- Phyllis Bennisfellow at the Institute for Policy Studies, author of Understanding ISIS and the New Global War on Terror.
President Trump has announced that the U.S. will withdraw troops from Syria, in a move that has been praised by some in the American peace movement and some progressive lawmakers, as well as anti-interventionist Republicans, including Senators Rand Paul and Mike Lee. We speak with Phyllis Bennis, fellow at the Institute for Policy Studies, who warns that the U.S. warplanes and drones will continue to bomb the country. ”ISIS has not been 'defeated,' and the U.S. should not remain in Syria militarily,” Bennis says. “You cannot defeat terrorism militarily. Terrorism is a phenomenon that emerges out of social and economic and national and all kinds of crises, in all kinds of countries. And stopping it doesn’t mean playing whack-a-mole with your military.”
AMY GOODMAN: This is Democracy Now! I’m Amy Goodman, with Nermeen Shaikh.
NERMEEN SHAIKH: Just before we went to air this morning, President Trump issued a number of tweets about Syria. He wrote, quote, “Getting out of Syria was no surprise. I’ve been campaigning on it for years, and six months ago, when I very publicly wanted to do it, I agreed to stay longer. Russia, Iran, Syria & others are the local enemy of ISIS. We were doing there work. Time to come home & rebuild. #MAGA.”
“Does the USA want to be the Policeman of the Middle East, getting NOTHING but spending precious lives and trillions of dollars protecting others who, in almost all cases, do not appreciate what we are doing? Do we want to be there forever? Time for others to finally fight..... ....Russia, Iran, Syria & many others are not happy about the U.S. leaving, despite what the Fake News says, because now they will have to fight ISIS and others, who they hate, without us. I am building by far the most powerful military in the world. ISIS hits us they are doomed!”
Those are the words of President Trump this morning.
AMY GOODMAN: I want to bring into the conversation Phyllis Bennis, fellow at the Institute for Policy Studies. She’s written a number of books, including Understanding ISIS and the New Global War on Terror.
So, the question is: Has ISIS been defeated? And whether or not it has, should the U.S. stay in Syria? Across the political spectrum and the political establishment, mainly the Democrats and Republicans in the Senate are attacking President Trump, especially his Republican allies. There are a number of anti-interventionists and people in the peace movement who are actually saying this is a good idea. Phyllis Bennis, your thoughts?
PHYLLIS BENNIS: Well, I think the answer to your questions, Amy, is no and no. No, ISIS has not been, quote, “defeated,” and, no, the U.S. should not remain in Syria militarily.
I think that the notion of a military defeat of terrorism, we know this is—if we want to talk about fake news, that’s been the classic piece of fake news for the last number of years, in the so-called global war on terror. You cannot defeat terrorism, as Yazan said, militarily. Terrorism is a phenomenon that emerges out of social and economic and national and all kinds of crises, in all kinds of countries. And stopping it doesn’t mean playing whack-a-mole with your military, slapping them down here, and they rise up again there, and slapping them down there, and they rise again there. That’s precisely what will happen again.
It’s fascinating to hear these tweets from Trump claiming, on the one hand, we’ve defeated ISIS, and that’s why we’re coming out, at the same time saying, well, ISIS hasn’t been defeated, but we’re going to leave it to the people in whether it’s Syria, whether it’s Russia, whether it’s Iran; it’ll be their job to wipe them out. Where you look at the distinctions between what the various presidents have said is the reason for U.S. troops being in Syria in the first place: We’re there to go after ISIS. OK, except that the Pentagon says we’re there to protect our allies—in this case, it’s the Kurds, who, as Yazan says, will be quickly abandoned by the U.S. John Bolton, the national security adviser, says we’re in Syria to make sure that Iran doesn’t build up its presence there. And the State Department says that we have to stay there because ISIS is still there. So we don’t even know what was the rationale for U.S. troops to be in Syria. There certainly is no clarity on what any future rationale should be, because we know that terrorism cannot be destroyed militarily. And I think that’s the fundamental question here.
