Saturday, June 29, 2013

Egypt - An Outsider's View

It's understood that societies exert pressure on their members in various general ways - the state through laws and penalties, the economic order through the demands of employment and unemployment, the society through various forms of persuasion, condemnation and sometimes illegal intimidation.  Of course there are also rewards and inducements of various kinds.  Egypt is no exception.

Egyptians in impressive numbers and with great courage, rebelled against an oppressive government.  What's happened?

The military and 'security establishment', semi-independent organs of capricious and brutal repression, escaped scott-free.  The entire power of the state detached itself from the state and did what it pleased.  In return, the popularity of these institutions, known for torture and murder, soared.  The 'revolutionaries', or more accurately the people dissatisfied with the old order, divided into a more or less liberal, secular opposition, Islamists of various kinds, and a tiny remnant of true left-wingers opposed to the army and police. (The division was rough and the parts themselves diverse, but a rough picture will do.)  Virtually all society's anger was channelled into intergroup dissension, and away from the army and police.

Where was the government in all this?  There was no government, but only a few officials and representatives who came to power in a disputed election, under a constitution decreed by some generals without the slightest hint of democratic procedure, and interpreted by those same judges who so often presided with equanimity over the injustices and oppression of the old régime.  They and the army destroyed every attempt by the Islamists, particularly the Moslem Brotherhood, to establish something like a state.  There was no legislature; the army through its cabinet posts loomed over the executive branch, and the judiciary led the way in making sure these constraints could not be overcome.

The opposition, largely spectators in this demeaning circus, developed an ideology in line with the increasingly contemptuous approach of the army and police to the efforts of the elected officials to govern.  This ideology had two main components.

The first was to pretend that the non-government was a government, and therefore responsible for the failure to govern.  The army, police and judges responsible for this failure were entirely exempted from responsibility for its consequences.

The second was to offer, with great pretense of sagacity, an absurd theory of democracy according to which the non-government, contrary to the most obvious appearances, was authoritarian.  It was authoritarian because democracy, it seemed, was not about majority rule, but about giving the minority some unspecified but large share of power.  Any attempt by the government to assert its authority against the security establishment, or to  populate state institutions with its own choices, was welcomed with pretentious horror - even the epithet 'fascist' was shamelessly attached to these quite normal attempts to govern.  Meanwhile people went hungry.  The opposition made no attempt to help them, but very occasionally used them as a stick to beat the 'government' down some more.

Why did this happen?  Whatever the whole story, part of it had to do with class.

The revolution was, according to the slogans, for freedom.  To its instigators, largely middle-class, that meant civil liberties and exemption from repressive social constraints.  As might be expected, their ideals amounted to classic liberalism.  To much of the rest of the population, freedom meant above all democracy.  Now, they thought, we get to decide how things run.  And most of this group were Islamist.  Their ideology was anti-liberal, all about social regimentation and at best indifferent to individual liberties.  But this was no ordinary confrontation of liberal and anti-liberal forces.  It intensified and festered from refusal to acknowledge a great big elephant in the room.

This elephant was deep-seated inequality of opportunity.  The liberals were fighting an oppressive social order from which they had largely enjoyed independence.  The anti-liberals represented those for whom there was no such escape.

The liberals realized with increasing clarity that what they really feared was not dictatorship but the imposition of an Islamic lifestyle.  Any other sort of freedom didn't really matter.  They could hardly have be clearer about their priorities:  had they really cared about civil liberties, they would never have come to embrace as saviors the murdering, torturing army and police.  As for democracy, they had discovered what they could not admit:  it was their enemy, the very instrument that sought to on them impose an Islamist lifestyle.  It was this discovery that engendered their absurd, pretentious notions of a democracy that had to be 'so much more' than vulgar majority rule.

The liberals did have one thing right:  democracy is indeed a tyranny of the majority, limited only by self-imposed constraints.  And the liberals may have had excellent reason to fight democracy in Egypt.  But, incredibly, they did not or could not recognize that their fight was only for the privileged few.  For the majority, that fight was already lost, and no political arrangements could reverse their defeat.

