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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.

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