Friday, October 20, 2017

Did the West 'give up' on the Syrian rebels?

In “How Assad’s Enemies Gave Up on the Syrian Opposition”, Aron Lund follows many other analysts in his account of how the West 'gave up' on Syria’s rebels.  The implication is that the West tried to back them against Assad, but at long last found this well-meaning effort both futile and ill-advised. The project produced a big mess!

That's at least highly misleading.  The following argues that West never seriously supported the rebels, so it can hardly be said that support should never have been extended in the first place.

1.  Lund has a New York Times report stating that there were "flights shipping military equipment to Syria".  Here he misspoke:  without any sinister intent, he asserted what he knows is false.  Not one single flight went to Syria.  All flights went, as the article states, to Turkey or Jordan.

2.  This is of the highest significance, because it means that only a still-unknown proportion of the 3500 tons shipped actually ended up in rebel hands. 

3.  What we do know is that there were many complaints that only a trickle of those arms made it across the border: the deliveries were constantly and severely restricted to bend rebel groups to the wishes of Turkey, and - especially - Jordan and the US.  For example:  “We need between 500-600 tons of ammunition a week. We get between 30-40 tons. So you do the calculations.”

4.  The overwhelming majority of the arms used are of Soviet design.  Even ammunition tracked to outside sources is not linked to identifiable US-backed shipments.  Some of this material certainly did come from the CIA operation, but there are no videos nor any first-hand testimony of large deliveries crossing the Syrian border.  In short there is no evidence that, contrary to repeated rebel claims, they received large amounts of CIA-supplied weaponry, as opposed to black-market purchases from numerous sources.

5.  There is also no evidence, indeed no claim, that CIA training made a substantial difference.  The later Pentagon train-and-equip program leaked small quantities of arms; the trained units were consistently steered away from fighting Assad.

6.   Even if large shipments actually ended up in rebel hands, these shipments did not afford the rebels air cover: there were no useful MANPADS or other anti-aircraft weapons.  And of course in contrast to the Western-backed Kurdish forces, no one gave the rebels air cover or close air support.  This, predictably, proved decisive.

7.  Without such support, the claim that Western supplies ever played a pivotal role in the course of the war is implausible.  The rebels, in better days, obtained massive quantities of arms from the black market and captured régime depots.  These seem quite sufficient to account for the rebels' periods of success.

8.   In short the whole idea that the US and the West made any serious effort to overthrow Assad is a non-starter.  Western backers may indeed have planned to overthrow him.  But between the plans and the implementation lay an almost impenetrable barrier of reluctance to support the rebels who might have brought him down.  This barrier proved much more consequential than the plans or even the arms delivery flights that supposedly exacerbated the conflict.

9.  Where did this reluctance come from?  Lund rightly says:  "Though the Syrian president was now widely reviled as a war criminal and held responsible for tens of thousands of civilian deaths, the likely alternatives seemed to be either stateless, jihadi-infested chaos or some sort of Talibanesque theocracy. International enthusiasm for the opposition plummeted."

Lund might have pointed out that, on all evidence, "the likely alternatives" would have been far better than Assad, particularly since the West had more than enough capacity to restrain any post-Assad 'chaos'. But this is the failure of every respectable, sober, well-informed Syria analyst. Should it have had any significant effect on Western policy, it is a lot to answer for.

Friday, September 8, 2017

What about that Syria analysis taken down from the US Holocaust Museum Site?

Recently there has been a fuss about a document entitled Critical Junctures in United States Policy toward Syria:  An Assessment of the Counterfactuals.  It says it is part of a 'research project':

The project seeks to conduct a systematic review of critical policy junctures in the Syrian conflict, identify alternative policies that the US government plausibly could have adopted at these junctures, and assess the likely effects of these counterfactual actions on the conflict and associated atrocities against civilians.

It was removed from the web site of the United States Holocaust Memorial Museum.  It essentially concluded that nothing could be done about Syria, so that Obama's policy decisions, while perhaps not optimal, would have made little difference.

Some have decided that this is a terrible blow to the serious study of Syria.  For example New York Magazine did a probing piece on the takedown, and on Twitter, Zack Beauchamp of VOX comments on a Tablet article about the incident as follows: 

 Not a single quote in this piece contains a substantive critique of the Holocaust Museum's study

 This seems like right-wing political correctness: The study was pulled due to political pressure, not scholarly missteps

The study is based on interviews with respected Syria analysts or former US government officials.  It purports to deliver mature thinking on the situation, leading to, and I quote, "a deeper understanding".  It seems that the contributors are serious intellectuals who raise important issues that needed to be debated.   Well OK, I downloaded the piece before it was taken offline.  I'll quote some of what it says, and then deliver some of that substantive criticism it's thought to deserve.

I'm not doing this just to carp.  I'm doing it because the West's self-righteous but timid response to one of the greatest atrocities of our times has been, all along, diligently abetted and excused by these analysts.  Their fateful opinions call for scrutiny.

