Obama Touts U.S. Strikes on ISIL, But Can Military Escalation Make Up for Failed Strategy?

StoryDecember 15, 2015
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Gilbert Achcar

Middle East expert, author and professor at the School of Oriental and African Studies at the University of London.

President Obama has claimed progress in fighting the self-proclaimed Islamic State, while urging U.S. allies to do more. On Monday, Obama touted the gains of the U.S.-led military coalition in Iraq and Syria while offering an implicit rebuke of Middle East allies, omitting them from the nations he named that are helping the campaign. Obama’s comments come amid a quietly expanding U.S. military presence on the ground, with dozens of special forces recently deployed to Iraq and Syria. The United States also is increasing its role in global talks on the Syrian civil war, with Secretary of State John Kerry beginning a multi-nation visit today in Russia. Even if ISIL is losing ground from U.S.-led strikes, Obama’s comments highlight a dangerous predicament laid bare in recent weeks: While the coalition says its bombings will help stop future ISIL terrorism, ISIL says those bombings will lead to more terrorist attacks. We are joined by Gilbert Achcar, Middle East expert, author and professor at the School of Oriental and African Studies at the University of London.

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

AMY GOODMAN: President Obama has claimed progress in fighting the self-proclaimed Islamic State, while urging U.S. allies to do more. Speaking after a national security meeting at the Pentagon, Obama touted the gains of the U.S.-led military coalition in Iraq and Syria, claiming it’s hitting ISIL "harder than ever."

PRESIDENT BARACK OBAMA: Every day, we destroy, as well, more of ISIL’s forces—their fighting positions, bunkers and staging areas, their heavy weapons, bomb-making factories, compounds and training camps. In many places, ISIL has lost its freedom of maneuver, because they know if they mass their forces, we will wipe them out. In fact, since this summer, ISIL has not had a single successful major offensive operation on the ground in either Syria or Iraq. ... We are hitting ISIL harder than ever. Coalition aircraft, our fighters, bombers and drones have been increasing the pace of airstrikes—nearly 9,000 as of today. ... The point is, ISIL leaders cannot hide, and our next message to them is simple: You are next.

AMY GOODMAN: President Obama’s comments come amidst a quietly expanding U.S. military presence in Iraq and Syria. Just last month, Obama broke a pledge of no troops on the ground by ordering the deployment of around 50 special forces to Syria. Earlier this month, the U.S. said it was deploying another team of less than 100 special forces to Iraq. And last week, the Pentagon said for the first time it’s ready to send U.S. advisers to help the Iraqi government retake Ramadi from ISIL.

In his remarks, President Obama acknowledged that with ISIL’s continued control of large parts of Iraq and Syria and recent terrorist attacks abroad, progress, quote, "needs to keep coming faster." And in an implicit rebuke of Middle Eastern allies, such as Saudi Arabia and Turkey, Obama did not mention any of them among the nations assisting the U.S.-led coalition. Instead, Obama said the "others" he did not name should do more in the fight.

PRESIDENT BARACK OBAMA: We recognize that progress needs to keep coming faster. No one knows that more than the countless Syrians and Iraqis living every day under ISIL’s terror, as well as the families in San Bernardino and Paris and elsewhere who are grieving the loss of their loved ones. ... Just as the United States is doing more in this fight, just as our allies France, Germany and the United Kingdom, Australia and Italy are doing more, so must others. And that’s why I’ve asked Secretary Carter to go to the Middle East—he’ll depart right after this press briefing—to work with our coalition partners on securing more military contributions to this fight. On the diplomatic front, Secretary Kerry will be in Russia tomorrow as we continue to work as part of the Vienna process to end the Syrian civil war.

AMY GOODMAN: Secretary of State John Kerry’s trip begins in Russia today for talks on Syria. Even if ISIL is losing ground from U.S.-led strikes, Obama’s comments highlight a dangerous predicament laid bare in recent weeks. While the coalition says its bombings will help stop future ISIL terrorism, ISIL says those bombings will lead to more terrorist attacks. In a video last month, ISIL vowed to strike every single nation involved in the campaign against it. And with the downing of a Russian jetliner, a suicide attack in Beirut, the massacre in Paris and the shooting rampage it apparently inspired in San Bernardino, ISIL has shown it’s making good on its threat.

