STEVE INSKEEP, HOST:
So what happens now that U.S.-backed forces have captured Raqqa in Syria? The capital of the self-proclaimed caliphate declared by ISIS is largely in the hands of Kurdish forces now. Ambassador James Jeffrey is here. He's served as U.S. ambassador to Iraq and Turkey, among other places he's served. Ambassador, welcome back.
JAMES JEFFREY: Thank you very much for having me.
INSKEEP: Good morning. It's strange that we've talked about recapturing Raqqa for years now, and now that it's finally happening it seems just barely to be a news story.
JEFFREY: Because it's anti-climactic. We've known for some time that ISIS, which was a huge story, a huge threat, was on the way down. And this is, frankly, thanks to the United States and the international coalition have put together, it was an extraordinary accomplishment begun belatedly by President Obama and President Trump has carried it forward. But other stories are now dominating in the Middle East, mainly, who will fill in behind ISIS in these areas.
INSKEEP: Which I want to get to, but just so that we're clear about ISIS, wasn't the whole propaganda power of ISIS that they had a capital, that they had territory, that they declared a caliphate? And are they doomed now that they don't have much of that?
JEFFREY: As a special organization, yes. It's leader, al-Baghdadi, unlike al-Qaida, had a state of some 9 million people, an economy of billions of dollars and 35,000, more or less, organized military forces. Those are all essentially gone now other than a few hundred people here and there.
INSKEEP: But, as you mentioned, someone fills in behind because there are multiple players in this extraordinarily complex Syrian civil war. So who gains as ISIS loses?
JEFFREY: Look at it as a whole area between Tehran and Lebanon on the Mediterranean. That area of Iraq and Syria, full mainly of Sunni Arabs, has long been ruled by Shia leaders - Assad in Damascus, Maliki and now Abadi in Baghdad - with considerable Iranian influence. And the Iranians are on the march. That's threatening to Turkey, a NATO ally to Israel, a special friend of the United States and to U.S. interests, and a big clash is coming.
INSKEEP: I want to make sure that I understand what you're saying, Ambassador. ISIS, nobody's friend, is declining in these two countries, Iraq and Syria. But you're saying that Iranian-backed governments are regaining space as that happens.
JEFFREY: Right. And they do two things. One, they generate new Sunni Arab resistance, typically of one or another terrorist sort, and two, they threaten Israel, they threaten Turkey, they threaten Jordan, they threaten U.S. interests because Iran is on the march as a regional hegemony.
INSKEEP: Well, let's talk about those two minority rulers, so to speak. First, in Syria. The United States wanted to overthrow Bashar al-Assad, has since backed off of that in various ways, but now ISIS is gone. The threat the President Trump really wanted to focus on is gone. Is there now room for the United States to try a little harder to push Assad aside?
JEFFREY: I - I don't think in a military sense. But there is a U.N. process recognizing the horror of that war and what Assad did against his own people in a threat to the neighbors of Assad and the Iranians, U.N. Resolution 2254, that calls on the international community to find a transition towards a more stable regime in Syria. That's a basis upon which we can try to work with the Russians. And one of the ways we work is we stay on the ground in Syria with our anti-ISIS coalition because those people don't want to go back under Assad.
INSKEEP: Is a transition - I mean, the very word seems problematic to me. And is it even possible? Because Assad is going to hang on until he's thrown out in some forceful way, isn't he?
JEFFREY: He will, but he doesn't own half the country. Turkish, American, some Jordanian forces own much of the ground with local allies, and the Israelis own a big part of the air. So it's a very complex military situation, and you've got Russia playing a mediating role one day or one afternoon, and the next morning an ally of the Iranians and Syria (unintelligible).
INSKEEP: One other thing. Because you raised Iraq and a Shia-dominated government in Iraq and how that's backed by Iran, is it really so bad, though, if the Iraqi government regains its foothold? Because it might be allied with Iran, but it's also allied with the United States.
JEFFREY: Well, Iraq - the U.S. policy towards this Kurdish referendum in the recent events was basically fine. That is, we have an interest in keeping Iraq together. We don't want to see Iraq another Iranian vassal state like Lebanon, but it's never going to become a West Berlin. The best we can hope for is a neutral Finland-ization of the country, and that's possible.
INSKEEP: Finland-ization, meaning on nobody's side. And you think it's moving in that direction.
JEFFREY: I think we can keep it in that direction. The Iranians, however, want it as a second Lebanon.
INSKEEP: Ambassador James Jeffrey, always a pleasure. Thanks.
JEFFREY: Thank you. Transcript provided by NPR, Copyright NPR.