Phyllis Bennis of IPS says there are many players that need to be at the table for negotiations that could be conducted in phases to bring about a real solution
SHARMINI PERIES, EXEC. PRODUCER, TRNN: Welcome back to the Real News Network. I’m Sharmini Peries coming to you from Baltimore. I’m speaking with Phyllis Bennis. She’s a fellow that directs the New Internationalism Project at IPS and the author of Understanding ISIS and The New Global War on Terror: A Primer. Phyllis, I think the topic of this segment is to be focused on the relationship between Russia and the United States over Syria. The recent reports have shown that they are making some attempts to coordinate their air strikes against ISIS, but other reports are saying that the Russians are actually targeting some of the U.S.-trained rebels on the ground. Your take on all of this? PHYLLIS BENNIS: Well, we’re in a very complicated and quite dangerous moment, although I think there is a small window for optimism based on the speeches at the United Nations by President Obama and President Putin this past week. But I think that this is still a very dangerous moment because of the possibility of clashes when there’s not full control over the air space of Syria. Again, this is another war being fought out in Syria between other powers. So right now we have both the U.S.-led coalition, it’s mainly the U.S. doing the, the bombing, although there are some French bombers, a couple of other countries involved. But it’s mainly the U.S., and the Russians are now bombing inside Syrian territory. The Russians are bombing a wide coalition that’s known as the Army of Conquest, which is, you know, these coalitions sort of rise and fall at various points inside the very complicated situation inside Syria. This one is led by the Al-Nusra Front, which is the Al-Qaeda branch in Syria. But it also includes a number of more secular forces. It includes a number of Islamist forces besides the Al-Nusra front, but also includes some secular forces that have gotten support from the US. Have gotten arms and training from the U.S., but are fighting as this one big group known as the Army of Conquest against, sort of against ISIS, sort of against the regime. It’s a little bit unclear at times. And the U.S. is claiming that Russia is bombing some U.S.-backed groups within that. In fact, the New York Times mentioned this as well. But the problem is for Russia, they have made clear that they are fighting against both ISIS and the Al-Qaeda group, the Al-Nusra front. Now, the irony of course is that both ISIS and the Al-Nusra front are also included in the U.S. list of foreign terrorist organizations, which according to the 2001 authorization for the use of military force which the Obama administration claims, I think illegitimately, but nonetheless they claim that this is the basis for them continuing to wage war in the region, including in Syria. The Al-Nusra front is on that list. So the group that Russia is bombing is, at least one of the groups that Russia is bombing, is also a group the U.S. says we have the right to bomb, even though right now the U.S. says, well, maybe we’ll ally with them against ISIS. So the confusion of it is enormous. The danger, of course, that a U.S. plane and a Russian plane might get into each others’ air space, might be too close. Now of course it even gets worse with the Russians saying that they’re sending in ground troops, at least in small numbers, something that the U.S. considered and then didn’t do. As more and more foreign forces on all sides go in, whether it’s bombers, whether it’s foreign troops, it makes the situation worse for Syrians on the ground. That’s the bad news. The Russians bombing is going to kill more civilians just like U.S. bombing is going to kill civilians. This is not a war that has a military solution. We hear that over and over again, there is no military solution. And yet what we see is only military action. And the military action, of course, makes any diplomatic or humanitarian or political action almost impossible. So that’s the bad news. The one sliver of good news that I think we can point to is that during their speeches at the United Nations, and despite the very tense body language and sort of personal attacks between the two, between the two presidents, between President Obama and President Putin, there was subtle but significant concessions from both. For President Obama, he indicated that what Secretary of State Kerry had said earlier would be his position as well, that the removal of the Syrian President Assad is not something that has to happen as a precondition before there can be talks. That was a serious concession. He kind of talked about it in a roundabout way, but it was quite clearly his position. President Putin, similarly, while talking about his relationship in support for the Syrian regime, he also made clear when he said that those who stand against ISIS in Syria is the Syrian state and its military. He didn’t say the Syrian president and his military, which is the language he’s used at earlier times. So that distinction, saying that we have to defend the Syrian state and the Syrian military is different than saying we have to support the Assad regime led by President