RACHEL MARTIN, HOST:
This is WEEKEND EDITION from NPR News. I'm Rachel Martin. It is day two of a fragile ceasefire in Syria - so fragile, the diplomats who brokered it don't use that term. Instead, it's called a cessation of hostilities. And it's supposed to allow U.N. convoys the safety they need to get aid into parts of Syria that have been hardest hit, although airstrikes against ISIS are ongoing. This past week, the secretary of defense, Ash Carter, was on Capitol Hill asking Congress for $7.5 billion to ramp up the fight against the co-called Islamic State. I sat down with Secretary Carter at his office in the Pentagon. And he told me the air campaign in Syria against ISIS is already accelerating. He described the mission.
SECRETARY OF DEFENSE ASH CARTER: Oh, I mean, banks that they use and piles of money in banks, oil wells they've taken over or coerced people into operating on their behalf. We are using cyber tools, which is really a major new departure...
MARTIN: So if I may ask you about that...
MARTIN: Because in the course of your testimony before Congress, you did say that U.S. Cyber Command is now launching attacks against ISIS. And there would be many people, I imagine, out there who would say, what? We're not doing that already? I mean, ISIS - there is this dual front. There is the battlefield and the air campaign and the war happening against ISIS in Iraq and Syria and other places. But then there is the online component.
MARTIN: Why is a cyber dimension only happening now?
CARTER: Well, other parts of our government take action in respect of law enforcement and intelligence efforts for people, for example, to plot in the United States. I'm talking about something different. I'm talking about attacking the ability of someone sitting in Raqqa to command and control ISIL forces outside of Raqqa or to talk to Mosul or even to talk to somebody in Paris or to the United States. So these are strikes that are conducted in the war zone using cyber essentially as a weapon of war. Just like we drop bombs, we're dropping cyber bombs.
MARTIN: What is the priority? Because up until now, the U.S. has - correct me if I'm wrong - but treated these two separate threats in Syria separately. There's the threat from ISIS, and there's the threat from the regime. Is one more important than the other?
CARTER: Well, the defeat of ISIL is our top priority, no question about it. And that is going to go on until ISIL's defeated no matter what. Now, we're not a party, in any formal way, to the Syrian civil war. What we want is an end to the Syrian Civil War. Now, this week there's been an important development there thanks to Secretary of State Kerry, which is not about ISIL at all. Again, it's about the Syrian civil war.
MARTIN: A cessation of hostilities that's been reached with international partners to stop the fighting to bring some humanitarian aid.
CARTER: Exactly. He has secured the agreement of all these parties that are fighting the Syrian civil war.
MARTIN: But didn't you need Bashar al-Assad to sign onto that? Doesn't that create kind of this uncomfortable partnership with the guy you're trying to unseat? And what message does that send to the moderate revels?
CARTER: Well, the only thing - the only thing that everybody's agreed to in the context of this is that they'll stop fighting each other for now. We'll have to see in the days ahead whether the parties abide by it or not. But we certainly hope they do because of all these innocent people who are caught up in this situation. But just to be clear, that doesn't put an end to the Syrian civil war. It's just a cessation of hostilities, but that's a very good thing given the humanitarian tragedy going on.
MARTIN: I spoke with one of your predecessors recently, former Secretary of Defense William Cohen, who was forceful in his criticism of the administration. He said the humanitarian crisis, as you noted, is shameful. That's his word. He said - and I'm quoting here - "President Putin has been bombing. And the United States has been dithering." Of course, he's referring to the Russian bombing campaign supporting the forces of President Bashar al-Assad. In your opinion, has Russia set the agenda that the U.S. is now having to - to follow along?
CARTER: No, Russia's - Russia's had a very negative effect on this whole situation. They said they were going to come in to fight ISIL. That's not what they're doing. Instead, they came in and joined the civil war on the side of Assad, further fueling the civil war. So the Russian approach has been completely wrongheaded.
MARTIN: But you need Russia.
CARTER: We're asking them now to participate. Or we didn't ask them; they've agreed to be part of this cessation of hostilities. And they could - you're absolutely right. They have more influence with Bashar al-Assad than anybody else. So the way the civil war is brought to an end in its political transition is, very importantly, the Russians persuading Assad to leave. If they're willing to use their leverage against Assad to achieve that end, that's very welcome.
MARTIN: But do you need it? Do you need their leverage to make sure Assad leaves?
CARTER: I think that they have a lot of influence over Assad. Unfortunately, I don't think anybody can absolutely tell him what to do. But no question that those that have the most influence over Assad other than himself and his own forces are Russia and Iran.
MARTIN: Before I let you go, one last question.
MARTIN: The president came out this week and announced a new plan to close the prison at Guantanamo Bay, Cuba. This is a plan that you spearheaded. To summarize, the gist of the plan is to try those who can be tried in military commissions and to convince third-party countries to take some of the detainees and then to take the remaining detainees and house them in a facility in the United States. This sounds awfully familiar to what the president has been talking about for years and has even floated the idea of housing detainees on American soil. So what's new in this plan?
CARTER: It is - what he's been talking about, by the way, was what President Bush talked about as well. And what's new here is that at the moment, moving the detention facility has been forbidden by Congress by law. We need Congress to change the law in order to allow us to do that.
MARTIN: Are they more likely to do that now than they were a couple of years ago?
CARTER: Well, they have indicated and they wrote into their law last year that they would be willing to consider a proposal. So we put together a proposal. I hope it succeeds. I can't be sure. But I think it would be good for the country. And I hope that enough of members of Congress - many do, but not all do - see it that way, that they'll approve this proposal. And we can do - this would be a nice thing to close out. But I'm just not sure whether we'll be able to or not.
MARTIN: U.S. Secretary of Defense Ash Carter, thanks so much for your time.
CARTER: Rachel, good to be with you.
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