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Peace Advocates: If Trump Wanted to Help Syrians, He Would Lift Refugee Ban & Fund Humanitarian Aid

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We continue our roundtable discussion on Syria after the United States carried out a missile attack on a Syrian airfield, saying it was a response to a chemical weapons attack that killed 86 people, including at least 30 children. Syria denies carrying out the attack. “Both these superpowers … do not give a damn about Syrian self-determination nor justice for Syrians,” says Yazan al-Saadi, a Syrian-Canadian writer who joins us from Beirut. “We do want something that will be positive for the Syrian people,” adds Medea Benjamin, cofounder of CodePink. “That means immediately lifting of the Trump ban on Syrian refugees coming to the United States, of funding of the $5 billion that the U.N. says is desperately needed to help the humanitarian crisis facing the Syrian refugees, and demand that the U.S. work with Russia to finally come to a ceasefire and work for a political solution.” We are also joined by Alia Malek, journalist and former human rights lawyer, and Phyllis Bennis, fellow at the Institute for Policy Studies.

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AMY GOODMAN: This is Democracy Now!,, The War and Peace Report. I’m Amy Goodman, as we continue our roundtable discussion on Syria, the United States striking a Syrian military airbase for the first time in the six-year Syrian civil war. Speaking Thursday, interestingly, at the Women in the World Summit in New York City, before the strike happened, before President Trump came out in Florida, former U.S. Secretary of State Hillary Clinton said the U.S. should take out Syrian President Bashar al-Assad’s airfields, after the chemical attack that killed scores of people on Tuesday.

HILLARY CLINTON: I think we should have been more willing to confront Assad. … I really believe that we should have and still should take out his airfields and prevent him from being able to use them to bomb innocent people and drop sarin gas on them.

AMY GOODMAN: For more, we are going to Lebanon, where we’re joined by Yazan al-Saadi, Syrian-Canadian writer, researcher based in Beirut. We are also continuing with Alia Malek, author of The Home That Was Our Country: A Memoir of Syria. Phyllis Bennis is with us, a fellow at the Institute for Policy Studies. And we’re joined by Medea Benjamin, who is co-founder of CodePink.

So, let’s go to Lebanon right now, to Yazan al-Saadi. Your response to the first U.S. attack on the Syrian military base, after the Tuesday chemical attack in Syria?

YAZAN AL-SAADI: Well, my first response is that I personally don’t think it’s going to matter much in the long term. I think it’s simply a symbolic attack. Let us not forget that the U.S. has told the Russians beforehand that they were going to do it. They hit a lone air base. This won’t really damage the capabilities of the Assad regime to do what it is doing.

I also would like to highlight that regardless of the fact that it’s the first so-called U.S. response on the Syrian regime, the U.S. has been bombing Syria since 2014, killing hundreds of civilians. So, for me, I would have to disagree with my other guest, Alia, in saying that this is a positive thing. There can be nothing positive, nothing at all, from the U.S. regime, nor the Russian regime, in their bombings and invasions of Syria. Neither of them—

AMY GOODMAN: You’re referring to Lina.

YAZAN AL-SAADI: Yeah, Lina and Alia mentioned that this is somehow positive. I mean, let’s be honest. Both these superpowers, with other reactionary forces in the region, do not give a damn about Syrian self-determination nor justice for Syrians, like they don’t give a damn about other communities in the region, from Bahrain to Yemen to Palestine. So, I have no hope, with the Putin regime or the Trump regime, in whatever they do. They can say whatever they want, but their actions have proven that they really don’t care. And they were just—it’s basically barks between each other. And it’s not really going to matter much for the people on the ground who are dying.

AMY GOODMAN: Alia, if you would respond?

ALIA MALEK: Yeah. No, I didn’t say it was a positive thing. I said it might mean that there’s one less airfield from which these kinds of attacks can be launched. And I didn’t come to this discussion about Syria today. And that’s part of the problem, is a lot of people are sort of weighing into it today. For since the very beginning, actually, and before 2011, we have been calling for accountability for the Assad regime in what it had sort of—its persecution and prosecution of dissent and opposition for years. This goes back to before 2011. And similarly, I’ve never said that the only way to engage Syria or to hold Bashar al-Assad or other players accountable is with military—military intervention. I’ve never been pro-military intervention. The reality is, this regime has backers: Iran and Russia. The United States, at any point during the Obama administration, could have—could have confronted them not on—not in a military sense in Syria, using Syria as a proxy, but in the kinds of negotiations that happen bilaterally all the time. Let’s not forget, the U.S. was negotiating a deal with Iran. It had a card to play. It had leverage that it could have used on the Syrian regime’s principal backer.

