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As Syrian opposition groups retreat from the demand that President Assad step down, a ceasefire agreement becomes more feasible, says Vijay Prashad

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GREGORY WILPERT, TRNN: Welcome to The Real News Network. I’m Gregory Wilpert, coming to you from Quito, Ecuador. U.S. Secretary of State John Kerry and Russia’s foreign minister Sergey Lavrov are meeting in Geneva on Friday for the fourth time in two weeks in order to come to an agreement for a ceasefire in Syria. The meeting comes just a few days after Syria’s high negotiations committee, which brings together 34 opposition groups, presented a plan for a ceasefire in that country. However, the complexity of the conflict, where the U.S., Russia, Turkey, and Saudi Arabia are all supporting different factions and where the Islamic State group is fighting everyone and not even involved in any of the ceasefire negotiations, the process of peace in this five and a half years of conflict do not look good. Until now, somewhere between 250,000 and 400,000 Syrians have been killed. Also, according to the UN High Commissioner of Refugees, almost 8 million Syrians have been internally displaced, plus another 4 million refugees are refugees in other countries. So joining us to make sense of what is going on in this most recent round of ceasefire efforts is Vijay Prashad. Vijay is the George and Martha Kellner Chair in South Asian History and professor of international studies at Trinity College. He’s author of 20 books, including The Death of the Nation and the Future of the Arab Revolution. Thanks for being with us again, Vijay. VIJAY PRASHAD: Thanks a lot. WILPERT: So, as of the recording of this interview, no formal statements have yet been made about the latest round of talks between Secretary Kerry and Foreign Minister Lavrov. Assuming that they come to an agreement sooner rather than later, what do you think are the chances that this ceasefire will hold, considering the complexity of the civil war in Syria and the large number of players that are involved? Will it hold any longer than the last one, which was agreed to last February? And if so, how could a ceasefire possibly be enforced? PRASHAD: Well, those are very important questions, and I am sure that in the various rounds of talks, not only in Geneva but between the so-called sherpas of these meetings, lower-level officials, these are the very questions that they’ve been discussing. You know, it’s important to bear in mind and to amplify what you said earlier, which is that Syria is a complex battlefield. Of course, it’s a complex country which has been torn apart in this war and become a complex battlefield with different fighters from different groups battling each other, and not all of them, as you rightly said, are at the table in Geneva or even near the table. ISIS in particular, of course, has entirely rejected this process. So if there is a deal, if there is a partial deal, all the guns in Syria will not go silent. In fact, Greg, it’s unclear if any guns will go silent. At this point, the government in Damascus has been dropping leaflets in Aleppo which essentially say that the rebels have 48 hours to leave the city. The city of Aleppo, which at one point was demographically the largest city in Syria, up there with Damascus as a major part of Syrian life, is now almost entirely surrounded by government forces. And it appears that the government has no appetite to essentially honor a ceasefire at this time, given that they have the upper hand. So it’s unlikely that the Russians will be able to convince them to stop this particular battle in the long war. I’m not sure, I’m not convinced that there’ll be a major breakthrough in Geneva this week given this 48-hour deadline. There will perhaps be some smaller agreements about various humanitarian pauses and such like. So I don’t think people should expect too much out of the Geneva discussions. But certainly there is, I think, some sense that the Americans have accepted that Aleppo is going to fall to the government, and the next phase of discussion will happen after that. WILPERT: Yeah, the situation in Aleppo seems quite serious. I mean, they’ve been fighting for that city for a long time now. And, actually, recently one of the presidential candidates from the Libertarian Party made a bit of a fool of himself when he had to ask in an interview, questioning what is Aleppo. But it certainly is on the map now, I think, for most people who have been following this conflict. From what you’ve heard, what is the situation like? You said that it seems like Aleppo’s going to fall to the government. What would that mean, and how would that change the situation in Syria as a whole? PRASHAD: It’s very hard to say what the fall of Aleppo would mean. I mean, look, even Damascus is not entirely in the government control. There are sections of Damascus, neighborhoods of Damascus that are in the hands of the various rebel factions. So it’s not clear what is meant by the government has taken Aleppo. I think there will continue to be sections of Aleppo which will be very hard for the government to secure without a great deal of blood being spilled. I mean, if we can switch for a second to Libya, there’s been a kind of triumphalism about the defeat of ISIS in the central Libyan city of Sirte. But, again, there are neighborhoods in Sirte where ISIS still is in control and the government–or, actually, in that case, the militia of Misrata has decided not to pursue ISIS into the stronghold. So it’s not clear what is meant by the city will fall. I think what it means is that a very substantial number of the rebels might decide to leave Aleppo and go elsewhere. This would, of course, be a major psychological blow to the Syrian opposition, which is why I think the Syrian opposition held a press conference on Wednesday in London and the main representative of the high negotiating team, Mr. Riab Hijab, made the statement that he did, which is essentially a new sort of peace agreement from the standpoint of the opposition. I think what’s begun to happen is that the opposition, the external political opposition, has come to understand that its leverage on the ground has deteriorated. And at the same time, I think the Assad government has come to feel that it has the upper hand militarily. Of course, I think this is a great mistake. I