RICCIARDONE: I’m going to pick up where – from Fred’s comments that what we’re watching here could well be far more than just another chapter in the ground war against ISIS.

What is also behind this is a lot of powerful political dynamics within Turkey, which is a fully functioning state of law and democracy that just went through hugely important elections only last month in which (INAUDIBLE) constitutional issues, identity issues were in the forefront – whether to have a strong presidential system – but also the what foreigners typically call the Kurdish issue was also in the forefront of those elections. And the definitions of citizenship and the role of the Kurdish identity within Turkish citizenship was all in play. A new government hasn’t yet been formed. And against this context, people – many Turkish friends see a reversion to the old debates and the use and the exploitation of nationalism, ethnocentric nationalism, in the Turkish political context. All of that plays into the government’s national security decisions on what to do about the PKK, for one, and then to deal with the other Kurds in the region, how to work with the Kurds in Syria in particular in this case.

What is really interesting for me is that there seems to be another evolution of Turkish thinking – national security thinking – with respect to the Kurds. It is not a new thing for Turkish armed forces to hit back hard when the PKK engages in some outrage. It is not new at all for PKK outrages to actually rally international support for the Turkish armed forces in so doing because the United States, European Union and others have declared the PKK a terrorist group. Heretofore, however, Turkey has not taken the same outlook toward the PYD in Syria as the United States and other Western allies have. We have all differentiated quite explicitly and overtly the PYD from the PKK. The one is operating against the Turkish state and is an – we consider an international terrorist group, and it’s quite legitimate for Turkey to defend itself against them, attack their bases in Iraq, et cetera. The other – the PYD – has explicitly said they have no quarrel with the Turkish state, and has explicitly long ago taken on ISIS and therefore aligned its interests quite explicitly, as a matter of policy, with those of the Western coalition.

It sounds to me as if the Turks have now come to make that same distinction. As a matter of fact, Saleh Muslim has – the PYD spokesperson, political spokesperson – has visited Turkey quite overtly, has met with the high Turkish officials. So in a de facto sense, the Turkish government has recognized this distinction as well. These are not clandestine meetings with – the Turkish government has been having contacts with the imprisoned PKK leader, Ocalan. This was something quite different. But it sounds as if the Turkish state – (inaudible, background noise) – the Kurds of Syria, although closely aligned with the PKK in the case of the PYD, can be dealt with in a separate way; that is to say, accepted as fellow combatants against ISIS, if not outright allies against ISIS.

That’s still a hypothesis. It remains to be tested. There was a report last Friday that Turkish forces had shelled – (off mic). The Turkish government denied that. Who knows what the facts are in the fog and confusion of war? But one of the facts is that the Turkish government denied it, so at least they wish not to be perceived as attacking them. So all this is very interesting.

The Turkish process, as they call it, without an adjective – just “the process” – of negotiations with the PKK clearly, for the moment, at least for the moment, has broken down and is set aside. My own expectation is that that must resume at some point, perhaps after another few rounds of hitting back and forth between the PKK and the Turkish security forces. We’ll see how that parallel conflict plays out even as the Turkish government seems to have aligned very strongly now with the coalition against ISIS, very much I believe to the – to the benefit of that coalition.

And from, I think, both – ISIS, certainly, has made a strategic mistake, repeating recently the first mistake it made a year ago when it took Turkish diplomats hostage, setting up a course of antagonism that was papered over for a while and now finally won the enmity of the Turkish state, which is a serious state with a serious national security apparatus, not only military but also intelligence and law enforcement; just as PKK has made a mistake, I think, in setting aside the political process, albeit they may have done so in response to political pressures from the Turkish government itself.

Why don’t I end it there?

MS. YAKUB: OK. So for anyone joining, that was Ambassador Ricciardone.

We are now going to open the floor to questions. And if you can just please mute your mic if you’re not asking a question, I think we’ll open it to you now for anyone who’d like to join in with a question.

Q: I have a question. I’m Deb Amos with NPR.

This switch/change has mostly been framed as a change for Turkey. I wanted to know what you thought the change in Washington was. Why have they come to terms with an all-but-name no-fly zone in northern Syria?

MR. HOF: Yeah, Deb, this is Fred.

You know, I think – I think Washington – I think the administration has certainly been intellectually seized with this problem for quite some time. You know, the president, his advisers are fully aware of the fact that Assad’s barrel-bombing campaign in particular is a gift that keeps on giving to ISIS.

