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The Endless War Grows: Obama Sends U.S. Forces to Syria, Reversing Pledge of No Boots on the Ground

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The White House has announced a team of special operations forces numbering less than 50 will be sent to Syria. This marks the first sustained U.S. troop presence in Syria since President Obama launched a bombing campaign against the self-proclaimed Islamic State in September 2014. It’s also a reversal of Obama’s repeated promise of no U.S. boots on the ground in Syria, a pledge he also violated in Iraq. One day after the announcement, the United Nations and International Committee of the Red Cross made what they called an “unprecedented joint warning” for states to end wars, respect international law and aid the 60 million refugees made homeless from recent conflicts. We are joined by Phyllis Bennis of the Institute for Policy Studies, author of several books, including “Understanding ISIS and the New Global War on Terror.”

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

AMY GOODMAN: On Saturday, the United Nations and International Committee of the Red Cross made what they called an “unprecedented joint warning” for states to end wars, respect international law and aid the 60 million refugees made homeless from recent conflicts. This is U.N. Secretary-General Ban Ki-moon, followed by Red Cross President Peter Maurer.

SECRETARY-GENERAL BAN KI-MOON: The continuing violence is a clear indication that a political solution to the conflict in Syria is desperately needed. The fighting must stop now. There is no military solution to the crisis, not in Syria or anywhere else. From Afghanistan to the Central African Republic, from Ukraine to Yemen, combatants and those who control them are defying humanity’s most basic rules.

PETER MAURER: When humanitarian law and principles are disregarded, when humanitarian needs are trumped by political agendas, when access to the wounded and sick is denied, and when security concerns lead to a suspension of operations, people are abandoned, the notion of protection loses its meaning, and humanity is flouted. We ask that states reaffirm our shared humanity by concrete action and uphold their responsibility to respect and ensure respect for international humanitarian law.

AMY GOODMAN: Red Cross President Peter Maurer and U.N. Secretary-General Ban Ki-moon speaking on Saturday. They spoke one day after the White House announced that a team of special operations forces numbering up to 50 will be sent to Syria. This marks the first time the White House has acknowledged a sustained U.S. troop presence in Syria since President Obama launched a bombing campaign against Islamic State targets in September 2014. White House spokesperson Josh Earnest denied the troop deployment marks a shift in strategy.

PRESS SECRETARY JOSH EARNEST: Our strategy in Syria hasn’t changed. The core of our military strategy inside of Syria is to build up the capacity of local forces to take the fight to ISIL on the ground in their own country. There are a variety of ways that the United States and our coalition partners can offer our support to those local forces, whether it’s resupplying them or conducting airstrikes in support of their operations on the ground. And the president did make a decision to intensify that support by offering a small number of U.S. special operations military personnel to offer them some advice and assistance on the ground as they take the fight to ISIL. So this is an intensification of a strategy that the president announced more than a year ago, and he has discussed it with all of you on many occasions, and I suspect he’ll discuss it with all of you again in the future.

AMY GOODMAN: In an escalation of the air war in Syria, the U.S. has also announced plans to deploy more fighter planes, including 12 F-15s, to the Incirlik Air Base in Turkey. Since last year, at least 10 nations have taken part in bombing Syria: the United States, Russia, Britain, Canada, France, Australia, Turkey, Israel, the United Arab Emirates and Jordan.

The White House move to expand its role in the Syrian war came one week after a U.S. commando was killed in a special operations raid in Iraq. Master Sergeant Joshua Wheeler became the first American to die in combat in Iraq since 2011. Since his death, more revelations have come out about the U.S. expanding role on the ground in Iraq. Bloomberg News reports the U.S. has been running a secret special operations center in the Iraqi city of Erbil.

Meanwhile, Defense Secretary Ashton Carter acknowledged U.S. troops would take part in direct action in both Iraq and Syria.

DEFENSE SECRETARY ASHTON CARTER: The third and final “R” is raids, signaling that we won’t hold back from supporting capable partners in opportunistic attacks against ISIL or conducting such missions directly, whether by strikes from the air or direct action on the ground.

AMY GOODMAN: The expanded U.S. ground presence in Iraq and Syria comes after years of promises by President Obama that no ground troops would fight again in Iraq. This is the president speaking in June of 2014, more than a year ago.

