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  April 8, 2017

As U.S. Politicians and Pundits Cheer Syria Bombing, Will ISIS and Al Qaeda Benefit?

Independent journalist Rania Khalek discusses the near-uniform media and political support for President Trump's decision to bomb a Syrian military airfield, the need for an independent investigation into the Idlid chemical attack, and why she thinks the U.S. strike may benefit ISIS and Al Qaeda.
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Rania Khalek is an independent journalist and co-host of the weekly podcast Unauthorized Disclosure. Her work has appeared at The Nation, FAIR, Vice, The Intercept, Alternet, Salon, The Electronic Intifada, Al Jazeera and more.


AARON MATÉ: It's The Real News. I'm Aaron Maté.

We're looking at the aftermath of the U.S. strike on the Assad regime that hit an airfield. Syria says the attack killed six people. Russia has now suspended de-confliction efforts with the U.S., seeking to reduce air incidents over Syria in response.

Joining us to discuss this is Rania Khalek, independnent journalist, and co-host of the podcast, Unauthorized Disclosure.

Rania, welcome.

RANIA KHALEK: Thanks for having me on, Aaron.

AARON MATÉ: Tell us your response to what happened yesterday. The reaction in the U.S. media, and amongst the U.S. political establishment, was one of near universal support. What's your take?

RANIA KHALEK: It was absolutely stunning, because all of these media outlets that have been, for the past several months, very anti-Trump, spending every single day bashing Trump –- for good reason in many cases -– suddenly got behind Trump and were just so ecstatic, and excited, about these air strikes.

You had Brian Williams on MSNBC, talking about how these air strikes were "beautiful", and quoting Leonard Cohen.

BRIAN WILLIAMS: We see these beautiful pictures at night, from the decks of these two U.S. navy vessels in the Eastern Mediterranean. I am tempted to quote the great Leonard Cohen, "I'm guided by the beauty of our weapons." And they are beautiful pictures of fearsome armaments, making what is for them, a brief flight over to this airfield.

RANIA KHALEK: Watching MSNBC, of all channels, which is supposed to be the main anti-Trump channel and the pro-Democratic Party channel, all I saw was people who were in favor of this bombing. I didn't see a single dissenting voice. So, it's been really, really stunning to just watch all of these networks, and all of these mainstream outlets, line up behind Donald Trump.

Now, suddenly Donald Trump is being embraced, by liberals and Democrats across the board, all because he bombed the Syrian government airbase. It's bizarre, and really disturbing on a lot of levels.

AARON MATÉ: So, Rania, on the strike itself, what do you think its impact will be on the Syrian conflict?

RANIA KHALEK: I don't think it's going to be that dramatic, only because it doesn't seem as though the Trump administration plans to escalate any further. They destroyed a part of this air base, and it briefly did put the Syrian government forces back a little bit, in the advancements they'd been making. But it won't be anything significant, because I just don't see the U.S., or any other outside power at this point, intervening in a significant fashion to help the opposition.

And that's what the opposition desperately needs right now, after losing their base in East Aleppo, they have all of... any gains that they had, have been completely reversed and they've... I mean, they are basically desperate at this point, and the only thing that can save them is Western military intervention. And so anything short of that on a dramatic scale is just not going to tip the balance at this point.

AARON MATÉ: Okay. Which brings up an important point, which is the issue around this attack, and who did it. Now, the Assad regime has shown no compunction about attacking its own people. They've killed, I think it's fair to say, the majority of the victims of this conflict, so it's certainly quite believable in my mind that they would do this.

On the other hand, just to raise the point of view of the skeptics, that it was the Assad regime, as you mentioned, the regime was doing well supposedly in this conflict. They had taken Aleppo in recent months, they had recently made gains against ISIS, and just days earlier the U.S. had said that they no longer see regime change as a goal in Syria.

So, what do you make of this issue itself, of whether or not it was the Assad regime that carried out this attack?

RANIA KHALEK: I mean, look, the Syrian government is violent. No one's questioning that. But the question is, is the Syrian government stupid? And like you said, they finally have the U.S. administration saying that we're not focused on regime change, we're focused on ISIS. We're not interested in regime change anymore, and you have the Syrian government winning.

They've taken back a lot of territory from this patchwork of Al Qaeda-linked rebel groups, across the country -– and this is on the eve of peace talks that were taking place in Geneva, that this attack in Idlib took place –- so, there is nothing of strategic value for the government to gain from launching a chemical weapons attack. I mean, you know, as the scenario... like, if they did do it, then you're talking about...

Well, let's say they were stupid enough to do it, you're talking about the Syrian government having –- what? -– Stored away some secretive sarin, after they had gotten rid of most of their chemical weapons under the cooperation of the international community. And just suddenly on the eve of these peace talks, after they finally get what they wanted from the U.S., they decide to launch these chemical weapons on an insignificant... like, a militarily insignificant village in Idlib? It just doesn't make sense.

Again, again, maybe they did do it, but the question becomes, okay, where's the evidence? And the fact of the matter is, that even Staffan de Mistura, the Special Envoy from the UN to Syria, said himself, after this attack, that there is no... they not yet have any reliable confirmation of what took place, and who did it. And so, until there is some sort of investigation to see who did it, we're not going to know.

