Saturday, September 8, 2012

Syria: Whatever happened to "I don't know?"

In a well-received Foreign Policy article, Hassan Hassan pours cold water on the prospects of the FSA.   Sectarianism is growing; the non-Sunni who were on the fence are "slipping into the regime camp".   (Hassan knows this because a Syrian commentator in Washington said so.)  In addition,
The rebels have also engaged in some atrocious sectarian violence, such as the killing of five Alawite officers in a police station outside Damascus, while sparing the rest -- which three days later led the regime's militias to slaughter at least 20 of the town's residents on Aug. 1.
We also hear that
If they continue to "bring problems" to neighborhoods, as many Syrians have started to complain, then time will be on Assad's side and his regime will maintain the upper hand.
Syrian activists seem very respectful of this and similar pieces, with demoralizing effect.   That's why I must say, this is punditry for the sake of punditry.  It seems to be the work of someone whose desire to analyse has trumped his standards of analysis.

Take the claim about atrocities.   No doubt the rebels have committed atrocities, as do all sides in all wars.   Perhaps they have even engaged in 'atrocious sectarian violence'.   But Hassan offers no evidence that the killing of five Alawite officers is an instance of any such thing.
In the first place, Hassan says nothing about what these officers might have done.  He does not even mention that, while most Alawites have nothing to do with the régime's atrocities, a large proportion of those who commit the régime's atrocities are Alawites.  It would be outrageous to suppose that, because the officers were Alawites, they alone had blood on their hands.   But we also can't simply assume their innocence.   So Hassan has no evidence that the killings were motivated by sectarianism.

In the second place, by what standards would this killing be deemed atrocious?   The same ones that govern mutilating living children with knives, or raping them in front of their parents?    We can be high-minded about all killing if we like, but that would not justify shining the spotlight on the killing of some policemen in the service of a vicious régime.

Third, in what sense did this 'lead' régime militias to slaughter at least 20 of the town's residents?   The militias haven't needed provocation to slaughter residents of any town not thought firmly pro-Assad.   Peaceful demonstrations or suspicion of disloyalty have been quite enough reason for the shabiha.   So the reaction is no evidence that an atrocity was committed, or that even that such killings would make the shabiha notably more murderous than usual.

What then of the claim about 'problems' in the neighborhoods?   What basis does this offer for the inference that 'time will be on Assad's side'?   That would be warranted only if there was a tide of disaffection so substantial and powerful as to undermine rebel operations.

Hassan's case for this hardly rises above the level of gossip.   No doubt *some* people lay the neighborhood's 'problems' at the feet of the FSA.   No doubt *other* people lay them at the feet of the régime.   No doubt some people blame both sides equally, and some change their minds from day to day, and some support the FSA even though they blame them for 'problems', and some of those who complain were pro-régime to start with.   No one has any idea about tides of sentiment in Syria today, or even whether there *are* tides.   There simply isn't solid evidence on which to found such claims.  So even if his inference is correct, Hassan has no reason to suppose that time is on Assad's side.    And the inference might be incorrect, because maybe civilian sentiment simply wouldn't, in the end, make a decisive difference.   We don't know this either, one way or the other.

In short, there is no reason why this depressing analysis should be received with respect.    Whatever happened to "I don't know"?

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