Monday, February 24, 2020

False Autopsies in Syria


Liberal Syrians and others increasingly favour a certain analysis of why the Syrian revolution failed.   The analysis masks the mistakes that really did contribute to that failure.  This invites future disasters.  I apologize for bringing this up; it is not my place to do so.  But trying to prevent the next failure seems reason to speak out of turn.

The 'official' liberal version, palatable to Western commentators, runs like this.  The Syrian people came out demonstrating for freedom and democracy.  Their authentic revolution was hijacked by Islamists.  These Islamists, along with Assad, ISIS, and, often, Erdogan, destroyed Syria's dream.

The extent to which this analysis departs from reality is immediately apparent in its haste to put the Islamists (never mind Erdogan) in the same category as Assad, referring to " stupid Assadists, Islamists, Erdoganists".  This stoops low indeed.  Assad killed at least 200,000 civilians.  Even ISIS, which never claimed nor was considered part of the revolution, killed about 2% of that.  In the tally offered here, "the rebels", i.e. the nice ones who aren't too Islamist, killed a bit over 4000.  The Bad Islamists, represented by Jabat al Nusra, later HTS, killed 452.  "The Coalition", incidentally, killed around 3,000.  That "the Islamists" are lumped together with the likes of ISIS and, incredibly, Assad, is good reason to question the whole liberal Syrian narrative.

That narrative is mendacious from beginning to end.  No one really knows exactly why "the Syrian people" revolted - that is to say, what proportion of those out in the streets were there for which reasons.  The horror of Assad's response left no room for thorough surveys.  But most accounts allow that, at the start, people massed around the slogan "The people want the fall of the regime."  That certainly doesn't imply democracy.  It doesn't imply freedom in the democratic liberal sense - only freedom from spectacularly monstrous repression.  And it must be said that 'the Syrian people' included and still includes some substantial proportion of régime supporters. They obviously didn't want anything remotely liberal, unless by that is meant a triumphantly secular lifestyle that aspired to Western cultural norms.  The Syrian liberals are well aware of all this.

What we do know is that resistance to the Assads, in the decades preceding the revolution, was spearheaded by Islamists - the Muslim Brotherhood.  This did not stop Syrian liberal eminences like Hassan Hassan from telling us, in Western media, that the Muslim Brotherhood had 'hijacked' the revolution as early as 2013.   His evidence?  That the Brotherhood has aspired to dominate various revolutionary committees like the Syrian National Coalition at various meetings in various hotels.  Apparently these almost forgotten administrative constructs are supposed to be a valid stand-in for 'the Syrian people' who, it seems, made the revolution.  How quickly 'the people' cede the stage, in liberal eyes, to the notable individuals who purport to represent them.

The portrayal of Islamists as hijackers or even as enemies of the Syrian revolution mirrors what has undermined resistance to Assad almost all along.  It is not that secular or non-Islamist fighting groups refused to join with Islamists.   It is that the secular, bourgeois commentariat constantly incited secularists to do just that. They cheered every attempt - for example in Kafranbel and Maraat al Numan - to resist and undermine Islamist movements.  It's as if the necessity of unity in the face of a formidable enemy never crossed their minds.  Either that, or they thought their anti-Islamist takes would win them enough favour with the Americans to become dominant in the Syrian revolution.  This was a pipe dream.  The Syrian revolution was never going to be utterly sanitized to American standards.  It was always going to have enough association with Islamists (if only in the past) that the US was never going to trust even non-Islamist Syrians with serious military resources.

We'll never know how much difference, if any, that made.  But what seems clear is that the anti-Islamist commentary is the tip of a strategic iceberg that bedeviled the revolutions in both Egypt and Syria.   It is the reluctance to make hard choices, or even to acknowledge that there were hard choices to be made.

Secularist and liberal Muslim opposition to Islamists is only to be expected.  In Syria there were and are Islamist groups far more radical than, say, the Egyptian Muslim Brotherhood.  The radical Islamist opposition in Syria - I don't mean the crazy Islamists, like ISIS - certainly ventured into policies the secularists found abhorrent.  Radical Islamist punishments for smoking, going about unveiled, just being homosexual, were harsh, sometimes appalling.  Radical Islamist governance often involved active suppression of free speech and local democratic institutions.  This governance included educational projects that were in some cases obscurantist. 

Furthermore, given the understated prominence of Islamists in the Syrian revolution, there was reason to believe that Syria, after Assad, might come under Islamist rule.  This could happen democratically, or undemocratically.  And given such rule, there was reason to believe that, quite possibly, religious minorities would be persecuted.  There might even be massacres, especially of Christians perceived as Assad loyalists.

Given all this, did the secular and liberal Muslim opposition really even have a hard choice?  It would be polite to say this, but untrue.  There was no choice.  To avoid unending mass torture and slaughter, the liberals would have to accept Islamists as allies, perhaps as leaders.  Given the absolute necessity of stopping Assad, no other course of action was even worth considering.

In the first place, Assad's determination and brutality, unprecedented in a region which has seen much brutality, was underwritten by a sizable professional army, an air force against which the rebels had no defence, and virtually unlimited supplies of manpower from Iran's proxies, as well as virtually unlimited resupply of equipment from Russia.  The very thought that the rebels could overcome this without full cooperation with Islamists, was absurd.  And a failed revolt meant more than defeat; it meant unlimited and unending slaughter, for decades.  So even if it meant submission to Islamists, there was no viable alternative.

