Friday, December 18, 2015

No Military Solutions?

 Anne Barnard is one of many well-informed commentators who feel that you can't overcome unconventional military opponents by purely military means.  This almost unqualified claim is often applied to Iraq and Syria.  It is essentially an argument for doing nothing, because no one even believes the West is really going to implement broad, deep, political and social 'solutions'. I will argue that (i) it's false, (ii) the opposite is true - in most relevant cases there are only military solutions, (iii) there are two military solutions in Syria, but only one is a live option.  It consists in massive support for the rebels, without vetting.

There are military options.

 The evidence Barnard offers for 'no military options' makes it unclear exactly what she has in mind.  She gives the example of Israel's failed campaign against Hezbollah in 2006.  She calls Israel's opponent "a guerilla force".  She quotes Andrew Bacevich, who says that the war on terror isn't working.  She of course applies these claims to ISIS.

It's puzzling because a war on terror seems to mean stamping out terrorist attacks within countries, especially in the West:  no more 9-11s or Paris massacres.  Her examples have only indirect bearing on that.  She talks of a guerrilla war, but Hezbollah's resistance in Lebanon was more like in-depth defense of permanently held territory from well-prepared positions.  ISIS isn't fighting a guerrilla war either; like Hezbollah it holds territory.  But if Barnard's specific message is unclear, the general lesson isn't.  It's what we hear all the time: we need to think beyond the battlefield to what one quoted analyst calls "a comprehensive political solution".  We need somehow to encourage good governance, address deep grievances, win hearts and minds.  In the current situation, we need to make Syria and Iraq better, more or less.

Well it's true that, if we don't make the world better, the angry and oppressed will always find ways to make trouble.  If ISIS goes, something about as troubling will eventually emerge.  But this truth masks an absurdity - that what we should be looking for are 'comprehensive solutions'.

Why?  We are unlikely to make the world, or the Middle East, or even Iraq and Syria, all that much better: the West's record for such attempts is far, far worse than its military record.

This is not a coincidence, because the West's political meddling has been built, not on military success, but on failure.  You can't improve a mess you can't control, and the West has never, in recent times, established territorial control in any of its military campaigns.  But Barnard is wrong to infer from these failures that there are no military solutions.  She doesn't go as far as to say that military means never work in asymmetrical conflicts, but she and those she cites clearly think the historical record supplies all but conclusive 'evidence' - she uses the word - that more military force just makes things worse.

That's false.  The historical record shows that military means typically work just fine if you fight your own wars rather expecting someone else to fight them.  When advanced nations use their own troops and not proxy forces, they often succeed - maybe always, but there are so many possible cases I won't go that far.  And when advanced nations want others to fight for them, they generally lose - even if they themselves commit large forces to the battle.  The gospel of hearts and minds is just a symptom of unwillingness to face this reality.

Look again at the evidence.

Barnard cites the 2006 Lebanon war as a case where Israel's overwhelming force couldn't overcome its irregular enemy.  Israel may have possessed overwhelming force.  Like all modern major military powers, it was happy to use that force from thousands of feet in the air, with predictably atrocious and unfruitful results.  But it only got a taste of ground fighting, and decided that wasn't for them:

The Israeli cabinet agreed to the cease-fire on August 13, almost immediately after it committed the IDF to a full-scale ground attack. (*)

Barnard says:  "If overwhelming firepower alone could guarantee success, the United States would have won the Vietnam War and emerged victorious from Afghanistan and Iraq."  Here we have cases that go to the heart of the matter.  In all these conflicts, the US, with touching faith, expected proxy forces to make the difference.

Vietnam showed that even with large troop commitments, that doesn't work.  Proxy forces are at best collaborators with foreign forces, at worst, corrupt marauders.  Such forces are always undermined by the hatred they inspire and by their lack of serious commitment to the Western cause, whatever it may be.

The French experience in Algeria is another example of how, even with large commitments of your own troops, the use of proxy forces prevents sustainable triumph.  Wikipedia notes that

According to French government figures, there were 236,000 Algerian Muslims serving in the French Army in 1962 (four times more than in the FLN), either in regular units (Spahis and Tirailleurs) or as irregulars (harkis and moghaznis).

Four times as many proxies as their opponents' total forces!  The French did, in a way, win on the ground - resistance at least went dormant - but failed in their objective of keeping Algeria French:  they could not see how to sustain the troop commitments necessary to secure that goal.  In conventional military terms, not attaining your objective means you've failed.

What then of US efforts in Iraq and Afghanistan?  Overwhelming force from up in the air and commitments of US ground troops a fraction of what military analysts required.  How to make up the difference?  oh, proxies.  We know how that worked out.

But this does not mean there are no conventional, non-political military solutions in 'asymmetric' warfare.  To find them you have to start with the 19th Century when colonizers and imperialists fought their own battles.  They did use some 'colonial troops', but these were not, as in Algeria, special-purpose auxiliaries recruited from the target area on an ad hoc basis.  They were, like the Gurkhas, full-fledged units of the colonial army, deployed all over the world.  The imperialist/colonialist forces bore no resemblance to the proxy armies of recent times and often did without colonial units of any kind.

History has partially obscured the success of colonialist armies by focusing on lost battles in won wars.  One hears how a British force was wiped out by Afghans in January 1842, but not how the British returned and crushed their opponents in August of that same year - and again in 1878-1880.  Similarly the Sepoy mutiny and rebellion of 1857 did have initial success, but was decisively suppressed.

In virtually every case where the colonizers or imperialists fought their own battles, they won.  The British overcame the Boers and the Zulu rebellions in South Africa. Later they defeated the Mau-Mau.  The indigenous population was consistently defeated throughout Central and South America and throughout the Caribbean.  The North American Indians were all defeated with infamous finality.  Perhaps the last time colonizers took on a rebellion with their own forces, they also won - in the Malayan Emergency of 1948-1960.  In those days, somehow, the West didn't realize there were 'no military solutions'.

The reason this absurd doctrine has gained currency is that the military solutions are not only not tested, they are not even contemplated.  No one suggests that maybe the US should send 600,000 Americans to fight in Afghanistan, or Iraq, or anywhere else.  This is unfortunate because it substitutes fantasies about hearts and minds for a realistic assessment of the situation anywhere the West thinks it ought to 'fight terror'.

There are only military options.

The truth is that the West is utterly, permanently unwilling to commit the forces needed to effect the military solution that must precede any political solution in Iraq, Syria, or anywhere else.  Yet these solutions are often needed, even if it is to solve problems the West itself has created.  What's more, the whole world knows this and, as one acute analyst has observed, this unwillingness in practical terms amounts to inability.  Militarily the West is not powerful any more; it just has a lot of powerful military equipment.

Unfortunately the fact that the West is unwilling to undertake military solutions doesn't mean they're unnecesssary, or that somehow, proxy forces with a sprinkling of colonial advisers will do the trick.  Military solutions are required because there is no other sort of option.

In Iraq, the decision has already been made.  Dealing with ISIS has been left with the Iraqi government, the Kurds, and the Iranians.  It is unlikely this will go well, but the West will not and for all practical purposes cannot do anything about that.

Syria is a very different matter.  Syria's warfare is not particularly 'asymmetric' since the rebels, ISIS and the régime all hold territory and fight with heavy weapons.  The Syrian conflict began with and continues to be a revolution that has taken on much of the character of a civil war.  In this conflict ISIS is not, as it is in Iraq, insurrectionary.  It is more like a rogue third element which would have no future if either the régime or the rebels effect a decisive victory.  This is not a conflict where the combatants can just melt away or go elsewhere.  If they lose, it will be a disaster for them unless there is just the sort of international policing and intervention that no one can rationally expect given the reluctance of the West to commit ground forces.  Indeed that's why the war goes on and on.  This is a conflict that will be decided only when someone wins.

Never in history, so far as I know, has a full-tilt civil war ended without one party achieving military supremacy.  This isn't surprising:  in civil wars, unlike many cross-border wars, the stakes are always very high.  In some cases, like the English civil wars and the French Revolution, there were no negotiations at all.  In others, like the US and Sri Lankan civil wars, there were token negotiations or formal acknowledgement of defeat, but only after vicious and prolonged warfare finally convinced one side they couldn't win.  It is just the opposite of the 'no military solutions' trope:  there is no political solution, only a military one.  No one can build political institutions unless someone is in physical control of the territory on which those institutions are to be built.  Establishing physical control is a military task that comes prior to any political tasks.

The live option

The West, frightened by ISIS and annoyed by refugees, at long last believes it must actually respond to this situation.  Proxies, we've seen, won't do, but neither will neutrality: this once-popular option has to its credit nothing but futile negotiations and the desperation that fuels ISIS.

At this point the West seems inclined to join Russia in backing Assad, but this is irrationality motivated by distaste for involvement.  Neither Russia nor the West is going to give Assad the massive support he'd need to win.  Were they to do so, it wouldn't do anyone any good:  the record of promoting murderous dictators is not encouraging. Though a Pinochet did last quite a while, in the end he failed to attain his objectives.  So did the brutal Greek and Argentine and Brazilian military dictatorships.  But these examples are inappropriate. What fans of Assad need to understand is that he is not even like the murdering, torturing, sadistic Pinochet.  He does not belong on the political spectrum at all.  He is like Idi Amin or Pol Pot - who like Assad may once have had objectives or even principles but who descended into madness.  Pinochet killed something like 3000.  Assad killed 200,000 in an only slightly more populous nation.  His forces murder babies and inflict indescribable tortures even on children.  The idea that the survivors of such horrors will kiss and make up with their tormentors to build a stable democratic society is laughable.

