Full interview with prize-winning journalist Anand Gopal, who has reported extensively from the Middle East. He’s the author of “No Good Men Among the Living: America, the Taliban, and the War Through Afghan Eyes.”
AMY GOODMAN: This is Democracy Now!, democracynow.org, The War and Peace Report. I’m Amy Goodman, with Nermeen Shaikh.
NERMEEN SHAIKH: We turn now to President Trump’s escalation of U.S. airstrikes in Iraq and Syria. According to the group Airwars, at least 1,782 civilians were killed last month in coalition airstrikes. The civilian death toll could be as high as nearly 3,500. This comes as the battle for the Iraqi city of Mosul enters its seventh month. The United Nations is warning the city is facing a humanitarian catastrophe, perhaps the worst in the entire conflict. More than 400,000 people are trapped in parts of the city still under control of the Islamic State.
AMY GOODMAN: Meanwhile in Syria, Human Rights Watch has concluded the U.S. did in fact bomb a mosque last month, killing at least 38 people. The Pentagon claimed the drone strike on March 16 targeted a meeting of al-Qaeda members, but Human Rights Watch has concluded the victims were civilians who had gathered to pray. Human Rights Watch said it found no evidence that al-Qaeda or any other armed group were meeting in the mosque.
We’re joined now by Anand Gopal, a journalist and fellow at The Nation Institute, recently returned from the Middle East, has reported extensively from the region.
Let’s start with Mosul and Iraq. You just recently returned from Iraq, Anand. Talk about what people in Mosul are saying. What is happening there?
ANAND GOPAL: Well, people in Mosul find themselves caught between airstrikes and terror from ISIS. I’ve been in touch with families every day who are describing just unbelievable scenes of carnage. One family that I spoke to, they were cowering in their basement, the whole family of six people, for hours. And fighting was nearby. An ISIS sniper climbed onto the roof and took shots at the Iraqi forces, and the Iraqi forces called in an American airstrike, which flattened the entire house, killing the entire family. I’m in touch with another family, which—there’s three separate houses that are joined together. And there was fighting in the next neighborhood. And somebody called in an airstrike, and it destroyed all three houses, pretty much wiping out 17 members of an extended family.
AMY GOODMAN: How is the U.S. involved with this?
ANAND GOPAL: These are all American airstrikes. There are some Iraqi airstrikes, as well, but, for the most part, these are American or other coalition member airstrikes. These are being called in either by special forces on the ground or by Iraqi forces.
NERMEEN SHAIKH: But some people suggest that it’s only because of coalition airstrikes that so much of Mosul has been reclaimed from ISIS control.
ANAND GOPAL: Well, this is true. Without the coalition airstrikes, the city would still be under ISIS. But there’s a question of the way in which the airstrikes are being conducted. And really, what we’re looking at right now is probably the biggest humanitarian catastrophe since the 2003 invasion. And this is coming not just from the airstrikes, but the way in which ISIS is essentially holding a large percentage of the population hostage. There’s now about 400,000 people in western Mosul who are not allowed to leave. I spoke to relatives of one family, a husband and a wife, who paid smugglers to try to leave west Mosul. They were caught by ISIS, and they were both beheaded. And this is happening on a daily basis. At the same time, people are running out of food. There’s now cases of malnutrition among toddlers and children.
AMY GOODMAN: Has there been a change on the ground since Trump took office?
ANAND GOPAL: Not really. What Trump has been doing in Iraq is, essentially, carrying out Obama’s policy. It seems from here like it’s an escalation, but it’s actually not an escalation. What’s happened is that the face of the battle has changed. East Mosul, the houses are kind of spread out, and they’re larger, so you don’t see as many casualties. West Mosul is a really densely packed area. You bomb one house, you’re going to hit three or four houses. And that’s been the main change. Obama actually relaxed the rules of engagement a number of times, including most recently in late December, where he made it easier for forces on the ground to call in airstrikes. And I think this is actually the biggest cause for the spike in civilian casualties, nothing that Trump has done.
