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Expanding U.S. Strikes to ISIS in Syria, Has Obama Opened New Phase of “Perpetual War”?

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The United States has launched airstrikes in Syria targeting the Islamic State, as well as members of a separate militant organization known as the Khorasan group. The Pentagon says U.S. forces launched 47 Tomahawk Land Attack Missiles from warships in the Red Sea and North Arabian Gulf. In addition, U.S. Air Force, Navy and Marine Corps fighters, bombers and drones took part in the airstrikes. According to the Syrian Observatory for Human Rights, at least 20 Islamic State fighters were killed in strikes that hit at least 50 targets in Raqqa and Deir al-Zor provinces in Syria’s east. The United States says Bahrain, Jordan, Qatar, Saudi Arabia and the United Arab Emirates had either participated or supported the strikes against the Islamic State, which has seized swaths of Syria and Iraq. The United States acted alone against the Khorasan group, saying it “took action to disrupt the imminent attack plotting against the United States and Western interests.” The Syrian government claims the United States had informed it of the pending attacks hours before the strikes began. Meanwhile, the United States has expanded its bombing of Iraq, launching new strikes around Kirkuk. To discuss this development, we are joined by two guests: Vijay Prashad, professor of international studies at Trinity College who has written extensively about the Islamic State, and Medea Benjamin, co-founder of the peace group CodePink and author of “Drone Warfare: Killing by Remote Control.”

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

AARON MATÉ: The U.S. has launched airstrikes in Syria, targeting militants from the Islamic State as well as members of a separate group known as “the Khorasan group.” The Pentagon says the U.S. fired 47 Tomahawk Land Attack Missiles launched from warships in the Red Sea and North Arabian Gulf. In addition, U.S. Air Force, Navy and Marine Corps fighters, bombers and drones took part in the airstrikes. The Syrian Observatory for Human Rights says at least 20 Islamic State fighters were killed in strikes that hit at least 50 targets in Raqqa and Deir al-Zor provinces in Syria’s east. U.S. Central Command says Bahrain, Jordan, Qatar, Saudi Arabia and the United Arab Emirates had either taken part or supported the strikes against the Islamic State, which has seized swaths of Syria and Iraq.

AMY GOODMAN: Meanwhile, the United States acted alone against Khorasan. In a statement, U.S. Central command said, quote, “The United States also took action to disrupt the imminent attack plotting against the United States and Western interests conducted by a network of seasoned al-Qaida veterans.” The Syrian government said the United States had informed it of the pending attacks hours before the strikes began. The strikes west of Aleppo reportedly killed 50 fighters, as well as eight civilians, including three children.

Meanwhile, the United States has expanded its air war in Iraq by launching airstrikes in the Kirkuk region of Iraq. In a separate development, Israel shot down a Syrian fighter jet, accusing it of infiltrating into Israeli airspace. It’s the first such incident in at least a quarter of a century.

To talk more about the U.S.-led strikes in Syria, we’re joined by two guests: Vijay Prashad, professor of international studies at Trinity College, and Medea Benjamin is with us from Washington, D.C., just back from the Flood Wall Street protest in New York. She’s co-founder of CodePink.

Professor Vijay Prashad, talk about the significance of the U.S. striking Syria, and the other Arab countries supporting it, though it’s not exactly clear what role they played.

VIJAY PRASHAD: Well, it’s very significant that the United States has struck in Syria. Since August, there have been about 200 strikes in Iraq, but the United States had been reticent to come into the Syrian theater. So this is a very significant development. It’s also significant that there was an announcement that there was a coalition of countries, largely Gulf Arab states, but also Jordan. And Jordan was the first one to admit publicly that they were involved in some way in these strikes.

It’s also, I think, important to recognize that these strikes don’t really have any kind of international backing. There’s no U.N. resolution, nor is there any congressional approval. On the other hand, it does seem as if there was some coordination with the Assad government in Damascus, not only because the government in Damascus very quickly released a statement saying that there was a message sent to their ambassador in New York City about these strikes, but also, you might recall, that General Martin Dempsey, when he appeared before Congress, had talked about what he called the “formidable” air defense systems of Syria. And the fact that no air defense system from Syria had engaged any of the American planes or drones is indicative that there was some kind of coordination. So this is a very significant development.

