A ceasefire deal has been brokered between the US and Russia – a product of long and painful negotiations, but the prospect of lasting peace is still slim. With the rebel forces having no unity, and Turkey keen on attacking the Kurdish fighters in Northern Syria, many warn that the truce will crumble shortly. Will sober heads prevail, or will the bloodshed in Syria just open another chapter? We ask former a MI6 agent and EU foreign policy adviser. Alastair Crooke is on Sophie&Co today.
Sophie Shevarnadze: Alastair Crooke, it’s really great to have you with us on a program today, sir.
Alastair Crooke: Pleasure to be here.
SS: So, an agreed ceasefire plan for Syria is about to come into force, Damascus time, Friday at midnight. Is this a beginning of an end to Syrian civil war?
AC: I fear, probably not. Almost certainly not. The first question you have to ask yourself is, “do parties to this really want a ceasefire”? And by that, I mean the U.S.. It’s questionable whether what they are really trying to do with this ceasefire is to create circumstances where they can blame Russia and Iran for in fact continuing to fight and to bomb what they would describe as “moderates”, but it would be groups involved with the radical jihadists.
SS: We’ll go through details about that, but Russia’s influence on Damascus is considerable, as we all know, but it’s not limitless. In your opinion, what is the extent of America’s influence on various groups of rebels on the ground that appear and disappear every day. To what extent can they exert pressure on them?
AC: Most minimal, and I know that from experience; years ago I was in Afghanistan, and I was responsible there for operations with the Afghan Mujaheddin, and you would give them help or instructions, and 30 minutes later it had all vanished and they would do exactly what they wanted. The people who have influence on them are… is Turkey, essentially: turkish intelligence service and to, an extent, Qatar and Saudi Arabia. The Americans have less and less influence the groups.
SS: To what you were saying earlier. Wall St. Journal cites a source that top American officials, including Defense Secretary and CIA director, they want new measures to inflict “real pain” on Russia and send more arms to the rebels on the ground to fight Assad. Why would they want to do that amidst the ceasefire? Isn’t this sabotaging the efforts of the State Department?
AC: I think this goes back to what are the intentions of the parties to this. And one of the intentions is to have a break, a pause, I think, so that your own proxies – the American, Turkish, Saudi proxies – can regroup, can rearm and prepare. In a sense, this is a timeout, which is why I said that I don’t think this is the beginning of the end. I think this is another chapter in this, and what we are going to see and why are they doing this, is because precisely they want to rearm, to push back the rapid advance that is taking place across Syria of the coalition forces led by Syrian army, and to stop that progress, in order to give them position to continue their negotiations, in order to have something in their hand to negotiate with. At the moment, the negotiating hand is vanishing day by day and if the Syrian forces reach Raqqa, they will have almost nothing. So, stopping them getting to Raqqa, because then what’s there to negotiate about? The negotiations are taking place on the ground, in the battlefield, Idlib and Aleppo in the north of Syria, really.
SS: My question is, is this a coordinated action of all America’s top brass, including the State Department, or could there be that different groups have different interests as far as the Syrian conflict goes?
AC: I think it’s clear that there are different elements within America. We’ve seen that the Defense Department had quite a different position from that of the CIA, and so, at the moment, what we are seeing in Idlib, for example, is that the American-supported Syrian Kurdish groups are actually fighting some of the groups that the CIA have trained. So you have American supported groups fighting American supported groups in the area around Aleppo. So yes, there are differences in the American administration in that area.
SS: But also, arming the rebels in Syria hasn’t quite been a tale of success for America, right? Because we see no moderate rebels on the ground, and American arms are ending up in the hands of extremists. Why reportedly push for something that hasn’t worked in 5 years?
AC: Well, maybe, it worked better than it has been publicly admitted. If you look at what General Flynn said, he was writing in 2012, it’s quite clear that there was an intentional willfulness that allowed weapons to go along the conveyor belt and end up with groups like Al-Nusra. It’s interesting that even today, the U.S. is insisting that Al-Nusra, which is Al-Qaeda, should not be included in those talks and continue to be attacked under the cessation of hostilities agreement. So, in effect, Free Syrian Army was becoming a sort of Walmart of weapons: they get weapons, and America says “we’re only arming the moderates”, and the FSA was passing them down the line, and in the end they end up with the groups such as Al-Qaeda and ISIS, and it was done wilfully because the Americans and the British and the other parties to this accepted the idea that there would be a caliphate, if you like, a Sunnistan, formed in Eastern Syria and parts of Iraq.