PRESIDENT BARACK OBAMA: I think we always have to guard against mission creep. So, let me repeat what I’ve said in the past: American combat troops are not going to be fighting in Iraq again.

AMY GOODMAN: Just last month, President Obama also reversed course in Afghanistan, halting the scheduled withdrawal of U.S. troops fighting in the nation’s longest war.

PRESIDENT BARACK OBAMA: First, I’ve decided to maintain our current posture of 9,800 troops in Afghanistan through most of next year, 2016. Their mission will not change. Our troops will continue to pursue those two narrow tasks that I outlined earlier: training Afghan forces and going after al-Qaeda.

AMY GOODMAN: In addition to the wars in Iraq, Syria and Afghanistan, the U.S. continues to carry out drone strikes across the globe, from Pakistan to Yemen to Somalia.

To talk more about endless war, we begin with Phyllis Bennis, fellow at the Institute for Policy Studies. She’s written several books, including, most recently, Understanding ISIS and the New Global War on Terror.

Let’s start, Phyllis, with this rare announcement this weekend by the head of the United Nations, Secretary-General Ban Ki-moon, and the head of the International Red Cross. Talk about the significance of what they said.

PHYLLIS BENNIS: In some ways, Amy, the significance of their statement was that they made this kind of a joint statement, this kind of a joint appeal to all sides to end these wars, linking the various wars that are being fought, centered on the war in Syria, but acknowledging that there are wars from Afghanistan to Central African Republic that have created massive refugee flows that the humanitarian consequences have been beyond anything anyone has seen since World War II. That was a hugely unusual decision to have the U.N. and the ICRC, the leading organization responsible for the international humanitarian law—this is not something that happens often. And it’s a sign of the recognition of the consequences of these escalations that are now going on. The new escalation we’ve seen from the United States both in Syria and Iraq, as well as the decision to remain in Afghanistan, the continuing involvement of the U.S. and others, led by the Saudis, in Yemen—all of these wars, linked most centrally to the war in Syria, have had extraordinary, horrific human consequences. And the fact that the head of the United Nations, the head of the International Committee of the Red Cross are now taking them up as a joint campaign is really a very significant sign of just how serious this is.

AMY GOODMAN: And then, the announcement of the U.S. putting boots on the ground in Syria, and would continue to do this in Iraq and Afghanistan, came in an almost offhand way. It wasn’t the president making a formal announcement on Friday; it was Josh Earnest, the press secretary. And before that, it was Ash Carter in a hearing in the Senate, almost a offhand comment.

PHYLLIS BENNIS: Right. I think that what we’re seeing here is an effort—we heard it in the words of Josh Earnest, that—an effort to claim this is not an escalation. It is clearly an escalation. Now, it may well be that there have been special operations forces, CIA agents and others on the ground in Syria already. We can assume that’s the case, given that the priority of U.S. strategy has involved training and arming various militias, some of which never existed, and then they tried to create a new militia that would be pro-Western, pro-American, democratic, secular, anti-Assad, but not too much because it mainly should be anti-ISIS—very specific categories. They couldn’t really find exactly those militias, so last year they decided to create such a militia, train it, arm it, send it in to fight. And as we know, the result of that was the $500 million—half a billion dollars of our tax money—that went to arm and create a militia that was supposed to be 5,400 people, started with only 120, because that’s all they could find. They trained them, sent them in to fight. Half of them immediately defected. The other half—well, 54—who went to fight, very quickly were either captured, defected, killed, so that when the officials testified in Congress and were asked, “So, how many are left?” the general said, “Well, it’s a very tiny number.” And when pushed, he admitted it was four or five—not four or five hundred, but four or five. So this is the kind of failure that we’re seeing in these efforts. I think what we saw with the language used by the White House spokesman, by the secretary of defense, was designed to say, “This is just more of the same. This isn’t different, even though we’re now acknowledging that there are boots on the ground.” Maybe it’s because they wear sneakers, because they’re special forces, so it’s sneakers on the ground. But the key question here is, this is an escalation.