You know, I can only imagine that there’s – that there’s movement now perhaps because the nuclear talks are concluded, the president doesn’t feel constrained in that sense. And you know, I suspect that’s – you know, that’s the major reason why there’s been a – there’s been a major initiative to come to closure with Ankara on this.

MS. YAKUB: Any follow-up?

MR. RICCIARDONE: No, that makes sense to me.


Q: Hi, this is –

(Cross talk.)

Q: Hello?

MS. YAKUB: Yes, go ahead.

Q: Warren Strobel with Reuters. Quick question for each of you, Frank and Fred.

Frank, do you have any sense that the U.S. might have been surprised or taken aback by the fact that Turkey simultaneously hit the PKK while it was also launching its first real airstrikes against ISIS?

And for Fred, I want to make sure I understood you correctly. Is it your understanding from U.S. officials that trained and equipped rebels will be inserted into this exclusion zone and that they’ll be protected by U.S. airpower from any attack, whether it’s Islamic State or Assad’s regime? Thanks.

MR. RICCIARDONE: Warren, this is Frank speaking.

I can’t say whether U.S. officials were taken aback, but certainly the Turkish government had given no reason for anybody to be surprised. For a long time Turkish leaders, particularly President Erdogan, have been saying – have been lumping together all threats to the Turkish state and fighting ISIS along with the PKK. And of course, most recently they’ve cited PKK, ISIS, and for that matter the people who bombed my embassy when I was there a couple years ago, the DHKP/C. So they – at least for purposes of domestic political presentation, they’re showing that all of these are of a piece in terms of national security threats, terrorist threats to the tranquility of the republic, the safety of their citizens. So I certainly didn’t find that very surprising.

I don’t think they needed any kind of a pretext. That storyline that’s coming out I don’t really credit.

MR. HOF: Yeah, hi, Warren. It’s Fred.

The answer to your question – both of your questions, I believe, is yes. First of all, I believe that elements trained and equipped inside Turkey will be introduced into this zone, where they will join existing nationalist units that are already either in contact with ISIS or close to being in contact with ISIS. And yes, I believe that the United States, in conjunction with Turkey, will be defending this safe zone against all comers.

OPERATOR: (Gives queuing instructions.)

Our next question comes from Joyce Karam

Q: Yes, hi. Thanks for doing this.

When you look at the map, the safe zone is very small. I mean, 109 kilometers – what do you expect it to hold, how many refugees, as they move in there? And what makes you think that Assad would actually not cross into this safe zone and make it actually very bloody for everyone there?

MR. HOF: Yeah, Joyce, this – this is Fred. I’ll take a shot at that.

The safe zone is, indeed, very small. You know, frankly, I don’t know whether resettlement of refugees from Turkey is going to be a major feature of this initiative. I honestly do not know.

Would Assad – would Assad test the safe zone or an aerial exclusion zone that goes beyond the safe zone? I wouldn’t rule it out. After all, there are reports that al-Bab would either be within the safe zone or on the edges of the safe zone, and al-Bab has been a – has been a favorite target going back quite some time for regime barrel bombs.

You know, I would just say that if a – if an aerial exclusion zone is in play here, if it goes beyond the safe zone, you know, messages will have to be passed to the Syrian regime, as they have been in the past. And there has to be – there has to be a willingness on the part of the United States to react decisively if – you know, if our efforts at, let us say, deconfliction are not respected by the Syrian regime.

MR. RICCIARDONE: Joyce, I might add – this is Frank Ricciardone speaking – your question brings up the fact – another difference in the Turkish perspective from that that, say, many Americans have. For the Turks, the spillover of the Syrian civil war is not only a major national security problem, which has evolved to become even more – (inaudible) – with ISIS clearly jumping in and getting involved in terrorism inside Turkey, but also a massive humanitarian problem. And of course, they’re interrelated. So clearly they would love to see a time when all or most of those Syrian refugees will return to Syria.

I don’t see, for the reasons you just pointed out in your question, that this zone is going to accommodate any large number. At most, it could be something like a proof of concept, I suppose, for some few.

