Syria’s Complex Chessboard and its Continuing Tragedy
Vijay Prashad discusses how the various warring forces in Syria are locked together in a complicated way. Meanwhile, Syria continues to bleed, with no immediate end in sight – Newsclick and TRNN Joint Production
PRABIR PURKAYASTHA: Hello, and welcome to Newsclick. This programme with Real News. We have with us today Professor Vijay Prashad who is, as you know, a well-known commentator on various issues. Vijay, good to have you with us.
VIJAY PRASHAD: Great to be here.
PURKAYASTHA: You know, it is interesting what’s happening in Northern Syria, as you know. Now, the distance between the Efrin pocket, Kobane Rojava pocket, is really about 50 kilometers, and it is being squeezed from the Kobane side. They have crossed Euphrates, which is supposed to be a red line for the Turks, that the Kurds should not cross Euphrates. It is also true that the in-between territories and the mixture of Kurdish and Arab population. It’s not a Kurdish pocket as other pockets were. And second part of it–I think that is the interesting part–it seems to have American spotters and French spotters on the ground directing some of the strikes from behind. Do you think that this is also a change and the Turks have pulled back because of the Americans and the French paratroopers being there? That was it is being said at the moment.
PRASHAD: Look, Kurdish political factions have played a very smart game. Last year, they held an important meeting in the Northeastern part of Syria where they brought together various Arab factions, and had a conversation about creating a new kind of federal Syria. This is very important because it sets them up, I think, for what they knew what was coming which is, if you are going to join Rojava, you are going to deal with substantial pockets of Arabs. So I think they have thought through (this route). Around the same time, the Kurdish leadership created an office in Moscow. That’s important. They don’t have very big ambitions to make an office, say, in Washington, DC, but the have office in Moscow.
PURKAYASTHA: They are still regarded officially terrorist in America (United States). It is not going to change as long as Turkey is in NATO.
PRASHAD: Exactly. So this is a very clever move. They have insulated themselves to some extent politically by saying we have this front which is Arab and Kurd. It is not a Kurdish advance. Secondly, they are saying we have made an alliance, at least we have an embassy in Russia. The third thing that is very interesting, and I don’t think supposedly they are on the ground. Americans special forces, some French special forces. This is a smart thing. I mean, whether they are 10 kilometers behind the advanced troops or two kilometers is irrelevant. Would the Turks actually go and bomb a kilometer away from American special forces and risk the wind carrying one bomb? Let’s say because that is how “casualties” and “collateral damage” takes place and kill an American. I mean, how is it that going to look? If a Turkish plane kills an American soldier, that’s going to be a complication.
So I think the Kurdish political leadership has played a very smart game. The closing of that gap is not going to be as easy it seems. There will be a lot of fierce fighting. I am honestly not sure that the government in Damascus is that keen to see that gap closed, because that then puts a new equation on Syria that will follow, whatever that may be. I think for all the talk about the autonomy to the Kurds which was provided in late 2011 and early 2012–the Assad government said, you go ahead, we are withdrawing our state apparatus–for all the talk of that, I am not sure that the Assad government is that serious about allowing an enclave to be created which replicates the kind of enclave that the Kurds have built up in Northern Iraq. So I am not sure that they will even allow it. I know it’s been happening and it’s been proceeding very smoothly. But if there are contradictions North of Syria, in Turkey, there also contradictions within Syria with Damascus.
PURKAYASTHA: You are quite right that it is not that simple issue. It is also true that the ISIS has helped a lot of Arabs join the Kurds and the SDF, or the new Syrian Defense Force, which has a lot of Arabs in it is a consequence of ISIS atrocities as much of Kurdish advance in that sense. But don’t also forget the picture in Eastern Aleppo, that one of the pocket there is Kurdish pocket and the ISIS is attacking that Kurdish pocket. So you have this very contradictory alliances coming up which we discussed earlier. But it does seem that at the moment, the compact between the Assad government and the Kurds not to fight each other, seems to be holding at the moment. And of course, you said rightly, it also means a longer term issue about what happens in terms of a federated Syria or not. But it does seem that there is at least a change between Turkey and Syria with respect to Northern Syria which earlier was almost at the Turkish protection. Other part in Syria is that the March towards Raqqah which was supposed to have taken place across the Iraq border has failed. The Americans failed. And the one they wanted to through Jordan, it appears that Russians have bombed that. So it seems that on that side, there is also not much of a gain that Americans are able to do. Only gains, the Kurds have made and what the Assad government is doing.
