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.

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