In the second place, the anti-Islamists mislead when they put radical Islamists in the same category as extremists like ISIS, much less extreme monsters like Assad.  Many Islamists might be called extreme in their social or cultural doctrines, but that doesn't translate into extreme savagery.  While Islamists factions certainly have committed atrocities in the civil war, so have all the other participants, including 'The Coalition'.  It's the scale that counts, and by that criterion even the most 'extreme' Islamists are very moderate, despite what some consider their immoderate domestic agenda.

In the third place, the mere possibility of future atrocities carries no weight against the ongoing absolute certainty of present atrocities.  What the Islamists might do in power, what might be done to prevent atrocities, and by whom, are all purely speculative.  Taking the dangers seriously doesn't justify preferring possibility to reality.  There was no stopping the deaths of hundreds of thousands without full-fledged support for the Islamists - though even that might not have been enough.

This might be considered crying over spilt milk.  But what of the future?  Non-Islamists cling to fantasies about 'their' revolution.  It wasn't hijacked by Islamists.  There will never be a successful revolution in the Middle East without Islamists, because the oppressors are overwhelmingly anti-Islamist and because the small minority of nice anti-Islamists cannot muster enough strength to overcome cruel, well-equipped militaries.  In short, until nice people abandon their dreams and accept an Islamist future, there is no hope.

Friday, December 21, 2018

Nonsense about the US withdrawal from Syria



This attempts to counter some of the foolish comments made about Trump's withdrawal from Syria.

The least foolish of these is that the battle against ISIS is not won.  No it isn't, and Trump's claim that it is, is plainly false.  But to harp on this is absurd.

For one thing, there isn't the slightest possibility that keeping US troops in Syria would win the battle, or prevent an ISIS resurgence.   ISIS' ultimate strength lies, not in its Syrian or Iraqi enclaves, but in what the West and Arab authoritarian governments have done to the peoples of the region, and in the conditions in Muslim countries worldwide.  These conditions guarantee a literally unending stream of militants seeking justice and revenge.  The notion that 2000 US troops would affect this dynamic is ludicrous.  Equally foolish are the tiresome recommendations that the underlying conditions be addressed.   The sage pundits who say these things know perfectly well that the West will never, ever address these conditions:  it can't, because they occur in sovereign states.  It would take a Western occupation of those states, involving hundreds of thousands of troops for decades, to cure the injustices of the region, and even then it's not clear that the economic basis for healthy societies exists.  In other words, whatever the West is going to do, whatever leadership it has, ISIS won't be defeated.  What then is the point of warning us that Trump's withdrawal will not defeat ISIS?

For another, forget the mantra about how effective the Kurds have been against ISIS.  Their victories are almost entirely the result of overwhelming US air and artillery support.  Their actual capabilities are better assessed by looking at how even a much-weakened ISIS can rout Kurdish forces with attacks during storms and under other conditions inimical to air operations.  The Syrian rebels, not to mention the Turkish army, would be at least as effective as the Kurds in combating ISIS, and they wouldn't need a US ground presence to do it.

There is more foolishness.

It is said that withdrawal shows the US to be an unreliable ally, and that this is a dire mistake.

In the first place, nothing says you're unreliable like supporting, with weapons, troops and air power, the armed, active enemy of your ally.  That's what the US did when it backed the Syrian arm of the Kurdish PKK against its NATO ally, Turkey.  So Trump's withdrawal of this support could well be seen as a return to reliability, not the abandonment of it.

Second, it's unclear that appearing unreliable in this instance would make much difference to the US position in the world.  Nations are allied to the US, not because they have touching faith in America, but because they have little choice.  They don't want to fall under Russian or Chinese domination.   The idea that alliances are made and preserved on trust runs contrary to all historical precedent.  It's childish.

It is said that US withdrawal is a gift to Putin.

This carries absurdity into insanity.  The unspoken truth about the US' Kurdish 'allies' is that they are also allies of Russia and Assad.  In the 2015 campaigns against rebel Aleppo, Russia and Assad even provided air support to the Kurds.  Later, Assad secured for the Kurds a road whereby they could move between their Northeastern and Northwestern territories.  He also pays for much of the infrastructure in the Northeastern provinces.  This means that, in allying with the PKK/YPG, the US is allied to Assad, Russia...  and Iran.   It's true that Putin probably enjoys seeing the US leave; he doesn't want a US presence in Syria.  But it's also true that Obama, and until now Trump, have been fighting on Putin's side.  He now faces an expanded Turkish presence in Northern Syria, which threatens and complicates his relations with Assad and Iran.  Because Turkey backs the rebels, it even threatens the security of Russian bases in Latakia and Tartous.  Trump's withdrawal means the US will mend relations with Turkey.  That in turn means Putin can't expect to pry that country - a real strategic prize that until recently seemed almost within his grasp - away from its Western alliance.  Finally, the US retains its air bases and naval presence in the region, so that US withdrawal of 2000 troops from Syria makes not the slightest difference to the regional balance of power.  Some gift.

It is said, with feeling, that the Kurds have been betrayed.

