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Patrick Cockburn: US strike against Syria will further entangle America, as each military action will make it more difficult to retreat

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JESSICA DESVARIEUX, TRNN PRODUCER: Welcome to The Real News Network. I’m Jessica Desvarieux in Baltimore.

On Saturday, President Obama said that he would seek Congress’s approval for U.S. military action against Syria, similar to his predecessor George W. Bush, who did that a decade ago for the Iraq invasion. The Senate Foreign Relations Committee will come up with a new resolution that will likely be voted on next week. This is in light of the U.K.’s parliament voting against airstrikes in Syria last week. And Secretary of State John Kerry, when asked on Tuesday whether the congressional vote would be binding, responded, quote, Obama “has the right to do this no matter what Congress does”.

With us to discuss the latest is Patrick Cockburn. Patrick is the Middle East correspondent for The Independent newspaper who spent two weeks reporting from Damascus, Syria, this summer. Patrick is regarded as one of the Western world’s most experienced and knowledgeable reporters on the Middle East, and he’s been covering the region for more than 30 years.

Thanks for joining us, Patrick.


DESVARIEUX: So, Patrick, let’s just first start out with what President Obama and his administration has been coming out with, with accusations against the Assad regime, saying that they are responsible for the chemical attack in Syria against their own people. What is your reaction to their aggressive tone, as well as what do you make of why would President Obama create these red lines? Was this the plan all along, to intervene in Syria?

COCKBURN: I don’t think that they did have a plan to do that, certainly openly. I mean, there is intervention already by the CIA on a not very significant scale. The U.S. has been sitting within [g{t3`] organizing weapon supplies to the rebels through Turkey. So there was intervention there already.

I think that why did the Syrians do this–.

DESVARIEUX: Was this their intention all along, to intervene in Syria?

COCKBURN: I don’t think the administration had any enthusiasm for intervening in Syria. After all, they’ve had bad experiences in Iraq and Afghanistan. Libya isn’t looking so good at the moment. All the polls show people not just in the U.S., but in France, in Britain are against intervention.

So there is intervention at a covert level by the CIA, training cells of opposition fighters and organizing a supply of arms and equipment to the rebels, normally through [g{t3`] in the Gulf. The arms then go into Turkey and then go in to the rebels. So that was happening. But I don’t think that they had any great plan to intervene. And they’re very conscious, clearly, of how many things went wrong during previous interventions in Iraq and Afghanistan and suspect that Syria is going to be even more difficult.

DESVARIEUX: So why would President Obama even create these red lines to begin with?

COCKBURN: Well, it seems to have been partly accidental that he was so categorical in mentioning red lines. I mean, normally, you know, any sort of political handbook tells you, don’t give red lines, don’t box yourself into a corner, don’t put yourself in a position where you’re forced to act, or people will say that you’re a chicken, that you don’t dare do it. So that seems to have happened partly by accident.

Of course, what’s extraordinary about this whole event and I think led to a lot of skepticism at the beginning that the Assad government had done it was that it’s so much against their interests. If there was one priority for the Syrian government, it was not to do anything that would provoke foreign intervention. And, of course, the thing most likely to provoke that would be using chemical weapons. So why on earth did they use them? Was their some miscalculation on their part? Was it some bizarre desire to confront the U.S.?

My own view is it’s–a strong possibility is that, you know, every army has some truly stupid generals, including the Syrian one, I imagine, that it wasn’t a careful plan, that it may have happened by accident. But it was a disastrous move by the Assad government.

DESVARIEUX: Yes, if it comes out that there is strong evidence that it was conducted by the Assad regime. The reports from the UN are supposed to come out next week.

Can we talk a little bit more about the real objective of foreign policy in Syria? What is your take?

COCKBURN: Well, the difficulty for the administration and for the U.S., U.K., and Britain is they don’t like the Assad government. It was opposed to their policy in Lebanon, opposed to their policy in Israel.

