Pro-government Syrian forces have seized control of the key border town of Qusayr, which had been controlled by rebel fighters for the past year. This comes as the United Nations accuses both sides of the Syrian conflict of reaching "new levels of brutality." Since fighting broke out over two years ago in Syria, more than 80,000 people have been killed, and another 1.6 million Syrian refugees have fled. We're joined by longtime foreign correspondent Patrick Cockburn of The Independent, who recently returned from Syria where he reported on how the conflict is spreading across the Middle East. Cockburn warns that pending global peace talks will have no effect without a ceasefire on the ground. "The best you could really hope for at this stage is a ceasefire, get the level of violence down, and then later you might have talks of sharing power," Cockburn says. "But you are not going to have that at the moment."
This is a rush transcript. Copy may not be in its final form.
Nermeen Shaikh: We begin today's show in Syria. Pro-government forces have seized control of the key border town of Qusayr, which had been controlled by rebel fighters for the past year. Qusayr, which lies on a cross-border supply route with neighboring Lebanon, had been the site of a fierce battle over the past two weeks as fighters from the Lebanese militant group Hezbollah joined forces aligned with Syrian President Bashar al-Assad.
Since fighting broke out over two years ago in Syria, more than 80,000 people have been killed, and another 1.6 million Syrian refugees have fled. Earlier this week, the United Nations accused both sides of the Syrian conflict of reaching, quote, "new levels of brutality." U.N. panel chair Paulo Pinheiro accused government forces of murder, torture, rape, forcible displacement and other acts, many of them carried out systematically against civilians. But he said anti-Assad rebels were guilty of similar atrocities.
Paulo Pinheiro: Anti-government armored groups have also committed war crimes, including murder, sentencing and execution without due process, torture, hostage taking and pillage. They continue to endanger the civilian population by positioning military objectives in civilian areas. And as we said in the past, there is a disparity between the violations or the crimes committed by the government forces and those committed by the rebels. But this is a disparity in intensity. It's not a disparity in the very nature of the crimes and violations. They are the same.
Nermeen Shaikh: In its report, the United Nations said they had, quote, "reasonable grounds" to believe that limited amounts of chemical weapons had been used in Syria. The U.N. investigators said they had received allegations that Syrian government forces and rebels had both used the banned weapons. But the U.N. report lacked details.
Meanwhile, France said tests on chemical samples taken from Syria prove the deadly nerve agent sarin gas has been used several times during the conflict. But France did not give any details of where or by whom the poison gas had been used. This is Foreign Minister Laurent Fabius.
Laurent Fabius: [translated] A line has been crossed, unquestionably. There is the United Nations approach. Apart from that, we are discussing with our partners—the United States, the English, etc.—what eventual reaction will have to be given. All the options are on the table.
Amy Goodman: In response to France's claim, White House spokesman Jay Carney told reporters, "We need more information" about claims of such use.
The Syrian conflict has fueled sectarian tensions across the Middle East. In the northern Lebanese city of Tripoli, six people were killed in clashes Monday. In Iraq, more than 500 people were killed in May, while more than 700 died in April, marking the bloodiest month there in nearly five years.
Meanwhile, the Obama administration has announced that Patriot missiles and F-16 fighter jets deployed to Jordan for a military exercise may be kept there due to the violence in Syria.
Our next guest recently returned from Syria, has reported on how the conflict is spreading in the Middle East. Patrick Cockburn is a longtime foreign correspondent with The Independent of London.
Patrick, welcome back to Democracy Now! Describe what is happening in Syria and what you're saying is the reverberations of this throughout the Middle East.
Patrick Cockburn: Well, the war gets more and more intense. The fighting gets heavier. But I think we also have a stalemate. The government has been quite successfully advancing, has just taken the town of Qusayr, as you mentioned, and has also moved south towards the Jordanian border.
