Wednesday, February 10, 2016

Too late for a no-fly zone

Michael Ignatieff and Leon Wieseltier, in a passionately moralistic Washington Post piece, have revived interest in the idea of a no-fly zone in Syria.  This proposal, once attractive, has become preposterous.

Even before Russian intervention, the no-fly zone idea was dubious, if only because the Syrian army possesses many long-range weapons which would cover the entire zone from the ground.  But when only the Syrian air force was in question, it was certainly possible, both militarily and politically, to establish such a zone.  Today, the strategy is a non-starter.

A no-fly zone would have to be established either with or without Russian cooperation.  If with, it would be nothing but an oblique agreement to bomb IS.   Russia would certainly carry on much like today - it would insist on its right to bomb 'extremists', that is, whoever it liked.  So Russian-supported no-fly zone would not deserve the name.

Suppose then, as Ignatieff and Wieseltier imagine, it would be established in defiance of Russia.  It would then come with a commitment to shoot down Russian air assets.  The US would foresee sustaining some losses from advanced Russian anti-aircraft installations, and would therefore want preemptively to bomb these installations.  In other words there would be a great deal of flying in this no-fly zone.  After all, a simple Russian capitulation would be utterly disastrous for Putin and indeed for Russian prestige.

These are the military likelihoods.  What matters even more are the real military possibilities.  It is one thing to talk of a no-fly zone imposed on the Syrian air force, which Israel proved a pushover decades ago.  It is quite something else to initiate violent confrontation with the world's second nuclear power.  Even supposing this step could not possibly lead to nuclear Armageddon, nuclear powers have less disincentive to engage in serious conventional warfare:  they feel that their opponents will never dare push them to desperate measures.  Despite the apparent US lead in high-tech weaponry, it is by no means clear that the US would do well in a ground conflict against a formidable enemy thousands of miles from its shores.

These military uncertainties make the idea of a no-fly zone politically absurd.  Europe would never even consider consenting to such measures - and whatever the true importance of Europe to US interests, America would never risk offending Europe on such a serious matter.  Perhaps more important, China would have to take clashes with Russia as proof positive that preparation for a full military confrontation with the US was a pressing necessity.

Yet this obstacle is as nothing compared to the domestic political barrier.  The American people couldn't care less about Syrians.  They could never be sold on the measure as a wise step against terrorism, because they are convinced that the Syrian opposition is in bed with terrorists.  They could never accept making enemies of Russia and Assad, who fight the Islamic State as well as rebel units that allegedly pro-rebel commentators insist on calling 'Al Qaeda'.  There isn't the slightest, tiniest chance that establishing a no-fly zone against Russia could get Congressional approval.  A country that wouldn't aid the rebels when the cost was almost zero is hardly going to aid them when the cost is potentially astronomical.

Is it really possible that Ignatieff and Wieseltier don't realize this?  Perhaps their screed is just empty posturing.  If not, it suggests something very different from its apparent humanitarianism.

The presupposition of their no-fly proposal is that the US must take the Syrian conflict in hand rather than entrust it to regional powers.  Better clean-shaven American Top Guns at 30,000 feet than a bunch of crazy Arabs running around with Kalashnikovs on the ground.  This is amusingly obtuse given that the Russian's Ukrainian adventure has just given the world an excellent lesson in how to intervene 'asymmetrically', without provoking a serious great power confrontation.  The US could turn this strategy against Russia through massive, whole-hearted support of local anti-Assad ground forces via the states who back them.  Indeed this is the only possible way to end the war that so appalls Ignatieff and Wieseltier.  But most likely their contempt for the people of the region blinds them to this opportunity.

Sunday, February 7, 2016

US-backed Kurds coordinate with Russia, Assad to attack rebels

On February 6th, 2016, a Washington Institute for Near East Policy piece  brought into full light an aspect of the Syria conflict long shrouded in willed obscurity.  Kurdish units - US armed, trained and financed - attacked FSA positions in Western Aleppo.  The attackers were aided by Russian bombs and a simultaneous attack by the SAA, Assad's army.

Some details and implications:

The attacking units apparently belong to the all-Kurdish YPG (People's Protection Units) and the SDF (Syrian Democratic Forces), a  mostly Kurdish militia with a sprinkling of Arab recruits.  The SDF is simply an unofficial asset of the PYD ( Syrian Kurdish Democratic Union Party), a Syrian Kurdish party fighting and holding territory in Northern Syria.  The PYD and its YPG units are to all intents and purposes an arm of the Turkish PKK, one of the two main Kurdish insurgent groups in Iraq, Syria and Turkey itself.

