Journalist Reese Erlich says the U.S. bombing campaign doesn’t have a major impact in Syria because it has no allies on the ground other than the Kurdish Peshmerga
SHARMINI PERIES, EXEC. PRODUCER, TRNN: Welcome to The Real News Network. I’m Sharmini Peries coming to you from Baltimore. Haider al-Abadi, the prime minister of Iraq, visited Washington on Tuesday cap in hand for humanitarian assistance for millions of people displaced by the war against IS in Iraq. President Obama promised him $200 million, but this appears to be inadequate given the number of displaced refugees from the war. He needs billions of dollars more to manage the crisis. The prime minister is headed to the World Bank and IMF later this week to raise more funds. In the meantime, U.S.-led air strikes in Syria are continuing with more vigor in fighting back the IS in Iraq than in Syria. The U.S. military reported that it conducted three air strikes against the IS in Syria, and 15 air strikes against the group in Iraq. The toll on the civilians in the area being bombed are in the millions, and becoming unmanageable, according to the UN. Joining me now to discuss the situation on the ground in Syria and in Iraq is Reese Erlich. He is a bestselling book author and a freelance journalist who writes regularly for the Global Post, Vice News, and NPR. His most recent book is Inside Syria: The Backstory of Their Civil War and What the World Can Expect. Thank you so much for joining me, Reese. REESE ERLICH, FREELANCE FOREIGN CORRESPONDENT: Glad to be here. PERIES: Reese, tell us about these latest developments in the campaign against the IS in Iraq and in Syria. ERLICH: Well, it’s kind of gotten lost in the news because of the Iran talks and other crises. But the U.S. continues to bomb ISIS targets in Syria and Iraq. And particularly in Syria it doesn’t have a lot of impact, because other than the Kurdish Peshmerga there’s no allies on the ground who are fighting with the U.S. So an air war has very limited impact, and we don’t hear a lot about it because it’s not going very well. Both the Assad government continues in power in parts of Syria, and the ISIS continues to make some advances despite the air war by the U.S. PERIES: Now Reese, one particular and peculiar thing here is that the Iraqi forces are here fighting the ISIS, is being supported by air by the United States and on the ground with some military leadership and strategies from Iran, making strange bedfellows. What do you make of that? ERLICH: Well I think this is part of the inherent contradiction of the latest U.S. war in Iraq. We lost the first war by pulling all the troops out and closing all the military bases. A pro-Iranian government came to power, much to the chagrin of the U.S., and now the U.S. is trying to reverse that. But it’s not going to be easy because you can’t win a war through air power alone, and the allies, again except for the Kurdish militia in the Kurdish region of Iraq, there are no pro-U.S. allies on the ground. The most effective fighting forces are the militias allied with Iran. There was an interesting article in the New York Times just yesterday or today pointing out that some of the soldiers being trained by the U.S. in the Iraqi army take their days off and go fight with the militias that are pro-Iranian. So at the end of the day if ISIS is defeated, Iran is going to emerge as a stronger power in Iraq, not the United States. PERIES: And of course this is making Israel very tense, and they’re watching the situation carefully. What does this do to the relationship between Israel and the U.S.? ERLICH: Well, I think the Israelis have the same problem in Iraq and Syria as the U.S., which is if the U.S. can’t find any allies on the ground, the Israelis have an even harder time, given their reputation in the Middle East. I think the biggest conflict right now between the U.S. and Israel is over the new talks with Iran. And what’s going on there is Netanyahu told a cabinet meeting, and this was in a Haaretz article yesterday, that the worst thing that could happen is if Iran lived up to all of its commitments on the nuclear issue and didn’t build a bomb or have a bomb program for 15 years. Now it seems a little ironic, why would Israel be worried about that. Well, because the issue really isn’t about nuclear weapons and Iran attacking Israel. The issue is about Iran as a regional power. And if sanctions are lifted, Israel is worried that Iran will expand as a nuclear power. So that conflict is quite real between the U.S. and Israel. PERIES: And then what’s happening in Yemen has to be factored in here as well, given that the Saudis are still carrying out its campaign in Yemen. What does this tell us about the tug-and-pull that’s going on between the Saudis and the Iranians? ERLICH: Some are saying it’s a proxy war, but it’s really a war of aggression by Saudi Arabia against Yemen. Iran supports the Houthis politically, maybe they are sending some money and arms, although that’s not been proven. But that doesn’t justify an aerial attack and possible invasion by Saudi Arabia and its allies. The old government in Yemen that was pro-U.S. and pro-Saudi was corrupt and ineffective. The Houthi rebels who have been fighting in Yemen for a long time took over the capital of Sana’a, and basically much of Aden, the second-largest city. And the Saudis can’t win a war by air power