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.

Friday, September 8, 2017

What about that Syria analysis taken down from the US Holocaust Museum Site?


Recently there has been a fuss about a document entitled Critical Junctures in United States Policy toward Syria:  An Assessment of the Counterfactuals.  It says it is part of a 'research project':

The project seeks to conduct a systematic review of critical policy junctures in the Syrian conflict, identify alternative policies that the US government plausibly could have adopted at these junctures, and assess the likely effects of these counterfactual actions on the conflict and associated atrocities against civilians.

It was removed from the web site of the United States Holocaust Memorial Museum.  It essentially concluded that nothing could be done about Syria, so that Obama's policy decisions, while perhaps not optimal, would have made little difference.

Some have decided that this is a terrible blow to the serious study of Syria.  For example New York Magazine did a probing piece on the takedown, and on Twitter, Zack Beauchamp of VOX comments on a Tablet article about the incident as follows: 

 Not a single quote in this piece contains a substantive critique of the Holocaust Museum's study

 This seems like right-wing political correctness: The study was pulled due to political pressure, not scholarly missteps

The study is based on interviews with respected Syria analysts or former US government officials.  It purports to deliver mature thinking on the situation, leading to, and I quote, "a deeper understanding".  It seems that the contributors are serious intellectuals who raise important issues that needed to be debated.   Well OK, I downloaded the piece before it was taken offline.  I'll quote some of what it says, and then deliver some of that substantive criticism it's thought to deserve.

I'm not doing this just to carp.  I'm doing it because the West's self-righteous but timid response to one of the greatest atrocities of our times has been, all along, diligently abetted and excused by these analysts.  Their fateful opinions call for scrutiny.

The study is built around "Five critical junctures and associated counterfactuals".   They are, in full:

1. Obama's August 2011 statement: Most interviewed for this paper identified Obama’s August 2011 statement that “the time has come for President Assad to step aside” as the most consequential juncture, the so-to-speak original sin. A more nuanced statement developed via a thorough interagency process and accompanied by a well-conceived strategy might have led to fewer atrocities.
2. Clinton/Petraeus arming plan: The summer 2012 decision not to adopt the Clinton/Petraeus plan to vet and arm “moderate” rebels is among the most contentious and yet least significant of the critical junctures with respect to the issue of minimizing civilian deaths. Implementing the plan might have proven counterproductive by extending the duration of the conflict.
3. Chemical weapons "red line": Obama’s September 2013 decision not to undertake standoff strikes to enforce his “red line” against the Assad regime’s use of chemical weapons stands as his most controversial policy decision on Syria, and arguably of his entire presidency. Conducting limited stand-off strikes followed immediately by intensive diplomacy might have led to a reduction in the level of killing.
4. Prioritizing ISIL over the Assad regime: In the late summer 2014, following ISIL’s “blitzkrieg” across Iraq and parts of Syria, the Obama administration made a formal strategic shift prioritizing Iraq and the fight against ISIL over counter-regime objectives in Syria. Implementing a more muscular anti-regime policy as part of a broader counter-ISIL strategy in Syria in 2014 is unlikely to have led to a lower level of atrocities against civilians.
5. No-fly zone over all or part of Syria: The option to enforce a no-fly zone over all or part of Syria has been raised at various times throughout the conflict, specifically in 2012, 2013, and 2015. More creative options for enforcing a partial no-fly zone—perhaps over northern Syria using standoff weapons or employing different tools—should have been given greater consideration.

According to the document, once you consider the 'counterfactuals' associated with these 'junctures', you have to conclude the following:

No silver bullet: No single shift in policy options would have definitively led to a better outcome in terms of the level of atrocities in Syria.

The tone here evokes analytical rigor, but the content, not so much.
  
May I suppose that when you shift policy, you  move from one option to another?   'No single shift' is quite a claim: it implies that you might move to any possible option.  So when you say 'no single shift' would have definitely led to a better effect, you imply that no possible option would have done so.   So apparently whoever came up with this 'study' thought that all possible options had been considered and found wanting.

