Monday 22 February 2016

An Englishman in Damascus during the war

I had the luck on Saturday to get an introduction to an Englishman, whom I shall call Joe, who lives in Istanbul but who until two years ago had spent twelve years in Damascus. I took him to the Grand Hotel de Londres and plied him with questions and beer and this is what I learnt.

Everyone hoped that Bashir would be a reformer, but there was never any difference between his regime and his father’s. By the time the demonstrations started they were supported by almost everyone.

Joe said that his work had brought him into contact with Syrians of every conceivable type and almost all, until he left two years ago, wanted the regime to go. Almost everyone was sympathetic to what the papers call the moderate rebels.

The only partial exception are, he thought, the Christians, who fear what will happen to
them after the regime falls and who have always had a privileged position thanks to the Assads and going back to the days of French rule.

I mentioned an article, written by a journalist friend of his, including an email from a young soldier who’d said he was not fighting for the regime but was proud to be fighting for his country. This cut no ice. The army, he pointed out, is a conscript army.

Is he right that most Syrians prefer the 'moderate rebels'? If they do, I am not convinced that these rebels are moderate. Experienced journalist Patrick Cockburn said last month
Washington and its allies long claimed that there was a moderate non-sectarian armed opposition in Syria though this was largely mythical. In areas where Isis and non-Isis rebels ruled they were as brutal as the government in Damascus. The non-sectarian opposition fled abroad, fell silent or was killed and it was the most militarised and fanatical Islamic movements that flourished in conditions of permanent violence.
Joe said that Peter Oborne, who thought he was hearing the real opinions of real people when he went up to people in Damascus or Aleppo, was not doing so. No-one would be so foolish as to tell a foreigner their opinion if they disliked the government. This sounds convincing.

The Russians may be winning the war for the regime but, says Joe, there can be no lasting peace while the regime remains.

Isis, unlike Al Qaeda and Al Nusra, is a ‘synthetic’ organization. He reminded me that Assad released the most dangerous Islamists from gaol and left ISIL alone, while fighting the rebels, in the hope of extinguishing the non-Islamist rebels and being able to appear as the only alternative to the wild men. 

In the eyes of many people on the right, the kind of right-wingers who like Vladimir Putin, he has already succeeded. And I honestly cannot see how a victory for the rebels, which in any case seems impossible, could do anything but lead to chaos and rebel groups fighting among themselves. It might resemble Libya, a disaster for which Mr. Obama, Mrs. Clinton, disregarding State Department advice, and Mr. Cameron must take responsibility. 

How ironic (the right word for once) that no-one except the Kurds was interested in fighting ISIS until ISIS’s murders in Paris in November. Assad was for some time helping ISIS and, Joe said, helped jihadists cross Syrian territory to fight in Iraq. The Saudis initially helped ISIS and the Turks still do, while battling ISIS’s great foe the Kurds. Israel only fears Iran and Hezbollah.  Russia, so we are told in the press, spends most time attacking the moderate rebels (though this, thinks Patrick Cockburn, is not really true). Until November, and probably until Russia changed everything with her success this month in Aleppo, the USA and UK spent most of their energies trying to help the moderate rebels overthrow the regime. 

Joe made a very interesting point when he said to me,
You've been on the road to Palmyra. It's perfectly straight, isn't it? Tell me how ISIS could have marched up that road and not been bombed?


  1. This is more in line with what I hear in Syria, and further east than Damascus too the same. The view of the Russians is that they are pursuing their own aims with no loyalty to Assad and taking easy targets because they haven't the stomach or skill to take on anything else. Several people I have talked to also think that Putin fights in Syria only because he hasn't the nerve to fight the West directly because he knows he would be beaten. They curse their luck just to be another proxy. They equally curse Obama for not putting troops on the ground two years ago. Russia spends about 90% of it's ordinance bombing indiscriminately to keep the general sense of hopelessness topped up. The general view is they are extending the war, not shortening it.

    When talking about the Kurds you need to be a little more accurate, it's like talking about the Irish but not discriminating between Catholics, Provisionals, Unionists or Librarians . It is actually far from helpful.

    You are right that Erdogan fears that this might be the moment a Kurdish state reappears on Turkeys borders more than almost anything else and will take extraordinary risks with peace in the region in order to prevent it including sacrificing Turks.

    1. I opposed helping the rebels two years ago and still think I was right. Mr. Obama remembers the appalling mistake he and Mrs. Clinton made in Libya. So do I. What business is it of the USA or the UK what government rules in Syria?

      I hope for some solution along the lines of that at Dayton that ended the war in Bosnia Hercegovina in 1995, allowing the regime to hold Aleppo, the coast and Damascus and giving the Kurds something close to independence, as they have achieved in Iraq.

      You say the general view is that the Russians are extending the war, not shortening it. I am sure this is the rebel view. What outcome do you hope to see and how could the collapse of the government not lead to chaos? In any case this seems unlikely to happen.

      There are signs now that Russia wants an exit and is trying to get rebel groups to make deals with the regime. This seems very welcome.

      Neither the Russians nor the Iranians, of course, can dictate a long-term solution unless they do so by helping create a lasting agreement acceptable to the Sunnis.

    2. I wrote this back in October.

    3. An interview given yesterday by Patrick Cockburn. He thinks that ISIS and Al Nusra make up more than half the rebels, some of the others are very extreme and some of the smaller rebel groups only operate under license from Al Nusra.

  2. “The YPG is acting as a spoiler, tactically,” General Salem Idris, former chief of staff of the Free Syrian Army, told VOA last week in an exclusive interview. “They say they are not coordinating with the regime, but that is a lie.”

    Still, the feeling among many officials and analysts is that the Syrian Kurds are merely acting as opportunists.

    “The Kurds are playing their own games to have their own state,” said Bassam Barabandi, a former Syrian diplomat who co-founded People Demand Change, an international development organization. “If they don’t get something from the U.S., they turn to Russia.”


  3. Obama made exactly the same mistake in Libya that he made in Syria and that was not to support the factions with troops not just advisors, in this he went against his military advice, the same in his withdrawal from Iraq and Afghanistan which hastened the chaos and rise of ISIL. Three years ago it would still have been possible to have the kind of coup that Romania had, Assad may even have not needed to be hung from a lamppost , he could have sloped off like Amin and a good deal of the regimes apparatus could have stayed in place with the reforms driven my the it could be me next thinking. Now nothing but a general bloodletting will end it, Saturday will make no difference unless the Russians stop in all areas, which they won't. We can still see this develop into a full blown regional conflict with Iran and Turkey facing off .
    When I talk about the view of the Syrians on Russian involvement I'm talking about ordinary people , refugees and IDP's not combatants .

    1. Would Libya and Iraq not have been happier had Saddam and Gaddafi remained in power?

      When it was expected that Gadaffi would defeat the Libyan rebels journalists thought this would be followed by victory for Assad. I have no idea if it would have had any consequences in Syria. I have lost confidence in how much journalists really understand about Syria or any other war zone.

    2. This is very interesting.


  4. Fisk has long since lost the journalist plot, I have not read the recent reports and no doubt there is some truth attached but honestly his pro regime stance is reprehensible, Cockburn is getting a bit muddled too I think. Martin Churlov has a better grasp and you might like to have a google around for writing by Robin Yassin Kassab and the Syrian Yassin Haj Saleh:

    And Moqfaq Safadi is a Syrian friend who is only just finding is journalistic feet but has a real grasp of the situation on the ground

  5. The Saker a pro-Putin blogger, makes interesting points in this piece. A Russian-American Agreement on Syria?