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Larry Wilkerson: With Saudi Arabia heavily funding the opposition and Iran backing Assad, the Syrian civil war has spiraled into a global struggle for power with the potential for greater catastrophe

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JESSICA DESVARIEUX, TRNN PRODUCER: Welcome to The Real News Network. I’m Jessica Desvarieux in Baltimore.

U.S. authorities have indicated that they are sticking to their timetable for a possible attack on Syria in response to the alleged use of chemical weapons by the regime of Bashar al-Assad. However, the AP is reporting on Thursday morning from a U.S. intelligence official that, quote, the intelligence linking Syrian President Bashar al-Assad or his inner circle to an alleged criminal chemical attack is no slam dunk.

Meanwhile, Russia, which along with China has opposed the calls for the use of military force in Syria, is convening a meeting of the five permanent members of the UN Security Council to discuss the possible strike. Russia has also reportedly dispatched two warships to the region. Britain, a close U.S. ally, will hold a debate this weekend prior to deciding whether or not to take part in an attack. The Obama administration has not indicated whether or not it will seek congressional approval prior to launching a strike.

Now joining us to discuss all this is Larry Wilkerson. Larry was the former chief of staff for U.S. Secretary of State Colin Powell. He’s currently an adjunct professor of government at the College of William & Mary, and he’s a regular contributor to The Real News.

Thanks for being with us, Larry.


DESVARIEUX: So, Larry, it sounds like there’s no smoking gun here. UN inspectors, they’re still in Syria currently. But the Obama administration seems to be pushing forward, saying that they are blaming Assad for this chemical attack. Why would the Obama administration come out with such aggressive language towards Assad and this strike if there’s no smoking gun? What wouldn’t they just wait for the UN inspectors to have hard evidence before proceeding?

WILKERSON: That’s an excellent question. And if I hadn’t lived through this sort of operation with three other presidents, I’d have difficulty answering that question.

As it is, I would say that probably they got too far forward in the foxhole, too aggressive. The president probably acted on an NSA intercept or something like that and made some conclusions he probably shouldn’t have made. And now they’re trying to walk it back a little bit.

I just heard that the inspectors have been asked through Ban Ki-moon, the secretary-general, to not go to the area because we claim the area is contaminated by conventional munitions that Assad has continued to use. That’s preposterous, because if it was a neurotoxic agent, we wouldn’t necessarily have to find things on the ground. It would be nice if we did, but what we’re going to do is take blood samples and so forth of the alleged victims and see if they have indeed been affected by some sort of chemical agent, in this case VX or sarin or a facsimile thereof.

So this really looks bad right now. It looks a lot like what I went through in 2003 in preparing Colin Powell for his now infamous presentation at the United Nations in February of that year, where we said Saddam had an active nuclear program, had vast stocks of chemical and biological weapons, had major contacts with al-Qaeda and an active nuclear program, all of which we now know was patently false.

DESVARIEUX: Okay. And, Larry, for our viewers, can you explain what is the strategic importance of Syria? And specifically, can you talk about Hezbollah and Iran? And what role do they plan a small in this whole chess game?

WILKERSON: When you talk about Hezbollah and Iran and Russia, you have to talk about them in the same breath with Bashar al-Assad.

And here’s another counterintuitive ingredient in this. If they’re on his side and he’s holding his own, if not winning, in this really tragic civil war, then why would he use chemical weapons and invite international intervention? This is very counterintuitive. I’m not saying that dictators don’t do stupid things, and Assad could be one of those who does stupid things, but it is just not reasonable for him to have done this, whereas if you do like the detectives do, follow the money, where is the motivation, the motivation is in the opposition or in portions of the opposition. The motivation is elsewhere than Assad to use chemical weapons and get the international community to intervene.

But you just brought up an important point. This is not just a serious civil war. This is Saudi Arabia funding like mad those people fighting against Assad. This is Iraq fighting on both sides, with Maliki on one side and people like Muqtada al-Sadr on the other side. This is Turkey furiously fighting against Syria, not so much on the on the ground, as Iran is, in support of Assad. But this is a whole group of people. This is Russia furnishing Assad with weapons.

