Without Arms Embargo, No Political Solution in Iraq and Syria
Institute for Policy Studies Fellow Phyllis Bennis argues that collateral damage from military strikes and corrupt governance are only strengthening the Islamic State
SHARMINI PERIES, EXEC. PRODUCER, TRNN: Welcome to The Real News Network. I’m Sharmini Peries coming to you from Baltimore.
Defense Secretary Ash Carter said last week that the United States has supplied Iraq with hundreds of millions of dollars in military hardware, including Humvees. At the same time, prime minister of Iraq this week said that Iraqi security forces lost around 2,300 Humvees to ISIS when they retreated from Mosul last year. The State Department also has approved the potential sale of another 1,000 Humvees with increased armor, machine guns, and grenade launchers for an estimated $579 million.
Here to discuss how all of this equipment and weaponry is falling into the hands of ISIS, which is essentially resulting in the U.S. arming ISIS, is Phyllis Bennis. Phyllis is joining us from Washington, DC. Phyllis is a fellow and director of the New Internationalism Project at the Institute for Policy Studies. She is the author of many books, including her forthcoming book Understanding ISIS and the New Global War on Terror: A Primer. As always, Phyllis, thank you so much for joining us today.
PHYLLIS BENNIS, FELLOW, INSTITUTE FOR POLICY STUDIES: Good to be with you, Sharmini.
PERIES: Phyllis, ISIS is gaining much ground in both Syria and Iraq–2,500 Iraqi forces were defeated by 250 ISIS members in Ramadi last week. In addition to the losing ground bit, they also lost a lot of heavy equipment and weaponry that they had to leave behind. And now this is resulting essentially in ISIS gaining much of that weaponry and equipment to fight the forces and fight back the Iraqi forces. What do you make of this policy in the region?
BENNIS: Well, I think we have to look at it in the context of the same reason that ISIS is winning its military battles. That’s why it’s also gaining political support. It’s because of the failures of the governments in the region to provide for the needs of huge populations. The Sunni populations, particularly, in Iraq and Syria.
And in these conditions where you have incredibly sectarian governments that are carrying out real atrocities against Sunni communities, not just denying equal rights to, access to jobs or whatever, but mass arrests, mass incarceration of Sunnis, particularly in Iraq. The mass arrests, torture in the prisons, extrajudicial killings of Sunnis. That’s the reason that you have Sunni tribal leaders supporting ISIS. Not all of them, of course, but many. The reason that you have many ordinary Sunnis saying, well, I hate what ISIS stands for, I hate its brutality, but I think it’s probably the lesser evil relative to this terrible government in Baghdad. You have military support from Sunni generals who were part of Saddam Hussein’s army, who were unceremoniously thrown out of their positions when the U.S. invaded back in 2003 with the dismantling of the army. All these people were sent home with no job, no way to support their family, nothing but their weapons. And they’ve been waiting for a chance to get some kind of revenge, and they’re seeing it now.
That’s who’s providing the military strategy for ISIS. And that’s what makes it so, so difficult. So when we hear about these calls from Congress, from elsewhere, saying we have to send more weapons, we have to give them more stuff, really? You really want to give them more stuff, so that it can end up also being seized by ISIS? You know, this latest report about the seizure of 2,300 Humvees, that doesn’t even begin to account for the new tanks that ISIS has stolen and liberated and whatever term they want to use. They’ve captured some, they’ve stolen some, some have been abandoned and left behind when Iraqi soldiers fled the battles. And in all of these situations the only responses the U.S. has come up with is, well, we’ll send more stuff.
So today we’re reading that the U.S. is about to send a big number of anti-tank weapons to the Iraqi military to use against who? Against the U.S. tanks that are now in the hands of ISIS. The tanks were given to the Iraqi military. They were either lost or abandoned, or whatever, and they’ve ended up in the hands of ISIS. So now the U.S. is sending more weapons to use against ISIS, except we can pretty much predict that those weapons will also end up in the hands of ISIS.
