The Bennis Plan: Here Is a Real Strategy for Dealing with ISIS

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IPS fellow Phyllis Bennis says military strategies have failed; only a political and diplomatic solution will work

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SHARMINI PERIES, EXEC. PRODUCER, TRNN: Welcome to The Real News Network. I’m Sharmini Peries, coming to you from Baltimore. This is an edition of the Phyllis Bennis report.

President Obama on Wednesday laid out a four-point plan to deal with the Islamic State. Here is some of what he had to say.

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BARACK OBAMA, U.S. PRESIDENT: First, we will conduct a systematic campaign of airstrikes against these terrorists.

Second, we will increase our support to forces fighting these terrorists on the ground.

Third, we will continue to draw on our substantial counterterrorism capabilities to prevent ISIL attacks. And in two weeks, I will chair a meeting of the U.N. Security Council to further mobilize the international community around this effort.

Fourth, we will continue to provide humanitarian assistance.

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NOOR: Now joining us to unpack the speech is Phyllis Bennis. Phyllis is a fellow directing the New Internationalism Project at the Institute for Policy Studies in Washington, D.C. She is also a writer, analyst, and an activist on Middle East and UN issues.

Thank you so much for joining us, Phyllis.

President Obama outlined four key strategies to eliminate ISIL. The U.S. has tried these strategies before. Phyllis, what do you think of these strategies? And will they work this time?

PHYLLIS BENNIS, FELLOW, INSTITUTE FOR POLICY STUDIES: I think what President Obama outlined last night was a four-part military strategy. Only the last one, which had to do with humanitarian support, about which he said virtually nothing, was not military. All the others were various aspects of military responses. And as he has said himself so many times, there is no military solution to this crisis. So, acting as if we can have a military victory is guaranteeing failure.

What we should have heard from President Obama last night would have been a four-part diplomatic proposal. You know, there’s at least four diplomatic things that should be done, but we didn’t, unfortunately, hear any real emphasis on that.

PERIES: Can you elaborate on what those four points might have been?

BENNIS: Well, we could start with looking seriously at what is it going to take to change the dynamic of sectarianism in Iraq that creates support for ISIS. The reason ISIS is so powerful is because they have support on the ground, particularly from Iraqi Sunnis, particularly Sunni tribal leaders and their militias, Sunni generals from the former regime that are providing the kind of military strategy and training for ISIS. So we need to talk seriously about that and figure out what’s it going to take to pressure the new government to reverse that. It’s not going to happen on its own. And the U.S. doesn’t have that much power.

So this is a moment when the U.S. needs to engage with Iran, the other influential player in Baghdad. The U.S. and Iran right now are on the same side. Both want a newly inclusive government in Baghdad. So this is a moment for real negotiations, real diplomacy between the U.S. and Iran. That could be number one. Number two–.

PERIES: And can I just interrupt you for a second? There are murmurs that these discussions are going on in secret with the Iranians. Do you know any more on that?

BENNIS: I don’t have any information. I think there probably are some very small tactical, low-level negotiations underway that probably have something to do with not getting in each other’s way in Iraq, something like that. But I’m talking about something bigger than that. The nuclear talks are going very well. Perhaps this should be a moment to try to expand those talks, to really look at the idea of a grand bargain with Iran that would take up the question of the regional crises and Iran’s role legitimizing Iran’s role as a regional power. That’s perhaps not in the immediate agenda, but that’s the kind of diplomacy we should be thinking about.

Then there’s also the question of the coalition. President Obama talked a lot last night about creating a coalition. He even used George Bush’s term “the coalition of the willing”. What they’re talking about is a coalition of the killing once again, just like George Bush did. The coalition that Obama could refer to was a coalition of Europe, the U.S., Canada, and Australia, the white colonials, if you will, along with Turkey. Those are the only countries who are even talking about embracing a military solution in Iraq. And what role the others will play is very, very questionable.

But this idea of the role of a coalition in things like supporting the Syrian training for the moderate Syrian opposition, this doesn’t take into account any of the realities on the ground. It doesn’t take into account that the Free Syrian Army has actually beheaded people themselves. They beheaded six prisoners they were holding. It doesn’t take into account that even under the best of conditions, if you had people who really believe themselves to be supporters of the rule of law, pro-democracy in all those ways, they wouldn’t–even after a few months of training, they would not have the ability to withstand an effort by ISIS, for instance, to raid their camps and steal their weapons. So, sending more weapons is only going to guarantee more weapons in the hands of ISIS.

Third, we need to resume the failed diplomacy of a few months back to end the Syrian war, the six wars that are now being waged in Syria in the context of this broad civil war. The U.S. is president this month of the UN Security Council. Maybe this is a moment to urge the UN to restart those global negotiations. And just by the way, this could be a moment for the U.S. to resume negotiations with Russia, taking off on the successful negotiations between the U.S. and Russia that led to the destruction of the Syrian chemical weapons arsenal. That could also help the tension that is now underway between the U.S. and Russia on Ukraine. But most importantly, it might be the beginning of real negotiations to end the war in Syria.

And fourth, the question of an arms embargo. You can have whatever negotiations you want at any of these levels. But as long as all sides are continuing to flood the war zones with more weapons, there’s not going to be any hope of a political settlement. There needs to be serious pressure brought to bear on Saudi Arabia, on Qatar, on Turkey, on all the U.S. allies to stop sending weapons to the Syrian opposition, much of it going directly to ISIS. The U.S., if it has any hope of being able to persuade Russia and Iran to stop arming the Syrian regime, they’ve got to show some kind of a quid pro quo by pressuring their own allies to stop arming the opposition. So all of these four areas of diplomacy would have been a much better replacement for the four kinds of military that we heard from President Obama.

