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A long history of bureaucratic disputes has contributed to a failed strategy in Syria, says former chief of Staff to Colin Powell Larry Wilkerson

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JESSICA DESVARIEUX, PRODUCER, TRNN: Welcome to the Real News Network. I’m Jessica Desvarieux in Baltimore. As the Syrian civil war rages on the lines between what side the US is supporting is becoming more and more blurry. [An] LA Times report exposed how the US is arming two militias that are fighting each other. One group is being armed by the Pentagon while the other group is being armed by the CIA, which begs the question, what is the US really doing in Syria? Now joining us to answer that question is Col. Larry Wilkerson. He is the former chief of staff for US Secretary of State Colin Powell, and he joins us now from Falls Church, Virginia. Thanks so much for being with us, Larry. LARRY WILKERSON: Thanks for having me, Jessica. DESVARIEUX: So, Larry, explain to us how the US is arming two militias that end up fighting each other. WILKERSON: This is not something that’s new in the history of the CIA and covert operations, but I would point out that in Syria it’s particularly complex and difficult to decide from Monday to Friday who’s going to be allied with whom and how they’re going to fight, and against whom they’re going to fight. So you have various factions under the nominal Al-Nusra Front, for example, and other groups, that are allied only because of convenience and only because that’s where the ammo comes from, that’s where the food comes from, that’s where the support comes from, and they have a common enemy. So you could wind up, and I’m not trying to defend the CIA or the Pentagon, but you could wind up with actually authorizing support for various militia groups on Monday [inaud.] authorizing support on Wednesday for different groups and have, on Friday, those groups actually turn on one another. So it’s not that unusual in such a complex situation, but let me hasten to add, too, that the coordination between the Pentagon and [the] CIA in particular is often bad, and the bureaucratic jealousies between the two entities is often rampant. I would know. I was there for 31 years. And so you get some problems with that, too, and you get some problems with interpretation. The CIA will say, well, this group is the best one to arm. The Pentagon will say, well, this is the best group to arm, and you really don’t have an adjudicating force because there’s no one at the top, on the National Security Council, for example, who’s going to differentiate between the two, and often times at that level they don’t even know what’s going on at the ground. Increasingly that’s true with what the CIA does. They don’t even know what’s going on on the ground. DESVARIEUX: Yeah. Larry, you mentioned that this wouldn’t be the first time that the US is arming two militias that are fighting each other. Can you point to some examples historically? WILKERSON: There were some times in the CIA support for what I would call anti-communist efforts in Laos and Cambodia where, because of the almost tribal relationships between groups, they might arm Group A, Group B and Group C on Monday, and, as I said, on Wednesday Group A and Group C might be fighting one another. Same thing in Africa, particularly in the Congo, in the central African region when, in the late 60s and 70s we were doing covert operations there. Later, when we were doing covert operations in Angola and elsewhere with regard to Cuban, South African and UNITA and other, not UNITA, but I forget the acronym that the one group used in Angola at that time, but there have been occasions before, and I have to say, through no fault of the intelligence agency except the fact that it was doing it in the first place. Groups that you arm turn on one another and fight each other rather than fighting the enemy for whom you armed them to fight. DESVARIEUX: But Larry, couldn’t this level of chaos, specifically in Syria, I’m going back to Syria, have been foreseen? Because folks are going to say, you should have easily been able to see that you won’t have control of these groups and that if the Pentagon is sponsoring one group and the CIA is sponsoring another group that they could very easily end up fighting each other, like you said, the following day, right after you arm them. So it begs the question, what is really the motivation for the United States, then? Are they there to just promote more and more chaos? WILKERSON: Jessica, you’re suggesting rationality in what the Pentagon and the CIA does. In fact, you’re suggesting rationality in what the president of the United States directs to be done. And I, for one, find that rationality nonexistent lots of times, so then you have to ask the question that you just did: Why are we doing this? Well, I hate to say this, I mean, most Americans have no clue about this, but sometimes organizations as big and powerful as the CIA and the Pentagon just do it because they can. They just do it because if they don’t do it they can’t justify their existence. They do it because if they don’t do it they won’t get funding in the future, and so it gets done. We have this strange understanding in the United States, I would call it almost cretin-like ignorance, that even the president of the United States knows what is going on, you know, on the ground in Syria. Or, for that matter, even the director of the CIA or the secretary of defense knows what’s going on. That is utter nonsense. They haven’t a clue what’s going on. The only way they have an inkling is what people tell them, and those people are, their words, their briefings are filtered through layers and layers of people. What’s going on on the ground is often very different. Believe me, I’ve been on the ground. Very different from what the leaders think is going on, in Washington. And all these bureaucratic entities and these people who need funding, who want to stir the matter up