Who Gains From Syrian Bloodbath?


The best hope for an end to the killing in Syria is for the United States and Russia to push both sides in the conflict to agree a ceasefire in which each holds the territory it currently controls. In a civil war of such savagery, diplomacy with any ambition to determine who holds power in future will founder because both sides believe they can still win.

There appeared to be an opportunity for productive talks after it was announced on 7 May that the US Secretary of State, John Kerry, and his Russian counterpart, Sergei Lavrov, had agreed to hold a peace conference on Syria in Geneva. The US, Russia and Iran could see themselves being sucked into an ever more violent conflict and one that is rapidly spreading. It is destabilising Syria’s neighbours in Jordan and Lebanon as Shia and Sunni support opposing sides. Even Turkey’s new-found prosperity is vulnerable as a result of its whole-hearted backing for Syria’s rebels.

However, the chance of any talks taking place in Geneva have dimmed in the past few days. The Syrian opposition has rejected the idea, though its intentions are very much determined by its paymasters in Saudi Arabia and Qatar. Going by the evidence of their own leaders, the rebels, inside and outside Syria, are so divided and dysfunctional they may not be in the business of talking to anybody.

Even if the opposition were better organised, they might still not want to talk. One of its leaders said: “We have to make the removal of the regime fundamental to any political solution.” This may sound obvious, but an unstated part of opposition policy is that they can only win if the West and its allies among the Sunni states of the Middle East decide on massive military involvement to remove President Bashar al-Assad. They want a Libyan-type solution in which Assad would be overthrown, as was Muammar Gaddafi by Nato in 2011, with the rebels conducting a well-publicised mopping up.

However, the truth is that Assad was never as politically or militarily weak as portrayed in the international media or, until a few months ago, by foreign leaders. After two years of war he holds almost all the main cities and towns of Syria and the inner core of his regime has held together. This has become more evident in the past two months, as government forces go on the offensive and make limited but definite gains.

Foreign perceptions have changed. Six months ago, German intelligence was predicting Assad’s fall. Now, it has been publicly saying it expects the government to secure its grip on Damascus and all of southern Syria by the end of the year.

The White House has said in the past few days that its top priority in Syria is to impose regime change, but this is a recipe for a very long conflict. Why should Assad and his government surrender when they are more than holding their own on the battlefield? Moreover, Washington appears to have shut the door on the idea of Iran, a main player, attending Geneva talks. This again is unrealistic if the aim of negotiations is to end the fighting. And Britain and France are playing a small but mischievous role in ensuring the slaughter in Syria continues. By successfully ending the EU embargo on arms for the rebels they will not bring talks nearer, as they pretend, but make them unlikely to take place at all. The type of weapons they will send are not going to tip the military balance. Government forces are too strong for this. The current stalemate is too well rooted in realities on the ground. The most significant impact of more arms for the rebels will be to persuade them that, if they refuse to negotiate, they will eventually get full-scale Western military intervention such as a Libya-type no-fly zone, which, in practice, meant Nato air forces joining the war.

It may be that Russia announced that it was selling Syria a sophisticated S-300 anti-aircraft missile system precisely in order to block this. By offering more arms, the EU will also be putting off the day when the two sides talk to each other through mutual exhaustion and the knowledge that neither can win.

At this stage, mutual hatred is too great for any long-term deal on sharing power. Everybody is caught up in what we used to call in Belfast “the politics of the last atrocity”. Power-sharing would be geographical, with each side holding its own territory.

The first priority should be for the US and Russia to compel the sides they back to cease fire. This would have to be policed on the ground by a UN observer force. I recall the much-maligned UN Supervision Mission in Syria in 2012 arranging a ceasefire in the hardcore rebel town of Douma on the outskirts of Damascus. It did not stop all the shooting but many Syrians lived who would otherwise have died.

There may be a more sinister reason why the US has started setting the bar so high for talks. Washington’s involvement is greater than appears because so much of it goes through Qatar, with the CIA determining who gets arms and money sent via Turkey. This would also explain why Britain and France are so keen to send the rebels weapons.

The explanation for the actions of the Western states may be that they do not want the war to end except as a victory for their allies. This certainly is the view of many in the Middle East, such as Mowaffak al-Rubaie, the former Iraqi National Security Adviser, who told me the civil war “is the best option for the West and Israel because it knocks out Syria as an opponent of their policies and keeps Iran busy. Hezbollah is preoccupied by Syria and not with Israel. Turkey’s idea of a new Ottoman empire is gone with the wind.”

