Patrick Cockburn: U.S. & Russia Bomb Syria’s Civilians When They Could Help End its War

Jerri-Lynn here: This Real News Network interview with veteran Middle East correspondent Patrick Cockburn of The Independent analyzes the latest developments in Syria and says the war could end if the U.S., Saudi Arabia, Russia, and Iran were willing to make an agreement. That seems to say the least, unlikely, given what occurred during Trump’s recent orb-grasping, sword-dancing visit to Riyadh– especially the record arms deal. But I always make time for Cockburn, who has been reporting for decades from the Middle East.

AARON MATÉ: It’s The Real News. I’m Aaron Maté. The Pentagon says it’s shifted to annihilation tactics in its campaign against the Islamic State.

SPEAKER 2: We have already shifted from attrition tactics where we shove them from one position to another in Iraq and Syria to annihilation tactics where we surround them. Our intention is that the foreign fighters do not survive the fight.

AARON MATÉ: Those tactics appear to be killing more civilians. Monitoring groups say more innocents are dying in increased coalition bombings of the Islamic State in Raqqa and Deir ez-Zor. According to Air Wars, the US is now killing more civilians than Russia on a regular basis. The toll could grow as the battle for Raqqa intensifies in the coming weeks. Patrick Coburn is a long time Middle East correspondent for the newspaper, The Independent. Patrick, welcome.


AARON MATÉ: You’ve been in and out of Syria, covering the war there, many times. Can you talk about the context right now for this spike in civilian casualties that we’re seeing from US led bombings?

PATRICK COCKBURN: You’ve always had civilian casualties from bombing, and there’s always sort of been a hypocrisy about this, that where you have ISIS fighters and civilians, that somehow you can distinguish between the two. Air Forces always say, oh we’ve got pinpoint accuracy. Maybe, but they don’t really know where they are. They know where exactly where they are. Often they’re in the, civilians and fighters are in the same building.

Consequently you have more civilian casualties. It appears that since Trump became president, that the bombing, that bombers can be called in more easily. Often, now this was happening before. Often it’s local guys are earning money by passing information about ISIS, saying they’re in that building or they’re in that room. But after all these guys’ priority is to make some money, so when they get it wrong, it’s no sweat. They still make money. You have buildings being bombed in Raqqa I think it was that the jail had been bombed. Somebody said that’s a Taliban jail, but of course if you were in a Taliban jail, most people didn’t like the Taliban but they got killed as well.

You see that in Syria. You see this in Iraq and Mosul. I was in, people in East Mosul, I was talking to them on the phone, who are being bombed, that somebody identifies their houses as being a, a house as being an ISIS strong point, but maybe ISIS come in there. Smash in all the walls, so they can move very quickly from building to building. They come in, they set up a sniper position. They fire a shot. They’re out of there 20 seconds later and five minutes later that building is hit by a bomb. The civilians who are inside, the families inside that building are killed.

I know about one guy in Mosul and maybe this gives the flavor of what really happens if you’re on the ground. He had a tarpaulin over part of his house as a shade. It’s pretty hot in Mosul. But the US and the Iraqi Air Force had decided that any tarpaulin must be concealing an ISIS fighting position or supplies and consequently got bombed by a drone. He got hit in the leg and had dragged himself to a local clinic. They didn’t have any bandages and so forth. He dragged himself home again. One of the things is that there isn’t much medical services that anybody in these areas can rely on if they get injured.

AARON MATÉ: Going from the campaign to dislodge ISIS from Mosul and Iraq, let’s go to this campaign to dislodge ISIS from their de facto capital in Syria, Raqqa. The US has just started arming the Syrian Kurds, in preparation for that assault. That was a controversial move because Turkey opposed it. What are you expecting to happen with this assault when it takes place to kick ISIS out of Raqqa?

PATRICK COCKBURN: Well I think kick is going to be the wrong word. Because ISIS, you know they’re a monstrous organization. Everybody’s agreed on that but they, they’re a mixture of fanaticism and but fanatics with a high degree of military expertise. They’ve been fighting in Mosul now for six, seven months, and I doubt … They probably got a couple of thousand guys there, very mobile. As I said, snipers moving from house to house. Suicide bombers inside vehicles, packed with explosives. Mortar teams, very mobile within the city and they’ll probably do the same in Raqqa.

Now Raqqa had a population of 300,000 in the [inaudible 00:05:29] and Mosul about two million, so it’s a much, a bigger city, Mosul. Raqqa’s on the north bank of the Euphrates. The bridges have been destroyed so these guys can’t get out. It will be … I don’t know yet if they’re going to make a fight for it. Seems quite likely they will, but as I said, ISIS is pretty militarily expert. These guys are not idiots. They want to stay in business. They don’t want to lose all their best fighters in sieges in Iraq and Mosul.

