Phyllis Bennis is a Fellow and the Director of the New Internationalism Project at the Institute for Policy Studies in Washington D.C. She is the author of Understanding the Palestinian-Israeli Conflict: A Primer, Before and After: US Foreign Policy and the September 11 Crisis, Ending the US War in Afghanistan: A Primer and Understanding the US-Iran Crisis: A Primer. Her most recent book is Understanding ISIS and the New Global War on Terror: A Primer.
SHARMINI PERIES: It’s The Real News Network. I’m Sharmini Peries, coming to you from Baltimore. After intense fighting between the Lebanese army, Lebanese Hezbollah, and the Syrian military against ISIS on the Lebanese-Syrian border, Lebanon’s president, Michel Aoun, declared victory over ISIS this week. The declaration was the result of negotiation and cease-fire agreement that the Lebanese party Hezbollah negotiated. Under the agreement, over 300 Islamic State fighters and their families were allowed to evacuate. The deal sparked outrage in Iraq, with the U.S. military as well, arguing that they too have been fighting ISIS over several years now. In protest, the U.S. forces bombed the road and a bridge, preventing the ISIS convoy and their families from evacuating.
Joining us now to analyze the situation is Phyllis Bennis. Phyllis directs the New Internationalism Project at the Institute for Policy Studies and has written and edited some 11 books. Among them, Understanding ISIS and the New Global War on Terror: A Primer. Thanks for joining us, Phyllis.
PHYLLIS BENNIS: Good to be with you, Sharmini.
SHARMINI PERIES: So Phyllis, let’s start off with describing what has been happening on the Lebanese-Syrian border, and the nature of the cease-fire that has been agreed upon.
PHYLLIS BENNIS: The fighting that had been going on for about a week, and it seemed that the ISIS fighters had been fought to a standstill. And there was an offer of an agreement to move, not into Syria, sorry, not into Iraq. They have not traveled into Iraq, and they’re not planning to. They were moving across Syria from where they had been fighting with, as you said, Syrian government forces, Lebanese government forces, and the Lebanese Hezbollah allied with the Syrian government. They had negotiated a deal in which they would be allowed to move from that besieged town on the Lebanese-Syrian border and drive across Syria to an area of Syria still under ISIS control. They would be joining an existing ISIS stronghold.
Part of the deal was that they would turn over to Lebanon the bodies of about 20 Lebanese soldiers who ISIS had killed a couple of years ago, and they had held on to those bodies as a negotiating chip. They cashed in that chip, if you will, and they returned the bodies to Lebanon for return to their families for burial. The quid pro quo was that they would be allowed to leave where they had been besieged in Syria on the Lebanese border and driven across Syria. It was a kind of guarantee of safety to drive to Deir al-Zour province, another province of Syria on the other side of the country that abuts the Iraqi border. So it was not about going into Iraq, it was simply moving from one ISIS-controlled area that had been defeated to another area where ISIS remains in control. That was the agreement.
That was what the U.S. said was unacceptable in language quite explicit from, among others, the U.S. special envoy for the coalition against ISIS, Brett McGurk, who said that it is unacceptable to allow ISIS fighters to travel across the country; they should have been killed on the battlefield. It was as if he imagined that the battlefield was a World War I-style trench warfare where you have armies facing off against each other in the middle of nowhere. The battlefield here are cities. So if they had insisted on being killed on the battlefield, it would have meant killing hundreds or thousands of Syrian civilians.
In this case, what they allowed was 300 or so ISIS fighters who had been defeated, who are now being mocked by other ISIS fighters for giving up the fight but nonetheless they did, along with something like 330 women and children who were family members. Some of the women very likely forced wives after being kidnapped by ISIS. Incredibly vulnerable population who were all put on a bus convoy and bused across the country to somewhere. And it was at that point, while they were traveling, that the U.S. said this is unacceptable, we’re not going to, they said, bomb the convoy itself, acknowledging that there were women and children in large numbers that were part of the convoy, but we’re going to drop bombs in front of the convoy to crater the road, so they can’t go any further. So they did that two days ago. Forced the convoy to go back and take another route, trying a more circuitous route. Right now they seem to be stuck in the desert.
It’s very unclear how this is going to be resolved. The U.S. position is: We’re not bound by any agreement that the other anti-ISIS fighters make. In this case, the other anti-ISIS fighters are the government of Syria, the government of Lebanon, which is backed by the United States, and Syrian Hezbollah (ed: Lebanese Hezbollah). The U.S. says: We’re not bound, so we’re going to go ahead and bomb them. Even though, this was a way of avoiding further bloodshed in the western Syrian town where they came from. So how this gets resolved right now is very, very uncertain.
SHARMINI PERIES: All right. So what can Lebanon do? What can Hezbollah and of course the Syrian government do under these circumstances?
