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Turkish-Syrian Border a “Great Hole” in Obama’s UN Speech

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Vijay Prashad says Obama’s comments on enforcing international norms have no credibility with most people around the world and are aimed at appeasing liberal unease.

Vijay Prashad says Obama’s comments on enforcing international norms have no credibility with most people around the world and are aimed at appeasing liberal unease.


JESSICA DESVARIEUX, TRNN PRODUCER: Welcome to The Real News Network. I’m Jessica Desvarieux in Baltimore.

On Wednesday, President Obama addressed the United Nations General Assembly, calling for the world to join the U.S. and its partner nations to confront the extremist group ISIS, also known as ISIL.

Here with us to take a close look at the president’s speech and what he did and did not say Wednesday morning is our guest, Vijay Prashad. Vijay joins us from Northampton, Massachusetts. He is the George and Martha Kellner Chair in South Asian History and professor of international studies at Trinity College. His most recent book is The Poorer Nations: A Possible History of the Global South.

Thank you so much for being with us, Vijay.


DESVARIEUX: So, Vijay, we already know that the president has ordered airstrikes over Syria for the first time, and the president is now saying that he wants the international community’s support to degrade and destroy the extremist group known as ISIS. Let’s take a listen to a part of the president’s speech.


BARACK OBAMA, U.S. PRESIDENT: Too often, we have failed to enforce international norms when it’s inconvenient to do so. And we have not confronted forcefully enough the intolerance, sectarianism, and hopelessness that feeds violent extremism in too many parts of the globe.


DESVARIEUX: We just heard the president say we need to be more forceful—forceful, but also, at the same time, he’s saying that the international community has failed to enforce international norms. So what do you make of this? Essentially, is what United States is doing by bombing Syria adhering to international norms?

PRASHAD: Funny thing for the American president to talk about adhering to international laws. Also, Mr. Obama at the UN said that the large nations should not trample small ones in pursuit of what he called “territorial ambition”. These are curious statements coming from the American president at this time. There’s no UN resolution that allows the United States to carry out operations in Syria. You’ll remember that in Libya in 2011 there was a great hoopla made about the importance of getting a UN resolution. Here there was no attempt to get any resolution. They simply bombed in Syria. The question of international norms or international resolutions, you know, coming from Mr. Obama is not really about whether there are international norms or resolutions to uphold.

But why is Mr. Obama saying this? What is his audience? It’s plain that the American right wing, the Republicans and some sections of the Democratic Party, don’t really care about international norms. They believe in the executive authority of the president. They don’t even believe the United Nations or international law should play any role vis-à-vis American policymaking.

And then you have the world community. You know, when they hear things like big countries shouldn’t trample small countries, people keep thinking of Iraq. I mean, from 1991 till the present, Iraq sovereignty has been trampled by the United States. However you define territorial ambitions, it need not be a country that’s right next to the U.S. for it to exercise its extraterritorial or territorial ambitions. So most people around the world would not see the credibility of that statement.

I think this particular gesture comes towards the liberal wing of the American population that’s maybe a little anxious about this escalation into warfare. You know, there are people who are saying that they voted twice for Mr. Obama and they are now feeling a great sense of regret, not only over Guantanamo, etc., but now perhaps the entry into a new war in West Asia.

DESVARIEUX: Alright. Vijay, he also was talking about his strategy for defeating ISIS. Let’s take a look to what the president mapped out.


OBAMA: In this effort, we do not act alone. Nor do we intend to send U.S. troops to occupy foreign lands. Instead, we will support Iraqis and Syrians fighting to reclaim their communities. We will use our military might in a campaign of airstrikes to roll back ISIL. We will train and equip forces fighting against these terrorists on the ground. We will work to cut off their financing, and to stop the flow of fighters into and out of the region. And already over 40 nations have offered to join this coalition.