So until there’s a pullback from the failed military strategy and the choosing instead of a political strategy that has to do with diplomacy, has to do with negotiations, has to do with massive amounts of aid that are still needed, that has to do with a real arms embargo across the region, none of these efforts are going to work.
PERIES: So Phyllis, in addition to all of what you’re saying, General Dempsey also announced this week that they will be sending more training troops to the region, and this will be to train more soldiers to fight both in Syria against Assad and also to fight against, obviously, ISIS. What does all of, all of this mean?
BENNIS: You know, again, the U.S. has for so long relied on military strategies that have not worked. You know, we were hearing in Syria back in 2012 and 2013, we’ve got to send U.S. troops, U.S. bombers, U.S. bombs, U.S. weapons, U.S. training to go after Assad, because the Assad regime is the worst possible thing anyone can imagine.
And then suddenly that had taken over from the we have to send troops, we have to send bombs, we have to send bombers. We have to send helicopter gunships against al-Qaeda. Because now the Assad regime was worse than al-Qaeda. But suddenly we now have ISIS on the move. And ISIS is now worse than the Assad regime. So the U.S. is going after ISIS in ways that objectively, I don’t think they’re collaborating deliberately in the sense of, you know, somebody’s calling President Assad and saying, hey, this is the Pentagon, let’s work together. But objectively U.S. military strategy in Syria is aiding the Assad regime. It’s enabling it to survive better than it would have without that U.S. support.
So everything the U.S. is doing right now is making the situation worse. Not making it better. It’s aimed at, as somebody described it the other day, it’s like a game of whack-a-mole. You know, we suddenly have the challenge of dealing with ISIS in Ramadi in Iraq, so we’re going to send a huge amount of resources, soldiers and new weapons and whatever, to Ramadi, where in the meantime whether it’s in Syria, whether it’s in Iraq, there are other crisis zones that are being created, even as we speak. And the more weapons that get sent, the more weapons end up in the hands of ISIS. That’s true in Iraq, it’s true in Syria.
The idea that the U.S. is somehow going to be able to create its own junior partners, its own U.S.-trained so-called moderate because we’re going to vet them, you know, this notion of the moderate opposition in Syria has never been a serious reality as a military force. It has simply been taken over by extremist forces. The U.S. knows that. Once in a while somebody in office in the U.S. will admit it. Most of the time they won’t. But the reality is that after three years now of saying we’re going to train and arm the so-called moderate opposition as if it existed in some organized way, it simply doesn’t exist.
And in most of the cases, the small, very brave groups of opposition fighters who have been challenging the Assad regime, in some cases also challenging ISIS, have in many cases given up their organizations and have gone off to join al-Qaeda, the al-Nusra Front in Syria, or directly have joined ISIS. Again, not because they agree with ISIS. Not because they agree with the extremist version of Islam or the kind of violence that has characterized ISIS, but because they see it as winning potential victories against the Assad regime, who they believe is the primary enemy for them.
So it’s a hugely complicated situation which is never going to be dealt with correctly by more military support. That’s the problem. As long as we keep saying we have to do the military stuff better, we have to do more weapons, we have to do more training, we have to change the training, we have to train this group rather than that group, it’s not going to work. It hasn’t worked yet. And it simply isn’t going to work, because every one of those military actions ends up creating more anger, more opposition, even in those rare occasions when the U.S. gets the person they’re actually aiming at rather than 15 innocent civilians who happen to be surrounding them. Even in those situations, those people have families and friends and villages and tribes and religious groups that they’re part of who are outraged at the U.S. military assaults. And every bit of that outrage over time, as it gets worse and worse, and deeper and deeper, it turns into greater support for the most extremist terrorist elements. So this is a failed strategy.