For more, we’re joined by Gilbert Achcar, professor at the School of Oriental and African Studies at the University of London. His most recent book is The People Want: A Radical Exploration of the Arab Uprising. He’s working on a book on recent developments in the Arab world, in particular Syria and Egypt.

We welcome you to Democracy Now! Gilbert Achcar, first, respond to President Obama’s address.

GILBERT ACHCAR: Good morning, Amy. Well, I think this was a poor attempt at imitating George W. Bush—I mean, Obama trying, you know, to show some muscular kind of speech. And I say "poor attempt" because it was unconvincing, judging from most comments. He didn’t have any real substance in what he said. I mean, we all know that they are striking, bombing, been bombing ISIS since over a year now. And he gave the figure—I mean, close to 9,000 airstrikes, which makes it a very high proportion, you know, of airstrike per fighter, probably one to five or something like this, which is unseen, you know? And yet, and yet, this ISIS is still there. And although it’s not expanding, hasn’t been expanding recently, it’s holding firmly to most of the land it acquired in the summer of 2014.

AMY GOODMAN: What do you think accounts for ISIS’s strength? We interviewed an ISIS hostage, the French journalist Nicolas Hénin last week when we were in Paris. And he said when countries put up walls to refugees, that increases the power of ISIS—that’s just what they want. And he also said when the coalition forces bomb ISIS, that also increases its strength. What do you say?

GILBERT ACHCAR: Well, that’s true. I mean, starting with the refugees, the attacks that ISIS is launching in Western countries, like the one in Paris or even this San Bernardino one, have led to exactly what ISIS want—that is, more and more politicians asking for, you know, stopping the flow of refugees. And in the case of the United States, there had been no flow, actually. I mean, the United States have taken very, very, very few Syrian refugees on board. But you hear that all over Europe. You see now the German chancellor, Angela Merkel, herself asking for strict limitations. And this indeed feeds into the discourse of ISIS. So they are quite clever at obtaining what they want through their attacks.

And as for the bombing, I mean, the issue is that, of course, you can’t eradicate an organization that is controlling whole swaths of territory, and including urban territory, just by bombing, especially that—and that’s true, the coalition is trying to kill as few possible of civilians—as few civilians as possible. They are trying to avoid the—what in Pentagonese they call collateral damage, because they know that this would also very much increase the ISIS attraction, ISIS appeal. So, they all know—they keep repeating it—that they need forces on the ground to do that. But the question is: Which kind of forces can you use in fighting ISIS?

If you take the case of Iraq, what you have is the United States working with—basically, working with Iran. That’s the objective fact on the ground, because what you have on the Iraqi side, whether the official forces or the militias, are, I mean, Shia militias backed by Iran, and therefore very much, you know, playing into the whole scenario or the whole discourse of ISIS of defending the Sunnis, the Sunni Muslims, against what they represent as some kind of a Shia-Jewish-Western conspiracy. And that’s, you know, the predicament, the main predicament, that Obama is facing in Iraq.

And the same goes now for Syria, because, I mean, it’s out of the question that you could defeat ISIS through any alliance with Russia, Iran and the Assad regime, because that’s precisely what ISIS is pretending, that they are fighting all these people in defense of the Sunnis. So you need people who are seen as representing the overwhelming majority of the Syrian population, who are—who belong to the Sunni branch of Islam and who are seen as such, as representing this. And that’s the opposition—I mean, the only force representing this is this group of opposition forces, which are fighting Assad and fighting ISIS at the same time, and which are now—I mean, the Saudi kingdom is trying to unify, as we have seen recently in the meeting there.

AMY GOODMAN: Well, Saudi Arabia has announced the formation of a 34-state Islamic military coalition to combat terrorism, they say. A long list of Arab countries, like Egypt, Qatar, the United Arab Emirates, together with Turkey, Malaysia, Pakistan and Gulf Arab and African states, were mentioned, with the center in Riyadh. What do you know about this? And what about Saudi Arabia’s role in both attacking and in supporting ISIS?

