A Syria Without Assad?

Journalist Patrick Cockburn, who just returned from Syria, speaks about the impact of the Russian airstrikes in Syria and whether it can play a role in bringing the civil war to an end

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SHARMINI PERIES, EXEC. PRODUCER, TRNN: This is the Real News Network. I’m Sharmini Peries coming to you from Baltimore.

Just back from Syria we are joined by Patrick Cockburn. He’s a correspondent for the Independent, and was 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, good to have you back safely.

PATRICK COCKBURN: Thank you.

PERIES: Patrick, first give us your observations on the ground while you were there.

COCKBURN: Well you know, Syria is mostly destroyed now as a country. There are 22 million Syrians and 4 million of them are refugees outside the country, and 7 million are displaced within the country. I was in the northeast, which is in the–most recently, which is Kurdish controlled, and stretches a long way along the southern border of Turkey. This is meant to be one of the safer areas of Syria.

But it’s really very–[if you only compare to] Khobani, the town that the Islamic State tried to capture, the siege of four and a half months, about 70 percent of the town is destroyed. Just enormous heaps of pulverized concrete everywhere. But even in other villages, you know, one town I was going through that–[inaud.] which is meant to be pretty quiet. But just after I got into a town I saw on the road ahead suddenly there was a, I heard what I thought were gunshots initially, but then I saw a big plume of smoke and it turned out to have been a suicide bomber. I think it’s three people were killed. Then shortly afterwards there was a bang behind us, and the entrance to the town which we’d just passed through, another suicide bomber on a motorcycle blew himself up. Didn’t kill anybody.

This is meant to have been a fairly safe town. And other places, even where there’s no destruction–I was in some Syrian Christian villages near a city called Hasaka. And there isn’t much destruction, in that one town I was in. But everybody’s fled, 90 percent of the population has fled. It’s all empty, you see, and shops boarded up. Gardens with overgrown trees, and you know, very few people around. And there’s a sort of atmosphere of terror.

PERIES: And where are they going, Patrick?

COCKBURN: Some within the country, you know, what they deem safer areas. In those particular areas, a town called Tell Tamer, I was in, with a lot of Christians, a lot of them, you know, they’d gone to Germany, they go to Sweden, they go up to Turkey. I talked to the mayor of one of the villages there who said he thought they should come back. But then it turned out that he was planning to go to Germany, himself. So it’s kind of a mass exodus. The thing is that an area may be quiet today, but something may happen tomorrow. And I noticed a couple of days ago–sorry, today, that the Islamic State had executed three Syrian Christians who they’d taken prisoner earlier in the year. These sort of things sort of spread terror everywhere. People talk about sleeper cells everywhere in Arab villages. Some of this is true. I think most of it’s probably paranoia.

Going to one village, suddenly there were lots of soldiers on the road. These are Kurdish soldiers saying they’d heard that Daesh, as they call the Islamic State fighters, [ahead] in the village they were looking for them. Another place, I was driving through another town called Tell Abyad, which was one of the border crossings to Turkey that the Kurds captured earlier in the year. Suddenly a woman ran out in front of our car. I was going up to the border crossing to have a look at it. There was a police car sort of guiding me. Anyway, she ran in front of the police car and said there’s a Daesh, an Islamic State guy, has just run through my garden. And then the police got out, and–and decided yeah, there were some, a lot of abandoned houses that had Islamic, maybe some Islamic State fighters had been hiding there.

So always, these are so little incidents, but they all create an atmosphere of fear.

PERIES: And what kind of comments are there in terms of the Assad government and the role that the state is playing at the moment?

COCKBURN: Well, this is a Kurdish area, but it’s an important one because they claim they’ve got 50,000 soldiers, fighters. Maybe it’s not that big, but that’s what they claim. And they’ve been very effective in fighting the Islamic State, partly because they’re very well disciplined and well organized, and committed, and partly because they have the support of U.S. air strikes.