SS: Let’s talk a little bit about Assad. Is this ceasefire good for him? He came out on a local TV and said that his army is ready to go forward and it’s close to victory. You believe he was winning the war. Why would he stop now?
AC: I think that Assad is strategic thinker; and yes, the army is moving very rapidly in Syria, but at the same time, it’s important for President Assad and for Russia to gain the political advantage, and I think, therefore, they want to show that they are ready to have a ceasefire, and indeed, because part of the intentions, of the ambitions of the President Assad is to have a political process in Syria. So, it’s important from a point of view of many groups in Syria who are willing to come in now and we’ve seen big change in sides of many of the groups that are now coming and joining the Syrian army and with the coalition forces against the jihadists. So, I think it’s important for him to show willingness, both domestically and internationally that he’s ready to make accommodations for political advancement too.
SS: Do you think he still has a chance to retake all of Syria, or is it going to be fragmented forever?
AC: I think they have a very good chance. It’s more complicated, because, actually in a certain sense, it’s not just a race for Raqqa, it’s a race for Raqqa and Mosul, because you need, if you like, to take both, and Turkey is very anxious to take Mosul because they always had a claim that Mosul was part of Turkey, and American forces would like to take Mosul. It would be very important if the non-American, the non-Turkish forces can take both Raqqa and Mosul. It will end the idea of creating a wedge in the Middle East of a Sunni state that is under the influence of Turkey and Saudi Arabia and acts as block between Iran and Mediterranean and between Iran and Syria.
SS: Before we get to Turkey, do you think America and the Gulf Kingdoms and Turkey are ready for an outcome where Assad could possibly come out on top?
AC: I don’t think… you have to make a distinction: some Gulf States are ready, or “more ready” for political solution. The question is Saudi Arabia, and there’s no sign at the moment, no sign at all that Saudi Arabia is interested in any solution other than the overthrow of President Assad and the Syrian state – it’s not just Assad, it’s the Syrian state that is in their target to be overthrow, and I think that’s also true for Turkey. There’s no prospect of political solution at this stage.
SS: What about America?
AC: America at this moment has been going more closely with its allies, but it is getting increasingly worried. They see Turkey acting in an erratic, unpredictable, dangerous way, and they have a greater danger here – they don’t want to start war with Russia, they don’t want Turkey to bring NATO into a big conflict in the region.
SS: Before we get there, I Just want to discuss technical details of this ceasefire. U.S. and Russia have agreed to mark territories where groups have agreed to stop fighting, right – but those areas are held by a mixture of rebel groups, including likes of Al-Nusra who aren’t part of the ceasefire, obviously. The Syrian rebels are saying that if Al-Nusra is targeted or bombed, they will be targeted as well. So, what does this mean? That truce won’t stand?
AC: In the past, I’ve had to make ceasefires in the Palestinian area, and this is precisely why I was quite negative about the prospect of this ceasefire. The devil is always in the details, and unless you get these things absolutely agreed, immediately someone will say: “Ahh, you’re bombing the moderates” or “this shouldn’t have happened” and, of course, the moderates are changing and they change their colors. They say: “We’re Al-Nusra today”. Yesterday, they were moderate. Today, they are Al-Nusra. So, how can a Syrian army and its coalition forces from Iran and elsewhere operate in this environment. I believe they are going to continue, they are not going to simply stop there and leave the situation frozen, as, perhaps, America would ideally like to see. They are going to continue against ISIS, against Al-Nusra, but there will be yells from Turkey and others who will deliberately try and create circumstances where Russia and Iran can be accused of having bombed moderate rebels again.
SS: Well that, and also what you’ve mentioned, that rebel brigades can one day be part of the FSA and next day they are part of ISIS – how do you keep track and what would that mean for the ceasefire? Is that even possible to operate in such conditions?
