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.


  1. When America deserts Syria? When were America and Syrians ever on the same page? And no, I'm not talking about the murderous Assad regime. America and the west have stayed at arms length from the Syrian opposition (for which I personally had such high hopes) because the Syrian opposition looks more like a wardrobe change rather than anything more substantive. The various factions are vying for power, looking for the imprimatur of American and western approval. There is the expectation western nations will back the opposition no matter their agenda with nary a peep. This from the same population who protested bitterly when America intervened in Iraq.

    The author writes, "And like it or not, keeping Israel safe and happy will always come higher than helping Syrians on the US policy agenda." It is from this point on the analysis becomes less about realistic insight and more about justifying an agenda.

    America, like Israel and western nations have tired of hearing 'We'll finish what Hitler started' or God is Heaven, Hitler on Earth'. This isn't a matter of rhetoric but remains a matter of conviction in the region. Social media, web and media pundits present as part of their opposition bona fides their virulent antipathy to Israel. 'Assad is a traitor and coward, we will deal with Israel' and so on is somehow taken to mean we’ll make those promises come true.

    Left said or unsaid, many Western values are not as synchronous as many in the region would have you believe. Sharing fast food preferences or technology or entertainment does not make people or their values the same. Take a step back and consider this: Vague promises of more war by leaders whose people have been decimated by war are considered credible ‘policies’. Proposal of peace talks is political suicide for any Syrian opposition faction. More incredibly there are those in the opposition who do not understand why Americans and westerners do not and cannot support much of their agenda. Further, it is a historical truth that there are virtually no instances of democracies going to war with each other.This is what the western world needs to support? A nation supposedly seeking democracy is issuing veiled threats against another democracy?

  2. To be clear, I don’t blame Syrians or Arabs- most have been victimized by dysfunctional leaders for decades who have used racism, bigotry and hate to focus attention and rage outward away from their own evil. ‘Well, our leader may not be so great but he hates Israel and America’. From Qadaffi, to Sadaam, to the Assads and now to the Syrian opposition the tune may change but it seems the dance remains the same. Many Syrians will say, ‘Well, that’s just rhetoric’. Is it just rhetoric if the words ‘Arab’ or ‘Muslim’ or 'Christian’ or ‘Buddhist’ or 'American’ or 'European’ is exchanged with ‘Israeli’ or ‘Jew’? Why do advertisers spend fortunes to get their message across in 30 second increments? Because they know advertising works. Consider the effects of a lifetime of ‘advertising’ hate. What kind of ‘consumer’ do you think will be the result? The answer to that question is evident.

    Arabs have suffered far more than Israelis at the hands of these broken tyrants. Then there are religious leaders who are paid by the state who conveniently find the tyrant and his regime. What’s wrong with this picture?

    Americans and the west also contrast the Syrian opposition with the opposition in Iran. The Iranian student and opposition movements have rejected not only their regimes but their policies as well. Those movements have made clear the enemies of a tyrannical regime are not and cannot be their enemies. It is understood the enemies of a tyranny are enemies because they threaten the very existence of the state. It has been said that

    “When nations or groups that are that are led by or are under the influence of dysfunctional leaders, tyrants or dictators, attempt to justify their actions, we can rightly assume that justification is false. Tyrants and dictators do not make moral choices, because moral choices can only lead to the demise of the dysfunction or tyranny.

    Anyone that comes to the defense of dysfunctional, immoral leaders or groups or tyrannical regimes and their leaders, have themselves made a conscious choice to defend and stand by what is immoral. They themselves consciously adopt an immoral posture.”

  3. That truth applies to groups seeking to replace the Syrian regime. The recent collapse of the Syrian opposition talks highlight that reality. It has become a naked power grab, no more and no less with the requisite charges, counter charges and conspiracy theories taking center stage. Nero may have fiddled while Rome burned but the Syrian opposition have fiddled while the butcher Assad has plied his deadly evil upon innocents- and that is not the fault of the US, Israel or western nations.

    When Assad is replaced- and he will be- the Syrian opposition will have a lot to answer for- not the least of which is the reality that Assad killed more Arabs in just over two years than Israel has killed in the last 65 years- and that includes soldiers fought in battle- as the opposition fiddled (that’s the number that is taboo and never talked about- as if it will go away). And where are the other Arab nations? Nowhere to be found of course.

    The Syrians- scions to a once great and proud Arab nation- deserve far better than they have been subjected. Syrian contributions to culture, science, business, art and literature for example, cannot be overstated. Simply rearranging the deck chairs will not restore Syria or the Arab world to greatness and blaming others will only deepen the sinkhole in which Syrians have been forced into. Blaming America or the west is not the ladder upon which Syrian can climb.

    1. [applies to all 3 comments]
      This comment is not racist but it is bigoted in classic fashion. I simply do not recognize Middle Eastern people in its characterization: judgement is passed on hundreds of millions based, apparently, on news reports which echo anti-Israel rhetoric sometimes couched in antisemitic language. But were the characterization accurate, the reaction would still be illogical.