NERMEEN SHAIKH: Well, the U.S. itself has admitted how difficult it’s been to get into Mosul and to take over, and that despite the fact that it’s been going on, the attempt to reclaim the city, for six months, that Iraqi forces have managed only now, or very recently, to get into the city and start fighting militants. Do you have any idea, from your time there and speaking to people, why it’s been so difficult?
ANAND GOPAL: Well, particularly now in west Mosul, you’re talking about very narrow streets, alleyways, covered markets. And it’s really something that has to go block by block. And it’s not a bad thing that it’s taking a long time, because the longer it takes, that means that the more careful that the forces are being with civilian casualties. The concern is if they really go quickly. That’s when you see a lot of civilians being killed.
AMY GOODMAN: And then you have this report in Syria, the Human Rights Watch report. We had already reported on the bombing of the mosque. It was just the Pentagon who was saying that they had bombed a militant group. Talk about what you understand is happening here. I mean, there was enormous attention paid to Syria last week. Because President Trump saw pictures of children dying of being gassed, the U.S. bombs this airfield. The way the media made it sound is that was the only time the U.S. was doing any bombing in Syria.
ANAND GOPAL: Right. What a lot of people don’t realize is that was actually probably like the 8,000th airstrike that the U.S. has carried out over the last three years. It’s only the first time they’ve ever targeted the regime. In fact, they’ve pretty much assiduously avoided targeting the regime for the last three or four years. They’ve targeted ISIS. They’ve targeted al-Qaeda. They’ve targeted members of the legitimate opposition. And they’ve killed many civilians. For example, last June or last July, under Obama, there was a bombing that killed over 200 civilians. And it didn’t really get much attention here, but this has been going on for a number of years.
AMY GOODMAN: And the mosque?
ANAND GOPAL: Yeah, and it’s clear that the U.S. has hit this mosque. And a number of investigations have shown that these were civilians, that there was—if there were high-ranking members of al-Qaeda as the U.S. claims, there were also dozens and dozens of civilians there.
NERMEEN SHAIKH: So, I want to go back to something that you said in the first part of our interview, Anand, namely that U.S. and coalition airstrikes are actually assisting the Assad regime. Now, that’s not what people think. People think, obviously, that’s the principal purpose of Russian airstrikes and the explicit goal of Russian airstrikes, but not the coalition. The understanding is that the U.S. is interested either in regime change or, minimally, reducing the power of the regime. So, do you think—well, first, I want—talk about that and also whether that’s a kind of a collateral effect of what the U.S. is doing—in other words, helping the Assad regime by attacking ISIS—or whether that’s in fact their intended goal, to support the Assad regime.
ANAND GOPAL: Well, I think it’s important to understand that there’s no regime change policy from the United States toward Syria. And there never has been a regime change policy. The Obama administration said, innumerous times, Assad must go. But what they mean is, “Assad should step down, and somebody else in the regime should take over, and there should be a continuation of the regime in the interest of stability”—and I put that in quotes, because stipulating from their point of view—”and in the interest of fighting terrorism.” This is essentially the model that took place in Yemen, where you had the dictator step down, but you had the continuation of the dictatorship, in a way. It’s also really a continuation of what happened in Egypt. And that’s been the goal from the beginning. And so, the U.S. has never actually pursued a policy of regime change. If you want to see how regime change looks, you can look at how the U.S. did that in Afghanistan in the 1980s or even in 2001 in the air war. And neither of those have actually taken place in Syria.
NERMEEN SHAIKH: Well, so, in that sense, Russia and the United States are in agreement, in other words, that they would rather retain Assad himself or someone from his regime as the head of state or in control of Syria because of fears of who might take over in the event that he goes or that his regime goes.
