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  February 11, 2018

Syrian War Spirals in Trump's Dangerous New Phase (2/2)

As top US officials speak openly of targeting Iran and Assad now that ISIS is defeated, reporter Ben Norton and Syrian analyst Ehsani discuss the escalating Syrian war on multiple fronts
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AARON MATÉ: It's The Real News. I'm Aaron Mate. This is part two of my conversation with Ben Norton, a reporter and producer with The Real News and Eshani, a Syrian American writer and analyst. We're talking about the escalating violence in Syria after the war was supposedly winding down. Eshani, let me ask you. So, what is the impact do you think of this US strategy of holding territory, denying the Syrian government access to things like vital oil fields? What is the impact of that on the Syrian people? Because the regime will do fine. I mean, they have their monopolies and their vast reserves of money, but if the country is kept divided, if the government can't produce oil as normal, how will this impact the Syrian people who live in government territory? Also, sanctions, of course, I should say, which will continue.

ESHANI: Yeah. Look, I mean, the sanctions, this regime, I was in the country very recently, a few months ago, you can't do anything. I mean, it's all cash. Your credit cards don't work. You're totally isolated from the outside system, from the swift payment system. There's no bank that does any business. Nobody's going to do reconstruction when he can't even pay people and transfer money out. So, this policy is put in place to strangle the country. Look, when the sanctions policy was put in place, the reason it was implemented was, it was going to be putting enough pressure on business people and the business community in Damascus that they would almost have a board meeting and fire the president.

That was really, I'm not actually describing it facetiously, this is exactly what was happening inside the... the idea was that the business community in Damascus would be so fed up and so upset that their interests are hurt, they would kind of revolt against the system and have a board meeting and go to the president, and say, "Look, you've just ruined us. We can't continue anymore."

Of course, that thing never worked and we're still pretending that this policy... and don't forget, we do this while the migrant, which are in Europe, as you know, Germany and other European countries are trying to find an environment where a number of these migrants go back. How could you connect these two policies where you put a country under sanctions, and you have the oil fields... Now, to be fair, the gas, the natural gas, which is even more important than the oil, perhaps from the Syrian standpoint, from the government's standpoint, they should be thankful that it's in their possession. That's around the Tadmur, Homs area. So, they have control of the gas fields, natural gas fields but do not have control on the oil fields, just to reiterate that point.

But that's not to belittle the point that to your presentation, it's starving the Syrian people and the government of a tremendous resource and giving really the Kurdish population an incentive not to do any rapprochement with the Syrian government that has been tried. I mean, Damascus has repeatedly attempted to, for the last few months, to reach out and say, "Listen, let's have this deal."

The American presence is essentially giving the Kurdish population the incentive not to engage the Syrian state. And I think that is really regrettable because should the US when they decide to turn around and leave, they will leave the current allies in a very precarious situation.

AARON MATÉ: But don't the Kurds already feel abandoned in the fact that the US has not forcibly opposed the Turkish invasion of Afrin?

ESHANI: They do not, they do not because for two reasons. First, they continue to believe that they can hold on in Afrin and should the situation get bad enough that they are being run over completely, that the US would still step in. I mean, I think the Kurdish strategy is that we can hold off the Turks. And by the way, so far so good from their perspective. We're almost a month into this operation, that started January 20th, I'm not really privy to the military details but it has gone slower than at least what I thought.

I mean, the advance of the Turkish forces with their allies has been relatively slow, and I think the Kurdish calculation thus far has been correct, that this is not going to be a walkover. So, the Kurds have felt like, if we can hold off, we get the US to talk, as we know now, the defense minister, both Mattis and the Turkish defense minister are meeting this week, they're hoping that the US will somehow find the leverage with the Turks and sort of change the situation. And therefore that will stop them from going to the Syrian state or at least not force them to go to the Syrian state and lay all their cards down.

AARON MATÉ: We only have a few minutes left. In the time we have, Ben Norton, let's talk about what's going on in Idlib and Eastern Ghouta. Heavy Syrian and Russian bombing there, many civilians killed, Médecins Sans Frontier warning today that health centers in Idlib are being targeted. Can you talk about that front of this now escalating, again, Syrian war?

