US failed to create non-radical opposition in Syria – Col. Mansoor, XO to Gen. Petraeus

A fragile truce for Syria brokered by Russia and the US fell apart within just a few days, and now Washington has decided to cut off further talks with Moscow. While the fighting in Syria rages on, some in the US are voicing hawkish ideas. Among them are proposals for a no-fly zone over Syria that could lead to conflict with Russia, and sending even more arms to rebels troops despite the fact that they often join the jihadists with American guns in their hands. So who exactly is the US supporting in Syria? And how can international powers move forward in the fight against Islamic State (ISIS/ISIL)? We ask Retired Army Colonel Peter Mansoor, who was Executive Officer to General David Petraeus during the Iraq War.

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Sophie Shevardnadze:Colonel Peter Mansoor, former Executive Officer to Gen. David Petraeus during the campaign in Iraq - welcome to the show, it's great to have you with us. “There’s nothing more to talk about” with Russia, said the White House - announcing that the US has suspended negotiations over the Syrian truce. I understand that Washington and Moscow’s positions on ending the war are radically different, but can Syria really be fixed without Russian participation?

Peter Mansoor: I don't think so. Russia's clearly a major player in Syria, Syria is a long-time ally of Russia and I don't foresee any sort of political solution to the Civil War there that doesn't involve both the U.S. and Russia coming to some sort of agreement along with the players on the ground, the various factions inside the country.

SS: The New York Times has published leaked audio of US Secretary of State John Kerry’s conversations with members of the Syrian opposition.  Kerry was recorded saying that the U.S. has no legal justification for a war against Assad’s Syria – and that it would be breaking international law without a UN Security Council resolution. That didn’t stop Rumsfeld, Cheney and Bush from going into Iraq, they appeared not to care about resolutions or whatnot - so what’s really stopping Washington from this intervention?

PM: First, I would remind you that the Bush Administration did believe it was following UN resolutions when it went into Iraq. You could argue about that, but they didn't' completely flaunt them. In their view, they were upholding UN resolutions. More to the point on Syria: the U.S. has really no wish to enter the war against Assad. The American people don't want to get involved in a civil war, the Administration in Washington does not want to put American ground troops on the ground in the Middle East, and I think that the U.S. sees some sort of government in Damascus as essential to the way forward, in a political settlement of the civil war.  Our belief is just that it has to be the government without Bashar Al-Assad at its helm.

SS:The U.S. has said that it is considering ‘other options’ for Syria in place of a ceasefire - so what is the Plan B? Does the U.S. have it?

PM: I'm not sure. Right now the Administration is focusing on the war against ISIS. It's considering sending more arms to Kurdish rebels in northern part of the country, it has special forces on the ground working with Syrian democratic forces, but its focus is clearly on the destroying ISIS and open up humanitarian corridors to trapped civilians in the city of Aleppo. As far as the longer-term strategy of how to solve the really intractable conflict between the various factions in Syria - I think the Administration is still looking at all options, it really doesn't know how to solve the problem because it's what we would call a "wicked problem": one that may not have a solution at all in the near term.

SS: When asked if Washington upheld its end of the ceasefire deal, the state dept spokesperson Elizabeth Trudeau said ‘We believe we did’. America promised to separate the terrorists - like the powerful Jabhat Fateh al-Sham (the former al-Nusra Front) linked to Al Qaeda - from the so-called moderate rebels that are intertwined with them. That didn’t happen. Why wasn’t the U.S. able to do that?

PM: I would make a couple of points here. One, the ceasefire was in effect for only a matter of days, and it obviously would take a longer time than that to separate the various rebel factions. Another point I would make is that the U.S. power to do so is extremely limited. Because we weren't a player in the civil war early on, we decided not to arm rebel factions, for instance, back in 2011, when the war started, we don't really have a lot of leverage with a lot of the groups there. Pretty much the Syrian Democratic Forces are the only part of the resistance that the U.S. has a relationship with. I would say we're doing what we can, but the other parties to the conflict have to be realistic about what the U.S. can achieve.

SS: State Department spokesman Mark Toner admitted that the U.S. had not targeted al-Nusra for months - because they had become "intermingled" with other groups and civilians - does the U.S. have a clear picture of the rebels its supporting?