The study is built around "Five critical junctures and associated counterfactuals".   They are, in full:

1. Obama's August 2011 statement: Most interviewed for this paper identified Obama’s August 2011 statement that “the time has come for President Assad to step aside” as the most consequential juncture, the so-to-speak original sin. A more nuanced statement developed via a thorough interagency process and accompanied by a well-conceived strategy might have led to fewer atrocities.
2. Clinton/Petraeus arming plan: The summer 2012 decision not to adopt the Clinton/Petraeus plan to vet and arm “moderate” rebels is among the most contentious and yet least significant of the critical junctures with respect to the issue of minimizing civilian deaths. Implementing the plan might have proven counterproductive by extending the duration of the conflict.
3. Chemical weapons "red line": Obama’s September 2013 decision not to undertake standoff strikes to enforce his “red line” against the Assad regime’s use of chemical weapons stands as his most controversial policy decision on Syria, and arguably of his entire presidency. Conducting limited stand-off strikes followed immediately by intensive diplomacy might have led to a reduction in the level of killing.
4. Prioritizing ISIL over the Assad regime: In the late summer 2014, following ISIL’s “blitzkrieg” across Iraq and parts of Syria, the Obama administration made a formal strategic shift prioritizing Iraq and the fight against ISIL over counter-regime objectives in Syria. Implementing a more muscular anti-regime policy as part of a broader counter-ISIL strategy in Syria in 2014 is unlikely to have led to a lower level of atrocities against civilians.
5. No-fly zone over all or part of Syria: The option to enforce a no-fly zone over all or part of Syria has been raised at various times throughout the conflict, specifically in 2012, 2013, and 2015. More creative options for enforcing a partial no-fly zone—perhaps over northern Syria using standoff weapons or employing different tools—should have been given greater consideration.

According to the document, once you consider the 'counterfactuals' associated with these 'junctures', you have to conclude the following:

No silver bullet: No single shift in policy options would have definitively led to a better outcome in terms of the level of atrocities in Syria.

The tone here evokes analytical rigor, but the content, not so much.
May I suppose that when you shift policy, you  move from one option to another?   'No single shift' is quite a claim: it implies that you might move to any possible option.  So when you say 'no single shift' would have definitely led to a better effect, you imply that no possible option would have done so.   So apparently whoever came up with this 'study' thought that all possible options had been considered and found wanting.

Thought, or pretended to think.   Did they really suppose they had considered all possible options?  It's clear that there is one option they were dying to dismiss:  removing Assad, which they occasionally mention under the now-pejorative label of 'regime change'.  Yet this is the only option that seems a serious candidate for a silver bullet:  it's hardly surprising that the others are found wanting, given they are carefully specified to have only limited objectives.  'Regime change' isn't even directly discussed, but introduced in the discussion of the first 'juncture'.  And though the analysts seem to think 'regime change' is a single option, there are many possible ways to effect régime change:  if you were out to change a régime, you would of course consider a number of alternative strategies.  It is quite clear that the analysts were not inclined to do anything of the sort.

The possibility of régime change comes up only in the 'counterfactual' associated with 'juncture 1', Obama's statement that Assad should step aside.  Here is what the document says:

Counterfactual 1:  Make the statement, but back it up with a well-conceived and well-resourced strategy. Advocates of this counterfactual called for the development of a robust  regime change strategy using a mixture of military and non-military measures. The  assumption undergirding this counterfactual focuses on minimizing the killing by removing  Assad as the key perpetrator behind Syria’s killing and atrocities, stressing the importance of aggressively pursuing regime change. Some assumed that in making the statement the President would commit to action. As one former senior State Department official noted, “Not necessarily invasion and occupation, but other means.”[34] Proponents of this policy option favored an earlier and more intense use of indirect military intervention, primarily by arming the rebels, or direct action short of outright invasion.
It is hard to imagine the viability of this counterfactual given Obama’s antipathy toward regime change and his election vow to withdraw America from Middle East conflicts, not engage in a new one. Moreover, given the challenge and complexity of regime change in Syria, it is difficult  to envision how this approach, to be successful, would not have required fairly massive military  intervention, resulting in potentially far higher civilian deaths.

What does this tell us about the quality, intentions and scope of the analyses?
One of the reasons given for dismissing this option is that Obama didn't like it.  But the claim was not that there was no silver bullet given Obama's tastes.  It was that no shift, whether or not Obama liked it, would have done any good.  So this objection is besides the point.

So what's left is:  massive military intervention would be counterproductive.   Elsewhere in the document support for this claim goes a little beyond this pronouncement that success can't be imagined.  We hear that:

Given the fractiousness of the armed opposition at that point, regime change in Syria by 2014–2015 could have led to an even greater level of violence and killing as rival factions would compete for power. Moreover, the increased radicalization of armed groups by that time might have led to the “catastrophic success” scenario marked by the empowering of extremists who might have committed further atrocities.

The unintended consequences of this policy decision might have been significant, particularly with respect to the level of killing and the duration of the conflict. This type of intervention runs a much greater risk of escalation and a slide down the “slippery slope” of deepening US military involvement and intensification of conflict. This in turn might have led to greater killing.

Intensifying military efforts against the regime likely would have been met with counter-escalation by the regime and its allies, as well as broader destabilization across the region.

Does this amount to serious consideration of the options?  We are told that certain bad things might have happened.  This introduces possibilities without assessing their actual probability.  Yet that's part of exploring the truth of a 'counterfactual'.  Are these just fears, or real likelihoods?