BEN NORTON: Absolutely. I mean, this is horrific and this is why we should oppose war in the first place, because this conflict is absolutely catastrophic and has devastated large parts of the country. I mean, the thing about this that’s never acknowledged however, while media reports rightfully have reported on the many civilian casualties by Russian and Syrian bombing, what's not acknowledged are, who are the rebel groups that control East Ghouta and Idlib?

Of course, Idlib is the only remaining rebel-held province and we constantly see in media reports, we see, “rebels, rebels, rebels, rebel-held Idlib,” who are those rebels? Those rebels are rebranded al-Qaeda. Syria's al-Qaeda affiliate, Jabhat al-Nusra, has rebranded. It claims it's no longer affiliated with al-Qaeda even though when it ended its affiliation in 2016, it did so with the consent of the international al-Qaeda.

And now, the group that controls Idlib, the entire province that has solidified its control over it, is called Hay'at Tahrir al-Sham, which is again, rebranded al-Qaeda. Even the US has acknowledged that this is al-Qaeda. So, we constantly hear these media reports that are so sympathetic to this horrific al-Qaeda regime, where civilians are also murdered by this al-Qaeda regime being accused of adultery etc. I mean, civilians are stuck between a rock and a hard place, of course. And it's similar in East Ghouta, we constantly hear about the bombing in East Ghouta, which certainly, I mean, it has killed large numbers of civilians and that's horrific. We never hear about what those rebel groups are, of course, because so many media outlets sympathize with them and those rebel groups, once again, are a hard line Islamist extremists, specifically, Jaish al-Islam. Jaish al-Islam has put Alawite children and women in cages and sent them around the neighborhood as actual human shields. I mean, there is video and photo of this. We constantly hear of human shields when it comes to Israel- Palestine.

In this case we have actual irrefutable evidence that has been collaborated by human rights organizations, like Human Rights Watch, but we never hear this in media reports or we never hear about the fact that recently, Jaish al-Islam and Ahrar al-Sham were also fighting with, again, rebranded Syrian al-Qaeda, HTS, Hay'at Tahrir al-Sham inside East Ghouta.

Again, it is important to point out the civilian casualties of this conflict and the impact on the Syrian people, which has been horrific. What we need to also do is go a step beyond and see who are the actual rebels that control this territory who are always just ignored in corporate media reports, and what are they doing to the people there already because those civilians are already suffering.

AARON MATÉ: Ehsani, when you were in Syria recently, what were you hearing from people about what's going on in Eastern Ghouta and in Idlib? And also, as Ben says, if the civilians there are caught between these horrific bombings on the one hand, but then also rebel forces who are allied or even directly are al-Qaeda, what is the solution?

ESHANI: Well, I mean, Ben makes a very, very important point because, essentially, let's talk the two issues separately, first Idlib. Idlib when I travelled to Aleppo, it sits essentially in the middle of the highway between Damascus and Aleppo. Without clearing Idlib and without having Idlib back to the Syrian state, the entire economic lifeline between Damascus and Aleppo is completely cut in half. The ride takes almost 8 to 10 hours to go from Aleppo to Damascus, which is only 250 miles because the highway is completely cut off. That's number one.

Number two, you have an open border with Turkey, the sovereign... of the state and every, I mean, the entire place is al-Qaeda run place. Everyone knows this by now, and it's just astonishing as Ben describes, that the word rebel is used, and not inaccurate. From the Syrian state’s perspective, you have a situation that is completely unacceptable. They have to take back this area, the civilians can leave at any time. I mean, if a deal is to be made, I think the civilians whether they go to Turkey, whether they come to Syrian state areas, and I will remind listeners to what happened in Eastern Aleppo. I mean, it was exactly the same conditions, repeated attempts were made to get the civilians out of there, it was refused. And Idlib is going to be a very slow, bloody fight because there is no way the Syrian state is going to reverse this particular operation.

As far as Ghouta is concerned, when I was in Damascus, you have... falling on the city from Ghouta, the government then has to punish them, they go and start bombing the place. Again, it's just like, it's a very sad situation that civilians are caught in this but from the Syrian state’s standpoint, it's just like, Describe a state here in the United States that's taken over by armed groups, and the job of the-


ESHANI: Well, by the KKK-

BEN NORTON: Like if Chicago is taken over by the KKK?

