George Joffe on the Syrian conflict

great_mosque_damascus08:27 Friday 2nd October 2015
BBC Radio Cambridgeshire

DOTTY MCLEOD: The United States has accused Russia of carrying out indiscriminate attacks in Syria. This is on the front pages of many of the papers this morning. The front cover of the Guardian, “Putin moves to prop up Assad” is the headline. Also on the front page of the Telegraph this morning as well. Earlier on Moscow said its strikes targeted the Islamic State group and other terrorists. But America and its allies fear the idea is to support Russia’s ally, Syrian President Bashar al Assad, a claim that’s denied by Moscow. Well George Joffe is a lecturer at the Department of Politics and International Studies at Cambridge University. Morning George.
GEORGE JOFFE: Good morning.
DOTTY MCLEOD: What’s your view then of what’s happening around Syria at the moment?

GEORGE JOFFE: Well I think it’s a question of chickens coming home to roost in many respects. Russia’s long supported the Assad regime, and it’s long been evident that Russia will be one of the ways through for the West if it wanted to to negotiate a departure of President Assad himself. The West though has refused to consider that, and now the Russians are pushing themselves into the Western attention, so that they can no longer pretend that Russia is not a party to what’s going on.
DOTTY MCLEOD: And you think that America and Britain maybe have been trying to just turn a blind eye to Russia. If we cover our eyes they’re not there. And it hasn’t worked.
GEORGE JOFFE: Well more than that. I think they thought that if they could stamp on Russia the label of aggressor over Ukraine, then they could ignore Russia’s presence inside Syria. But Russia simply can’t be ignored. It’s a player inside the Middle East, and it’s quite clear that President Putin intends to make sure that his role inside the Middle East is now going to have to be recognised. Whether it’s going to be a useful participation or not, that’s not clear. And it does seem at the moment that the Russians are in fact supporting the regime come what may, and not really targeting the Islamic Front, which is what the West would like to see. But again the West is going to have to co-operate with Russia now, and I think leaders in Britain, France and the United States know this, and this is causing them considerable pain, because this was not part of the original calculations.
DOTTY MCLEOD: Russia have referred to the Syrian President Bashar al-Assad as a legitimate leader for Syria. That is not something that America and the rest of the West seems to agree with. So how could Russia work with America and Britain on that point?
GEORGE JOFFE: Well it’s a question of practicalities. The West certainly rejects the idea that Presdent al-Assad is a legitimate ruler. But they know he’s not going to disappear, or at least they know now he’s not going to disappear, as they thought originally he would. And therefore in a sense if they want to remove him from power, they’ve got to find a negotiated way of doing that. Now the only people who can help in that process are either the Russians or the Iranians, and it’s a question now of persuading both parties that they’ve got an interest in collaborating with the West. It may not be possible to do, but it’s the only way forward. Otherwise I’m afraid Iran and Russia are going to support Assad against the rest, and that has really incalculable consequences in terms of an acceleration of the conflict inside Syria itself.
DOTTY MCLEOD: Well absolutely. Now you’ve got America carrying out air strikes on some targets, Russia carrying out air strikes on some targets. And the Syrian government as well carrying out some action. It must just be terrible for everyday Syrians.
GEORGE JOFFE: It’s appalling for them, there’s absolutely no doubt at all, and it’s quite clear that amongst the targets, or the unintended victims of Russian action, are going to be civilians. And now there’s a possibility of Iranian forces entering the fight on the ground too. That’s bound to make things more tense. One of the factors that’s inevitable now is that Saudi Arabia, Qatar and Turkey will intensify their support for the rebels they prefer to support. And that means that the conflict is going to become even more intense.
DOTTY MCLEOD: Well George I have a feeling this won’t be the last time that we talk about the situation in Syria.
GEORGE JOFFE: I fear not.
DOTTY MCLEOD: Yes. Thank you very much for your time this morning. George Joffe there, who is a lecturer at the Department of Politics and International Studies at Cambridge University.