US-Russia Tensions Escalating Over Fate of Assad

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These times are more dangerous because they lack the fixed parameters and clear red lines of the Cold War days, says Col. Lawrence Wilkerson

Story Transcript

SHARMINI PERIES, TRNN: It’s the Real News Network. I’m Sharmini Peries coming to you from Baltimore.

Over the weekend, the US and Russia ended talks on a ceasefire agreement in Syria without coming to a conclusion. Shortly thereafter, Secretary of State John Kerry was in London, where he and his counterpart, Foreign Secretary Boris Johnson warned that the US and UK might impose sanctions on Russia for its support of Syria and the bombing in Aleppo. The conflict in Syria, is only the latest development in a long series that have contributed to the deteriorating of relations between the US and Russia. Other issues that have involved the conflict in the Ukraine and the stationing of a NATO missile defense system in Eastern Europe.

Joining us now to take a closer look at all of this is Larry Wilkerson. Larry is a retired United States Army soldier and former chief of staff to United States Secretary of State Colin Powell. Wilkerson is an adjunct professor at the College of William & Mary where he teaches courses on US national security. Thanks for joining us again Larry.

LARRY WILKERSON: Thanks for having me Sharmini.

PERIES: So Larry the situation between Russia and the US in particular is heightening and of course the situation in Syria is not helping. But there are many other issues involved here as well. How dangerous has it become?

WILKERSON: I think it’s become very dangerous and let me just point out some anecdotal evidence that is nonetheless stunningly indicative I think. We’ve been monitoring, we through various agencies, to include some of the Scandinavian countries, we have been monitoring Russian field army exercises in 2012, 13, 14, 15, and one of the things that we’ve noted that has been developed in these exercises and now is official Soviet Russian doctrine is the expectation if you will, of a NATO attack in various regions that constitute the old Soviet, the new Russian near abroad. Their sphere of influence, even to include possibly crossing boarders that are clearly recognized as Russia. When this happens, when these NATO formations attack in these various places, because of the Russian estimation of our incredible advantage in conventional munitions, precision guided conventional munitions, the Russia resort to small yield nuclear weapons. This is explained in the doctrine as not being escalatory because they think we, NATO, the United States will understand that the Russians understand this differential and conventional weaponry and therefore will understand why they’re resorting to nuclear weapons.

Of course this is, preposterous. We will respond with our own nuclear weapons once the genie is out of the bottle and nuclear weapons have been used in Europe. That means you have let not only the genie out of the bottle but probably escalation out of the bottle. All of our simulations, war games, and so forth that I’m familiar with that I indeed played in, indicate this. We will respond with nuclear weapons and they will respond with nuclear weapons. So I just painted for you anecdotally but with some really documentation how this could be very dangerous and spiral out of control rather swiftly.

PERIES: Larry, last week, in an interview with a German newspaper, the Germany’s foreign minister Frank-Walter Steinmeier said of US-Russian relations, and I’m quoting here “unfortunately it is an illusion to believe this is the Cold War. The new times are different; they are more dangerous. Previously, the world was divided, but Moscow and Washington knew each other’s red lines and respected them. In a world with many regional conflicts and dwindling influence of the great powers, the world becomes more unpredictable.”

Would you agree with statement?

WILKERSON: Well there were always many parties involved. You may remember 1983, 84, when we were trying to deploy ground launch cruise missiles with nuclear capacity in Europe and two or three million people protested and it was a really close run thing. Later of course we got the first reduction in nuclear arms with the IMF treaty. So we’ll [inaud.] and persevered, rightly so, it seems in retrospect that time but the objection in that time was the same as the objection would be now. These nuclear weapons are going to be falling on Germany and they’re going to be falling on Poland, and they’re going to be falling on the Czech Republic, and they’re going to be falling on all these regions in Central Europe. Not necessarily the United States, though I fear for that too if we go to a general exchange of strategic nuclear weaponry.

So I understand their angst. I don’t think it’s changed much. It’s just gotten a new improbability factor to it, a new uncertain factor. It’s more problematic. It doesn’t have the rather rigid parameters of the Cold War. You never know what’s going to happen and when it’s going to happen and you never know when somebody’s going to do something as much for political reasons internal to his own state as to any strategic reasons that might exist otherwise. So I agree with him in that context. This is a much more dangerous time than this sort of fixed parameters of the Cold War days.

PERIES: Now certainly Syria is a major factor here, but as I mentioned here in the introduction, there have been a number of other contributing incidents, like the NATO exercises right up the nostrils of Russia in Eastern Europe and the conflict in the Ukraine. So what needs to take place now in order to deescalate the whole situation?

WILKERSON: Well I wouldn’t be going mad like we do all the time, with this weapon of sanctions. Frankly I sit back sometimes and I ask myself if I will live long enough, probably not, to see the time when sanctions are hurled back at us in a really meaningful and powerful way by countries that may surpass us of by groups of countries that may pass us in power in the future. That’s not so unimaginable. I wish we’d stop this business, and it’s mostly in the congress, of reaching out for sanctions gun every time we have a problem in the world. Just unraveling sanctions afterwards is enough of an argument to stop that business.

