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Vijay Prashad says the Saudis and Iran must be part of a regional solution that includes ending support for jihadists in Syria

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PAUL JAY, SENIOR EDITOR, TRNN: We’re on the eve of the 13th anniversary of 9/11. That’s 13 years of the so-called war on terror. And what do we have after all of this? Well, the Islamic State controlling a territory in Syria and Iraq around the size of Britain, about 8 million people, capable of barbarism, that is, killing people based on their ethnicity or their religious beliefs.

But let’s put this in some context. Nothing the Islamic State has done comes close to what happened under the Clinton administration with sanctions against Iraq, which killed tens of thousands of children, or the invasion of Iraq under President Bush, which killed perhaps at least a million people, and of course gave rise to the chaos today that gave birth to the Islamic State.

So is it possible, as President Obama gives a speech–and we pretty well know what’s in it. Obama’s going to lead a war against the Islamic State, a coalition of the willing, we’re told. But is it possible that the country that gave rise to all of this [snip] which committed acts of barbarism next to which anything the Islamic State pales. So, can President Obama provide a solution to all of this?

Well, now joining us to give his take on this is Vijay Prashad. Vijay is the George and Martha Kellner Chair in South Asian History and professor of international studies at Trinity College. His most recent book is The Poorer Nations: A Possible History of the Global South.

Thanks for joining us, Vijay.


JAY: Give us a little bit of context, and then we’ll get into what we expect from President Obama and what we would like President Obama to do or perhaps not do. Just quickly, in terms of some of the underlying reasons for the rise of Islamic State, what are they?

PRASHAD: Well, there are at least two very basic and important events that gave rise to the Islamic State. The first, of course, was the United States invasion of Iraq. You know, Iraq had a certain kind of society which did not incubate any al-Qaeda groups or any al-Qaeda force. It wasn’t simply the authoritarianism of Saddam Hussein, but also Iraqi society did not have it at that point, during the 1990s into the 2000s. As Al Qaeda was growing elsewhere, it made no appearance in Iraq.

And so, when the United States destroyed the Iraqi state in 2003, 2004, from Jordan appeared the leader of al-Qaeda of Iraq or of Mesopotamia, Abu Musab al-Zarqawi, and he sets up the first al-Qaeda group in northern Iraq. He draws towards him people who had been cashiered from the Iraqi army, people deeply angry and frustrated by the American occupation. That was the beginning of the Islamic State of Iraq, which would be re-created in that name in 2006. They were largely kept in northern Iraq during the time of the American attack on the insurgency. They were restricted. Mr. Zarqawi himself was killed.

When the civil war broke out in Syria–and this is, of course, the second major event–that civil war allowed chaos to reign in northern Syria, largely because the Syrian army essentially withdrew towards Baghdad, withdrew towards the coastal cities of Western Syria, and left the north a vacuum, where the group the Islamic State of Iraq now entered in great force, setting up their outfit for Syria called Jabhat al-Nusra, which means the support front, and they essentially took northern Syria, particularly the city of Raqqah. Having taken this area, they grew exponentially. They drew in foreign fighters. And gradually, because of their very ruthless tactics and therefore their battlefield successes, they drew in a people who had been either in other Islamist fighting groups in northern Iraq and in Syria, or even–actually, quite alarmingly–from the Free Syrian Army.

And these two processes or these two events, the invasion by the United States of Iraq, and then the chaos in northern Syriac, is actually what produced the Islamic State of Iraq and al-Sham, or Greater Syria.

JAY: And you’ve pointed out in some of your articles another factor is the intensification of exploitation–or some people call it neoliberalism–in these whole areas. While you can have certain elements that come from the intelligentsia and perhaps themselves weren’t poor, a lot of the fighters that are joining in on all this are living in misery.

PRASHAD: Well, let’s take the case Syria, because when Mr. Assad in the last ten years or so began to switch the economy in Syria from a rather controlled economy to a free-market economy, it created a kind of kleptocracy or a group of corrupt families that benefited. You know, this is the classic model of what happens in a country like Syria which precipitously opens up to the market economy. It doesn’t create a free market; it creates a corrupt market. And put this around the same time as a major drought hit parts of Syria and created agricultural distress across very large parts of Syria–so you had the end of support systems for pricing for farmers, and then now they are struck with a drought–the state was not capable of providing them with any relief, and you alienate very large numbers of people.

So the people that I encountered who were fighting and groups like ISIS or Jabhat al-Nusra, etc., most of them have no real ideological commitment to Wahhabism or the takfiri ideology or these very extreme forms of political engagement in the world. They had almost no understanding of this. But they were suddenly angry, they were frustrated, there was no avenue for them, and so they joined up. And despite the fact that they themselves may not have any fealty to these ideas, they certainly fought for them and therefore strengthened the hands of those social forces that want to pursue creating a very suffocating social world in Iraq and Syria.

