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The New Yorker’s Dexter Filkins On The Syrian And Libyan Refugee Crises

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HH: I am also looking forward to now Dexter Filkins joining me, senior writer for the New Yorker, author of The Never Ending War, one of the most evocative memoirs of the war in Iraq, and the invasion, and Dexter’s time there. Dexter Filkins, welcome back to the Hugh Hewitt Show, great to have you.

DF: Thank you very much.

HH: Dexter, I want to start with the refugee crisis that is overwhelming Europe at this point. was this completely foreseeable? And if not, why not?

DF: Well, I think look, there has been an utterly, I won’t say unprecedented refugee crisis, but it’s the largest, the largest refugee crisis, the largest number of people displaced from their home than any time since World War II. And this is basically all roads here lead back to Syria and the Syrian war. And that’s not all the refugees, but it’s the majority of them who are coming into Europe. And I do think that what was foreseeable in a way is that there’s been an utter failure on the part of the West, the United States and Europe, to try to bring the war to an end. And you know, it’s basically been, you know, four years of benign neglect. And so this problem just keeps getting worse, and Syria is a black hole in the Middle East. And you know, and so, and that’s where the people are coming from. And I think everybody, the world imagined that it could safely ignore Syria and it would go away. Well, it’s not going away, and it’s now not just on Europe’s doorstep, but it’s inside the house.

HH: Now Dexter Filkins, I’ve read Christian Sahner’s Amidst The Ruin, I read Robin Wright’s Shadows And Dreams. I’ve read a few things about Syria over the years. But you know, it’s a totalitarian state until it went to hell four years ago. And not many people wrote much about it, because it was so both stable and depressing. When you were in Iraq, did anyone, you know, when you’re sitting around with the journalists, and you were working for the New York Times at the time, anyone imagine that Syria would fall into chaos?

DF: No. I should say that I, when, I had an insane, bizarre trip to Syria myself in 2003. And it was the first summer after the American invasion of Iraq. And I got a visa to go, so I just went. And you know, going to a totalitarian regime that’s functioning, and seeing that up close, is always, it’s always very strange. And you know, it’s, Syria when I was there in 2003 was very quiet. And you know, it’s a kind of, it’s the eerie quiet of the totalitarian state. The jails were full. And what I want to do, and it was utterly eye-opening, I wanted, I had heard that there were jihadis who had free passage into Syria, coming from all over the Middle East. And they were just driving up to the Iraqi border and then going across to fight the Americans, and that essentially the Syrian government was giving them a pass to do it. And so I asked permission of the Syrian government several times to go, and they turned me down several times. So I finally just went on my own. I got a taxi and drove out there. And that’s territory now controlled by ISIS. And it was an amazing scene. It was, there were jihadis, I mean, literally they were lined up at the border, and they were trying to get across.

HH: Did they bother you? That’s a Hitchens-like move. I have Nicky Woolf from the Guardian here, so we were talking about Hitchens earlier, getting into a taxi and driving to the Syrian-Iraqi border surrounded by jihadis. Did they bother you?

DF: Yeah, it was, I had some weird encounters up there. It was really strange. I didn’t know what I was getting into, and I really didn’t, and you know, I probably, knowing what I know, I wouldn’t, like, I certainly wouldn’t do it today. I don’t think I’d last a minute. But…

HH: You know, you just reminded me. Robert Kaplan wrote a book about, I think it was called Eastward To Tartary, and he took one of these weird bus drives through Syria as well. But it was, Syria was always safe for Westerners, right? It was never…

DF: Yes, yes, I think, but you know, someone told me a story once that was extraordinary. There was an American commander, an American officer, a group of American officers went and visited Assad, I think in 2007, if my memory serves me correctly. They visited him and they said to him you’ve got to shut down the pipeline. You know, you’ve got to close it down, because too many of these guys are coming over, and we know what you’re doing. And Assad just kind of, apparently, said well, I don’t really know what you’re talking about. And then one of the officers said to Assad, you know, this is going to come back and bite you. You know, you can’t imagine that you can let all these crazy guys into your country, even if most of them are going to Iraq, and not have some kind of blowback. And his response was amazing. His response was, Assad’s response was my father taught me how to deal with that.

HH: Hama rules.

DF: And I’m not worried about it.

HH: Hama rules.

DF: Yeah, exactly. Exactly.

HH: Yeah.

DF: And when it happened in 1982, when his father was ruling, he leveled the entire city. And so here we are in 2015, and you know, it’s Hama times 30, and so Assad has essentially leveled his entire country in order to save it.

