Col. Lawrence Wilkerson: Is the U.S. Ramping up its Military Presence in Syria and Preparing to Attack Iran for Israel?

Delivered to The Israel Lobby and American Policy 2018 conference March 2, 2018 at the National Press Club

The Israel Lobby and American Policy conference was solely sponsored by the American Educational Trust, publisher of the Washington Report on Middle East Affairs, and the Institute for Research: Middle Eastern Policy (IRmep). This is a rush transcript.

Delinda Hanley: Col. Lawrence Wilkerson is up next, and his bio is incredibly long. He has a lot to talk about, so I’m going to shorten it. He is going to talk about “Is the U.S. Ramping up its Military Presence in Syria and Preparing to Attack Iran for Israel?"

His last position in the government was as Secretary of State Colin Powell’s chief of staff from 2002 to 2005. Okay, I’m really shortening it. Before serving at the State Department, Wilkerson served 31 years in the U.S. Army. He retired from active service in 1997 as a colonel and has taught national security affairs in the Honors Program at George Washington University. You’re currently a distinguished visiting professor of government and public policy at the College of William and Mary in Williamsburg, and you’re working on a book about the first George Bush administration. Welcome.

Lawrence Wilkerson: Thank you. Thank you all for being here. I’m the last speaker. I get that distinction. If this were a military audience, I’d ask you to stand up and do five minutes of calisthenics just to make sure you don’t doze off. I’ve identified myself with the remarks that were just made. Over some 400 students, graduate and undergraduate, in 12 years on two university campuses and six years with about 1,000 students at two of the nation’s most prestigious war colleges, we have determined although it would be probably difficult to prove – and that’s the reason we have covert operations – that Lyndon Johnson not only knew the gory details of the Israeli attack on USS Liberty in the Eastern Mediterranean, he also knew about what was just told you. That’s to say he knew the uranium was being diverted, he knew Israel was building a bomb, and he chose not to do anything about it.

That’s not my subject today, although I could talk on that sort of thing forever, as I’m sure Jefferson could too. These days I believe one gets the best insights in the Israeli security policy and perhaps even into Israeli policy writ large which you’ve heard a lot about today from a Russian émigré to Israel, a former foreign minister, now its defense minister – Avigdor Lieberman.

Whether he is calling Arab members of the Knesset war criminals who were declaring the Jewish people should leave France, or claiming that the next military action against Hamas in Gaza will be the last, or contradicting his own military chief by denying there is a humanitarian crisis in Gaza, or stating categorically that the IDF will stop at nothing in order to win, reminding me a great deal of Dick Cheney, Lieberman is the living face of the Bibi Netanyahu’s Zionist policies. I sometimes think he would have rather remained in Russia so long as it was the Soviet Union and so long as he was in a significant position of power there.

In addition to reminding me of Cheney, he is reminiscent of and indeed might well be a latent version of Joseph Stalin. As an aside, it is intriguing and I think well outside the usual conspiracy theory, to consider whether or not Lieberman has been intimated of our own President Trump – he might be an NKBD, GRU, KGB, FSB, you-name-it plant – that is an agent of Vladimir Putin. He has more or less forged most of the 1 million Russian émigré since 1991 into a formidable political force forming the political party that has more than once played kingmaker in the Israeli political scene. What a strategic coup for Vladimir, the master chess player in the world today in my estimation. While everyone else plays a really lousy game of checkers, it would be quite a coup for him.

A far more concern at the moment and readily provable, unlike what I just said, Lieberman exemplifies where Israel is headed – toward a massive confrontation with the various powers arrayed against it, a confrontation that will suck America in and perhaps terminate the experiment that is Israel and do irreparable damage to the empire that America has become. Lieberman will speak in April in New York City at the annual conference of The Jerusalem Post. The title is – quote – The New War with Iran – unquote. It is clear that he’s in the forefront of promoting this war. Nowhere does my concern about such a war focused more acutely at the moment than in Syria.

As president of France, Emmanuel Macron, described it recently – quote – The current rhetoric of U.S., Saudi Arabia, and Israel is pushing the region toward conflict with Iran – unquote. In that triad, no state is doing that more than Israel. Listen to Netanyahu in January at the Holocaust Memorial Museum in Jerusalem. Quote – The greatest danger that we face of hatred for the Jewish people and the Jewish state comes from Iran. It comes from the Ayatollah regime that is fanning the flames of anti-Semitism – unquote.