Even if there is some truth to this, it is foolish.  For one thing, the Kurds have been supremely opportunistic in their choice of allies.   They feigned neutrality when the rebels were strong, yet with increasing frankness came out on Assad's side when the rebels faltered.  For another, the morality of betrayal depends on circumstances.  The Kurds chose to ally with a régime so monstrous that adjectives like 'brutal' can't begin to capture the extent of its atrocities.  When the King of Italy abandoned Mussolini in 1943 he betrayed Hitler.  Was that reprehensible?

The criticism of Trump's withdrawal, though couched in the language of morality and even honour, is curiously oblivious to the sort of humanitarian considerations that you'd think would belong to those values.  The most likely consequence of US withdrawal - should it really occur - is that Northern Syria will become a refuge for perhaps millions of Syrians, under Turkish protection.  Meanwhile in the rest of Syria, as widely predicted, Syrians in formerly rebel areas are subjected to arbitrary imprisonment, torture, and murder.  But sure, pontificate some more about the US withdrawal.

Wednesday, July 25, 2018

The Syrian failure: aftermath and legacy

The reaction to Syria's horrors did nothing to mitigate them.  They will continue for decades.   It may be useful to review just how throughly and deeply irredeemable is the failure.

To say that there were war crimes and human rights violations is like saying Charles Manson misbehaved.  Assad's crimes have been documented in heart-stopping detail, not least by the 'Caesar', who smuggled out prison files and fifty thousand photographs, at great risk of a fate worse than death.  His efforts, plus the meticulous work of the individuals and groups who proved that the régime was the culprit in chemical weapons attacks...   these efforts too are now, beyond any doubt or hope, in vain.

To  say that Assad and company should be brought before an international tribunal is self-deluding sound and fury, signifying nothing.  Let's be clear.  Assad and company will never be brought to justice.   Tribunal verdicts will have no effect at all.  All the evidence painstakingly assembled, sometimes at the cost of brave lives, counts for nothing.  There will be no reconciliation, and there is no truth to come out, because more than enough is known already.  There is no point in making more people aware of that truth, because it's too late.  That won't even produce useful sentiments, let along useful non-psychological reactions - sentiments don't stop homicidal rulers.  If someone declares, somewhere, that the Syrian repression was a genocide, so what - it's not even true.  'The world', the 'international order', some 'community', don't matter.  Assad is far too secure.  There is absolutely nothing to be done that any collection of worthy countries or institutions would ever be willing to do, and rightly so, because the only effective response would be a military intervention so massive as to risk, given the Russian presence, nuclear war.  It's great to help the refugees, the victims, but that's cleaning up after Assad, not something that could lead to restraining him or his ilk.  Indeed most refugees will stay or end up in Syria, left to his tender mercies.  As for reconstruction, that of course will make Assad much stronger.  It will focus on his supporters, not those most in need.

All that's left, all that might conceivably have some positive effect but won't, is to expose the thinking that encouraged the Syrian betrayal.  Try comparing the reaction on Syria to reactions to other horrors.

There are greater and lesser atrocities.  Pinochet murdered more than 3000 people, some tortured to death with terrible cruelty. There are people who approve of Pinochet, or brush off his slaughter.  They may be condemned, but like Henry Kissinger they continue to be accepted in the mainstream.   They shouldn't be, but this indicates that society, the mainstream, is prepared to accept this level of brutality.

Then there are major atrocities:  Cambodia, Rwanda are clear cases.   Anyone who brushes off those killings would not be considered normal, but treated as a pariah.  No one hears from such people.  No one suggested helping Pol Pot with reconstruction and reconciliation.   No one said that, well, realistically, we need to consider whether we have any vital interest in Rwanda.  Not even Kissinger.

The atrocities committed by Assad are very clearly in the second category, not the first.  Yet people who obliquely place them in the first group are considered not only mainstream-tolerable, but, quite often, intelligent contrarians.  One hears from them a lot.

But that's not the worst of it.   Assad apologists fall into three categories.  There are Iranians and Russians. Those countries have long-standing alliances with the Assads and might be considered to have some sort of security interest in the régime.  Their stance is disgusting but hardly worth highlighting, since no one will do anything about it.  Then there are members of Syrian minorities whom Assad has implicated in his crimes.   And then there are leftists, stuck in the 70s or so, who don't matter.  Obsessing about Assad apologists does no one any good.

Those who do matter aren't the obvious offenders, but respected observers whose attempts or pretense at objectivity or decency betrayed the Syrian people.  They obscure Assad's place in the second category, among the very worst of the monsters.  These people may condemn the régime in ringing terms, they may say 'doing something' about Assad's atrocities is 'urgent'.   But they nonetheless demote the urgency of the matter, because for them, everything is 'urgent'.   It is 'urgent' that an imprisoned journalist be released, that a child is reunited with its parents, that minority rights are respected, that 'genders' get the toilets they need, and so on.  And perhaps these things are all indeed urgent, but they do not compare in urgency with stopping a man who has murdered and tortured hundreds of thousands.

Human rights organizations are prominent in this morally and politically witless denial of priorities.  So are any number of analysts and commentators.  They talked about Assad as they would not talk about Rwanda or Pol Pot.  They would not, in those cases, have spoken of  'difficult choices', as they did about Assad and the Kurds and 'the jihadis'.  They would regard any accommodation with Assad as no more to be contemplated than with the fanatic responsible for so many dead, tortured Cambodians.  They would not have insisted the world weigh heavily that some rebels didn't believe in democracy and espoused a repressively conservative social agenda.  They would not have relentlessly conflated this social conservatism with, incredibly, some sort of terrorist threat.

