Reese Erlich, freelance correspondent and author of Inside Syria, says the irony of the support to the Kurds in Kobani is that the PKK is considered a terrorist organization by the US
SHARMINI PERIES, EXEC. PRODUCER, TRNN: Welcome to The Real News Network. I’m Sharmini Peries, coming to you from Baltimore.
In an article titled “10 Myths about Obama’s Latest War” in Truthdig, our next guest, Reese Erlich, describes his observations of the war on the Islamic State during his recent trip to Iraq. He is now joining us from Oakland, California. Reese is an author and a prize-winning journalist. His most recent book is Inside Syria: The Back Story of Their Civil War and What the World Can Expect.
Thank you so much for joining us, Reese.
REESE ERLICH, FREELANCE FOREIGN CORRESPONDENT: It’s my pleasure.
PERIES: Reese, I’m going to pick out a few of the myths you discuss in your article. The first myth you try to dispel is that the “Islamic State presents an immediate threat to the people of the U.S.” Now, this is an important one, as it had a ripple effect in other countries, as those who joined the coalition tried to claim the same thing in their own countries. Let’s have a look at the presidents and prime ministers.
BARACK OBAMA, U.S. PRESIDENT: If left unchecked, these terrorists could pose a growing threat beyond that region, including to the United States. While we have not yet detected specifically plotting against our homeland, ISIL leaders have threatened America and our allies.
STEPHEN HARPER, CANADIAN PRIME MINISTER: –from which it intends to launch a terrorist jihad not merely against the region, but on a global basis. Indeed, it has specifically targeted Canada and Canadians, urging supporters to attack, quote, disbelieving Canadians in any manner.
DAVID CAMERON, U.K. PRIME MINISTER: –and in overcoming what I want to focus on today, which is the mortal threat we all face from the rise of ISIL in Syria and Iraq.
PERIES: This myth is really meaningful, as it required mustering support from an international coalition and it required taxpayers’ money, allocating soldiers, a threat that they escalated just before going to war and then quickly downgraded. So, Reese, is this a threat or not?
ERLICH: Well, the Islamic State is certainly a threat to the people of Iraq and Syria, but they’re no more a threat to the people of the United States than al-Qaeda or some of these other similar terrorist groups. And the U.S. government, and for that matter the Australians, Canadians, British, and others, have exaggerated the threat intentionally to get people very, very scared. So Americans saw the beheadings of the journalists and the aid workers and somehow they think that those kind of folks would be coming back to our soil, and for the moment popular opinion supports the war.
But in reality, they’re concentrated on what’s going on in Iraq and Syria. They have no capability of establishing sleeper cells or any of the other things that gets people worried. In fact, by bombing, we’ll be actually encouraging more people to join the Islamic State, because now they’re the great fighters against American imperialism, and the bombing will have the exact opposite effect of what the U.S. intends.
PERIES: On the part of the IS, this is also an effort to recruit. Did you see some of that on the ground?
ERLICH: Well, they’ve recruited by defeating the Iraqi army and pushing back the Kurdish Peshmerga and defeating the other rebel groups in Syria. There they don’t need bombing from the United States as a way to recruit people, although that ultimately probably is what happens. They have created an extremist version of Islam which has absolutely nothing to do with the actual religion of Islam and for the moment are enjoying some recruitment success because they are seen as winners. But as people, particularly the Sunni tribes and the Sunni individuals in the areas that they control continue their rebellion against them, that’s going to change.
PERIES: Reese, myth number four in your article is that “[t]he U.S. has formed a viable coalition to defeat Islamic State.” I thought in fact they had, in terms of Saudi Arabia, the Gulf countries, Jordan, Britain, Australia, France, Canada, and Belgium, not to mention Israel, the quiet partner in all of this. Why is that a myth?
ERLICH: Well, because the coalition is mainly for political face-saving purposes. The U.S. knows that if it starts bombing alone, it’s likely to be strongly criticized. So it tries to get a few other countries on board. But without the U.S. military decision, all those other countries would certainly do nothing.
And supposedly the key question is not the number alleged coalition members but who is involved. And the fact that Turkey is at best a very, very reluctant partner means that a key component in the possible war is not going to happen. And the U.S. has almost no allies on the ground. That’s the other critical element, which is, yes, the Kurds in Iraq and in Syria are favoring the U.S. for the moment, but the Iraqi army has collapsed. There’s numerous other Arab Syrian groups that are not aligned with the United States. And that’s going to be the decisive factor, which is, even if the U.S. successfully bombs Islamic State, who is going to take over on the ground? Who’s going to take and hold the cities? And there the U.S. coalition doesn’t exist.
PERIES: Recently, President Obama stated that he had underestimated the capacity of the Iraqi military to fight the IS. What observations did you make about that on the ground?
