Volker on Foreign Affairs

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Former NATO Ambassador Kurt Volker makes his monthly appearance on Arizona Horizon to discuss the latest in foreign affairs.

TED SIMONS: Coming up next on "Arizona Horizon," the latest on Russian airstrikes in Syria and other foreign affairs with former NATO ambassador Kurt Volker. And Roosevelt Row is designated a great place by a national planning organization. Those stories next on "Arizona Horizon."

VIDEO: "Arizona Horizon" is made possible by contributions from the Friends of Eight, members of your Arizona PBS station. Thank you.

TED SIMONS: Good evening and welcome to "Arizona Horizon," I'm Ted Simons. Two new candidates announced today on the Republican side for Arizona's sprawling Congressional District 1. Pinal county sheriff Paul Babeu and Arizona speaker of the house David Gowan both announced their candidacies for the seat being vacated by Democrat Ann Kirkpatrick, who is running for John McCain's U.S. Senate seat. Other Republicans running for CD-1 include former secretary of state Ken Bennett, former congressional candidate Gary Keihne, and political unknown Shawn Redd. On the Democratic side, former state lawmaker Tom O'Halleran is the lone candidate. Russia begins airstrikes in Syria, and the Taliban makes gains in Afghanistan. Here with insight on those and other international stories is former NATO ambassador and ASU McCain Institute Director Kurt Volker. Good to see you again.

KURT VOLKER: Great to be here.

TED SIMONS: So much going on and before we even get to those points of conflict, let's talk about what looks like it's an agreement, this transpacific partnership.

KURT VOLKER: This is a trade agreement with pacific rim countries. It doesn't include China. And it is an opportunity to really expand trade investment, economic growth all around the pacific, it has tremendous potential.

TED SIMONS: Cuts trade barriers for 12 countries.


TED SIMONS: And Japan in there?

KURT VOLKER: Japan as well, you're dealing with develops countries like U.S. and Japan, and developing countries, some are democracies, some are not.

TED SIMONS: Common trade standards, common labor standards? Labor standards here?

KURT VOLKER: I don't know that we know all the details. How do we know it's a fair deal if other countries don't have the same regulatory issues or labor standards that we have? But the fact is if we can get our products in without tariffs and barriers, we're going to be able to export more and we have fairly open barriers in this country. There's potential good advantages for U.S. companies.

TED SIMONS: Currency manipulation is always a factor. What do we know about it?

KURT VOLKER: China is the one that people talk about with currency manipulation because they've had a reduced, unnecessarily reduced value of their currency to promote exports. You could argue that's something other countries could do, as well. We haven't seen it as much and it is contrary to what we would have negotiated in this deal. But we have to see the details, and then this has to be ratified by all of the legislatures of all of the countries.

TED SIMONS: My goodness. How is China taking all this?

KURT VOLKER: China is doing a couple of things. They're saying they've got their global economic presence, they're going to overtake our economy in size at some point so they're talking big. They've got some serious domestic issues with their economy. They've had a lot of corruption issues, the problems in the stock market this year, they have a lot of internal debt that may be bad debt. They're amazing a lot of challenges domestically and I think China is looking at this as an opportunity still because it's still a big player, it's going to trade with all these countries as well and people like to say a rising tide floats all boats. Healthier pacific rim economies is also going to be an opportunity for China.

TED SIMONS: So the geopolitical ramifications of this, not all that strong?

KURT VOLKER: Well, the thing that people say about it is it is another move of the United States to strengthen its position in Asia when otherwise the big fish in the pond is China. So that is a geopolitical implication. But that being said we've got to see it play out over a period of time. The APEC agreement which goes back 20 years now did an awful lot. If you remember before that we didn't have any of these economies in Asia and it opened up a lot of the opportunities there. There's a lot of optimism that this kind of trade deal will be the next phase of that development of the whole pacific rim.

TED SIMONS: All right. Some curious developments at the least regarding the Syrian civil war. Russia is involved, they're dropping bombs, they're not dropping bombs where we would like for them to drop.

