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As Benjamin Netanyahu threatens war, Col. Lawrence Wilkerson says that in targeting Iran, the U.S. and Israel are threatening wider conflict in Syria and Lebanon

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AARON MATÉ: It’s the Real News, I’m Aaron Maté. At the Munich Security Conference in Germany, a war of words broke out between Israel and Iran. It included from Israeli Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu, the threat of war on Iran.
BENJAMIN NETANYAHU: Israel will not allow Iran’s regime to put a noose of terror around our neck. We will act without hesitation to defend ourselves and we will act if necessary not just against the Iran’s proxies that are attacking us, but against Iran itself.
AARON MATÉ: Netanyahu went on to hold up a piece of an Iranian drone that Israel shot down near its border with Syria last week.
BENJAMIN NETANYAHU: Iran also denies that it committed an act of aggression against Israel last week, that it sent a drone into our airspace to threaten our people. Well, here’s the piece of that Iranian drone or what’s left of it after we shot it down. I brought it here so you can see for yourself. Mr. Zarif, do you recognize this? You should, it’s yours. You can take back with you a message to the tyrants of Tehran do not test Israel’s resolve.
AARON MATÉ: Iranian Foreign Minister Zarif later took the podium and said, “Netanyahu who was unworthy of a response.”
MOHAMMAD ZARIF: You were the audience for a cartoonish circus just this morning, which does not even deserve a dignity of a response. So, let’s move to more serious subjects.
AARON MATÉ: The spat on display in Munich coincides with the Trump administration’s ongoing hostility towards Iran. Something that my next guest warns could be a prelude to war. Colonel Lawrence Wilkerson is the former Chief of Staff to Secretary of State Colin Powell. Currently, a distinguished professor at the College of William and Mary. Colonel, what did you make first of Netanyahu’s comments punctuated with that fragment of a drone that he brought to Munich?
LARRY WILKERSON: There seems to be sort of a standard operating procedure today to hold up a piece of metal, whether it’s Nikki Haley at DIA Headquarters at Bolling Air Force Base holding up a piece, supposedly, of a Houthi missile that was shot in Saudi Arabia supplied of course by that nefarious entity, Iran. Or it’s Colin Powell holding up a supposed vial of anthrax at the UN in February 2003 proving Iraq’s possession of WMD, or it’s Netanyahu at the Munich Security Conference. It’s a nice trick but nobody knows the provenance of that metal and, in fact, I don’t know the provenance of the drone that Israel apparently did shoot down. I know the provenance of the F-16 that Israel lost to air defenses in Syria, the first in some 30 years.
This has become a show for the crowd, a show for the circus. As Zarif aptly said in his remark, “It’s not serious diplomacy, it’s not serious security or foreign policy.” It’s very disturbing that these people believe, and apparently with some reason, that they can appeal to the more or less apathetic ignorant publics in which they’re addressing their remarks with these kinds of demonstrations. It reminds me of a Roman emperor in the coliseum, right before the Christians were thrown to the tigers or the lions trying to rouse the people to their righteous anger. It’s really quite stupid, even more so, it’s very dangerous.
AARON MATÉ: Were you surprised at the fall out from that flare up last week involving Iran, Syria and Israel after the Iranian drone was or the supposed Iranian drone was shot down? Israel also launched attacks on Syria destroying a substantial part of its air defenses. But then the flare up quickly died down including an intervention from Vladimir Putin who spoke to Netanyahu personally and who apparently helped deescalate the situation. What do you think was going on there?
LARRY WILKERSON: I think you put your finger on something there. What was going on was this tit for tat that all the regional powers are doing now. Let’s just back up for a second and say why. First, the United States destroyed the balance of power in the Gulf with its catastrophic invasion of Iraq in 2003. That destruction of the balance of power has now set Persian against Arab, Turk against Kurd, Kurd against you name it, as long as it can seem to survive, and all manner of terrorist groups and terrorist like groups at each other’s necks and at governments’ necks. This is what the United States’ invasion of Iraq did in 2003. Besides the destabilizing Iraq and producing ISIS, as Abu Musab al-Zarqawi took the opportunistic moment to recruit the disgruntled Sunnis in Iraq and sent them to join the disparate elements in Syria opposing Assad as Sunni money, primarily from Saudi Arabia poured in to fund that effort and as ISIS attempted to do what it did. This is all a byproduct of the United States’ invasion of Iraq in 2003.