I don’t imagine that many of those 2 million, in fact, came from that particular area. Perhaps a few, but with Aleppo being outside, I think that’s the major source of a lot of those refugees. So I can’t imagine there are many who would wish to go back to a place that wasn’t their home, in fact, and especially if the safety itself remains to be demonstrated. So it’s an important factor, but I can’t imagine it’s going to be the solution, or even a major step towards a solution of the refugee crisis. Perhaps; we’ll see if it tests the possibility.

MS. YAKUB: Just to tell everybody know, you know, we’ll be staying on for 15 more minutes after the – after 9:30, so just hang tight and we’ll get to your questions.

OK, we’ll go ahead and take Howard LaFranchi.

OPERATOR: Mr. LaFranchi (ph), please go ahead. You may have muted – oh.

Our next question comes from Anne Barnard.

MS. YAKUB: Anne, are you there?

OPERATOR: Ms. Barnard, please go ahead.

OK, our next question comes from Joe Parkinson.

Q: Hi. This is a question, I suppose, more for Ambassador Ricciardone. Can you hear me, like, OK?


MR. RICCIARDONE: Yes, Joe. Go ahead. Loud and clear.

Q: OK, great.

I suppose I’m wondering, in the context of, you know, now a conflict between the Turkish base and the PKK, what degree of confidence do you ascribe to this idea that the Turks will continue to differentiate between the PYD and the PKK, given the closeness of the organization?

And just as a follow on to that, what reaction do you think the U.S. might have if the Turks do start striking the PYD, given that they’re now close allies? And how do you anticipate the safe – do you anticipate the safe zone’s impact on that relationship? Will it perhaps dilute U.S. cooperation with the PYD, to be supplemented by these rebel groups?

MR. RICCIARDONE: Thank you, Joe.

I’d treat it as a hypothesis rather than a strongly established fact. It remains to be demonstrated, but from what I see in the Turkish media that is close to the government, from what I see of what seems to be facts being reported in the open sources, it looks like they are, as a practical matter and increasingly as a rhetorical matter, drawing that distinction. That’s hugely important, I think, for the success of the allied effort against ISIS and, indeed, in seeing some sort of security emerge in that zone.

Going to the second part of your question, should the Turks decide in fact to attack the local Kurdish forces inside Syria, it looks like that would lead to nowhere good. That would – that would sort of dissolve the alliance, the coalition against ISIS, and certainly do nothing to strengthen the larger opposition cohesion that we’d love to see form in general. So I think you understand that and that’s implicit in your own question. Did I cover your three points there?

Q: Yes. That’s great. Thank you.

MR. RICCIARDONE: OK, thank you.

OPERATOR: Our next question comes from Howard LaFranchi.

Q: Hi. Can you hear me now?


Q: Yeah, OK, great. Thanks.

Yeah, I guess my question is for Fred. You mentioned – I wonder if you could expand on what you mentioned about this potentially leading back to, you know, some sort of negotiated political settlement? And this has been mentioned a little bit in – sort of in the wake of reaching the nuclear deal. And I also wonder if you – if you now see in the time that President Obama has left, you know, has this – has this been put back on his plate, in a sense? Does it he want some sort of – do you see him wanting some sort of if not settlement then at least progress on Syria before he leaves office?

MR. HOF: Yeah, thanks, Howard. You know, I think the – my personal view is yes, the president in his 18 months or so remaining in the White House definitely wants to see some progress on Syria. You know, I think these reports or these opinions to the effect that all he wants to do is hand a smoking ruin to his successor have been overstated because in the fact of 18 months things can get immeasurably worse in this country if the likes of ISIS and the Assad regime are allowed to pursue business as usual.

You know, my sense is that any prospect – any prospect at all of a negotiated political settlement is zero, as long as these daily outrages, these daily atrocities, these daily abominations are taking place. I suspect that – I suspect the Syrians, you know, along the full length of the political spectrum would probably agree with that intellectually, that it’s very, very, very difficult for – you know, for Syrians themselves to take up serious discussions of security arrangements and, you know, accompanying political compromises as long as, you know, barrel bombing and starvation sieges and these other outrages are continuing.

So I think – I think the president’s concerned about that. I think the president is probably also concerned, and rightfully so, about his legacy in the context of civilian protections in Syria. This has been a – this has been a major challenge and, if I may say, a major – a major abomination. And hopefully we’re going to see the words “never again” now applied to Syria.

MS. YAKUB: We’ll be taking a question from Anne Barnard and then Mina Al-Oraibi.

