Counterinsurgency expert David Kilcullen says that the Coalition is struggling to defeat Islamic State but that Russia may yet play a positive role in bringing peace to Syria.
TONY JONES, PRESENTER: Since the start of the conflict four and a half years ago, it’s estimated more than four million Syrians have had to seek refuge outside Syria. Many have bypassed refugee camps and headed straight for Europe via Hungary. Overwhelmed by the tens of thousands of Syrians passing through their border, Hungarian authorities are now using tear gas and water cannon to force migrants back from the Serbian-Hungarian border.
Meanwhile, the battle on the ground in Syria is escalating as coalition forces continue air strikes in a bid to beat ISIS, but some, including the former Middle East – including the current Middle East correspondent Robert Fisk, say it is a losing battle.
ROBERT FISK, MIDDLE EAST CORR., THE INDEPENDENT: Basically, the ISIS are winning. They’re winning against the Syrian Army. … They’ve got their territory. In fact their latest broadsheet that they put out – and I get it as a journalist – is telling me about how good their hygiene is in Mosul where they’ve got rubbish collectors, which they haven’t got in Beirut at the moment. So I think probably ISIS are not very worried about bombing. I don’t think you can win a bombing war against a guerrilla army. The Americans should’ve learned that in Vietnam.
TONY JONES: Well as part of its efforts to beat ISIS, the United States undertook a $500 million program to build an American-trained Syrian rebel force. The plan was to equip more than 5,000 Syrian fighters by the end of the year. Well yesterday, the head of the US Central Command, General Lloyd Austin, made a startling admission in Washington to the Senate Armed Services Committee.
SENATE ARMED SERVICES COMMITTEE MEMBER: General Austin, can you tell us what the total number of trained fighters remains?
LLOYD AUSTIN, HEAD OF US CENTRAL COMMAND: It’s a small number and, ah, um – the ones that are in the fight is – is – is – we’re talking four – four or five.
TONY JONES: And yes, he was talking about four or five individuals. Well, David Kilcullen is a counter-insurgency expert and was the chief strategist in the US Department of State’s Counterterrorism Bureau.
Thanks for being there.
DAVID KILCULLEN, COUNTER-INSURGENCY ANALYST: Hey, Tony.
TONY JONES: Now we just saw the US General Austin admit that a $500 million training program to build a large Syrian rebel force had produced four or five trained fighters, and I’m wondering, is this a kind of metaphor for the whole US-led operation in Syria?
DAVID KILCULLEN: Well it’s actually worse than that because what happened was the program produced a couple of hundred fighters, who on their first foray into battle in northern Syria were attacked very strongly by the al-Qaeda ally Jabhat al-Nusra and more or less decimated. And even now, for a program that’s supposed to be generating about 5,000 trained fighters a year, there’s only about another hundred actually in training. So the chance that we’re gonna get anything significant out of this kind of effort to prosecute the war with proxy forces, you know, with locally-trained Syrians any time soon I think is extraordinarily remote.
TONY JONES: It’s not exactly the Bay of Pigs, is it? How did they manage to stuff up so badly?
DAVID KILCULLEN: Well they started late, they did it too little and I think by the time that the US-trained organisations hit the ground, there were already a number of really important players on the rebel side who had sucked away a lot of the talent and a lot of the effort. I would just say though that there is another separate US effort that is doing actually very well in Syria which is associated with a group of 49 rebel factions that are all fighting in the south of Syria and are actually doing quite well. So what we’ve seen here is over the summer ISIS has expanded its territory under its control at the expense of the Syrian regime. So despite what the advisor said earlier, right now, Bashar al-Assad’s regime only controls about 22 per cent of Syrian territory and most of those losses happened over the summer to ISIS. So we’re seeing sort of a combination of different rebel groups gaining ground at the expense of the regime and the expense of each other. And it’s really just the case that the US Central Command rebels joined that fight too late and at too small of a scale to really survive in what is now a – basically a guerrilla marketplace on the ground.
TONY JONES: David, before we go into the detail of what’s actually happening on the ground and the Russian – new Russian involvement in that or the expansion, what did you make of the parallel story about the investigation by the Pentagon’s Inspector General into claims that senior US military officers manipulated the conclusions of intelligence about the war against ISIS and passed on false information, effectively, to the White House?
