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  April 10, 2017

Did Bipartisan Russia Hysteria Help Fuel Trump's Rush to Bomb Assad?


In part two of our interview, journalist Rania Khalek argues that the U.S. strike on the Assad regime continues policy that tacitly helps Al Qaeda and ISIS, all the while raising the threat of conflict with Russia - a threat exacerbated by the recent bipartisan frenzy over President Trump's ties to Moscow.
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Did Bipartisan Russia Hysteria Help Fuel Trump's Rush to Bomb Assad?AARON MATÉ: It's The Real News. I'm Aaron Maté.

We're continuing our discussion with journalist Rania Khalek about the aftermath of the U.S. strike on the Assad regime in Syria.

In Part 1, we discussed the Western media and political response to the strike. And we also touched on the complex issues facing the Syrian civil war in the aftermath of the attack. In Part 2, we're going to continue that discussion. But first, we began by talking about the U.S. role in the Syrian civil war.

RANIA KHALEK: In my opinion, the United States and its allies in the region bear the most responsibility for the violence in this ongoing conflict, because they prolonged this conflict. The United States spent upwards of a billion dollars a year, arming and funding an insurgency in Syria, an insurgency they knew was dominated by Al Qaeda, an insurgency they knew was dominated by extremists.

They armed and funded that insurgency while fighting it in Iraq at the same time, and it prolonged the war in Syria. They funded and armed the weaker side. And that's what happens in civil wars. When you fund and arm the weaker side, it prolongs the war. And so, that, more than anybody else, that’s who I think should be blamed, or should take the most responsibility for the violence in this conflict.

Yes, the Syrian government has been extremely violent and no one's really doubting that. But the fact of the matter is that this is... the U.S. should've expected this. I think they did expect this, that if you arm an insurgency in any country, the state, particularly if it's a police state, like Syria is, is going to respond and in a dramatically violent fashion. Which is exactly what we've seen.

On top of that, the U.S. policy in Syria actually empowered groups like Al Qaeda and ISIS. We were fighting these groups in Iraq, meanwhile in Syria the U.S. knowingly – I mean, it's really shocking, this should be a scandal for Americans, but few Americans really understand this because the media does a really job of obscuring this fact – but the U.S. essentially outsourced a war on Syria to Al Qaeda groups. And empowered Al Qaeda, the group that did 9/11. That was the policy in Syria.

And, you know, when I was in Syria, people would constantly ask me... I was in the government areas, obviously, but people would constantly ask me “how was it possible that the U.S. is helping Al Qaeda after what Al Qaeda did on 9/11? And they're helping Al Qaeda destroy our country? Like, why is that happening?” And I didn’t have a good answer for that. I don't know how to answer that question.

But that's what we did in Syria, and that's why this war's been taking place for six years. And it's completely shameful that at the same time we've refused to allow refugees into this country, as we've helped destroy Syria and then now you have these war hawks who basically pushed Trump into bombing the Syrian government. It's really insane what's taking place, and it's extremely dangerous, because then there's also the prospect that it could start a war with Russia, since Russian forces are all around Syria, and on the ground.

So, I think this definitely… hopefully this escalation was just this once and sort of Trump trying to flex his muscle and demonstrate that he can be strong. It seems that's kind of what he was doing.

But, I mean, at the same time, there's always space for further escalation and I really hope it doesn't come to that.

AARON MATÉ: You mentioned war hawks encouraging Trump, or pushing Trump into launching this action to prove his, quote-unquote, "toughness". You know, the political media culture the last few months in Washington has been dominated by this Russia hysteria, both liberal pundits and conservative pundits sort of pushing this line that Trump is a Kremlin tool, constantly scrutinizing his ties with Russians. To what extent do you think that motivated Trump's thinking here? Trying to prove to the world that he's not Putin's puppet.