Bashar al-Assad. What that sets the stage for is the possibility that there could be some kind of new negotiations. Perhaps this was something discussed by the foreign ministers at the meeting that was convened by the secretary general of the UN. Perhaps we’re not quite there yet. But it does set the stage for the possibility of new negotiations now that the stakes are so much higher. Ironically, as the threat becomes greater, the need for diplomacy gets recognized at higher levels. So this may allow the beginning of the kind of new negotiations that many of us have been calling for for the last several years, and we haven’t seen. But maybe now that the stakes are so high, the danger is so great, perhaps now we’ll see the beginning of some kind of new negotiation. PERIES: Phyllis, as you have said before, the negotiated solution with Iran over the nuclear development plans had given a ray of hope in terms of what’s possible in Syria. So if you’re going to have people sitting at the table having a discussion, who’s around the table? Because from what I understand, Iranian Ayatollah Khomeini has recently announced a ban on further negotiations with the U.S., but if you factor in all of the players, Iran has to be there. Hezbollah has to be there, the Russians, the U.S., and Al-Nusra, obviously. Now, is this a realistic goal, ultimately? BENNIS: Well, I think the key word here is ‘ultimately’. I don’t think necessarily at the first round we’re going to see everybody at the table. Eventually everybody has to be at the table. But this is certainly the kind of scenario you could envision where negotiations would start at one level and gradually encompass other levels. So you might start with the global powers that are the most powerful supporters of the two sides. It could start with the U.S. and Russia. Then they would have to bring in their regional powers. They would have to bring in Saudi Arabia and Iran. And I would read the Ayatollah’s statement as being in the context of bilateral negotiations with the U.S. I doubt that he would say that Iran would not sit in a room where any U.S. diplomats are present. But that might provide the kind of political cover that the Iranian leadership needs at home. Similarly, it could provide political cover for the Obama administration or others here in the United States that we’re not talking about going back to one-on-one relations with Iran. We’re going back to multilateral negotiations, in which Iran is only one party. Eventually, of course, you have to have the various players on the ground, meaning the various armed groups inside Syria, as well. Crucially, and this is what so often gets left out, you need to have representation of the political forces, the unarmed [civilian] civil society forces within Syria. The women’s organizations, the trade unions, the youth organizations. All of the organizations of society that have survived in this war. Not all of them have. Many of the original opponents of the regime who waged the first, the first uprising against the Syrian government after 2011.Some of them have survived, some of them are still within Syria. Some have been driven into exile, some have been killed. But some survived, and they must be at the table as well, as well as all of the other regional powers that are involved. So it can’t be just the Saudis. You need to have Turkey, Jordan, the UAE. All of these countries that are arming and supporting the opposition forces in Syria. Just as you must have Russia, Iran, Hezbollah, and Iraq, who are of course providing support to the Syrian government. You don’t have to start with all of that. That makes it almost impossible. But you need to be understanding that that has to be there before there can be full negotiated settlements. PERIES: And the prognosis for Assad in all of this? BENNIS: I would imagine that the prognosis for Assad is not very good in terms of staying in power, but probably quite good in terms of finding a safe haven somewhere. Whether it’s somewhere where he would like to be, he’d probably like to live in Paris. That’s probably not going to happen. But maybe he’ll go find a pleasant place on the Crimean coast, or some such thing. I don’t think that the negotiations should rise and fall on the fate of one man. There’s far too many people’s lives who are at stake, too many have already been killed. Too many have already died in this war to worry about what happens to one person. Now, would it be just to allow him to go into a safe exile? Absolutely not. Absolutely not. And does that mean that part of peace would be prevented because there is no real justice? Yes, absolutely. But the need to stop this war I think has to be the first step. That might take the [variant] form of allowing a number of people who may be guilty of war crimes, and I don’t think Assad is by far the only one or the only side, I think there have been war crimes on all sides here, it may be that accountability for war crimes have to wait until the war is over, because the deaths are coming at too great a number to allow anything to stand in the way of stopping this war. PERIES: Phyllis Bennis, 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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