To say the situation in Syria is complex is like saying the Pope is a Catholic. An illustration of this is the talk eminent journalist Robert Fisk gave in Belfast last Thursday when invited by the British Council to take part of the Cathedral Quarter Arts Festival.
Fisk told us he’d just spent the past two weeks in Damascus and Tartus and Latakia and on the northern frontiers of the Syrian government Army.
“Its a bit like being with the Wehrmacht at Stalingrad rather than with the good guys of the Red Army,” he said. “You are with people who are being investigated by the United Nations for War Crimes. I only got back a few days and I have to say, I got the impression that the Syrian Army at the minute is winning and the rebels are not.
“The people whom we regard as the good guys – some of whom have the habit of chopping off other peoples’ head – are having big problems. The government Army has won back the suburbs of Damascus, and in the far north – I was only a few miles from the Turkish border – they had recaptured eight villages in the past two weeks.”
Fisk told of how he spoke to all ranks in the Syrian army and how they told him of the causalities they inflicted with literally no prisoners taken. This is a very bloody war with 60,000 casualties but who knows the real figure and yet, it’s Fisk’s view that Bashar al-Assad will continue in power “a lot longer” even though the civil war is now in its third year.
“We have a habit in the west, where we think the baddies will go because they are bad,” he said, “but the idea that Bashar al-Assad is going to run away to an Alawite area of northwestern Syria doesn’t seem likely to me.”
Fisk asked one colonel, if it was the purpose of the Syrian Army was to defend Syria against Israel, why were they facing Turkey in the north when Israel was 300 miles away in the south.
“His answer was that they were fighting the tools of Israel, because ‘Fatah in the mountains are supporting the rebels against my country therefore, I am fighting Israel here’.
“I rather suspect, however, that Israel would prefer Bashar al-Assad to survive if the alternative is an Islamic Caliphate. Interestingly, in more than two years of civil war in which maybe 60,000 people have died, Israel has only once condemned the Syrian government.”
That judgement was thrown into doubt this weekend when Israel launched strikes on Damascus, “targetting Iranian missiles destined for Lebanon’s Shiite Hezbollah movement.”
Hezbollah are staunch supporters of the Assad regime and the Israeli attacks have been seen as helping the rebels, a claim Israel denies.
What we do know is that Syria also has the support of Russia.
“I don’t think the Russians are helping Syria because they want to keep their naval base at Tartus – there are 1,000 Russian marines based there – I think they have a completely different view of the country,” explained Fisk.
“An official at the Foreign Ministry said to me: ‘Look you call it ‘the Middle East, to us it’s the south. When we look south from Moscow, we see Chechnya and just beyond Chechnya is Syria. We are not going to have another Chechnya in Syria’ he said. “I think this is Putin’s anti-Islamist views coming through,” says Fisk. ”
I think Russia has a very, very deep enmity towards Islamist extremism. Fisk has lived in the Middle East for 37 years and has unrivalled access to all the corridors of power, official and unofficial, which makes his views on Palestine so depressing. Israel felt betrayed by the British when all they got was the narrow strip of land they were giving in 1948 as opposed to the whole of Palestine.
“Of course, it’s getting bigger as they steal more land from Palestinians but I should say now that I don’t believe there will ever be a Palestinian state.
“I was in Israel six months ago and I drove all around the West Bank and I simply think there are too many Jewish colonies, for Jews and Jews only, on Arab land for there ever to be a Palestinian state. There are so many special roads, special checkpoints, a cordon sanitaire for military purposes a cross the west Bank, even on the banks of the Jordan river, for there ever to be a Palestinian state,” says Fisk.