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The Syrian War Could Still be Raging in Four Years' Time
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“Will the war in Syria ever end?” After seven years of conflict, the same question is being asked by politicians, diplomats, fighters in the front line, and families cowering in unlit basements to escape devastating bombardments from Ghouta to Afrin.

When I asked Aldar Khalil, a top Syrian Kurdish leader whose forces control a quarter of Syria, about the chances of peace in an interview in north-east Syria, he grimly but confidently predicted that the war would go on “for another four years, until a new balance of forces becomes clear”.

We must speak of multiple armed conflicts in Syria rather than a single war so that when one military confrontation gets close to its final chapter, it is swiftly replaced by another. Isis, the greatest threat of 2014 to 2017, is largely eliminated, but the new focus of violence is the escalating struggle between Turkey and the two or three million Syrian Kurds.

The Syrian Army is advancing into Eastern Ghouta and the likelihood is that President Bashar al-Assad will soon have almost complete control of the capital for the first time since 2012. One outcome could be for the rebel fighters to leave with light weapons for opposition or Turkish-held territory in southern and northern Syria, while the bulk of the civilian population would be amnestied and stay where they are. But the Syrian war is littered with compromise solutions which never quite came about because there were too many players to agree on a common course of action.

One siege may be ending in Eastern Ghouta, but another is beginning 200 miles to the north in the Kurdish enclave of Afrin. The Turkish army and its Arab auxiliaries describing themselves as the Free Syrian Army, but, going by their own videos much closer to Isis and al-Qaeda, say they have surrounded the city. It will ultimately fall but it is unclear if the 10,000 Kurdish fighters there will fight to the death. If they do make a last stand, then Afrin will join the many other Syrian cities which have been reduced to rubble.

In the sieges of East Aleppo and Eastern Ghouta, there was a propaganda advantage to the opposition in holding out for as long as they could because of the international outcry against the Syrian army and government. But foreign states and the international media are largely ignoring atrocities in Afrin that would get wall-to-wall coverage if were happening in Eastern Ghouta.

For the Kurds, there are no good options in Afrin, though it might be better from their point of view not to resist to the bitter end in the hope that this would avoid the city being pounded to pieces, as has happened so often elsewhere.

In Afrin, the Kurds have no foreign allies to come to their rescue as occurred during the famous siege of Kobane by Isis in 2014-2015. The US said that it never had an interest in the enclave and the Russians, whose planes and anti-aircraft missiles control the skies over north-west Syria, have evidently agreed that Turkey should take Afrin. The reasons behind this decision illustrate how great power rivalries are fuelling the war in Syria and stop it coming to an end.

Advantages for the Russians include bringing Turkey into permanent conflict with the US, which is allied to the Kurds in the great swathe of territory they control thanks to US backing east of the Euphrates River. The Russians may also want to teach the Kurds a lesson for putting all their eggs in the American basket, not that the Kurds have much choice. They cannot hope to defend the open plains of north east Syria without the threat of a devastating air strike by the US.

The Kurds have a well-developed sense of victimhood and live in fear of once more being betrayed by their great power allies. But, for good self-interested reasons that have little to do with US gratitude to the Kurds for their role in the defeat of Isis, Washington is unlikely to run away from its alliance with the Kurds, at least for the moment. The US needs them as a force on the ground to back up its air power if it is to remain a player in Syria. The alternative is to accept a Russian victory in the country. As the last seven years have shown, the only possible force capable of fulfilling this role is the Kurdish YPG.

The Russians, for their part, know that it was their military intervention in Syria which in a single stroke restored their status as a superpower or something like it, a position they had lost when the Soviet Union disintegrated in 1991. When the Syrian crisis first exploded in 2011, a senior Iraqi official asked an American general what was so different between the situation in Libya, where Gaddafi had just been ousted and killed, and that in Syria. The general replied in a short succinct sentence, saying that in Syria “Russia is back”.

The rivalry of great and regional powers is fuelling the Syrian wars and preventing them coming to an end. But, paradoxically, the US and Russia also present the best chance of bringing these savage conflicts to an end. They alone are the heavy hitters with enough political and military muscle to push the regional and local players towards a compromise peace.

But we have not reached that stage yet when everybody feels there is nothing left to fight for and clear winners and losers have emerged on the battlefield. It is true that some issues have been decided: President Bashar al-Assad will stay in power and he already controls about 12 million of the 16 million Syrians still in the country. After recapturing Eastern Ghouta, he will control all of Damascus and Aleppo as well as almost all the other cities. He may well feel that he is on his way to achieving his ambition to retake the whole of Syria, however long it may take.


But control of the great powers is not absolute: commentators often mistakenly imagine that local proxies in Syria and Iraq are more obedient to their sponsors than they really are. This can be true when the proxies are under intense political or military pressure, but otherwise they resent too close compliance to the orders of their outside backers whose interests frequently diverge from their own. To adapt the American definition of statesman – “a statesman is a politician who stays bought” – no party in Syria and Iraq stays bought, if they can possibly avoid it.

It is easy to describe the wars in Syria in terms realpolitik, but it is wrong to believe that the ongoing turmoil can be controlled by anybody. The players and wildcards are too many for this to happen. Syria is often described as “a quagmire”, but it is more useful to picture it as a great poisonous stew in which the ingredients are contending sects, ethnicities and foreign powers that continually produce new and lethal combinations. In these circumstances, Aldar Khalil’s forecast of another four years of war begins to sound almost optimistic.

(Republished from The Independent by permission of author or representative)
• Category: Foreign Policy • Tags: Kurds, Russia, Syria 
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  1. If Imperial Washington would withdraw from Syria there would be peace. This has been true from the very beginning of this war.