Thought, or pretended to think.   Did they really suppose they had considered all possible options?  It's clear that there is one option they were dying to dismiss:  removing Assad, which they occasionally mention under the now-pejorative label of 'regime change'.  Yet this is the only option that seems a serious candidate for a silver bullet:  it's hardly surprising that the others are found wanting, given they are carefully specified to have only limited objectives.  'Regime change' isn't even directly discussed, but introduced in the discussion of the first 'juncture'.  And though the analysts seem to think 'regime change' is a single option, there are many possible ways to effect régime change:  if you were out to change a régime, you would of course consider a number of alternative strategies.  It is quite clear that the analysts were not inclined to do anything of the sort.

The possibility of régime change comes up only in the 'counterfactual' associated with 'juncture 1', Obama's statement that Assad should step aside.  Here is what the document says:

Counterfactual 1:  Make the statement, but back it up with a well-conceived and well-resourced strategy. Advocates of this counterfactual called for the development of a robust  regime change strategy using a mixture of military and non-military measures. The  assumption undergirding this counterfactual focuses on minimizing the killing by removing  Assad as the key perpetrator behind Syria’s killing and atrocities, stressing the importance of aggressively pursuing regime change. Some assumed that in making the statement the President would commit to action. As one former senior State Department official noted, “Not necessarily invasion and occupation, but other means.”[34] Proponents of this policy option favored an earlier and more intense use of indirect military intervention, primarily by arming the rebels, or direct action short of outright invasion.
                               
It is hard to imagine the viability of this counterfactual given Obama’s antipathy toward regime change and his election vow to withdraw America from Middle East conflicts, not engage in a new one. Moreover, given the challenge and complexity of regime change in Syria, it is difficult  to envision how this approach, to be successful, would not have required fairly massive military  intervention, resulting in potentially far higher civilian deaths.

What does this tell us about the quality, intentions and scope of the analyses?
                                 
One of the reasons given for dismissing this option is that Obama didn't like it.  But the claim was not that there was no silver bullet given Obama's tastes.  It was that no shift, whether or not Obama liked it, would have done any good.  So this objection is besides the point.

So what's left is:  massive military intervention would be counterproductive.   Elsewhere in the document support for this claim goes a little beyond this pronouncement that success can't be imagined.  We hear that:

Given the fractiousness of the armed opposition at that point, regime change in Syria by 2014–2015 could have led to an even greater level of violence and killing as rival factions would compete for power. Moreover, the increased radicalization of armed groups by that time might have led to the “catastrophic success” scenario marked by the empowering of extremists who might have committed further atrocities.

The unintended consequences of this policy decision might have been significant, particularly with respect to the level of killing and the duration of the conflict. This type of intervention runs a much greater risk of escalation and a slide down the “slippery slope” of deepening US military involvement and intensification of conflict. This in turn might have led to greater killing.

Intensifying military efforts against the regime likely would have been met with counter-escalation by the regime and its allies, as well as broader destabilization across the region.

Does this amount to serious consideration of the options?  We are told that certain bad things might have happened.  This introduces possibilities without assessing their actual probability.  Yet that's part of exploring the truth of a 'counterfactual'.  Are these just fears, or real likelihoods?

Throughout the debate on Syria, the warning about bad outcomes have been amplified using two dubious techniques.  The first is equivocation about the nature of military intervention.  The second is the trick of dangling intervention when it seems to pose dangers, and yanking it away when it might counter the dangers.

Consider first what 'military intervention' means.  The document makes it sound like America would be deeply involved, and in a way that is true.   But that's not the same thing as 'deepening US military involvement', which I take it means the involvement of the US military.   The one does not imply the other either in logic or in the realities of the situation.   The US could be deeply involved, in a 'military intervention' if you like, without any US forces being deployed to Syria at all, and without even some US-run train-and-equip program in Turkey and Jordan.