These analysts should be treated as moral lepers if their warnings played a role in the West's betrayal of the Syrian revolution.  No one warned the world about Vietnam's rescue of the Cambodian people on the grounds that the Vietnamese were naughty communists.  No one thought it was a tough choice whether to back the murderers of Rwanda or their victims.  No one reduced the description of these régimes to "brutal dictatorship".

It is far too late for this to make any difference to Syrians.  Assad has won and he will endure. He will be condemned as a reprehensible leader, but a leader nonetheless.  He is protected by powerful allies, UN vetoes, and discreet commitments from 'indignant' Western powers not to challenge his rule.  But perhaps it is not too late to prevent this sort of kindler, gentler, 'hard choices' whitewash from recurring.  Those who preached caution, scepticism and realpolitik about the Syrian rebels made choices that should never be forgotten or forgiven.   It doesn't matter what nice things they now say about refugees.  It doesn't matter what righteous outrage they express about Assad.   When it counted, they didn't even begin to  impart to the situation the moral urgency, even the panic, that it deserved.  They were not willing to accept that their worries about extremist and terrorist rebels were as nothing compared to the importance of stopping a monster.  That is a poisonous legacy.

Let no one reply that these analysts were realistic.  At its limits, morality and even Realpolitik converge.   All nations have an interest in keeping barbarism within practical limits.  Slaughter and mistreatment may sometimes be genuinely advantageous, but for that very reason it's a good idea to act when slaughter and mistreatment become an open-ended, sadistic orgy, engulfing tens of thousands and exceeding anything plausibly endorsed by rational self-interest.  Mad tyrants, as we see, create floods of fugitives, and potentially destabilising wars.  They also create militants out to punish the comfortable nations who betrayed the victims.  Auden was right:

I and the public know,
What all schoolchildren learn,
Those to whom evil is done
Do evil in return.

This is likely the last post I will write on Egypt or Syria.   My sole aim has been, however ineffectually and wrong-headedly, to defend their revolutions.  Such attempts are pointless now.

Saturday, July 21, 2018

Betrayers in Egypt, betrayed in Syria: Liberalism’s Arab Winter


The sufferings of Egyptians and Syrians will go on for decades.   That will allow plenty of time for think tanks, graduate students, journalists, op-ed writers, scholars and security analysts to build or enhance their careers on the ‘lessons’ of these events.  This essay offers the one lesson that none of these efforts will produce.  It is that, if the Middle East has a future, it does not lie with freedom, democracy, ‘empowering’ this or that favored sector of society, investing in this or that or the other thing, shoring up anti-something efforts, or ‘standing up’ for something-or-other.  It lies, for better or however worse, with Islam.

This is not an Islamist claim.  It doesn’t really have a lot to do with the nature of Islam in any of its forms.  It has to do with the role of liberals in the so-called Arab Spring, and with the role of the political tendencies and institutions they hold dear.   The following will argue this from the conduct and motivations of liberals in Egypt and Syria, and from the record of secular government in the region.  To examine this conduct, you need to consider the nature of the events we’re dealing with.

Their very name invites distortion.   The term 'Arab Spring' reveals the delusions deliberately or, much more often, unthinkingly promoted by those who sympathise with the now-failed revolts in Egypt, Syria, and Tunisia (which won't be discussed here).  The spring in the name comes from the 1968 "Prague Spring", well-known as Czechoslovakia's nonviolent striving towards nice, Western, democratic ideals.  The idea was to portray the revolts in the same way:  nice, non-violent, pro-Western, pro-democracy, and 'democracy' in the Polly-Annish Western sense of a practice where only People Like Us get elected.

None of this applies to the revolts.

Even in Egypt, they were not non-violent: indeed this lie is also a grievous insult to the heroic Egyptians who fought police and snipers like lions.  The idea that only non-violent resisters should be held up for admiration pervades not only Western but middle class Middle Eastern propaganda.  Apparently, it is only in the West that fighting tyrants is acceptable.

As for nice ideals, that held for the leadership and much of the vanguard in the very first days of the revolts.  But this induces a misunderstanding:  that the vanguard was the heart and soul of these uprisings.

They were not.  Had this been true, the 'Arab Spring' would have been just another of the many pointless middle class cameos in the story of stagnant or dynamically monstrous Middle Eastern régimes.  There would have been some arrests and things would have got right back to normal.  But it was what's annoyingly called the 'Arab Street' that was out to finish what the middle class liberals started.  The ordinary Egyptians (and Syrians), the ones who didn't make themselves heard on web sites or social media, were not Prague Spring types.  (When the song Sout al horreya refers to hunger, it is not singing about the middle class.)  They were religious and had become increasingly so as the hopes raised by Nasser’s secularist vision faded.  Their religion, as it reached out to those trapped in poverty, inevitably acquired political overtones.  It affected their notions of freedom and democracy: Morsi’s relationship with the Muslim Brotherhood, for example, did not count as some dangerous threat to their version of those ideals.  Unlike the middle class, they wanted real social change, better lives, not institutional reform.  Some of them wanted power.   They felt their time had come, and their rule would not conform to a liberal, secularist model.

