Pt 1. Israel’s Ambassador Admits Toppling Assad a Longtime Goal

Robert Parry: Israeli Ambassador’s omission points to Israel backing Syrian jihadist, making Saudi Arabia and Israel strange bedfellows in the Syrian conflict

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Story Transcript

JESSICA DESVARIEUX, TRNN PRODUCER: Welcome to The Real News Network. I’m Jessica Desvarieux in Baltimore.

Israel’s ambassador to the U.S., Michael Oren, has admitted that Israel has sought to topple Syrian President Bashar al-Assad since the start of the Syrian war. He said, quote, “… we always wanted Bashar Assad to go, we always preferred the bad guys who weren’t backed by Iran to the bad guys who were backed by Iran.”

Now joining us to discuss all this is Robert Parry. He is a renowned investigative journalist and founder and editor of ConsortiumNews.com.

Thanks for joining us, Robert.

ROBERT PARRY, INVESTIGATIVE JOURNALIST AND AUTHOR: Thanks, Jessica.

DESVARIEUX: So, Robert, what do you make of Ambassador Oren’s remarks? And what do you feel like he’s alluding to when he says we back the guys who were not backed by Iran?

PARRY: Well, I think Ambassador Oren is stating what’s sort of become obvious, that the Israelis do have an interest in what’s going on in Syria and that they prefer–if the choice has to be between the Assad regime continuing or some of the more radical jihadists prevailing, they prefer the latter over the former.

Now, obviously they’d prefer some more moderate elements of the rebel forces to win out, but they feel that their biggest strategic concern is that Syria as an ally of Iran be removed. And that would mean getting rid of the Assad regime, which represents a sort of Alawite faction, primarily, in Syria, which is related to Shia Islam. And the other side has become predominantly driven by Sunnis, who are backed by Saudi Arabia and other of the Sunni powerhouses in the region. So you have this regional struggle going on. But Israel sees its primary interest in getting rid of Iran’s ally Bashar al-Assad.

DESVARIEUX: Okay. And others are arguing that really their primary interest is really to create this chaos, this continued chaos in Syria, so that it’s a distraction, attention is drawn away from the Israeli-Palestinian peace talks and things of that nature. What do you make of that argument? And what can you tell us about Israel’s role in the Syrian conflict, and especially when it comes to lobbying U.S. policymakers?

PARRY: Well, I think that is certainly part of Israel’s concern, that they would just as soon see the various sides in the Middle East fight each other to a standstill. There was a similar view during the Iran-Iraq War back in the 1980s, that as long as Iran and Iraq were roughly equal in power, no one was getting the upper hand, that the two sides in this regional sectarian conflict which was just emerging at that point would be balanced against each other and keep attention off of Israel or other interests. That’s now recurring in Syria, a similar phenomenon.

But Israel is making it clear that it is on the side of getting rid of Assad, even if that means having these more radical jihadists prevail. Israel finds that a better choice than having Assad continue.

DESVARIEUX: So is this the first time they’ve admitted to something like this, that they would prefer to back jihadists in Syria, as opposed to Assad, for example?

PARRY: Well, Israeli officials have indicated at different points that this is where they were leaning, but this is perhaps the most explicit Ambassador Oren has made this comment, in an interview with The Jerusalem Post. It was summarized and excerpted by Reuters a day or so ago, and so we haven’t seen the full transcript. That should be appearing on Friday, as I understand it, in The Jerusalem Post. But what we’ve seen is this is perhaps the most explicit point where the Israelis have made it clear where they see their primary interests lying.

DESVARIEUX: Tell us about the relationship between Israel and Saudi Arabia in regards to Syria.

PARRY: Well, that’s–this is a fascinating element of what’s coming out in the last several months, the last year or so in the Middle East. Saudi Arabia and Israel have been traditional enemies. In many cases, the Israelis considered the Saudis one of their principal adversaries in the region, representing a rather radical form of Islam, a very conservative Sunni–the Wahhabi religion. But over the last year or so, last several months most explicitly, the Saudis and the Israelis have increasingly seen their interests aligning.

The Saudis also see Iran as their principal geopolitical threat. They are very concerned about the so-called Shiite crescent going from Iran through Iraq and Syria to parts of Lebanon. And that’s exactly the same view that the Israelis have.

So these two countries, which represent fairly different interests but have some interests in common, are now seeing an opportunity to collaborate more and more. We saw this also in the case of Egypt when the Morsi government, the Muslim Brotherhood government was overthrown in a coup. Again, it was the Saudis providing the money to help the generals in Egypt survive and to maintain control, and it was the Israelis who were using their political influence in Washington to keep the Obama administration from declaring the coup a coup, which would have cut off American support.

So you’re seeing in a variety of ways now the Israelis and the Saudis collaborating. And I’m told that at an intelligence level–perhaps not on a formal government-to-government level, but at an intelligence level, this is now becoming not just implicit but more explicit that the two sides are seeing that they do have common interests and are willing to work together.