The PYD has for over a year been a major recipient of US military support, including close air support, most notably in Kobane.  Its territory is centered in Hassakeh province.  It has had minor turf disputes with Assad, diligently inflated by pro-Kurdish propagandists.  It has also clashed the Syrian rebels, including the FSA.  More important, it has had at the very least a long-standing modus vivendi with the régime.  More recently, collaboration with Assad through his Baath party has almost come out into the open:
LCC [a rebel information agency] was informed that Hilal al-Hilal, Assistant Regional Secretary in Baath Party, visited Hasaka city (northeast of Syria) in Feb 02 and met with Kurdish Units accompanied by party leaders and security personnel of the regime in the city. LCC sources said that the attendees discussed coordination between both sides on city administration. Al-Hilal promised the Kurdish Units in the meeting with ammos and weapons support to fight against ISIS in the southern suburbs. The source mentioned also that regime’s forces is about to form a new military troop of “Volunteer Brigades”, and supervised by Hezbollah to support the Kurdish Units in their war with ISIS.
Like every announcement of Western support for the PYD, this report portrays régime-Kurdish collaboration as part of the fight against ISIS.  However Hezbollah is, of course, a Iranian-backed militia that has been the most prominent among Assad's non-Syrian support troops.  It virtually never fights ISIS but only the rebels.

From these reports it follows that the US is now underwriting a Kurdish movement which attacks, not only ISIS, but the rebels.  In particular it is now part of a major joint assault on crucial positions of the FSA (Free Syrian Army), the very group the US purports to support.  This assault is backed by Russian air strikes and complemented by simultaneous régime attacks.  The Kurdish attackers belong to an extension of the very same organizations whose main support, up to now, has been the United States.  Wherever Obama renders these organizations stronger, including all advances against ISIS, he frees up resources for attacks on the FSA.  He does so, not in a small way, but to a crucial extent.  So while the US condemns Assad and Russia, at the same time it backs attacks on the opposition to the régime - not just any part of the opposition, but the part which the US has 'vetted' as free from extremist leanings.

This is not entirely surprising.  It has long been clear that, at the end of the day, the US prefers the atrocious reality of Assad to the possibility that a rebel group, any rebel group, comes to power.   That's because the US doesn't trust even 'vetted' rebel groups to remain free of Islamist taint.

Perhaps more surprising is the curtain of silence drawn across the scene by almost every source of information allegedly disgusted with Assad and sympathetic to at least some of the rebels.  Even genuine experts on the situation don't say plainly that the Kurds are attacking the FSA with régime and Russian support. On the contrary they express themselves so obliquely the average reader could never know what's going on:
YPG forces in Efrin appear to be receiving Russian air support, particularly near Azaz, a key city currently occupied by elements of the Turkish-backed anti-Assad insurgency. Open source airstrike data suggests that the SDF could seize Manbij with US backing, while the Assad regime moves north from Aleppo to Al Bab. The YPG, in turn, could then cut a deal with the regime to travel through regime held territory to Efrin.
Thus the FSA becomes 'elements of the Turkish-backed anti-Assad insurgency', which could mean extremists.  There is not even a clear mention of any Kurdish offensive - just the support they 'appear' to be receiving which 'could' enable them to seize some locations.  But passages like this, buried in peripheral information sites, are a model of forthrightness compared to what appears, or rather doesn't appear, elsewhere.  No major newspaper speaks of the Kurdish offensive - surely one of the biggest developments in the entire five-year conflict.  None of the prominent supposedly anti-Assad analysts mention it.  Expert military observers who seem to know the movements of every tank in Syria say nothing.  Almost invariably, Kurdish attacks on the rebels are studiously ignored in favour of imprecations against Russia and Assad.

We seem to be in a media climate that mimics the McCarthy or Stalin eras.

Sunday, January 24, 2016

Egypt's Arab winter

The reflections on January 25th, the date of Egypt's failed revolution, are painful to read.  Far more painful the experience of those now entombed in the military's prisons.   Alaa, in a truly heart-rending piece, decides he has nothing more to say.   Few even try to be hopeful.

Perhaps one reason the situation today seems so utterly hopeless is that none of the commentators show any sign of having learned the one sure lesson of Egypt's 'Arab Spring'.  This is not at all for lack of insight.   It is because that insight itself is, for the secularist revolutionaries who write now, painful indeed.

I do not claim to know if Egypt's revolution could have succeeded.   I do know what, I am quite sure, every Egyptian knows.   There can be no real change in Egypt unless the army is defeated.   That may be impossible, but it is certainly impossible unless secularists are fully committed to supporting the main opposition in Egypt, the Muslim Brotherhood.

Secularists deceived themselves when they could not make this hard choice.   They pretended there were other choices.  They can pretend no more.  The record of secularism in the Middle East, thanks in part to Western interference, has been abysmal.   Even today, bloodstained, stagnant Egypt is not the worst of the secularist bunch; it is probably among the best.

Lebanon and Algeria had civil wars in which over a 100,000 died.  Libya is in chaos.   Syria and Iraq experience catastrophic slaughter.  Jordan may have killed as many Palestinians as any other nation before abandoning its West Bank to Israel's tender mercies.  It retains some measure of stability largely due to its smug and total subservience to the US.  It is always ready to connive with Israel,  itself a disgrace to decency and 'democracy'.  Then there are the despairing societies of Morocco and Tunisia.  Those who still champion a secularist alternative are following their heart or their faith, but not the evidence.

Secularism may be the best solution everywhere, but nowhere do the populations of the Middle East have good reason to believe it - and they don't.   Change, if it comes, will be Islamist.   Those who don't accept this, might as well join the forces of repression.

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.

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(*)  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”.