RANIA KHALEK: I'm sure that was actually a bigger part of it, maybe, than even trying to prove that he's not a fan of Assad, was the whole trying to prove he's not a Kremlin stooge. I think we might actually see more of that. And that's what's dangerous about what's taken place. The anti-Russia hysteria, which is coming most forcefully, I would say, from the Democratic Party, is that it's very misguided to think that Trump is somehow pro-Russia.

Especially considering the people he's surrounded himself with in his administration, and that he's sort of turning more to the neocon wing of the party these days. I think what you're going to see is more of that, more of an attempt to prove that he's not pro-Russia by doing things that are really dangerous. I mean, what he did in Syria had he accidentally killed Russian forces, what you would have is a direct sort of hot war between the Russians and the Americans. And so that would set an extremely dangerous precedent.

But it does seem like Democrats, some of the most high-ranking Democrats, seem to be in... like, seem to not realize that their rhetoric may actually end up starting some sort of war with Russia. I some cases, I think they wouldn't mind that.

So, it's an extremely strange time that we're in. And I don't really know what's going to happen down the line, but I think we're headed towards something really, really bad if this anti-Russia hysteria continues.

AARON MATÉ: On the issue of the U.S. role in fuelling this conflict, I think it's debatable to what extent American support for the rebels has been decisive in prolonging it. Obama could have intervened on behalf of the rebels, and he didn't. And that was despite a lot of pressure from people who wanted intervention.

But I should point out that there was a leaked conversation a few months ago between John Kerry when he was Secretary of State and some high-level opposition members. Correct me if I'm wrong, but didn't Kerry tell them or suggest to them, at least, that the U.S. basically watched ISIS gain strength in Syria because they thought he was set to topple Assad. Am I correct in that assessment?

RANIA KHALEK: Yeah. What John Kerry said was that the U.S. watched ISIS grow and was hoping that it would push Assad to the negotiating table. And then Russia got involved because they were scared ISIS would take Damascus. And that's pretty accurate. I mean, the U.S. is actually worse than that.

A defense intelligence agency back in 2012 released a document to obviously go to the White House mapping out basically the fact that the Syrian insurgency, the armed insurgency, was dominated by Al Qaeda in Iraq, the Muslim Brotherhood in Syria, and Salafi jihadists. And they talked about this in a positive way that there could maybe be a Salifist principality in eastern Syria, coming from Iraq.

And they also predicted that this would actually give rise, or sort of resurrect Al Qaeda, in various cities in Iraq. And sort of predicted the establishment of the Islamic faith, and they even predicted it in the cities that it would happen.

So, the U.S. administration, the U.S. intelligence agencies were fully aware from very early on – I believe as early as 2011, late 2011 – that this was the case, that this insurgency was dominated by Al Qaeda groups, that it was dominated by groups that were calling themselves the Islamic state in Iraq. And they were okay with that, because they saw the bigger picture here as trying to weaken the Syrian government.

And so that is sort of what U.S. policy has been based on. It's a very contradictory policy. It's really schizophrenic. I mean, in one place in Iraq you have the U.S. fighting ISIS and Al Qaeda, and then, meanwhile in Syria, they're funneling weapons to groups that they know work with ISIS and Al Qaeda.

I mean, you've got FSA groups that were working with ISIS to take Syrian areas back in 2013. Openly. And this was a huge embarrassment for the U.S. at the time. So, they were fully aware and they didn't care, because at the end of the day, U.S. policy in places like Syria, and even Lebanon, are dominated by anti-Iran sentiment and wanting to exacerbate anti-Shia sentiment because, you know, Iran is seen as sort of a leader of the Shias in the region, and in order to do that they empower Sunni extremist groups. This has been ongoing since about 2007 after Hezbollah pushed Israel out of southern Lebanon.

And so, moving forward, it seems like that's still a huge part of the policy that that's really what guides U.S. policy in the region is how can we weaken Iran, especially with Trump in charge? It might be winding down in Syria, but I think we're going to probably see that get worse in other areas of the Middle East.

AARON MATÉ: Okay. On that point, given the antagonism toward Iran in the Trump administration, could you possibly see this strike as the prelude to potential U.S. action against Iran?