KURT VOLKER: This is horrendous. We had three years in which Assad was killing his own people, over 250,000 people killed. We didn't stop that. We didn't remove him from power. You had ISIS grow in response to the attacks by Assad. You had the Sunnis being attacked by a Shia government, finally organizing, ISIS taking over part of the country. We've gone in with airstrikes to try to go after ISIS because of the terrorist threat that they represent. Others have joined us, we're flying in out of turkey. Then just last week Russia announces it's going in to prop up Assad, put its own Air Force, its own military into Syria to keep his regime in place. This does several things for Russia. It cements their military presence, it keeps Assad in power, it has them going after what they see as terrorists inside Syria, people who could also be attacking Russia inside Russia later on, and it's pushing the U.S. out of the Middle East which plays very well for Putin at home.

TED SIMONS: And the bombing raids, President Obama is saying that they are not differentiating between ISIS and the other anti-Assad forces. Some of those forces we're training.

KURT VOLKER: That's exactly right. So the Russians I think quite deliberately are refusing to make any distinction. They call all the opponents of the regime terrorists and therefore, they're all legitimate targets. What they're actually doing is targeting the non-ISIS opposition groups first in order to try to knock them out and create a very stark alternative between ISIS or Assad.

TED SIMONS: So is the president wrong when he says what Russia is doing is strengthening ISIS?

KURT VOLKER: No, he is right about that, what they are doing is they're supporting Assad and they're eliminating any other groups which will help ISIS in the short run. The Russians say they will go after ISIS later but they want to do so at a point when the international community will be with them in saying Assad is the better alternative than ISIS.

TED SIMONS: Russia know what they're doing? This sounds like a recipe for bogging down in a long conflict.

KURT VOLKER: I think their estimate of the cost and benefits of something are very different than ours would be. They don't have to worry about domestic public opinion the same way that we do. Showing military prowess abroad is very popular in Russia right now. Their economy is in trouble and this is a bit of a distraction. Showing that they are acting when the U.S. is not, that also plays very well. If it succeeds for Russia in strengthen Assad, that becomes a strategic foothold for them. If it fails, it's no different than last year.

TED SIMONS: Also, the idea of Russian planes dropping bombs on people and forces that we have trained, what are -- could we ever see U.S. planes engaged against Russian jets?

KURT VOLKER: We certainly hope not. We would like to avoid a direct conflict with Russia but what happened just the other day is telling. Russian aircraft crossed Turkish air space conducting bombing raids. Turks objected to this, the Russians said oh, it was a mistake, but turkey is a NATO ally and if Russia were to make another mistake of crossing into Turkish air or dropping a bomb on the wrong side of the border, turkey could respond and we have an obligation to defend turkey.

TED SIMONS: So is the U.S. with all things considered, is the U.S. considering easing Assad out of power at a slower pace? Keeping Assad in power under a different formula? What are we doing over there?

KURT VOLKER: What we're trying to do is regroup because Russia's entry into this has been a real game changer. It's going to change the way others calculate what their options are. Think about the curds in Iraq. If you see Russia starting to bomb inside Iraqi territory against ISIS there and working together with the Baghdad government, that's a game changer for the Kurds. If you look at Iran's influence through Baghdad and that is cemented with its relationship with Russia, that's another game changer. There's a lot of things in motion. What the U.S. is trying to do as I understand it is get Russia to agree with us that we have to get rid of ISIS and if we can set some common goals and some coordination, we work on that, and then we'll have do come back to the issue of a political settlement later. We don't believe Assad can ever be part of that political solution. The Russians, they go back and forth, they say they're supporting the Assad regime but maybe not him personally. I think that's a bit of smoke and mirrors frankly but we have to let it play out, first try to get them focused on ISIS, a political solution back together.

TED SIMONS: Impact of all this on Putin in Russia. We know the economy situation over there, oil prices are low but from what I've been reading, domestic approval rate for him is high. They can't stand the economy, 70% are against the economy but the same number of people say Putin is doing a great job handling the economy.

KURT VOLKER: That's right. So there's several things going on here. One of them is this demonstration of military might abroad is something that he can sell domestically. Another thing is they control all the media, the Kremlin controls all the media so they blame us. They blame Europe. They blame everybody else for the state of the economy because we're ganging up on Russia as opposed to it having anything to do with Putin's own leadership. They're very skilled at manipulating the propaganda and using these actions abroad. It's dicey. When does this wear thin? But for now, I think Putin is feeling pretty confident.