PRASHAD: It is a fair picture. I mean that the march to Raqqah is going to be complicated, as complicated as the march to Mosul. There are all kinds of questions to ask: how do Mosul falls so easily? When the Americans had complete picture what was going on and ISIS is moving towards Mosul, why were they not bombed on their way there? There are serious questions, similar to Raqqah. A historian perhaps will ask these questions. Right now, to ask these questions is to open cans of worms where one looks idiotic asking them. Because people say, what are you saying? The Americans wanted ISIS to take Raqqah or they wanted ISIS to take Mosul. I am not saying that. I am just curious. I would like United States government reply to the question. If you have such great visual maps what’s happening, and you saw this ISIS white Toyota trucks moving towards Mosul, why you did not do anything? This is the same questions that Russians asked earlier. You see the oil tankers moving, why didn’t you do anything? I think this is a serious and a good question.
But to take back a major city is not as easy as it seems; see in Fallujah. I mean, initially there were news reports saying that the Iraqi army has entered Fallujah. Did the army really win? Or did the ISIS fighters withdraw allow the army to come in and ambush them which is what is happening. So it’s not going to be easy as it appears. And aerial bombing a city with a substantial civilian population is an intolerable situation, as I think the people of Aleppo are finding. They are being hit from the air, a lot of hits from the Syrian army, Syrian air force and that has intolerable consequences for the people living there. They are all not rebels. There are lots of civilians.
PURKAYASTHA: Do you think that there is a change or shift between Russia, America relations in Syria? Or do you think this is still America who wants that Jabahat Al-Nusra should not be bombed because it is in bed with our allies and we can not separate the Nusra from our allies. So don’t bomb either.
PRASHAD: I mean, the best example of how to understand Secretary of State Kerry is that there was a donors meeting, an aid meeting actually in Istanbul, and during the tea break, the Secretary of State Kerry was drinking a cup of coffee, and two aid workers sort of rushed up to him and they said, “Why aren’t you doing enough against the Assad government?” That’s what they said. Kerry in an irritated way turned to them and said, “What do you want me to do? Do you want me to bomb the Assad government? Do you mean we should go war against Russia?” That was the most plain spoken statement of where things lie. Russian intervention has checkmated any attempt that the West might have made to bomb, which is why stunning that 51 members of the American diplomatic corps would write a letter saying bomb Assad. What are they thinking? The co-relation of forces have changed completely. It’s the first time, by the way, that Russia has intervened into a country against the West since perhaps 1979 because after all even in Angola, it was Cuban troops that went in to go and fight against the right wing in Angola. It was the Russians directly. So this intervention is quite significant. It suggests that the multipolarity is back right on the table.
PURKAYASTHA: Against the right wing and South African’s armed forces.
PRASHAD: In fact, the defeat of South Africa, the apartheid of South Africa, might have taken through Cuito Cuanavale, the battle in 1988. But in this situation, I think it is quite clear that the Russians not only have been “invested” in the Iranians and others. But they have a military presence in Syria with surface-to-air missile with batteries on the ground, and therefore any quick raid is going to be really impossible. It’s a real challenge. In that case, the problem for any easy understanding, you can’t hit this group, you can’t hit that group. See, when Kerry said, you have got zones, we are not telling about people, these are all equivocations. What they are saying is in public, “We don’t want to say that the Russians or whoever can hit anybody, because that’s essentially the status quo. We don’t want to admit that but we can’t also say this shouldn’t do it. Because if we say you shouldn’t do it, then they do it then we demonstrate that we are not strong.” So these statements can not be taken seriously.
What actually indicates the position is that the Russians and the Americans are in a position of some concurrence on what to do, but also discord on what to do, but nobody can move an agenda against each other fully. In the middle of this, Prabir, the tragedy is that bleeding of Syria continues. There is no hope of peace, the ceasefire keep breaking down. There is no projected pathway to go towards even a really consolidated peace for the country which doesn’t have ISIS in it. There is no–this kind of log jam between on the one side the Russians and the Americans, on the other, the Iranians and the Saudis, these continuing gears that are grinding without finding the mutual teeth is basically making a mess of the Syrian people’s ability to survive.
PURKAYASTHA: Thanks, Vijay, for this discussion. We will continue to interact with you on the West Asia issues–or what the West calls Middle East. Thanks a lot and hope you will be with us again.
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