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Syria: the Winners and Losers Are Becoming Clear in This War
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At an early stage of the war in Syria, an Iraqi official went to see a Nato commander. “What’s the difference between what is happening in Syria and Libya [where Muammar Gaddafi had just been overthrown]?” he asked. The reply of the Nato general was simple and crisp. “Russia is back,” he said.

The rebirth of Russia as a great power was evident early on 12 February in Munich when the US Secretary of State, John Kerry, and the Russian Foreign Minister, Sergei Lavrov, announced a plan for the delivery of aid to besieged cities in Syria and a “cessation of hostilities”, to be followed by a more formal ceasefire. Russia and the US have the power to make things happen or stop happening in Syria that is not absolute but is greater than anybody else.

The announcement was greeted with scepticism by the media and diplomats, who swiftly pointed to the many holes in the agreement and the many things that could go wrong. But the doubts may be exaggerated because military and diplomatic developments in Syria are reinforcing each other. Russian military intervention means that President Bashar al-Assad is not going to lose the war and it is difficult to see what Syrian opposition forces alone can do to stop the Russian-backed Syrian army in coalition with a Shia axis led by Iran. President Bashar al-Assad says he wants victory but it is unlikely that that the US and its regional allies will accept total defeat.

The greater Russian and Iranian involvement in the war is unsurprising. It was clear from about 2012 that Russia and the Shia axis were not going to let President Bashar al-Assad be overthrown, and would counter any escalation by Turkey, Saudi Arabia and the Sunni powers. This happened last year when an offensive by Syrian non-Islamic State (Isis) rebels led by the al-Qaeda affiliate al-Nusra and Ahrar al-Sham won a series of military victories in Idlib province in northern Syria. Their success provoked Russian military intervention on 30 September which shifted the balance of power in the war in favour of Assad to a degree that could only be reversed by the direct intervention of the Turkish army.

It is getting a bit late even for this. On 2 February, the Syrian army, assisted by heavy Russian airstrikes, cut the road between Aleppo and Turkey. The Russian and Syrian governments are getting close to sealing off northern Syria from Turkey in a tacit alliance with the Syrian Kurds who have been advancing from the east. These are crucial moments of the war as Turkey and Saudi Arabia debate military intervention.

A striking feature of the Russian-Syrian-Iranian offensive is the mute response so far of the US and allies.

Saudi Arabia and Turkey no longer have the arm lock over Western policy in the war that they once had, when it was assumed that their Syrian allies and proxies would win and Assad would go. Not only did this not happen, but the rise of Isis in 2014 and its sweeping victories in Iraq and Syria showed that the Syrian war could not be allowed to fester. The hope by Western powers that the crisis could be contained was destroyed last year by two events: the flood of migrants from Syria and Iraq making their way to western Europe and the massacre of 130 people by Isis gunmen and suicide bombers in Paris on 13 November.

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.

It was a convenient myth for the Syrian opposition and its outside backers to claim that neither the Syrian army nor the Russians were fighting Isis. “The Russians say they want to destroy Daesh [Isis] but they are not bombing Daesh: they are bombing the moderate opposition,” said the Foreign Secretary Philip Hammond, who retains a touching belief in the existence of a powerful moderate faction.

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.

Isis itself is a better source than Mr Hammond on who it believes it is fighting in defence of its self-declared caliphate, as is shown by its figures for “martyrdom operations” or suicide bombings it carried out in January. In an Instagram, it claims 85 such attacks over the month, of which 47 were in the form of Vehicle Borne Explosive Devices (VBEDs) and 38 were by individuals wearing explosive belts. The biggest number of these attacks were directed against the Iraqi army, which was the target in 54 of them of which 28 were VBEDs and 26 explosive belts. But the second largest number of attacks has been the Syrian army, which was the target of 18 VBEDs and 11 explosive belts.


Isis is now beginning to crumble at the edges, though it is a long way from defeat. It is more vulnerable in Syria than Iraq because it was born out of the Iraq war after the invasion in 2003 and its leaders are mostly Iraqi. In Iraq, it dominates the Sunni armed opposition to the government and the Kurds, while in Syria it is only one of several opposition movements, though it is much the most powerful. The high point of its success was in 2014 when it captured Mosul, and it has generally struck at the weakest target. But today it can win no more cheap victories. It faces four enemies – the Iraqi army, the Syrian army, the Iraqi Kurds and the Syrian Kurds – all of whom are receiving strong air support from either the US or Russia which vastly multiplies their fire power.

