Rashid Khalidi on Syria: The Beginning of This Mess was the 2003 U.S. Invasion of Iraq

October 01, 2015
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Rashid Khalidi

Edward Said professor of Arab studies at Columbia University. He’s the author of several books, including his latest, Brokers of Deceit: How the U.S. Has Undermined Peace in the Middle East.

Russia has launched airstrikes in Syria for a second day, becoming the latest foreign government to intervene in a war that has already killed over 240,000 people and displaced millions. The move sparked concern from U.S. officials, who say the Russian attacks did not hit ISIL targets but instead struck rebel groups fighting against Syrian President Bashar al-Assad, including at least one group trained by the CIA. The United States and Russia have long disagreed about strategy in Syria, with Washington calling for Assad’s departure and Moscow backing the Syrian president. Earlier today, the Kremlin said Russia is coordinating with the Syrian military to hit ISIL targets as well as other militant organizations. Russia is at least the 10th foreign government to launch airstrikes in Syria this year. Other countries include the United States, Britain, Canada, France, Australia, Turkey, Israel, the United Arab Emirates and Jordan. We speak to Columbia University professor Rashid Khalidi.


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This is a rush transcript. Copy may not be in its final form.

NERMEEN SHAIKH: Russia has launched airstrikes in Syria for a second day, becoming the latest foreign government to intervene in a war that has already killed over 240,000 people and displaced millions. The move sparked concern from U.S. officials, who say the Russian attacks did not hit ISIL targets but instead struck rebel groups fighting against Syrian President Bashar al-Assad, including at least one group trained by the CIA. The U.S. and Russia have long disagreed about strategy in Syria, with Washington calling for Assad’s departure and Moscow backing the Syrian president.

Earlier today, the Kremlin said Russia is coordinating with the Syrian military to hit ISIL targets as well as other militant organizations. Russia is at least the 10th foreign government to launch airstrikes in Syria this year. Other countries include the United States, Britain, Canada, France, Australia, Turkey, Israel, the United Arab Emirates and Jordan. The U.S. and Russian military plan to hold talks as soon as today to avoid clashing in Syria. Secretary of State John Kerry met his Russian counterpart Wednesday to discuss military coordination between the two countries. Russian Foreign Minister Sergey Lavrov spoke after their meeting.

FOREIGN MINISTER SERGEY LAVROV: We devoted our meeting to the follow-up of what our presidents agreed when they met here on the 28th of September. The first instruction to us was to make sure that the military of the United States, the coalition led by the United States, on the one hand, and the military of the Russian Federation, who now engage in some operations in Syria at the request of the Syrian government, get in touch and establish channels of communications to avoid any unintended incidents. And we agreed that the military should get into contact with each other very soon. Number two, we also discussed what the presidents told us about the promoting political process. We all want Syria democratic, united, secular; Syria, which is a home for all ethnic and confessional groups, whose rights are guaranteed. But we have some differences as for the details on how to get there.

AMY GOODMAN: That was Russian Foreign Minister Sergey Lavrov. Secretary of State John Kerry said the United States would welcome, quote, "any genuine effort" by Moscow to target the Islamic State and the Nusra Front, but he criticized Wednesday’s airstrikes on other rebel groups fighting President Assad.

SECRETARY OF STATE JOHN KERRY: I relayed and reiterated the concerns that I expressed in the course of the U.N. Security Council meeting, which was led by Russia today, concerns that we have, obviously, about the nature of the targets, the type of targets and the need for clarity with respect to them. And it is one thing, obviously, to be targeting ISIL. We’re concerned, obviously, if that is not what is happening.

AMY GOODMAN: To talk more about Syria and then Palestine, we’re joined by Rashid Khalidi, the Edward Said professor of Arab studies at Columbia University. He’s the author of a number of books, including his latest, Brokers of Deceit: How the U.S. Has Undermined Peace in the Middle East.

Professor Khalidi, welcome back to Democracy Now!

RASHID KHALIDI: Thanks, Amy.

AMY GOODMAN: Talk about what’s happening right now in Syria. What’s Russia doing? What’s the United States doing?

RASHID KHALIDI: Well, what we have now is a civil war that’s developed into a quite massive proxy war. As you mentioned, 10 countries have launched airstrikes. Others are engaged in backing different factions in the Syrian civil war. And it has become a much more complex conflict as result of this external intervention. In fact, to some extent, it has become more of a proxy war than a civil war.

And I think that—I think that we have all kinds of dangers as a result of this, not just of this latest Russian escalation, but of the fact that parties on the other side—Saudi Arabia, Turkey and so forth—are likely to up their backing for their favorite faction. So, I think we’re going to see an increasingly grim phase of the war instead of a move toward some kind of political solution, which is the only way to end this. There’s no military solution to this—in the short run, anyway.

