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After the Recent Battles in Syria and Iraq, How Close Is Isis to Losing the War?
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In northern Syria carnage alternates with ceasefires as the Syrian air force pounds the rebel-held eastern side of Aleppo in a bid to drive out the remaining civilians. Rebel artillery replies in kind against government areas in the west of the city, but cannot match the firepower used against their enclave. Airstrikes on Thursday killed at least 28 people in a refugee camp close to the Turkish border.

The purpose of the Syrian government’s air and artillery attacks has remained the same over the last five years and is to separate opposition fighters from the civilian population. “This is the same classic counter-insurgency strategy that was used by the French in Algeria and the US in Vietnam,” says Fabrice Balanche, an expert on Syria at the Washington Institute for Near East Policy. Syrian government forces target rebel-held zones and essential infrastructure such as hospitals and markets so whole districts of cities like Damascus and Homs are reduced to rubble.

In Iraq, the US led coalition is more careful about avoiding civilian casualties, but even so 70 per cent of Ramadi, the capital of Anbar province, has been destroyed and surviving houses have been turned into death traps by booby traps and IEDs planted by Isis. In both Syria and Iraq, inadequate numbers of ground troops – Syrian army, Syrian Kurds, Iraqi Kurds, Iraqi army – claim great victories but in reality act as mopping up forces that can only advance after a devastating aerial bombardment.

The Syrian, Russian and US-led air campaigns have all had their successes, but they have their limitations. Dr Balanche says that the population of opposition-held east Aleppo may be down to as low as 100,000 because of airstrikes, while the much safer government-controlled west of the city still has a population of two million. The US and the coalition have carried out 8,067 air strikes in Iraq and 3,809 in Syria which have inflicted heavy casualties on Isis and interrupted their communications. But strict rules of engagement, intended to avoid civilian casualties, mean that Isis and al-Nusra fighters can stay safe by taking over one floor in a five storey building and leaving the other four floors occupied by ordinary families. While the term “human shield” is much abused, the armed opposition in places like Mosul, Raqqa and Eastern Ghouta forbid civilians from leaving, so terrified people must balance the possibility of being killed by air strikes against that of being murdered or detained by salafi-jihadi checkpoints.

Bombs and drones weaken Islamic State, but probably not as much as is hoped in Washington and European capitals. Isis fighters have generally not being fighting to the last man for cities like Ramadi and Palmyra, but pulling back and resorting to guerrilla warfare. In the last few days they claim to have captured the important Shaer gas field in the desert not far from Palmyra. Isis and al-Nusra’s many enemies are divided and pursue different goals. The US and its allies want to defeat Isis, but do not want the Syrian army or the Iraqi Shia militias to be the instruments which inflict that defeat. Syrian and Iraqi Kurdish leaders detest each other, but they are at one in fearing that their value to the West will lapse once Isis is defeated and they will be left to the mercy of Turkey and resurgent regimes in Baghdad and Damascus.

This probably won’t happen for some time. The US is pressing for a swift attack on Mosul and may be deceiving itself about the real military strength of the Iraqi Kurds and the Iraqi Army with the result that US Special Forces get sucked into the fighting when their local ally falters. US military aid is now very extensive. The Pentagon recently announced that “US artillery will support the Iraqi ground offensive against Mosul and the United States will provide up to $415 million to the Kurdish Peshmerga.” There is a small but politically significant trickle of US casualties including a Navy SEAL killed by Isis fighters in a surprise attack north of Mosul last week.

Isis is battered and on the retreat, but is unlikely to be defeated this year. It is losing territory but it is important to keep in mind that much of this is desert or semi-desert. More important is its progressive loss of access to the Turkish border which has been largely sealed off by the advance of the Syrian Kurdish YPG militia assisted by a US air umbrella. The increasingly narrow corridor between Aleppo and the Euphrates that links the self-declared Caliphate to Turkey is under threat from the YPG and their Arab proxies in the east and the Syrian army in the west. If this gap is closed then Isis will have great difficulty receiving foreign volunteers or dispatching terrorists to carry out attacks abroad.

If Isis and al-Nusra are defeated, what will be the impact on the political geography of this part of the Middle East? Sunni Arabs in Iraq make up 20 per cent and in Syria 60 per cent of the population but there is really only one battlefield, so, if the salafi-jihadis lose, so too will the Sunni Arabs as a whole in the band of territory between the Iranian border and the Mediterranean. “In Iraq the war is destroying the Sunni population,” says Professor Joshua Landis who heads the Centre for Middle East Studies at Oklahoma University, pointing out that most of those displaced in the fighting in Iraq over the last two years are Sunni Arabs and the Sunni had already been driven out of much of Baghdad in the sectarian slaughter of 2006-7. A prolonged struggle for Mosul would reduce the last great Sunni stronghold in the country to ruins. “We Sunni in Iraq are going to end up like the Palestinians,” predicted a Sunni Arab from Ramadi last year before the city was partly destroyed.


