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Intense bombing by the Syrian government, in alliance with Russia, has killed large numbers of civilians in Eastern Ghouta, which the Syrian government has besieged for years. But differing media accounts make it hard to decipher what’s really happening, says Col. Larry Wilkerson

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SHARMINI PERIES: It’s The Real News Network. I’m Sharmini Peries coming to you from Baltimore. The war in Syria intensified earlier this month when the Syrian government launched an offensive to retake Eastern Ghouta, a suburb of the capital Damascus. For years now, the Eastern Ghouta has been under the control of extremist Salafi jihadist rebels. The most powerful rebel group in the area is Jaysh al-Islam, which is a Saudi-backed extremist militia that is notorious for attacking civilians and putting women and children from Alawite religious minority in cages.
Intense bombing by the Syrian government in alliance with Russia has killed large numbers of civilians in Eastern Ghouta, which the Syrian government has besieged for years. Extremist rebels have also indiscriminately attacked civilian areas in Damascus killing civilians in government held areas. Hundreds and thousands of Syrians are caught in the middle of brutal battle. The UN Security Council unanimously passed a resolution calling for a 30-day ceasefire. Russia subsequently ordered daily five hour military pauses in Eastern Ghouta.
Joining us now to discuss the developments in Syria is Larry Wilkerson. Larry is former chief of staff for Secretary of State Colin Powell and now distinguished professor at the College of William and Mary. Thanks for joining us today, Larry.
LARRY WILKERSON: Thanks for having me, Sharmini.
SHARMINI PERIES: So Larry, what is going on in the Eastern Ghouta? And has the media’s reporting of all of this been fair as we have heard from mainstream networks?
LARRY WILKERSON: Sharmini, to be truthful, I don’t know and I’m not being flip. I have become so distrustful particularly of the Western media in its reporting on Syria and so distrustful of other media that I once found fairly balanced from the region that I don’t know what’s going on anymore. I can tell you this, I think it’s quite clear that regardless of what’s going on in terms of who’s doing what to whom that a lot of the civil war tragedy has returned.
In saying that, I see the only way to put an abrupt stop to this, to actually come to some kind of political solution, which we’ve needed all along. And I have to say the Russians and the United States have been trying to bring about, us rather incompetently, the Russians a little too timidly, is probably to come to some kind of agreement. Get off that deconfliction line, well, it’s working, so don’t get off of it, but get on a more serious line. That is to say, let’s talk with Moscow. Let’s seriously talk with Moscow and let’s discuss how we might bring enough pressure on Assad and ultimately on Iran, Hezbollah, also on Israel and other parties, Turkey, that are involved in this but principally on Assad and the parties that are contesting his being able to reclaim sovereignty over his state and get them to stop.
I don’t see any other way to do it. If you stand back, if you’re Russia and the United States, and let’s say it’s true that Assad is inflicting most of these casualties. And I tend to think that maybe it is him because I think back to when his father, Hafez al-Assad, literally eliminated a Syrian city, he was so ruthless and brutal in his attempt to reestablish control. I see some of that looking like what Bashar al-Assad, his son, is doing now. If it is them, then Russia needs to bring maximum power to bear on Assad and indirectly on Iran, if Iran is doing anything to give Assad the green light on this.
So, you’ve got to get the two principal powers in this, Russia and the United States, wielding some concerted, formidable pressure on Damascus and on the other entities in this. Saudi Arabia is playing in this like they play in everything. They’re funding some of the groups that are opposed to Assad. They recently, I think, decided to up the ante a bit because they saw another opportunity to contest Assad. The Saudis do not want to leave Syria as it were without Assad having been toppled. To a certain extent, you can say Erdoğan is kind of thinking that way now, too, especially since Assad sort of more or less gave his regular military permission to go after the Turks.
So, back up to the main point. If Russia and the United States can’t talk to each other in a civil way, and in this common interest area, bring some stop to what’s going on in Syria, then I don’t see any stop to it. I see it just going on and on. And Assad is not going to win in the sense that he has full sovereignty in Syria and Saudi Arabia and the others aren’t going to win in the sense that they unseat Assad. So, this is a recipe for this war to go on and on indefinitely.
