Wednesday, May 15, 2013

A cannibal in Syria

This ought not to be an important subject - one crazed guy in a horrifying video and a disturbing interview.  Some insist that it takes attention away from far worse atrocities. That hasn't had much effect.  It takes more than morality and politics to explain the divergent reactions..

The vocabulary of the reports is suggestive.  In Foreign Policy, Peter Bouckaert asked Is This the Most Disgusting Atrocity Filmed in the Syrian Civil War?   There was another source of disgust, some jokes about the incident.  All these reactions testify to the special character of the atrocity.  Cannibalism is an act fundamentally unlike the torture and massacre that outrage morality.

The prohibition of cannibalism is not so much a fundamental moral principle as a deep, deep taboo.  The victim wasn't killed to be eaten; he'd died in battle.  Eating parts of already dead bodies harms no one - unlike killing torture, exploitation and virtually all 'normal' moral concerns.   We -  I include myself - very much want to think of cannibalism as terribly wrong, but the commentary is accurate:  really, it's terribly disgusting.  It gets special attention for that reason.  It deserves that attention, because it arouses fears that our efforts to civilize ourselves have failed.  It's supposed to be something animals might do, but not humans.   This certainly seems important whether or not anyone is harmed.

When people make jokes about cannibalism, it's not that they don't take it seriously; it's that they don't quite manage to see it as a moral outrage.  (Moral rules are broken all the time; taboos, very rarely.)   The video was literally a horror movie.   People laugh at horror movies for the same reason:  because they're thoroughly unsettling and humour is a kind of nervous reaction, a way to bring the horror down to size.  No one says:  "how can you laugh?  these acts are terribly wrong."

Everyone is right about the cannibalism video.  It's disgusting.  It needs to be taken seriously;  we just don't quite know how.  From a moral standpoint there are indeed  far more serious crimes.  Violating a taboo is very serious, but in a different way.

There is no settling this, but perhaps the spectators can understand one another.

Thursday, May 9, 2013

Arms proliferation in Syria: a great excuse?

Assad's most useful supporters - that is, those who deplore him and advocate doing nothing about him - have set up a nice dilemma.

On the one hand, they give all sorts of reasons why a ground invasion and/or 'air war' will drag the West into that old familiar territory, 'a quagmire'.  (Like Libya?)  Their arguments depart from a studied unwillingness to acknowledge that no one is asking for or contemplating such measures.  What the hell, it's still a good reason for doing nothing.

On the other hand, if someone insists that invasion is not an option, the focus shifts to arming the Syrian opposition.  This move would be exceedingly cheap and easy, and couldn't possibly create a quagmire.  So the big deal here is arms proliferation.

Arms proliferation seems to be the West's real concern in any case.  The idea is that terrorists will acquire advanced portable anti-tank and portable anti-aircraft missile systems (MANPADS).  This, it's said, is bad.  Here are things to bear in mind before embracing that conclusion too passionately.

First, supposing there are real terrorists in Syria, they will acquire these arms in any case.  Advanced anti-tank weapons such as the Russian Kornet and advanced MANPADS such as the SA-16 and SA-24 have already been seen there.   A refusal to supply such weapons to the opposition will simply mean redoubled efforts to get them elsewhere.  And that may be the tip of a very large iceberg, because the Syrian government possesses good supplies of all these weapons.   Assuming, as most do, that the régime will sooner or alter fall, lots of them will come up for grabs.   Nothing in past experience supports any expectation they'll all be hurried away by nice Western agents.  So non-intervention hardly promises non-proliferation.

Second, the proliferation feared by the West will probably be much more extensive if Assad stays in power.   That's because Hizbollah will continue to be supplied and to supply others.  So even if we discount proliferation within Syria itself as a result of régime rearming, failing to support the Syrian revolution will lead to more of it.