The recent history of resistance to the state testifies to this.  Those who died opposing the military in Egypt were, overwhelmingly, Muslim Brotherhood, and this after the middle class ushered in a military dictatorship in the name of liberal values.   In Syria, when resistance had to arm itself or perish, it was Islamist militias who increasingly dominated the middle class movements with their business-suited leaders in Turkey or Europe.  These Islamist movements were not the heart and soul of the demonstrations that are now reviewed with nostalgia.  But they were the heart, soul and muscle of resistance, when the going got really tough and rebel units, in the face of massacres outside the main urban centers, established themselves in the countryside & smaller cities.  And as usual, in the countryside, people were more conservative and less liberal.

What the middle class liberals started gained historic significance because it almost instantaneously drew in hundreds of thousands who were neither middle class nor liberal.  How did the liberals react?

The liberals’ conduct.

In Egypt, their reaction can be summed up in few words.   When Egypt’s first free and fair election brought in Mohamed Morsi, whom they considered an Islamist, they spun tales of how he was a sinister authoritarian in disguise.[i]  They poo-pooed the idea that democracy was as it had been defined for two thousand years, as majority rule, and decided it had to guarantee that liberal voices and ideologies predominated.  More important, they decided that yes, they actually preferred the murdering, torturing military to Morsi, who they feared was the thin edge of a Brotherhood wedge.  The very idea that they didn’t know what their prominent participation in Morsi’s overthrow would bring to Egypt is beneath contempt.

In Syria, it’s more complex.

The liberals fall into three categories – ex-officers in the Syrian armed forces, exile politicians, and highly literate activists.  Though middle class, they could not have behaved more differently from their Egyptian counterparts.   For the most part they steadfastly refused to abandon their Islamist allies, despite strong pressure from the US.

Perhaps the liberals relied on the Islamist forces to keep Assad at bay.   Perhaps, adequately supported by the US, they would have turned on the ‘extremist’ militias.   But the fact is, they never did.   This, however, proved the undoing of the Syrian revolution.

Here the fateful decision for the liberals was not so much with whom to ally domestically, but with whom to ally outside the country.  They chose, or tried to choose, the West.  They did not choose the region's counterpart to Morsi:  Erdogan, incessantly labeled an anti-liberal authoritarian.  To have chosen Erdogan would have meant, were the revolution to succeed, decisive Turkish involvement and influence.  This would mean, in turn, that the liberals were irreparably subordinated to the Islamist tendencies represented by Erdogan himself and by the Muslim Brotherhood in Syria.  The liberals, it seems, were not dead set against alliance with such forces when it was a matter of physical survival.  But to accept Islamist leadership, if not immediately then in Syria's future, was something the liberals could not contemplate.   So they persisted in their dream that they were indeed fighting for Freedom and Democracy, and so was 'Syria' itself.

But those where not 'Syria's' objectives.   A large though unknown proportion of Syria's anti-Assad masses weren’t liberals; they were likely more conservative than the Muslim Brotherhood itself. (Indeed despite strenuous efforts to highlight the role of women in the demonstrations, the crowds were overwhelmingly male, to an extent that defies attempts to present the 2011 uprising as predominantly secularist.)  Many others, not Islamist or even conservative, turned to the Islamist militias as their best counter to Assad.   Western governments knew this and quickly soured on the revolution.  Long before the emergence of ISIS and ‘Al-Qaeda affiliated’ group, the West was nervous about the Muslim Brotherhood component of the Syrian National Council and the Free Syrian Army.  Though it took some time to become apparent, once this happened, the game was up.

From the very start of its ‘efforts’, the US and denied the rebels anti-aircraft weapons they feared might fall into the hands of the rebels’ Islamist battlefield allies.  Without such weapons, the rebels couldn’t hang on to their territorial gains and couldn’t protect their civilian populations.  Soon arms deliveries slowed to a trickle.  The same fear of Islamist domination prompted the US to decide it didn’t, after all, want the revolution to succeed, nor even give it the support it needed to survive.  And it did not survive.   So the choice of the West over Erdogan was indeed fateful, and the liberals played a major role in making it.

By allying, not with Turkey but with 'the West', i.e. the US and its ever-serviceable partner, Jordan, the liberals had mired the Syrian uprising in false hopes and, eventually, worse, a partly successful attempt to convert the desperate revolutionary forces away from rebellion, to become mere Western proxies in the fight against ISIS.  It was also to invite the West to promote reliably anti-Islamist forces, the Kurdish PKK, in preference to the rebels and in sneaking, tacit alliance with Assad.
Turkey held the only promise of deposing Assad, because it held the only promise of an understanding between the anti-Assad forces, Russia and Iran.  Turkey couldn’t care less that Russia annexed the Crimea, nor that Russia wanted an expanded presence in the Mediterranean.  It didn’t care about Hezbollah and had important economic ties to Iran.  There was, then, a chance that Russia and Iran could be persuaded to sideline Assad in return for an important regional ally who would be fine with an expansion of Russian bases in the area.  On the other hand, a rebel-US alliance meant that potential allies, Iran and Russia, had to be enemies.

The liberals’ choice also hobbled Turkey.  The West’s bright idea for fixing Syria was to support the YPG, the Syrian branch of the Kurdish PKK.  They were Assad’s allies and Erdogan's military enemies.  On top of this, the West (and sometimes the liberals) consistently incited secularist rebel units against hard-line Islamist forces, so that the rebels were weakened still further.  Erdogan, beset by a pro-Assad opposition, potential Russian pushback and the US’ protection of the Kurds, could not provide the military muscle the rebels needed.  So the US betrayal was the end of the road.  Choosing the West meant, unwillingly, unknowingly but unavoidably, choosing Assad.  That was the terrible price for placing faith in Western democracies.

