Clinton Reaffirms Commitment to No-Fly Zone in Syria

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In final presidential debate, host Chris Wallace challenged Clinton by saying a no-fly zone would lead to confrontation with Russia in Syria. Not a single word was said about climate change.

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PAUL JAY, TRNN: Welcome to the Real News Network. I’m Paul Jay.

On Wednesday night, another presidential debate. Not much to talk about in my opinion. Except for two major issues. First of all, what wasn’t said, the words climate change. One would have thought Hillary Clinton if she actually is taking the climate issue seriously, would’ve made a rather big deal about it. The fact denies there even is such a thing as human caused climate change. But once again she doesn’t even mention the words. But what was mentioned which I thought was rather significant was her further commitment to the no fly zone in Syria.

CHRIS WALLACE, MODERATOR: Secretary Clinton, you have talked about in the last debate and again today, that you would impose a no fly zone to try to protect the people of Aleppo and to stop the killing there. President Obama has refused to do that because he fears that it’s going to draw us closer or deeper into the conflict and General Joseph Dunford, the Chairman of the Joint Chiefs of Staff says, you impose a no fly zone, chances are you’re going to get into a war, his words, with Syria and Russia. So the question I have is, if you impose a no fly zone, first of all, how do you respond to their concerns? Secondly, if you impose a no fly zone and a Russian plane violates that, does President Clinton shoot that plane down?

HILLARY CLINTON: Well Chris, first of all, I think a no fly zone could save lives and hasten the end of the conflict. I am well aware of the really legitimate concerns that you have expressed from both the president and the general. This would not be done just on the first day. This would take a lot of negotiation. It would also take making it clear to the Russians and the Syrians that our purpose here was to provide safe zones on the ground.

JAY: Now joining us to talk about that and other things from the debate, first of all is Medea Benjamin. She’s the co-founder of the peace group CODEPINK and the human rights organization Global Exchange. Her latest book is Kingdom of the Unjust: Behind the US-Saudi Connection. And joining us is Max Blumenthal. He is an award-winning journalist and bestselling author. He’s the author of Goliath: Life and Loathing in Greater Israel. His latest book is The 51 Day War: Ruin and Resistance in Gaza.

Thank you both for joining us.

MEDEA BENJAMIN: Thank you.

MAX BLUMENTHAL: Good to be on.

JAY: Max, what do you make of her almost, I would say, doubling down on the no fly zone in Syria. She’s had criticism from the Pentagon, President Obama says that it’s not the right thing to do. The Pentagon, some generals have said this can lead to a greater war in US. Involvement but she gave a very affirmative declaration that if president, it looks like she is going to be the president, that she plans to do it.

BLUMENTHAL: Yea she sounded sincerer about that than she did about showing up the middle class which was disturbing. At the same time, I think it was the first time I’ve seen her actually challenged on a no fly zone. Chris Wallace correctly pointed out that General Joseph Dunford, the Head of the Joint Chiefs of Staff in testimony before the armed services committee in the Senate, recently said that imposing a no fly zone over Syria would mean going to war with the Syrian and Russian militaries. A war he didn’t seem inclined to authorized. It’s not only because you’re required to shoot down aircrafts if they fly everywhere. You have to destroy runways, military instillations, government installations, and you have to somehow suppress Russian S300 anti-aircraft missiles which might actually be sort of difficult to do. It’s going to require the full strength of the US Air Force along with probably all other branches of the military, according to a 2012 Pentagon estimate, and this is before Russia was involved in the Syrian theater. 700,000 US service members would be required to impose a no fly zone.

So naturally, Hillary Clinton pivoted away quickly to the image of the 5-year-old Omran Daqneesh covered in dust and blood, pulled out of the rubble in eastern Aleppo. So this is the best that our probable next president can do in defending a no fly zone which is to not defend it at all and I think she will in February in 2017, get the same assessment Barack Obama has gotten which is that a no fly zone is not only not feasible but it will lead to regime change, we’ll hand over Syria to a collection of Salafist radicals, jihadists and other assorted extremists and these will be the people that a no fly zone will provide air cover to. That’s why Barack Obama hasn’t done it. Okay then there’s another point I wanted to make which is that in introducing this question of a no fly zone, Chris Wallace referred to the population of Aleppo which is the largest city in Syria, as 275,000.

