The only way to end the war in Syria is negotiation with Assad – but no one wants to be seen shaking hands with the devil

Assad’s victory is becoming irreversible, but international recognition of it should be conditional on the return of refugees, along with an internationally monitored amnesty and freeing of prisoners

Patrick Cockburn
Friday 13 April 2018 16:24 BST
Donald Trump: US will make decision on military action in Syria 'fairly soon'

The most important point about the impending missile strikes in Syria by the US, Britain and France is being missed, despite wall-to-wall media coverage.

The purported aim of the attack is to deter President Bashar al-Assad from using chemical weapons as a weapon in the Syrian civil war. But the history of this savage conflict, in which half a million people have died, shows that all sides employ every possible method to kill or maim their enemies. Preventing the use of one type of armament, and that not the most important, will make little difference.

The only way to stop the deployment of poisoned gas in Syria is to stop the use of all weapons, by bringing the war to an end. But in the run-up to military action against Assad’s forces, there is depressingly little discussion about how this might be done.

Insofar as there is discussion, it is to the effect that either the air strikes will not change the balance of power on the ground, or they will somewhat weaken Assad and prevent him winning a decisive victory in the war.

This is the same old discredited policy that the US and its western allies have pursued for the last five years, since they realised that the armed opposition to Assad was dominated by various al-Qaeda clones, such as Isis and al-Nusra, which would replace him if he ever fell from power.

In cooperation with Turkey, Qatar and Saudi Arabia, they helped the rebels sufficiently to keep the war going against Assad, but not enough for them to win. As early as August 2012, a report by the Defence Intelligence Agency (DIA), the Pentagon’s intelligence arm, stated that “the Salafists, the Muslim Brotherhood, and AQI [al-Qaeda in Iraq] are the major forces driving the insurgency in Syria”.

It is worth reading in full the DIA report which forecasts “the possibility of establishing a declared or undeclared Salafist principality in eastern Syria”. This was two years before Isis declared the Islamic State.

Syria civil war: Footage shows children treated following chemical weapons attack in Douma

Some conspiracy theorists conclude that the US covertly supported the rise of Isis and al-Qaeda, but a more credible accusation is that Washington and its allies created the conditions in which they flourished.

This was a calamitous error in judgement: when the Syrian army withdrew from northern and eastern Syria in 2012, it created a vacuum that was swiftly filled by al-Qaeda fanatics. Revolt in Syria restarted the sectarian civil war in Iraq. Isis captured Raqqa and Mosul, spread to the rest of the Islamic world and began its terrorist attacks in western Europe.

The same catastrophic mistake is now being made again as Western military forces ready themselves to attack Syria. Contrary to the pretence by the governments of the US, UK and France that their great concern is the sufferings of the Syrian people, their actions will simply deepen these because their only likely impact will be to lengthen the war.

Even supposing they succeed in doing something to curtail the use of poison gas by Assad, this has so far killed an estimated 1,900 Syrians out of a total of half a million who have died violently since 2011.

Ending the war is the only way to reduce civilian casualties, and everything else is hypocrisy and pretence. What is really killing people in Syria is the war which western powers stoked year after year with the intention that neither side would win.

Their real concern in firing missiles at Assad’s forces is as a demonstration of power in the face of defiance by Syria, Russia and Iran. Aside from making this gesture, they do not really want to change the present toxic situation in Syria. This may explain their hesitation in beginning the missile strikes.

It is easy enough to condemn the US, UK and France for their past failings, but what could they really do to help Syria? They need to accept in public, as they have long done in private, that Assad, backed by his Russian and Iranian allies, is going to hold onto power.

In control of Damascus, Aleppo and the biggest Syrian cities, he is not going to be removed by anything less than a US-led land invasion, along the lines of Iraq in 2003. Out of 16 million Syrians in the country – another 6-7 million are refugees are in Turkey, Lebanon and Jordan – about 12 million are in areas controlled by Assad, two million by the Kurds and the same number in rebel and Turkish-held areas in Idlib province and north and west of Aleppo.

His victory is becoming irreversible, but international recognition of it should be conditional on the return to their homes of the refugees, a quarter of the prewar population, along with an internationally monitored amnesty and freeing of prisoners.

The Syrian Kurds would like a deal with Damascus giving them regional autonomy, since however much they dislike the Assad government, they are even more frightened of a Turkish invasion. The Kurds fear ethnic cleansing by the Turks and their Sunni Arab auxiliaries from the whole of northern Syria.

Syria is being destroyed because it has become the arena in which international and regional rivalries are fought out. Foreign intervention fuels the civil war and the civil war entraps outside sponsors of local Syrian proxies in their fiercely fought sectarian and ethnic battles. In many ways, the role of foreign intervention in Syria today resembles that of outside powers in the Balkans before 1914.

It is a highly dangerous situation. Syrian, Russian, Israeli, US, Turkish, British and French aircraft and missiles will have to manoeuvre to avoid shooting each other down. As in the Balkans a century ago, some of the most violent and embittered people in the world – in his case the different sides in the Syrian civil war – are in a position to generate friction that could see the coalitions headed by the US and Russia tumble into an unwanted conflict.

Negotiations to end the Syrian war in general, not just the side issue of chemical weapons, should be the priority but these are difficult and not just because of the complexity of the issues. The media is to blame for presenting the civil war as a simple fight between evil (Assad) and good (anybody opposed to Assad).

This demonisation makes the compromises necessary to bring peace near impossible, because nobody dares be seen shaking hands with the devil. This leaves missile strikes as the only instrument of policy, but these will only escalate and prolong the war without changing its outcome.

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