Carnage in Syria a Product of US Empowerment of Saudi Arabia
Vijay Prashad and Paul Jay discuss the demands Americans can make of the US government to create a cessation of hostilities (2/2)
PAUL JAY, SENIOR EDITOR, TRNN: Welcome to the Real News Network. I’m Paul Jay.
We’re talking with Vijay Prashad about the conflict in Syria. I say the conflict in Syria because that’s the way it gets talked about in the media. I think we should start more often calling it the slaughter in Syria, or the horrible refugee crisis in Syria. The apocalypse in Syria. The scale of the destruction to the Syrian people is, is unparalleled, with the exception of major wars that have taken place. I mean, the Iraq war, of course. But everyone in the media, generally we talk about this just as a geopolitical analytical issue, because there’s so many interesting factions and proxies and so on.
Anyway, now we’re going to pick up with Vijay, we’re going to talk about what a solution might actually look like if any of the parties involved actually had a peaceful solution in mind as an objective. So joining us now, again, is Vijay Prashad, who joins us from Northampton, Massachusetts.
So first of all, in terms of coming to some kind of resolution, amongst the Syrian people themselves–and it’s very difficult for the Syrian people themselves to do something in the sense there’s so many proxies, so many outside–so much outside money and ammunition flowing in, you know, to have an independent Syrian force, I don’t know if it’s actually possible. First of all, is there any signs from within Syria of a force that somehow, political force, that might lead to a solution of this, to end the massacre?
VIJAY PRASHAD: Well, you know, Paul, on February 11 the Damascus-based Syrian Center for Policy Research released a very important report, which is about the fragmentation of Syria. And in this report, you know, of course they have a lot of data on the, the condition of the Syrian people. And they have a number that I’d just like to share. They say that about 470,000 Syrians, almost half a million, have been killed so far in the war. They also said that the Syrian people have lost about 15 years in their life expectancy. It’s dropped from 70 to 55. They’ve said that close to half of Syria’s children have not been in school and are not now in school, and they estimate that as a loss–this is an incredible number–of 24 million years of human development has been lost because of all this.
So Syria is in deep crisis. But the actual impact of the report is that it argues that the war economies that have been created, the battlegrounds, battle–front lines that have been created have produced a fragmented Syria. Syria is getting, in a sense, permanently fragmented. You don’t need to have a partition created by some peace agreement. The nature of this war, the nature of the suffering, has created a great fragmentation. And to recover from this is going to be very difficult.
I say this, this to begin with, because before you can think about, you know, how–before you can even imagine the Syrian people as an entity, you have to recognize that this particular war over five years has broken Syria deeply. Has cracked Syrian society deeply. And in a sense, the question to ask is, can the Syrian people recover themselves from this immense catastrophe?
I mean, after having thought about, after having actually taken that seriously, all that you can consider is to minimize the violence right now. And you know, in that sense the tracks that have been, you know, running, one is the regional track and the other is the track between the so-called Syrian opposition and the Syrian government. These tracks are merely about creating some kind of stoppage of the violence to recover whatever humanitarian aid is possible to the population. You know, that is why the term they use is cessation of hostility, which essentially freezes the conflict. It doesn’t produce a pathway towards peace.
So we’re in such a miserable position where the world powers are only able to talk about freezing the conflict. There is nothing on the table right now to put forward a proper peace agreement to bring back he Syrian people and to unify them. There is literally nothing on the table.
JAY: Well, there’s nothing on the table from the parties involved. But if one could make demands, for example, if the American people were to make demands on their politicians, or Canadians or Europeans or Russians, what should they demand? What, within some will, how the realm of reason, what might some kind of process look like?
PRASHAD: Well, in 1965 Patrick Seale, a very distinguished journalist, wrote a book about Syria, where he said Syria is the mirror of rival interests. And I think that is a very important phrase, the mirror of rival interests.
You know, it’s I think important at this point for the public in the West and in Russia to put pressure on the two countries that have believed that they have a regional role much beyond their borders. And by that I mean, of course, Saudi Arabia, which has been essentially given carte blanche by the West to assert itself into conflicts not only in the Arab world, but of course in Afghanistan, to some extent they’ve been involved in other conflicts, perhaps as far off as the Philippines. So Saudi Arabia, I think, should not be allowed to have such an outsized role in the region. In fact, there are parts of the State Department that run American diplomacy not through the U.S. State Department in Washington, DC, not through American embassies, but through the Saudis. You know, they allow the Saudis to do the work for them in this part of the world.