Elections are a non-starter because, again, you cannot have meaningful elections when no one controls the whole territory, so that voters everywhere are in the power of one faction or another.  Nor will the families of those so atrociously murdered be up for a sprightly electoral contest.  The alternative is partition, and the West half-expects this.  It hopes for a stalemate in which exhausted rebels get enclaves and the régime gets the rest.  So the 'political solution' is either to leave the régime to govern its remaining territory, or to legitimate that régime nationwide through bogus elections.

Perhaps the US is unaware of this strategy's costs.  In 2011-2012, Syrians did not chant "Assad must go"; they didn't feel they had a basically good government corrupted by a bad leader.  They chanted "The people want the fall of the régime".  Now that both the US and Russia explicitly reject 'regime change', the US can no longer be seen as merely lukewarm in its support of the rebels.  It has come out against the rebellion's objective, which in rebel eyes must amount to coming out against the rebels themselves.  That means everything done to preserve the régime - if not in the past, from this time on - shall be laid at the door of the US.

Every bomb dropped by Russia on civilians and every régime offensive proceeding under Russian air cover must now be seen as an implementation of joint Russia/US policy.  Every Syrian with murdered relatives, every Syrian displaced, everyone living under barrel bomb attacks, everyone starving in besieged Damascus suburbs, everyone who is actually still in rebellion ...all of these must now see America as set against them and ready to condone any atrocity, however horrifying, ever committed against them.  And of course it is a metaphor to say any of these atrocities were committed by Assad.  They were committed by the régime he heads, the one the US doesn't want to change.
What possible benefit the US expects to reap from this policy is a complete mystery.  They have adopted a stance which forces every genuine rebel against the régime to choose between ISIS on the one hand and Nusra/Ahrar on the other:  any US vetted or supported groups are now hopelessly compromised because they are aligned with a backer who explicitly rejects régime change and therefore rebellion.  What's more, at least every Sunni Arab and many other Muslims world-wide will now see the US as an enemy who idiotically supposes it can make up with a little political correctness for the horrors it allows to be visited on Syria.  Is this America's 'hearts and minds' strategy to counter ISIS?  One can only conclude that the US is not looking for benefits, but simply for a way to do as little as possible whatever the price.  This is irrationality in pure form.

As if this were not enough, the strategy of angling for a partition of Syria cannot succeed.  Any such partition, to endure, would have to be enforced.  But the outside parties don't want to send ground troops; that is the whole point, if any, of their responses.  How then do they expect partition to be maintained?  from 5000 feet in the air?  Do they think that somehow Iran, Saudi, and Turkey will join hands in fervent desire to undertake one of the most costly police operations conceivable?

So the only realistic choice is one the US has decisively rejected:  to back the rebels, not with an ass-covering trickle of arms to allegedly sanitized factions, but with hundreds of tanks, thousands of other heavy weapons, and millions of rounds of ammunition.  To resolve the conflict, 'backing' must involve supporting rebels who are by no means proxies, so without the niceties of 'vetting'.  We have already seen that the vetting process, in its eagerness to see that no one with any taint to Islamism receives supplies, results in a negligible weapons flow and, increasingly, a flow to forces that are not rebels at all, but US proxies against ISIS.

There is a slight chance Turkey and the Gulf States will pursue this course of action.  They must now see that the US cannot be relied on even to stick to its own stated objectives.  This is also a case where immorality is a political liability.  When so much of the world sees America as irresolute, cowardly, selfish and unjust, governments will not find it wise to maintain their links to US policy.  So perhaps there will be a regional push to overthrow the régime.  Perhaps too it is worth looking at the reasons the US will doubtless consider when it decides whether to obstruct such a push.
If it does consider the consequences of supplying unvetted rebels, it will find many analysts in hysterics - after all, some of these radical Islamists call themselves Al Qaeda!  Their reaction is based on two things - justified but irrelevant apprehension, and relevant but unjustified apprehension.

First, they present evidence these groups are anti-liberal, anti-democratic, sectarian and repressively orthodox.  Since analysts work with the groups' official statements and interviews with its leadership, they are looking at the official stance of the groups, and they are correct in their verdict.  But you can't parlay dislike of their domestic agenda into some danger to the West.  So apprehension about their agenda, though justified, is irrelevant to Western policy concerns.

What is relevant to those concerns is any likelihood of attacks on the West.  But the evidence supporting apprehension about attacks is very weak.  One problem in linking Jabhat al Nusra to official Al Qaeda statements - which these days are in any case not very threatening - is this sort of analysts' material needs to be balanced by facts on the ground.

The core of Jabhat al Nusra is of course not its officials who issue statements but its fighters, mostly Syrian.  Here it's worth heeding Mowaffaq Safadi:

As a Syrian who lives abroad but still closely follows the dynamics of the civil war in my country of birth, it has became clear to me that for many young men being a fighter has become more of a job than a calling – a career path they feel they have to follow for lack of alternatives. As in any job market, employers will compete for the biggest talent by providing different benefits.

Many rebel fighters simply do not care about the affiliation of the group they are joining – whether it is with al-Qaida, Saudi Arabia, Qatar, Turkey, the international coalition, the British government or anyone else. The international geopolitical situation simply isn’t the first thing on a rebel fighters’ mind when considering joining this group or that one.

To give you some idea of just how divorced from ideology are many of these fighters, one such fighter, interviewed at age 16, said he loved Bin Laden "but also George Bush".   The idea that Jabhat al Nusra is a robotic brigade of stern Al Qaeda ideologues is not borne out by the facts, and this bears on both their domestic and their foreign agendas.

Beyond this, the analysts have nothing more than guilt by association and innuendo. Yes, some Nusra guy hung out with some guys who somewhere else at some other time liked the idea of attacking Western targets, but did not do so.  Yes, some media guy in the Khorasan group did once fight in Afghanistan. Yes Nusra has "bomb experts", not surprising since they use bombs when fighting in Syria and sometimes over the Lebanese border.  So here we have a valid but not a justified concern.  None of this is serious evidence, unlike the dead bodies of Westerners actually killed in Western cities by actual attackers who actually heeded ISIS' exhortations to attack Western countries.

It is probably true that, if you bomb Nusra enough, they will develop an interest in retaliating - after all, they are not masochistic or irrational.  But for them, at least, Al Qaeda seems merely, as many security analysts say, a brand.  The last time the US government issued a warning which mentioned Nusra was on the July 4th weekend of 2015.  Yet they said there was no specific, credible threat.  Does that mean they were warning about a general threat? was that threat credible?  Yes Jabhat al Nusra may pose some risk to the West, though not nearly so much as the pro-régime strategy, and far less than the complementary strategy of treating them as enemies.  As might be expected, there are only risky alternatives, but the assessment of risk mustn't be one-sided.

In broader terms, there is a difference between disliking someone's domestic agenda and expecting them to plant bombs in Times Square.  Analysts seem to have forgotten this distinction when they never worry about Assad, the head of a régime which for decades was excoriated as a sponsor of terrorism abroad, but trumpet the danger of Nusra, which has only tenuous connections to anything of the sort.  Perhaps if Nusra fighters wore suits...

Risk is not a reason to throw up your hands and run away.  You can try to affect what will happen when the rebels succeed.  In the aftermath you can try to come to an understanding with hostile groups, or build up their rivals: this would be a very different matter from siphoning off rebels to fight ISIS rather than Assad.  But in Syria at least, to deny support to groups tainted by association with people you don't like is unrealistic and childish.  Nothing in recent years has disposed Syrians to abandon groups who have fought with them side by side while the world stood by and let Assad slaughter at will.  It is the West that needs to earn the trust of Syrians, not the other way around.

(*)  Andrew H. Cordesman, “Lessons Of The 2006 Israeli-Hezbollah War”, Washington DC (The CSIS Press), 2007, p.5

Saturday, November 14, 2015

And the Darwin Award goes to...

In Syria, day after day after day, on average about 120 people die.  Some would envy the deaths of the Parisians.  A 13 year old boy is beaten and burned until he is hardly more than a blackened lump.  He is castrated and dies.  Women have rats inserted into their vaginas.  Babies have their throats slit.

The West tut-tuts, does nothing.  The UN tut-tuts, does nothing.  Human rights organizations call for nice, orderly, legal measures against Assad.  They know with absolute certainty these measures won't be taken, except perhaps years later, after many thousands more die.

The régime uses poison gas.  Obama draws a red line, against the use of poison gas.  The régime uses poison gas on a larger scale.

Obama does nothing, seeks approval of Congress which he knows will reject any action.  The UK makes noises, does nothing.  France makes bigger noises, sees America will do nothing, does nothing.

These governments are ahead of the opposition, who think the West should be nicer to Assad.  Overwhelmingly, the people of Europe want nothing done.  They aren't interested in protecting the Syrian people.  Some just want to indulge themselves with charity projects for the ever-growing number of victims.

