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U.S., Russia To Set Up Safety Protocols In Syria


All right, Tom mentioned the views of one of President Obama's advisers on Syria. Let's bring in another voice here. It's Mary Beth Long. She was assistant secretary of defense for international security affairs during President George W. Bush's second term. And she's currently an adviser to NATO. And she is currently in our studios. Good morning to you.

MARY BETH LONG: Good morning to you, David.

GREENE: So later today, Russian and U.S. military officials are going to be on this conference call, it sounds like, trying to agree on what the Pentagon is calling safety protocols, which I take to mean making sure that the two countries are not shooting at each other in Syria.

LONG: That's right.

GREENE: Is this a big risk here?

LONG: It is a big risk, particularly when it comes to de-confliction of airspace. One of the recent aerial incidents that could've ended very badly was the Russian flight incursion into Turkey, which of course is a NATO country. So de-confliction is actually a minimal measure that should be taken.

GREENE: And de-confliction is basically what we're talking about. It's making sure there are not incidents between the two countries.

LONG: Making sure they're not firing at each other or flying into each other.

GREENE: And you're saying that that incursion into Turkey, we actually were getting close to what could've been a real significant event?

LONG: No, I'm not saying that we came close. But it certainly was very inflammatory. I mean, one does not fly into one's neighbor's airspace without permission and without risking a response. And Russia has done that repeatedly, most recently in Turkey but also in the U.S.

GREENE: You know, there are these wire reports that are crossing this morning that Russia's foreign minister, Sergey Lavrov, is saying that the United States declined to send a delegation to Moscow to talk about deeper, you know, ways to cooperate here. I mean, are these countries getting farther apart at a moment when they're both operating with military in the same space?

LONG: Yes, and that's the danger. Actually, we've been quite far apart. And I'm sure that the Russian invitation was ambiguously sincere. But for example, the incident with State Department head Kerry last week in the U.N., when Lavrov and the Russians came out and had a joint media presentation just hours after Russia surprised the United States and other countries by going into Syria, those kinds of incidents I think really represent a deepening of the hostilities between the countries.

GREENE: I mean, it feels like just a few weeks ago we were sort of talking about this. And it was being suggested that this all sort of sounded scary but that the ultimate goal was sort of for Russia to find a strong position in negotiating the next steps in sort of a post-Assad Syria. Are things changing now? I mean, is this becoming sort of an entrenched military conflict involving two superpowers?

LONG: Well, I think we may have misunderstood it at the beginning. I think that's one of the real issues with this administration, that they've always underestimated Putin's moves. And this is actually just one of recent things that President Putin has done in order not only to legitimately go after ISIS and other terrorist organizations that have impacts in Russia and to help Assad, but I think also to fill the void left by this administration not only in the Middle East but elsewhere and also to embarrass and make the United States look weak.

GREENE: Let me ask you about goals. You know, we heard in Tom's piece there a suggestion that what Russia's trying to do is basically to eliminate all of the anti-government groups with the exception of ISIS, leaving basically ISIS and Assad as the two players in Syria and putting pressure on the United States to accept Assad. Do you agree with that as being Russia's sort of endgame here?

LONG: That may be their endgame. And if it is, it's foolish. Leaving Assad in place is clearly part of their endgame. I don't think Russia has any illusions that getting rid of everybody other than Assad and ISIS is a realistic goal. And in fact, ISIS represents a threat to them as well. So I wouldn't couch their goals that way. But what I would say is that we don't really know what their goals are. And despite all the conversations, the de-confliction and other conversations, we just don't understand. And I'm afraid the administration's underestimating them.

GREENE: Just 10 or 15 seconds left. I mean, as Americans sort of think about the Cold War and how frightening that was, now we hear about Russia and the United States sort of being on two sides of a military conflict in the Middle East, I mean, how frightened, how worried should we be?

LONG: We should be worried. We don't understand what's going on between Russia and Iran. We don't understand what's going on in the region anymore. And we're certainly seen as the weak party.

GREENE: That's former Assistant Secretary of Defense Mary Beth Long. She's also founder and CEO of the government consulting firm Metis Solutions. Thanks so much for coming in.

LONG: My pleasure. Transcript provided by NPR, Copyright NPR.