The most convenient way to see this is in its most prominent aspect, the position of women.  Middle-class or upper-middle class women in Egypt had some freedom.  They had homes and hangouts in which they could almost dress and do as they please, yet be treated with respect.  Of course this was worth a great deal, almost everything to them, and middle-class men had similar life-style concerns.  This was well worth fighting for, even if it meant promoting an absurd ideology and hoping for a puppet government under the paternal eye of the criminally repressive police and military.  In short it was worth re-establishing the old order.

But this agenda could make sense only to the less deprived segments of society.  For the rest, there was no escape.  The old order had not protected them and a new old order would not be able to do so.  They had to accept Islamic constraints.  For them, the liberal agenda was a pipe dream.

Everyone knew this, but no one said it.  Everyone had seen what was essentially an Islamist social order arise after decades of failed though persistently repressive secularist governments.  For most women, liberty had already been lost.  Not for them the good job with the good salary and the trips abroad.  They could never hope to defy the communities in which they lived.  The liberty defended so passionately by the opposition was a privilege to which they could not aspire.

That is why the revolution degenerated into a poisonous stalemate.  The liberals had a certain constituency that they could not in short order expand, because they had nothing to offer the lower orders of society.  The lower orders, for whom freedom was out of reach, wanted at least democracy, the power of collective self-determination.  Since this was only a threat to the better-off strata of society, they too could not expand their support.  The result was increasing and increasingly dangerous polarization, all to the benefit of the very repressive institutions whose excesses prompted the revolution in the first place.  The liberals might gain temporary advantage if people believe they can offer competent government, but they would be just as crippled in power as the Islamists:T the police and military will ensure the continuance of an order over which they so profitably preside.

Could things have gone differently?  Could they still?  The liberals could accept democracy.  Failing that, they could and can prevail only if they accept what the Islamists accepted many years ago - that the road to power had to lead through society itself.  The Islamists achieved what they achieved, social transformation and an electoral majority, by working with and for the poor in the slums.  They cared about the poor or at least catered to them, when no one else did, not in any useful way.  The liberals can win only if they travel that same long hard road. They can get behind the efforts of the left and the trade unions to improve the lot of 'the people'. Otherwise, they can content themselves with counter-revolution.

Thursday, June 20, 2013

MANPADS for the Syrian opposition: a danger to commercial aviation?

Over and over again, experts (on something) tell us that "Anti-aircraft missiles could migrate out of Syria and threaten commercial aviation."  Yes they could.  How big is the threat of portable anti-aircraft systems, or MANPADS?

Sounds like it's pretty big:  "Since 1975, 40 civilian aircraft have been hit by MANPADS, causing at least 28 crashes and more than 800 deaths around the world...".  That comes out to about 21 deaths a year, but there's always the possibility of some catastrophic attack to make anyone regret being glib about the number.   Better to look at some unexpected facts relating to the statistic.

First, there are the circumstances of the attacks.  I haven't found a complete list of them. If the available summaries and examples are any indication, 'civilian aircraft' is correct but misleading.

With a lone exception to be discussed shortly, every single example in ABC's list comes from a war zone,  These include Vietnam in 1975 and Iraq in 2003, Rhodesia and Somalia as well as Georgia, the Congo and Angola during their civil wars.  Over a third were cargo, not passenger planes.  Flying in contemporary combat zones pretty well guarantees that potential attackers will already have MANPADS, so it's a little hard to see how supplying the Syrians will greatly increase the danger in these cases.

Second, there's the time of the attacks.

The vast majority of the attacks preceded 9-11.  Consider what that means.  At least into the early 1970s, if you wanted to take a couple of guns and a couple of pounds of weed on a US domestic flight, the smart thing to do was to put it  in your carry-on. No  chance you'd be searched.  Even when things got tighter, it happened quite gradually.  The distance between airport security before and after 9-11 is so vast that it makes no sense to base an assessment of current dangers on pre-9-11 experiences.

