Obama Versus Putin at the U.N.
TRNN Top Stories of 2015: Paul Jay and Vijay Prashad discuss President Obama and President Putin’s UN address on their strategies for fighting the Islamic State.
PAUL JAY, SENIOR EDITOR, TRNN: Welcome to the Real News Network. I’m Paul Jay in Baltimore.
In New York at the United Nations on Monday morning various leaders of the world spoke. We’re going to focus mostly in this session on President Obama and President Putin. They both spoke about various things, but perhaps the most important thing they spoke of was the conflict in Syria. First, here’s President Obama.
PRESIDENT BARACK OBAMA: Nowhere is our commitment to international order more tested than in Syria. When a dictator slaughters tens of thousands of his own people that is not just a matter of one nation’s internal affairs. It brings human suffering on an order of magnitude that affects us all. Likewise, when a terrorist group beheads captives, slaughters the innocent, and enslaves women, that’s not a single nation’s national security problem. That is an assault on all our humanity. But while military power is necessary, it is not sufficient to resolve the situation in Syria.
Lasting stability can only take hold when the people of Syria forge an agreement to live together peacefully. The United States is prepared to work with any nation, including Russia and Iran, to resolve the conflict. But we must recognize that there cannot be, after so much bloodshed, so much carnage, a return to the pre-war status quo. Let’s remember how this started. Assad reacted to peaceful protests by escalating repression and killing that in turn created the environment for the current strife. And so Assad and his allies can’t simply pacify the broad majority of a population who have been brutalized by chemical weapons and indiscriminate bombing.
Yes, realism dictates that compromise will be required to end the fighting and ultimately stamp out ISIL. But realism also requires a managed transition away from Assad and to a new leader. And an inclusive government that recognizes there must be an end to this chaos so that the Syrian people can begin to rebuild.
JAY: Now joining us from Northampton, Massachusetts is Vijay Prashad. He’s the George and Martha Kellner Chair in South Asian History, professor of international studies at Trinity College. His latest book is Letters to Palestine: Writers Respond to War and Occupation. Thanks for joining us again, Vijay.
VIJAY PRASHAD: My pleasure.
JAY: So what do you make about President Obama’s comments? We can kind of sort of take them in order. He at the beginning feels a need to justify the sovereignty argument. What did you make of–did he justify it?
PRASHAD: Well, you know, there was something very tired about Mr. Obama’s statements about Syria. You know, he could have been saying or making the same comments in 2012. it’s almost as if there’s been no change, no shift on the ground between 2012 and 2015. Except when he says that he is ready now to work with Russia and Iran. That’s the real takeaway from his speech. Everything else is pretty much trying to hold on to the American narrative, which suggests that the main culprit in Syria is Bashar al-Assad. The fact of the matter is that if Mr. Assad was something in 2012, he is something quite different in 2015. So the phrase Assad must go in 2012 no longer makes sense in 2015.
So the real significant shift, or the new part of Mr. Obama’s statement, is when he said that the United States is now willing to work with Iran and with Russia on the Syrian question.
JAY: Right. And we can get into that a little further. But I thought it was interesting that he talks about the justification for American involvement now is Assad slaughtering tens of thousands of people. And of course, Assad has slaughtered tens of thousands of people. But most of that slaughter–certainly not all, but most of it came about because of intervention in Syria by outside powers. And most of those outside powers are allies of the United States and direct–I should say indirect U.S. involvement itself, in terms of funding all kinds of Islamic groups to try to overthrow Assad, which widened this war way beyond repression of some kind of civilian unrest or uprising.
PRASHAD: Well, sovereignty is a very complicated idea in the present era. You know, this notion comes to us from the Treaty of Westphalia, the idea that each state must be given its due respect in the world order, and that only the governments of that state should be able to determine the procedures, the policies, et cetera, within that state. In our times, when climate change unites the world, when economic policy impacts countries despite the policies of their own managers, when war spills over across borders, it’s very hard to sustain the argument for a Westphalian type of sovereignty. Today Premier Xi of China spoke again about the importance of state sovereignty.
But if you look at the Syrian conflict the idea of sovereignty was dissolved a very long time ago. I mean, when Mr. Assad decided to globalize the Syrian economy in the 19–in the 2000s, it drew in Turkish capital, which essentially helped displace very large numbers of people from small, productive activities. When the drought hit Syria in 2006, and for the last eight seasons has continued, this is the longest drought that Syria has suffered. That displaced a million people at least from their homes. This is long before the civil conflict begins in 2011.
