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Increasing U.S. military strikes against Assad-allied forces in Syria threaten to undermine the fight against ISIS and spark direct conflict with Russia and Iran, says Ben Norton of Alternet’s Grayzone Project

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AARON MATE: It’s The Real News, I’m Aaron Mate. For years, foreign powers have fueled the Syrian War through airstrikes and their proxies on the ground. But now the threat of direction confrontation between them is growing. Russia has warned US aircraft are potential targets after the US downing of an Assad Regime warplane. The US said it was defending it’s allies from Regime attacks, but it was the fourth time in less than a month that the US has targeted Assad-allied forces. And that continued today when the US military shot down an Iranian drone in southern Syria, the second time it’s done so in just two weeks. So could the Syrian proxy war turn into a hot war? Well to discuss, I spoke earlier to Ben Norton, a reporter for Alternet’s Grayzone Project. Welcome Ben. BEN NORTON: Glad to be here, thanks for having me. AARON MATE: So I wanted to have you on because you and your colleagues as Alternet’s Grayzone Project, and also Fair Media Watch, have been consistently critical of how the western media is covering the Syrian War. And that’s especially important at a time like this, when tensions between the US and Russia are extremely high, and the US appears to be ramping up it’s military operations targeted at Iran and it’s forces inside Syria. So on that note, let’s talk about what’s happening right now. You have, in the past few days, the US downing a Syrian warplane for the first time of this war. Russia saying in response that it now considers US-led coalition warplanes a legitimate target. And then today, you have the US downing an Iranian drone for the second time, I believe, in about two weeks. So set the scene for us right now for what is happening between all these foreign players, these major foreign players inside Syria. BEN NORTON: When Trump entered office, immediately the US military began ramping up different forms of military escalation inside Syria. In April, after the US accused the Syrian government of using chemical weapons in Khan Shaykhun, which is a town in the Idlib province which is controlled, essentially, by rebranded Al-Qaeda at this point. And in that attack in April, the US attacked a Syrian government air base known as [inaudible 00:02:36] and destroyed about 20% of the Syrian government’s aircraft, according to the Pentagon. Then, on May 18, the US ramped it up a step further, and the US began attacking Iranian-backed forces in southeast Syria near the border with Iraq. And I think a lot of our discussion today will be about what’s going on in southeast Syria, because this is really the new site for a kind of new phase in the war, and this area, it’s called Al Tanf in the southeast, is at the borders of Iraq and Syria, and it’s also near the Jordanian border. Here, the US has deployed missiles that are called HIMARS, and this is the first time they’ve been deployed inside Syria. And the US says that these missiles are going to be used on self-defense, but the US, of course, has not declared war in Syria, the US has never gotten any kind of congressional authorization to wage war in Syria, the US is shooting down Syrian government planes and attacking Syrian government allied forces, but it’s not officially at war in this area, and it was not welcomed into this area. So, things are really, really escalating out of control, and when you look at even the kinds of people, like Colin Kahl, Colin Kahl was a former Obama administration top official on foreign policy, who advised both President Obama and Vice President Joe Biden. And he recently wrote, on June 19, and I’ll quote him here, I have some quotes. He said, “The risk of sliding into a big war is rising.” And then he said, “The two halves of the Syrian War are merging together,” and by that he means the western part of the country and the eastern part. The eastern part, which is largely controlled by ISIS, but now, as he said, and again, this is an Obama Administration official, this is not some anti-war activist. He wrote, “The days of the ISIS campaign happening in strategically marginal parts of Syria are over.” And then, he also added, in perhaps the most worrying part of what he wrote, “That is the path to quagmire, a possible clash with Russia, and the war with Iran, some in Trump’s administration, and outside think tanks want.” So when you look at a lot of what’s going on now, if you follow it to it’s logical conclusions, it could very well lead to a war with Iran, and potentially even Russia. And anyone who’s concerned about that really should be speaking out and raising concerns. AARON MATE: So Ben, let’s talk about what the US is claiming as justification for it’s increased strikes against Syrian government forces and their allies, which is that … They say that they’re