Max Blumenthal is an award-winning journalist and bestselling author whose articles and video documentaries have appeared in The New York Times, The Los Angeles Times, The Daily Beast, The Nation, The Guardian, The Independent Film Channel, The Huffington Post, Salon.com, Al Jazeera English and many other publications. His most recent book is Goliath: Life and Loathing in Greater Israel. His other book, Republican Gomorrah: Inside The Movement That Shattered The Party, is a New York Times and Los Angeles Times bestseller.
Aaron Mate: It’s the Real News. I’m Aaron Mate. The US has issued a new threat to Syria over chemical weapons. On Monday, the White House said it believes Syrian President, Bashar al-Assad, is preparing a new chemical weapons attack and that he would pay a heavy price if one takes place. That statement appeared to catch the Pentagon off guard, but on Tuesday, military officials said the US had picked up chemical weapons activity at the same airbase that the US bombed in April. Syria and Russia have rejected the claim and call it a provocation. The US has been ramping up military operations inside Syria, recently shooting down a Syrian warplane and increasingly targeting Iranian-backed forces. The Washington Post reports that Senior White House Officials are “focused as much on Iran as on the Islamic state.”
We’ll discuss all this. I spoke earlier with Max Blumenthal, award-winning journalist, author, and a senior editor for AlterNet’s Grayzone Project.
Let’s start with this White House statement on Syria. The Trump administration followed it up with the testimony today from Nikki Haley, the UN Ambassador, speaking to Congress. She said it was also meant as a warning to Russian and Iran.
Nikki Haley: The goal is, at this point, not just to send Assad a message, but to send Russia and Iran a message, that if this happens again, we are putting you on notice.
Aaron Mate: That was Nikki Haley speaking today in testimony to Congress. Max, can you talk about this White House statement about Syria and this potential chemical weapons attack they say and the context especially of what the Trump administration has been doing on the ground in Syria.
Max Blumenthal: First of all, this statement is bizarre by the Trump administration. We’ve seen Nikki Haley, who’s the neoconservative’s favorite member of the Trump administration take ownership of this statement, which reminds me distinctly of Bush administration statements about Iraqi WMBs, that they would launch a preemptive strike to prevent Iraq from deploying WMBs. Meanwhile, the Pentagon wasn’t alerted about the statement. There was no coordination with the State Department. This is bizarre in itself. It’s unclear what prompted the statement. However, as you mentioned or as you suggested, US troops are … Special Forces are actually training Syrian rebels on the Syrian/Iraqi border Al Tanf at the Al Waleed border crossing. US forces have just brought a advanced long-range rocket system into the area, which is supposedly a deconfliction zone.
They’re operating from within 100 kilometers of what is effectively a US base on the Syrian/Iraqi border, and they’re there to prevent what would amount to at least a symbolic land route between Ramadi and Iraq where a Shiite majority, which is friendly with Iran, controls the government through Syria to Lebanon to Hezbollah, which is the Shia militia, which functions in many ways as a proxy of Iran and has been supported by the Syrian government and effectively has been one of the most effective element of military resistance against Israel, one of the few ones left. The US is doing this partly in coordination with Israel and Saudi Arabia, which fears this nebulous concept of a Shiite crescent across the Middle East, and it’s doing it to help partition Syria. That’s one of the reasons why the mostly Kurdish Syrian defense force was armed, to take Raqqa back from ISIS.
I think this could lead to some kind of attempt to partition Syria if the US is serious about doing this. If the US is serious about disrupting this contiguity, it will find itself in direct conflict, not only with the Shia militias, which are already present in the area. It’s already weighed several attacks against them, but also with Iran and potentially with Russia, which has pledged to protect the Syrian government from regime change in state collapse.
That’s the background, but there are other aspects to this. If we go back to April 4th, when there was the alleged sarin attack at Khan Sheikhoun in Al-Qaeda controlled Idlib in northern Syria, what was the background to that? Assad was winning. The Syrian government was winning. There was really no reason to deploy a chemical weapons attack. The negotiations at Astana did not involve the US, between the Syrian government and the Saudi-backed Syrian opposition, and they were going very well for the Syrian government.