AC: It’s impossible, because all of these groups move or change their label from day to day, so you cannot have a definitive list of who is moderate, and, indeed, there aren’t any moderates, in a sense, in Syria. There are no moderates, because if you define moderate as someone who supports Western-style democracy and their political system, all of these groups believe in the caliphate, in Sharia, and they’re opposed to Western-style democracy. There are none that you can call moderates who are prepared to come to a negotiating table and debate this clause and that clause and the Constitution. They are opposed to all of it. So we don’t have moderates, we have jihadists who are intent on trying to create a caliphate in Syria and to change the system completely. It’s one that is quite contrary to what has always existed in Syria. Levantine Sunnism has never been wahhabist in its nature. Wahhabism has arrived in the Levant only in the last few years, from 1947 it started more or less in Tripoli. It’s not something that has roots, it’s not something that has any grounding in the Levant.
SS: So how do you see the fight against ISIS and Al-Nusra uncovering? How would that happen, technically? I mean, the rebels would have their own offensive, and then the Syrian army will do it separately? How do you see this happening?
AC: I think the military situation is very clear. During all this period, where there’s been complains that there hadn’t been success on the ground by the Russian air forces and its allies. Actually, what’s been happening is something that was not noticed by the West. The West is used to this sort of knock-out blow of Shock-and-Awe in Baghdad, but Iranians and the Syrian army have been doing this by incrementalism, and suddenly, with incrementalism, we’ve got to a point where all the dominos are starting to fall. They have effectively taken Aleppo, they have taken all of the main cities of Syria, only Raqqa is left, which is rather unimportant city stuck in the middle of the desert, but it is politically and symbolically important. So, yes, there has been… I would say, that it would continue in the same way.
SS: But the latest assault on the government supply route to Aleppo was actually conducted by rebels and ISIS, attacking the route from both sides. Do you think we’ll see more of the coordinated actions between rebels and ISIS now that the military pressure is up?
AC: I think it will be difficult, because ISIS has been very adamant that you’re either with us or you’re against us. Al-Nusra and Al-Qaeda have taken a very different position, it goes to the heart of their ideology, they have welcomed Western-backed groups to cooperate with them, partly because they thought it would give them protection, and it is giving them protection. So, they have taken a very different position on this. But, what we have seen recently in the Kalamun area, is that there’s been vicious fighting between ISIS and Al-Qaeda, with Al-Qaeda beheading ISIS captives that they have taken in that area. We’ve seeing a legacy of the hostility between Al-Qaeda and ISIS, going back to Iraq and even before, it is now working in a way which will make it very hard. Yes, there may be localized agreements where they will work together, but strategically there’s still a big difference.
SS: Turkey, another huge player. It vows to continue strikes on Syrian Kurds, regardless the ceasefire. Now, these Kurds are being aided by the U.S.-backed coalition. At the same, they are being bombed by Turkey. Do you think the international community will pressure Turkey to back down, or they will just turn a blind eye on it?
AC: So far, they’ve turned a blind eye. I think, for two reasons: one is that the U.S., you recall, after the ambush of the Russian aircraft, the U.S. President said: “Well, Turkey has a right for self-defense”, I mean, which was an extraordinary statement we’ve only heard in connection with Israel in the past. There seems to be still that strong connection and determination to support Turkey. The Europeans are in different position, because are now desperate about the refugees arriving in Europe. They see this as a political crisis, as a social crisis, they are overwhelmed and almost paralyzed by this crisis. So, anything that keeps Turkey happy, I mean, that’s why they’ve just given them 3 bn euros in order to try and bribe Turkey into stopping the flow of refugees, and Turkey knows how to use that leverage over Europe, to blackmail it politically, extremely well.
SS: The illegal trafficking of oil, weapons and supplies, arms through the Turkish-Syrian border is not being blocked by Ankara, obviously, it still goes on. Is Turkey going to use this ceasefire to rearm and strengthen the rebel state support?
AC: I think the bigger question is, is Turkey going to try and exploit the whole situation. Certainly, they are. The whole anger and the bombing of Azaz is about keeping supply routes open, particularly to ISIS. Turkey has been supporting, supplying and facilitating ISIS throughout this war. It’s part of its ambition to take parts of Syria which Turkey has always claimed were Turkish, in the neo-Ottomanesque way. The question, might we see Turkey sending troops across the border…
SS: I mean, it’s openly considering, they’ve sent some troops to Northern Iraq, now they say they’re going to send some to Northern Syria. What happens if they really do that, if they get involved in the conflict? Do you think NATO will turn a blind eye or do you think NATO will get involved?