With the exception of Lebanon, which Israel is deeply committed to keep hobbled, Syria has nothing but enemies in the region, notably the Gulf States and Turkey.  (Jordan is at least no friend of Syria, but in any case will do exactly whatever the US wants it to do.)   In the background lurks another enemy, Israel, with nuclear weapons.  To effect régime change, the US did not have to send its armed forces into Syria.   For the most part, what it had to do was simply drop all its opposition to regional efforts to remove Assad.  His enemies were prepared to support the rebels with massive military aid; with US encouragement they would have been even more prepared to do so.  At most, the US might have had to increase the air-to-air capacities in its numerous large bases in the region.  It's not even clear that that would have been necessary.  Israel, with far fewer resources at its disposal, has used stand-off weapons to make a mockery of the Syrian air force without even entering Syrian airspace.  So it is, to use the document's phrase, 'difficult to imagine' how the US and regional powers could fail to reduce the régime's air power to negligible levels, again without even entering Syrian airspace.  And in these circumstances, it is also difficult to imagine anything but rebel victory.

Here analysts jump in and speak of 'dangers'.  Some of these are real, some are not.  The idea that Assad could 'counter-escalate', as suggested elsewhere in the document, is ludicrous.  How?  With what?  So it cannot be Assad who is going to 'intensify' the conflict.  It can only be his allies, Russia and Iran/Hezbollah.

Consider Russia first. It hasn't anything like the power arrayed against it in the region. If it has now introduced fairly important forces there, it is because the US allowed it ample time to react in the face of US-enforced inaction on the part of regional powers. Since we're doing counterfactuals, imagine that Turkey is heavily involved, as it certainly would be in this scenario. Turkey is a NATO power; Russia cannot attack it without risking catastrophe. So it's not clear that Russia would have any real choice in the matter.

But suppose otherwise; suppose Russia was sufficiently committed to its place in Syria to take enormous risks and expend enormous resources.  Since we're doing counterfactuals, it seems quite likely that Russia could be induced to abandon Assad instead.  What Russia really wants in the region is its one naval base outside the borders of the former Soviet Union:  Tartous.  The anti-Assad coalition, including of course the US, could offer to guarantee Russia perpetual access to the base, and the right to expand it as it sees fit.  And of course the US has much more to offer.   It could back the lifting of sanctions on Russia, it could even accept the annexation of Crimea.  It is 'difficult to imagine' that in the face of such inducements, Russia would prefer a hot war in Syria.

Given Russia's retirement from the stage, the case of Iran is simpler.  With no air cover, Iran would not be in a position to do anything.  It could make trouble elsewhere, but contrary to popular belief, Iran is not an agressive power:  in modern times it hasn't made war on anyone, ever.  Moreover Iran has a potentially more useful base for its ambitions than Lebanon: the US, unwilling to deploy the large ground forces it would need to run the place, has turned over virtually all of southern Iraq to Iran.  But the US doesn't care that much if Iraq goes even further to hell, so it could move against Iranian proxies there and in Syria if it felt so inclined.  So it is unlikely that Iran would have the means or inclination to create any massive destabilization of the situation, much less keep Assad in power.

No doubt these suggestions would be met with loud huffing and puffing from the analysts.  But either you consider all options, or you don't get to say nothing would have helped.  Please note, that is the issue:  not whether the option would be wise or moral or in some other sense 'acceptable', not whether it would have led to a better world, not whether it would serve US or European interests, but whether it would have 'led to a better outcome in terms of level of atrocities in Syria'.  And clearly the 'scholarly' enterprise fails here.   It doesn't consider all the options, and nothing it does consider permits the conclusion that 'regime change' wouldn't have helped.

So the first danger, escalation, is far from established.  The second danger is a more realistic prospect.  It is that the 'fractured' rebels will nurture or drift towards 'extremists'.  Then, it seems, infighting and revenge killing will produce "further atrocities'.

That's not just likely; it's almost certain.  Very few wars end without 'further atrocities'.  But it would be bizarre to suppose that the anti-Assad coalition couldn't keep these to a level orders of magnitude below what Assad has wrought.

For one thing, the coalition would continue to enjoy absolute air superiority:  the sort of MANPADS the rebels possessed would not be any threat to the coalition's aircraft.  So no indiscriminate air attacks, no barrel bombs.  This alone makes it much less likely that the rebels could inflict civilian casualties at anything like the régime's scale.  Air power and cutting off supplies could do only so much to contain the rebels, however; they would have plenty of weapons.   Possibly fuel supplies would limit their range.  But analysts manifest obtuseness or dishonesty when they suppose that, if the rebels wanted to commit massacres, well...  one just has to throw up one's hands.

