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Policy analyst Phyllis Bennis says the United States has a moral responsibility to address the Syrian refugee crisis after The Guardian UK reveals Russia offered to help depose Assad three years ago. Note: The headline of this story has been updated for accuracy

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SHARMINI PERIES, EXEC. PRODUCER, TRNN: Welcome to the Real News Network. I’m Sharmini Peries coming to you from Baltimore. An exclusive article published in the Guardian [by the] former Finnish president and Nobel Peace laureate Martti Ahtisaari said Western powers failed to seize the proposal made by the Russians in 2012 with Syria’s President, Bashar al-Assad, could step down as a part of a peace deal. If they had accepted the offer tens of thousands of lives could have been saved, and millions that have been uprooted, causing the world’s gravest refugee crisis since second World War could have been avoided. Ahtisaari said in the Guardian that he held talks with envoys from five permanent members of the UN Security Council in February of 2012. He said during those discussions the Russian ambassador Vitaly Churkin laid out a three-point plan, which included a proposal for Assad to cede power at some point after peace talks had started between the regime and the opposition. Now joining me to discuss all of this is Phyllis Bennis. She directs the New Internationalism Project at IPS. She has published many books, among them Understanding ISIS and the New Global War on Terror: A Primer, and Challenging Empire: How People, Governments, and the UN Defy U.S. Power. Phyllis, thank you so much for joining us today. PHYLLIS BENNIS, INSTITUTE FOR POLICY STUDIES: Good to be with you, Sharmini. PERIES: Phyllis, what do you make of this disclosure by the former Finnish president, and why is he putting so much emphasis on it now and didn’t then? BENNIS: Yeah, it raises of course the inevitable question of why did he wait so long before going public. What Martti Ahtisaari says is that in a private conversation with the Russian ambassador Vitaly Churkin this proposal was made, a three part proposal of what should happen. One, to not arm the opposition. Two, to start a dialog between the opposition and President Assad. And third, what he called finding an elegant way for Assad to step aside. That doesn’t mean that Assad was prepared at that moment, or that Russia for that matter was prepared to push Assad to step down immediately. But it does mean that there were options available. There were possibilities that could and clearly should have been investigated about what kind of a process could have been underway that would have allowed some kind of face saving for Assad. Maybe others in his regime would have participated rather than the president himself. There could have been a number of possibilities. And what was clear was that the French, the British, and particularly the United States, apparently as far as Ahtisaari knew, they were so convinced that the Assad regime was about to collapse that there was no need to negotiate like this. They would just wait for the regime to collapse and preside over the glorious victory. And it’s one of these things of, why would you imagine such things? Why would you ever imagine that in these chaotic, militarized situations, that things were going to go well? They never go well. And the idea that the Americans and the Brits and the French somehow had this illusion that this was all going to just happen quickly by itself is a very frightening thing. It does, of course, not resolve the question of why Martti Ahtisaari, a noted, very respected international civil servant, had worked for the UN on many occasions, won the Nobel Peace Prize because of his work in negotiating earlier agreements in other countries, why he didn’t say something earlier to expose this. Now, of course, it’s much more difficult. And it’s not at all clear that the Russians would move in this direction at all. In fact, the Russians right now are saying, and Churkin himself is saying that it was a private conversation he had with Ahtisaari and he has nothing to say about it. But it does go to this question of the unwillingness of the U.S. at that time to have recognized that there were possibilities for negotiations, that it was not necessary to militarize the situation as they did, that has been the root of so much of the crisis that’s now underway. PERIES: Right. And from what I understand at these talks the five permanent members of the Security Council actually had doubt in terms of, at least three of them he says had doubt whether they could actually bring about Assad to step down, that the Russians could actually fail in doing so. What do you make of that? From what I understand Assad’s a very steel man in terms of his entrenchment in Syria. BENNIS: Well, I think that’s certainly true now. Whether this would have been exactly the same back in 2012 three years ago, it’s hard to know. And whether the Russians could essentially deliver Assad is a question. But all of these are questions that should have been taken up immediately in the context of serious, multi-party diplomacy. The notion that the ambassadors of the U.S. and Britain and France would simply throw up their hands and say you know what, we don’t think the Russians are really serious, and anyway we don’t think it matters because the Assad regime is about to fall. That’s what’s so shocking about this. Not surprising on some level, but shocking nonetheless. Particularly given the aftermath. Given the millions of people who have been forced into exile, who have lost their homes. The hundreds of thousands who have died in this war. The millions who are now on the move in these massive refugee flows. Given what the price has been it’s really shocking to see that there was no effort to determine–you know, maybe it was true, maybe the Russians couldn’t deliver. But why wouldn’t they try? Maybe it was true that Churkin was not speaking for the Russian leadership at that time. That was another question, whether he actually had Moscow behind him. Why not investigate? Why not go public and say, we we have a proposal. And let the Russians come back and fight with them, saying