And initially they made a miscalculation. It was generally believed in Europe, I think, in Washington that Assad was going to go down quite quickly, like Gaddafi did in 2011. And they built their policy on this assumption, really for a couple of years, till the end of last year. And it hasn’t happened.

Something else has also gone wrong, which is the rebels were initially painted as white hats and the government as black hats in the media. But it’s become apparent, particularly over the last year or six months, that the most effective fighting units of the rebels are jihadi holy warriors, that is, of al-Nusra Front and the Islamic State of Iraq and the Levant.

And so, yes, Washington, London, and other countries would like to get rid of Assad. But when they look at the alternative, they’re pretty well appalled. And, actually, when I’m in Damascus, that’s what Syrians often tell me. You know, they don’t much like the Assad government, but then they go home in the evening, they go online, and they go to YouTube, and they see, you know, rebels holding–cutting off heads of army officers, of massacres and so forth, so they think, well, the Assad government, pretty bad, but maybe the alternative is even worse.

DESVARIEUX: Let’s talk about some of these American factions that are supporting direct military intervention and really pushing aggressively for the president to act, specifically Senators John McCain and Lindsey Graham. What interests do they represent?

COCKBURN: Well, you know, McCain has always–and they’ve always had this very sort of hawkish approach in Syria and in Iraq. And when I was in Baghdad, you know, it was something of a standing joke when McCain turned up and sort of said that the U.S. was winning. He took a sort of famous walk in eastern Baghdad, saying, look, you know, everything’s going right for us. But he was, you know, surrounded by troops who’d sealed off the road. It was very much a put-up job. Similarly, when he made a visit to rebel-held areas in northern Syria, there are allegations that when he was photographed with rebel leaders, that one of them’s the most–one of the more notorious kidnappers in Syria. So if he can’t identify who’s standing just by his left shoulder, how will he tell the difference between a moderate and extreme rebels?

DESVARIEUX: And can you give us a sense right now–a lot of talk on the Hill whether or not to intervene directly. But we have House Republicans John Boehner and Eric Cantor, two leaders in the House, saying that they will support direct intervention. Can you speak to Obama boxing himself in with these red lines? Do you see him having an out if the administration doesn’t want to get entangled in Syria? Do they have a way out to maneuver themselves out of direct intervention?

COCKBURN: [inaud.] depends how far they go. I mean, the problem with this sort of operation is that, yeah, they fired a missile that’s shown on television. There’s a great big bang at the other end. I’ve been in Baghdad when this has happened on quite a number of occasions, in ’91 and again in [incompr.] ’98, and it sort of looks dramatic for a day or two. It looks assertive. It looks, you know, America the strong, Syria the weak. But then people discover that not much has really changed. And then what do you do? Do you sit on your hands or do you escalate? And each time round you do that, it gets more difficult to withdraw or retreat, because it looks as though your previous efforts have all failed.

So, you know, willy-nilly, whatever they want to do, they’re getting involved in the Syrian crisis, but without much confidence that they can bring it to an end.

And, you know, things have changed, not just in Syria. But, you know, in Iraq, really, since 1990, since the decline of the Soviet Union, Russia wasn’t much of a factor as Russia and the Soviet Union had been during the Cold War. But what’s really different about Syria, different even from what happened in Libya two years ago, is Russia is back. Russia is asserting itself as a great power, maybe not a superpower, and it isn’t going to back off. The same is true of the Iranians and Hezbollah. They think this is an existential fight for them, that it’s Sunni against Shia, that if they don’t fight in Syria, they’ll have to fight later.

So this is all building up to a confrontation in which it’s unlikely the U.S. will emerge as a 100 percent winner, as they did in 1991 during the first Gulf War, which is meant to be the sort of example that supporters of the president are looking to for a successful operation.

DESVARIEUX: Okay. Well, Patrick, just hang tight. We’re going to have another part of this segment, so please stay tuned. And thank you for joining us, Patrick.

COCKBURN: Thank you.

DESVARIEUX: 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.