And I just want to speak to the idea of what Tulsi Gabbard said and about accountability. I don’t disagree. Yes, there should be accountability. There’s going to be no way to piece Syria back together if there isn’t accountability for those who have perpetrated crimes, no matter what side they’re on, or justice for the victims, no matter what side they’re on. But a lot of people are kind of placing Syria as a character, as a bit character, into their larger sort of geopolitical narratives of what is happening in this world. Whether you’re objecting to intervention by outside powers, you know, Syria just becomes like the latest theater to have that discussion. Whether it’s a discussion about sectarianism and whether Sunnis are being killed by Shia, it just becomes—or Shia-related minorities, it becomes a way to look at Syria in that sense. But I’m—I’ve always advocated for looking at Syria for the sake of Syrians and creating a country that is stable and safe and free for all its people. So I just—you know, Yazan—I appreciate Yazan’s comments. He’s correct. There’s nobody who really cares about Syria, I think, other than its own people. But he shouldn’t mischaracterize my position.

And one more thing I would just like to say. I have been struck in the last six years over the debate on Syria why there’s sort of a fixed amount of critical thinking or a fixed amount of anger or a fixed amount of sympathy and empathy. You know, once you take sort of one position, it’s as if you cannot sympathize or empathize or be critical of another position. Just because one is critical of Russian intervention does not mean that one cannot be critical of American intervention. And I think, in a principled, coherent way of looking at these things, we won’t fall into those traps, which a lot of people are falling into.

AMY GOODMAN: Yazan al-Saadi in Beirut?

YAZAN AL-SAADI: I agree with her last point. I mean, there was, and there continues to be, a big problem in the discussions of Syria, where geopolitics and ideological lines are defining over and beyond the rights and dignities of people. So this has been going on, and it’s still going on 'til this day. The conversations about U.S. bombing of an airfield in Syria has generated a sense of hysteria. Some people, that so-called anti-imperialist front, are saying this is the beginning of World War III, which is a ridiculous statement. And other people say this is the first time America has intervened in Syria. And this is not true. The Americans have been intervening in Syria for a long time, in various ways—not really against the regime, and I agree with Alia there. They really—it is not in their interest to promote and develop self-determination of Syrians. And it's a clear policy they have for the entire region.

Let’s look at the bigger picture here. And when I say “the bigger picture,” I’m talking about not the simple anti-imperialist or geopolitics discourse. I’m talking about: What about self-determination for all the communities? Because what’s happening in Syria is part of a process. This latest chapter, that started in 2011, is part of a regional chapter that we saw erupting from Bahrain to Yemen and elsewhere. So, really, any hope or any feeling by anyone that Russia or the U.S. or regional states, like Turkey, Iran, Saudi Arabia, or the regime itself care or want to promote Syrian or anyone else’s self-determination and freedoms and security, it’s ridiculous. It’s a ridiculous assumption, you know?

AMY GOODMAN: I wanted to bring in Medea Benjamin, who has written extensively about war. She’s author of Kingdom of the Unjust: Behind the U.S.-Saudi Connection—and there’s certainly a Saudi connection here—also written about drones. Your thoughts last night when you heard that the U.S. had just struck a Syrian military base? As Yazan said, the U.S. has been part of coalition bombing in Syria for a long time, killed hundreds of people, but this is the first time attacking a Syrian military base.

MEDEA BENJAMIN: Well, first, let’s look at the history of the U.S. in the region and the legacy of the U.S. intervention, whether it’s Afghanistan, Iraq or Libya. It’s all been terrible for the local people. I think we, on this conversation, all care about the Syrian people. Let’s look at what we can do. And I think that means going to Congress, going out in the streets and saying we don’t want U.S. further intervention, but we do want something that will be positive for the Syrian people. That means immediately lifting of the Trump ban on Syrian refugees coming to the United States, of funding of the $5 billion that the U.N. says is desperately needed to help the humanitarian crisis facing the Syrian refugees, and demand that the U.S. work with Russia to finally come to a ceasefire and work for a political solution, and that the United Nations get involved in this. I think this is an opening that we have to seize to say enough is enough, enough people have died, more war is not the answer, let’s find a political solution.

