Terrorists will exploit US strikes in Syria to their advantage – Hoshyar Zebari, ex-Iraqi FM

The strike on a Syrian airbase carried out by the US came as a surprise for the international community. The missiles came in retaliation – or punishment – for a chemical attack that Washington and Europe were quick to blame on Bashar Assad. Reports say, shortly after the strike, ISIS launched their own offensive nearby – as America wastes hundreds of thousands fighting the same group just a few kilometers away in Iraq. So what will the US intervention in Syria mean for the war against Islamic State?

We ask Iraq’s former foreign minister and former deputy prime minister – Hoshyar Zebari.

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Sophie Shevardnadze:  Hoshyar Zebari, former Foreign Minister of Iraq, welcome to the show, it's great to have you with us. Now, Russian foreign minister Sergei Lavrov has compared the American air strikes against the Syrian government to the U.S. 2003 invasion of Iraq - which also happened without a UNSC resolution, but back then, the Americans at least tried to present proof of Saddam’s weapons of mass destruction. This time, in Syria, there’s not even that. How will the situation unfold further? What's your take?

Hoshyar Zebari: I think the use of chemical weapons by any government, by any party or group is illegal, definitely. It is scandalous to the humanitarian conscience. The perpetrators of those weapons, whoever, really - being victims of the use of chemical weapons by Saddam Hussein in Halabja and other places, we feel strongly that the perpetrators need to be punished in order to put an end to this weapons of mass destruction, of mass killing. But I don't know about the legality.

SS: Sir, wouldn't you agree that there still has to be investigation to figure out who exactly is to blame for the use of the chemical weapons?

HZ: Everybody agrees that there has to be an independent, objective investigation into how these weapons were used, and definitely, this is a serious development, this is a turning point in this unfortunate war that's going on in Syria. I remember, had it not been to Russian intervention and others actually to find a way, a solution to get rid of these weapons. Now, to repeat that, again, I don't know actually the outcome of the investigation but it is a very defiance to...

SS: But after that agreement, Assad's government doesn't have chemical weapons and there's yet no proof of Assad's government in particular using those weapons.

HZ: I don't know. In our case, in Iraq, you see, UNSCOM team of investigators of Saddam's weapons went on for years and years actually to clear, to destroy all these weapons. So, these regimes are very good in covering them or concealing them...

SS:  Back in 2013 President Trump wrote in his Twitter talking about the President Obama, that "the President must get Congressional approval before attacking Syria-big mistake if he does not!». Now he does exactly that - without any approval he attacks Syria. Can you trust this man’s statements? How dangerous is his inconsistency?

HZ: This administration is new, really. It's still evolving, but he has used his presidential powers as being the President of the U.S., the Commander of the Armed Forces he sees looming danger or threat to the U.S. or its allies, national interests, and that was the rationale he used. Whether he has consulted with Congressional leaders - I'm sure he has briefed them, but whether there was a vote on this - no, there hasn't been a vote on that.

SS: There has been a vote, and he hasn't consulted international community. Why does the U.S. President believe he can act without any approval from the international community or his own Congress?

HZ: The pressure was building on him not to repeat the same mistakes of the past administration, to differentiate himself and to show seriousness and decisiveness by launching those strikes against this Syrian airbase in al-Shayrat.

SS: The governor of Homs province has told RT that Islamic State has launched an offensive in the area following the U.S. strikes. So while Americans are helping the Iraqi army fight against ISIS, it’s tacitly also helping the terrorists in neighboring Syria?

HZ: Definitely, this opposition will make use of any opportunity to make advances, and as you know, there are many groups fighting the regime here, but I doubt that this was coordinated, you see, with the airstrikes and whether the Al-Nusra or other terrorists could move and launch and strike... but they are very good in exploiting these developments to their own interests and evil agendas.

SS: There were 84 civilians killed in Syria’s alleged chemical attack, a recent American strike in Mosul took the lives of up to 200 people - in both cases governments were targeting terrorists. Do you think the American reaction is contradictory and disproportionate?

HZ: This incident that happened in Mosul has led to the change in the rules of engagements, of airstrikes. There has been an investigation on the ground, everybody cooperated with giving all of the information. These things happen, definitely, in the war, in the densely populated city, where terrorists are barricading themselves among civilians or placing car bombs or truck bombs, let's say, at each and every roundabout or turn on the street. It's bound to happen. This is a political decision by the U.S. to deter and to punish the perpetrator of the use of chemical weapons. They believe they have the intelligence, they have the technology to prove that this base was used to launch this attack. But as we see at the UNSC debate, there's a consensus, really, that this needs to be investigated, to find who the culprit, who the real perpetrators is. But it seems that America has its own intelligence to prove, to justify their strike.