SHARMINI PERIES: Now, because of the misreporting, it is really difficult to understand who’s who and what the actual positions of some of the organizations are on the ground that are fighting. Now, can you talk about who the rebels are? Corporate media reports nearly always when they report, they refer to them as militants, simply as rebels without mentioning that they are extremist Salafi jihadists who, as mainstream human rights organizations have documented, are committing horrific crimes against the local population. Now, it’s hard to decipher what’s what. Can you try to explain?
LARRY WILKERSON: I’m not sure you can, Sharmini. I think that’s part of the problem. You have elements that are no better than and perhaps even worse than certain elements within al-Qaeda proper and within ISIS proper. And you have remnants, of course, of al-Qaeda running around and you do have proper al-Qaeda elements running around.
You also have people that claim to be Thomas Jeffersons of Syria. You have people who are in the YPG, for example, who are in it not just for what they might do for their own situation but are apparently at odds with other Kurdish groups, whether they be in southeastern Turkey or they be in Iraq, Iran or Syria.
You also have groups that the CIA was funding who are nebulous as heck. I don’t know what they are. You also have groups that are working for Russia that are private contractors. You saw some of that in the recent blowup between US forces and ostensibly Russian forces, which Moscow disavows, where we killed 100 or so of those, “Russian forces.”
If you’ve tried to sort out the pieces on the ground in Syria, that’s one of the most difficult things to do. We actually had an occasion where US CIA backed forces and US military backed forces were shooting at each other. And I’m told by people whom I respect and trust that you actually had those working for the CIA possibly with CIA in hand and those working for the US military possibly with US advisors in hand shooting at each other.
So, this is such a complex situation, and that’s why I come back to the power in the region being Russia on the one hand, United States possibly on the other, although at this point we haven’t tried to exert that power in any sort of extraordinary way and I’m not recommending that. I’m just saying that Russia and the United States need to come to some understanding as to how much pressure they’re going to bring on the different proxies, and this includes Saudi Arabia. We need to talk to Riyadh and tell them, “Get the hell out and stop funding these elements.”
Let us sort this out, and let Assad at least for an interim period remain in charge of the sovereign state that he was in charge of, and let’s work this out in terms of the killing and the death and the atrocities. Let’s stop them as much as we can. Let’s eradicate and we’re well on the way to that, the more terroristic elements there, foremost amongst which are ISIS and al-Qaeda. Let’s drive them out or drive them underground, whatever’s possible. And let’s basically come to an understanding on how Syria is going to be peaceful, reasonably prosperous and less full of death and destruction in the future.
I don’t know why this is so hard, except that, as I said, there are so many players, and they’re all playing off false sheets of music about half the time if not more. And I put at the pinnacle of that group the Saudis.
SHARMINI PERIES: Larry, anti-government activists and extremists, at least territory held by the extremists in Eastern Ghouta, has claimed that Syrian government used chemical weapons. Now, this is a story that is getting reported on again and again and again by the international media, but defense secretary himself, James Mattis, acknowledged in a press conference earlier this month that the US had no evidence to confirm these previous accusations the Syrian government used sarin gas.* What’s your take on all this?
LARRY WILKERSON: I think it’s a extremely complex situation, as I said before. I don’t see any reason for Bashar al-Assad or any of his formal military forces to be using chemical weapons. Furthermore, I know that the United States Army supervised the destruction of over 600 metric tons of those weapons. So, even though he might’ve held a little bit back, I don’t think he’d be using the kinds of chemicals that I’m hearing reputable reporting on, intelligence channels reporting, that are being used.
They’re low-grade stuff. They’re lousy stuff. They kill people, they hurt, but they’re not the kind of military grade chemical weapons that Assad had plenty of before. More likely, they’re the kinds of low grade chemical weapons that these various groups I described to you from al-Qaeda to ISIS would be using. And then through their very sophisticated propaganda mechanisms, funded often by the Saudis, let me hasten to add that, they tell the world and the media, who are very loath to go out and do any real investigating, that it was all Assad.
