Wednesday, July 25, 2018

The Syrian failure: aftermath and legacy

The reaction to Syria's horrors did nothing to mitigate them.  They will continue for decades.   It may be useful to review just how throughly and deeply irredeemable is the failure.

To say that there were war crimes and human rights violations is like saying Charles Manson misbehaved.  Assad's crimes have been documented in heart-stopping detail, not least by the 'Caesar', who smuggled out prison files and fifty thousand photographs, at great risk of a fate worse than death.  His efforts, plus the meticulous work of the individuals and groups who proved that the régime was the culprit in chemical weapons attacks...   these efforts too are now, beyond any doubt or hope, in vain.

To  say that Assad and company should be brought before an international tribunal is self-deluding sound and fury, signifying nothing.  Let's be clear.  Assad and company will never be brought to justice.   Tribunal verdicts will have no effect at all.  All the evidence painstakingly assembled, sometimes at the cost of brave lives, counts for nothing.  There will be no reconciliation, and there is no truth to come out, because more than enough is known already.  There is no point in making more people aware of that truth, because it's too late.  That won't even produce useful sentiments, let along useful non-psychological reactions - sentiments don't stop homicidal rulers.  If someone declares, somewhere, that the Syrian repression was a genocide, so what - it's not even true.  'The world', the 'international order', some 'community', don't matter.  Assad is far too secure.  There is absolutely nothing to be done that any collection of worthy countries or institutions would ever be willing to do, and rightly so, because the only effective response would be a military intervention so massive as to risk, given the Russian presence, nuclear war.  It's great to help the refugees, the victims, but that's cleaning up after Assad, not something that could lead to restraining him or his ilk.  Indeed most refugees will stay or end up in Syria, left to his tender mercies.  As for reconstruction, that of course will make Assad much stronger.  It will focus on his supporters, not those most in need.

All that's left, all that might conceivably have some positive effect but won't, is to expose the thinking that encouraged the Syrian betrayal.  Try comparing the reaction on Syria to reactions to other horrors.

There are greater and lesser atrocities.  Pinochet murdered more than 3000 people, some tortured to death with terrible cruelty. There are people who approve of Pinochet, or brush off his slaughter.  They may be condemned, but like Henry Kissinger they continue to be accepted in the mainstream.   They shouldn't be, but this indicates that society, the mainstream, is prepared to accept this level of brutality.

Then there are major atrocities:  Cambodia, Rwanda are clear cases.   Anyone who brushes off those killings would not be considered normal, but treated as a pariah.  No one hears from such people.  No one suggested helping Pol Pot with reconstruction and reconciliation.   No one said that, well, realistically, we need to consider whether we have any vital interest in Rwanda.  Not even Kissinger.

The atrocities committed by Assad are very clearly in the second category, not the first.  Yet people who obliquely place them in the first group are considered not only mainstream-tolerable, but, quite often, intelligent contrarians.  One hears from them a lot.

But that's not the worst of it.   Assad apologists fall into three categories.  There are Iranians and Russians. Those countries have long-standing alliances with the Assads and might be considered to have some sort of security interest in the régime.  Their stance is disgusting but hardly worth highlighting, since no one will do anything about it.  Then there are members of Syrian minorities whom Assad has implicated in his crimes.   And then there are leftists, stuck in the 70s or so, who don't matter.  Obsessing about Assad apologists does no one any good.

Those who do matter aren't the obvious offenders, but respected observers whose attempts or pretense at objectivity or decency betrayed the Syrian people.  They obscure Assad's place in the second category, among the very worst of the monsters.  These people may condemn the régime in ringing terms, they may say 'doing something' about Assad's atrocities is 'urgent'.   But they nonetheless demote the urgency of the matter, because for them, everything is 'urgent'.   It is 'urgent' that an imprisoned journalist be released, that a child is reunited with its parents, that minority rights are respected, that 'genders' get the toilets they need, and so on.  And perhaps these things are all indeed urgent, but they do not compare in urgency with stopping a man who has murdered and tortured hundreds of thousands.