PHYLLIS BENNIS: There’s not a whole lot of options except to try to talk to U.S. officials and this so-called coalition that the U.S. controls. That may be something possible for the Lebanese government, which has long been backed by the United States. The Lebanese army, in fact, is backed and armed by the United States, and they are at the moment united with Lebanese Hezbollah, which has been fighting inside Syria for quite a long time. The Lebanese army has not been. The Lebanese army has been deployed on the Lebanese side of the border near this town that had been under ISIS control, but they had not crossed the border. But it could be that U.S., Lebanese government-to-government talks could result in an agreement to continue.
The position of some analysts right now is that the territory that they were planning to go to in Deir al-Zour province … Deir al-Zour province is largely controlled by ISIS. It’s near the city of Raqqa, the so-called capital of the caliphate of ISIS, and that’s where a lot of U.S.-orchestrated fighting is already underway. But there’s other parts of the province as well that still have members of ISIS forces in control. Sending 300 defeated ISIS fighters to that area is not going to qualitatively change the military balance. What it does do is end the fighting in western Syria and concentrate it in one area.
The problem with the U.S. analysis, if one can call it an analysis at least of their announced determination, is that it’s based on the idea that the only way to deal with ISIS fighters is to kill them, despite the fact that killing them kills civilians, destroys cities, as we’ve seen for example in Mosul in Iraq and what we’re seeing now in Raqqa in Syria where whole cities are destroyed by this and hundreds or thousands of civilians are killed, instead of letting them stand down from fighting. There’s going to, at some point, have to be a negotiated end here. And the question is: How long does the fighting have to continue before that’s allowed to go forward?
SHARMINI PERIES: Right. Now, what are the chances of the Lebanese government actually being able to negotiate this with the Americans. Remember, a few weeks ago Trump met with Hariri, the Lebanese leader, and he had no idea what the role of Hezbollah is. He considers them a militant fighter group rather than a part of the Lebanese government. So how is the U.S. going to react to this situation if the Lebanese government comes forward and wants to actively negotiate this?
PHYLLIS BENNIS: I don’t think we know yet. As you say, the U.S. government, if we look at the White House, doesn’t have a clue what makes up the Lebanese government, the breadth of forces that are part of it. Hezbollah is by now the most popular party in the Lebanese government. It’s a very powerful political force inside Lebanon. How much everybody who’s a member or a supporter of Hezbollah as a political force in Lebanon supports what Hezbollah is doing inside Syria, we don’t know; there’s no polls being taken. But certainly inside Lebanon it is a very powerful political force.
The other progressive and supported option should be to involve the United Nations in this kind of diplomacy. The UN for five years now in Syria has been trying to negotiate local, small-scale cease-fires between all the different parties as much as possible. With the hope that small-scale, limited cease-fires in one city, in one town, in one village would grow, would expand, would unite with other small-scale cease-fires and could eventually be the basis of a national cease-fire. This could be part of that process if it’s taken seriously. If it’s viewed solely the way U.S. officials are treating it now with such disdain and say, “The only way we can deal with these people is to kill them all; kill them on the battlefield,” as if there was some kind of a clean battlefield somewhere, then that certainly isn’t going to happen. But I would hope that the United Nations would exert some independent role here and say: This is the moment to encourage more negotiated cease-fires in as many of these places as possible.
SHARMINI PERIES: Right. Phyllis, in a recent New York Times’ article, Ben Hubbard argues that Iran is seeking to remake the Middle East with Hezbollah as its Arab enforcer. In the article, Mr. Hubbard states that Hezbollah is involved in nearly every fight that matters to Iran. And in another New York Times’ article is more blunt when they titled it, “Iran is Taking Over Syria. Can Anyone Stop It?” How do you respond to these claims by the New York Times?
PHYLLIS BENNIS: I think it’s a significant exaggeration to say that Iran is taking over and Hezbollah is their instrument. Hezbollah is an independent Lebanese force allied with Iran. It is not simply a puppet of Iran. It does depend on Iran for its arms. And clearly in the Syrian war situation, it is not only allied with but, I would say, it’s true that it’s doing the bidding of Iran in the context of that war. However, on the global and regional side, I think people have to sort of calm down a little bit from that kind of rhetoric. The reality is, Iran lives in the neighborhood, as does Iraq, as does Syria, as does Lebanon. These are regional powers. The longstanding fight going on in the region is for regional hegemony between Iran and Saudi Arabia.
Iran and Saudi Arabia have competed with each other for decades. And in the recent decade, it’s been a more overt, more public fight, if you will. And unfortunately, a big part of that fight has been taking place in Syria. Part of the Syrian war, one aspect of the numerous wars that make up the Syrian war is the fight for regional hegemony and the fight for sectarian dominance within Islam between Iran and Saudi Arabia. Will it be Iran as the regional power? Or the Saudis? Will it be Shia Islam based in Iran, or Sunni Islam based in Saudi Arabia that will emerge as the dominant sectarian definition in this war? And of course, it’s only Syrians who are doing the dying. So it’s a terrible war that’s underway. But I think the notion that this is somehow only Iran is interfering, and it’s the U.S. and everybody else who is fighting against that interference, really begs the question of who lives in that region and who does not?