There is one potential slightly optimistic, though very cynical, possibility here. And that is, if the United States is planning to take seriously the new negotiations that just began this past week in Vienna on the war in Syria, led by the U.S. and Russia, if they intend to take that seriously, it may be that this is an immediate escalation, parallel in some ways to the Russian escalation of airstrikes in Syria, that’s designed to stake out a stronger position before those negotiations really take hold. That’s in old, dangerous, cynical approach to negotiations, but it’s a common one. When military forces are about to negotiate, sometimes they will try to stake out a stronger position. The best possibility of this escalation is that that’s what we’re seeing, that this is actually an indication that we’re going to be seeing serious negotiations. We don’t know that. This could just be an acknowledgment that despite all of President Obama’s statements there is no military solution, that they’ve decided not to take those negotiations seriously, and instead to push forward with precisely a military solution, even though they themselves acknowledge there is no such solution.

AMY GOODMAN: And in the talks in Vienna, Iran is involved? And talk about where Iran stands in all of these conflicts.

PHYLLIS BENNIS: The role of Iran in these talks is hugely important. This is what gives this round of talks some potential for success. The earlier efforts by the United Nations, in what was known as Geneva I and Geneva II, the two earlier rounds of multilateral talks, foundered. They failed for a host of reasons, but the most important reason was the refusal of the United States to allow Iran to participate. This is despite the long-standing lessons talked about from former Senator George Mitchell after the Good Friday Accords in Ireland, when he said the most important lesson is that if you’re serious about diplomacy, everybody has to be at the table. You can’t exclude anyone because you think they’re terrorists, because if you do, it’s not because you like them, it’s not because you trust them, it’s because if they’re not there, they have no obligation to abide by anything you decide, so it’s a guarantee of failure. Up until now, the U.S. has made sure of that guaranteed failure. This time, the U.S. has finally acknowledged that the participation of Iran was acceptable.

And it’s important, Amy, I think, to recognize that three weeks ago at the General Assembly at the United Nations both President Obama and President Putin made important concessions in their speeches, despite the level of bombast of those speeches. So, President Obama said, number one, times are different now, there will have to be concessions. Number two, he referenced what Secretary of State Kerry had said earlier when he said that the possibility of new negotiations will go forward and that Assad will not have to be gone on day one or even on month one. That was a very serious concession. President Putin made the concession by saying that what stands against an ISIS takeover of Syria was the Syrian state and its military. He didn’t say the Syrian president and his military. So he was essentially saying that while we want to avoid what the U.S. did in Iraq—to destroy the state apparatus in Iraq, leaving chaos behind and civil war, sectarianism, etc.—that the Syrian president is not necessarily the major feature here.

AMY GOODMAN: And Syria not participating in these talks, no Syrians in Vienna?

PHYLLIS BENNIS: Yeah, obviously, when these talks get serious, there’s going have to be representatives of both the Syrian government and all the various factions of the Syrian opposition. I think that what’s going on here is that the United Nations is trying, on the ground, to develop local, small-scale ceasefires, local truces. And if that can happen at the local level before trying to do that at the national level, coupled with the sort of top-down international diplomacy that could stop the support of the various fighters on the ground, stop the flood of arms into the country—because none of these ceasefires, none of these truces will hold as long as the U.S. and its allies, and Russia and its allies, are continuing to arm both sides. So I think that will be the next stage. They will obviously have to involve both the Syrian state and the various Syrian representatives.

Hopefully, they will have learned some lessons about the importance of including not only the armed forces, but the various civil society forces who have so bravely continued in the face of extraordinary levels of oppression and violence from their government and from other forces outside: incredibly brave civil society activists, nonviolent activists, women’s organizations, trade unions, youth organizations—the whole range of Syrian civil society that has been trying so hard to end this war. If they’re not included, it means there’s a much slighter chance for the negotiations to continue. But I think the fact that they are beginning with those who are enabling the fighters, meaning those outside who are arming and paying the various armies and militias, this holds a little bit of hope that there could indeed be a significant at least slowdown of the fighting and eventually a diplomatic end to the war.

AMY GOODMAN: Phyllis, I want to ask you to stay with us. Phyllis Bennis, fellow at the Institute for Policy Studies, has written a number of books, most recently, Understanding ISIS and the New Global War on Terror. When we come back, we will also be joined by Andrew Bacevich. Andrew Bacevich is a retired colonel, Vietnam War veteran, author of Breach of Trust: How Americans Failed Their Soldiers and Their Country, as we talk about President Obama’s endless and ever-deepening wars. Stay with us.

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