[Vredeslijst] The war is far from being over in Syria - Gilbert Achcar interview

Jeff meisner op xs4all.nl
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 
nationalist party.

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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