Q: Hi, everybody. Hi, Fred. This is a follow up to your earlier comments. And I’m sorry if I missed something. I had to put the call on hold for a minute, so tell me if I’m repeating.

But you know, you sound, you know, surprisingly confident that the Americans really are on board for something akin to a (no-fly zone ?) because – (off mic) – so stridently insistent that that’s not what it is, that’s not official. And I’m just curious, is that solid? Do you think they’re going to back it up with the needed support for an infrastructure and governance inside, and for forcing the interim – (off mic)? Which insurgents are they talking about? Because train and equip is – you know, unless you’re also talking about the CIA train and equip, which is also really not going to be the (prime ?), as it were.

MR. HOF: Yes, Anne. This is Fred. You came in a bit broken up, so, you know, if I – if I miss answering pieces of your question, please repeat it.

In terms of – in terms of something whose effects would look like a no-fly zone, my own – my own view is it’s inevitable if the United States is serious about protecting the safe zone, whose dimensions are taking shape right now. It’s inevitable. Aerial protection of this zone will certainly be a requirement. And to defend this zone from aerial penetration, it’s going to require a deconfliction scheme and aerial exclusion zone that goes beyond this particular area.

You know, so unless – you know, unless the United States and its coalition partners are willing to step aside so that Syrian helicopters can conduct barrel bombing runs at will, my own sense and my own confidence stems from the fact that this – stems from the likelihood that this will not be the case, that the United States is serious about its responsibilities for defending this zone.

In terms of further political ramifications, I do not know if there is an intent to encourage, for example, the interim government to move into Syria. There is certain an opportunity here. The president spoke last October at Andrews Joint Base about trying to establish moderate Syrian governance inside Syria so that legitimate governance could be established and could spread to the rest of the country. We’ll just have to see. I have heard nothing in terms of – in terms of pertinent political follow up to this.

Q: Then I was asking which rebels are they going to be inserting in there? When you say the trained and equipped, do you mean the Pentagon program and the CIA program? And how would they be sure that – I mean, there’s no way, I believe, that only certain rebels could benefit from this. Anybody who’s in the area is going to benefit, isn’t that right? And doesn’t that include groups that the United States doesn’t want to see benefit?

MR. HOF: Yes, I would think that – I would think that potentially any group in the area could benefit, although I would hasten to add that, you know, Assad’s barrel bombing campaign is directed exclusively against civilians. Barrel bombs are not tactical air support for maneuvering units. My sense – when I’m talking about, troops that would enter the zone from Turkey and link up with established units, I am talking about the Department of Defense train and equip program.

MR. RICCIARDONE: And not Turkish troops, right? You weren’t referring to Turkish –

MR. HOF: No, I’m not referring to Turkish troops. I mean, reports I’ve seen to date indicate that Turkey may well support operations within this safe zone with artillery, but no intention to insert Turkish ground forces, at least at this point.

MR. RICCIARDONE: (My reason as well ?). Some people put that out there.

MR. HOF: Yeah.

MS. YAKUB: OK, we’ll take the next question from Mina Al-Oraibi. We may have Fred step out shortly, but please feel free to hang on with questions if you’d like to pose them to Ambassador Ricciardone.

Q: Thank you so much. Just a quick follow up about how governance, so to speak, would be in the safe zone. I just wanted to ask about all the different programs that were done years ago – two, three years ago. The U.K. took part of it and also the U.S., in terms of just helping local governance. Do you think any of those programs are actually viable now to take over in those areas? And as a follow up to that, could we see a possible similar zone being created in the south with, of course, the support of the Jordanians? Thank you.

MR. HOF: Yeah, Mina. This is – you know, this is Fred. The United States – the United States has expended considerable resources and technical assistance to local councils and to – and to civil society organizations throughout Syria. The main obstacle to the functioning of these groups has been the deliberate policy of the Assad regime to really prevent them from taking root.

And this is the – this is, you know, quite aside from general terror, this is the main strategic reason for the barrel bombing campaign, to make sure that local governance cannot take root. So to the extent that this safe zone, and perhaps an area beyond the safe zone, an area that could incorporate major population centers, is protected from aerial assault, one can see local governance doing its job much more effectively.