Since 9-11 there has been exactly one attack on a civilian airliner not in a war zone:  two MANPADS were fired at an Israeli passenger jet on takeoff from Mombasa Kenya.  No one was harmed; both missiles failed to hit their target.   No doubt Israeli passenger aircraft run extra danger of attacks. But they also have extra protection:  Israeli carriers such as El Al equip their planes with countermeasures. (These countermeasures are theoretically available for all commercial aircraft, but retrofitting is considered too expensive.)   So the Kenya example doesn't tell us much about some general danger to civilian passenger planes.

So we have one very atypical and atypically less alarming case of an attack on a passenger plane outside a war zone in the dozen years after 9-11.  Not one passenger outside a war zone has been injured. Nothing to be cavalier about, but airport security today is anything but cavalier.

Third, there's the crucial question:  how much would supplying the Syrian rebels with MANPADS increase the danger of attacks?  The answer seems to be: minimally at most.

The reason for this verdict has to do with the futility of restricting MANPADS proliferation, discussed in more detail here.  Consider the huge difference between MANPADS in a military role and  in a terrorist role.   A military role (such as neutralizing the Syrian air force) requires at least hundreds of weapons, and they need to be pretty advanced models.  A terrorist role requires one or two.

About 750,000 MANPADS are out there.  Some of the countries the West worries about most, like Iran, manufacture them.  Many more such countries possess them.  Thousands supposedly lie in the Libyan desert.   Perhaps more important, at least several dozen are in Syria already.  Dozens more are bound to appear even if the West doesn't deliver them.  So it seems very unlikely that supplying still more to the Syrian rebels is going to make much difference.  If terrorists want MANPADS, they can certainly get them.  In fact this suggests that, given current airport security and the absence of incidents, terrorists don't think a MANPADS attack is very practical.

All things considered, the danger of attacks on civilian passenger planes outside war zones is very small.   Against this small possibility there is now exceptional vigilance.  Potential terrorists already have ample sources of MANPADS; the availability of a few more won't substantially increase the threat.  So the civilian aircraft excuse is a terrible reason for not arming the Syrian rebels against Assad's air force.

Friday, June 7, 2013

When America deserts Syria

The_47th, a respected twitter contributor with great sources of inside information, asks:  "When Syrians thought USA won't let atrocities happen, when Amb. Ford drove 2 Hama  .. But what do u do whn ur let dwn"

This is an attempt to answer the question.

Faith in America dies hard, and revives with every empty gesture, every new appointment, every rumour.  Many analysts have developed sources of inside information and, of course, an abiding interest in the workings of insider politics.  Their efforts naturally encourage placing great importance on at-the-top decision-making, but that inclination can mislead.  The public, big-picture evidence on US policy decisively outweighs any stirring of hope that inside information may have provoked.  It has done so all along.  Several abiding themes stand out.

First.  Where the US is concerned, one clear preoccupation never relents:  preventing the spread of advanced anti-aircraft and anti-tank weapons.  These weapons would pose a much greater threat to Israel than the big anti-missile systems that get attention such as the S-300.  That's because Israel can easily destroy the big systems, but it cannot destroy the small ones.  And like it or not, keeping Israel safe and happy will always come higher than helping Syrians on the US policy agenda.

Second.  The US public does not support aid to the Syrian rebels and never will.  Current US attitudes are shaped by the defeats or humiliations in Vietnam, Lebanon and Somalia, and the non-successes of Iraq and Afghanistan.  These non-successes will look worse and worse as Iraq smoulders and Afghanistan collapses in the wake of a US pullout.  It does not matter that the US would have to practically provide the muck itself to get into a Syrian quagmire.  The public will always see a big quagmire risk and the politicians know it.  Always, always, US domestic politics trump foreign policy, and domestic politics will always tell against arming the rebels.

