Syrian War Spirals in Trump’s Dangerous New Phase (1/2)

As top US officials speak openly of targeting Iran and Assad now that ISIS is defeated, reporter Ben Norton and Syrian analyst Ehsani discuss the escalating Syrian war on multiple fronts

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Story Transcript

AARON MATÉ: It’s The Real News. I’m Aaron Maté. Not long ago, the Syrian war was said to be winding down, but that is not the case today as fierce battles rage on multiple fronts. This week the UN called for a nationwide one month ceasefire.

SPEAKER: They’re calling for at least one months humanitarian pause starting immediately throughout Syria given the very critical humanitarian needs and the inability to provide the aid that we do have. The team there, they warned of very tired consequences of the crisis in several parts of the country.

AARON MATÉ: The foreign governments involved in Syria are escalating their role and even risking wider confrontation. Hundreds of people have reportedly been killed in recent Russian and Syrian government bombing of rebel-held Idlib Province and Eastern Ghouta. And this week, the US killed more than 100 fighters allied with the Syrian government in Deir al-Zour. The deadliest such attack to date.

I’m joined now by two guests. Ben Norton is a reporter and producer with The Real News, formerly of AlterNet and Salon. He also co-hosts the podcast Moderate Rebels. And Ehsani is a Syrian American writer and analyst. Ehsani is a pseudonym to protect his identity. Welcome to you both.

Ehsani, I’ll start with you. Let’s talk about this attack by the US government in Deir al-Zour killing more than 100 fighters allied with Assad. Now the US says that this came in response to an attack on its allies the SDF by the Kurdish force there, but yet no Kurdish forces were killed in this attack that the US was supposedly responding to so can you talk about what you think is going on there?

EHSANI: Hi. Yes, obviously, the details are sketchy at best. The wording that was used so far has been that they were pro-Assad forces. I believe that these were tribal, Arab tribes that had been fighting along the Syrian Army. There have been skirmishes in the past between them and the SDF. This particular incident triggered a massive US response. The initial reports were that Russians were killed and that was part of the 100 that you had cited. I believe there were no Russian casualties in reality. The numbers cite the 100 is part of the tribal forces as I described.

The claims are still all over the map. I don’t believe that there is a confirmation on what had happened. Of course, the vicinity here is the oil fields. If you recall the Omar oil fields that were lost at the time by the Syrian Army that was attacking ISIS. During that particular attack, the SDF made a run to the oil fields and got hold of them. The reports are that the Syrian Army and its allies, the tribal forces, were trying to claim back some of those fields and the response was pretty severe as you described.

AARON MATÉ: Well so, from that point of view, from a skeptical point of view of US Government claims, do you think it’s fair to speculate that that was the motive here? An attempt by the US to prevent the Syrian government from retaking a vital area like an oil field?

EHSANI: There’s no doubt that this has been a policy. I mean, at the time, it didn’t receive much attention, this particular incident I was referring to. When the SDF attack, it was a very clear attempt to take the oil fields and not to give them back to the Syrian government. Indeed, the Kurd, the SDF has used this as the biggest bargaining chip ever since. These are, I would say, somewhere between 70 and 80% of the entire oil fields for the country that were taken by that particular day, that incident. And without a doubt, that is what the US wants to keep with its allies as a bargaining chip for future negotiation with the Syrian state.

AARON MATÉ: And you know, I mean, the timing here is interesting because this strike on Syrian forces supposedly in defense of Kurdish forces by the US coincides with an ongoing Turkish attack, a very devastating one in Afrin on Kurdish forces but the difference there is quite striking. The US has not bombed Turkish forces in response to their attacks on the Kurds. In fact, they’ve basically given their tacit approval.

EHSANI: Extremely, extremely interesting question. Yes, the US is really finding it very hard to navigate this latter part. What they’re trying to say is that we’re protecting areas where we are present and presumably that would include Manbij for example. Afrin, the way out has been that we’re not in this area and therefore, there’s little we can do about it. I think this is the most elegant way that has been presented in order to essentially explain what the policy is. If US troops are in the vicinity, the Turks are not allowed to come. The Syrians are not allowed to come. This particular attack fits in that strategy.