That is a complete lie and we hear it over and over again in our media and it’s – I guess academics might call it problematic and here’s why. The population of Aleppo is 2.1 million. It is the largest city in Syria. Most of the population lives under government control. But by referring to the entire population as simply the highest estimate of residents in eastern Aleppo which is rebel held territory where all the cameras are focused which is under Syrian and Russia bombardment and has become this kind of kill box for civilians where one thousand at least members of Al Qaeda are operating and refuse to leave and may be obstructing civilians from leaving.

You erase the entire western part of the city. You create the impression that if the Syrian government was at war with it’s entire population and that the majority of population isn’t in fact living in government territory. Finally, you dehumanize anyone who isn’t in front of a western camera. In other words, if you are not the object of western sympathy then you don’t exist. So it’s a completely racist frame and we hear it over and over again that the population of the largest city in Syria is actually less than Cleveland.

JAY: There was an interesting WikiLeaks that was released in March of 2016. It seems to be a briefing written by someone in the State Department. It doesn’t actually same from who or two who. it’s 11/30/2015. It starts by saying the best way to help Israel deal with Iran’s growing nuclear capability is to help the people of Syria overthrow the regime Bashar Assad. It clearly links the interests of Israel to America’s interests and the overthrowing of Assad. Medea what do you make of that as one of the motivations of American foreign policy in Syria and certainly something that never gets talked about openly.

BENJAMIN: Well it’s horrendous that the policy that Hillary Clinton talked about tonight is supposedly to care about the Syrian people and yet you see behind the scenes it’s really geopolitics. I thought it was interesting when she was asked about US boots on the ground, she said no because she knows that’s what the American people want to hear. They don’t want US soldiers fighting in the Middle East anymore. Yet then she goes on to call for a no fly zone which is totally contradictory.

She was also asked about whether the US would shoot down Russian planes. She just totally side stepped that saying we will negotiate with Russians and acting as if this were something that the Russians agree with, rather than something that would be confronting the Russians. So it’s all about geopolitics and what she thinks the American people want to hear rather than what is really good for the Syrian people.

JAY: Max, here’s a little clip from Donald Trump critiquing US policy in Syria. Let’s roll that.

DONALD TRUMP: Aleppo is a disaster. It’s a humanitarian nightmare but it has fallen from any standpoint. What do you need? A signed document? Take a look at Aleppo. It is so sad when you see what’s happened and a lot of this is because of Hillary Clinton. Because what’s happened, by fighting Assad who turned out to be a lot tougher than she thought and now she’s going to say oh he loves Assad. He’s just much tougher and much smarter than her and Obama and everyone thought he was gone 2 years ago, 3 years ago. He aligned with Russia, he now also aligned with Iran who we made very powerful.

We gave them 150 billion dollars back. We give them 1.7 billion in cash. I mean cash, bundles of cash as big as this stage. We gave them 1.7 billion dollars. Now he has aligned with Russia and with Iran. They don’t want ISIS but they have other things because we’re backing rebels. We don’t know who the rebels are. We’re giving them lots of money, lots of everything. We don’t know who the rebels are and when and if – and it’s not going to happen because you have Russia and you have Iran now. But if they ever did overthrow Assad, you might end up with as bad as Assad is. And he’s a bad guy.

JAY: What do you make of Trump’s analysis?

BLUMENTHAL: I mean it’s somewhat of an incoherent convoluted analysis. Unfortunately, Trump makes some good points because he’s a pretty terrible salesman. He opens with a falsehood about handing over cash to Iran. This is money that was withheld from their banks under sanction. So it was their money. But he’s correct in a way that early on when the Syrian civil revolt turned into an armed insurgency, the US underestimated the Assad government and how important it was first of all for Iran to preserve this government in order to preserve Hezbollah’s strategic deterrents against Israel and for Russia to preserve this government which is a longtime ally, maintains Russia’s one of its only deep water naval bases in that part of the region, in the Middle East. And the US began arming the rebels, training rebels, what they called moderate rebels, and delegating a lot of the other training and arming to Turkey and Saudia Arabia and Qatar of the more radical factions like Ahrar al-Sham for example.

This created the impression among the Syrian opposition that the US would eventually intervene. Perhaps if a redline was crossed like a chemical attack in 2013. But Obama didn’t want to do it. He was rescued from doing it by Lavrov, Russia’s foreign minister. He doesn’t want to do it again and I question whether Hillary Clinton wants to do it.