Third.  The US has no short-term or obvious vital interests in Syria.  The uncertainties of a post-Assad future offer no assurance that the next régime will be more tractable than Assad, and what if it was?  Israel wouldn't trust any Syrian régime nor fear it; there's no pressure from Israel to do anything.  Yes there is oil and there are oil pipelines in the region, but oil's political importance has fallen off a cliff with the proliferation of new sources, not least within the US itself.  Syria doesn't matter to the US.

The fourth obstacle to US aid derives in part from the first three.  Given lack of public support, lack of vital interests and domestic dislike for 'foreign adventures',  the US wouldn't dream of serious intervention in Syria without the UN stamp of approval.  (UN approval, even if obtained by lies or manipulation, has always been important to the US in ventures outside its recognized spheres of influence.)  But this, of course, will never come.

For these reasons the US will never deliver serious aid to the Syrian rebels.  Statements and conferences suggesting otherwise are mere bluff designed to contain the ambitions of Russia and Iran.  The US constantly finds fault with the Syrian opposition, not because it would help the opposition if these faults vanished, but because this is part of the bluff: Assad's supporters, hopefully, will see the US ready to step in just as soon as certain conditions are met.  It's  all posturing.  There are good long-term reasons why US prestige and political credibility require supporting the revolution:  the US will have little future in the Middle East otherwise.  But these long-term reasons have no chance at all of prevailing over short-sighted obsessions.

Why does the US trouble itself at all about Syria, and help keep a small arms flow going?  Because it does itself care about Iran, and wants to support its  Gulf State allies who care very much indeed about Iran.  But these allies are probably even more worried than the US about arms falling into the hands of Sunni radicals, so the help will remain modest.  The US role here is nearly superfluous; the Gulf States would supply some arms with or without US involvement.  And if the US thought its concern merited supplying advanced arms, it would have supplied them long ago.  Even if the prolonged fighting spreads extremism, the US and its allies prefer poorly-armed extremists fighting in Syria to well-armed apparent moderates they don't trust.

The US position, then, is almost set in stone, and it affects the stance of the European powers.  Only France and the UK have shown any interest in helping the Syrians.  But France will not act without powerful support, not least because many observant French Catholics side with the régime.  On top of that, the French Socialists have an unblemished record of cowardice and inertia, going back to the Algerian war.  In the UK, the government must deal with popular sentiment, strongly against intervention, and has no intention of moving without at least the French on board.  But neither government would do anything without at least NATO support, and that's not to be had without US commitment.

If  all this is correct, the diplomatic and lobbying efforts of the Syrian opposition need reorientation.  What follows are not specific suggestions; they merely try to indicate the priorities these efforts might require.

First, the US should be treated as a write-off.  It doesn't matter what statements they issue; what conferences they call  or attend; what officials they send where or what appointments are made.  The most the US will do is discretely back others' efforts, an executive initiative that, whatever the legalities, in practice does not require Congressional approval.  FSA attempts to look nice to the Americans are a waste of time.  Even if I overestimate the uselessness of the Americans, writing them off is as likely to move them as trying to please them.  Fear of losing influence is probably a stronger motivator than people begging you to exert it.

Second, and consequently, priority should go to getting help from Middle Eastern powers.  I  don't know enough about them to say how, but certainly the Gulf States and to a lesser extent Turkey are deeply concerned about Iran.  This is the first time Iran has been involved in aggressive military action in the area.  Presumably the Gulf States would regard their victory as a catastrophe.

Third, the best prospect for support outside the Middle East is France, which still has aspirations to matter in the Mediterranean.  It would help if the FSA made some showy gestures towards Christians.  Hollande's plummeting popularity might induce him to supply the rebels as a bid to get support of Sarkozy-style rightists.

Most important, perhaps, is a change of mindset.  The US, for all its money and power, has deservedly become the laughing-stock of the Middle East.  The EU has long been known for the fecklessness of its foreign policy.  The UN, for the first time since the Cold War, is hopelessly deadlocked in the Security Council, and its officials shame themselves in their efforts to please both sides in the conflict.  By comparison, there is change and therefore hope in the Middle East.  However frustrating it may be to deal with the grey old men of the Arab League and the beleaguered Turkish government, that's where the focus needs to be.  Western countries will never respond to the feeble direct pressure of Syrians anxious to please.  Only a resistance dismissive of empty Western gestures has any hope of attracting genuinely useful support.