They still, they’ve lost a lot of territory but they still control a lot in Syria, around Deir ez-Zor. You mentioned that earlier. It’s a big area in Eastern Syria. They’ll withdraw a lot of their fighters down south, along the Euphrates and they’ll try to stay in business.

Another point to make is you know the Syrian Kurds are kind of the punching power on the ground. Some are called the Syrian Democratic Forces, there’s quite a lot of Arabs, local Arab tribes have joined. Probably total around 45,000, 50,000 men. But the number of really good combat troops is pretty limited. What they do is they call in air strikes. That’s how they advance. That’s happened in Mosul. That’s happened elsewhere in Syria. Of course that means that there’s very heavy damage on the ground because the limited number of ground troops that the Syrian, opposing ISIS in both Syria and Iraq.

Another consequence of this is that even when ground is lost by ISIS, it’s pretty difficult to occupy it. They don’t have the men to do that so ISIS can begin to filter back. We’ve seen that in different areas where they’ve lost ground, but a few months later they begin to come back again.

AARON MATÉ: Patrick I want to ask you a bit about the dynamics right now between the US, Russia and the Syrian state right now. A few weeks ago, you had a US led coalition strike on a convoy of pro-Assad forces near the Syrian border with Iraq and Jordan. The US said that these forces were advancing on its allies’ positions. Russia and Syria have dismissed that claim. What do you make of what happened there?

PATRICK COCKBURN: I think what’s happening is there’s kind of a race for Eastern Syria. You know ISIS is getting weaker. I was saying it’s not going to go completely out of business, but it’s definitely getting weaker so there’s a race to take over Eastern Syria, which is a pretty big area. A lot of it’s desert. The semi-desert, but there’s also oil there. There’s cotton there. There’s also transport links to Iraq.

The US doesn’t want the Syrian government assets, forces to take that over but they’ve been advancing from Almyra further west. There are said to be American special forces there. There’s kind of, everybody’s getting in on the act. They feel this is a sort of decisive moment of the war. If the Syrian government could take over most of Eastern Syria, they’d kind of have the war won. The US and others don’t want that to happen. That’s why you have basically have these clashes and why you had this attack, because it was to prevent the Syrian government taking over positions there. It’s probably we’ll see more of the same.

AARON MATÉ: So the US claimed that their forces were threatened. You don’t think that’s credible?

Patrick Cockburn: Well you know, it depends what kind of threat it is. If guys are advancing a long way away, you could draw lines on a map and say if they go another hundred kilometers, they’re going to be here. They’re a threat. A threat is really in the eye of the beholder. It’s also going to be politically convenient that they don’t want Assad’s forces to take over that area. That’s probably the prime consideration.

AARON MATÉ: Another recent development I want to ask you about was the Astana agreement where Russia, Turkey and Iran agreed to set up these de-escalation zones in four areas of Syria. Can you talk about what that was and whether it’s working so far?

PATRICK COCKBURN: It depends … You know when you’re on the ground in Syria, around Damascus, you hear all this about zones, de-escalation zones. There are some local agreements, ceasefire agreements. Sometimes these work. Sometimes they don’t. You know it’s never quite safe anywhere, but sometimes the sort of diminish action for a bit. I don’t … I think in the long-term it’s pretty difficult to have these sort of zones because too many … When one side is feeling a bit stronger it may immediately breaks in the understanding. The most hopeful thing in Syria is that there does seem to be some moves towards peace, to reducing the level of military action, but it’s still, it’s still pretty severe.

AARON MATÉ: Yeah the criticism of the Assad regime during these previous ceasefires is that because they always carve out an exception for targeting the Islamic State and al Qaeda, the Assad regime just uses that exception to then target whoever it wants.

PATRICK COCKBURN: Well you know the armed opposition in Syria is dominated by ISIS [inaudible 00:11:08] that is and al Qaeda, what used to be called al Nusra. It keeps changing its name. Another group called [inaudible 00:11:15]. But all these are jihadi, what’s called jihadi sulafi organizations. They’re all jihadis. There are not moderate so-called there in the armed opposition. They may be in exile. They may be civilians, but they’re not in the armed opposition [inaudible 00:11:35]. In the past you’d have ceasefires, but it could exclude ISIS because they wouldn’t negotiate with anybody. It might exclude al Nusra, which is the next biggest armed organization which is pretty effective and it controls a lot of territory west of Aleppo.

But if these guys aren’t included in the ceasefire, they don’t have any incentive to keep it. Likewise the Syrian government, if they feel they’re on a winner, they’re not going to stop at the moment. But maybe they can be reached for some restrained by the Russians. But at the end of the day, everybody has to see the advantage in a ceasefire to keep it. The weakness of these previous ceasefires was this really wasn’t so.

AARON MATÉ: Finally Patrick, you talked a bit about these local ceasefires. What about some grand accommodation, some agreement between the main players, namely Russia and Iran and the US. If those parties came to an agreement, could this war be put to an end?