This is a cynical but probably correct explanation for why the US, Britain, France and the Sunni monarchies do not want the war to end until they can declare victory.

PATRICK COCKBURN is the author of “Muqtada: Muqtada Al-Sadr, the Shia Revival, and the Struggle for Iraq.

Patrick Cockburn is the author of  The Rise of Islamic State: ISIS and the New Sunni Revolution.

October 07, 2015
Nancy Scheper-Hughes
Witness to a Troubled Saint-Making: Junipero Serra and the Theology of Failure
Luciana Bohne
The Double-Speak of American Civilian Humanitarianism
Joyce Nelson
TPP: Big Pharma’s Big Deal
Jonathan Cook
Israel Lights the Touchpaper at Al-Aqsa Again
Joseph Natoli
The Wreckage in Sight We Fail To See
Piero Gleijeses
Jorge Risquet: the Brother I Never Had
Andrew Stewart
Do #BlackLivesMatter to Dunkin’ Donuts?
Rajesh Makwana
#GlobalGoals? The Truth About Poverty and How to Address It
Joan Berezin
Elections 2016: A New Opening or Business as Usual?
Dave Randle
The Man Who Sold Motown to the World
Adam Bartley
“Shameless”: Hillary Clinton, Human Rights and China
Binoy Kampmark
The Killings in Oregon: Business as Usual
Harvey Wasserman
Why Bernie and Hillary Must Address America’s Dying Nuke Reactors
Tom H. Hastings
Unarmed Cops and a Can-do Culture of Nonviolence
October 06, 2015
Vijay Prashad
Afghanistan, the Terrible War: Money for Nothing
Mike Whitney
How Putin will Win in Syria
Paul Street
Yes, There is an Imperialist Ruling Class
Paul Craig Roberts
American Vice
Kathy Kelly
Bombing Hospitals: 22 People Killed by US Airstrike on Doctors Without Borders Hospital in Kunduz, Afghanistan
Ron Jacobs
Patti Smith and the Beauty of Memory
David Macaray
Coal Executive Finally Brought Up on Criminal Charges
Norman Pollack
Cold War Rhetoric: The Kept Intelligentsia
Cecil Brown
The Firing This Time: School Shootings and James Baldwin’s Final Message
Roger Annis
The Canadian Election and the Global Climate Crisis
W. T. Whitney
Why is the US Government Persecuting IFCO/Pastors for Peace Humanitarian Organization?
Jesse Jackson
Alabama’s New Jim Crow Far From Subtle
Joe Ramsey
After Umpqua: Does America Have a Gun Problem….or a Dying Capitalist Empire Problem?
Murray Dobbin
Rise Up, Precariat! Cheap Labour is Over
October 05, 2015
Michael Hudson
Parasites in the Body Economic: the Disasters of Neoliberalism
Patrick Cockburn
Why We Should Welcome Russia’s Entry Into Syrian War
Kristine Mattis
GMO Propaganda and the Sociology of Science
Heidi Morrison
Well-Intentioned Islamophobia
Ralph Nader
Monsanto and Its Promoters vs. Freedom of Information
Arturo Desimone
Retro-Colonialism: the Exportation of Austerity as War By Other Means
Robert M. Nelson
Noted Argentine Chemist Warns of Climate Disaster
Matt Peppe
Misrepresentation of the Colombian Conflict
Barbara Dorris
Pope Sympathizes More with Bishops, Less with Victims
Clancy Sigal
I’m Not a Scientologist, But I Wish TV Shrinks Would Just Shut Up
Chris Zinda
Get Outta’ Dodge: the State of the Constitution Down in Dixie
Eileen Applebaum
Family and Medical Leave Insurance, Not Tax Credits, Will Help Families
Pierre-Damien Mvuyekure
“Boxing on Paper” for the Nation of Islam, Black Nationalism, and the Black Athlete: a Review of “The Complete Muhammad Ali” by Ishmael Reed
Lawrence Ware
Michael Vick and the Hypocrisy of NFL Fans
Gary Corseri - Charles Orloski
Poets’ Talk: Pope Francis, Masilo, Marc Beaudin, et. al.
Weekend Edition
October 2-4, 2015
Henry Giroux
Murder, USA: Why Politicians Have Blood on Their Hands
Mike Whitney
Putin’s Lightning War in Syria