  2. Could? Could implies that something else might happen. So what might happen to end it? An asteroid strike converting the landscape into a crater?

  3. It seems impossible for Cockburn to understand that civilians are leaving his friends ‘s ” djihadist paradise ” in East Ghouta.
    No winner, really ?
    Russia and Syra has won. Even a pure neocon like Votel has told that to the Congress.

  4. El Dato says:

    This article, like, forgets completely the Western / Israeli / Saudi Regime Atomization Project of 2011 and the drumbeat for Samantha Superpowers Style intervention while containers of the good stuff were started to be delivered to “rebels”.

    The Russians, for their part, know that it was their military intervention in Syria which in a single stroke restored their status as a superpower or something like it, a position they had lost when the Soviet Union disintegrated in 1991.

    I think the Russians know that it was their military intervention that stopped another regime change freakshow like Lybia or even Ukraine to go ahead unopposed.

  5. if you had asked patrick cockburn in early september 2015 if assad would be president in 2017 i would wager he, being the establishment propogandist he is, say absolutely no.

    yet here we are in 2018, the russians have in one move smashed the regime change plans of that very establishment patrick so assiduously cultivates in his articles.

    so my question remains, is patrick someone you want to ask let alone believe about the future of anything?

  6. The Scalpel says: • Website

    Here is where things are heading:

    The Syrian government will retake the Damascus area, the Qualamoun area, the Homs area pocket, and the desert on the south and west of the Euphrates. Then things will get sticky.

    At that point,the Syrian government will come up directly against Turkey (Idlib), Israel (Daara), or the US (Kurdlandia for want of a better term). Ultimately that boils down to coming up against the US. If diplomacy fails, there can be no further territorial gains by Syria if US aircraft are allowed to intervene.

    Russia will attempt to counter this both diplomatically and by significantly boosting Syrian SAM numbers, quality, and training. At this point, diplomacy does not appear to be close to any sort of overall solution to the crisis. If diplomacy fails, then ultimately, it all boils down to this:

    Will Syria (with Russian help) be willing to shoot down US fighter aircraft who are attacking Syrian ground forces?

    If the answer is no – then Syria will certainly be partitioned.

    If the answer is yes – will the US escalate?

    – If no, then Syria will eventually regain all of it’s territory.

    – If the US does escalate, will Russian SAM’s (fired by Syrian armed forces) be able to neutralize US aircraft?

    – If that answer is yes, the global balance of power will have shifted, the world will have entered a new era of warfare, and Syria will regain all of it’s territory

    – If that answer is no, then Syria will remain partitioned and the global balance of power will remain relatively unchanged

    • Replies: @The Scalpel
    , @Bianca
  7. The Scalpel says: • Website
    @The Scalpel

    Regarding my previous post, I would include Al-Tanf in the US protectorate zone, and whatever land Turkey is allowed by the US to take from the Kurds, in the Turkey protectorate zone.

  8. Didi says:

    The tragedy of Syria is: “too close to Europe and yet not part of Europe”.

    • Replies: @truth hurts
  9. Bianca says:

    Sure Ahmed Khalil would give you all the information to provide a well balanced opinion. It is no secret that our beloved neocons -/ never called to an account for past horrendeous mistakes in US foreign policy. But sny kind of compromise with these people is only bringing more disasters. And is no secret that they DEARLY want to stay in Syria. It would be much more worthwhile for a writer to focus on INE fhing. Who is providing weapons, including chemical, to “ rebels’. Who is providing telecom, money, food, gas, vehicles, spare parts, and now rockets to reach Damascus and hit schools, killing kids. Let me help you — it is not Russia, Iran. Who has been supporting Al-Qaeda in Aleppo and niw in East Goutha? Who has bern turning blind eye to Kurds trafficking ISIS stolen oil, trafficking arms snd other supplies to Idlib, and elsewhere. Turkey is putting stop to that. It has been pulling various groups away from Al-Qaeda .

    Now, let us see who is providing the ngredients to keep the agony going. We know who is guilty.

  10. Anon • Disclaimer says:

    it is interesting that this scoundrel who has always written in favor of Iran and the war criminal Bashar Assad should write such nonsense. He refers to the war criminal Bashar Assad as President and the courageous defense of Ghouta which has been indiscriminately bombarded by Russian, Iranian and Bashar’s forces is refers to as sticking out to benefit from propaganda. Shame on you Cockburn. You are no human being, just an amalgam of RT and PressTV

  11. Bianca says:
    @The Scalpel

    Syrian Government has been for a long time positioned against Turkey at Al-Bab. Along with FSA. In Idlib, Russia and Turkey man the checkpoints. Even though inside Idlib various groups are fighting over goals, civilian population is leaving Idlib via Turkish and Russian checkpoints. What is not understood is that just letting people escape is not good enough. They need often medical care, are exausted from the ordeal, need shelter and food in the vicinity, before transport is possible to their destination. Many go to Aleppo, rither to relatives, ir to refugee reception facilities.
    The continuous strategic ambiguity between Damascus and Ankara — has two purposes. One, Syria cannot alienate Kursish population, even though YPG is not accepting Syrian rule. At the same time, many groups that Al-Qaeda controls — want out, but are unwilling to surrender to
    Damascus. Turkey has thus better chance of controlling them. Russia is involved as a intermediary between Kurds and Turks, as well supporting isolated Shia villages in Idlib province.

  12. @Didi

    The tragedy of Syria is: “too close to Europe and yet not part of Europe”.

    That description is Turkey. The tragedy of Syria is that it is too close to Israel.

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