The US gives a trickle of aid to the resistance against Assad.  It won't provide anything like enough arms to overthrow him, much less the air support it provided in Libya.  It fears that some fighter's third cousin threatened the West.  It does nothing against Hezbollah, which actually does attack the West, but which fights for Assad.

Assad doesn't just bomb apartment buildings, schools, bread lines and hospitals.  His planes return to bomb the rescuers.

The only countries that help the rebels are Turkey, Qatar, and Saudi Arabia.  They are condemned because they're Islamist and not democratic enough for those who condone or support Syria's dictatorship.

Betrayed by Obama, abandoned by Europe, the Syrian people see that the secularist West is content to watch them die.  They are in agony.  They grow more and more religious, as often happens when people are abandoned by the secular powers and aided by religious ones.

The Syrian rebels find that their strongest allies are radical Islamists.  One such group, ISIS, goes crazy, starts attacking them, insists on restoring a Caliphate to bring justice and destroy the secular enemies.

The crazy group grows and routs the forces of the West's pet government in Iraq.  Now the West reacts.  The US bombs Iraq.  So do Britain and France.  The US falls in love with Kurdish groups who are bitter enemies of Turkey, the only serious opponent of Assad on Syria's borders.  It showers the Kurds with support.  The Kurds fight ISIS, the enemies of both the rebels and Assad.  The Kurds do not fight Assad.  The West does not fight Assad.  The US trains Syrians on condition they don't fight Assad.  The US improves relations with Iran, which fights for Assad.  It keeps backing the Iraqi government, which supports Assad.

France intensifies its bombing of ISIS.  To be clear, from a safe distance it kills human beings who belong to ISIS.  And probably a few who don't.  France still does not bomb Assad.

After hundreds of thousands of deaths, tens of thousands murdered by torture, millions homeless, starvation, gas, barrel bombs daily, some radical Syrian Islamists inflict on Paris, for one day, less than Syria suffers every day.  They say this is because of Syria.

The West is shocked.  Hollande takes a moment out from his bombing campaign to call it an act of war.

Tuesday, October 20, 2015

Monbiot on altruism and philosophers

George Monbiot asserts that the Common Cause Foundation has made the 'transformative' discovery that people aren't very selfish.  Or maybe it's not so transformative because, he say, science knew that all along.  Consistency aside, we should shun "philosophers from Hobbes to Rousseau" (among others) because their accounts were "catastrophically mistaken".

This is what you get when someone doesn't know the limits of his competence.  It's wrong about philosophers (and economists) in a number of ways, and the survey's findings can hardly be 'transformative'.

For a start, it is childish to make a big deal of this survey.  Yes, a large majority, when you ask, say nice things rather than nasty things.   That's not behaviour.  Only a biologist who knows nothing of surveys or psychology could be so clueless.  People who actually look at society (e.g. Robert Putnam) have pointed to a decreasing interest in public goods:  no 'transformative' bunch of verbal responses can undermine that finding.  And innate selfishness, regarding these researchers, is a straw man.  They don't go on about 'selfishness' but about the decay of institutions that have effects not at all attributed to innate human characteristics.

As for philosophers from Hobbes to Rousseau...

First, every single social contract theorist and classic philosopher who's made assertions about self-interest has noted that self-interested  desires include other-regarding desires.   These are universally assumed to extend at least to immediate family, but could reach much further.   So no philosopher has asserted that people are 'selfish' in any relevant sense.

Second, all well-known social contract theorists have asserted that the state of nature is a construct within a thought experiment, a state of affairs which may or may not have occurred.  This can hardly be 'mistaken'.

Third, Rousseau came closest to seeing the state of nature as a reality but in the Discourse on Inequality he suggests that orangutans may be the original, natural man.  In other words he situates the state of nature in, well, nature, millions of years before the emergence of the genus homo, never mind homo sapiens.  Given that and an only very slightly generous reading of the text, he then makes pretty good sense.  Moreover he spends a great deal of time presenting his view on the emergence and decisive importance of sympathy and empathy.  By no stretch of the imagination does he conceive of the human beings who form societies as 'selfish'; quite the contrary.

Fourth, Hobbes and other social contract theorists do not assert that humans are naturally 'selfish' even in the broad sense that includes other-regarding desires.  To take Hobbes, he says that humans are set one against another, not because of innate selfishness or greed or aggression, but because they compete for an irreducibly scarce commodity - security. (Leviathan I.13)  And for Hobbes the state of nature is simply a state where contemporary humans lack government - for example, Yugoslavia in time of civil war.  This has nothing whatever to do with "our innate, ancestral characteristics", Monbiot's witless take on the state of nature.

Fifth, the theories about altruism with which I'm familiar are weak.  Game theorists (some in biology) note that altruism is 'logical' in the sense that those who simply retaliate do worse in a *series* of games than those who don't.  But, as other theorists have noted, this doesn't carry much weight because in the real world, retaliation can end the series of games.

Then there's David Gauthier, who argues that, in a certain population, socially minded 'constrained maximizers' do better than narrow, 'straightforward maximizers'.   But his reasoning sneaks in assumptions about the proportion of one to another, and about the trust that constrained maximizers are rational to afford one another.  These assumptions are accepted by approximately no one.  In any case, as already noted, straightforward maximizers may well have other-regarding desires.  Gandhi might well have counted as a straightforward maximizer.

Finally Monbiot might want to consider the varieties of 'altruism' before he gets enthusiastic about it.  If I go out of my way to help others, even make sacrifices for them, I may do so out of loyalty to my family or town or region or clan or tribe, my country or race or ethnic group or co-religionists.   (Animal loyalties, too, may not extend to their entire species.)   I might also, out of those same loyalties, harm 'outsiders' whom I see, rightly or wrongly, as a threat.  Or I might harm them simply to obtain some benefit for 'my' people.  A great many atrocities are committed largely out of altruistic love for others, that is, for certain others.

It is a shame that Monbiot deploys his rubbish to pronounce on serious matters like Syria.  That degrades rather than enhances an understanding of the horror that transpires there.

Monday, October 19, 2015

Russia's price for peace in Syria

[This is a cleaned-up version of an article the appeared in Counterpunch.  I'd stopped writing for them because of their Assadist slant but was invited to do something on Syria and saw no harm in it.   However my intended audience isn't the 'anti-imperialists', much less Assadists.]

Russia’s price for peace in Syria

It's extraordinary how so much analysis is devoted to Syria, yet so little to the reasons Russia is there.   Russia is in some ways the key to the catastrophe.  Yes, the West could do more, but only Russia could put an end to the fighting without expense or risk.  Russia could from one day to the next stop direct support of the Syrian régime and pressure Iran to do the same. Russia could drop its Security Council support for the régime, unleashing vastly increased Western pressure on Assad. Iran on its own would know Assad was a lost cause, and he would fall.   All this would cost Russia not one penny, not one life.  Given this is more like common knowledge than a secret, why doesn't it attract more attention?

I submit it's because Russia's atrocious, unforgivable role in Syria has much to do with perfectly legitimate concerns about the West.

Why is Russia in Syria?

Since Russia's motives for pretty much anything are shrouded in an absurd fog of propaganda redolent of the crudest 1950s fanaticism, let's get some things out of the way.  Yes, the Ukrainian rebels are essentially Russian proxies supported by Russian troops and equipment.  Yes Russia or Russian proxies shot down a civilian airliner over the Ukraine - though not even most idiots have managed to argue that this was deliberate.  Yes, Russia broke international law in annexing the Crimea.   Yes, Russian elections in the Crimea and elsewhere are crooked or 'unfree'.  Yes, Ukrainian fascists don't run the Ukraine.  Yes, Russia has plenty of its own fascists* and supports neo-fascists in Europe.  Yes, Russia lies a lot.  Yes, Russia is homophobic, plutocratic, full or racists, corrupt and other bad things.  Yes, Putin is short.   Western leaders are generally taller and it's possible to argue they're a bit better, at least recently.

What's unclear is why any of this should blind so many to the fact that Russia is in Syria for the same reason it is in the Ukraine.  It really has been the target of Western encroachment, not to mention contempt, for decades.   It really has had to put up with attacks on its interests that no sovereign state would find anything but ragingly unacceptable.   Russians are quite correct in thinking that the West wants Russia at its mercy, just as in the good old days after the fall of communism.

What the prejudice against Russia fails to acknowledge is that Russian objectives are not only reactive and defensive, but quite limited.   Putin is not an idiot.  He never wanted to overrun Ukraine.  Controlling it would have been an impossible nuisance at best, never mind the international aftermath.   He wanted to secure a base he already had, in the Crimea, and if possible land access to that base.  In Syria, he also wants to secure a base he already has, in Tartous.

Why all this about bases?  It is again a matter of encirclement.   According to The Pentagon, the US has 662 overseas bases in 38 foreign countries.   How many does Russia have outside the former Soviet Union?  That would be one.  Tartous.

And there lies perhaps the only faint hope for a minimally acceptable end to the Syrian catastrophe.  Russia is a great power with a huge nuclear arsenal.   It will never be held accountable for its crimes, any more than any other nuclear power - any more than the US will pay for what it did in Southeast Asia, or Israel will pay for what it does to Palestinians.  Russia's criminal support for Assad will end when the world makes it worth Russia's while to end it.  What would that involve?