President Bashar al-Assad said last week that he would fight on to recapture all of Syria and he might go a long way to achieving this. But it would be the triumph of a minority government that could only maintain its authority by terror and military force. It would resemble Saddam Hussein’s Sunni-dominated regime in Iraq after he had crushed the rebellions of the Shia and Kurds, together with 80 per cent of the population, in 1991.

It may not come to this. Not all the news is bad. The most hopeful sign in Syria is that Russia and the US are on occasion acting in unison and have been able for the first time in five years to prod their allies into agreeing ceasefires however shaky and short term. The lesson of the last five years in Syria and the last 13 years in Iraq is that it is very difficult for any single army, government, militia, party, sect or ethnic group to fight successfully for a long period without the support of a foreign power or powers. They may not want to compromise but they may be forced to do so if the alternative is the loss of this essential outside backing. Given that the Assad and anti-Assad forces hate each other, want to kill each other and have no intention of sharing power in future, such compromises are likely to be grudging and short term.

The real test over the coming months will be the extent to which the US and Russia have the desire and capability to enforce a ceasefire or at least a de-escalation of the fighting. A state of permanent war has suited both the government in Damascus and its extreme fundamentalist enemies, because many Syrians who do not like Assad feel that the only alternative to his regime, as the French Algerians used to say, is “the suitcase or the coffin.” Anti-Assad Syrians are likewise faced with a black-or-white choice between a murderous government and murderous Islamists. Only a de-militarisation of Syrian politics might open the way to other alternatives and a distant prospect of permanent peace.

Patrick Cockburn is the author of ‘Chaos and Caliphate: Jihadis and the West in the Struggle for the Middle East’, published by OR Books, price £18. Readers can get a 15% discount by using the code INDEPENDENT

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

    “Fabrice Balanche, an expert on Syria at the Washington Institute for Near East Policy.”

    Quoting a major Israel lobby group to support your crap shows who is paying your “journalism bills” Mr. Cockburn.

    Only brainwashed “journalists” and westerners don’t know that the 5-year-old bloodshed in Syria is an “Israel Project” from day one. Even the Zionist mouthpiece ‘Washington Post’ admitted in 2013 that a great majority of Americans who were demanding the removal of Bashar al-Assad from power, were Jewish.

    On July 4, 2011, a conference of Syrian anti-regime groups was held in Saint-Germain in France. 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.

  2. tbraton says:

    “The Syrian, Russian and US-led air campaigns have all had their successes, but they have their limitations. Dr Balanche says that the population of opposition-held east Aleppo may be down to as low as 100,000 because of airstrikes, while the much safer government-controlled west of the city still has a population of two million. ”

    Now that is something that the American MSM utterly fails to emphasize. “Two million” in the government-controlled part of Aleppo certainly far outweighs, in my book, the “100,000” in the opposition-held part of the city. And yet the American MSM constantly gives the impression that that the “opposition” has controlled Aleppo. You see the same thing in the eastern Syrian city of Deir ez-Zor (aka Dayr Al-Zawr), 120 miles to the east of Palmyra, on the Euphrates River. According to Wikipedia, “According to the 2004 official census, 211,857 people were residing in the city that year.” I have read, to my surprise, recent accounts stating that there are 200,000 Syrians in the government-held part of that city, which indicates that the ISIS forces which have been besieging the city for the past two years can’t be especially large and certainly don’t control a substantial part of that city’s population. Syrian and Russian planes have been supplying the government-held part of the city by air and, apparently, the Syrian army on the move against that city, which might be freed of ISIS forces soon. It seems to me that the American MSM have been portraying Assad’s forces in Syria (with much support from Sunni Arabs) as on the ropes, when that seems to be far from the case.

  3. “The US and its allies want to defeat Isis, but do not want the Syrian army or the Iraqi Shia militias to be the instruments which inflict that defeat.”

    The first part of that sentence – “The US and its allies want to defeat Isis” – has zero credibility.

    The second part – that the US “do not want the Syrian army or the Iraqi Shia militias to be the instruments which inflict that defeat” – rings true, and completely and utterly puts to the lie that first part of the sentence.

    The US, controlled by neoconservative forces, wants ISIS to inflict defeat on the Syrian army as its instrument to effect regime change and balkanization of Syria and Iraq.