This anti-Semitism bid, of course as we’ve heard it today, is almost always a weapon of choice for Israeli politicians under stress, hurled in this case at the country whose Jewish population, by the way, the largest in the Middle East outside Turkey and Israel lives in Iran in reasonable peace. And don’t forget that these words were uttered by the man who is, as we’ve heard here today, briefly doing everything he can to expel dark skinned African refugees largely from Eritrea and the Sudan from Israel where most have come as legitimate refugees. President Trump’s wall on the Mexican border is nothing compared to Bibi’s actual policies.

More recently, Bibi’s performance at the Munich Security Conference bordered on the infantile, and yet effective when you think about the audience whom he’s speaking as he held aloft on an alleged piece on an alleged Iranian drone and asked Minister Zarif if he recognize it. Of course Mr. Zarif later took his occasion at the microphone to characterize Netanyahu’s performances like that of a circus clown, a pretty good characterization, as a matter of fact. But I like the comment of Lebanon’s defense minister even better. It went to the point. He said that he had an Israeli drone over his head virtually 24/7. That comment put the hypocrite – that Netanyahu is – in the right perspective.

Of late, of course, Tel Aviv is increasingly using Iran’s presence in Syria, its support for President Bashar al-Assad and its alleged drive – and I love this one, my military comrades love it too – for a Shi’a corridor from Tehran to Aden as the hoary beast. That must not be at any cost, including of course American treasure and lives, as his probable cause and existential prompt for action. That Israel has in support such disparate figures as Nikki Haley at the United Nations, Jim Mattis at the Pentagon, Rex Tillerson at State, as well as the usual suspects from outside the world of warmed over neo-conservatives is indicative of such policy. But it’s not just the usual suspects from the world of neo-cons about whom I know quite a bit having experienced them in 2001 and 2002 and 2003. Take for example my fellow South Carolinian, Lindsey Graham, speaking four days ago after a breathless trip to Israel. A bipartisan trip he called it. I don’t know how anybody could use that term. I caution don’t laugh because Lindsey was serious, I think. But anything bipartisan with regard to Israel, I call it unanimity, call it absolute unanimity, anything but bipartisan. In fact, the proper words are probably overwhelming unprecedented unanimity, in fact, the only issue that does unify the United States Congress other than mom and apple pie.

But Graham had this to say – quote – Any time you leave a meeting where the request is ammunition, ammunition, ammunition, that’s probably not good. That’s Lindsey. I know Lindsey well. “This was the most unnerving trip I’ve had in a while,” he said breathlessly again. Graham went on to assert, quote – When they tell you we want help to deal with the blowback that might come from attacks on civilian targets where Hezbollah has integrated military capability, that was so striking. That was striking – end of quote.

Then Senator Coons who up until this time I’ve had some respect for, a fairly sane and sober senator from Delaware, reported that – quote – The tempo in terms of potential for conflict in Syria has gone up astronomically. The technologies Iran is projecting into Syria and southern Lebanon has gone up. Iran’s willingness to be provocative, to push the edges of the envelope to challenge Israel has gone up – end of quote. Coons reported this almost as breathlessly as Lindsey.

With the highest tech nation on earth in Syria, the United States of America, that is all Coons could derive from his visit – that the country that spends less than 1 percent of what the U.S. spends on its national security has introduced new technologies in Syria. Technologies that threaten the country Israel to whom the U.S. bounty is limitless? This is Joseph Goebbels territory. Karl Rove is envious. The Foundation for Defense of Democracies as the heir to the Project for the New American Century, Bill Kristol’s Iraq-bound think tank, leaves that pack of wolves disguised as warmed over neocons lavishly funded by the likes of Paul Singer. It has even spawned the Institute for the Study of War. A fascinating Orwellian title if there ever was one. It should be the Institute for War.

I’ve been asked why is it that you ascribe to FDD and now the ISW such a nefarious motives. I was asked this by the New York Times’ editorial staff when they publish my op-ed on Iran a few days ago. My answer is simple. Because that is precisely what FDD is attempting to do. Just as Douglas Feith, undersecretary of Defense for Policy, Office of Special Plans, did in 2002 and 2003 for Richard Bruce Cheney to lead us in the war with Iraq. I’ve been there, done that. I don’t need the tour.

The salient question though – why do you believe that America is headed for a struggle with Iran – needs an answer. Certainly, America’s unquestioning support is required as has been the case from George W. Bush, to Barack Obama, to the rapture-seeking Mike Pence, and the Twittering King Donald Trump. But it seems that recently Lieberman and Netanyahu and their acolytes in this country, amongst which I put up at the top Nikki Haley, have determined that it would be best if American troops also participated in the overthrow of the Tehran regime.