Human rights organizations are prominent in this morally and politically witless denial of priorities.  So are any number of analysts and commentators.  They talked about Assad as they would not talk about Rwanda or Pol Pot.  They would not, in those cases, have spoken of  'difficult choices', as they did about Assad and the Kurds and 'the jihadis'.  They would regard any accommodation with Assad as no more to be contemplated than with the fanatic responsible for so many dead, tortured Cambodians.  They would not have insisted the world weigh heavily that some rebels didn't believe in democracy and espoused a repressively conservative social agenda.  They would not have relentlessly conflated this social conservatism with, incredibly, some sort of terrorist threat.

These analysts should be treated as moral lepers if their warnings played a role in the West's betrayal of the Syrian revolution.  No one warned the world about Vietnam's rescue of the Cambodian people on the grounds that the Vietnamese were naughty communists.  No one thought it was a tough choice whether to back the murderers of Rwanda or their victims.  No one reduced the description of these régimes to "brutal dictatorship".

It is far too late for this to make any difference to Syrians.  Assad has won and he will endure. He will be condemned as a reprehensible leader, but a leader nonetheless.  He is protected by powerful allies, UN vetoes, and discreet commitments from 'indignant' Western powers not to challenge his rule.  But perhaps it is not too late to prevent this sort of kindler, gentler, 'hard choices' whitewash from recurring.  Those who preached caution, scepticism and realpolitik about the Syrian rebels made choices that should never be forgotten or forgiven.   It doesn't matter what nice things they now say about refugees.  It doesn't matter what righteous outrage they express about Assad.   When it counted, they didn't even begin to  impart to the situation the moral urgency, even the panic, that it deserved.  They were not willing to accept that their worries about extremist and terrorist rebels were as nothing compared to the importance of stopping a monster.  That is a poisonous legacy.

Let no one reply that these analysts were realistic.  At its limits, morality and even Realpolitik converge.   All nations have an interest in keeping barbarism within practical limits.  Slaughter and mistreatment may sometimes be genuinely advantageous, but for that very reason it's a good idea to act when slaughter and mistreatment become an open-ended, sadistic orgy, engulfing tens of thousands and exceeding anything plausibly endorsed by rational self-interest.  Mad tyrants, as we see, create floods of fugitives, and potentially destabilising wars.  They also create militants out to punish the comfortable nations who betrayed the victims.  Auden was right:

I and the public know,
What all schoolchildren learn,
Those to whom evil is done
Do evil in return.

This is likely the last post I will write on Egypt or Syria.   My sole aim has been, however ineffectually and wrong-headedly, to defend their revolutions.  Such attempts are pointless now.

Saturday, July 21, 2018

Betrayers in Egypt, betrayed in Syria: Liberalism’s Arab Winter

The sufferings of Egyptians and Syrians will go on for decades.   That will allow plenty of time for think tanks, graduate students, journalists, op-ed writers, scholars and security analysts to build or enhance their careers on the ‘lessons’ of these events.  This essay offers the one lesson that none of these efforts will produce.  It is that, if the Middle East has a future, it does not lie with freedom, democracy, ‘empowering’ this or that favored sector of society, investing in this or that or the other thing, shoring up anti-something efforts, or ‘standing up’ for something-or-other.  It lies, for better or however worse, with Islam.

This is not an Islamist claim.  It doesn’t really have a lot to do with the nature of Islam in any of its forms.  It has to do with the role of liberals in the so-called Arab Spring, and with the role of the political tendencies and institutions they hold dear.   The following will argue this from the conduct and motivations of liberals in Egypt and Syria, and from the record of secular government in the region.  To examine this conduct, you need to consider the nature of the events we’re dealing with.

Their very name invites distortion.   The term 'Arab Spring' reveals the delusions deliberately or, much more often, unthinkingly promoted by those who sympathise with the now-failed revolts in Egypt, Syria, and Tunisia (which won't be discussed here).  The spring in the name comes from the 1968 "Prague Spring", well-known as Czechoslovakia's nonviolent striving towards nice, Western, democratic ideals.  The idea was to portray the revolts in the same way:  nice, non-violent, pro-Western, pro-democracy, and 'democracy' in the Polly-Annish Western sense of a practice where only People Like Us get elected.

None of this applies to the revolts.