NERMEEN SHAIKH: And, Rashid Khalidi, Saudi Arabia, you mentioned, is one of the countries fighting this proxy war in Syria, and they’ve come out very strongly condemning Russian attacks. Could you talk about what Saudi Arabia’s interests are in Syria and who they have been backing?

RASHID KHALIDI: Well, Saudi Arabia and the countries of the Gulf have been involved for a very long time in what I would call a regional cold war with Iran. And this has a power aspect, and it has a sectarian aspect. They’ve been backing Sunni groups in Iraq. They’ve been backing the Sunni opposition in—primarily Sunni opposition in Syria. And they have also been backing—or at least people in these countries, countries like Kuwait, Saudi Arabia, the Emirates, Qatar, individuals, wealthy individuals in these countries, have also been backing some of the most extreme groups in the region—al-Qaeda itself, the Islamic State, Jabhat al-Nusra, another—an al-Qaeda-affiliated group in Syria. These groups have their own sources of funding within these countries, especially the Islamic State in Iraq. They control resources. But they get hundreds of millions of dollars from donors in the Gulf countries, and this money is largely unimpeded. So, Saudi Arabia, its nationals and the nationals of other Gulf countries are actually supporting some of the most extreme groups around, partly as a means of supporting Sunnis, as they see it, against Shia, and partly as a way of opposing the Syrian regime and the Iraqi government, both of which they see as aligned with Iran.

AMY GOODMAN: I want to turn to Russian President Vladimir Putin, who appeared on 60 Minutes and talked about his policy in Syria.

PRESIDENT VLADIMIR PUTIN: [translated] We support the legitimate government of Syria. And it’s my deep belief that any actions to the contrary, in order to destroy the legitimate government, will create a situation which you can witness now in the other countries of the region or in other regions—for instance, in Libya, where all the state institutions are disintegrated. We see a similar situation in Iraq. And there’s no other solution to the Syrian crisis than strengthening the effective government structures and rendering them help in fighting terrorism, but at the same time urging them to engage in positive dialogue with the rational opposition and conduct reform.

AMY GOODMAN: So, in this extended interview with Charlie Rose, the Russian president, Vladimir Putin, said, yes, he supports Assad in Syria, that he believes, though, that he has the same goal not to have an al-Qaeda or ISIS takeover of Syria, and feels that keeping Assad in will do that, and used the example of Saddam Hussein in Iraq, that he was taken out and then look what happened, also talked about Libya. Can you talk about these examples?

RASHID KHALIDI: Well, I mean, the overthrow of those two dictators in Libya and in Iraq, which in both cases was done in a completely heedless manner as to what would follow, certainly has created two of the worst situations in modern Middle Eastern history. There’s no question of that.

But just to speak to what the Russian president said, the part of the problem he’s not talking about is the sectarian part of the problem, the fact that the Syrian regime has disadvantaged Sunnis, the fact that the Syrian regime’s dictatorship, its brutality and so on and forth, is what provoked the uprising in the first place. And so, he throws in, in his interview, a word about reforms. The problem is a political problem, it’s not a military problem. And a core part of the problem is the nature of that dictatorship. And so, what one has to do to resolve this is to square that circle, to get a new formula whereby you will not have a sectarian-dominated government in Damascus, and at the same time to prevent this—to fill this vacuum with a government that has some kind of support, so as to prevent groups like the Islamic State and al-Nusra Front from taking over, which is the way things are going. The United States and others talk about a moderate opposition. The overwhelmingly dominant forces in Syria in the opposition are hard-line radical Islamist groups, whether they are the Islamic State or Jabhat al-Nusra or others. And that’s the trend. Things are going much more in that direction as far as the opposition is concerned.

NERMEEN SHAIKH: Rashid Khalidi, could you give us some sense of what accounts for the increased sectarianism that you pointed to in Syria as well as in Iraq?

RASHID KHALIDI: Well, in a certain sense, both of these regimes, the Baath regime of Saddam Hussein and the Baath regime of Bashar al-Assad in Syria, had a sectarian core to them, although they were nominally secular regimes. But I think that the beginning of the story has to be the destruction of the government in Iraq and its replacement by the United States occupation—not just taking the top of the pyramid off, but completely removing everybody who had any knowledge of how to govern in Iraq. Anyone who was connected to the Baath Party was, in the de-Baathification process, removed. In doing that, the state, that had been built up over more than a century, was basically removed. And the people who came in were almost entirely sectarian themselves, the people who came in with the occupation forces. And so, a Shia-dominated government, which basically did not know how to run the country and which has proven to be endlessly corrupt, was put in place. And that triggered a sectarian reaction among the Sunnis of Iraq. And that’s where the Islamic State started. And that then spread to Syria, where a similar analogous sectarian process has developed against the Alawi-dominated regime of Bashar al-Assad. So, part of this is the ripples from the Iraqi invasion. Nobody in this country seems to want to talk about that. This really is the beginning of this mess, is 2003, 12 years ago.

