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Is There a Diplomatic Solution to ISIS Crisis? U.S. Could Turn to Aid, Arms Embargo & Engaging Foes

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An international summit on combating militants from the Islamic State has opened in France, bringing together around 30 countries from a U.S.-led coalition. The Obama administration says several Arab League countries have signed on for airstrikes in Iraq and Syria, but no sustained campaign is imminent. President Obama has already asserted he does not need approval from the Congress to expand U.S. airstrikes into Syria. On Friday, the Obama administration says it derives legal authority for the war on the Islamic State from both the 2001 war on terror resolution as well as the 2002 vote authorizing the Iraq War. The White House made the claim despite President Obama’s previous call for repealing the war authorization measures. On Saturday, video was posted online showing a member of the Islamic State beheading British aid worker David Haines, the third Western hostage to be beheaded by the militants in less than a month. In the video, the Islamic State issued death threats against another captive British aid worker, Alan Henning. We are joined by Phyllis Bennis, a fellow at the Institute for Policy Studies.

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

NERMEEN SHAIKH: An international summit on combating militants from the Islamic State has opened in France with high-ranking officials from 26 nations attending, plus representatives of the United Nations, the European Union and the Arab League. The meeting comes less than a week after President Obama outlined his plan to launch airstrikes against the militants in Syria and to expand airstrikes in Iraq. French President François Hollande called for united international action to tackle the Islamic State.

PRESIDENT FRANÇOIS HOLLANDE: [translated] This terrorist movement has spread in a whole territory in Iraq and Syria. This terrorist movement ignores borders and has the ambition to build a state. That is a threat. It is global, so there must be a global answer.

AMY GOODMAN: Secretary of State John Kerry spent the weekend meeting with leaders in the Middle East trying to secure backing for U.S. military strikes against ISIS. During an appearance on Face the Nation, Kerry said the U.S. had received pledges of assistance from the region and beyond.

SECRETARY OF STATE JOHN KERRY: I’ve been extremely encouraged to hear from all of the people that I’ve been meeting with about their readiness and willingness to participate. I can tell you right here and now that we have countries in this region, countries outside of this region, in addition to the United States, all of whom are prepared to engage in military assistance, in actual strikes, if that is what it requires.

NERMEEN SHAIKH: On Saturday, video was posted online showing a member of the Islamic State beheading British aid worker David Haines. He is the third Western hostage to be beheaded by the militants in less than a month. In the video, the Islamic State issued death threats against another captive British aid worker, Alan Henning.

Meanwhile, Iraq’s new prime minister, Haider al-Abadi, has ordered the Iraqi air force to halt shelling of civilian areas, even in those towns controlled by ISIS. The Iraqi state had been facing criticism for indiscriminately bombing Sunni areas. According to Human Rights Watch, at least 31 civilians recently died when an Iraqi airstrike hit a school housing displaced people near Tikrit. The dead included 24 children. According to survivors, no fighters from the Islamic State were in or around the school at the time.

AMY GOODMAN: To talk more about the U.S. war plans to attack Syria and to expand airstrikes in Iraq, we’re joined by Phyllis Bennis, a fellow at the Institute for Policy Studies. She has written several books, including Before & After: U.S. Foreign Policy and the September 11th Crisis. Her recent piece for The Nation is headlined “The Speech on Diplomacy That Obama Should Have Given Last Night.”

Phyllis, you’ve come out opposed to the U.S. strikes against Iraq and expanding into Syria, and you lay out six points why. Why don’t you lay them out for us here?

PHYLLIS BENNIS: I think the key thing is that what we’re seeing from President Obama is a plan that is almost entirely military, even when he himself is saying there is no military solution. What we need is a diplomatically based solution that starts with do no harm, stop the plans for airstrikes, and stop sending more troops. We already have boots on the ground. There are right now somewhere around 1,500; there will be close to 1,800 very soon. So, that’s number one: Do no harm.