But the impression I get is that there was an exaggerated idea in the last two years that Assad was going to go down. When I'm in Beirut, you had people—last year, earlier this year, people were speaking as if, you know, his days were numbered. But as soon as I get to Damascus, this isn't so obvious at all. You know, I could drive from Damascus up to Homs, which is the third-biggest city in Syria, about a hundred miles away, without any guards. There wasn't any shooting on the road. So I think that there was always an exaggerated idea that Assad was about to go down.
The other big change in the Syrian conflict is the way it's very visibly spreading. It spread to—it spread to Lebanon. The Hezbollah has been taking part in the latest fighting. Anti-government forces have been moving, showing positions in Lebanon. And in Iraq, you know, we're practically back to the days of the civil war. I mean, you mentioned that, according to some figures, 500 Iraqis died last month in May; according to the U.N., it was a thousand. I'm not quite sure why the disparity is there. But you can sense in Baghdad, where I was also quite recently, that people are very tense. They feel that they're very close to a sectarian civil war between Sunni and Shia, and the number of being killed has reached the level that it was last seen in 2008, five years ago.
Nermeen Shaikh: Patrick Cockburn, you say that there's a military stalemate in Syria. Could you explain how much of the country remains under the control of Bashar al-Assad and how much is under the control of opposition forces?
Patrick Cockburn: Right. I mean, what surprised me over the last sort of year is that you'd hear foreign leaders say Assad is about to go down, or, alternatively, his departure should be a precondition of any talks, while at the same time Assad controls and has controlled all but one—I think there are 16 provincial capitals in Syria, and he held 15 of them. So they hold most of the population centers and hold a lot of the main roads. So, the opposition tends to hold areas in the country, particularly in the north and in the east, in the northeast. They've been losing ground in the center and in the south. I don't think that the government, Assad's forces, are going to win a complete victory, but I think that they are rather more than holding their own. They're advancing. Overall, there's a stalemate. I don't think—I think the opposition will hold onto the areas it controls in the north. These are Sunni Muslim areas. I don't think it will lose out entirely. It can resupply across the Turkish border. But it's certainly on the back foot at the moment. Probably the key thing to look at will be to see what happens in Aleppo, which is the second-biggest city in Syria.
Amy Goodman: Can you talk about the significance of Qusayr on the Lebanese border and the shifting of hands back to pro-government forces?
Patrick Cockburn: Yeah. I think people speak about it as being a sort of supply center. This is true. It's close to Homs, which is big city and was sort of mostly under government control, not entirely. And supplies and reinforcements were moving through Qusayr, so it was a military loss. On the other hand, it's not the very main supply line of the rebels. That mainly comes through Turkey. Most of the Turkish border is no longer controlled by the government. Those are the main supply lines. Most of the ammunition and weapons are coming through there.
But there's another very important thing about Qusayr, that it's—is a visible government victory. For two years, we had sort of—it looked as though the government was losing ground, maybe slowly losing ground, and there was a feeling of inevitability for a lot of the time that Assad would eventually go. That isn't there anymore. And one of the reasons it isn't there is that the war has spread, that it's not just—you know, at the beginning, you could describe this war as being maybe primarily a popular uprising against a dictatorial government, but now so many other conflicts have fed in, including the whole Shia-Sunni dispute in the Middle East. The Shia in Iraq and Lebanon feel threatened, so they're pitching in—that's not surprising—and as Hezbollah has decided to make a full commitment to what it sees as its side in the Syrian civil war. So that's a big change.
Nermeen Shaikh: Patrick Cockburn, you've written recently about the splits within the Syrian opposition forces and their criticism of the leadership outside of Syria. Could you explain who comprises the opposition forces and what's happening with them?
Patrick Cockburn: Sure, yeah. I mean, even by the standards of Iraq, the opposition forces are not just split, but are chaotic. I mean, there's a division between—the military units in Syria are mostly sort of independent brigades, maybe sometimes under a hundred people, sometimes over a thousand, different brigades, but nobody really controlling them. They have different sort of paymasters and suppliers outside. You have the Free Syrian Army, but that sounds a bit more united than in fact it is. And then you have the al-Qaeda-type organizations, which—the al-Nusra Front, which is better organized, better disciplined, fights harder, but obviously is regarded with aversion by the U.S. and various other people on the outside.