ERLICH: Yeah, the Iraqi army has for a long time been corrupt and split apart by sectarian differences. So it wasn’t really a surprise, although the swiftness with which it collapsed was a surprise. The officers in many cases keep the salaries of the men, keep money that was allocated for buying equipment or maintaining equipment, stole it, and the soldiers go for months sometimes without pay. So it’s little surprise that when it comes to actually having to fight, they threw down their weapons and took off their uniforms and left whole military bases for both the Islamic State–and for the Kurdish Peshmerga, I might add, who also seized a lot of arms. So the U.S. spent ten years giving military training to the Iraqi army, but it’s a lot more to train an army than to just show them how to shoot and operate mortars and so on. It means you have to have political unity, you have to have a common sense of being a national army, and the U.S. was never able to do that in Iraq.
PERIES: Myth number eight in your article: that “President Obama has the legal authority to bomb both Iraq and Syria.” Explain that. I mean, I understand that in Iraq he created the authority by putting the right people in place in this latest government that was orchestrated by the Americans, but he has no right to go into Syria and bomb it, does he?
ERLICH: Yeah, I mean, where do you start? There is not any international law anywhere that decides anything the United States is doing. It’s beyond belief. And the U.S. has done some pretty outrageous things in the past. Let’s start with the fact that there’s no vote in Congress. At least the Canadians and the British voted in their parliaments to go to war. So far there’s been no debate and no congressional action, and the War Powers Act, which is the law of the land, has been studiously avoided by the president, who used to be a constitutional legal expert. He justifies the war by saying that Congress passed a resolution back in 2011, right after the Twin Tower attacks and so on, the Pentagon attacks, in which they authorized the U.S. to go to war against al-Qaeda. We were not at war against al-Qaeda. We’re at war with a group called the Islamic State that hates al-Qaeda, actually, that split off from them and kills al-Qaeda every chance they get. So on that level it’s not legal.
And on the level of the United Nations, I mean, it used to be that the United Nations was, at least in theory, the body that could justify or make legal international military action. The U.S. isn’t even thinking about taking it to the UN, because it would certainly lose in the General Assembly, and it would be vetoed, even if it could get some votes, in the Security Council. So in Congress, in international law, in the UN, there is absolutely no legal justification whatsoever for this latest war.
PERIES: It’s really ironic, because when you heard President Obama’s IS speech and he indicated that he would be actually chairing one of the Security Council meetings at the United Nations next week, it created the affect that he was actually looking for permission and approval of the Security Council. But that’s not what actually happened while he was there, was it?
ERLICH: No, he told the Security Council, I’m going to war, forget about it. It’s the best Sopranos imitation I’ve seen, which is, you know, we have the power, we have the money, at least for the moment, and we’re going to go to war regardless of what you think.
PERIES: And, Reese, tell us what’s going on in Kobani at the moment.
ERLICH: Well, Kobani, of course, is the city, mostly Kurdish city near the Turkish border where very fierce fighting has been going on between the Islamic State and rebels affiliated with a group called the PKK, or the Kurdistan Workers’ Party. And there’s very fierce fighting that’s going on. The latest developments is the U.S. is now dropping ammunition and small arms to the rebels. And this is one of the great ironies of this war, because, of course, the PKK, the Kurdistan Workers’ Party, is considered to be a terrorist organization both by the United States and Turkey. So there we are dropping arms and ammunition to a group that we consider to be terrorist. But apparently they’re the good terrorists this week. So it shows you how difficult it’s going to be for the United States to find allies on the ground who can both defeat the Islamic State and hold territory once the Islamic State is forced to retreat.
And, of course, it’s gotten Turkey very angry. Turkey’s going along with it for the moment by allowing arms to come in from Iraqi-Kurdish area, as opposed to coming in from Turkey. But once arms come in, they can be used for anything they want, and Turkey is worried that they’ll eventually make their way back into Turkey and be part of the fight Kurds in Turkey are having with the government there.
So whatever state–whatever step the United States takes seemingly to help one goal, they’re going to tick off some of of its allies are other potential allies. There’s absolutely nothing the U.S. can will keep everybody happy. And that’s another reason why this coalition is so fragile.
PERIES: And explain why Turkey is so upset with us.
ERLICH: Well, there’s been a long history of oppression of Kurds in Turkey. They for a long time were not even recognized as a nationality. There were not allowed to speak their language, learn their language in school, they were not allowed to have media in their own language, and so on. Erdoğan, the current president, did make some changes and opened up discussions with the main Kurdish group, the Kurdistan Workers’ Party, and it has made some changes. I was in Turkey and did some reporting from there.
But the issues are far from resolved, and the armed struggle by the PKK continues against the Turkish government, and quite serious repression by the [Turkish] government continues against the PKK and other Kurds. So what happens in Syria with the Kurdish issue will impact what happens in Turkey. So the Turkish government is very worried that a victory by the PKK-affiliated group in Kobani will help the PKK inside Turkey as well.
PERIES: Reese, thank you so much for joining us and explaining all of this to us.
ERLICH: My pleasure. Happy to come back and talk again in the future.
PERIES: And thank you for joining us on The Real News Network.
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