Phyllis Bennis, fellow at the Institute for Policy Studies. She has written several books, including Ending the Iraq War: A Primer.
The Pentagon has announced U.S. military aircraft carried out airstrikes in northern Iraq today targeting artillery used by the militant group Islamic State used against Kurdish forces defending the city of Erbil. The bombing came less than 12 hours after President Obama spoke on national television announcing he had authorized airstrikes in Iraq in an attempt to halt the sweeping advance by the Islamic State. Obama becomes the fourth U.S. president in a row to order military action in Iraq. The Islamic State has captured large swaths of northern Iraq and has advanced to a half-hour drive from the Kurdish regional capital, Erbil. Up to 40,000 people, many of them members of the Yazidi religious minority, remain trapped on the Sinjar Mountains near the border with Syria, surrounded by rebels and slowly dying of thirst. The United States has also begun dropping relief supplies. We speak to Phyllis Bennis, a fellow at the Institute for Policy Studies. She has written several books, including "Ending the Iraq War: A Primer." One of her recent articles is "Don’t Go Back to Iraq!: Five Steps the U.S. Can Take in Iraq Without Going Back to War."
This is a rush transcript. Copy may not be in its final form.
JUAN GONZÁLEZ: We turn now to Iraq. President Obama authorized airstrikes in an attempt to halt the sweeping advance by fighters from the militant group now known as the Islamic State. Obama becomes the fourth U.S. president in a row to order military action in Iraq. The Islamic State has captured large swaths of northern Iraq and has advanced to within a half-hour drive from the Kurdish regional capital of Erbil.
AMY GOODMAN: Up to 40,000 people, many of them members of the Yazidi religious minority, remain trapped on the Sinjar Mountains near the border with Syria, surrounded by Iraqi rebels and slowly dying of thirst. The United States has already begun dropping relief supplies, but speaking last night, President Obama said airstrikes may be needed to halt what he said could become a potential "genocide."
PRESIDENT BARACK OBAMA: When we face a situation like we do on that mountain, with innocent people facing the prospect of violence on a horrific scale, when have a mandate to help—in this case, a request from the Iraqi government—and when we have the unique capabilities to help avert a massacre, then I believe the United States of America cannot turn a blind eye. We can act, carefully and responsibly, to prevent a potential act of genocide. That’s what we’re doing on that mountain. I’ve therefore authorized targeted airstrikes, if necessary, to help forces in Iraq as they fight to break the siege on Mount Sinjar and protect the civilians trapped there. Already American aircraft have begun conducting humanitarian airdrops of food and water to help these desperate men, women and children survive. Earlier this week, one Iraqi in the area cried to the world, "There is no one coming to help." Well, today America is coming to help. We’re also consulting with other countries and the United Nations, who have called for action to address this humanitarian crisis.
AMY GOODMAN: Some members of the Yazidi faith who have fled into southeast Turkey have described a dire situation in the Sinjar Mountains.
YAZIDI REFUGEE: [translated] We have gone through a lot at Sinjar Mountain. Women and children are being killed. We cannot get help. I have four children, and I don’t know their whereabouts. Two have disappeared, and I don’t know what happened to the other two. I don’t know if they are dead or if they are alive.
AMY GOODMAN: Meanwhile, residents of the Kurdish capital of Erbil are fearing fighters from the Islamic State may soon attack the city. This is resident Mahmoud Yousif.
MAHMOUD YOUSIF: [translated] Because of the situation, we are afraid that something bad will happen and all the supplies will run out. We are afraid because of the political and military situation. As a precaution, we bought milk, eggs, meat, and above all, we bought huge quantities of canned foods, out of fear that something bad will happen, God forbid.
AMY GOODMAN: We go now to northern Iraq to speak with Tracey Shelton, freelance journalist covering Iraq, Syria, Libya and conflict zones throughout the Middle East, joining us from Erbil, Iraq. Her recent piece for GlobalPost is headlined "There are Reports of the Islamic State Executing Dozens of Yazidis."