PM: I believe we do, as far as we have advisors and forces on the ground working with them. But that, as you may recall, only in one part of the country, north of Raqqa, in the mountainous region where the Syrian Kurds have forces. So, there's a lot of other parts of the country where there's a lot of different groups at play, and the U.S.... it's tough to say what sort of intelligence and what sort of relationship it has with all those groups. The Administration is keeping that information pretty close to the vest, I'm sure that there's some sort of presence on the ground trying to create relationships with those groups, but it's hard to say from my standpoint what that would be.

SS: Moreover, these ‘intermingled’ groups have American weapons, which means these weapons end up with Al Qaeda - so the U.S. can’t control where its weapons go, can it, at the end of the day?

PM: They may have U.S. weapons but that would have been weapons that they've got via Iraq and the collapse of the Iraqi army. The U.S. has not armed...

SS: Or the weapons that the groups got before switching sides.

PM: Potentially, but that would be in a very limited numbers. You know, the U.S. has tried to create a moderate resistance, if you will, one that could both defeat ISIS and gain the upper hand against groups such as Jabhat-Al-Nusra, but as you know, the first effort collapsed and we're into the second effort now with the Syrian Democratic forces. So, I don't think that just arming the resistance gives you automatic control over the resistance. That comes through a much more nuanced and long-term relationship that you have to develop with them.

SS: Could it be that al-Nusra itself is using Western-backed rebel groups as shields? Is it, in essence, duping the U.S. into not attacking them? Could that be the case?

PM: No, I don't think so. I think it's a matter of priorities. ISIS in the view of the Administration in Washington is the wolf closest to the sled, it's the group that is attacking the U.S. and attacking Europe with terrorism, and it's the most powerful terrorist group in the Middle East with global reach, and so that's where the priority is, to destroy ISIS. What to do about Jabhat Al-Nusra in the longer term remains to be seen, I think.

SS: Like you've said, for all these years, the Americans have been looking for a heavyweight ally in Syria - only to see more moderate rebel groups be defeated or turn radical. If this approach hasn’t borne fruit yet, does it make sense to persist with it?

PM: In the war against ISIS it does make sense, because there's a lot of headway being made in the area north of Raqqa, again with the Syrian Kurdish rebels and the Syrian Democratic forces. They actually have gained ground, they've defeated ISIS in many areas, and they are poised to advance on Raqqa, so I think, this effort is actually succeeding. I would agree with you that the previous efforts failed and failed drastically, which obviously, a lot of people here in the U.S. have pointed out as a poor execution or policy by the Obama Administration. I think the Administration realises it could have done much better, and I think we're getting it right this time.

SS: But also, you know, all this talk about "moderate" Muslims. I mean, I understand that there are moderate Muslims in Syria, no doubt, it was a secular state before the war. But those who are moderate tend to be among the refugees, not fighters -  once you take up a rifle, you’re already not that moderate, are you?

PM: There's no doubt that conflict radicalises all sides, and it's very difficult to end the civil war simply through fighting. There's a political solution that has to be arrived at in Syria, one that gives significant autonomy to the Sunni areas of the country. That's when they will put down their arms, but I don't think that as long as Bashar Al-Assad is in power that they're going to make peace, because they see him as someone who has committed heinous acts against their civilian populations, and they would not feel safe with him around in power. So, Iagree with you that the factions left on the ground, fighting in Syria, a lot of them are very radicalised, but it doesn't mean that a political solution can't be arrived at to allow the more moderate voices to come to the fore.

SS: Russia’s accused of not putting pressure on Assad… but let's say Assad stops his military actions - and the rebels, the FSA or whoever stop fighting on their side. Extremists will continue fighting - can a political process happen while that goes on? Because people who've been inside Aleppo, inside Syria, they say the main fighting is actually going on between the radicals. So what happens when everyone stops but these groups are fighting each other, can you really come up with a political solution?