      There are two sides in this conflict. Both, apparently, the commentator dislikes. It does not follow that they're equally bad or that neither should be supported. Israelis might also be judged unpleasant: here is a state conceived on the principle of racial sovereignty that, unbelievably, was founded by victims of the same principle. Yet the author has no problem putting in a word for this unpleasant state.

      Syrians are fighting for, among other things, the most basic of rights - the right not to be murdered and tortured when innocent of any crime. Is this right forfeited because, in general and based on a general impression of a huge ethnic group, you dislike them? And if so, isn't it sill possible that not all of them say things you deplore? Does the nasty rhetoric of some deserve the sadistic massacre of others?

      As for 'values', they're not worth much when treated with such contempt. The US, which introduced saturation bombing on civilian targets and then unleashed nuclear havoc on civilians, followed up by running torture schools for Latin America and, post-9-11, outsourcing torture based on its characteristically ignorant and clumsy verdicts of who deserved it. Its historical legacy includes slavery and genocidal warfare. It does much to poison the planet. It killed many thousands of Iraqis, who had done Americans no harm, in a war based on lies and idiocy. Its prides itself in obliviousness to foreign lands: does it also hate blacks so much that it doesn't deign even to register the millions slaughtered in the Congo?

      I don't believe in signalling out the US for special opprobrium. I believe that all nations and cultures are more than capable of vile conduct given half the chance. But to signal out its values for special reverence defies belief.

    2. You response is quite interesting- are you in fact homogenizing entire cultures in an attempt to find them 'equals'? Are you saying there is no anti semitism in the Arab world, only ideas that are 'mistaken' as such? Are you saying the Arab world is incapable of distinguishing between anti Israel and anti Israel sentiments?

      Firstly. a bit of clarification: I am staunchly supportive of the Syrian revolution and the Syrian opposition, I also believe we can- and should- find the appropriate factions to arm and support. As I have noted earlier, the biggest victims of Arab world dysfunction have been Arabs themselves. However, supporting Syrian aspirations is not an endorsement of continued dysfunctional policies. The Syrians and the Arab world will overcome what the evil have had imposed on them and had to endure.

      Your remarks on Israel as a nation predicated on 'racial sovereignty' are interesting.

      It is true Israel offers Jews the ‘Right of Return.’ That too, is much misunderstood and often described by Israel’s critics as ‘racist.’

      Citizenship is granted by one of two ‘virtues,’ land or blood.

      Americans grant citizenship by virtue of land. We don’t care if you are black, white or anything else. If you live in this country by virtue of birth or legal immigrant status (and choose to seek citizenship), you are a citizen.

      Other countries do it differently. The Poles, Irish, Russians and a myriad of other nations that offer citizenship to the children of one their nationals, wherever they might live, whenever they seek it. For them, it is a matter of ‘blood.’ They are accorded citizenship even if they never set foot on the Motherland (disclosure- my grandparents were English. I am entitled to move to the head of the line should I seek British citizenship). .

      As a sovereign nation, Israel has the right to determine it’s own citizenship policies. Period. There are millions of Arabs in Israel that hold an Israeli passport. Arabs are not precluded from Israeli citizenship, any more than Brits are precluded Polish citizenship. There are different rules, that’s all. That is not racism.

  4. Saudi Arabia has their own citizenship rules. Jews or Christians are precluded from acquiring citizenship. By any standard of measurement, Israel is a far freer society than Saudi Arabia, for example.

    Societies that have the wheel are superior to societies that don't. The societies which have hospitals are superior to those which don't. C'est la vie, c'est la realite, as they say.

    Consider the following: Imagine a school that gave each student a glass of alcohol every day. Each day, beginning at tender nursery school age, the child was encouraged to drink the beverage that would come to poison his spirit, soul and mind.

    Suppose that beverage was from the well aged bottle of anti Semitism..

    Suppose also that once that child downed that alcoholic beverage, the teacher refilled that glass with more alcohol. This time, the flavor is religious bigotry directed at free, secular democratic states..

    Imagine once that glass of alcohol was consumed by young dutiful children, the glass was immediately refilled with the beverage from the bottle of anti western and anti democratic values.

    After decades those children, now adults, go home every day, turn on the television and read the newspapers and they are fed more alcohol. They get yet more when their kids come home from school, and share the same familiar poisoned ‘fire water.’ They poison they are fed gets the God’s seal of approval when fed to them from the pulpit ( to be clear: Clerics paid by the state are paid to reflect that state's view, not true religious expression) - or so they desperately need to believe.

    Of course, to keep a drunk or a junkie hooked, it takes an ever increasing amount of poison to induce the same stupor that blinds the drunk or the junkie to his own surroundings and dysfunction. The supply of poison never ends.

    After years of such ‘education,’ it would be reasonable to expect that there would be a lot of alcoholics in the deliberately poisoned by the hate and ideologies of dysfunctional and corrupt leaders. Like alcoholics and substance abusers, they will tell you they ‘have it under control‘ and that they ‘can quit anytime they want.‘ In the Arab world, that translates into, “We really are civilized, it’s only the injustices of others that causes us to behave the way we do. We seek justice.” They are blind to their own dysfunction, they are blind to their own deceit and remain so by embracing hate.