From one point of view, I suppose this is understandable – the crassly opportunistic point of view, that is, that better to squander your own allies’ blood and treasure than your own. But it’s certainly not in the character that I’m used to with regard to the state of Israel, and certainly not with regard to Israeli Defense Force. That that force could handle anything Iran threw at it militarily is undeniable. Any military professional will tell you that. And that Israel’s more than 200 nuclear warheads could decimate Iran is equally undeniable.

So, why this attempt to suck America into this conflict? I believe the answer is fairly clear once you push aside the cobwebs that surround it. The legitimacy of great power is what I call it, and that is precisely what Netanyahu and Lieberman desire. It’s also what Riyadh desires, especially with the new boy king, Mohammad bin Salman, now an erstwhile ally of Israel. In short, the IDF could defend Israel but it could not attack Iran. Not successfully, anyway. In order to do so, it would be damned internationally. Thus, isolate it even more than it already is today perhaps devastatingly so.

But America already damned by well more than half the world, a poll showed at least 4 billion people think we’re the number one threat to their security and the world. Think about that for a minute. We’ve already done Iraq, Libya and Syria, Afghanistan. We’d just be seen as continuing the trend. Besides America has the military capacity – here’s a long poll, on the tenth – to project the power needed to unseat swiftly the regime in Tehran. Swiftly in terms of Saddam Hussein, for example, not swiftly in terms of taking care of 75 million people each one of which, in a very rugged and strategically deep terrain, would want to kill every damn American in the country along with probably half the rest of the Arabs in the area.

So there’s only one significant hang up that I see with this strategy that Netanyahu and Lieberman are pushing. Embroiled in his own legal problems that just might send him to jail, as such problems would likely have sent Ariel Sharon to jail had he not been in really bad shape at the end of his prime-ministership. They’re both headed for war. Of that I’m convinced.

They will use Iran’s allegedly existential to Israel presence in Syria which is becoming even more so from a military perspective every day, Hezbollah’s accumulation of some 150,000 missiles if we believe our intelligence agencies. The need to set Lebanon’s economy back yet again, that’s important. Look at what they’re deliberating right now with regard to the new very, very rich gas find in the Eastern Mediterranean with Israel claiming Section 9 and Lebanon claiming Section 9. Take that, Lebanon. We’re going to bomb you, then you’ll let us have it. And that will be their excuse.

We’re looking at them taking on, and this is a point that all military people understand, a country that couldn’t beat Iraq in eight years of brutal bloody war, an Iraq that we beat in 19 days. So this is the colossal threat that they’re up against and men, such as H. R. McMaster, are helping them. The much heralded author of Dereliction of Duty, a great title, and a man that knows about as much about Iran as I do about the eight planet in the 95th solar system in the 50th galaxy past our own.

Here’s a hope I have. Let’s hope that the chess master in chief, old Vladimir Putin either ruins elections from Paris to Peoria is smart enough to once again not to let this happen. I fear it will not be and we might have the stirrings of 1914 as utterly stupid as we now know those stirrings to have been. People whom I mentioned such possibilities, people who are critically analytical and normally fairly sound in their thinking respond that, well, don’t you consider that sort of dreary prognosis a little bit overdrawn? My rejoinder is usually something a bit too clever perhaps but along these lines, don’t you think a number of people said that in the summer of 1914? Ah, they respond, but have not learned so much since then?

I’ll let you be the judge of that and inform you only that, in my considered view, we have learned very little and there are the ingredients right now with Turkey, Syria, Iran, Iraq, Saudi Arabia losing dramatically in Yemen right now, and the United States and Russia at the peak of all of this to get engaged, a very distinct possibility.

I looked at this from the perspective of the political parameters, what is it that we’re confronting today in this country? This took me down an entirely different path as I try to figure out just how this team of McMaster, Tillerson, Kelly, et al., and Trump at the top of it will face this sort of decision-making process. The only place I could find that remotely resembled where we are today in our past was the period 1850 to 1860. So about six months ago I started reading as voraciously as I could on that period. I’ve done some reading, but I needed to really do a lot more. It is stunning the similarities between that period and now particularly in the political situation where one side of the country wouldn’t talk to the other side of the country and vice versa.

I was struck today by some of the comments that were made that resemble the comments that were made by my region, my state fired on Fort Sumter after all, back in those days. If that is the political situation in which this government will do its national security decision-making, then we are in deeper trouble than even the prospects of a region-wide and perhaps even bigger war in the Middle East. The country that will have started it all, the relationship, unbalanced as it is that will make it possible, is Israel. That’s the danger we face.