no, it was our proposal first. Fine, let them all fight over whose idea it was first. But to simply put it aside and say we’re not interested, that’s what’s so shocking about this whole revelation. PERIES: Phyllis, in a recent article you penned on the refugee crisis, you wrote the Syrian war, and particularly the rise of ISIS, has everything to do with U.S. actions dating back to the 2003 invasion and occupation of Iraq which gave rise to ISIS in the first place. Even now, U.S. air strikes in Syria and neighboring Iraq are escalating the war in both places. Do take us back and give us a history lesson in terms of that foreign policy that is responsible for this crisis now we’re facing. BENNIS: Well, the rise of ISIS of course, despite all of the efforts by Republicans and other warmongers in this country to rout the rise of ISIS in the withdrawal of U.S. troops from Iraq in 2011, the rise of ISIS began in 2004. ISIS in an earlier iteration, it changed names many times, but the same organization rose in 2004 as one of what was then many Sunni-based militias in Iraq that came together to fight against the U.S. invasion and occupation. And against the government the U.S. had put in power, the Shia-dominated sectarian government that was put in power. It rose and fell at various points during the civil war that rose in Iraq, and of course by the time of the rise of the Arab Spring it had faded away a little bit. It was not as visible as it had been. But it reemerged in 2012 in Syria now, at the time of the rise of the civil war and as instability grew there. So the rise of ISIS, which–it’s been the rise of ISIS itself and the U.S.-led coalition, the militarization of the fight against ISIS throughout the region that has led to this horrifying situation we now face with wars spreading throughout the region, weapons coming from Libya with the overthrow of Gaddafi, and the rise in U.S. and U.S.-backed bombing campaigns throughout the region. You have this extraordinary level of violence going on across the Middle East. And it’s in that context that ISIS has emerged as a major player, seizing territory, et cetera. And it’s in that context, the context of the seizure of territory, the rise of what’s now called the Islamic State, that you now see the results of failing to negotiate. Failing to put diplomacy instead of war at the top of the U.S. agenda. We’ve been cheering in recent weeks the victory of diplomacy over war in the case of defending the Iran deal. But what we now see very visibly with these new revelations from Martti Ahtisaari is how in the case of the rise of ISIS, the ISIS war, and the war in Syria which is at the root of the rise of ISIS, the refusal of the United States and its allies to take seriously the possibility of negotiating an end to that conflict before it ever reached this horrific level, to negotiate the stepping down, maybe the stepping down, potentially the stepping down, possibly, of Bashar al-Assad, the president of Syria, would have dramatically changed the situation there. So the notion that this was simply put aside as well, we don’t think the Russians really could pull it off, and not follow it up is really a horrific reality to face. PERIES: Not just followed up, they could have played a role in that pressure as well, for Assad to step down. BENNIS: Absolutely. Absolutely. And now of course what we’re seeing is that the, the rise of the hundreds of thousands of refugees that are now flooding capitals of Europe, along with the several million, four million refugees have now fled from the war in Syria and are finding refuge or seeking refuge in the surrounding countries. In Turkey where there are two million. In Lebanon, where there’s about three-quarters of a million. Half a million in Jordan. These countries are drowning in the need to provide for these refugees coming from Syria. The numbers–it’s only about three percent of them are now in Europe. And yet we’re seeing it’s as if the whole global crisis is now focused on Europe, despite the fact that 97 percent of this multi-million person refugee flow is not anywhere near Europe. They are in the countries of the Middle East adjoining Syria and Iraq. This is where the real crisis remains. The crisis in Europe is very real. But the answer there, as well as the answer to the United States–you know, the answer to the United States is a very easy one. We have 28 percent of the wealth of the world. We owe it to the rest of the world to take at least 28 percent of those refugees seeking settlement abroad. It’s about 350,000 all together. That would mean a little over–well, I can’t do the math in my head. But taking 28 percent of the refugees that need a place abroad and paying 28 percent of what the UN requires to take care of all the refugees in all the areas. That’s what the U.S. should be doing. We shouldn’t be arguing over whether we’re going to take 1,000 or 1,200. It’s shameful. It’s absolutely shameful that we have done as little as we have to take care of these refugees. Sending a large amount of money is fine, but it doesn’t come close to the amount of money we should be sending, let alone taking care of the people who are in such desperate need. PERIES: Phyllis Bennis, as always, thank you so much for joining us today. BENNIS: Thank you. PERIES: And thank you for joining us on the Real News Network.


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Sharmini Peries was a co-founder of TRNN, where she harnessed the power and expertise of civil society institutions. Previously, Sharmini was Economic and Trade Adviser to President Hugo Chavez at Miraflores and for the Ministry of Foreign Affairs in Venezuela. Prior to that she served as the executive director of the following institutions: The Commission on Systemic Racism in the Criminal Justice System, The International Freedom of Expression Exchange, Canadian Journalists for Free Expression, and the Ontario Council of Agencies Serving Immigrants. She also managed the Human Rights Code Review Task Force in Ontario, Canada. She holds a M.A. in Economics from York University in Toronto, Canada. Her Ph.D. studies in Social and Political Thought at York University remain incomplete (ABD).

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.