Can you tell us about the situation there, Tracey, and who the Yazidis are?
TRACEY SHELTON: Yeah, it’s a really tragic situation now. When [inaudible] around Sinjar, I was in Lalish, which is the holy center of the Yazidi religion. And [inaudible]—
AMY GOODMAN: We’re having trouble understanding you. Can you speak directly into your phone?
TRACEY SHELTON: Yes. I am, actually. Is that better?
AMY GOODMAN: Slightly.
TRACEY SHELTON: Oh, OK.
AMY GOODMAN: Listen, we’re going to try to reconnect with you to get a better phone line. So, if you hang up, we’ll do that. In the meantime, we’ll go to Phyllis Bennis in Washington, D.C., fellow at the Institute for Policy Studies, who has written a number of books, including Ending the Iraq War. One of her recent pieces is headlined "Don’t Go Back to Iraq!: Five Steps the U.S. Can Take in Iraq Without Going Back to War."
Well, then, I was wondering your response, Phyllis, to President Obama announcing that there will be possible airstrikes in Iraq, both because of what’s happening on the Sinjar Mountain and because Americans are threatened in Erbil.
PHYLLIS BENNIS: Thanks, Amy. You know, there’s no question that the people that are particularly those that are exposed out on Sinjar Mountain are at great risk. It’s a terrible situation for civilians throughout that region. Having said that, the question of U.S. airstrikes is almost certainly going to make things worse and not better. This should have been the lesson we learned from what President Obama called the "dumb war." He admitted this time around there is no American military solution, and yet he’s authorizing American military actions. It doesn’t make any sense. There’s no logic to it.
The notion that there is going to be the need for airstrikes to protect the few dozen U.S. diplomats and a couple of hundred military people in Erbil, I think, is widely understood as a legal feint away from the reality. This is what allows the president, in his mind, apparently, to use military force without consulting Congress. We didn’t hear anything about his understanding of the War Powers Act, his understanding of his obligations to consult with Congress. There were reports earlier yesterday afternoon that there had been consultations between the White House and Congress—not in any two-way sense, but that members of Congress were informed—but there’s been no details about what that consultation was about. This is simply the White House making the announcement that they may be about to go back to war. President Obama indicated that he’s aware of the widespread antiwar sentiment. I think the last polls indicated it was somewhere between 78 and 82 percent of people in the United States who are absolutely opposed to going back to Iraq militarily.
The notion, when he said that this is—that we are uniquely capable, we are not uniquely capable. The United Nations, even before this move by President Obama, had offered the Iraqi government technical help to carry out real humanitarian airlifts to the people stuck on the mountain in Sinjar Mountain. You know, the U.S. history of linking airdrops of food and water with bombing raids is not a good one. If we look back to the last time this happened, it was in November of 2001 in Afghanistan, when you had the United States simultaneously dropping food packs—at that time, they were using MREs, Meals Ready to Eat, that were wrapped in strong, bright yellow plastic to make them easy to spot. They were being dropped to Afghan refugees who were fleeing the U.S. bombing of the cities, but at the same time the U.S. was dropping cluster bombs that also happened to be made with bright yellow plastic of exactly the same color. And no one knows how many children, in particular, were killed running to what they thought were food packages that turned out to be cluster bombs. This is not a safe way to carry out a humanitarian operation.
JUAN GONZÁLEZ: Well, Phyllis, as we mentioned, it’s four presidents now, a quarter of a century now, that the United States has been involved in some sort of military conflict connected to Iraq, beginning with the first President Bush beating back Saddam Hussein’s invasion of Kuwait, then 10 years of no-fly zones and military sanctions, then the invasion by the second George Bush, and now this latest reversal of his own policy by President Obama. If there’s a definition of a quagmire, this is it. Your sense of why this continues now for, essentially, a generation?