Throughout the debate on Syria, the warning about bad outcomes have been amplified using two dubious techniques.  The first is equivocation about the nature of military intervention.  The second is the trick of dangling intervention when it seems to pose dangers, and yanking it away when it might counter the dangers.

Consider first what 'military intervention' means.  The document makes it sound like America would be deeply involved, and in a way that is true.   But that's not the same thing as 'deepening US military involvement', which I take it means the involvement of the US military.   The one does not imply the other either in logic or in the realities of the situation.   The US could be deeply involved, in a 'military intervention' if you like, without any US forces being deployed to Syria at all, and without even some US-run train-and-equip program in Turkey and Jordan.

With the exception of Lebanon, which Israel is deeply committed to keep hobbled, Syria has nothing but enemies in the region, notably the Gulf States and Turkey.  (Jordan is at least no friend of Syria, but in any case will do exactly whatever the US wants it to do.)   In the background lurks another enemy, Israel, with nuclear weapons.  To effect régime change, the US did not have to send its armed forces into Syria.   For the most part, what it had to do was simply drop all its opposition to regional efforts to remove Assad.  His enemies were prepared to support the rebels with massive military aid; with US encouragement they would have been even more prepared to do so.  At most, the US might have had to increase the air-to-air capacities in its numerous large bases in the region.  It's not even clear that that would have been necessary.  Israel, with far fewer resources at its disposal, has used stand-off weapons to make a mockery of the Syrian air force without even entering Syrian airspace.  So it is, to use the document's phrase, 'difficult to imagine' how the US and regional powers could fail to reduce the régime's air power to negligible levels, again without even entering Syrian airspace.  And in these circumstances, it is also difficult to imagine anything but rebel victory.

Here analysts jump in and speak of 'dangers'.  Some of these are real, some are not.  The idea that Assad could 'counter-escalate', as suggested elsewhere in the document, is ludicrous.  How?  With what?  So it cannot be Assad who is going to 'intensify' the conflict.  It can only be his allies, Russia and Iran/Hezbollah.

Consider Russia first. It hasn't anything like the power arrayed against it in the region. If it has now introduced fairly important forces there, it is because the US allowed it ample time to react in the face of US-enforced inaction on the part of regional powers. Since we're doing counterfactuals, imagine that Turkey is heavily involved, as it certainly would be in this scenario. Turkey is a NATO power; Russia cannot attack it without risking catastrophe. So it's not clear that Russia would have any real choice in the matter.

But suppose otherwise; suppose Russia was sufficiently committed to its place in Syria to take enormous risks and expend enormous resources.  Since we're doing counterfactuals, it seems quite likely that Russia could be induced to abandon Assad instead.  What Russia really wants in the region is its one naval base outside the borders of the former Soviet Union:  Tartous.  The anti-Assad coalition, including of course the US, could offer to guarantee Russia perpetual access to the base, and the right to expand it as it sees fit.  And of course the US has much more to offer.   It could back the lifting of sanctions on Russia, it could even accept the annexation of Crimea.  It is 'difficult to imagine' that in the face of such inducements, Russia would prefer a hot war in Syria.

Given Russia's retirement from the stage, the case of Iran is simpler.  With no air cover, Iran would not be in a position to do anything.  It could make trouble elsewhere, but contrary to popular belief, Iran is not an agressive power:  in modern times it hasn't made war on anyone, ever.  Moreover Iran has a potentially more useful base for its ambitions than Lebanon: the US, unwilling to deploy the large ground forces it would need to run the place, has turned over virtually all of southern Iraq to Iran.  But the US doesn't care that much if Iraq goes even further to hell, so it could move against Iranian proxies there and in Syria if it felt so inclined.  So it is unlikely that Iran would have the means or inclination to create any massive destabilization of the situation, much less keep Assad in power.

No doubt these suggestions would be met with loud huffing and puffing from the analysts.  But either you consider all options, or you don't get to say nothing would have helped.  Please note, that is the issue:  not whether the option would be wise or moral or in some other sense 'acceptable', not whether it would have led to a better world, not whether it would serve US or European interests, but whether it would have 'led to a better outcome in terms of level of atrocities in Syria'.  And clearly the 'scholarly' enterprise fails here.   It doesn't consider all the options, and nothing it does consider permits the conclusion that 'regime change' wouldn't have helped.

So the first danger, escalation, is far from established.  The second danger is a more realistic prospect.  It is that the 'fractured' rebels will nurture or drift towards 'extremists'.  Then, it seems, infighting and revenge killing will produce "further atrocities'.

That's not just likely; it's almost certain.  Very few wars end without 'further atrocities'.  But it would be bizarre to suppose that the anti-Assad coalition couldn't keep these to a level orders of magnitude below what Assad has wrought.

For one thing, the coalition would continue to enjoy absolute air superiority:  the sort of MANPADS the rebels possessed would not be any threat to the coalition's aircraft.  So no indiscriminate air attacks, no barrel bombs.  This alone makes it much less likely that the rebels could inflict civilian casualties at anything like the régime's scale.  Air power and cutting off supplies could do only so much to contain the rebels, however; they would have plenty of weapons.   Possibly fuel supplies would limit their range.  But analysts manifest obtuseness or dishonesty when they suppose that, if the rebels wanted to commit massacres, well...  one just has to throw up one's hands.