RANIA KHALEK: I mean, the U.S. is already fighting what it believes are proxy wars against Iran. That's partly what Syria was about. The U.S. wrongly – in my opinion – thinks that they're fighting a proxy war against Iran in Yemen. And that's why they're helping the Saudis just completely destroy Yemen, because they didn't see the Houthi as proxy force for Iran even though they're really not. Iran might offer them rhetorical support, but not much else.

But I think, you know, down the line, yes, I do see some sort of maybe confrontation with Iran taking place if we continue on the trajectory with where the Trump administration is headed, where he is solidifying U.S. relationships with countries like Saudi Arabia and Bahrain, and actually giving them even more weapons and more support because these are what they call Sunni Arab states that are terrified of Iran's growing power in the region. And so that's who the U.S. is allied with and that's sort of what guides policy in the region.

That said, it would be really stupid for the U.S. to actually try and take on Iran directly because the Iranians are in Iraq and they would be able to... I mean, they could do a lot of damage to U.S. soldiers stationed in Iraq. And they also are involved in Afghanistan. And they also have the ability to do a lot of damage to the U.S. there, as well. So, I mean, if the U.S. were to directly attack Iran any time soon, what you would see is you would see U.S. troops being attacked and killed in these areas where Iran has influence.

And so, I don't think you'll see that happen any time soon. But it could in a couple of years down the line take place, and I really hope it doesn't because that would be disastrous for the region, which is already just in chaos as we see speak.

AARON MATÉ: Okay. And Rania, you mentioned the Defense Intelligence Agency and their assessment of Syrian rebels. And this actually has bearing I believe on the current chemical attack in Idlib because – correct me if I'm wrong -– but when Seymour Hersh came out with his report in the London Review of Books that the question the dominant narrative about the Ghouta chemical attack of 2013, Seymour Hersh's contention –- and I have no way of knowing if it's true, it could just be a conspiracy -– but its contention, based on Western sources - was that the Ghouta attack could've been the work of Syrian rebels working with Turkey.

And part of his report, if I remember correctly, was based on a Defense Intelligence Agency assessment that said that the Syrian rebels have sarin gas. And sarin was the chemical that was apparently used in the chemical attack this week.

RANIA KHALEK: Yeah. That's something that we've known about since 2013, and that even people with the UN have stated at various times that there is evidence that Syrian rebels have access to sarin gas. And so that's what makes it very difficult to know what's taking place because both sides not only have had access to chemical weapons, but, you know, we also know the rebels have used chemical weapons at points before. And so, it does raise questions.

I mean, we're talking about groups, again, that are dominated by Al Qaeda. It's not as though they would... you know, it's not like they're somehow benevolent, and the Syrian government's like the only bad actor here.

And so, there is totally, there's definitely a chance that they could have used it. And you know what? This goes back to also questioning the narrative, right? You know, you've got western, you know, the State Department, the White House, the Pentagon, throughout the Iraq war lied to the American public a lot. And you had media outlets just kind of unquestioningly regurgitate these lies that they were being told about WMDs in Iraq.

And you would think that that would teach people, especially in journalism, that perhaps, you know, not that everything's a conspiracy, but it's important to question the official narrative that we're getting. Especially when it comes to issues of war and peace. And especially when it comes to issues where the U.S. has clearly for a long time wanted to destroy this government or that government, or overthrow this regime or that regime.

We should always be questioning the narrative that's being laid out before us. And instead of doing that, what you have is every mainstream media outlet making the same mistake over again. Just unquestioningly, unchallenging, echoing exactly what the State Department and the White House are telling them.

And it's been really not just shocking – maybe not shocking is the right word – but it's been really just disgusting to watch. Because, these people haven't learned their lesson, and it seems as though, even under Trump, even under someone like Trump that these media outlets despise and hate so much, even under someone like him, they're still, when it comes to the issue of war, willing to accept whatever the dominant narrative that's being pushed out by the White House and the State Department tells them.

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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