Sunday 14 February 2016

What is really going on in Northern Syria

This is a link to two exceptionally important interviews, one with Peter Oborne, an unusually fair-minded journalist with no axe to grind, whom I know and trust, and one with the very knowledgeable Alastair Crooke, an ex-MI6 man who then became Middle East adviser to Javier Solana. The story they tell is very much at odds with the interpretation of the war you read in the Daily Telegraph, the Guardian and the Washington Post and hear on the BBC. There is no doubt that the Syrian forces have committed absolutely terrible atrocities, but the rebels have done the same.

The next step in the war will probably be a race between the Russo-Syrian forces and the
Turks and Saudis to reach Raqqa, the ISIS capital, and capture the ISIS held territory. The Syrian forces are likely to win the race, as they are now only twenty three miles away from Raqqa and there are no obstacles between them and the town.

Where would the Kurds fit into this? I presume the Kurds would be safer allying with Assad and Putin rather than Erdogan and Wahabbi Saudi Arabia. At the moment, both the US and the Russians are keen to have the Kurds on their side. Both will probably toss them aside when they are no longer needed to fight ISIS.

US Defense Secretary Ashton Carter today welcomed the involvement of the Saudis and is trying to persuade NATO to provide support in an operation whereby the rebels take back ISIS territory. Romania, Poland and Denmark have agreed to step up their involvement.

Turkey presumably wants to create a statelet near her border under Turkish protection and to eliminate the Kurdish forces, whom Erdogan says are terrorists. The Kurds want to retain and solidify their territory. Assad and Russia want to reunify Syria. Such a state might perhaps be linked to Sunni areas in Iraq, an idea that former US Ambassador to the UN John Bolton recently floated, on the ground that a united Syria would further the interests of Moscow and Tehran. 

Patrick Cockburn, who impresses me as the wisest journalist writing in English about Syria, says today that it may be too late for Turkey or Saudi Arabia to achieve much. He thinks that the idea peddled in the Western media that Russia and Syria were only attacking the 'moderate rebels' (I suspect there are no moderate rebels) and not the more extreme ones was false.
The agreement in Munich is bad news for Isis. The Western claim that the Russians were not fighting Isis but focused on eliminating a mysterious “moderate” opposition, which was said to pose a great threat to Assad, was always something of a propaganda slogan. In reality, the Russian aircraft attacked all armed opposition groups threatening Assad. These were primarily al-Nusra and Ahrar al-Sham in the north-east, Jaish al-Islam close to Damascus and IS further east....

In reality, the Syrian army, now backed by the Russian air force, has long been confronting Isis in central Syria though generally without much success. Isis posted revolting videos showing Syrian soldiers being shot or decapitated.
I wish the West would think of the best interests of the Syrians rather than trying to check Iran to serve the interests of the Gulf monarchies and Turkey. Nor do I see why victory for the Syrian government need harm US, UK or NATO interests, although a failed state and endless war in Syria will certainly do so.


  1. Interesting but the Turks are doing what they do best, oppress minorities and pursue a traditionally duplicitous diplomacy, the Saudis have an absurdly inept and ineffective military (reminds me of the much vaunted "crack" Iraqi troops). The US led "intervention" is hampered by ignorance of local socio political dynamics (having poor to non existent intelligence ability) and childish faith in the sinecure of Special Forces "ninjas" and omnipotent air power and the ability of drone strikes. The Russians are looking to their own interests (imagine a similar situation in the Caribbean smile emoticon ) and supporting the re establishment of a stable (if odious) legally elected government. The Kurds who are allegedly being supported by the West will sadly be tossed to anyone necessary to extricate the West as they finally realise that the ninjas and drones will not do the trick but that a war like the one in Syria will take conventional forces and the ensuing casualties. Alan

    1. Add to that the US efforts to bully Russia into doing what they want, through sanctions, and now tell-alls about Putin's yacht, etc. The Kurds are a sad case of course, with Barzani happily working with Turkey to assassinate his PKK and other enemies. My question is, at what point does ISIS constitute a force which cannot be beaten on the battlefield as it is, and must be included in talks. And are the western colonial powers still defending the AMA/Sevres/Lausanne borders?