DESVARIEUX: So, Vijay, you just heard the president talk about no boots on the ground, we’re going to cut funding, and all of these possible tactics. What do you make of this, the president’s strategy? Are there some parts of the strategy that you like? Or are there things that he could be doing differently?

PRASHAD: Well, let’s take this from the ground upward rather than from aerial bombardment downward. I think most analysts looking at this from the plane’s point of view—we have to do something; now we’ve bombed the city of, Raqqah, Aleppo, etc. But if you look at it from below, what I think is going to happen is these precipitous airstrikes in Raqqah, and particularly in Aleppo and Idlib, these airstrikes are, I think, going to create a greater sense of unity among the Islamist sections, which had had some divisions. So, rather than play upon the divisions, I think the U.S. airstrikes has united this section of Islamists, and they’re going to now fight very hard to maintain their sections and to expand. So this is, of course, going contrary to the stated aims of the United States. So the air campaign, I think, is going to unite people that the U.S., if it was serious about concentrating on the Islamic State, would have done something different to break apart the possibility of unity.

And then the question of financing and the people coming in to fight, this is all very well. And the United States has been saying that, you know, in a sense, since August. But meanwhile, a principal NATO ally of the United States, Turkey, has not really closed its borders. And all evidence suggests that Turkey has allowed ISIS fighters, when they’ve been injured, to return into Turkey and to get treated in Turkey’s hospitals. So there’s very good evidence that the border is porous. I don’t really see the credibility in this particular instance of the strategy.

I think a far more important strategic way to deal with the Islamic State would be to bring some of these regional partners and explain to them that Turkey’s own contradictory foreign policy has to end. I mean, if United States is serious, it has leverage over Turkey. And apparently it has not been able to move Turkey sufficiently. That shows (A) the lack of seriousness in terms of this project that Obama has constructed, and (B) it shows a very narrow approach to the politics of the region, having allied simply with the Gulf Arab states in Jordan.

I mean, how must this play in the region where the United States’ major allies are countries not one of which is a democracy? Not one of the Democratic countries has come on board fully and enthusiastically to join a coalition. I mean, the only way Iraq is going to be a full-fledged and dynamic partner to a coalition: if there’s a new strategic outlook towards the government in Damascus and Syria. And that is, of course, not going to happen. So the credibility of the strategy strikes me as not very well worked out if you look at it from the ground upwards.

DESVARIEUX: Alright. Let’s pivot from Obama’s speech and talk about some comments that UN Ambassador Samantha Power made on the NBC Sunday morning talkshow Meet the Press. Here’s what she said about the administration’s strategy of arming, quote-unquote, arming, moderate rebel opposition.


SAMANTHA POWER, U.S. AMBASSADOR TO THE UN: They have pushed ISIL out of strategic areas. The reason that they’ve lost—the moderate opposition have lost territory over time is that they have been fighting ISIL and taking the fight to ISIL, on the one hand, and then also fighting a regime that is backed by Hezbollah, Iran, Russia, etc. So we think, with an infusion of support, these fighters, who have actually held their own against this wide array of actors fighting all fronts, will be in a much stronger position both to go after ISIL and to put pressure on the regime so we can get back to the negotiating table for a political solution.


DESVARIEUX: Getting back to the negotiating table for a political solution—that’s what Samantha Power said. And this is sort of their strategy, Vijay. Do you look at this strategy and think that it’s a good one at the end of the day?

PRASHAD: Well, the question of a moderate opposition is a very important idea to, I mean, investigate. The Obama administration hasn’t really laid out what they mean by “moderate opposition”. You know, who are the principal partners on the ground? Who is going to, among the groups that are there now, be recognized as moderate? They use, I think, very cliched statements, such as, for instance, there will be robust vetting, things like that. What they mean by these things?