This is plain nonsense.  Given a coalition-backed victory, for the first time there would be forces committed to preventing atrocities (though it must be admitted, the Russians seem to do this a bit).  These would both be forces fully aligned with regional powers and under their supervision, and, if necessary, coalition troops.  Some of them might even be Western troops.   But the notion that this would inevitably lead to some quagmire or spiral of intensification is utterly implausible.   Evacuations and safe zones do not fit into such that sort of disaster scenario.  This is peace-keeping, not nation-building.  There are many examples of peace-keeping in war zones that haven't had the slightest tendency to escalate.

In short here is a 'policy shift', an option, that the analysts never considered, and had to consider if the conclusion that no shift would help is to stand.  Why didn't they?  Since we are in the realm of speculation, I would like to suggest why.

These analysts do not shape their thinking out of concern for the level of atrocities.   They are not concerned about Syrians, except in the sense that they are concerned about Arabs running wild.  Even then, they are not concerned about what will happen in Syria.   The analysts are concerned, and the record shows this, about terrorism against the West.   They are concerned, despite many contrary considerations they ignore, about placing MANPADS in 'extremist' hands, and they are concerned that extremists would establish a base from which they would attack Western targets.
There are two problems with this.  First, if that is the analysts’ dominant concern, they should say so.   The document pretends, and specifies, that the only consideration for evaluating strategies is minimization of atrocities.  If so, that some alternative raises the prospects of terror attacks on the West has no weight at all.  So the document is undermined by dishonesty.  In the second place, if terror attacks are their concern, they should at least consider the consequences of persisting in the strategy that has led to terrorism against the West in the first place:  the toleration or, more often, strong support for every murdering, torturing, secularist tyrant that has ever oppressed the peoples of the Middle East.  To pretend mature prudence without even exploring the ramifications of these allegedly prudent conclusions simply manifests the obliviously cruel attitudes that are a large part of the problem in the first place.

In other words, the suppressed document offers nothing but excuses for inaction we have heard many times before, enhanced with the effrontery of scholarly airs and pretentious sophistry.   Perhaps, as an example of what is wrong with Western thinking about the Middle East, it was not such a good idea to take the document offline after all.

It remains only to offer suggestions as to what the document reveals about the mentality of the analysts.
It is telling that the document's measure of helpfulness is whether or not atrocities are reduced.   This is to lower a veil of ignorance on the Syrian conflict from the word go.   When three people were killed in the Boston Marathon bombing, that was an atrocity.  When 10 or twenty or thirty or a hundred people have died in terrorist attacks in Europe, those were all atrocities.  9-11, which killed fewer that 3000, that was a massive, unforgettable atrocity.  The West spares no efforts in its attempts to reduce these horrors.  What then are the crimes of Assad, which involve the killing of perhaps 200,000 innocent people?  What are fates of those he tortures to death in the tens of thousands - inserting rats in vaginas, castrating children, letting someone lie tied up in a hallway until dead of starvation?(*)  What are the massacres he sponsored, including slitting babies' throats?  To speak vaguely of 'atrocities' misses a distinction that the participants in this enterprise - given its sponsoring institution - ought to have grasped.  Assad is the sponsor, not of mere atrocities, but of a full-scale holocaust.  And to turn away from this realization is just what makes the analysts think it absurd, adolescent, extreme to do whatever it takes to destroy Assad and his régime, even bargains with Russia and Iran, even placing a few more weapons in the hands of radical Islamists.

Imagine if Assad was doing what he did to white Europeans, or Jews, or Afro-Americans.  Would it then not seem a matter of the greatest urgency?  But for these 'scholars', that would be yielding to adolescent hysteria.  These were only Arabs.  The matter - and the whole document could not make this plainer - was not urgent at all.  This carnage isn't worth risky scenarios, that is, scenarios that offer even a slight, unproven, unquantified level of risk, even if letting the carnage continue might carry with it still greater risks.  Such is the perspective of analysts who invest themselves with the moral radiance of the United States Holocaust Memorial Museum.

(*) For references, see the appendix to this.

Sunday, August 20, 2017

Because we bomb them, not because they hate us

 Spain invades Iraq 2003; gets attacked; leaves 2004. No more attacks. Spain goes into Syria in 2014; gets attacked.

That looks like they bomb us because we bomb them.  Yet many 'experts' and commentators indignantly reject this explanation.  They say that ISIS' terrorism, like all radical Islamist terrorism, has nothing to do with Western conduct in the Middle East or against Muslims:  that's 'blaming the victims', although it sounds more like blaming the victims' governments.

They say that Islamist terrorism is all about hate, not because we bomb them but because we are who we are, liberal, democratic, Christian.  Their motivation derives from dogma and twisted psychology, not from the West's adventures in the Middle East.

