The war consists of a whole set of regional and international proxy wars that matches both sides of the Syrian civil war. “But we should have no illusions that the U.S. is backing rebel forces against the Syrian regime because it’s worried about the regime's human rights violations”, says Bennis. The U.S. has traditionally depended on the Syrian regime's human rights violations for example in outsourcing interrogation and torture during the so-called war on terror. For Russia Syria is the only remaining Arab ally. The Russian military base at Tartus is the last one outside the former Soviet Union. “There are war crimes on all sides”. Continued fighting is blocking the only existing alternative diplomacy while at this stage no one could “win” the war anymore. The militarization of the conflict has made that impossible. “Even the Syrian resistance will not gain everything that they should have gained from this process”.
Phyllis Bennis, Institute for Policy Studies, Washington D.C.
David Goessmann: If we look at Syria we get a really complex picture with numerous actors internally, externally; competing interests, frictions and fractions. Who is fighting for what in Syria?
Phyllis Bennis: Who is fighting for what in Syria is a very complicated question. I think the best way to look at it, and its not the easiest way, but maybe the clearest way, is to say there are two sets of wars in Syria. There is one set of wars that are essentially civil wars: fights between various Syrian forces, progressive some of them, many of them; heroic, many of them; not so heroic others of them – against a terribly repressive regime. That's one set of wars. Then there's another whole set of proxy wars. There's about nine or ten of them. And they end up fighting on the same two sides as the Syrian civil war. But they're fighting for their own interests. To the last Syrian. Syrians are doing the dying. Syrians are paying the price for these other wars. So you have a war for regional hegemony, largely between Iran and Saudi Arabia being fought to the last Syrian. You have a sectarian war between Sunni Islam and Shia Islam, largely being fought between Iran and Saudi Arabia again. Again to the last Syrian. You have a war between the US and Russia, being fought to the last Syrian. You have a war between the US and Israel and Iran, in Syria. You have a war pitting Turkey against Russia; pitting Saudi Arabia against Russia; pitting Saudi Arabia against Qatar and Jordan. You have the set of wars. You have Turkey at war with the Kurds in Syria. So its a whole set of regional and global proxy wars that match the two sides of the Syrian civil war, but we should have no illusions that, for example, the US is backing rebel forces against the Syrian regime because its worried about the regime's human rights violations. It certainly is not. The US has traditionally depended in the Syrian regime's human rights violations. For example to outsource interrogation and torture during the so-called war on terror. You have a whole host of fighters on many different sides who are all fighting for their own interests and only happen to be fighting in Syria today.
David Goessmann: And why has this mess happened in Syria? Especially in Syria, not in Iraq or elsewhere?
Phyllis Bennis: It's happening to a certain degree in Iraq, but not anything like what we see in Syria today. The war in Syria began as part of the process we now call the Arab Spring. A non-violent, really heroic uprising. A political uprising of Syrians against a horrific regime. Calling for democratic rights, for the rights of citizenship. For people's rights. And the regime responded fairly soon with horrible violence. In response to that violence some in the opposition took up new violence of their own. Took up arms. Many of them were defectors of the Syrian army. So they've had some training. They had access to weapons. And soon you had a real civil war. That then became, mainly because of ISIS showing up and for other reasons, more sectarian forces flooded into Syria, where you have not only Syrians fighting but other foreign fighters as well, joining various Jihadi organizations. When ISIS split with their parent organization, Al-Qaeda, you had Al-Qaeda forces who stayed in Syria. Now the what used to be called the Al-Nusra front, has a new name, hasn't changed what they stand for. They are in there fighting. So you have this very complex set of fighters going on in Syria. Everyone understood that Syria is one of the most important countries in the Arab world, in the Middle East.
David Goessmann: Why is that?
Phyllis Bennis: Russia sees Syria as the most important because its the only remaining Arab ally that Russia has. The Russian military base at Tartus is the only military base Russia now has that is not on the territory of the former Soviet Union. So they are determined to protect their interest. They don't care, particularly, whether its Bashar al-Assad who stays in power or not. The Russian concern is: will they keep their naval base? Will Syria remain their most important ally politically in the Middle East? Will Syria remain a major customer for Russian arms? Those are the concerns of Russia. So it's an opportunist concern. Just as the US's concern are not those of the Syrian people. It’s of how the US is going to protect its interest and its allies in the region.
David Goessmann: Since last year at least 10 nations have taken part in bombing Syria: the United States, Russia, Britain, Canada, France, Australia, Turkey, Israel, the UAE and Jordan. The US has already sent troops on the ground. Germany is arming and training Kurdish forces, supporting Turkey and France with military equipment, defence systems, a frigate and military reconnaissance. The UN and the Red Cross have warned in a joint statement last year that there is no military solution to the conflict. Your take on that?
Phyllis Bennis: Ironically, the recent statement from the UN and the ICRC is only the most recent. The most active fighters – President Obama. Other fighters, other partisans in this war have all said: there is no military solution. And yet in their next breath they order more troops; they order more bombers; they order more drones; they carry out more attacks. It's because they don't understand, they won't admit, that diplomacy is the only way this war will ultimately end. They cannot grasp, that the diplomacy is not just different, but impossible when you try of having diplomacy and go to war at the same time. As long as the US and Russia, say, are pouring arms into the two competing sides you can declare all the ceasefires that you want. But they will not last. Until you have an arms embargo on all sides you will not have a ceasefire that can hold. Until you have a ceasefire that can hold, you will not have real diplomacy. So the problem is: as long as you keep fighting you put off the inevitable diplomacy that will be required to end this war. What we're saying now is: we have to stop the war now. Not win the war. We have to just stop it. We have to end it. That will mean that nobody is going to win what they want. The heroic fighters of what some call the Syrian revolution, what others call the Syrian resistance, they will not gain everything that they should have gained from this process. The militarization of this conflict has made that impossible. But if we could only pressure the major outside powers to stop throwing arms into the conflict and … you know, the hypocrisy that you have, the United States for instance, in recent days when the escalation in Aleppo has gotten so horrific, so out of control in terms of civilians, particularly children, being slaughtered in enormous numbers – right now primarily by the Russian and Syrian air forces – the US stands back and says: We demand that you stop; we demand that you stop arming the regime; we demand that you stop your bombers. Well that would have a lot more resonance if the US was not continuing to bomb in the east, which we're not hearing very much about. Granted with thankfully not so many civilian casualties but nonetheless as long as they are throwing arms and allowing their allies – Saudi Arabia, Turkey and others – to continue arming the opposition, they have no credibility to tell the Russians to stop arming Syria.
David Goessmann: So there are war crimes on both sides?
Phyllis Bennis: There are absolutely war crimes on all sides. On every single side! Right now the worst war crimes are probably being committed in Aleppo by the Russian and Syrian air forces. But that's today. Last week it was US bombers. Some other time it was others. Everybody in this fight has committed war crimes. That's why we need to end this war.