Militants from Islamic State stormed an air base in northeast Syria on Sunday, capturing it from government forces. Fighters from Islamic State have seized three Syrian military bases in the area in recent weeks. This comes as the Pentagon considers expanding its airstrikes against Islamic State in Iraq to include targets inside Syria. Meanwhile, another journalist who had been kidnapped in Syria, Peter Theo Curtis, has been freed after two years in captivity by the Nusra Front – another militant group in Syria. Calls have been growing for the United States to attack Syria since Islamic State posted video showing the kidnapped American journalist James Foley being beheaded. Foley was captured in Syria in 2012. Meanwhile in Iraq, officials say suicide bomber targeted a Shiite mosque in Baghdad today, killing at least 12 people. We speak to Vijay Prashad, professor of international studies at Trinity College. He is the author of several books, including Arab Spring, Libyan Winter and, most recently, The Poorer Nations: A Possible History of the Global South.
This is a rush transcript. Copy may not be in its final form.
AMY GOODMAN: Militants from the Islamic State stormed an air base in northeast Syria Sunday, capturing it from government forces. According to the Syrian Observatory for Human Rights, at least 346 Islamic State fighters and more than 170 members of government forces have died since Tuesday in the fight over the Tabqa base. Fighters from the Islamic State have seized three Syrian military bases in the area in recent weeks.
This comes as the Pentagon considers expanding its airstrikes against the Islamic State in Iraq to include targets inside Syria. On Thursday, General Martin Dempsey, the chair of the Joint Chiefs of Staff, hinted at possible intervention against the Islamic State in Syria.
GEN. MARTIN DEMPSEY: This is an organization that has an apocalyptic, end-of-days strategic vision and which will eventually have to be defeated. To your question, can they be defeated without addressing that part of their organization which resides in Syria, the answer is no. That will have to be addressed on both sides of what is essentially at this point a non-existent border. And that will come when we have a coalition in the region that takes on the task of defeating ISIS over time.
AMY GOODMAN: Dempsey spoke two days after the Islamic State posted video showing the kidnapped American journalist James Foley being beheaded. Foley was captured in Syria in 2012. Meanwhile, another journalist who had been kidnapped in Syria, Peter Theo Curtis, has been freed after two years in captivity by the Nusra Front, another militant group in Syria.
During an interview Sunday, General Dempsey told reporters once he determines the Islamic State militants in Iraq have become a direct threat to the U.S. homeland, he’ll recommend the U.S. military move directly against the group in Syria. On Friday, Ben Rhodes, President Obama’s deputy national security adviser, also raised the possibility of U.S. strikes inside Syria.
BEN RHODES: We will do what’s necessary to protect Americans and see that justice is done for what we saw with the barbaric killing of Jim Foley. So, we’re actively considering what’s going to be necessary to deal with that threat, and we’re not going to be restricted by borders. We’ve shown time and again that if there’s a counterterrorism threat, we’ll take direct action against that threat, if necessary.
AMY GOODMAN: Meanwhile in Iraq, officials say a suicide bomber targeted a Shiite mosque in Baghdad today, killing at least 12 people. This comes three days after at least 68 Sunni worshipers were [killed when] suspected members of a Shia militia attacked a mosque in Diyala province. Officials say a suicide bomber blew himself up in the mosque during Friday prayers, and gunmen fired on fleeing worshipers. To protest the killings, two prominent Sunni politicians, Iraq’s parliamentary speaker and deputy prime minister, pulled out of talks to form a new—a more inclusive government.
To talk more about the crisis in Iraq and Syria and the Middle East overall, we’re joined by Vijay Prashad, professor of international studies at Trinity College, author of several books, including Arab Spring, Libyan Winter and, most recently, The Poorer Nations: A Possible History of the Global South. Vijay Prashad is also a columnist for the Indian magazine Frontline, where he’s been writing extensively about the Islamic State. He was last in Syria three months ago.