HH: So four million Syrians on the move, a million Libyans, and they are, and I have, we’ll talk about this throughout the show today. This isn’t showing up, yet, on Americans’ radar screens much. It showed up on Meet The Press when I was on Meet The Press this Sunday. What ought the West to do, do you think, Dexter? You know the complexity. That’s why I wanted to talk to you. You’ve lived in the Middle East, you’ve lived in this region. You know there are no easy answers. A moment in time may have been missed five years ago to do something. What should they do now?

DF: About Syria?

HH: Yeah.

DF: You know, first, to address the point you just made a moment in time was missed, I think honestly, there were several moments in time, and what I mean is I think that until pretty recently, there was a viable, moderate opposition that was begging for help, and that I think it’s fair to say the United States could have done, the Obama administration could have done much more to help. And know, whether it was arming the rebels or training them, and you know, they did do certain things, but these are all very modest efforts. And I can’t, I just read the other day that like the number of Syrian rebels that the United States has trained is something like 40, you know? I mean, it’s too small. And I don’t know, a lot of people would argue that it’s too late now, that essentially, you have Assad on one hand, and ISIS on the other, and that the moderates have been basically squeezed out. And if that’s true, then we face a pretty hideous choice. And I, but let me, because I want to answer your question. I think that if I were going to do, well, I’m glad I’m not in charge, but if, I think if there was anything that we could do, at least as best I understand it, it would be to try to make the airstrikes that we’re carrying out in Syria and Iraq against ISIS more effective. And I think, to be honest, that the way to do that is probably to have Americans on the ground directing those airstrikes. And I think at the moment, I think at the moment, they’re largely not. We don’t have tactical air controllers on the ground calling in the strikes. And so they can’t, at least as I’ve been told, they can’t identify the targets well enough to say yes, go ahead and bomb that building, because they think well maybe there’s 50 civilians in there. So they don’t take the shot. So here we are, it’s a year later, I mean, the United States has been doing airstrikes in Syria and Iraq for a year, and they’re stronger than they’ve ever been. And so I think for starters, if we could just make the airstrikes more effective, that would help a lot.

HH: When I come back next hour, I’m going to talk to Lindsey Graham about this, but I hope you can stick with me, Dexter, through one more segment, because we’ve got a minute to the break. The jihadis who you saw in Syria in 2003, mostly young men, right, and coming from around the world?

DF: Yes.

HH: Do you expect that is what is flowing into ISIS right now?

DF: Yeah, I mean, I think they’ve got, I mean, you know, I don’t track this stuff, I mean, I don’t have top secret clearance, but I mean, there are thousands of them. There are thousands from Europe, and I think you know, honestly, there are thousands of fighters for ISIS who are, in Syria, generally, jihadis who have European passports, which means that the ease with which they could, say, get on an airplane and come to the United States, is pretty extraordinary. And I think, you know, if anything is keeping people in Homeland Security and CIA awake at night, it’s that, that all these European guys, if they don’t get killed, they’re going to come home.

HH: I’ll be right back with Dexter Filkins of the New Yorker. We’re talking about the nightmare that is Syria, the refugee crisis which is the advanced warning of the advanced warning of the catastrophe of Syria and Libya spreading out over the West.

— – – – –

HH: So Dexter Filkins, turning to Libya, I don’t know if you spent any time in Libya, but the four million Syrians are one crisis. The one million Libyans are a different crisis. The Libyans are going to Italy. The Syrians appear to be going through Turkey into Greece. What do you do about Libya?

DF: Oh, man, I mean, let me just, you know, you mentioned the four million Syrian refugees. I just want to mention, remind your listeners that it’s four million refugees plus, I think, five million internally displaced, which for all practical purposes is a refugee, too, so I think the total in Syria right now of people who are homeless, you know, either inside the country or outside, is nine million, which is, you know, kind of boggles the mind. In any event, Libya, you know, Libya is an impossible situation as well, because it’s just a couple hundred miles from Italy. And the government there, you know, if we all remember when we, the United States and NATO bombed and basically took out Muammar Qaddafi’s government, there’s no effective, there hasn’t been an effective government there since, and that’s basically what’s happened. The state has collapsed. And so there’s no functioning state there. And you know, with this one, I think it’s, with this one, I think it’s, I don’t have a lot of, I mean, I really do feel like the West had a much larger role to play in Syria which it didn’t play, but in Libya, I don’t know what to do in Libya, because we can’t go in there and build a government for them. And so you know, you have this kind of crazy talk in Europe about setting up blockades and cordons across the Mediterranean to stop the Libyans from getting on rafts and coming over. But I don’t see much, I mean, you know, Europe is being forced to kind of really examine its own soul now, because what kind of continent are we going to be? Are we going to be a continent that is just, you know, Europeans and Christians and largely white? Or are we going to let the world in? And that’s what, that’s the big question that Europe is facing right now.

