Erdogan wants to turn Turkey into Islamist state, bets on uneducated masses - CIA veteran
The skies above Syria are crowded with military planes from various nations. However, the non-stop bombardment of Islamic State (IS, formerly ISIS/ISIL) seems to be producing nothing in return. The group still maintains the ability to strike anytime, anywhere - even in the US. And while Western nations along with Russia are trying to destroy IS, some of America’s alleged "allies" in the region seem to be playing their own game. Can a war be won in such conditions? Can progress be made if only some are committed to end the fighting? We pose these questions, and many more, to an ex-CIA agent and counter-terrorism expert. Philip Giraldi is on Sophie&Co today.
Sophie Shevardnadze: Philip Giraldi, it's really great to have you with us today - thanks for coming to Russia!
Philip Giraldi: Well, thank you very much. I've enjoyed it.
SS: So, I wanna start with Turkey. You think that Turkey's downing of the Russian plane was a deliberate action, and it was actually aimed at derailing of the anti-ISIS efforts. Why would they want to do that? Don't they want to beat ISIS as well?
PG: Well, that's a complicated question. I'm convinced it's deliberate, because I know they way their government works - there's no way that a local general or colonel would have ordered the shoot-down of the Russian plane. It had to come straight from the top, meaning from the President himself, Erdogan - and knowing that, it had to be premeditated, it had to be something they were setting up and were prepared to do. I think, it's very clear it was a premeditated act.
SS: But why would they want to shoot it down? What is the reason behind it, in your opinion?
PG: They wanted to create an incident that would derail what was developing as a large coalition against ISIS.
SS: And why would they want to do that?
PG: Turkey has no interest in defeating ISIS. Turkey has one foreign policy objective in the Arab world, and that's to keep Kurdish state from development. They are fearful of a Kurdish state developing, taking Turkish territory, Syrian territory, Iraqi territory and Iranian territory.
SS: Now, before this incident between Turkey and Russia we had good neighborly relations - why is Erdogan upon himself - sanctions and tensions - does he not care?
PG: Erdogan made a miscalculation. He thought that by staging this attack on the Russian plane, claiming that Russians had attacked him, that he would get NATO to line up behind him and NATO would support him in a policy against Al-Assad. Now, that didn't happen, and Erdogan is now saying: "I wish I had never done it".
SS: Why do you think Turkey is having so many problems controlling the flow of weapons, ISIS recruits, the oil flow back and forth across the border - even Washington is saying that Turkey should take care of the 100 km border line it has with Syria.
PG: Well, they're having problems because they don't want to control it. They, essentially are putting a lot of pressure on Europeans by letting the refugees through - so that's one aspect of what they're thinking, and also, supplying weapons to ISIS and Al-Nusra is Turkish policy, secret policy, and in return they're able to buy the oil that ISIS is selling, and then they re-export it. The Turkish president's family is involved in making a profit from this.
SS: So, I want to read out your quote: "Turkish war against ISIS is mostly a war against the Syrian Kurds and it's own Kurdish insurgency", and while the government may paint the Kurds as more dangerous than ISIS - are they really?
PG: Well, of course, most of us know they're not. The real enemy is ISIS, but the Turks tend to see this in a very limited terms, in terms of their own very narrow interests, and their very narrow interest is to....
SS: But is ISIS not a threat to Turkey though?
PG: ISIS has not targeted Turkey, except there's been a couple of incidents that have been attributed to ISIS, but I don't believe that ISIS actually did them. I think the Turkish intelligence service did it.
SS: Do you think Ankara is hoping to use ISIS to actually advance its policy agendas?
PG: Yeah, I think Ankara sees ISIS as an enemy of the Kurds, and therefore it's a friend of Turkey in a way.
SS: But what makes the Turkish establishment think that they won't backfire?
PG: I think they hope they will have good luck, but that, of course, doesn't always happen. I think, in this case, they're demonstrating that their optimism about how they could play this situation has been unfounded.
SS: Mr. Erdogan's leadership is slowly eroding the secular nature of the Turkish society. How far can this go?
PG: Well, that's a good question. It certainly is what is occurring: Turkey is becoming more islamist in many ways, and Erdogan is the one that's pushing this. Most of the Turks I know are secular and we may call them "Kemalists", embracing the original constitution of the Turkish Republic. They are very resentful of all of this, and the fact that they even had big demonstrations during the recent elections and also the last summer, demonstrates that there's an undercurrent opposing this. I think that Erdogan will reach a point where he can't push this very quickly or very much further.