I was talking to the president of this area, about 2-3 million people in it. And he said, you know, yeah. Assad government pretty bad. But Islamic State, ISIS, even worse. He said, you know, we just can’t sleep easy. So long as one of those guys are, is alive. So for the Kurds–you know, [inaud.] a lot more marginalized of the Assad government for decades, but even so they think if the Islamic State comes they’ll be driven out, they’ll all be turned into refugees.

PERIES: Patrick, two days ago you wrote Russia and Syria, Russian radar locks on to Turkish fighter jets as Moscow steps up air strikes against opposition targets. This was the title of the article you wrote in the Independent. The Russians have been attacking, and air strikes and now from the sea, that they have also been trying to I think take out opposition to Assad. But is there any indication that they are actually fighting ISIS here?

COCKBURN: Yeah, there have been a lot of air strikes around Palmyra, and I think that the Syrian Observatory for Human Rights, which [is pro-opposition], I think yesterday they said there have been 34 strikes there. And to the west of there. There seem to be a lot of strikes there.

It’s fairly clear that the Russians are attacking ISIS and they’re also attacking Jabhat al-Nusra and Ahrar al-Sham, which are–Jabhat al-Nusra is the Al-Qaeda representative. Ahrar al-Sham is not much different. These are all from some, in the Western media, described as [moderates]. I don’t know why, because they really are not. They’re very much the same ideology as the Islamic State. A lot of their commanders are former Islamic [State], ISIS people. So they’re really very much the same. And they’re seen by the Kurds in where I was, and in Damascus, as being the same.

PERIES: And Patrick, the Turkish opposition to using their air space and the recent criticism against Russia launched both–also by Erdogan as well as NATO. What do you make of the comments, and how is all this going to evolve over the next little while in a very tumultuous war zone?

COCKBURN: It’s a great big mess, which is getting messier by the day. Obviously the Turks don’t like Russian aircraft and missiles sort of getting very close to their frontier. On the other hand, the Turks have been fairly openly assisting some of the extreme organizations operating in northern Syria. So they’re not in a great place to, position to protest about people crossing their frontier. Question is, is there much they can do about it. It sort of looks not very much at the moment. But we’ll see. But you know, this whole area now is getting sort of extraordinarily confused. Because you have the Russians getting involved, the Syrian army attacking, the Turks are involved. And the Syrian Kurds, who probably have the most–not the largest, but the most effective army in Syria, want to attack west and close the last border crossing that Islamic State uses into Turkey. That again would upset the Turks.

So you know, it’s, it’s an extraordinary situation. You know, it’s like, somebody compared it to three-dimensional chess, with nine players and no rules. And so it’s, it’s basically unpredictable.

PERIES: And the most contentious point all around seems to be still the Assad factor. And I noticed that you wrote, there are no easy solutions to Syria, as it is being torn apart by a genuine multi-layered civil war with a multitude of self-interested players inside and outside the country. You wrote, if Assad dropped dead tomorrow, Syrians in his corner would not stop fighting, knowing as they do that the success of an opposition movement dominated by ISIS or Al-Qaeda clones such as [Jabhat] al-Nusra would mean death or fight for their livelihood. Now, what–given this description, if Assad is not in the picture and if the Russians are actually successful in what they want to achieve, at least what they’re saying they want to achieve, which is to hold up the Syrian state in order to not create a vacuum, which is what Putin had said at the United Nations last week. What are, then–if, let’s say, Assad is no longer a factor, is there a way in which a political solution can be imagined at this point? And I say imagined only because we are such a long way from it.

COCKBURN: It’s difficult to do so. You know, people say Assad there, Assad not there. It’s really a way of saying could power be shared. This is a genuine civil war. There are people on both sides who are going to fight to the end, whether it’s on Assad’s side or the opposition’s side. You know, it’s a–I think all these sort of interpretations of what politicians say, treating it as something which isn’t a civil war just is completely unrealistic.

How could this be, peace be returned. It’s very difficult to see how it could be done without defeating the Islamic State. Because [inaud.] the Islamic State has no plans to negotiate with anybody. It wants to kill them. And so it’s difficult to see peace coming without the war first escalating against the Islamic State. Could power be shared in the long term? I suspect it will, but probably in a very unsatisfactory way that will have different parts of Syria with different warlords ruling them. We’ll have power shared geographically. But we won’t have power shared at the center.

