Trump Fumbles Syria, and So Does the Media
Historian and author Vijay Prashad discusses the Trump administration’s apparent policy shift on Syria and how Western media often get it wrong on the Middle East
AARON MATÉ: It’s The Real News. I’m Aaron Maté. The Trump administration has reportedly made a new shift on Syria. Foreign Policy reports that Secretary of State Rex Tillerson has told the UN the fate of Bashar al-Assad is in Russia’s hands. This would be a change from just months ago when Trump officials called for Assad’s removal after the alleged chemical weapons attack in Khan Sheikhun. In recent weeks the U.S. has shot down a Syrian warplane and increasingly attacked forces backed by Assad and Iran.
So what is U.S. policy in Syria right now? And will it help end the country’s six year war? Well to discuss this, I spoke to Vijay Prashad, a historian, author and professor of international studies at Trinity College. Vijay, welcome.
VIJAY PRASHAD: Thanks.
AARON MATÉ: Thanks for joining us. There have been a lot of different messages from the Trump administration when it comes to the fate of Syrian president Bashar al-Assad. The latest is a report in Foreign Policy that says that Rex Tillerson has told the UN that the fate of Assad is now in Russia’s hands. What do you make of that?
VIJAY PRASHAD: It’s hard to say. There’s, there’s been so much going on inside Syria and around Syria that it’s difficult to take a statement like that and extrapolate too much from it. I mean, inside Syria, at least in the government-held areas, there is a kind of confidence that one is seeing from the Assad government. Let me give you two quick examples of that confidence and maybe these are trivial, but nonetheless:
One is of course that for the first time on a bank note, Mr. Assad’s picture has appeared. This is an interesting development. It was not something seen before, but more importantly, Mr. Assad has been seen more often outside Damascus. In fact, he broke his Eid, you know he did Eid celebration in Hama, which is a city that was held by rebels for a great long period of time. There is a certain confidence, visiting troops on front lines and so on. That needs to be very much a part of it.
On the other side, the Syrian rebels, or at least the Kurdish rebels, with American air support and some support on the ground, have made very significant gains in the northeast of Syria, but at the same time the United States has now said that it wants to create a new base in the northeast of Syria for the Free Syrian army. There are all kinds of interesting jockeyings for territory and power going on inside Syria. Still we have the question of the Turkish government and its role and its military’s role at the same time as there’s this long march of demonstrations inside Turkey.
Aaron, you know, just to take Tillerson’s statement that Assad’s fate is in the hands of the Russians, I think would give too much power to the Americans. At this point, I think the Americans are still fumbling in Syria, unable to control the events on the ground, despite I think important gains being made against ISIS in Mosul. Of course in Iraq, but also in Raqqa.
AARON MATÉ: Vijay, what do you make of these reports we’re seeing about U.S. forces increasingly targeting Iranian proxies on the ground and indications that perhaps Iran is as much a priority for the U.S. as the Islamic State is inside Syria?
VIJAY PRASHAD: Well frankly Aaron, I don’t think the United States went into Syria in 2011 with any real interest in the uprising or the characters of the uprising for democracy and so on. Perhaps Robert Ford, the then U.S. ambassador in Syria might have been a believer in democracy, but that was never really the motivation for U.S. policy and has not been for the past 20 years.
For this period, these last two decades, United States policy in Syria has basically been to break Syria’s platform that it provides for Iran to resupply Hezbollah. This has been basically a policy driven by the Zionist inside the United States but also of course the Israeli government. You know this view that Syria, which is correct, is indeed the platform to resupply Hezbollah.
Now unfortunately for the United States, its own policy, which was to wreck the government and the state in Iraq, provided Iran with great leverage in west Asia, not only inside Iraq, but in Syria even more, and then certainly with Hezbollah. It has been a longstanding policy from the United States to push back against Iran in this area. It’s not as if this is a new policy. This is indeed the policy of the United States government and has been so for the past two decades. They merely were masquerading as if they were a pro-democracy force in the region, and actually this is basically a long-standing war against Iran, for Iran’s positions in West Asia.
AARON MATÉ: The talks right now that are going on, there have been some successful de-escalation zones, negotiated recently and there’s talk now of more, with a new round of talks pending. What do you make right now of the effort to stop the fighting inside Syria by outside powers?
VIJAY PRASHAD: Well, you know the most important thing in Syria is to stop the fighting. You know, the areas where there’s been de-escalation, we’ve already seen internally displaced people go home. We’ve seen people return to Syria. This is based on what the United Nations have been tracking, that people have been returning back home, where there have been the creation of cease fire zones, de-escalated conflict, et cetera. So this is actually a very promising and important development.
You know sadly, this battle between Qatar and the other Gulf Arab states is going to make some of this de-escalation processes more difficult because Qatar was a key player alongside Iran in creating some of these de-escalation zones. Some people suggest this was yet another piece of evidence for Saudi Arabia of collusion between Qatar and Iran, when in fact this might have been a much more pragmatic and humane gesture by the Qataris and the Iranians to set up a process to de-escalate on the battlefield, on the front line.
This tension with Qatar had put some of these processes in disarray. I think this is very unfortunate. I wish more people would talk, not so much about Saudi Arabia and Qatar as if this is some sort of gladiatorial contest, but to look at this as a way to hemorrhage or destroy the peace process in Syria, which is so essential to the Syrian people.
AARON MATÉ: Vijay, do outside powers have the capacity to stop the war in Syria? If the U.S. and its Gulf partners made some sort of accommodation with Russia and Iran, could that stop the war?
