Click amount to donate direct to CounterPunch
  • $25
  • $50
  • $100
  • $500
  • $other
  • use PayPal
Support Our Annual Fund Drive! CounterPunch is entirely supported by our readers. Your donations pay for our small staff, tiny office, writers, designers, techies, bandwidth and servers. We don’t owe anything to advertisers, foundations, one-percenters or political parties. You are our only safety net. Please make a tax-deductible donation today.
FacebookTwitterGoogle+RedditEmail

Out of Control: the Syrian Rebels and the US

by PATRICK COCKBURN

Damascus.

Syria is convinced the US cannot control the rebel groups it is arming and will be unable to get them to declare a ceasefire that would be central to any successful peace talks, says the country’s Deputy Foreign Minister. This puts a further obstacle in the way of negotiations in Geneva proposed by the US and Russia which seem the best chance of ending the Syrian civil war. It now appears they will either not take place, or if they do, they will achieve nothing.

Faisal Mekdad says in an interview in Damascus that the Americans “provide arms and money but they have absolutely no control. Nobody will listen. The US has been trying to unify this opposition for two years and you can see the results: more disintegration.” Mr Mekdad has been at the centre of Syrian foreign policy at a time when the country has been progressively isolated, while still managing to retain crucial allies.

Mr Mekdad looks more confident and relaxed than he did six months ago, probably reflecting a Syrian government belief that it has survived the worst of the crisis. A dapper, fast-talking man, Mr Mekdad comes from Daraa in southern Syria where the uprising began two years ago.

The cavernous Syrian foreign ministry feels insulated from the war, yet Mr Mekdad has not escaped the stresses of the conflict. His 84-year-old father was kidnapped and held for 14 days by rebels and he says he no longer goes to his family home because he wants to avoid further troubles.

Mr Mekdad says events have been moving in the Syrian government’s favour throughout the first half of the year. Its forces are on the offensive, having won a crucial battle at Qusayr outside Homs near the Lebanese border, and he stresses that the opposition should take heed. “It will send a clear message to armed groups, saying: ‘The Syrian army is coming for you,’” he says. Crucially, Syria’s most important allies – Russia and Iran – are steadfast in supporting it diplomatically and financially. Mr Mekdad seems to draw a certain amount of unspoken pleasure from the spectacular disarray of the civilian and military opposition inside and outside Syria.

At the end of the interview Mr Mekdad commented that six months earlier Damascus had been resounding with the sound of artillery fire while now it is much quieter. In reality, this is not quite true and there is the constant boom of outgoing artillery and the occasional sharper crack of incoming fire from rebel mortars.

The difference is largely psychological, with foreign diplomats warning that the government may be getting over-confident as its recovers its nerve. But the rebels retain a core of supporters that are not going to be eliminated, making a long war inevitable.

Mr Mekdad does not look overly concerned by the postponement of the Geneva II peace conference, saying that Syria had always been ready and willing to attend without preconditions. But he goes out of his way to refute the idea that, if the US and its allies could make the rebels a bit stronger on the battlefield, “they can force the government to give more concessions. This is completely wrong,” he says.

This is the argument of David Cameron and William Hague, who claim arming the rebels would tilt the balance of the war in their favour forcing Mr Assad to negotiate his own departure. “I think they are stupid,” says Mr Mekdad. “I think they are absolutely mistaken. More arms means more killing.” He derides any idea that the British and French stance is humanitarian or sincere, attributing it in both cases to revived colonialist ambitions. The Syrian government sees Britain and France as front men for the US administration, which Mr Mekdad claims is “behind everything in the region”. He believes that Saudi Arabia and Qatar likewise act as proxies for the US: “They can’t do anything without written instructions from Washington.”

The government in Damascus has always portrayed the rebels as fundamentalist jihadists who represent as much of a long-term threat to the West as they do to Syria. He also plays down the role of the Lebanese Shia paramilitary movement Hezbollah – other Syrian officials have said they wish Hezbollah had not been so vocal in publicising its presence – and says that thousands of Islamic fundamentalists have joined the rebels without provoking such an international outcry. Foreign diplomats note that Hezbollah provides elite troops while the presence of foreign jihadists videoing themselves decapitating government soldiers has done much to discredit the opposition movement at home and abroad.

Mr Mekdad denies that Iran has a single soldier or member of the Iranian Revolutionary Guard Corps in Syria, but adds that the Iranians are generous with economic and financial assistance. “They are sending food, oil and financial support,” he says. There is little evidence of an Iranian military presence but their expertise in guerrilla warfare, honed in Lebanon and Iraq, is highly regarded in the region. As one Iraqi political leader said: “The Iranians have a PhD in irregular warfare.” Despite Mr Mekdad’s assertions, Hezbollah is a crucial supplement to the government’s position in central Syria, which is the most heavily populated part of the country.