So the idea of sovereignty of a state I think has slightly been overtaken by the kind of global pressures. The issue is whether you can place the enormity of Syria’s crisis on the head of one man or not. That’s what it comes down to. But the rest is–.
JAY: But hang on. The issue of sovereignty here, there was a–in terms of outside powers interfering in the civil unrest in Syria, I mean, that was an affront to the sovereignty of Syrians, clearly exaggerated the problem there. I mean, there was–there were, if I understand it correctly, relatively peaceful uprisings to begin with. Assad cracked down on them. There would have been a fight between the people that opposed Assad and otherwise. But when the Saudis, the Turks, the Americans and others start pouring money in to fund opposition groups, clearly that’s not an acceptable violation of sovereignty, is it?
PRASHAD: I mean, that itself is a violation of sovereignty. But I’m even making a more general claim, which is that when tens of thousands of Syrian farmers were flocking into Aleppo, into Homs, you know, after 2006, there was no global call for their betterment or for their wellbeing. In fact, they were neglected by everybody. So yes, there’s been a great violation of the sovereignty of the Syrian people by economic policy, by climate, and certainly by foreign intervention of various kinds.
So the idea that Syrian sovereignty is something that has to be maintained, or whatever, is really far from where we are now. There’s been so much intervention in Syria that perhaps it might take a different kind of intervention to help sort out some of the problems.
JAY: Now as you say, President Obama says he’s willing to work with Russia and Iran. But he couldn’t help take a swipe at Russia over Crimea again. It seems, I wonder why he’s still riding the Crimea horse when he actually seems to need Russia in Syria. Here’s a little bit of what Obama said.
OBAMA: That same fidelity to international order guides our responses to other challenges around the world. Consider Russia’s annexation of Crimea, and further aggression in Eastern Ukraine. America has few economic interests in Ukraine. We recognize the deep and complex history between Russia and Ukraine. But we cannot stand by when the sovereignty and territorial integrity of a nation is flagrantly violated. If that happens without consequence in Ukraine it could happen to any nation gathered here today. That’s the basis of the sanctions that the United States and our partners impose on Russia. It’s not a desire to return to a cold war.
JAY: What did you make of that?
PRASHAD: Well firstly, this is the goose and the gander kind of argument. Saudi Arabia, major ally of the United States, is currently bombing Yemen, violating its sovereignty, its territorial integrity, but that didn’t earn any statement from the American president.
I want to say that each head of government is given 15 minutes to speak at the UN General Assembly, and President Obama spoke for half an hour. He spoke for twice what anybody else spoke for. And in that half an hour he attacked not only Russia, actually, but also Iran. One of the more memorable statements was when he said that the chant ‘death to America’ doesn’t create jobs. He laid into both Russia and Iran at the same time as he said he’s going to need them not only in Syria, but also in West Asia and other parts of the world.
So what’s interesting here is it seems like there’s a recognition by Mr. Obama that American power cannot work unilaterally. It will need to have partners to deal with the pressing problems, particularly in West Asia. But at the same time the United States cannot help but behave tempermentally, put out the view that it is the first among equals. You know, it cannot partner with Russia and Iran without at the same time attacking them.
JAY: He even goes further. If the Americans are at all serious about fighting ISIL and this form of terrorism clearly they need Russia’s cooperation. Yet he brags about the effects of the sanctions over Crimea. Here’s a sentence where he seems very happy about the consequences.
OBAMA: Sanctions have led to capital flight. A contracting economy. A fallen Ruble. And the immigration of more educated Russians.
JAY: So he’s actually bragging about destabilizing Russia at the very time he says he wants to cooperate. And frankly he seems to need them, because it does–it’s not, at least if I’m missing something. I don’t think the United States has any ISIL policy at all in Syria.
PRASHAD: No, it doesn’t. I mean, I thought that that was a little crude, the crowing about the effect, the negative effect, of the sanctions on the Russian people. But yes, the United States doesn’t have an ISIS policy at all. Its air war has failed. By the claim of the United States intelligence community, about 30,000 ISIS fighters have entered this year. In other words, more fighters are entering than the United States has been able to kill from the air.
