FacebookTwitterGoogle+RedditEmail

Only a Peace Conference Can Stop Further Bloodshed

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.

More articles by:

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

July 18, 2018
Bruce E. Levine
Politics and Psychiatry: the Cost of the Trauma Cover-Up
Frank Stricker
The Crummy Good Economy and the New Serfdom
Linda Ford
Red Fawn Fallis and the Felony of Being Attacked by Cops
David Mattson
Entrusting Grizzlies to a Basket of Deplorables?
Stephen F. Eisenman
Want Gun Control? Arm the Left (It Worked Before)
CJ Hopkins
Trump’s Treasonous Traitor Summit or: How Liberals Learned to Stop Worrying and Love the New McCarthyism
Patrick Bond
State of the BRICS class struggle: Repression, Austerity and Worker Militancy
Dan Corjescu
The USA and Russia: Two Sides of the Same Criminal Corporate Coin
The Hudson Report
How Argentina Got the Biggest Loan in the History of the IMF
Kenn Orphan
You Call This Treason?
Max Parry
Ukraine’s Anti-Roma Pogroms Ignored as Russia is Blamed for Global Far Right Resurgence
Ed Meek
Acts of Resistance
July 17, 2018
Conn Hallinan
Trump & The Big Bad Bugs
Robert Hunziker
Trump Kills Science, Nature Strikes Back
John Grant
The Politics of Cruelty
Kenneth Surin
Calculated Buffoonery: Trump in the UK
Binoy Kampmark
Helsinki Theatrics: Trump Meets Putin
Patrick Bond
BRICS From Above, Seen Critically From Below
Jim Kavanagh
Fighting Fake Stories: The New Yorker, Israel and Obama
Daniel Falcone
Chomsky on the Trump NATO Ruse
W. T. Whitney
Oil Underground in Neuquén, Argentina – and a New US Military Base There
Doug Rawlings
Ken Burns’ “The Vietnam War” was Nominated for an Emmy, Does It Deserve It?
Rajan Menon
The United States of Inequality
Thomas Knapp
Have Mueller and Rosenstein Finally Gone Too Far?
Cesar Chelala
An Insatiable Salesman
Dean Baker
Truth, Trump and the Washington Post
Mel Gurtov
Human Rights Trumped
Binoy Kampmark
Putin’s Football Gambit: How the World Cup Paid Off
July 16, 2018
Sheldon Richman
Trump Turns to Gaza as Middle East Deal of the Century Collapses
Charles Pierson
Kirstjen Nielsen Just Wants to Protect You
Brett Wilkins
The Lydda Death March and the Israeli State of Denial
Patrick Cockburn
Trump Knows That the US Can Exercise More Power in a UK Weakened by Brexit
Robert Fisk
The Fisherman of Sarajevo Told Tales Past Wars and Wars to Come
Gary Leupp
When Did Russia Become an Adversary?
Uri Avnery
“Not Enough!”
Dave Lindorff
Undermining Trump-Putin Summit Means Promoting War
Manuel E. Yepe
World Trade War Has Begun
Binoy Kampmark
Trump Stomps Britain
Wim Laven
The Best Deals are the Deals that Develop Peace
Kary Love
Can We Learn from Heinrich Himmler’s Daughter? Should We?
Jeffrey St. Clair
Franklin Lamb, Requiescat in Pace
Weekend Edition
July 13, 2018
Friday - Sunday
Brian Cloughley
Lessons That Should Have Been Learned From NATO’s Destruction of Libya
Paul Street
Time to Stop Playing “Simon Says” with James Madison and Alexander Hamilton
Jeffrey St. Clair
Roaming Charges: In the Land of Formula and Honey
Aidan O'Brien
Ireland’s Intellectuals Bow to the Queen of Chaos 
FacebookTwitterGoogle+RedditEmail