If Assad goes, would the Syrian state fall apart, as happened in Iraq in 2003 after the overthrow of Saddam Hussein. And as everybody recalls, the U.S. dissolved the Syrian army. But the Iraqi state was already falling apart. Would that happen in Syria as well, you would have a vacuum that would be filled, essentially, by ISIS and other extreme fundamentalist organizations like that.

It’s difficult to see peace coming. I mean, the only slight hope I have is that the U.S. have stood on the sidelines, the Russians likewise. Now that they’re both involved there may be more international engagement in setting up real negotiations to bring some sort of peace. Previously we had negotiations, meetings. But they were never going to get anywhere, and neither the U.S. nor the Russians were trying that hard to deliver their local allies to have real talks.

PERIES: Now, it seems clear to me that the Americans at this point is only interested in continuing to, continuing the havoc the country is in and continuing to bomb under the auspices of trying to attack the IS. But the Russians are on a different end game, it seems to me, to hold up and strengthen what exists of the state of Syria. Now, are there any hopes of them coming together and coming to some negotiated terms, in terms of their coordination and the objective here to fight back the IS and not the state?

COCKBURN: It’s difficult to see it happening at the moment. We’ll have to see how it plays out in the next few weeks. I mean, lots of things could happen. If the Kurds attack and capture more of the frontier then there’s the possibility of Turkey intervening. Will Saudi Arabia and the Gulf monarchies give more support to their local allies in the north. Things like that. It also just depends what happens on the battlefield. Does the Syrian army make gains this time around, or do we have the same stalemate continually.

You know, I think that–what I’d like to see would be some concentration on ending this terrible situation. You know, this is the destruction of a whole country. This sort of thing just doesn’t happen very often. You had it in Cambodia in sort of the late ’70s. The–but this sort of complete destruction that we see in Syria, which you know, which used to have a pretty reasonable standard of living, is an extraordinary event. And you know, the world is really sat by and not really done anything about it.

PERIES: Now, it’s clear that the Russians have actually stepped in in order to bring about some solution, obviously, to what’s going on. But wouldn’t Russia be able to bring some of the parties to the table if they were to take the Assad leadership out of the negotiations?

COCKBURN: [I don’t] think they can get rid of Assad just like that. You know, it’s, you know–there’s a Western attitude towards Assad which is contradictory, which is first of all to treat him as the demon king who controls everything in his areas. And then treat him as someone who’s going to be easily removed by the Russians. You know, these things contradict each other. I don’t think the Russians could remove him just like that. And I [inaud.] just like that. But at the same time, his government, his regime is very dependent on them. So he’ll have to, up to a certain point, do what they ask.

PERIES: And because of that dependency isn’t he able to perhaps negotiate with the military, still meet the objective of upholding the state and keeping the structure of the state intact, including the military, and still put Assad’s leadership on the table for negotiation?

COCKBURN: Well yeah, but I mean, that might happen in the very long term, but I can’t see it happening immediately because nobody quite knows if Assad goes, does the military dissolve? The state is rather built around the Assad family. So the idea that you could keep the state but get rid of Assad, well, in theory maybe. But can it be done in practice, over what period could it be done. Because after all, he has no plans to go quietly. And he represents a certain constituency in Syria.

I think that with the Russians more heavily involved, yeah, they have more influence in Damascus. If they’re interested in negotiations then they may be able to get Assad to genuinely talk during negotiations. We had negotiations at Geneva some time back. But–and the U.S. and Russia put pressure on their local allies to turn up. Which they did, but they basically didn’t want to agree to anything. Each side was, at that point, was hoping for military victory. Now, maybe we have negotiations again, we have greater pressure from Moscow and Washington, there would be real talks and we might begin to have some substantive agreements.

PERIES: Very well, Patrick. We will be watching this as I’m sure you will be, and hope to have you back very soon again.

COCKBURN: Thank you.

PERIES: And thank you for joining us on the Real News Network.

End

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