Questions and Answers

Delinda Hanley: You were supposed to give us some hope. What happened to that? Okay. We are running out of time, but we do have a lot of questions. Do you want to take one of those or – ? Okay. Which one – ?

Jefferson Morley: Either one.

Delinda Hanley: This I want to hear. Is Mossad actively operating in U.S. institutions versus the power of AIPAC and the charitable Israeli institutions? Wait a minute. That’s –

Jefferson Morley: It’s a good question and I don’t exactly know the answer. But my sense is that AIPAC is an effective enough organization that the Mossad doesn’t have to do its work there. It can confine itself to the usual intelligence tasks. There is a lot of concern in the CIA about the possibility of Israeli spying on the CIA. There are pro factions within the CIA that have different views about Israel. But my sense is that it’s not the Mossad that does the Israeli governments work in Washington. It’s AIPAC.

Delinda Hanley: This is for Col. Wilkerson. What could and would Iran do in response to an attack?

Lawrence Wilkerson: This has been a war-gamed ad nauseam almost by the U.S. military. There are a number of different scenarios. There’s one were the U.S. round the clock three-carrier battle groups bombing does so much damage that Iran is, as you might well imagine, pretty shocked in those 14 to 21 days of bombing. Much the way you saw Saddam Hussein in the first Gulf War. Then Iran comes out from the dust, so to speak, counts its casualties, mans its hospitals and so forth, and essentially goes into guerilla war. That means if we want to do anything other than just bomb them which is simply going to drive their nuclear program on the ground and speed it up, they’ll coordinate with the North Koreans, they’ll have a nuclear weapon in 18 months, and then watch us hesitate to invade because that’s what they know they’ll be doing by building that weapon. We’ll have forced them to make that decision.

So we invade immediately. We’re going to be confronting a country that is huge. I’ve done the war planning for it when we were planning in the ‘80s for the Russians to break out of Afghanistan and come on down to Chabahar and Bandar Abbas – the two ports, the warm water ports. We actually thought that was a possibility. We didn’t think the Russians came into Afghanistan to just be in Afghanistan. Then of course they got bogged down there and couldn’t come. But it’s a tough country. So either way, an immediate invasion is going to take $5 trillion or $6 trillion in ten years of occupation to even begin to say that we’re in control of the country.

Look at Iraq. It’s one-third the size of Iran. It’s going to probably put red bull’s eyes on the back of every soldier and Marine in the country, red bull’s eyes at every terrorist group it will flock to to engage. If we take the other scenario and invade immediately, you’re going to have the same thing but you’re going to have it quicker and you’re going to at least obviate the possibility that they will go underground and build a nuclear weapon.

Delinda Hanley: Any thoughts on Kushner as an intelligence effort? Then there’s another one, the same. All these questions I want to know. Any thoughts on assistance Israel might have generated to the Trump campaign? Any thoughts on Israel’s large purchases of U.S. stocks possibly to prop up the market?

Jefferson Morley: I don’t know anything about that last question. Jared Kushner is so incompetent that it doesn’t look like the work of any professional intelligence organization what he’s doing. The man is deeply in debt and desperately trying to figure out a way how to get out of it. So while he’s very close to the Israelis and using Israeli contacts and Qatar and Saudi Arabia to solve his financial problems, I don’t really see intelligence agencies being involved in that. I don’t know why they would want to get involved in that.

Delinda Hanley: For Col. Wilkerson. How far do you think Russia will go in helping, on the side of Syria, Iran, et cetera, in the Syrian conflict? How much further, I guess.

Lawrence Wilkerson: The difficulty there is the imponderable, as Ben Mulkey [phonetic] pointed out, no plan outlast the first bomb being dropped. Once you start killing Russians, once you start shooting Su-27s down and they start shooting the F-16s, F-15s and F-22s down, you have a whole different dimension. You’ve got a real problem. In controlling that escalation theory, says you’re probably not going to be able to control that. So that’s what really worries me.

Now, that having been said, Putin realizes that. Putin has shown that he knows he doesn’t have a lot of assets behind him compared to the assets that the United States could bring to bear where it’s serious. So he’s been very careful about the way he moves in the gaps, exploits them, moves back and so forth. He’s getting ready to do it in Kosovo right now. Mitrovica, the northern province, is being infiltrated by the Serbs. Watch that. McMaster and others aren’t even aware it’s happening.

But he’s very smart. So the thing that ought to be happening right now is that the United States and Moscow, despite all this mess that’s been created between us, ought to be cooperating to bring the two parties that really need to talk – to talk, Riyadh and Tehran – and get them to deal with their problems diplomatically and then turn that diplomatic success on to the Syrian conflict which is being fueled principally by Saudi money with Prince Bandar in charge.

