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“We Shouldn’t Play into the Hands of ISIS”: Vijay Prashad on Danger of Military Escalation in Syria

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In retaliation for Friday’s attacks in Paris, France launched its heaviest airstrikes yet against the Syrian city of Raqqa, which has long served as the de facto capital of the so-called Islamic State. Friday’s attacks came just a day after the Islamic State claimed credit for a double attack in southern Beirut that killed at least 43 people, and two weeks after the group claimed responsibility for bringing down a Russian airliner over the Sinai Peninsula, killing all 224 people on board. Over the weekend, French President François Hollande described Friday’s attack as an act of war. Speaking in Turkey at the G20 summit, President Obama described the events in Paris as “an attack on the civilized world.” We speak with Vijay Prashad, professor of international studies at Trinity College and columnist for the Indian magazine Frontline, for more on the response to the attacks.

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AMY GOODMAN: I want to bring in Vijay Prashad, professor of international studies at Trinity College and columnist for the Indian magazine Frontline, author of a number of books, including Arab Spring, Libyan Winter and The Poorer Nations: A Possible History of the Global South. It’s great to have you with us, Vijay Prashad, on this very sad day. Can you respond to what took place in Paris?

VIJAY PRASHAD: Well, you know, this is obviously not the first attack in Paris. This is the second this year. The scale of this attack was much greater. There’s no question that this is an abomination for any city, you know. But it comes, of course, after a series of attacks by ISIS—in Ankara, before the election in Turkey, where about 128 people were killed in an election rally; in Baghdad, the very weekend of the Paris attack, where there was an attack at a funeral of a fighter who had been fighting against ISIS; and then, of course, as you’ve just been talking, in Beirut, where there was two major suicide bombings in one of the largest attacks in the city of Beirut since the 1970s. This is, of course, a very important issue for the world, how to deal with ISIS. You know, of course, grief has to lead, but I think we have to be very sober in how we react to the provocations of ISIS and not, in fact, play into their hands.

AMY GOODMAN: Can you talk about the significance, when you say of not playing into their hands, what you mean?

VIJAY PRASHAD: Well, you know, it’s interesting. ISIS has for a long time had no real challenge to its state and to its kind of military power. The United States has been bombing infrequently since August 2015 and hitting all kinds of targets which I’m not sure have very much strategic value. Civilians have been killed. This is, of course, exactly what exacerbates frustration and anger in parts of the world, perhaps draws more recruits for ISIS. There has been no actual well-worked-out strategy in how to deal with ISIS. Just to give you a little example, you know, when ISIS seized Palmyra, the United States and other powers, other regional powers, refused to provide close air support to the Syrian troops that were amassed around Palmyra, for fear that if they got involved in providing close air support, they would be charged with backing the Assad government. Or indeed, when the Turkish government, who has a very different understanding of terrorism, strikes at Kurdish camps, where these Kurds have been at the front line of the war against ISIS, there is an incoherence in the response to ISIS, at the same time as merely going and bombing Raqqa, as the French have done again, is really not going to put any pressure on them. In fact, the opposite—it might indeed draw more recruits to them; it might enable them to champion their own audacity.

AMY GOODMAN: Talk about the significance of the French attacking Raqqa. All through the weekend, after the French attacks were launched, commentators in the mainstream media were saying, if they knew this was the headquarters of ISIS, if it’s so obvious that it’s where their operations are conducted, why is this the time that they are striking, only now?

VIJAY PRASHAD: Well, this is a curiosity. You know, earlier this year, ISIS had painted one of its buildings all black. And then the United States bombed the building. Of course, they painted the building almost to say, “Look, here we are,” but there was nobody in the building. You know, there’s a game being played between ISIS and the airstrikes, where they are almost asking the United States to bomb them, and then they turn around and say, “Look, they are attacking us, but they can’t get to us.”

Unfortunately, Raqqa is still a city with hundreds of thousands of people, and these are all civilians. This current set of airstrikes has struck the electricity grid. It has hit a museum, it has hit clinics. It has not only hit the so-called headquarters of ISIS. So, this game that is being played between ISIS, the various Western air forces and the media is, you know, I think, quite troubling, that you can hit a building, the media will call it the headquarters, but then in a few weeks we will realize that this was not really the headquarters, this was some building that ISIS had used two weeks ago, and, you know, as a consequence of these strikes, civilians have been killed.

There’s been so little strategic thinking about how to tackle ISIS. Some of this has to do with the fact that Western governments are compromised by their very close alliance with both Turkey and Saudi Arabia, and this has prevented them from having a robust strategic policy regarding ISIS.

AMY GOODMAN: I wanted to ask you about the meeting that President Obama had with Vladimir Putin in Turkey. It’s the famous image right now of them holed up with just their translators in a corner. Can you talk about what this U.S.-Russian relationship means? What are the two seeking from each other’s countries?

VIJAY PRASHAD: This is a very important 35 minutes. You know, it’s at the G20 summit at Antalya, Turkey, where the Turks previously had said they wanted to put Syria at the top of the agenda. The Paris attacks in fact did bring Syria to the top of the agenda. But most of the meeting was about trade and investment and other issues. But these 35 minutes that Putin and Obama spent together privately are very significant, because what the Russians are saying after the meeting is that there was broad agreement between Obama and Putin about the strategy for Syria, but they differed on tactics.

Now, what they mean by that is not—it was not clarified, but we can take a few guesses. I mean, they both have come to an understanding that ISIS is the principal foe, and it appears that there is a greater harmony between these two powers, that perhaps the removal of the Assad regime as a precondition for anything else is no longer the issue. In other words, the Russians have said that they will create some kind of a process for a political transition. It seems that the Americans are on board with that idea and that these two countries now will have to work with their regional partners for a strategy and a tactical understanding of how to deal with ISIS.

But the problem is, this is easier said than done, because, again, the United States, as I said, is compromised by its relationship with Saudi Arabia and with Turkey, neither of whom are on board with either of these issues—one, that the Assad removal question should be set aside, and secondly, that ISIS is the principal foe, and not, say, for instance, with the Turks, who think the Kurds are an equal foe, or for the Saudis, who think that Assad is perhaps worse than ISIS. So unless the United States can deliver the Saudis and the Turks, this 35-minute meeting at Antalya may not be—may not prove to be as significant as it seems right now.

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