In support of their claims they cite, ubiquitously, one and the same passage from an ISIS online magazine, Dabiq.  It reads like this:

What’s important to understand here is that although some might argue that your foreign policies are the extent of what drives our hatred, this particular reason for hating you is secondary, hence the reason we addressed it at the end of the above list. The fact is, even if you were to stop bombing us, imprisoning us, torturing us, vilifying us, and usurping our lands, we would continue to hate you because our primary reason for hating you will not cease to exist until you embrace Islam. Even if you were to pay jizya and live under the authority of Islam in humiliation, we would continue to hate you. No doubt, we would stop fighting you then as we would stop fighting any disbelievers who enter into a covenant with us, but we would not stop hating you.
Is this enough support for the claim that Islamist terror is all about theologically-charged hatred?  Let's look at two things - the evidence of the passage, and the evidence contradicting it.

The evidence of the passage

The passage is from an online ISIS magazine.   People who use the quotation in support of their theological-hatred theory don't tell you that the passage is also from the magazine's last issue; Dabiq was replaced by another effort called Rumiyah.  No one cites anything similar from Rumiyah.  Whether this means anything, we don't know.

In fact there is a lot we don't know about just who speaks for whom in ISIS.  Some proponents scornfully suggest that any such doubts come from poorly informed leftists, likely superficial journalists.

Well, here, at length, are the words of Alireza Doostdar, Assistant Professor of Islamic Studies and the Anthropology of Religion at the University of Chicago Divinity School:

The vast majority of ISIS’ estimated 20,000-31,500 fighters are recent recruits and it is not clear whether and how its leadership maintains ideological consistency among them. All told, our sense of ISIS’ coherence as a caliphate with a clear chain of command, a solid organizational structure, and an all-encompassing ideology is a direct product of ISIS’ propaganda apparatus.

We see ISIS as a unitary entity because ISIS propagandists want us to see it that way. This is why it is problematic to rely on doctrines espoused in propaganda to explain ISIS’ behavior. Absent more evidence, we simply cannot know if the behaviors of the different parts of ISIS are expressions of these doctrines.

And yet, much of the analysis that we have available relies precisely on ISIS’ propaganda and doctrinal statements. What does this emphasis obscure? Here I will point out several of the issues I consider most important.

First, we lack a good grasp of the motivations of those who fight for or alongside ISIS, so we assume that they are motivated by Salafism and the desire to live in a caliphate. What information we do have comes almost entirely from ISIS propaganda and recruitment videos, a few interviews, and the occasional news report about a foreign fighter killed in battle or arrested before making it to his or her destination.

Focusing on doctrinal statements would have us homogenizing the entirety of ISIS’ military force as fighters motivated by an austere and virulent form of Salafi Islam. This is how ISIS wants us to see things, and it is often the view propagated by mainstream media.

For example, CNN recently quoted former Iraqi national security adviser Muwaffaq al-Ruba‘i as claiming that in Mosul, ISIS was recruiting “Young Iraqis as young as 8 and 9 years old with AK-47s… and brainwashing with this evil ideology.” A Pentagon spokesman is quoted in the same story as saying that the U.S. was not intent on “simply… degrading and destroying… the 20,000 to 30,000 (ISIS fighters)... It’s about destroying their ideology”.

The problem with these statements is that they seem to assume that ISIS is a causa sui phenomenon that has suddenly materialized out of the thin ether of an evil doctrine. But ISIS emerged from the fires of war, occupation, killing, torture, and disenfranchisement. It did not need to sell its doctrine to win recruits. It needed above all to prove itself effective against its foes.

Dabiq was, precisely, a propaganda magazine.  Whether its statements capture the views of most ISIS members, we do not know.  Perhaps these are not even the views of the leadership, but statements designed to produce a certain effect in the audience.  We certainly have no reason to assume that the views expressed in this one passage represent the views of those who actually conduct terror attacks.  We are often assured, after all, that these individuals are quite ignorant of Islam, even irreligious.  That hardly sounds like their motivations must align with the theologically drenched orthodoxy of a single passage in an on-line magazine.

That's not all.  What does the article - not just the passage - actually say?  Users of the passage delight in pointing to the insistence that ISIS members will continue to hate Islam whether or not the West stops bombing and torturing Muslims.

One immediate reaction one might have is, well of course!  Why on earth would anyone bombed or tortured cease hating the bombers and torturers after they stop?  But to focus on hatred would be to ignore a crucial distinction.  The West's concern is not about hatred.  There is hatred between various groups throughout the world.  These days, Catalonians seem to hate British tourists.  American liberals hate Trump supporters.  Many people hate hipsters or baby boomers.  Hatred is not what matters.  It's whether, in this case, hatred engenders what the article called 'fighting'.  Even then, that's not what really concerns the West.  The concern is not whether ISIS fights Western forces in the Middle East or piggybacks on conflicts in Saharan Africa.  It's whether ISIS mounts terror attacks in Western countries.  In other words, the focus on hatred is at two removes from the West's real concerns: first, hatred doesn't mean fighting, and second, fighting doesn't mean terror attacks on the West.

The distinctions do seem to matter if those who cite the passage read, first to the end of the passage, and then to the end of the article.  The passage ends, you may recall, like this:

Even if you were to pay jizya and live under the authority of Islam in humiliation, we would continue to hate you. No doubt, we would stop fighting you then as we would stop fighting any disbelievers who enter into a covenant with us, but we would not stop hating you.
Well, small comfort, you might say, because the West isn't about to pay jizya and live under the authority of Islam.  But note, first, that here there is a clear distinction between continuing to hate and continuing to fight.   Second, he talks about 'fighting', not about attacks on Western civilians in the West.  There's quite a difference between the two.

