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Phyllis Bennis: US policy should emphasize direct diplomacy to negotiate a ceasefire with all sides including Syrian President Bashar Assad, but direct military intervention will lead to more bloodshed and Obama fighting on the side of an Al-Qaeda affiliated organization

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JESSICA DESVARIEUX, TRNN PRODUCER: Welcome to The Real News Network. I’m Jessica Desvarieux in Baltimore.

The call for war with Syria is intensifying, with U.S. Secretary of Defense Chuck Hagel saying that they have moved forces in place in case of a military strike against the Assad regime. The same aggressive tone is being taken by British and French leaders. And the Arab League joined in, accusing the Syrian government of a mass killing last week with a chemical attack. There has been no confirmation of who is actually responsible for the attack, since the United Nations weapons inspectors in Syria postponed a trip after inspectors said snipers attacked them. Prime Minister David Cameron of Britain, who cut short his vacation, said that Parliament will be recalled early for its summer recess to deal with the Syria crisis.

Now joining us to analyze these events is Phyllis Bennis. Phyllis is a fellow and the director of the New Internationalism Project at the Institute for Policy Studies in Washington, D.C.

Thanks for joining us, Phyllis.


DESVARIEUX: So, Phyllis, what is your reaction to Chuck Hagel’s comments, as well as Kerry’s comments, related to direct military intervention in Syria?

BENNIS: It’s clear that we’re at a very dangerous moment. We’ve seen up until now there has been a significant divide within the Obama administration between those urging and supporting and demanding some kind of military assault on Syria and those, including the president, crucially, who have seemed to be very reluctant.

That seems to have changed in the last few days because of the political pressures growing out of the latest strike inside Syria that killed several hundred people. It was a horrific strike. It appears to have been chemical weapons, although we don’t even know that for sure, and we certainly don’t know for sure who carried it out.

The military movements began, actually, last week. And when asked about it in State Department and other briefings, officials said that this was simply preparatory, that it’s only in case the president decides to make a move we’ll be ready. But it’s clearly a very threatening move, something that you could argue actually violates the United Nations Charter that prohibits not only the use of military force unless it’s authorized by the Security Council, but also prohibits threatening military force. So this kind of language could really be very problematic.

This goes back to some degree to the so-called red lines that President Obama announced earlier last year. And the problem, of course, with red lines: no one should ever raise red lines. There should always be a call for diplomacy. Red lines make the assumption that military options are the only ones on the table. And in this case, President Obama, despite his apparent reluctance to go in militarily directly into Syria, never went out of his way to say, when I said a red line, I meant that if we see the use of chemical weapons by anyone–the regime, the opposition, by anybody–we are going to be sure that they are brought up on charges in the International Criminal Court. He left the assumption that it meant military force. And so now he’s responding to political pressure from Senator McCain, from elements of Congress.

And there’s been shifts now with Israel, which had previously not called for a military assault on Syria, partly because the Syrian regime has been very useful to Israel. It’s kept the occupied Golan Heights quiet, kept the border quiet, etc. Now there is a fear in Israel among the leadership–and Prime Minister Netanyahu indicated this yesterday in a new statement–that they’re afraid that if there is no military strike against Syria, that Iran will draw the conclusion that there will be no military strike against Iran, and therefore they are now calling for military assault on Syria. And their supporters in the United States, led by AIPAC, are following suit.

So there’s pressure coming on Obama both domestically and internationally to move militarily. And so far he has been willing to stand up to that pressure. Whether that’s going to continue remains a very serious challenge, and it’s looking much weaker right now. His tendency right now seems to be to move towards a much greater likelihood of a military strike.

DESVARIEUX: Okay. Let’s talk about the chemical strike that happened last week or the alleged chemical strike. We don’t know if the Assad regime was responsible. But let’s just say the regime is responsible. And people say that of course this is a war crime, and some are arguing that something should be done. In your view, what would a constructive foreign policy be towards Syria right now?

BENNIS: Well, I think that we should take very seriously the crime of using chemical weapons. It’s certainly true that more people have been killed by the conventional bombs used by the regime than were killed in this particular strike, but it did kill several hundred people.

But it is true that there are separate conventions that the vast majority of countries around the world–not including Syria–have signed on to that prohibit any chemical weapons possession or use. There is a similar prohibition against biological weapons. And, of course, we all know there’s a similar prohibition against nuclear weapons. I think that we should be respecting those, trying to expand them, so that cruise missiles and drones are also made illegal. Right now we have three major kinds of weapons that are illegal. One of them is chemical weapons. So it is a separate kind of war crime, and we should take that seriously and make clear that we stand against any possession or use of chemical weapons by anyone and that anyone using them should be held accountable in the International Criminal Court.

Now, what that means for the United States right away is to indicate, as we heard from Congresswoman Barbara Lee today, reminding us, there is no military solution to the crisis in Syria. It is a civil war. Greater intervention by the United States is not going to make it better. It’s not going to end the war sooner. And it certainly isn’t going to protect Syrian civilians.

What we’re going to have to have–and it’s going to be now or it’s going to be later–is more diplomacy, tougher diplomacy, harder diplomacy. But it’s going to take diplomacy and negotiations to end this war, to stop any possible use in the future of any weapons, certainly including chemical weapons. So we’re going to have to call for more diplomacy, harder diplomacy, greater diplomacy. And that means engaging directly with the regime in Syria, as well as with the opposition. It means engaging with those who support both sides. So the U.S. needs to be engaging directly with Russia, as well as with Iran.