AARON MATÉ: Ben Norton, we mentioned Afrin briefly. Let’s talk about there. There were just a report in The Independent yesterday by the veteran correspondent, Patrick Cockburn. He claims that the Turkish military is being accused of recruiting former ISIS fighters to take part in its attack on the Kurds in Afrin.

BEN NORTON: Absolutely, and I think this is a really important contradiction that you underscored here and it really shows the hypocrisy of US policy. And it’s looking at the difference between Manbij and Afrin.

In January last month, Turkey militarily intervened in Syria without the consent of the Syrian government. So, according to the Syrian government, it considers this an invasion and Turkey sent across 6,000 Turkish troops across the border and they are also about 10,000 fighters that are fighting rebels inside Syria. Many of these are extremists. They’re under the banner of the so-called Free Syrian Army, the FSA, but really many of these are hardlined Salafi Jihadists. In fact, there’s been video of some of these Salafi extremist embedded with Turkey and they’re chanting about how they fought in Grozny in Chechnya, how they fought in Dagestan in the caucasus and also how they fought to retake Tora Bora in Afghanistan, which was Osama bin Laden’s former headquarters.

So, we see here that Turkey has continued its long-standing policy. This is not new of supporting these hardlined Islamists in order to exert its influence inside Northern Syria. And then, of course, Turkey is claiming that it is fighting terrorists in Afrin and is waging a devastating war against the Kurdish forces there.

The Pentagon’s response has been very instructive. The Pentagon told Kurdish majority forces, who make up the YPG, which it’s apparently the majority of the Syrian Democratic forces, the SDF. Although, now the US is trying to downplay the significance of the YPG in the SDF.

A US official told Voice of America, the US funded media outlet, just a few weeks ago, the US official said we can use other forces instead of the Kurds. That’s the language they used, this very almost colonial language. As if the US is just controlling all of these forces and telling and making them follow orders. But anyway, the point is that we know, thanks to Patrick Cockburn’s report, we know thanks to whistle blowers and we know because there’s been video footage captured for years of Turkey having this on and off relationship with ISIS and other extremist groups. And again, we see how this is unfolding. Where you have a NATO ally is militarily intervening illegally in northern Syria and fighting Kurdish forces that are ostensibly backed by the US. The US is doing nothing about that and instead, supposedly fighting to defend those Kurdish forces in the area that just so happens to have many of the oil fields in the country that is further east.

I mean, this really once again, to stress this fact, underscores the hypocrisy of this policy and shows that the US may claim it’s fighting ISIS but Turkey is recruiting ISIS fighters to fight the Kurds, which have been fighting ISIS. It’s a mess. It underscores the cynicism behind a lot of what’s actually happening politically.

AARON MATÉ: Right. Speaking of the US claiming to fight ISIS, that was the purported intent of its mission when it first entered Syria but that fight is over more or less. ISIS has been defeated thanks to not just the US, but Russia and the Syrian government and the Kurds. But now the US is still there. It’s interesting to look at what the US, what the Trump Administration is saying as the reason why it’s staying. We’ve covered this on The Real News.

Rex Tillerson recently announced that the US was staying in Syria indefinitely. And I want to go to a clip of David Satterfield. He is a US official, the Deputy Assistant Secretary of State for Near Eastern Affairs. And Satterfield was testifying to Congress recently and he said that the primary reason the US is now in Syria is because of Iran.

DAVID SATTERFIELD: Senator, the presence, the activities that Iran in and through Syria, by through Syria, I mean a greater qualitative enablement of the Hezbollah threat in Lebanon, is the primary strategic challenge that we and our partners face over the future in and through Syria and I would add Iraq as well. We would hope Russia would recognize that Russia’s long term strategic interests, risk assessment, risk calculus, should not weigh Iran as a positive factor, that Iran poses a challenge and a threat to Russian interests as well.

