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Phyllis Bennis: McCain’s trip to Syria, his calls for US air strikes and arming rebels with heavy weapons, seems designed to counter Obama plan to negotiate with Russia

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PAUL JAY, SENIOR EDITOR, TRNN: Welcome to The Real News Network. I’m Paul Jay in Baltimore. And welcome to another edition of The Bennis Report with Phyllis Bennis, who joins us from Washington, D.C.

Phyllis is a fellow and director of the New Internationalism Project at the Institute for Policy Studies in Washington, 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.


JAY: So on Monday, Senator John McCain apparently crossed the border from Turkey into Syria and met with senior rebel leaders, and has called for more support, direct U.S. support for rebels in Syria, including direct training. He’s called for American targeted airstrikes on various Assad military installations, particularly antiaircraft guns, and he’s called for other kind of direct measures around the same time the European Union has just met and dropped their sanctions because they couldn’t agree to extend them, which now will allow countries of Europe, if they choose, to send weapons. All of this is leading towards a pressure towards sending heavy weapons to the rebels. And, of course, the Russians are saying this is going to scuttle any possibility of some kind of peace agreement.

So what do you make of all this? It’s all kind of converging interests saying very contradictory things.

BENNIS: Well, I think that the timing of both McCain’s visit and the E.U. decision are very much tied to the real urgency that’s underlying the arrangements between the U.S. and Russia about what they’re calling Geneva II, the second set of efforts to get a peace conference underway that would involve both sides in Syria, both the opposition side and the government side.

There are all kinds of reasons why it’s going to be so difficult, not least the opposition itself is completely divided. They just spent five days of what was supposed to be a three-day conference and ended up unable to choose new representatives. The hope was that they would choose new, more Western-oriented, more liberal-oriented, those that people in the U.S. supporting direct intervention say, those are the good guys, they are the ones we want to send arms to. And it’s essentially acknowledged that it’s really the Islamist forces who are the far better fighters. They are the ones with the arms now, and they’re clearly the ones who would get control of the vast majority of arms, because the other side simply doesn’t have the presence on the ground militarily to move in. So that’s one set of problems.

The other set of problems is the whole notion, of course, of what John McCain and the other neocons in the U.S. are pushing has proved itself over and over again as a failed strategy, the idea that you can go in and begin a process by bombing the country, which is what you have to do to start a so-called no-fly zone–first you have to take out all the antiaircraft batteries. Now, in Syria, which has one of the most advanced, one of the most sophisticated and strongest antiaircraft systems in the entire Middle East, many of those batteries are in heavily populated areas. That means that any effort to take out the antiaircraft capacity is going to create enormous numbers of Syrian civilian deaths, which of course is an appalling idea, as something that’s supposedly designed to stop the killing of civilians. So you have that whole set of contradictions.

You have the Europeans, led by the French and the Brits, saying that they will refuse to allow an extension of the embargo on arming the rebels because they intend to send arms very quickly. Opposition forces, including Austria and other countries in the E.U., are saying this is a disaster, this is going to undermine the entire effort towards a peace deal, which is exactly what the Russians are saying as well. [incompr.] Obama administration has not commented yet on what they think about that European decision.

But, of course, if both sides are continuing to arm their clients in Syria, if the Russians and Iran continue to arm the Syrian government, and if Britain and France, as well as Qatar and Saudi and help by Turkey, and presumably with U.S. approval and U.S. arms, ultimately, are continuing and escalating the arming of the rebel side, this is a recipe for long-term, virtually permanent civil war in Syria, because we have to keep in mind, Paul, this is not just about an opposition movement fighting to overthrow a regime. You now have five separate wars being waged in Syria, only one of which is the war between Syrian people, some of them, and the regime, a very repressive regime. You also have a sectarian war that’s region-wide. You have a regional fight for power between Saudi Arabia and Qatar and somewhat Turkey on one side and Iran on the other side. You have a global war over naval bases between the U.S. and Russia. And you have the longstanding war between the U.S. and Israel on one hand and Iran on the other, all being fought to the last Syrian.

So the people of Syria are paying this enormous price for a complicated both local, regional, and international war whose victory can only be lost. Nobody’s going to win here. The only way this is going to end is through some kind of negotiations. And the only real question is: do those negotiations begin now, or do we have to see another ten or 20 or another 100,000 civilian deaths before those negotiations go forward?

JAY: Well, it seems that McCain and the neocons seem committed to sacrifice as many Syrians as it takes to overthrow Assad, in the sense that it almost looks like the McCain visit, and perhaps what happened in Europe as well, was deliberately intended to scuttle the negotiations that are going on between Obama and the Russians.

