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Larry Wilkerson discusses a bill introduced by US Congresswoman Tulsi Gabbard that seeks to redress the failed Syria strategy

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SHARMINI PERIES, EXEC. PRODUCER, TRNN: Welcome to this edition of the Larry Wilkerson Report on the Real News Network. I’m Sharmini Peries coming to you from Baltimore. As the civil war continues in Syria, solutions to end the conflict and the human suffering caused by it are preoccupying many of us. In that regard, Democratic congresswoman from Hawaii Tulsi Gabbard recently introduced a bill aimed at prohibiting arms and funding from being sent to groups seeking to overthrow Syrian president Bashar al-Assad. The bill prohibits the use of U.S. funds for the provision of assistance to Syrian opposition groups and individuals. Here is Congresswoman Tulsi in an interview with Wolf Blitzer on CNN, critiquing U.S. foreign policy in Syria. WOLF BLITZER: Why do you say the U.S. effort to get rid of Bashar al-Assad’s regime is counterproductive and illegal? TULSI GABBARD (D-HI): Well, first of all, there’s not been a vote in Congress to authorize the use of force, to authorize a war to overthrow a sovereign government. For as long as I’ve been there that hasn’t happened. It didn’t happen before I got there. So the American people haven’t had a choice to speak their voice to approve or disapprove such a war. Therefore it’s illegal. Secondly, it is counterproductive because right now U.S. arms are getting into the hands of our enemy. Al-Qaeda, Al-Nusra, these other groups, Islamic extremist groups who are our sworn enemy. These are groups who attacked us on 9/11 and who supposedly we’re trying to defeat. Yet at the same time, supporting them with these arms to overthrow the Syrian government. PERIES: Here to discuss the congresswoman’s position is Col. Lawrence Wilkerson. He’s the former chief of staff for the U.S. Secretary of State Colin Powell, and currently and adjunct professor of government at the college of William and Mary. He’s also a regular contributor to the Real News Network. Larry, thank you so much for joining us today. LARRY WILKERSON: Thanks for having me, Sharmini. PERIES: So Larry, this must take you back to the debate over the legality of the Iraq war. Is what the Congresswoman Tulsi arguing here, what the U.S. is doing in Syria, is it illegal? WILKERSON: I think so. And I’m glad to hear this debate taking place, especially in a far more, in my view, formidable way than it did previously. I happen to know, backtrack just for a moment, I happen to know the congresswoman fairly well from my almost hour-long conversation with her in her office about the Iran-EU-Germany Permanent 5 Iran deal, the JCPOA, the Joint Comprehensive Plan of Action. I found the congresswoman to be deliberate, well-versed in what we were talking about, in some ways more circumspect even than the party there to discuss it with her. And I found her to be very serious and very concentrated on her responsibility towards dealing with that agreement in the way she felt was best for the American people and ultimately for the world. So I have great respect for her ability, not just because she’s an Iraq war veteran, but also because I found in her what I did not find in clearly a majority of the rest of the Congress, of either Republican or Democratic ilk. And that is, I found a sane and sober voice. I found a voice interested in national security in a serious way, and a voice that was well-informed and itself spoke well about national security issues. So I am all for this legislation that she and her Republican counterpart have introduced, for the reasons you insinuated, and the reason that I know a lot of thought went into the legislation from the Hawaiian side, if not the other. PERIES: So what she’s basically saying is by assisting the opposition fight al-Assad, we are also helping ISIS. What does she mean by that, and how is that taking place? WILKERSON: First of all, it’s very difficult to define the “opposition”, whether you’re talking the Syrian Free Army, or you’re talking the Al Nusra Front, or you’re talking the more media-savvy and more mentioned ISIS-Daesh-ISIL, or any of the other elements that are opposed to Assad in Syria. And I put in that collection even the new Kurdish groups, the Turkmen and others. Turkmen, of course, having been the subject of much discussion between Moscow and Ankara recently, because Erdogan’s ostensible reason for shooting down the Russian aircraft was to send them a message that they’d better quit bombing Turkmen. So this is a very convoluted situation, and I think this legislation rightfully addresses this. John Brennan notwithstanding, and he scares me, frankly, there is nobody to support in Syria of consequence. And on top of that when you send arms in, they go to anybody and everybody. And like we have seen so many times in the past, most recently and vividly in Afghanistan with our support for the mujaheddin there, those arms inevitably wind up being turned against us in whatever consequence might result. This is not good, and it shouldn’t be happening, even though I understand the pressures to make it happen. The people making those arms. Lockheed Martin, Raytheon, Smith and Wesson, indeed, the NRA itself get all kinds of cash out of selling them to people. And so that’s an incentive for doing this, too. But it needs to stop. We need to quit, the Saudis need to quit, the Qataris need to quit, the Emirates need to quit funding this horrible civil war in Syria. PERIES: Now Larry, one of the positions that she argues is that we should learn from our past. This strategy didn’t work in Afghanistan, didn’t work in Iraq, didn’t work in Libya, and isn’t going to work in Syria. Your thoughts on that? WILKERSON: I think what I just said. I think she’s absolutely right about that. It’s not going to work. The only solution that I can see to the problems in Syria, and they are daunting, is political talk between the parties most interested in a solution, and that includes Iran. It includes Russia. It includes Saudi Arabia and the GCC in general. It includes Turkey. And of course it includes Washington. And maybe even it includes Beijing. And maybe even Delhi. And we need to talk about this in terms of how do we defeat ISIS, and how do we essentially bring some kind of stability back to Syria? And by golly, if that includes leaving Bashar al-Assad in charge for whatever period of time is acceptable to that community, and ultimately to Bashar al-Assad, after all the legitimate government of Syria, has to be accepted. And we have to deal with that. We have to deal with that. Because bringing stability back to Syria and stopping the killing is our first motivation, our first purpose, and getting rid of ISIS is right there with it. PERIES: And Larry, one point where I find that the congresswoman doesn’t go far enough in terms of explaining herself is even if this is assistance to the Syrian opposition and the fight against the IS that it is capsuled under was authorized by Congress and Senate, it is still internationally, according to international law, illegal, what the U.S. is doing in Syria. WILKERSON: I don’t think the United States has really cared about international law for a long time now. I think our care, if that’s the right word for it in essence, is opportunistic. And if it’s convenient for us, we do care. But basically I think we have a particular disdain for international law, even though much of that law we helped build since 1945. Having said that, I do think that this legislation and the conception of it is right in the two respects, that one, the authorization for the use of military force with response to–in regard to 9/11 is still in effect for fighting terrorists with a global reach, a global capability, and an attempt to attack the United States. But I don’t think it applies to overthrowing legitimate governments in other countries. I think that’s the sense of this legislation. I think you can fight ISIS, and I think you can show a decent respect of the opinions of mankind, including international law, at the same time without trying to overthrow the legitimate government of Syria and funding and fueling those people who are at that purpose. PERIES: All right. Larry, we’ll be watching this bill taking its course, and I hope you join us again very soon. WILKERSON: Thank you Sharmini. I don’t think this bill has a prayer of passing. I hope I’m wrong. But I think [inaud.] it doesn’t because of people in my party. PERIES: All right. Larry, thank you so much for joining us. WILKERSON: Take care. 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.