A masterclass in sophistry: Patrick Cockburn on the Russian intervention in Syria

by Gilbert Achcar

A recent 2-part series on Syria in The Independent by Patrick Cockburn, one of the most influential journalists on the subject, is a masterclass in sophistry that illustrates why the conflict is so misunderstood. A closer look is therefore instructive.

On October 2, in an article titled “Syria crisis: The West wrings its hands in horror but it was our folly that helped create this bloodbath”, Cockburn writes:

Reaction to Russia’s military intervention in Syria shows that the lack of knowledge of the Syrian political landscape on the part of Western political leaders and media is hindering the adoption of more constructive policies. During the past four years, over-simplifications and wishful thinking have prevented any realistic attempt to end the civil war, mitigate its effects or stop it from spreading to other countries.

Since 2011 the departure from power of President Bashar al-Assad has been prescribed as a quick way to bring an end to the conflict, although there is no reason to believe this. There are no quick or easy solutions: Syria is being torn apart by a genuine, multi-layered civil war with a multitude of self-interested players inside and outside the country. If Assad dropped dead tomorrow, Syrians in his corner would not stop fighting, knowing as they do that the success of an opposition movement dominated by Isis and al-Qaeda clones such as Jabhat al-Nusra would mean death or flight for them and their families.

Sophism 1: Those in the West who have been calling for Assad’s departure as a condition for bringing an end to the conflict meant it as part of a “national reconciliation” and “managed transition,” not as Assad “dropping dead tomorrow,” of course.

Today there are four million Syrian refugees, mostly from opposition areas being bombarded indiscriminately by government forces. But this figure could double if the more populous pro-government areas become too dangerous to live in.

In the past, this was not likely to happen because Assad always controlled at least 12 out of 14 Syrian provincial capitals.

Sophism 2: In other words: don’t let more populous areas slip out of government control lest they get “bombarded indiscriminately by government forces” (a welcome acknowledgement of the obvious truth) and end up sending more refugees!

The Western rejection of any role for him in the future of Syria, even though he ruled most of its population, torpedoed negotiations before they could get off the ground. To say this is not to endorse Assad or the Baath party, who have always used gangster methods and extreme violence to stay in power, but to recognise that they were never offered terms they could accept and were only likely to go if they suffered complete military defeat.

Sophism 3: From the very early period, the Obama administration have been advocating a compromise with the regime predicated on Assad’s negotiated handing of power (the “Yemen solution” as Obama called it).

Western governments have hitherto dealt with this problem by retreating into fantasy, lying or remaining wilfully ignorant about the real situation on the ground. As long ago as August 2012 the Defence Intelligence Agency, the Pentagon’s intelligence arm, said in a report first disclosed earlier this year that the “Salafists [Islamic fundamentalists], the Muslim Brotherhood and AQI [al-Qaeda in Iraq, later Isis] are the major forces driving the insurgency in Syria.”

It noted that the opposition was supported by the West, Gulf countries and Turkey and forecast that Isis “could also declare an Islamic state through its union with other terrorist organisations in Iraq and Syria”.

The influence at the time of this prescient DIA report is not known, but earlier this year there was a semi-public revolt by US intelligence analysts who said their conclusions that Isis was growing in strength were being diluted or disregarded by their superiors. Some 50 analysts working for the US military’s Central Command were reported to have complained formally that their analyses were being manipulated to fit in with the administration’s claim that Isis was weakening.

Sophism 4: What was the best way to prevent this outcome? Get Assad to step down and hand power, or let him stay in power, massacre the population, and destroy the country, thus creating the conditions that allowed ISIS to emerge and develop?

CENTCOM may have come to believe its own upbeat message because US generals were giving optimistic accounts of the success of their air campaign against Isis at the very moment in May when it captured the cities of Ramadi in Iraq and Palmyra in Syria.