Sunday, June 2, 2013

Cockburn on Syria: Prejudice offered up as wisdom

Patrick Cockburn, a veteran Middle East correspondent for respected media, tells us that the Syrian conflict is 'the end of Sykes-Picot', a secret 1916 agreement between England and France that divided the region into spheres of influence.  He also warns, perhaps on the basis of his travels exclusively through regime-held areas, of a terrible quagmire looming.

Cockburn is one of many who subtly - and therefore all the more effectively - back Assad.  You can tell this partly by his carefully chosen style of understatement.  When, for instance, he speaks of Assad 'savagely repressing demonstrations', he's using a phrase applied last year to demonstrations in Spain, in which 'dozens' were injured.  You'd never know that Assad used not only automatic weapons but also heavy artillery on peaceful demonstrations, injuring thousands and killing hundreds - perhaps the lucky ones, for they were not among those taken and tortured to death.

 Cockburn knows he can't depend on understatement to soft-pedal Assad, so he offers up what aspires to be an impressive version of "this is a great big mess".  Of course the underlying message is that the West ought to stay out of the great big mess, and it will be a disastrous to arm the rebels.  This disingenuous pessimism is made plausible and respectable by standard techniques flaunting purported authority and expertise.

 Two well-worn analyst ploys, ubiquitous in op-eds on Syria, are in evidence here.

 First, there's the pretentious arm-wave towards history.

 It's nice to show you know about Sykes-Picot, but what's the point?  As if Sykes-Picot had worked!  As if someone can draw a map and said "there!  if only we've had these borders, all would have been peace and harmony!"  Cockburn uses the Sykes-Picot reference to impress us.  The cognoscenti are worried.  Apparently that's because Kurdish forces are peacefully withdrawing from Turkey; Iraq's decades-old conflicts proceed as usual; and the Syrian 'violence is spilling' into Turkey.  But even the violence in Turkey is minimal and shows not the slightest sign of intensifying.  As for Sykes-Picot, it's ended' numerous times, including 1921 (Anatolia), 1943 (Lebanon), 1945 (Syria), and 1948 (Palestine).

Second, there's the deliberately lazy misuse of  'proxy'.

A proxy isn't just anyone who acts in your interest; it's some person or device or institution whose entire function in a particular transaction is act as you would act.   That's why we say that proxies are 'authorized', which means the proxy's acts are to be taken as your own.  Since proxies exist only to act for another, proxy wars would cease as soon as the authorizers stopped their meddling.  The insinuation is that the Syrian revolution is a mere artefact of others' agendas, devoid of any independent legitimacy.

It doesn't take much to see through the claim that the rebels are Western or Gulf State proxies.  Not only do they fail to act as some authorizer would act; not only do they typically fail to act in some authorizer's interest; they sometimes act contrary to those interests. Every day, we hear how the rebels can't be relied on to carry out any coherent agenda, let alone be trusted with advanced weapons.   Support has been consistently limited and grudging.   The extreme Islamists are thought too extreme;  the moderates, neither willing nor able to stand up to them.   No one dares depict a post-Assad future, except at times to pant about sectarian massacres, Al Qaeda, and secularists who don't seem to love America or Israel enough.  Do Cockburn and his ilk really think that if the Syrian rebels were genuine proxies of wealthy, powerful nations, they would still be throwing Molotov cocktails, or using trebuchets and catapults to deliver gas canister bombs?  But the question presupposes that these 'experts' deign to follow actual events on the ground in Syria.  Nothing supports such an assumption.

For that matter, not even Assad in an Iranian proxy.   The Iranians are cruel and calculating, but they are not idiots.   They don't go in for sectarian massacres and they don't delight in shabiha gangs running amok on steroids and booze, flaunting their syrupy Assad tattoos.  Hizbollah, disciplined and judicious, is more Iran's idea of a proxy.