PATRICK COCKBURN: Yeah, I think it could. You’d probably have to have the Saudis involved somehow and of course that’s particularly difficult after President Trump turned up in Riyadh recently, addressed all these Sunni states and denounced Iran. There have been aggressive accusations from Washington, from the Pentagon, from Mattis, from the Defense Secretary and McMaster, the National Security Advisor, directed at Iran, saying Iran is behind all the terrorism.

It’s kind of peculiar because obviously ISIS and al Qaeda are Sunni organizations. The bombs we see in Baghdad and Manchester and Kabul, these are basically Islamic State or Islamic State organizations. They’re not Shia organizations. It’s kind of very peculiar the way they target Iran. It reminds me a bit of 2003, after 9/11. Suddenly all the blame, all the aggression was toward Saddam Hussein in Iraq. There was plenty wrong with Saddam Hussein, but one thing one was very sure he hadn’t done was carry out 9/11. The links were always Saudi Arabia. I think we’re seeing that again.

Of course this may be one way that ISIS will get off the hook, that if there’s a confrontation between the US and Iran … This is what worries Iraqis in particular, and a lot of Syrians, that they’re going to be caught up in a new confrontation between the US and Iran. Each side will fund its own proxies. ISIS maybe it changes its name or something like that. You know a lot of these fighters move between different organizations, not the leaders but the fighters and you’ll have the war going on. That’s probably the most dangerous element in the war at the moment is this mounting confrontation between the US and Iran or at least the Trump administration.

AARON MATÉ: Well Patrick on that point let me just put you one development from today. Since you make the analogy between Iraq in 2003 and Iran and the Trump administration today, this was reported by the New York Times today. Ezra Cohen Watnick, the top official on the National Security Council, has told other administration officials he wants to use American spies to help oust the Iranian government according to multiple defense and intelligence officials.

PATRICK COCKBURN: Yeah, you see that just heats up, it fuels the war. This has been tried before. They can fuel sort of dissident movements among minorities in Baluchistan. In Iran, they can back some anti-government organizations abroad that don’t really have much support. They could carry out some assassinations, but of course there’s an old military saying. The enemy also has a plan. You do that to the other side, they’ll do it to you. That’s one of the things that went wrong in 2003 in Iraq, that you had at that time the new conservatives, the neo-cons. When the US troops took Baghdad, saying Baghdad, today Tehran and Damascus tomorrow.

So the guys in Tehran and Damascus who are pretty tough, thought well we’re not going to wait around to be attacked. We’ll make sure the US never stabilizes Iraq. That sort of thing, even if they don’t do it, that will create a reaction. This all goes to fuel war and just to go back to a point I made earlier, ISIS [inaudible 00:16:11] a really horrible organization, and al Qaeda, these are the children of war. They come out of wars, so when guys like that say we’re going to start heating things up with Iran, that’s good news for ISIS. That’s good new for al Qaeda. It means the war on terror is going to fail once again.

AARON MATÉ: Patrick Cockburn, Middle East correspondent for The Independent. Patrick, thank you.


AARON MATÉ: And thank you for joining us on The Real News.

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  1. LT

    “According to Air Wars, the US is now killing more civilians in Russia on a regular basis..”


    1. Jerri-Lynn Scofield Post author

      Good catch– I think the RNN interviewer just misspoke, b/c the placard on the screen at that point of the voiceover that’s transcribed is about Syrian civilian casualties. And that’s what Cockburn goes on to discuss.

      1. Jerri-Lynn Scofield Post author

        Yes, I think you are indeed correct– and I’ve fixed the transcript accordingly. And substituting than for in accords with The Nation piece, which discusses the Air Wars findings. Thanks for sharing at article.

        1. MoiAussie

          To connect this with previous NC discussion, the original WaPo piece on Airwars reporting of increased civilian casualties caused by the US is the third link here.

  2. Stelios Theoharidis

    As long as we continue to sell weapons to our Sunni proxies and the Russians sell weapons to their Shia proxies, there is little incentive to negotiate an end to this violence. Conflict in the Middle East is a cash cow for arms manufacturers. And, in the case of the Middle East, our proxies have an abundance of oil that we can trade them weapons for so that they can continue their silly holy war ad infinitum. Later we can sell them all the equipment that they need for reconstruction. Facilitating a divided Middle East seems to be in the economic and geopolitical interest of both Russia and the US. Pan-Arab movements that were nationalizing oil fields and promoting secular rule were very much a problem for the West. Now the defacto capacity of OPEC to control oil prices has also largely collapsed.

    It has always been a strategic tactic of war to let your enemies and even sometimes your allies diminish themselves, and then come in when they appear to be spent. The Russians sat outside Polish cities and let the Nazis and Polish resistance fighters brutalize each other. The Americans did not invade Europe until the Russians and Germans had fully wreaked havoc upon each other.

