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Col. Lawrence Wilkerson and Paul Jay discuss the U.S./Saudi unholy alliance in Syria and a relationship that has distorted development throughout the region

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PAUL JAY, SENIOR EDITOR, TRNN: Welcome to the Real News Network. I’m Paul Jay. On Monday, Russian President Vladimir Putin met with Iran’s Supreme Leader, Ali Khamenei, at a summit in Tehran held for the gas exporters, [country’s] forum. The leaders commended each other for developing closer economic ties and greater geopolitical cooperation. Both spoke critically of the role the United States in Syria, with Khamenei at one point saying the Americans do not have an honorable diplomacy. Now joining us to discuss the honorable or dishonorable diplomacy of the United States is Larry Wilkerson. Larry joins us from Williamsburg, Virginia. Larry is the former chief of staff for the U.S. Secretary of State Colin Powell, currently an adjunct professor of government at the college of William and Mary, and a regular contributor to the Real News Network. Thanks for joining us, Larry. LARRY WILKERSON: Thanks for having me, Paul. JAY: Now, we won’t get into whether Iran has honorable or dishonorable foreign policy. That’s a subject for another day. But certainly the American role in Syria is, on the face of it, rather contradictory, claiming to be fighting for democracy and wanting to overthrow the dictator Assad, except your biggest ally in the whole venture is Saudi Arabia, one of the more oppressive dictatorships on the planet. So what do you make of this accusation, or critique, of the Americans by the Iranian leader? WILKERSON: I just happen to have been reading some of the cables that were a part of the WikiLeaks trove. And one of those cables was a very candid message back from our embassy in Riyadh, as I recall, back to the secretary of state and others, remarking on how the Saudis were still very much complicit in support of terrorism, particularly Lashkar-e-Taiba in Pakistan, Al-Qaeda, and others. So I take your point that this is duplicitous when we are allied with, if you will, and listening to the Saudis about actions we are taking in Syria. Whether or not we have an honorable or a dishonorable diplomacy, and ultimately foreign policy, I think is in the eye of the beholder. I’d be the first person to criticize our foreign policy, security policy, diplomacy in general for being hypocritical. It is immensely hypocritical, as you pointed out, that we’re feature, our largest naval fleet headquarters in Bahrain, that the Bahraini government was, as you know, recently supported by armored cars coming across the causeway from Saudi Arabia, another dictatorship. And that we’re trying to overthrow yet another dictatorship in Syria, particularly Bashar al-Assad. That that’s hypocritical I think is self-evident. JAY: Now, let’s examine just what the U.S. interest is here, or how the people that are making this policy perceive it. I understand what Israel wants out of the Syria situation. They want to cut off armed shipments to Hezbollah. And I suppose given the American interest in keeping Israel as one of their gendarmes in the region and close ally, does that then make that an American interest to cut off arms to Hezbollah? I guess I understand the Saudi interest. They want to be the spokespeople, leaders, representatives of the Sunnis in the Arab world, or even the entire world. And they don’t like the fact that Assad sided with Iran during the Iran-Iraq war, and they don’t like the continued relationship with Iran, which Saudi Arabia sees as a great competitor in the region. So is this the American interest, that it’s essentially through the various regional allies? Or do they have their own reasons for wanting to get rid of Assad? Because it seems so paramount in the policy. WILKERSON: Let’s take a look at a little bit of history here, and let’s understand that Bashar al-Assad and his father before him, cruel tyrant that his father was, and that he seems to have become, did what they did geopolitically, geostrategically if you will, I want to say georegionally, because in many respects we forced them into doing it. They pushed up against Iran as a partner, as it were, because we isolated them. They began to allow arms conduit and other supplies, and so forth, to Hezbollah in Lebanon, essentially, because we kind of isolated them. We made them into the pariah of the area with only Iran as an ally. So a lot of what Syria has done has been in counterpunch, if you will, to what we compel them to do by our isolation of them, and so forth. Why we did that has a many-colored carpet associated with it, whether we’re talking about George H. W. Bush, or Bill Clinton, or George W. Bush, or indeed Barack Obama. I think the answer to the immediate seemingly unable to live with Assad posture from the United States is a combination of things. One you’ve pointed out, the Saudis want him to go. Erdogan wants him to go in Ankara. The Sunnis in general would like to see him go. Those who were opposed to him, and that includes the Sunnis, of course, I think who are the heart and soul of ISIS, ISIL, Daesh, whatever you want to call it in Syria today. It’s the Republican Guard that’s the heart and soul of ISIS, not so much what’s touted by the American media, all these crazy people who run around being radicals. They’re there, of course, but the real planning and strategic genius of ISIS, ISIL, Daesh, is the Ba’athist from Iraq, and their counterparts in Syria. They grew up around Abu Musab al-Zarqawi when he was representing Al-Qaeda in Iraq. They became the awakening for David Petraeus. And then when Maliki and others turned against them in Iraq they took to the battlefield again. So that’s where their genius and their hardcore military power is coming from. JAY: And just add to that the de-Ba-athification of Iraq, which essentially took Sunnis completely out of all positions left him with really not much choice but to fight in this [way]. WILKERSON: Yes. You’re right. You’re right. My intelligence is that one of the most formidable strategic assets they have is a former Iraqi general who knows his targets very well, whether they be Syrian targets, Iraqi targets, or U.S. targets, for that matter. So this is where a lot of their strength’s coming from. I think though, if you look closer at this particular incident that we’re talking about now, this administration, its personalities, its chemistry, its team sociology, if you will, what you’re looking at is a combination of the influence of