This is plain nonsense.  Given a coalition-backed victory, for the first time there would be forces committed to preventing atrocities (though it must be admitted, the Russians seem to do this a bit).  These would both be forces fully aligned with regional powers and under their supervision, and, if necessary, coalition troops.  Some of them might even be Western troops.   But the notion that this would inevitably lead to some quagmire or spiral of intensification is utterly implausible.   Evacuations and safe zones do not fit into such that sort of disaster scenario.  This is peace-keeping, not nation-building.  There are many examples of peace-keeping in war zones that haven't had the slightest tendency to escalate.

In short here is a 'policy shift', an option, that the analysts never considered, and had to consider if the conclusion that no shift would help is to stand.  Why didn't they?  Since we are in the realm of speculation, I would like to suggest why.

These analysts do not shape their thinking out of concern for the level of atrocities.   They are not concerned about Syrians, except in the sense that they are concerned about Arabs running wild.  Even then, they are not concerned about what will happen in Syria.   The analysts are concerned, and the record shows this, about terrorism against the West.   They are concerned, despite many contrary considerations they ignore, about placing MANPADS in 'extremist' hands, and they are concerned that extremists would establish a base from which they would attack Western targets.
There are two problems with this.  First, if that is the analysts’ dominant concern, they should say so.   The document pretends, and specifies, that the only consideration for evaluating strategies is minimization of atrocities.  If so, that some alternative raises the prospects of terror attacks on the West has no weight at all.  So the document is undermined by dishonesty.  In the second place, if terror attacks are their concern, they should at least consider the consequences of persisting in the strategy that has led to terrorism against the West in the first place:  the toleration or, more often, strong support for every murdering, torturing, secularist tyrant that has ever oppressed the peoples of the Middle East.  To pretend mature prudence without even exploring the ramifications of these allegedly prudent conclusions simply manifests the obliviously cruel attitudes that are a large part of the problem in the first place.

In other words, the suppressed document offers nothing but excuses for inaction we have heard many times before, enhanced with the effrontery of scholarly airs and pretentious sophistry.   Perhaps, as an example of what is wrong with Western thinking about the Middle East, it was not such a good idea to take the document offline after all.

It remains only to offer suggestions as to what the document reveals about the mentality of the analysts.
 
It is telling that the document's measure of helpfulness is whether or not atrocities are reduced.   This is to lower a veil of ignorance on the Syrian conflict from the word go.   When three people were killed in the Boston Marathon bombing, that was an atrocity.  When 10 or twenty or thirty or a hundred people have died in terrorist attacks in Europe, those were all atrocities.  9-11, which killed fewer that 3000, that was a massive, unforgettable atrocity.  The West spares no efforts in its attempts to reduce these horrors.  What then are the crimes of Assad, which involve the killing of perhaps 200,000 innocent people?  What are fates of those he tortures to death in the tens of thousands - inserting rats in vaginas, castrating children, letting someone lie tied up in a hallway until dead of starvation?(*)  What are the massacres he sponsored, including slitting babies' throats?  To speak vaguely of 'atrocities' misses a distinction that the participants in this enterprise - given its sponsoring institution - ought to have grasped.  Assad is the sponsor, not of mere atrocities, but of a full-scale holocaust.  And to turn away from this realization is just what makes the analysts think it absurd, adolescent, extreme to do whatever it takes to destroy Assad and his régime, even bargains with Russia and Iran, even placing a few more weapons in the hands of radical Islamists.

Imagine if Assad was doing what he did to white Europeans, or Jews, or Afro-Americans.  Would it then not seem a matter of the greatest urgency?  But for these 'scholars', that would be yielding to adolescent hysteria.  These were only Arabs.  The matter - and the whole document could not make this plainer - was not urgent at all.  This carnage isn't worth risky scenarios, that is, scenarios that offer even a slight, unproven, unquantified level of risk, even if letting the carnage continue might carry with it still greater risks.  Such is the perspective of analysts who invest themselves with the moral radiance of the United States Holocaust Memorial Museum.