The dust has not settled yet, so it’s extremely hard to know what the impact is going to be in terms of the complicated politics on the ground.

AARON MATÉ: And, Vijay, you have contacts inside Syria. What are you hearing so far about the scale of these strikes?

VIJAY PRASHAD: Well, it’s important to know that the first person to reveal the strikes was Abdulkader Hariri, who’s a young activist inside Raqqa. He revealed the strikes half an hour before the United States had talked about them. And Abdulkader, from the beginning, has been saying that these strikes are of an unbelievable intensity. You know, you have to imagine that somebody who’s lived in Raqqa over the course of the last three years, as it’s been in the midst of this very bloody and difficult war, immediately knew that the scale of this attack was far greater than anything he had experienced previously, and within seconds, he knew that the nature of the bombing could not be from the Assad government, could not be a war between the rebel groups, but it certainly had to be an American bombing. That means the scale must have been quite intense.

They also say that in Raqqa, the targets that were struck—for instance, the painted black building which ISIS had claimed as their headquarters—had all been emptied and that most of the ISIS leadership has moved into residential areas. So that’s one of the reasons why there was a very low death count in the major strikes on Raqqa. But a great deal of infrastructure in Raqqa city was destroyed and also on Tabqa airbase, which had been taken by ISIS just a month ago when they overran it and threw out the Syrian government forces.

AMY GOODMAN: And, Professor Prashad, this group called Khorasan and its leader, Muhsin al-Fadhli, can you explain what it is? It is what the U.S. is saying, citing, as the imminent threat to the United States, which would justify these attacks.

VIJAY PRASHAD: Well, it’s true that Muhsin al-Fadhli is quite a dangerous man. He’s in his early thirties. He’s a Kuwaiti national who, you know, like many of the core leadership of al-Qaeda, finds himself at all the important places at the correct time. He was in Afghanistan. He was in Yemen. He was in Chechnya. He was also the spokesperson for a small period of time of Abu Musab al-Zarqawi, who was the founder of al-Qaeda in Iraq. Mr. al-Fadhli was also in Iran for a little time.

And it’s interesting that this group is called the Khorasan group. Khorasan is a region in the northwest of Iran and bordering into Afghanistan. So, apparently, this group, which I had heard about a few months ago, had based itself near Aleppo and had come into Syria to draw fighters from the Islamic State that they could use in operations abroad. The word also came that there were some people from Yemen who had joined them.

But, Amy, it’s very important to understand that this is all very shadowy. The intelligence on this is very vague. It’s certainly the case that there are people like Mr. al-Fadhli inside Syria, but it’s not clear exactly what the strikes in Aleppo targeted. They also hit Jabhat al-Nusra positions, which is the official al-Qaeda group inside Syria. So, things are still very unclear, but nonetheless, there has been a strike purportedly on the Khorasan training facilities west of Aleppo.

AARON MATÉ: And the context here of the Syrian civil war, are any of the groups, either the Assad regime or the other rebel forces who are opposed to Assad but also to ISIS—are either of them in position to take advantage of any strikes against ISIS by the U.S.?

VIJAY PRASHAD: Well, you know, it’s interesting, Aaron, that if you consider that the United States government has decided to strike in Syria, currently there is a siege of a major city called Kobani, which is on the Turkish border, where half a million people have taken refuge. Tens of thousands of people from Kobani have crossed into Turkey. And these are Kurds. So it’s quite something that Kurdish refugees have been allowed into Turkey. This city is on the verge of falling. The ISIS fighters that have surrounded it are using heavy artillery that they stole in Mosul. So it’s very striking that the United States didn’t actually, you know, attack their forward, hardened positions, instead took out symbolic targets inside Raqqa. So I’m not sure that this is actually going to change the situation on the ground in northern Syria directly. This seemed like a major attack against ISIS as a demonstration of American strength. If America was truly trying to change the balance of forces in northern Syria, it would have struck some of these forward positions of ISIS that are laying siege at this point against Kobani.