Then there is the end of the article.  It goes like this:

We continue dragging you further and further into a swamp you thought you’d already escaped only to realize that you’re stuck even deeper within its murky waters… And we do so while offering you a way out on our terms. So you can continue to believe that those “despicable terrorists” hate you because of your lattes and your Timberlands, and continue spending ridiculous amounts of money to try to prevail in an unwinnable war, or you can accept reality and recognize that we will never stop hating you until you embrace Islam, and will never stop fighting you until you’re ready to leave the swamp of warfare and terrorism through the exits we provide, the very exits put forth by our Lord for the People of the Scripture: Islam, jizyah, or – as a last means of fleeting respite – a temporary truce.
Though fans of the famous passage says it makes everything 'crystal clear', the article doesn't seem that way.   To me it sounds like if the West stops killing Muslims, even if it doesn't embrace Islam, it gets a temporary truce.  That in turn sounds like:  we won't bomb you if you stop bombing us, and get out of our face.  What does seem clear is that the fighting, never mind terror attacks, can stop whether or not 'they hate us'.  So hatred is hardly the issue.  Perhaps that is why there haven't been Islamist terror attacks in so many countries with no military engagement in the Middle East, among them many very Christian Latin and Central American states, or sub-Saharan Christian nations like Zimbabwe and South Africa.

To summarize, we have here one passage which never refers to attacks in the West on civilians.  It says a lot about hatred and fighting.  It distinguishes between the two.  It seems to suggest that you can have hatred without fighting.  None of this offers strong support to the claim that they bomb us because, for theological reasons, they hate us.  It even faintly suggests the contrary claim:  that they bomb us because we bomb them.

So much for the evidence of this one passage - the crown jewel of the 'they bomb us because they hate us' crowd.  It doesn't seem like this one passage tells us anything conclusive about the people who actually do bomb 'us', and it doesn't seem like the passage even nails down the connection between hatred-charged propagandists and the actual terrorists.

What then about evidence opposed to the theorists who cite this one passage?

The opposing evidence

The opposing evidence is abundant, clear, and in my view decisive.   Every major terrorist attack on the West, from 2001 on, has offered as justification:  we bomb you because you bomb us.  Here are some passages that support this claim.

9-11, where the reference to 'freedom' has to do with Al Qaeda's old objection the bases in the Gulf and the US fleet, both used for air attacks on Muslim militants:

The militant Islamic group decided "we should destroy towers in America" because "we are a free people... and we want to regain the freedom of our nation," said bin Laden, dressed in yellow and white robes and videotaped against a plain brown background.

9-11 again:  On 7 October 2001, Osama bin Laden issued the following statement.

There is America, hit by God in one of its softest spots. Its greatest buildings were destroyed, thank God for that.

There is America, full of fear from its north to its south, from its west to its east. Thank God for that. What America is tasting now is something insignificant compared to what we have tasted for scores of years. Our nation [the Islamic world] has been tasting this humiliation and this degradation for more than 80 years. Its sons are killed, its blood is shed, its sanctuaries are attacked, and no one hears and no one heeds."

July 7th attacks, London:

1210: A website linked to al-Qaeda carries a statement saying it has carried out a "blessed raid" in London "in retaliation for the massacres Britain is committing in Iraq and Afghanistan".


The man on the tape says: 'We declare our responsibility for what happened in Madrid exactly two-and-a-half years after the attacks on New York and Washington. This is an answer to the crimes in Afghanistan and Iraq. If your injustices do not stop there will be more if god wills it.'

In a statement on Saturday on its radio station, the Islamic State referred to Mr. Lahouaiej Bouhlel as “a soldier” who had responded to the group’s call “to target states participating in the crusader coalition that fights the caliphate.”

In 2014, the Islamic State’s spokesman, Abu Muhammad al-Adnani, called on the group’s followers to attack Westerners in retaliation for strikes by the United States-led coalition fighting the Islamic State in Iraq and Syria. He has repeatedly singled out France, which is part of the coalition, as a main enemy.

Several ISIS supporters celebrated the horror attacks using the sick hashtag 'ParisIsBurning'.

One said: "God is great and thank God for these lone wolf attacks. At least 100 hostages and countless wounded."

His tweet was sent from the Kuwait port of Mina Abdulla, according to Twitter's location settings.

Another added: "Oh God, burn Paris as you burned the Muslims in Mali, Africa, Iraq, Syria, and Palestine."

Paris, again:

A statement in ISIL’s name later claimed responsibility, saying the attacks were in retaliation for French air strikes against its positions in Syria.

These are not propaganda pieces in a magazine.  They are mostly from people who actually planned or conducted the attacks.  Even when they are couched in religious language, the motives are deterrence and retaliation, both rational by Western standards, or revenge, entirely commonplace in Western morality.  No doubt they are based on gross oversimplications of why the West 'attacks Muslims'.  Gross oversimplification is hardly absent from the moral and strategic discourse of Western 'experts'.