think that the Assad government should not try to prosecute a complete victory, but should come to the table now and draw as many Syrians into an inclusive process as possible, rather than have to seek, in a sense, victor’s justice at the end of it all. WILPERT: You mentioned the high negotiations committee, which I also mentioned in the introduction. Their proposal basically said something like that there would be negotiations for the next six months with Assad, followed by his stepping down, and 18 months of a unity government, presumably with Assad, and then general elections. Do you think this proposal has any chance of being accepted by Assad? And by the Russians, of course. I mean, this has been one of the main stumbling blocks, hasn’t it, whether or not Assad is going to step down from the presidency. PRASHAD: Well, you know, one interesting thing, Greg, is that the idea, the slogan of “Assad must go”, in other words, that Assad’s departure is a precondition for any negotiation, that was the slogan of the United States, the Turks, the Saudis, the Qataris, and the Syrian opposition based in Istanbul. But now it appears that the United States, the Turks, and the Syrian opposition, the external opposition, is of the view that Assad must be part of a long transition, a protracted transition, whether it is indeed a two-year transition as Mr. Hijab spelt out or perhaps longer. I think there is now broad understanding among at least these entities that Assad has to be part of the transitional period. I think the Russians have made it quite clear–they haven’t said it publicly, but they’ve said quite clearly that they are interested in some sort of transition of Mr. Assad, in other words, that Mr. Assad might leave after two years or so but the government and the state apparatus will remain intact. In fact, in London, Mr. Hijab, of the Syrian opposition, of the high negotiating team, said similar things. He talked at length about the dangers of so-called de-Ba’athification in Iraq and what instability that produced, and he said that it should not be repeated inside Syria. You know, this is an enormous departure from where the Syrian opposition was in 2012 when it in fact called for not only the removal of Assad before the conversation, but for full de-Ba’athification. It appears now that they understand that that is not in the cards. And I think it’s going to take some conversation not only inside the Assad government, but with the Russians and the Iranians, to figure out how much of this sort of olive branch should be grasped and whether this is going to be able to produce an inclusive political dialog for the Syrian people, because after all, that is really what is essentially needed, some sort of political dialog so that the guns go silent. WILPERT: Right. I mean, the catastrophe, as I mentioned in the introduction, has just been so horrendous, considering that such an enormous number of lives lost and the number of refugees that are especially also, of course, now trying to get into Europe, which is causing a whole ‘nother set of problems. So it seems like certainly there’s been a lot of progress in that sense that perhaps Assad–that he will stay on for a little while longer, at least in terms of–in order to come to an agreement [incompr.] That really does sound like some progress. But just turning to the other issue, which, of course, was also recently in the news, is, of course, the conflict or Turkey’s involvement in all of this. Turkey recently announced that it had managed to remove, basically, the Kurdish fighters near its border, which, of course, the Kurds are allies of the U.S. I mean, what does that mean for the whole conflict? I mean, this seems to be another kind of prolongation of the conflict, the whole issue of the Kurds along the Syrian border. Can you quickly analyze that for us, take that apart? PRASHAD: Yeah. Well, one of the things, I think, that should be understood is that almost everybody is on record now–that is, not ISIS, of course, but everybody else is on record that Syria must not be broken up. You know, it’s interesting. The Turks have now said that their battle against the Kurds is to protect the sovereignty and integrity of Syria. You know, it’s quite a rum statement coming from the Turkish government. But it should be said that the so-called Kurdish fighters that the Turks are trying to send east of the Euphrates River, these Kurdish fighters themselves–in other words, the militia group called the YPG–these Kurdish fighters had created a formation last year called the Syrian Democratic Forces. In other words, they had a meeting in northeastern Syria where they created a platform, which included Assyrians, Syriacs, Turkmen, Arabs, Armenians, a whole set of Syrian nationalities, saying that they were going to create a different kind of Syrian front to confront ISIS. And they made the kind of constitutional proposal that Syria should be a federation, not a centrally dominated country, that different regions of Syria should have some regional autonomy. So one of the important things, I think, here is that there is agreement that Syria should not be parceled out between different regional factions. But nonetheless, the Turkish entry into Syria has certainly complicated matters for the Americans, because, after all, these Syrian Democratic Forces fighters have made very considerable gains on the ground against ISIS. They have been fighting under close air support from the Americans. They crossed the Euphrates to take the town of Manbij. And then they were going to turn around and take ISIS’s so-called capital, Raqqa. Now the Turks have said they would like to send their military as the ground forces to fight ISIS in Raqqa. This is a very interesting development. I know that it’s going to create a great deal of tension between Damascus and Ankara. This tension between Damascus and Ankara, which would be inflamed by any further movement of Turkish forces inside Syria, is not going to make a peace discussion any easier to conduct. So I’m afraid the Turks, by entering into Syria, might have taken some of the momentum towards a peace agreement and slowed it down. WILPERT: OK. Well, thanks so much, Vijay, for helping us make sense of this as usual, and we’re certainly going to have you back on again. Thanks, Vijay. PRASHAD: Thanks a lot. WILPERT: And thank you for watching 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.