firing because Syrian forces, or their allies, are threatening US-backed forces. You had that on May 18 in southern Syria, when the US bombed some Syrian government positions and killed several soldiers, and said that Syrian forces were entering a deconfliction zone. So, this rational we hear, that the US is simply acting in self-defense of it’s allies. BEN NORTON: No, I mean this is preposterous, if you look at what’s actually happening on the ground. First of all, as I mentioned, and it’s important to underscore this. Regardless of what you think about the Syrian government and the Russian government, Russia, their defense ministry released a statement after the US downed the Syrian warplane near Raqqa, and Russia pointed out uncontroversially that what the US is doing is violating international law. Again, regardless of what you think about these governments, the Syrian government is a UN member, they have representatives at the United Nations. And the US, which has not declared war in Syria, downed a Syrian government plane operating in Syrian territory. This should be very troubling, again, regardless of what you think about these actors, this is a complete violation of a foreign country’s sovereignty. So that’s certainly part of it. Then there’s the allegation that these forces are close to the US. Well, there are degrees of hypocrisy here. First of all, let’s look into the actual argument the US is making. The Pentagon has said, on May 18 for instance, when the first attack began, that Iranian-backed Syrian government allied forces were approaching a US base where it’s training rebels in southeast Syria at Al Tanf. And again, I mentioned that’s the border crossing, it’s also known as Al Waleed in Iraq, it’s the border crossing between Iraq and Syria. The US claimed that the Syrian government allied forces approached it’s base where it’s training rebels, and the US cited something called a deconfliction zone. Now, several months ago, in Kazakhstan in Astana, Turkey, Russia, and Iran, and of course Syria, came to an agreement. The US was not invited to these peace talks, but Syria, Russia, Iran and Turkey came to an agreement, and part of their agreement to try to de-escalate the war in Syria, was the creation of four deconflicting zones inside Syria. One of those deconfliction zones is in the southeast near Al Tanf. Well, the Pentagon explicitly said that it does not recognize this agreement, the US does not recognize these deconfliction zones, and the Pentagon said that the US is going to operate planes wherever it wants in Syria, ostensibly, in order to fight ISIS. And this is the justification that the US is using for a lot of this policy. And of course, it sounds great, no one wants ISIS to survive, that’s horrific, but at the same time, it’s being used to rationalize and to justify further actions and aggression against Iran and the Syrian government. So when we look at what the US said on May 18, after the first attack … And this was the first of three attacks that the US waged against Iranian-backed Syrian government allied forces in the southeast there. The US claimed that these forces approached it’s base inside the deconfliction zone. What it did not mention at that same time, is that the US has previously, as I said, not recognized or acknowledged the legitimacy of these deconfliction zones. So the US is trying to have it’s cake and eat it too. It says, “Well, you’ve come too close to our base,” even though reports said that, at most, or at the least rather, that these forces were 17 kilometers away from the US base. 17 kilometers is not close. These are not forces that are actively attacking the US, these are forces that are allegedly approaching, maybe, the US base 17 kilometers away, and the US uses that as a justification to attack. So there are many things to unpack here. It’s pretty disingenuous, and when you look at the inconsistency of the Pentagon, which again, is making these decisions, it’s Mattis and McMaster. Trump has no idea what’s going on, and he’s outsourced this policy. And right now, the policy is incredibly contradictory, and I would say in some ways, very cynical. The Pentagon is not being honest about it, and it’s clear that it has serious ulterior motives. And I think that primary ulterior motive is preventing the Syrian government, and Iran, from retaking this critically important border area so that the US can maintain control over this area and prevent Iran from having a very important land access there straight from Iran into Iraq, and Syria into Lebanon. That’s the primary US goal. AARON MATE: Yeah Ben, just to say that … About this drone, this Iranian drone that the US shot down today that I mentioned earlier. In the US statement announcing that, the language they use is that the drone was approaching on the US position. Not that the drone was attacking the US position, it was approaching on the US position, which suggests that the US might be using a very wide definition of what approaching is for launching an attack. Let me ask