MICHEL MARTIN, HOST:
We're going to look ahead now to the meeting set for Wednesday between Secretary of State Rex Tillerson and Russian Foreign Minister Sergey Lavrov. The meeting was already in the works before the U.S. struck a Syrian airbase last week in response to a chemical attack that killed dozens of Syrian civilians. The Russians, who've been supporting the regime of Syrian President Bashar al-Assad, continue to denounce the U.S. missile strike. Now, a big topic that we anticipate will come up in that meeting, at least according to international experts, is deconfliction.
We've been hearing that word for some time now in connection with the U.S. and Russia's involvement in the Syrian conflict. But because of the upcoming meeting, we decided to make it the subject of our Words You'll Hear. That's a regular segment where we focus on a word or two to help explain important stories coming up in the news.
To better understand deconfliction and how it relates to the current context, we reached out to former State Department Under Secretary Nicholas Burns. He's also a former ambassador to NATO and Greece. We reached him via Skype. Ambassador Burns, thanks so much for speaking with us.
NICHOLAS BURNS: Thanks, Michel.
MARTIN: So obviously, we want to get your perspective on the upcoming meeting, but I want to start with deconfliction. What does it mean in this context?
BURNS: In this context, it means that Russia and the United States, the two militaries, are contesting for power in a very crowded, small country - Syria. And so the Russians and Americans, a year and a half ago, set up a military-to-military channel to make sure that we know where the Russians are flying, they know where we're flying, so that there's no risk of an accident between two superpowers. The Russians did end this cooperation momentarily after the U.S. airstrikes on Friday, but I believe it's now back on.
MARTIN: And it's also been reported that Secretary Tillerson and the Russian Foreign Minister Sergey Lavrov spoke by phone on Saturday about Syria. That's according to the Russian foreign ministry. What should we take away from that?
BURNS: Well, these two countries have a lot of decisions to make. Russia, of course, is the dominant military power in Syria. It's protecting the Assad regime. But the Russians have been saying formally, over the last year, that the only logical reasonable solution to the Syrian civil war - 500,000 people killed, 12 million homeless - is a negotiation.
And so I think Secretary Tillerson and President Trump have an opening here. They've earned a little bit of credibility by going against Assad on the use of chemical weapons. And the United States could push Russia and Iran and the Syrian government to challenge them to begin a negotiation that, at some point - and this could take months or even years - end this terrible war.
MARTIN: But the opening to to what end? I mean, just today, for example, we heard U.N. Ambassador Nikki Haley and the secretary of state speaking on two different morning programs. I mean, U.N. Ambassador Haley seemed to suggest that - Nikki Haley seemed to suggest that the U.S. objective here is regime change in Syria. And Secretary of State Tillerson seemed to suggest that it isn't. So given that, do we come back down to deconfliction, sort of trying to minimize the loss of life?
BURNS: Right. In this case, deconfliction could be used in a diplomatic sense. The Trump administration and the Obama administration before it were very reluctant to engage the United States centrally in this conflict. And no one wants to put an American land army there. That would be insane.
But we do have an ability, diplomatically, to marshal the Turks and the Gulf Arabs and the Europeans in a big international movement to try to argue that there has to be U.N.-sponsored talks towards a new Syrian government, transitional government. What I'm suggesting is that the real advantage of the United States is to act diplomatically and try to turn the momentum of this conflict towards the negotiating table rather than the field of war.
MARTIN: You've said that the U.S. needs to be more engaged. But given that Donald Trump campaigned on a philosophy of non-engagement, particularly in this part of the world, how do you get him there?
BURNS: Well, I think that Donald Trump is beginning to understand that events look different from the White House than they did from the campaign trail. As recently as just seven days ago, the Trump administration was saying that they had no interest in pushing Assad out of power. But that chemical weapons attack appears to have had an impact on Donald Trump. I mean, the visual image of this extraordinary brutal suffering of the people attacked by a sarin gas turned the administration's policy overnight. He ordered this airstrike.
MARTIN: Now, here I'm asking you to speculate, but can I ask you if you think that there might actually be such a takeaway from the Wednesday meeting? Do you think that this meeting actually offers the opportunity to advance towards some actual progress toward those objectives?
BURNS: It's possible. The Russians have lost a lot of people. This is very expensive for them. It's possible, at some point, the Russians are going to want a negotiation. We should try to help get them there. There's other things we can do, Michel. President Trump has shut down all refugee admittance into the United States. This is the most serious refugee crisis in the world. He ought to re-open the channels to take in Syrian refugees in the United States.
What I'm saying is that the United States needs to be more engaged. And it can't be enough just to launch a cruise missile attack the other day on a Syrian airbase. We have to use our diplomatic assets and use our credibility and influence to try to help bring this war to an end eventually.
MARTIN: That's former State Department Under Secretary Nicholas Burns. He's also served as ambassador to NATO and to Greece. We reached him in Maine. Ambassador Burns, thanks so much for speaking with us.
BURNS: Thank you, Michel. Transcript provided by NPR, Copyright NPR.