When the U.S. was talking with the Russians about the so-called Geneva II negotiations, which right now the U.S. is in no hurry to go forward with–earlier it was Russia who was in no hurry. But the result is those talks have not begun. And they need to begin.

The U.S. position was: we’re not going to allow Iran to participate. The reality is that’s crazy. Whatever you think of the role Iran is playing in Syria, if they’re not party to the talks and the negotiations, they’re not going to be bound by any decision that gets made and the talks won’t work. This was the lesson that we’ve seen over and over again. If you’re serious about diplomacy, everybody has to be at the table. And that means real negotiations over who’s funding both sides.

So the U.S. needs to put pressure on Russia and Iran to stop resupplying the arms of the regime. Russia and Iran presumably are going to put pressure on the United States–and, frankly, we should be putting pressure on our government–to not only not move any more towards direct military intervention on its own part, but also to make sure that its allies–Saudi Arabia, the UAE, Qatar–who are all funding and arming the opposition side, that they stop that as well.

It doesn’t mean it will end up evenhanded and equal. There were still be far more weapons on the regime side. But until we have a halt to the new weapons coming in, there’s no way that talks towards a ceasefire are going to work.

DESVARIEUX: Okay. And let’s talk about the drumbeats of war intensifying right now. And I want to talk about this article that Robert Fisk wrote in The Independent titled “Does Obama Know He’s Fighting on Al-Qaeda’s Side?” and this topic of how the U.S. is supporting the opposition, but the opposition part of it is actually affiliated to al-Qaeda. Can you talk a little bit about that?

BENNIS: The Syrian opposition is a very complex body. It involves many different political forces. The original heroic opposition of Syrian democratic forces, who were fighting nonviolently, wanting a political struggle for rights, for their rights as citizens of their country, for reclaiming their country from a brutal dictatorship, those voices, unfortunately, have largely been silenced. The voices that we hear now are the voices of the armed opposition, mainly based in Turkey and in Jordan, mainly made up of exiles, and the Islamist opposition, which is by far the greater fighters inside, the al-Nusra Front, for instance, the one that’s most closely allied to al-Qaeda, who has claimed their allegiance to al-Qaeda, but a host of others. By some estimates there’s more than 1,000 separate militia groups, some of them tiny, some of them huge, that are fighting against the regime in Syria.

There’s no doubt that the U.S. concern about whether or not to move in a more direct way to support the opposition–they’ve already obviously been supporting it, but not as directly as is now threatened–is because they know precisely who the opposition is. The problem isn’t just that the secular opposition in the so-called Free Syrian Army or the National Syrian Council–the political and armed opposition respectively–are unable to come up with a unified platform, a unified voice to speak with, one voice, etc. That’s not the main problem. That’s a problem. But the main problem is what you referenced earlier, that a huge component of the fighting force against Assad inside Syria now is made up of Islamist forces, many of whom are not Syrians at all, who have come from a number of countries, organizations like the al-Nusra Front and others who are allied with the most extreme Islamist forces in the region, very dangerous, who no one outside really wants to come to power.

And the problem is, for all that the Free Syrian Army leadership has said, well, we will make sure that the weapons you give us do not fall into their hands, the reality is they have no capacity to do that. They don’t have the fighting force of the other side. And the fighting within the opposition has been fierce and brutal, and many, many people have been killed. So, you know, this is a very messy reality that’s a civil war, but it’s not simply two sides. There are multiple wars going on within the opposition, as well as between the regime and the opposition.

DESVARIEUX: And there’s also this sort of chess game that’s being played, as well, between Russia, the United States, Russia and Iran, who are supporters of Assad, and you have the United States and the Gulf states who are allied in all of this, as well as France and Britain, and so on and so forth. Can you just give our viewers a sense of why they should even care about Syria? Why are all these other players caring about Syria? What is their strategic importance in the region–as well, in the world?

BENNIS: We need to be clear there are five separate wars being fought in Syria. And, unfortunately, the victim of all of them is the people of Syria. There is certainly one war between the Syrian regime and a component of the Syrian people, as I mentioned earlier, with a very complex combination of forces challenging and fighting against the regime.

There is a sectarian war that’s underway. It didn’t start that way, but it has become a thoroughly sectarian war between, on the regional side, Sunni and Shia, with the Alawite leadership in Syria on the Shia side. And that takes shape when you see Iraq and Syria and Iran on one side versus Saudi Arabia, Qatar, Jordan, Turkey on the other side.

Then there’s a regional war for power, largely between Iran and Saudi Arabia, but being fought in Syria to the last Syrian, and with other forces such as Turkey, such as Qatar and others playing a role.

You have the war, the new Cold War, if you will, between the United States and Russia over sea lanes, over control of resources, control of oil fields, etc., pipelines. All those factors come into play. And that war is being fought to the last Syrian.

And then, of course, you have the war between Israel and the United States on the one hand and Iran on the other hand over Iran’s alleged nuclear aspirations. And that war right now is being fought to the last Syrian. So you have a number of wars that are taking shape inside Syria. And the people of Syria are the ones who are paying the highest price.

DESVARIEUX: Thank you so much for joining us, Phyllis.

BENNIS: Thank you. Always a pleasure.

DESVARIEUX: 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.