Only a Peace Conference Can Stop Further Bloodshed

by PATRICK COCKBURN

American, British and French air strikes by planes or missiles look probable in retaliation for the  alleged use of poison gas by the Syrian army against people in rebel-held areas of Damascus. Controversy rages about whether or not this is the right thing to do, an argument colored by memories of official mendacity over Iraqi Weapons of Mass Destruction in 2003 and Nato’s destruction of Muammar Gaddafi’s regime in 2011 under the guise of a limited humanitarian operation.

What armed intervention by foreign powers in Syria will not do is bring an end to the present bloody stalemate in the two-and-a-half-year-old civil war. But governments in Washington, London and Paris should realise that in one respect the slaughter by chemical weapons of hundreds of people in Damascus on 21 August is an opportunity as well as a crime.

It is an opportunity because the chemical weapons atrocity and the crisis it has provoked show that the Syrian civil war cannot be left to fester. Previously, there was a shallow belief that, like the 15-year-long Lebanese civil war between 1975 and 1990, the Syrian war was basically containable. This hope has ebbed over the past year as sectarian and ethnic violence in Syria has spread to Lebanon and Iraq. The use of poison gas is the grossest sign, but not the only one, that the level of violence is spiralling out of control inside Syria.

While the world has been focusing on the horrors in Damascus over the past week, anti-government rebels have been carrying out a campaign of ethnic cleansing against Syrian Kurds in the north-east of the country, forcing 40,000 of them to flee across the Tigris into northern Iraq in less than a week. So many are trying to escape in what the United Nations says is the biggest single refugee exodus of the war that the pontoon bridge across the Tigris they were using is near collapse and has had to be closed, trapping tens of thousands of terrified Kurds inside Syria.

The sense of urgency among foreign powers generated by the present crisis should be used to launch the much-delayed peace negotiations in Geneva. A peace conference between the warring sides was proposed by the US and Russia in May, but has been repeatedly postponed. It is unrealistic to imagine for now that negotiations between people whose prime aim is to kill each other will lead to any long-term political solution for Syria. The priority should rather be to prevent the continuing escalation in the violence and the further disintegration of Syrian society.

A ceasefire is the greatest need, in which  power-sharing would be geographical with each side holding the territory it controls. Such a truce should put in place and monitored by UN teams. It might not cover all the country and would no doubt be frequently breached, but it would be better than the present bloody anarchy. There were hundreds of ceasefires during the Lebanese civil war and they were regarded with cynicism by the Lebanese, but thousands more people would have died without them.

Why has a peace conference not happened before? Within Syria the main reason is that government and opposition each believe they can still win and do not contemplate sharing power with anybody.

President Bashar al-Assad’s forces have made limited advances since they captured in June the strategic rebel stronghold of Qusayr outside the city of Homs, 100 miles north of Damascus. Most important, Assad’s foreign allies – Russia, Iran and Hezbollah in Lebanon – have stood firm and shown that they are not going to allow him to be defeated.

The rebels do not want to negotiate with government in part because they are so fragmented that they would find it difficult to agree a negotiating team which represented the different strands of opposition. There are 1,200 different rebel military units in Syria by one estimate, varying in size from family bands of a few dozen fighters to small armies of well-organised and heavily armed militiamen deploying tanks and artillery.

The most powerful of the latter are the al-Qa’ida-linked al-Nusra Front and the Islamic State of Iraq and the Levant. Speaking of the Free Syrian Army, to which the US and its allies may send arms, a diplomat in Damascus expressed, saying: “How can they support the FSA, which doesn’t really exist inside Syria as an institution with any command and control?”

Ever since a peace conference was first mooted there has been a strong element of hypocrisy in the Western approach. At first, Britain, among others, said that President Assad would not be part of any political transition in Syria and there were propagandistic discussions in the foreign media about where he and his family might seek refuge.

This was at a time he controlled all 14 Syrian provincial capitals (he has since lost one, Raqqa, to jihadi groups). The US is generally negative over whether Iran could attend a peace conference, as Russia insists, though negotiations which exclude any major player in the Syria crisis are not going to achieve anything.

Could the US and Russia force their respective allies to attend a peace conference, negotiate seriously and at least agree to a ceasefire? The chances here are better than they look because both the Syrian government and the opposition wholly depend on outside military and financial support. Look how quickly Assad agreed to the UN chemical weapons inspection team being allowed to enter rebel areas in Damascus when Russia and Iran insisted that he should do so. Given the current chaos, the sniping at UN vehicles was predictable.

There is greater pessimism about the opposition having the coherence to negotiate and agree to anything. They continue to hope that the US and its allies will be finally forced to intervene militarily and they will be able to advance under an American air umbrella, like the opposition Northern Alliance in Afghanistan in 2002 or the Libyan militiamen in 2011.