But then you have the Syrian National Coalition, you have the outside political forces, who, you know, are almost recognized by—certainly by the U.K. and France, as the next government of Syria. But they're completely disunited. They've generally depended for money on Saudi Arabia and Qatar. The head of the National Coalition recently—al-Khatib recently resigned, saying it was all run by foreign powers, and he had no influence.
So, you know, it's deeply divided. Will they go to negotiate in Geneva? They don't—they aren't sure. They think they probably won't. Who will go? They're not sure. So, even by the standards of sort of divided oppositions in the world, this one is extraordinarily chaotic.
Amy Goodman: Patrick Cockburn, I wanted to ask you about the role of the United States in the conflict. This is Secretary of State John Kerry speaking Monday.
Secretary of State John Kerry: What is happening in Syria is happening because one man, who has been in power with his family for, you know, years now, more than 40 years, will not consent to an appropriate process by which the people of Syria can protect minorities, be inclusive, and have the people of Syria decide their future. He has decided to protect himself and his regime's interests by reaching out across state lines and actually soliciting the help of Iran on the ground with fighters, as well as Hezbollah, a terrorist organization. A designated terrorist organization has now crossed over from Lebanon into Syria and is actively engaged in the fighting.
Amy Goodman: Your response, Patrick Cockburn, to Secretary of State John Kerry and also the fact that the U.S. is deploying Patriot anti-aircraft missiles and F-16 fighter jets to Syria's neighbor Jordan this month, Jordan saying the planes will be used for an exercise, but others are speculating other things.
Patrick Cockburn: Well, I think, you know, it's pretty distressing. You know, what John Kerry says is, I'm afraid, sort of, you know, demonstrably untrue. All you have to do is ask yourself, if Assad went tomorrow, would the fighting stop? And you bet it wouldn't, because it's a civil war. It's not just Assad, but it's, you know, a whole group of people. I mean, somebody said to me in Damascus not so long ago, you know, that 15 percent of the population support the government, 15 percent the rebels, and 70 percent just want the war to end. But to see this purely a personal thing about does Assad go or stay, I think, is very oversimplified. I can't believe that Kerry believes that.
As for foreign intervention, you know, the Syria—the Tunisian government admitted recently that, I think, 800 of its Tunisians were fighting on the rebel side, and Tunisian security said it was about 2,000. You know, Islamic fundamentalists have been pouring in from all over the world, just like they once did in Afghanistan or more recently in Iraq. So that really isn't true. I think that—I don't know how far this oversimplification is believed in by the State Department or the White House, but, you know, what is needed in Syria, and I think which is unfortunate, is that, you know, you—this prevents real negotiations taking place. If you have negotiations which say Assad—it's a precondition that Assad will go, well, that's absurd, because he controls most of the country. If you say the Iranians can't turn up or have any role, but hold on a minute—you know, the Iranians are major players there. You're basically saying—if you have these preconditions, you're basically saying no realistic negotiations.
So, what I think should happen, and what all this avoids is, you know, these—basically, look, you have a civil war. Both sides hate each other so much. There have been so many atrocities at this stage that they're not going to agree on the future distribution of power or power sharing or the future of Syria. The best you can really hope for at this stage is a ceasefire, get the level of violence down, and then that might be later you could have talks about sharing power. But you're not going to happen to have—to have that happen at the moment. I think you should have a ceasefire, and you should have the U.N. monitoring it. You had a U.N. force doing this last year. It didn't work perfectly, but it was a lot better than what we had subsequently. You'll need mediation, local ceasefires. Just get the level of violence down, and then you might have talks. But before we do that, I don't think these talks are going to lead anywhere.
Nermeen Shaikh: Patrick Cockburn, I want to turn to recent reports about the alleged use of chemical weapons in Syria. On Tuesday, France said tests on chemical samples taken from Syria prove the deadly nerve agent sarin gas has been used several times during the civil conflict. The White House responded by saying it needs more evidence on Syria that chemical weapons have been used. This is White House spokesperson Jay Carney.