JAY: Now, we get to see the face of barbarism when we see Islamic State, because they’re very happy to show to everyone. They like showing videos of taking off people’s heads and they don’t mind photographs coming out of people–mass assassinations. When the Americans were conducting the Iraq War, the United States was not very happy about those kinds of images of civilians being slaughtered and being seen by the American public, and they didn’t even want to see American coffins coming home. They tried to keep them off-camera. But, again, after putting that in some context, the people of the region certainly don’t, I would think, majority, do not want to live under the Islamic State any more than the majority of the people of Afghanistan wanted to live under the Taliban. So this is a very complicated problem here. What role do you think–well, first of all, we know Obama’s going to call for a war against the Islamic State, and we know that’s going to essentially be aerial bombings and calling on regional players to send in ground troops. What do you make of that?

PRASHAD: Well, look, it’s very easy to give a speech and say that I’m at war with the Islamic State. The problem comes in the details. I mean, the United States is committed that it is not going to put ground troops into Syria, or indeed large numbers of troops into Iraq. The United States already tried to defeat these forces in the Anbar province region, where the United States’ heavy air bombardment destroyed the cities of Falluja and Ramadi, both cities now under control of the Islamic State. The United States fought a very great battle in the city of Tal Afar, Tal Afar also controlled by the Islamic State. So the United States is not committing to have ground troops.

Now, the problem is, if you’re going to do aerial bombardment from 30,000 feet, you can level a city. What the United States has been doing thus far in Iraq is providing close air support to two principal allies, one the Iraqi Kurdish Peshmerga in the northern part of Iraq, and secondly the Iraqi Army, alongside which, of course, are fighting various militia groups. So they’re providing close air support for these ground forces.

When you come to Syria, who will the United States provide close air support for? You know, it’s not going to provide close air support for the Syrian military. They are engaging the Islamic State in central northern Syria. They are not going to provide close air support for groups like Ahrar ash-Sham, which is the third al-Qaeda-esque organization in Syria and is part of the leading force in the Islamic Front in northern Syria. So they will not get close air support. The United States will not give close air support to the Turkey-based Kurdish Workers’ Party, who had been very successful in fighting the Islamic State in an area which the Syrian Kurds call Rojava. The United States sees the Kurdish Workers’ Party as a terrorist organization. So if these are the three main fighting forces–the Islamic Front, the Syrian government troops, and the Kurdish Workers’ Party (these are the three main fighting forces against the Islamic State)–all three are problematic for the United States. So there is no group actually in Syria to whom the United States military can provide close air support. And this is what’s confounding to me. It is about time for a political solution in Syria that would enable the United States and the broader regional allies to have some unity in the fight against the Islamic State. And that’s precisely what the Obama administration is not going to work towards creating.

JAY: Well, once again it seems like Obama’s trapped by his own rhetoric. I mean, they were able to start talking about kind of a peacemaking deal on the nuclear issue with Iran. They’re talking about some kind of cooperation with Iran fighting IS in Iraq. But it makes no sense to me. If you’re going to make a deal with Iran, then why can’t you make some kind of deal now with Assad, given that’s what Assad was all about was a road to getting at Iran in the first place, except all the rhetoric about Assad, he can’t back off?

PRASHAD: Well, this is the problem. I mean, the United States is trapped. And indeed the West is trapped by the Syria policy. There is no clear exit here. And the exit that was provided last year when UN and Arab League envoy Lakhdar Brahimi suggested a very, basically, detailed road map towards some kind of peace, that was roundly rejected by the West and by the Russians. So, I mean, I think unless there is an de-escalation of rhetoric, unless there’s an understanding of the actual ground realities–you know, it’s very easy for people in Washington, D.C., to say, we’re going to support the moderate Syrian rebels. Well, who are we talking about now? The evidence from the last year has shown that the Free Syrian Army is simply not what it was two years ago.

JAY: But they can give ground support to the Iraqi Army. And at least in Iraq, in theory the Iraqi army would be the troops on the ground and the Kurds will be troops on the ground in northern Iraq. So, I mean, that is what they’re pinning their hopes on, are they not?

PRASHAD: Yes, except, Paul, the problem is that the Islamic State is not a state. You know, it’s misnamed. The Islamic State is a kind of amoeba group. If it’s getting hit hard in Iraq, it’s going to move to Syria. I mean, that’s precisely what it already did after the U.S. bombings of its positions outside Erbil, when the Islamic State fighters were threatening the Iraqi Kurdish enclave. They simply turned around and moved back towards Raqqah and seized the Tabqa airbase, a very important airbase that the Syrian government was holding. So if the United States is providing close air support for the Iraqi theater, that is certainly going to impact upon the Islamic State there. But they will simply swing back into Syria and have Syria be their main theater.

The problem is that it’s in Syria that the United States doesn’t have the politics to provide a proper military backing against the Islamic State. It is very much bombed by what you called the rhetoric of Washington, D.C. [crosstalk]

JAY: Well, here’s an example of that kind of rhetoric. This is a clip from President Obama speaking exactly about their attitude towards IS and Assad. Here’s what he had to say.