so they can continue to do their job and continue to justify their existence, they fall into these gaps and these loopholes, and they do what they do, [crosstalk] and– DESVARIEUX: [interposing]–But Larry– WILKERSON: –it’s clearly understandable in terms of human nature, but it’s dangerous for American foreign policy. [Now I] get to my final point. DESVARIEUX: Yeah. WILKERSON: Most of the things that the CIA does don’t need to be done in the first place. DESVARIEUX: But Larry, I want [crosstalk] to push– WILKERSON: [interposing] It’s a waste of taxpayer money and there are deaths that don’t have to happen. DESVARIEUX: Larry, I want to push back, because there are some folks who are going to say, the reason we don’t know what’s going on on the ground is because we’re not there on the ground enough, and we need to be sending in troops in order to provide more order in the region. What would you say to those folks? WILKERSON: I’d say look at Iraq. We had plenty of troops on the ground there, not enough, but plenty, and we didn’t know any more what was going on there than we know what’s going on in Syria. In fact, we were losing in 2004, 5 and 6, and, you know, we had [inaud.] telling us we were winning, so that’s kind of preposterous to think that you’d know better what’s going on if you had troops on the ground. Second, I would say, in this case there are a lot better troops to put on the ground than US troops, each of whom would have a red bullseye on their back the moment they hit the ground for every, and this is not just Syria, this is almost any place there, for every person with a vendetta against the United States, terrorist or otherwise. You want to put the troops from the region in there. You want to put the troops that comprise the four-plus million, yes, four-plus million armed forces in the surrounding nations. Make them do the job of bringing peace and stability to their region. You know why they don’t want to do that? You know why the leaders in Cairo and elsewhere don’t want to do that? Because they’re using those armed forces to oppress or control their own people. That’s why they don’t want to do anything about chaos on their borders. And let’s look at another aspect of this, too. Look who’s benefiting from this chaos. Look at who thinks this chaos is good for his state’s security. Bibi Netanyahu. He thinks, his entourage, his political apparatus, some of his military, think that this chaos, this division amongst their potential enemies, is good for Israel. They think, as long as they’re concerned with killing one another they won’t be concerned with killing Israelis. Well, that’s all fine and good for the short term, and may be right in the short term, but in the long term they’re dangerously wrong. This kind of chaos is going to breed an environment that ultimately will be inimical to Israel’s interests, maybe even inimical to Israel’s continued existence. DESVARIEUX: Larry, I want to go back to your point about the alternative strategy, about getting troops from the region to fight Syria, because there are some folks who will say, wait a minute, these people don’t even like each other. They’re enemies themselves. How can you expect them to have a coordinated effort to fight ISIS, for example, in Syria? What’s your response? WILKERSON: My response is, if they can’t get their act together sufficiently to form a Chapter Seven or a Chapter Six force for the United Nations, and under blue helmets enforce a, for example, peace agreement that might now be achieved in Syria with the ceasefire and the major parties agreeing to a political settlement hopefully, if they can’t do that they certainly don’t need the United States forces in there, or for that matter any Western forces in there trying to do it for them. I think Bernie Sanders is 100 percent right on that. I even listen to Donald Trump from time to time when he expresses similar views. You do not fix the problem with US forces. Anyone looking at Vietnam, looking at Iraq, looking at Afghanistan, must conclude that US forces on foreign territory trying to enforce a peace for a government that’s illegitimate or near-illegitimate, or trying to force it against the wills of the majority of the people in that country, is pure nonsense, winds up in murder and killing beyond all human scope, and does nothing for the country for the country perpetrating the problems, nothing for the country that is causing the problem, and nothing for, ultimately, the powers doing it. I mean, this is, how many examples do we need of the United States making a mess of a state building effort in another country to say that it’s not something we do very well? DESVARIEUX: All right. Larry Wilkerson joining us from Falls Church, Virginia. Thank you so much for being with us. WILKERSON: Thanks for having me, Jessica. DESVARIEUX: And thank you for joining us on the Real News Network.


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Distinguished Adjunct Professor of Government and Public Policy

Lawrence Wilkerson's last positions in government were as Secretary of State Colin Powell's Chief of Staff (2002-05), Associate Director of the State Department's Policy Planning staff under the directorship of Ambassador Richard N. Haass, and member of that staff responsible for East Asia and the Pacific, political-military and legislative affairs (2001-02). Before serving at the State Department, Wilkerson served 31 years in the U.S. Army. During that time, he was a member of the faculty of the U.S. Naval War College (1987 to 1989), Special Assistant to General Powell when he was Chairman of the Joint Chiefs of Staff (1989-93), and Director and Deputy Director of the U.S. Marine Corps War College at Quantico, Virginia (1993-97). Wilkerson retired from active service in 1997 as a colonel, and began work as an advisor to General Powell. He has also taught national security affairs in the Honors Program at the George Washington University. He is currently working on a book about the first George W. Bush administration.