BENNIS: Yes. As I said just a moment ago, this was–the timing of this is very closely tied to these discussions that are underway now in Paris between the Russians and the U.S. This is what Secretary Kerry is focusing on. I think that’s why we have not seen the U.S. response to the European move yet, because it’s got to be undermining exactly what the U.S. is trying to do. The neocons have proved themselves capable once again of scuttling anything that remotely has a possibility of leading to peace talks, leading to a solution that would not be based on military victory by either side. Somehow McCain and his friends have convinced themselves that they will be able to be the supporters of a, quote, winning side in Syria when all the evidence points to exactly the opposite, that there will be no military victory, there will be no winning side militarily. The only thing we’re going to see are more and more losers among the Syrian people.

JAY: We shouldn’t forget that when McCain ran for president his foreign policy was practically to restart the Cold War with Russia. It was more anti-Russian rhetoric than anything to do with Iraq or Afghanistan in McCain’s foreign policy.

BENNIS: And that’s certainly one of the factors going into his visit. He’s deliberately undermining a set of negotiation possibilities that would involve Russia very directly with the U.S. and that would put Russia in a very powerful position with the U.S. as cosponsors of that negotiating process.

JAY: It should also be added that Russia continues to arm Assad, and it doesn’t matter how many neighborhoods and how many Syrian civilians the Assad regime kills in order to maintain their power. Russia keeps sending arms there. It’s another piece of the component here. Russia could also be putting some pressure on Assad and does not seem to really want to do so.

BENNIS: Absolutely. This is what I was saying earlier, that as long as both sides are continuing to arm their respective partners inside Syria, it doesn’t matter what negotiations go forward. The fighting is going to continue.

JAY: And I think we’ve talked about this in previous interviews. From the Israeli point of view, it seems they’ve come around to the point of view that this actually is probably the best for them, you know, civil war that doesn’t end, a weak Assad, disorderly opposition, and chaos they can take advantage of when they need to, you know, drop in and stop an arms shipment going to Hezbollah.

BENNIS: I think they’re moving in that direction now. I don’t think that’s by far their choice. I think their choice would still be greater control, greater central control, as they had under all the years of both Assads, father and son, both of whom kept the Golan Heights, the occupied Golan Heights quiet, kept the border quiet, kept the level of crossborder violence tamped down. So that’s really their preference. I don’t think that’s changed. I think they’re dealing with the options on the ground and realizing that that’s no longer an option. There is a civil war underway. I don’t think their choice right now would be the overthrow of Assad. I think it would be to stabilize the situation at a somewhat lower level of violence because there’s such a danger of direct intervention coming.

One of the things that is quite likely, if there is a third–there’s now been two sets of Israeli direct assaults on Syria. If there is a third, Assad has said that his military would respond directly against Israel. That may be simply bombast, but if it were true, if he felt he had to do that to keep his credibility, both inside the country among those significant although smaller and smaller numbers of Syrians who still support his regime, and more importantly outside, further out in the region, where there’s still this illusion that the Assad regime somehow represents a resistance force of some sort, despite all evidence to the contrary, that to keep that he must somehow respond militarily to any further Israeli attack, that would mean a very dangerous escalation.

JAY: And the Israelis can’t be minding very much that Hezbollah has thrown its hat fully into the Syrian war. Nasrallah, leader of Hezbollah, said, we’re fully committed to the end and, you know, preparing the Lebanese people for a lot more dead Hezbollah fighters coming back from Syria.

BENNIS: That’s true, although it’s not at all clear what the result is going to be of Nasrallah’s engagement on that level. There’s already unease among supporters of Hezbollah, and not necessarily, as far as I know, members of the Hezbollah militia. But inside Lebanon in general, where Hezbollah has a lot of support from nonmembers, who see it as very much at the center of the legitimate political composition in Lebanon, very much part of the government and the Parliament, there is a great deal of unease about that position that Nasrallah has spelled out. So I don’t think we know yet what the result is going to be of Nasrallah’s full and official embrace of the Assad regime.

JAY: And still tens of thousands of Syrian refugees, a catastrophic humanitarian disaster, and next to no world public opinion, world media paying any attention to it.

BENNIS: Well, one of the things that we’re seeing is that the UN is already faced with having to cut back on rations, on health supplies, on everything it needs in the camps. But the other reality is that many of the hundreds of thousands of Syrian refugees outside the country are not in separate camps. They’ve found places to live with families in cities, in towns. So it’s not as visible as the huge refugee populations that we’re accustomed to seeing in other refugee crises, whether it’s Darfur, whether it was Iranian–sorry, Afghan refugees in Iran or Afghan refugees in Pakistan. Only some of the Syrian refugees are in camps. Others are facing poverty, lack of education, lack of health care, but living in ordinary towns and cities and villages in the neighboring countries, whether it’s in Turkey, in Jordan, in all of the countries neighboring Syria, with the exception of Israel, who has not allowed in any refugees. All of the others are taking care of them in many cases in cities, so it’s not as visible. And that’s a huge crisis, because it’s very much what’s known as the CNN factor that the UN depends on to get countries, particularly the U.S., to escalate its pledges, but most importantly to make good on the pledges that it’s already made.

JAY: Alright. Thanks for joining us, Phyllis.

BENNIS: Thank you, Paul.

JAY: 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.