PERIES: Right. Let me go back to the point you were making about President Obama chairing the Security Council in the upcoming month that he referred to in his speech. Now, the UN is a body mandated to keep peace, and Security Council being the strongest organ of that mechanism. What are some of the concrete things he can do with the mandate of the UN in mind?

BENNIS: Well, if the U.S. were prepared to engage seriously on the level of negotiations and diplomacy and to abandon the level of demilitarization, there would be enormous options. The U.S. is the biggest single bloc to the Security Council playing the role that you just spoke of, Sharmini, the role of defending peace and preventing “the scourge of war,” as the UN Charter says. That’s not likely to happen. But one could imagine a scenario in which the U.S. would go to the Security Council and say, look, this is getting very, very dangerous, and we all have some interest in stability, even if we have different sides that we support as our own favorites. We are the champions of different players, if you will, on the ground. But if we could resolve this in the context of the Security Council, it would not only help bring about the possibility of an end to the war in Iraq and a negotiated solution to the crisis around ISIS, but it would also lead to the reinvigoration, if you will, of the Security Council itself, which has been widely discredited around the world because it’s viewed as being so much undermined by the U.S.-threatened veto. There have been moments when Russia has threatened to veto, but by far the majority of the vetoes in the last 20 years have been either cast or threatened–most often threatened, because when threatened, everybody else pulls back–by the United States. So if President Obama went to the Security Council and said, this is a moment we are going to rethink our relationship with the Council, we are no longer going to see it as an extension of our own foreign policy, and instead we are going to try to transform it into a real center of diplomatic power, that kind of coalition is exactly what’s needed. What we heard from President Obama, unfortunately, was the idea we’re going to go to the Security Council to create a new coalition of the killing once again. That’s not what the United Nations was designed to do. Hopefully, that will not happen at the United Nations. But it could just be a moment, if we could just imagine a different approach.

PERIES: And further, add fuel to the fire, having received the Nobel Peace Prize, this even greater onus on President Obama to actually uphold the mandate of the UN, it is really–.

BENNIS: One [certainly (?)] hopes.

PERIES: Sorry. Go ahead.

BENNIS: One would have hoped so.

PERIES: One would hope so. And so do you think, given that there’s no hope of him actually doing that, Phyllis, his strategy on the ground, in terms of eliminating ISIL and supporting what he calls the moderate opposition in places like Syria, has any hope?

BENNIS: No, unfortunately, I don’t. The argument the administration makes is they will be carefully vetted. And the problem is that’s completely irrelevant. You can vet all you want, and you can have an opposition militia, the Free Syrian Army or call it whatever you want, made up of democratic, law-abiding, internationally focused, non-terrorist–whatever; you can vet them in any direction you want, but you can’t create, in the face of a couple of months, with whatever training, you can’t create out of–what did President Obama called them?–schoolteachers and bankers, I think he said, or schoolteachers and shop keepers, I think he said. These are ordinary Syrians. These are not Syrian soldiers. You know, the idea that you’re going to be able to turn them into a powerful enough fighting force that they could protect their weapons when the U.S. gives them weapons, and they take them back into Syria, and when ISIS decides, you know what, we like those weapons, we’re taking them, it doesn’t matter if they’re vetted or not. It’s not about political will at that point; it’s about military power. And there’s no question that ISIS will out-power those opposition forces. So the idea that they will be vetted, the idea that we’ve heard from the Free Syrian Army, we’ll keep track of your weapons, we’ll keep a record of the serial number of each one, well, thank you very much. That means that when ISIS steals them, you’ll be able to give us the serial numbers and tell us which ones they got. You know, those are just not relevant criteria for what we’re talking about here.

PERIES: Phyllis, just finally, his last point last night was about the humanitarian mission that the United States will continue to provide. Is there any indication that previous humanitarian efforts have been of any use or that it would be sustained?

BENNIS: Yes, this is one where I really did agree with the president’s statement. I wish he would have said we are going to escalate. You know, he talked about escalating everything else, except we’re going to maintain–I would’ve hoped that although the U.S. has pledged significant, large amounts of money to protect refugees and to provide for the needs of refugees and internally displaced people, both within and around Syria and Iraq–they need to do more. They need to give more money to the UN agencies who are absolutely overwhelmed by the flood of refugees in all the neighboring countries–in Lebanon, in Turkey, throughout the region, as well as inside Syria in particular, where there are millions of people now who have been displaced from their homes who have nowhere to go. So the question of expanding that commitment to supporting the UN’s work will be very important.

Now, if U.S. tries to take it over, as they have in the past, and especially if they try, as they have in the past, to link humanitarian work with military goals, it will fail. We can look back to the example in Afghanistan, in the first months after the U.S. attacked Afghanistan in the fall of 2001, when they were dropping food packages on the mountains, where it was getting cold. Many Afghans had fled from the bombing, fled into the mountains looking for security and safety, and they had nothing to eat. The U.S. said, we’re going to drop food packages. People said, that’s not the best way to do it, but nonetheless they did. But those packages were wrapped in heavy-duty bright yellow plastic wrapping, so that people could see them when they were dropped, and the children would run and find them. That was all fine until the U.S. began dropping cluster bombs wrapped with the same bright yellow plastic wrappings. Children were killed running to what they thought was food, which turned out to be bombs. That collaboration between U.S. goals, between humanitarian efforts and military goals, is always a disaster for the people on the ground. We can only hope they don’t try to do that again.

PERIES: Thank you so much, Phyllis, for joining us. I know how you’re busy and how much you are in demand these days, so thanks.

BENNIS: Thank you. It’s been a pleasure.

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

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