The war is far from over, but the likely winners and losers are becoming clearer. There is going to be no radical regime change in Damascus. The Sunni Arab opposition has failed to win power in Syria and is on the defensive in Iraq. The Kurds in both countries are politically and militarily more powerful than ever because they are effective opponents of Isis, but, once it is defeated, the Kurds fear being marginalised.

Isis is penned into an increasingly isolated and heavily bombarded caliphate, but may well show that it is still a power to be feared by carrying out spectacular atrocities abroad like the blowing up of a Russian aircraft with a bomb or the slaughter in Paris last year.

Regional powers such as Turkey, Saudi Arabia and Qatar failed to overthrow Assad, and have achieved none of their war aims. Iran and the Shia coalition it leads have been much more successful. Though President Obama’s cautious policy is often criticised, he has suffered no real defeats. When Russia entered the Syrian war four months ago, pundits predicted that it would regret it, but instead it has become central to deciding how the war will end.

(Republished from The Independent by permission of author or representative)
• Category: Foreign Policy • Tags: ISIS, Russia, Syria, Turkey 
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  1. Rehmat says:

    The NATO official must be as dumb as Sen. John McCain.

    Russia were never left the Middle East. It was always there to look after it illegitimate child – a Socialist Israel.

    Iraq was always an US/UK satellite, while Libya was a socialist/Arab nationalist country under Col. Qaddafi.

    It were Syrian army supported by Hizbullah fighters and Iranian military adviser who were fighting against the US-Israel created ISIL/ISIS since 2011 while Russia sat on the sideline for 3.5 years. It only entered the war when Putin realized that America and its allies were not fighting ISIS, but Syrian army to protect the Wahhabi throat-cutters.

    On February 11, Paul R. Pillar reported at Jewish news website, The National Interests that Jewish lobby (Washington Post, WINEP, Foreign Affairs, NYT, Dennis Ross, Jeremy Shapiro, Sen. John McCain, etc.) is freaked-out at the prospects of a pro-Iran regime staying in Syria. Now they have come-up with a new proposal, discussed by John Kerry with his Russian counterpart. The proposal accepts Russian strategic interests in the region, but without president Bashar al-Assad.

    Last week, both Obama and Putin agreed on a joint strategy to resolve more than four-year-old foreign insurgency in Syria which has killed hundreds of thousands Syrians and made more than four million refugees.

    Syrian president Bashar al-Assad in a recent interview he gave to the Agence France-Presse (AFP) in which he criticized French government for arming and training the foreign insurgency. He said that his government is willing to have dialogue with its enemies while continue fighting against foreign created and supported terrorist groups. Assad also vowed that fight against US-Israel created ISIS will continue until whole Syrian land is recovered.

    Iran’s policy toward Russia is based on a balancing regional strategy. It doesn’t want to join the US-led Zionist-controlled West or Russia based on its history of wars with Russia in the 18th century. That’s the reason, Tehran kept out of two Russian wars on Chechnya – a Muslim land occupied and ravaged by Russians for the last 300 years.

    America and its Zionist-controlled allies are bent on further break-up of Muslim countries around Israel in order to maintain military superiority of the Zionist entity. Arabs and Muslims need to start becoming keenly aware of this “small state” third option, else they will fall into the dangerous trap of being distracted by detail while larger games carve up their nations and plunge them into perpetual conflict.