So I think this idea of the United States and other parts of the West empowering the Saudis to believe that they are a regional actor has been very dangerous. And on the other side, I think the Iranians need to seriously reconsider their view that they are now a major regional actor. You know, yes, indeed, they have a greater sense than their borders. Of course they are a major power in the region. And so is Saudi Arabia. But the idea that Iran must have direct influence inside Iraq, inside Syria, that I think should be something that they in Tehran reconsider.
So I think, yes, there should be demands. And the demands need not be merely on, you know, the proxy groups inside Syria, or the government in Damascus. I think that the West and the Russians need to put some pressure, or to actually withdraw the carte blanche that they have given to these powers to believe that they are major regional actors.
JAY: And where does ISIS play into all this? It seems to be, while it’s expanding its territory, and it doesn’t seem like the bombing of ISIS has had that much effect on their strength, it seems almost more a symbolic thing. The real fight seems to be this, the regional rivalry. Assad is a focal point for this rivalry. And yeah, oh, we’re all fighting ISIS, except we’re kind of not.
PRASHAD: Well, Paul, in my opinion, ISIS is not the author of this chaos. It is a symptom of the chaos. You know, it is what has come out of the chaos. It is a child of the Iraq war, which was given a great deal more power in the Syrian civil war. And that is what has allowed it to expand. You know, the NATO bombing of Libya produced the chaos that has allowed ISIS now to grow from Sirte, to take the oil installations all the way up through Ra’s Lanuf, you know, basically taking the land mass around the Gulf of Sidra in Libya.
So ISIS is not the author of this. It is merely the symptom of the chaos. You need to tackle, or at least start thinking about who is the author of this chaos? And the author of this chaos, in my opinion, is the kind of, the powers in the, in the region and in the world that believe they should dictate to people what kind of government they need to have. It may be true that the government in Damascus, you know, was not responsive to the people. It may be true that the government in Damascus had a propensity to throw people in prison, et cetera. But I don’t think bringing a kind of regime change focus is a solution to that. The Syrian people have to liberate themselves. There are no shortcuts to their liberation.
And I think this view of having regional entities and global entities come in and suffocate the area is precisely what has produced ISIS. It is precisely what has produced the chaos that has created other powers aside from ISIS. So my view is there needs to be a great deal of pressure coming from the people, not only of the West, but of all parts of the world, asking that there should be some return to the principles of the Treaty of Westphalia, there needs to be some understanding that sovereignty should be respected, that powers that are, you know, that are big powers in various regions, should not feel that they are allowed to dominate smaller countries.
You know, this goes not only to Saudi Arabia or Iran, but this is an argument I would make across the world, that major regional entities should not feel that they can dominate their neighborhood.
JAY: So if Americans, for example, are trying to make demands of these presidential candidates running in the primaries right now on foreign policy, seems to me from what you’re saying, and I would say the same, one of the starting points has to be a condemnation of the role of Saudi Arabia in all of this. And then, of course, Turkey. And the–they have no problem denouncing the Iranians. But you know, the Iranians are not innocents in all of this. But certainly the drivers of this have been more the Saudis and the Turks.
I mean, the Syrian people had a right to rebel against Assad. But they had a right to rebel against Assad without outside powers manipulating their struggle. And while Iran has no business, frankly, supporting the Assad regime any more than the Russians do, when you’ve, when the Sauds, the Turks, the Qataris, and of course the Americans blessing all of this and perhaps pushing it as well, that, that this destroyed the struggle there.
So if you’re demanding foreign policy of the U.S., so number one, there needs to be a break with the Saudis. Not just a reappraisal, a break. [Crosstalk] And then number two, what else would you say?
PRASHAD: Sorry. No, it’s not merely a break. I think the United States government needs to actually create its own foreign policy. I think that in that region the United States government has [failed] both Saudi Arabia and Israel, you know, for many decades. It has allowed these powers to dictate a certain agenda, and the United States has adopted their agenda as its own. [Crosstalk]
JAY: But they, but they do it because–but they do it because they are their, their handguns. Their are their managers of the global hegemonic power in the region. And they, they rule through these guys. It’s not their, it’s not just because Saudis and Israelis have their own agendas and impose it on the Americans. The Americans want to be the overall hegemon, and they need these managers to do it for them.