AMY GOODMAN: I want to bring in Medea Benjamin, the co-founder of CodePink. Medea, you’ve just come from the massive protests this weekend—Sunday, the People’s Climate March; yesterday, Flood Wall Street. You’re back in Washington, D.C. You’ve been protesting any suggestion there would be U.S. strikes. Well, now they’re happening on Syria. Your response?

MEDEA BENJAMIN: Well, isn’t it sad, Amy, that the day that the world should be coming together to say, “How do we address the climate chaos that can really destroy our entire planet?” instead, the eyes will now be on the U.S. bombing campaign in Syria? And let’s remember that the climate crisis, the U.S. is so responsible for, so let’s think about the timing of it. Also thinking about the timing is that the U.S. and the Obama administration is doing a George Bush. It’s saying, “Now, we are coming together to say there’s a fait accompli,” and that’s the bombing, “and you’re either with us or against us.” Look at the coalition it brought together, among the most repressive governments in the Middle East—Bahrain, that’s been repressing its nonviolent, democratic uprising; the Saudis, who provide the financing and the recruits for so many of the extremists. This is the diplomatic success of John Kerry. Instead of coming to the U.N. to say that we have the world coming together to stop the recruiting and the financing and the buying of the oil that ISIS has, we have the accomplishment of having repressive Arab regimes joining us in bombing another Arab state.

AMY GOODMAN: What are the links, Medea, you see between war and climate change?

MEDEA BENJAMIN: Well, we have been talking during this weekend about how oil is the basis of U.S. policy in the Middle East. Were it not for Iraq’s oil, the U.S. would have never invaded, would not be there to begin with. The military is the largest polluter. The oil companies are being protected by the U.S. military strength. We see the military-industrial-oil complex all together in this. And I think it’s so sad that when the world is crying out for solutions, both solutions to the climate crisis and nonviolent political solutions to the issue of extremists, what the Obama administration is giving us is a support for the oil monarchies, a support for U.S. oil companies and continued perpetual war.

AARON MATÉ: Medea, what would be a nonviolent political solution to the issue of the Islamic State?

MEDEA BENJAMIN: Well, the Obama administration is supposed to have been working for a binding resolution that we should be hearing about by the Security Council, talking about cutting off the funding, cutting off the equipping of these extremist groups. That’s a positive thing. At the same time, the Obama administration has only given one week to the new government in Iraq to show that it is no longer a sectarian Shiite government that is suppressing Sunnis, but is actually going to be a government for all the people of Iraq. One week is certainly not enough to show that and to have the Sunnis peel away from ISIS. That takes time. There is no imminent threat to the United States right now. That is a lie. What the U.S. did is do this timing right at the time of the U.N. to have it be already an accomplished deal that they better get in on us with this or not. So, I think the political solutions have been put aside now for the military ones.

AMY GOODMAN: Medea, this Khorasan group and its leader, Muhsin al-Fadhli, who the Times writes in a piece from Saturday, saying, “according to the State Department, was so close to Bin Laden [that] he was among a small group of people who knew about the Sept. 11, 2001, attacks before they were launched.” They’re saying the imminent threat is that they know that they’re focused on the West and some kinds of explosives that they want to use—not clear, suicide jackets, or what it is that they are talking about. Do you see this as a pretext to sort of fulfill the requirement for, quote, “imminent threat” for an attack like this?

MEDEA BENJAMIN: The U.S. has been searching for a justification for this attack. First it was to protect U.S. personnel inside Iraq. Then it was humanitarian. And now it’s an imminent threat of a new group that it was only Thursday that was being talked about. Our intelligence agencies have been saying that there is no imminent threat to the United States, so this is yet another justification. And indeed, if there is an imminent threat, the job of our government is to protect us here at home. By going overseas and bombing, we become more of a target of extremist groups.

AMY GOODMAN: Medea, you were organizing protest groups a year ago to pressure Congress to vote against the United States striking Syria. That’s Bashar al-Assad’s government. Now we hear that the U.S. government, at the very least, notified the Syrian government that they were going to attack in Syria, and clearly the Syrian government did not strike them, even as they attacked. What about this shift of U.S. alliances right now?