BEN CARDIN: Do you think we could convince Russia of that? I agree with you. I just don’t think, I think it’s just the reverse with Mr. Putin. I think he likes having a proxy of Iran in Syria.

DAVID SATTERFIELD: Senator, I think the focus has been right now, from the Russian point of view, on stabilization in Syria securing the success victory of the regime, putting an end to the chaos and violence there, which the Russians see as threatening their interests. The question is at what price over the long term? And an enhancement, in a permanent sense of Iran’s role there, cannot serve any regional or trans-regional security int-

AARON MATÉ: So, that’s David Satterfield. He was questioned there by Democratic Senator Ben Cardin. Ben Norton, there’s a lot in what he says there. Iran being the primary strategic threat the US faces in the region now, but also he talks about how Russia yes, they’ve been focused on fighting ISIS, fighting terrorists and so forth, but he suggests that it’s not worth the cost of enhancing Iran’s presence in the region. Your thoughts on what he said here.

BEN NORTON: Well, this conflict was inevitable. For the past few years, the US just kind of ignored this contradiction and said we’re going to fight ISIS and then we’ll figure what we’re gonna do after the fact. Well, we’ve gotten to after the fact. ISIS has largely been defeated. Like you said, not primarily by the US, but primarily by the Syrian government and its allies: Iran and Russia, and then also by the Kurds, who have had airstrikes from the US.

But the US, again, just tries to impose its will on the situation and what’s funny is Robert Ford, maybe we’ll discuss this a bit more, he’s the former US Ambassador to Syria, recently gave testimony before the House Foreign Affairs Committee and he acknowledged in his testimony, while he’s planning these new schemes to try to orchestrate a regime change in Damascus, even though it’s looking increasingly like it’s never going to happen. I mean, in the past few years it’s been very clear, but he also acknowledges. He says, “Look. No one wants us in Syria. The Syrian government doesn’t want us in Syria. Iran doesn’t want us in Syria, the Russians,” and now that ISIS is militarily defeated, the US is, of course, looking for reasons to maintain, as Tillerson said, “this perpetual military occupation of the North.”

They’re going to say, “Well, we need to undermine Iranian influence.” Still, regime change is on the agenda. Secretary Tillerson, when he gave his speech in January orchestrating this new, this policy on Syria, he outlined several different points that called for the creation of a post-Assad Syria. They’re still calling for regime change and they simply just don’t have the teeth anymore to do so.

The only rebels that exist at this point are either Al-Qaeda or are embedded with the Turkish Army and it shows the weak position the US is in and they act as if they can just impose their will on a sovereign country that asked for the assistance of its Iranian neighbor. It’s absolutely preposterous and it really is frankly colonial in its kind of disposition.

AARON MATÉ: You know, that point there about the rebels speaks to then what’s happening right now in Ghouta and in Idlib, where the Russian and Syrian governments are waging some pretty ferocious bombing campaigns and killing many people but before we talk about that, I wanna speak more about this regime change angle. So, let’s go back to the congressional hearing with David Satterfield and this is what he said about US goals for Syria.

DAVID SATTERFIELD: The first step was the defeat of ISIS. As long as ISIS remained a potent fighting force in Syria, the bandwidth, the space to deal with these broader strategic challenges including Iran and, of course, Assad and the regime, simply wasn’t there, but that bandwidth is being freed up now.

With the UN process, with international support for a credible electoral and constitutional reform process, we see political transition in Syria as a potentially achievable goal. We don’t underestimate the challenges ahead. This is gonna be hard, very hard to do.

Assad will cling to power at almost every cost possible, but with respect to Iran, we will treat Iran in Syria and Iran’s enablement of Hezbollah as a separate strategic issue. How do you deal with it? You deal with it in all places that it manifests itself, which is not just Syria, but Iraq, Yemen, the Gulf, other areas where Iran’s malign behaviors affect our and our allies National interests.