    2. ISIS will be defeated. Soon perhaps. I hope it is by the Syrian government and without a war with Turkey.

  2. Alaistair has been wrong before, and he is wrong this time. His visit to Aleppo was a stage managed show, to what ends history will tell, but like tours of Tripoli under Gadaffi it is unlikely he saw anything or met anyone he wasn't meant to. The people I have met there, opposition and partisan knew full well what was coming. The state was not allowing free flight with snipers on all routes hastening the mayhem. With the Russian airpower and the weakening of supply lines the city, or what is left if it could have been taken in hours. What is happening is a deliberate constricting of available exits because. It is about to replace Grozny in the lexicon.

    Now my view may be coloured by the fact the Assad's father personally gave the order to have me branded, that Putins cronies killed my CFO and friend or perhaps I just don't like dentists. Or perhaps it is because despite the excesses of ISIS, the fact that I have seen the use of volumetric weapons on civilians by the state forces at an early stage when Assad decided the only way to treat legitimate protesters was as enemy combatants. You may be right that there are no moderate rebels, but the extreme were driven there by beasts you support.

    You are wrong about Putin, he is the greatest threat to european cohesion perhaps ever. Nothing would suit his current circumstances better than disunity in the West, better still a raging racial war with him as the rallying point for Christendom. Who do you think facilitated the meeting in Cuba. He is playing to the penny stalls and doing it well.

    1. I have absolutely no doubt about the war crimes of the regime and of the rebels. From early on, shortly after things became violent, I took to googling 'Syrians Christians' and was reading about Christians almost daily being killed in Homs and elsewhere and not by the government. I repeat that I absolutely do not like the regime or Putin but, though I do not have your wealth of recent experience in Syria, I want a deal that leaves the regime intact as the least bad option. I also hope the Kurds manage to achieve a de facto separate state.

      The arguments you are making could equally be made in support of toppling Saddam and even Gadaffi. Do you think those turned out well? I hope you don’t.

      I see today the Israelis saying a united Syria cannot work after the Alawi regime killed so many Sunnis. Israel is not concerned about Sunnis but about a united Syria allied to Hezbollah and Iran. And by the way it is not an Alawi regime – most of the army is Sunni and the people of Damascus, which is a majority Sunni city, seem to accept and back the regime, judging by Peter Oborne’s recent experience of talking to people there.

      I hope you agree that Turkey, Israel and the Saudis are concerned only for their own interests rather than those of Syrian general public. It is clear that a lot of people in the US and British government are more worried about Iran and Putin than anything else. It does seem that Kerry is changing his view which terrifies Israel and their ally the Saudis.

      When Hillary said that the US wanted regime change she was understood by a lot of Syrians to mean that the US would try to secure regime change and this contributed to people rallying to the rebel cause. Some rebel leaders have even said that they were promised US help. I have no evidence that this happened and hope it’s not true.

      You might find this interesting. Fisk can be ridiculous but he can also be very insightful and is here.

      He makes the point that Crooke does that Wahabisim and ISIS are the same thing. He is right that the opposition to Assad was always Islamist. (I know the regime reacted with horrible cruelty to the original peaceful protesters but a regime change could only have brought to power Islamists, surely?) ‘No-one in Middle East wants democracy - they want dignity and justice.’ That’s true,I imagine, apart from a few hopeful idealists perhaps who should know better.

      Putin is the greatest threat to European cohesion perhaps ever? He would love to undermine the EU but a successful EU and European cohesion are very different things indeed.

      You think the sudden dropping of prices by the people smugglers and the migrant rush was caused by Putin? It’s possible though others blame Erdogan and I have seen no evidence about what caused it. It is not, in my opinion, the migrants but the readiness of the EU to allow migrants to come which is the big issue - there will always be wars and, especially since Merkel, there will be big waves of refugees for decades to come. These, in my opinion, not Russia are the greatest threat to European cohesion if not checked. But doubtless Russia will do her best to make things worse.

      I think it possible that Putin will fall from power in the next decade and then we shall live in interesting times. I don’t agree with friends of mine who think he is the best leader Russia could have at the present moment or that the next Russian regime will be worse, but it will be interesting to see what happens. I hope something happens to defeat the ideas of Angela Merkel, Hollande, Timmermans etc. I see the new government in Poland as hopeful.