Third, arms proliferation has no direct relationship to the terror attacks that presumably most concern the West - those occurring within Western countries.  Every major terrorist attack in the West, starting with Oklahoma City, used no weapons at all - 9-11, the Madrid bombings, the London bombings.  The same of course holds for the most recent attack, on the Boston Marathon.  Even outside the West, for example in Somalia, bombs predominate.   That's presumably because it's a lot easier to smuggle in a bomb than, say, an anti-tank weapon.  This is not to say that there have never been terrorist attacks with weapons or that more are impossible.  It's to say that stopping arms proliferation certainly won't foil terrorist plans.  Anyone no longer able to use weapons has well-tried alternatives.

Fourth, arms proliferation from Syria is unlikely even to have much indirect relationship to terrorism.  The calls to remember Afghanistan have to do with allowing Al Qaeda to establish an enclave there - it's not as if they actually used US arms to mount major terror attacks.  There is no chance at all that the much-feared Islamist extremists can establish a terrorist enclave in Syria, which after Assad will be completely surrounded by extremely well-armed powers extremely hostile to their agenda.  All the great powers as well as much of the Syrian population will be opposed as well. Syria will be about as useful a terrorist redoubt as, say,  Luxembourg.

Finally, what world do the anti-proliferation obsessives inhabit?  Thirty-three nations now have just one type of advanced MANPADS, the Igla series.  Among them are Belarus, Eritrea, Iran, Macedonia, Serbia, Sri Lanka, and Slovakia.  According to an Australian government source, "there are now somewhere between 500,000 and 750,000 [MANPADS] in worldwide inventories. They have been developed or produced under licence by more than a dozen countries." The producers now include Pakistan and Iran.  The idea that arming the Syrian resistance will substantially affect the proliferation picture is ludicrous.   Surely there is some better excuse for letting Assad slaughter with impunity.


A New York Times article claims there have been extensive arms shipments to the rebels via Jordan and Turkey.   It's not clear what's in these shipments nor what actually reaches the rebels, who frequently run out of ammunition.   In any case this does not bear on the proliferation issue.  The fact is that the rebels have virtually no advanced weapons, so clearly they're not getting them.

Wednesday, May 1, 2013

Why support the Syrian revolution?

Many reasons are given for supporting either the Syrian revolution or the units of the Free Syrian Army (FSA).  But while there is sympathy for the Syrian people, hardly ever do those reasons speak to or from Syrian needs.  Instead the appeal is to the quite narrow interests of others, always in negative terms:  not supporting the FSA will encourage Islamic extremism, invite a regional conflagration, squander opportunities to 'have a say in Syria's future'(!), counter-productively encourage uncontrolled arms proliferation, leave a legacy of anti-Western sentiment in Syria.  Syrians are essentially seen either as a menace, or as weaklings likely incapable of countering some menace in their midst.

Of course the idea here is that solid reasons can only rest on hard-headed realism, not sloppy sentiment.  But there may be at least two other reasons rooted in a less myopic assessment of the situation.  They invoke principles and large historical opportunities - which does not distinguish them from the sort of 'higher' motives that in fact drive a good deal of political activity.  They do have implications for the whole world, but they originate not only in the interests but also in the achievements of the Syrian people and their revolution  One reason is 'negative', the other, positive.

The negative reason has to do with what Syrians suffer.

It's taken me a while to realize that most people probably don't really know the full extent of Assad's cruelties, or how they compare to the cruelty we know has been inflicted in so many times and places.  It's not the sort of material that makes the front pages.  An appendix to this post gives some details.  For several reasons,  none solely sufficient but in combination decisive, the horrors of Syria have unique significance.

First there is the sheer barbarism.  Many régimes which have inflicted tortures perhaps as ghastly as Assad's - Chile's Pinochet and the Iran under the Shah come to mind - do not quite match his barbarism for one simple reason:  Assad's tortures are not confined to adults, much less to those who have ever posed any threat, but also to children not into their teens.  The torture of injured people in their hospital beds, and of medical staff, is also very unusual.  Sometimes victims are tortured in order to reveal information, or at least to admit to something, whether or not they did it.  Often they are simply tortured to death, simply to have them die in agony.