We do know that the warplanes and the drones are going to continue to be bombing in Syria. And it’s those U.S. bombs and U.S. coalition-led bombs that are creating enormous pressure, enormous—wreaking enormous havoc on the people of Syria—again, this is something that Yazan spoke about very eloquently—when we look at Raqqa, when we look at the other cities that have been largely destroyed by U.S. bombing, after being under attack, both people and the infrastructure of cities, by ISIS. This is not going to qualitatively change that on the ground. The presence of 2,000 U.S. troops, most of them Special Forces, that’s not enough to change a military balance of forces, when you’re talking about thousands of fighters from all these different countries, on all these different sides, fighting each other to the last Syrian.
The Syrians are doing the dying. It’s the militaries of the U.S. and Britain and Russia and Iran and the Saudis and Qataris and Turkey, all these countries in the region, the global powers have been fighting each other, in combination, in Syria since 2011. And I think, in that context, the withdrawal of any one of those major military forces is important as an advantage for the people of Syria, who will have one less force bombing them. Is it going to change the political dynamics on the ground? No.
We don’t know whether the Kurdish forces, the [PYD], is going to now turn towards renewing their old alliance with the Assad regime. That’s probably the most likely possibility. This is, of course, not the first time that Kurdish forces have been first embraced and then abandoned by the United States. That’s been a legacy of Kurdish history for almost a century now. So, in that context, it’s not going to change the situation on the ground for the population of Syria. It will temporarily shift things around for who the Kurdish forces will be relying on.
Whether or not the Turkish forces go into Syria and go after the Kurds that they have identified as their Kurdish enemies because of their ties to Kurdish forces inside Turkey, we don’t know whether the Turks will do that. We don’t know if that’s part of the negotiations that are now underway between Turkey and Iran, on the one hand, perhaps between Turkey and the United States, on another hand, where we see a rapprochement on both sides. So, Turkey may stand to gain, but there also may be a diminished level of fighting if there is less tension emerging between Turkey and the various other forces.
So the complexity, where you have at least—in my book on ISIS, I identified 11 separate wars that were being waged in Syria, none of them in the interest of Syrians, but all of them causing enormous death and destruction to the people and cities of Syria. If some of those wars will be diminished by this withdrawal, that can only be a good thing.
NERMEEN SHAIKH: Well, Phyllis, I want to ask about the—well, what a U.S. involvement is likely to be in the future, even if this withdrawal does take place. I mean, Trump’s announcement was a radical departure from comments that his own administration senior officials had been making, including national security adviser John Bolton. But also, Trump’s special envoy for the global coalition to defeat the Islamic State, Brett McGurk, just last week, in a press conference, said that U.S. troops were going to be in Syria for the foreseeable future.
PHYLLIS BENNIS: Right. And James Jeffrey, the political envoy—
AMY GOODMAN: We’re going to go to that clip of McGurk.
PHYLLIS BENNIS: Sorry.
BRETT McGURK: The military mission is the enduring defeat of ISIS. We have obviously learned a lot of lessons in the past. And we know that once a physical space is defeated, we can’t just pick up and leave. So we’re prepared to make sure that we do all we can to ensure this is enduring. …
Areas that we have cleared of ISIS, they have not returned or actually seized physical space. There’s clandestine cells. Nobody is saying that they are going to disappear. Nobody is that naive. So, we want to stay on the ground to make sure that stability can be maintained in these areas. …
I think it’s fair to say Americans will remain on the ground after the physical defeat of the caliphate, until we have the pieces in place to ensure that that defeat is enduring.
NERMEEN SHAIKH: So, Phyllis Bennis, that’s Brett McGurk speaking just last week. Now, do you think, first of all, that U.S. military strikes, as Yazan said earlier—that those strikes are not only likely to continue, but might even intensify, so, in a certain sense, there will be continuity in U.S. policy there and that this was just a symbolic gesture on Trump’s part?