SS: Right. The problem is that it's only their intelligence, and the Russian President believes the American action in Syria be an attempt to divert attention from the operation in Mosul - ad as we've already mentioned, recent American strike has killed around 200 people, civilians. Are the Americans falling into a carefully laid trap by ISIS? I mean, massive civilians casualties would cause a pause in bombing which ISIS could use to its advantage..

HZ: I think it is their strategy to trap the Iraqi security forces, the Americans, the other members of the coalition, into making these mistakes. It helps their agenda, their narrative that they are against all the people that are killing Muslims and so on. So, they have this tactics, actually, we've seen it on many-many occasions.

SS: The use of civilian human shields is nothing new, so when the decision is made to bomb a building to eliminate a small number of snipers, does nobody counts the deaths of civilians for the sake of military gain? How does it happen?

HZ: It happens, mistakes could happen, actually. Friendly fire could happen, in a war, in a complicate theater of operation, when you are doing a house-to-house fight. It could happen, but our enemy doesn't abide by any international law or legal framework, so you have to be careful, definitely, on how to separate the enemy from the civilians. They are taking them hostage, using them as human shields - and this is their tactics, unfortunately.

SS:An Iraqi general has estimated that the number of ISIL fighters left in the city is around 700 - that’s not a lot compared to the gov’t and American forces on the ground, how come it’s taking so long? Or is the Iraqi general’s estimation being too optimistic?

HZ: I think, it's too optimistic. We've seen different figures. I heard that they have killed 16000 ISIS members, and this and that. Actually, it needs more reliable intelligence - I think the number of many leaders of ISIS that have been killed and eliminated - primarily by airstrikes - and in the fighting with the Peshmerga, with Iraqi security forces, counter-terrorism units and so on. But, really, the numbers are not that huge. They are not 700, but they are not 10,000, you see, too. I think they are within the realm of between 1,000-2,000 remaining, because many of them have been eliminated. And the bulk of them are from Central Asian republics, from Chechnya, from Tajikistan, from Kyrgyzstan - I mean, they are the toughest fighters of ISIS, these days, in the streets of Mosul.

SS: Iraqi Forces are preventing journalists from filming inside parts of Mosul, only allowing access to certain locations - our own RT correspondent experienced this. What’s there to hide in a war-ravaged city?

HZ: I am pro-media, I am for open media, I personally believe in this. I think the restrictions of the media to cover the war or any incidents or any violations are not the right policy. They should have been given, even your correspondent...

SS: Do you know what they are hiding? Do you know why they are not allowing certain parts to be filmed? Do you have your guess about it?

HZ: There should be a media access through certain approval by the security forces, for the fear of their security, their personal security... We lost a journalist here, in Erbil, while she was covering this event. But, I agree with you really, there shouldn't be any hindered access for the international media to cover the war in Mosul.

SS: Right now 5 thousand U.S. troops are currently authorised to be in Iraq, and hundreds more are being sent in as reinforcements - does Iraq need more than that to keep up its war effort?

HZ: I think Iraq is a large country - whether this force, the existing one, or the new one - mostly they are advisors. They don't do any actual fighting, but they are embedded with Iraqi security forces, to train, to advise, to plan, to coordinate their airstrikes...

SS: But do you need more American forces? Do you think you need more American forces?

HZ: I think there's a need for more, really, because, still, the situation in the country is fragile. I mean, even our security forces, apart from the counter-terrorism or special units, the elite forces, the rest needs more training, they need more assistance, more advice, and that's why I think... it's not infinite, there wouldn't be a re-occupation of Iraq, and these forces are here with an approval...

SS: But if the forces are reinforced and more troops are sent, don't you fear that this American military presence will morph into a permanent one?

HZ: I think this will depend on whether the Americans will reach any understanding with the Iraqi government to have another agreement about their presence, about bases, about their number, the immunities, all these things...

SS: But what do you think, because you're someone with a lot of experience, I mean, you were a foreign minister for almost 10 years, and you've occupied...

HZ: I negotiated the last SOFA with the Americans.

SS: Do you not fear that the American presence may become permanent in your country? This is my question to you and I need your personal opinion.

HZ: I think there's no intention by the Iraqi government itself to have any permanent presence, but as long as the war against ISIS is going on, I think there will be a need for these forces to stay in order to defeat Daesh; and after Daesh, also, there may be a need, in order to continue their task for training the Iraqi military and security. Remember, now, a number of new structures have been set up and there are fears, really, that unless there's a system of managing these forces, things could go wrong.

SS: The Iraqi army liberated the city of Tikrit from ISIL in 2015, but the terror group still finds ways in there - their latest attack claimed dozens of lives in the city. How strong is Iraq’s grip on territories it has retaken from ISIL?