Over the course of three years, the United States has started and then failed to produce a substantial armed opposition group that they would consider to be moderate. So you can’t really have an expectation that three years hence, having turned over much of this creation of a moderate force to Saudi Arabia, that you’re going to have a different outcome now. So unless you have an understanding that a moderate resistance force, a rebel force, is not going to be able to be created by Saudi Arabia under the auspices of the United States, it’s going to be hard to change the political calculation from the ground downwards, meaning that Mr. Assad is not going to be able to feel like there is a moderate opposition that actually threatens him. Currently, the Assad government looks out at the landscape, sees the rise of ISIS, sees that much of the rebel force has become largely Islamist, and then turns to the West and says, well, you know, they look toward the West and say, well, look, what you have is a terrorist group that’s fighting against us. So in this context, I think, to talk about moderate opposition being created to put pressure on Damascus is rather illusionary.

DESVARIEUX: Let’s go back to the speech, Vijay, because the president also talk about funding extremism. Let’s take a listen to what he had to say.


OBAMA: It is time for a new compact among civilized peoples of this world to eradicate war at its most fundamental source, and that is the corruption of young minds by violent ideology.

That means cutting off the funding that fuels this hate. It’s time to end the hypocrisy of those who accumulate wealth through the global economy, and then siphon funds to those who teach children to tear it down.


DESVARIEUX: So the president is talking about cutting off the funding for those that fuel the hate, and specifically talking about ending the hypocrisy. Who is the president talking about, Vijay?

PRASHAD: Well, I mean, he reads The New York Times. He reads The Wall Street Journal. He reads The Washington Post. Each of these papers have run stories about how there is so-called private funding coming from the Gulf Arab states. This was there at an early point in the career of the Islamic State of al-Qaeda in Iraq. You know, that’s how—it was when it was at a startup position [that] Gulf Arab funding was essential. Of course, now the funding question is not essential, because the Islamic State is able to raise finances through taxation, through theft of banks, and certainly through oil sales from the Omar oilfields in eastern Syria. So right now the question of funding isn’t of the essence.

The most important issue is to seal the border between Turkey and Syria. And, of course, that was not part of his agenda. You know, the United States is facing serious pushback from Turkey, which is not comfortable with the view that the Islamic State is a terrorist organization. If you were to ask me to give you an analogy, I’ll give you something that I got from a Kurdish official, who said that in a sense it’s looking like turkey is using the Islamic State in the same way as Pakistan used the Taliban in Afghanistan. You know, that’s perhaps Turkey’s strategy. Mr. Obama needs to make a phone call to Ankara and have a serious conversation about why the current government in Turkey isn’t going to seal its border, why it doesn’t take a stronger position against the Islamic State. That not being part of his speech reveals the great hole in the Obama strategy.

DESVARIEUX: So, Vijay, let’s switch gears and talk about Israel and Palestine, because the president actually mentioned the Israeli public in his comments towards the end of the speech. Let’s take a listen.


OBAMA: The violence engulfing the region today has made too many Israelis ready to abandon the hard work of peace. And that’s something worthy of reflection within Israel, because let’s be clear: the status quo in the West Bank and Gaza is not sustainable.


DESVARIEUX: So, Vijay, you just heard the president criticizing the Israeli public. What do you make of this criticism?

PRASHAD: Well, I mean, it’s important that he said that it’s Israelis who are ready to abandon the hard work of peace. You know, that’s a very important thing. I don’t recall an American president basically coming out and criticizing the Israeli public. I think that’s quite significant. And it’s equally significant that he talked about—when he said that it’s important to reflect about what’s happening inside Israel. I think this is something that people like Max Blumenthal in his book Goliath have been pointing out for a long time. There’s a right-wing shift in Israeli society, very hard right shift. I think it’s good that Mr. Obama, standing there at the GA, made comments like that. It’s important that he would say that Israel has a problem it needs to deal with.

DESVARIEUX: Alright. Vijay Prashad, joining us from Northampton, Massachusetts.

Thank you so much for your analysis.

PRASHAD: Thanks a lot.

DESVARIEUX: And thank you for joining us on The Real News Network.

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