From an early stage in the Syrian crisis, intelligence reports discounted or derided claims that moderate or secular forces were leading the opposition. In a moment of frankness in 2014, Vice President Joe Biden gave a succinct account of what the administration really thought about what was happening in Syria. He said that Saudi Arabia, Turkey and the UAE “were so determined to take down Assad and essentially have a proxy Sunni-Shia war”. They financed and armed anybody who would fight against Assad, “except that the people who were being supplied were al-Nusra and al-Qaeda and the extremist elements coming from other parts of the world”.

Mr Biden’s summary of how the extreme Sunni sectarian jihadis came to dominate the armed opposition in Syria, marginalising or eliminating the “moderates”, became accepted wisdom over the past year. The Free Syrian Army – even at the height of its fame never more than an umbrella organisation – was considered dead and buried.

Sophism 5: The situation would have been completely different indeed had the US resolutely supported the FSA and prevented its regional allies from funding any competitors. Biden scored an own goal, an art at which he is a well-known champion.

Anthony Cordesman of the Centre for Strategic and International Studies in Washington wrote that the time had come to stop pretending “that Syrian ‘moderates’ are strong enough to either affect the security situation or negotiate for Syria’s real fighters”.

But as news spread this week that the Russians had started bombing in Syria, the FSA and the “moderates” were disinterred in order to suggest that it was they and not Isis who were the targets of Russian air strikes.

One British newspaper claimed that the bombs “mainly appeared to hit less extreme groups fighting Bashar al-Assad’s regime”. David Cameron worried that if Russian action was “against the Free Syrian Army in support of Assad the dictator, then obviously that is a retrograde step”.

Television presenters spoke of anti-Assad forces being bombed in northern Syria, but seldom added that the most important of these were Jabhat al-Nusra and Ahrar ash-Sham. More than 30 air strikes were against Jaysh al-Fateh, the Army of Conquest, which has seized much of Idlib province but is led by al-Nusra.

Sophism 6: Jaysh al-Fath is not led by al-Nusra. Al-Nusra is part of it. The most important component of the coalition is Ahrar al-Sham, which is close to the Muslim Brotherhood. The coalition includes FSA units.

The situation is genuinely complex, with between 20 and 30 opposition armed groups backed by Turkey, Saudi Arabia, Qatar and the UAE. But news reports had a strong whiff of Cold War propaganda when any fact could be distorted in order to demonise Moscow.

So many crises and confrontations have their central focus on the battlefields of Syria that any return to a unitary state is impossible. Conflicts include a popular uprising against Assad, Sunni against Shia, Iran against Saudi Arabia, Kurd against Turk, and now US against Russia.

But any solution or diminution of violence can only come if there is a realistic understanding by Western and regional powers of the destructive forces at work.

If political leaders, media reporters and think-tank specialists share a vision of Syria that is partisan, propagandist and over-simple, there is no chance of a solution to the great Syrian tragedy.

Sophism 7: Bottom line here: The great Syrian tragedy could only be “solved” by partitioning the country since “any return to a unitary state is impossible.”

On October 3, in an article titled “Syria crisis: Let’s welcome Russia’s entry into this war“, Cockburn writes:

Russia’s military intervention in Syria, although further internationalising the conflict, does however present opportunities, as well as complications. There are no simple solutions to this terrible war which has destroyed Syria. Out of a population of 22 million, four million Syrians are refugees abroad and seven million have been displaced inside the country.

I was recently in Kurdish-controlled north-east Syria, where the bomb-shattered ruins of Kobani look like pictures of Stalingrad after the battle. But equally significant is the fact that even in towns and villages from which Islamic State (Isis) has been driven, and where houses are largely undamaged, people are too terrified to return.

Syrians are right to be afraid. They know that what happens on the battlefield today may be reversed tomorrow. At this stage, the war is a toxic mix of half a dozen different confrontations and crises, involving players inside and outside the country. Intertwined struggles for power pit Assad against a popular uprising, Shia against Sunni, Kurd against Arab and Turk, Isis against everybody, Iran against Saudi Arabia and Russia against the US.