AMY GOODMAN: I wanted to turn to what people are seeing on TV, what started to take over the networks last night, when the Pentagon released video footage of the U.S. missiles firing. This is MSNBC anchor Brian Williams referring to that Pentagon video, fired at Syria, as “beautiful,” something like three times in 30 seconds.

BRIAN WILLIAMS: Go into greater detail. We see these beautiful pictures at night from the decks of these two U.S. Navy vessels in the eastern Mediterranean. I am tempted to quote the great Leonard Cohen: “I’m guided by the beauty of our weapons.” And they are beautiful pictures of fearsome armaments making what is for them a brief flight over to this airfield. What did they hit?

AMY GOODMAN: That is MSNBC’s Brian Williams speaking last night, describing that footage, the Tomahawk cruise missiles flying into the air from the naval warships, reminding one of, back in 2003, shock and awe in Iraq, certainly a very different scale. But, Medea, your response?

MEDEA BENJAMIN: It’s absolutely disgusting, this glorification of weapons that are of much of mass destruction as the use of chemical weapons. The U.S. has been incinerating people for years with drone strikes, killed over 200 people in Mosul just recently. The U.S. is arming the Saudis, that have led to the catastrophic situation in Yemen where one child is dying every single 10 minutes. We should not glorify the weapons, and we should not have a selective sympathy for people who are dying, whether they’re dying from our weapons or other nations’ weapons.

AMY GOODMAN: These are some of the tweets from President Trump on Syria. Now, this is back in 2013. And the reason this period is significant, it was after the first chemical weapons attack, when some 1,400 Syrians died. He tweeted, “What I am saying is stay out of Syria.” Another tweet: “If Obama attacks Syria and innocent civilians are hurt and killed, he and the U.S. will look very bad!” “Again, to our very foolish leader, do not attack Syria—if you do many very bad things will happen and from that fight the U.S. gets nothing!” And he tweeted, “President Obama, do not attack Syria. There is no upside and tremendous downside. Save your 'powder' for another (and more important) day!” I was wondering if Yazan would respond to what President Trump said four years ago, after that first chemical attack?

YAZAN AL-SAADI: I mean, what is there to respond to a very revolting human being who is misogynistic, xenophobic and a constant liar? I mean, there isn’t much to respond to this man. I think he is clearly—

AMY GOODMAN: But today—

YAZAN AL-SAADI: He’s playing a game.

AMY GOODMAN: But last night—

YAZAN AL-SAADI: He’s playing a game. He’s playing a game. You know, when he’s—

AMY GOODMAN: Last night, talking about the cruel suffocating of the children?

YAZAN AL-SAADI: I’m sorry, but when he’s talking about the cruel suffocation of babies—right?—this is a man that doesn’t mind these babies drowning on the shores of the Mediterranean Sea with their family trying to escape the horrors of Syria. This man doesn’t mind bombing places in Iraq, where hundreds of people have died. This man doesn’t mind supporting Saudi Arabia, the world’s most embarrassing country, in its slaughter of Yemen. This man doesn’t mind making a deal with Bashar al-Assad, a revolting tyrant, in order to fight ISIS. So, I can’t really take him seriously, nor can I take seriously, as well, another individual who is as revolting: Putin. Both of them are fascist individuals. Both of them don’t give a damn about the people of this region or the communities of the world. So, for me to respond to this man, why would I respond to a xenophobic, disgusting individual?

AMY GOODMAN: Phyllis Bennis of the Institute for Policy Studies in Washington, what has changed for Donald Trump? I mean, even a few days ago, on Friday, you had Rex Tillerson, the secretary of state, and Nikki Haley, the U.S. ambassador to the United Nations, saying that they are shifting gear and that their priority is not to get Assad out.

PHYLLIS BENNIS: That wasn’t a shift in gear. The shift in gear was now, suddenly, because of Trump’s emotional reaction to the deaths of these particular children—what Yazan said is so crucially important—the hypocrisy, the selective outrage, that this group of children somehow sparks the outrage that didn’t exist when children were slaughtered under U.S. bombs in Mosul, when children were killed trying to make the crossing with their parents to a United States that would not accept them, that was slamming a door in their face, and drowning on the beach as a result. You know, this is not about a strategy. This is about a lashing out. It may be tied to concerns about all the political ways that the Trump administration is losing support. That’s certainly part of it.

