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US-backed forces are using tactics that cause a ‘staggering’ number of civilian deaths, but military action won’t defeat ISIS, says Phyllis Bennis, director the New Internationalism Project at IPS

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Sharmini Peries: It’s The Real News Network. I’m Sharmini Peries, coming to you from Baltimore. The United Nations has warned of heavy civilian death toll as a warn of intensified US-led airstrikes in Raqqa, Syria. The Syrian Democratic Forces, SDF, is a group of Kurdish and Arab militia, supported by a US-led coalition. They began to attack Raqqa a week ago to take it from ISIS militants. The SDF, supported by heavy US coalition airstrikes, have already taken territory to the West, East, and North of Raqqa. However, Paulo Pinheiro, the Chairman of the UN Commission of Inquiry told the Human Rights Council in Geneva that the strikes have led to displacement of 160,000 civilians with untallied numbers at this point in terms of the number of people dead. There is also the possibility that the US-led coalition may have been guilty of war crimes for the use of white phosphorus in the heavy populated city. The Geneva Academy of International Humanitarian Law and Human Rights describes white phosphorus as an incendiary and toxic chemical substance which can burn through skin, penetrating internal organs, and for which there is no antidote. Joining us now to discuss the situation is Phyllis Bennis. Phyllis is the Director of the New Internationalism Project at IPS, and among her many books is, “Understanding ISIS and the New Global War on Terror: A Primer.” Thanks for joining us and good to have you back, Phyllis. Phyllis Bennis: Good to be with you, Sharmini. Sharmini Peries: So Phyllis, what do you know about the nature of the tactics and violence used in the operation to retake Raqqa? Phyllis Bennis: What we know is that there are somewhere up to 200,000 civilians that are now trapped in Raqqa, and the US and the US-backed forces are using tactics that are virtually guaranteed to raise enormous levels of casualties. The UN used extraordinary language saying that there had already been what they called a “staggering loss of life” and it looks like that’s going to even increase. The use of white phosphorus, for example, it’s not necessarily a war crime to use it, but the conditions under which it’s not is very, very narrow. In this situation, when you’re talking about a heavily populated civilian area, a heavily populated city, it’s guaranteed that there are going to be civilian causalities. The US claim, and they admitted using white phosphorus, something that is almost never legal. They admitted using it and said that it was designed to provide cover of civilians who might try to flee. But this is really a specious argument because the only time that that could be legal is if it’s designed to cover troops on the battlefield who would be presumably protected. They would have protective gear, they would be inside a tank or inside an armored personnel carrier, something like that. In this situation, it’s virtually guaranteed that there will be enormous civilian causalities. There have already been, from the bombing that has been going on for weeks, and this is something that is likely to go on for weeks, months, it could last a year, before the bombing, the airstrikes against Raqqa have ended. This is going to be a disastrous situation for the civilian population. Most of them are being held by ISIS forces, not allowed to flee. Some are now able to escape, but they’re finding virtually no support. The US forces, the US coalition, have not provided for any kind of protection or humanitarian support for those who are making it out of the city proper. Some are trying to flee to the Northern area where the border between Syria and Jordan come together, where there’s been an enormous, what’s known as “the berm,” it’s a huge sand wall that keeps the refugees that are trying to get out of Syria, out of ISIS controlled territory, keeps them on the Syrian side, doesn’t allow them into the Jordanian side. Humanitarian aid workers are not allowed in either. What they’ve been doing has been driving trucks up to this wall of sand and basically throwing water and food over the edge. It’s a horrific situation that’s been going on for months. Others have been trying to flee in other directions and are ending up either in camps that are not prepared to accept them, don’t have the kind of facilities that are needed, let alone taking into account these are people who have been stuck under ISIS rule, sometimes as much as three years, and the kind of trauma that they have suffered. The need, the urgent need, not only for medical care, for food, for water, for basic survival, they also are in desperate need of psychological assistance and that is virtually unavailable to anyone. We’re facing not only a staggering loss of life, as the United Nations has called it, but a future of continued staggering loss of life, and the staggering loss of humanity for those few who may make it out alive. Sharmini Peries: Right. We at The Real News who keep a close eye on how these issues are covered in the media notice there’s a huge, staggering difference between a few months ago when Assad was accused of using chemical weapons in Aleppo, and how much the media was on that, particularly government officials coming out and screaming about that. Whenever someone uses chemical weapons, people should scream, but in this case, related to the US military’s use in Raqqa, there’s been somewhat of a silence we’ve noticed. Why do you think that is? Phyllis Bennis: Well I think there’s no question that there’s a vast disparity of press coverage based on who was the alleged perpetrator. It was absolutely appropriate, in my view, to have massive coverage of the slaughter that went on for weeks in Aleppo, carried out predominately by the Syrian regime, by Iran, and by Russian airstrikes. That kind of massive coverage is absolutely what’s necessary and needed, desperately needed right now, and we’re not seeing as you say the same level of coverage when it’s carried about the US and US allies. We’re talking about similar numbers, probably even greater numbers so far, and more to come, of civilian causalities by the US-led offensive, than the earlier offensive against Aleppo. This is one of those classic examples that the deaths of innocents are far more important to cover