Tartous.  Assad or the Syrian régime may once have been an asset to Russia, but it is now a liability.  Once Syria gave at least the appearance of a serious military power, able at least to exert decisive influence in Lebanon.   Supporting the régime also gave Russia, after Sadat's rejection of a Soviet presence, some vestige of influence in the Arab world:  here was an Arab nationalist state, a brave opponent of Israel, whose strength derived from Russian arms.   Today, the notion of Assad as an Arab nationalist is a joke.  The notion that he would ever challenge Israel is another.  The idea that he could even continue to govern, or that the régime could endure, is at best wildly unattractive.  Putin must know that Assad will never be forgiven atrocities that in state-sponsored cruelty match anything the world has seen and in extent exceed perhaps anything since the Rwandan massacres.  Putin also knows that his intervention brings his long-time support for Assad into the spotlight, and exposes him to undying hatred throughout the Arab and Sunni Muslim world.  That is not too high a price to pay for the Russia's sole strategic possession outside the ring of US bases.  But of course Russia would be delighted to pay far less.

The example of Guantanamo shows that a major military base, particularly with convenient air and sea access, can easily survive in hostile territory.  The US and NATO can make its survival a certainty.   They can recognize its 'legitimate' presence (even if its presence has no legitimacy).  They can also agree that Russia may install and develop facilities to accommodate and support the latest aircraft, submarines and aircraft carriers.  They can accept the deployment there of Russia's most advanced, long-range air defenses, including the S-400 system.  They can accord Russia the right to deploy nuclear weapons.  Shocking?  Welcome to how Russia feels about US bases on its borders.

This would open the door to an end to the Syrian conflict.   Russia would then have something much better than the régime, and much better than Hezbollah, an Iranian proxy in Lebanon.  Indeed Russia would not greatly regret the decline of Iranian influence:  its support for Iran has always been lukewarm, not least because it offends the Arab world.  As for Syria itself, why would Russia care what happens there?  Very likely, after the fall of Assad, an Islamist régime would emerge from the ashes of the Syrian conflict.  This would be no serious threat to a greatly strengthened installation at Tartous.

Does this sound cynical?  Not at all; it is a matter of ending horror.  The fantasies of a liberal future for Syria, or one ruled by squeaky-clean pro-American groups, or bringing the Russian scoundrels to the International Court of Justice ...these are self-indulgent daydreams that push an end to the conflict ever further away.  And it is not a matter of what 'the world' 'must demand', as if there was such an entity in any position to demand anything.  A part of the world, Saudi Arabia, Turkey and the Gulf States, might take steps toward the solution.  The US, weak, feckless, and happy to be done with the Middle East, might go along.  But this can happen only when it is understood that Russia, however evil its Syrian strategy, is beyond the reach of justice, yet far from beyond the reach of remedy.


(*)  Though I’m not concerned to defend Russia against any accusations, it may surprise some that Russia doesn’t always wink at neo-Nazism.  For example, “When government finally decided to fight against fascists, they did a good job”.  Or “Russia neo-Nazis jailed for life over 27 race murders.”  Or “Leader of Russian neo-Nazi group sentenced to life.”  Or “Russian Neo-Nazi Sentenced to Five Years In Penal Colony, But Not For Antigay Attacks”.

Monday, September 14, 2015

Will a limited no-fly zone help Syrians?

Increasingly and with varying degrees of optimism, more and more opponents of Assad advocate a no-fly zone in Syria.  It would be great if it saved civilian lives.   But probably its capacity to do so has been exaggerated, and certainly it isn't nearly enough to bring substantial protection to Syrians.   To avoid its being touted as some sort of 'solution', its limitations need keeping in mind.

What sort of zone is at all likely?   Certainly a no-fly zone over all of Syria would save many lives; it might even help end the conflict.   But no such zone is suggested by any prominent advocates, and for good reason.   It would, in the attempt, be more costly than the West would ever countenance.  Syrian air defences are not state-of-the-art but they are substantial and in large measure located near populated areas.   Taking  them out would certainly mean civilian deaths.  But the main problem with any such proposal is political, not military.

Such a zone would rightly be seen as a fatal blow to Syria's sovereign government.  (Indeed that would be the best thing about it!)  It could never pass muster as a mere implementation of some alleged 'duty to protect'.  Russia would veto its endorsement in the UN, and without that endorsement there is no reasonable chance the West would go ahead with it.  Indeed Russia's ability and its unknown degree of willingness to provide Syria with advanced means of air defense would alone make such a proposal too radical for the West to contemplate.  The remote possibility of confrontations between Western and Russian air assets in Syrian skies would seal the death of such ideas.  It is now clear that Russia would at the very least not tolerate a no-fly zone anywhere near its base in Tartous.

So the live option is a no-fly zone over part of Syria.   This will accomplish little.

There is a fundamental difference between a limited zone and the no-fly zones of Iraq, Libya - or even what some hoped for in the earlier stages of the Syrian conflict.   In Libya and Iraq, the zones were to function, or did function, as a stage in the overthrow of the régime.   In Libya's case this was less than explicit only not to offend Russian sensibilities.  In Iraq it was always understood, and indeed the source of complaints, that humanitarianism was not the sole motivation:  the US and the UK were bent on Saddam Hussein's removal.  In Syria today, removal is at most something contemplated as a long-term possibility, and then with considerable reluctance.

The difference has to do with the factor not present in Iraq or in the Libya prior to Gaddafi's fall.   In Syria today, of course, the West is virtually panicked about strong Islamist elements.  This concern isn't confined to ISIS, and its extension to Jabhat al Nusra has to do with more than its 'official Al Qaeda' label.  It's not just that the West is appalled by ISIS' conduct.  It's also that it doesn't trust any Islamist elements in the Syrian revolution, which means that for all practical purposes it doesn't trust the revolution itself.  Groups like Ahrar al Sham, despite their attempts at rapprochement with the West, will never gain Western confidence:  who knows what these guys are really up to?   And that produces a kind of chain reaction.  If you can't trust the radical Islamists, you can't trust the moderate ones, because they're too chummy with the radicals, and you can't even trust the secularists, because they're too chummy with the moderates.  Long story short, by now the West has no enthusiasm for the fall of the régime, so that a no-fly zone would actually be what it pretended to be in earlier cases:  a humanitarian gesture.  But the West is far more interested in fighting ISIS than in humanitarianism.

Anyway, as a gesture, how humane is it?

It will do no great harm to Assad's air capacity; his air force would escape damage because it would not confront advanced US aviation.  So that air capacity would still be fully available for attacks on civilians outside the zone.   Outside the zone, in other words, the slaughter from the air would continue.

What about inside the zone?  Bear in mind that the Syrian armed forces have operated without air cover for over half a century; their air force was entirely outclassed by Israel's.  Today it would be far, far easier for the Syrian army and its allies to accomplish most of their objectives inside the zone.

Their prime objective would be what it has always been, to terrorize civilians in rebel-controlled areas:  beyond that its operations have been largely defensive.  It would be an extreme of wishful thinking to suppose that Syria, with its very extensive artillery and rocket resources, would spare civilians in a no-fly zone.  Such terror operations wouldn't require anything remotely like the exposed troop formations it fielded against Israel, and these operations would be supplemented by militias, operating in built-up areas, utterly beyond the reach of a mission whose sole purpose was to deny them air cover.  Indeed since no one is in any case threatening régime forces from the air, the denial would mean nothing.

Note too that the infamous barrel bombs were themselves a novel improvisation.  It is impossible to believe that the sadistic ingenuity of the régime would be hard-pressed to find some equally devastating means of inflicting agony on civilians, one that did not require delivery from the air.  Indeed not much ingenuity seems to be required.  Even in Aleppo, well within any proposed no-fly zone, the régime has attacked bakeries with artillery.  Every inch of the no-fly zone would be within the reach of régime missiles, rockets or field guns.

You might say that if a no-fly zone proved inadequate, further measures would be taken.   But this is exactly why a no-fly zone encounters such opposition in the first place.  Every new measure would encounter enormous political obstacles and - given years have past and a no-fly zone itself is still only a possibility - there is no good reason to suppose that further measures would in fact be implemented.  And since there is no real political desire to overthrow the régime, the governments implementing the no-fly zone won't have the will to extend it at Assad's expense.

In short the limited no-fly zone proposals seem little more than comfort for those unwilling to countenance a real attempt to destroy the Assad régime.  Only such an attempt will end its murder of innocents.  It would require an unlimited no-fly zone, not a limited one.

Sunday, September 6, 2015

Really 'doing something' about Assad: good wishes and realities

Of course it's great that the EU will accommodate many Syrian refugees.  It's also a good thing when a child is saved from a burning building.  But it gives pause when one child is saved, and 80 that could be saved are left to die.

This holds especially when saving one child is made to excuse the abandoning the others.  The refugee drama has something of that character.  For the mainstream Westerners who consider themselves humane, is it nothing short of cathartic.  They agonize over pictures of drowned children.  They welcome the refugees and rage against those who don't.  They tell themselves they've failed and that they're racists: perhaps appropriately this is a matter for the BBC's entertainment section.  And leaders of major Western nations unite in serious efforts to manage the inflow of refugees.