Welcome to Democracy Now!, Vijay. Talk about what is happening right now in Syria—President Obama is back from his vacation—the discussion of striking inside Syria.
VIJAY PRASHAD: It’s interesting that the United States is thinking of striking inside Syria at this point. The question is, to what end? I mean, now, the Islamic State has taken a major airport outside Raqqa. It’s a military airport. You know, they have now MiGs in their possession. They have so-called MANPADS, surface-to-air missiles. But that’s really not what they’re after. What they’re going to make a move for is to go towards the airport of Hama and the town of Hama, which will cut off Syrian government control over the entire western flank of Syria. So they have a very interesting territorial ambition, to create a big zone, a crescent, as it were, from Tripoli in Lebanon all the way out to northern Iraq. That’s their game plan.
It’s very unlikely that U.S. airstrikes will be able to stop their march forward. It will halt them. It will make them change direction. For instance, the United States struck recently to protect U.S. ally, you know, the Iraqi Kurds. They struck right outside Erbil, hit the 198 howitzers that the Islamic State had taken from the military base in Mosul. So, when they did that, the Islamic State turned around and went back towards Raqqa. In other words, they are playing a kind of territorial land battle. They are not going to be stopped fundamentally by airstrikes. One tactical mission can be halted, then they will redirect. That’s the way they’ve been playing at it. If you’re going to defeat the Islamic State, it is going to have to come on the ground. It’s going to have to come through Kurdish forces, through Iraqi forces, through Syrian forces. And currently, that is not something people are talking about. There is a belief in the great silver bullet of American aerial strikes. And I’m afraid, you know, that’s very pleasant to hear, because it sounds like the Americans are doing something, but it’s not really strategically useful in the long run.
AMY GOODMAN: Republican Senator John McCain of Arizona appeared on Fox News and criticized President Obama for not responding to ISIS more forcefully.
SEN. JOHN McCAIN: He said we have to contain ISIS. We don’t have to contain ISIS; we have to defeat ISIS, and we have to do whatever is necessary. And ISIS is in Syria, and they have obliterated the boundary between Iraq and Syria. And we have to go in. And it’s more than pinprick airstrikes. And we’re going to need more boots on the ground. And that does not mean combat troops, but it does mean significant increase. And rather the incrementalism that we are—that they are now practicing, we need a comprehensive strategy that can be explained to the American people, which is designed to defeat ISIS wherever they are.
AMY GOODMAN: Your response to that, Professor Prashad?
VIJAY PRASHAD: Well, it’s interesting that he talked about boots on the ground. Yes, I agree: You need boots on the ground. The question is, who is going to wear those boots? John McCain assumes it’s going to be American troops. American troops have already tried to defeat, you know, the ancestor of the Islamic State, which was al-Qaeda in Mesopotamia. There’s a very dangerous game going on here, both from Hillary Clinton, from the Republicans, from Tony Blair. They want to make the case that the Islamic State is a child of the Syrian war. They want to deny the fact that the Islamic State has its roots fundamentally in the destruction of the Iraqi state by the American invasion in 2003. You know, it’s very easy to destroy a state. It took the Iraqi people over a hundred years to build institutions; that was destroyed by the Americans in an afternoon. Once you destroy the state, you create a vacuum. For the first time on Iraqi soil, one saw al-Qaeda groups come in, and that was in 2004, when Abu Musab al-Zarqawi, who was a Jordanian militant, comes into Tal Afar and creates al-Qaeda in Mesopotamia. You know, even bin Laden found him to be a bit unpalatable, because he was deeply sectarian and extraordinarily violent. The Americans tried to crush al-Qaeda in Mesopotamia, but by 2006, despite the big surge, despite the bombing of Fallujah, Ramadi—you know, names that the American public now are quite familiar with—despite the razing of these cities, the Islamic State was born in 2006. It’s not yesterday’s creation. This was a product of the Iraq War.