(*) For references, see the appendix to this.

Sunday, August 20, 2017

Because we bomb them, not because they hate us


 Spain invades Iraq 2003; gets attacked; leaves 2004. No more attacks. Spain goes into Syria in 2014; gets attacked.

That looks like they bomb us because we bomb them.  Yet many 'experts' and commentators indignantly reject this explanation.  They say that ISIS' terrorism, like all radical Islamist terrorism, has nothing to do with Western conduct in the Middle East or against Muslims:  that's 'blaming the victims', although it sounds more like blaming the victims' governments.

They say that Islamist terrorism is all about hate, not because we bomb them but because we are who we are, liberal, democratic, Christian.  Their motivation derives from dogma and twisted psychology, not from the West's adventures in the Middle East.

In support of their claims they cite, ubiquitously, one and the same passage from an ISIS online magazine, Dabiq.  It reads like this:

What’s important to understand here is that although some might argue that your foreign policies are the extent of what drives our hatred, this particular reason for hating you is secondary, hence the reason we addressed it at the end of the above list. The fact is, even if you were to stop bombing us, imprisoning us, torturing us, vilifying us, and usurping our lands, we would continue to hate you because our primary reason for hating you will not cease to exist until you embrace Islam. Even if you were to pay jizya and live under the authority of Islam in humiliation, we would continue to hate you. No doubt, we would stop fighting you then as we would stop fighting any disbelievers who enter into a covenant with us, but we would not stop hating you.
                               
Is this enough support for the claim that Islamist terror is all about theologically-charged hatred?  Let's look at two things - the evidence of the passage, and the evidence contradicting it.

The evidence of the passage

The passage is from an online ISIS magazine.   People who use the quotation in support of their theological-hatred theory don't tell you that the passage is also from the magazine's last issue; Dabiq was replaced by another effort called Rumiyah.  No one cites anything similar from Rumiyah.  Whether this means anything, we don't know.

In fact there is a lot we don't know about just who speaks for whom in ISIS.  Some proponents scornfully suggest that any such doubts come from poorly informed leftists, likely superficial journalists.

Well, here, at length, are the words of Alireza Doostdar, Assistant Professor of Islamic Studies and the Anthropology of Religion at the University of Chicago Divinity School:

The vast majority of ISIS’ estimated 20,000-31,500 fighters are recent recruits and it is not clear whether and how its leadership maintains ideological consistency among them. All told, our sense of ISIS’ coherence as a caliphate with a clear chain of command, a solid organizational structure, and an all-encompassing ideology is a direct product of ISIS’ propaganda apparatus.

We see ISIS as a unitary entity because ISIS propagandists want us to see it that way. This is why it is problematic to rely on doctrines espoused in propaganda to explain ISIS’ behavior. Absent more evidence, we simply cannot know if the behaviors of the different parts of ISIS are expressions of these doctrines.

And yet, much of the analysis that we have available relies precisely on ISIS’ propaganda and doctrinal statements. What does this emphasis obscure? Here I will point out several of the issues I consider most important.

First, we lack a good grasp of the motivations of those who fight for or alongside ISIS, so we assume that they are motivated by Salafism and the desire to live in a caliphate. What information we do have comes almost entirely from ISIS propaganda and recruitment videos, a few interviews, and the occasional news report about a foreign fighter killed in battle or arrested before making it to his or her destination.

Focusing on doctrinal statements would have us homogenizing the entirety of ISIS’ military force as fighters motivated by an austere and virulent form of Salafi Islam. This is how ISIS wants us to see things, and it is often the view propagated by mainstream media.

For example, CNN recently quoted former Iraqi national security adviser Muwaffaq al-Ruba‘i as claiming that in Mosul, ISIS was recruiting “Young Iraqis as young as 8 and 9 years old with AK-47s… and brainwashing with this evil ideology.” A Pentagon spokesman is quoted in the same story as saying that the U.S. was not intent on “simply… degrading and destroying… the 20,000 to 30,000 (ISIS fighters)... It’s about destroying their ideology”.

