Yves here. Real News Network helps cut the fog around the state of play in Syria via an interview with Patrick Cockburn.
BEN NORTON: It’s the Real News. I’m Ben Norton. Tensions are flaring in Washington as the Donald Trump administration is reportedly considering a military attack on the Syrian government. On April 7, antigovernment opposition groups in the town of Douma, Syria claimed that dozens of people were killed in a chemical weapons attack. The rebels blamed the government. The government has staunchly denied responsibility for the alleged attack.
Douma is the last remaining town in the region of Eastern Ghouta, an enclave for Salafi jihadist militants who have been fighting against the Syrian government with support, including military and economic support, from the U.S., Saudi Arabia, Qatar, and Turkey. Douma is controlled by the extremist Salafi jihadist militia Jaysh al-Islam, which is notorious for carrying out attacks on civilians. Jaysh al-Islam was created by Saudi Arabia, and has put women from the Shia Alawite minority in cages.
Opposition groups that have received millions of dollars of funding from the United States and other foreign countries have made these allegations. They say that the Syrian government carried out a chemical weapons attack that killed more than 40 people.
The Organization for the Prohibition of Chemical Weapons, the OPCW, announced on Tuesday, April 10 that it will be sending a special mission to Douma to verify reports on the ground on the alleged use of chemical weapons. The United Nations condemned the alleged attack and said it is not able to verify the reports. The U.N. called for an independent investigation.
Although there has not yet been an independent investigation, the Trump administration immediately blamed the Syrian government for the attack and has threatened retaliation.
DONALD TRUMP: We are making a decision in respect to the horrible attack that was made near Damascus. It will be met, and it will be met forcefully. And when I will not say, because I don’t like talking about timing. We have a lot of options, military, and we will be letting you know pretty soon.
BEN NORTON: Joining us to discuss the story is Patrick Cockburn, an award-winning journalist and longtime correspondent for the British newspaper the Independent. Thanks for joining us, Patrick.
PATRICK COCKBURN: Thank you.
BEN NORTON: So, Patrick, can you speak about what exactly we know? There has not yet been independent investigation into what’s been going on. We have photo and video which were released by opposition groups on social media. They have not been independently verified. What exactly do we know from what happened on the ground in Douma?
PATRICK COCKBURN: Well, there’s reporting from within Douma, which at that moment was held by Jaysh al-Islam, but the hospital that we saw shots of now seems to be held by the Syrian army. And there were film of dead and dying children, there was shots of gas cylinders.
The problem with this is that all this comes from the people inside Douma, which as you said is controlled by Jaysh al-Islam. There’s been no independent verification yet. And it’s pretty clear from what, for instance, in Britain Theresa May is saying, that we are still waiting to be sure who carried out this attack. That governments are being told by their own intelligence services that it’s not exactly clear what happened. Curiously, the media reporting this sounds much more sure in attributing blame to the Assad government than the people like Theresa May and other political leaders who presumably are getting other information from their intelligence people.
BEN NORTON: Yeah, Patrick, this is also interesting because in the past few weeks there has been another scandal related to chemical weapons, or alleged chemical weapons use. That is, that the British government immediately blamed Russia for the poisoning of the former spy Sergei Skripal. Boris Johnson had claimed that the government intelligence services knew Russia was behind the attack, but then later the British intelligence services themselves acknowledged that they actually aren’t sure who was behind the attack.
So clearly there is a history here of manipulation of intelligence. This is very partisan. It’s very politicized. The United Nations and the OPCW have not been as partisan and politicized. In fact, neither of them have apportioned blame and both have called for investigations. What do you think will happen next? Do you think there will be investigations? And what do you think they could show.
PATRICK COCKBURN: Yes, and I think that’s pretty sensible, that they should investigate it. You know you can, you know, the other difficulty in this is motive. If it was intentionally done by the Assad government, why should they do it just as they were capturing Douma, the last opposition stronghold in Eastern Ghouta? They, in fact, they had every reason for this not to happen. This was the one thing that would taint their success there. So that is peculiar. It doesn’t rule it out. Governments do very stupid things. And also they do things by accident. But you know, this is one reason for skepticism.
