Phyllis Bennis: The humanitarian disaster in Syria is mostly ignored as external powers vie for position to control outcome of civil war
PAUL JAY, SENIOR EDITOR, TRNN: Welcome to The Real News Network. I’m Paul Jay in Baltimore. And welcome to this edition of The Bennis Report with Phyllis Bennis, who now joins us from Washington, D.C.
Phyllis is a fellow and director of the New Internationalism Project at the Institute for Policy Studies in D.C. She’s the author of many books, including Before and After: U.S. Foreign Policy and the War on Terrorism and Understanding the Palestinian-Israeli Conflict: A Primer.
Thanks for joining us again, Phyllis.
PHYLLIS BENNIS, FELLOW, INSTITUTE FOR POLICY STUDIES: Great to be with you, Paul.
JAY: What are you working on?
BENNIS: Syria, the crisis du jour in the Middle East. Of all the crises, this is the one that’s the most dangerous at the moment.
It’s been dangerous for a while. The calls for greater U.S. intervention, as if the U.S. was not already intervening militarily in Syria through its training, CIA–200 CIA trainers in Jordan that are training opposition figures. The U.S. is working closely with a bunch of countries in the region–Saudi Arabia, Qatar, Turkey–vetting and deciding who among the rebels should get the weapons that are going in, and of course sending millions of dollars in, quote, nonlethal military supplies directly.
But now the calls are rising, particularly in light of the original accusations that have been floating around about so-called use of chemical weapons. That’s getting complicated because now it’s not clear if chemical weapons were used at all. It’s not at all clear whether they were used by the regime or the rebel side, or perhaps both, or perhaps neither. It’s all very uncertain. But without any certainty, the usual suspects, people like Senator John McCain and others, are still using that as a basis to call for much greater direct U.S. military intervention.
Then you have the Israeli assault on Syria over the weekend, a moment when things seemed a little odd for Israel. Now, Israel has a habit, as we know, of attacking its neighboring countries when it has some claim about its own self-defense, about its own protection, about anything. It feels it has impunity to bomb without worrying about consequences, ’cause the U.S. is always–and again now, is there to protect it.
The problem that’s a little bit weird this time around is that while it may be true–and the most logical reason that the Israelis would have chosen this set of bombings over the weekend was that they were thinking they were getting information of some sort that this batch of missiles was headed through Syria to Lebanon for Hezbollah, and any chance to defeat or launch some kind of defeat against Hezbollah and their patron Iran is always in Israel’s interest. That’s always what they’re going after.
On the other hand, there is a civil war going on in Syria on Israel’s border. It is thoroughly destabilizing in the whole region. We have not been hearing–from the beginning of the Syrian crisis, we’ve not been hearing from Israel a demand to overthrow the regime in Syria, to overthrow Bashar al-Assad. And the reason is that the regime of Assad, and that of his father, Hafez al-Assad, have been very convenient for the Israelis. Despite all the rhetoric about this being the center of Arab resistance, etc., the reality is that there’s not a whole lot of resistance going on. What these regimes have done has been to keep the Israeli-occupied Golan Heights pacified, to keep the Israeli-Syrian border quiet, to make sure that the incidents of cross-border violence are very rare and quite low-level. And overall this has been a very helpful regime, again, despite all the rhetoric.
It’s been helpful to the U.S. as well. The father of Bashar al-Assad participated with Bush senior in–participating directly in the attack on Iraq back in 1991 in Operation Desert Storm. The new Assad leader in Syria, Bashar al-Assad, he has collaborated with the Bush administration to interrogate and torture prisoners that were sent to Syria by the U.S. in the context of the global war on terror.
So it’s been very interesting to watch Israel holding back from its usual demand for regime change. In that context, it was very odd to see this Israel attack. And it seems that right now the main consequence of that attack, because we’ve not seen any response from Israel–they didn’t take the small strikes from Syria that responded to those attacks as a provocation. They didn’t use that to say, you see, now you have to go in directly. They’re saying that this had nothing to do with the Syrian civil war, that they don’t support either side of the civil war. But it’s having a huge impact domestically in the United States, as usual, because supporters of Israel are using this as one more reason why the Obama administration should go to war in Syria.