PERIES: With this failed military strategy, Phyllis, and if you got the right forces together to kick off the discussions around a political solution, who would you be talking to? I mean, here in one sense Assad might be ready, given the ground that he is losing. But who is at the table?
BENNIS: Well, I think you start from the vantage point that if you’re serious about diplomacy, everybody has to be at the table. You don’t exclude anyone because you think they’re a terrorist, or you think they might not abide by the agreements. Because if you exclude people, you’re giving them the excuse to violate any agreement that’s reached. This was the lesson that former senator George Mitchell brought back after helping to negotiate the Good Friday accords in Northern Ireland. He said if you’re serious about diplomacy, everybody has to be at the table.
So if we start from that vantage point, if we’re talking about talks to end the Syrian civil war, Iran has to be at the table. Part of the reason the talks failed the last two times was that the U.S. took the position that Iran is prohibited. Iran can’t come, because they’re part of the problem. Well, they are part of the problem. So is the U.S. But the problem is if you ignore the people who are part of the problem, they’re not ever going to become part of the solution. So yes, Iran has to be at the table. Russia has to be at the table. The Syrian regime has to be at the table. All of the Syrian opposition forces have to be at the table.
The U.S. allies in the region that are arming and paying all of those opposition forces, some of whom are extremist Muslims, the Nusra Front. Some are more secular forces. But the strongest ones, the ones with the biggest presence and the strongest presence on the ground, are all Islamist. They need to be at the table. Those governments that are arming them, the Saudis, the Kuwaitis, the UAE, Qatar, Jordan, Turkey, all those governments have to be at the table.
This is going to be big, regional, and indeed global negotiations that should be under the auspices of the United Nations. People say, well, how can you talk about negotiating, you can’t talk to ISIS. They’re crazy. I’m not necessarily saying that you start with direct talks with ISIS. That may or may not be possible at a later point. But at the initial point, you must talk to those who are enabling ISIS. That means talking to the governments that are responsible for arming, that are providing the arms that ISIS is stealing, and that are directly supporting ISIS and ISIS-linked forces, like in Saudi Arabia and elsewhere in the Gulf. That also means you have to support the presence at the table not only of the government of Syria, for example, the government of Bashar al-Assad. But you also have to have at the table those who are arming and paying that regime. So that means that Russia and Iran have a major role to play.
And you have to put on the agenda, Sharmini, this is one of the most difficult things. You have to put on the agenda the need for a, not just a ceasefire. That needs to be on the agenda, of course. But there needs to be real talk of an arms embargo. That’s the hardest thing to imagine, partly because that’s where people are making money off of these wars. When you look at these wars and say, who benefits? The people who benefit are the CEOs and the shareholders of these giant corporations who make the planes and the bombs and the bullets and the teargas, and all of the weapons that are being sold to all the different sides. They are the ones who are a huge stumbling block.
But if you don’t put that issue on the table from the beginning, you’ll never get to the point where you could actually have it. And without a real arms embargo you can have all the ceasefires you want, but they won’t hold when new weapons are flooding in every day.
PERIES: Phyllis, you have a new book coming out. Tell us about it, and when is it coming out?
BENNIS: The book should be out before the end of June. It’s called Understanding ISIS and the New Global War On Terror: A Primer. It’s part of that series of Middle East primers that I’ve been doing over the last years. It’s published by Interlink. Interlink Books, in Northampton. And it’s done as frequently asked questions, sort of basic stuff, from what was the war on terror? What’s the new war on terror? Is it the same thing? Is Obama’s war the same as Bush’s war? And what’s ISIS? What do they believe? Who are they? Why are people supporting them? What do you do about their violence? Don’t you have to use violence against them?
So it’s all those kind of basic questions that people have been asking, and I’m hoping that it’ll be a useful resource for people looking for some answers.
PERIES: Phyllis, I thank you so much for joining us, and I look forward to your book coming out.
BENNIS: Thanks a lot.
PERIES: And thank you for joining us on The Real News Network.
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