The problem is, that in Idlib, in these areas that are under the control of these armed groups, you don't have any independent sources on the ground, for the most part. What you have is, like I mentioned, a patchwork of Al Qaeda-linked rebel groups, that basically have been implicated in killing human rights workers, in killing journalists, in killing activists.

And so, the information coming out of these areas, are basically an area of being controlled by the opposition. And, again, like I mentioned, the opposition right now is desperate, and they have done this in the past. I mean, this is what insurgencies do, regardless of whether they're linked to Al Qaeda or not: insurgencies, especially in positions of desperation, they have to try to provoke intervention.

So, there are a lot of questions to... and a lot of holes in the narrative we're hearing. And so, I think that people should be very skeptical of anything coming out of Syria from either side, until there is some sort of independent investigation that takes place.

AARON MATÉ: Just on the issue of being skeptical, the Assad and Russian explanation for this attack, is that they say that a regime strike hit a chemical cache of the rebels. But as far as I've seen, there've been no pictures from them showing what this cache is. And Kareem Shaheen, the reporter from The Guardian, he went in and took a picture of what he said was the warehouse that would have stored these chemicals, and it just looked like an empty area with some grain silos. So, both sides, as far as I've seen, have yet to produce evidence.

RANIA KHALEK: No, exactly. Exactly. I mean, I... like I said, when it comes to the issue of Syria, both sides are invested in all kinds of propaganda, and trying to sway public opinion to their side. And that's why it's crucial that in these situations, it's important that we be able to have some sort of investigation, some sort of scientific process to determine what actually took place.

And the fact of the matter is, in this situation, we may never actually know exactly what took place. Because, like I said, there are very few, if any, independent observers that are on the ground, and able to tell us exactly what's happening in Syria. All the information coming out from either side should be treated with a great deal of skepticism.

And, what's really shocking about all of this, is that you have the entire world basically deciding within hours, that not only did the Assad regime do this, but then you have the U.S. actually bombing a Syrian air base based on claims that have yet to be proven. And that's what's really shocking, and this is serious stuff we're talking about.

And just to add to that, you know, the U.S. bombed a base that's near Homs, that is actually used to fight ISIS. And immediately after the U.S. sent cruise missiles to destroy this base, what you have was ISIS launching offensive operations, against the Syrian army, in areas around Homs.

So, essentially the U.S. provided ISIS with air cover yesterday. And that's what's really dangerous about the situation in Syria, is as convoluted and complex as it is. You do have the Syrian army, is the most organized force that is able and, as we speak, fighting groups like ISIS and Al Qaeda.

You know, you can argue about how they're doing it, just like you can argue about how the U.S. is fighting ISIS in Iraq, which has been very violent, as well. But by default, when you attack the Syrian army, you are essentially helping ISIS, and helping Al Qaeda.

AARON MATÉ: Okay. This raises a very important point: Assad has taken on ISIS with increasing frequency. There was the victory against them in Palmyra last year, and in recent weeks in the north they've made some gains against ISIS.

But, what do you say to a Syrian who's living in an area that's been under regime bombardment, that is not ISIS-controlled, and that is simply just populated by civilians who've been under brutal assault by Assad, who would welcome any strike that would target his warplanes. That would run them, because that could potentially save their lives, because they've been under such assault from Assad's forces?

RANIA KHALEK: I mean, look, you have the same situation in Mosul right now. You have civilians in Mosul -– I mean, it's awful; it's horrific what's taking place in all of these areas. The fact of the matter is that these areas are occupied by insurgent groups, like ISIS, and Al Qaeda, and groups that behave just... and have the same ideology as Al Qaeda.

So, when we're talking about Syrians in these areas, it's terrible for civilians who are trapped in these areas, because not only do they have to deal with bombardment from the sky, they also have to deal with these groups that are controlling their areas on the ground, that have... in all of these areas.

I mean, they've banned music. They've banned... you know, women can be stoned. They have basically forcibly converted, or killed minorities, and in Idlib in particular, the Druze minority in Idlib, had been forcibly converted, tens of thousands of people, or killed. Christians in Idlib, Christian families have been chased out. In some cases, people were kidnapped and ransomed, and I've talked to Syrians who still don't know what happened to their families because they couldn't afford to pay the ransom for their family members.

So, it goes beyond just bombardment. I mean, the horrors that people in these places are living in? You know, they're living under these, insane, cultish style, sloppy jihadist groups, and the threat of bombardment from above. And so I don't know what you say to them. I think that what this comes down to is that whether we're talking about in Syria, and places like Aleppo, or Idlib, or whether we're talking about Nerrah(?), whether it's Mosul or Ramadi, which areas... I mean, these places have been, just like East Aleppo, have been completely destroyed by U.S. air strikes and Iraqi forces.

So, I think this actually goes to counter-terrorism operations, and how those work. The problem is with counter-terrorism, and that's what we've seen regimes in the Middle East adopt against areas that are occupied by these groups.

They're basically just adopting the American style of dealing with insurgencies. And so, I think that that's the real question we have to ask, is that, what do you do when ISIS or Al Qaeda or ... has taken over areas, different parts of the Middle East?

I don't know what you got... I don't have the answer to that, but I don't think what the Syrian government, with the Russians and what the Americans and Iraqis have been doing, I don't think it's right.

AARON MATÉ: Rania Khalek. Thanks very much for joining us.

RANIA KHALEK: Great to be on with you, Aaron.

AARON MATÉ: And thank you for joining us on The Real News.




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