ANAND GOPAL: Exactly. I mean, I would say the only difference between Russia and the United States is Russia probably wants Assad himself to continue, whereas the United States is more interested in stability and wanting the regime to continue. And we see this in many ways. For example, there’s cases where, when there’s rebel groups that are fighting against the regime, and they’re getting weapons and funding from the United States, the U.S. will cut off funding to them unless they focus their fighting on ISIS only. This has happened numerous times, and these groups have lost their funding. And then, once they were bereft of support, they went and joined al-Qaeda. So, there’s a narrative here that says that the U.S. is supporting extremists and al-Qaeda groups. It’s actually false. In fact, the U.S. is punishing groups that are trying to fight Assad, and when those groups are being punished, then they are going and joining al-Qaeda or extremist groups.
NERMEEN SHAIKH: But they are supporting the YPG, the Kurdish—
ANAND GOPAL: Absolutely.
NERMEEN SHAIKH: —militia force that is fighting the Assad regime.
ANAND GOPAL: Absolutely. The closest ally of the U.S. in Syria is a left-wing group called the YPG , and they are the main force which is fighting ISIS right now.
AMY GOODMAN: And talk about who they are.
ANAND GOPAL: The YPG is essentially an offshoot of the PKK, the Kurdistan Workers’ Party, which was—which is a group in Turkey which has been waging, essentially, a left-wing insurgency against the Turkish government for Kurdish right for decades. And in the last three or four years, they’ve expanded extraordinarily rapidly in Syria. They have set up these councils all across northern and eastern Syria. And they’ve become the main partners of the United States in this battle against ISIS. So the battle for Raqqa, which is the de facto capital of the caliphate, it’s the YPG who is the main ally of the United States.
NERMEEN SHAIKH: And can you say a little, Anand, about what the impact of the Russian military intervention in Syria has been, in terms of the situation on the ground, in terms of civilian casualties and so on.
ANAND GOPAL: Well, in any discussion of Syria, it’s important to state at the outset that the two biggest sources of violence in the country—number one is the Assad regime, which has just killed incredible numbers of civilians, tortured, maimed, executed anybody who resists, essentially. And the second biggest source of violence in Syria is the Russian regime. And Russia’s role has been essentially to prop up the Syrian government at a time when it was looking very weak. When Syrian government—when the Syrian government retook Aleppo a few months ago, it would not have been able to do that without Russian air power.
NERMEEN SHAIKH: Well, last week, Democracy Now! spoke to former Guardian Moscow correspondent Jonathan Steele. He questioned whether the Assad regime was responsible for the chemical attack in Idlib in Syria earlier this month, saying the principal beneficiaries were the U.S. military-industrial complex and those in the Trump administration wanting to prove the president is not a puppet of Putin. He went on to outline the benefits to the opposition groups in Syria from the chemical weapons attack.
JONATHAN STEELE: A third group that’s really benefited are the armed opposition to Assad, because they’ve suddenly got a new lease of life, when it looked as though they were on the verge of losing their last sliver of territory around Idlib in northwest Syria. They’ve been given the option, the—perhaps the option of being defended militarily by NATO with airstrikes. They’ve had one airstrike, and they’re obviously hoping for more. And they’re certainly not going to compromise in the Geneva talks. So everybody who’s benefited is on the non-Syrian, non-Russian side.
NERMEEN SHAIKH: So that’s former Guardian Moscow correspondent Jonathan Steele speaking on Democracy Now! last week. So, Anand, can you comment on what he said and the speculation among certain people that the Assad regime could not have been responsible for the chemical weapons attack, because it didn’t benefit from it, and that it already, in fact, the Assad regime, is winning the war, so why would they do something like this, use chemical weapons?
ANAND GOPAL: The principal beneficiary of the chemical attacks was the people who carried it out, which was the Assad regime. This—you have to understand, this comes in the context of, just a week before that, you had statements from the American administration, from Tillerson and from Trump, saying that the Syrian question is up to Syrians to decide, which is a implicit way of saying that even our very weak statement prior to this, that Assad must go, even that we’re dropping. So, he was now operating from a position of what he saw as basically impunity. And that’s—it was under those conditions under which he carried out the chemical attack. It’s also coming under the circumstances that Russia was drawn closer to the YPG and was also having a rapprochement of sorts with Turkey, which is backing some elements of the FSA. And there’s speculation that the Assad regime carried out this attack as a way to force Russia back firmly in its corner.