The next steps all have to do with diplomacy. So the U.S. should be engaging in a much more direct, open and public way with Iran on the question of persuading the Iraqi government to move towards a more inclusive kind of government. We’ve heard talk about this. We’ve heard from the new prime minister, al-Abadi, that he intends to do that. That’s all fine, but so far there is no new director of the ministries either for military or intelligence and security affairs. That’s where the repression of Sunnis, that has been so dramatic and has led to Sunni support for ISIS, has come from. So, we need real pressure. And that can best come from the combination of the U.S. and Iraq working together.

Third, we need diplomacy where the U.S. will work again with Russia. This is a moment when there’s enormous tension between the U.S. and Russia over Ukraine, but this might be a moment for resolving some of that tension by reclaiming the good relations that were built last year between the U.S. and Russia in dealing with the destruction of Syria’s chemical weapons arsenal.

Then we need a broader diplomatic mobilization that has to go back to what was tried at the U.N.—it didn’t work, we need to try again—for real regional and global mobilization diplomatically to end the war in Syria. That has to come back to, number five, which is a massive campaign towards disarming this area. We need an arms embargo, and that’s only going to happen if it happens on all sides. It’s either all sides or none. So the U.S. and its allies need to stop arming these massive numbers of opposition forces in Syria. That will give them a better position to be able to pressure Russia and Iran to stop arming the Syrian regime.

And finally, a massive increase in the amount of humanitarian support that the U.S. is providing. That kind of a policy is what we should have heard from Obama the other night. Unfortunately, what we heard was a four-part military strategy, which is absolutely not going to work.

NERMEEN SHAIKH: And Phyllis Bennis, why do you think it is that this time President Obama has laid out a military strategy and not considered diplomatic options, and the last year in August, following the chemical weapons attack, he backed down from his threat to strike militarily? What happened in the intervening time?

PHYLLIS BENNIS: Yeah. Well, I think, unfortunately, much of this is politically driven. There were moments of crisis in Iraq, as there had been moments of crisis in Syria, where there was the question of would the U.S. intervene militarily. One of the big problems is we don’t hear options. We hear the choice that George Bush gave the nation on September 12th, after the September 11th attacks back in 2001, when we were told the choice is either we go to war or we let them get away with it. Presented with those two options, the support for going to war was 88 percent, and that’s not so surprising: If the only alternative is do nothing, people will support war. The problem is, all of the options that have to do with diplomacy, with disarmament, with arms embargoes, none of that was on the table.

This time around, we saw an immediate response, partly around the humanitarian crisis that was happening on Mount Sinjar, although we were told a story that turned out not to be true. There were not 30,000 people starving on the mountain; there were about 3,000, and most had already been safely escorted off the mountain, not because of U.S. airstrikes, but because of the work of the Syrian Kurds who escorted them down the mountain, through Syria, and then back into Iraq. And then we had the political response to the horrific crime of ISIS when they beheaded two American journalists. This was a horrifying act, but it was not a threat to the United States. And the reality was that the politics is what then came to the fore. And the politics of revenge—very much like 9/11, the politics of revenge took over. And there was this fear in Washington, I think, of looking like we weren’t doing anything, because “anything” is always described as anything military. So if there’s going to be a response, it has to be a military response, because we don’t have another. We don’t take seriously responses that are diplomatic, that are somehow nonmilitary.

And I think that that led to, particularly because of the press coverage that hyped the horror of this, as if it was the only time that such horrific acts had been taking place—The New York Times was the only mainstream media outlet that reported on—it was either August 27th or 28th—reported that the Free Syrian Army, the so-called moderate part of the Syrian rebels, who the U.S. wants now to increase aid and military support and training and arming—that the Free Syrian Army had itself beheaded six captives. Six prisoners that they had control of, they beheaded them, right after shooting to death—right after the shooting death of an American who had been caught by ISIS. So, this is a war when war crimes, these kinds of acts of utter brutality, are taking place on all sides. And the idea that in response to that, that there will be a military response, that we will go to war against a criminal act, a horrific criminal act, simply is not going to work any better than it did back in 2001.