    The US and its allies, such as Saudi Arabia, Turkey, Israel, are the very ones responsible for the rise and persistence of ISIS. This starts with the 2003 regime change of Iraq, prominently features the 2011 regime change of Libya, and the ongoing regime change attempt of Syria.

    “More important is its progressive loss of access to the Turkish border which has been largely sealed off by the advance of the Syrian Kurdish YPG militia assisted by a US air umbrella.”

    Most of this sentence sounds ok – Turkey being one of the chief enablers of ISIS and company – until the very end: shouldn’t the 2 letters “US” say “Russian” in that sentence? If it were not for Russia’s intervention in the past 6 or so months, wouldn’t the border with Turkey still be completely porous to ISIS fighters, weapons, supplies, and stolen oil, apparently fenced for them by Turkey, and apparently bought by Israel?

    “… the Sunni had already been driven out of much of Baghdad in the sectarian slaughter of 2006-7.”

    This line should have mentioned that this was just 3 years after the 2003 US regime change invasion of Iraq, and the deliberate US fostering of previously-non-existent sectarianism in the intervening years.

  4. “A state of permanent war has suited both the government in Damascus and its extreme fundamentalist enemies”

    This is garbage. The Syrian government wants to restore peace and order. Unlike Saddam they were never much in the habit of starting wars in the first place, they certainly didn’t want this one. Their enemies want to wipe out the minorities and then have peace & order within their controlled territory, too.

    Some in Israel do want a state of permanent war in Syria. I try to give Cockburn the benefit of the doubt but this looks like deliberate misdirection to me.

  5. The problem with Mr Cockburn as a war correspondent is he is very rarely reporting from the war zone he is commentating on. Even a moronic Islamist like “Rehmat” has twigged this. All too often, his stories rely on second or third hand sources. To be fair, Syria and Iraq are very difficult and dangerous places.
    He tends to rely on a lot of anecdotal stories from his drivers when he is in war zones. Rather like that old soak James Cameron used to report wars by asking the opinions of the people in the bar he was in. A real reporter like Malcolm Muggeridge went out to the Ukraine in the 1930s and reported the Holodomor first hand. Scum like Cameron got lauded by the establishment in later years, but Muggeridge, one of the finest reporters of the 20th Century, got little praise or honour.
    The Independent newspaper has ceased print publication and is now only available online behind a paywall. May I suggest, Mr Unz, you employ a more interesting, vigorous and first hand reporter than Mr Cockburn, who is obviously well past his sell by date.

    • Replies: @Rehmat
  6. Mr Cockburn to state that the Assad government is a minority govnmt is truelly Orwellian of u . Even ur own governments asessment of the Syrian regime knows that the Assad regime has a popular mandate so the blatant lies that u so dillegently write with out once substantiating any of ur anglo-zionist claims is highly dubiuos at best. Just in the last 4 days the MIT of Turkey have opened up a new front and up to 4000 foreigners have entered into Syria illegally fully equipped and armed to further terrorize Syria so spare us ur Wasp anglo-zionist lies and deceptions when commenting on Syria and maybe take ur job more seriously in stead of being empire propagandist. Yesterdays news gets wrapped in todays fish

  7. bondo says:

    pc is reporting from basement at no 10 downing

  8. atheo says: • Website

    Not an opinion but rather simply a misdirection.

    What is the point of dissemination?

    Are we supposed to be more conversant about nonsense than focused on reality?

  9. Rehmat says:

    “Syria and Iraq are very difficult and dangerous places”, even Chickenshit Verymuchalive knows that because both those countries are part of the AXIS OF RESISTANCE against the LITTLE SH**T state of Israel.

    On October 28, 2014, Jeffrey Goldberg, former Israeli military prison-guard turned American Jewish Lobby’s popular jingoist, posted an Israel Hasbara column at Jewish The Atlantic. In the article, Goldberg claims that as result of Netanyahu’s refusal to back-down from building new 1,060 new Jewish homes near Temple Mount, the relations between Obama and Netanyahu have hit its lowest point. So much so that during his conversation with an ‘anonymous’ senior Obama administration official, who called Netanyahu Chickenshit.

    “The good thing about Netanyahu is that he’s scared to launch wars. The bad thing about him is that he won’t do anything to reach an accommodation with the Palestinians or with the Sunni Arab states. The only thing he’s interested in is protecting himself from political defeat. He’s not Rabin, he’s not Sharon, he’s certainly no Begin. He’s got no guts,” Goldberg quoted the “official” saying.

    • Replies: @Verymuchalive
  10. Greg Bacon says: • Website

    UNZ appears to have some of the best informed readers on the planet. They can search for real news and still think, Bravo.

    With that said..

    Mr. Cockburn, I dismissed your blathering’s years ago as it was apparent you were writing for either the government or maybe a foreign power.

