Wednesday, January 9, 2013
A lot of people are worried about Jabhat al-Nusra, a large, effective, avowedly and deeply Islamist fighting unit in Syria. It's not clear exactly why.
It's clear a lot of people don't like Islamists and don't want Islamists to get ahead. So it's clear a lot of people don't like what seems to be happening. What's unclear is why this this dislike transmutes into worry. I mean, I dislike beets, but I don't worry about them. I wouldn't even worry if more and more people loved them.
The current activities of JAN and other Islamists fighters aren't distinctively worrisome, at least not more than the activities of other fighting forces. Like other fighting forces, JAN sometimes abuses and executes prisoners. There is no evidence this happens on a large scale, let alone the spectacular scale of Assad's forces. And the worry here, properly speaking, should attach to war in general. If you don't think that even your favorite armies - maybe the Allies in World War II - did the same sort of things, you live in a fantasy.
People worry that JAN has used bombs, and suicide bombers. I suspect this isn't really about worry, but about a vague unease, because these tactics are associated with 9-11 and Americans getting their ass kicked in Afghanistan and Iraq. Amid all Syria's horrors, it's amazing that vaguely unsettling tactics should occupy any large swath of anyone's attention.
It's true that JAN sometimes empties out liquor bottles onto the ground. This is cause for regret, but I don't know about worry.
It's also true that JAN is sectarian in some sense. It's not for Shia or Alawi or Jews or Christians. Many fighting units in Syria have are sectarian in this sense and, it's not clear why JAN appearance should be treated as the emergence of some more serious type of sectarianism, something leading to sectarian violence. After all, people were getting hysterical about this prospect long before there was talk of 'jihadis' in Syria. Ordinary Syrians were judged quite capable of sectarian strife.
This suggests a weighty reason not to worry about JAN. If there's going to be sectarian warfare or a radical Islamist state, that will require the sustained efforts of a great many Syrians - after all, Syria also has fiercely secularist elements. Can anyone seriously believe that some radical Islamist militias are going to make the difference? Do the Syrians strike you as a people who would bow to a few well-armed fighters? It is one thing to say you don't like what JAN seems to have in mind for the future; it is quite another to find it 'alarming'. If Syria goes for radical Islam, it will be because a majority of the population wants it that way, not because some 'foreign fighters' impose it.
But JAN suppose does set up an Islamic state, and suppose it's pure Al Qaeda like, I don't know, at times parts of Somalia? Why would that be a concern?
Not, presumably, for any effect it would have on the majority of Syrians. They are being slaughtered daily, and the world just tut-tuts - why should the prospect of them living in an Islamic state suddenly be so wrenching? So the effect on Syrians can't matter unless the world really does feel more deeply for Assad's murderers - JAN's target - than it does for his victims. Let's not suppose the world entertains a sentiment so psychotically perverse.
So concern about a JAN-run state, or an Al Qaeda-run state, must have to do with some threat to the rest of the world. This is rarely said clearly. It is said with manly-sounding babble about 'jihadis growing strong in Syria', often by allegedly grizzled journalists, diplomats, and worldly-wise professors of politics. No surprise there, because to say it clearly would instantly reveal the childishness of this pretence at realism.
Consider the situation of a JAN state in Syria. It would, of course, be surrounded entirely by hostile states - 'of course' because every state in the world, with the partial exceptions of Afghanistan and Pakistan, are hostile to Al Qaeda. The nations which support Assad - China, Russia, Iraq, Iran, Cuba, Venezuela - would be as deeply opposed to JAN as the nations which now oppose him. One neighbor, Israel, is practically dedicated to countering any possible threat from Syria. In Turkey, both the government and its very capable insurgents, the Kurds, would oppose the state. JAN would be equipped with no armaments capable of doing serious damage to any nearby nation, with the possible exception of chemical weapons that the US and Israel would neutralize on the slightest whim. And though neither Israel nor Jordan deserve our concern,even Jordan says it can 'handle any chemical threat', so presumably Israel can do the same. So I suppose all that remains is the good old Arab-with-a-suitcase-fulla-bad-stuff spectre: but this spectre can just as well be located anywhere in the world, probably with more plausibility than in such an isolated state. JAN's possible supremacy in Syria is a shabby excuse masquerading as a 'credible threat'.
Finally, there is no reason to worry about JAN because it is far too late for that. In the sober words of The 47th, a highly respected and impressively well-informed Syria analyst on twitter: 'USA designated Jabhat Al Nusra as a "terrorist group". In an immediate reaction, 700 Nusra members died from laughter.'
This doesn't just go for the USA; it goes for all the Very Serious People* worrying about 'jihadis'. It is not as if some sort of distant, impotent vigilance is going to change anything. The 'jihadis' are not like unexploded ordnance; drawing up warning leaflets and encouraging Syrians to beware of the dangers won't work. When concern gets so utterly pointless, it becomes indecent. Those who are vigilant should also consider what's full in their faces: that JAN doesn't take innocent lives but protects them.
Indeed JAN could legitimately claim to occupy a higher moral plateau than all the Very Serious People put together. The VSP's, after all, have not, at enormous personal risk, saved many thousands of civilians from Assad, or brought material relief to many Syrians in the most desperate need. And JAN is reputed particularly free from corruption and predatory behavior.
So why worry? Better to focus on what more you can do to support the FSA.
* Paul Krugman's phrase for commentators who make a show of deep thinking.