[Vredeslijst] The war is far from being over in Syria - Gilbert Achcar interview
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Do Feb 22 17:07:38 CET 2018
The war is far from being over in Syria
12 February 2018
Syrian Corner talks with Gilbert Achcar about
recent developments in the Syrian conflict.
Gilbert Achcar is Professor of Development
Studies at SOAS, University of London, as
well as a well-known author focusing on
the Middle East and the Arab World. He
met with Syrian Corner during Syria
Awareness Week 2018. Achcar posits that
the Syrian conflict is far from over
and that for Bashar al-Assad to establish
a new political framework, an accord
between the US and Russia is necessary.
Achcar says the role of Iran in a future
Syria is one of the key issues at stake,
and discusses the Turkish war against the
PYD, the regional role of Saudi Arabia,
the international peace conferences for
Syria, the recent demonstrations in Iran,
and the new US foreign policy for the
Middle East in the interview below.
Q: Assad and Putin recently declared that they have “won the war.” Is
the Syrian war over? What will happen to Bashar al-Assad?
A: There is a lot of wishful thinking in such proclamations: battles are
still raging in the Idlib region and in East Ghouta. It is true, though,
that the regime, backed by Iran and Russia, has now been consolidated
and is no longer facing an existential threat. Twice before, it was on
the verge of a massive defeat, rescued each time by foreign
intervention, first by Iran, then by Russia. As a result, the regime has
now the upper hand militarily. But when I say ‘regime,’ I am actually
referring to the Russia-Iran-Assad axis, as the Assad regime alone would
not have been able to accomplish any of this. Far from it, it would have
been defeated a long time ago.
Besides, there is still a very large area of Syria out of regime control
in the North-East, dominated by the Syrian Democratic Forces (SDF). The
Syrian-Kurdish People’s Protection Units (YPG) led by the Democratic
Union Party (PYD) are the SDF’s backbone. They control a huge part of
Syria, comprising the whole area east of the Euphrates to the Turkish
and Iraqi borders — and this is where US troops are actually involved on
the ground. Two more areas are under control of the YPG and their
allies: Manbij, west of the Euphrates, and Afrin where the present
Turkish offensive is taking place.
Q: Specifically addressing the issue of the YPG: Turkey has started an
attack on the YPG-controlled area of Afrin. Does this represent a new
escalation of the conflict?
A: Here lies a major contradiction. For many years, Western powers have
been following their Turkish ally, a key member of NATO, in labelling
the Kurdistan Workers’ Party (PKK) as a terrorist organisation. The
Turkish army has engaged in several offensives against the Kurds in
Turkey over the years with the support of NATO countries.
However, when the United States decided to combat ISIS in both Syria and
Iraq in 2014, it did not want to involve US troops on the ground
directly in the battle but provided instead air and material support to
local forces. Thus, it found that the best possible ally in this battle
in Syria from a military perspective would be the Kurdish forces.
Washington encouraged the creation of the SDF, with the inclusion of
Syrian Arabs mostly belonging to the region now under SDF control, so
that the US does not appear as involved in an ethnic fight on the side
of the Kurdish minority. Since everybody knows that the PYD/YPG are
closely tied to the PKK, this alliance created a political paradox. In
fighting ISIS, the US relied on a force that is tied to a political
movement officially labelled as ‘terrorist’ by Turkey and its NATO
allies, including Washington. Unsurprisingly, this has hugely irritated
the Turkish state, outraged at seeing the US cooperating with its public
enemy number one.
This was made even more acute by the fact that Erdogan had undergone a
sharp nationalist shift in 2015 when his party, the Justice and
Development Party (AKP) lost the parliamentary majority. This was due to
an increase in the votes garnered by a left-wing coalition in which the
Kurdish movement played a central role, but it was also due, most
importantly, to losing votes to the far-right Turkish nationalists.
Faced with this, Erdogan resumed the war on the Kurds after years of
making peace with the Kurdish movement, resorting to whipping up Turkish
nationalism. The Islamic conservative stance of his discourse did not
change, but a new shift occurred in the direction of Turkish nationalism
and renewed onslaught on the Kurds. Erdogan organised a second election
five months later, in which his party regained a parliamentary majority.
Currently the AKP is in alliance with the major far-right Turkish
Basically, this stance of Erdogan put him increasingly on a collision
course with the US. Tensions with the Obama administration surged.
Erdogan bet for a while on the Trump administration — Donald Trump
promised to stop supporting the Kurdish forces in Syria. However, the
Pentagon contradicted him, for the Kurdish forces have proven that they
are excellent fighters and have been instrumental in defeating ISIS.
The Pentagon regards the SDF as the main card they hold today in Syria.