alone and they’re going to learn the same lesson that the U.S. did, which is it’s easy to get in and proclaim victory through air bombardment. It’s quite something else again to get out and have a pro-Saudi government left in Yemen. And I think we’re going to see this war go on for some time. PERIES: Reese, how do we know that the Iranians are actually assisting the Houthis here? ERLICH: We don’t. What we have is the U.S. says that–and honestly I think inaccurately–that the Houthis are not proxies or they’re not tools of Iran. They are an indigenous rebel movement. They have their own problems, they’re allied with the old dictatorship, for example. The old dictator Saleh. So it’s not like they’re great guys. But they’re–characterize them as tools of Iran is simply wrong. And the Saudis, like every aggressive power, want to have a reason to get people very mad and to justify their activities. So aha, this is an example of Iranian expansion. Well, they’re using it as an excuse to expand Saudi rule. But you know, you can’t govern through air power. Somebody on the ground has to support the Saudi position, and so far those who do are on the losing side. PERIES: And getting back to Syria here. What’s going to be unfolding in the next little while that you think we should be paying attention to? ERLICH: There’s a real crisis in Yarmouk, which is the part of Damascus often referred to as the Palestinian refugee camp, although it’s simply a poor neighborhood in Damascus that I’ve visited many times. Just in the last week or so the Islamic State has taken over that area of Yarmouk, and causing a great deal of problems both for the government of Assad and for the other rebels who had been fighting there. It was an area of roughly 200,000 people, it’s down to 18,000 now. The Assad government has laid siege to it, so it’s very difficult to get in and out, to get food or supplies in and out. And so it’s a real humanitarian crisis. The civilians of Yarmouk are caught between the Islamic State on the one side and Assad and his allies on the other. And if this plays out, if the Islamic State is able to consolidate its power in that area, that’s very, bodes very badly for the Assad government because it is basically part of Damascus. It’s the closest they’ve come to the center of the city. So with, I would watch and am watching very carefully to see what happens in Yarmouk. PERIES: And the UN, Reese, says that Syria has generated the largest number of refugees and displaced people in the world at this point. What is happening to folks caught in between this war? ERLICH: Yeah, before the war started, Syria was roughly 24 million people. Some 6 million people at least are now either forced to flee the country or have been displaced within the country. It’s a massive humanitarian crisis. Neighboring countries are doing what they can. Turkey, Jordan, Lebanon are trying to absorb these millions of refugees. But it’s a real humanitarian tragedy what’s going on. The irony is the U.S. has plenty of money for bombing Syria and in Iraq, but is coming up short when it comes to U.N. agencies asking for the U.S. to make its commitments for humanitarian aid. UNESCO, UNRWA, various UN agencies are short of cash because of the crisis. So the U.S. is rather hypocritical in continuing to bomb–somehow managing to come up with the money for bombing but not to make its commitments to the UN agencies. The UN has sent special envoys to Damascus in an effort to lift the siege in Yarmouk and to allow food and emergency medical supplies into the area. It’s very tricky to say the least, because the Assad government doesn’t, is using the siege of the town as a way to starve out the rebels. And therefore either doesn’t allow supplies in, or allows it on a very limited basis. But the UN is trying to do what it can. And when permission is given, they’ve been able at times to bring in some truckloads of supplies. But still, not anywhere near enough. PERIES: And about the recent findings of use of chemical materials. How do we know that and to what degree do we know it’s taking place? ERLICH: Human Rights Watch among others has said that the Assad government recently has been using chemical weapons, specifically chlorine gas, that they mix into the barrel bombs that are these 50-gallon oil drums that are packed with shrapnel and explosives. You can go online and see the information that they provide on that. There’s also been credible reports that the ISIS has been using chlorine gas on a limited scale. The problem is, the use of chemical weapons is of course prohibited under international law. It’s also not a very effective weapon, because it can under certain circumstances, can blow back on your own troops. So it’s mainly used against civilian targets, which makes it even worse. PERIES: And what are the consequences of this chemical gas? ERLICH: Well, depending on how close you are when it explodes you can die from it, or you can be, your lungs can be permanently injured. You remember veterans from World War I for decades after the war suffered from exposure to chlorine gas that was used widely by both sides in that war. So depending on how close you are, it can be very dangerous. PERIES: Reese, thank you so much for joining us. ERLICH: Thank you. PERIES: And thank you for joining us on The Real News Network.
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