AMY GOODMAN: Can you talk about why the United States—why you feel Tillerson and Nikki Haley made these comments, saying that Syria, the Syrian people should determine who is their president, signaling some kind of change in U.S. policy, not as if President Obama took out Assad, but had a different rhetoric around it?
ANAND GOPAL: Well, I think this has been a logical culmination of eight years of Obama’s policy in the Middle East. And Obama said again and again that Assad must go, but didn’t give the opposition the means to actually make that happen, and, in fact, spent most of his time policing the opposition to make sure that Assad wouldn’t be ejected. When the Trump administration took office, they dispensed with that formality, and they said, “Look, our focus is ISIS. We don’t even need to talk about having Assad go.” And that’s what that signaled, which was that, “Look, we just need to focus on ISIS, and Assad can stay as long as he wants, essentially.” That’s what—that was the message that was sent to the regime, and it’s not a surprise that a week later you saw a chemical attack.
NERMEEN SHAIKH: Well, I mean, the Russians themselves had said—have said, more or less, similar things, namely that it’s up to the Syrians to decide what happens after Assad, that their explicit goal is not retaining Assad. So, last week, Democracy Now! spoke to professor emeritus of Russian studies and politics at Princeton, Stephen Cohen. He explained why the Russians were backing the Assad regime.
STEPHEN COHEN: I would ask all these Americans who vilify Assad, I would ask all your listeners and viewers: If you destroy the Syrian state, who’s going to do the fighting against terrorists in Syria? Do you ask—are you going to ask Russia to send troops? Are we going to send troops? So, for Russia—and this is the point—it’s not Assad. They could give a hoot about what happens to him and their family. It’s what happens to the Syrian state. And that’s why they will stand with Assad until there is some kind of military victory, and then a so-called political peace process begins, and then Assad is on his own.
NERMEEN SHAIKH: So that was Stephen Cohen speaking last week on Democracy Now! So, Anand, can you comment specifically on what he said and also this idea that both the U.S. and Russia have that the Syrians will be able to decide for themselves, despite the fact that for decades Syrians have not been able to decide for themselves?
ANAND GOPAL: Well, it’s interesting, because what he said is basically a perfect summary of American policy in Syria, not actually Russian policy. And Syria is a dictatorship. Syrians do not have the ability to decide. When they wanted to try to decide for themselves, they had a revolution. And so, when people say it’s up to Syrians themselves to decide, when Russia or the United States says that, it’s a coded way of backing the Assad regime. And, you know, he said that the Assad regime is the main force fighting terrorism in Syria, and that’s absolutely false. The regime does not fight terrorism. It’s actually the single biggest cause of terrorism in Syria. It is the cause of ISIS in Syria. And from—if you talk to Syrians, Bashar al-Assad and the regime is the biggest terrorist in the country. The force that’s actually fighting ISIS, which I assume is what he’s referring to, is the YPG, which is backed by the United States.
NERMEEN SHAIKH: Can you explain what you mean by that, that the cause of ISIS or what gave birth to ISIS in Syria is in fact the Assad regime? Because that’s not what’s commonly understood.
ANAND GOPAL: Well, I’ve spent a good portion of the last few months actually interviewing a number of ISIS fighters and defectors from ISIS. And one of the things I’ve made a point to do is actually ask them, “Why did you join this group?” You know? And to a person, they all say they witnessed some horrific atrocity or massacre conducted by the regime. I’ve never heard anybody give another reason other than that. And so, what has happened is that the sheer brutality of the regime has led people to—some people to join ISIS, especially in the context where they see there’s not a lot of support for other groups. And you have to remember, ISIS is one of the few groups in Syria that doesn’t get foreign support. It’s almost entirely self-funded, which gives it a sort of—sort of staying power, that some of FSA groups don’t have.