Meanwhile, the Iranians have a plan that they put forward. It’s on the table. The Russians have carried that plan forward to Damascus. The idea that Mr. Assad is going to leave is no longer at the table. I think it’s important to recognize that the Assad government now is nowhere as strong as it was in 2012. In other words, it is a different Mr. Assad that is dealing with Iran and Russia. And the United States has come to recognize that this approach by the Russians and the Iranians might be the only way forward. The difference is about so-called leadership. And this is more about the arrogance of nations than the problem of Syria. I mean, the Russians have proposed that the UN Security Council try to pass a resolution on the fight against ISIS. The Americans would much rather do this by a conference on the side, a go-it-alone kind of strategy.
If only the arrogance of nations could be set aside so that the people of Syria could have their needs put first and foremost. That’s what one would hope from the United Nations, but it’s not likely that that’s what one will get.
JAY: It seems like the, as we’ve said in previous interviews, the only real American policy in Syria so far seems to be in sync with the Israeli policy, which is let the Syrians slaughter each other and see if everyone can come out of it weaker. Of course that means hundreds of thousands of refugees and a destroyed society. But perhaps the best criticism of the American role and policy in Syria actually is President Putin, and here’s what he said Monday morning at the United Nations.
PRESIDENT VLADIMIR PUTIN: Tens of thousands of militants are fighting under the banners of the so-called Islamic State. Its ranks include four more Iraqi servicemen who were thrown out into the street after the invasion of Iraq in 2003. My new recruits also come from Libya, a country whose statehood was destroyed as a result of a gross violation of the UN Security Council Resolution 1973, and now the ranks of radicals have been joined by the members of the so-called moderate opposition supported by the Western countries. First they are armed and trained, and then they defect to the so-called Islamic State. Besides, the Islamic State itself did not just come from nowhere. It was also initially forged as a tool against undesirable, secular regimes.
Having established a foothold in Iraq and Syria, the Islamic State has begun actively expanding into other regions. It is seeking dominance in the Islamic world. And not only there. And its plans go further than that. The situation is more than dangerous. In these circumstances it is hypocritical and irresponsible to make loud declarations about the threat of international terrorism while turning a blind eye to the channels of financing and supporting terrorists, including the process of trafficking and illicit trade in oil and arms. It would be equally irresponsible to try to manipulate extremist groups and place them at one’s service in order to achieve one’s own political goals in the hope of later dealing with them. Or in other words, [liquidating] them.
We believe that any attempts to play games with terrorists, let alone to arm them, are not just shortsighted, but they are hazardous. This may result in the global terrorist threat increasing dramatically and engulfing new regions. We think it is an enormous mistake to refuse to cooperate with the Syrian government and its armed forces who are valiantly fighting terrorism face to face.
We should finally acknowledge that no one but President Assad’s armed forces and the Kurdish militia are truly fighting the Islamic State and other terrorist organizations in Syria.
JAY: So what do you make of Putin’s critique or comment on U.S. policy?
PRASHAD: Well, largely it’s factually correct. I mean, it’s factually correct that the group called ISIS is a product of the Iraq war. The illegal invasion of Iraq. It’s true that the destruction of Libya opened the door there for ISIS to grow. It’s also factually correct that ISIS received funding from at least individual Gulf Arab [states], if not directly from any of the monarchies. It’s also factually correct that there’s been a great deal of collusion across the border between various regional countries, perhaps Turkey, and ISIS.
These things are all correct. He didn’t say that the West’s real campaign, which was to be the death blow of ISIS, has not succeeded at all, and that therefore an alternative approach is needed. And the Russians, of course, are proposing and have put in place an alternative approach which is not directly–is not about directly confronting ISIS. This is something interesting. Their bases are situated at the borderline where the Turkish proxy, the Saudi proxy, et cetera, are operating. In some ways I feel like the Russian intervention into Syria is less about a military strategy immediately against ISIS and more about putting a kind of political pressure on Turkey, Saudi Arabia, and to some extent Qatar, because their proxies they would not like to see come into direct confrontation with the Russian military.
So this is the kind of game that the Russians are playing now in Syria. Whether this will succeed while the American air bombing has failed is to be seen. It’s an open question.
JAY: I mean, part of what Putin’s saying here is, maybe not directly, but that Russia has its own very serious national security interest here. It’s not just about supporting Assad for its own sake. There’s a very large Muslim population in Russia, and certainly in states that border Russia. Former states that were–states that were part of the former Soviet Union. And this is already an issue in these states. And not only that, this idea that he accuses the Americans and the West of using these kind of groups and manipulating them for their own purposes, and then in theory you can liquidate them later. But the idea of using Islamic groups to destabilize Russia is not something new.