So, the Americans have tried to defeat them in Ramadi, in Fallujah, you know, in so-called Anbar province, the whole province, and have been defeated in 2007, 2008. You cannot fight them with American troops on the ground, because that will simply unite once again people who are not, you know, behind ISIS, but would oppose American troops. They have to be fought by the Iraqis, by the Syrians and by the Kurds. The problem, of course, is that because of U.S. policy over Syria, you know, the United States has a very peculiar and complicated relationship with the powers on the ground. The most powerful fighting force against the Islamic State over the last two years have been the Kurdish militias, but since the United States believes that the Kurdish militias are a terrorist organization—you know, partly because Turkey is a NATO ally, and Turkey considers—
AMY GOODMAN: PKK.
VIJAY PRASHAD: The PKK, the Kurdish Workers’ Party—a terrorist organization. But on the other hand, they have been the most fierce fighters against the Islamic State. So the United States is trapped by its Syria policy, by the Turkey policy and by the inability to help reconstruct an Iraqi state.
AMY GOODMAN: Will it be working with Bashar al-Assad, who also of course sees these militants as his enemy? Will the U.S.?
VIJAY PRASHAD: Well, it’s very interesting. A few hours ago, when the air base in Raqqa was seized, the foreign minister of Syria made an outreach to the Europeans and the Americans, saying that we need to collaborate to deal with this serious threat. And I think that’s very interesting. I mean, it is the case that these are the boots on the ground that can tackle the Islamic State. Major U.S. allies, for instance, Jordan, are under serious threat of the collapse of the monarchy. If the Islamic State, which has really consolidated its base in southern Syria, as well—if they decide to move south into Jordan, Jordan is in an extremely delicate situation.
AMY GOODMAN: The freelance journalist Peter Theo Curtis, who wrote under the byline Theo Padnos, was just released, in a surprise, apparently negotiated by Qatar with al-Nusra. What is al-Nusra trying to accomplish with this? To show that they are different from Islamic State?
VIJAY PRASHAD: It’s a very interesting game that has been played over the last year. It’s important to recognize that in January of 2012, the Nusra Front was created by the Islamic State of Iraq. In fact, you know, Jabhat al-Nusra means “the support front.” It was the support front from Abu Bakr al-Baghdadi, the leader of the Islamic State for the Syrian rebellion. Over the course of 2012, 2013, some tension broke out between ISIS and the Jabhat al-Nusra. In fact, al-Qaeda leadership intervened to say, “Jabhat al-Nusra is the authentic al-Qaeda of Syria, and the Islamic State of Iraq is the al-Qaeda in Iraq. So, guys, keep to your borders.” That was essentially what—the statement came from al-Qaeda headquarters.
Nusra has been trying to differentiate itself, except, Amy, the issue is, on the ground, Nusra fighters and ISIS fighters have been fighting together. So, it could be that Nusra and their emir, Mr. Jawlani, tried to differentiate themselves from ISIS. On the other hand, it could also be that the Gulf Arab states are feeling a lot of pressure to break their relationship with these groups, and they persuaded Jabhat al-Nusra, “Release an American, because what happened to Jim Foley was so disgusting and barbaric that it’s going to make it very hard for us to continue providing diplomatic support.” I mean, until a few weeks ago, a major figure in Saudi Arabia, a former foreign minister, made a statement that the only problem in the region is not the Islamic State. And what he was doing was he was pointing a finger, of course, at Iran, because they’re afraid that if the Islamic State comes to dominate the politics of greater Arabia, their principal contradiction, which is Iran, is going to be forgotten. So, I have a feeling that the release of Theo Curtis—it’s a great thing that happened—may have been a bargaining chip by the Gulf Arab states, much more than by Nusra itself.
AMY GOODMAN: Let’s talk about Saudi Arabia and its role in both Iraq and Syria.
