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Larry Wilkerson: There will no solution in Syria without cooperation of Iran but U.S. policy is blocked by Israel’s agenda

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PAUL JAY, SENIOR EDITOR, TRNN: Welcome back to The Real News Network.

We’re continuing our discussions with Larry Wilkerson. And now we’re going to talk about, I guess, the IS mess.

Thanks for joining us again.


JAY: So the Islamic state apparently at some point had taken about a third of Iraq and much of Syria. Now, apparently, we’re hearing they’re somewhat on the retreat on the Iraq side. But even if there was somewhat of a retreat on the Iraq side, they’re just going to strengthen their position on the Syria side. So if you actually had President Obama’s ear, what would you suggest he do if he’s trying to resolve this?

WILKERSON: I’d say exactly what you just said as an opening, that between the Peshmerga, the Iraqi national forces, and airstrikes, the Islamic State forces seem to be held in check, and even being reversed in terms of their gains in Iraq, earlier than I thought this would happen.

With regard to Syria and the region writ larger–because it’s not just the forces in Syria; there are similar forces throughout the Maghreb and elsewhere–with regard to that wider problem, let’s focus on Syria for a moment. It’s got to be political and it’s got to be achieved with two ingredients that it is now missing, one being worked on, I think, by the administration to bring it into the fold, the other not.

The one being worked on is Iran. Without Iran’s help, we’re not going to stabilize Syria.

The second one, not being worked on, in fact being made even worse, I think, from what I’m seeing, is Assad, Bashar al-Assad, made a tragic error, with Susan Rice, in her infinite wisdom, and others advising the president that Assad was another Mubarak and that, like he did with Mubarak, he’d better get on the side of history and say, get rid of Assad, he’s unacceptable, etc., etc. Well, I’m sorry, Assad is not Mubarak. Anyone who knows anything about the region knows that. Assad has very strong support in Syria from very important elements of Syrian society. And so he’s not going anywhere anytime soon.

JAY: Well, add the other part, too. I mean, there was also great opposition from a great deal of the population, and he was a pretty vicious dictator.

WILKERSON: Well, that said–.

JAY: But, you know, that said, Mubarak had support, too, in certain sections of society.

WILKERSON: Yes, he did, yeah, but not the kind in Syria, not the kind in Syria. Even Mubarak’s support had privately written him off.

In Syria–and we forget, too, that the real reason the Syrian situation unfolded the way it did was water. The farmers, 200,000 of them, I’m told, began to march and to speak to the government about the fact that their crops were failing and that they had no water. People were down to, I think, if I remember right, two and a half gallons a week for whatever use–health, hygiene, eating, cooking.

JAY: But in terms of U.S. foreign policy, the United States makes a lot of talk about not liking brutal dictators and all this, but we love the Saudis and–.

WILKERSON: Look at Bahrain.

JAY: And in Bahrain. So the point is it’s always a kind of a fig leaf because there’s an agenda. I don’t understand why the Americans/U.S. policy actually gave a damn about Assad. He was playing ball with the IMF. He was playing ball in terms of the global finance system. He was making banking reforms. He was even making the state sector smaller and more open.

WILKERSON: Even the draconian George W. Bush administration, though we did extract our ambassador for a time, realized and worked with Assad’s regime.

JAY: I mean, the only agenda that seems to make any sense to me why McCain goes bomb, bomb, bomb, bomb, bomb Iran and then, at the time of the Israeli-Lebanese War, James Woolsey, actually appointed by Clinton, goes on television and says, while the Israelis are bombing Lebanon we should take out Assad in Syria, it seems to me that the real agenda here is Israel’s agenda about Hezbollah, that it’s really more about that than anything, ’cause I don’t see how Assad–why the Americans should care that much about Assad.

WILKERSON: No question that Israel is at the center of a lot of these policy decisions that otherwise seem indecipherable.

JAY: Particularly this one, ’cause other times I can see the American interest. But here, like, who–I mean–.

WILKERSON: Well, the real crux here, in my view, is that none of these decisions that we’ve discussed and others we could talk about are really in Israel’s long-term security interest. They’re in the political interest of the present leadership in Israel, principally Netanyahu.