HH: Now I just retweeted out your story from the New Yorker in May of your time in Palmyra. And so in many respects, you’ve been down this road before. Going back, Dexter, to your memoir, I remember you jogging in Baghdad, and going back and forth to the Euphrates from the palace. It’s a very haunting bit of The Never Ending War. Did you think it could go this bad and this dark then?

DF: Yeah, I mean, you know, it did. I mean, I think that, to me, that’s the tragedy of what’s happened here, that the bottom fell out after the United States invaded. We took down Saddam, destroyed the Iraqi state, and then spent the next eight years, almost nine years trying to rebuild the state. And I think it’s fair to say that we had not entirely succeeded, but that by the time the last American forces left there at the end of 2011, the place was pretty stable. It wasn’t perfect. It wasn’t European by any standard, but al Qaeda, for one thing, which later became ISIS, had been decimated. And I think this is to revive the debate of should we really have gone down to zero and left altogether. But I, so I think what, to describe on a graph, I think this is like a double collapse. I mean, you had a collapse in 2003, and then I think order was largely restored and the state was rebuilt. And then now it’s collapsed again, and it’s collapsed, of course, not just in Iraq and western Iraq, but in Syria as well.

HH: Now Dexter Filkins, when you bring up December, 2011, that’s going to be a political issue. I know you don’t do politics. But Hillary Clinton, in her interview with Andrea Mitchell on Friday, said she urged a more robust response to Syria at the time. She began to distance herself from President Obama. Of course, she has Libya all over her resume. Do you see this 2016 campaign being refought over the decision to leave Iraq in 2011, and the decision to topple Qaddafi?

DF: I don’t know, you know, foreign policy just so rarely becomes salient in political campaigns that, but I do think these are valid questions. I mean, I think Hillary’s right. I mean, I think she’s supported by the record on this one. I mean, I think she did want, I believe that she was advocating for the United States to keep some troops in Iraq. I think that, I mean, let’s not forget, I think that it’s not just, the question is not just whether should the United States have left some troops behind, and would that have prevented the collapse, you know? Maybe, maybe not, but the other thing is, and I think this goes back many years, and it’s on Obama and it’s on President Bush as well, which was the decision beginning in 2005 to support Nouri al-Maliki at all costs, to make him as strong as could make him. And I think that was the really misguided, you know, decision on the part of both President Bush and President Obama, because as we were rebuilding the Iraqi state, which was the good thing, we were encouraging this incredibly sectarian, parochial, and very ultimately pretty violent leader to, essentially we gave him a blank check. And so…

HH: Why did both of them do that, Dexter? Why did both, you know, obviously, you’ve got two very different men in Bush and Obama. They both bought into Maliki. Why did they do that?

DF: You know, it’s a good question. I think the answers are slightly different for both presidencies. But I think, you know, when Maliki became this sort of consensus choice back in 2005, and that’s a pretty ugly picture to look at, I mean, his link to Iran was known, his links as a sectarian, violent sectarian were also known. But you know, if you consider, if you look back at the time, and it was like, you know, Iraq was like a state of nature, and so we were just, you know, we were looking for anything at that point. Let’s get anybody who’s willing to sort of stand up and take charge here. So all these decisions were ad hoc, because it was a period of great crisis. I think in the case of President Obama, the crucial moment came in 2010, the year before we left, and that was after the elections had been held. And there was a split decision. There was no winner. And Maliki was not the leading vote getter…

HH: Right.

DF: And I think it’s easy to forget. And we, the United States, basically pushed him.

HH: Yup.

DF: And then basically, the people who brokered the deal to keep Maliki in office were the Iranians. And we signed off on it. And I think that was a pretty fateful decision. I mean, we basically had, the United States had to sign off on what amounted to a twisting of the language of the Iraqi Constitution to keep Maliki in there with Iranian support. And then…

HH: Dexter…

DF: You know, the rest is history.

HH: And bad history. Dexter Filkins, I appreciate you joining me. Thanks for making time. I look forward to reading whatever you write about this in the coming weeks in the New Yorker, and I hope you write soon.

End of interview.


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