If they bomb us because we bomb them, perhaps we should turn down the self-righteousness and piety a notch.  We might also stop fixating on 'hate'.  There is nothing sick or twisted about disliking getting blown apart, and hitting back.  There are no mysteries to be unveiled about 'radicalization'.  I don't presume to offer suggestions about how these conclusions, coupled with some adult understanding of what the West has done, should shape strategy.  But it might be a first step to stop supporting, directly or indirectly, every murdering, torturing régime in the Middle East.  Another step might be to stop military operations which do no good.   Whatever’s best, an understanding of your enemy is probably not a bad idea.

Wednesday, August 16, 2017

August 2017: The News Cycle

The news cycle resembles one of those disturbing, dramatic medieval landscapes.  This one is informed with some enigmatic message conveyed by the placement of its elements.

At the center, but not dominating it, is Trump.  Almost all of the painting concerns him.  Groups animatedly argue about some utterance of his, or some failure to utter something, or some utterance that came too late, or didn't.  One corner section of foreground displays some fighting - not a bloody battle but there is someone dead on the ground.   In another corner stand mythical figures, the characters of the Game of Thrones.  Interlaced with all this, like flitting birds, are vignettes of racism or sexual misconduct.  Someone who really has everything - fame, fortune, talent, beauty - had her ass grabbed; there was a trial.   Someone said 'nigger', but the saying is implied; it cannot be depicted.  Some did or did not go to this or that parade.  On some tiny bit of canvas there is a toilet; it refers to a dispute about who can use it.

What then lies in the distant background?  Three hundred dead in a mudslide in Sierra Leone; they are barely a smudge.  A sea dotted with thousands of drowning people.  Many black lives lost, but they didn't matter.  We also see giant icebergs drifting, scorching cities, arctic fires, and in another far corner, the Middle East, hundreds of thousands murdered; thousands more tortured to death.  The level of detail is incredible given how, by the standard of column-inches, these depictions must be almost microscopic.

Some things you might expect in the landscape aren't there at all; they are too small to represent.  The prison populations, the unemployed, the people on food stamps, the meth cookers, they might rate a flick of paint, not enough to bring recognition.  Far off, the Thai slave trawlers, the world's torture chambers, the Rohingya, one could go on and on...  nothing.  For the millions who have died in the Congo, year in year out, not one speck.

What is the meaning of this?  It is not that people don't care about the catastrophes and atrocities.  Contrary to so much moralizing, anyone will tell you that three hundred black lives, even in Africa, matter more than one white life in Charlotteville.  Anyone will tell you that the Syrian holocaust is vastly more important than who grabbed Taylor Swift's ass.  Anyone, one hopes, will acknowledge that climate change matters more than toilet disputes.  Nobody thinks the theft of Game of Thrones episodes is a world-shattering crisis.  There is nothing wrong with people's real priorities.

No, the picture quietly suggests those over-crowded rats who savage one another.  They cannot affect their environment, so they fixate on one another.  Trump, for the left as well as the right, is a hope substitute.  He is something someone might possibly affect, either to help or to hurt.  When he was elected, some of his opponents said they would be - how mortifying - 'diamond-hard' in opposition, on the streets in the hundreds of thousands to fight his agenda.  But it was always clear that going into the streets, in the hundreds of thousands, would achieve nothing, not even in defense of the Paris Agreement which also, truth be told, will almost certainly achieve nothing.  No marches and no computer classes will create jobs and bring better lives to the rust belt.  No street theatre will get many thousands of unjustly incarcerated black people out of jail.  No one expects anyone to devote enough resources and political will, let alone intelligence, to help Africa or the Middle East.

Indeed politics itself is done.  For ten years I taught courses on democracy at a university in Canada, often thought to have one of the world's best democratic societies.  I was critical;  I hoped for students to defend the institution.  Never, in ten years, did I find one single student who believed democracy was worthwhile.  The despair we feel goes much deeper than what's discovered in polls; it manifests itself in our focus.  That is why we obsess about terror, sin, racism, and generally speaking the evil hearts of our neighbors.  We cannot see a way out of the cage, so we lash out at our fellow rats.

We certainly will find no way out if we don't look.  We shock one another, but that is no excuse for wallowing in indignation.   Demoralized as we may be, we still need to reconsider how to change the landscape in which we are all so shocked.

Thursday, August 10, 2017

Heller's right about the rebels and wrong about Syria.

Sam Heller is quite correct. It is a myth that the FSA ever was or ever had a prospect of being an essential counter-terrorist force.   He is also correct in saying others performed better.  But you can drive a truck through what he infers from these undeniable truths.

First, the FSA isn't an essential counter-terrorism force because no Syrian force is essential.  That's because almost any Syrian force will likely get about the same results if adequately supported.  It is either myopic or disingenuous to hold up the superior success of the Kurdish SDF as some significant fact about the relative capabilities of the Kurds versus the rebels.  The rebels never had anything remotely resembling the US air support, special forces, intel, and equipment lavished on the SDF.  Perhaps that's why, in Heller's world, the SDF seems more 'motivated' to fight ISIS than the rebels.  The most he's entitled to say is that we haven't any idea whether or not the FSA would, comparably supported, have done as well.