But I do think there are other things that we should be doing and they’re really fairly fundamental. We should be finding those areas where we, Moscow and Washington and generally speaking Europe, and Japan I’d pull into that too, have if not common interest, at least complimentary interests and there are quite a few. And working on those to try and defuse some of the tension in the areas like Syria apparently, although I would argue we have a common interest there too, it’s just that we don’t seem to be able to see it quite as clearly as the Russians do. But we should be working on these issues to try and dampen the tension amongst those that we don’t see eye to eye on.

I think frankly that the issues that are common or could be collaborative or we could cooperate on, outnumber the ones where we have differences and that in this country, and this really bothers me, in this country we have the military industrial complex, we have a certain amount of the luddites in congress and I include these days, John McCain in that luddite definition, and other special interest’s groups that are driving us towards this new Cold War. I understand their profit motive; I understand their ideological motive. But I wish we’d stop listening to them and start listening to better statesmen and women who can tell us where we need to go and what we need to do.

Unfortunately, there’s a lack of such people right now, particularly what the leadership calls, congress, the White House and elsewhere in Washington. But we need some cooler heads. Just look at it for a moment, Sharmini. There’s an old international relations axiom about conservation of enemies. Meaning you know more and more than you need or can handle at one time. Look at what we’re doing. We’ve got the possibility of a shooting war in the south China Sea with the Chinese. We’ve got the possibility of the JCPOA unraveling because of people in the congress trying to undermine it and are shooting more with Iran. We’ve got the possibility of some sort of fracas if not a nuclear contest with North Korea. We’ve got [inaud.] we’ve been talking about for a new Cold War and a war with Russia. We do not need all of this. We’ve got trillions of dollars in debt. We’ve got all manner of problems in this country. So what are we doing?

Well history says we’re doing what great powers do throughout 5,000 years of human history. That is when they can’t fix the humongous problems they have on their own domestic scene, they go abroad seeking monsters to fight. That seems to me to describe quite clearly what we’re doing today.

PERIES: Now Larry, one might argue that this is exactly what was supposed to tax place in Syrias, which is to do something collaboratively here in terms of getting rid of ISIS from the region. But it hasn’t quite worked out that. So what causes escalation and how could this situation be deescalated in Syria?

WILKERSON: Well Sharmini I think the basic root of all this is our opposition on Bashar al-Assad and Russia’s position and Iran’s position on Bashar al-Assad. I should say on our side, Turkey’s Saudi Arabia, Qatar, and the UAE and others too. That is that Russia is not going to let Bashar al-Assad fall from power and ultimately we want him to fall from power. We want regime change. That’s an irreconcilable that should not be irreconcilable. It’s us that should do the giving. Anybody who can stay in charge as long as Bashar al-Assad has stayed in charge through this turmoil, this war, deserves at least the recognition that he’s not going anywhere anytime soon. To continue to beat that dead horse as we have been doing and Sharmini we have been doing it since the beginning.

When 200,000 Syrian farmers didn’t have enough water to farm and started a largely nonviolent protest in Damascus or against Damascus’s leadership, we and the Saudis and the Qataris and the Emirati and others began arming elements inside Syria with the CIA doing its dammedest to make sure as many weapons as possible could get there and now we’ve got what we’ve got. We need to back off our high horse and we need to understand that Assad is going to be there. That doesn’t mean we have to accept everything that Sergey Lavrov and Vladimir Putin put forward, but we do have to accept that fundamental reality, he isn’t going anywhere and tell Samantha Power and the Susan Rice to go bury their head in some other exercise somewhere and hopefully get a new president in there that understands this reality and is willing to compromise with Russia and Iran over this reality.

PERIES: And speaking of getting another president in there, many people argue that Donald Trump would better at negotiating with the Russians. Do you concur with that point of view?

WILKERSON: I don’t think Donald Trump would be any good negotiating with anybody on the international scene based on what he said to this point and what he’s done to this point. In fact, I think Donald Trump is going to be so shocked by the fact that negotiating with international partners and international potential opponents is so different from big business that he’ll last about a week in the Oval Office if he is elected, he’ll turn to his Vice President and say I’m out of here, you’ve got it, and we won’t hear much from Donald Trump anymore.

PERIES: And if there is a Donald Trump presidency who will be actually governing over these types of issues, him or the vice president?

WILKERSON: I think the Vice President and we’ve all seen what that’s like with George Bush and Richard Cheney.

PERIES: Alright. Larry I thank you so much for joining us today and we’re looking forward to having you back next week.

WILKERSON: Thanks Sharmini, have a good one.

PERIES: And thank you for joining us on the Real News Network.

End

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