PRASHAD: Exactly. No, exactly. It’s not a tail and the dog situation. But it is a situation–see, in the American politics there’s a debate between isolationist and interventionist. And I think this is a very sterile debate. I think it’s not a question of whether you don’t intervene or you do intervene. The issues is the United States government intervenes regardless. Whether it’s out there bombing or it’s empowering its subcontractors to do its bidding, it’s intervening. You know, so it, just by not sending troops doesn’t mean you’re not intervening.
I think the serious discussion that needs to happen is the question of do the American people want to have a foreign policy which is about world domination? Which is about hegemony? Which is about insisting that it and its subcontractors get their way all across the world? I mean, this is the essence of it. But what happens is that because that’s the overarching narrative, you have this withdrawal from thinking about the region and then reliance on Saudi intelligence, Israeli intelligence, to feed you their understanding of the region. And then you proceed on that basis.
You know, there is overwhelming reliance on Saudi intelligence. When you look at, for instance, WikiLeaks cables. In 2006, you know, [Roebuck] was a political counselor at the Damascus embassy. Writes a cable where he says the Saudis are worried about Iranian influence, and we should help stoke the Saudi worry, in other words stoke sectarianism. It’s incredible that the Americans essentially are taking, adopting the Saudi worldview, and running with it. That’s what needs to be considered.
JAY: Because they have the same worldview. They do it–I mean, the Saudi family is what they are because it served American oil company interests, commercial interests, geopolitical interests. I mean, it’s not just they’re adopting the Saudi view, it’s–they’re more or less in this, they have, it’s sort of the liberal look of the same view.
PRASHAD: So then there is a question of creating a different approach. I mean, the idea is what is the interest of the United States in that region? This needs–there needs to be a democratic discussion about this in the country.
JAY: You could even go further. What’s the interest of the American people, and not the American billionaires, if you want to put it in Sanders-esque language. It’s a class question, what the American interest is in the region. What Bernie Sanders says–.
PRASHAD: [Inaud.] At the, like at a debate, I wish that, you know, Senator Sanders would turn to Secretary Clinton and say, let’s not talk about who has the most experience in foreign policy. Let’s talk about who’s willing to have a democratic discussion about the interests of the United States in the world.
You know, the, the question of foreign policy is entirely framed around who has experience. But that it seems to me is not the germane question. The real question is, are the American people interested in having a democratic debate about what their interests should be, and how those interests should be manifested in the world.
JAY: Yeah. And I wish he would have gone a little further. On that last debate he said America should not be the policeman of the world. And after denouncing Kissinger, it was, it was a, a good thing to say, in my opinion. But it doesn’t go far enough. Like, we’re here in Baltimore. And when you look at the role of police–some people look at police that they’re keeping order, they’re keeping, they’re preventing anarchy, they’re preventing the worst abuses. Other people look at police, and I would say in Baltimore maybe most people, it’s virtually an occupying army. But particularly a coercive military force that enforces a legislative, legal framework that reinforces poverty and inequality.
Then when you’re saying America shouldn’t be the policemen of the world, you need to take that extra step, which mean–what you said earlier. You have to abandon this idea of world domination. Because it’s not world domination just to be, you know, number one and most powerful. It’s domination in order to get the advantage, the commercial advantage. So most of the wealth of the world goes to the same handful of people that have most of the wealth of America.
And, and so his billionaire argument needs to extend more into the foreign policy realm than it did, I think, if he’s going to be more consistent and realistic about it.
PRASHAD: I agree with you. I mean, I think that he should not accept the framing of experience. The question of experience is a very misleading one. Because, you know, then it’s a question of your record. And if you’re not willing to actually have a real discussion about the record–I mean, I’ll put it this way, starkly. I thought Donald Trump in the Republican debate was much more forthright on the question of the Iraq war than Senator Sanders. Senator Sanders merely said I didn’t vote for that, you voted for that. But then he doesn’t take the next step and says, well, what are the consequences of that?
And the consequences of that vote are not merely the war, but actually the pre-history of that war. Why did you feel that need to take the vote? Because there’s a certain approach towards American foreign policy that’s framed by these kind of commercial interests, this view that you need to have the greatest advantage in all kinds of world affairs, et cetera. This approach is what frames experience. Who has the most experience, then, to me, does not seem to me to be the most important question.
JAY: Well, as people have joked, Dick Cheney had plenty of experience, so the experience isn’t the primary issue here. All right. Well, thanks very much for joining us, Vijay.
PRASHAD: Thank you so much.
JAY: And thank you for joining us on the Real News Network.
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