Why did the liberals make their choices?

Though the choices of Syrian and Egyptian liberals were radically different, their ultimate motivation was the same.  They found the prospect of an Islamist future intolerable.

It would be hard for those who have never seen Egypt to fathom the frustration experienced by liberals there, even under Mubarak’s secularist rule.   A Muslim librarian, gone to buy a washing machine, is berated by the salesman for not wearing a veil.  She complains that her assistants constantly slip religious tracts into her display cases.   Alcohol is bought and consumed semi-clandestinely, amid disapproval.  A woman is told that if she smokes on the street, "everyone will think you are a prostitute."  Even modestly dressed, women are subject to constant harassment - and sometimes they would rather not be modestly dressed.   You leave a famous antique shop to find the landing entirely occupied by devout employees at prayer.  You can't have bacon and eggs, or kiss on the street, or sign into a hotel with a male other than your husband.  To enter into a mixed marriage requires a high tolerance for outraged opposition.  The liberals, by and large wealthy enough to travel and even live partly abroad, find the country stifling.   These lifestyle preoccupations are pervasive, unceasing, and, the truth is, far, far more important to most liberals than whether they live under freedom and democracy.  They were much happier under Nasser's aggressively secularist dictatorship.

Maybe better to say this:  the liberals wanted cultural freedom, and, for some, the freedom to write political commentary linked to their media careers.  But they weren't interested in political freedom.  Though pretending otherwise, they viewed it with hostility when they saw it in operation.  Political freedom meant democracy and democracy meant the Brotherhood.

The liberals, bluntly put, view the Muslim Brotherhood and its followers with deep hatred.  They felt accommodation was impossible.  They were prepared to live in the 'pre-Spring' atmosphere, but feared that, with the Brotherhood in a governing position, life would become genuinely intolerable.  So the emergence of an Islamist government was seen as an existential threat - not to the existence of liberals, but to the existence of the lifestyle they worked hard to maintain.

The Syrian liberals' situation was almost the mirror-image of the Egyptians'.   Despite sincere hatred of Assad's Syria, liberals could well imagine that his overthrow would bring something much like what the Egyptian liberal experienced and very probably what they feared for the future.  Though the Assad régime was repugnant, though the course of events made armed revolution the only possible response, Syrian liberals were deeply concerned to retain control over the revolution's course.   This could not exclude alliance with conservative Islamist forces, but it had to involve some external constraint on the extent to which Islamists would dominate a post-Assad future.   That constraint could only come from close, fruitful alliance with the West, and, since the Europeans were far too timid to act on their own, with the US.   Unlike their Egyptian counterparts, the Syrian liberals never contemplated the betrayal of the revolution undertaken.  (Indeed the entire history of independent Syria indicated that any attempt by members of a liberal élite to rejoin the fold would end in torture and death.)  But they hoped against hope that US support would enable them to retain strong leadership of the anti-Assad forces.

So in Egypt and Syria alike, fear of Islamists pushed the liberals into decisions disastrous for their revolutions.   But did they really have an alternative?   If they did, was it anything more than an unappetizing choice of some supposedly lesser evil?

The future

Suppose that the liberals were completely justified in their attitudes towards political Islam.  Suppose they  had a deeply principled commitment to the values that happened to underwrite their lifestyle.  It hardly matters.  Political Islam is the only road to change left in the Middle East.  It might be a dead end or even a road to hell, but nothing will improve unless that road is taken.  It’s the only way to bring the sort of real change that sidelines the élites - often the 'notable families' who have run things since Ottoman times - who have so conspicuously failed to provide good government.

The reason Islam offers the only realistic hope for change is simple:  there are no plausible alternatives.  Sure, liberal democracy or some other secularist tendency might in theory offer some wonderful solution.  But they cannot offer a plausible solution because their record is so indelibly tainted, especially but not exclusively in the Middle East.

A rational observer of history has to conclude that, believe it or not, Islamism offers the safest alternative, because literally every major atrocity in recent history has been secularist, including the mass slaughters of Cambodia, Rwanda, and the Congo.   True, history also offers some good secular régimes, including liberal democracies, but these failed to ward off the horrors of, for example, Franco Hitler and Stalin, not to mention two world wars.  Someone might argue that, despite these unusual cases, secularist and in particular liberal democratic government offers rewards that outweigh the risks.   But that won’t work if, as a rational Middle Easterner would do, you focus the secularist record in the Middle East.

There we have just two régimes that might possibly be considered liberal democracies.   Israel, with its bloodshed and its dedication to racial sovereignty, can hardly attract emulation.  So there remains Lebanon, which even has a roughly Western-style economy.  But Lebanon’s civil war cost 175,000 lives, and no one suggests a repeat is out of the question.  Yet when we look at other secularist régimes, the record is even worse.

The secularist governments of the Middle East have included some non-disasters, countries where torture and repression are rife as the society slowly deteriorates – in Jordan, Egypt, Tunisia, and Morocco.  Otherwise, secularism has been a catastrophe.  There’s Saddam, the Assads, and the Shah of Iran.  There’s Iraq after the American occupation.  Gaddafi drifts into insanity after inflicting terrible suffering in Chad and Libya itself.   Secularist government brought Yemen nothing but war and starvation.  Algeria’s horrifying struggle with Islamists cost another 175,000 lives.