Trump, through Nikki Haley and Rex Tillerson, had just reversed course on the longstanding official US policy, advancing regime change in Syria, so you had all these factors converge into a chemical attack, which violated the red line. The US went back on its reversal of the regime change policy. Trump was overwhelmed by these images he saw of writhing children produced by organizations connected to the Syrian armed opposition, the White Helmets, the Syrian American Medical Society, etc., and he launched a cruise missile strikes, but the cruise missile strikes weren’t enough. They were symbolic. They destroyed some grounded planes at the Shirat Airbase, and the national security state seems to want more, so we have this bizarre statement about a possible Syrian chemical weapons strike.
The day after Bashar al-Assad visited Hama, which is considered a bastion, a long-time bastion, be Islamist resistance against his government, he actually had a friendly visit there for the first time in years, just highlighting how well the war is going for the Syrian government. Why would they want to deploy chemical weapons and trigger another military strike with US troops already in the country. It doesn’t make sense. To me, it just looks like a psyop, and it makes me worry that in the next 48 hours, there could be some kind of unilateral US strike in Syria.
Aaron Mate: Max, it could just be a coincidence, but in terms of timing, I have to wonder, too, or at least point out that this statement from the White House came right after Sy Hersh, who we interviewed here, published a story saying that Trump went ahead with that airstrike on the Syrian airfield despite US Intelligence saying they had no evidence that Assad had carried out a chemical weapons attack.
Max Blumenthal: Sy Hersh citing a advisor to the intelligence community, someone who’s been in the Defense Intelligence Agency and the CIA, asserted that the strike in Khan Sheikhoun in April was a conventional strike by the Syrian government, coordinated with Russia and that the Jihadist elements who control that area had actually staged a propaganda [ku 00:07:43] and managed to get Trump to strike the Syrian government and reverse his entire policy on Syria, the one he campaigned on, which was against regime change. That report really dovetailed with my understanding of what happened, although I can’t prove it was a false flag. The evidence that there was a sarin attack by the Syrian government is … It’s not only hard to come by, it just doesn’t add up logically, and the explanations for why Assad would have authorized such a strike seemed ridiculous to me, that we would just let him get away with anything, so he just feels like he can do whatever he wants.
Even if you go back to 2013, when Sy Hersh poked holes in the official narrative of the chemical strike at East Ghouta just east of Damascus, which nearly triggered a US war regime change. We have to remember that that strike occurred. We have to consider the timing of that strike. Two days after inspectors from the organization for the prevention of chemical weapons arrived in Damascus, this attack occurred. The timing was very fishy. We have three instances of fishy timing leading up to this current bizarre statement by the Trump administration, and Sy Hersh has surfaced again to punch holes in the official narrative. I think that’s another aspect of the timing of this statement, and we have to wonder what it will lead to. We still don’t understand the logic behind it, and I think even people in the Pentagon are wondering what triggered it.
Aaron Mate: On that point of a disconnect between the Pentagon and the White House, there have been all these reports showing that there’s White House officials, like Ezra Cohen-Watnick, who are leading the push for a confrontation with Iran, but are being met with resistance from people in the Pentagon who say that they don’t want to commit US forces to that goal inside Syria.
Max Blumenthal: It’s an unwinnable war. It would be an unattainable goal. The US just, excuse me, isn’t willing to pour in the amount of blood and treasure that Iran, Syria and Russia are, but particularly Iran. This is almost existential strategic importance to the Iranian government to maintain contiguity between Iraq and Syria. For the US, it’s another delusional imperial gambit that can go very wrong, and if US troops start to die, that will be nobody’s fault but the Pentagon’s for allowing, for putting them in this situation, and they would not have been defending any critical American interest. If anything, they’re defending the interest of Israel and Saudi Arabia.
Aaron Mate: There was a piece in The Washington Post last week in which a White House official, who wasn’t named, but was quoted, confirmed that the US is essentially placing Iran on the same level as ISIS inside Syria in terms of it being a priority. The official said, I’m going to quote what they said. “If you don’t think America has real interests that are worth fighting for, then fine.” Let me ask you, on the issue of Iraq, doesn’t the fact that the US relies on these Shia militias that are backed by Iran inside Iraq, give Iran leverage over preventing US confrontation inside Syria or does the Trump administration simply not care about that anymore?