But I think we also have to recognize that, historically, the role of the United States in the region has included a long-standing relationship with the regime of Bashar al-Assad and his father, whether it was recruiting the father in to bring his air force to help the United States bomb Iraq in 1991, where Syrian planes were part of that coalition; in 2002, when Bashar al-Assad agreed that the United States would be able to outsource torture and interrogation to Syria, because they were experts at that, and sent U.S.-held detainees to be tortured by the Syrian regime in Syria. So, you know, this history of relationship, collaboration, coalition with the Syrian regime, and then, at particular moments, for their own purposes—and it’s true, it has nothing to do with concerns about the people of Syria. There are now at least 11 separate wars being waged in Syria, and only one of them has something to do with the people of Syria. Whether we’re talking about the war between Turkey and the Kurds, the war between Saudi Arabia and Iran, the war between the U.S. and Russia, which is in transition right now, all of these wars are being waged in Syria. And the effect in Syria is that it’s Syrians doing the dying. It’s not Syrians who stand to gain from any of these wars. The only thing we need to do with these wars is not to win them, but to end it, to end the fighting in Syria.

This escalation by the United States of its existing level of bombing and special forces engagement and intervention in Syria has now been escalated to direct bombing against the regime’s targets. This is going to make things worse, and not better. The call, I think, needs to be to stop the bombing, stop the claim that somehow there is a military solution here, acknowledge there is no military solution and figure out how to make the kind of massive investment of high-profile time, of money, of attention, of all the things into diplomacy, negotiations, a new approach that’s not going to be based on the clearly false assumption that somehow this is a war that can be won. It cannot be won. It has to be ended instead.

AMY GOODMAN: Let me end on refugees, Alia. The president, Trump, not only as president, but on the campaign, repeatedly said he will keep Syrian refugees out of this country, every last one. What now? What is happening now? We just heard about a Syrian activist, scholar, with a French passport, just denied coming into the country in Washington, even though the courts have said you can’t institute this Muslim ban. It’s not as if there’s not a crackdown now all over the world around Muslims coming in, and particularly Syrians.

ALIA MALEK: I don’t like to predict the future, but I don’t see a massive change. I think American attention spans are short. I don’t think this was a real escalation. I don’t—it doesn’t appear to me that Trump—like everyone has said, Trump clearly doesn’t care about the Syrian people. I’m not really sure he’s willing to confront Russia in Syria in a massive escalation. I think this is sort of—I mean, and I think even to call it an emotional response is quite generous. You know, the Russians were—had cleared their people from the base. The Syrians had cleared their people from the base. It was very—

AMY GOODMAN: The U.S. warned Russia.

ALIA MALEK: Yeah, so there was—it was a highly orchestrated piece of theater. That’s what it looks like from now, for me. So, I think that tomorrow or the day after tomorrow, something else he’s going to be tweeting about, or something else is going to happen. Attention spans are going to move. And of course he’s not going to change his policy toward Syrians. I don’t believe—you know, look at what he has done as opposed to what he said last night. Do I believe that he is really committed to Syrians living in dignity and peace? I don’t think so. And it doesn’t serve his—I mean, rhetorically, it doesn’t serve him.

AMY GOODMAN: And, Medea Benjamin, Rex Tillerson will be meeting with the foreign minister, Lavrov, of Russia on Tuesday. Lavrov made a statement condemning the attack, but also left the door open for a conversation. Where do you think this goes?

MEDEA BENJAMIN: Well, where we want it to go is to talk to the Russians not about how to divvy up airspace to continue killing Syrians, but how to end this. And let’s put it in the context of President Trump upping the ante by calling for $54 billion more in the U.S. budget for the military. The only ones benefiting from this is Raytheon, Northrop Grumman, the military-industrial complex. Trump wants to widen wars in Syria. He also wants to widen wars in Iraq, in Yemen. And I think we have to stop him before he takes us down a path of greater and greater militarization throughout the Middle East.

AMY GOODMAN: I want to thank you all for being with us. In Lebanon, thank you to Yazan al-Saadi, Syrian-Canadian writer in Beirut; Alia Malek, here in New York, author of The Home That Was Our Country: A Memoir of Syria; Phyllis Bennis, fellow at the Institute for Policy Studies; and Medea Benjamin, co-founder of CodePink. Thanks so much for being with us. And thanks to Lina Sergie Attar, who joined us earlier from Boston, a writer from Aleppo, co-founder of the Karam Foundation.

This is Democracy Now! When we come back, the nuclear option. No, we’re not talking about Syria. We’re talking about choosing a Supreme Court justice. Stay with us.

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