Beyond this, human rights organizations and pundits demand more.  They insist that these measures do not get to 'the root' of the problem.  They say that 'something must be done' about the civil war in Syria and about Assad.  Yet none of these humanitarians would dream of endorsing anything that actually did get at the root of the problem.  Aside from Turkey, only the Gulf States and Saudi Arabia, whom they condemn for not admitting refugees, have shown any inclination to do that.

In fact the refugee drama, with all its humanitarian distractions and satisfactions, absolutely guarantees that the West will not take serious action against Assad, who has murdered roughly eighty times as many as have died trying to reach safety.  (Not a typo; that's 8000% more.*) Accepting the refugees allows the West to see itself as springing into action.  At the same time the crisis allows even those who cry for 'action' on Syria to conceal from themselves their discreet but utterly firm commitment to do nothing whatever about Assad.

For over four years now, these vociferous humanitarians steadfastly refuse to make the hard choices that would put Assad's slaughterhouse out of business.  Or perhaps better to say, the humanitarians have indeed made their hard choice.  They refuse even to consider any solution that likely includes hard-line Islamists coming to power.   Since these are the only realistic solutions, that's exactly equivalent to preferring that any number of Syrians die and are tortured to death to a hard-line Islamic government in Syria.

Why?  For a genuine, lasting solution to the Syrian part of the refugee problem, there is one choice and one choice alone.  After four years it's clear: the war and all its atrocities will continue until one side wins.  The throw-up-our-hands talk about how hard it is to get both sides to a power-sharing agreement is absurd:  were these not 'Arabs', would the victims of a mass murder be expected to share power with him?  Being absurd, it can't happen.  The rebels cannot negotiate because they know Assad can be trusted only to go on murdering innocents.  Assad can't negotiate because he has too much blood on his hands;  he and his supporters have no reason to expect rebel forbearance.  As for talk about how 'Assad must go'; it is fatuous.  If Assad bows out of negotiations, the régime will stay, and find some other monster to lead them.  So the solution is not negotiation; one side must defeat the other.

Which side, then, must humanitarians choose?  If Assad wins, the slaughter will continue unabated:  Assad will want to crush his opponents once and for all, just as his father did a much less sustained rebellion in 1982.  With Russian and Iranian support complemented by Western cowardice, nothing will stop him.  There will be more refugees and many more deaths.

If the rebels win, it's a different story.  They can defeat Assad only with truly massive weapons deliveries, plus money to pay fighters' salaries.  The weapons would have be provided to pretty much anyone but ISIS:  otherwise, as recent experience shows, the effort will fracture.  This precludes a glacial 'vetting' process that the US has proven incompetent to conduct in any case. That means arms will flow, directly or indirectly, to hard-line Islamist fighters.  There is no alternative; their militias have proven by far the most effective against Assad.  They have earned the loyalty of hundreds of thousands of Syrians who will never abandon them because Westerners, safe in their homes, dislike the Islamist agenda.

More or less indiscriminately arming the rebels will make a pretty hard-line Islamist takeover very likely.  That would preclude anything like freedom or democracy or equality for women.  It would all but eliminate the chance of a liberal future for Syria.  Yet this prospect is, from any vaguely moral standpoint, clearly preferable to unending atrocity.

There is even some room for optimism because the aftermath of a rebel victory could be managed to moderate its prospects.  Such prospects seem to exist:  considerable anecdotal evidence suggests many rank-and-file members of hard-line groups are not hard-liners themselves, but have joined up simply for the chance to fight Assad.  The massive aid a rebel victory requires would inevitably come with a large measure of dependence and therefore control.  This would enable the West to steer the victors away from orgies of vengeance.  Some optimism but not too much:  quite possibly the West would have on occasion to send ground troops to prevent sectarian massacres.

So there is some risk.  At this point experts warn about mission creep and the West's inability to build nations.  But no one is suggesting nation-building, and a mission creeps only when its scope has been grossly misconceived.  The West would indeed have to maintain a force of perhaps 30,000 troops to intervene should sectarian violence blossom.  That's triple the number of troops employed by the UN in its current five peacekeeping missions.  Together, the US and the EU alone have a population of 800 million; surely they can spare that many to save so many innocent lives.  But for the experts, it seems that any risk to Western troops is too much risk for the benefit of some crazy Arabs.

After much hand-wringing and impotent indignation about what 'must' happen, the West does indeed welcome some Syrians who haven't been shredded by barrel bombs, or starved to death in besieged areas, or slowly bled out in Assad's torture chambers.  Few if any seem confident that this symptoms-not-causes approach will provide any lasting benefit.  It will certainly make for press awards and for touching moments in school assemblies.  Meanwhile 'humanitarians' don't want Syrians to get the weapons they need to stop Assad's torture and murder - that might lead to an Islamist takeover!  Some 'humanitarians'.


(*) Most of the refugee deaths have to do with arrival by sea, and Syrians (2100) seem to represent 1/8th of the total of 26,200.  Making pessimistic assumptions about unreported casualties, say 2900 deaths.   The 8000% figure uses the very conservative estimate of 230000 deaths in Syria's war. Perhaps some of these don't count as murdered but on the other hand estimates of those killed run as high as 330,000.

Sunday, August 23, 2015

Should the US be even less involved against Assad?

Ahrar al Sham is a pretty large, strong Islamist group that has had considerable success against the Syrian régime lately.  It isn't linked, verbally or substantively, with Al Qaeda.  It is supported by Turkey and Saudi Arabia.  It got a lot of attention in the West lately because its "head of foreign political relations" wrote an op-ed in the Washington Post suggesting that, long story short, Ahrar is nice.  However it is anything but a secret that Ahrar is not that nice, and on good terms with Jabhat al Nusra to boot.  Jabhat al Nusra is linked to Al Qaeda.

Together these groups are a major force against both IS and Assad.  The US will never back either group, but that's exactly why Turkey and Saudi Arabia are Syrians' only hope of ending régime slaughter.   The US offers at most covert and minimal support for anti-Assad rebels, because it doesn't trust such groups to keep away from well, Ahrar and Jabhat al Nusra.  Its own officially 'trained and equipped' 'rebels' aren't even supposed to fight Assad.

Sam Heller and Aaron Stein seem concerned that the US might be failing to prevent Turkey and Saudi Arabia from supporting Ahrar al Sham.  They say that any support for Ahrar Al Sham is "runs counter to US interests"

Just what might those interests be?

Not oil, the US is awash in oil.  Not defense of its bases in the Gulf States or Turkey; no one is going to dislodge the US from there.  Given the permanent massive US presence in the area, the Gulf States have nothing to fear from Iran.  Nor can Israel be a  US concern, because Israel is more than capable of taking care of itself.  Any Islamist threat in Egypt will not be made better or worse because some arms go to an Islamist faction opposed to IS in Syria.  Ahrar al Sham can't pose a threat to American interests because America's now minimal interests in the region are short term and mainly involve its impregnable defense installations.  The only conceivable concern that might be affected is some possible growth of Russian influence in the area.  Since Ahrar fights the Russian/Iranian client Assad, that interest is, to a tiny extent, served by any support it gets.

If US policy in the area is a disaster for the area, that doesn't matter to the Americans.  What they care about is that the policy, a bunch of gestures, be cheap in both dollars and US lives.  Weapons going to Ahrar al Sham would not run contrary to that objective.

What appears to be behind Heller and Stein's odd claim is that Ahrar, contrary to any impression it might try to give, doesn't Share Our Values.  Those, one supposes, are Freedom and Democracy.  But past history aside, it's clear from US support for Sisi that these values aren't dear to 'our' hearts.  Even if they were, there is no course of action the US is willing to take that would advance them:  that would take massive troop commitments, a 'nation-building' exercise.  Given that the US has proven itself incompetent at such exercises, the whole idea of furthering Our Values in the Middle East must be counted a non-starter.

And even warning the US about Ahrar is a puzzling motive for the article - do the authors think that Americans somehow don't worry enough about Islamists?  If Heller and Stein want to stress that they don't like Ahrar and don't enjoy seeing them get any support, why not just say so?  Why pretend there is some political rationale for this expression of sentiment?

Heller and Stein's post raises a larger issue, the manner in which Western powers perceive their role in Middle East politics.  It is a mistake to suppose that if you back someone in, for instance, Syria, you have no influence on them.  No doubt Ahrar, should it acquire some power in Syria, would 'out of the box' do little to improve the situation.  But if it were to acquire some power, it would only be because of its outside support.  Outside supporters would therefore be in a position to affect how Ahrar conducts itself.  It therefore makes no sense to give advice as though Ahrar in power would conduct itself according to its present agenda.  The West might be more willing to end the horror in Syria if it allowed itself to realize that it could, after all, do much to shape the aftermath.

Monday, June 8, 2015

ISIS and the Syrian régime are not in cahoots

When it comes to ISIS (IS, ISIL, The Islamic State), people seem to espouse the following rule: because they're evil, I can just make stuff up about them.  This is a bad idea.  ISIS has to be fought in the real world, not fantasyland.  Mythmaking about ISIS links to the Syrian régime is particularly dangerous: it substitutes a fake battlefield for the  real one.  Whether you look at the big picture or at the battlefield specifics, there is no basis for asserting that the régime and IS are allies, or have a common strategy, much less that they "are one".  There is some basis for supposing that the régime has ever aided IS in specific battles - but very little.  And there is no basis for supposing that, if that's the case, it reveals any kinship or indeed any significant relationship between ISIS and the régime.