DAVID KILCULLEN: Yeah, so this is a big scandal in the States right now, and as I think your viewers are aware, about 50 analysts in the intelligence centre at Central Command put forward a complaint to the Inspector General that alleged that their reporting was being politically manipulated. And also there’s been some reporting from The Guardian suggesting that the head of intelligence at Central Command, General Grove, has been, I would argue, influenced or bullied by the National Director of intelligence, James Clapper. Now, I was involved in a couple of similar controversies in the past and I think viewers can remember that there were similar discussions around Afghanistan in 2008-2009 and around Iraq in 2003 and I think it’s a pretty perennial issue that analysts feel as if higher-ups are not taking into account the nuances of their analysis or perhaps skewing and putting a more rosy picture onto what they report. I don’t know the specifics of, you know, whether specific material was manipulated. The only thing I can say is that based on my own sources, which are all open source, certainly what you hear from Central Command bears almost as little relationship with reality as what you just heard from the Syrian Government’s advisor. It is significantly more positive than what ordinary Syrians report on the ground. So I think there is at least a case to answer that the reporting has been skewed. Whether that’s as a result of political manipulation or just, you know, factors in the production of intelligence and the process, that’s a different question.
TONY JONES: David, that’s obviously extremely worrying. Equally worrying, it seems to me, is that we’re seeing this rapid Russian military buildup in Syria. So should the US and its allies be bracing themselves for a full-scale Russian intervention into the conflict and what would be the implications of that if it were to happen?
DAVID KILCULLEN: Well I think it’s already happened. So, again, to just inject a little fact into what was said by your previous interviewer – interviewee, actually, in addition to building a base in Latakia and bringing ships and equipment into the Tartus naval base, the Russians have landed several hundred naval infantry who come from the same – so sort of like marines – who came from the same organisations that were involved in the seizure of the Crimea last April. So Russian troops are on the ground. They are engaged. Russian advisors have been there for several years, but now we’re seeing combat troops and there is at least the potential that both air and ground assets will be engaged in direct combat. And a lot of Syrian and Lebanese sources are reporting in the last few days that they’ve actually seen that already occurring. Now whether that’s true or not, we don’t know yet. But definitely the move is one that is a much more direct engagement in the conflict than we’ve seen in the past. Where I differ a little bit …
TONY JONES: So David, what’s the implications for that? I mean, we see that John Kerry is trying to get together with his counterpart in Russia and they’ve got military-to-military talks now because clearly they’re worried about conflicts between US and the coalition forces and Russian forces.
DAVID KILCULLEN: Well, I’m not sure that I share the sort of general freak-out that’s happening here in Washington about Russian engagement. In a way, I think it’s inevitable that allies of Bashar al-Assad, not just the Russians of course, but also the Iranians, are gonna step forward to rescue their boy when he gets into the kind of difficulties that he’s got into over the summer, and as we said, he’s lost a lot of ground. But also what this does is it brings the Russians into the potential to have a much more constructive engagement in finding a peace settlement in Syria. So the flipside of the Russian military engagement is that President Putin has also asked for a one-on-one meeting with President Obama. He’s planning to address the UN General Assembly on 28th September. That’s the first time in a decade that he’s actually come to that meeting. And he’s going – the word is he’s going to propose a joint peace settlement involving Russia, Iran and the United States. And to be honest, I think this is actually the best chance that we’ve had for several years of getting towards a negotiated peaceful settlement in Syria. Nobody believes that there’s a military solution to the problem on the ground. And so for a long time, people have been trying to get past this issue that you raised of what happens to Assad and what’s the way forward? And I think the Russian engagement here is at least them recognising that they need to take more robust steps to push forward to that kind of political solution. And I would hope that the negative rhetoric that we’re seeing right now from Washington and elsewhere is replaced in the next few weeks by a willingness to re-engage on the diplomatic front.
TONY JONES: So David, a final question then. Does that mean that the West, the United States in particular, perhaps Australia as well and other coalition allies, will literally have to hold their noses and effectively find themselves supporting keeping Assad in power?
DAVID KILCULLEN: I want to answer that by quoting something that I hear quite frequently now from Syrian peace activists. And we wouldn’t have heard this really at any time until about the last six months, but it’s something that you increasingly hear now. People are saying, “Look, Assad himself, his family and some of his cronies need to go, but the regime needs to stay, because without the regime as part of some kind of a future provisional or transitional government, there is gonna be a power vacuum that simply results in ISIS filling that vacuum and taking over the country.” So I think the way to square that circle is to say we need to start making a distinction between Assad himself and the people around him versus the Syrian state and the Syrian government structure. Now obviously there are all sorts of human rights issues and concerns associated with the performance of the Syrian Government, but it’s different from Assad as an individual. And I think that may be part of what you start to see in the next couple of weeks in the discussions in New York, where people start to make that distinction between Assad the man and the Syrian Government and think about whether there is in fact a better way to produce a provisional or a transitional agreement.
TONY JONES: OK, thank you very much, David Kilcullen. We’ll have to leave you there. We’re out of time. It of course does raise the big question as to if you support the regime, you are supporting the people who did all those killings as well at the same time. Anyway, thanks for joining us.
DAVID KILCULLEN: Yeah, and I would just say I don’t support the regime, but I think that’s where we’re all going at this point.
TONY JONES: Yeah.