NERMEEN SHAIKH: And is it your sense that ISIS’s power or control over Syria is weakening?
ANAND GOPAL: It’s absolutely weakening—again, not because of the Assad regime, but in spite of the Assad regime. It’s weakening because—for the most part, because of the YPG. But we should also look back a couple years ago. When ISIS was taking over broad swaths of territory near Aleppo and pushing into Idlib, it was the Free Syrian Army and their allies that actually pushed ISIS back into eastern Syria.
AMY GOODMAN: Can you talk about the gas attack, what you actually think happened? You have Assad saying not only didn’t the Syrian regime do this, but he says he doesn’t even believe that the children were dying.
ANAND GOPAL: So, to start with, we know that the children died. We know, through investigative reports, that they died of sarin. And we also know that there was a airstrike that took place. The claim by Russian intelligence and by the Assad regime was that this was an airstrike on a warehouse that contained chemical weapons, and those chemical weapons were being stockpiled by the opposition. We’ve had many, many, many Syrians actually go to the site to photograph this and show that the warehouse was never struck. And they have actually photographed the actual point of the impact of the bomb, which was on the street, not in the warehouse. We’ve also had a Guardian reporter go to this area and do the same thing. And also, you have to remember, the regime has actually carried out numerous chemical attacks against its own people, so this is nothing new. The idea that the opposition somehow stockpiled chemical weapons and waited for the regime to strike it so that it could then use it to its benefit, that’s just a conspiracy theory. In my view, that’s on the level of Big Foot or UFOs.
NERMEEN SHAIKH: Well, I want to go back to what you were saying about ISIS, ISIS losing ground in Syria. Yesterday, the Iraqi vice president indicated that there were talks going on or soon to be held between the head of ISIS and the head of al-Qaeda—that is, Abu Bakr al-Baghdadi and Ayman al-Zawahiri of al-Qaeda—to possibly merge their efforts in Syria and in Iraq. Do you know anything of this and what its possible impact would be, if true?
ANAND GOPAL: Well, first, I would—I think it’s unlikely that that’s the case. And we should take anything that the Iraqi authorities say with a grain of salt. Baghdadi is not in a position—or, the ISIS leadership right now is not really in a position to be having detailed negotiations with Zawahiri, who’s staying in Pakistan. They’re—Baghdadi and his comrades are, you know, in bunkers or hiding from airstrikes. But beyond that, if that were to happen, I actually don’t think that would have a major impact on the ground, because if you look at al-Qaeda in Syria, the sort of al-Qaeda franchise in Syria has formally separated from al-Qaeda and are operating more or less independently. So it’s unclear if that would actually make a difference. In Iraq, there’s no al-Qaeda in Iraq that’s not ISIS. So, in neither country, I think, it will actually make a real difference.
AMY GOODMAN: So, let’s put Syria in a larger context. Let’s look at what’s happening right now in the Middle East. You have Defense Secretary James Mattis praising Saudi Arabia’s role in the region during his visit to the Saudi capital, Riyadh, on Wednesday.
DEFENSE SECRETARY JAMES MATTIS: What was really obvious to me today was the regional leadership role of the Saudis and how they’re helping across the region, from assisting the refugees who are being thrown out of Syria by the fighting there, supporting Jordan in taking care of those refugees; the supplies, the energy supplies and other support they are giving to Egypt as they work through some really tough financial times. But it’s very clear that Saudi Arabia is stepping up to its regional leadership role out here right now at a key time in terms of trying to restore stability in this key region in the world.
AMY GOODMAN: Also speaking on Wednesday, U.S. Secretary of State Rex Tillerson, who verbally attacked Iran, accusing it of provocations, comparing it to North Korea.
SECRETARY OF STATE REX TILLERSON: Today I’d like to address Iran’s alarming and ongoing provocations that export terror and violence, destabilizing more than one country at a time. Iran is the world’s leading state sponsor of terrorism and is responsible for intensifying multiple conflicts and undermining U.S. interests in countries such as Syria, Yemen, Iraq and Lebanon and continuing to support attacks against Israel. An unchecked Iran has the potential to travel the same path as North Korea and take the world along with it.