  2. good summary essay, except the Central Player – Israel – is unmentioned. And Israel, via the State Dept. neo-cons, ultimately determines US policy. Israel wants the Shi’a Crescent broken, Saudi Arabia this and the Pipeline, and Turkey wants to destroy the transborder Kurds who threaten the very integrity of the Turkish State. Thus the “Munich Agreement” is a mare’s nest, and has been so proven by the imminent US (Israel) – approved Turk invasion of Syria. Which turns the tables completely: Russia must now back down, or roll the dice and attack Turkey with main force. Bet on the latter, and hope the conflict can be isolated before further escalation (e.g., open war between Iran & SA) occurs. One wishes Trump were President already, and not the weakling Obama whose 2nd term foreign policy has fallen increasingly under neo-con/Zionist control

    • Replies: @mikhas
  3. mikhas says:
    @Haxo Angmark

    You will never ever hear Cocky mention the elephant in the room, “israel”, but you will find that his pieces somehow always end up endorsing the balkanization of Syria & Iraq. I.e all according to the “Yinon plan” and PNAC…

    • Replies: @This Is Our Home
    , @Rehmat
  4. Rob Payne says:

    I think the real losers are the Syrian civilians, the refugees, and the civilians killed by US and Russian bombs. I notice the Syrian civilians often are left out of the conversation. I recently read through a news article on the refugees which centered on their situation but there was no mention as to why they were refugees.

  5. Losers:

    Everyone who is killed, maimed or injured. All widows and orphans. Everyone who is displaced and/or impoverished.


    War profiteers.

  6. @mikhas

    Yinon Plan Yinon Plan Protocols of the Elders of Yinon Plan! What a weird meme has caught on here.

    Oded Yinon was not a member of the Israeli government, but worked as a journalist, a research assistant and a lecturer. Using his work as a representative of an Israeli strategy would be like circulating an article written 30 years ago by some Arab journalist and representing it as the official strategy of the Palestinian Authority. Never mind that Hamas and the Iranian government openly state their desire to destroy Israel; they don’t need conspiracy theories to convince people of that, but the annoying detail is that people don’t seem to care as much, or not to take them seriously as they would an idea stated by an Israeli journalist 33 years ago. Yet Yinon’s Plan for “Greater Israel” has been invoked as if Yinon traveled in a time machine and had the ear of Mr. Herzl himself. All of the turmoil and dissolution in the Middle East is part of a Zionist plot, to which one could imagine many bewildered Jews replying, “If only the world didn’t have so much faith in us.”

    • Replies: @helena
    , @Art
  7. Rehmat says:

    Mentioning the “Zionist Elephant” running America’s foreign policy in the Middle East has always resulted in ruining ones’ career. Cockburn learned that lesson from some of the great ‘antisemites’ such as Ron Paul, Cynthia McKinney, Paul Findley, etc.

    The first Israeli conference on Syria was sponsored by French Jewish Lobby in Paris in July 2011. The meeting was attended by 200 people representing none of the Syrian groups calling for reforms in Syria – the ‘Democratic change in Syria’. The meeting was organized by La Regle du Jeu (The Rule of the Game) magazine and website which is headed by Zionist Jew Bernard-Henri Levy. The other Zionist Jews who attended the meeting included Bernard Kouchner, former French foreign minister, Frederik Ansel, a member of Israel’s ruling Likud Party, Alex Goldfarb, former Knesset member and adviser to Israeli defense minister Ehud Barak and Andre Glucksmann, an Islamophobe French writer.

    Levy became world famous when in 2009, he ran a campaign The Polanski Liberation Front against Swiss authorities for jailing Jewish award-winning director, Roman Polanski, on charges of raping a 13-year-old girl in the 1970s. Polanski had fled from the US in 1978 to avoid prosecution.

    The symbolic Syrian attendee was no other than Moulhem Droubi, the Muslim Brotherhood representative in Paris. That show how much threat Muslim Brotherhood in Egypt and Syria poses to the Zionist entity…….

  8. I cannot believe Mr. Cockburn is unaware of the ruthlessly destabilizing role Israel has played in Syria recently, just as it has throughout the Middle East over the past half century. The Israelis’ preferred technique is fomenting misbehavior using catspaws like the USA, ISIS, and other groups. But they have not scrupled at direct jackbooted thuggery when it suits their purpose, e.g., in Lebanon’s Shattila camp and the constant harassment of Palestinian civilians.

  9. helena says:
    @This Is Our Home

    “What a weird meme has caught on here.”

    Are you sure it’s not a trope or canard?