      I have no illusions about Putin, he is no Christian conservative, but Russia like Turkey, like the Saudi and Qatari monarchies, like Israel are pursuing what they see as their national interests. In Syria Russian self-interest seems on the whole to offer more hope of a peace and a secular Syria than the self interested moves by Erdogan or the Saudis.

    2. By the way Hillary's role in the downfall of Gaddafi and her declaration that regime change was needed in Syria bode very badly indeed for another Clinton presidency.

    3. We hear - rightly - much about Russia bombing civilians and we know how abominably they behaved in Chechnya but we hear little about others, such as the Turks who killed dozens of civilians at the weekend according to this Kurdish source.

    4. ## busy with events- reply will take analysis, tongue biting and probably you visiting my office

  3. This man understands a lot!

    The only thing I disagree on is that the western journalists" do not know". It is the old American fixation about Assad. The Europeans have turned more pragmatic on this recently.


  4. All the foregoing comments and arguments confirm my fear that we are unlikely to see the conflict in Syria result in a stable outcome any time soon - which can only mean that the level of migration towards Western Europe will continue to increase, thus probably resulting in a radical and permanent shift in the culture and social norms of Western Europe. The easy-going environment in which I grew up was slowly disappearing under the pressure of social change within the UK, but the pressures of increasing Islamist immigration will quicken and radicalise the changes. The Muslim immigrants fleeing the war in Syria (and other war-torn areas of the Middle East and Africa) will inflict probably irreversible negative changes on the societies of the UK and its neighbours in Western and Northern Europe. I believe now that my life has been lived in what will be seen by future generations as a golden age between the end of WWII and the Islamisation of Europe. A result of the Syrian conflict that has only recently become clear to me.

    1. I (half a generation younger than you!) suddenly started last summer to think the same way.

      Fixing the Syrian war is not the answer to the problem of migrants. Angela Merkel has set a precedent and Europe must stop taking asylum seekers from outside Europe. European countries can pay to settle them in unattractive countries, which are recipients of aid, where economic migrants will not want to settle.

      The big question is can Europeans in their 20s and 30s be persuaded to see things this way?

    2. Frank, I think a good deal of the move away from an easy going lifestyle in the UK was less to do with immigration and more the shift from a State/Aristocracy/Church led set of standards to the influence of modern corporate culture and the rise in the power of global corporations to mould societies to meet their expectations, rather than the inverse. What little respect people has for office and station finally ebbed away.Even as recently as the 1980's the UK was easy going as long as you didn't mind casual violence, misogony , institutional racism ( whatever your citizenship or skin colour ) and a proletariate as respectful of authority as they are now. I recall a delightful evening in a Durham mining village when a couple of fights broke out, a young mans nose was bitten off and knocked unconscious, and while he was lying on his back fight fighting to breath a policeman ( his name was Garrett I recall ) took his coat off rolled up his sleeves and proceeded to save the boy from choking on his own blood. When he stepped up, the coat was gone, he found it on top of his overturned burning squad car , the crowd of around a hundred , all generation, politically unaffiliated mixed gender Anglo Saxons singing around it. As with everywhere there was as much ugliness in Britain as beauty, perhaps a little more.

    3. This doesn't have much to do with the war in Syria, but I thought I should make a brief comment on what you say above. With regard to the waning influence of the traditional State/Aristocracy/Church establishment, I recall a radio interview with former PM Harold MacMillan in the late '70s in which he was asked how he would explain the sad decline in public standards of behaviour and the increase in criminality at that time, and his immediate reply was "It all began when people stopped going to church each Sunday." Society had not found a new code of ethics to replace the Christian creed. Also, I have a suspicion that your story about an evening in a Durham village might well have been set in the 1980s, when Margaret Thatcher took on Arthur Scargill and the coal miners. At the time, I was living near Sheffield, close to the mining villages of the Don valley, and I also witnessed extremes of violence between the police (many imported for the purpose of "keeping the peace" from the London area) and local miners, who developed a visceral hatred for the forces of law. As I said in my earlier comment, British society was alreadyy changing before the current influx of Muslim refugees; but I fear that things will now get rapidly worse.