The only anti-ISIS elements that can be considered essential are Iran's regular and irregular forces.  After all, the West wouldn't dream of putting significant numbers of ground troops at risk; that wouldn't go down well with the voters.  No other regional power offers anything like the resources Iran commits.  To talk about who's essential without acknowledging this plain fact displays a will to distort the region's realities.

Heller's amplifies his righteous indignation by attempting to outbid other analysts in the who's-freaking-out-more-about-terrorism sweepstakes.  Yes, Jabhat al Nusra used to cooperate with ISIS.  Yes, the FSA did a bit too.  Yes, all rebels at some point cooperated with Nusra, & probably will again.  However the issue he apparently tries to address is whether the rebels, not only in the past but today, are a credible anti-ISIS force.  Are they?

Well, nothing changes your mind about people like them constantly trying to wipe you out.  That's what ISIS tries to do to the rebels, with some success.  So any rebel groups - if, as Heller seems to say, reliability is an issue - are entirely reliable ISIS opponents.  The US could shower them with weapons and air support and no, they wouldn't suddenly switch sides and fight for the Caliphate.  Does this really need saying?  If Heller is worried that the rebels would use this stuff to fight Assad, he needs to tell us why he thinks it would be a shame that someone, at least, opposed a murderer orders of magnitude worse than ISIS.

Lastly, Heller follows the analysts he likes to dump on by suggesting that the rebels are unreliable counter-terrorist forces, not just because (contrary to fact) they are soft on ISIS, but also because they are soft on Nusra.  Here he sinks low.  He counts Nusra as terrorist because, five years ago, they set off bombs in Assad-controlled areas.  Every party in the region has knowingly killed civilians at some point.  Since US air attacks are conducted with the certain knowledge that many civilians will die, it's fair to say that, after Assad & Company, no one does this more than the US.  But the plain fact is that, for the past two years at least, Nusra has caused as few or fewer civilian casualties than anyone else.  There is also, despite claims to the contrary, no credible basis to warnings that they plan to attack the West.  So to call Nusra terrorist is to place one squarely in Humpty-Dumpty's camp:  "a word means anything I want it to mean."

At the heart of Heller's 'anger' lies a hatred, not of terrorism, but of Nusra's extreme social
conservatism.  You can hate this all you want, but someone posing as a harsh realist should acknowledge that Nusra's attitudes are shared by a large portion of Syria's population.  The record of militant opposition to the Assads, going back to the 1980s, strongly suggests that the choice in Syria has always been between Assad and 'radical' Islamists: indeed Heller's claims support that view.  No matter how distasteful that choice, the scale of Assad's atrocities dictate a preference for the Islamist alternative.  The 'caution' and 'honesty' that drives analysts to cry for Nusra's blood is - if we're being realists - nothing more than de facto support for a mass murderer.

Saturday, July 15, 2017

Forget the 'child soldiers' defense of Omar Khadr

We hear confident claims that Omar Khadr should have been treated as a child soldier, as if international law imposed some such obligation on the US.  It doesn't.  The UN convention on the rights of the child binds only its ratifiers.  The US (not to mention the Taliban) never ratified the convention.  Since child soldiers appear only as an 'optional protocol' to the convention, the US can hardly have incurred an obligation to respect its provisions or heed signatories' complaints.

But that's not the most troubling aspect of the child soldiers' defense.  The defense, even if valid, essentially abandons the field to United States' mouthpieces.  It suggests that but for his age, Omar Khadr would have been guilty as charged.  If you suppose his age is the only legal reason for letting him go free, the implication is that the US would otherwise be within its rights to convict and punish him for war crimes.  This is arrant nonsense.  Omar Khadr, child or adult, may not have been justified in fighting the Americans, and the Americans may have been justified in fighting him; indeed in their invasion of Afghanistan.  But the American invasion of Afghanistan was certainly illegal, so to accuse Omar Khadr of war crimes is mere impertinence.

Invading another country is, under international law, legal only in urgent, imminent self-defense -  that is, if it is undertaken to fend off an attack known to be conducted in hours or days, not months or years.  The US never even claimed this.  Even if they had, the idea that bombing and attacking the Taliban, who had offered to turn Bin Laden over given evidence of his guilt, isn't even a remotely plausible case of 'staving off'.  How would bombing and attacking the Taliban have disrupted Al Qaeda plans, if these plans were so far advanced that an attack was truly imminent?  You stop an attack by attacking or capturing the attackers, not by waging war against some people who were sort of associated with them.  The invasion might have been a reasonable long-term strategy to combat a broad terrorist threat, but that doesn't even come close to urgent self-defense against an imminent attack by an underground, internationally based movement - one which wasn't known to be on the brink of launching such an attack.  Again, to be clear:  the invasion might have been 'justified' in some broad sense of the term.  It certainly wasn't legal.

If the invasion wasn't legal, resistance to the invasion was at least not illegal:  nothing in international law forbids countering an illegal attack.  So when Omar Khadr tossed a grenade, not at civilians, but at heavily armed illegal invaders who had attacked his position, the idea that he could have been committing any kind of 'war crime' is ludicrous.  Stop letting him off as a child soldier.  Start noticing that as a member of a force countering illegal state violence, he was entirely within his rights under international law.

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.


*  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.