SS: But is advancing a political Islam a tool or a goal for him?
PG: I think it's both. It's an objective. He believes in it, and at the same time it's a tool, because where he has been successful is to get, basically, relatively uneducated and deeply religious part of the Turkish population to come out and vote for him, and this has been successful.
SS: So, we have a little situation here. While American planes bomb ISIS in Syria and Iraq, Turkey hosts ISIS fighters in their hospitals, they can come over the border, get well, go back and fight; the oil smuggling, obviously, that we all know about. Now, Syrian Kurds who receive money from the Americans are being bombed from the same Turks who are actually one of America's biggest allies... How does that really go together? How does that mesh together? After all, why does America, Washington still have Turkey's back?
PG: That's an excellent question. Having Turkey's back is being questioned in the U.S. right now. There were editorials before I left Washington three days ago, suggesting that Turkey should be pushed out of NATO, for example, because it's no longer a reliable ally. So, there's a lot of understanding that Turkey has been playing a double-game, as it were pretending to be part of coalition.
SS: Yeah, because we get that feeling that Washington is being played by Ankara.
PG: Well, yes and no. Washington needs Turkish permission to use Incirlik air base to bomb in Syria, and because it has that need, and because it recognizes that Turkey is a significant player in what's going on there, it is willing to look the other way; but, Obama last week told Erdogan he has to start taking steps to seal the border and to get more actively engaged.
SS: So, you feel like America's not going to take any of that anymore?
PG: Well, America understands what's going on, but it's weighing up what is the plus here and what is the minus here.
SS: So, Russian journalists were hit in Latakia just recently while driving along the Syrian-Turkish border, and they were hit by an American TOW missile, that, supposedly, the State Department sends to Syrian moderate forces. How come they end up hitting the Russian journalists? Is this wise use of their missile and force?
PG: No, it's not, and people have been understanding for quite some time now that there are no moderates. These weapons, once they get over there, they wind up somewhere else. The moderate of today becomes the Al-Nusra of tomorrow and he takes his weapons with him. Plus, a lot of weapons were captured in Iraq, which then made their way into Syria. So, you have American weapons coming from various sources, winding up in this conflict, and of course, more sophisticated weapons means that it would be harder and harder to resolve it.
SS: If you look at Syria, it is such a mess from all sides, because Reuters reported that CIA is actually stepping up with Saudi Arabia and Qatar its aid to anti-Assad rebels, right? So, you have Russia who is actually helping the Assad's army fight the ISIS... So, what do you have here? You have Russia aiding the Syrian army against ISIS, the U.S. and its allies are helping the enemies of the Syrian army, undermining its anti-ISIS efforts, right? I mean, the U.S. is fighting ISIS, but it helps those who fight the enemies of ISIS, thereby helping ISIS, no?
PG: Right. That's exactly what's happening, and it gets even more complicated than that, because there are, probably, three separate types of armies fighting each other simultaneously. We have the U.S. arming the Kurds, which have their own army. We have the so-called moderate rebels, who are in fact, Al-Nusra and Al-Qaeda, and they have benefited from American arms too, and we have Russia supporting the Al-Assad's government which is number 3, and you can probably count the Syrian army as number 4, and if you want to put Hezbollah in it and Iranian volunteers, it's probably 5 and 6.
SS: So, is this confusing strategy part of a bigger conspiracy theory or is it just poor planning?
PG: I think it's just poor planning. I think that the Obama administration as well as some of the Europeans anticipated that this situation, by putting some pressure on ISIS, putting pressure on Al-Assad, would eventually resolve itself. But that was a bad policy, because that didn't lead anywhere. There was no end objective to know when it was over, or when you won, and as a result this has become like a swamp that people are walking into, and it just gets deeper and deeper. I think that part of the problem is that... you remember our Secretary of Defence Hagel resigned because he wanted clarity on what the policy should be in Syria, and we don't have any clarity, the White House has no clarity.
SS: I was just going to ask you, I keep asking this every time: does Washington even know what it's doing in Syria?
PG: Well, it probably know what it's doing, but whether it understands what it is doing is another question. Bear in mind that Obama has only one policy right now - that's to get through the last year of his presidency...
SS: But what is his goal? What does he want to achieve in that one year of his presidency - in Syria?
PG: I don't think he wants to achieve anything. I think he wants to keep it from blowing up in a very bad way, so that a Democrat will get elected President next year.