The problem with these statements is that they seem to assume that ISIS is a causa sui phenomenon that has suddenly materialized out of the thin ether of an evil doctrine. But ISIS emerged from the fires of war, occupation, killing, torture, and disenfranchisement. It did not need to sell its doctrine to win recruits. It needed above all to prove itself effective against its foes.

Dabiq was, precisely, a propaganda magazine.  Whether its statements capture the views of most ISIS members, we do not know.  Perhaps these are not even the views of the leadership, but statements designed to produce a certain effect in the audience.  We certainly have no reason to assume that the views expressed in this one passage represent the views of those who actually conduct terror attacks.  We are often assured, after all, that these individuals are quite ignorant of Islam, even irreligious.  That hardly sounds like their motivations must align with the theologically drenched orthodoxy of a single passage in an on-line magazine.

That's not all.  What does the article - not just the passage - actually say?  Users of the passage delight in pointing to the insistence that ISIS members will continue to hate Islam whether or not the West stops bombing and torturing Muslims.

One immediate reaction one might have is, well of course!  Why on earth would anyone bombed or tortured cease hating the bombers and torturers after they stop?  But to focus on hatred would be to ignore a crucial distinction.  The West's concern is not about hatred.  There is hatred between various groups throughout the world.  These days, Catalonians seem to hate British tourists.  American liberals hate Trump supporters.  Many people hate hipsters or baby boomers.  Hatred is not what matters.  It's whether, in this case, hatred engenders what the article called 'fighting'.  Even then, that's not what really concerns the West.  The concern is not whether ISIS fights Western forces in the Middle East or piggybacks on conflicts in Saharan Africa.  It's whether ISIS mounts terror attacks in Western countries.  In other words, the focus on hatred is at two removes from the West's real concerns: first, hatred doesn't mean fighting, and second, fighting doesn't mean terror attacks on the West.

The distinctions do seem to matter if those who cite the passage read, first to the end of the passage, and then to the end of the article.  The passage ends, you may recall, like this:

Even if you were to pay jizya and live under the authority of Islam in humiliation, we would continue to hate you. No doubt, we would stop fighting you then as we would stop fighting any disbelievers who enter into a covenant with us, but we would not stop hating you.
               
Well, small comfort, you might say, because the West isn't about to pay jizya and live under the authority of Islam.  But note, first, that here there is a clear distinction between continuing to hate and continuing to fight.   Second, he talks about 'fighting', not about attacks on Western civilians in the West.  There's quite a difference between the two.

Then there is the end of the article.  It goes like this:

We continue dragging you further and further into a swamp you thought you’d already escaped only to realize that you’re stuck even deeper within its murky waters… And we do so while offering you a way out on our terms. So you can continue to believe that those “despicable terrorists” hate you because of your lattes and your Timberlands, and continue spending ridiculous amounts of money to try to prevail in an unwinnable war, or you can accept reality and recognize that we will never stop hating you until you embrace Islam, and will never stop fighting you until you’re ready to leave the swamp of warfare and terrorism through the exits we provide, the very exits put forth by our Lord for the People of the Scripture: Islam, jizyah, or – as a last means of fleeting respite – a temporary truce.
                               
Though fans of the famous passage says it makes everything 'crystal clear', the article doesn't seem that way.   To me it sounds like if the West stops killing Muslims, even if it doesn't embrace Islam, it gets a temporary truce.  That in turn sounds like:  we won't bomb you if you stop bombing us, and get out of our face.  What does seem clear is that the fighting, never mind terror attacks, can stop whether or not 'they hate us'.  So hatred is hardly the issue.  Perhaps that is why there haven't been Islamist terror attacks in so many countries with no military engagement in the Middle East, among them many very Christian Latin and Central American states, or sub-Saharan Christian nations like Zimbabwe and South Africa.

To summarize, we have here one passage which never refers to attacks in the West on civilians.  It says a lot about hatred and fighting.  It distinguishes between the two.  It seems to suggest that you can have hatred without fighting.  None of this offers strong support to the claim that they bomb us because, for theological reasons, they hate us.  It even faintly suggests the contrary claim:  that they bomb us because we bomb them.

