JAISAL NOOR, TRNN PRODUCER: Welcome to The Real News Network. I’m Jaisal Noor in Baltimore. And welcome to this latest edition of The Porter Report.
On Wednesday in Damascus, UN experts got a new tour of areas struck by purported chemical weapons attacks, which one official says he suspects may have been ordered by Syrian President Bashar al-Assad’s brother. The day before, Syrian Foreign Minister Walid Muallem categorically denied the regime used chemical weapons.
The use of chemical weapons was issued as one of President Obama’s red lines over military intervention in Syria. The State Department also strongly suggested that Washington would consider proceeding with whatever plans it was developing with its allies in response to actions by the Syrian regime, after a resolution condemning Syria’s alleged poison gas use was stalled in the UN Security Council.
Now joining us to respond to this latest news is Gareth Porter. He’s a historian and investigative journalist on U.S. foreign and military policy. He writes regularly for Inter Press Service on U.S. policy towards Iraq and Iran, and he received the U.K.-based Gellhorn Prize for Journalism in 2011 for articles on the U.S. war in Afghanistan.
Thank you so much for joining us.
GARETH PORTER, INVESTIGATIVE JOURNALIST: Thank you very much, Jaisal.
NOOR: So, Gareth, what’s your response to this latest news? The U.S.’s attempt to get a Security Council passed through the United Kingdom through the Security Council didn’t work, but it seems like the U.S. is going ahead with preparations for an attack on Syria, which may happen as soon as Thursday.
PORTER: Well, I mean, my reaction is that the story that I’ve just done, the story about how the United States tried to get the United Nations secretary-general, Ban Ki-moon, to really stop the UN investigation of the alleged gas attack near Damascus really raises serious questions about why the United States would not want to allow the UN to complete its work while it’s already planning to carry out an attack on Syria. And this story, I think, really needs to be taken into account; that is, the story about how the United States tried to get the United Nations secretary-general to stop the investigation really needs to be taken into account in evaluating whether the U.S. has an ironclad case for war against the Syrian regime based on merely humanitarian issues, the humanitarian issue of the use of chemical weapons.
And I would argue that the evidence at this point is not ironclad. The video clips that we’ve seen online are certainly very emotional or emotive. They are compelling in that regard. But if carefully analyzed, they leave open a number of questions, a number of issues which can only be really confirmed or only finally resolved with the United Nations investigative team completing its work and actually having physical samples of the blood from victims of the alleged attack. That’s the primary way in which the United Nations could verify the charge that there was indeed a chemical weapons attack. And short of that, I think that the United States is still not on solid ground in claiming that it knows with a degree of certainty that would justify a major military raid on Syria, that it forms the basis for such a policy decision.
NOOR: And the question that seems to be on everyone’s mind is: if it was in fact the Syrian government that carried out these chemical weapons attacks, why now? And what could their motivation be, knowing that the U.S. has said this would mean that they will carry out military attacks and intervene in Syria?
PORTER: Well, that is exactly correct that that is the first issue that really begs for some answer. And, frankly, the news coverage in the mainstream media on this has brought out the reality that even those who are supportive of the United States carrying out a strike against the Syrian regime are, frankly, puzzled and unable to explain why that regime would carry out a major–what is being billed as a major chemical weapons attack precisely at the moment that the United States is threatening the possibility of an intervention but still holding back, and at the same time, even more–quite astonishingly, at the precise moment that the United Nations had actually gotten an investigative team on the ground in Damascus to actually carry out an investigation of other alleged chemical weapons attacks, and therefore would be available, obviously, to carry out an investigation of any attack that occurred in the environs of Damascus.
So it is a question that is not easily answered. And I think it does raise, obviously, the problem that the interests of the Syrian regime would not be to carry out an attack, particularly right now.
NOOR: So, prior to this alleged chemical weapon attack, General Martin Dempsey, chairman of the Joint Chiefs of Staff, indicated the Obama administration did not support an attack on Syria, because it believed the rebels fighting Assad’s regime wouldn’t support U.S. interests. Do you think that calculation has changed? And also, within the last few days, Iran has indicated that a retaliation against Israel would occur if the U.S. attacked Syria. And Israel itself has been preparing for a possible retaliatory attack in its own borders.
PORTER: The argument, of course, by those who support a military strike against Syria at this point is that the Syrian government was so confident that the United States would not intervene militarily in Syria, that it would not carry out any military action, that they saw no reason to hold back. That argument, of course, needs to be evaluated again in light of the timing of this. Even if the Syrian government were confident the United States would not retaliate militarily, why would they carry out the attack precisely at the moment when they had the United Nations investigative team in Damascus? They would certainly not want to do it then. They would wait another week or two until the UN had left town and would not be in a position to confirm the attack if it were to be carried out. So I think that that argument really does fall short of a rational explanation for the situation.
With regard to to Iran’s threat to retaliate, in fact, I think if you read carefully, the text did not say specifically that Iran itself would retaliate. I think it said–it used the passive voice: there would be retaliation. And I think that is undoubtedly a reference to the likelihood that Syria would retaliate for a U.S. military strike against the Syrian forces or the Syrian government. It’s much more likely, of course, that Syria would do that, because they would have much more reason to retaliate. And they have, of course, the weapons to do so. They have rockets that are perfectly capable of reaching Israel, and the Israelis are very well aware of that.
NOOR: So, Gareth, it’s pretty clear who’s going to suffer if the U.S. attacks Syria. The U.S. has acknowledged that civilian casualties are likely or could happen even with these precision cruise missiles. And the second part of that question is: who stands to benefit?
PORTER: Well, first of all, let me just complete the thought or the analysis with regard to those who will suffer from any U.S. military strike in Syria. It’s not simply a matter of the immediate casualties of civilians in a strike, which undoubtedly will take place–it would take place–but also the fact that a military strike will tend to militate against a political solution, because it would embolden the rebels, the opponents of the Assad regime, to redouble their efforts to use military force rather than to go to the negotiating table. And, after all, only one of the rebel groups at this point has agreed to really negotiate, to go to the negotiating table. The others are all holding out for overthrowing the Assad regime. And so the use of force for the United States is going to have the opposite effect of supporting or helping to bring about a negotiated settlement. And, of course, that means that all the Syrian people will suffer, and particularly those who suffer the results of government offensives will suffer from the continued war.
Now, with regard to who the benefactors are, I think the main ones, of course, from a subjective point of view, the people who think they will benefit are the rebel forces themselves, the rebel coalitions. They will think that the chances now are that the they can move the United States further along the spectrum of violence to become more involved in the war by creating a no-fly zone and to do those things that the rebels have been demanding for the last year or so. And so they are the ones that have the biggest stake in this.
Secondly, of course, the Israelis have made it very clear that they want the United States to be more involved at this point. And they have given the United States intelligence which they claim shows that this attack took place, claiming that they intercepted messages from the Ministry of Defense in Syria to a military unit talking about the alleged chemical attack, the nerve gas attack, and that they have given that information to U.S. intelligence. And this has now been reported, that the administration plans to use that as one of the centerpieces, if not the centerpiece, of its case for carrying out a strike in Syria. So the Israelis clearly believe that it’s in their interests for this to happen.
NOOR: Gareth Porter, thank you so much for joining us.
PORTER: Thank you.
NOOR: Thank you for joining us on The Real News Network.
DISCLAIMER: Please note that transcripts for The Real News Network are typed from a recording of the program. TRNN cannot guarantee their complete accuracy.