More Countries Than Ever Are Bombing Syria -- Will They Find a Way to Make Peace?

November 02, 2015



Patrick Cockburn

Middle East correspondent for The Independent. His latest book is titled The Rise of Islamic State: ISIS and the New Sunni Revolution.

Andrew Bacevich

retired colonel and Vietnam War veteran. He is professor emeritus of international relations and history at Boston University. His new book, America’s War for the Greater Middle East: A Military History, will be published in April. He is the author of several other books, including Washington Rules: America’s Path to Permanent War.

The new U.S. deployment to Syria comes more than a year after it launched a bombing campaign against the self-proclaimed Islamic State. It also comes weeks after Russia escalated its role by launching airstrikes against foes of Syrian President Bashar al-Assad. Patrick Cockburn, Middle East correspondent for The Independent, says that while the military dimension in Syria is escalating, the foreign powers involved could be a step closer to seeking a diplomatic resolution.


This is a rush transcript. Copy may not be in its final form.

AMY GOODMAN: You know, we also have with us Patrick Cockburn. He was going to come on after the break to talk about what’s happening in Turkey, this stunning entrenchment of the president, Erdogan, who is cracking down on dissidents. It’s the return of the Islamist government to power, in the Parliament and overall. But, Patrick, before we talk about Turkey—you are speaking to us from Istanbul—can you weigh in on this conversation? I mean, it is much more difficult, as the U.S. government has proven, to wage peace than to wage war. What would waging peace look like?

PATRICK COCKBURN: Well, could I make another comment? I think, you know, where these U.S. special forces are going is the Syrian Kurdish area. The Syrian Kurds have about 25,000 troops in northern Syria. So, the significance of them being there is that they’re cooperating with the only real available partner for the U.S. in Syria. And in that case, depending on what they do—are they forward airobservers, are there going to be deliveries of arms and ammunition—they have a certain significance.

I mean, the other thing to bear in mind, I think, is that the U.S. and its U.S.-led coalition have had this air campaign that’s delivered 7,000 airstrikes against the Islamic State since August last year, and that campaign has failed. I think all this focus on Russia and the special forces—and one has to keep that in mind, because the Islamic State is still expanding. It took a Christian town near Homs a few days ago, which brings it very close to the crucial north-south highway inside Syria. So I think it’s there—people say, "Does it have any significance?" It has some significance, but it also, I think, too, is a show of action, which is rather masking the failure of the previous major strategic initiative by the U.S., which was to have this air campaign, which has demonstrably failed to achieve its ends.

AMY GOODMAN: And the role of Saudi Arabia? I mean, the way the U.S. media makes it look: out-of-control forces all fighting each other. But we’re talking about a major U.S. ally. I think the U.S. has just signed the largest weapons deal in history, not just with Saudi Arabia, but in the world, signed that deal with Saudi Arabia to give weapons. The role Saudi Arabia has played when it comes to al-Qaeda and the rise of ISIS?

PATRICK COCKBURN: Yeah, I mean, this is—the dilemma for the U.S. is not just now in Syria and Iraq, but goes right back to 9/11, that the basis for U.S. power in the Middle East is really the Sunni states, like Turkey, Saudi Arabia, the Gulf monarchies, but these are the ones that also have been supporting the opposition in Syria and is fairly notorious, have been funding the al-Qaeda affiliate, the al-Nusra Front, Ahrar al-Sham, which is very similar, and in the past has been accused of sending funds and enabling ISIS, the Islamic State. So I think the U.S. has the same dilemma as before, that it kind of knows this, kind of want to stop it, but doesn’t want to do so at the expense of torpedoing their relationship with countries like Turkey or Saudi Arabia, which, as you said, has just signed this enormous arms deal. So, I don’t think the dilemma has changed, but the response in Washington has always been to find some sort of way of maneuvering, that they can do something, or look as though they’re doing something, against the Islamic State or al-Qaeda, but still keep in with Saudi Arabia and the big Sunni countries of the region.

AMY GOODMAN: Patrick, you have said that you think the entrance of Russia more prominently in Syria could actually improve the chances of peace.

PATRICK COCKBURN: Yeah. In one way it complicates it, because you’ve got yet another player in Syria. And, you know, Syria is five crises wrapped into one—Sunni-Shia, Tehran-Saudi Arabia, Alawite-Sunni. And then you have Russia. I think, yes, because Russia is in a position to exercise some control over its allies, like Assad in Damascus, the U.S. likewise. So, it’s only when you have, so to speak, the great powers getting involved that we have a chance of moving from just basically allowing—whatever the rhetoric—allowing this terrible war—just destroyed Syria, is destroying Iraq—to go on. In the past they’ve said, "Yes, we want to end it, but Assad must go. But why should Assad go, as he controlled most of the population?" So, for the first time, you have serious players seriously involved, and the very fact that you have Russia coming back, a rival of the U.S., I think, makes them take it more seriously. And one can see that already with this meeting in Vienna and the presence of Iran. It has energized the diplomatic process. And, of course, it’s also energized the military activity, as well. But there are positives as well as negatives coming out of this.

AMY GOODMAN: A final comment, Andrew Bacevich, as we wrap up this discussion—then we’ll move on to journalist Patrick Cockburn, who’s in Istanbul covering the Turkish elections—on what you think needs to be done right now?

ANDREW BACEVICH: Well, I would be surprised if Russia is able to exercise any serious influence over Syria. And the reason I say that is because of our inability to exercise any serious influence over our putative allies. I think the point that Patrick Cockburn was making about these unsavory partnerships, that in many respects form part of our predicament, we have to go—we need to ask ourselves why those partnerships exist, where did they come from. They came from a perception that the United States is dependent upon Persian Gulf oil. That was an assumption that had some validity back in the late 1970s and 1980s. It has no validity today, as far as the well-being of this country is concerned. And that fact, it seems to me, ought to be one of the things that enables people in Washington to begin to think more creatively than they have been thinking about the actual options available to the United States.

AMY GOODMAN: Andrew Bacevich, I want to thank you for being with us, retired Boston University professor, former colonel, Vietnam War veteran, joining us from Massachusetts. Phyllis Bennis, thank you, as well, a fellow at the Institute for Policy Studies. Her latest book, Understanding ISIS and the New Global War on Terror. Patrick Cockburn, I hope you stay with us as we talk about what has developed now in Turkey and how that—what that means not only for Turkey, but for the Middle East and for Europe, overall. Stay with us.

The original content of this program is licensed under a Creative Commons Attribution-Noncommercial-No Derivative Works 3.0 United States License. Please attribute legal copies of this work to Some of the work(s) that this program incorporates, however, may be separately licensed. For further information or additional permissions, contact us.

Email icon redDaily News Digest