SHARMINI PERIES, EXEC. PRODUCER, TRNN: Welcome to the Real News Network. I’m Sharmini Peries coming to you from Baltimore.
International powers involved in the Syrian war agreed to next week implement what is being described as a ceasefire. Peace talks remain stalled for the time being, and meanwhile the Saudi and the United Arab Emirates are proposing troop deployments into Syria with U.S. Secretary of Defense Ashton Carter supporting the proposal. The news comes as two new reports shed further light on the grisly outcome of the war thus far. The Syrian Center for Policy Research is saying 11.5 percent of the country has died in the past five years, which amounts to 470,000 people, a number almost double the UN official death toll of 250,000. And earlier this week the UN said that the Assad government has killed thousands of its prisoners, amounting to an extermination, as a crime against humanity.
Now calling me to discuss all of this is Phyllis Bennis. She’s the author of Understanding ISIS and the New Global War on Terror. Phyllis, so good to have you with us.
PHYLLIS BENNIS: Good to be with you, Sharmini.
PERIES: So, Phyllis, what do you make of this agreement, and what is it all about?
BENNIS: This was a meeting of the outside powers that are at war in Syria. It did not involve any Syrian players. So it’s not really talking about an end to the civil war in Syria.
The best that we can hope that could come from it–and it is important–is that the outside powers who are now engaged in this bloody proxy war being fought to the last Syrian might call a ceasefire of their own, and of the proxies they are arming and supporting. That could be very, very important in allowing a kind of respite in the massive violence that has been responsible for so much death and destruction in Syria. But even in the official statements, they’re being very careful not to even call it a ceasefire. They’re calling it a cessation of hostilities, which in international law is a slightly lesser category, still important. But it means essentially a cessation of hostilities in place, which means it remains very, very tense.
The key question, of course, is whether the Assad regime will accept a cessation of hostilities, and whether the opposition armed groups, including those that are accountable to some of the major outside players such as Saudi Arabia, the Emirates, Turkey, et cetera, whether they will be prepared to, to initiate some kind of a ceasefire as well. This obviously doesn’t include ISIS and al-Qaeda. And one of the big problems, one of the big limitations of it, is that the outside powers are given the right under these terms to continue their attacks on, quote, terrorist forces. And of course we know that one of the big problems is that while everybody agrees, all the players agree ISIS is a terrorist force, all of them agree that al-Qaeda is a terrorist force, there’s massive disagreement on all the other massive number of opposition forces that are fighting against the regime, some of them, against ISIS, some of them, and it’s not at all clear who any of them are accountable to.
The Russians have used as an excuse their claim that some of these pro-Western opposition militias, particularly those in and around the city of Aleppo, are in fact terrorists, and that therefore they’re within their rights to attack them in the interest of going after terrorists to strengthen the Assad regime, so the Assad regime can be part of going after ISIS. Now, most people on the ground say that most of the people that Russia is killing are not terrorists and in fact are not even militia fighters, but there are huge numbers of civilians that are being killed in these most recent bombing campaigns.
The question of the continuation of U.S.-backed attacks, particularly the notion of any serious escalation, when we’re hearing about the possibility of Saudi or other Western countries, pro-Western countries sending troops, this would be a dramatic escalation, and would be disastrous in terms of any hope of this cessation of hostilities holding. It’s supposed to take place in just under a week, and then move forward to a more permanent ceasefire. Whether it will even get to that week-long process of achieving a cessation of hostilities remains very unclear, and even if it does it means that potentially hundreds more people may be killed during that week while the fighting goes on.
So it’s a step. It’s a very narrow step, it doesn’t deal with the fundamental questions yet. But in the context of recognizing that the war in Syria is no longer a Syrian war, it’s a war of outside powers, but it’s being fought to the last Syrian. It’s Syrians who are doing the dying. In the context of that it is very important that there may be some level of a diminution at least of the level of violence that’s going on now.
PERIES: Phyllis, and what effect do you think the development of the Gulf states in, on the ground, is going to have in this situation, locally?
BENNIS: I think it’s actually very unlikely that they’re going to send ground troops. The mention of it as a possibility was very, very cautious. The Saudis in particular, who have a big army, but not an army with much capacity, they put out a whole bunch of conditions that essentially amounted to we would be part of a U.S.-led ground war. Now, we know that at least at this stage there’s not going to be a U.S. large-scale ground war in Syria. The U.S. is sending in special forces. There are officially about 50 special forces there now, and several hundred on their way. They’re apparently not there yet. But the notion that there would be significant ground combat troops from the U.S. going in, and the Saudis would then participate and back that up, that’s what the Saudis are looking for. That ain’t going to happen.
So I actually think that that’s a very unlikely possibility. The problem is that by the discussion of it, from the statements from top U.S. defense officials that they would support it, et cetera, what it does is to give Russia and its allies the excuse to say, well, they’re escalating, so we’re going to continue the bombing campaign. So this doesn’t help–.
PERIES: And in fact, this agreement, there’s an exception for Russia here in terms that they’re going to continue to do what they’re doing.
BENNIS: At least for this week, and even after that. Again, this is what I was saying earlier about the definition of terrorists. The Russians have a, shall we say, very broad definition of who’s a terrorist. And by their standards, anyone that’s fighting against the regime qualifies as a terrorist. That means that’s been their excuse for bombing massively in and around the city of Aleppo that has led to thousands, tens of thousands, of people fleeing just in the last three or four days.
There’s something like 70,000 people crammed into a very small space at the Turkish border, trying to get into Turkey, who are fleeing the bombing campaign in Aleppo. So far, Turkey is not allowing them in. the U.S. is pressuring them to. But it’s a very tricky combination of pressures on Turkey, because on the one hand they’re facing pressure from NATO allies, the U.S. and Europe, to allow in on humanitarian grounds this desperate population of tens of thousands of Aleppo Syrians who are desperately trying to escape the bombing. At the same time they’re under pressure from Europe to not allow so many Syrians to leave Turkey, meaning they would be stuck with caring for hundreds of thousands more refugees. They already are caring for 2.5 million Syrian refugees. The numbers are staggering, here. The numbers are staggering.
If we look at Lebanon, there is now a situation where 1 out of every 4 people in Lebanon is a Syrian refugee. It would be as if something like, I think if I do the math right, it’s 85 or 90 million Canadians somehow in the course of just a couple of years ended up in the United States with nothing but the clothes on their back, needing care, needing education, needing food, water, electricity, jobs, all those things. And that’s what the population of Lebanon is facing.
So the refugee crisis that is emerging from this, from this military crisis, is massive on a scale that we really have not seen since World War II.
PERIES: Phyllis, important development, and we hope to follow it with you in the coming days. Thank you so much for joining us.
BENNIS: Thank you.
PERIES: Thank you for joining us on the Real News Network.
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