So much for the evidence of this one passage - the crown jewel of the 'they bomb us because they hate us' crowd.  It doesn't seem like this one passage tells us anything conclusive about the people who actually do bomb 'us', and it doesn't seem like the passage even nails down the connection between hatred-charged propagandists and the actual terrorists.

What then about evidence opposed to the theorists who cite this one passage?

The opposing evidence

The opposing evidence is abundant, clear, and in my view decisive.   Every major terrorist attack on the West, from 2001 on, has offered as justification:  we bomb you because you bomb us.  Here are some passages that support this claim.

9-11, where the reference to 'freedom' has to do with Al Qaeda's old objection the bases in the Gulf and the US fleet, both used for air attacks on Muslim militants:

The militant Islamic group decided "we should destroy towers in America" because "we are a free people... and we want to regain the freedom of our nation," said bin Laden, dressed in yellow and white robes and videotaped against a plain brown background.

9-11 again:  On 7 October 2001, Osama bin Laden issued the following statement.

There is America, hit by God in one of its softest spots. Its greatest buildings were destroyed, thank God for that.

There is America, full of fear from its north to its south, from its west to its east. Thank God for that. What America is tasting now is something insignificant compared to what we have tasted for scores of years. Our nation [the Islamic world] has been tasting this humiliation and this degradation for more than 80 years. Its sons are killed, its blood is shed, its sanctuaries are attacked, and no one hears and no one heeds."

July 7th attacks, London:

1210: A website linked to al-Qaeda carries a statement saying it has carried out a "blessed raid" in London "in retaliation for the massacres Britain is committing in Iraq and Afghanistan".

Madrid:

The man on the tape says: 'We declare our responsibility for what happened in Madrid exactly two-and-a-half years after the attacks on New York and Washington. This is an answer to the crimes in Afghanistan and Iraq. If your injustices do not stop there will be more if god wills it.'
               
Nice:

In a statement on Saturday on its radio station, the Islamic State referred to Mr. Lahouaiej Bouhlel as “a soldier” who had responded to the group’s call “to target states participating in the crusader coalition that fights the caliphate.”

In 2014, the Islamic State’s spokesman, Abu Muhammad al-Adnani, called on the group’s followers to attack Westerners in retaliation for strikes by the United States-led coalition fighting the Islamic State in Iraq and Syria. He has repeatedly singled out France, which is part of the coalition, as a main enemy.
               
Paris:

Several ISIS supporters celebrated the horror attacks using the sick hashtag 'ParisIsBurning'.

One said: "God is great and thank God for these lone wolf attacks. At least 100 hostages and countless wounded."

His tweet was sent from the Kuwait port of Mina Abdulla, according to Twitter's location settings.

Another added: "Oh God, burn Paris as you burned the Muslims in Mali, Africa, Iraq, Syria, and Palestine."

Paris, again:

A statement in ISIL’s name later claimed responsibility, saying the attacks were in retaliation for French air strikes against its positions in Syria.

These are not propaganda pieces in a magazine.  They are mostly from people who actually planned or conducted the attacks.  Even when they are couched in religious language, the motives are deterrence and retaliation, both rational by Western standards, or revenge, entirely commonplace in Western morality.  No doubt they are based on gross oversimplications of why the West 'attacks Muslims'.  Gross oversimplification is hardly absent from the moral and strategic discourse of Western 'experts'.


If they bomb us because we bomb them, perhaps we should turn down the self-righteousness and piety a notch.  We might also stop fixating on 'hate'.  There is nothing sick or twisted about disliking getting blown apart, and hitting back.  There are no mysteries to be unveiled about 'radicalization'.  I don't presume to offer suggestions about how these conclusions, coupled with some adult understanding of what the West has done, should shape strategy.  But it might be a first step to stop supporting, directly or indirectly, every murdering, torturing régime in the Middle East.  Another step might be to stop military operations which do no good.   Whatever’s best, an understanding of your enemy is probably not a bad idea.