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Patrick Cockburn, correspondent for the Independent, says though Russia is the main arms supplier to the Syrian government, John Kerry’s protests are exaggerated and over two ships and a small landing craft

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SHARMINI PERIES, EXEC. PRODUCER, TRNN: Welcome back to the Real News Network. I’m Sharmini Peries coming to you from Baltimore. The U.S. is ramping up its denunciation of Russia’s support for Assad as reports emerge over the increased Russian military and logistical support for the Syrian government. It has prompted the U.S. to call on countries like Greece to ban Russia from entering its airspace for supply flights to Syria. But what is and has been Russia’s role in the Syrian civil war, and how does it relate to the ongoing refugee crisis? Joining me now to discuss all of this is Patrick Cockburn. Patrick Cockburn is awarded Foreign Reporter of the Year at the 2015 Press Awards. He is the author of The Rise of the Islamic State: ISIS and the New Sunni Revolution. Patrick, thank you for joining me again. PATRICK COCKBURN: Thank you. PERIES: So Patrick, there are conflicting accounts about Russia’s presence and purpose in Syria, whether it is to form some sort of advisory role for the military or to really prop up the Syrian government. So what is exactly Russia’s involvement in the past four years, and what is it doing there? COCKBURN: Russia is the main arms supplier to the Syrian government. It was before 2011, has been for decades, and is still supplying them with weapons and a certain amount of training. I think these latest reports, which seem kind of dramatic to begin with, that John Kerry making telephone calls to his opposite number in Moscow protesting about it. But certainly the details I’ve seen seem, it seems a rather limited addition that, they sent two ships, but they [inaud.] small landing craft. So we’ll see what happens. But it doesn’t seem to be a major sort of expeditionary force coming from Russia to help President Assad, who’s under greater military pressures, lost a lot of positions recently, and even today lost a big air base in [Idlib] province up north. So definitely under pressure, maybe some more Russian support. And I can’t really see Russia giving up on Syria, on the Syrian government, after supporting it so strongly for four years. PERIES: Some people are speculating that of course Russia’s presence in Syria is preventing a more assertive Western intervention, or taking action. What do you make of that? COCKBURN: Well, it’s true in a general sense. I mean, compare what’s happened in Syria now to Libya. Libya, 2011 you may remember that Russia went along with NATO intervention initially to safeguard the population of the city of Benghazi from advancing tanks controlled by the government of Muammar Gaddafi, but this very rapidly turned into a NATO all-out support for rebels, which was decisive in getting rid of and killing Gaddafi. Now, in Syria it’s very different. Russia and China were against any UN or any international move against Assad. They have given diplomatic and military support, particularly Russia, and so has Iran. So the government in Syria was never isolated like the one in Libya. But the most important element there was I think the support from Russia. PERIES: In a recent article in the Washington Post it cited groups like the Syrian Observatory for Human Rights saying that the majority of the deaths that have happened in Syria is due to government forces. Is that so, and would that then imply that Russia has a role in all of this because they are the main arms supplier to the government? COCKBURN: One could say that, yes. There’s no doubt the Syrian government bombs civilians indiscriminately. It has an air force, it uses artillery against opposition areas, it tells people to get out. It assumes anybody staying is part of the opposition. They kill very large numbers of people, because the people who stay may be just poor people that can’t get out. But I should also say, my experience with Syria is that the opposition fire indiscriminately into government areas. They don’t have have an [air force], they don’t have heavy artillery. They used mortars the area I was staying in Damascus, Christian area, Bab Tuma. [Under fairly] has been in the past, under fairly continuous mortar fire. Not that heavy, not like having been barrel-bombed, but a mortar bomb comes down, kills one or two people every few days. So that’s the way it goes. The same in Aleppo. Where the opposition do have artillery they use it against areas. So both sides pretty bad. Government’s got more firepower. They’ve killed a lot more people. But I’d say that both sides are completely merciless and indiscriminate in their treatment of the civilian population. PERIES: Patrick, you’ve been following this for a very long time. What joint policies could the Russians and the U.S. pursue to mitigate the crisis and obviously the suffering of the people caught in between? COCKBURN: I think it’s getting very late in the day, but I think that they–the Russians, because Assad depends a lot on them, that they can, they have a big influence over what he does and what the Syrian government does. The Americans, the U.S. likewise on parts of the opposition. So they might be able to, if they had real negotiations for–people say should Assad go, shouldn’t, when should he go. That’s kind of a code word. What you need in the long term in Syria is power sharing between the two different sides. This is a genuine civil war, with core supporters on both sides. They need to share power, maybe through institutions. Very difficult after such a cruel war. Or maybe geographically. In other words, different provinces have different people in control. But having said that, the Russians would have to be a very essential part of that. It couldn’t be done inside Syria, it would need outside action. And then people would have to influence initially the Iranians, who are a big backer of the government. The Russians have influence there. The Americans would have to influence the Saudis and [inaud.] and Turks. Not easy to do. But if there is to be any agreement it would have to come, I think, initially from the U.S. and Russia. Having said that, just let me say something else. The Islamic State now controls more than half of Syria. And the Islamic State, ISIS, has no plans to talk to anybody. It does have plans to kill people, but not to talk. PERIES: Difficult times. Thank you so much for joining us, Patrick. 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.