The long-term security of Israel is in great jeopardy right now, great jeopardy, because Netanyahu and his clique’s goal is a greater Israel. They will not be satisfied until they have the West Bank, the Sinai back, and maybe Jordan. And who knows what they covet beyond that. One in five Israelis is now a settler. They now have the new act that will give them 118,000, I’m told, new volunteers–not volunteers, but draftees, the Orthodox group that’s now subject to conscription. They’re building the IDF, if you will. This is a group that’s looking to increase the Israeli writ, not stabilize it or decrease it. Palestinians are sitting on, Israelis are sitting on, in Jerusalem right now, I think, the third intifada. That it hasn’t happened already is mystifying to me, I mean, the way the Israelis are more or less occupying all of Jerusalem. So this is a very dangerous situation, good for Netanyahu’s politics, good for whoever might replace him who can be even more draconian than he, because that’s what it looks like the Israelis want, but not good for Israel’s long-term security. I see a single-state solution, an apartheid state, an international condemnation, and the 1948 experiment over. So this is not good for Israel. But it is based, in many respects, tactically on Israel.

JAY: Yeah, there’s this mentality which I think Israel has both in regards to Hezbollah and to Iran, and the United States has it–in some ways it goes back to the conversation we had about Russia–is you just can’t allow a power that can contend with you. I don’t–anyone–I’ve been to Lebanon and Beirut and I’ve talked to Hezbollah, I mean, and you can hear this from the professionals in the Israeli intelligence communities: Hezbollah’s positioning was defensive. There is no way Lebanon is going to attack Israel. But that seems to be the linchpin for the Israelis. They just don’t like that there’s a military force there that they can’t defeat.

WILKERSON: Well, you have two assessment variables, if you will, in the military community, and it doesn’t matter who’s the community. There is what I call the worst-case assessment variable, and then there is the likely-case assessment variable. There are others, but those are the two that usually get the most play. The worst-case people are always those who say, look, a tank–kill ’em. You know? Two tanks–kill ’em faster. Three tanks–bomb ’em with atomic weapons. I mean, that’s too far, but that’s what I’m talking about.

JAY: And right now Hezbollah has the capacity to have a major rocket attack on Israel.


JAY: And that’s unacceptable.

WILKERSON: The likely-case people look at it and say, okay, they are building some capability, but we don’t assess it to be aimed expressly at us. We assess it to be mostly because they’re scared of us and they’re defensive. And so you don’t need to do anything.

JAY: Well, Israel keeps invading Lebanon. It’s no surprise they feel that way.

WILKERSON: You know why I think that is? My community thinks I’m crazy. I think that’s economic. I think every time Israel sees that the only country with the real capability in the Eastern Mediterranean to compete with them and surpass them is Lebanon. And so every time it looks like Lebanon is building the infrastructure, hotels for tourists, and industry and so forth, and is going to arrive at that point within a decade or two, Israel bombs them. Look it, why else would you bomb the things that Israel bombs?

JAY: Yeah, ’cause they’re not just bombing Hezbollah rockets.

WILKERSON: Yeah. They’re bombing the infrastructure of Lebanon.

JAY: So go back. So, I mean, so often especially Congress sees Israeli interest and American interest as identical. This seems to me to be the only reason the Americans would care so much about Assad, because even the Iran strategy, which–clearly regime change was American strategy for a long time–the talk always was splitting Assad from Iran, not you have to crush Assad to get to Iran. I mean, does it really weaken Iran that much because you take out Assad? It can’t be that big a consequence.

WILKERSON: No. I can’t explain it to you. I think it’s a question now of the Susan Rices and the Samantha Powers and others like them and the right to protect and the fact that 200,000 people plus have been killed in Syria and this is a great–and it is–humanitarian disaster. It’s the greatest number of refugees since World War II, which, incidentally, we’re not helping as much as we should be with. I think that’s taken over now. That’s the principle reason that people talk about using force–got to stop the situation, got to fix it, and so forth.

JAY: We have people like Daniel Pipes and others saying the Israeli strategy–and I heard this from American pundits as well–let them just keep killing each other. In fact, some of them openly came out and said, whichever side’s losing, give them some more weapons to make sure they can keep killing each other–a brilliant strategy which helped give birth to IS.

WILKERSON: Yeah. It’s–I’ll never–however much I might see the rational underpinning of some thoughts like that and however much I might have once said let’s let the Iran-Iraq War go on till there’s one Persian and one Iraqi and give them dueling pistols, you know, I realize that that’s not really the kind of strategy that one should be advocating.

JAY: Yeah, very, very dangerous times.

Thanks for joining us.

WILKERSON: Thanks for having me.

JAY: 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.