AMY GOODMAN: Tillerson’s comments come as the Trump administration launches a review of its policy towards Iran, although the administration has not said it will renege on the 2015 landmark Iran nuclear deal, though we know what President Trump feels about it, has been speaking against it for as long as he’s been campaigning for president. Anand Gopal, put this all in context for us.
ANAND GOPAL: Well, we should understand the regional picture, which is that, in Iraq, the United States has been forced to more or less rely on Iran for the fight against ISIS, and the Iranian-backed militias are an important part of the anti-ISIS operations. So they can’t hit Iran in Iraq. In Syria, as much as they dislike the current state of affairs, they recognize that, from their point of view, Assad is better than the alternative for them, and so, therefore, they’re again forced to rely on Iran. So the lowest-hanging fruit for them is Yemen. And that means backing the Saudi state in its brutal campaign in Yemen, which has killed thousands of civilians and has helped cause a really drastic humanitarian catastrophe.
AMY GOODMAN: Famine.
ANAND GOPAL: A famine. And we should say, by the way, that the famine is not only caused by Saudi. It’s also caused by Iranian-backed forces, which are blockading ports, as well. But there’s also, on top of this, real commercial interests that the American state has in that area. There are ports which are vital for shipping for—not for American companies, but for European and Asian companies. And the U.S. sees part of its role as sort of protecting those shipping lanes. And it sees—the U.S. administration—Obama and Trump have worried about Iranian influence over those ports. And I think that’s part of what is behind this war on Yemen. And so, what the U.S. has done—and this has been a bipartisan project, despite the current bluster—what the U.S. has done, essentially, is support the Saudi state to the hilt in bombing and terrorizing Yemenis.
NERMEEN SHAIKH: And, Anand, so could you say why is it that now you think the people in the Trump administration are criticizing Iran so vociferously? I mean, it’s strange, right, the secretary of state and the defense secretary both yesterday coming out with these very, very strong statements against Iran?
ANAND GOPAL: I think there’s a real move to escalate the war in Yemen, to support Saudi’s escalation, to push for taking of some of these ports that I mentioned, which would, on the one hand, secure American commercial interests of shipping, but, on the other hand, possibly cause an even greater famine in the country, because these are some of the ports where the only sources of food and grain are coming into the country. So, but again, this is coming in the context of where the U.S. feels constrained in its ability to strike Iran in other countries—in Iraq and Syria. And for the hawks, who want to hit Iran in any way possible, Yemen is the lowest-hanging fruit.
AMY GOODMAN: I mean, the history of Mad Dog Mattis—now, again, he calls himself that.
ANAND GOPAL: Yeah.
AMY GOODMAN: But the defense secretary, James Mattis, his own history in places like Iraq, but also saying in Saudi Arabia, “Everywhere you look, if there’s trouble in the region, you find Iran.” They’re escalating against North Korea, and they’re escalating against Iran.
ANAND GOPAL: One can also say, “Everywhere you look, if there’s trouble in the region, you find the United States.” And yeah, this has been something that’s been going on since 1979, where both parties have—
NERMEEN SHAIKH: Since the revolution.
ANAND GOPAL: Since the revolution in Iran, both parties have kind of painted Iran as the enemy. And it’s been very—it’s been a very useful scapegoat, in many cases, to carry out what I would say is the sort of geostrategic designs of the United States in the region.
NERMEEN SHAIKH: Well, what do you anticipate will happen now?
ANAND GOPAL: I expect and I fear that we’re going to see an escalation of Saudi bombing in Yemen, and other countries are going to sort of increase their involvement, particularly the UAE, the United Arab Emirates. They’ve been wanting to get a bigger piece of the pie, so to speak. And I think that what this sort of rhetoric is signaling is that the U.S. is going to give them the green light to do so.