Second there is the scale of it.  Those tortured run into the tens, perhaps the hundreds of thousands.  Multiple deaths under torture are reported almost daily.  Perhaps as many suffered in Cambodia, or Rwanda, or the Congo; no figures are available.

In practicing such spare-no-one savagery on so vast a scale, Assad has had very few rivals - perhaps Saddam Hussein.  But in Syria there's another dimension to the nightmare - and it's no less significant for being less brutally tangible.  Never before have such atrocities been not only so visible, but so close to what might be called the mainstream world.

The torturers 'get' Twitter and Facebook.  They often record their torture sessions, down to death and mutilation, on their cell phones.  When the perpetrators are captured, these videos get onto Youtube.  In a world civilization that practically defines itself through its exposure on digital media, this sort of shamelessly public sadism gains a prominence unique in modern history.

Because Syria's atrocities are so open to the world - so much a part of that world - the failure to support the Syrian resistance is no mere strategic error.  Though history almost seems a succession of moral failures, this one is special.

Other evils, the mainstream world could ignore or minimize or pretend to ignore.  Not this one.  Nor can some ideology or reason of state be invoked as even a partial explanation or excuse.  Syria is not important enough to be strategically or economically key.  Assad is no longer a useful ally to anyone, and his régime represents neither a cause nor the pursuit of any ideal.  Indeed no cause can be invoked to support him.  If the type and scale of these cruelties are not worth opposing with determination and ferocity, what is?  What sort of justice or benevolence - for anyone - can be worth  pursuing if this evil is not worth confronting?

The  world's cowardice and passivity in the face of these crimes brings the mainstream political order into irredeemable disrepute.  No one can assess the consequences of this failure, but it's hard to imagine anything much less than a definitive loss of stature for every mainstream principle and every institution dedicated to uphold them, from the UN to the International Court of Justice to NATO and the whole panoply of apparently useless human rights organizations.  Here is an outcome whose dangers go far beyond such bogeymen as extreme Islamists, sectarian warfare, stray weapons or regional destabilization.  The danger, though occasioned by Syria's agonies, is of  the mainstream world's own making.  It will probably exceed by far whatever Syrians could possibly do to others.

In short, the refusal to support the Syrian revolution exposes the uselessness of every political entity -  every nation, every court, every assembly, every movement, every human-rights outfit - supposedly out to civilize the world.  If that sounds extreme, ask yourself by what date you'd expect these worthy institutions to protect us from savage repression.  You might also ask how long it will take to forget so prolonged and public a failure.

But there is also a 'positive' reason rooted in what the Syrian revolution represents.

If it prevails, the Syrian uprising will be the first truly popular revolt to succeed since 1789 - the first since the dawn of the industrial age.  Unlike the Russian or Chinese or Vietnamese or Cuban revolutions, it is not the design or possession of some élite vanguard.  Unlike the 19th century revolutions of Italy or Latin America, it did not coalesce around the leadership of, quite literally, a man on horseback.  It did not arise under the aegis of a military hero like Turkey's Kemal Ataturk. Unlike the Tunisian revolt, it did not succeed because the régime collapsed.  Unlike the Libyan revolution, it did not rely on outside participation.  Unlike the Egyptian revolution, it did not leave much of the old order in place, so that nothing happens without at least the passive approval of the armed forces.

When people go on about the disunity of the opposition, they haven't considered this difference.  Usually you speak of disunity in reference to something once united - a movement, a party, a state.  And normally, that's what you find when there is a revolution.  But no one tut-tutted that the French Revolution 'lacked unity'.  Like the Syrian revolution, that was a spontaneous uprising whose very disunity testified to the depth and breath of its roots.

This is no mere historical oddity.  It is proof of something quite unexpected:  that a people, starting with nothing, can prevail against a tyrannous modern state with as large and sophisticated a repressive apparatus and any tyrant could desire.  The key component of this proof is the courage of the Syrian people.  That too exceeds anything previously encountered:  never before have civilians refused to be cowed by such widespread cruelty, such firepower, and such slaughter.

