To End War in Syria, Adopt “First, Do No Harm” Diplomacy
Institute for Policy Studies fellow Phyllis Bennis tells Paul Jay that the 51 State Department officials’ call for airstrikes against Syrian President Assad gets it wrong, and what we really need is a full withdrawal of US troops and an international arms embargo
PAUL JAY, SENIOR EDITOR, TRNN: Welcome back to the Real News Network. We’re at the People’s Summit in Chicago.
We’re going to take advantage of having Phyllis Bennis with us to talk about what’s going on in Syria. Thanks for joining us, Phyllis.
PHYLLIS BENNIS: Good to be with you, Paul.
JAY: Once again, Phyllis is a fellow and director of the New Internationalism Project at the Institute for Policy Studies in DC. One of her recent books is “Understanding ISIS and the New Global War on Terror.”
So, 51 diplomats of one sort or another wrote a letter telling President Obama he should attack and overthrow President Assad. What’s this? Why now, and what do you make of it?
BENNIS: Well, I think it’s important to recognize that how incredibly difficult it must be to be working for the US state department, who are supposed to be the diplomats of chief and looking at a policy that is failing, that has failed up until now and show’s every sign it’s going to continue to fail. So, on one level I really applaud these diplomats and other state–I don’t think they’re all diplomats, but they all work at the state department–for using this previously internal process of raising this criticism, saying, this isn’t working.
Unfortunately, the conclusion that they draw from their very good assessment that the US policy is not working is one that is, I think, going to make things worse than it is even now, worse and not better. They’ve chosen the notion of, there’s got to be more military engagement. That will push us to the table. Where they get that, I don’t know, because quite the contrary is what we’ve seen in practice. So, I think that what we’re looking at is a recognition from people in the position to know that the policy is failing. That’s a good thing, up until as far as it goes.
The next step has to be, no, what they’re saying about what should happen instead is way wrong. We don’t need more military solutions. We don’t need more bombing. We don’t need more shooting. We don’t need to kill more people in order to stop Assad from killing people. Yes, what Assad is doing to civilians with the barrel bombs is horrific. It’s clearly a war crime. US bombing is not going to stop that, and it’s not going to stop people from dying. It’s just going to kill more people. So, we have to look at, what is it going to take to get serious about more diplomacy? And that’s a much more difficult issue.
JAY: That’s, when one says the policy is failing then you’re kind of assuming there’s a rational, quasi-humanistic objective in the policy. If the policy is what quite a few pundit types both in Israel and the United States have said, which is, let’s create a situation where they just all kill each other, contain it, and I can even imagine them thinking, you know, we’re drawing crazies from all over the world, they’re all going to Syria to fight, they’re blowing themselves up. Assad’s weaker, we’re weakening Hezbollah. Everything is like, you know, this horrible situation for Syria maybe ain’t so bad for us. Maybe just let the thing keep smoldering or burning, I should say.
BENNIS: I don’t subscribe to that particular conspiracy, I must say–
JAY: –I mean, conspiracy would say it’s secret. There’s nothing secret about this–
BENNIS: –No, no, no, conspiracies don’t always have to be secret. They can be quite public. But I don’t think that’s what’s going on here. I don’t think Israel is as influential on the decision making on this one as it was, for example, around the Iran deal.
JAY: I think it’s very much a US thing, not just Israel.
BENNIS: Right. No, I understand that. But in terms of influencing the US, I don’t think Israel is a major diplomatic pressure point on this one. I think they are quite worried about what’s happening on their border, about the instability, because as we all know, instability doesn’t respect borders. So far, Israel has managed because Assad has been quite helpful to Israel over the years to keep that border relatively quiet, to keep the occupied Syrian territory quiet, and I think that continuing the war on ISIS threatens that stability. So I don’t know that it actually benefits Israel strategically as much as some Israel watchers might like to think it would.
On the one hand, of course, there are many in Israel who would like to see the overthrow of any Arab government, certainly including Syrians, Syria’s government. But I don’t think that’s the primary thing going on here. I think right now there is a huge challenge, because the Obama administration has made clear its intention to keep the military focus on ISIS in a context in which you can’t separate the so-called war against ISIS from the several other wars that are all being waged inside Syria.
JAY: And why do you say so-called war against ISIS?
BENNIS: Because I don’t think that you can wage a military war against a terrorist organization. You can do certain things, which the US has done, and they are having an effect, of stripping ISIS from the territory it’s controlled. It now controls about half of the territory and populations that it once controlled, but that doesn’t end the problem of ISIS.
It makes it worse for people in the US, for people in Europe, for people elsewhere in the area, because it turns ISIS back into a more traditional terrorist organization and less of what it was trying to become when it called itself a caliphate and said, we’re going to be a government. We’re going to have an old-fashioned army that actually seizes territory and controls populations, et cetera. That’s not going to be as possible, but instead they’re going to return to the old days of being an old-fashioned terrorist organization killing civilians. That’s not going to end the problem of ISIS.
That’s why I say a so-called war against ISIS. It’s like saying you can wage war against terrorism. You can’t. You can’t bomb terrorism. You can only bomb people and cities and kill them.
JAY: So, we’re at the People’s Summit talking about this political revolution. So, if you were asked by Bernie Sanders, okay, what should I be saying about Syria? You know, what should be our policy? What would you tell him?
BENNIS: What I did say in an article that I wrote for the Nation about what a Bernie Sanders strategy should look like, what a Sanders doctrine should look like on foreign affairs, starts with, what does every medical student learn on her first day of medical school? First do no harm. Whatever else you do to your patient, don’t make them sicker. Whatever else you do when you’re trying to end a war, don’t go to war and kill more people. If your goal is to stop people from being killed by Assad or by anybody else, don’t kill more people in the name of killing them.
So first, stop the killing. Withdraw the troops. Get the boots off the ground. You say there’s no boots off the ground. There’s 6,000 troops now in Syria–Sorry, there’s 6,000 troops in Iraq that we know about. There’s at least 350 in Syria that we know about. There’s probably others. Maybe they don’t wear boots, maybe they wear sneakers. They’re forces and the CIA. Get them out. They’re not helping.
Number two, stop selling arms and giving arms and sending arms to everybody and their brother who says they’re against Assad or against ISIS. Half those arms still end up in ISIS’ hands and it doesn’t work. You can’t win this militarily.
Number three, stop sending arms to everybody, and so let’s talk about an arms embargo. Let’s really be serious about this.
Number four, if you’re serious about diplomacy, get serious about diplomacy. Diplomacy doesn’t work while you’re at war with one side against the other side. You’ve got to stop the war before you can expect to have real diplomatic success. Put more money into the humanitarian work of the United Nations. There is a refugee crisis underway, but it’s not in the United States where we have shamefully allowed in barely 2,000 Syrian refugees in the entire five years. That’s about what are arriving in Germany in one day. It’s really shameful. It doesn’t go to the question of how many people we bring in. It doesn’t go to the question of the needs of the UN to take care of.
Half the Syrian population is now displaced from their homes, either internally within Syria or in the surrounding countries. In Lebanon one out of every three people now is a Syrian refugee. Jordan, they have a million refugees and not enough water. Turkey, two and a half million refugees. This is a crisis. There’s not a crisis in Europe. In the US we don’t have a refugee crisis. We have a racism crisis. So, we’ve got to deal with all those things and if candidates, whether Bernie Sanders or anybody else, wanted to take up a different position, that’s the position they should be taking up.
JAY: All right, thanks very much for joining us.
BENNIS: Thank you.
JAY: And thank you for joining us on the Real News Network.
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