GILBERT ACHCAR: Yeah, well, you have, you know, a kind of complementary game being played by both the Saudi kingdom and Iran. Both of them are—have a stake, you know, in turning all this conflict into a sectarian conflict—the Saudis, of course, on the Sunni side, and the Iranian on the Shia side. And the Saudi—I mean, this coalition that the Saudi kingdom just announced is very obviously a Sunni sectarian-inspired coalition, since Iraq, which is an Arab country, is not part of it, Iran is not part of it. And, you know, I mean, people—most people ignore, actually, that the Saudi kingdom and the other Gulf monarchies are not a part of the bombing of ISIS in Iraq, where they regard this as, you know, being actually—that would be in favor of pro-Iranian forces. They only do it in [inaudible]—

AMY GOODMAN: We’re talking to Gilbert Achcar. Gilbert, we’re going to break and then come back to this discussion. Gilbert Ashcar is professor at the School of Oriental and African Studies at the University of London. We’ll be back with him in a minute.


AMY GOODMAN: This is Democracy Now!,, The War and Peace Report. I’m Amy Goodman, as we continue our conversation with Gilbert Achcar, professor at the School of Oriental and African Studies at University of London, about President Obama’s speech and what is happening in Syria. The conflict in Syria, just going through some of the figures, if you could comment on the humanitarian crisis that is taking place there? You’ve got the U.N. under-secretary-general for humanitarian affairs, Stephen O’Brien, saying six-and-a-half million Syrians are internally displaced, 2 million kids are out of school, 72 percent of the population has no access to drinking water. More than 4.3 million Syrians have fled. What do you think is the answer right now, Professor Achcar?

GILBERT ACHCAR: Yeah, you gave the figures. It’s an absolutely terrible tragedy. And one should point to the fact that there have been a new dimension in all that since for over now a year, or most especially since last summer, which is that, until now, we’ve had an exodus of people, staying in bordering countries and waiting for, you know, the time when they will be able to go back to their country, to their villages, to their towns and all that. And since then, we’ve had a massive outflow of people who have lost any hope about the possibility of—you know, of this whole tragedy stopping. And they have been the people who are trying to reach Europe, who have been to Europe, who have gone to Europe, many of them, I mean, people even from the middle class or, let’s say, the educated layers, who have sold everything they have in the country, and they are trying to make themselves a different future abroad. And so, of course, this is absolutely tragic.

But the only way to stop this tragedy is to stop the war, obviously. And the war will not stop in Syria as long as Bashar al-Assad is at the helm, because he’s the source. I mean, this whole conflict started with an uprising, which was as peaceful in Syria as it was in Egypt or Tunisia, and chanting the same slogans, including "Peaceful! Peaceful!" You know? And what was the response of the regime? Well, it was one of the most brutal display of killing that we have seen in the region. And the figures of the killed kept increasing day after day after day, week after week. And then, of course, the ultimate logic of this will lead to a militarization of the conflict, and then we got into this terrible civil war. But it won’t stop as long as the main culprit is in power.

And that’s here, if you want, the contradiction in Barack Obama’s position of withholding from the opposition the defensive means it has been requesting from the beginning, and especially anti-aircraft weapons, and at the same time wanting a compromise through which Assad would step down and you would get some coalition as you had, for instance, in Yemen. That was the reference of Obama. But this cannot work, I mean, unless the regime feels it is really going to lose if it doesn’t go for a compromise.

AMY GOODMAN: So what is Kerry doing—

GILBERT ACHCAR: No, I mean, the issue is that—

AMY GOODMAN: So what is Kerry doing right now in Russia—


AMY GOODMAN: —as it meets with Bashar al-Assad’s ally?

