(CN) – The Trump administration’s decision to end a covert CIA program to arm and train moderate Syrian rebels is garnering support from unusual quarters.
Among those celebrating the decision is Phyllis Bennis, Middle East expert at the Institute for Policy Studies, a think tank with roots that go back to the civil rights and anti-war movements of the 1960s.
Bennis says the CIA program exacerbated the Syrian conflict, which she believes has gotten worse since President Trump took office.
Courthouse News: What are your thoughts about ending the CIA covert program to arm and train moderate Syrian rebels?
Phyllis Bennis: Well I think it’s very important to end that program, for a host of reasons. It has exacerbated the war in Syria, [and] it has been based on the false notion that there is a military solution — in this particular case a regime change military solution, that somehow is going to solve the problem of Syria.
That simply is not true. It’s illegal, it doesn’t work and it was a program that never should have been started. A parallel program run by the Pentagon was cancelled awhile ago after spending $500 million to train supposedly thousands and thousands of Syrian “moderate” rebels. And it turned out that didn’t work either: they couldn’t find enough rebels who fit the exact specifications of the US. So this wasn’t about Syria, this was about the US.
The CIA program was more explicitly aimed at [recruiting] rebels who admitted they were siding against the regime, as well as, or in some cases instead of, ISIS. Ending the program is an acknowledgment that regime change needs to be off the table. They need to stop.
CNS: How have things developed in Syria since President Trump took office?
PB: Things are much worse. The situation around Raqqa, where people have been forced to live under ISIS rule, is spoken of as an effort of liberation, but what it has actually meant is devastation. It’s the civilians, the several hundred thousand people who remain in Raqqa, who are paying this enormous price – in lives, in the destruction of their homes, in the destruction of their city. …
The fighting is just beginning there, but if it’s anything like what happened in Mosul, the other major city — this one in Iraq — under ISIS control, it’s going to be an absolute disaster for the people of Raqqa.
And ISIS of course still controls major swaths of territory in Syria. So for Syrians the situation is absolutely dire. There are now about 11 million people who have been forced out of their homes, 6 million of them refugees, 5 million internally displaced. The numbers are absolutely staggering. Absolutely staggering. We’re hearing very little about it because it’s become the new normal.
CNS: How is the new U.S. strategy to surround and annihilate ISIS working out?
PB: That’s based on a Pentagon assessment that the real danger of ISIS now is what they might do [once ISIS control of these cities ends]. The concern is that whatever ISIS fighters survive will end up going to Europe or to the US [and carry out attacks there].
So what they’re trying to do now is surround the cities, and as you say they use this language of annihilation, and what that really means is kill as many as you can.
The reality in places like Raqqa is that the ISIS fighters who are local, who are Iraqi, [are] leaving, melting back into the local population. Maybe to fight again, maybe not — we don’t know. …
But what they leave behind is a higher percentage of foreign fighters. Those are the ones that the US is more concerned about because they’re worried about what they might do in Europe or the US, less worried about what they might do in Syria.
The result is a massive escalation of military force — more air strikes, more drone strikes, more air war, more people killed, more civilians killed, more cities destroyed — in the name of annihilation.
And the result is a rise in support for ISIS, and its opposition to this kind of bombing, from local people. Inevitably that’s going to be the case. So the irony is, this is going to set the stage for ISIS 2.0. It’s a crazy assessment that the bigger threat from ISIS now is what some leftover holdovers might do in Europe. Not looking at what they’ve done to the people of Iraq, the people of Syria.
CNS: What are your thoughts about President Trump working with Russian President Vladimir Putin on the cease-fire announced at the recent G-20 meeting in Germany?
PB: It’s hard to know how much of this is political posturing but I’m less interested in the why than the what. We need more cease fires. We should be supporting every possibility of a cease fire whether the initiative comes from the United Nations, comes from somebody on the ground, or comes from Putin. I don’t care who initiates it. I don’t care why Trump does it. If it can work, at least on a small scale and then be extended, that’s huge. It’s not enough obviously. There also needs to be an arms embargo on all sides. That’s nowhere near happening, but we need to be talking about it and putting that on the agenda.
CNS: Is there any movement forward in terms of diplomatic efforts?
PB: There’s some motion. There are some diplomats racking up the frequent flier miles. Whether there’s any viable motion on the diplomatic front … [that] seems not to be the case right now, but if cease fire discussions can be the prelude, that’s not the worst thing in the world.