Susan Rice and Samantha Power. They more or less influenced President Obama into taking NATO into Libya. And you know what kind of turmoil and chaos we have there now. And their emphasis on Assad being a bad character, being a human rights violator and so forth, there’s plenty of evidence for it, is persuasive with President Obama. Plus, he’s made a statement himself at one point in time that both sides remaining in power is unacceptable. I understand he’s backed up from that a little bit. He’s equivocated on it somewhat. But he nonetheless had said that at one time. And then you’ve got to also understand, I think that there are secret negotiations going on right now. They involve all the parties, more or less. And what we may be seeing is that Russia, perhaps Turkey, Saudi Arabia, [interlocutors] in these discussions, have put forward a position for President Assad that the United States doesn’t like at all. Finds unpalatable. And so they’re pushing back, now, with these latest statements in an effort to get the other side to be more compromising. This could be the length of time that Assad stays in power after a deal. It could be indeed whether or not he stays in power as a deal is effected. It could be the priorities that the group is going to assume. Do they leave Assad in power while they defeat ISIS, and then work on a transition government? Do they take Assad out right away and then defeat ISIS? What’s the priority and what’s the sequence? It could have to do with that discussion, those I think secret discussions right now, too, and building leverage in those discussions. There are a number of reasons why the president might have changed his tack, or seems to have change his tack, with regard to the acceptability or unacceptability of Bashar al-Assad. JAY: There seems to be some information surfacing on the internet. It’s hard to track down how reliable it is. But that early in this process there was some actual thinking on the part of the American professionals, at least, in making foreign policy or secret foreign policy, of encouraging an ISIS presence in Syria as a lever or leverage against Assad. Have you seen this? And what do you make of it? WILKERSON: I don’t think that would wash, because boy, if that were to leak I think there are people in this country, including the majority of the American people, would be all over this administration in a way that they would find irresistible. That is to say, they’d be in trouble. So I just don’t see us doing anything like that. I do note that a couple sentences in a recent speech by Hillary Clinton seemed to sort of equate ISIS and Tehran. Not necessarily that the one was supporting the other, or vice versa, but that they were equally evil. I think that kind of statement and that kind of commitment to that stereotyping is dangerous, because I do think that Iran is absolutely essential. Whether they’re doing it for self-interest or altruism is of no consequence to me. They’re essential to eventual stability in Afghanistan, in Iraq, and ultimately to a political solution and some sort of stability in Syria. You cannot do it without Iran. So whatever’s happening right now, I’m very much confident that the president is aware of that. He’s got a lot of opposition to doing it, mostly in my political party, but I’m sure he’s aware of that and he’s working these present negotiations with that well in mind. JAY: The Russians have taken some of the initiative away from U.S. foreign policy, it seems, meeting again. WILKERSON: Rightly so. And in my mind, completely so. And more or less positively so. Because they’re doing some things that we felt we couldn’t do, for whatever reason. One of these things they’re doing is they’re attacking rather strenuously the $1 million a day, as I understand my intelligence sources, that the radical forces are getting from their oil sales. JAY: Now, the accusation against the Russian participation is that they’re spending more time attacking forces like the Free Syrian Army, and there seems to be a great debate just what the size or significance of that still is. I talked to the–. WILKERSON: Huge debate. JAY: I talked to a reporter from the Washington Post who claims that there really is a Free Syrian Army, and people that are claiming it doesn’t really exist are wrong. I don’t know the truth of it without being there. Al-Nusra Front clearly is one of the main forces fighting against Assad. And clearly it’s a more immediate threat to Damascus. There are some accusations Assad himself isn’t really doing that much against ISIS. He’s mostly fighting on the Al-Nusra Front. I mean, it’s very complicated. But the idea of a united front against ISIS and pulling back on the threat to Assad, is that gaining some traction in Washington? It’s hard to tell. One day it seems it does and the next it doesn’t. WILKERSON: I think you’re right. It’s hard to tell. But I would say that probably the to and fro-ing is based on leveraging positions in these secret talks. That would be my guess, anyway. I think at the end of the day everyone agrees, Assad probably less than others, but because it’s opportunistic for him to be that way, and he needs every opportunity he can find right now, but everyone’s agreed that ISIS, the radical Islamist–Al-Nusra I would include in that, too, Al-Qaeda, essentially are the number one priority and that they have to be gotten rid of. That people are trying to keep Assad in government in order to do that is not that indecipherable. After all, Assad is the legitimate government of Syria. However much we may despite him, however much we may hate him, however much we may rhetorically find him unacceptable, Russia’s right when they say they were invited there and we intervened. Because he is the legitimate government of Syria. My God, we had an embassy there and we’re dealing with him only a few short years ago, or months ago, I should say. So I find it kind of, extremely hypocritical from my perspective, not just that we support dictators we like and fight dictators we don’t like, and the liking and the hating is based on some other than strategic purpose. But I also find it ridiculous that we make these arguments about places like Syria, where we should be prioritizing our problems, our enemies, taking care of them, and dealing with lesser issues on a later basis. JAY: All right, thanks very much for joining us, Larry. WILKERSON: Thanks for having me, Paul. JAY: And thank you for joining us on the Real News Network.


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Lawrence Wilkerson

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.