    ISIS is a project of the USA, Israel and the SA to destroy another ME state for the benefit of Israel, because no one else is gaining by this savage destruction(See the paper by Oden Yinon)

    You can find pics online of Israel PM Netenyahu visiting wounded ISIS thugs in Israeli field hospitals set up in the Golan Heights, so don’t try to con us that ISIS is some kind of organic jihadist setup, it’s not. ISIS is designed to wreck Syria, breaking it up into three parts with Israel taking a big chunk of the southern part, for ‘security’ purposes.

    If ISIS ‘loses,’ the real axis of evil, the USA, Israel and SA, will bring forth another CIA/MOSSAD sponsored ME terror group to inflict even more damage on those poor souls.
    And giving more work to shills like you, Mr. Cockburn.

  11. Sean2007 says:

    If Patrick Cockburn did not exist it would be necessary for the Pentagon to invent him. I’ve always wondered if there is anyone on this site who takes him seriously.

  12. Joe Hill says:

    “The role of a journalist is to comfort the afflicted and afflict the comfortable”.

    Mr Cockburn has not yet learned this most important rule of journalism. Perhaps Mr Unz would consider publishing the work of a real journalist such as Robert Fisk, and spare us this drivel.

    I already get my daily dose of propaganda from “National Propaganda Radio” and “Propaganda Broadcast Service”, thank you very much.

  13. Anonymous • Disclaimer says: • Website

    This disgusting piece by another Cockburn fake dissident has no place in the alternative media and should be removed. Among other things:

    1. Assad has been popularly elected and enjoys majority support.
    2. Syria is a secular state, and that is what the majority of Syrians of all faiths is defending. They do NOT want to become a Wahhabi repressive theocracy. That is precisely what the fight for them is about. Compare for instance the status of women in Syria to that of Saudi Arabia.
    3. The USA doesn’t fight ISIS. ISIS is a creation of the CIA and its allies withn the Turkish and Arabian repressive theocracies.
    4. No mention in this piece of the role of Israel, the Yinnon Plan. What is happening in the Middle East now follows that plan, and serves the interests of Israeli and American fascists.
    5. No mention what will happen to Syria if the USA gets its way: Weren’t Libya and Iraq and Ukraine failed states enough for Mr. Cockburn and the Unz review? Can any decent person wish something like that on the Syrian people?
    6. These are not rebels. For the most part they are foreign mercenaries. It’s not a civil war, but an attempt at a foreign conquest.
    7. If the USA really wanted to destroy ISIS, the whole plague would be gone within a week. First, the USA has the military might. Second, just a phone call to its vassals in Ankara and Riad, and the supply chain and recruitment channels will be gone. Another phone call to its masters in Tel Aviv might–or might not–stop that lifeline to ISIS.
    8. How is it, one wonders, that the USA is protecting, in Aleppo, its avowed enemy, Al Qaeda?

    I could go on, but the point has already been made. Since I don’t think the Cockburn brothers are idiots, the question arises: Who is paying them to put forward such NYT-style trash in the so-called alternative media?

  14. @Rehmat

    Like most of your replies, it fails to deal with the arguments presented and quickly becomes a Reductio ad Israelum . Please Mr Sailer, if you can have Anti-Semitism and Anti-Gentilism, you can have Reductio ad Hitlerum and its complement/opposite Reductio ad Israelum.
    [ With a bit of luck, the old boy might use this quote. Has anyone used Reductio ad Israelum before ? ]
    I believe the State of Israel to be a bad idea, but, like any state, it has the right to defend itself and its vital interests. To say otherwise would be complete hypocrisy.
    What is completely unacceptable is the way the Zionists and Neocons have subverted American and Western foreign policy. This must be criticized and opposed in a rational and clear-sighted way and in the interests of the indigenous peoples of the West.

  15. Hayrick says:

    The ME wars are confusing, perhaps deliberately so. The old cultured middle east is being destroyed before our eyes. I would predict that those that promote this will not be safe from it’s effects. We live in an interconnected overcrowded world like rats in a steadily closing trap.

    If human beings whilst inevitably aggressive cannot also be co-operative, supportive and altruistic there is no hope for us in this world. There will be no where to hide no matter how powerful or overflowing with $$$$$$$.

    Meanwhile dissemble and blog on to infinity, most only listen for a moment and no war is won.

  16. Anonymous • Disclaimer says:

    What a ridiculous article what got me is what US led airstrikes have been successful tell me where , as usual the US continues its evil crimes and conducts things illegally. Really if the US had successes fighting their cancer they helped to create along with their lap dogs allies then I am the Penthouse Pet of the month and the year and the Playboy Playmate of the month and year. What a farce.

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