Even in Egypt, they were not non-violent: indeed this lie is also a grievous insult to the heroic Egyptians who fought police and snipers like lions.  The idea that only non-violent resisters should be held up for admiration pervades not only Western but middle class Middle Eastern propaganda.  Apparently, it is only in the West that fighting tyrants is acceptable.

As for nice ideals, that held for the leadership and much of the vanguard in the very first days of the revolts.  But this induces a misunderstanding:  that the vanguard was the heart and soul of these uprisings.

They were not.  Had this been true, the 'Arab Spring' would have been just another of the many pointless middle class cameos in the story of stagnant or dynamically monstrous Middle Eastern régimes.  There would have been some arrests and things would have got right back to normal.  But it was what's annoyingly called the 'Arab Street' that was out to finish what the middle class liberals started.  The ordinary Egyptians (and Syrians), the ones who didn't make themselves heard on web sites or social media, were not Prague Spring types.  (When the song Sout al horreya refers to hunger, it is not singing about the middle class.)  They were religious and had become increasingly so as the hopes raised by Nasser’s secularist vision faded.  Their religion, as it reached out to those trapped in poverty, inevitably acquired political overtones.  It affected their notions of freedom and democracy: Morsi’s relationship with the Muslim Brotherhood, for example, did not count as some dangerous threat to their version of those ideals.  Unlike the middle class, they wanted real social change, better lives, not institutional reform.  Some of them wanted power.   They felt their time had come, and their rule would not conform to a liberal, secularist model.

The recent history of resistance to the state testifies to this.  Those who died opposing the military in Egypt were, overwhelmingly, Muslim Brotherhood, and this after the middle class ushered in a military dictatorship in the name of liberal values.   In Syria, when resistance had to arm itself or perish, it was Islamist militias who increasingly dominated the middle class movements with their business-suited leaders in Turkey or Europe.  These Islamist movements were not the heart and soul of the demonstrations that are now reviewed with nostalgia.  But they were the heart, soul and muscle of resistance, when the going got really tough and rebel units, in the face of massacres outside the main urban centers, established themselves in the countryside & smaller cities.  And as usual, in the countryside, people were more conservative and less liberal.

What the middle class liberals started gained historic significance because it almost instantaneously drew in hundreds of thousands who were neither middle class nor liberal.  How did the liberals react?

The liberals’ conduct.

In Egypt, their reaction can be summed up in few words.   When Egypt’s first free and fair election brought in Mohamed Morsi, whom they considered an Islamist, they spun tales of how he was a sinister authoritarian in disguise.[i]  They poo-pooed the idea that democracy was as it had been defined for two thousand years, as majority rule, and decided it had to guarantee that liberal voices and ideologies predominated.  More important, they decided that yes, they actually preferred the murdering, torturing military to Morsi, who they feared was the thin edge of a Brotherhood wedge.  The very idea that they didn’t know what their prominent participation in Morsi’s overthrow would bring to Egypt is beneath contempt.

In Syria, it’s more complex.

The liberals fall into three categories – ex-officers in the Syrian armed forces, exile politicians, and highly literate activists.  Though middle class, they could not have behaved more differently from their Egyptian counterparts.   For the most part they steadfastly refused to abandon their Islamist allies, despite strong pressure from the US.

Perhaps the liberals relied on the Islamist forces to keep Assad at bay.   Perhaps, adequately supported by the US, they would have turned on the ‘extremist’ militias.   But the fact is, they never did.   This, however, proved the undoing of the Syrian revolution.

Here the fateful decision for the liberals was not so much with whom to ally domestically, but with whom to ally outside the country.  They chose, or tried to choose, the West.  They did not choose the region's counterpart to Morsi:  Erdogan, incessantly labeled an anti-liberal authoritarian.  To have chosen Erdogan would have meant, were the revolution to succeed, decisive Turkish involvement and influence.  This would mean, in turn, that the liberals were irreparably subordinated to the Islamist tendencies represented by Erdogan himself and by the Muslim Brotherhood in Syria.  The liberals, it seems, were not dead set against alliance with such forces when it was a matter of physical survival.  But to accept Islamist leadership, if not immediately then in Syria's future, was something the liberals could not contemplate.   So they persisted in their dream that they were indeed fighting for Freedom and Democracy, and so was 'Syria' itself.

