Syria crisis: The West wrings its hands in horror but it was our folly that helped create this bloodbath

In the first of two articles seeking a solution to Syria’s crisis, Patrick Cockburn looks at the wishful thinking that helped an uprising escalate into a catastrophe

Reaction to Russia’s military intervention in Syria shows that the lack of knowledge of the Syrian political landscape on the part of Western political leaders and media is hindering the adoption of more constructive policies. During the past four years, over-simplifications and wishful thinking have prevented any realistic attempt to end the civil war, mitigate its effects or stop it from spreading to other countries.

Since 2011 the departure from power of President Bashar al-Assad has been prescribed as a quick way to bring an end to the conflict, although there is no reason to believe this. There are no quick or easy solutions: Syria is being torn apart by a genuine, multi-layered civil war with a multitude of self-interested players inside and outside the country. 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 and al-Qaeda clones such as Jabhat al-Nusra would mean death or flight for them and their families. 

Today there are four million Syrian refugees, mostly from opposition areas being bombarded indiscriminately by government forces. But this figure could double if the more populous pro-government areas become too dangerous to live in. 

In the past, this was not likely to happen because Assad always controlled at least 12 out of 14 Syrian provincial capitals. The Western rejection of any role for him in the future of Syria, even though he ruled most of its population, torpedoed negotiations before they could get off the ground. To say this is not to endorse Assad or the Baath party, who have always used gangster methods and extreme violence to stay in power, but to recognise that they were never offered terms they could accept and were only likely to go if they suffered complete military defeat. 

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Bashar al-Assad, center, speaks with Syrian troops during his visit to the front line in the eastern Damascus district of Jobar, Syria

Western governments have hitherto dealt with this problem by retreating into fantasy, lying or remaining wilfully ignorant about the real situation on the ground. As long ago as August 2012 the Defence Intelligence Agency, the Pentagon’s intelligence arm, said in a report first disclosed earlier this year that the “Salafists [Islamic fundamentalists], the Muslim Brotherhood and AQI [al-Qaeda in Iraq, later Isis] are the major forces driving the insurgency in Syria.” 

It noted that the opposition was supported by the West, Gulf countries and Turkey and forecast that Isis “could also declare an Islamic state through its union with other terrorist organisations in Iraq and Syria”.

The influence at the time of this prescient DIA report is not known, but earlier this year there was a semi-public revolt by US intelligence analysts who said their conclusions that Isis was growing in strength were being diluted or disregarded by their superiors. Some 50 analysts working for the US military’s Central Command were reported to have complained formally that their analyses were being manipulated to fit in with the administration’s claim that Isis was weakening. 

CENTCOM may have come to believe its own upbeat message because US generals were giving optimistic accounts of the success of their air campaign against Isis at the very moment in May when it captured the cities of Ramadi in Iraq and Palmyra in Syria. 

From an early stage in the Syrian crisis, intelligence reports discounted or derided claims that moderate or secular forces were leading the opposition. In a moment of frankness in 2014, Vice  President Joe Biden gave a succinct account of what the administration really thought about what was happening in Syria. He said that Saudi Arabia, Turkey and the UAE “were so determined to take down Assad and essentially have a proxy Sunni-Shia war”. They financed and armed anybody who would fight against Assad, “except that the people who were being supplied were al-Nusra and al-Qaeda and the extremist elements coming from other parts of the world”.

Mr Biden’s summary of how the extreme Sunni sectarian jihadis came to dominate the armed opposition in Syria, marginalising or eliminating the “moderates”, became accepted wisdom over the past year. The Free Syrian Army – even at the height of its fame never more than an umbrella organisation – was considered dead and buried. 

Anthony Cordesman of the Centre for Strategic and International Studies in Washington wrote that the time had come to stop pretending “that Syrian ‘moderates’ are strong enough to either affect the security situation or negotiate for Syria’s real fighters”. 

But as news spread this week that the Russians had started bombing in Syria, the FSA and the “moderates” were disinterred in order to suggest that it was they and not Isis who were the targets of Russian air strikes. 

One British newspaper claimed that the bombs “mainly appeared to hit less extreme groups fighting Bashar al-Assad’s regime”. David Cameron worried that if Russian action was “against the Free Syrian Army in support of Assad the dictator, then obviously that is a retrograde step”. 

Television presenters spoke of anti-Assad forces being bombed in northern Syria, but seldom added that the most important of these were Jabhat al-Nusra and Ahrar ash-Sham. More than 30 air strikes were against Jaysh al-Fateh, the Army of Conquest, which has seized much of Idlib province but is led by al-Nusra. The situation is genuinely complex, with between 20 and 30 opposition armed groups backed by Turkey, Saudi Arabia, Qatar and the UAE. But news reports had a strong whiff of Cold War propaganda when any fact could be distorted in order to demonise Moscow. 

So many crises and confrontations have their central focus on the battlefields of Syria that any return to a unitary state is impossible. Conflicts include a popular uprising against Assad, Sunni against Shia, Iran against Saudi Arabia, Kurd against Turk, and now US against Russia. 

But any solution or diminution of violence can only come if there is a realistic understanding by Western and regional powers of the destructive forces at work. 

If political leaders, media reporters and think-tank specialists share a vision of Syria that is partisan, propagandist and over-simple, there is no chance of a solution to the great Syrian tragedy.

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