VIJAY PRASHAD: Well you know it’s difficult to say Aaron because there are minimalist positions that fighters have taken and there are maximalist positions. This includes the government in Syria. When the government in Syria was weaker on the battlefield, when it didn’t have Russian air support, it tended to be much more ready to make accommodations with some of the rebel groups that were not Al Qaeda or were not ISIS. But as it’s got stronger, it has also adopted a much more maximalist position, and this is reflected in the divide between Iran and Russia.
Russia has been very eager for the government in Damascus to make all kinds of deals with some of the rebel groups. Iran is not that keen on making too many deals with too many groups. There are all kinds of conflicting positions here, Aaron, around whether these powers have maximalist demands on the battlefield or they can develop some kind of medium term demand.
Now I’m very much hoping that here, sensible thought plays a role and these maximalist demands are rolled back. You know, I don’t think you’re going to see a complete victory for anybody in Syria. There needs to be a negotiated settlement. You know it’s very much the same, what’s happening in Mosul. It’s quite easy to bomb a city to smithereens and chase out fighters. That’s a maximalist position. We’re going to win the war in Mosul. But what happens to those fighters? What happened to them when they were in earlier period bombed in Fallujah and in Ramadi by the Americans? Well they regroup in the countryside and create a new outfit. You need to have a process for a negotiated settlement for a protracted process of trust building. Until you have that, you’re just going to have, not only endless war, but immense suffering for the people of the region.
AARON MATÉ: Vijay, finally I want to ask you about how Syria is covered in the media in the west. One criticism I’ve heard is that while we hear often of the crimes of the Assad regime, that’s led to some overlooking of the crimes of the rebels. There was a piece recently in the New York Times Magazine that I found very striking because it diverged from what I think we’re used to seeing in the western media. It’s a piece by the veteran Middle East correspondent Robert F. Worth and it’s called “Aleppo After the Fall.” I want to read you a passage from it.
He’s talking about a Syria lawyer who was once a part of the opposition and is no longer considers himself, no longer considers himself a member. Robert F. Worth asks him why, and this is what he says. He says, “No one is 100% with the regime, but mostly these people are unified by their resistance to the opposition. They know what they don’t want, not what they want. Syrians abroad who believe in the revolution would call me and say, “We lost Aleppo,” and I would say, “What do you mean? It was only a Turkish card guarded by jihadis.”
Worth goes on to write, “For these exiled Syrians,” he said, “The specter of Assad’s crimes looms so large that they cannot see anything else. They refuse to acknowledge the realities of a rebellion that is corrupt, brutal and compromised by foreign sponsors. This is true. Eastern Aleppo may not have been Raqqa, where ISIS advertised its rigid Islamist dystopia and it’s mass beheadings, but as the symbol of Syria’s future it was almost as bad. A chaotic wasteland full of feuding militias, some of them radical Islamists who hoarded food and weapons while the people starved.” Vijay, so that’s Robert F. Worth. I’m wondering your thoughts on this picture he provides of Aleppo which diverges, as I said, pretty strongly from what I think we’re used to seeing.
VIJAY PRASHAD: Well, I mean what is correct? How can you argue with that? There’s been a silence on the question of what the rebels have been doing. It is also true that by and large, Syrian exiles have had a certain view of Syria, which, you know, I can understand where they come from for that view, but it is a rather limited view, which is not shared by many people inside Syria.
Those who cover inside Syria understand that there is a complexity in Syria. There is no unanimity of opinion and yet there is a sense of exhaustion with this war and of great trepidation of what some of these rebel groups are all about. They may not want to return to the status quo, you know before let’s say 2000 or the 1990s. They may not want a return to that, but they certainly don’t want their future to be an Al Qaeda future or an ISIS future. I think that is not very much appreciated by journalists and commentators who cover this war, particularly for the West.
Propaganda is unique and difficult thing to talk about. It’s not that people are necessarily brainwashed, but it is the case that there is a sense in many reporters from the West that somehow the West is incapable of being mendacious and it’s incapable of lying, of deceit, of brutality. Brutality is an Eastern phenomena and Assad is from central casting as far as they are concerned, of Eastern brutality. It’s the same way that reporters talk about Kim Jung Un. It’s the same way that they used to talk about Saddam Hussein. There’s a kin do caricatured Disney quality to this viewpoint.
What are you to do with a reporter who believes firmly that the United States is a powerful good and that these Eastern dictators are the problem in the world? If one suggests to them that the United States conducted an illegal war in Iraq, killed, let’s say a million people, brutally destroyed cities, et cetera, that General Mattis, now the Secretary of Defense, led the charge in Anbar, into Ramadi, into Fallujah, you know really ruthless warfare against a civilian population. Would these journalists adopt some of those ideas? I very much doubt it. I’ve read many of the books that they’ve written in retrospect on Iraq and few of them are willing to come to terms with the fact that the east is not brutal necessarily and the West is not pacific necessarily. There are complexities involved and there are [inaudible 00:14:26] Iraqis that produced different kinds of viciousness, but this is not seen and so naturally there will be a tendency by Western journalists to downplay Western allies and to overplay the brutality of the dictator.
AARON MATÉ: Vijay Prashad, historian, author and professor of international studies at Trinity College. Vijay, thank you.
VIJAY PRASHAD: Thanks a lot.
AARON MATÉ: And thank you for joining us on The Real News.