One of the many problems in ending, or even de-escalating these crises, is that these self-interested players are strong enough to fight their own corners, but too weak to ever checkmate their opponents. This is why the involvement of Moscow could have a positive impact: Russia is at least a heavy hitter, capable of shaping events by its own actions and strongly influencing the behaviour of its allies and proxies.

Sophism 8: Hallelujah! WELCOME THE “HEAVY HITTER” (“at least”, or at last?)! By one of the mysteries of dialectics, it will help stop the destruction of Syria by heavily hitting the country. Russia’s support to Assad will open the way to checkmate the opposition, which he has been too weak to achieve until now.

Barack Obama said at a news conference after the Russian airstrikes that “we’re not going to make Syria into a proxy war between the United States and Russia”. But the US-Soviet Cold War, and the global competition that went with it, had benefits for much of the world. Both superpowers sought to support their own allies and prevent political vacuums from developing which its opposite number might exploit. Crises did not fester in the way they do today, and Russians and Americans could see the dangers of them slipping wholly out of control and provoking an international crisis.

This global balance of power ended with the collapse of the Soviet Union in 1991, and for the Middle East and North Africa this has meant more wars. There are currently eight armed conflicts raging, including Pakistan and Nigeria (the figure jumps to nine if one includes South Sudan, where the renewal of fighting since 2013 has produced 1.5 million displaced people). Without a superpower rival, the US, and its allies such as the UK and France, largely ceased to care what happened in these places and, when they did intervene, as in Libya and Iraq, it was to instal feeble client regimes. The enthusiasm which David Cameron and Nicolas Sarkozy showed in overthrowing Muammar Gaddafi contrasts with their indifference as Libya collapsed into criminalised anarchy.

Overall, it is better to have Russia fully involved in Syria than on the sidelines so it has the opportunity to help regain control over a situation that long ago spun out of control. It can keep Assad in power in Damascus, but the power to do so means that it can also modify his behaviour and force movement towards reducing violence, local ceasefires and sharing power regionally.

Sophism 9: Talk about wishful thinking! Here and below Cockburn quotes Kerry without acknowledging it. Kerry to MSNBC:

“I think it’s up to his supporters, his strongest supporters, to make it clear to him that if you’re going to save Syria, Assad has made a set of choices – barrel bombing children, gassing his people, torturing his people, engaging in starvation as a tactic of war. I mean, all of these things that he has done, there’s no way even if President Obama wanted to just play along that you could actually achieve peace, because there are 65 million Sunni in between Baghdad and the border of Turkey, Syria, and Iraq, who will never, ever again accept Assad as a member – as a legitimate leader. They just won’t accept it. It doesn’t matter what we’re thinking.”

It was always absurd for Washington and its allies to frame the problem as one of “Assad in or Assad out”, when an end to the Assad leadership would lead either to the disintegration of the Syrian state, as in Iraq and Libya, or would have limited impact because participants in the Syrian civil war would simply go on fighting.

The intervention of Russia could be positive in de-escalating the war in Syria and Iraq, but reading the text of President Obama’s press conference suggests only limited understanding of what is happening there.

Sophism 10: Note the sophistication in dialectical thinking: “The intervention of Russia could be positive in de-escalating the war.” In other words: escalate in order to de-escalate. As for the people being bombed, well – let them go to hell.

Syria is only one part of a general struggle between Shia and Sunni and, though there are far more Sunni than Shia in the world, this is not so in this region. Between Afghanistan and the Mediterranean – Iran, Iraq, Syria and Lebanon – there are more than 100 million Shia and 30 million Sunni.