AMY GOODMAN: Phyllis Bennis, speaking to Face the Nation over the weekend, Secretary of State John Kerry emphasized the role of the Syrian opposition in fighting ISIL.

SECRETARY OF STATE JOHN KERRY: The Syrian opposition is on the ground. And one of the regrettable things is it has been fighting ISIL by itself over the course of the last couple of years, and it’s one of the reasons that they’ve had a difficult battle. Now, with the air support and other effort from other countries, they will be augmented in their capacity. One of the things the president put in the plan is the effort to increase the training, increase the equipping and advising to that—to the Syrian opposition. And I can’t tell you whether some other country in the neighborhood will or won’t decide to put some people in there.

AMY GOODMAN: So that’s John Kerry, who’s at the Paris international summit that is excluding Iran and Syria. Phyllis Bennis, also Steven Sotloff, the journalist who was beheaded, his—the family spokesperson, Barak Barfi, said that the Syrian—so-called “moderate” Syrian rebels that are being discussed as the ones to support are the ones that sold Steven Sotloff to ISIS. But can you talk about who gains here, and the U.S., interestingly enough, in a sense, though behind the scenes very much their actions may support Iran and Syria, excluding them from today’s summit?

PHYLLIS BENNIS: Yeah, again, this is politically driven, not strategically driven. What the news was, after—sorry, after Secretary Kerry’s statement over the weekend, the news broke yesterday, first in Politico, and then it’s been picked up more widely, that there’s actually been a truce signed between ISIS and at least part—we don’t know exactly how many of the over a thousand separate Syrian opposition groups, but a major component of the Syrian opposition has signed a truce with ISIS, agreeing that as long as the Assad regime is in power in Damascus, they will not fight each other. It’s an agreement not to fight. So, this notion that somehow the Syrian opposition is going to fight ISIS is simply not the case. There have indeed been parts of the Syrian opposition that have challenged ISIS, but the notion that now, with new U.S. weapons, they are going to turn on ISIS simply isn’t the case. They have publicly announced a truce that they’ve signed with ISIS, and that means that all of the U.S. weapons and training sent to at least those parts of the Syrian opposition—and remember, these are fluid organizations that shift around a lot—all of those weapons and that training is going to be adding to the value of ISIS and its own military capacity, because there is now this truce. So the notion that somehow the Syrian opposition is going to be an ally of the United States against ISIS, which, as you say, Amy, objectively supports the regime in Syria and Iran, while not allowing those countries to participate in the diplomatic discussion about how best to challenge ISIS, simply points to the political nature of this kind of discussion.

We saw this earlier in this crisis. Two years ago, when the U.N. began trying to put talks together to deal with the emerging civil war in Syria, the United States said Iran cannot be a participant. And somehow, everybody else went along with that. And not surprisingly, if you don’t have everyone at the table, diplomacy will fail. The same thing is likely to happen this time. It is objectively in the interest of the Syrian government to have ISIS be the target. We heard in President Obama’s speech, he used the language of the Syrian regime having lost legitimacy. But interestingly, we did not hear a repeat of his very constant call for that regime to be destroyed. He said before, “That regime must go. Assad must go. They can no longer be in power.” We didn’t hear any of that from President Obama’s speech. We heard one almost side point that the regime has lost its legitimacy, but with no consequence. So there’s an agreement, in a sense, quietly. Maybe it’s going on behind the scenes, maybe it’s only going on through winks and nods, and what is left out of speeches, but clearly there is some agreement between the U.S. and the Syrian regime that right now the targeting is going to be against ISIS. The same is true with Iran. Iran is a major player in the region, and the U.S. refusal to acknowledge that means that any diplomatic move is likely to fail.

NERMEEN SHAIKH: Phyllis Bennis, the Free Syrian Army has of course denied the reports that it’s come to a truce with ISIS. Could you elaborate on the argument that you make in several of your articles that this bombing campaign is only likely to strengthen ISIS, both in Iraq and in Syria? How would that happen?

