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  September 9, 2013

The Countries Pulling the Strings in the Syrian Civil War

After a recent visit to Syria, Patrick Cockburn discusses the involvement of Saudi Arabia, Qatar, Turkey the US and Russia in the Syrian civil war
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Patrick Cockburn is an Irish journalist who has been a Middle East correspondent since 1979 for the Financial Times and, presently, The Independent. Among the most experienced commentators on Iraq, he has written four books on the country's recent history. Cockburn's latest book is The Age of Jihad.


JESSICA DESVARIEUX, TRNN PRODUCER: Welcome to The Real News Network. I'm Jessica Desvarieux in Baltimore. And welcome to part three of our interview with Patrick Cockburn about Syria.

Now joining us from London is Patrick Cockburn. He is the Middle East correspondent for The Independent newspaper. He spent two weeks reporting from Damascus, Syria, this summer, and he's been covering the Middle East for over 30 years.

Thanks for joining us, Patrick.


DESVARIEUX: So, Patrick, let's talk about an actor that doesn't get much media attention in this whole ramp up to a potential strike against Syria, that being Saudi Arabia. What in your opinion are the motives for Saudi Arabia to be funding the opposition? And what's really driving their agenda?

COCKBURN: Well, Saudi Arabia has always had difficult relations with Syria, not every year but a lot of the time. They really don't like Syria being allied to Iran. Iran is the great rival of Saudi Arabia in the Gulf. And, you know, Sunni--Saudi Arabia isn't just Sunni, but it's fundamentalist Sunni and regards the Shia and the leadership of Syria or Alawites (they're sort of Shia) as being basically heretics. So you have the Saudis seeing this as a way of getting at Iran and also driving back the Shia. Those are probably the main motives of the Saudi monarchy.

DESVARIEUX: Okay. And what about Qatar? They're also funding the opposition. Is it for very similar reasons that they're fighting against Assad?

COCKBURN: For similar reasons, but they had supported the Muslim Brotherhood in Egypt and Syria, which the Saudis don't like. There's rivalry there, although they have a lot in common. And the Qataris are now playing a lesser role. They were playing a bigger role previously in supporting and financing the opposition.

And they also have great influence through the Al Jazeera satellite channel. It's played a crucial role at the beginning of the Arab Spring and still plays a pretty significant role as one of the main media outlets in both Arabic and English in the region.

DESVARIEUX: Okay. And what about Turkey? What's their role in all this?

COCKBURN: The Turks began with a very good hand, to my mind, and they played it pretty badly. They had good relations with Assad. They had good relations with the--reasonable relations with the U.S. They turned against Assad when he didn't take their advice. They support the rebels. The rebels could move--rebel guerrillas can move backwards and forwards across Syrian border with Syria, which is about 560 miles long, which is crucial for the rebels to be able to use Turkey as a base. Their arms and their equipment largely come from Turkey.

But the Turks somehow haven't been able to use their influence that they once had, because they've become 100 percent enemies of Damascus. They could have perhaps taken a slightly more central role, a more mediating role, and had more influence. So I think--and also there's great opposition within Turkey to the prime minister's involvement in Syria.

DESVARIEUX: Okay. Let's look at Assad's allies. You have Iran, as well as Russia. That is, they're both still standing by the Assad regime. What do the Iranians have to gain from supporting Assad?

COCKBURN: Well, they see Syria as their one big ally in the Arab world. They're also Shia. This is a sectarian conflict.

I think one very important thing to realize about what's happening in Syria is that you have four or five different conflicts all rolled into one. At the beginning you had a popular uprising against a dictatorship, but you also have Sunni against Shia and these other issues, Iran against Saudi Arabia, a proxy war going on. And that's what makes it so difficult to stop, that if you sort of resolve one question, you still have all the other questions to resolve.

DESVARIEUX: Okay. And lastly, what is your take on this G-20 Summit? You're going to have Vladimir Putin, as well President Obama, sitting down at the G-20. Of course Syria is going to be discussed. Do you see Russia and the United States being able to come up with a deal in order to sort of de-escalate this growing fervor for a military strike in the region?

COCKBURN: I suspect there will be a military strike. The question is: will it be part of [incompr.] broader diplomatic move, including a peace conference bringing the two sides together? And there's no reason that these two things shouldn't both occur. But, you know, [incompr.] Russia, for instance, insisting that Iran turn up because they're a major player in Syria. The U.S. says no, because the U.S. is confronting and Saudi Arabia are confronting Iran on the nuclear issues and other questions.

Now--so there have to be sort of changes in U.S. policy, rather profound changes. Now, will that happen? Previously, there was a rather hypocritical attitude, to my mind, on the part of Washington and London and the others that they say, well, we're in favor of a peace conference, but Assad must agree to go. But Assad still controls 13 out of 14 provincial capitals in Syria, so he wasn't looking for surrender terms.

But it's difficult to see either side in this civil war winning an outright victory. Both of them have core support within Syria. Both of them have powerful allies. So the only alternative, really, is some sort of peace conference, which probably won't end the fighting, but might lead to a ceasefire and might sort of de-escalate the violence, at least temporarily.

DESVARIEUX: Okay. Well, thank you so much for joining us, Patrick.

COCKBURN: Thank you.

DESVARIEUX: And thank you for joining us on The Real News Network.


DISCLAIMER: Please note that transcripts for The Real News Network are typed from a recording of the program. TRNN cannot guarantee their complete accuracy.


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