MR. RICCIARDONE: I’ll jump in and just do a little commercial here. Mina, you might be interested in this. All of the questions we’re discussing here today sort of beg the question of what is the strategic result we all want to see and how do these various tactical problems and issues and measures lead toward any sort of strategic result. And in fairness to the United States and to Turkey, and all the other established states that are trying to make sense of the whole region, it’s a really different world. It’s not a Congress of Vienna world, you know, much. It’s not even a Sykes-Picot world anymore.

We at the Atlantic Council have a process going on, a bipartisan one, under former Secretary of State Madeleine Albright, former National Security Adviser Steve Hadley, to examine the different aspects of it. And, Mina, your question goes right to one of them, about governance. We have committees under this taskforce looking at the security issue, how to deal with Daesh, the role of religion, what to do about refugees and how to find resilience in refugee communities that might go back in and establish some sort of governance itself and then sound economics.

So we’ve got a whole series of programs on that, a lot of people working on it. You’re warmly welcome to participate. Let me just assure that it’s something that we’re focused on, how to work with civil society to regenerate some sort of rule of law and order and security where people can conduct economic activity in their lives. And I would put in a plug for my modest friend and colleague, Fred Hof, who has written a paper on a civility force under which such civil society regeneration can take place.

Q: Great plug. Thank you so much for mentioning.

MS. YAKUB: We’ll take the next question from Trudy Rubin.

Q: Hi. Thanks so much for doing this. And I came in late, unfortunately, so forgive me if this repeats something you’ve already dealt with.

But do you see any sign whatsoever that after an Iran peace accord, assuming it doesn’t get side railed – derailed – so you see any sign whatsoever that Iran is willing to contemplate new negotiations that would move Assad out, or does it simply look like their position would stay the same on retaining Assad, at least for some time into the future?

MR. HOF: Trudy, hi, this is Fred. No, you’ve asked an original question here. This was not – this was not covered earlier. My own sense, based on – based on Track II discussions I’ve been doing for the past two years with senior Iranians, former officials, the most recent of which were about a month ago, is that – is that, no, I don’t – I don’t see any evidence that Iran is increasingly disposed toward facilitating a negotiated solution to the Syrian crisis.

On the contrary, I think – I think Iran and Hezbollah have been engaged in some very intensive consultations, centering on the question of just how much of Assad’s Syria they will defend. You know, for Iran a key consideration here is the political status of its ally and colleague, Hassan Nasrallah, the secretary-general of Hezbollah. Iran understands that the body bags going back into Lebanon are not – are not a political asset for Nasrallah. Iran, I think, is not inclined to send Hezbollah guys to re-conquer Idlib or other places, or to go fight ISIS.

So the priority for Iran and Hezbollah right now is to – is to tighten their interior lines of defense and to decide just how much they’re going to defend. But I’m seeing no evidence – none whatsoever – that Iran is interested in moving Bashar al-Assad off the stage. The Iranians consider him still to be essential to their ability to use at least a piece of Syria to support Hezbollah in Lebanon.

MR. RICCIARDONE: Maybe, Fred, let me check with this, because I left office more recently, a year ago now, and have also been involved with some Iranians. To answer the specific question – you’ve answered the deeper question that Trudy had, whether they’d ever contemplate giving up their toe hold and their equity there. And I quite agree. They want to clutch onto their influence and presence in Syria through a hold on the Syrian regime, no question.

But the Iranians, at least in my experience, are immensely subtle and practical within their subtlety. And they always hint at willingness to do things. And both in the official conversations that I was sort of aware of before and the conversations I’ve been in now, they’re pretty explicit in saying, you know, we know that in the long run Assad may not endure. But Syria has to endure. And we do have interests there. And we can talk about how we preserve our interests there, even as you Americans and others want to talk about how you preserve your interests there, or establish them. And Assad isn’t necessarily going to be part of that picture, but of course, the Iranians say, it’s not for us to decide – they allege. It’s very much the Russian line.

But so they suggest an openness to negotiations. My own guess is, like Fred, they’re not really going to be serious about it until they see that Assad is in fact going to go down – or has gone down, and then they’ll be prepared to talk more seriously about how to erect some substitute for him. I don’t think they want to have a moment toward a democracy based on a majority – on a non-Shiite, a non-Alawite majority there.

MS. YAKUB: So this will conclude our session. Thank you all for patiently taking part for a good part of your morning. Please feel free to follow up with any questions via email. We will aim to send you an audio and transcript before noon today. Thank you very much and have a nice day.


Related Experts: Francis J. Ricciardone and Frederic C. Hof