HZ: As I said, it's fragile, really. Even those parts of Mosul that have been liberated, because our government has not stepped in to fill the vacuum, to reassure the population, to provide services, humanitarian assistance, to give them some hope in the future. The situation is fragile. You are absolutely right. What happened in Tikrit recently and elsewhere it happens, sometimes it is not reported - but this is a suicidal organisation, Daesh or ISIS, therefore it could strike back, actually, like in Basra or in Baghdad, or elsewhere. They will continue their terrorist activities. But as a caliphate, as a government, as an Islamic government or Caliphate of Hatred - physically, this will be ended after the liberation of Mosul. But ISIS could remain, could operate, underground, or seek new strategies, or develop new tactics. We've seen that with different organisations, from Al-Qaeda, to resistance groups...

SS: In your estimation, how long till the militants are driven out?     Iraqi PM said that ISIL will be driven out of Iraq “within weeks” - but after Mosul there’s still a lot of fighting left to do - in Tal Afar, the Euphrates river valley and Fallujah.

HZ: ...And Hawija, also, yes

SS: So how long do you think it will really take to drive the militants out?

HZ: I think it will take several months, believe me. It's not wishful thinking. We gave false promises many times before and we were unable to meet them, but I think several months... ISIS is on the retreat, they have lost their narratives, they have lost their territory, and they have lost their state, or their caliphate. So, really, I think, to eliminate them completely - that would be difficult. This organisation can thrive on deformed ideological, religious teachings, recruiting people for different reasons and causes... But I believe, we are confident we can defeat them with the help and the support of the international community, with international Coalition. Russia has been helpful in support and providing weapons, munitions to the Iraqi forces, to the Peshmerga forces, but this is our task, really, to...

SS: Do you think the Iraqi army will ISIS in Syria if the militants retreat there? I mean, just to make sure they don't come back like before.

HZ: I think our government proved that it can strike at them inside Syria. It happened - an airstrike did take place, this was coordinated, but inside Syria. Yes, I think the battle in Bahra, in Mosul, is won, for Daesh, but up to now, really, there are no plans for the Iraqi government to send any forces across the Syrian border. I think this would be left for the local Syrian forces to eliminate the many manifests of Daesh - Al-Nusra, others, and so on.

SS: The Iraqi Kurds fought and stopped ISIL on their own when the Iraqi army was fleeing the jihadists - and now Iraqi Kurdistan is talking about an independence referendum. Do you think Iraqi Kurdistan is ready for it?

HZ: I think Iraqi Kurdistan or the Kurdish people are ready to organise and hold a referendum on self-determination, and I think what is needed most and for all is Kurdish unity, and this is a very popular appeal and is backed by Kurdish public. Yes, there are political differences, economic difficulties, challenges, but we believe we need something bigger to unify our people are to resolve the internal problems at the same time. Our experience in the new Iraq, unfortunately, has not been a success story. We have a federal state and government is dealing with it as a centralized state. It has undermined many tenets of the Constitution.

SS: Let me ask you this: what happens to the Syrian Kurds next door if Iraqi Kurds decide go it alone? They are already effectively independent – so are we going to see two Kurdistans?

HZ: We are talking, Sophie, mainly, specifically, about Iraqi Kurds. The Syrian Kurds can decide their own future, we have no say on this. The idea of referendum is exclusively confined to Iraqi Kurdistan.

SS: Turkey has already gone to war in Syria to prevent Kurds there from getting too strong. It has a contingent in Iraq, and its troops sometimes go over into Iraq to attack Kurdish camps. Will Ankara fight a war on Iraqi territory to stop Kurdish independence?

HZ: We are in dialogue with Turkey, actually. I think, at the most senior level, and Turkey has also many interests in Iraqi Kurdistan, in Iraq, in the stability of its border, and we share with Turkey many-many common interests. But this is a Kurdish need, for the Iraqi Kurds, who are Iraqi citizens, to organise the referendum.

SS: But do you feel like Ankara is going to resist it?

HZ: President Erdogan recently made a statement - he was not happy about this development here, but we are explaining to them, really: this would be an open, transparent process. The referendum process itself, the technical organisation is something and the declaration of the independent Kurdish state, later on is something else. So, we have to differentiate between these two parallel lines, but the end result is - yes, of course, because Kurds dream about having their own independent state, like any other nation. But, it's a risk, definitely, it's not a one-way street, but we're talking here specifically about Iraqi Kurds.

SS: Thank you very much for this interview, Mr. Zebari. We were talking to Hoshyar Zebari, former foreign minister of Iraq, discussing Iraq's war against ISIS and how most recent Syrian events will affect it. That's it for this edition of SophieCo, I will see you next time.