JAISAL NOOR: Welcome to The Real News Network. I’m Jaisal Noor in Baltimore.
Russian President Vladimir Putin said on Thursday, December 29th that the Syrian opposition groups and the Syrian government had signed a number of documents, including a ceasefire deal that would take effect at midnight. The documents include a ceasefire agreement between the Syrian government and the opposition, measures to monitor the ceasefire deal and a statement on the readiness to start peace talks to settle the Syrian crisis. Putin said the agreement excluded the Islamic State, the group formerly known as the Nusra Front and all groups linked to them.
Now, joining us to discuss this is Reese Erlich. He’s the author of “Inside Syria: The Backstory of Their Civil War and What the World Can Expect”. He resumes a national book tour in January. Go to ReeseErlich.com for more details. Thank you so much for joining us again.
REESE ERLICH: It’s always a pleasure.
JAISAL NOOR: Give us your reaction to this major news that came out today. On one hand, we’re seeing headlines and commentary that this could help bring about the end of the Syrian conflict. But we’ve also, at the same time, been down this road before — the last time we had you on, there was talk of a possible ceasefire that never ended up materializing. Give us your thoughts.
REESE ERLICH: Well, everybody hopes that a ceasefire could actually work and that there could be progress towards a political solution. I think all sides believe that we need to stop the slaughter being carried out by all sides in this horrible war. Whether it actually happens, of course, depends on a number of factors. Number one is, can the parties that have signed onto this — that is, Turkey and Russia — actually control forces on the ground to maintain a ceasefire? In the case of Turkey, they have a certain amount of influence among some rebel groups and they have zero influence over groups like the Islamic State. So, the possibility is that the fighting will continue or it will be consciously disrupted by some of the extremist groups in order not to have the ceasefire succeed.
On the Russian side, there have been conflicts between Russia and Iran and Syria and Hezbollah on various tactical issues — ceasefires were agreed to, to evacuate civilians out of Aleppo, for example, and then some Iranian-affiliated militias refused to acknowledge it and violated it. So, can Russia actually control the forces that it’s aligned with? Those are all very big questions, and of course, if it ever does get to a political discussion, there’s huge differences and huge gaps in the various sides. So, I would like to see a ceasefire actually take hold. It remains to be seen if it will.
JAISAL NOOR: And the significance of the fact that the US was not involved in these talks, it’s not a partner in these negotiations, but just a few days ago, the US government announced a new shipment of weapons to the Syrian rebels.
REESE ERLICH: Yes. The US is increasingly isolated. It never really had much popular support on the ground in Syria. I’ve written about this extensively in my book, “Inside Syria” and also in many articles I’ve reported from the region. Basically, the people of Syria are not interested in having a pro-US dictator imposed upon them. And that’s what it would be if the US won. The situation is the US has kind of boxed itself into a corner where it’s neither pulled out its troops, nor has it escalated militarily enough to have a seat at the table, if you will. And I think what we see are Obama’s disastrous policies being played out where they can be ignored. What’s going to be really interesting is what Trump does because he’s faced with a situation where he claims he’s going to try to align with Putin against extremist forces. And I think there’s going to be tremendous pressure within his own Cabinet and within the Republicans to actually militarily escalate — do the opposite of what he claimed to do during his campaign.
JAISAL NOOR: And the exclusion of radical groups like the Islamic State, al-Nusra Front, what do you make of that? As well as, I don’t know if you’re familiar with the group Ahrar al-Sham? The New York Times–
REESE ERLICH: Sure.
JAISAL NOOR: –says they are a potential signatory to this truce. Given their ideology and military strength, how significant is this, if true?
REESE ERLICH: Well, it’s not new that the ceasefire would exclude the Islamic State and the al-Nusra Front, now renamed the Levant Conquest Front, because those are extremists groups who have explicitly rejected participating in political talks, who would never adhere to free elections, for example. So, that’s not new. Ahrar al-Sham is another extremist group — ideologically, they call for an Islamic Caliphate. They’re really not all that different from the al-Nusra Front, for example, with whom they ally. But they have, at various times, wandered into peace talks and wandered out again. They attended some peace talks in Saudi Arabia. They are an extremist group but they have some military support on the ground in Syria and I read the same articles that you did. It’s simply not clear whether they’ll be participating in the ceasefire or not.
JAISAL NOOR: And, you know, we’ve heard nothing really from the Gulf States — Qatar, Saudi Arabia. How likely is a truce to hold without their involvement and their consent?
REESE ERLICH: Well, that’s another factor that indicates it would be difficult for the ceasefire to take hold. Turkey controls a certain number of the groups. It plays a strategic role because of its border and it can open or shut the border for the extremists to come into Syria.
The Saudis and the Qatar governments and some of the other Gulf States, they want their people in power in Syria. They don’t want Assad. They don’t want Iran’s presence there, or Hezbollah’s. And they will do everything they can to muck up the ceasefire, I’m sure. Whether they’re able to do it or not, given the defeat in Aleppo, remains to be seen.
JAISAL NOOR: And finally, we just came… in the past few days, the US withheld a vote or veto of a UN Security Council Resolution condemning the Israeli settlement projects in occupied Palestinian territory. And, you know, often the argument we hear from those opposed to such measures — and John Kerry’s speech, for example, yesterday about Israel’s settlements — is that we shouldn’t focus on Israel because, for example, they’re a democracy and it’s fairly peaceful there, compared to places like Syria. How do you respond to that?
REESE ERLICH: Well, actually, it’s just the opposite — the Israeli-Palestinian issue remains at the core of any settlement in the region. Why? For one thing, Israel continues to occupy Syrian land. It’s called the Golan and it’s coming up on 50 years now where they’ve occupied that land illegally. It has to be returned to Syria. And people tend to forget about that, but that’s an important issue for Syrians. Every Syrian I’ve ever met from any political persuasion wants the Golan back. If the Israelis and Palestinians reached a fair settlement that was acceptable to the Palestinians, as expressed in, for example, a referendum or something like that, it would undercut all of the extremists’ fighting in the Middle East who claim to be supporters of the Palestinians — whether it be the Iranians and Hezbollah on one side, or the extremists Sunni Groups such as the Islamic State on the other. They all claim to be great supporters of the Palestinians and if the Palestinians had settled their issues, it undercuts their ability on many of their arguments. Hezbollah, for example, would have to go back to being a political party in Lebanon and dissolve its militia or else be exposed as being complete hypocrites.
So, a settlement of Israel and Palestine would go a long way. It wouldn’t solve all the rest of the problems but it would be a huge step forward towards resolving many of the other problems in the region.
JAISAL NOOR: All right, Reese Erlich, thanks so much for joining us again. Author of “Inside Syria: The Backstory of Their Civil War and What the World Can Expect,” resumes a national book tour in January. For more details — ReeseErlich.com. Thanks so much for joining us again.
REESE ERLICH: Thank you.
JAISAL NOOR: And thank you for joining us at The Real News Network.