AMY GOODMAN: It’s interesting you talk about the port in Yemen, the ports. The United Nations called Thursday on the Saudi-led coalition intervening in Yemen not to bomb the rebel-held port of Hodeidah, a key entry point for aid into the war-torn country. Where is Hodeidah?
ANAND GOPAL: Oh, well, it’s in the strait where—between sort of the African continent and Yemen. And so it’s very important for passing naval traffic. And this is exactly the port which is in the crosshairs of the administration right now. And if you listen to their rhetoric, they’re saying Iran is making a threat, Iran is making moves on this port. But actually, you know, the port is—traffic is going through. Iran has never attacked any vessel that’s gone through this port. So it’s purely projecting. And it’s—I think it’s really, actually, an excuse that’s being used by this administration as a way to attack Iran, and it really is a way to have hegemony over this area. And this has been, essentially, the policy from the beginning, also under Obama, and it’s being sort of escalated under Trump.
NERMEEN SHAIKH: Well, in Iran, elections are due next month, so Rouhani might actually lose to an administration that’s more, let’s say, right-wing or more conservative. First of all, do you see that happening? And if so, how will that impact what’s going on now in the region and, in particular, between the U.S., the Trump administration, and the Iranian government?
ANAND GOPAL: Well, it’s possible. But I think, you know, you have to look at Iran’s moves in the broader context of U.S. moves in the last 30 or 40 years. A lot of these moves have been defensive. However, that’s not to excuse Iran’s really, really duplicitous role in Syria, particularly where they’ve supported the regime, where they’ve backed Hezbollah, which is basically supporting the dictatorship.
In Iraq, there are a number of Shia militias, hundreds of Shia militias, some of which are supported by Iran. And the ones that are supported by Iran tend to be the worst, the ones who commit the most human rights violations, the ones that tend to massacre Sunnis and were part of the reason why ISIS came up in the first place. So, they have a very malign role. But at the same time, within the broader context of the last 30 or 40 years, they also make a lot of defensive moves.
And in Yemen, the narrative you hear from foreign policy circles is that the Houthis are an Iranian proxy. I think that’s a bit of an exaggeration to say that, and it ignores the local context of what’s happened there. But also, at the same time, Iran is playing a role in the country and is—it has not tried to stop the port traffic, but is playing a role.
NERMEEN SHAIKH: And both Iran and Saudi Arabia have been accused of fomenting the worst kind of sectarianism across the region. Saudi Arabia, of course, is a Sunni Wahhabi state, and Iran with a majority-Shia population. So can you say whether you think their role has been equivalent, and what its effects have been in the last, let’s say, decade?
ANAND GOPAL: Yeah. I mean, there’s been essentially a cold war between Saudi and Iran in the last decade, and it’s taken the form of proxy wars, whether in Iraq, in Syria, in Yemen. And both states have been a major factor in promoting sectarianism, promoting internecine conflict.
But they are not the only forces that are there promoting sectarianism. I mean, it’s important to recognize the United States has been a major force in promoting sectarianism in the region. I have Iraqi friends who tell me stories about how, in 2003, they were running—they wanted to join certain municipal councils. And they would go to the Coalition Provisional Authority, the American Coalition Provisional Authority, and try to register. And the Americans would say, “OK, are you Sunni or Shia or Kurd?” And they would say, “Well, no, I’m actually a communist.” And, “No, no, no. Are you Sunni or Shia or Kurd?” And so the Americans had this very sectarian way of looking at the region and then kind of imposing that sectarian sort of blueprint on the region, which, in its own way, worked in synergy with the way Iran functions and Saudi functions there.
AMY GOODMAN: So you’ve been covering the area for many years now. You lived in Afghanistan for a period.
ANAND GOPAL: I lived in Afghanistan for four years, yeah.
AMY GOODMAN: How are you feeling now? Do you feel more or less hopeful? And how do you see things resolving or coming to a head?