But it is not just the terrible record of secularism that make it an implausible solution.  Woven into these disasters is the West’s dogged resistance to every single secular or moderate ideology that gained some traction in the Middle East – as opposed to the gallery of dictators that have benefitted from Western support.  Communism wouldn't do.  Arab nationalism and Arab socialism weren't good enough either.  Their greatest and most successful exponent, Nasser, became a pariah among Western democracies; he was undone by the Western-sponsored and secularist state of Israel.  Moderate Islam, in the form of the Muslim Brotherhood, has labelled extremist and ruthlessly suppressed by the entrenched élites it threatened.   The West may not have overthrown Morsi, but they quickly accepted the coup and have been lavishing military and economic attention on the Sisi régime ever since.   Yet if a secularist project wanted to please the West and dedicated itself to repressing even moderate Islamist groups, it would have time and energy for nothing else.

With secularism offering no plausible promise of change, only Islam remains.  Even if what matters most is the defeat of political Islam, that will never happen unless Islamists are discredited.  To be discredited, they would have to be given a real, full chance to govern, free from the sort of deep state sabotage that marked Morsi's so-called reign in Egypt.  Only then will political Islam prove or disprove itself.  If it brings positive change, great.  If it doesn't, the secularists will get their new chance, without the encumbrance of a strong Islamist opposition.
 
Given the whole secularist record in the Middle East, I wouldn't be optimistic how that would turn out.  The abiding contemporary liberal stance is loud espousal of freedom and democracy.  But these only have to do with the forms and legal structures of government, not with policy.  They don't give people jobs or address climate change.  There is also, of course, commitment to diversity, which means we will all acquire full participation in our disastrous societies.  In the early days of liberalism, liberals at least offered laissez-faire capitalism, a bad program but a substantive program nonetheless.  Today they have nothing.  I can't see why they would be more likely than Islamists to find substantive solutions.


[i] For a critical analysis of this claim, see Mohammed Fadel, “What killed Egyptian democracy?”, Boston Review, January 24, 2014, http://bostonreview.net/forum/mohammad-fadel-what-killed-egyptian-democracy

Wednesday, July 11, 2018

What broke the Syrian revolution?

An investigation by Elizabeth Tsurkov entitled "The Breaking of Syria's Rebellion" has elicited debate over what broke it.  Did it break because the rebels were corrupted, authoritarian, feuding, oppressive, or did the rebels get that way because something else broke it - most likely Russian and Iranian intervention.   It's not the sort of debate that can be definitively resolved.   But there are reasons to think the breaking came first.

The interviews on which the study is based took place since, it seems, about mid-2016.  Supposing by then that the revolution was broken, the findings diminish in significance.   Of course if things seeemed hopeless, corruption would set in; discipline would break down; authoritarianism - a given when an area is under severe military threat - would intensify, and the mass of people would resent being exposed, for nothing, to the horrors of war.   And of course the most determinedly ideological forces, in this case radical Islamist militants, would be seen as the lone inheritors of the struggle.   But when was hope lost?

In my opinion hope was lost well before a full-fledged Iranian/Russian intervention.   It was lost roughly when Obama erased his own red line, about mid-2013.  About the time of his reversal, he also made it crystal clear, despite reports to the contrary by Michael Weiss and other supposedly knowlegable journalists, that the US would never seriously supply the rebels with what they needed to counter Assad.  (I argued this in some detail in June, 2013.)  In particular, that meant the rebels would never have the capacity even to moderate the régime's air attacks.  Indeed, the US did not merely refrain from supplying the most minimal anti-aircraft capacity; it forbade other parties from supplying such weapons as well.  This inability didn't necessarily mean the rebels would be wiped out, but it did mean they couldn't win.  It did mean that civilians were being exposed to the barrel bombs and other attacks for - it was becoming clear - nothing.

So it was the US betrayal that really marked the turning point.  Its effects were delayed for some time because the US took another year or two entirely to abandon the pretense of supporting the rebels against Assad, rather than as a mere proxy force against ISIS.  But past that point, if hope did not die instantly, it died slowly.  The demoralisation of the rebels and the degradation of their cause - so carefully documented by Tsurkov - was then inevitable.

Saturday, April 14, 2018

Trump and Obama's red line


Trump's policy on Syria is being criticized for inconsistency and inadequacy.  No doubt. His shifting stance is also far superior to the consistently inadequate (or worse) policies of the oh-so-more-sophisticated EU leadership.  Of course the main motive behind the criticisms is hatred of Trump.   Yet on what might be thought the most morally significant foreign policy issue, Trump is clearly streets ahead of Obama.  Trump bombed Assad.  Obama left Syrians to their agonies, calling that decision "courageous",  perhaps because he ran the risk of people disliking him.

When Obama let his red line slide, he exhibited an impressive range of moral and political failings.   First he welched on the most important commitment of his administration.  Then he lacked the courage simply to reverse his stance:  instead, he handed the decision to a Congress which he knew would reverse it for him.  Then he had the gall to represent his cowardly decision as bravery and sagacity, when in fact it was based on timidity and a parochial ignorance of the Syrian conflict.   In other words he not only made disgusting decisions, but preened himself on their alleged excellence.