AMY GOODMAN: Defense Secretary Ashton Carter warned Russia’s strategy in Syria was doomed to fail, speaking Wednesday. This is part of what Carter said.

DEFENSE SECRETARY ASHTON CARTER: There is a logical contradiction in the Russian position—and now its actions—in Syria. Russia states an intent to fight ISIL, on one hand, and to support Bashar al-Assad and his regime, on the other. Fighting ISIL without pursuing a parallel political transition only risks escalating the civil war in Syria—and, with it, the very extremism and instability that Moscow claims to be concerned about and aspire to fighting. So this approach—that approach is tantamount, as I said then, to pouring gasoline on the fire.

In contrast, our position is clear, that a lasting defeat of ISIL and extremism in Syria can only be achieved in parallel with a political transition in Syria. And we will continue to insist on the importance of simultaneously pursuing these two objectives. Now, I would hope that Russia would join us in pursuing these objectives—which they claim to share—in parallel, rather than in a sequence that cannot succeed.

AMY GOODMAN: That is Ash Carter, the defense secretary. Speaking Wednesday, Republican Senator John McCain blasted Obama’s Syria policy.

SEN. JOHN McCAIN: Russia’s intervention in Syria will prolong and complicate this horrific war, and the main beneficiary will be ISIL, which has fed off the ethnic and sectarian divisions fostered by the Assad regime. It is tragic. It is tragic, my fellow Americans, that we have reached this point—a Syrian conflict that has killed more than 200,000 people, created the worst refugee crisis in Europe since World War II, spawned a terrorist army of tens of thousands and now created a platform for a Russian autocrat to join with an Iranian theocrat to prop up a Syrian dictator. It did not have to be this way. But this is the inevitable consequence of hollow words, red lines crossed, tarnished moral influence, leading from behind and a total lack of American leadership.

AMY GOODMAN: Columbia University Professor Rashid Khalidi, respond to Senator McCain and to the defense secretary, Ash Carter.

RASHID KHALIDI: Well, there’s so much to say. I think American policy in Syria has been an absolute mess. But I think that the thing that the United States had to do, at the same time as it should have been trying to deal directly with both the Iranians and the Russians over Syria, would be to rein in its own allies. A large part of the problem has been Turkey, Saudi Arabia and other Gulf countries pouring support into the most extreme forces in Syria.

I would also say, in response to what Secretary of Defense Carter said, that it is in fact true that what the Russians are doing is not directed at the Islamic State. The Islamic State’s fiefdom is far to the east of the areas that the Russians have been launching airstrikes against in the last two days. What they are doing is backing, shoring up the Syrian regime in the backbone area of central Syria, the area between Damascus, Homs, Hama and the coast, which is the only area that the regime controls and which is an area which ISIL is not very near. So, it is a right mess.

I think American policy has been appallingly confused. I think that it has been confused in different directions than Senator McCain seems to be suggesting. Really, you need to cut a deal, and you need to knock heads together. The United States needs to knock the heads of its own allies together—Saudi Arabia, which is out of control in Yemen and is acting in a very unrestrained manner in Syria, as are a number of American allies, and Iran and the Soviet—and Russia—there’s a slip for you—Iran and Russia, both of which are just backing the Assad regime to the hilt, and, in fact—I agree with Secretary Carter—are helping to increase sectarian tensions. Every external party is responsible in some measure for this incredible mess—the 10 countries that are bombing Syria, or have been bombing Syria, and the countries that have been pouring hundreds of millions of dollars into some of the most extreme groups on Earth in the Syrian opposition.

AMY GOODMAN: What is the single most important thing you think the U.S. should be doing right now in regards to Syria?

RASHID KHALIDI: A deal has to be cut. Some means of ending this war as quickly as possible has to be found. This involves bringing all of the external parties to a certain kind of understanding—which will not be easy. It may take a very, very long time. It will be very, very hard. And I think finding the way to do that will actually be harder than finding a formula for Syria itself. In other words, reconciling the completely contradictory objectives and aims of these eight or 10 countries that are engaged in a proxy war in Syria is going to be the hardest thing to do.


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