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Larry Wilkerson, former Chief of Staff to Colin Powell, says that Syria could turn into another Afghanistan with US and Saudi policies creating significant blowback in the region

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SHARMINI PERIES, EXEC. PRODUCER, TRNN: This is the Larry Wilkerson Report on The Real News Network. I’m Sharmini Peries coming to you from Baltimore. The Syrian Observatory for Human Rights is reporting that the Islamic State militants have seized the ancient Syrian city of Palmyra. Palmyra was the last government-controlled border crossing between Syria and Iraq. This means that ISIL now controls over 50 percent of Syria. Further, cross over the border into Iraq where the government forces have withdrawn from At Tamf, known as Al Walid, the crossing where ISIL has also advanced and Iraq government forces lost Ramadi this week. Just 200 ISIS militants fought against 2,500 Iraq forces according to the BBC. ISIS also controls the city of Fallujah, very near Baghdad. The U.S. says that the fighting, the militants now is going to be a difficult challenge. Joining me now to address all of this is Larry Wilkerson. He is the former chief of staff for the U.S. Secretary of State Colin Powell. And he’s currently an adjunct professor of government at the college of William and Mary. Thank you so much for joining us. COL. LARRY WILKERSON, FMR. CHIEF OF STAFF TO COLIN POWELL: Thanks for having me, Sharmini. PERIES: So Larry, give us a sense of what’s going on in the region, and the role of the United States in all of this. WILKERSON: I think the media has made a lot of what are basically tactical exchanges. That is to say, for example Ramadi in Iraq, the oil refinery in the north and so forth that ISIL seems to be threatening, and Ramadi in particular, are still ongoing conflicts, ongoing battles. Terrain is changing hands, terrain goes first to ISIL as they make an initial movement on it, and then it’s wrested back by the Iraqi forces aided by Iran and others helping them, and of course air power from the United States and others. So the media makes a lot of these tactical exchanges of territory that probably shouldn’t be made, because in the strategic scheme of things it’s looking more and more like a stalemate. Particularly in Iraq. In Syria it’s a little bit different, as your commentary suggested, because Assad seems finally after some time to be actually losing some key terrain and some key cities, key sections of Syria. I’ve heard for example that he only controls roughly 50-55 percent of the state anymore. And there are a couple of key areas he doesn’t control, if Palmyra has really fallen to ISIL and this is an occasion for rejoicing on their part and certainly an occasion for dismay on Assad’s part. Strategically I think what this means is that Assad is finally losing enough of a grip on power that a political solution might become a feasible thing in the very near future, and a political solution of course I still think would have to include him in some sort of interim way. But I hope that’s what’s happening, where we’re getting to the point where we can achieve a political solution. If one wants to look at the history of this, the history of this is dismaying completely. Disconcerting, even. Though those of us who studied this in the post-world war era, World War II era, know about the machinations of the United States and its allies in the world. What I mean by that is the rumor mill here in Washington is very strong, and I suspect there’s some truth in this, in these rumors that we’re looking at another repetition of what happened in Afghanistan with the CIA training the mujahideen, which ultimately included the Arabs, which ultimately included Osama bin Laden in its attempt to overthrow the Soviet forces in Afghanistan after the Soviet Union invaded Afghanistan in 1979 and ’80. We’re hearing rumors, strong rumors, that the CIA was in there with [incompr.], the Saudis, of course, we’ve known they’ve been there all along, trying to overthrow Assad and may have had a hand in creating the very forces that we’re talking about today having more sway in Syria, and in Iraq too. In other words, ISIS. I suspect what we’re talking about is the Sunnis amongst this group, the Sunnis that were disempowered by our invasion of Iraq and our inability to cause the Shia government to accommodate them. I suspect that’s what we’re really talking about, the former Iraqi military, in other words. But what we’re saying here is that the CIA and the United States and Saudi Arabia and others again are instrumental in creating blowback that’s going to be significant for the region and maybe even for our own interests in that region. So this is another dismaying thing that one picks up and learns about what his country is doing with its taxpayer dollars in other countries in nefarious and covert ways. PERIES: Larry, what do we know about the fall of Ramadi? BBC is reporting that the fall of Ramadi was achieved by the ISIS with just 200 militants against 2,500 Iraqi forces. What does this tell us about the Iraqi forces capacity and capability? WILKERSON: Well, I don’t know if those specifics are correct. I’ve heard various specifics. But I do think the general scheme of things that they suggest is correct, and that is that these zealots, these fighters that believe in what they’re doing passionately, despite what we might think of their tactics, their ruthlessness, their murderous instincts, they believe in what they’re doing and they’re doing it, are up against Iraqis who are at best lackadaisical and at worst absent for duty. These are the Iraqis that we spent billions of dollars training. These are the Iraqis that David Petraeus, for example, assured us were capable of maintaining the security of their country. And this hogwash about time having expired between when Bush left the administration and Obama took over, and the United States left Iraq and so forth is just that, it’s hogwash. You either train and educate and build and institutionalize an army that can do the security tasks of its country or you don’t. It doesn’t atrophy in the short time that has elapsed since we left Iraq. So we’re looking at a situation where we didn’t do a very good job of training them. I don’t fault us to any great extent for that. I had to train these people when they were our allies. I had to train them when I was in the army, when they were our allies. And I can tell you, they’re not the best soldiers in the world. They’re not the most trainable people in the world with regard to soldiering. Maybe that’s to their credit, I don’t know. But they’re not the best soldiers in the world. And so it may take 100,000 Iraqis to defeat 2,000 of these very passionate zealots who are very intent and very focused on what they’re doing. But I have no doubt that with air support from others and with some sort of leadership the indigenous forces in Iraq can ultimately defeat the ISIL forces in Iraq. Defeating the Sunnis is another matter altogether. And that’s the real hard core of these ISIL forces, I think. If we just ripped away their mask, we’d find Saddam Hussein’s Republican Guard behind them. The people that we caused to be insurgents against us are now insurgents against the Shia government in Baghdad. And that’s going to be a different matter. If we can’t persuade, if we can’t attract some of them back to being in the political scheme, in the power scheme in Iraq, and therefore not to fight, not to be guerrillas, not to be insurgents, then we’ve got a real problem in Iraq for a long time to come. And that brings me to perhaps a final point. You are not going to solve that problem, nor are you going to solve the problem in Syria, without Iran and without Turkey. So if you’re going to work on a political solution to these problems, or even an interim military solution followed by a political solution, you’d best include Iran and you’d best include Turkey. And that makes the negotiations with Iran right now all the more important. PERIES: Larry Wilkerson, as always, thank you so much for joining us on The Real News Network. WILKERSON: Thanks for having me, Sharmini. PERIES: 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.