Interview with The Real News
The ceasefire agreement reached by Donald Trump and Vladimir Putin in southwest Syria appears aimed at weakening Iran and containing its influence inside Syria, says Alternet reporter Ben Norton.
Aaron Maté: It’s the Real News, I’m Aaron Maté. The U.S. and Russia have reached a ceasefire in southwestern Syria. So what does that mean for Syria, and especially Iran? Joining me is Ben Norton, a reporter with AlterNet’s Grayzone Project. Welcome, Ben.
Ben Norton: Always glad to be here, thanks for having me.
Aaron Maté: Thanks for joining us. The big headlines last week were about this Trump-Putin ceasefire that they reached in southwestern Syria at their G20 meeting in Germany. But now we’re starting to hear some details about what that ceasefire might contain, and implications for Iran’s role inside Syria. What’s your take?
Ben Norton: Well, it’s still unclear. The exact details of the agreement are secret, and this was made by President Trump and President Putin without really the input even of the Pentagon, so many of the details are being leaked slowly. But what is very clear from the get-go is that this is an agreement about weakening Iran and containing its influence inside Syria.
It looks like Russia has gone along with this so far. We will see what Russia’s response will be in the future, and there have also been questions about the fact of whether or not this is actually enforceable, but the general analysis that we’ve seen so far based on some internal leaks is that this agreement [serves as a model for the ultimate establishment of] four so-called “de-confliction zones” inside Syria.
There actually are significant concerns that have been echoed by establishment pundits that this is paving the way for the partition of Syria. Right now, there is already a kind of de facto partition, but it looks like this ceasefire, if it holds, may lead to an actual political partition of the country.
According to the details we have so far, Iran and Iranian-backed groups, including Hezbollah, which have been playing a lead role in the fight in Syria, especially against ISIS, are forbidden from the southwest of the country.
This was an agreement that was made between the U.S., Russia, Jordan, and Israel. Jordan is officially part of the ceasefire agreement. Israel is not technically part of it, but internal sources told Foreign Policy Magazine that Israel is playing a role in the negotiating process. And Jordan and Israel, which see Iran as their mortal enemy, do not want Iran and its allies to have any influence inside Syria, especially in the areas near their borders.
The Golan Heights, which have been illegally occupied by Israel since the 1967 war, are not going to be — they’re already Israeli-occupied territory where Islamist rebels have been fighting, including al-Qaeda, but this is going to be an area near the border of Israel that is completely off-limits. And Russia says that it’s going to agree so far. Whether or not this is going to be able to be enforced is unclear.
In the southeast of the country — the ceasefire agreement mostly pertains to the southwest, but in the southeast — there have been significant skirmishes going on, as we’ve actually talked about on The Real News before. And Iranian-backed forces allied with the Syrian government have actually been attacked more than four times by the U.S. The U.S. even shot down a Syrian plane in Syrian territory.
So to me, and to many observers, I truly suspect that we’re seeing the beginning of the partition of Syria. To be frank, I don’t see Syria as we know it as a contiguous territory remaining much longer. And this actually looks similar to what happened 101 years ago, where colonial powers carved up the Middle East in the Sykes-Picot Agreement.
I think it should be very troubling to international observers. But even the partition fact aside, the cynicism of this agreement, where, regardless of what you think about Iran, Iran has been leading the fight against ISIS, but the U.S., which has pursued regime change in Iran for decades, is at Iran’s throat, and I think this agreement is only one part of the escalating aggression against Iran.
Aaron Maté: Yeah. In terms of leading to partition, could that scenario then lead to conflict with Iran? Because even if Russia accepts that there’s some kind of partition inside Syria, or even if Russia accepts a deal in which Assad is taken out, it’s not guaranteed that Iran would accept that, because Iran’s stakes inside Syria are so much higher, right?
Ben Norton: The reality, I’m glad you highlighted this, is that Iran is much closer to the Syrian government, and especially President Bashar al-Assad, and they really do want him to stay in power. The Russian government has oscillated, and in fact in 2012, there were reports that President Putin himself offered to reach a political agreement with the U.S., in which Assad would step down and there would be a political transition. The U.S. at the time was considering violent regime change through supporting rebels, and it was not interested in the agreement.
It’s very clear that Russia, it may support the Syrian government insofar as it’s fighting al-Qaeda and ISIS, but it’s not so wedded to the notion that the Syrian government will stay intact in the current structure. So there are of course differences in these different alliances.
And also what’s unclear is the role of Turkey. Turkey has played a very complex role inside Syria. From the beginning of the conflict, Turkey has supported Islamist rebels fighting the government, including al-Qaeda and even ISIS. And Turkey had a very troubling relationship with ISIS. They allowed ISIS fighters to cross its borders with Syria in the north. Erdogan actually has been accused by former Turkish officials, including a senior official in the Turkish police and intelligence services, who accused Erdogan of buying millions of dollars of oil from ISIS.
However, in the past two years, Turkey’s role has shifted very dramatically. And last year, Turkey militarily intervened in northern Syria, and has been carrying out a campaign of air strikes, not just against ISIS, but also against Kurdish forces, many of which are backed by the U.S. And Turkey has essentially declared war on these Kurdish forces.
So one of the likely partitions of Syria would be a Kurdish area in the north. But the question is, is Turkey, a NATO member, which is backed by the U.S. in Syria, is it going to allow this Kurdish autonomous region in the north, which is also backed by the U.S.
Which side the U.S. ultimately ends up on is not clear, but the unfortunate reality is that this suggests that, even if the war inside the southern parts of Syria and the western parts of Syria do end, even if ISIS is militarily defeated, even if there is some kind of deal made for the remaining rebel-held territory of Idlib and the small rebel-held pockets in the south. Even if that war comes to a conclusion, I think there are a lot of indications that there will continue to be a war waged by Turkey in the north against Kurdish forces.
