Vijay Prashad: US airstrikes are working strategically, but alone will not turn the tide against the Islamic State
JAISAL NOOR, TRNN PRODUCER: Welcome to The Real News Network. I’m Jaisal Noor in Baltimore. And welcome to this latest edition of the The Prashad Report.
We’re now joined by Vijay Prashad. He’s joining us from Northampton, Massachusetts. He is the author of, most recently, The Poorer Nations: A Possible History of the Global South.
Thank you so much for joining us, Vijay.
VIJAY PRASHAD, PROF. INTERNATIONAL STUDIES, TRINITY COLLEGE: Pleasure.
NOOR: So, Vijay, we did what turned out to be a very popular interview last week about why U.S. airstrikes were not going to be enough to defeat this Islamic State, which is taking grip of a large portion of Iraq and Syria and the region. It seems like the U.S. has not taken your advice. They’ve escalated airstrikes. They’ve even gotten the pope’s limited blessing. What’s your response about the latest situation? There’s been a lot of talk in the media about the largest dam in Iraq and how the U.S. has helped the Iraqi and Kurdish forces regain control of it.
PRASHAD: Well, the Mosul dam is a very important symbol, because it’s, firstly, the major power producer from northern Iraq. Secondly, it has an enormous reservoir. So if at any point the Islamic State had decided to open the gates, the water would have flooded substantial parts of northern Iraq. It would have threatened the livelihood and lives of millions of people. So it’s a very good sign that the Peshmerga today have taken back the Mosul dam. It has been–this struggle has been going on for four or five days. It has been very hard to get confirmation about what’s been happening at the dam. At one point, the Islamic State fled the dam but then booby-trapped the entryways, leaving landmines and booby-trapped cars. And today it seems the Peshmerga have now said that they have control over the dam.
What is important to understand about the U.S. airstrikes is of course the airstrikes are going to have a tactical advantage to whoever’s on the ground fighting alongside those airstrikes. The airstrikes do deteriorate any large convoys of the Islamic State. They will deteriorate its artillery.
But the airstrikes cannot ultimately defeat the Islamic State. I mean, this lesson has to have been learned by United States war planners after the experience of Afghanistan, after the experience of Libya, and after the experience of Iraq during the battle of Falluja and Ramadi. From the sky you can bomb these places, but you can’t actually contain and slow down the progress of these forces on the ground. You have to fight them on the ground. You have to break their morale. You have to get very large numbers of them to not believe any longer in their cause. And airstrikes don’t do that. Airstrikes are not capable of doing that.
What has been capable of doing just that, at least in Syria, and now beginning in Iraq, is the ground forces of the various Kurdish political parties–the Peshmerga only recently, but before that it was the YPG from Syria and the PKK from Turkey. They have had actual tangible results fighting against the Islamic State, not over the last several weeks, or not even the last ten days, but the last two years. The YPG was set up by the PKK to defend the area of eastern Syria called Rojava, which is essentially a little state of Syrian Kurds, and now increasingly filled with PKK fighters who’ve crossed the border from Turkey into Syria. And they have been battling the Islamic State–previously it was the Islamic State of Iraq and the Levant. They’ve been battling them for two years. So they have ground experience. They understand how to break the morale of the Islamic State in their area.
Aerial strikes are useful tactically, but you cannot base a strategy on use of aerial strikes. And so, therefore, yes, it will have an immediate impact, but is not going to help turn the tide fully against the Islamic State.
NOOR: And what are the broader implications of the U.S. being on the same side now, fighting alongside, being allied with groups like the PKK who have an adversarial relationship with the government of Turkey?
PRASHAD: Well, it’s a strange thing that the United States notified the Workers’ Party of Kurdistan, the PKK, and its militia as a terrorist organization. They essentially did it under pressure from Turkey, which is a NATO state. And until recently, Turkey used to consider the PKK the most important threat to the integrity of the Turkish Republic. Right now, the leader of the PKK is serving a life sentence in İmralı Island off the coast of Turkey. And there’s been a so-called İmralı process where Mr. Abdullah Öcalan, the head of the PKK, has been communicating with the newly elected president, Mr. Erdoğan. Erdoğan is interested in constitutional reforms inside Turkey, and he will require, because he falls short of an absolute majority, his party will require the members of parliament who are associated with the PKK. And therefore this so-called İmralı dialogue has had Mr. Öcalan negotiate with Erdoğan.
And recently, Mr. Öcalan wrote a letter to the head of the Iraqi Kurdish enclave, Mr. Talabani. We don’t know the exact contents of the letter, but apparently the letter has suggested once again the creation of Mr. Öcalan’s very strange idea of a stateless confederacy of the Kurdish people. He’s asked his PKK fighters to withdraw into Syria, where the Assad regime essentially has de facto allowed a Kurdish enclave to be created. So it’s a very messy, bizarre political alignment.
Likely the United States will denotify the PKK as a terrorist organization because the Turks are making a kind of peace agreement with them, and then one will see the assertion of Kurdish national rights come out full-blown. I mean, right now the Iraqi Kurds have committed themselves to the Iraq Constitution. They’ve had a lot of problems with the government of Baghdad, including a major long-term complaint that the government of Baghdad has refused to properly finance the Peshmerga, which is why it was weak, unable to take on the Islamic State. Now, with the change of government in Baghdad, the Kurds have said that they will join the government, they will help form the government. But there’s always the threat that this confederation of Kurds which might one day become an independent type autonomous republic of Kurdistan–you know, that’s always hanging like a sword over the head of Baghdad.
So one doesn’t know that–for the United States, the options are very, very complicated. I don’t envy the people in Washington, D.C. On the other hand, on the ground it is perfectly clear that it’s the Kurdish fighters that are having the most effective response to break the morale of the Islamic State. Nobody else has been able to take them on like these Kurdish militias.
NOOR: And we talked about this last week as well, but ultimately what role will Syria play in the resolution or the ultimate defeat of the Islamic State?
PRASHAD: You know, one of the least-discussed elements is how right through the Arab Spring, right through the turmoil in Egypt, right through the civil war in Syria, the militaries of Iraq, Syria, Egypt, etc., these big militaries, they have had a liaison. They’ve been in very close communication. So right through the point when the Syrian state was under attack from various sides, they were in communication with the Iraqis. And when the difficulty arose for Baghdad, Syrian Air Force went and bombed ISIL, the Islamic State logistical route between Raqqah and towards Iraq.
So the Syrian army now has started taking on the Islamic State. For a very long period, the Syrian army essentially withdrew from northern Syria, fought to retain control of its link between Damascus and the coastline, Latakia, and the big cities on the coast. They’ve fought to maintain the integrity of that corridor. Now that that corridor is relatively secure, they have started taking at least aerial action against the Islamic State near their big base, which is the city of Raqqah. So we’re going to see a much more aggressive Syria dealing with the Islamic State.
The problem, of course, is that very few of the regional actors have decided to reassess their understanding of the civil war. So just as they will have a tacit collaboration with Syria as it starts to bomb the Islamic State, they’re not going to cut Syria any slack when it comes to its own internal problems. And I think that is going to, in a sense, hamstring some of the reaction to the Islamic State. It’s about time that the region had a reassessment of what’s happening in Syria.
The Assad regime is definitely not some democratic regime. On the other hand, it’s not clear that this is the moment to allow another major state in the Middle East after Iraq, after Libya, a third major state essentially collapse and be destroyed. The chaos that the region will face if all three states are allowed to completely wither is unimaginable.
NOOR: Vijay Prashad, thank you so much for joining us.
PRASHAD: Thank you.
NOOR: And thank you for joining us on The Real News Network.