Delinda Hanley: Here is a question for you, Morley. How important was the cooperation between CIA and Mossad in places like Central America and Zaire?

Jefferson Morley: Well, in the case of Central America, in the 1980, there was a significant Israeli role. The Reagan administration barred from military aid to the counterrevolutionary forces in Nicaragua, restricted in aid, the other military regimes turn to outside actors – their own aid network – but also to the Israelis to ship arms and ship money. It was never clear to me whether it was a formal Israeli intelligence operation or whether these were sort of Israeli contractors who were simply allowed to operate in the region. But the CIA and the Reagan administration relied on them quite a bit for what they called counterterrorism or for shipping arms and expertise into the region into order to prevail in the civil war. So in that time the Israeli role was definitely significant. I am not well informed about the CIA and Mossad role in Zaire, so I can’t really comment on that.

Delinda Hanley: We have three minutes left, I think. This is not a fun question to end the conference with. Based on the incredible increasing trend of impunity among aggressive military action, like in the Levant, and genocidal warfare, what stops Israel from launching a similar final solution to the Palestinian people?

Lawrence Wilkerson: You want me to take on that?

Delinda Hanley: Either one of you.

Lawrence Wilkerson: At this point, I don’t think Lieberman or Netanyahu or any of the more ultra-right-wing aspects of the Zionist political movement – Israeli government, whatever we want to call it – are suicidal. I don’t think they’re that fatalistic either. I think they really think they can wind up or some subsequent prime minister can wind up with Jordan, with probably pieces of Syria certainly the Golan, and Israel can be Greater Israel. They’re willing to back off from some of that as powers interpose themselves and give them a problem with that.

But they want a Greater Israel for a number of reasons, security reasons, you know, the old biblical prophecies and so forth. So I think they’re going to try to keep this in the air to start with. You’re going to see some bombing. I think you’re going to see in the next six months. They’re going to take Lebanon on. They’re going to take Hezbollah on in Syria and Lebanon. When that doesn’t work or when Hezbollah present to them, as they did in July 2006, with some new options in terms of what Hezbollah can do to them and maybe even the Lebanese Armed Forces do too, it might get tricky. Then there might be armored formations, ground units, infantry and so forth. That’s when the door opens for general conflict.

There is a question asked, too, about the base. Here’s why I think we put the base there. Because the last time I spoke here I said we didn’t have any hard power in Israel so the Pentagon responded put the base there. I’m joking. We put the base there for the same reason we have tripwire forces in other places. We put the base there so that there can be no question in the minds of the American people when the president directs U.S. forces into Israel equipped to go into Syria because we will have been attacked. The disposition of that base is just sitting on an Israeli Air Base and we put the Stars and Stripes up and declared it a U.S. Air Base. It’s for Patriot batteries as far as I know. But it’s there and it’s U.S. territory. So when missiles start flying or – God forbid – the RGC actually tries to put guerillas in the Israel proper, then we are being attacked, too. So when we go to Congress, if Trump feels like he has to go to Congress – he isn’t going to have to probably – Congress is going to be demanding that the president take action.

Delinda Hanley: Well, that’s a very sobering end here. Okay. Another question? We are out of time, but one more. Grant you get special. What are the possibilities of a 9/11 Mossad op-type strike to propel us into Iran like it did in Iraq? I don’t know who wants to take that.

Lawrence Wilkerson: I think we’ve got the adequate ingredients right now. We have about 3,200 troops in Syria. You’ve got Secretary Mattis and Secretary Tillerson both saying we’re staying there because we need to confront the Iranian elements that are trying to establish this corridor and are too close to Israel. You got the president of United States contradicting them and saying, no, when we’re done with ISIS we’re leaving. Of course that’s an ambiguity. When are you done with ISIS? You could say you’re never going to be done with ISIS, not completely.

The policy is not clear right now, but there are all the ingredients in place including Russian-U.S. aircraft being de-conflicted on an hourly basis by direct communications. You got all the ingredients for a wider war and for a pang [sounds like], like that, that suddenly becomes – you got the same thing in the South China Sea when the Chinese sink a U.S. aircraft carrier. What are the American people going to do when 5,000 souls and $14 billion is on the bottom of the ocean? Because the Chinese are going to sink a U.S. aircraft carrier, I guarantee you. What are we going to do? Is it going to be over Taiwan? Are we then going to defend Taiwan? Probably not – most Americans will probably get anxious about that. But this is what we’re courting in the world now at a time when our power has been dramatically reduced from what it was in 1945, and we don’t recognize that. We simply don’t recognize that – too many enemies.