A further reason why Damascus is feeling more confident these days is that two of its harshest critics, Egypt and Turkey, are preoccupied with their own waves of popular protest.

As for chemical weapons, he denies that Syria – “supposing [we] had them” – would ever deploy them against its own people and called for the UN to investigate a Syrian government claim of poison-gas use by the rebels. But he also claims that UN inspectors would not be allowed to investigate similar charges against Syrian government forces because “we don’t want to repeat the Iraqi experience”. He claims that the Syrian opposition had every incentive to fake evidence about chemical weapons use by the government in order to provoke foreign military intervention. “They know that President Obama said that this was a red line,” he says.

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.

More articles by:

2016 Fund Drive
Smart. Fierce. Uncompromised. Support CounterPunch Now!

  • cp-store
  • donate paypal

CounterPunch Magazine

minimag-edit

Weekend Edition
September 30, 2016
Friday - Sunday
Henry Giroux
Thinking Dangerously in the Age of Normalized Ignorance
Stanley L. Cohen
Israel and Academic Freedom: a Closed Book
Paul Craig Roberts – Michael Hudson
Can Russia Learn From Brazil’s Fate? 
Andrew Levine
A Putrid Election: the Horserace as Farce
Mike Whitney
The Biggest Heist in Human History
Jeffrey St. Clair
Roaming Charges: the Sick Blue Line
Rob Urie
The Twilight of the Leisure Class
Vijay Prashad
In a Hall of Mirrors: Fear and Dislike at the Polls
Alexander Cockburn
The Man Who Built Clinton World
John Wight
Who Will Save Us From America?
W. T. Whitney
When Women’s Lives Don’t Matter
Jeremy Brecher
Dakota Access Pipeline and the Future of American Labor
Binoy Kampmark
Pictures Left Incomplete: MH17 and the Joint Investigation Team
Andrew Kahn
Nader Gave Us Bush? Hillary Could Give Us Trump
Steve Horn
Obama Weakens Endangered Species Act
Dave Lindorff
US Propaganda Campaign to Demonize Russia in Full Gear over One-Sided Dutch/Aussie Report on Flight 17 Downing
John W. Whitehead
Uncomfortable Truths You Won’t Hear From the Presidential Candidates
Ramzy Baroud
Shimon Peres: Israel’s Nuclear Man
Brandon Jordan
The Battle for Mercosur
Murray Dobbin
A Globalization Wake-Up Call
Jesse Ventura
Corrupted Science: the DEA and Marijuana
Andrew Stewart
The Democratic Plot to Privatize Social Security
Daniel Borgstrom
On the Streets of Oakland, Expressing Solidarity with Charlotte
Marjorie Cohn
President Obama: ‘Patron’ of the Israeli Occupation
Norman Pollack
The “Self-Hating” Jew: A Critique
David Rosen
The Living Body & the Ecological Crisis
Richard W. Behan
Hillary Clinton and Our Moribund Democracy
Joseph Natoli
Thoughtcrimes and Stupidspeak: Our Assault Against Words
Ron Jacobs
A Cycle of Death Underscored by Greed and a Lust for Power
Kim Nicolini
Long Drive Home
Art Martin
The Matrix Around the Next Bend: Facebook, Augmented Reality and the Podification of the Populace
Andre Vltchek
Failures of the Western Left
Ishmael Reed
Millennialism or Extinctionism?
Laura Finley
Presidential Debate Recommendations
José Negroni
Mass Firings on Broadway Lead Singers to Push Back
Leticia Cortez
Entering the Historical Dissonance Surrounding Desafinados
Robert J. Burrowes
Gandhi: ‘My Life is My Message’
Charles R. Larson
Queen Lear? Deborah Levy’s “Hot Milk”
David Yearsley
Bring on the Nibelungen: If Wagner Scored the Debates
September 29, 2016
Robert Fisk
The Butcher of Qana: Shimon Peres Was No Peacemaker
James Rose
Politics in the Echo Chamber: How Trump Becomes President
Russell Mokhiber
The Corporate Vice Grip on the Presidential Debates
Daniel Kato
Rethinking the Race over Race: What Clinton Should do Now About ‘Super-Predators’
Peter Certo
Clinton’s Awkward Stumbles on Trade
Fran Shor
Demonizing the Green Party Vote
FacebookTwitterGoogle+RedditEmail
[i]
[i]
[i]
[i]