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Vijay Prashad: If the West is serious about tackling ISIS it must lessen the chaos within Syria and seek a political solution

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SHARMINI PERIES, TRNN PRODUCER: This is The Real News Network. I’m Sharmini Peries, coming to you from Baltimore. Welcome to this edition of the Vijay Prashad report.

In President Obama’s speech last week on ISIL, he said he is seeking a coalition to eliminate the IS. If there will be any boots on the ground, he said, it will be local boots. But this week, General Dempsey, chairperson of the Joint Chiefs of Staff, said that if the coalition against ISIS fails, he will be urging President Obama to send U.S. ground forces. Much of the success of the coalition will be based on what happens in Syria.

Now here to talk about the Syrian dilemma is Vijay Prashad. Vijay is the George and Martha Kellner Chair in South Asian History and professor of international studies at Trinity College. He is the author of The Poorer Nations: A Possible History of the Global South.

Thank you so much for joining us again, Vijay.


PERIES: Vijay, you have traveled extensively in the region. Recently you wrote an article in The Hindu you called President Obama’s Syrian dilemma. So could you tell us: will the coalition succeed?

PRASHAD: Well, to be fair to President Obama, he has a very difficult task before him. The easier task is in Iraq. And what General Dempsey was talking about, in other words, sending some ground forces to help the ground forces that are already there, that is, the Iraqi forces, he was really talking about Iraq. If you listen carefully, he was not directly saying that U.S. troops, even in the medium or long term, would be entering Syria.

The question of Iraq is much simpler. The government in Iraq is largely beholden to the United States. The northern Iraqi enclave of Iraqi Kurdistan is entirely–you know, has a kind of client relationship to the United States. They will directly welcome American troops to come. They’ve already welcomed advisers. So there are already American troops in Iraq.

The question of Iraq is a very straightforward and simple question. The United States has conducted over 150 aerial operations already in Iraq last month. So Iraq is one side of the story. I don’t think that should pose too great a complication in terms of foreign policy and international law. The problem for President Obama is that this group, the Islamic State, is not a group that is fighting within the country. It is straddling a very large terrain across two sovereign countries. So if in Iraq the situation is straightforward, in Syria the situation is very complicated, pretty much because the United States has political entanglements that don’t allow for the kind of reasonable clarity that you have in Iraq. And that’s where the dilemma is going to seriously strike Mr. Obama, both in terms of the on-the-ground political problems and issues of international law. I mean, it’s important to remember that Syria is still a member of the United Nations. There is a UN resolution that forbids member states from assisting foreign fighters entering Syria. But the way that UN resolution is written, which the United States is a party to, it would mean that U.S. troops are also not permitted by that UN resolution to enter into Syria. So, as I say, in Syria, the political question and the question of international law is much more, infinitely more complex than in Iraq, where things are simpler.

PERIES: Vijay, in your article in The Hindu on President Obama’s Syrian dilemma, you really outline the complications that the coalition will face in Syria in particular. Can you highlight and map for us that complication?

PRASHAD: Well, the map is easiest when we talk about two of the more coherent entities. And these are interesting, because neither of these entities, that is, the most coherent entities, will get U.S. support. The group that has been actually fighting against the Islamic State over the last two years–with some success particularly in defending his territory, has been the group the YPG, which is the Syrian-Kurdish group whose location is largely in northeastern Syria. The YPG is set up by the Kurdish Workers’ Party, the PKK, which is a Turkish-based political party. Now, the problem for the United States with the PKK and the YPG is that these organizations are considered by the Turkish government, a NATO ally, as terrorist organizations. And the United States also considers the PKK a terrorist organization. That means that actually the fighting force on the ground with the best record of tackling the Islamic State is considered by the United States government to be a terrorist organization and therefore cannot be part of the great coalition that the United States is creating.

The second coherent force on the ground fighting the IS, the Islamic State, is the Syrian Armed Forces. Now, the problem here, of course, is that the Obama administration and much of the Western powers and the Gulf Arab allies continue to prosecute a war against Mr. Assad. In other words, they continue to suggest that Mr. Assad has no legitimacy and that his regime must fall. This means that they cannot coordinate with the second most coherent force on the ground. And Mr. Assad is not going to enter and engage the Islamic State in northern Syria, because he is protecting his heartland in southern and western Syria against rebels who are supported by the Gulf Arabs and the West.

That means that the two most coherent political and military forces tackling the Islamic state are actually not going to be part of the Western coalition.