They know that if they cut ties with the SDF, the Assad regime and
Iran-led forces will inevitably try to recover the vast strategic area
to the east of the Euphrates. Since the US is determined to contain
Iran’s expansion in the region, the Pentagon sees no other option than
to provide the Syrian-Kurdish forces and the SDF continued support. This
is where the friction lies.
Erdogan is currently attacking the Kurdish-majority region of Afrin in
North-West Syria. This region did play no role in the fight against ISIS
and was thus no concern for the US. No US troops are present there. But
Erdogan threatened to turn against Manbij — where the SDF is backed by
direct US presence on the ground. Russia greenlighted the Turkish
intervention in the Afrin region, withdrawing its own troops from there.
Its aim is to thus exacerbate the Turkish-US rift.
This whole situation is getting even more complicated, and this is where
we can reconnect to the original question: it is far from being over in
Syria. Any “mission accomplished,” as Bush announced very carelessly and
unwisely soon after the occupation of Iraq and as Putin has proclaimed
twice about Syria, is merely wishful thinking. Nothing is solved in
Syria. The Assad regime, even with Russia’s support, does not have the
capacity to control the country. It needs Iran. Yet, Iran’s presence in
Syria is unacceptable for both the US and Israel.
Q: Would Turkey, if it defeats the Kurdish forces, be willing to go as
far as to occupy Manbij?
A: It is a very tough nut to crack indeed, and what is happening now is
quite telling. It would be quite difficult for Turkish forces to remain
in the Afrin region for a long time even if they manage to occupy it, as
they would fall under permanent attacks. Moreover, they would be engaged
in war on a foreign territory, without the excuse of being invited by
the official government unlike Iran’s and Russia’s forces.
Erdogan is playing with fire. He has taken a great risk with this
operation. Facing discontent even within his own party, he is using this
nationalist drive to consolidate his power. But a military setback could
cost him a lot.
Q: Under what circumstances would Iran leave Syria?
A: Iran would need to be compelled to leave. This could happen if there
is a Russian-American agreement, in the form of a United Nations
Security Council resolution stipulating that, on the basis of a
political agreement that would be reached in Geneva, all foreign troops
that entered Syria after 2011 (excluding the Russians who were already
in Syria long before that year) should leave the country.
It would be difficult for Iran to say “no,” especially if the Syrian
regime is part of this deal. Assad would not side with Iran over Moscow
if he had to choose. Moscow relies on his regime’s forces on the ground,
while Iran is occupying the ground. Tehran would not allow the Syrian
regime the same margin of autonomy as Moscow would. Add to that that the
Iranian regime is ideologically quite different from the Syrian regime.
The Syrian regime has been portrayed by many as a bulwark against
Islamic fundamentalism even though it is propped on the ground by
Iran-led Islamic fundamentalist forces. That’s also part of the
complexity of this situation.
Q: There have been some important demonstrations in Iran since the 28th
of December last year. What influence on Iran’s intervention in Syria
can they have?
A: Had the movement carried on and continued to expand, it may have
created a situation compelling the regime to reconsider its intervention
in Syria, which was condemned by the demonstrators. But the movement
subsided and was quelled, and the regime is back in control. We see,
however, a surge in the tension between the two wings of the regime. The
reformist wing represented by Iranian President Rouhani is trying to
curtail the hard-line wing of the Revolutionary Guard (Pasdaran),
arguing that the latter and its foreign interventions are a burden on
the Iranian economy.
If the social turmoil resumes, things may change, but for now the regime
is in full control. Moreover, Syria is an important card in Tehran’s
confrontation with the Trump administration, which threatens to cancel
the nuclear agreement. Such a move would play into the hands of the
hardliners and therefore encourage a continuation of Iran’s expansion as
a counter movement to US pressure.
Q: Do you think the European Union (EU) should have a bigger role in
criticising Turkey for the attack on the Kurds?
A: The EU has failed to act independently of the United States on the
global level with regard to political and military issues. It has mostly
behaved until now as an auxiliary of the United States. This has become
a problem for Europe with the Trump administration because it is the
first time that there is a US president who is so much in contrast
politically with Europe’s mainstream and so close to Europe’s far right.
The Bush administration did have problems with some European
governments, such as France’s and Germany’s that stood against the
invasion of Iraq due to differing interests. But Tony Blair’s UK
government, for instance, was fully involved on the side of Bush.