PM: You have to try, because this war will not end with simply a military victory by one side or the other. I think, part of any political solution has got to be an agreement on all sides, not only to put down arms, but to oppose those who continue to fight. That would be the way forward and that would then put the moderate voices and the moderate forces in Syria against the extreme groups. Perhaps, Jabhat Al-Nusra will come to some sort of political agreement with the other groups in the country, but if they will continue to fight, then everyone should gang up on them. Clearly ISIS would not come to any kind of political agreement, and so crushing ISIS has got to be step number one. Number one of, perhaps, many steps forward.

SS: Syrian government forces have been blamed for the destruction of Aleppo, but while they’re targeting rebel-held eastern Aleppo, the Western part of the city is under government control - and it's an area where 1.5 million people live. Around 300 thousand live in the rebel-held area - those figures are from the Syrian Observatory for Human rights. A lot of the people fled rebel territories - but why do they choose to stay in Assad’s Aleppo?

PM: You know, people stay where they live. To become a refugee is really an act of courage, and your situation has to be really extreme for you to pack up and leave your home and move. So, these are individual decisions being made by various families. I will say that the pressure is being put on eastern Aleppo...

SS: No, the point of my question was that these people moved from one side of the city to the other side of the city, from the rebel-held area to Assad-controlled area. Why did that happen? They didn't just flee. I understand it's hard to flee the city you were born and raised in, but why do they switch sides to live in that site?

PM: What they did is that they fled an area that's under extreme pressure, including aerial bombardment to an area that's under less pressure and where's there's more security. That's a natural human thing to do, to flee one area to an area where your family's safety is going to be more guaranteed. So that's no doubt what's happening there. But to say that because they fled to the government-controlled part of Aleppo that all of a sudden they've switched sides is mischaracterising what these families are doing.

SS: I wasn't talking about switching sides [in the conflict], I was, maybe, talking about feeling more safe, because people who live in government-controlled Aleppo are being, in turned, shelled by rebel forces. 200 people alone died in August alone, that’s again according the the Syrian observatory for Human rights...

PM: Right, but I don't think you can compare that shelling with the massive aerial assault that's being inflicted on eastern Aleppo at the moment.

SS: Can I ask you something: back in 2013, rebels set up blockades in parts of Aleppo, starving the population there. They also captured Christian priests in Aleppo. Twenty per cent of the population in the city was Christian before. Needless to say, they sided with Assad's forces, fearing radical Islamist groups. Why does the U.S. continue to insist the Aleppo rebels aren’t jihadists?

PM: I'm not sure that that's what the Administration is saying. What the Administration is focusing on is getting humanitarian aid into the city to make sure that the 250,000 people without food or water can be taken care of. Unless you have some sort of statement by the U.S. that says something to the effect of what you're claiming - I haven't heard that from the Administration. I think the Obama Administration realises that the rebels are very mixed bag and that there are a lot of extreme groups fighting all over the country. We're under no illusion that somehow the resistance is all good. What we're really worried about is making sure that there's not a humanitarian catastrophe as this civil war rages.

SS: Hillary Clinton has been arguing for a no-fly zone over Syria. The Chairman of the Joint Chiefs of Staff - General Dunford, has said that ‘for us to control all of the airspace in Syria, would require us to go to war against Syria and Russia.’ Can it ever come to that?

PM: I think Hillary Clinton in her later statements has called for "safe" zones in the northern part of the country in order to allow refugees a place to settle without fleeing the country. That may include some sort of protected airspace over those safe zones. If she said she wanted a no-fly zone over all Syria, I think that was probably earlier in the candidacy. It's clear now that Russia has aircraft in Syrian airspace, and that any sort of policy that creates a no-fly zone over the entire airspace of Syria isn't going to be workable. It could potentially pit U.S. and Russian aircraft against each other and that would be a conflict that no one wants. No one wants to see Russia and the U.S. begin some sort of conflict over Syria that could then spread into Europe.

SS: The war against ISIS is also raging in Iraq, a country you're very familiar with. Now, when the United States left Iraq, there was no ISIS yet, and you said that Al Qaeda was defeated according to all intelligence sources. Why did the situation unravel so soon after the U.S. pulled out?