PHYLLIS BENNIS: You know, Juan, there are a number of reasons. I think you’re absolutely right, this is a slippery slope waiting to happen. I think that there are a number of reasons, both at the immediate level and at the longer-term level. At the longer-term level, Iraq is still what it has always been for the U.S.: a key point in terms of oil, a key point in terms of the strategic location of Iraq. It’s the point from which there can be strategic reach, meaning military attacks, on Africa, Europe, Asia. Iraq—and the Middle East, more broadly—stands at the intersection of three continents. In the immediate, I think some of it had to do with the threat of the hapless government in Baghdad, backed by the United States, despite its acknowledgment that al-Maliki is responsible for huge problems in Iraq. I think Maliki is widely viewed as responsible for the rise in sectarianism in Iraq, because of the sectarianism of his own government. The fact that they could lose control of one of the two key dams in Iraq—the question of water, of course, in this region remains very key, so that was part of the immediate crisis that was underway.
You know, this is a situation where there is a huge set of dangers in the region as a result of this attack. There is no question that in Iraq any U.S. military attack now is going to be widely viewed as being in support of the incredibly corrupt, unpopular government of Nouri al-Maliki. Today, Friday, is supposed to be the deadline for the Parliament to choose a new prime minister. Maliki is under enormous pressure from the Parliament to step down. So far he has refused to do that, and the U.S. has said, "Oh, we’re not going to take a position on who should be the prime minister of Iraq, although we think there should be an inclusive government." Maliki has made clear his government is a sectarian government based on empowering the Shia community in Iraq to the detriment of Sunni, Christians, Yazidis and all other minorities. In that context, this is viewed widely as direct U.S. support for al-Maliki, and it seems to me that there is almost no way that al-Maliki is going to step down now.
People in and around Iraq are talking about the fact that the Sunni tribes will be prepared to move against the Islamic State, once they are clear that there is a government in Baghdad that is not a sectarian government in its own right. People welcomed IS, the Islamic State. They welcomed them, not because they agree with them. They’ve been horrific in social terms, in terms of these communities. But they were welcome, particularly by Sunnis across Iraq, precisely because they represented an alternative to what was seen as the worse situation, being under the domination of this sectarian government in Baghdad. So, the role of the U.S. now, with increasing military involvement back in Iraq, returning to Iraq, is going to put the U.S. in a situation where it’s widely going to be blamed for the continuing rise of sectarianism.
And in the region more broadly, it’s going to be pointed out what hypocrisy it is, where the United States is arming Israel to kill Palestinians in Gaza. The language that President Obama used, that there are innocent people facing violations on a massive scale, that describes the situation of Palestinian civilians in Gaza. And yet, rather than providing humanitarian aid, demanding that Israel open the gates of Gaza, that it open the border crossings, the United States instead is sending more weapons and more money to buy more weapons and more ammunition for those Israeli attacks. So, the question of how the U.S. is going to be blamed for this is even wider because of the simultaneous crisis underway in Gaza.
AMY GOODMAN: Phyllis, I do want to touch on Gaza with you and the end of the ceasefire. But on the issue the president raised, one was the humanitarian airdrops. The other was saving Americans in Erbil, the military advisers, the U.S. workers who are there. The other possibility is to move them.
PHYLLIS BENNIS: Exactly. If there was so much concern about these 40 or so diplomats and a couple of hundred military advisers—I’m not quite sure that they’re as threatened as some reports have indicated, but if there was that concern, that’s a completely doable thing to simply get them onto helicopters and planes and move them out. That’s a false, you know, rationale. It’s being used because both at the public level and, I think, for the Obama administration, their understanding of how they can use the limitations on acting unilaterally without consulting with Congress is shaped by the notion that American lives are at stake. If American lives are at stake on an emergency basis, it’s possible, under some circumstances, for the president to move. In this situation, there hasn’t been a move yet. There isn’t that level of urgency. You know, this is not a situation where there are not cellphones, where members of Congress cannot be called back to Washington, if necessary. They can be on a conference call. Technology makes many things available. We should let the White House know that; they seem to have forgotten. But if this was really so dangerous for those couple of hundred people, put them on a plane and get them out. That’s not a problem.