The third group, actually a group which is very hard to categorize–broadly put, these would be the Islamists. And they are the ones who have also been fighting the Islamic State. It’s curious. Some of these groups are equal to if not more barbarous than the Islamic State, but they have a much different agenda. They’re not willing, for instance, to behead Westerners or to conduct their atrocities in full light of YouTube. So one of the major groups on the ground that is an Islamist group is a group financed and pushed by Saudi Arabia called /dʒɛsəl/ Islam. /dʒɛsəl/ Islam is interesting ’cause they have a proven record of conducting human rights atrocities against minorities in Syria. Syria is an interesting country. About 40 percent of its population are Alawites, various kinds of Shiites, Isma’ilis, Druze, Christians, etc. So about 40 percent of the population. There are many instances where Islam has targeted these minority groups. So when the United States decides that Saudi Arabia is going to carry the bucket to create a moderate fighting force, thus far the historical evidence shows that the group that the Saudis have produced in Syria is worse if not equal to the Islamic State in its brutality. So the Islamists, among whom the United States is going to seek allies, among them is a group that is the official al-Qaeda, which is Jabhat al-Nusra. As I say, it’s a very peculiar political position for the Obama administration. The two fiercest fighting forces that could tackle the Islamic State are off the table, that is, the Kurdish groups and the Syrian government. And the groups among whom the United States is going to try to create a moderate opposition have a great deal to be desired about their own politics. The Free Syrian Army is a shell of what it used to be, and many of its most committed fighters have moved over to one or the other of the Islamist groups, for very good reason, because at least they’ve been making territorial gains.

PERIES: So the Free Syrian Army is the greatest ally of the United States, and you say that they have been weakened. And yet it appears that President Assad actually has a great deal of legitimate support, as Omar Dahi puts it, legitimate support within Syria. Does it make sense for the United States, if the objective is to get rid of ISIL, does it make sense for them to leave Assad out of the picture?

PRASHAD: Well, you know, it’s a very interesting question. There’s no question that the Assad regime has legitimacy among a certain section, but not in another section. I mean, the matter that I think we should consider is that there is certainly a depletion of support for Mr. Assad among the majority Sunni population. This is become largely sectarian in terms of the support base that he has. I would like people to consider that given the record of groups like /dʒɛsəl/ Islam, where they’ve actually targeted the Alawite population for extermination, why would 40 percent of the Syrian public not want to support or stand behind Mr. Assad, despite the history of the regime’s own brutalities and use of prisons, etc.? In other words, there is a support base for the Assad government, whether you experience that firsthand or if you just think about it logically. I have experienced it firsthand. I’ve seen directly communities that seem legitimately very happy to have had their villages taken back by the Syrian government forces. In other words, there is a fractured mandate inside Syria. I think this needs to be considered. The problem is the West is unwilling to recognize that there’s a fractured mandate. They’re unwilling to recognize that a political solution is necessary. This political solution has been on the table for over a year. The previous UN and Arab League envoy, Mr. Lakhdar Brahimi, at several points said that there is sufficient ground to start working toward some kind of settlement. We cannot have a settlement, on the other hand, as long as the Saudis, the Qataris, and others continue to finance the militias inside Syria and you continue to see atrocities on both sides. So a political process is necessary. If the West is serious about tackling the Islamic State, it has to lessen the chaos in Syria. Chaos is what gives the Islamic State the ability to grow. And the kind of policies that I’ve been seeing out of the Obama administration, I’m afraid they are going to increase the level of chaos and therefore increase the host climate for the Islamic state. What needs to happen is the policies that create chaos need to be lessened. That is simply not there on the table in Washington, D.C.

PERIES: And is there more support within the region for a political solution to this?

PRASHAD: Well, there isn’t. And this brings us to the great elephant in the room, which is the political battle between Saudi Arabia and Iran. Saudi Arabia and Iran have been running a Cold War since 1979, and this Cold War has catastrophic effects for the peoples of the Arab lands. We have come to a point where a grand bargain between Riyadh and Tehran is essential. They have a serious disagreement over the question of Iran’s nuclear program. They have a serious disagreement over the question of Iran’s political influence in the region, etc. There’s been a mini battle between Saudi Arabia and Qatar, again, over the questions of influence, that Qatar has been sponsoring the Muslim Brotherhood across North Africa and in West Asia. And the Muslim brotherhood is a group that Saudis used to tolerate but no longer see as a legitimate independent political force in the region. It might get too strong and outside Saudi control. So there is a mini Cold War between Saudi Arabia and Qatar. But the greater problem is between Saudi Arabia and Tehran, and until that political disagreement is cooled down a little bit, I don’t think it’s going to be easy for the West or anybody else to come and settle things.

PERIES: Vijay, thank you so much for walking us through this very complicated situation in Iraq and Syria.

PRASHAD: Thanks.

PERIES: And thank you for joining us 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.