As the Britain’s Guardian abandons what passes for any independent analysis for a cache of NATO press releases, The Independent’s Robert Fisk demonstrates why, when it comes to an understanding of the Middle East, he is head and shoulders above any other correspondent. Patrick Cockburn, who is also an Independent columnist, makes important observations on the reality of the Syrian conflict.
There is no doubt, and people should not gloss over it, that the Assad regime has a horrific human rights record. Indeed it was the place where the United States used to render people. However in the present situation the choice is quite clear – Assad or Isis.
|An explosion rocks Syrian city of Kobani Getty|
Western confusion reigns while the Russians go
for the jugular
– The Russian air force in Syria has flown straight into the West’s fantasy air
space. The Russians, we are now informed, are bombing the “moderates” in Syria
– “moderates” whom even the Americans admitted two months ago, no longer
|Smoke billows from buildings in Talbiseh, in Homs province, western Syria, after airstrikes by Russian warplanes|
storytelling. By contrast, the chorus of horror that has accompanied Russia’s
cruel air strikes this past week has gone beyond sanity.
are killers who go for the jugular. They slaughtered the innocent of Chechnya
to crush the Islamist uprising there, and they will cut down the innocent of
Syria as they try to crush a new army of Islamists and save the ruthless regime
of Bashar al-Assad. The Syrian army, some of whose members are war criminals,
have struggled ferociously to preserve the state – and used barrel bombs to do
it. They have also fought to the death.
|The aftermath of Russian airstrike in Talbiseh, Syria|
New York Times – claim that the Syrian army does not fight Isis. If true, who
on earth killed the 56,000 Syrian soldiers – the statistic an official secret,
but nonetheless true – who have so far died in the Syrian war? The preposterous
Free Syrian Army (FSA)?
|Fighting between government forces and the umbrella group the Army of Islam in Douma, near Damascus this week Reuters|
off-again saga of the Syrian “moderates”. These men were originally
military defectors to the FSA, which America and European countries regarded as
a possible pro-Western force to be used against the Syrian government army. But
the FSA fell to pieces, corrupted, and the “moderates” defected all over again,
this time to the Islamist Nusrah Front or to Isis, selling their
American-supplied weapons to the highest bidder or merely retiring quietly –
and wisely – to the countryside where they maintained a few scattered
their fate, concluded that new “moderates” were required, persuaded the CIA to
arm and train 70 fighters, and this summer packed them off across the Turkish
border to fight – whereupon all but 10 were captured by Nusrah and at least two
of them were executed by their captors. Just two weeks ago, I heard in person
one of the most senior ex-US officers in Iraq – David Petraeus’s former No 2 in
Baghdad – announce that the “moderates” had collapsed long ago. Now you see
them – now you don’t.
weekend, Washington, The New York Times, CNN, the poor old BBC and just about
every newspaper in the Western world resurrected these ghosts and told us that
the Russkies were bombing the brave “moderates” fighting Bashar’s army in Syria
– the very “moderates” who, according to the same storyline from the very same
sources a few weeks earlier, no longer existed. Our finest commentators and
experts – always a dodgy phrase – joined in the same chorus line.
|A video grab taken from the footage made available on the Russian Defence Ministry’s official website, purporting to show an airstrike in Syria|
drawing up the operational target lists for the Russian air force. But Vladimir
Putin has his own enemies in Syria.
“moderates” whom the US had long ago dismissed – were directed at the large
number of Turkmen villages in the far north-west of Syria which have for many
months been occupied by hundreds of Chechen fighters – the very same Chechens
whom Putin had been trying to liquidate in Chechnya itself. These Chechen
forces assaulted and destroyed Syria’s strategic hilltop military Position 451
north of Latakia last year. No wonder Bashar’s army put them on the target list.
Islamist Jaish al-Shams force targets in the same area. But in the first 24
hours, Russian bombs were also dropped on the Isis supply line through the
mountains above Palmyra.
the town of Salamia – the same tracks used by Isis suicide convoys to defeat
Syrian troops in the ancient Roman city of Palmyra last May.
Isis-held Raqqa air base where Syrian troops have fought Islamists over
the past year (and were beheaded when they surrendered).
guard their bases. These are symbolic boots on the ground – but the idea that
those boots are there to fight Isis is a lie. The Russians intend to let the
Syrian ground troops do the dying for them.
war. The Russians don’t care about the innocents they kill any more than do the
Syrian army or Nato. Any movie of the Syrian war should be entitled War
days ago, a White House spokesman even told us that Russian bombing “drives
moderate elements… into the hands of extremists”.