GILBERT ACHCAR: Yes, I mean, that’s exactly the point. I mean, Russia and Iran have been backing the regime much, much, you know, powerfully than whatever anyone—I mean, the United States or the Gulf countries or anything—have been backing the opposition. I mean, the imbalance of forces is quite obvious. And Russia regards Syria as a main strategic ally. It’s a client state. You have Russian military bases there. And through this posture, Russia is also sending a message to all dictators that "You can rely on us defending you much better than the United States. Look how the United States abandoned Mubarak, and look how we are doing with Assad. We are, you know, shoring him up, backing him fully." And, you know, that explains the great friendship between Vladimir Putin and Abdel Fattah el-Sisi, I mean, the new dictator in Egypt. That’s the basis of it. And it’s reaping fruits. You know, you have countries like Egypt or Iraq, actually, who were regarded as U.S. clients, who are now buying weapons from Russia. So, to believe that Russia will just, you know, in order to get peace or anything like this, get rid of Assad is just dreaming. The only way to bring this kind of result would be if there was a serious support to the opposition, giving it the means seriously to defend itself, and again, especially with regard to airstrikes. And then—then, this would, of course, create a situation compelling both Putin, Tehran and, of course—

AMY GOODMAN: So you’re saying the U.S. should militarize—

GILBERT ACHCAR: —Assad himself to seek a compromise.

AMY GOODMAN: You’re saying the U.S. should militarize the opposition? The U.S. isn’t even taking on Assad; they are trying to strike ISIS, they say, in Syria now.

GILBERT ACHCAR: The "militarize the opposition" is not the proper term. I mean, it is militarized. It’s an armed opposition. I’m just saying that they needed from the beginning, and had this been done in 2012, we wouldn’t be here now. They need defensive weapons. They needed anti-tank weapons and anti-aircraft weapons. Now they are getting—since Russia entered, they are getting anti-tank weapons, advanced anti-tank weapons, and this is making a difference. But they are still—they don’t have anti-aircraft weapons. And this is the main edge. The main advantage of the regime has been, for all the time, this total control of the air and this ability to strike not only with fighters, but also with helicopters, which are slow-motion engine compared to the jets with those barrel bombs, completely criminal and murderous barrel bombs. And in this, the United States bear a major responsibility, because the United States not only did not provide this kind of defensive means to the opposition, but it prevented its allies over the region from doing it. And there is a very clear U.S. veto on everybody, from Turkey to the Gulf countries, for—about providing this kind of weapons. And this has been respected, given the U.S. influence in the region.

AMY GOODMAN: We just went to the Calais refugee camp, which is the largest refugee camp in France. We were covering the U.N. climate summit, and we went about two hours north of Paris. Thousands of people are camped out in makeshift tents. They’re freezing. Large Afghan population. Another huge Syrian population that’s only growing. We spoke with one refugee, Majd, and I asked him why he left Damascus.

MAJD: I escaped from the war. I don’t want to be—to die. This war is not my war. Yes, everyone is fighting in my country, yes. So, I escaped from the war. I don’t want to be dead for nothing.

AMY GOODMAN: You said everyone is attacking your country. Who?

MAJD: Who? Yes. Who? Everyone. Russia and America and Iran—everyone. Yes.

AMY GOODMAN: Do you think the Russian, Syrian, French, British bombing of Syria will save it?

MAJD: No, no, no, it’s not a solution. You can’t protect someone by killing someone else. You know? They can’t stop the bombs here when they bomb in Syria. Yes, it’s not a solution.

AMY GOODMAN: That was Majd, afraid for us to use his last name because his family still lives in Damascus in an area that is a stronghold of Assad. But he wanted the whole area demilitarized. Gilbert Achcar, what would that look like?

GILBERT ACHCAR: I mean, he’s completely right. But you said he’s coming from Damascus, and this is very telling, because, until now, most of the people fleeing Syria were fleeing from zones where the opposition is in control, for the simple reason that every zone that come under opposition control gets bombed by the regime, which has the monopoly of air force, and whereas the regime-controlled areas do not have this treatment, and you can live, and you can—you have seen, certainly, reportage of Damascus, where life almost seem—looks like normal. But that’s because they are not afraid of any kind of bombing coming from the sky, unlike the other areas.