As for Trump, he acts on impulse.  He persistently showed, and still shows, a desire to disengage from Syria.  Yet he behaved like a human being.  He was appalled by the first chemical attack and when all the terribly moral Europeans confined their reaction to ass-covering, hand-wringing expressions of concern, Trump acted.  He felt the need to counter an outrage even though it ran contrary to his larger policy objectives.  Then he did it again which, inexplicably, is called a one-off response.  (And that without him, the high-minded Europeans would have done nothing:  this isn't even open to discussion.)  He may be inconsistent, but it is an inconsistency born of decency, leading to a reaction morally superior to the rest of the world's leaders', on a matter of the highest importance.

As for the accusation that his reaction is inadequate, well, of course it is.  What would an adequate reaction be?  If adequacy means stopping Assad's atrocities, it would require military intervention on a scale that, given the Russian presence, might lead to a major war, with some risk of a nuclear holocaust.  Even a slight danger of such an outcome means that an adequate response is out of the question.  But to suppose that one or two attacks have no value is wrong-headed.  In the first place, the weight of these attacks should not be underestimated:  they pose the possibility (now almost the reality) of escalating responses if they don't have their desired effect.  In the second place, the attacks establish that violation of norms about chemical warfare against civilians can trigger a military response, even when that response runs counter to the foreign policy objectives of an outraged party.   This, arguably, sets a valuable precedent.

In short, Trump showed more decency than Obama, and his very inconsistency makes his reaction all the more worthwhile.  He may be the worst president ever in policy terms, but his humanity contrasts vividly with the timid cruelty his idolized predecessor.  Bombing Assad doesn't play to his electorate or indulge his prejudices or further his objectives.  It transcends those prejudices, sidelines those objectives and honours an obligation to help even Arabs, human beings in distress. That's more than all his cold-fish detractors and their mentors have to show for themselves.

It's not complicated.  Either you leave innocents to die in agony, or you don't.  Left to its own devices, the rest of the world has shown the firmest, most consistent commitment to the latter course of action.  Trump chose the former.  That England and France have, as always, done whatever the Americans want them to do hardly redounds to their credit.

Friday, October 20, 2017

Did the West 'give up' on the Syrian rebels?

In “How Assad’s Enemies Gave Up on the Syrian Opposition”, Aron Lund follows many other analysts in his account of how the West 'gave up' on Syria’s rebels.  The implication is that the West tried to back them against Assad, but at long last found this well-meaning effort both futile and ill-advised. The project produced a big mess!

That's at least highly misleading.  The following argues that West never seriously supported the rebels, so it can hardly be said that support should never have been extended in the first place.

1.  Lund has a New York Times report stating that there were "flights shipping military equipment to Syria".  Here he misspoke:  without any sinister intent, he asserted what he knows is false.  Not one single flight went to Syria.  All flights went, as the article states, to Turkey or Jordan.

2.  This is of the highest significance, because it means that only a still-unknown proportion of the 3500 tons shipped actually ended up in rebel hands. 

3.  What we do know is that there were many complaints that only a trickle of those arms made it across the border: the deliveries were constantly and severely restricted to bend rebel groups to the wishes of Turkey, and - especially - Jordan and the US.  For example:  “We need between 500-600 tons of ammunition a week. We get between 30-40 tons. So you do the calculations.”

4.  The overwhelming majority of the arms used are of Soviet design.  Even ammunition tracked to outside sources is not linked to identifiable US-backed shipments.  Some of this material certainly did come from the CIA operation, but there are no videos nor any first-hand testimony of large deliveries crossing the Syrian border.  In short there is no evidence that, contrary to repeated rebel claims, they received large amounts of CIA-supplied weaponry, as opposed to black-market purchases from numerous sources.

5.  There is also no evidence, indeed no claim, that CIA training made a substantial difference.  The later Pentagon train-and-equip program leaked small quantities of arms; the trained units were consistently steered away from fighting Assad.

6.   Even if large shipments actually ended up in rebel hands, these shipments did not afford the rebels air cover: there were no useful MANPADS or other anti-aircraft weapons.  And of course in contrast to the Western-backed Kurdish forces, no one gave the rebels air cover or close air support.  This, predictably, proved decisive.

7.  Without such support, the claim that Western supplies ever played a pivotal role in the course of the war is implausible.  The rebels, in better days, obtained massive quantities of arms from the black market and captured régime depots.  These seem quite sufficient to account for the rebels' periods of success.

8.   In short the whole idea that the US and the West made any serious effort to overthrow Assad is a non-starter.  Western backers may indeed have planned to overthrow him.  But between the plans and the implementation lay an almost impenetrable barrier of reluctance to support the rebels who might have brought him down.  This barrier proved much more consequential than the plans or even the arms delivery flights that supposedly exacerbated the conflict.

9.  Where did this reluctance come from?  Lund rightly says:  "Though the Syrian president was now widely reviled as a war criminal and held responsible for tens of thousands of civilian deaths, the likely alternatives seemed to be either stateless, jihadi-infested chaos or some sort of Talibanesque theocracy. International enthusiasm for the opposition plummeted."

Lund might have pointed out that, on all evidence, "the likely alternatives" would have been far better than Assad, particularly since the West had more than enough capacity to restrain any post-Assad 'chaos'. But this is the failure of every respectable, sober, well-informed Syria analyst. Should it have had any significant effect on Western policy, it is a lot to answer for.