Thursday, May 18, 2017

Syria isn't complicated


It's sometimes said that Syria is complicated, or at least beset by incoherent alliances.   It isn't that complicated if you accept that some of the allies passionately deny they're allied.

Bullshit aside, there are three sides in Syria, each opposing the other two (so, yes, just a little complicated).  They are:

1.  The rebels, Turkey.

2.  ISIS

3.  Assad, Russia, Iran, the Syrian Kurds (those represented by the PKK affiliate, the YPG), the US, Australia, Canada, the EU, Jordan, plus some less involved parties like Egypt.  Were the term not already taken, this group might be called The Coalition.

One of these parties, ISIS, needs no explaining as far as alliances are concerned.  ISIS has no allies.  As for the rest, explanation is a straightforward matter of ignoring statements and observing actions.

This approach clarifies relations between the rebels and Turkey.  Turkey and the Free Syrian Army undertake joint operations in northern Aleppo.  Some rebels don't want Turkish troops on Syrian soil, and they sound like they are enemies of Turkey.   But even these rebels want and get indirect support from Turkey or via Turkey, so despite the trash talk and occasional confrontations they are pretty much allies.

So most of the explaining has to do with the third group, which developed in the last couple of years, partly as a reaction to the expansion of ISIS.

First, the EU and the US are enemies of Turkey, the NATO link notwithstanding.  The US and the EU have never shown the smallest inclination to defend Turkey against Assad or Russia.  They have instead protected Turkish expatriates associated with the very serious, very bloody coup attempt of 2016.  They have also backed the armed Kurdish insurgency inside Turkey.  They do this by supplying large quantities of arms to the insurgents' Syrian affiliate.  Like Russia, the US has installed troops to block the expansion of Turkish/rebel operations.  In other words if you simply ignore a bunch of verbiage divorced from reality, the active campaign against the Turkish government could hardly be more obvious.

Second, the US is allied with Assad, Russia, and Iran.  It bombs ISIS assets engaged in attacking Assad in the Deir Ezzor region.  In supporting the Kurdish YPG, it supports a force whose alliance with Assad is day by day establishing itself as an open secret.  Moreover the US is dedicated to destroying the only remaining serious armed opposition to Assad, the (anti-ISIS) radical Islamists.  Again like Russia, it regularly conducts air strikes against these factions, a practice instituted already years ago.  The EU goes along with all of this.*

The motive for supporting Assad is extreme paranoia about association between rebel groups and Al Qaeda.  But why the US and the EU support Assad is not at issue here.  The point is, they do in fact support him.

Yes, years ago, the US CIA actually armed rebel groups that actually fought Assad.  This is very old
news.  As of about three years ago, US support for these groups, now via the Pentagon, was accorded on condition that these groups cease to rebel - that is, that they fought only ISIS, not Assad.  US and Jordanian relations with formerly rebellious 'rebel' groups is now entirely confined to restraining their anti-Assad operations as much as possible.  Occasionally, especially in the south around Daraa, these groups do attack Assad, but feebly, because always without US and Jordanian backing.

Since the US is allied with Assad, it is also allied with Russia and Iran.  The US and Russia mount air attacks on the very same rebel groups.  US operations against these groups are a minor adjunct to very serious régime and Iranian operations against them.  The US is also very closely allied with Iran in its Iraqi anti-ISIS campaigns.  Again, verbiage to the contrary does nothing to obscure these realities.

Exactly why things have turned out this way is another story.  Essentially the US has decided that its allies are the best bet for over-running all of ISIS' holdings.  Probably that's correct.  However there is no question that by at least one powerful objective measure - civilians killed, tortured, maimed - Assad is not the least but the greatest evil.  Many also argue that to prefer this evil, to back yet another pathologically sadistic secularist is, in the medium or long term - hell, in the all-but-extremely-short term - hardly the strategy most likely to blunt anti-Western Islamist extremism.  This piece isn't intended to engage in this debate.  It just seeks to undermine the pretense that the debate is about something complicated.

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*  It appears that Trump's missile strike in response to an Assad chemical attack was a momentary outburst of decency, not a policy change.  The May 18th strike on a régime/Shia convoy at Tanf was stated to be a ground commander's response to a threat, again, not a change of policy.  The US claimed it happened after Russian attempts to dissuade the convoy from its course.

Tuesday, February 14, 2017

Should we worry about the Muslim Brotherhood?

Should we worry about the Muslim Brotherhood

Hassan Hassan warns that the Brotherhood is not moderate.  His warning is based entirely on the pronouncements of one associated cleric, Yussuf al Al Qaradawi.  This, frankly, is not only ill-founded but dangerous.

Al Qaradawi, not a member of the Muslim Brotherhood, said suicide bombing was "permissible for Palestinians".  He restricted the practice to groups, not individuals, but in 2014 extended the permission to "civil wars in the Middle East", in particular Syria.  Hassan Hassan said this let the genie out of the bottle.

Suicide bombing in the Arab world goes all the way back to the spectacular attack on the US marine barracks in Beirut, in 1983.  In Palestine it goes back at least to 1996, five years before Al Qaradawi's original fatwa, so the cause-effect relation doesn't even get started.  He could have made it more prevalent, or not; neither Hassan Hassan nor, anyone else has the slightest idea.  What we do know is that no member of the Muslim Brotherhood in its main contemporary incarnations, in Egypt and Tunisia, engaged in a Muslim Brotherhood suicide bombing campaign.  Since both Brotherhood movements renounced violence of any kind, it's a little hard to see how Al Qaradawi's dastardly influence operated within the Brotherhood framework.  Yet Hassan Hassan seemingly wants to blame the Brotherhood, not only for Al Qaradawi's pronouncements, but for suicide attacks all over the world, even in Bangladesh, where the organizations involved have nothing to do with the Brotherhood.

So we are asked to believe that all branches of the Brotherhood are scary because a cleric, not a member of the Brotherhood but an 'intellectual influence' on the Brotherhood, approved of suicide attacks. In support of this position, we are to note some suicide attacks which had no connection with the Brotherhood, some of which took place in parts of the world in which the Brotherhood has no presence.  We are to fear the Brotherhood because of a pronouncement of this cleric.  The pronouncement is fearful because his theology purportedly encourages suicide attacks which, however, are quite adequately explained as a weapon of the weak, not as a response to some johnny-come-lately theological pronouncement.  This is not reasoning but fear-mongering. 

It gets worse.  Though Al Qaradawi said suicide bombing was permitted in Palestine, he retracted the permission as, he said, conditions had changed.  Hassan Hassan warns that he did not "disapprove of the practice in general".  Apparently this is meant to suggest that the Muslim Brotherhood is soft on terrorism, or covertly pro-terrorist, or something like that.  Yet today the majority of suicide bomb attacks  occur in Syria, a country to which Hassan Hassan draws our attention.  These attacks are carried out on military targets during assaults, which in turn are part of military offensive or even defensive operations.  They do not fit most definitions of terrorism.

If we are to be cautioned about the Brotherhood, how about this?  Their greatest success has been in Egypt, where they renounced violence almost forty years ago, where they were robbed of their electoral victory and then massacred.  In Tunisia, minus the massacre, something very similar happened.  Now the Brotherhood is hunted, persecuted.  Then analysts insist the Brotherhood is scary, dangerous:  they sign on to a demonisation that can only lead - we do live in the real world - to more arrests, more killings, more torture, all of it completely unjustified.  Ask yourself then, which pronouncements are likely to encourage 'radicalisation'?  Which counsels are likely to undermine moderation?  What warnings are likely to become self-fulfilling prophecies?