PHYLLIS BENNIS: I think that’s largely true. I think that the politics of it, as we get into the Christmas holiday period, when Trump has been under fire for saying that he’s leaving the White House for two-and-a-half weeks to go play golf, and others have said, “Why aren’t you going around the world to visit U.S. troops that are in harm’s way?”—he’s not doing that—this may be his effort to undermine those attackers.
But I think what is clear is that U.S. military engagement is not fully ending here. The bombing is going to continue. It may well escalate.
We should be clear that the involvement of the United States militarily in Syria was never aimed at protecting Syrians. If it were the goal of those troops to protect Syrian lives, Syrian lives would have been protected also by allowing them to come to the United States as refugees. And we know how well that worked. With the Muslim ban, Syrians were among the hardest hit of refugees around the world, desperate to escape certain death in their towns and cities, partly caused by United States and its U.S.-backed forces, partly caused by other forces. And the refusal of the United States to allow Syrians to enter as refugees is one more example, if we needed any, about the fact that the U.S. engagement militarily has never been about protecting Syrians. So, if there is an escalation in the air war in Syria, the U.S. air war in Syria, it will be without any regard to the impact that that will have on Syrian lives.
AMY GOODMAN: And then, just the chaos now in Washington. You have Republican Senator Bob Corker saying he was stunned by Trump’s, quote, “precipitous decision” to withdraw U.S. troops from Syria. He is the chair, of course, of the Senate Foreign Relations Committee. This is what he said.
SEN. BOB CORKER: We are about six or eight weeks away in Syria from really, really getting to the next threshold there. And we’ve got allies around the world that have been with us all this time, have been fighting with us. There’s probably 50 or 60 countries that have been involved in some form or fashion. To my knowledge, we didn’t even communicate with them that this morning we were going to make this announcement. It’s caught everybody off guard. I know that—I doubt there’s anybody in the Republican Caucus in the Senate that just isn’t stunned by this precipitous decision, that just like you woke up in the morning and made it.
AMY GOODMAN: So Republican Senator Bob Corker went to the White House to meet with Trump. That was canceled. Reporters being sent to the Pentagon and the State Department, which canceled its briefing, by the White House, and then both of those places were just saying, “No, you have to ask the White House,” because apparently both of them were surprised by this. If Trump is doing this because of the something like 17 investigations of him and he’s feeling very under siege, do you see—as these investigations encircle him and as he feels more targeted, will he be pulling troops out from many other places in the world?
PHYLLIS BENNIS: I think that that’s unlikely, given that he sees what the result is politically to his move here. He’s not getting embraced by those. He is getting a certain distraction, and that was undoubtedly at least part of his thinking in pulling this off. It’s got to be a question whether this is even going to happen. I don’t think even this commander-in-chief has ever issued an order to the military by tweet. Now, whether there was another order given, we don’t even know that. The Pentagon has simply said, “As of now, we are continuing to cooperate with our colleagues in the coalition.” Now, we know about how the U.S. deals with their so-called coalitions, what—
AMY GOODMAN: We want to thank Phyllis Bennis for joining us and end with the comments of Ro Khanna. Ro Khanna is the Silicon Valley congressmember, who tweeted yesterday, “The withdrawal of troops from Syria is a good first step toward ending our policy of interventionism but we also need to End U.S. support for Saudi Arabia in Yemen Withdraw our troops from Afghanistan Repeal the 2001 Authorization for Use of Military Force,” he tweeted.
We want to thank Phyllis Bennis of the Institute for Policy Studies and Yazan al-Saadi, Syrian-Canadian writer and researcher.
When we come back, we’re going to Jackson, Mississippi, to talk with Derrick Johnson, the head of the NAACP, why they’re staging a boycott of Facebook for a week. Stay with us.