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Support For Syrian Regime Critical In Fight Against ISIS, Putin Says At U.N.


So the U.N. General Assembly heard two contrasting takes of Syrian president Bashar al-Assad today - first, President Obama once again denouncing him as a tyrant who's dropped barrel bombs on his people and Vladimir Putin saying that Assad's government is valiantly fighting against terrorism. We turn now to Syria watcher Joshua Landis of the University of Oklahoma. Welcome to the program once again.

JOSHUA LANDIS: It's great to be here. Thank you for inviting me on.

SIEGEL: And first, both at the U.N. and last night on "60 Minutes," Vladimir Putin has expressed his support of Assad. So how much of Syria does Assad still control?

LANDIS: He controls about 25 percent of the land and about 60, 65 percent of the people.

SIEGEL: So that's a considerable - at least part of the Syrian population is still under government control.

LANDIS: Yes, it is, and Putin is very worried that he would lose the rest of Syria and has gone into shore him up, sending in aircraft, helicopters and building an airbase up near Latakia.

SIEGEL: How would you describe Russia's interest in Syria and in Assad?

LANDIS: Well, his interest in supporting this old ally is it keeps Russia's position in the Middle East. Without Syria, Russia really doesn't have a foothold in the Central states of the Middle East. That's a beachhead on the Arab-Israeli conflict, which is very important to him. It's a major base in Tartus for refitting Russian ships. And it's put him at the center of international politics for the last several years, whether it's the two Geneva Conferences on Syria, the chemical weapons issue. And today, his big headliner at the U.N. is about Syria.

SIEGEL: Now, as for Assad himself, how important is he? Do you see him as the decision-maker telling Syrian forces and its allies militias what to do, how to conduct themselves in this war?

LANDIS: Yes. He's the decision-maker. He's at the top of this security state of Syria. And Assad, his father, was there before him for 45 years. This state has been run by an Assad, and everybody in any position of power is chosen because of their loyalty to the family and to the man.

SIEGEL: Now, British prime minister David Cameron has said recently that while Bashar al-Assad has no long-term in power to look forward to, there could be a transition period, implying a time when Assad could stay on. First, is that acceptable to any of the groups who've been fighting against the Assad regime all this time?

LANDIS: No, it's not. But more than one Western leader - the Germans have said the same thing, and in fact, Kerry has said it - and the American suggesting that they are getting ready to climb down on this issue of when Assad has to go. They understand that Putin has a point when he says you have to make a choice. There's a lot of bad choices, and you have to decide whether you're against ISIS first or whether you want to replace Assad. And they question really is, can you do that after taking on ISIS, or does that get pushed off into the - such a distant future that it really becomes irrelevant?

SIEGEL: But do you think that there really is that option of having Assad stay on for a period of time? Presumably, then, who would remove him from power if he stayed in power for the balance of the war against ISIS?

LANDIS: Well, that's the real question here. On the other hand, if you destroy him now and he collapses, ISIS and al-Qaida in Syria are likely to be the beneficiaries, and they might take Damascus, a city of 5 million people, sending out waves of more refugees and also being ensconced in one of the great capitals of the Arab world from which they would torture America and Iraq, possibly go after Lebanon or Israel. Who knows what they would do next? So this is a real dilemma, and the United States strategy of beefing up moderates to conquer ISIS and Assad has failed entirely. So the West does not have a strategy today, and Putin is coming on strong, trying to say, you've got to get in behind me.

SIEGEL: Joshua Landis of the University of Oklahoma, thanks for talking with us once again.

LANDIS: It's a pleasure. Thank you for asking me on. Transcript provided by NPR, Copyright NPR.

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