Max Blumenthal: That’s not the only leverage that Iran has. Their elements can be activated that can make the security of the US Embassy in Baghdad absolutely untenable if the US wants to be extremely provocative and aggressive inside Syria, inside Iraq or elsewhere. The popular mobilization units were basically the frontline in the capture of Mosul from ISIS. It’s ironic because these groups were celebrated in US media and Western media for taking out ISIS, but when Shia militias assisted the Syrian government in extricating Jihadist militias from East Aleppo, al-Jabhat al-Nusra being the leading militia among them, the Syrian Al-Qaeda affiliate, they were accused of genocide by the US government and every kind of atrocity. Very few of them have actually been established, but there’s this hypocrisy there on what’s been happening in Syria versus Iraq or this disparity in the narrative on what Shia militias are allowed to do, and it’s because it was of strategic importance for the US to recapture Mosul, but the battle of Aleppo and the defeat of the Jihadist militias actually represented a defeat for Western proxy groups and a defeat, to put it crudely, for the empire.
Now, all of the forces have converged on the Syrian/Iraq border. There used to be two wars. There was the war against ISIS, and then there was the war that the US was supporting against the Syrian government. The two wars were contradictory. The Syrian government as the British military think tank IHS James is established, has fought almost half of its engagements against ISIS and is, in the words of James, the hammer to what should be the US’ anvil against ISIS, but the US always was attacking the Syrian government through proxies while trying to fight ISIS. It can’t do that anymore because the Syrian government has recaptured so much territory.
The armed opposition is confined to some areas in Dura, Quneitra in the south, and in the north to Idlib, so the wars are converging into one, and the question is, will the US allow the Syrian government and its allies, the Shia militias and Russia to actually take on ISIS. For example, there’s the city of Darazor in the northeast of Syria. This city has been surrounded by ISIS for years. You have about 200,000 people who are completely surrounded by ISIS, and they’ve been defended by the Syrian army, basically prevented from being overrun like Raqqa was, and the Syrian army is starting to make serious gains in Darazor.
Does the US throw the Syrian defense forces in the majority Kurdish militia that the US is arming and complicate the Syrian army advance because it’s afraid that the Syrian army will start to recapture more territory, start to capture oil fields that ISIS had seized, upset the US partition plan, or do they allow ISIS to be defeated? I think we’re going to see, and I’ve seen conflicting quotes and conflicting reports on what the US wants to do around Darazor, but let’s not just look at Raqqa, let’s also look at Darazor and what the US intends to do there.
Aaron Mate: What do you think that intention is?
Max Blumenthal: You can go back to December 2016 when Secretary of State John Kerry hashed out the first cease fire with Russia, which allowed the civilians population in Syria to breathe for a while. The whole point was to let people start having some kind of existence without perpetual warfare and conflict. That was completely upended around Darazor, and it was upended because the Pentagon was extremely upset about one of the main planks or conditions of the cease fire, which was that the US would coordinate with Russia against ISIS. The Pentagon did not want to coordinate with Russia against ISIS, at least under Obama, under the watch of Defense Secretary Ash Carter.
The United States Air Force attacked the Syrian army on a strategic hilltop, defending Darazor from ISIS, killing 80-100 soldiers. ISIS advanced, took the hilltop, and nearly overran Darazor, and the cease fire was dead, and there’s a lot of indication. Gareth Porter, the investigative journalist, has done a great report establishing that this strike was intentional, and it was designed to prevent Russian/Syrian coordination. Is that the thinking that prevails in the Pentagon? If so, I think it’s extremely dangerous, and in light of Trump’s trip to Saudi Arabia, in light of this current statement that Nikki Haley, the UN Ambassador’s taken ownership of, we have to wonder if the Trump administration is deprioritized the fight against ISIS and has empowered and emboldened the Iran hardliners, like Defense Secretary Mattis, National Security Council Director HR McMaster, to take the fight to Iran.
Aaron Mate: Just to clarify, the official Pentagon line on that attack in September from the US on the Syrian military was that it was a mistaken airstrike. That was the official explanation given.
Max Blumenthal: They made a big mistake. The Syrian army in no way resemble ISIS and had armored vehicles and hardware that ISIS just simply didn’t have. If it was a mistake, it was a really boneheaded one.
Aaron Mate: Max Blumenthal, award-winning author, journalist, and senior editor for AlterNet Grayzone Project. I’m Aaron Mate. Thanks for joining us on the Real News.