AC: We’ve seen very clear statements from NATO, published in German magazines like Der Spiegel. Under Article 5 of the NATO Charter, the member states obliged to support another NATO state that is attacked. But, the NATO have said that for Turkey to attack Syria is not the same as being itself attacked, and in that case they can expect no NATO support. What happens then, if Turkish troops come in and then get involved with, say, Russian forces, or Russian aircraft – then, maybe, it will be another issue. So, I think, NATO have said very clearly that they’ll need a lot of persuasion to think that actually it was Turkey that is being attacked. In other words, NATO is not anxious to get involved, and indeed, it requires a majority decision of the Council of NATO to agree to support Turkey militarily. I don’t think that that will easily come about, even with a lot of arm-twisting from Washington.
SS: But you think it’s a realistic scenario, where Turkey actually invades Northern Syria?
AC: No. I don’t, because Russia has complete air superiority, it has far more advanced SU-35 which outclass the F-16 that Turks have. But, more important than that, Russia has control of the radio bases, or control of the radars, of targeting and guidance system within the Syrian airspace. So, if Turkey comes in, it will come in without any assurance that it has got NATO support, it will come in not having air support, and it will come in and it will face, immediately, the Kurds, who’ve said they will attack it, but also Iranian forces and also other forces, and the Syrian army. We don’t know how Turkish armed forces will stand up to that sort of conflict. They have a reputation of being good, but most of their experience comes from oppressing their Kurds in the South-East Turkey. It’s rather akin to the Israeli Defence Forces, and actually when we found what happened in South Lebanon, their reputation didn’t really match up to their performance in the field.
SS: If ISIS, let’s say, is defeated in Syria, or pushed out of Syria and Iraq – what are the possibilities? Will they go hiding among the civilians or we’re in to see a long-lasting terrorist insurgency?
AC: There’s a common narrative, that if there’s a defeat, it won’t end the war. But I think that if you look at the image, which I’m sure that you yourself seen, of the jubilation when the villages near the Turkish border were liberated, often by Hezbollah forces or by Syrian army and Hezbollah forces, there’s been an absolute joy when they were liberated. I think it will not be… Al-Nusra may try and sort of melt back into civilian population, but Syria has a very effective intelligence service, and many of these people who hate the jihadists and what has been happening in their villages to Kurds, to Christians, and the others, these jihadists will be reported and rounded up and arrested and killed within a year or so. Of course, there’s a risk of a suicide attacks that will continue. So, ISIS, I think, will operate somewhere else, maybe in North Africa, somewhere else in the region. It needs to rescue itself from oblivion.
SS: So we’ve just seen U.S. expand its push against ISIS, bombing some targets in Libya. Do you think they’re going to get coalition support, and how far out there in the region they will be actually expanding their intervention?
AC: The intervention in Libya is quite different from what’s happened in Syria. People make the parallel, but it’s not the same, because when Russia intervened militarily in Syria, it had a government, a leadership, they had an institutions of state. They may have been eroded, slightly, but they were there. It had an army and it had intelligence services. None of that exists in Libya. There’s nothing to work with. They don’t know, and the Western states admit that they don’t know who’s who, who accepts them, who’s at odds with each other. They’re sending in people to try and find out these basic facts, but they’ve got nothing to work with. No army, no government institutions, no intelligence. It’s not a recipe for success, it’s a recipe for disaster. In fact, it’s a recipe for widening the conflict, to Algeria, Tunisia and Morocco, precisely to states that they are hoping to protect.
SS: Now, you have written that American and European elites are used to being bogged down in quagmires without political outcomes, rather than interventions with real conclusions. Is this the problem these kind of policies are deliberate or is it just a result of poor planning, lack of information?
AC: In one sense, it was a deliberate decision not to make the planning, because there was such confidence in this idea of a psychological shock. Shock-and-awe was supposed to, and I Remember being involved in that in 2003, it was seen as going to change the whole Middle East. It was like this sort of psychological searing of the mentality of the whole region, and that would change Hamas and Hezbollah would disappear, and the region would become an American annex. Clearly, this was a serious mistake, and it still lingers on, this idea that only if they can change it by dramatic knockout blow, then suddenly the region will follow this sort of convergence towards Western values, end-of-history type of thinking. Still prevalent.
SS: Thank you very much for this interview, this was a pleasure talking to you.