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What Does Vladimir Putin Want In Syria?


An extraordinary image at the United Nations yesterday, Vladimir Putin as peacemaker. Russia's president stood before the general assembly sounding ready to lead peace efforts in Syria.


Remember, Putin is the aggressive leader recently isolated by the West. Now the question is whether the United States can work with Russia, which has increased its military presence in Syria.

GREENE: Putin met at the U.N. yesterday with President Obama. The two disagree over who should lead Syria, and that's where we began our conversation with Michele Flournoy, who was undersecretary of defense for three years under President Obama. Good morning to you. Thanks for coming on the program.

MICHELE FLOURNOY: I'm happy to be here.

GREENE: I want to start with two very different messages. President Putin told the general assembly that Bashar al-Assad's military is the best way to win peace in Syria. But President Obama tells the same assembly that in order to achieve peace, President Assad has to go. I mean, given those two statements, is there really any possibility for Russia and the United States to work together here?

FLOURNOY: Well, I think that remains to be seen. But the U.S. and Russia are coming at this from diametrically opposed perspectives. Putin is interested in maintaining his toehold in the Middle East, and Syria's the only place he has it. And he's also very concerned about the potential of ISIS foreign fighters coming back to his part of the world. And so his solution is strengthen the state in Syria. And he points to Libya and Iraq and other weakened or failing states as a cautionary tale for Syria. I think President Obama rightly diagnoses that what has energized people to support ISIS in Syria is the brutality of the Assad regime against the Syrian people.

GREENE: Do they both have legitimate arguments to make?

FLOURNOY: I think there's some truth on both sides in the sense that, you know, I agree with the diagnosis that Assad has to go. He cannot stay in power in Syria. As long as he does, ISIS will thrive. On the other hand, I do think that what Libya's gone through, what other parts of the Middle East where weak governments have been in place or challenged - I think that's a cautionary tale. And so to me, that speaks more to the question of how do we transition Assad from power. How do we do that in a way that tries to keep some state institutions intact and operating but bring in the full range of moderate opposition forces that are more representative of the Syrian people?

GREENE: Well, if you see a way - and if President Obama sees a way - to have some sort of transition, to remove Assad from power and he truly believes that that is the way to end this civil war, does he have to work with the Russians?

FLOURNOY: I think we will have to work with all of the countries that have played a serious role in Syria, including Russia - Iran as well, and others in the neighborhood. I think part of Putin's move here, in terms of putting additional Russian forces into Syria, is actually also positioning for those negotiations. He wants to have a stronger hand over the ultimate outcome of a transition. One of the ways to improve his hand is to put Russian forces on the ground unfortunately.

GREENE: Can Putin be trusted?

FLOURNOY: That is not a word I would associate with Vladimir Putin. He's a very skillful tactician. So we shouldn't assume that he's doing this for reasons that are appealing or attractive to us. But that doesn't mean we can't work with him in some capacity. We have to make sure that we, at a minimum, de-conflict the activities of Russian forces in the area and U.S. forces. We do not want any kind of accidental confrontation between the two. When it does come time for negotiations, the Russians will necessarily be involved. And that's just a fact that we're going to have to deal with.

GREENE: You're saying that you see a real risk here if there are Russian troops that get involved in some sort of accidental confrontation between the United States and Russia.

FLOURNOY: I think it depends on how they operate. He has said that they're going to remain in an advisory role. But it really depends on their actions. It depends on the areas where they're operating, how close they come, for example, to areas where we're launching airstrikes. So, you know, we have to make sure that we stay clear of any kind of inadvertent use of force that hurts, you know, one side or the other. I think, you know, if you're operating in the same theater, you'd better have a pretty clear sense of where they are.

GREENE: Michele Flournoy is the cofounder and CEO of the Washington think tank The Center for a New American Security. And she served as undersecretary of defense for three years under President Obama. Michele, thanks very much.

FLOURNOY: Thank you.

GREENE: And NPR's Pentagon correspondent Tom Bowman was in the studio here listening to that conversation with Michele Flournoy. Hey, Tom.


GREENE: Just drill down with me on one thing she said, if you can. She suggested that if the Russians have troops on the ground and continue to have a bigger military role in Syria, there could be a risk of a U.S.-Russian military confrontation. That sounds very frightening. Is that a real possibility here?

BOWMAN: It is a real possibility and not with troops, but with aircraft. Now, the Russians have about 30 attack aircraft right now in Syria. And I'm told they're actually stacking the bombs in tents right next to this aircraft. So the sense is they could start bombing sites very soon, in the next day or so. The U.S. and its coalition members are also bombing in northern Syria. So the word she mentioned was de-confliction. De-confliction basically means I have to know where you're operating and you have to know where I'm operating. So you could see communications between the Americans and the Russian aircraft, pilot-to-pilot. Or what you could see is creating zones. OK, you operate bombing over here. I'm going to operate in this zone.

GREENE: And we're going to stay in our own separate spaces.

BOWMAN: We're going to stay in our own separate spaces.

GREENE: Are those conversations happening between these two governments right now?

BOWMAN: Well, we were told it would likely to happen. But we haven't heard anything on that in the past week or so. But clearly everyone in the Pentagon is very, very focused on this issue of de-confliction. And clearly once the Russians start bombing, which again is expected, you will definitely see some type of de-confliction.

GREENE: I gather that these two militaries, the U.S. and Russians, have not had as much communication as in the past because of all the tensions over Crimea. Is that - is that fair to say?

BOWMAN: Oh, absolutely. For more than a year there's been no military-to-military dialogue with the Russians because of Ukraine and the Russian incursion there.

GREENE: Tom, thanks a lot.

BOWMAN: You're welcome, David.

GREENE: That's NPR Pentagon correspondent Tom Bowman. And we should add, a senior Obama administration official says Putin and Obama yesterday did speak about making sure their militaries stay out of each other's way. Transcript provided by NPR, Copyright NPR.

Tom Bowman is a NPR National Desk reporter covering the Pentagon.
David Greene is an award-winning journalist and New York Times best-selling author. He is a host of NPR's Morning Edition, the most listened-to radio news program in the United States, and also of NPR's popular morning news podcast, Up First.