Sophism 11: Read again the quote from Kerry above: “65 million Sunni in between Baghdad and the border of Turkey, Syria, and Iraq”. Cockburn skews the figures differently by factoring Iran in (66-70 million Shia), and factoring Turkey out (65 million Sunni), let alone the other Arab countries in the region. He also postulates implicitly that the population of Iran endorses its rulers’ sectarianism, is happy about their country’s involvement in Syria, and would be as much incensed were Bashar al-Assad to fall as “the Sunni” are incensed by Assad’s barbaric slaughtering of Syrian Sunni. (Cockburn loves such generalisations making all adherents to the same religious creed a single monolithic political bloc. The truth is that Assad supporters include Sunnis, and there are a huge lot of Shia who dream of the downfall of Iran’s theocracy.)

In political terms, the disparity is even greater because the militarily powerful Kurdish minorities in Iraq and Syria, though Sunni by religion, are more frightened of Isis and extreme Sunni Arab jihadis than they are of anybody else. Western powers thought Assad would go in 2011-12, and when he didn’t they failed to devise a new policy.

Peace cannot return to Syria and Iraq until Isis is defeated, and this is not happening. The US-led air campaign against IS has not worked. The Islamic militants have not collapsed under the weight of airstrikes, but, across the Syrian and Iraqi Kurdish regions, either hold the same ground or are expanding.

Sophism 12: The first step in restoring peace in Iraq was Maliki’s stepping down. The same goes for Syria with Assad. This is indeed the first prerequisite in order to get rid of ISIS. Al-Qaeda in Iraq was only defeated when Washington changed tack and allied with Arab Sunni tribes. (It is now trying to do the same again.)

There is something ludicrous about the debate in Britain about whether or not to join in an air campaign in Syria without mentioning that it has so far demonstrably failed in its objectives.

Going into combat against Isis means supporting, or at least talking to, those powers already fighting the extreme jihadis. For instance, the most effective opponents of IS in Syria are the Syrian Kurds. They want to advance west across the Euphrates and capture IS’s last border crossing with Turkey at Jarabulus. Recep Tayyip Erdogan, the Prime Minister of Turkey, said last week he would never accept such a “fait accompli”, but it remains unclear if the US will give air support to its Kurdish allies and put pressure on Turkey not to invade northern Syria.

The Russians and Iranians should be integrated as far as possible into any talks about the future of Syria.

Sophism 13: Here Washington’s great adviser, Patrick Cockburn, is advising the Obama administration to do precisely what it has been doing for a long while: supporting those who are actually “fighting the extreme jihadis”, including the Syrian Kurds whom Washington helped with air support and arms delivery; and talk with the Russians and Iranians. A remarkable feat in back-seat driving!

But there should be an immediate price for this: such as insisting that if Assad is going to stay for the moment, then his forces must stop shelling and using barrel bombs against opposition-held civilian areas. Local ceasefires have usually only happened in Syria because one side or the other is on the edge of defeat. But wider ceasefires could be arranged if local proxies are pressured by their outside backers.

Sophism 14: In other words: if Assad is going to stay, he should stop doing what has allowed him to stay until now. Another dialectical gem!

All these things more or less have to happen together. A problem is that the crises listed above have cross-infected each other. Regional powers such as Turkey, Iran, Saudi Arabia and the Gulf monarchies do have a strong measure of control over their local proxies. But these regional actors, caring nothing for the destruction of Syria and still dreaming of final victory, will only be forced into compromises by Washington and Moscow.

Russia and America need to be more fully engaged in Syria because, if they are not, the vacuum they leave will be filled by these regional powers with their sectarian and ethnic agendas. Britain could play a positive role here, but only if it stops taking part in “let’s pretend” games whereby hard-line jihadis are re-labelled as moderates.  As with the Northern Ireland peace negotiations in the 1990s, an end to the wars in Syria depends on persuading those involved that they cannot win, but they can survive and get part of what they want. The US and Russia may not be the superpowers they once were, but only they have the power to pursue such agreements.

Sophism 15: Very simple: Washington and Moscow should force Iran, Turkey and the Saudis to force their “regional proxies” and the conflict will be solved.

So easy, and yet nobody thought of it before our master strategist!

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