Patrick Cockburn writes: It is difficult to prove the truth or falsehood of any generalisation about Syria. But, going by my experience this month travelling in central Syria between Damascus, Homs and the Mediterranean coast, it is possible to show how far media reports differ markedly what is really happening. Only by understanding and dealing with the actual balance of forces on the ground can any progress be made towards a cessation of violence.
On Tuesday I travelled to Tal Kalakh, a town of 55,000 people just north of the border with Lebanon, which was once an opposition bastion. Three days previously, government troops had taken over the town and 39 Free Syrian Army (FSA) leaders had laid down their weapons. Talking to Syrian army commanders, an FSA defector and local people, it was evident there was no straight switch from war to peace. It was rather that there had been a series of truces and ceasefires arranged by leading citizens of Tal Kalakh over the previous year.
But at the very time I was in the town, Al Jazeera Arabic was reporting fighting there between the Syrian army and the opposition. Smoke was supposedly rising from Tal Kalakh as the rebels fought to defend their stronghold. Fortunately, this appears to have been fantasy and, during the several hours I was in the town, there was no shooting, no sign that fighting had taken place and no smoke.
Of course, all sides in a war pretend that no position is lost without a heroic defence against overwhelming numbers of the enemy. But obscured in the media’s accounts of what happened in Tal Kalakh was an important point: the opposition in Syria is fluid in its allegiances. The US, Britain and the so-called 11-member “Friends of Syria”, who met in Doha last weekend, are to arm non-Islamic fundamentalist rebels, but there is no great chasm between them and those not linked to al-Qa’ida. One fighter with the al-Qa’ida-affiliated al-Nusra Front was reported to have defected to a more moderate group because he could not do without cigarettes. The fundamentalists pay more and, given the total impoverishment of so many Syrian families, the rebels will always be able to win more recruits. “Money counts for more than ideology,” a diplomat in Damascus told me. [Continue reading…]