Iran shares a border (ed: neighborhood ) with Syria. It has a lot of interest in making sure that Syria does not become even more destabilized over its borders than it already is. The same is true for Lebanon. The same is true throughout the region. In Iraq, Syria … Sorry. Iran certainly has more influence right now with the government than the U.S. does, but that’s been true for some years now. The U.S. pays the bills. The U.S. provides the arms. The U.S. provides the training. But the political leadership of the Iraqi government is far more popular in Tehran than it is in Washington. And that has everything to do with who’s in leadership in Iraq since the U.S. invasion and overthrow of the government. The government installed by the U.S. has been sectarian-based, based on a Shia-dominated government. Many of whom spent years in exile in Iran being supported or protected by the Iranian government. Not surprising, that’s who they continue to look to. And again, Iran is part of the neighborhood in a way that the United States simply is not.
SHARMINI PERIES: Complicated.
PHYLLIS BENNIS: Indeed.
SHARMINI PERIES: Phyllis, in an op-ed published nearly exactly a year ago in the Jewish Post, Israeli academic professor Efraim Inbar argued that it is a strategic mistake to try to destroy ISIS. He argued that prolonging the life of ISIS probably assures the death of more Muslim extremists at the hands of other bad guys in the Middle East, as he put it, and is likely to spare the West of several terrorist attacks. He also argues that anything that weakens Iran, Russia, Syria, and the Lebanese Hezbollah is a good thing. What do you have to say about that?
PHYLLIS BENNIS: Well, this is a sort of Israeli version of how they see the new Cold War. That they have the U.S. and Israel standing up to this alliance based on Iran, Russia, Syria, and Hezbollah. And the notion there is anything that strengthens Iran is bad for us. Anything that strengthens, that keeps ISIS fighting is good for us because it means they’re fighting here and they’re not fighting against the West.
The part of it that’s true, outside of the hyperbolic heavy breathing of that kind of analysis … The part of it that I think is true is that, as we’ve heard before, there is no military solution for dealing with ISIS. What you can do militarily with ISIS is destroy its ability to control territory and populations. So it is possible as we’re seeing now in Mosul in Iraq, on its way in Raqqa in Syria, and elsewhere. It is possible to destroy ISIS domination of a city. The problem is, the price you pay is the destruction of cities, the killing of hundreds or thousands or tens of thousands of civilians.
We’re just hearing now what many of us said was inevitably going to happen. In Mosul, in Syria (ed: Iraq), we were told this was a great liberation of Mosul from the clutches of ISIS. And indeed for people forced to live under the terrors of ISIS rule, one aspect of that is freedom from that. But the cost is, it now is being acknowledged, there are thousands and people, thousands, that were killed in the U.S. bombing, the U.S.-led bombing as well as being killed by ISIS bombs and booby traps and the fighting that went on in the city for all of those months. So what’s the cost? This is … The Vietnam version was, we had to destroy the village to save it. The version today is, we had to destroy the city in order to protect people from ISIS. If this is their idea of protection, it’s not going to work.
What it does mean is that as more people from ISIS are driven out of the cities they once controlled, they will seek other territory. And when they are not able to seize and hold territory any longer, they will, some of them will simply go back to their old civilian lives. Some of them joined ISIS to get a job. We know that. The ISIS fighters, the ISIS militia paid higher wages than some of the other militias fighting in Syria. That was part of what motivated some fighters, as well as their families of course. But we will also see some of them turning to fight in other places, including in the West.
I think that we will see a spike in what we might say is a return of ISIS to old-fashioned terrorism, away from the sort of newfangled combination of terrorist organization with conventional military that it had been doing in the land that it controlled in both Syria and Iraq. As that land shrinks and they don’t have the control of territory and people any longer, they will retreat to being an old-fashioned terrorist organization attacking civilians wherever they can. And I think that we can expect to see an escalation in that kind of terrorism. So this is not going to make anybody safer, except perhaps the individual people at the core of being forced to live under ISIS rule. The problem is, many of them will not survive the war that is designed to liberate them.
SHARMINI PERIES: And finally, Phyllis, what’s happening to the negotiations, the regional negotiations that were going on in order to bring about a solution in Syria with a number of the people who were fighting involved in the process?
PHYLLIS BENNIS: Those talks have not gone forward. I think there is another episode of the Geneva-based talks scheduled for I think it’s next month. But these talks have largely stalled, unfortunately. The UN efforts to maintain the talks have not gotten support from the major powers, either the U.S. or Russia as the global powers there or the regional powers Saudi Arabia or Iran or Turkey or Jordan, the UAE, the other major fighting powers. So these talks so far are not bearing fruit. That doesn’t mean they should be ended. They should be continued and if possible they should be escalated in their pace. But that’s not what we’re seeing right now.
SHARMINI PERIES: All right. Phyllis, I thank you so much for joining us today. We’ll be back to you soon, I’m sure.
PHYLLIS BENNIS: I look forward to it. Thank you.
SHARMINI PERIES: And thank you for joining us here on The Real News Network.