It’s significant to note that the new head of Saudi intelligence is Prince Bandar, who is a very sophisticated political player who had been the longtime ambassador to the United States. So he understands in a more sophisticated way how Saudi interests and Israeli interests can work together, be complementary.

DESVARIEUX: So let’s talk about the U.S. and how they’re pressuring Syria to surrender their chemical weapons stockpile. But Israel is actually one of the only countries which has refused to ratify the convention against chemical weapons. Do you think this suggests a double standard by the U.S.?

PARRY: Well, the United States has long had a double standard as it relates to Israel. Israel also, perhaps even more importantly than its chemical weapons stockpile, has one of the most sophisticated nuclear weapons stockpiles in the world. It’s undeclared and it’s not under any of the conventions relating to nuclear weapons, but it exists, and everyone knows it exists. The United States, however, goes out of its way not to officially acknowledged that it exists. Occasionally it’ll pop out in some congressional testimony, including when Robert Gates was up for defense secretary some years ago, but it’s not officially acknowledged.

So you have the U.S., which has been very aggressive in going after other countries for just the possibility of having nuclear weapons. That is, in the case of Iraq, the United States invaded because of very dubious and ultimately false suggestions that the Hussein regime might be planning to develop nuclear weapons. And similarly, there have been threats against Iran for not having a nuclear weapon but possibly moving in the direction of getting a nuclear weapon.

So, yes, of course they’re double standards, and we’re seeing them applied again here, where Israel is allowed to have a very–I’m told, a very sophisticated stockpile of chemical weapons, yet Syria is expected to give theirs up.

DESVARIEUX: Okay. Does that fact really play into this idea that the U.S. and Israel have to be the main players in the region and any sort of threat to that hegemony will then be challenged?

PARRY: Well, that seems to be the case. I mean, the United States has long had a strong interest in the oil from the region, going back especially, say, to the ’70s when OPEC was formed and there were embargoes on Arab oil coming to the United States, touching off major political and economic troubles. It was at that point made pretty clear that the United States would trade security in the region, whether for the Saudi royal family or for other of the oil states, for a ready access to the region’s oil. And Israel has a special place as well because of its position as the Jewish state that the United States has vowed to protect. So these are major interests for the United States, both economically and, in the case of Israel, more politically. But certainly it is how the United States has approached the region in a fairly heavy-handed way.

DESVARIEUX: Alright. Our final question for you, Robert. I know that you covered the U.S.-backed opposition in Central America, the wars in the ’80s. Do you see any parallels in Syria as far as proxy wars and the importance of covert observations when open military strikes are politically unpopular? Basically, is the Obama administration backing away from military strikes but continuing to covertly fund Syrian rebels?

PARRY: Well, one of the similarities between what we saw in the 1980s in Central America and what we’re seeing in Syria today–and you can also throw in the Iraq situation a decade ago–is that you have these very fractious insurgent groups or opposition groups that have their own interests and are fairly hard to control. Some are more pliable in the hands of whoever gives them the money than others. In Central America, the Nicaraguan Contras, for instance, were very hard for the Reagan Administration to get a particularly good hold of. Mostly that was done through sending money and weapons to some groups, cutting off others, engaging in even political attacks or propaganda attacks against some groups that got in the way. And you’re seeing something similar in Syria, where you have divergent sets of insurgent organizations, some of them extremely hardline jihadist, some allied with al-Qaeda, and others of a more moderate persuasion. What’s happened, though, is that it appears that the harder line jihadist factions are the ones most dedicated to fighting and therefore are gaining the upper hand within the rebel movement.

You’re also seeing–and this is a bit of a difference from Central America, where–the Contras in Nicaragua were more clients in a very profound way of the United States. These insurgent groups have other backers of great significance, particularly Saudi Arabia, some of the Persian Gulf oil states, to some degree Turkey, possibly even indirectly Israel now. So they are less dependent on the United States. And they’re also more willing to defy the United States.

This is–one of the points lost in much of the mainstream coverage of Syria is that the Syrian government, despite all its many, many abuses and flaws, has agreed to take part in peace talks in Geneva in May and over the–in the late spring and summer, there were efforts to have those peace talks, to get a ceasefire going, to talk about how to get a political settlement. The Assad regime agreed, under Russian auspices, to send representatives to that negotiation. It was the rebels, the U.S.-backed rebels who refused. And they continue to refuse. They’ve set up a whole bunch of preconditions. They want more sophisticated weapons first. They want to get the upper hand in the fighting first. They want Assad to step down first.

So the real problem here, in terms of settling this conflict right now, is: how do you get the rebels, who have many different aspects to them and have many different differences inside them, how do you get them to go to the peace talks and take part responsibly? Right now the Assad regime is not the obstacle there. It’s been the rebels.

DESVARIEUX: Okay. Well, thank you so much for joining us, Robert.

PARRY: Thank you, Jessica.

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

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