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Former National Security Adviser: U.S. And Russia Must Work Together In Syria


We've been talking with a man with two words of advice about Syria, keep calm. Zbigniew Brzezinski has seen a lot. He was national security adviser to President Carter in the 1970s. He also served on an advisory panel to President George H. W. Bush.


He's the kind of long-time national security expert who, in the weeks right after 9/11 when everyone was panicking, had the perspective to say it wouldn't get much worse. Al-Qaida has shot their best ball, he said then. And the years after proved him right. When it comes to Syria, it's not that Brzezinski isn't worried. He thinks President Obama has made strategic mistakes. He thinks ending the war now will take multiple nations cooperating. But he says the recent news, Russia's intervention bombing targets in Syria, will only go so far.

ZBIGNIEW BRZEZINSKI: I think they may be sending a message that they are still a significant international power and have to be taken seriously. But it's a message that's constrained by reality. And their economics are not in the best of shape. Their adventure in Ukraine has not proven to be successful. And I don't think they're going to prevail in any sort of large-scale sense in the Syrian environment. But preserving what they traditionally feel they're entitled to enjoy - namely, the status of a kind of protector power, particularly in regards to Syria - that is, I think, within their doing. And it's not illegitimate.

INSKEEP: Well, now let me figure out a little further, if we can, what Russia's interests are. Russia has said that it supports the government of Syria's Bashar al-Assad. Secretary of State John Kerry of the United States told us the other day in an interview that Vladimir Putin must know that just supporting the government is a misguided aim. Let's listen to some of that.


SEC OF STATE JOHN KERRY: Syria will crumble under the weight of a prolonged war with them simply supporting Assad. So Putin does not have a simple, easy track here. He is not going to be able to stop the war, and it could be ISIL that actually winds up gaining in that process. That would be absurd. It would be a farce, and I think President Putin understands that.

INSKEEP: Kerry warning that a prolonged war just strengthens ISIS. Do you think, based on what you can see from the outside, that Vladimir Putin does see the world that way?

BRZEZINSKI: You know, I have no way of interpreting what is in Putin's head. But I am assuming that he's not insane and that he doesn't want a major confrontation with the United States and that he doesn't entertain the illusion that somehow or other, Humpty Dumpty can be put together by a few Russian planes and, in fact, none or very few feet on the ground. So I see what they're doing, essentially, as having to accommodate, that the problem is too complex, too international. And it is in the Russian interest to engage in Syria's stocks with the United States and local powers - Turkey, Iran, Saudi Arabia. And they want to be a party to that. I find that troublesome, but I don't find it to be wicked or likely to provoke some major world war.

INSKEEP: Well, now let's talk about what the United States can or should do in this circumstance. You wrote the other day in the Financial Times, as it was being revealed that Russian warplanes had been striking U.S.-backed rebels in Syria, that the U.S. could respond in some way, that there would be some way to disarm or neutralize the Russian bases, the Russian planes. How exactly would that be done?

BRZEZINSKI: My point, simply put, was that the Russian base for military operations is very insecure. It is not something to which Russians have automatic access and can use effectively if push came to shove, and they probably know that.

INSKEEP: Are you saying there is some way that the United States could cut off supplies to them or facilitate rebel attacks on them or do something else that would...

BRZEZINSKI: Well, anyone who looks at the map knows immediately that these bases are very vulnerable. They're small. And how do you get to them? You have to go through the Strait of Dardanelles all the way across the Black Sea. It's not exactly Fifth Avenue for a walk.

INSKEEP: So it sounds like one thing that you're telling us is don't get too worried about the Russian provocation here because the United States still does have some leverage if it needs to be used.

BRZEZINSKI: That is correct. And I think you put it exactly right, some leverage. It's leverage which can be exercised most effectively in which pieces are put together by parties that have an interest, and each of which has some leverage. Some have more; some have less. But that problem, unfortunately, is complicated by the fact that the same complexity prevails in the countries around Syria. So the process of stabilizing the zone is going to be prolonged and complicated.

INSKEEP: Zbigniew Brzezinksi, thank you very much.

BRZEZINSKI: Well, nice to talk to you.

INSKEEP: He served as national security adviser to President Jimmy Carter and is now a trustee at the Center for Strategic and International Studies. Transcript provided by NPR, Copyright NPR.