PRASHAD: No. That goes back to 1962, to the creation of the World Muslim League, which was backed by the CIA, founded by Morocco, Saudi Arabia, and Pakistan. And indeed the World Muslim League’s, one of its charters was to combat communism in the Muslim lands, the so-called Muslim lands of the Soviet Union, which included Soviet Central Asia, Dagestan, Chechnya, et cetera. And it was this process of the World Muslim League that incubated the groups that would emerge with the fall of the Soviet Union in Uzbekistan, that is the Islamic Movement of Uzbekistan, in Chechnya, and in Dagestan. But some very, very dangerous customers appeared with the fall of the Soviet Union.
That’s certainly a very important piece of what must be motivating Mr. Putin. He said something interesting. He said that, you know, people accuse Russia of having ambitions here. Well, other countries also have ambitions and interests. It’s not merely about worry of the Muslim populations inside and around Russia, but also the Russians have some serious geopolitical interests in Syria. They have a naval base there, one of the few naval bases outside Russia itself. And as well, there’s a sense in Russia that this alliance system that they have must not be allowed to be destroyed.
One of the great tragedies of Syria is that its own social dynamic and social process has been eclipsed by geopolitics. And that cannot be walked back from. You know, however much you want Syrian social processes to triumph, there is no question that they’ve been suffocated by geopolitics. And until the geopolitics are sorted out Syria itself is going to be in stasis.
JAY: Now there’s one part which–I mean, Obama says, and it’s certainly not just him–but the idea that Assad has to stay, and this is Assad’s army, and so on. I mean, there was a real uprising against Assad. There was a genuine revolutionary people’s uprising. Now, the armed struggled seemed to have completely now been taken over by Islamic groups and the undermining of what was a more popular uprising by the Sauds, the Turks, the Americans, and everyone who got involved. All that being said, if one really wanted a broad front of Syrians against ISIL, or ISIS, you would manage the transition of Assad out of there. It’s very difficult to get Syria united in this fight against this kind of extremism as long as he is in power.
PRASHAD: But you know, Syria is a very divided country. And for a considerable size of the population, a considerable section of the population, Mr. Assad is their bonafide leader. And worse than that, actually, if he is removed this section of the population will feel betrayed.
So it’s very hard to manage the transition in Syria. I agree entirely that given the kind of catastrophic years that Syria has witnessed it is perhaps better for the Syrian people to have something of a fresh start. But you know, that’s not going to be easy, because the removal of Assad will be seen as a political blow against that section of the population. And that is not going to be taken lightly. So I think that a soft touch is necessary. I think that this language of Assad must go should disappear. I think that the idea of a unity government is important. I think a process has to be created rather than to mandate an end goal.
And I think the error of the Western approach in Syria has been from the beginning they’ve taken the conclusion or the end goal as the first step. The end goal can never be the first step. It should remain the end goal and the process should be respected.
JAY: Now, the statements we’re hearing from John Kerry and President Obama, objecting to this increased military, Russian military presence in Syria and so on, do you think that’s at all genuine? Or are they just saying that for domestic political opinion, and in fact do they kind of welcome it? We know the two militaries are talking to each other now, American and Russian. As I said earlier, the Americans actually don’t really have any strategy right now. They really do need the Russians. So is that rhetoric kind of just for domestic opinion?
PRASHAD: That rhetoric is I think anachronistic already. On Sunday the armies of Iraq, the political leadership in Iraq, said that they are going to share strategy and intelligence with the Iranians and the Russians. This is a big blow, a political blow to the United States, because in many respects the current government in Iraq was beholden to the United States. But its turn to having open conversations with the Russians I think was quite a shock to Washington, DC. So not only in the question of Syria but in the wider part of West Asia there seems to be a new openness to the Russian entry. More open discussion with the Russians about military strategy.
So I have a feeling that the West will make statements like this for the next few days, maybe a few weeks, and then it will disappear. Already John Kerry has said that the future of Syria–and he used this word, and it’s important–he said is a secular Arab republic. That word secular has come to define–I mean, unfortunately it’s come to define the government of Bashar al-Assad. And I was quite surprised to hear John Kerry use that expression when he was with the Russian foreign minister Lavrov discussing the process in Syria.
JAY: All right. 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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