The unfortunate reality is the war in Syria, although it seems like it’s winding down, could evolve into a new phase that continues to result in the deaths of thousands of civilians and political instability in this strategically critical region for all actors involved. And to stress, there are dozens of actors involved. This is an intensely international conflict, and it involves not just the U.S. and its many allies, but also Russia, Iran, Turkey, Saudi Arabia, you go down the list. This is a truly international war.
Aaron Maté: You know Ben, despite the flaws of partition, could one make the argument that it’s certainly preferable to the status quo?
Ben Norton: That question is up to Syrians; it’s not up to us. We’re not living in the country. There has been no democratic process, there has been no internal evaluation of whether or not Syrians want their country to be divided.
As Westerners, it’s extreme colonial hubris to look at a country and say, “Well, maybe partition is good for it.” This is the exact argument that was made for the former Yugoslav nations. In 1999, NATO militarily intervened and Balkanized the country.
Today, we look at the outcome of that. We see the rise of far right extremism throughout many of the former Yugoslav nations. In Kosovo, which was portrayed as the beacon of success for humanitarian intervention and so called R2P, Right to Protect, the New York Times published an article last year looking at how Kosovo has become a major hub for ISIS recruitment. It’s become a far-right, Islamist bastion, and the U.S. has known that this has been happening. The New York Times article in fact looks into how Saudi clerics and Saudi-funded mosques have been fueling radicalism in this formerly very moderate country. This is seen as the positive example of partition and Balkanization.
Bosnia and Herzegovina has a horrible poverty rate, massive internal problems, and again, growing xenophobia in many of these countries.
So it’s extremely arrogant for international powers to look at this conflict and say, “Well, the best solution is partition.” No, I think the best solution is creating some kind of political agreement that ends the violence, but also involves democratic processes by which the Syrian people themselves have say over what happens inside their country — not the U.S., not the UK, not Russia, France, Saudi Arabia. The Syrian people have the right to sovereignty under international law and that needs to be respected.
Aaron Maté: Finally, Ben, on the issue of Iran, I’ve always wondered to what extent the antagonism that it faces from the outside, namely from Saudi Arabia, Israel and the U.S., factors into its support for Assad in terms of them needing an ally who can help them ship weapons to their proxy Hezbollah.
And I’m wondering if Iran didn’t feel so much pressure in terms of as we’re seeing right now with the Trump administration through that regime change or suggestions of regime change, whether Assad you think would become more expendable to Iran?
Ben Norton: I think that’s a very great point that is often overlooked. In Western media outlets, we often, when I say “we,” it’s certainly not me, I mean in western corporate media outlets, they portray the machinations and actions of official enemies as if they’re completely irrational, as if they’re rooted solely in evil.
You look at the portrayal of North Korea. North Korea is portrayed as a completely mad state run by a lunatic that is intent on destruction. But when you look — even Fareed Zakaria actually recently acknowledged this in a pretty good segment for CNN — these countries face existential threats. North Korea and Iran are two examples.
In the case of North Korea, Korea was completely destroyed by the U.S. war from 1950 to 1955. The U.S. government acknowledged that 20% of the Korean population was murdered. The U.S. leveled cities to the ground. Then North Korea looks at what happened when Libya, which was destroyed, the country torn apart in 2011 in a NATO bombing campaign, after Gaddafi agreed to get rid of his nuclear weapons program. So North Korea has serious concerns. And Iran is the same.
You could argue that maybe there are elements within North Korea that are much, much more problematic than Iran. Iran certainly is not an ideal form of government either. There is no state in the world that is a perfect ideal state. But Iran just had presidential elections with 73% voter turnout, where they elected a reformist. This is not a country that is hellbent on genocidal destruction of the world. This is a country that has rational politicians who are acting in their country’s rational self-interest. And the way it’s portrayed is laughable.
So yes, when you look at the conflict in Syria, Iran looks at what happened in Libya, it looks at what happened in Iraq, it looks at what happened in many of these countries that not only had their countries destroyed, but were also reeling under sanctions like Iran is. The U.S. is not some kind of neutral actor in this. The U.S. has really brutal sanctions on Iran that the Senate keeps increasing, and that have really hindered the Iranian economy.
Of course, Israel has played a significant role in the conflict in Syria as well. Recent reports in the Wall Street Journal have acknowledged that there are multiple rebel groups inside the occupied Golan Heights, in Syrian territory controlled by Israel, that are actively supported and funded by Israel.
So Iran is portrayed as some kind of uniquely nefarious actor, but the reality is that, as I just mentioned several moments ago, Syria is a truly international conflict, and Iran wants a stable government that is a next-door neighbor that is not going to be controlled by hardline, Salafi fanatics like al-Qaeda and ISIS, but at the same time, is also not going to be a proxy state for the U.S. and Israel, which is what the U.S. and Israel have been pursuing for years.
We can criticize Iran all day long, but we need to look at the reality of the complexity that was actually happening, and see that, at the end of the day, Iran’s role has actually been, I would say, much more rational than many other actors, and understandable from their perspective.
Aaron Maté: You know Ben, I have one quibble, which is that I think you’re giving the Wall Street Journal too much credit, because the day before that report, I don’t know if you remember, but there was that article by Nour Samaha for Syria Deeply about Israeli support for militants inside Syria, and we interviewed her on that and I recommend people to go watch that segment if they’re interested.
Ben Norton, reporter with AlterNet’s Grayzone Project. Ben, thank you as always.
Ben Norton: Always glad to be here. Thanks for having me.
Aaron Maté: And thank you for joining us on The Real News.