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When it comes to their positions on Syria, Clinton’s is irresponsible and Trump’s has no content, says Phyllis Bennis of the Institute for Policy Studies

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SHARMINI PERIES, TRNN: Welcome to the Real News Network. I’m Sharmini Peries coming to you from Baltimore. Joining us now to discuss the foreign policy aspects of the second presidential debate is Phyllis Bennis. Phyllis Bennis is a fellow and the director of the new internationalism project at the Institute for Policy Studies in Washington, DC. She’s the author of Understanding ISIS and the New Global War on Terror: A Primer. Phyllis as always, thanks for joining us today. PHYLLIS BENNIS: Good to be with you Sharmini. PERIES: So Phyllis before we start, let’s have a look at the exchanges between the two candidates on Syria. DONALD TRUMP: He and I haven’t spoken and I disagree. I disagree SPEAKER: You disagree with your running mate? TRUMP: We have to knock out ISIS. Right now Syria is fighting ISIS. We have people that want to fight both at the same time. But Syria’s no longer Syria. Syria’s Russia and its Iran who she made strong, and Kerry and Obama made into a very powerful nation and very rich nation very, very quickly. I believe we have to get ISIS. We have to worry about ISIS before we can get too much more involved. She had a chance to do something with Syria. They had a chance. And that was the line. HILLARY CLINTON: I would go after Baghdadi. I would specifically target Baghdadi because I think our targeting of Al Qaeda leaders and I was involved in a lot of those operations, highly classified ones, made a difference. So I think that could help. I would also consider arming the Kurds. The Kurds have been our best partners in Syria as well as Iraq and I know there’s a lot of concern about that and some circles but I think they should have the equipment they need so that Kurdish and Arab fighters on the ground are the principle way that we take Raqqa after pushing ISIS out of Iraq. PERIES: Phyllis so let’s begin with your reaction to the exchange between the two on Syria and ISIS. BENNIS: Well this was really only moments of last night’s debate that got into anything remotely resembling substance on foreign policy. What we heard was from Trump a rather uncertain I would do this and then well I don’t agree with that and immediately segwaying away from Syria to talk about Iran and the Iran deal which he likes to do as a political fight but without any actual strategic plan. So there was really nothing that he said he would regarding Syria or regarding ISIS for that matter other than I would get them. It’s not exactly clear what that means. For Hillary Clinton, she actually escalated what has been an already highly militarized proposal, set of proposals, that she has had for Syria. Hillary Clinton has been saying for a couple of years now that she wants to establish a so called no fly zone in Syria. We didn’t get to the part in last night’s debates where she said that again. But then she added to that, assassination of the leader of ISIS because that would work. It’s not clear exactly what that would do given that ISIS has created a very complex organization that has within it the capacity to have other people step up into those roles. And she also talked for additional arms being sent to Kurdish forces in Syria. The Kurds are already getting arms from most of the US allies with the exception of Turkey. This has been one of the sticking points between the US and Turkey of course, is the question of the US alliance with Iraqi Kurds in fighting against ISIS. Something that has made the Turkish government very uneasy because they’re renewing their war against the Kurds if you will. Both in Iraq and in Syria. So that’s something where she didn’t take into account what would that mean for the us relationship with Turkey. She made a rather veiled reference to there are some concerns but didn’t say that one of the concerns is that one of the major countries in NATO and part of the US so called coalition is dead set against this and what would that mean in terms of the US-Turkish relationships in the region. The most important question in her analysis of policy for Syria has to do with the no fly zone. Now of course it was Hillary Clinton as secretary of state back in 2011 when she was the one pushing not for a diplomatic solution despite her position as diplomat in chief for the US. But she was the one really leading the charge for a military response in Libya. For the US to join what became the US NATO bombing campaign against Libya that of course led to not only regime change but the assassination of Gaddafi and the opening of Libya to the kind of crisis that we now see. Completely violent. Completely without a functioning government, with ISIS having a major role in the country. A really disastrous situation for the people of Libya. That debate began with Clinton’s counterpart on the cabinet then Secretary of Defense Robert Gates who had been a republican, had been in the Bush administration, and Obama had kept him on as Secretary of Defense. He was the one who was leading the opposition to this idea of a military involvement of the US in Libya and he said establishing a