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Syrian civil defence members mourn the death of their comrade, who was killed during what rebel activists said were air strikes carried out by the Russian air force. (Photo: Reuters)

Syria’s ‘Moderates’ Have Disappeared... and There Are No Good Guys

Western confusion reigns while the Russians go for the jugular

Robert Fisk

 by The Independent

The Russian air force in Syria has flown straight into the West’s fantasy air space. The Russians, we are now informed, are bombing the “moderates” in Syria – “moderates” whom even the Americans admitted two months ago, no longer existed. 

 

It’s rather like the Isis fighters who left Europe to fight for the “Caliphate”.Remember them? Scarcely two months ago, our political leaders – and leader writers – were warning us all of the enormous danger posed by “home-grown” Islamists who were leaving Britain and other European countries and America to fight for the monsters of Isis. Then the hundreds of thousands of Muslim refugees began trekking up the Balkans towards Europe after risking death in the Mediterranean – and we were all told by the same political leaders to be fearful that Isis killers were among them.

 

It’s amazing how European Muslim fighters fly to Turkey to join Isis, and a few weeks later, they’re drowning in leaky boats or tramping back again and taking trains from Hungary to Germany. But if this nonsense was true, where did they get the time for all the terrorist training they need in order to attack us when they get back to Europe? 

 

It is possible, of course, that this was mere storytelling. By contrast, the chorus of horror that has accompanied Russia’s cruel air strikes this past week has gone beyond sanity. 

 

Let’s start with a reality check. The Russian military are killers who go for the jugular. They slaughtered the innocent of Chechnya to crush the Islamist uprising there, and they will cut down the innocent of Syria as they try to crush a new army of Islamists and save the ruthless regime of Bashar al-Assad. The Syrian army, some of whose members are war criminals, have struggled ferociously to preserve the state – and used barrel bombs to do it. They have also fought to the death. 

 

“American officials” – those creatures beloved of The New York Times – claim that the Syrian army does not fight Isis. If true, who on earth killed the 56,000 Syrian soldiers – the statistic an official secret, but nonetheless true – who have so far died in the Syrian war? The preposterous Free Syrian Army (FSA)?

 

This rubbish has reached its crescendo in the on-again off-again saga of the Syrian “moderates”.  These men were originally military defectors to the FSA, which America and European countries regarded as a possible pro-Western force to be used against the Syrian government army. But the FSA fell to pieces, corrupted, and the “moderates” defected all over again, this time to the Islamist Nusrah Front or to Isis, selling their American-supplied weapons to the highest bidder or merely retiring quietly – and wisely – to the countryside where they maintained a few scattered checkpoints.

Washington admitted their disappearance, bemoaned their fate, concluded that new “moderates” were required, persuaded the CIA to arm and train 70 fighters, and this summer packed them off across the Turkish border to fight – whereupon all but 10 were captured by Nusrah and at least two of them were executed by their captors. Just two weeks ago, I heard in person one of the most senior ex-US officers in Iraq – David Petraeus’s former No 2 in Baghdad – announce that the “moderates” had collapsed long ago. Now you see them – now you don’t.

But within hours of Russia’s air assaults last weekend, Washington, The New York Times, CNN, the poor old BBC and just about every newspaper in the Western world resurrected these ghosts and told us that the Russkies were bombing the brave “moderates” fighting Bashar’s army in Syria – the very “moderates” who, according to the same storyline from the very same sources a few weeks earlier, no longer existed. Our finest commentators and experts – always a dodgy phrase – joined in the same chorus line.  

So now a few harsh factoids. The Syrian army are drawing up the operational target lists for the Russian air force. But Vladimir Putin has his own enemies in Syria.

The first strikes – far from being aimed at the “moderates” whom the US had long ago dismissed – were directed at the large number of Turkmen villages in the far north-west of Syria which have for many months been occupied by hundreds of Chechen fighters – the very same Chechens whom Putin had been trying to liquidate in Chechnya itself. These Chechen forces assaulted and destroyed Syria’s strategic hilltop military Position 451 north of Latakia last year. No wonder Bashar’s army put them on the target list.

Other strikes were directed not at Isis but at Islamist Jaish al-Shams force targets in the same area. But in the first 24 hours, Russian bombs were also dropped on the Isis supply line through the mountains above Palmyra.

The Russians specifically attacked desert roads around the town of Salamia – the same tracks used by Isis suicide convoys to defeat Syrian troops in the ancient Roman city of Palmyra last May. 

They also bombed areas around Hassakeh and the Isis-held Raqqa air base where Syrian troops have fought Islamists over  the past year (and were beheaded when  they surrendered). 

Russian ground troops, however, are in Syria only to guard their bases. These are symbolic boots on the ground – but the idea that those boots are there to fight Isis is a lie. The Russians intend to let the Syrian ground troops do the dying for them.

No, there are no good guys and bad guys in the Syrian war. The Russians don’t care about the innocents they kill any more than do the Syrian army or Nato. Any movie of the Syrian war should be entitled War Criminals Galore! 

But for heaven’s sake, let’s stop fantasising. A few days ago, a White House spokesman even told us that Russian bombing “drives moderate elements… into the hands  of extremists”.  

Who’s writing this fiction? “Moderate elements” indeed…


© 2016 The Independent
Robert Fisk

Robert Fisk

Robert Fisk (1946-2020) was a writer and journalist who held British and Irish citizenship and was Middle East correspondent for The Independent newspaper.  He was the author of many books on the region, including "The Great War for Civilisation: The Conquest of the Middle East" (2007) and "Robert Fisk on Afghanistan: Osama Bin Laden: 9/11 to Death in Pakistan" (2016).

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