The Syrian revolution brings new hope to the world, and therefore demands wholehearted, unqualified support.  Unqualified support does not mean heedless support.  It does not preclude resolve to address the very real dangers such a revolution poses.  Of course supporters also must be ready to work against sectarian infighting and other forms of extremist violence, both in Syria itself and beyond.  But these dangers must be countered in any case.  These frightening possibilities should blind no one to the compelling obligation, not to sit on the sidelines, but to help that revolution succeed.


What follows makes for very unpleasant reading.    Since it omits any results of artillery or aerial bombardment, it's only a very partial indication of what's inflicted on the Syrian people.  In part, its compilation is made necessary by the attitudes of the very humanitarian agencies from which some of the material is derived.

These agencies seem to adopted the dogma that we must never weigh one human rights violation against another - there is no better or worse.  Every nation gets its report and its scolding; every nation and every political group is culpable.   This stance suggests that if, for example, Syrian revolutionaries sometimes violate human rights, which they undoubtedly do, they are as unworthy of support as the régime they oppose.  To think otherwise then looks immoral, a sinister case of  'the end justifies the means'.  The severity of the violations doesn't seem to count.  After all, even 'persecution' on religious or cultural group, if 'consistent', is counted a 'crime against humanity' by the International Court of Justice, and that's without any reference to what form the 'persecution' might take.

This confuses morality with unreflective delicacy.  It makes no sense in principle:  is there really nothing to choose, for example, between the taking of one innocent life and the slaughter of several billion?  It makes no sense in practice  either.  We sacrifice innocent lives all the time, not just out of necessity but also for convenience.  We know, for instance, that innocent lives would be spared if we cut speed limits by, say, 90%, for non-essential vehicles.  But we don't even consider sparing them.  We're no more fastidious in our political judgements on the past.  Since we know that wars inevitably take innocent lives, was it wrong to resist Nazism, or to fight the perpetrators of the Nanking massacre?

Here are the testimonies.  I have not included anything alleged against the Syrian rebels, but you can consult Human Rights Watch if you like, and judge for yourself whether there is no better or worse in this conflict.

·         "A while ago, one of my students was detained. They hung him from his hands for 7 days and tortured him brutally until he reached the point of insanity. He was being tortured in a room where blood and urine stained the floors; and dead, decayed, worm infested bodies littered the ground. They forced him to sleep atop the bodies. He fear drove him to insanity, but they were not done with him. They slaughtered him with knives in front of the other prisoners."  (Translated speech of Shaikh Moaz Khatib, President of The National Coalition Of Syrian Revolution and Opposition Forces, delivered during the Arab League Summit in Doha Qatar on March 26, 2013-03-24.)

·         They had started out as 20 people in that room, but some had died. They had not been fed for the entire duration of their detention. In the room where I was held, an injured man on the bed next to me was beaten at least once a day. His leg wasn’t treated. I could see the worms and small insects crawling in and out of the wound with my own eyes. In the same hospital, they would use a drill to gouge out eyes. They also used an iron welder to burn the flesh off your body as you are awake. In some cases also, they would use brute force to pull your hair out. At the hospital, they also used the method of hanging you upside down. They kept people hanging like that for days. Sometimes they changed the method of torture according to your “crime”.  For photographers and videographers, they broke their arms, their wrists, and individual fingers. They also gore their eyes out.”  (Avaaz reveals scale and horror of Assad’s torture chambers)

·         "His captors drilled into his brain while he was still living, burned his body with a welding torch, poked out his eyes and mutilated his genitals, according to his brother. They tried to strangle him with a rope so hard his fingers that were trying to stop the choking were almost severed."  ( Physician tells of brother’s torture in Syria.)

·         A compilation of torture techniques.

