Note: Erlich and Coyote’s full article can be found on Vanityfair.com.
PAUL JAY, SENIOR EDITOR, TRNN: Welcome to The Real News Network. I’m Paul Jay, and joining us today is Reese Erlich, who joins us from Oakland, California. Thanks for joining us, Reese.
REESE ERLICH, AUTHOR AND JOURNALIST: Thank you, Paul.
JAY: You have an article coming out, you and actor-writer Peter Coyote, in Vanity Fair Magazine, called “The [Murders] at al-Sukariya”. This is to do with a one-year-ago—almost to the day—an attack took place in al-Sukkariyeh, Syria, by American helicopters. And right now we’re looking at some footage which purports to be of the helicopter, American helicopters, from Syrian television. And now, if I understand it correctly—and I’m sure you’ll correct me here in a minute, Reese—but the story, as I get it, quickly, there’s an attack takes place in Syria. The American official position is there was no such attack. The off-the-record American position is they killed or captured some al-Qaeda in Iraq terrorists that were in Syria, and as part of this campaign of blaming Syria for not doing anything about closing their borders to al-Qaeda in Iraq. And as you can see from this footage, people reading the subtitles here, the Syrians are accusing the Americans of coming in and killing innocent people. And you’ve investigated this. So, Reese, what do you think is the real story here?
ERLICH: I think what really happened is that the US got phenomenally bad intelligence through the Iraqi government, most likely. They sent in four helicopters with special-ops troops. They went in guns blazing, figuring that they had a lead on a real serious al-Qaeda in Iraq terrorist. They went in and they shot seven construction workers, wounded one of the worker’s wives, wounded another fisherman who happened to be out front from where they were, and took off, and then tried to cover up the whole incident and have done a pretty good job over the past year, because neither major Democrats nor Republicans have raised any questions, even though on the face of it exactly what right does the United States have to go into a sovereign country, kill a bunch of people, and come back out again?
JAY: Well, that’s the first question, which is: is this a pattern of events? Is this one of many incursions? Is this an anomaly?
ERLICH: Well, it was unique in the case of Syria, because Syria after all is a sovereign country with which the United States is not at war. And so it was a serious extension of the Bush doctrine, which is that we can go kill people anywhere in the world, invade other countries—it doesn’t matter, so long as we get away with it. But now the Obama administration is doing the same thing in Pakistan with its drone attacks. According to The New York Times, there are US troops stationed in Pakistan looking at and guiding the drone attacks. And we all know about these drone attacks, which the word we get is, oh, they’ve killed a dangerous terrorist, but they’ve killed hundreds of civilians as well.
JAY: But before we get into the Pakistan side, let’s just unravel the Syria story a little further first. So you went and investigated. We have two versions of the events. We have the Syrians saying they killed construction workers. We have the unofficial/official position of the Americans that they actually went in. And in fact, according to the off-the-record American position, they claim they actually did kill some al-Qaeda terrorists, and I think they even claim they caught one of them and brought them back in one of the helicopters. Is that part of the off-the-record story?
ERLICH: Yeah, part of the problem was there was a lot of very confusing coverage and conflicting leaks at the time. There was a fair amount of news coverage for about a week after the incident, back in 2008. And you’re right. You so accurately summarized two of the different reports. From what we can tell from our sources that we name in the article, based in Washington, the US claims that it took a body back, and that the body which was dead was that of Abu Ghadiya, supposedly a leader of the al-Qaeda in Iraq and had been in charge of smuggling fighters across the border from Syria into Iraq. So that’s the official story as told unofficially to several sources that we spoke to.
JAY: So where did you go, who did you talk to, and what did you find out?
ERLICH: Well, in Syria we actually went out—unlike what many reporters had done who reported the story from New York or Washington, we actually went out to al-Sukkariyeh. We spoke with all the survivors, all the eyewitnesses, the coroner, local journalists. We met with Suad, the wife of the one surviving adult from the raid. And we pieced together all of their stories and carefully sifted it and weighed the testimony or the information that they gave us, and put together a scenario of what had actually happened. And, apparently, from the air, which is undoubtedly where the US was surveilling, there was a farm there with a large concrete brick wall around it, and there was a tent at one end, and people were going in and out during the day for rest or cooking or food or whatever, and this might have looked suspicious. So they said—based on that false intelligence, they said, well, we’re going to go in and pull a raid. They go in, they shoot the place up—there’s very clearly pockmarks all over the place from machine-gun fire and assault-weapons fire. There was no shots fired back. That should be one dead giveaway. There were no weapons or arms caches found inside the farm. And all of the people killed were known in the community. They weren’t, like, outsiders or Iraqis or anything like that. They were known to the neighbors. They were known to the people at the hospital. They had Syrian IDs. They were, like, construction workers.