SS: So, Mr. Giraldi. Upcoming presidential elections in the U.S., let's talk about that. It leaves so much to be desired in a realm of a foreign policy. So, on a Democratic side we have Hillary Clinton, who's quite a Hawk, because let's remember that the Libyan war was possible thanks to her. Among Republicans, as you've said, the only candidate that's making some sort of sense in foreign policy is Donald Trump, but, then again, you know, it doesn't say much about the height of the bar. So, whoever becomes President, we shouldn't be really expecting pragmatism and reserve in American foreign policy, should we?
PG: No. But I think, one thing to bear in mind is that, normally, when a Presidential candidate talks about foreign policy, first of all, the American public is not very interested in foreign policy, and, secondly, they are saying what they think they have to say to get elected, and thirdly, once they're in office, they don't do what they said they were going to do. Obama was, essentially, elected President as a "peace" candidate. People forget that. The margin of victory for Obama was with people who wanted peace, and he immediately turned his back on that, as soon as he got into the White House and he started getting confidential briefings from the Pentagon and the CIA, he became hawkish.
SS: But, American public may not be interested in foreign policy. We're interested in America's foreign policy. Why is it so messianistic in any case? Why is it always about bringing freedom to one place or the other, and deciding on what's safe, what's unsafe, good or bad for other places in the world?
PG: Well, it's because this is the kind of language the American public wants to hear. So, that's why a lot of it comes out that way. I think that most of the candidates, at least most of them, are relatively intelligent, and they probably understand that what they're saying doesn't make a whole lot of sense, but the fact is, they are compelled to say this: America has the messianic streak, where you manifest destiny, where the U.S. is God-given, so on and so forth. Other countries have done this too, but the fact is, in America, it all is kind of tied together - you lived there, you understand how it creates a toxic mix, I think, in terms of how America sees itself, this AMerican exclusiveness is a bad thing.
SS: That "American exclusiveness" is actually contradictory of the notion of democracy, because if American foreign policy was truly democratic, it wouldn't align itself to absolute monarchies like Bahrain or Saudi Arabia, would it?
PG: That's exactly right. I believe personally that we shouldn't be trying to change governments anywhere, but the fact is that the U.S. is hypocritical in supporting regimes that essentially are against our interests, like Saudi Arabia, while at the same, not particularly being helpful with the countries that are trying to transition to democracy.
SS: So, is this talk of freedom, like a screen for something ultimately?
PG: It's... yeah, there are couple of phrases that really irritate me: when the American President describes himself as the "leader of the free world". America basically wants to be hegemonistic, wants to be the dominant power in the world and setting the standards for everyone else, and the way you do that is through language.
SS: Meantime, more countries are joining the anti-ISIS fight: we see Britain actually extending its activities, we see Germany that's sedngin 1200 troops, aircrafts into the region. Is all this going to make a difference?
PG: No. No, because, ultimately, if ISIS is... I believe that it's necessary to contain ISIS, to try to shrink the area that it controls, to reduce its ability to make money from oil, to do things like that, to push ISIS back into...
SS: You see, when you're saying "contain" - that's what Obama says as well, and you may contain ISIS on territories of Syria and Iraq, which, maybe, America has done somewhat. But then, you have terror attacks in Beirut, in Paris, and you have Russia's passenger plane being shot down... That's not really containing.
PG: Well, no, but the fact is, terrorism is not a group, terrorism is a tactic. So, as long as you have groups that have less power trying to oppose groups that have more power, they will use terror. So, terrorism or terror is never going to go away, but the fact is, you can reduce the ability of terrorist groups to strike outside their neighborhood. For example, take a look at Al-Qaeda. Al-Qaeda back in 2001 was powerful, was international, was able to direct terrorist actions all over the world. Now, it's nothing, really, it's a franchise operation, where people in various places call themselves "Al-Qaeda", but they've raised their own money, they do their own planning. It's been fragmented, and that's what we should aspire to do with ISIS.
SS: Do you know what scares me? I'm thinking, if the world's top armies are trying to combat ISIS, how come that a handful of jihadists are actually still able to survive?
PG: It's because the world's top armies have other issues that they have to deal with in terms of actually using their force. Any one of the major countries in the world could crush ISIS in a week, but the fact is, there are political aspects to that to, and it makes it complicated. Turks for example - Turks have 600,000 army which could take care of ISIS in 10 minutes, but the facts is that they're not going to use it. They have political reasons not to use it. The U.S. government cannot use its forces because, basically, the American public does not support this kind of action.