TED SIMONS: That persecution, the persecution by the west, that plays pretty big over there.

KURT VOLKER: It does. It feeds into an old Russian narrative that they're encircled, they have to defend Slavic civilization, the orthodox civilization and Putin as the great leader is the one to do that now so they rally around that.

TED SIMONS: Let's get to Afghanistan and Taliban. They look like they are on the rampage over there.

KURT VOLKER: They're watching us. They're seeing that we are withdrawing our military forces, the afghan security forces are not fully ready to provide security, they're launching attacks. They took over a city in the north of Afghanistan, not in the south where the Taliban has been stronger but elsewhere. The afghan government had to regroup and try to retake the city. In the midst of that fighting, they called in airstrikes, and then we had a very unfortunate attack that hits a doctors without borders hospital, tragedy, patients killed, French doctors killed. We have to investigate, see what happened but that's what's happening is the Taliban is, in fact, taking advantage of the weakening of the security situation.

TED SIMONS: And it sounds like it's a pretty important trade center, on some major routes there. That's a big deal. Has the city fallen?

KURT VOLKER: Well, it did and then the afghan government claims to have taken most of it back and there's still pockets of fighting there and the Taliban, they serve their interest by contesting it because it's a signal to the population throughout Afghanistan they can be anywhere. They can fight back. They are strong. And that's a psychological impact on how much will people support the afghan government.

TED SIMONS: Will all of this change the plan to get U.S. troops out of there by the end of next year?

KURT VOLKER: Just like we're regrouping in Syria, people are talking about regrouping in Afghanistan and the pentagon has put forward a few proposals for leaving more troops behind. But in both of these, I think we have to start even further back and say what's the goal? What are we trying to do? If the goal is to eliminate ISIS, whatever we're doing, we've been bombing them for years, is not adequate to that task at all. We have to really rethink what's it going to take? Adding a little bit on the margins isn't the same as setting that clear goal. Same in Afghanistan. If we're going to see the Taliban defeated and the afghan government succeed in establishing security, we've got to plan much bigger. Whether we have the patience and the stomach to do that after all the investment we've made, that's a political call the administration is going to make but we have to be honest about what the situation is on the ground.

TED SIMONS: How popular is the Taliban in Afghanistan? We hear horror stories when they take over regions, all sorts of things. We've got ISIS just blowing up these antiquities in Syria. How popular are these groups? Can they -- can the Taliban take over the entirety of Afghanistan?

KURT VOLKER: There would be a big fight for them to do that because there's a security component to this but also, an ethnic component. The Taliban is largely Pashto. You've got other groups that don't want to be ruled by them. At the same time, they are feared and they're seen to be ruthless and effective and they do bring short-term swift justice. Executions and hangings and things which when people are angry over something they're happy to see. So I don't think there's any popularity for the Taliban. I think that's an exaggeration but there is a sense of perhaps inevitability and strength compared to the afghan government, which is seen as corrupt and ineffective, maybe a tolerance for it.

TED SIMONS: Last question in Afghanistan, in Syria and in Iraq, are we likely to see new maps drawn in the relative near future?

KURT VOLKER: I think so. I think so. I think that the old border between Iraq and Syria, which was the defining border in the Middle East, I think that's gone. I don't think -- I think ISIS has erased it, they're controlling territory on both sides, that coincides with Sunni populations on both sides and you have fragmenting of the states and disassociation of the populations in Iraq, and they've separated from each other. In Syria you've seen many of the same things, parts that are controlled by Kurds, parts that are controlled by Sunnis, ISIS or other rebels and a smaller portion controlled by shia of the regime. I don't think those factors are going to change. The border that had been there is gone.

TED SIMONS: Taliban, though, really can't be allowed to have anything in Afghanistan?

KURT VOLKER: I think Afghanistan's different, because afghans still see themselves as a single country despite all the ethnic groups, they feel different from all the neighbors and their prize is to take over Kabul and run the country.

TED SIMONS: Very interesting stuff. Thanks for being here.

KURT VOLKER: Great to be here. Thank you.

Kurt Volker: Former US Ambassador to NATO

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