    4. The huge social changes of the 1960s and 1970s had nothing to do wıth immigration. They had very complex causes but were especially the result of the huge growth ın standards of living after 1950 across Western Europe.

      People ın the 1950s accepted authorıty - in the 1960s they did not.

      Interestingly the most important and lastıng legacy of the 1960s social revolution was materialısm not anti-materialısm. Anti-racısm and the anti dıscrımınatıon ıdeology were very important too and led to contnued and growıng mass immigration.

      I find attitudes towards immigratıon have less to do with political alliegiance and more to do with ones d.o.b.

  5. Nuray Mert, a Turkish writer is spot on here. She says Erdogan and the Saudi regime are desperately worried that the US will make a deal with Putin. So is Israel and John McCain and John Bolton but I don't think the rest of us should be.

    "After Turkey and Saudi Arabia joined the coalition with their Western allies to fight ISIL, they focused more on fighting those they defined as bigger threats. Turkey started an extensive military attack on Kurds while Saudi Arabia started a military intervention against Shiite Houthis in Yemen. Anyway it was already an open secret that neither Turkey nor Saudi Arabia considered ISIL to be a major threat. If they did recognize it as a threat, it was only because it had become a hindrance for their Sunni-focused regional politics."

  6. Putin was highly restrained and waited for 4 years before he went into Syria. His warnings were ignored with regard to how Syria would go if the West intervened four years ago. Without his intervention last year all the Christain's in this country could be wiped out.

    Putin exposed the illegal trafficking of oil between ISIL and Turkey, that the West had ignored, but now admit too. This oil trafficking vastly improved ISIL's wealth. Europe has politely turned a blind eye to the fact that America were supplying weapons to Al-Qaeda and that the Turks are using this as cover to wipe out as many Kurds as they can ( our allies), whilst abusing their Nato position.

    We in the West are not at all clean in this War. But it seems our press and their commentators are more obsessed with not losing face and making Putin the bogey guy for the whole sad episode.

    1. Putin and his Hamas allies have been and are killing Christians as happily as Muslims, and he was intervening at the same scale as the western powers through proxy groups and direct cash aid as far back as 2012, it was only after he saw his own position on the south of the Bosphorus that he felt it was timely to be more open, which he has still not been with more men on the ground than he ever put into Crimea

      Much more upsetting than the executions to Paul will be the fact that he is likely to destroy more sacred sites than ISIS and AQ put together and in all probability our favourite hotel too.

    2. Your reply has nothing to do with this man's points. Putin waited four years before coming to Assad's rescue, whatever covert help he was lending before.

      I get irritated with newspapers who accuse Putin of trying to defeat the Syrian government's enemies as if that is a wicked course of action. Russia has taken a side in the war and so clearly have you. For people like me, who simply want peace, order and a secular Syria, a very long bloody war leading to the defeat of the regime and victory for the rebels does not appeal.

    3. The Hotel Baron is in part of Aleppo held by the Government, so I do not expect that Russia will destroy it. Much however has been destroyed. What has happened is quite terrible. This film clip is a rare piece of footage about the state of the city centre.

    4. I think it is exactly to the point, Russia was offering military aid to the Syrian State from day one, as you said always to it's own advantage, this has been a proxy war from the beginning. Rereading your travelogue it's clear you gained nothing of the deeper problems apparent in Damascus to me in 2007. Perhaps it was because I was working there and therefore had more direct contact with the state.However it was obvious to me then as it was not in Dubrovnik in 1986 that war was coming not because of some grand spectre of Wahhabism or some other Islamist wave, but because a greedy blinkered largely secular elite were repressing ,by the most brutal means a large proportion of the mildly religious population. It is to my regret and shame that I did not act sooner to help some of them, and I thank our God every day for those everyday that I did. I may have picked the wrong side in your eyes but it is infinely preferable to me to be able to act on what I see on the ground than what I read.