On the Palestine issue, there has been a crystallisation of a different
EU opinion, which is why the President of the Palestine Liberation
Organization (PLO), Mahmoud Abbas, is now attempting to get the
Europeans to recognize the Palestinian state. On Iran too, there are
open divergences between the Europeans and the Trump administration. The
European governments were quite happy with Obama’s policy leading to the
nuclear deal with Iran, which Trump considers to be the worst agreement
ever concluded by the US. If he does rescind the nuclear agreement, this
will create an open crisis in US-European relations. Thus, Palestine and
Iran, for the time being, are two contentious issues on which there is a
sharp contrast between the US and the EU. The Syrian issue though is not
one on which Europe holds views opposed to that of the US. On Syria, the
EU has displayed no independent stance to this day.
Q: Considering that the conflict is not over, do you think there is any
possibility of reconstruction, as Assad is calling for?
A: Again, that is wishful thinking. Russia itself has on several
occasions called upon the EU to fund the reconstruction of Syria. They
have a lot of nerve because Russia has secured a position whereby, if
there were to be a reconstruction of Syria, it would play a key role in
it. Moscow would like the Europeans to fund Syria’s reconstruction with
Russian companies pocketing the lion’s share of contracts. But this will
not happen because the Europeans will not disburse any money without a
US green light, which will not be given until Washington is convinced
that Iran won’t take advantage of the situation. Under the present
conditions, Iran too would necessarily secure a major part of the
market. So, reconstruction won’t really be on the agenda until this
whole political puzzle is solved.
Russia is trying to set a post-war political framework for Syria.
They’ve started doing it at the end of 2016, shortly before Trump
inaugurated his presidency. They were expecting him to deliver on his
promise of new relations with Russia, but for the time being this is not
happening as the establishment in Washington reacted with a strongly
anti-Russian position. In any event, Trump won’t reach any deal with the
Russians unless they agree to stop cooperating with Iran in Syria and
push its forces out of the country.
For Trump the ideal scenario would be to reach a deal with Putin,
entrust the Russians to take care of Syria on the condition that they
push Iran out. In exchange for that, the United States could remove
sanctions on Russia and give it some concessions in Europe. But this is
clearly not on the horizon for now.
Q: Do you think any of the talks in Sochi and Geneva will change
anything in Syria?
A: These talks are about the conditions of a political settlement. We
know more or less what this will look like — a transitional period, a
new constitution, new elections, all this with Assad remaining in power
and running in a new presidential election — so there’s not much new to
be expected in that regard. Moscow and Assad proclaim that they are
willing to have international observers monitoring new elections. They
may be betting on Assad’s victory in free presidential elections today
in Syria, because the Assad regime is one bloc whereas the opposition is
very much divided. The fact that the opposition is in shambles may give
the Assad regime enough confidence to undergo such a scenario.
However, for such a settlement to happen, an international agreement is
necessary first. In the Moscow-sponsored Sochi talks, only Russia,
Turkey, Iran, the Syrian regime, and a discredited part of the Syrian
opposition did participate. In the UN-sponsored talks in Geneva, the
United States and Europe are involved. I can’t see the US accepting an
agreement that does not stipulate the withdrawal of all foreign troops
that entered Syria after 2011. In other words, the US would say, “We are
willing to leave Syria provided that Iranian forces leave it as well.”
That’s why the US is currently sticking to the region east of the
Euphrates. Washington’s message to the Russians is: “We will leave Syria
to you if you get it rid of the Iranians, otherwise we won’t.”
Q: Trump’s view of the conflict is different from Obama’s. He is trying
to isolate Iran and has recognised Jerusalem as capital of the Israeli
state. Why are their policies different and what implication will
Trump’s policy have for the region?
A: There are different issues here. When it comes to Israel, Trump is
catering to a specific audience: the Evangelicals and other Christian
Zionists, who constituted a large part of the Republican’s constituency
under Bush and are still a major part of Trump’s voter base. Mike Pence,
the US Vice President, is representative of this segment. He is
outbidding even his own boss in pro-Israeli discourse. Conversely, there
is no consensus on this issue within the wider US establishment. Even
some people in Trump’s entourage were not happy with his stance on
Jerusalem, which is very ideological. The only issue on which there is a
consensus in the administration is a tough attitude towards Iran, but
this does not even include scrapping the nuclear agreement.
Q: Does the Saudi regime still play any decisive role in the Syrian
conflict, especially with regard to Iran?
A: Trump very much encouraged the Saudi rulers to escalate hostilities
against Iran. They have been very clumsy in the handling of episodes
such as that of putting pressure on Qatar or that of the forced
resignation of Lebanon’s Prime Minister, Saad Hariri, which both ended
up in fiasco. The Saudi rulers have no strategy of their own regarding
Syria, they align behind the United States. The remnants of the Syrian
opposition that are linked to them have been very much weakened. Thus
Riyadh’s overall leverage in Syria is much weakened. Its main concern is
to contain Iran and roll it back, and for that they can only rely on
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