But those where not 'Syria's' objectives.   A large though unknown proportion of Syria's anti-Assad masses weren’t liberals; they were likely more conservative than the Muslim Brotherhood itself. (Indeed despite strenuous efforts to highlight the role of women in the demonstrations, the crowds were overwhelmingly male, to an extent that defies attempts to present the 2011 uprising as predominantly secularist.)  Many others, not Islamist or even conservative, turned to the Islamist militias as their best counter to Assad.   Western governments knew this and quickly soured on the revolution.  Long before the emergence of ISIS and ‘Al-Qaeda affiliated’ group, the West was nervous about the Muslim Brotherhood component of the Syrian National Council and the Free Syrian Army.  Though it took some time to become apparent, once this happened, the game was up.

From the very start of its ‘efforts’, the US and denied the rebels anti-aircraft weapons they feared might fall into the hands of the rebels’ Islamist battlefield allies.  Without such weapons, the rebels couldn’t hang on to their territorial gains and couldn’t protect their civilian populations.  Soon arms deliveries slowed to a trickle.  The same fear of Islamist domination prompted the US to decide it didn’t, after all, want the revolution to succeed, nor even give it the support it needed to survive.  And it did not survive.   So the choice of the West over Erdogan was indeed fateful, and the liberals played a major role in making it.

By allying, not with Turkey but with 'the West', i.e. the US and its ever-serviceable partner, Jordan, the liberals had mired the Syrian uprising in false hopes and, eventually, worse, a partly successful attempt to convert the desperate revolutionary forces away from rebellion, to become mere Western proxies in the fight against ISIS.  It was also to invite the West to promote reliably anti-Islamist forces, the Kurdish PKK, in preference to the rebels and in sneaking, tacit alliance with Assad.
Turkey held the only promise of deposing Assad, because it held the only promise of an understanding between the anti-Assad forces, Russia and Iran.  Turkey couldn’t care less that Russia annexed the Crimea, nor that Russia wanted an expanded presence in the Mediterranean.  It didn’t care about Hezbollah and had important economic ties to Iran.  There was, then, a chance that Russia and Iran could be persuaded to sideline Assad in return for an important regional ally who would be fine with an expansion of Russian bases in the area.  On the other hand, a rebel-US alliance meant that potential allies, Iran and Russia, had to be enemies.

The liberals’ choice also hobbled Turkey.  The West’s bright idea for fixing Syria was to support the YPG, the Syrian branch of the Kurdish PKK.  They were Assad’s allies and Erdogan's military enemies.  On top of this, the West (and sometimes the liberals) consistently incited secularist rebel units against hard-line Islamist forces, so that the rebels were weakened still further.  Erdogan, beset by a pro-Assad opposition, potential Russian pushback and the US’ protection of the Kurds, could not provide the military muscle the rebels needed.  So the US betrayal was the end of the road.  Choosing the West meant, unwillingly, unknowingly but unavoidably, choosing Assad.  That was the terrible price for placing faith in Western democracies.

Why did the liberals make their choices?

Though the choices of Syrian and Egyptian liberals were radically different, their ultimate motivation was the same.  They found the prospect of an Islamist future intolerable.

It would be hard for those who have never seen Egypt to fathom the frustration experienced by liberals there, even under Mubarak’s secularist rule.   A Muslim librarian, gone to buy a washing machine, is berated by the salesman for not wearing a veil.  She complains that her assistants constantly slip religious tracts into her display cases.   Alcohol is bought and consumed semi-clandestinely, amid disapproval.  A woman is told that if she smokes on the street, "everyone will think you are a prostitute."  Even modestly dressed, women are subject to constant harassment - and sometimes they would rather not be modestly dressed.   You leave a famous antique shop to find the landing entirely occupied by devout employees at prayer.  You can't have bacon and eggs, or kiss on the street, or sign into a hotel with a male other than your husband.  To enter into a mixed marriage requires a high tolerance for outraged opposition.  The liberals, by and large wealthy enough to travel and even live partly abroad, find the country stifling.   These lifestyle preoccupations are pervasive, unceasing, and, the truth is, far, far more important to most liberals than whether they live under freedom and democracy.  They were much happier under Nasser's aggressively secularist dictatorship.

