Patrick Cockburn, journalist with the The Independent, says the de-escalation of the conflict will be difficult to implement because it must apply to those who are deemed “terrorists”
SHARMINI PERIES, EXEC. PRODUCER, TRNN: Welcome to the Real News Network. I’m Sharmini Peries coming to you from Baltimore. The Islamic State has claimed responsibility for multiple bomb blasts in the Syrian cities of Damascus and Homs on Sunday. The attack killed 140 people and targeted areas populated with predominantly Shia Muslim groups, as well as students and government employees. Despite discussions of a ceasefire earlier this month, violence continues to plague the region. Some say it is the worst humanitarian crisis the world has seen. Now Russia and the U.S. have reached a draft agreement for another ceasefire between the regime and its opposition, which will come into effect midnight on February 27. Now joining us from Karbala, Iraq to discuss all of this is Patrick Cockburn. Patrick is the author of The Rise of the Islamic State: ISIS and the New Sunni Revolution. He’s also a correspondent for the Independent of London. Patrick, thank you so much for joining us. PATRICK COCKBURN: Thank you. PERIES: So, Patrick, give us a sense of this latest agreement. Why is it different from the previous one they just came to? COCKBURN: Well, I’m not sure it is very different. But they’re very clearly intent, I mean, Washington and Moscow are very intent, that this ceasefire should be declared. But the thing to bear in mind about this ceasefire is that people aren’t actually going to cease firing, because on one hand, you have the Syrian government with the Syrian army, and on the other you have the Syrian opposition, which is very divided, and the largest part of it consists of the Islamic State, or ISIS, or ISIL, whatever you want to call them, or the al-Nusra Front, which is the al-Qaeda affiliate in Syria. And the ceasefire doesn’t cover them. Now, one are the reasons for so much disagreement is who is going to ceasefire on the opposition side. The Russians say they need a list of terrorist organizations, and there are two in particular, Ahrar al-Sham and Jaish al-Islam, which are not so different from al-Nusra. Very fundamentalist, very Sunni Muslim. Others want to include these as moderates. The Turks have been supporting them. So it’s still very messy. And–but I think it is important, one can be too cynical about this, it is important that the U.S. and Russia, the two biggest military powers on earth, and both militarily involved in this war with their air forces, are backing this ceasefire. This means one has to take it seriously. PERIES: And how is this being treated in terms of the urgency at hand, Patrick? Now, so far in the past three years I understand, according to the UN statistics, about 200,000 people have died. Yet, you know, local and Syrian Observatory on Human Rights is saying, well, it’s perhaps double the number. The crisis is grave, we know that, and the urgency of coming to some sort of a solution, ceasefire, is very critical. But how likely is that going to come about in a seizure to this kind of humanitarian crisis we are seeing? COCKBURN: Well, nothing is going to happen immediately. But what is important is it, that this is the first really serious attempt to de-escalate this crisis, which has been going on for five years, and previously has always been getting worse. And they will, we’ve already seen food aid going in to some 18 besieged towns and cities on both sides in the war. So that is a real achievement. The idea is now that there should be local ceasefires in different parts of Syria. And I think that will have some effect. But as you just said, giving the news of the day, we just heard these horrific bombs in Damascus and Homs which were claimed by the Islamic State, killing almost 200 people, men, women, and children. The Islamic State has just cut the road leading north from Damascus to Aleppo, so battles are raging there. So the violence is very extreme. But for the first time there are signs that there’s really a serious international attempt to de-escalate this war and ultimately bring it to an end. PERIES: And how conscious, or where are they on the ground, both the ISIS as well as the terrorist groups, as you put it, how conscious are they of this higher-level discussion that’s going on, say, between Kerry and Lavrov this time? COCKBURN: I think they will be. I mean, these people, you know, will be monitoring all the news about what’s happening in the area, what’s happening politically, what’s happening militarily. So they’d be aware of it. How seriously will they take it? Well, ISIS has always made clear it’s not in the business of negotiating with anybody. Al-Nusra, occasionally, makes more moderate statements. That’s probably to propaganda. One of the great difficulties is the U.S., the West Europeans, claim that there is a moderate Syrian opposition which is a serious military force. And this will now stop firing, engage in a ceasefire. The Russians, the Syrian government, have said it doesn’t really exist. And, you know, there are reasons to be skeptical about it. One of the problems is that some of these sort of smaller groups might sound neutral or they might pretend to be moderate because they want to get weapons and money, and so forth. But they only operate under license from al-Nusra and the al-Qaeda type organizations. So it’s a bit misleading to think if they really are a serious force on the ground. PERIES: And finally, Patrick, I understand that the Secretary of Defense, the Russian Secretary of Defense, is actually in Tehran right now talking with Iranians. Do you know what those discussions are about, and what we could expect? COCKBURN: Well, Russia and Iran have come closer together. Plus they are both engaged in the same war in Syria. Last year the Russians started bombing on 30th of September, and the Iranians also increased their support. They don’t publicize it very heavily, but they do announce sort of casualties among their commanders, and these have been quite high. And that’s probably indication that the Iranians are pretty heavily involved on Assad’s side. So the Russians, the Syrian government, the Iranians, have all been brought closer together by this war. So [crosstalk]. PERIES: And then of course I cannot let you go without talking about the Saudis and the discussions about the Saudis sending ground troops to Syria. What does all that mean? COCKBURN: Well, the Saudis, I think, and the Turks, are pretty desperate, because they’ve given full support over the last four or five years to an opposition movement trying to overthrow Assad. And it’s become very clear Assad isn’t going to be overthrown, and the opposition is on the retreat. The Syrian army and the Syrian Kurds have been closing off the Turkish border. So I think sending aircraft is probably a desperate measure to try and maintain some influence from the Saudi part of what’s happening in Syria. And likewise the Turks have been making these very belligerent statements, saying–mostly directed against the Syrian Kurds, saying that they may intervene. It hasn’t happened yet, it probably won’t happen. But I have a feeling that this war is now reaching a crescendo. It’s possible that things will begin to de-escalate, but it’s also possible that it might get worse. PERIES: All right, Patrick I thank you so much for joining us, and we hope to have you back and have some regular reports with you again on what’s happening in Syria. COCKBURN: Thank you. PERIES: And thank you for joining us on the Real News Network.