    I’ve always been curious if the real motivator for the Russians was their naval base in Syria, I’m not sure what the logistics are in the Black Sea. But, it seems that the naval base is incredibly strategic if the Russians want to have any presence in the Mediterranean. Sure Assad will be buying Russian weapons as long as he can continue to remain in power, but no naval base in that region limits Russian force projection, particularly in such a strategically important area of the world. I’m curious if they would let their client state fail if they could have a guarantee on maintaining the naval base. But, it would be a tough pill to swallow for opposition groups in Syria, especially considering that the Russians have been giving Assad the weapons to suppress them.

    1. Bawb the Revelator

      Depressing but brilliant, Stelios. Cash-Over-Lives-Every-Time! isn’t only the Syrian story, it’s always done under the rubric of “Enlightened Self Interest.” In this case, Trump isn’t greatly different than any of the post-WWII US Presidents.

    2. different clue

      If I understand your theory, it is that the US and Russia both want to keep the war in Syria going as long as possible so that each can sell weapons to its own proxies for as long as possible. Do I correctly understand what you are saying?

      1. Stelios Theoharidis

        Although both the Russians and Americans are facilitating war in the Middle East through weapons sales, I don’t think selling weapons is the only motivating factor, in IR theory you are trying to diminish other actors material capacities and increase your own. I don’t think the Americans want the Russians to have the naval base which is an expression of this albeit the fact that the US has numerous military facilities across the Middle East. I think the Americans want the deterioration of Russian proxies in the Middle East and possibly the deterioration of their own proxies in order to increase their respective power vis a vis these groups. And, I think it is in both the interest of the Russians and the Americans to let the Middle East grind itself down through perpetual war. This would result in more weapons for war, more equipment to sell for rebuilding, greater reliance upon and deference to the US and Russia. And, if there is blowback, which there eventually will be, it is also in the interest of the military – security – industrial complex as it augments their power domestically.

  3. Phil Snead, Charleston SC

    Thanks for posting – This is a very helpful interview & point of view. God only knows (I’m sure no one in Washington really does) what’s about to become of this huge zone of the ME where so many long standing political, economic and military interests are at play. ( I’d say “at stake” but it’s plain as day there will be no lasting victors – not that this will stop us all from feeding our youngest/brightest into the maw. )

  4. Chauncey Gardiner

    Thanks for posting Patrick Cockburn’s informative interview. Seems to me that the Saudis, some key policy makers in DC, and some other key players in the region don’t want to end the various wars in the M.E., but are in fact continuously seeking to leverage and broaden the conflicts. Likewise, we continuously find ourselves trying to put together the pieces to the puzzle retrospectively, while millions in that troubled region find their lives impaired or ended. In this regard, one questions whether the recent terror attacks on civilians in the UK and Europe are part of a series intended to engender Western public support for such a conflict, or simply an increasingly long list of “one-offs” by religious zealots with particular ideological roots in the region? Further, what is the reported emergence of deteriorating relations between Qatar and the Saudis & Gulf States signaling, and who prospectively stands to benefit from all this?…

    1. MoiAussie

      There is plenty of history to Saudi/Qatari rifts, but the Saudi push to isolate Qatar seems to be part of preparations for Sunni and allied hostilities against Iran. Qatar is being told in no uncertain terms to cut diplomatic ties to Iran, kick out Hamas, and fall in line with KSA and UAE, or else.

      Note that the crisis began after Trompe’s recent trip to Riyadh, where he and King Salman ridiculously singled out Iran as the world’s main sponsor of terrorism, and subsequently the state-run Qatar News reported remarks by the Qatari ruler Sheikh Tamim criticizing anti-Iran sentiment. Apparently a call from the Sheik to Iranian President Rouhani was the last straw. The accusations that Qatar is supporting “terrorist groups aiming to destabilize the region” including Islamic State and al-Qaeda, are purest hypocrisy by the Saudis, and just a stick with which to beat the Qataris.

      The US is is tut-tutting the breakdown of cooperation but seems to be on board with this attempt by KSA to throw its weight around and impose its policies on its tiny neighbour. A complicating factor is that Qatar is key to US air operations in the region, as Centcom ME HQ and 10,000 US troops are based there after being kicked out of KSA in 2003.

      1. schmoe

        The Saudi et al – Qatar split is probably because Qatar has stopped paying its monthly ISIS funding assessment.

  5. washunate

    I don’t quite follow the false equivalency in the headline? Yes, of course, Russian military actions also kill people.

    But the Russians are providing military assistance at the request of the sovereign government. The US is providing military assistance to destabilize the sovereign government. Either country (or neither) may be doing the “right” thing depending on one’s perspective, but they quite clearly are not doing the same thing.

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