I mean, the answer is one doesn’t know. You can’t be certain until there’s some form of independent investigation, which may now happen. But it’s a peculiar situation because today there were pictures of 2000 rebel fighters and their families being passed out of Douma. So the situation in the ground has changed since this alleged attack took place. So it’s, you know, it’s in a, everything is in a state of great confusion.
BEN NORTON: Yes. And the group that controls Douma, Jaysh al-Islam, is notorious for carrying out attacks against civilians. In fact, mainstream human rights organizations such as Human Rights Watch, Amnesty International, and others have documented their attacks, Jaish al-Islam’s attacks on civilians. Including, as I mentioned, putting Alawite women in cages. So clearly there is a precedent here for many of these extremist groups to carry out these kinds of attacks.
That said, the opposition would claim that the Syrian government is on the verge of retaking this area and is trying to scare any other opposition groups, and force them into submission by carrying out an attack like this. That’s the argument the opposition makes. What would you say in response to that?
PATRICK COCKBURN: Yeah. I think, you know, the opposition itself has said and others have noted, you know, there isn’t any doubt about the aggressiveness of the Syrian government in clamping down or crushing dissent or opposition. So you know, I don’t see that that argument works, that suddenly they would use chemical munitions to assert this. I’m not saying that they didn’t, you know. I think that, you know, it’s quite conceivable that they might.
But you know, for certainty, and I think this is why governments, Western governments are, are cautious, for certainty you need independent verification. You can’t just take these assertions by the opposition, or Assad, or the Russians for that matter, saying what happened.
You know, it’s like anything else that happens in these opposition-held areas, that often the media just takes this as being proof that some atrocity has occurred there, although the only source of information is partisan and uncheckable, because independent journalists, independent investigators can’t go to those areas without, or haven’t been able to go to those areas, without the very strong risk of being kidnapped or beheaded.
BEN NORTON: The Trump administration has jumped the gun on this. Donald Trump tweeted immediately after the attack, “Many dead, including women and children, in mindless chemical attack.” And then he added, “President Putin, Russia, and Iran are responsible for backing animal Assad. Big price to pay.” And then he added, “If President Obama had crossed his stated red line, the Syrian disaster would have ended long ago.” And he repeatedly called the Syrian president ‘animal Assad.’
The Trump administration appears to be considering airstrikes on Syrian government targets. There were also reports of alleged Israeli attacks on Homs immediately after this attack. Can you speak about the Trump administration, which appears to be certain about this assault, and is considering launching military intervention?
PATRICK COCKBURN: Well, it seems certain at that moment. You know, one knows that Trump’s tweets saying one thing and then, you know, other parts of the U.S. government say something else subsequently, or Trump himself says something different down the line. So that isn’t sort of set in steel.
On the other hand, saying that Assad will pay a price and criticizing Obama for what happened in 2013 makes it difficult for him to row back from that without doing something. But you know, Trump himself criticized what happened, the suggestion that there should be an attack on Syria in 2013, and with good reason. You know, we had been, Obama had ordered a strike. How different would it be from the strike that Trump ordered a year ago?
Unless people who advocate a strike are really sort of concealing the fact that what they really propose is an invasion of Syria, or a sustained military campaign, like that which the U.S. has been conducting in eastern Syria. But I think that it’s a myth that this was the great turning point in 2013, which is believed both on the left and the right. I think they simply wasn’t the case.
And it won’t, it’ll be, again, today if there is, what exactly are the military options if there is a one-off attack all over the country against Assad’s forces? Well, it won’t really change the situation on the ground because the armed opposition has lost. So you know, its last troops are being evacuated from Douma. The only opposition still in Damascus, the only enclave still held is one held by ISIS and by Islamic State inside Damascus. So that doesn’t really change the military balance of power.
The only thing that would do would be an all-out invasion. And that’s not really being proposed. You also have the fact that there are other air forces there. You have Russian air defense. If you will attack all the airports, are the Russian air defense missiles not going to fire? That seems a bit unlikely.