This is not an isolated civil war, which it is–it makes it very dangerous for the United States to think it’s just taking the side of the opposition if it should choose to intervene militarily. This is a very dangerous move by the president. Moreover, if he’s just trying to send a signal, if he’s just trying to say to Assad, don’t use chemicals again and just going to fire some cruise missiles, maybe drop some precision munitions, Assad would be very smart if he just said, so what, and went right on prosecuting his war. Well, then what does the president do? In for a pound, in for a ton. And then we’ve got a catastrophe on our hands.

DESVARIEUX: Yeah. And we also have a lot of different interests pulling the president in different directions. Let’s talk about Washington specifically and McCain, who has come out calling for the president to intervene directly. And I want to get a sense from you: why would he do something like this? Who does he represent? What sort of interests does he represent? Because McCain always comes out saying that we need to listen to our generals. But if we listen to our generals in this case–let’s take a look at a quote from General Dempsey. He actually says that we need to take a step back when it comes to Syria. Quote, he says, Syria today is not about choosing between two sides but rather about choosing one among many sides. It is my belief that the side we choose must be ready to promote their interests and ours when the balance shifts in their favor. Today they are not. What do you make of all this, Larry?

WILKERSON: Well, General Dempsey’s comment is wise, sagacious, and smart. I wouldn’t want to touch this tar baby with my left hand and then get my right hand, my head, my feet, and everything else ensnarled in it, which is probably what we’re going to do.

Let’s back up for a moment. First of all, Syria is not in the national interest of the United States of America. That’s a major point to be made.

It is in the humanitarian interest of the United States that the killings stop. And the best way to do that is through diplomacy, hard talks, an embargo on arms that’s as enforced as our current sanctions regime against Iran is, for example, or our embargo against Cuba is, and forcing people to sit down and talk, including the Iranians, the Syrians, the Saudis, the Turks, the Russians, the Chinese, all the people that have a dog in this fight. They ought to all sit down and talk. That’s the only way we’re going to end this is with a political solution. If it means Assad stays in power for a little bit longer and an interim government comes in to share power with them, so what? As long as it stops the killing. A few cruise missiles aimed at a red line the president ineptly laid down with regard to chemical weapons is not going to do anything except exacerbate and add and increase in violence.

So this doesn’t make any sense. General Dempsey is absolutely right that it’s not and in the interests of the United States to be ensnared in this civil war and ultimately probably a much wider regional conflict.

DESVARIEUX: So, Larry, it sounds like you’re advocating for a political solution. And in your opinion, is this the most constructive foreign policy for the Syrian people themselves?

WILKERSON: Absolutely. I do not see any way, as General Dempsey pointed out, any way that you get anything other than what, for example–and we just walked right over this–what we have in Libya today, which is a haven for al-Qaeda, which has transferred al-Qaeda into the northern part of Mali and caused that state to become unstable, caused us to have to place a drone outfit in that region, for example, widening the so-called war on terror, not narrowing it, not eliminating it, keeping us in a constant state of warfare. So Libya is no example to use.

For that matter, people are throwing Kosovo out. Kosovo is no example to use. Kosovo’s GDP right now is 90 percent criminality–trafficking in humans, in drugs, in arms, much the same way Albania, its sister state over there, is. So these great examples of humanitarian intervention over the last few years are not very positive examples.

And Syria, I think, would trump them tenfold. It’d be much worse. We don’t know who’s going to control Syria. And we’re not about to put boots on the ground and occupy that place for ten or 12 years to ensure that whoever controls it, to ensure that their interests are compatible with Israel’s and others’.

We’ve got a collapsing Arab Spring right now. I’d call it an Arab winter. We’ve got Egypt falling apart. We’ve got Lebanon being destabilized by the refugees in it. We’ve got Jordan looking precarious. We’ve got Iraq going back to civil war. This is not a time to widen this conflict and to add another state to the United States’ groups that it’s going to occupy and build democracy in. It’s preposterous to think that we can do that.

The best we can do is to talk, force others to talk, put an arms embargo on the place so people like the Saudis quit flooding it with weapons, and bring everybody to the table and sit down and make some kind of agreement that also, by the way, advantageously, might lead to a better situation in Afghanistan, a better situation in Iraq, a better situation with Iran and its nuclear program. We could have all manner of things that we can talk about if we’ll just sit down and talk. The problem is we seem to have forgotten how to do that.

DESVARIEUX: Okay. Thanks so much for joining us, Larry.

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.