you, on the point you just made, if it’s true that the US is seeking to, is aiming it’s military operations more and more in the direction of Syria and it’s ally Iran, and it’s true that Syria and it’s ally Iran had been fighting ISIS, is it fair to say that the US might be seeking a policy that subordinates the fight against ISIS to the fight against Assad and Iran, and ensuring that they don’t take territory? BEN NORTON: Well, I’m glad you framed it that way. And I would say yes. If you frame it that way, then that’s, I would say, incontestably true. And the irony is, not only is this an uncontroversial observation, it’s an explicit policy that has been proposed by people like Thomas Friedman, the New York Times columnist, who just a few weeks ago wrote a column in the US newspaper of record, arguing explicitly that the US should stop attacking ISIS, and allow ISIS to continue attacking and waging war against the Syrian government and it’s allies in order to weaken them. This is actually a policy that many people in the US sphere of influence, if you will, have proposed for years, and it’s actually probably the policy the US government itself pursued. In 2016, John Kerry, in a kind of off-the-cusp comment that was recorded by some pro-rebel activists, acknowledged that the US, the Obama Administration, for a few years, watched the rise of ISIS and other extremist groups, and did very little, and then it continued arming rebel groups that were allied with these militias in order to weaken the Syrian government. And when you look at the policy today, I mean, the US of course, as I said, wants to have it’s cake and eat it too. It does, eventually, want ISIS to be defeated, but it also wants Iran to not have influence in this critically important country in the middle of the Middle East. It does not want the Syrian government to be able to maintain control over all of these areas that it’s been trying to retake. It does not, especially, want Hezbollah, the Lebanon-based militia that’s backed by Iran, and has been leading the fight against ISIS to be able to further consolidate power. Israel has been supporting, a close US ally, has been supporting rebels inside Syria as well. A Wall Street Journal article recently showed how Israel has been funding and arming numerous militias inside Syria. So when you look at what the policy is, it is very contradictory. And on this note, I’ll actually mention one other thing that I got out to quote, because there have been numerous mainstream outlets, not even just the media, but even think tanks and academic institutions, that have acknowledged what the US is really doing. And one of the most interesting reports that I’ve seen is from the Carnegie Middle East Center, which is, again, a very pro-establishment, straight-laced think tank that’s actually funded by the Pentagon. And they released a report a few weeks ago that looks at the situation going on in Al Tanf, in the southeast of Syria. And in the final paragraph, this fellow at the Carnegie Middle East Center wrote, and this is a very interesting passage, listen here: “Until now, the Trump Administration’s statements about wanting to diminish Iran’s role in Syria have been general. Events in the southeast are adding substance to that commitment. However, given Iran’s multiple alliances, the odds are against the US. Perhaps the greatest paradox,” and here’s the most important part. “Perhaps the greatest paradox, one nobody in Washington will mention, is that in the greater game between Iran and the US, the Americans do not want the Islamic state [inaudible 00:14:50] to be defeated by anyone but themselves. Certainly, not by Tehran’s allies.” So again, this is a Pentagon-funded think tank, very establishment think tank, acknowledging that at the end of the day, the US does not want Syria and Iran to defeat ISIS. The US wants it and it’s forces, mainly the US-backed SDF forces, to be the ones that defeat ISIS in this area, because the US knows that if Iran has an ally, mainly the Syrian government, that retakes this area form ISIS in the southeast, that Iran has a straight path from Iran into Iraq, from Baghdad to Ramadi, west into Al Tanf in Syria, and then west straight to Damascus. And the US really wants to prevent Iran, and of course, the Syrian government, which is it’s ally, from having that straight line between Iran, Iraq, Lebanon, and Syria. Syria and Lebanon rather, because at the end of the day, the US does want ISIS to be defeated, but more importantly, it wants Iran to be contained in this region. AARON MATE: That was Ben Norton, a reporter for Alternet’s Grayzone Project. I’m Aaron Mate, thanks for joining us on The Real News.

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Ben Norton is a producer and reporter for The Real News. His work focuses primarily on U.S. foreign policy, the Middle East, media criticism, and movements for economic and social justice. Ben Norton was previously a staff writer at Salon and AlterNet. You can find him on Twitter at @BenjaminNorton.