PM: The surge did succeed in defeating Al-Qaeda in Iraq, that's why that group is no longer around, they rebranded themselves, because they were seen as a loser. What happened is, we didn't support the winner of the election in 2010, the secular groups that won the election and instead we backed Nouri al-Maliki, a very extreme Shia politician who, then, when he became Prime Minister again, he succeeded in alienating the Sunni portion of the Iraqi population. That drove them right back into the arms of extremists. This is a war that we could have won, and quite frankly, we blew it, and we blew it at the political level by backing the wrong horse in Baghdad and by not backing the winner of the election. We talk about implanting democracy in the heart of the Middle East and then we didn't support the winner of democratically-held elections, so this one is on the Obama Administration, I'm afraid, and the result was the rise of ISIS.

SS:An Iraqi group is pushing its government to ask for compensation from the U.S. for the Iraq war. Will Washington actually pay if it loses a court battle?

PM: It's very unlikely that you'll see the U.S. pay compensation for victims of combat of the Iraq war. It's something we've rarely ever done in the past and I doubt that we will do it going forward. That's not to say that perhaps in certain circumstances there might be lawsuits filed against private military contractors who might have committed acts in Iraq, but I just doubt that U.S. forces in the course of going about their combat duties would be allowed to be sued and the U.S. be sued in courts.

SS: This precedent was created when Congress passed The Justice Against Sponsors of Terrorism Act  - which allows the families of 9/11 victims to sue the Saudi government over its involvement in the attacks.  Is Congress opening the floodgates of lawsuits against America from all the places it was recently involved in with this bill?

PM: I'm afraid, I agree with you. It was a very ill-considered piece of legislation. Our Congressmen and Senators voted for it, in order to appease their constituencies and because opposing a bill that would support victims of 9/11 would be, in their view, politically intangible. But then having passed it, they're now realising what that means, and it means we're going to get lawsuits like this come up all the time. Sovereign immunity should be protected, the Obama Administration, in this case, was right, and I would call on our legislators to reverse their decision and nullify that bill because it is nothing but bad news going forward.

SS: In Libya, the U.S. is entering its third months of airstrikes against ISIS - an operation that was initially supposed to ‘last weeks’. In addition U.S. military advisers are helping local ground forces. Is Washington going to be able to keep this intervention limited?

PM: I think it will be able to keep it limited. It could pull out at any time, but it doesn't want to, it wants to create some sort of stability on the ground. I hope, whoever is the next president of the U.S., takes the Libyan case to heart. The idea that we could conduct a regime change and then do nothing to stabilise the country afterwards, I think it's folly. I think Hillary Clinton has learned her lesson in this regard. I know that Donald Trump would not do something like this - well, I'm hoping he wouldn't, at any rate; but to just simply allowing the country to collapse and the not stabilise it afterwards, allow ISIS to create some sort of safe haven, is simply unconscionable. I think, the Administration realises it needs to be in for a long haul to support the more moderate factions in Libya and to knit together some sort of cohesive state in order to make sure that safe havens for terrorist groups aren't allowed to exist within the borders of the country.

SS: Touching upon what you've said, following the removal of a dictator, Libya almost disintegrated - and while it’s coming together now and advancing against ISIL, it’s troubles are far from over. We’ve already talked about what happened in Iraq, there’s no peace in Afghanistan - why are places where the U.S. choose to intervene militarily left in such disarray, what’s missing from Washington’s policy that prevents lasting peace?

PM: A lot of it has to do with the local dynamics on the ground. Perhaps Washington should intervene less and use the diplomatic instrument more. Clearly, we had to go into Afghanistan back in 2001, I think, no one disagrees that the perpetrators of 9/11 had to brought to justice. But Iraq was a war of choice, Libya was a war of choice, and these sorts of interventions, unless you're willing to stay in the long haul, just often, don't turn out well, especially when the underlying social fabric of those nations is so torn. I think that it's not necessarily the factor of U.S. forces or anything the U.S. can do on the ground, I think it's now a matter of the local communities trying to fashion some sort of political solution and getting together their states for the long term, and that is a very difficult process in some of these places where the communities are so fractured.

SS: Alright, Colonel. Thank you very much for this interview, we were talking to Col. Peter Mansoor, executive Officer to Gen. Petraeus in Iraq, discussing America's involvement in foreign crises and the war against terrorism. That's it for this edition of SophieCo, I will see you next time.