from the mainstream US press when those responsible for the deaths of innocents are our so-called enemies, rather than our so-called friends. Sharmini Peries: Phyllis, what can we expect the day after the Islamic State is pushed out of Raqqa? Particularly given that the co-chair of the PWD in Northern Syria has stated categorically that the SDF has no interest in seizing control of Raqqa and taking it away from their citizens. Phyllis Bennis: Well, I think there’s a number of factors that we have to look at here. One of the issues is it may well be possible for the US and its allied forces, along with the Syrian government, the Russians, and the Iranians, all of whom are trying to get ISIS out of Raqqa. That may well be possible, as well as it may be possible to get ISIS out of Mosul in Iraq. That doesn’t solve the problem of ISIS. It doesn’t make ISIS fade away. It just means that they leave that area and they show up somewhere else. They may retreat away from holding territory and holding civilian populations hostage, and in which case they may retreat to their origins as an old fashioned terrorist organization, carrying out car bombings against civilians, other kinds of attacks in Syria, in Iraq, elsewhere in the region, in Europe, perhaps in the United States, anywhere else. It doesn’t answer the problem because there is no military solution to terrorism. This is an old story. You and I have talked about this, Sharmini, many, many times. There is no military solution to terrorism and there’s not going to be with this “liberation” of Raqqa. On the specific side, what happens inside Raqqa, we still don’t know. There has been a commitment, as you say, from the forces allied with the United States that are predominately Kurdish, with some Arab forces, that have promised not to try to seize control of Raqqa, but to leave it in the control of the local population. The problem is number one, the vast majority of the local population is desperately trying to get out. When the situation might be stable enough for them to return to Raqqa, to imagine the rebuilding, imagine taking it back, trying to organize their own city, that’s going to be a very, very challenging reality, particularly given the very fragile nature of the people that are fleeing. Again, these are people who have been held under ISIS control with enormous pressures. The lack of sufficient food, lack of sufficient medicine, and a great deal of repression that they’ve lived under for these three years. A lot of them are not going to be in any shape to reclaim their homes and their city for a long time, so what happens in the interim remains uncertain. Will it be those who claim the victory, the largely Kurdish and somewhat Arab forces who say they don’t want to take it over? But if there’s no one else there, will they anyway? If that happens, what will be Turkey’s response, for example? Turkey has been very much opposed to this offensive because it doesn’t want the United States to continue to arm and support the Kurdish forces, known as the YPG, what’s known in the West quite widely a very progressive, secular force of Kurds, but are seen by Turkey as their sworn enemy, allegedly allied with the PKK, a Kurdish nationalist organization that Turkey and the US all identify as a terrorist organization. So, the international connections around Raqqa are very, very complicated, and the question of what happens the day after is one of those unknown questions where there has simply been no adequate preparation done for the inevitable chaos that’s going to follow. Sharmini Peries: Right. Phyllis, I’m sure you also woke up this morning to the news feeds telling us that the Russians may have attacked the ISIS leader, al-Baghdadi, and of course, this brings into question if it is true, and they have been successful, what happens to ISIS now and then of course, raises also the question, what is the US doing in Syria and what are their objectives now? Is regime change still the objective? Phyllis Bennis: Well, I think it’s a big question whether regime change was ever the US objective in Syria. The US has had a longstanding relationship that was quite collaborative with the Syrian regime. That collaboration also extended to Israel. There were tensions, of course, but in the years since the Israeli occupation on Syrian territory in the Golan Heights, for instance, the relationship between Israel and the Syrian government, both under the current regime and the father of the current president, Hafez al-Assad, was a rather collaborationist one, if you will. The Syrian government kept the occupied Golan Heights quiet, kept it suppressed enough that there were never serious uprising against the Israeli occupation there, and of course, relative to the United States, we’ve seen collaboration in the global war on terror where Syria was prepared to accept for interrogation and torture, cases that were outsourced by the United States, where the US had detainees that they wanted to be interrogated and tortured by some of the best. They sent them off to Syria and the Syrians said, “Sure, we’ll take them off your hands.” The question of whether the US actually wants regime change remains a very questionable one, I think. What we do see is that the broader issue of what happens in Syria, as well as in Iraq. After this stage of ISIS control of territory and populations ends, this is one of the big unknowns right now. If Baghdadi has indeed been assassinated in an airstrike by the Russians, it’s a big question how much difference that would actually make with ISIS. We can look at Al-Qaeda now and see the rise of Al-Qaeda from Afghanistan to parts of Syria to parts of Iraq, throughout the region, despite the assassination of Osama bin Laden. The assassination of a leader doesn’t necessarily have massive impact on the ability of a terrorist organization to continue carrying out its nefarious work. Sharmini Peries: All right, Phyllis. I thank you so much for joining us today and we covered a lot of ground. Thank you for that. Phyllis Bennis: Thank you very much. Sharmini Peries: And thank you for joining us here on The Real News Network.

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Phyllis Bennis is a Fellow and the Director of the New Internationalism Project at the Institute for Policy Studies in Washington DC.  Her books include Understanding ISIS & the New Global War on Terror, and the latest updated edition of Understanding the Palestinian-Israeli Conflict: A Primer.