In other words the 'proxy' diagnosis is nothing but a sort of snobbery, an unwillingness to believe that any but secular, well-dressed and well-behaved Arabs can actually think and act on their own behalf.  Yet to many the diagnosis passes as the inside story.

And what's left if the Syrian revolutionaries are not proxies in any strict sense of the word?   Presumably that governments support the opposition because they hope  supporting them is in their nations' interests.  So they support the opposition out of self-interest, and despite the fact that the rebels, not being proxies, cannot be depended on to do as they're told.  Is this even worth mentioning?  No wonder analysts so love to misuse 'proxy'.
 As for "The quagmire is turning out to be even deeper and more dangerous than it was in Iraq." - it's a real winner.

 How is a 'quagmire' sucking in zero Western troops and pocket change deeper than one which sucked in hundreds of thousands of troops (counting rotations) and trillions of dollars?   How on earth is it proving to be more dangerous, given it hasn't hurt a single hair on an a single Western soldier's head?   As for the rest of the area, it's a lark for Israel, not at all dangerous for Jordan and Turkey, and more of the same for Iraq, where Shia-Sunni violence never stopped.   As for Lebanon, since the Christians and Druze so far are absolutely out of the picture, there's real danger, but hardly anything like an Iraqi-level conflagration.

The Syria conflict may indeed ignite the whole region.  China may invade Taiwan, the Philippines and Vietnam.  Or maybe Syria and Lebanon are about to get past violent repression and enter into a brighter future.  Anything is possible, but invoking mere possibilities shouldn't pass for analysis.

Cockburn's eagerness to find spectres drives him into incoherence.   Consider the following :

 Five distinct conflicts have become tangled together in Syria: a popular uprising against a dictatorship which is also a sectarian battle between Sunnis and the Alawite sect; a regional struggle between Shia and Sunni which is also a decades-old conflict between an Iranian-led grouping and Iran’s traditional enemies, notably the US and Saudi Arabia.  Finally, at another level, there is a reborn Cold War confrontation: Russia and China v. the West.
Not for Cockburn the simple version, two sides with some outside support fighting one war in one country.   He's wants to scare us off.  But did you count?  There are supposed to be five distinct conflicts.  But the first 'is also' the second, and the third 'is also' the fourth.  The conflicts are not merely 'tangled together'.  They are, that is, are identical, with one another, not 'distinct'.  That makes three 'conflicts', not five.  As for 'sectarian battle', Cockburn might have noted that, despite politically motivated fatwas issued by some of their clerics, Shias regard Alawites at best as Muslim heretics and certainly not as Shia.  This indicates that Hezbollah and Iran's support of Assad is anything but 'sectarian',  it has to do with securing supply routes to Lebanon.  But the sectarian label is, of course, a good way to belittle the Syrian revolution, especially if you have an almost sectarian affection for Assad's secularist government.

Cockburn has nothing here, so he conjures up a 'reborn Cold War confrontation'.  What's that supposed to mean?  Yes, there could be a typical 'Cold War confrontation', that is, one where no one actually gets hurt.  But that wouldn't make for a more dangerous quagmire, so presumably we're meant to contemplate something much worse.  There are also dark references to a conflict between Iran and the US and the Gulf States.  These conveniently ignore the fact that Iran has literally never attacked anybody, and even the most heavy-handed Western interference in Syria wouldn't require an attack on Iran.  Neither Russia nor China nor the US have anything remotely like vital interests or even ideological shibboleths entrenched in Syria.  Is Cockburn hinting these powers might get into a Korean-level fight, a shooting war over Assad?  Is this a joke?

Cockburn neither reasons nor profits from his knowledge and experience.  From whatever motives - dislike of Islamists, annoyance at failure to predict events, emotional attachment to 'anti-imperialism'- he serves up evidence-free prejudice in fancy dress.