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Hundreds Killed As Syria's War Grows More Complex


Everyone seems to want a piece of Syria. The conflict there escalated this week when Bashar al-Assad's regime and its allies attacked a Damascus suburb called Ghouta. An AFP video captured the moment when bombs fell on the city.


MARTIN: Cameras also caught children being pulled out of rubble, and hospitals and residential buildings bombarded. Hundreds have been killed just this week. The conflict in Syria is an international one, with regional players like Iran, Turkey and Israel taking sides. Global powers like the U.S. and Russia have troops on the ground. To make sense of this incredibly complicated story, we have Rob Malley in our studios. He's president of the International Crisis Group, and he served in the Obama administration, advising the president on ISIS and the Middle East.

Mr. Malley, thanks for being with us.

ROB MALLEY: Thanks for having me.

MARTIN: Why is this conflict escalating now?

MALLEY: Well, it's escalating, but let's not forget how bad it's been for the last many years. So for the people of Syria, it's not necessarily escalating. It's a war without end for a people without hope. What's happened is as the fight against ISIS is now taking a back seat because they have been virtually defeated in most of the country, all of the other conflicts are coming to the fore. So Syria, which has been a killing field now for many years, is also becoming an arena for the struggles of others between Iran and Israel, between Turkey and Syria, between Turkey and the Kurds, between Russia and the U.S. Let's not forget that in a strike just a few days ago, the U.S. struck a convoy of pro-regime forces that included dozens of Russian contractors - you know, maybe a euphemism for mercenaries. So it really has become now the arena for the struggles of others, and once more, the Syrian people are the victims.

MARTIN: Let's unpack at least the American interests in Syria at this point. I mean, as you articulate, it was all about ISIS for a long time, and now that threat has been ameliorated. There are a couple thousand American troops, I believe, on the ground in Syria. What are they doing?

MALLEY: So it's not entirely clear. I mean, they're - the official line is they're still doing sort of both mop-up of ISIS and stabilization to make sure ISIS doesn't come back. But if you read between the lines and if you look at the region through the prism of the Trump administration, it really is very much an anti-Iranian front trying to make sure that Iran doesn't get too much of a foothold and that they can block the - sort of that corridor that, according to U.S. officials, Iran is trying to build between Tehran, Baghdad, Damascus and Beirut. So by...

MARTIN: But hasn't Iran had an influence in Syria for a long time?

MALLEY: Iran - exactly right. And I think the notion that the new fight in Syria's going to be the U.S. trying to stop Iran is not only the wrong fight, but it's also, again, another way of using Syria to fight a fight that doesn't involve the Syrian people. So it is yet again one more war that is being superimposed on a series of them.

MARTIN: And what is the Russian play in this war?

MALLEY: Well, the Russian play is showing how it wants to exert its power, which is not ready to intervene to try to stop others from fighting. It's turned a blind eye when Israel has conducted several strikes deep into Syria. It also has turned a blind eye when Hezbollah, the Lebanese Shiite or - movement - or when Iran intervened in Syria. So it doesn't really take a position to stop them from fighting. It lets different parties try to figure out how far they can go, and then it steps in when they need it. So I think Russia's role is to try to be central but not to be responsible for ending the fighting.

MARTIN: So you have been looking at this war for a long time, both inside and outside of government now. How do you see this ending? Does it ever end?

MALLEY: You know, at this point, it really looks like one war ends and another begins. And, you know, the tragedy is that Syria, which once sort of boasted about its sovereignty and being the heart of Arab nationalism - it basically is now a country that others are fighting over, as you said, from the outset. So parts of the war could end. Parts will go on. The country will be increasingly fragmented, de facto partitioned. And again, those who will pay the price are the people who we speak about least, which - who are the Syrian people. And this is a collective responsibility, as you said. I worked in the Obama administration. We weren't able to solve it. This administration doesn't seem to be making much progress either. Many lessons are going to be - have to be learned by all.

MARTIN: Rob Malley is president of the International Crisis Group. Thanks for your time this morning.

MALLEY: Thank you. Transcript provided by NPR, Copyright NPR.