The Big Picture

First, consider the thumpingly obvious big picture that ISIS-régime mythmakers ignore or dismiss.  The régime has killed hundreds of thousands of Sunni Muslims.  ISIS portrays itself as the defender of Sunni Muslims against among others Assad, quite successfully, because it does of course defend them.  In areas controlled by ISIS, not one Sunni Muslim is ever arrested, tortured and killed by the régime.  Indeed ISIS makes a show of executing régime supporters: 

Civilians trapped in Palmyra were rounded up by ISIS and forced to watch as the jihadist group executed a group of twenty men accused of fighting on behalf of Syrian Dictator Bashar al-Assad.  ("Monitor: ISIS forces civilians to watch mass execution in Palmyra ")
The Syrian Observatory for Human Rights (SOHR) reported Sunday that more than 800 Syrian regime soldiers were executed or captured by the self-proclaimed Islamic state of Iraq and al Sham (ISIS) after the group captured the eastern countryside of Palmyra in Homs Province.  ("SOHR: ISIS executes hundreds of Syrian regime forces")
As the report indicates, the régime doesn't cover up the atrocities of its alleged pal.  It feasts on them:

The Syrian Observatory for Human Rights (SOHR) reported Sunday that more than 800 Syrian regime soldiers were executed or captured by the self-proclaimed Islamic state of Iraq and al Sham (ISIS) after the group captured the eastern countryside of Palmyra in Homs Province.  [...]
Syrian state TV SANA said on Sunday that 400 people were killed by ISIS since Palmyra was captured.

 “The terrorists have killed more than 400 people including women and children, and mutilated their bodies, under the pretext that they cooperated with the government and did not follow orders,” SANA said, citing residents inside Palmyra.

And for an entity supposedly immune from régime air strikes, ISIS is oddly intolerant those who facilitate régime air strikes:

The ISIS has publicly executed a Syrian it accused of planting tracking devices for deadly regime air strikes, SITE Intelligence reported on Saturday.  ("ISIS executes Syrian for aiding regime air strikes" [AFP story])
Oh, about that immunity from air strikes, to which we will return later,  the report adds:

In October and November, the Syrian regime sharply intensified its air strikes on areas held by ISIS or other rebel groups.
These strikes include that supposedly most immune of ISIS' holdings, its 'capital', Raqqa:

Some of the deadliest hit the ISIS “capital” of Raqa on November 25, killing at least 95 people.
But it's not just a matter of what the régime does to ISIS.  It's also a matter of what ISIS does, not only to régime troops and bases, but also to the regime's core support.  Sometimes, ISIS kills people specifically because they are Alawites, even when these Alawites have not been fighting in the régime army:

In a video released by the Raqqa Media Center, the two men were shown bound and blindfolded, kneeling in the central Naim Square as a large crowd gathered.

Two masked men armed with handguns then approach them from behind, shooting each twice – once in the upper back and once in the back of the head.

The crowd then charges forward, cheering while gunmen fire automatic weapons in the air.

The Syrian Observatory for Human Rights activist group confirmed the account, also adding that a woman who questioned the executions was told the men were “Nusayri [Alawite] apostates who have raped our women.”   ("Islamist rebels execute Alawite men in Raqqa")
Note here the executions seem to be popular.

This is no anomaly.  Here is Joshua Landis on the famed and much-ridiculed ISIS commander Abu Wahid:

Abu Wahib is the ISIS officer who executed the Alawite truck drivers several months ago for not knowing how to pray properly.   ("The Battle between ISIS and Syria's Rebel Militias"
Joshua Landis is a respected source sometimes thought to have sympathies with the régime.  In the context of this  piece, it's worth noting that many sometimes unverified but similar reports  allege ISIS massacres of Alawites.  These are regularly disseminated by the régime.  (In the interests of brevity they won't be displayed here.)  So the régime assiduously cultivates expectations that the Alawites will be massacred by ISIS, which has been merciless to its enemies.  This alone discredits the suggestion that ISIS and the régime are playing some sly backstage game together.

Here then are facts.  ISIS executes captured régime soldiers, individuals accused of helping the régime, and civilians whose only crime seems to be adherence to Assad's Alawite sect.  All Alawites are, in the eyes of ISIS, apostates.  While there is debate about whether killing apostates is justifiable in Islam, no one denies that ISIS thinks so. Of all the parties to the Syrian war, ISIS is by far the most deeply committed to wiping out every last régime soldier and every Alawite civilian.  So the idea that the régime and ISIS share any long-term objectives is utterly absurd.  The question then is whether the might share any short or medium term objectives.

How exactly is that supposed to work?  Anything which increases ISIS' power necessarily increases its danger to the régime.  This can't be compared with 'alliance of convenience' between the Allies and Stalin in World War II.  Stalin hadn't killed numerous Allied troops and civilians.  The Allies hadn't killed numerous Soviet troops and civilians.  They weren't fighting one another.  When they finally met on the battlefield, they shook hands. There was nothing covert about the cooperation; on the contrary all parties made much of it to their subjects.  Rhetoric about destroying communism or capitalism had to do with a remote future.  In Syria the rhetoric is about exterminating people, not systems, and it's supplemented by graphic examples from the present.  It makes no sense at all to suppose that ISIS and the régime would in any way cooperate unless the helper was quite sure that this would not increase the strength of the helped, but only on the contrary weaken them.

Can this be said of the régime aiding ISIS against the rebels?  Hardly.  Though the rebels have at times defeated ISIS and regained territory, ISIS has nonetheless gone from strength to strength in Syria.  No one holds that the rebel victories have done ISIS much  harm.  And while ISIS may do great harm to the rebels, the US can be relied on to repair the rebels in their anti-ISIS role.

That's evident in its prompt & generous resupply of TOW anti-tank missiles to anti-ISIS rebel groups after recent ISIS advances. So the regime cannot expect ISIS to do the rebels harm either.  This means that helping ISIS against the rebels isn't going to get the régime any even medium-term advantage and little if any short-term advantage.  (It would be one thing if the regime still seemed poised to overrun rebel positions in Aleppo; but that ship has sailed.) Indeed the best hope for the régime lies in the US plan of converting the rebels into a purely anti-ISIS force.  It would be insane for the régime to respond to this very real prospect by putting itself next to ISIS in the firing line.

It's not just that the régime can't expect ISIS to do lasting harm to the rebels.  It's also that the régime can't see those rebels ISIS attacks as a great danger.   The US is virtually explicit that it will not sponsor campaigns against Assad.  (Some US TOWs do end up being used against the régime, but that's hardly an incentive for the régime to back ISIS.)  The only rebel group that has succeeded in doing great harm to Assad recently is Jabhat al Nusra, which the US would like to destroy.  Though ISIS and Jabhat al Nusra are serious enemies, they have not mounted major offensives against one another in areas where they have both had their greatest victories:  there is no large-scale battle between ISIS and Jabhat al Nusra in Palmyra, Deir Ezzor or Idlib.  So the régime has no reason to suppose that the danger of strengthening ISIS is outweighed by that of strengthening the rebels.  In the South the rebels pose more of a threat, but there ISIS can do little against them and the régime shows no sign of aiding them.

More generally, for some time ISIS has grown stronger and more threatening, particularly in Syria where, apart from the Kurdish areas, the US bombs them only episodically. ISIS moves ever closer to Damascus.  This means that any short or medium term benefits that the régime might expect from collusion with ISIS now become much shorter.  You might offer an enemy some advantage now in exchange for some longer-term benefit to yourself, but not when the enemy is at your gates.

The Details

Given these general considerations, how do the particular facts on the ground stack up against all the reasons ISIS and the régime are anything but allies?  Here are a few specifics.

It is said that "Assad Helped Forge ISIS" by releasing its future leaders from jail.  True.  This is the kind of mistake that over-clever intelligence services have made ever since German intelligence helped Lenin cross over into Russia.  It has nothing whatever to do with whether Assad and ISIS are in an alliance, any more than US sponsorship of Bin Laden indicates that the US and Al Qaeda are in an alliance.

For quite a while now, ISIS-régime conspiracy theorists have asked why the régime hasn't bombed the ISIS headquarters in Raqqa.   This is supposed to be suspicious.  The suspicion presupposes that something crucial to ISIS success on the battlefield goes on in that HQ.  There's no evidence for this and no reason to think so.  ISIS isn't stupid; it's not gonna point a target on a strategically important operations center.  Moreover Raqqa is the sticks as far as the régime is concerned; it was only interested in maintaining air bases there.  It has indeed bombed in support of these bases.  It has also bombed sites in Raqqa which have some actual relation to the ability of IS to keep Raqqa functioning, such as the water plant.  This suggests that its anti-ISIS priorities in Raqqa are more sensible than hitting a highly public 'headquarters'.

It's also said that the régime "drops Barrel Bombs on civilians instead of ISIS".  From the very start of the uprising, the régime has  on hundreds of occasions attacked civilians rather than on military targets.  It has always preferred to terrorize the population in rebel areas in the belief that this will turn people against the rebels.  It's willful blindness to suppose that its practices have somehow changed since ISIS came on the scene.