VIJAY PRASHAD: I mean, Saudi Arabia is a complicated place. You know, people very loosely say “Saudi support” or “Qatar support,” etc. What we forget is, the governments don’t often support these groups. You know, they are fairly canny. They know that the last thing they want to do is to have their hands in the back pocket of a group like the Islamic State or Jabhat al-Nusra. What you more typically have is you have sheikhs who independently, privately donate small percentages of their vast holdings to various militant groups. So, you know, for them, it’s easy. If I’m worth several hundred million dollars, and I give half-a-million dollars to a group based in northern Iraq, and I send them off with guns, etc., half-a-million dollars in northern Iraq, half-a-million dollars in Mali, half-a-million dollars in Waziristan, that is an enormous amount of money. A lot of money has been coming from private donations. It gives the Gulf Arab states a great deal of deniability. So when Americans say, “You have to stop supporting these groups,” they say, “Well, we don’t support them.”
The other side of it, of course, is not just support with money. You know, there has been a crackdown by the Saudis over the last six to eight months against the Muslim Brotherhood, you know, which generally is supported by Qatar, and which is why, for instance, the Saudis helped finance the overthrow of the Morsi government in Egypt and brought in Mr. Sisi, who immediately made trips to Saudi Arabia. Saudi Arabia pledged vast amounts of money to Egypt. The same kind of dilemma has now broken apart inside Libya, where there’s pressure to minimize the Brotherhood’s role. That also contributed to the inflammation in Libya. Similar things have happened in Iraq and in Syria, where this tension is significant between Saudi Arabia and Qatar.
But yet, it hasn’t stopped the chaos in northern Syria and in Iraq, because it’s not just money, it’s also people. One reason that the Islamic State has been making a very concerted push to take back the Azaz crossing in—up north of Aleppo is because that has been the channel through which foreign fighters have been coming in. And because they’ve controlled much of the border with Turkey, they’ve been able to get the first dibs, as it were, of foreign fighters. So foreign fighters have been coming in, from the planeload, from Libya, very large numbers of people coming into the Islamic State. So, there are all kinds of numbers. Nobody knows whether to take them seriously. But, you know, people say there are 10,000 people in the Islamic State in their fighting brigades. Some people have higher numbers than that. Whatever the numbers might be, there are certainly thousands of foreign fighters, and often these are the most dedicated, most ruthless fighters.
AMY GOODMAN: Britain says they’re about to—and who knows if this is true—identify the man who’s standing over James Foley in the black hood, who beheaded him, that he is most likely British.
VIJAY PRASHAD: I mean, he is likely British, if we accept that the accent is his accent and not that it was overdubbed. They say it might be a rapper, in fact. You know, a photograph was released; it apparently is a British Muslim rapper. You know, these are people deeply disgruntled with whatever’s happened in the West. For whatever reason, they come in. And it is the case that the Chechnyan fighters, many of the European fighters are some of the most brave and dangerous fighters. I mean, the people who fight them from Hezbollah have been saying that they can fight anybody with ease, but when they come up against the Islamic State fighters, those guys are really ruthless. You know, just to give you a sense of the battlefield, both the Syrian army and the Free Syrian Army are trained in an old technique of fighting a battle: You set up an artillery brigade, and you fire into a city; when it’s quiet, you enter. That’s how the Americans fight; they do it from the air. That’s how the Israelis fight; they do it from the air. They demolish a city from the air, then they send a few ground troops in. No, these people drive in directly without any aerial bombardment. They are ruthless fighters. And they cannot be defeated, therefore, by conventional means. Unconventional fighting is necessary. That’s what the Syrian government had turned to when they drew in militias from Iraq and Hezbollah. They could not tackle the Islamic State or Jabhat al-Nusra themselves.
AMY GOODMAN: President Obama said that the U.S. was going to save the Yazidis and stop a genocide. Then they said that they were saved, and people asked, “Would the troops be out?” They said, no, they were going to add many more troops. Can you talk about what happened with the Yazidis and why the U.S. is in Iraq?