PHYLLIS BENNIS: Well, if we look at the situation in Iraq, when there are U.S. bombings of ISIS, what we hear in the United States in the press, and somewhat among the public, and certainly in the White House, the State Department, “Yay! Hooray! We got the bad guys.” It looks very different in Iraq, particularly for Iraqi Sunnis, who are about 12 percent of the population, have been dispossessed of their very privileged position that they had had for several decades before the U.S. invasion and occupation. And in recent years, during the Maliki government, backed by the United States, that sort of missing privilege turned into really serious repression, where communities were being bombed, people not only lost their job but they faced imprisonment on a large scale, people were being tortured in the prisons, executions in large numbers. So the repression was very, very strong.

What we see now, when the U.S. goes after ISIS, is that the perception is: Here’s the U.S. acting as the air force for the Shia and the Kurds against the Sunni. That’s not going to encourage Sunni leaders, the tribal leaders who have brought their militia to support ISIS; the Sunni former generals, many of whom are now fighting with ISIS and presenting ISIS with experienced military leadership; and ordinary Sunnis, who may not like what ISIS stands for. These are pretty secular people. They drink and smoke and are citizens of the modern world. They’re not trying to go back to the seventh century, like ISIS is. But despite all of that, they are prepared to ally with ISIS because the repression they face from the Syrian—sorry, from the Iraqi government has been so profound that they will ally with anyone who’s prepared to fight back. So, the new government that’s now in power in Baghdad may represent an effort to broaden the government, but we haven’t seen it yet. And more importantly, the Sunni population of Iraq has not seen it yet. So every time the U.S. drops bombs, it’s perceived as one more indication that nothing has changed, that Sunnis in Iraq are still going to be the target of the Shia and Kurdish forces, backed by the United States, and now perhaps backed by other regional and international governments, as well.

AMY GOODMAN: Phyllis, last question, as we wrap up, and it’s about Saudi Arabia. It’s about the funding of ISIS and the U.S. relationship to Saudi Arabia, why you think this is so key, and if the pressure were brought in what you feel would be the right way, that there would not have to be any bombing.

PHYLLIS BENNIS: Absolutely. You know, Saudi Arabia is the source of the largest amount of money, from what all the reports are indicating, that is going to ISIS as well as a host of other Islamist and other organizations, the al-Nusra Front, the official franchise of al-Qaeda, and others. Some of it probably comes from the government, although that’s never been confirmed. But this is a very tightly controlled society, where if there was an interest by the government in stopping its own citizens, whether they are Saudi princes or ordinary citizens, who are the source of a huge amount of the money funding these organizations, including ISIS, it could be contained. The Saudi government has been very eager to keep ISIS out of Saudi Arabia. The fact that the U.S. has an enormous base in the region makes it very vulnerable for those who see the U.S. role as something to be challenged, something to be opposed. The Saudis don’t want to talk about that alliance with the United States. But there is $60 billion worth of arms that they’ve been engaged in buying from the United States over this last two years. Many of those arms are the ones ending up in the hands of ISIS. It’s U.S. arms and it’s Saudi arms that are ending up there. Whether it’s individuals or whether it’s part of the government, that money is coming to a large degree from Saudi Arabia, from other parts of the region, as well—from Qatar, from Kuwait, from UAE, from a number of countries—but Saudi Arabia is very much at the center of this. And the U.S.-Saudi alliance is such that if the U.S. chose to challenge the arms sellers in this country, who are making a killing on this new war, this Iraq War 3.0, we might say—if they were to prepared to challenge those arms suppliers, and thus challenge the Saudi government, there could be a real effort to put a stop to the funding and arming of these terrible organizations like ISIS.

AMY GOODMAN: We want to thank you, Phyllis, for being with us, fellow at the Institute for Policy Studies, written a number of books, including Before & After: U.S. Foreign Policy and the September 11th Crisis. We’ll link to your piece at The Nation headlined “The Speech on Diplomacy That Obama Should Have Given Last Night.”

This is Democracy Now! Who are the people you are watching on television? What’s their vested interest in going to war? Are they identified by the networks or simply called former generals or pundits? Stay with us.

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