We can get rid of Assad or fight al-Qaeda, but we can’t do both
By Peter Oborne - The Telegraph
26 Feb 2014
Syrian President Bashar al-Assad appears to be winning the war that has torn his country apart Photo: AFP/Getty Images
For the past three years, when seeking enlightenment about the Syrian crisis, I have often talked to Alastair Crooke, a former MI6 officer. Mr Crooke, who left government service a decade ago after a long career, now runs a think tank called Conflicts Forum, which maintains contact with organisations such as Hizbollah and governments such as Iran, when official contact has been broken off.
I have learnt to respect and trust Mr Crooke, who has the invaluable habit of being right. When the British and American governments both claimed that President Assad of Syria would fall within weeks, he told me this was wishful thinking. When Western governments hailed the Syrian rebels as a democratic movement of national liberation, he said: hang on a moment. At the heart of the rebellion, he pointed out, was a group of armed gangs funded by Saudi Arabia and other Gulf states, dedicated to the establishment of a militant Sunni caliphate across the Middle East. He uttered this warning right at the start of the Syrian conflict, and at last the penny is (ever so painfully) beginning to drop in Whitehall and Washington.
So when Conflicts Forum invited me to a seminar in Beirut, I accepted with alacrity. It was over the weekend in an otherwise deserted seaside hotel. Lebanon, so prosperous and thriving when I was here four years ago, now conveys an air of desolate menace, as the country struggles to accommodate more than a million Syrian refugees. Parts of the country, including the second city of Tripoli, are increasingly dominated by jihadists.
At the seminar, there was a different world view to the one normally presented in the British media, and a more exotic cast of characters. Mr Crooke had assembled an adviser to President Putin, several Iranian diplomats, as well as representatives from Hizbollah, Hamas and Islamic Jihad – all three organisations labelled as terrorists by Western governments.
To many Telegraph readers, this might sound like a rogues’ gallery. But what they had to say was very interesting. Everyone there took for granted that President Assad has won the war, though they admitted that there may be some time to go before it ends. In the north, they said, the rebels have turned on each other. A crucial battle is now being fought at Qalamoun, in the west. The Syrian army and rebel forces are engaged in a ferocious battle for this strategic ridge, which controls the all-important supply line between Lebanon and rebel territory. We were told that the Battle of Qalamoun was all over bar the shouting, and that it will fall to Assad’s forces quite soon.