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Vijay Prashad says the government in Damascus has made significant gains inside Syria with the help of its allies, and this has changed the tone of the Western response to Russia

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SHARMINI PERIES, EXEC. PRODUCER, TRNN: Welcome to the Real News Network. I’m Sharmini Peries coming to you from Baltimore. Syrian peace talks in Geneva slated for Friday are facing challenges even before they’ve begun. A Saudi-backed opposition group called the High Negotiations Committee says they will not be attending unless their demands are met. These demands include the inter-military action by the Syrian government and open humanitarian access to regions held by forces opposed to Assad. The potential absence of the agency is raising questions over whether the talks will begin today after all. Now to discuss the nature of the conference is Vijay Prashad. Vijay is the George and Martha Kellner Chair in South Asian History and professor of international studies at Trinity College. His latest book is Letters to Palestine: Writers Respond to War and Occupation. Vijay, good to have you back on the Real News Network. VIJAY PRASHAD: Nice to be back. PERIES: So Vijay, it seems to me when we actually broke for the holiday break in December, the refugee crisis, both internally displaced in Syria, in the region, the flow into Europe, and given what happened in Paris, there was a sense of urgency in terms of bringing a resolution about in Syria. All that seems to have dissipated. Why? PRASHAD: Well, it depends who you’re talking to. It seems that over the course of the last few months, given the Russian presence, military presence in Syria, providing air cover to the Syrian army, and also a great morale boost. The government in Damascus with its allies has made significant gains inside Syria. And this has changed the tenor of the Western response to what the Russians have been up to inside Syria. In other words, until about six months ago, the Western powers, particularly the United States, were convinced that the way forward would be for the removal of Mr. Assad from power in Damascus. But the gains made under the auspices of the Iranians and the Russians has altered that a little bit. This, I think, is a consequence, as well, of the not only intractable politics that, you know, the West was unable to get out of, but also to some extent from Europe, the pressure regarding the refugee crisis. There was a sense that something had to happen. So the United States government after, you know, almost five years, has come to the view that perhaps Mr. Assad’s removal is not, you know, a precondition to political process. So there was movement from that side. At the same time, Saudi Arabia saw daylight between its position and the United States. In other words, the Saudis still believe that Assad’s removal should be a precondition for talks. Which is why in December the Saudis invited groups friendly to Saudi Arabia, Syrian groups friendly to Saudi Arabia, to Riyadh, where they held a conference and created this High Negotiating Committee as a way to somehow bring together the fractious opposition. It is this opposition that is to some extent reflective of the frustrations on, both on the ground and among this exiled opposition section. It’s their frustration that the West is seeming to harmonize with the Russian view, and leaving them out of it. That is why they will likely not come to Geneva on Friday. That is why that this so-called Geneva Three is not really going to get off the ground. PERIES: Vijay, give us a sense of who this High Negotiation Committee is, and where are they operating out of. PRASHAD: Well, you know, it’s a mixed bag of people. There’s a Syrian National Council, whose head is George Sabra. There’s Jaysh al-Islam on the ground. There are the very many factions of the Free Syrian Army. So there are people who have an on-the-ground presence, whether it’s the Free Syrian Army, or it’s Jaysh al-Islam, which is a Saudi proxy that operates in the suburbs of Damascus, or it’s the Istanbul-based opposition. You know, they have been brought together by Riyadh to create some kind of unified face. Because over the course of these past four years the opposition has been very divided, very fractious. So what Riyadh has been able to do is to create, essentially, a Saudi-backed opposition group which has some presence on the ground, a considerable amount of influence among the Turkish-based exiles. So that’s the High Negotiating Committee. But who’s not here are the rebel or opposition groups that are not entirely against Mr. Assad. You know, there are those groups, some of them are in exile in Paris. And as well, they’re the Kurdish militias, you know, the