So, you’ve got my considered opinion there that Assad could be using chemical weapons, but I could find absolutely no rationale, no strategic reason for him to be doing so. His hard power backed up by Iran and by Russian air power is perfectly sufficient to do all the damage he needs to do. So, why the heck would he be using chemical weapons? But I can certainly see why some of those groups would be using chemical weapons and trying to blame it on him because they’re still trying to get the power of the United States to bear on Bashar al-Assad. And they’re looking for those kinds of provocations in order to do so.
SHARMINI PERIES: And pro-Assad forces are saying that there’s a double standard, especially when it comes to the US media. Thousands of civilians were killed by US airstrikes in the campaign to retake major Iraqi cities such as Mosul from ISIS last year, but intelligence reports said that more than 40,000 civilians were killed in the battle. Why was the media so quiet on those civilian casualties? And why is there such a double standards on the casualties caused by the US airstrikes on civilians?
LARRY WILKERSON: Sharmini, I want to say, why would you ask me that question? There’s always a corporate owned media blackout on anything the great United States does with its military that is as brutal and bloody as anybody else in the world, as opposed to what’s exposed about all the “bloody-minded dictators in the world.” It’s just the way the world works. When you own the power, you own the press. When you own what is arguably the greatest media capacity in the world, then you’re going to get your message out and you’re going to contort or distort the message of whomever you’re fighting.
So, it’s clear that it’s worse than it’s been perhaps since the Hearst press and the Spanish American War when the Hearst press, the so-called yellow press exploited everything from the sinking of the Maine to you name it if it had to do with Spain or Spanish acquisitions and got us into the Spanish-American War. It’s bad but it’s understandable from the point of view that I’m describing it.
We don’t have any unbiased media today, Sharmini, except things like maybe The Real News and some of the internet channels like it. What we have is a corporately owned media that reports basically what the government tells it to report, what keeps its ratings such as they are, they aren’t that powerful these days, up and makes money for it. It’s as much a part of the wholly owned subsidiary complex in America by the warmongering powers that be as anything else, including the United States Congress.
I mean, I’ve been on the Hill and will be on the Hill again trying to talk the United States Congress into following its constitutional responsibility to stop the US support for the Saudi UAE brutal war in Yemen. And you would be amazed at some of the responses I get from senators and representatives. They’re not even interested in the fact that Congress owns the war power, that this is an illegal war, that it’s a brutal war, that it’s a huge humanitarian disaster, that thousands of women and children are dying from cholera, from starvation, from bombs dropping on their heads, bombs made by Raytheon, bombs made by US military contractors. It’s absurd.
But you asked me a question about the media. Sharmini, I don’t even read the New York Times or the Washington Post or any of those rags anymore. I get my news where I can and when I can, and most often it’s from foreign newspapers like the London Financial Times to Le Monde in France, Al Jazeera network and so forth, rather than going to the US media because I get a fairer, more balanced picture, especially of our own foreign policy, from those outlets than I do from US ones.
SHARMINI PERIES: All right, Larry. I thank you for doing the answer because I feel that you’ve been witness to the discrepancy of what is actually going on and what is being reported in the media as you have so well articulated here. So, I thank you for answering it, and I thank you for joining us.
LARRY WILKERSON: Thanks for having me. Take care.
SHARMINI PERIES: And thank you for joining us here on The Real News Network.

* Editor’s note: Mattis was referring to recent claims of chemical weapons use, not previous alleged instances in 2017 and 2013.

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Distinguished Adjunct Professor of Government and Public Policy

Lawrence Wilkerson's last positions in government were as Secretary of State Colin Powell's Chief of Staff (2002-05), Associate Director of the State Department's Policy Planning staff under the directorship of Ambassador Richard N. Haass, and member of that staff responsible for East Asia and the Pacific, political-military and legislative affairs (2001-02). Before serving at the State Department, Wilkerson served 31 years in the U.S. Army. During that time, he was a member of the faculty of the U.S. Naval War College (1987 to 1989), Special Assistant to General Powell when he was Chairman of the Joint Chiefs of Staff (1989-93), and Director and Deputy Director of the U.S. Marine Corps War College at Quantico, Virginia (1993-97). Wilkerson retired from active service in 1997 as a colonel, and began work as an advisor to General Powell. He has also taught national security affairs in the Honors Program at the George Washington University. He is currently working on a book about the first George W. Bush administration.