    5. Of course I saw little of what was going on below the surface but clearly the situation in 2007 was very much preferable to what we have now. The original protesters were admirable, of course, though perhaps quixotic. I cheered them on till I found they included Muslim Brotherhood people. Was a secular alternative to the regime ever possible? I am convinced that it was not, though in Tunisia I am hopeful. Your idea that the rebels became beasts because the cruelty of the regime made them beasts suggests to me that you have an essentially liberal view of mankind as tabulae rasae on which good or bad men write. I think the truth is far more complex.

      Anonymous above meant that Russia did not send air forces to bale out Syria for four years. This is his point which you missed. Of course Russia was helping Assad from day one - and Russia's motives were perfectly reasonable enough and no more cynical than the USA's. The Syrian war first happened because of the Arab Spring and then because of the great dissatisfaction with Assad of various groups, including dispossessed peasantry and Islamists. It is possible that had Gadaffi beaten his insurgents the Syrian rebels might have melted away. The fall of Gadaffi gave the rebels a huge boost.

      I wonder if you make the mistake of people like Anne Applebaum and Edward Lucas of seeing things in Manichaean terms and thinking we are living in 1938. Putin is not Hitler, nor was Saddam or Nasser or Stalin or Marine Le Pen.

      The enemies for Europe to worry about are not the Russians but at home in Europe.

    6. Russian manned planes painted in Syrian colours were flying three years ago over rebel positions , Maskirovka has been at the forefront of Russian military doctrine, particularily overseas since the 1930's. I missed no point at all, I think the commentator failed to differentiate overt from clandestine.
      I think a secular solution in states is only possible where the bulk of the population is widely so, through choice as in Finland or nominally churchgoers as in the UK or France. The current resurgences both of Christianity and Islam from Syria to Russia are natural rebounds to oppression or denial of freedom and tradition.

      That my comment of them becoming beastlike makes my world view simplistic actually made me laugh out loud because you know that I am fully aware there is nothing but grey, and the shade only depends on where you are viewing it from. That both extreme good and evil exist I am sure and I make a the distinction that Hitler was evil, Putin is merely venal and more dangerous because of it. He who was the keeper of Arcana imperii is now it's master.

      However Paul really 1938? If anyone lives in the past or yearns for it is you, I have already told you the real enemies of Europe are lying abed in Paolo Alto dreaming of how to rid good capitalists of lazy unproductive humans. Lefties are just something you rightwingers make look scarier to frighten children. I'm a Catholic Humanist by the way which means I have a constant argument raging in my head and More in common, if you forgive the pun. As for Lucas what can you expect from and Anglican?

      Let us assume, arguendo, that your claim is accurate and I do live in the past ! I think more in terms of 1345.

    7. I don't agree at all that a secular state is only possible where the bulk of the population is lukewarm about religion. The USA destroys that argument.
      I have doubts about whether the word evil is one historians should use, though you and I may do so. I remember AJP Taylor saying 'Hitler was a rational, though no doubt a wicked statesmen'.
      I don't know why you argue the toss - you know very well that Russia last year suddenly openly intervened to help Assad. Anonymous welcomes this. I, with reservations, do too.
      Left-wingers are not Europe's big problem but alleged conservatives like Merkel plus mass immigration and terrorism.

    8. I am not sure how The USA " proves it doesn't it. " the US is statistically as hat tipping secular as the UK, a better counter might have been Iran in the period from 1945 through to 75 or Singapore today. You may well welcome it, perhaps you will welcome it slightly less when you see how it will extend the conflict, not shorten it.

      Europe's biggest current problem is it's own populations sense of entitlement to a larger share of Earths resources based on heritage , race and geography.

    9. The USA has been a secular state for a long time. There are, of course, so many examples to choose from of religious countries with secular political systems, including Syria under the Assads.

      I think Europe's biggest problem is its lack of sense of entitlement, its post-colonial guilt.

      I wish I had been an historian of colonialism.

    10. I see no reason why you still could not be, you are hardly an old man. I think you could bring something genuine to the subject as long as you did not cast your net too wide.

  7. An example of the idiocy one reads in the press. "Vladimir Putin is dancing around us with ease – we must send troops into Syria.
    Only Nato ground forces can take the fight to Isil while preventing the Russians from acquiring dominance over the Middle East" (I'd have thought it is much better to allow the Kurds, the Russians and the Syrians to deal with Isis.)