So the sort of knee-jerk idea that to punish Assad you launch military strikes, really regardless of the consequences, including the likelihood that the consequences would be nil, seems to me very, sort of, naive. And it’s, you know, it’s rather extraordinary it’s got such support without any justification in terms of what the effect would be.
BEN NORTON: Well, this week John Bolton, an extremely hardline neoconservative, just entered the White House as Trump’s new national security adviser. Bolton, who has repeatedly called for the U.S. to bomb Iran, is also extremely hawkish on Syria, and it’s a very real possibility that he and the Trump administration may carry out some kind of significant military attack against the Syrian government. What do you think the consequences of that would be?
There’s no question that the groups that would stand to gain from it on the ground would be extremists like Jaysh al-Islam. Also Hay’at Tahrir al-Sham, which is rebranded al-Qaeda, which controls Idlib. What do you think would happen? We see many arguments today that we saw in 2011 when NATO militarily intervened and toppled the state in Libya. Libya is now a failed state. I don’t imagine the same thing happening in Syria, because the war is coming to an end. But what do you think the consequences of dramatic military action could be?
PATRICK COCKBURN: Well, it’s the end in Damascus of one part of the armed opposition. They still have a lot of strength in Idlib province in the north, and around Aleppo. They’re backed by Turkey. So they’re not entirely out of business. But you know, it’s really unlikely that the Assad government is going to collapse. You know it’s, on the contrary, it’s been getting stronger, taking east Aleppo in 2016 and taking the final opposition stronghold in Damascus just now. So I don’t think that that’s likely.
You know, in northeast Syria the U.S. backs up the Kurds, but the Kurds don’t want to attack the Assad government. On the contrary, they’re more frightened of the Turks than they are of the Assad government, and will probably look for a deal with Assad when they can.
So I don’t think that there are, there just aren’t any realistic military options other than a sort of gesture by launching these airstrikes, which I guess something will happen, given all that Trump and the others have been saying. But it’s very difficult to see this changing the situation on the ground.
Which doesn’t mean that they’re not very dangerous, because you have all these different air forces flying over a not very big place in western Syria, U.S. aircraft, potentially U.S. aircraft, British aircraft, French aircraft, Russian aircraft, Israeli aircraft, Turkish aircraft. There’s lots of room for mistakes. What if the U.S. launches attacks, and U.S. aircraft are shot down by Russian anti-aircraft missiles? You know, then we, the whole crisis escalates.
So there aren’t any really good military options. And there are a lot of very dangerous military options.
BEN NORTON: And then finally, Patrick, we’ve seen a lot of reports, rightfully, on the enormous civilian casualties inflicted by the Syrian government. Hundreds of civilians have been killed in this assault on Eastern Ghouta. But of course, we haven’t seen many reports in the Western media on the civilian casualties of the extremist Salafi jihadist groups, namely Jaysh al-Islam. Also Faylaq al-Rahman and other groups that control this area. So we saw massacres inside Damascus by Jaysh al-Islam which recently killed dozens of civilians at a market, after shelling a market in Damascus.
And in the past few days, actually, there also have been some reports, mostly in the Middle Eastern press, not so much in the Western press, of the thousands of prisoners, including civilian hostages who were held by Jaysh al-Islam and who were freed by the Syrian government. In fact, there have been reports that several thousand people have been held and only a few hundred have been released. So there are thousands of civilians and political prisoners who are missing. Why don’t we hear much about that, and do you know anything about, about these issues?
PATRICK COCKBURN: The reports are that there are 1600 dead, 5000-6000 wounded, injured. So you know, that’s pretty high civilian casualties . One shouldn’t understate that. The other reports are that there are 3500 prisoners held by Jaysh al-Islam, and one of the reasons that the negotiations were delayed over the last few days was that the discussion was over the release of these prisoners by Jaysh al-Islam. But how many are actually being released, how many are really there, I don’t know. I don’t think anybody knows at this stage.
BEN NORTON: Patrick Cockburn is an award-winning journalist and longtime correspondent for the British newspaper the Independent. Thanks a lot, Patrick.
PATRICK COCKBURN: Thank you.
BEN NORTON: For the Real News, I’m Ben Norton.