    • Replies: @This Is Our Home
  10. @helena

    It is all three. It is also plain crazy. I may be young enough to prefer meme as a word but I am old enough to remember when all the crazy conspiracy theories involved either Israel or America backing big state dictatorial stability in the Middle East over the inevitable democratic revolution. Now the same people argue that the plan all along was the opposite of what they claimed!

    I learnt from the Western attempt to keep Afghanistan and Iraq together that they are better off as separate countries. So now I am accused of secretly backing some old Jewish journalist’s evil plan. Rather I have open eyes and know that diversity is no country’s strength.

  11. @This Is Our Home

    Rather I have open eyes and know that diversity is no country’s strength.

    Too late!

  12. Art says:
    @This Is Our Home

    All of the turmoil and dissolution in the Middle East is part of a Zionist plot, to which one could imagine many bewildered Jews replying, “If only the world didn’t have so much faith in us.”

    Oh the poor poor misunderstood Zionist Jew.

    We misunderstand their 200 hidden nukes.

    We misunderstand their Apartheid country.

    We misunderstand their one religion country.

    We misunderstand their 1,000,000-person prison in Gaza.

    We misunderstand their killing of 1,400 men, women, and children in Gaza.

    We misunderstand their squater settlements.

    We misunderstand their right of return for Jew but not Palestinian.

    We misunderstand their all their pernicious laws against the indigenous Palestinians.

  13. @This Is Our Home

    “I may be young enough to prefer meme as a word but I am old enough to remember when all the crazy conspiracy theories involved either Israel or America backing big state dictatorial stability in the Middle East over the inevitable democratic revolution. Now the same people argue that the plan all along was the opposite of what they claimed!”

    I remember Condi Rice saying that the US used to support the secular dictatorships, but that now they were going to break them and have Liberal Democracies instead. It’s hardly a conspiracy theory to agree with her that the US did one thing, then the other. Obviously the other did not work out so good.

  14. Art says:

    Turkey is about to launch a false flag operation so they can invade Syria

  15. tbraton says:
    @This Is Our Home

    ” Rather I have open eyes and know that diversity is no country’s strength.”

    Are you arguing for the breakup of Israel? It is generally acknowledged that the secular Jews of Israel (concentrated around Tel Aviv) detest and cannot get along with the extremely religious Jews of Israel (concentrated around Jerusalem and the West Bank) and vice versa. In fact, a recent poster on (Greasy William, if I recall correctly), who poses as an extreme right wing religious Israeli, has expressed his wish to see the secular Jews disappear from Israel. Division of Israel seems like the only acceptable recourse.

    • Replies: @This Is Our Home
    , @matt
  16. @tbraton

    I have been there and I think that visiting there was fundamental in opening my eyes to the benefits of a country having assabiyah. It is the only first world country I have visited where such a thing still exists society wide.

    • Replies: @5371
  17. matt says:

    The Ashkenazim and the Mizrahim tend not to get along either. Partition is the only solution.

  18. Anonymous • Disclaimer says:

    People should not take the embedded journalist who spread the intelligence services’ propaganda around seriously. He always pretends that he knows nothing about the fact that ISIS, Al Qaeda and other terrorist groups in the region are US-Israel-MI6 trained terrorists.

    For the journalists who spread the lies of CIA-Mossad-MI6 around, including on this page, should read the following to realize that they cannot fool anyone except themselves.

    Garikai Chengu a research scholar at Harvard University writes:

    {Much like Al Qaeda, the Islamic State (ISIS) is made-in-the-USA, an instrument of terror designed to divide and conquer the oil-rich Middle East and to counter Iran’s growing influence in the region.

    The fact that the United States has a long and torrid history of backing terrorist groups will surprise only those who watch the news and ignore history.}

  19. keke, that fact that the muslims allow the west to exploit the sunni and shia divide to fuck them both just boggles my mind.

    this is why until they are united as one, they will always be west’s bitches :()

  20. 5371 says:
    @This Is Our Home

    So although your name is “This Is Our Home”, it is not yours.

    • Replies: @This Is Our Home
  21. @5371

    So although your name is “This Is Our Home”, it is not yours.

    England is my home, even if feeling that way has been delegitimised…and the name was a British politics website which I briefly ran but I took it down.

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