ANAND GOPAL: Unfortunately, I don’t feel very hopeful, because of the sheer number of forces that are involved. But at the same time, it’s not completely bleak. And I’ll take Syria as an example. I think a lot of people look at Syria, and they put it in the same box as Iran—sorry, as Iraq. But what’s important to understand about Syria is that, at its core, it was a revolution. It was a process in which ordinary people rose up to try to overthrow the government and to reclaim freedom and dignity and a better life. And that’s the fundamental difference between the war in Syria and the war in Iraq. Iraq was a sovereign state which was invaded by a world power and destroyed. So while the two conflicts may look similar, they’re actually fundamentally different. And what that means in a place like Syria is that despite all of the chaos, the various factions, the fundamentalist groups, there’s still a revolutionary spirit that’s there. There are still mobilizations that happen, protests that happen. Just this last week, there were protests in Suwayda, which is a Druze-majority area in southern Syria, where they’re protesting against the regime. And I think the way to look at Syria is to say that there was a revolution, and there’s multiple counterrevolutions.
NERMEEN SHAIKH: How would you respond to those who say that, in fact, all of the opposition to the Assad regime, all of the rebel groups, have been hijacked by groups like ISIS and al-Qaeda—in other words, extremist Islamist groups?
ANAND GOPAL: Yeah, this is completely false. And it’s interesting these people have been saying this more or less from the beginning. And this is false. I personally have friends and know people who are in the opposition who are not al-Qaeda or ISIS. And the opposition is varied, it’s complex, it’s diverse. For example, in southern Syria, the majority of the opposition, which is called the Southern Front, is mostly revolutionary nationalists. And in northern Syria, there are Free Syrian Army groups which are not al-Qaeda.
But it’s important to recognize that the trend over the last three or four years has been for these groups to join al-Qaeda. And we should ask why that’s the case. And in every single instance, it’s been that these are groups that have kind of popped up simply to defend protesters who were being shot by the regime and were looking for support, and they did not receive that support, or they did for a time—the U.S. kind of manipulated them, gave them some weapons, enough to kind of keep them on life support, but not enough to actually threaten the regime—and then the U.S. would cut it off. And then, when that would happen, that they would look for anybody who would actually give them guns or weapons or allow them to survive. And the strongest groups were al-Qaeda and ISIS. And that was the trend that took place for the last three or four years.
AMY GOODMAN: Do you see Assad staying?
ANAND GOPAL: I think Assad will stay. And the reason is because the opposition has been mostly defeated. It still exists in pockets. And it has—the Assad regime has the support of Iran, of Russia, and has the de facto support of the United States.
AMY GOODMAN: And what about the U.S. relationship, President Trump’s relationship, his people’s relationship with Russia? How does that affect what’s going on right now?
ANAND GOPAL: Well, I think that’s an interesting question, because I think part—not the main reason, but one of the reasons for the attack against the base was to try to signal to the domestic audience that, “Look, I am not, you know, in bed with Russia.” But there are a lot of ties there between the two sides, of course with Tillerson, but also with Trump. And, you know, this kind of attack is the perfect sort of thing. It’s a pin prick attack, which doesn’t fundamentally change the way the regime is able to operate, but it signals to people who aren’t really paying attention that, oh, look, the U.S. is like doing something against Russian interests. But if you actually peel those layers back and look at it, there isn’t a major difference between American and Russian policy on Syria. But they both agree that Assad is a better alternative to whatever might—you know, anything revolutionary, movement from below. And so, they both agree that he should stay, or that he should step down, but there should be some negotiated process that preserves the stability of the regime.
AMY GOODMAN: Well, we want to thank you so much for being with us, Anand Gopal, journalist, fellow at The Nation Institute, recently returned from the Middle East, has reported extensively from the region for the last eight years, author of No Good Men Among the Living: America, the Taliban, and the War Through Afghan Eyes. I’m Amy Goodman, with Nermeen Shaikh. To see Part 1 of our discussion, go to democracynow.org. Thanks for joining us.