Saturday, January 26, 2013

Dogmatic Support, Critical Support - and Real Support?

Darth Nader, an astute and exceptionally well-informed commentator on Syrian revolution,  has provided a catalogue of  "the categories that...  make up the Syrian opposition".  It explores, not a spectrum of factions, but a range of attitudes.  There are, he suggests, (1) the pacifists, (2) those for whom the FSA can do no wrong, and (3)  'Everyone Else', including himself.  He thereby ranks himself with many conscientious FSA supporters, but there may be reason to suppose them  a bit too conscientious.
Sometimes, perhaps, people are prisoners of viewpoints formed in normal times, and don't adapt their thinking to extreme situations.  Nader's classifications seem in places ill-adapted to what he knows very well is a true struggle for survival.
The first category consists of the pacifists, and Nader's description of them makes good sense.  He rejects their views, though almost deferentially.
I'm less comfortable with the second category - The FSA-Are-Always-Right-And-Can-Do-No-Wrong Crowd.  It's worth quoting Nader in full here:
This crowd is the exact opposite of the previous crowd. They refuse to acknowledge any fault, any excess, or any wrongdoing committed by any member of a group engaged in armed struggle against the regime. This group tends to be dominated by Islamists, although there are some notable secular figures who also belong to it. They brush off any accusations of sectarianism. Anytime a minority is targeted in Syria, they declare either that the event did not happen and was regime propaganda, or that the people targeted were “probably shabiha” and “got what they deserved.” Anytime any pro-revolution activist complains about excesses by the rebels, the response of this crowd is usually the same: “Rouh sawee katibe ou sammeeha Guevara” (“If you don’t like it, go form your own brigade and call it Guevara”). Basically, this sums up the reasoning of their position: If you are not fighting on the ground, you cannot complain. The only role of civilians and non-combatants in the revolution is unconditional support and solidarity with all fighters and all the actions they commit, no matter what.
I see two quite different problems with this.

For a start, the category almost seems to involve some artistic licence.   It's unclear where Nader is going to find its members.    Such people, after all,  would have a difficult time of it.  If there are dogmatists who think the FSA can do no wrong, they don't seem to belong to the FSA,  whose self-criticism is something between regular and unrelenting.   So where would anyone else find a basis for uncritical FSA-worship?
Second,  the imputation of dogmatism may come a bit too quickly.   There is a difference  between supporting the FSA %100 and holding that the FSA can do no wrong.

Nader's quite right:  many ardent FSA supporters are sceptical about every report of sectarian violence and excesses, including corruption.   But, they might reply, there is good reason for this.  As everyone knows, information about Syria does tend to be unreliable -as is to be expected in wartime. and we know there is a lot of deliberate falsification.   Besides, even when reliable, it is incomplete, lacking context.

More blind FSA apologetics?  Not at all, and this is where Nader may oversimplify.   You can be sceptical about EVERY report of FSA wrongdoing, yet absolutely certain that just such wrongdoing occurs.  Take reports of looting, for instance.   Perhaps these are to be doubted, because those who report it may have been hostile to the FSA to start with.   But at the same time - to revisit a 'good' fight -  it's worth recalling the words of a British officer about the behaviour of Allied troops in World War II:   "they looted just as much as the Nazis.   The only difference was, they didn't keep records of it."  And so it was with every war crime imaginable, even among the Allies.   Somehow there's arisen, between then and now, a childish idea of what is the best that can be expected in all-out, prolonged warfare.   Of course some FSA units, not just bogus ones, loot.   Of course prisoners are executed.   Of course shabiha are tortured and executed, as well as some wrongly accused of being shabiha.   Of course  FSA units and soldiers don't only attack Alawites and Shiites when militarily necessary, but also out of blanket hatred.  And of course this is serious wrongdoing.  So the idea that those who support the FSA 100% are in denial is plausible only if they're thought to have a childish idea of the fighting, which by now seems a bit unlikely.

This in turn raises questions about the third category, Everyone Else.   No doubt those who meticulously record every plausible but unverifiable instance of looting, summary executions, corruption and sectarianism believe themselves to be the standard bearers of fairness and morality.  Let the chips fall where they may, perhaps.   But this is not genuine fairness, nor is it morally defensible.  'Everyone else'  is thoroughly aware just how much is at stake.   They know what will happen if the FSA loses, and how badly it needs whole-hearted support.  Yet Nader says that some of them can only "begrudgingly accept the new dominance of armed partisans as the only alternative".   Others actually want the FSA to scale down its operations.
Well, then, is there anyone left in this category whose support is less grudging?  Nader suggests as much when describing his preferred subgroup of  Everyone Else:

Others are totally in favor of armed resistance and do not have any fantasies about return to nonviolent tactics, yet also insist on being critical of the armed resistance so as not to simply replace one oppressive military dictatorship with another. The key in the last one is not cautious support of the FSA, but rather, to be a strong supporter while also remaining vigilant and not being scared to speak up against misconduct.   
Unfortunately this description is not entirely reassuring.   Is it really so important to 'remain vigilant and speak up against misconduct'?   (We're not talking here about criticism coming from, and remaining within, FSA ranks.)  On what basis would anyone expect these non-combatant protestations to be any more effective than, say, the scolding of the UN and Human Rights Watch?    What is the real-world payout of 'insisting' on anything?   Why would one even suggest, at this point, that there is some prospect of replacing one military dictatorship with another?   And even if there were some prospect, the phrase  'military dictatorship' already indicates how an insistence on righteousness can lose focus.   Does 'military dictatorship'  even begin to describe what the FSA is fighting?   Is the Assad régime comparable to, say, Nasser's pre-1961 government?

Yes, if the FSA's crimes seemed to approach Assad's, 'insistence' might make sense.  We'd reach this point if  there were steady, more or less reliable reports of the FSA massacring hundreds of civilians, or torturing thousands of prisoners.  (Certainly, by now, there has been ample opportunity for that to occur.)   But until there are crimes of this magnitude, it's not clear what is accomplished by bold attention to the normal level of war crimes that any struggle, no matter how noble, will generate.

Propaganda units highlight the misconduct of the enemy for a reason:  it hurts the enemy.    It will not do to pretend, in the name of moral purity, that Syria poses an exception to this rule.   This unappetizing but unavoidable truth is not brutal realism.   It is common sense.
Note that Nader's preferred group, is 'totally in favor of armed resistance', but not of the FSA.   He speaks of  'strong support', but that rather begs the question of what sort of support should count as strong.

In really desperate struggles - and Syria's couldn't be more desperate - not only the expedient but the rational and moral stance is to subordinate everything barring the most enormous atrocities to victory.   In the 1970s, when Central American peasants rose up against sadistic oppression, or when resistance groups fought back against Pinochet's horrors, you didn't hear a lot of strident 'vigilance' against rebel excesses.  You didn't hear much when conquered populations resisted the Nazis.  Vigilance isn't a high priority today, when India's poor take up arms against their smug and feckless rulers.   Do Syrians deserve less than this?   At other times and places, people have had a different idea of what it is to take sides.

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