One of the dangers of the air strikes now being considered by the US is that, unless they are accompanied by a fresh drive towards a peace conference, the opposition thinks it is half way to getting the Western powers to win the war for it. Nevertheless, the opposition can be pressured by their foreign backers, supposing they wish to do so.

Peace conferences have the best chance of succeeding when one side knows it has won and wants to formalise its victory while the defeated want the best terms possible. Alternatively, peace negotiations may be productive when both sides are exhausted and come to realise they are not going to win a complete victory. The danger of supplying more weapons to the opposition is that it is not going to enable them to win but will simply fuel the level of the fighting.

Syria has a failed government and a failed opposition. As the country disintegrates it is being overrun by warlords with no interest in peace. “They stole all our things, our home, our possessions so even the children start to hate life,” lamented one Syrian Kurdish refugee fleeing to Iraq this week. Another talked about those who had driven her from her village: “We don’t know them. They just come, take power and give themselves  a name.”

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.

Like What You’ve Read? Support CounterPunch
Weekend Edition
August 28-30, 2015
Andrew Levine
Viva Trump?
Jeffrey St. Clair
Long Time Coming, Long Time Gone
Mike Whitney
Looting Made Easy: the $2 Trillion Buyback Binge
Alan Nasser
The Myth of the Middle Class: Have Most Americans Always Been Poor?
Rob Urie
Wall Street and the Cycle of Crises
Randy Blazak
Donald Trump is the New Face of White Supremacy
Ismael Hossein-Zadeh
Behind the Congressional Disagreements Over the Iran Nuclear Deal
Lawrence Ware – Marcus T. McCullough
I Won’t Say Amen: Three Black Christian Clichés That Must Go
Evan Jones
Zionism in Britain: a Neglected Chronicle
John Wight
Learning About the Migration Crisis From Ancient Rome
Andre Vltchek
Lebanon – What if it Fell?
Robert Fantina
Hillary Clinton, Palestine and the Long View
Ben Burgis
Gore Vidal Was Right: What Best of Enemies Leaves Out
Suzanne Gordon
How Vets May Suffer From McCain’s Latest Captivity
Robert Sandels - Nelson P. Valdés
The Cuban Adjustment Act: the Other Immigration Mess
Uri Avnery
The Molten Three: Israel’s Aborted Strike on Iran
John Stanton
Israel’s JINSA Earns Return on Investment: 190 Americans Admirals and Generals Oppose Iran Deal
Bill Yousman
The Fire This Time: Ta-Nehisi Coates’s “Between the World and Me”
Michael Welton
The Conversable World: Finding a Compass in Post-9/11 Times
Brian Cloughley
Don’t be Black in America
Charles Pierson
How the US and the WTO Crushed India’s Subsidies for Solar Energy
Kent Paterson
In Search of the Great New Mexico Chile Pepper in a Post-NAFTA Era
Binoy Kampmark
Live Death on Air: The Killings at WDBJ
Gui Rochat
The Guise of American Democracy
Emma Scully
Vultures Over Puerto Rico: the Financial Implications of Dependency
Chuck Churchill
Is “White Skin Privilege” the Key to Understanding Racism?
Kathleen Wallace
The Id(iots) Emerge
Andrew Stewart
Zionist Hip-Hop: a Critical Look at Matisyahu
Gregg Shotwell
The Fate of the UAW: Study, Aim, Fire
Halyna Mokrushyna
Decentralization Reform in Ukraine
Scott Parkin
Katrina Plus Ten: Climate Justice in Action
Norman Pollack
World Capitalism, a Basket Case: A Layman’s View
Sarah Lazare
Listening to Iraq
John Laforge
NSP/Xcel Energy Falsified Welding Test Documents on Rad Waste Casks
Wendell G Bradley
Drilling for Wattenberg Oil is Not Profitable
Joy First
Wisconsin Walk for Peace and Justice: Nine Arrested at Volk Field
Mel Gurtov
China’s Insecurity
Mateo Pimentel
An Operator’s Guide to Trump’s Racism
Yves Engler
Harper Conservatives and Abuse of Power
Michael Dickinson
Police Guns of Brixton: Another Unarmed Black Shot by London Cops
Ron Jacobs
Daydream Sunset: a Playlist
Charles R. Larson
The Beginning of the Poppy Wars: Amitav Ghosh’s “Flood of Fire”
David Yearsley
A Rising Star Over a Dark Forest
August 27, 2015
Sam Husseini
Foreign Policy, Sanders-Style: Backing Saudi Intervention
Brad Evans – Henry A. Giroux
Self-Plagiarism and the Politics of Character Assassination: the Case of Zygmunt Bauman