JUAN GONZÁLEZ: And, Phyllis, what about this issue of the threat to Erbil? We’re talking about the Kurdish region that was relatively peaceful compared to the rest of Iraq and supposedly had a military force that was quite capable, yet ISIS has managed to roll back the Kurdish forces, as well.
PHYLLIS BENNIS: Well, that’s right, Juan, except for, the thing that I think is important for us to understand is that ISIS is not operating alone. ISIS, or IS, the Islamic State, is a small operation of somewhere around 10,000 fighters. They are good fighters. They are well armed, with U.S.-supplied equipment that they have picked up all over Iraq. And it’s exactly what the danger is if the U.S. decides to send more weapons to Syria: We will see the same thing with the Islamic State fighters getting those weapons because they’re stronger fighters. But they have overcome the Kurdish fighters, the Peshmerga, only in one area, in the area near the dam, which does in fact threaten Erbil, in theory. But what’s important about IS is that part of the reason they appear so strong is that they are backed by military support from former generals, former strategists, former leaders of the Baathist army in Iraq who lost their jobs, lost their positions, lost their ability to protect their families, in many cases, at the time of the U.S. invasion in 2003 and have been sort of waiting for an opportunity to challenge the U.S.-backed government in Baghdad. And they also have the support, in many areas, of the Sunni tribal leaders and their militias.
Now, right now they’re not fighting in a massive scale. They were early on this year. They’ve pulled back. But there are every indications now that if there were a change in Baghdad, in the government, that the tribes would rise again against IS. That would place those tribal militias, as well as the other forces of the Peshmerga, against the former Baathists that are now fighting with IS. It’s an ugly kind of sectarianism that was put in place by the U.S. invasion of Iraq in 2003. All of this sectarianism really can be traced back to that.
But I think it is important that we not see this as somehow a magic of this Islamist organization that somehow has such incredible power on its own to overcome the Peshmerga fighters, to overcome government forces. They are powerful because, one, they have really good weapons that are made here in the U.S., and, two, they have leadership and military capacity strengthened by these Baathist military forces that remain in Iraq.
AMY GOODMAN: Finally, Phyllis, back to Gaza, the ceasefire over Hamas firing rockets into Israel, Israel bombing Gaza—can you talk about the breakdown of the talks in Cairo?
PHYLLIS BENNIS: You know, many of us were very much afraid, Amy, that this halt in the fighting, this ceasefire, even if it lasted the three days, which it barely did by a moment, was not going to work unless the siege of Gaza could be lifted. There is no way that there’s going to be a permanent ceasefire while Gaza remains completely surrounded by a wall that is backed by the armed force of the Israeli military; where the skies are controlled by the Israeli Air Force; while the waters, the coastal waters, are controlled by the Israeli Navy, who prohibit the fishermen from going any more than two kilometers out; while nothing is allowed in for rebuilding; when Israel can bomb the power plant, the sewage treatment plants and expect people to simply stop fighting and wait for negotiations, as if that’s going to work. We saw this the last time, after the eight-day Israeli assault on Gaza in November of 2012, when the ceasefire that was negotiated by Hillary Clinton at that time said that within 24 hours of the ceasefire there should begin implementation of lifting the siege. It never happened. So, not surprisingly, Palestinians—and this is not only Hamas, this is across the board, every political faction—and, we should note, the United Nations are calling very clearly for an end to the siege of Gaza. Without that, no temporary ceasefire is going to work.
AMY GOODMAN: Phyllis, I want to thank you for being with us. Phyllis Bennis, fellow at the Institute for Policy Studies. She has written many books, including Ending the [Iraq] War. One of her recent headlines—pieces, headlined "Don’t Go Back to Iraq!: Five Steps the U.S. Can Take in Iraq Without Going Back to War." This is Democracy Now! Back in a moment.
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