It is said that ISIS and the régime "don't really fight".  Apparently people come to believe this because ISIS has inflicted great losses on the Syrian army, which has run away.  This hardly sounds like a cozy agreement between ISIS and the régime.  What's more, it has occurred only in areas like Palmyra, far from the strategic (and/or Alawite) heartland.  The régime has defended important military targets like Tabqa airbase energetically, as it has its holdings in Latakia, Tartous and Damascus.  The idea that the combats between ISIS and the régime are some pantomime is, frankly, infantile.

It is said that, suspiciously, the régime did not reinforce in Palmyra when ISIS attacked.   But the same was true when Jabhat al Nusra's coalition attacked Idlib:

 “Yet, the regime did not send troop reinforcements or even tried to secure the road between Idlib and Jisr al-Shughour.    ("Assad forced to ‘strategic retreat’")
The régime is seen by well-informed commentators as conducting a retreat to its strategic heartland.  This has nothing to do with ISIS-régime collusion.

It is said that ISIS sells oil to the régime.  Perhaps it does; certainly it has some understanding with Assad over some energy assets.  ISIS also denies the régime key energy resources.  In addition it deprives the régime of a great deal of important oil revenue which it reserves for itself.

In any case this is nothing new to the Syrian war.  When the oil fields were under rebel control, they did not interrupt the flow to Damascus.

This also held for gas assets:

At the natural gas-processing plant nearby, which opened in 2000 and once was operated by ConocoPhillips, gas continues to flow through the Arab line – to the Syrian government.

“The gas plant still sends gas to the regime,” said Fadel Abdullah, 31, a former army officer who commands the rebels’ Al Qadisiya brigade that has charge of Deir el Zour. “If it didn’t, the regime would bomb the plant.”

 It's not clear if the rebels profited from this, but is it better if they supplied régime areas for free? Another report agrees that the supply to the régime was maintained because otherwise the régime was likely to bomb the installations (Frantz Glasman, "Deir ez-Zor, à l'est de la Syrie.  Des islamistes, des tribus et du pétrole...", LeMonde Blogs, Un oeil sur la Syrie, 8 December 2013).  Oil sales provided a living for the tribes in the area under rebel control.  No one supposed the rebels were allies of Assad.

It is said that while the régime bombs Aleppo heavily, it hardly touches ISIS-held areas.  This is very much a half-truth because the régime has always bombed ISIS-held areas like Raqqa and Deir Ezzor less, as it did before ISIS held them.  It is also very easy to explain.  Aleppo is Syria's largest city with a pre-war population of over 2,000,000.  It is much closer to strategically crucial areas on the Turkish border and to the South.  Raqqa is a city of 220,000;  Deir Ezzor is about the same size.  They are far from strategically crucial.  The régime devotes more attention to Aleppo because it is far more important, not because it is held by the rebels rather than ISIS.  Perhaps one should add that at this point the régime regularly bombs ISIS-held areas, killing hundreds.  This isn't a very strong sign of ISIS-régime cooperation.

In a related matter, it is said that the rebels have fought the régime much more, and harder, than ISIS.  Of course they have.  The rebels have been entrenched at various times in Aleppo, Homs, and especially the Damascus suburbs.  The fighting has been hardest in these crucial areas.  That has nothing to do with any relationship between Assad and ISIS.

Finally there is at least one specific allegation that the régime has given ISIS air support in its attack on rebel-held Marea (Aleppo) in early June 2015.  The very rarity of the accusation testifies against its significance.   Three-sided wars are themselves very rare.  In a long-running one, it wouldn't be surprising that, once or twice, some régime commander saw some tactical advantage in backing one of his opponents against the other.  That wouldn't be evidence of anything beyond very short-term tactical thinking, certainly not of any alliance, cooperation or kinship between, in this case, the régime and ISIS.

But it's not even clear there is one case of tactical favoring.  What's clear is that the régime bombed, as usual, civilian areas.  The régime bombs such areas constantly, capriciously.  It's no great surprise they might bomb while the area is being defended by the rebels against ISIS.  In particular the régime is always bombing civilian areas in Aleppo, and the consensus has always been that this sort of bombing confers no military advantage.  So such bombing is no reason to claim tactical air support for IS.

Some have apparently claimed, further, that the régime bombed rebel front lines, or that the lines were hit by rockets from régime positions.  These claims are just that, not reports bolstered, as is often the case, by video evidence.  Moreover they have not been investigated.  All things considered, the régime might on one occasion have given tactical air and/or artillery support for ISIS, but there's no real evidence for that.  Not exactly a smoking gun. (*)

In short, no, ISIS and the régime are not allies or anything like that.  They're not de facto allies.  They don't cooperate.  They're not allies of convenience. They don't have a common strategy or agenda. They are bitter enemies, that's all.

Does this matter?

The idea that ISIS and the régime are hand in hand may be intended as propaganda. Rebel commanders in Syria increasingly speak of ISIS-régime collusion, possibly in the hope that the US will attack Assad.  They may believe this to be a plausible strategy.  After all, most people in the West don't know enough about the fighting to contradict such claims.  Since Westerners obviously freak out about ISIS, it might seem advantageous to associate ISIS with the régime.

Maybe there's nothing wrong with propaganda, even lies or mere falsehoods, if they help destroy Assad.   But they won't be much help unless they hold up to scrutiny.  They won't.  The Syrian War gets more scrutiny, in literally millions of cell-phone videos and social media updates, than any other war in all history - maybe than in all of them put together.  Proponents of the Assad-ISIS myth might ask themselves which is more likely:  that all of the people will be fooled all of the time, or that, sooner or later, the myth-making will end up undermining the reputations of the rebels and their supporters.  Did the Russians really look better for all their conspiracy tales about the Ukraine than if they had been straightforward about their reasons of intervening?

One might also ask what myth-making will end up doing to the myth-makers.  Will they get pushed to greater and greater absurdities?  How will they extricate themselves? If ISIS and the régime are allies, mustn't the régime's most deeply involved supporters, Russia and Iran, be allies as well?  What about China, that supports Russian obstruction in the UN Security Council?  Could these nations' battles with ISIS-linked extremists on their own soil be just another charade?  If the US consistently refuses the rebels MANPADS to counter Syrian aviation, doesn't that mean the US, Syria and ISIS must all be in it together?  If the US is in league, mustn't its allies Turkey, Jordan and Saudi Arabia be in league as well?  And if the evidence supports at least an ISIS-Assad alliance of convenience, what will the myth-makers say about the Kurds?

Behind all this, I suspect, is unwillingness to confront uncomfortable truths.  Yes, it would be nice to kill two vultures with one stone.  But nonsense won't make that happen.  While US officials may amuse themselves retweeting conspiracy messages, the US isn't going to wake up one morning saying:  "gosh! why didn't we get it?  Assad and ISIS are one!"  The US doesn't care about Syrians. It cares about radical Islamists, and only because it fears another 9-11.  It knows Assad fights them; it's not going to un-know it.  It knows that the rebels include many Islamists unpalatable to many American Christians and feminists. ('Worrying' about rebel Islamists has established itself as a discrete way of being pro-Assad.) Propaganda won't make Obama hit régime air assets and won't stop him angling for an accommodation with the régime.  As for regional powers like Turkey, Saudi Arabia and Qatar, they genuinely oppose Assad for their own reasons, largely having to do with Iran.  They have their own strategy: let the Americans and Iranians do their thing, but back Islamist ground forces like Jabhat al Nusra to deal with both Assad and ISIS.  These regional powers will pay no attention to tales of an Assad-ISIS alliance.

In any case, what could the myth achieve?  ISIS' incontrovertible atrocities have already drawn such hatred on itself that alliance-with-Assad theories couldn't possibly make a big difference; indeed the hatred is probably the cause of the theories rather than the reverse.  As for Assad, his crimes are so unthinkably enormous that to associate him with ISIS is to associate him with a demonstrably less brutal party.  Propagandists might do better simply trying to persuade the regional powers to increase their efforts against Assad.  As for impressing the Americans with tall tales, that's a lost cause.


(*)  In over two months since this was written, there hasn't been so much as a single allegation of SAA artillery support for ISIS.

Tuesday, May 19, 2015

Sam Harris on Christian and Islamic Morality: Wrong on Both Counts

Rather proudly, Sam Harris offers up an email exchange with Noam Chomsky about morality, Islam and the West.  (Perhaps Harris isn't aware that Chomsky very tolerantly will exchange emails with almost anyone.)  In it are gems like this:
Any systematic approach to ethics, or to understanding the necessary underpinnings of a civil society, will find many Muslims standing eye deep in the red barbarity of the fourteenth century.
Civilized folks of course are not like these many Muslims.  They inhabit "contemporary democracies".  Others may speculate what this is code for.  Suffice it to say that
There is no moral equivalence between the kind of force civilized democracies project in the world, warts and all, and the internecine violence that is perpetrated by Muslim militants, or indeed by Muslim governments.
Long story short, Muslim barbarians kill innocents, and we're better than that for two reasons.