– Russia’s military intervention in Syria, although further
internationalising the conflict, does however present opportunities, as well as
complications. There are no simple solutions to this terrible war which has
destroyed Syria. Out of a population of 22 million, four million Syrians are
refugees abroad and seven million have been displaced inside the country.
where the bomb-shattered ruins of Kobani look like pictures of Stalingrad after
the battle. But equally significant is the fact that even in towns and villages
from which Islamic State (Isis) has been driven, and where houses are largely
undamaged, people are too terrified to return.
happens on the battlefield today may be reversed tomorrow. At this stage, the
war is a toxic mix of half a dozen different confrontations and crises,
involving players inside and outside the country. Intertwined struggles for
power pit Assad against a popular uprising, Shia against Sunni, Kurd against
Arab and Turk, Isis against everybody, Iran against Saudi Arabia and
Russia against the US.
these crises, is that these self-interested players are strong enough to fight
their own corners, but too weak to ever checkmate their opponents. This is why
the involvement of Moscow could have a positive impact: Russia is at least a
heavy hitter, capable of shaping events by its own actions and strongly
influencing the behaviour of its allies and proxies.
Russian airstrikes that “we’re not going to make Syria into a proxy war between
the United States and Russia”. But the US-Soviet Cold War, and the global
competition that went with it, had benefits for much of the world. Both
superpowers sought to support their own allies and prevent political vacuums
from developing which its opposite number might exploit. Crises did not fester
in the way they do today, and Russians and Americans could see the dangers of
them slipping wholly out of control and provoking an international crisis.
of the Soviet Union in 1991, and for the Middle East and North Africa this has
meant more wars. There are currently eight armed conflicts raging, including
Pakistan and Nigeria (the figure jumps to nine if one includes South Sudan,
where the renewal of fighting since 2013 has produced 1.5 million displaced
people). Without a superpower rival, the US, and its allies such as the UK and
France, largely ceased to care what happened in these places and, when they did
intervene, as in Libya and Iraq, it was to instal feeble client regimes. The
enthusiasm which David Cameron and Nicolas Sarkozy showed in overthrowing
Muammar Gaddafi contrasts with their indifference as Libya collapsed into
Syria than on the sidelines so it has the opportunity to help regain control
over a situation that long ago spun out of control. It can keep Assad in power
in Damascus, but the power to do so means that it can also modify his behaviour
and force movement towards reducing violence, local ceasefires and sharing
power regionally. It was always absurd for Washington and its allies to frame
the problem as one of “Assad in or Assad out”, when an end to the Assad
leadership would lead either to the disintegration of the Syrian state, as in
Iraq and Libya, or would have limited impact because participants in the Syrian
civil war would simply go on fighting.
de-escalating the war in Syria and Iraq, but reading the text of President Obama’s
press conference suggests only limited understanding of what is happening
there. Syria is only one part of a general struggle between Shia and Sunni and,
though there are far more Sunni than Shia in the world, this is not so in this
region. Between Afghanistan and the Mediterranean – Iran, Iraq, Syria and
Lebanon – there are more than 100 million Shia and 30 million Sunni.
greater because the militarily powerful Kurdish minorities in Iraq and
Syria, though Sunni by religion, are more frightened of Isis and extreme
Sunni Arab jihadis than they are of anybody else. Western powers thought Assad
would go in 2011-12, and when he didn’t they failed to devise a new policy.
defeated, and this is not happening. The US-led air campaign against
Isis has not worked. The Islamic militants have not collapsed under the
weight of airstrikes, but, across the Syrian and Iraqi Kurdish regions, either
hold the same ground or are expanding. There is something ludicrous about the
debate in Britain about whether or not to join in an air campaign in Syria
without mentioning that it has so far demonstrably failed in its objectives.
or at least talking to, those powers already fighting the extreme jihadis. For
instance, the most effective opponents of Isis in Syria are the Syrian
Kurds. They want to advance west across the Euphrates and capture Isis’s last
border crossing with Turkey at Jarabulus. Recep Tayyip Erdogan, the Prime
Minister of Turkey, said last week he would never accept such a “fait
accompli”, but it remains unclear if the US will give air support to its
Kurdish allies and put pressure on Turkey not to invade northern Syria.
as possible into any talks about the future of Syria. But there should be an
immediate price for this: such as insisting that if Assad is going to stay for
the moment, then his forces must stop shelling and using barrel bombs against
opposition-held civilian areas. Local ceasefires have usually only
happened in Syria because one side or the other is on the edge of defeat. But
wider ceasefires could be arranged if local proxies are pressured by their
A problem is that the crises listed above have cross-infected each other.
Regional powers such as Turkey, Iran, Saudi Arabia and the Gulf monarchies do
have a strong measure of control over their local proxies. But these regional
actors, caring nothing for the destruction of Syria and still dreaming of final
victory, will only be forced into compromises by Washington and Moscow.
Syria because, if they are not, the vacuum they leave will be filled by these
regional powers with their sectarian and ethnic agendas. Britain could play a
positive role here, but only if it stops taking part in “let’s pretend” games
whereby hard-line jihadis are re-labelled as moderates. As with the
Northern Ireland peace negotiations in the 1990s, an end to the wars in Syria
depends on persuading those involved that they cannot win, but they can survive
and get part of what they want. The US and Russia may not be the superpowers
they once were, but only they have the power to pursue such agreements.