And yet, you have now people fleeing more and more from the regime-controlled areas, because the regime-controlled areas are also under, you know, a very stressful kind of situation with the development of sectarian and Mafia-like militias, which are practicing, you know, like Mafia forces, racketeering and all sorts of exactions and violence. And people are—that’s why people, you know, are losing hope, like this Majd, probably, and leaving the country.

AMY GOODMAN: Gilbert Achcar, you supported intervention in Libya. Look where Libya is now, if this area is not—if the weapons aren’t removed, as opposed to bombing. Every country, even enemies of each other and enemies of Assad, all bombing Syria—and more often than not, it’s the civilian population—bombing them together.

GILBERT ACHCAR: Yeah. Thank you, Amy, for raising this, because I never supporting the intervention in Libya. That’s a canard. This is a falsity which has been spread all the time. This is actually—I regard this—I mean, you are just repeating something that you’ve heard. But the origin of this—

AMY GOODMAN: Yes, so explain what your position was.

GILBERT ACHCAR: Yes, my position was just at the beginning of the intervention in Libya, when the city of Benghazi was threatened by Gaddafi troops, after this—also this terrible speech by Gaddafi threatening to massacre the population there. I said I can’t blame the population for welcoming the bombing, that were saving them, as they were seeing it. That’s the point. And that’s all, for the city of Benghazi. And as soon as the siege of the city was broken and there was no longer any threat, I said, I mean, I’m against the bombing and against direct intervention, because I know that the United States and its allies, when they intervene anyway, even if it is on the side of a popular revolt, it would be to control it, to try to steer it to their own interests. And that’s why I’m against them intervening directly, whether through bombing or through, of course, troops on the ground. And on this, the Libyans were quite clear: They did not want troops on the ground. They made it very clear. And so, that’s the point.

And I’m against the bombing in Syria, because I think this is leading to nothing. It’s not going—and Majd, in this regard, is—the one you interviewed, the Syrian refugee—is completely right. What I’m saying is something else, that the opposition should have been given the means to defend itself—defensive weapons, from the start, in order to really create a situation whereby the regime would have no choice but to seek a compromise. Instead, the West is—I mean, the United States, in particular, has a—and Barack Obama, in particular, has a huge responsibility in the terrible tragedy that has unfolded in Syria, because non-assistance to people in danger, I regard as as much a crime, from the moral point of view, than direct contribution to the crime.

AMY GOODMAN: Do you think the U.N. has a role here?

GILBERT ACHCAR: Well, you know, the U.N.—the role of the U.N. is what those who are permanent members with veto rights in the U.N. Security Council want it to play. So that means, for in this case, essentially, the United States and Russia. And of course, I mean, the situation in Syria hinges very much on an agreement between these powers. But again, how do you create the ground for this, I mean, with someone like Vladimir Putin, who seems to only speak the language of force? I mean, you have to create facts on the ground whereby he would believe that it is in his best interest to stop shoring up the regime and push for a real compromise, which would mean Assad stepping down, because there won’t be any ending of the conflict as long as he’s, as I said, in power, at the helm.

AMY GOODMAN: And in—and in the last—

GILBERT ACHCAR: So that’s the key point. And that’s the—yes? Sorry.

AMY GOODMAN: And in the last 30 seconds, the U.S. sending troops into or special forces into Syria, into Iraq, the war continuing in Afghanistan?

GILBERT ACHCAR: Yeah, I mean, they are sending these troops in order to, you know, facilitate their airstrikes, I guess, and—or maybe some training. But this won’t change anything. We have seen those attempts, and they were—they led to ridiculous results. It’s not through bombing, it’s not through direct intervention, that the United States can stop the war, if ever it is really and seriously wanting to stop that war.

AMY GOODMAN: Gilbert Achcar, I want to thank you for being with us, professor at the School of Oriental and African Studies at the University of London—his most recent book, The People Want: A Radical Exploration of the Arab Uprising—working on a book on recent developments in the Arab world, with particular focus on Syria and Egypt.

When we come back, we go to Oklahoma City to talk about a white police officer who has just been convicted of serial rape. Why wasn’t he stopped before? Stay with us.

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