no fly zone in Libya starts with going to war against Libya because we have to do military a military campaign to take out the anti-aircraft system. Now at the time Libya hardly had an anti-aircraft system. It was very rudimentary. In Syria today, to the contrary, there is a very sophisticated anti-aircraft system that was installed years ago by the Soviet Union, has been kept in place and supplied by the Russians and it is capable of shooting down US planes or helicopters who would be patrolling this so called no fly zone. So what that means is what Hillary Clinton is calling for here is going to war in the words of the former Secretary of Defense Robert Gates. Going to war against Syria but that also means going to war against Russia as well as Iran. I don’t think that even Hillary Clinton with her hawkishness, necessarily actually wants to call for war with Russia. So without taking that into account, without saying how would you do this without it leading to a war with Russia, is thoroughly irresponsible. PERIES: As you bring this issue up Phyllis, last Friday, Secretary of State John Kerry issued a call for an investigation into war crimes to hold Assad and Putin responsible for what is happening in the Syrian city of Aleppo. What do you make of that? BENNIS: Well this was political posturing. No doubt there are war crimes being committed and people should be held accountable. There was another enormous war crime just 36 hours ago in Yemen when the US backed Saudi airstrikes, attacked a funeral parlor killing so far at least 130 people, injuring somewhere between five and six hundred, many of them critically, in a massive bombing campaign, a real massacre against civilians. A huge war crime. There should be accountability for that. There should be accountability for the US for its war crimes. Yes, there should be accountability for war crimes. It’s not going to happen as the result of one off posturing by US diplomats about the horrific situation that is underway in Aleppo. The challenge for the US now is to recognize and this what we need a powerful anti-war movement to push for is to recognize that when the US is itself bombing in Syria, not in Aleppo thankfully, and not in so far in areas with enormous civilian populations. That may yet come if for example the US starts bombing Raqqah on the grounds that it’s the capital of the ISIS caliphate. It’s filled with civilians who will be slaughtered in a such a bombing. As long as the US is carrying out bombings like that and is enabling war crimes like the Saudi attack in Yemen, it has no credibility to talk about war crimes on the other side. Similarly, talking about how they should be urging Russia and Iran to stop arming the Assad regime, yes of course they should. It’s a terrible regime. It’s committing enormous war crimes, that’s true. But to get any pressure they’ve got to have credibility. That means ending the US supply of weapons both directly and through its allies in Saudi Arabia, Qatar, Turkey, Jordan, all these countries, to the opposition. As long as the US is arming everybody and their brother on the other side they’ve got no credibility to ask the Russians to stop arming the Syrian regime. PERIES: And Phyllis before we go, one more thing about WikiLeaks. There was a cable released in relation to how the Syrian war is going to assist Israel maintain their nuclear dominance in the region. Your reaction to that. BENNIS: You know it’s had to know with some of the emails. I haven’t gone through the whole text of them yet. There’s a set of them and it’s not clear how many of them were written by Hillary Clinton, how many of them were sent to Hillary Clinton by various advisors who had these ideas. Now right now Israel is doing fine having the Syrian regime as it currently exists, in power. Despite the rhetoric on both sides, Israel and Syria under Bashar al Assad and his father Hafez al Assad have had a very cordial neighborly relationship. There’s been a few little upsurges on the border on occasion. But most of the time the Syrian regimes, both of them, have kept the Israeli occupied Syrian Golan Heights quiescent, has kept the border quiet and the relationship has been fine. So the notion that somehow this is being done for Israeli interests I think is not necessarily true. Certainly there are neoconservative forces in the United States and there are some in Israel who want the overthrow in every Arab government and Syria, partly because of its rhetoric is being the head of the so called arc of resistance was definitely at the top of that list. But in the real world, the pragmatic world of politics, this regime has been quite helpful to Syria, just as it has been quite helpful to the United States in outsourcing torture and interrogation for detainees for the so called war on terror. Sending war planes to bomb Iraq in 1991 at the time of operation Desert Storm in collaboration with the United States. So the notion that the US and Israel have always been deadest against the regime in Syria simply doesn’t jive with the history. PERIES: Alright Phyllis I thank you so much for joining us today and we look forward to having you back very soon. BENNIS: Thanks I look forward to it. PERIES: And thank you for joining us 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.