ESHANI: Pretty much. I mean, essentially. And then the job, what would the cause on Washington be, or what The Federal Government or the state would be to reclaim? I mean, people today, I got calls from friends in Damascus today telling me, what is the state doing not protecting us from the... that are falling on us? So, as far as, yes it is true, but any state, any sovereign state when armed groups take over an area, it's the responsibility of that state to go and reclaim it and to protect its own people.

So, it's going to be a very messy situation but there is no way back, it's just the quicker, the armed groups and the international community, and by the way, to Ben's point, I want to finish with this. We don't have to speculate, let's go to Brett McGurk's appearance at the Middle East Institute. Himself said that Idlib is the second Afghanistan, after al-Qaeda in Afghanistan, this is the second highest dangerous place for the United States and everywhere when it comes to al-Qaeda presence.

BRETT MCGURK: Idlib Province is the largest al-Qaeda safe haven since 9/11, tied directly to Ayman al-Zawahiri. This is a huge problem. It's been a problem for sometime. We have shone a spotlight, the international spotlight on ISIS. We've been very focused on al-Qaeda in Idlib Province. Leaders of al-Qaeda that make their way to Idlib Province often do not make their way out of there, but we have to ask a question. Why and how is Ayman al-Zawahiri's deputy finding his way to Idlib Province? Why is this happening? How are they getting there? They're not paratroopers.

So, and the approach, I obviously, will not talk about anything the US government has done in certain parts of Syria on this problem, but the approach by some of our partners to send in tens of thousands of tons of weapons, and looking the other way as these foreign fighters come into Syria may not have been the best approach. And al-Qaeda has taken full advantage of it. And Idlib now is a huge problem. It is an al-Qaeda safe haven right on the border of Turkey. So, that's something obviously we will be in very close discussions with the Turks on. I think as we did in some ISIS areas and sealing the border, making sure nobody can cross, is something we might have to think about in Idlib Province.

ESHANI: He pointed the fingers, during that appearance, at Turkey for allowing a situation like this to develop in the first. So, this is not for the-

BEN NORTON: Of course, Charles Lister who is an extremely hawkish pundit and ostensible expert, who has for years lobbied for the US government to violently topple Damascus, even Charles Lister acknowledged in an Atlantic Council panel, he said that Idlib is "The heartland," is the language he used, "Of al-Qaeda.” This is the hot land of al-Qaeda, this cannot be ignored." Two years ago, people were acknowledging it as a fact, now people are trying to whitewash this fact because it's the last remaining rebel-held province.

ESHANI: Correct, I mean, this is, in fact, if you just listen to Brett McGurk, you would be pressed to just, as a follow-up, what are you going to do about it? I mean, if you believe that this is the biggest al-Qaeda holder after Afghanistan, what is the US policy towards that? If the US policy today, if somebody came to the US and said there is al-Qaeda in X, Y, Z country, I bet you the entire system would be mobilized to go and address that risk. We know the-

AARON MATÉ: Well, Eshani, just to interrupt, amazingly, we've already heard what the US answer is to that question, to your question, which is that they're saying that their primary challenge in the region is not al-Qaeda in Idlib, in the largest al-Qaeda safe haven since 9/11 according to McGurk, it's Iran.

ESHANI: Yes, indeed. And why that is, I have no idea. I mean, why and what is Iran doing? Again, it goes back to the earlier point that I made, you know, the description of Iran is just thrown out there without any, I mean, when you hear the word Iran in Syria, everything is taken for granted because it got repeated for so many times by so many pundits but when you stop and ask everyone, “Okay, explain to me exactly,” what Iran is doing in Syria? Where it is, what are the spots? Just how it has influenced Damascus's Government decision-making process? If the president can't go to the bathroom without calling Tehran first? None of that is ever offered as credible evidence.

Whereas the presence of al-Qaeda in Idlib is irrefutable, it's completely irrefutable by Brett McGurk. And yet, nothing is done about it, which is astonishing. I mean, that it goes without, there was no follow-up to that and no one even asks Mattis or Brett McGurk, what are you going to do about al-Qaeda in Idlib as the United States? Forget Assad, forget the Russians, does the United States have a policy towards al-Qaeda in Idlib?

AARON MATÉ: We will leave it there. Ben Norton is a reporter and producer for The Real News, also, co-host to the podcast Moderate Rebels. Eshani is a Syrian American financial analyst and writer. Thanks very much to you both.

BEN NORTON: Thanks for having me.

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


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