MEDEA BENJAMIN: Well, it is totally unclear, as Vijay was saying, what the U.S. is doing. There are some reports that by targeting Khorasan, the U.S. will actually be strengthening other extremist groups, because they’re fighting internally with each other. There is absolutely no endgame to this. In fact, the endgame we see is one like Libya ,where it is a total failed state that is spreading extremism throughout the Middle East. So, there is no well-thought-out policy here. There is only a military mindset that is counterproductive, will lead to more extremism, the U.S. becoming more of a target. It’s totally wrong. And your audience, Amy, people who care about the future of this planet, should be getting out on the streets, calling their congresspeople, saying this was never discussed in the United States. There was never a vote by Congress to go to war. This is against the international law. You can’t bomb another country without a justification for it, which hasn’t been given. And so, we have to get out and oppose this.

AARON MATÉ: And, Vijay Prashad, these strikes in Syria coming after six weeks of U.S. bombings inside of Iraq, can you talk about what is happening there and the effect of these attacks on ISIS inside Iraq?

VIJAY PRASHAD: Well, ISIS inside Iraq, as you saw, from September onward, moved much of their heavy machinery into Syria. I mean, that’s been their strategy, is they’re not going to wait around for the bombing, you know, in the same way in Raqqa they had abandoned much of the central part of the city. And so, what the United states bombed in Raqqa were largely empty buildings. You know, they have been moving their heavy machinery around, their arms around. They are currently, as I said, attacking in northern Syria. So where the strikes happened were not exactly where their main fighting forces are right now based.

What’s striking to me is that—given that the U.N. is meeting this week, given that President Obama is going to actually chair the Security Council, it’s surprising that the United States hasn’t taken this opportunity to lean much more heavily on close U.S. allies—in fact, NATO member Turkey. You know, Turkey had said that it wouldn’t close its border, wouldn’t actually come in to help find other means to isolate ISIS, because it had hostages that ISIS was holding. Turkish hostages were being held in Iraq. Those hostages have been released. This would have been a perfect time to have leaned on Turkey to strengthen the border, cut off the ability of ISIS to draw on the outside world. But instead of doing any of these political things, the United States has gone in to bomb largely empty buildings in northern Syria.

AMY GOODMAN: And the significance, Professor Prashad, of the British prime minister, Cameron, meeting with the president of Iran, Rouhani, here in New York—that is his plan, the first time a British prime minister would meet with an Iranian leader since the Iranian Revolution—and the reports Sunday that the Saudi foreign minister met with his Iranian counterpart, Mohammad Javad Zarif, in New York, according to the Iranian news agency?

VIJAY PRASHAD: Frankly, I think that the real solution in the region is going to come from some kind of grand bargain between Iran and Saudi Arabia. These two countries have been at each other’s throats since 1979. They have opened the region to the entry of outside forces. You know, when these two countries decide that it is in their absolute self-interest to have some kind of grand bargain, we’re going to see a de-escalation in the region. So any kind of meeting of this sort is greatly welcomed. I would hope that the forces of peace would encourage more meetings with the Iranians, more meetings between the Iranians and the Saudis. If that doesn’t happen, this is just Band-Aid, this is just a lot of loud noise, but it’s not going to provide the kind of political solution needed in the region for the long term.

AMY GOODMAN: I want to thank you both for being with us, Vijay Prashad, professor of international studies at Trinity College, author of a number of books, including The Poorer Nations: A Possible History of the Global South, and Medea Benjamin, co-founder of CodePink. Her new book, Drone Warfare: Killing by Remote Control.

Also interesting to note, the networks hardly discussing the issue of climate today after the largest mass climate protest in history, but focusing on these strikes, and the people they’re bringing into the network studios very often those who got it wrong in 2003, 2002, in the preparations for the war in Iraq, who alleged weapons of mass destruction. Seeing people like Medea Benjamin on their networks is very rare, the peace activists who at that time got it right. This is Democracy Now!,, The War and Peace Report. I’m Amy Goodman, with Aaron Maté. We’ll be back covering flooding Wall Street in a moment.

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