Difficult challenge, but not an impossible challenge and it is one we are seized with right now, but having a politically transformed Syria will in and of itself be a mitigating and minimizing factor on Iran’s influence and the opposite is also true.

AARON MATÉ: That’s Assistant Secretary of State, David Satterfield in recent testimony to Congress. Ehsani, your thoughts on this and the extent to which the US has committed to this goal that he outlines of regime change. I’m struck there, if you listen to his language there, he seems to suggest that ISIS was an obstacle to a wider US goal of taking out Assad. Now that ISIS is out of the way, they can pursue that.

EHSANI: Look, you know, what the US policy in Syria has been, what I always called “regime change on the cheap,” and what I mean by that is when you do a regime change a la Iraq, you send a hundred and fifty thousand soldiers and you get into a huge mess. After that experience, I think the United States now, if there is a wishlist about the regime change, it’s going to be done differently.

It’s going to be done first by sanctions, economic sanctions. That didn’t work. Then constant attempts to do transition via Geneva. That didn’t work. And I think what you’re describing is just a continuation of the policy that is, let’s call it half pregnant, where it’s a wishlist, but really you can’t take a wishlist and implement it on the ground because you have no leverage.

The leverage doesn’t exist for multiple reasons. First is because you put all the sanctions and everything you want to do against the Syrian state right up front. If you see our policy toward Russia, it’s been incremental. The Russians have felt the sanctions are coming in an incremental fashion and you can have leverage maybe that way. With Syria, you just slap everything you can right up front and the Syrian state has got pretty much nothing to lose. Barring sending the marines on the streets of Damascus, what else are you going to do? You can talk all this game, and let’s go back to your initial presentation where you have 2,500 soldiers, in the scheme of things, it really is not only on the cheap, it’s almost for free.

You have them sitting in the northeast of Syria and what you’re trying to do is be at the negotiating table and a player via controlling the oil field and not only that, the resources, the Euphrates River, this is a very large agricultural basin for the country. You basically keep yourself in the game.

And I think it’s very, very important to stress a point here, which is, if you don’t do any of that, what is your alternative? Let’s just be generous to Washington for a second and say what the alternative would have been is to pull out and just say, “You know what? We’re done. We defeated ISIS.” The president goes on and he said, “I promised the voters, I’m going to be very tough on ISIS. I used a… policy that I put in place and I won,” and then what? If you do that, you’ve handed essentially all the critiques of Washington and the Trump Administration, we’ll tell them you’ve handed Syria now formally to Russia and Iran and you’ve dropped your commitment to the opposition down under the…

The US cannot do that. What is the policy? Then you say, “Well, if we cannot do all that, we gotta come up with something.” And what you’re seeing is that something. That something is essentially again, a policy on the cheap. You stay in the game. You make this multitude of reasons why you’re there. None of them are really connected. None of them make any sense but you put Satterfield, who’s a very able diplomat to describe the policy follows by Tillerson who goes on. But really at the end of day, if you look at it on the ground, I think it’s extremely important, also, I don’t want miss this opportunity to talk about the Iran role. One of the major things you hear over and over by every analyst, is the Iranian takeover of Syria. To date, seven years into this crisis, I am yet to hear a proper analysis that describes exactly what that role did. Other than this scary tactic of Iran taking over. You hear 150,000 militia is…

I had just been to Syria recently. I was in Aleppo. I came back. I mean, like are they really influencing the government positions on, they’re not. The real foreign player in Syria is Russia. Yes, but to portray Iran as being, and taking over and therefore, all our policies have to be designed so that we stop these corridors that are going to attack Israel all of a sudden. I just find the entire analysis not robust and very vague and just gets repeated by one to the next without really any credible evidence.

AARON MATÉ: That’s gonna wrap Part 1 of this discussion with Ben Norton and Ehsani. Join us in Part 2.