BARACK OBAMA, U.S. PRESIDENT: Our attitude towards Assad continues to be that through his actions, through using chemical weapons on his own people, dropping barrel bombs that killed innocent children, that he has forgone legitimacy. But when it comes to our policy and the coalition that we’re putting together, our focus specifically is on ISIL.


JAY: So, I mean, he’s going to maintain the rhetoric. Because of such rhetoric, there’s no way he can overtly work with Assad.

Now, you’ve called, as what you would like to hear President Obama say is that he would support the activization of what was the contact group on Iraq, which was Egypt, Iran, Saudi Arabia, and Turkey, if I remember correctly. Have I missed anybody? And how realistic is that, given the fierce opposition of Saudi Arabia to Iran?

PRASHAD: Well, let’s take both of these sequentially, first the question of de-escalation of rhetoric. It’s not that difficult for Mr. Obama to come before the Western public and say, you know what? Mr. Assad has been gravely weakened. This is not the government that was there up to 2011. This government is substantially weaker than it was. The opposition is also weaker than it was, but it has a place at the table. Syria is under threat of falling into the hands of the Islamic State. It is time now to have a very serious political discussion to create a pathway for these opposition and Syrian government–you know, to come together, to create some modus vivendi, so that a proper solution to the Islamic State problem can be put together. I mean, the Assad regime today is not the same regime it was in 2012. It’s [self-morphed (?)]; it has definitely weakened. And I think this is something that the president could say.

JAY: But the underlying issue of a regional solution, it depends, does it not, that the Saudis have to stop this attempt to keep Iran out of everything, and even–we know the Saudis were–probably even more than the Israelis–trying to egg on the Americans to attack Iran. So are the Saudis more concerned about the Islamic State than they are with Iran? Because I think they’re rather divided, even, on that.

PRASHAD: Well, look, the Saudis also are not homogenous. I mean, there is a debate inside Saudi Arabia about how to deal with this threat. After all, the leader of ISIS, Abu Bakr al-Baghdadi, fashioned himself the caliph, which is a direct ideological assault at the king of Saudi Arabia. He’s said essentially that the king of Saudi Arabia may be the custodian of the two mosques, but I’m the caliph. And that’s a direct finger in the eye of the king. So, inside Saudi Arabia there is some debate and deliberation. At the same time, the Saudis are having a serious problem, and have had over the last year, with the emir of Qatar, even the new emir of Qatar.

So there are contradictions within the Arabian powers which–I mean, I would say this is where the West is not playing a good game. You have to enter into those contradictions, utilize these countries against each other. It is important to remember that in 2012, when President Morsi of Egypt, the then president, called for the Syrian contact group, he was able to get an assurance from Saudi Arabia, Iran, and Turkey to sit at the same table with Egypt. And they did have several meetings. Now, they were sidelined not because of the Saudi Iranian tensions; they were sidelined because the Americans and Russians essentially said, you have no role to play in the Syrian debate; we are going to have our own meeting in Madrid; goodbye; you are irrelevant. If at the point of 2012 the Americans and the Russians had taken this seriously and had incubated it and had given space for this dialog, I think we’d be in a different place today. So it’s not that this is a utopian idea or an absurd idea. I think that there are people in Saudi Arabia today that would very much like to de-escalate the situation, because they see it as a serious threat.

JAY: And finally, Vijay, what attitude do you think Americans should take towards President Obama’s proposal, which essentially is going to be to try to bomb the hell out of IS and hope some other countries submit ground troops? But should people support Obama’s policy?

PRASHAD: Well, I mean, again, it’s too vague, and in Syria itself it’s going to be catastrophic, because you can’t bomb a group like the Islamic State of Iraq and al-Shams without ground troops that you are bombing alongside, meaning giving close air support. If you are just going to level the city of Raqqah, you’re going to create a great deal of sympathy for the IS among the people of northern Syria. And so American should have realized that razing cities does not solve conflicts. It produces and reproduces conflict. So unless there’s clarity about the politics in Syria, this can end up being a very serious disaster.

JAY: Alright. Thanks for joining us, Vijay.

PRASHAD: Thank you.

JAY: And thank you for joining us on The Real News Network.


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Vijay Prashad is an Indian historian, editor, and journalist. He is a writing fellow and chief correspondent at Globetrotter. He is an editor of LeftWord Books and the director of Tricontinental: Institute for Social Research. He is a senior non-resident fellow at Chongyang Institute for Financial Studies, Renmin University of China. He has written more than 20 books, including The Darker Nations and The Poorer Nations. His latest books are Struggle Makes Us Human: Learning from Movements for Socialism and (with Noam Chomsky) The Withdrawal: Iraq, Libya, Afghanistan, and the Fragility of U.S. Power.