The conflict in Syria is only going to get worse. Middle East expert Günther Meyer explained to EURACTIV’s partner Wirtschaftswoche why Syrian dictator Bashar al-Assad must stay in power , how the US is primarily to blame and why a no-fly zone would be ineffective.
Günther Meyer is president of the European Association for Middle Eastern Studies (EURAMES) and is a professor of Economic and Social Geography at Mainz University.
He spoke to Wirtschaftswoche’s Marc Etzold.
The war in Syria has escalated to a new level; Syrian and Russian troops are bombing Aleppo to pieces. What happened?
There are two levels of escalation here. The first came two weeks ago when the Americans attacked Syrian government forces. They called it a mistake, but that is implausible. The US knows the area in which it took place like the back of their hand, it couldn’t have been a mistake.
The US government is divided. President Obama wanted to stabilise Syria and negotiate a settlement. Part of the plan would have been the Americans and Russians setting up a joint command centre from where they could have fought Islamic State and the Nusra Front, Al-Qaeda’s Syrian branch. But the Pentagon does not want to work with the Russians or share intelligence with them. So, in my mind, I think it is likely that the attack was pushed forward by the Pentagon.
A short time later a United Nations aid convoy was attacked.
This was the second escalating factor. Washington says that Russia is guilty of war crimes, but it lacks evidence. Plus it does not make sense, because neither Damascus nor Moscow benefit from the incident, either politically or strategically. The only ones who benefit are the rebels. There is every indication that they carried out the attack, with the sole purpose of pinning it on Assad and, as a result, the blame for the failure of the ceasefire would lie with him. It seems they have succeeded, if the reaction by the Western media is anything to go by.
Since last week, the Russians and Syrians have been bombing the rebels in Aleppo. Are we seeing genocide being carried out?
In any case, it is an extremely brutal war. The regime gives no regard to civilian casualties in its pursuit of the rebels. They themselves then barricade themselves in residential areas and use civilians as human shields. Both sides act cruelly in the extreme.
The US backs the rebels with military and weapons. Can Washington not influence things any other way?
Before, there were moderates among the rebels, but they are history now. The strongest military power among the rebel faction is now the Nusra Front. Most of the successes gained by the rebels have been down to them. As I said, they are basically Al-Qaeda: hard-core Islamists, who no-one can influence.
So the Americans and the Nusra Front are on the same side?
Washington denies it of course. But they are de facto allies. A Nusra Front commander even declared publicly that Washington had directly supplied them with modern anti-tank weapons and rocket launchers.
The US has been giving Al-Qaeda, its enemy, weapons then? Why would they do that?
Obama is stuck between a rock and a hard place. He does not want to lose face by abandoning Syria to Russia, as that would be seen as a massive defeat for him. Therefore, they have to support those who are fighting Assad, and in this case it is the Islamists of the Nusra Front. The enemy of my enemy is my friend.
The idea of a no-fly zone is back on the table. What would that involve?
The debate is absurd. The Assad regime and the rebels are both well equipped, military speaking. But it is only the Russians and Assad that have access to combat aircraft. It is their ace in the hole against the rebels, so to think that the Russian’s would forfeit their main military advantage is inconceivable. The Americans would end up shooting down Syrian and Russian aircraft and the war would shift to one between the US and Russia, on Syrian soil.
Is it possible that Russia could withdraw from the war?
Why should they? A year ago, despite Shiite support from Iran and Lebanon, Assad was teetering on the edge. Then Russia entered the fray and has since dictated the course of the war. Putin isn’t going to think about giving up now.
Who are the villains and who are the heroes of the piece?
Assad’s regime clamped down on the “terrorists” with immense brutality and took no account of civilian collateral when doing so. The rebels are no less barbaric. The problem is that we are dealing with a proxy war here. The Russians are with Assad. The Americans want to get him out of office at any cost. These interests are so at odds with one another that there can’t be a compromise. The same goes for the Sunni regimes of Saudi Arabia and Qatar, as well as Israel, and their machinations in Syria against the Shiites of Iran and Lebanon. At the same time, Erdoğan is fighting the Syrian Kurds in an effort to quash their drive for independence.
Obama would surely not change tack and accept Assad as president though.
Assad is bad, no question. But what happens when he is overthrown? The power vacuum will draw in the most powerful opposition groups: the Nusra Front and its allies. They would expel or kill any religious minority that collaborated with the regime, especially the Sunnis, and Christians, who make up about 12% of the population, would be included in that too.
So it would be better to keep and support Assad?
At least during a transitional phase up until new elections. The Americans have to do all they can so that Islamists do not get into power, but they aren’t interested in that at the moment, because they have to use them against Assad. It’s, with all due respect, a perverse art of warfare.
How can the peace process be revived?
The difference between the interests of the two proxies is just too great. I see no chance for a peaceful solution. On the contrary in fact, it is only going to get bloodier when you consider press reports that the US is now arming the rebels will modern anti-air defences as well now.
Has the West failed in your view?
Worse than that. In my view, the US is primarily responsible for the humanitarian disaster that is happening currently. Since the US-led 2003 invasion of Iraq, successive leaders have made wrong decision after wrong decision and plunged the region into chaos.
Suppose Hillary Clinton is elected. Can she change the course of things?
Clinton has advocated a hard line against Assad so far. So it looks like she would find herself in the same position that Obama is in now. The only way for this war to end is for Assad to stay in office. The regime is the only force capable of protecting the general population from takeover by ultra-conservative Islamists. As long as America does not accept this, the war will continue. And if Clinton pursues harder action against Assad, it will only get more brutal.
This war could go on for years to come then.
Some observers have compared it to the Thirty Years war of the 17th century. An end to both the killings and the war itself can’t been seen in the coming years.