Maybe better to say this:  the liberals wanted cultural freedom, and, for some, the freedom to write political commentary linked to their media careers.  But they weren't interested in political freedom.  Though pretending otherwise, they viewed it with hostility when they saw it in operation.  Political freedom meant democracy and democracy meant the Brotherhood.

The liberals, bluntly put, view the Muslim Brotherhood and its followers with deep hatred.  They felt accommodation was impossible.  They were prepared to live in the 'pre-Spring' atmosphere, but feared that, with the Brotherhood in a governing position, life would become genuinely intolerable.  So the emergence of an Islamist government was seen as an existential threat - not to the existence of liberals, but to the existence of the lifestyle they worked hard to maintain.

The Syrian liberals' situation was almost the mirror-image of the Egyptians'.   Despite sincere hatred of Assad's Syria, liberals could well imagine that his overthrow would bring something much like what the Egyptian liberal experienced and very probably what they feared for the future.  Though the Assad régime was repugnant, though the course of events made armed revolution the only possible response, Syrian liberals were deeply concerned to retain control over the revolution's course.   This could not exclude alliance with conservative Islamist forces, but it had to involve some external constraint on the extent to which Islamists would dominate a post-Assad future.   That constraint could only come from close, fruitful alliance with the West, and, since the Europeans were far too timid to act on their own, with the US.   Unlike their Egyptian counterparts, the Syrian liberals never contemplated the betrayal of the revolution undertaken.  (Indeed the entire history of independent Syria indicated that any attempt by members of a liberal élite to rejoin the fold would end in torture and death.)  But they hoped against hope that US support would enable them to retain strong leadership of the anti-Assad forces.

So in Egypt and Syria alike, fear of Islamists pushed the liberals into decisions disastrous for their revolutions.   But did they really have an alternative?   If they did, was it anything more than an unappetizing choice of some supposedly lesser evil?

The future

Suppose that the liberals were completely justified in their attitudes towards political Islam.  Suppose they  had a deeply principled commitment to the values that happened to underwrite their lifestyle.  It hardly matters.  Political Islam is the only road to change left in the Middle East.  It might be a dead end or even a road to hell, but nothing will improve unless that road is taken.  It’s the only way to bring the sort of real change that sidelines the élites - often the 'notable families' who have run things since Ottoman times - who have so conspicuously failed to provide good government.

The reason Islam offers the only realistic hope for change is simple:  there are no plausible alternatives.  Sure, liberal democracy or some other secularist tendency might in theory offer some wonderful solution.  But they cannot offer a plausible solution because their record is so indelibly tainted, especially but not exclusively in the Middle East.

A rational observer of history has to conclude that, believe it or not, Islamism offers the safest alternative, because literally every major atrocity in recent history has been secularist, including the mass slaughters of Cambodia, Rwanda, and the Congo.   True, history also offers some good secular régimes, including liberal democracies, but these failed to ward off the horrors of, for example, Franco Hitler and Stalin, not to mention two world wars.  Someone might argue that, despite these unusual cases, secularist and in particular liberal democratic government offers rewards that outweigh the risks.   But that won’t work if, as a rational Middle Easterner would do, you focus the secularist record in the Middle East.

There we have just two régimes that might possibly be considered liberal democracies.   Israel, with its bloodshed and its dedication to racial sovereignty, can hardly attract emulation.  So there remains Lebanon, which even has a roughly Western-style economy.  But Lebanon’s civil war cost 175,000 lives, and no one suggests a repeat is out of the question.  Yet when we look at other secularist régimes, the record is even worse.

The secularist governments of the Middle East have included some non-disasters, countries where torture and repression are rife as the society slowly deteriorates – in Jordan, Egypt, Tunisia, and Morocco.  Otherwise, secularism has been a catastrophe.  There’s Saddam, the Assads, and the Shah of Iran.  There’s Iraq after the American occupation.  Gaddafi drifts into insanity after inflicting terrible suffering in Chad and Libya itself.   Secularist government brought Yemen nothing but war and starvation.  Algeria’s horrifying struggle with Islamists cost another 175,000 lives.