With that said, using that disruption of the balance of power in the region, which we had very carefully maintained for over four decades, Russia and other players, but Russia principally has taken advantage to become a replacement for the United States in the region. It is Russia’s good offices. It is Russia’s military power, legitimate military power. It is Russia’s diplomacy that the regional countries are seeking now. Even Netanyahu and also Erdoğan in Turkey. It’s Russia they’re seeking. I think Aaron, that’s a lot of what’s behind this kind of angst you’re seeing from people like Tillerson, McMaster, Mattis, Trump and others, because we’ve lost our position in the Middle East. No one’s sitting down to decide whether that’s good, bad or indifferent and what kind of strategy one might formulate in order to react to it.
All they’re doing is reacting as if they were children in a china shop, breaking all the china and hoping that that’s somehow composed as a strategy at the end of the day. And Mr. Netanyahu frankly is willing to do whatever he needs to do to get rid of whomever he thinks is threatening Israel to the last dead American. So, what we’ve got here is a real mess largely at the creation of the George W. Bush/Dick Cheney administration, and then all abetted and aided by the Obama administration, trying to do things other than the…nuclear agreement with Iran being the only stellar achievement really in the region of that administration.
And now look at this administration, it’s trying in this peak of anger against Iran the new headsmen in the Gulf, mind you, made so by our destruction of the balance of power, it’s trying to start a war with Iran because of its hubris being peaked by Iran having established this new position of power in the Gulf. This is all complex as heck, but it’s simple when you sit down and think about it in its rudimentary format. It’s a mess and we made it a mess.
AARON MATÉ: Well, you know, speaking of complex, where do you see this taking the Syria war? Going on seven years now, so many countries are involved there. Just recently, it was said to be winding down with the defeat of ISIS and the Assad regime taking control, taking back control of more and more territory. But now you have US troops staying there indefinitely as the US recently announced. How dangerous does Syria remain as a flashpoint for these constant proxy flare ups?
LARRY WILKERSON: Just to continue your remarks, we also have Erdoğan apparently ordering his troops to continue their slaughter of the Kurds wherever they find them in Syria, and at the same time Bashar al-Assad offering his support to the Kurds and especially offering the support of the Syrian regular armed forces to combat the Turks. So, yes, this is a mess. It’s a god awful mess. And, as I said, we’ve had a lot to do with that mess. To your question straight away, what we’re doing apparently is continuing our illegitimate, it is illegitimate under international law, presence in Syria, ostensibly to finish off ISIS, but actually to be there so that we can influence whatever political results come from whatever talks we have, which as you suggested look evermore impossible now. Russia has become the ingredient in all of this, as I pointed out before, that really makes a difference. And the capital, Moscow, being consulted by Netanyahu, Erdoğan, Assad, Iran even, and so forth.
So, we have really created a mess and we’re doing nothing to clean up that mess or to stabilize the region in the civil war in Syria and giving the Syrians back their country by this sort of piece meal portioning of US military force in Syria, which is ultimately aimed at Iran, the Kurds force, IRGC, as well in other accoutrements of Iran’s military paraphernalia. This is insane. It’s absurd. There is no policy associated with this, no strategy associated with it. We need a political solution. I was just reading a National Geographic Magazine, an article on… and how it’s returning somewhat even with the devastation to a regular Syran life. That’s what needs to happen all over Syria and as long as these external parties, especially illegitimate ones like the United States are messing around in Syria, it just isn’t going to happen.
AARON MATÉ: Colonel, what about Lebanon? If Israel and the US wanted to do damage to Iran without directly attacking it, Lebanon is certainly another place to turn up the heat given that Iran’s close ally, Hezbollah, is there. Just today you had the UN Secretary General António Guterres warning of a new round of conflict between Hezbollah and Israel after previous wars. Do you see Lebanon as a place where the US and Israel could intensify its targeting of Iran with actions against Hezbollah?
LARRY WILKERSON: I think it’s very likely that we’ll see Israel on a limited basis at the one end of the spectrum take some air action against designated Hezbollah targets in both Lebanon and Syria. On the other side of the scale, not quite as possible, but still very much possible and very dangerous. Israel will start an all out strike against Hezbollah, Kurds force elements, IRGC elements, and others who are close or nearly close to the Syrian Israeli border in both the Lebanon and Syria, and we’ll will have the prospect for much wider war almost instantly.
AARON MATÉ: All right, we’ll leave it there. Colonel Lawrence Wilkerson, former Chief of Staff to Secretary of State Colin Powell, now a distinguished professor at the College of William and Mary. Thank you.
LARRY WILKERSON: Thank you, sir.
AARON MATÉ: Thank you for joining us on The Real News.

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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.