They’ve created a situation where the west along with its allies in the Gulf and Turkey, has fueled conflict which has turned into an unbearable meat grinder and it’s in many ways obstructing a solution. What needs to happen now is not a no fly zone. You need to have serious diplomacy and right away there needs to be civilian corridors out of Eastern Aleppo to get civilians out of this kill box to fund [inaud.] the United Nations Special Raconteur for Syria.

His guidelines sounded pretty reasonable to me. Al Qaeda should leave eastern Aleppo and Aleppo should stop bombing civilians there. But what we didn’t hear from Hillary Clinton, the likely next president, is any kind of move towards that kind of diplomacy and in fact, she didn’t even acknowledge any foreign players in this Syrian catastrophe outside of Russia and Iran, which kind of highlights the confrontational posture that she’s taking.

JAY: Medea, Trump did call out the role of the Clinton Foundation and the Saudi donation to it but I don’t know if he got into the sort of more significant piece of that because the other words that almost never get mentioned in talking about Syria is the role of Saudi Arabia.

BENJAMIN: Well that’s right and he never questions while she was Secretary of State, the huge amount of weapons deals that were done with Saudi Arabia. He also is very negative about the Iran nuclear deal and in his ramblings basically says that the US should tear up the Iran deal. So that’s a very negative part of what he says. Then he is when he talks about Iraq and the invasion being a positive thing for Iran. So as he rambles on there’s some real truth that come out. But there’s policy that is coherent policy, certainly not that would disentangle us from the nest that we’re in.

JAY: Max, I don’t want to sound to viewers in some way suggesting that Trump might be a better alternative. In terms of foreign policy, Trump completely lies about Libya. At the time he actually advocated, all the US troops in the Middle East should be sent into Libya to overthrow Gadhafi and in terms of his take on Syria while he might make some points that make some sense, it’s just a barrage to throw I think at Clinton. In fact, foreign policy’s far more likely to be run by Vice President Pence than Trump at any rate. He’s already made it pretty clear to Pence apparently and certainly publicly to Kasich that Pence is going to be one of the more powerful vice presidents in history and Pence models himself after Dick Cheney. Which I think could tell us something about him. What do you make about what is really at the core of Trump’s foreign policy Max?

BLUMENTHAL: It’s an unpredictable and in many ways schizophrenic foreign policy. And you’re right that he could delegate it to someone like Trump just as he may pawn off to Pence just as he pawns it all off, his domestic policy off, to Kasich. We’ve seen him basically take a list from the federalist society of judges to nominate and just rattle them off without thinking. His tax plan comes from the club for growth. He hasn’t done any thinking on that. He’s just basically going to be a salesman.

So there’s no way to take him at his word. What was interesting I think in the second debate which was right after these comments about Trump bragging about sexually assaulting women came out was that Pence was furious at Donald Trump at his running mate but the fury really flowed not from Pence’s family values, evangelical Christianity, and his indignation about Trump’s comments about women. But about what Trump said about Syria and his opposition to heighten western intervention.

So that’s kind of troubling to me. It shows that Pence really buys into the foreign policy, the kind of Washington foreign policy consensus on the Middle East and will play kind of a dominant role in a Trump administration. I think Trump, if he were to somehow enter the White House and I don’t know how he could do that at this point, would be one of the most hands off presidents in history and would hand over the reins of his administration to the same republican establishment that he’s been running against and condemning ever since he entered a primary.

JAY: Yea I think the same. Medea finally, there wasn’t as much talk about Trump’s language about women and the accusations against him as in the last debate. But how significant are these in terms of assessing as I say, it’s unlikely he’s going to be president now and this seems to be one of the reason. But what do you make of all this?

BENJAMIN: Well I think he’s a sleazebag. I’m sure that many of these women are telling the truth. When you hear the way Donald Trump has talked about women during this whole campaign and the quotes that have been drugged up from him in the past, you certainly understand that Donald Trump is a misogynist and he has abused women in his life and he has a very macho view of women. I think it’s unfortunate that we spent so much time in this campaign on issues like this. But I think as a woman, I feel very insulted by Donald Trump. I’m amazed that a man like this with the history that he has, the way that he has treated women has made it this far.

JAY: Alright. We’ll continue this. Thank you both for joining us tonight.

BENJAMIN: Thanks.

BLUMENTHAL: Thanks.

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

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