But it is not just the terrible record of secularism that make it an implausible solution.  Woven into these disasters is the West’s dogged resistance to every single secular or moderate ideology that gained some traction in the Middle East – as opposed to the gallery of dictators that have benefitted from Western support.  Communism wouldn't do.  Arab nationalism and Arab socialism weren't good enough either.  Their greatest and most successful exponent, Nasser, became a pariah among Western democracies; he was undone by the Western-sponsored and secularist state of Israel.  Moderate Islam, in the form of the Muslim Brotherhood, has labelled extremist and ruthlessly suppressed by the entrenched élites it threatened.   The West may not have overthrown Morsi, but they quickly accepted the coup and have been lavishing military and economic attention on the Sisi régime ever since.   Yet if a secularist project wanted to please the West and dedicated itself to repressing even moderate Islamist groups, it would have time and energy for nothing else.

With secularism offering no plausible promise of change, only Islam remains.  Even if what matters most is the defeat of political Islam, that will never happen unless Islamists are discredited.  To be discredited, they would have to be given a real, full chance to govern, free from the sort of deep state sabotage that marked Morsi's so-called reign in Egypt.  Only then will political Islam prove or disprove itself.  If it brings positive change, great.  If it doesn't, the secularists will get their new chance, without the encumbrance of a strong Islamist opposition.
Given the whole secularist record in the Middle East, I wouldn't be optimistic how that would turn out.  The abiding contemporary liberal stance is loud espousal of freedom and democracy.  But these only have to do with the forms and legal structures of government, not with policy.  They don't give people jobs or address climate change.  There is also, of course, commitment to diversity, which means we will all acquire full participation in our disastrous societies.  In the early days of liberalism, liberals at least offered laissez-faire capitalism, a bad program but a substantive program nonetheless.  Today they have nothing.  I can't see why they would be more likely than Islamists to find substantive solutions.

[i] For a critical analysis of this claim, see Mohammed Fadel, “What killed Egyptian democracy?”, Boston Review, January 24, 2014,

Wednesday, July 11, 2018

What broke the Syrian revolution?

An investigation by Elizabeth Tsurkov entitled "The Breaking of Syria's Rebellion" has elicited debate over what broke it.  Did it break because the rebels were corrupted, authoritarian, feuding, oppressive, or did the rebels get that way because something else broke it - most likely Russian and Iranian intervention.   It's not the sort of debate that can be definitively resolved.   But there are reasons to think the breaking came first.

The interviews on which the study is based took place since, it seems, about mid-2016.  Supposing by then that the revolution was broken, the findings diminish in significance.   Of course if things seeemed hopeless, corruption would set in; discipline would break down; authoritarianism - a given when an area is under severe military threat - would intensify, and the mass of people would resent being exposed, for nothing, to the horrors of war.   And of course the most determinedly ideological forces, in this case radical Islamist militants, would be seen as the lone inheritors of the struggle.   But when was hope lost?

In my opinion hope was lost well before a full-fledged Iranian/Russian intervention.   It was lost roughly when Obama erased his own red line, about mid-2013.  About the time of his reversal, he also made it crystal clear, despite reports to the contrary by Michael Weiss and other supposedly knowlegable journalists, that the US would never seriously supply the rebels with what they needed to counter Assad.  (I argued this in some detail in June, 2013.)  In particular, that meant the rebels would never have the capacity even to moderate the régime's air attacks.  Indeed, the US did not merely refrain from supplying the most minimal anti-aircraft capacity; it forbade other parties from supplying such weapons as well.  This inability didn't necessarily mean the rebels would be wiped out, but it did mean they couldn't win.  It did mean that civilians were being exposed to the barrel bombs and other attacks for - it was becoming clear - nothing.

So it was the US betrayal that really marked the turning point.  Its effects were delayed for some time because the US took another year or two entirely to abandon the pretense of supporting the rebels against Assad, rather than as a mere proxy force against ISIS.  But past that point, if hope did not die instantly, it died slowly.  The demoralisation of the rebels and the degradation of their cause - so carefully documented by Tsurkov - was then inevitable.