VIJAY PRASHAD: Of course, the Yazidi situation was a deeply troubling situation. You know, Iraq, as I said, had not the fertile soil for al-Qaeda. It was an extremely and is an extremely diverse society. You know, there are ancient names, like Chaldeans, Yazidis. You know, you think these are biblical people; how are they still alive? Large communities exist in northern Syria, in small valleys, ancient towns. So, it’s a deeply beautiful, diverse society. When the Islamic State moved in, it is certainly the case that they sent the Yazidis into a refuge. This is not the first time the Yazidis have fled persecution. They fled persecution in the 1930s, in the 1980s, because Saddam went after them. He wanted to bring them down from the mountains, settle them in the valley, because in mountains people are dangerous. That was his view. So they’ve experienced persecution before. This is not the first time.
It’s very interesting that President Obama so paternalistically said, you know, “America is going to help. Help is on the way.” Meanwhile, on the ground, you know, what I’ve been trying to suggest already, the Kurdish fighters, from what they call Rojava, which is the farther eastern provinces of Syria, of northeastern Syria, these Kurdish fighters of the YPG and the PKK had fought along the ground and opened a land corridor to Sinjar Mountain, where from Jebel Sinjar they rescued tens of thousands of people through a very difficult situation. It’s interesting, when the first USAID helicopters landed at Mount Sinjar, to welcome them were the PKK fighters. And it was something that the State Department couldn’t directly say in their briefing because, as we said a second ago, the PKK is a notified terrorist organization. So when President Obama says, you know, help is on the way, well, help was on the way, it just wasn’t the Americans. Now, did the American bombing help the Yazidis? Not exactly, because the bombing was of the artillery battalions, which had been stationed near Erbil. And so, it certainly stopped or halted the march of the Islamic State into Erbil, but it wasn’t entirely germane to the Yazidi situation.
AMY GOODMAN: We only have a minute to go. One, the role of oil? And, two, what’s happening in Libya right now?
VIJAY PRASHAD: The role of oil is not that significant in this part of the world, because the oil fields, the Omar oil fields, other oil fields in eastern Syria are very useful for—
AMY GOODMAN: I meant in Kurdistan area in Iraq.
VIJAY PRASHAD: Ah, in Kurdistan, OK. But, by the way, the Islamic State controls oil fields in Syria, and it sells that oil to everybody, including the Syrian government, you know, because they require oil. So these people are also hustlers. They are not all die-hard militants.
Of course the question of oil in Kurdistan is significant. I mean, one of the problems is that the Baghdad government had failed to pay properly the salaries of the Peshmerga. So, over the course of the last year, the fighting force of the Iraqi Kurds, the Peshmerga, had very low morale. For two, three months, they hadn’t been paid. So, Kurdistan has been providing revenues through oil sales to Baghdad, and Baghdad hasn’t been coming back and paying the salaries. So there’s a real push in Kurdistan to declare some kind of further autonomy or even independence. This is a very dangerous and, I think, at the other side, interesting development.
AMY GOODMAN: Thirty seconds on Libya.
VIJAY PRASHAD: What to say about Libya? I mean, again, you know, it’s the slogan that I’ve been trying to promote, which is, you can build a state—it takes you a hundred years; you destroy it in an afternoon. You know, when the Libyan state was destroyed so thoroughly, it opened the doors for all kinds of people. And right now, the fighting is so bad that the airports are all closed. The government is thinking of hiring a cruise ship to hold their Parliament offshore.
AMY GOODMAN: We’re going to continue the discussion of Libya after the show, and we will post it online at democracynow.org. Vijay Prashad, professor of international studies at Trinity College, author of a number of books. His latest book is The Poorer Nations: A Possible History of the Global South.
This is Democracy Now! When we come back, we go to the streets of Staten Island, New York, and to Ferguson, Missouri. Stay with us.