YPG, the People’s Protection Unit, and its political force, the PYD, they are not part of Riyadh’s Syrian opposition group. And one of the, the big demands from the Russians which the Americans accepted was that the Kurds and this Paris-based Syrian opposition should be at the table as well. And the High Negotiating Council Committee was not in favor of this, because those sections are not really aligned with Riyadh, with Saudi Arabia. PERIES: And from your point of view, what are the prognosis for the success of these talks in Geneva? PRASHAD: Well, you know, firstly it’s very unlikely they’re going to happen. If they would have happened these groups would have sat in different rooms, and the United Nations would have played, in a sense, shuttle diplomacy, going from one room to the other, talking about different proposals, et cetera. It’s very unlikely that there’s going to be any political movement at this moment. And the reason is that there are gains being made militarily by the Syrian army, backed by the Russians and the Iranians, as well as by Hezbollah. And they have made quite significant gains not only in the northwestern part of Syria, in the area, the province of Latakia, but they also recently made some gains in the south, near the town of Daraa. And this is important, because this is the first big thrust by the Syrian army into southern Syria, areas that had been also abandoned by the Syrian government to the rebels. So these gains have been quite significant. And in a sense this is a point now where Damascus is, you know, in the driver’s seat. And therefore the opposition groups are not willing to come to the table, because they don’t have as much, you know, both credibility amongst their own sections, but they also don’t feel like they have sufficient facts on the ground on their side for them to negotiate any kind of good deal. So it’s very unlikely, it’s always been unlikely, that the meeting would actually happen or that it would bear fruit. PERIES: All right, so one last question to you, Vijay. To what extent is this process complicated by the anti-ISIS war campaign? PRASHAD: It’s greatly complicated. You know, what the Russians have been doing, of course, is they’ve been bombing sections of ISIS. But they’ve also been hitting the rebel forces that are backed by Saudi Arabia, by Turkey, by other groups in the region. And they’ve been assassinating their leaders, you know, so that the leader of Jaysh al-Islam, Zahran Alloush, was killed in December. This has, of course, put a lot of pressure on these non-ISIS Islamist groups, many of them backed by the Saudis, et cetera. So you know, the Americans are looking at the Syrian conflict, now, through the lens of the anti-ISIS campaign. And this is only one part of the war in Syria. You know, Syria has a fractured battlefield. So because the Americans have concentrated on ISIS and the threat of ISIS, it softened their opinion to the Russian story of how to deal with the Syrian problem. And so the, you know, the ISIS issue has actually brought the West, you know, in a sense out of the fog of believing that Assad must go should be a precondition for the politics. The problem here is, of course, having substituted a position against Iran and against Russia, the United States has now entered a collision course against Saudi Arabia. So the whole of the Syrian conflict is extraordinarily complicated. And you know, the reason geopolitics or questions of Saudis, Russians, Iranians is so much on the tongues of people, and the Syrian people themselves don’t seem to be driving the process, is that indeed, Syria has become the crossroads of all kinds of regional ambitions. And that has eclipsed, you know, whatever sovereignty Syria has. Syria no longer is really a sovereign country. It is truly, you know, a mess of geopolitical ambitions. PERIES: Vijay, as always, I thank you so much for joining us today, and look forward to further analysis on this as we follow what’s going to happen over the next few days in terms of these talks in Geneva. Thanks. PRASHAD: Thanks a lot. PERIES: And thank you for joining us on the Real News Network.


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Vijay Prashad is an Indian historian, editor, and journalist. He is a writing fellow and chief correspondent at Globetrotter. He is an editor of LeftWord Books and the director of Tricontinental: Institute for Social Research. He is a senior non-resident fellow at Chongyang Institute for Financial Studies, Renmin University of China. He has written more than 20 books, including The Darker Nations and The Poorer Nations. His latest books are Struggle Makes Us Human: Learning from Movements for Socialism and (with Noam Chomsky) The Withdrawal: Iraq, Libya, Afghanistan, and the Fragility of U.S. Power.