Press Secretary Jay Carney: We have worked very closely with the French, as well as other allies, as well as the Syrian opposition, to build on the information that we had developed about the likely use of chemical weapons in Syria. And we continue to work with the French and the British and others and the Syrian opposition to do that. I would note that the French report that you're citing says that more work needs to be done to establish who is responsible for the use and the amount that was used and more details about the circumstances around it.
Nermeen Shaikh: Patrick Cockburn, that was White House spokesperson Jay Carney. Could you explain the significance of the alleged use of chemical weapons in this conflict?
Patrick Cockburn: Well, clearly, the rebels feel that if they can prove that it was used by the government, this might lead to foreign intervention. So, really, all witnesses to this are very partial, whether they're Syrian government or opposition, or indeed their backers. The U.N. produced a report yesterday saying that poison—evidence that poison gas had been used. They had interviewed 430 people outside the country. But no information as to who used it, how it was delivered, or what chemical weapons were actually used. I mean, so that really shows us a vacuum of information. The French are now saying this, that it was used. But the French are very partial, in favor of the rebels. They don't—French intelligence doesn't have a great track record in Syria or indeed during the lead-up to the Iraq War. So, I think it's still pretty dubious.
You know, a lot of the stuff that comes all from people on the ground, when you talk to them, they can be pretty convinced that chemical weapons have been used against them. But when you talk to them, they—you know, they don't know what the effect of chemical weapons. You have people talking about, you know, sarin gas being used and people gasping and so forth, but if you ingest sarin gas, you're generally—you know, you're dead. The people don't—sometimes if it's tear gas, people think it's chemical weapons, you know, which—and people obviously get completely terrified. But a lot of this evidence that's coming out is very partial, very dubious. Some of the samples—you know, some of the samples that were taken from Syria, a Syrian, sympathizing with the rebels, meant to take it to Turkey to the U.S. officials there. He took 13 days. Nobody told him what he was carrying. It was in the boot of his car for five days. So, this is very uncertain stuff.
Amy Goodman: Patrick Cockburn, as we wrap up—
Patrick Cockburn: And interviewing lots of refugees abroad doesn't really prove anything.
Amy Goodman: Patrick, as we wrap up, the press coverage of what's happening in Syria?
Patrick Cockburn: I think pretty bad, actually. I mean, I've been covering the Middle East a long time, and it's really the worst I've seen of any conflict there. Why is that? Well, you know, people might say the Syrian government isn't sympathetic to letting people into Damascus, therefore it creates a vacuum of information, which is filled by rumor or filled by opposition sources. That's certainly one source of it.
I think that the media has been very sort of credulous of taking YouTube evidence as being definitive, while this is mostly taken by political activists. Nothing wrong with that, but there's a—on television and elsewhere, there's understating of how partial a lot of this evidence is, the YouTube evidence is, that they're producing. You know, you often have health warnings saying we can't—we're not—verify that this is true, but the fact that television is running it at all shows that they believe it is true. So, I think that's given a sort of a false impression of what's happening. You know, this is a genuine civil war. It may have started as a popular uprising, but I think that all that's been very partial. It's also given the impression that the Assad government is about to collapse, which really was never true. I think this is beginning to be recognized now.
Amy Goodman: Patrick—
Patrick Cockburn: I mean, more recently, I think people are a bit more skeptical. You know, video of rebels—a rebel commander, you know, cutting open the body of a government soldier and eating his heart, or children cutting off the head of somebody—have shown, you know, that there is a case to be made on both sides. But that's quite recent. But before that, I'm rather amazed the way the foreign media has relied on secondary sources, and secondary sources that are very partial.
Amy Goodman: Patrick Cockburn, I want to thank you very much for being with us, foreign correspondent for The Independent, speaking to us from London, recently back from Syria. We'll link to his article at The Independent.
Patrick Cockburn: Thank you.
Amy Goodman: Thanks so much. This is Democracy Now! When we come back, a debate on DNA. Stay with us.