First, we feel just terrible about it, which yer many-Muslims don't.  We deplore deliberate crimes like My Lai, and regret the odd bit of criminal negligence:
What are the chances that Iraqi soldiers would have wept upon killing a carload of American civilians at a checkpoint unnecessarily?
Second, the bad stuff we don't feel quite as terrible about is just collateral damage, of which Harris says:
Nothing in Chomsky’s account acknowledges the difference between intending to kill a child, because of the effect you hope to produce on its parents (we call this “terrorism”), and inadvertently killing a child in an attempt to capture or kill an avowed child murderer (we call this “collateral damage”). In both cases a child has died, and in both cases it is a tragedy. But the ethical status of the perpetrators, be they individuals or states, could hardly be more distinct.
Chomsky might object that to knowingly place the life of a child in jeopardy is unacceptable in any case, but clearly this is not a principle we can follow. The makers of roller coasters know, for instance, that despite rigorous safety precautions, sometime, somewhere, a child will be killed by one of their contraptions. Makers of automobiles know this as well. So do makers of hockey sticks, baseball bats, plastic bags, swimming pools, chain-link fences, or nearly anything else that could conceivably contribute to the death of a child. There is a reason we do not refer to the inevitable deaths of children on our ski slopes as “skiing atrocities.” But you would not know this from reading Chomsky. For him, intentions do not seem to matter. Body count is all.
In his reference to a 'systematic approach to ethics', we find Harris considering himself a philosopher.  It's one of the things he calls himself on his web site.  Rest assured that this claim is almost as offensive to philosophers as his claim about Muslims is, presumably, to Muslims.

A philosopher, at least one minimally competent in ethics, will agree (*) to what follows.

First, pace Harris, (may we say) Western morality, indeed Christian morality, is quite capable of establishing the moral equivalence between intentional acts of, for short, terror, and the sort of collateral damage that has become a Western habit.  Harris' version of Christian morality would be in tatters after one minute in the confessional of a Jesuit-trained priest.

Second, push come to shove, if any morality is stuck in the 14th Century, it is Western and Christian morality.  'Systematic' ethics has another view, and it is the view of many whom Harris considers barbaric.  If there is a gap, not only between Islam and the West, but between anyone who doesn't like getting bombed and the West, an understanding of this fact might help bridge it.

Collateral Damage and Christian morality

Harris has at least one point which is not actually bad but irrelevant.  Yes, even manufacturing plastic bags will eventually contribute to the death of a child.  But that's ok, I think Harris says, because the killing isn't intended.

Two things about that.  First, it's not ok; we don't think children should be exposed to dangerous products.  But second, this isn't comparable the collateral damage inflicted by bombs.

The difference has to do with causality, a complicated matter.  Roughly, manufacturing a plastic bag is a necessary condition of a child being killed.  So is the existence of water on earth: necessary conditions are very far from qualifying as causes.  We consider certain sets of necessary conditions a background to the causal events which, in conjunction with these conditions, produce what we call an effect. (Poignantly this approach to causality is brilliantly systematized by Judea Pearl, the father of Daniel Pearl, victim of terror in Pakistan.)

Manufacturing a plastic bag, and its very existence, are background conditions to what sometimes causes the death of a child, that is, leaving a young child unattended around, say, dry cleaning bags.  The making of the bag is part of an environment; that alone never kills a child.  It takes some act of negligence, a later addition to that environment, to produce the death.  Dropping a bomb and killing an innocent is like leaving the child unattended; it too involves neglect.  We know the bombs can kill children, we know the children are around; we know they are defenceless; we know our bombs don't just hit what, in our infantile slang, we call "the bad guys".  All this belongs to the background or environment of the air strike.  The background conditions, alone, don't kill the child.  It takes the act of dropping a bomb to do that.

So no, the moral difference between collateral damage and terror is not, as Harris suggests, a matter of intention.  Intentions may matter, but not like that.  Whatever the intention, dropping the bomb, like setting off a terrorist bomb, plays the foreground causal role that manufacturing the plastic bag does not.

But does intention matter all the same?   Does it make the two sorts of actions morally distinctive?

The key consideration here is that we're not talking about mere collateral damage.   Such damage comes in two varieties, expected and unexpected. Unexpected collateral damage would occur, for instance, if a destroyer sunk in a naval battle was found to have been transporting civilian refugees. Expected collateral damage occurs when air strikes are called down on an enemy who doesn't operate in nicely isolated battlefields but in or near populated areas. In these cases the attackers fully expect to harm civilians. Is inflicting expected collateral damage better than terrorism?

When Harris appeals to intentions, he is invoking something like what in Christian casuistry is called the doctrine of double effect.  For example: a doctor operates on a woman and knowingly causes the death of her unborn child. For some, that's not sinful because the death of the child was intended only as an undesired consequence of the operation, not as its purpose. But those who inflict expected collateral damage are not like the doctor. Both high-level and tactical decisions to bomb are not made to attain some imminent, urgent goal, like saving a mother's life. The attackers' decision normally stems from concern, not for the lives of others, but for the lives of the attackers themselves.  That's why civilized nations prefer bombing to sending in ground troops, much less ground troops who take great risks to ensure civilians go unharmed. The doctor is concerned for another's life, not his own.

But suppose the attackers do want to save lives other than their own. Still their situation is not like the doctor's. If the doctor spares the child, he assures the death of the mother, and vice versa. He's not, in any practical sense, calculating risks. He is faced with a simple, stark decision, a choice between certainties. He is doing the only thing he can to avert the immediate and certain death of the woman lying before him.

The decision to use air strikes, on the other hand, is usually a choice involving many alternatives. Some mean a slower advance, some are less certain, some more expensive, some riskier - but they're there, and they introduce uncertainties. These uncertainties are not to be compared with the doctor's, whose decision is normally informed by scientific evidence. The decision-makers cannot confidently assert that air strikes are the best way to minimize the slaughter of innocents, or even the attackers' losses. In practice military men use air power largely because they fear that otherwise they'll take considerably more casualties, and because they'd rather not test unproven alternatives.

At no level, then, is the use of strategic or tactical air attacks simply a desperate measure to spare civilian lives. By no stretch of the imagination can our situation be confused with the doctor's. The doctrine of the double effect has questionable authority, but even unquestioned it does little to raise expected collateral damage above terror.

Indeed Harris' appeal to intentions is not an example of Christian morality but of its decline and corruption.  Christian moralists, real ones, examine the intentions and motives of actions with merciless precision.  They would not for a moment let someone off with the lame excuse that they meant well.  They would point out all the alternatives ignored, all the hasty assumptions, all the self-serving prejudices underlying those assumptions, all the weaknesses of character that went along with the conveniently sloppy decision-making.  They would  deliver a verdict of self-deception, willful ignorance, insolent posturing, cowardice and, most likely, mortal sin.

If you don't think so, ask yourself what are, after all, the intentions of pilots or strategists who inflict expected collateral damage.  Imagine something similar in civilian life, and consider the legal notion of intentional murder.  Suppose you intend to kill me by running me over as I stand in line for a movie.  You are driving a Hummer; you are quite sure you will kill some of those next to me as well: they are literally collateral damage. A lawyer friend informs me, emphatically, that you will have committed homicide against all those killed; you are taken to have intended their death. Even if you were acquitted of murdering me - perhaps because I had abused you, severely, for years - you will be guilty of killing those next to me. Their deaths were intended and therefore are inexcusable in law. That you were very reluctant to kill them would be no excuse either.

Who lives in the 14th Century?

So the morality of intention is quite capable of establishing the moral equivalence of civilized and barbaric slaughter of innocents.  (Remember the three million killed in Vietnam if you think that civilized slaughter is less consequential.)  But what of the notion that 'many Muslims', because they apparently ignore intentions and don't excuse civilized collateral damage, are stuck in the 14th Century?

Exactly the opposite is the case.  The morality of intention, as we have seen, is Christian. In Christianity everything - that is, salvation - depends on the condition of your soul.  Contemporary, 'systematic' moral philosophy, beginning in the 18th Century, typically assigns a subordinate role to intentions:  they may help to determine the goodness or badness of the agent, but not the rightness or wrongness of the act.  That's determined by the act's effect: roughly, whether it makes the world better or worse.

The 'many Muslims' Harris regards as barbaric are said to ignore intentions.  If so, particularly when in the West arm-waving about good intentions is thought enough to dismiss the most horrible damage to innocent human flesh, this alleged barbarism may involve a more mature attitude to moral responsibility.  Indeed when faced with big problems of unintentional damage in civilian life, for example the damage inflicted by faulty products, the law takes a similar tack.  It resorts of notions of "strict liability", where guilt and innocence are judged entirely in terms of acts and effects; intentions play no role at all.  If this reduces the suffering of the barbarian inflicted by the civilized, maybe it's not such a bad idea.

Harris and 'many non-Muslims' are not moralists, they are apologists.  They find in good intentions an advantage afforded by Christian morality, an excuse.  And it's not that they refuse to assume the heavy burden of Christian morality, which looks deeply into intentions and very rarely finds them genuinely good.  No, it's that they aren't even aware the burden exists.  For that there is no excuse from any perspective.


 (*)  How do I know?  The arguments here were made at a philosophy conference.  The audience turned out to include, somewhat to my dismay, a whole bunch of Israeli philosophers, who I expected to take offence at my claim that contemporary style air strikes and terrorism were, in many cases, morally indistinguishable.  Their reaction?  Sure, they said.  They were kind of bored.