·         One released detainee said that he shared a cell with a young man who had been forced to have a glass bottle with a broken top inserted into his anus. One said that his cellmate had been raped with a metal skewer. Others spoke of a detainee with whom they had shared a cell who, while hanging in the shabeh position, had a cord attached to a large bag of water tied around his penis.  ('I wanted to die:  Syria's torture survivors speak out.)

·         "One of them, Jihad Saleh, had his hands bound to his feet behind his back and was left lying on his stomach without food. He starved to death in the corridor outside my cell." (Military airport transformed into torture cells in Syria: activists.

·         One 15-year-old told the charity he had cigarettes put out on him when he was imprisoned in what used to be his school.

Another described being given electric shocks and sharing a cell with decomposing bodies, while a third teenager, Wael, said he had seen a six-year-old die after being tortured and starved.

The 16 year-old told the report's authors: "I watched him die. He only survived for three days and then he simply died."

"He was terrified all the time. They treated his body as though he was a dog." (BBC News - Syria child trauma 'appalling' - Save the Children)

  •  "We were 70 to 75 people in a group cell that was 3 by 3 meters. We slept with our knees to our chests. Some people had broken hands, legs, their heads were swollen. There were 15- and 16-year-old kids in the cell with us, six or seven of them with their fingernails pulled, their faces beaten. They treat the kids even worse than the adults. There is torture, but there is also rape for the boys. We would see them when the guards brought them back to the cell, it's indescribable, you can't talk about it. One boy came into the cell bleeding from behind. He couldn't walk."  (Syria: Stop Torture of Children | Human Rights Watch)

·        In his first media interview since he fled his position as head of the intensive care unit in an Aleppo military hospital, the doctor gave a chilling eyewitness account of secret wards where he said patients were tortured or sent to their death.

"Important arrested patients, those that had more information to reveal, had to be healed. Those that were useless to them were sent to a secret ward that we nicknamed "the dark room" where they were tortured, eliminated or left to die."

The doctor, who for security reasons can only be identified as Ahmed, worked in military hospitals in Aleppo, Deraa and the suburbs of Damascus each of which had these wards.

The patients were kept in "dire" conditions with their hands and feet handcuffed to the beds and their eyes blindfolded in windowless wards, often in a basement.

Deprived of antibiotics and painkillers, and often left to lie in their own faeces, many of the patients sported gaping infected wounds."  (Syrian prisoners left to die in military hospital 'dark rooms')

·         "The discovery of the charred and mutilated bodies of three young medical workers a week after their arrest in Aleppo city is yet further evidence of the Syrian government forces' appalling disregard for the sanctity of the role of medical workers,  Amnesty International said.

All three men were students at Aleppo University – Basel Aslan and Mus'ab Barad were fourth-year medical students and Hazem Batikh was a second-year English literature student and a first-aid medic.

They were part of a team of doctors, nurses and first-aiders who have been providing life-saving medical treatment in makeshift "field hospitals" set up to treat demonstrators shot by security forces and who could not therefore go to state-run hospitals for fear of being arrested, tortured or even killed.

They had been detained by Air Force Intelligence since their arrest in the city on 17 June.


The three students' burned bodies were found in the early hours of 24 June in a burned-out car in the Neirab area of Aleppo's north-eastern outskirts.

Medical personnel who saw the bodies at the morgue told Amnesty International that Basel Aslan had a gunshot wound to the head and his hands were tied behind his back.

One leg and one arm were broken, several teeth missing and the flesh was missing from his lower legs, leaving the bone exposed. Some of his fingernails had been removed." (AIUK : Syria: Detained medics tortured and killed amid Aleppo crackdown)

·         "The woman was arrested at a checkpoint in Homs late last year.

As part of the torture, she alleges, rats and mice were used by interrogators to violate women. She described an assault on another prisoner which she says she witnessed.

"He inserted a rat in her vagina. She was screaming. Afterwards we saw blood on the floor. He told her: 'Is this good enough for you?' They were mocking her. It was obvious she was in agony. We could see her. After that she no longer moved.""  (BBC News - Syria ex-detainees allege ordeals of rape and sex abuse.)