JAY: Now, we’re told in Iraq, and I assume in Pakistan, but we’ve been told that there’s often lawyers sitting next to the armed forces decision makers, often deciding, “Is that a legal target? Is that not a legal target?” So one would assume crossing into Syrian airspace and attacking within a sovereign country, a decision would have had to have [been] made at a fairly senior level to do this. Have you been able to unravel the chain of command here?
ERLICH: Well, we don’t have—of course, for some reason our former president, Bush, and former vice president, Dick Cheney, aren’t talking to us. But, yeah, we have every reason to believe from the sources we have in Washington that this was made at the level of the White House. The best understanding we’ve been able to figure out is that the vice president, Cheney, and his neocon faction in the White House basically said, “So we invade Syria. So what? What are they going to do about it?” If you recall, the Israelis had attacked Syria a year before that, supposedly going after a nuclear weapons site, which to this day has not been proven to have actually been the case. But the Syrians did not retaliate militarily—they’re weak. And so they figured they could go in, get away with it, and the Syrians would squawk, but that would be the end of it.
JAY: I mean, that is one of the obvious first questions. Don’t the Syrians have some ability to protect their airspace? Did they not know that American helicopters had come in? And why didn’t they do something about it?
ERLICH: Well, if I was running the Syrian Air Force, I’d sure have some questions. I don’t think they have a very sophisticated air defense system. As far as we could tell, the first Syrian officials to show up on the scene were Syrian police about 15 minutes after the raid, came in and helped to get the wounded to the hospital and that sort of thing. But there was no—as far as any witnesses have been able to tell us, any response at all from the Syrian Air Force.
JAY: It’s a clear-cut violation of international law. Are the Syrians doing anything about it at the level of international law?
ERLICH: At the time, they demanded that there be a debate in the UN, or they lodged a formal protest with the UN. They closed a cultural center and a school run by Americans in Syria. There were some demonstrations in al-Sukkariyeh. But they were in a very tough bind. They couldn’t respond militarily. They couldn’t send their own helicopters across the border to attack US forces in Iraq, for example, without inviting massive retaliation from the US. And this also took place just before the elections, you remember. This was in late October 2008. It looked like Obama was going to win the elections. And what some sources told us is that they didn’t want to play into the hands of the Bush administration by engaging in some kind of military battle or retaliation with the US, which might have some impact on the elections. And they hope that the new Obama administration would change tack on Syria, and at least so far that’s true.
JAY: And why couldn’t they get it in front of the Security Council?
ERLICH: Well, partly ’cause I think they didn’t push very hard, and partly because they knew it would immediately be vetoed by the US.
JAY: And since the election of President Obama, in terms of uncovering wrongdoings of the Bush-Cheney administration, is this even being looked at in any way? Or have they just moved on?
ERLICH: As far as I know, no. We called the Pentagon. They still maintain the same position, which is there was no raid, to their knowledge. But they’re very interested in knowing what we have. So there’s clearly a coverup going on. I suspect if I was sitting in the Obama White House, there’s no external pressure for investigation of this, so it’s just one of the many Bush crimes that will go uninvestigated, unpunished, along with many, many others that we could name, unless there’s some outcry from people in Congress or others who say this is wrong and it should be investigated and it should never be done again. To the Obama administration’s credit, they have extended some visits by diplomats to Syria. They’ve said they’re going to return the US ambassador to Syria, who’d been taken out by Bush. So there are some friendly steps being taken toward Syria. But I think this matter of this raid should be thoroughly investigated so something like this never happens again.
JAY: So in the next segment of our interview, let’s talk about the significance of this event or implications of this event for what’s going on in Pakistan. Please join us for the next segment of our interview with Reese Erlich.
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