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Journalist Patrick Cockburn says the rebel group is ideologically identical to the Islamic State, and its recent break with Al-Qaeda is likely a PR move that will allow countries like Qatar, Saudi Arabia, and Turkey to support them without being accused of being allied with Al-Qaeda

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SHARMINI PERIES, TRNN: It’s the Real News Network. I’m Sharmini Peries coming to you from Baltimore. Intense fighting has been going on for several days now, for control of Syria’s largest city, Aleppo. Its entire population of over 2 million inhabitants has been cut off of electricity and water for at least four days, now. The UN just released a call for a ceasefire so that water and medicine can be supplied to residents. Syrian rebel forces with the U.S. support currently controls Aleppo, and the Syrian government led by Bashar al-Assad is trying to regain control over the city. Meanwhile, the Islamic State rebels were ousted by the Arabic and Kurdish fighters from a nearby town of [Manji]. Of course, this was done with U.S. air support. Now joining us to discuss all of this is Patrick Cockburn. Patrick is a Middle East correspondent for the Independent, and is the author of Chaos and the Caliphate: Jihadis and the West in the Struggle for the Middle East. Thanks for joining us, Patrick. PATRICK COCKBURN: Thank you. PERIES: So, Patrick, is what’s going on in Aleppo really a struggle between the rebel forces that are supported by the U.S. and the Assad forces? COCKBURN: Like everything in Syria, it’s more complicated than that. Aleppo is a city divided between the government-controlled Western part and the rebel-controlled Eastern part. There are about 2 million people on the government side, but maybe a quarter of a million on the rebel side. And it’s a very strange situation, because both sides are besieged, or close to being besieged. And in the main road to the rebel side in the east was cut recently by Assad’s forces and the Kurds allied to them. And then just in the last few days the rebels did the same thing to the government-held part of Aleppo. They launched this very heavy and successful surprise attack over the weekend, and they’ve seized the main road into west Aleppo. So now there’s great concern that there’s a shortage of water, a shortage of electricity, that everybody in Aleppo is under even more threat than they were previously. PERIES: And this has been going on for several days, at least the bombing and fighting, but it’s really been going on for much longer than that. What is the actual plight of the people there? COCKBURN: Well, quite a lot of the city is being destroyed. This is one of the great cities of the Middle East. The fighting has been going on. It’s being divided like Beirut used to be divided during the civil war. It’s generally cut off. The Syrian government has been dropping bombs on the eastern side, causing heavy casualties. The rebels have been firing cannon back into the western side. So it’s really a very bad situation. But control of Aleppo is considered a decisive element in this war. PERIES: Why is it so important? Why is Aleppo–. COCKBURN: Well, it’s very big. It’s very big. Aleppo is a very big city. It’s these days the second-biggest city in Syria. And if the rebels controlled Aleppo, they control the whole north of eastern Syria. That would be a big [breakthrough] for them. And it would confine Assad’s forces to Damascus, cities along the coast, Latakia, Tartus, and some of the main cities on the [inaud.] Damascus. They could very much leave Assad as only controlling that [inaud.] within Syria. PERIES: And what is the current role of Russia in all of this? I mean, they have been backing the Assad forces. Are they continuing to do so? COCKBURN: Yes, they are quite strongly. The way it works in Syria is that one side gives a push to the others, they do well. We had this earlier this year when the rebels made–earlier last year when the rebels made an advance because they got more support from Saudi Arabia, [Qatar], and Turkey. And then September the Russians come in and there’s a push back the other way. Now there’s a push from the rebel side, again supported by Turkey and Saudi Arabia and Qatar. And probably what we will have in the next few days is a counterpush with the Russians and the Iranians and the Lebanese Hezbollah giving more support to Assad. What’s really is the–the people caught in this are, of course, the Syrian people. So we have this stalemate, and every so often it appears that stalemate is breaking. But then the other side pushes back, and neither side, the outside powers supporting both sides in Syria can’t really afford to be defeated, so we have this continuation of stalemate, but stalemate at a very high level of violence. PERIES: Now, the United Nations has called for an immediate ceasefire. Do you think that’s going to take place? COCKBURN: I don’t know. I mean, there have been ceasefires. They haven’t worked, or haven’t worked well, certainly. They’ve been pushed by the U.S. and by Russia. And there’s this peculiar situation in Syria that the U.S. and Russia are cooperating part of the time, and are rivals the rest of the time, supporting each other’s, their own proxies or allies. But part of the time they’re also trying to bring things under control. Now we’ll see in the next few days if there could be some form of ceasefire. But it’s very difficult to do, because first of all they have allies and proxies, but they don’t 100 percent control these [inaud.]. They could influence them, because they supply them with arms and money and so forth. But they’re not under their total control. And it’s also a very messy situation on the ground. You know, [inaud.] Syria you were talking earlier, about this battle for Aleppo, where the rebels have advanced in east Aleppo, cutting the main government supply line off in the northwest. The Syrian army and the Kurds. But they’re not so far away. This other place you mentioned, Manbij, which has just been taken by a [inaud.] Syrian democratic forces, it’s known to be Arab but its real punching power comes from the Syrian Kurds, and is very heavily supported by the U.S. So the Kurds, again, insofar as they’re allied to anybody, are cooperating with the Syrian government. So it’s a very messy situation. PERIES: And add to that ISIS. Has ISIS been removed from the city of Aleppo? Or are they still involved in all of this? COCKBURN: It’s more Al-Nusra which is the main rebel opposition group there. Al-Nusra, till very recently, was the Syrian arm of Al-Qaeda, and ostensibly has broken its links with Al-Qaeda. But it broke its links with Al-Qaeda with the [inaud.] of Al-Qaeda. So it seems to be very much a PR move so places like Qatar and Saudi Arabia and the Turks can say we’re supporting these people without immediately being accused of being in alliance with Al-Qaeda. But of course, it really hasn’t changed very much. So the Islamic State, not very powerful within Aleppo. Powerful just in the east, in this town of Manbij. The reason that’s so important is that’s where the supply lines run up to the Turkish border, and over the Turkish border. So it’s a blow to the Islamic State if they lose that area in northern Aleppo province. It’s pretty heavily populated, too, and pretty fertile, but above all it’s a communication route to across the [inaud.]. PERIES: And a little bit more on Al-Nusra. What is it they want to attain from all of this? COCKBURN: Well, in the long-term, Al-Nusra wants an Islamic state in Syria, and I guess an Islamic state in the rest of the world. Al-Nusra was set up by ISIS after 2011 as their Syrian arm. The group was financed and fighters came across from Iraq. Then the two quarreled, so it became independent. It remained a Syrian arm of Al-Qaeda, as I said. And it’s been gaining support. The Islamic State’s been under heavy pressure. It’s been losing places and it hasn’t made any effective counterattacks. Al-Nusra is getting stronger and stronger, Qatar and Saudi Arabia and Turks. So it’s becoming more powerful. It has a lower profile. Its ideology is very the same, very much the same as the Islamic State. It wants its variant of, extreme variant of Islam imposed. Wants women in a servile status. It doesn’t want other religions. And you know, one of its main weapons is suicide bombing. But it doesn’t, you know, it isn’t as overtly sectarian as Islamic State. It tries to present a more modern image. PERIES: All right, Patrick. So much to unpack. Hope to have you back very soon. COCKBURN: Thank you. PERIES: And thank you for joining us on the Real News Network.


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Patrick Cockburn is a correspondent for the Independent London. He is the author of The Age of Jihad.