So we have a bunch of really dangerous trajectories all pointing to the fact that while President Obama himself has been very clear that he does not think escalation is the appropriate move, his opposition to escalation has been very tepid. He’s been very timid, I would say, in how he has described it.
JAY: Phyllis, did you see the piece by Daniel Pipes, who’s a pundit and academic usually associated with far right-wing Israeli positions? And he wrote a couple of pieces which essentially said it’s now time to shore up the Assad regime.
BENNIS: To support Assad.
JAY: Yeah. He said, essentially, let both sides kill each other without much care about what happens to the Syrian people.
BENNIS: Now, that’s again not an unusual thing for–single-minded supporters of Israel don’t care what happens to Syrians in the context of the civil war or in the context of Israeli strikes or anything else. But what’s interesting here: this is not a situation like the Iran-Iraq War of the 1980s, when the U.S. basically sat back and said, a plague on both your houses, we’re delighted with this war because we want both of you to emerge weaker than ever, to spend the lives of your young men, to spend your national treasure; we like this. And the U.S. of course came in on the side of Saddam Hussein’s Iraq because they were the weaker side.
The difference here is that this civil war in Syria has already spilled over, and threatens to do so on a much larger scale throughout the region, because there are in fact at least five separate wars being fought in Syria right now in the context of the Syrian civil war, and only one of those five is the war between the Syrian regime and its armed opponents on the ground. You have a regional power struggle being fought in Syria between, largely, Saudi Arabia and Iran; you have a Sunni-Shia sectarian struggle; you have a global struggle between the U.S. and Russia in terms of naval bases and that sort of thing; and you have the ongoing fight between the U.S. and Israel on the one hand and Iran on the other hand over nuclear issues and other issues; all being fought to the last Syrian.
So the notion that we can just sort of let this go, let them fight it out, and it won’t have any impact, it’s already having a huge impact. You see the impact in Iraq, where the level of sectarian violence is dramatically on the rise. You see it in places like Jordan, where the weight, the crushing weight of–it’s now about 700,000 Syrian refugees are being sheltered in Jordan, and more are pouring in every day to very poor countries that don’t have the resources to deal with them, and it’s politically destabilizing the whole region.
So if Pipes and other supporters of Israel think that this is going to be, as they like to put it, a cakewalk, we’ll just stand back and watch Syrians kill each other, they are missing a great deal of what’s going on on the ground.
JAY: Well, the other point here is that there’s an humanitarian disaster of apocalyptic proportions going on in Iraq–in Syria. And in all this geopolitical strategizing and Pipes and others talking about let them kill each other and all the rest of the maneuverings and machinations, tens and hundreds of thousands of people are refugees. I mean, thousands, tens of thousands have been killed. And there’s no global voice here about the humanitarian disaster and that something needs to be done about that part of this.
BENNIS: There’s been a huge humanitarian disaster, as you say.
Now, there has been a major effort by UN agencies to raise huge amounts of additional money to pay for the cost of caring for these refugees. Much of that money has been pledged. Most of the pledges have not come through–a usual thing with UN pledge drives. This is a huge crisis. So even though the U.S. is putting tens of millions of dollars into that humanitarian aid, it’s not nearly enough to actually cover the costs. There are now four and a half million Syrians who are internally displaced in their own country. There are close to 1 million who are refugees over the borders. So it’s a disastrous situation.
And what we’re facing is the absolute need for serious diplomacy to end this crisis. Now, the recent meetings in Moscow between Vladimir Putin, the Russian president, and Secretary of State Kerry have a little, small amount of hope. The two sides agree that they would both take responsibility to push their respective partners, as it were, on the ground in Syria to participate in some kind of diplomacy. What they have not moved towards yet is an agreement to stop sending arms. That needs to be the first thing. We need to ratchet down, not escalate, the amount of arms. That means that the Russians have to be pushed to stop allowing and stop facilitating the arms sales and arms shipments to the regime, and the U.S. has to demand that its allies stop sending U.S. weapons, as they’re doing now, to the rebels’ side. That’s not going to be easy. But until that’s underway, until the deescalation is underway, there’s no hope for looking at the humanitarian situation as anything other than a disaster.
JAY: Alright. Thanks for joining us, Phyllis.
BENNIS: Thank you.
JAY: Thank you for joining us on The Real News Network.
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