SS: So, Obama called the recent tragic San-Bernardino shooting "an act of terror", saying that the U.S. will defeat this threat. Does Obama have a new plan to defeat ISIS?
PG: No, he doesn't. He basically is averse to using military force exclusively, because he knows that will turn ISIS into heroes for the rest of the Muslim world, so it's a bad policy. He's trying to, incrementally, work against ISIS - but that's not working either. So, he doesn't have a plan. Every president since George Bush has declared that they would destroy terrorism, but it hasn't happened yet.
SS: So, you've just said that American public isn't too keen about actually reinforcing its presence in Syria, but I have a poll, actually, an ORC poll, that says that most Americans are now in favor of sending ground troops to fight ISIS, and 69% are saying the U.S. response to ISIS hasn't been aggressive enough. So, I'm thinking, President Obama has actually warned against being dragged into a ground war in Syria, saying that that would be a godsend for those terrorists. So, how come the American public and President aren't on the same footing right here?
PG: Okay. Yeah, the most recent polls, because they're reflecting what happened in California, are showing a more aggressive side to the American public. But, after, say, another month, when things calm down, go back to normal, the American public will routinely declare that it's not interested in getting involved militarily in the Middle East. So, it depends on when you talk to the American public, and how you phrase the question.
SS: So, the Syrian situation is dragging more and more countries into this war, into fight against ISIS - but we can see right now that ISIS is establishing a foothold in Afghanistan. So, I'm wondering, will the war in Syria prove to be useless with ISIS popping up everywhere else?
PG: Well, yes and no. The problem is, as I said before, you can't stop terrorism, you can't contain terrorism - what you can do is to diminish the ability of the groups we call terrorist to do what they want to do. You can do that. The fact is that ISIS is popular because it is a form of resistance to the West, which is seen in negative terms, and that's why it attracts recruits, that's why it gains money and that kind of thing. So you have to cut down on that. The fact is that no, we're not going to stop ISIS from spreading to Afghanistan, it's in Libya, it's in Central Africa, it's probably in the U.S., it may be in Russia - I don't know - but it's a marketing success right now. Its an attractive product that's bringing in a lot of people to support it.
SS: But do you think we will see the return of the Western military in Afghanistan if ISIS takes gain?
PG: I don't think so. I think that everyone understands very clearly that a Western-led alliance to destroy ISIS would be counter-productive. It would produce more sympathy for ISIS than it would succeed in destroying it.
SS: So, EU is now facing the biggest refugee crisis ever, there is a massive flow and they don't really know what to do with it. But, ISIS is actually hoping that this terror attacks would make the EU close down its borders so they'd have workforce back at home. So, should the U.S. be helping Europe to deal with this? Because, really, we wouldn't be in this mess if it wasn't for Iraq in 2003, there would be no ISIS - and besides, all the refugees, they come from the countries where U.S. tried to tap in and change regimes.
PG: Well, I have in fact argued just what you're saying, that the U.S. has ultimate responsibility for what has occurred in Iraq and Syria and for the creation of ISIS - so we should be playing a humanitarian role in terms of helping with crisis of refugees.
SS: Because right now, it just said that it will accept 10,000 refugees from Syria.
PG)And they will not be for two years. We have to be more active on this. But again, it's a political issue in the U.S. The public is very against taking in Muslims, that's really what it comes down to. Obama is sensitive to this, he knows elections are coming up and the Republicans are playing on it the other way, that "let's not let Muslims in, let's monitor the mosques, let's go make a list of Muslims in the U.S." - that kind of stuff is crazy.
SS: A lot of crazy stuff goes on in Europe as well, because the EU Parliament says EU must prepare for possibility of chemical and biological weapons being used by ISIS. Do you think that's a real possibility?
PG: They don't have the capability of creating those weapons, but they have the capability of taking them or stealing them from Iraq and from Syria, which do have those weapons... and Turkey. So, it's a possibility. I don't go to sleeping at night, worrying about ISIS, I worry more that we over-react to ISIS and we take away our liberties by giving the government the authority to listen to our phone calls, to read our emails, to do that sort of thing. You have to strike a balance here, the balance has to be that the government should be able to do things that are reasonable - the key word is "reasonable."
SS: Thank you so much for this wonderful interview. We were talking to Philip Giraldi, an ex-CIA agent and counter-terrorism expert, discussing the international efforts against ISIS and what more needs to be done to stop the terror group. That's it for this edition of Sophie&Co, I will see you next time.