Tuesday, July 31, 2012

Sectarianism and ships that have sailed

Some people worry about a sectarian Armageddon in Syria, and some people try to  reassure the other people by saying that the Syrian opposition isn't that religious.

I have no idea whether there will be an Armageddon or how much sectarianism there is in Syria, but I do know the discussion leads nowhere.   That ship sailed well over a year ago.

What is very clear is that, at least that long ago, a lot of people in Syria became very pissed off with one another.  These people have formed, or have always been, in groups.  Violence was not inevitable until the régime used massive violence and indescribable torture against peaceful demonstrators - in fact against some people who weren't even demonstrating.   From that point on, there could be no peace, no reconciliation.   Suppose, then, that two things can still happen.   Assad can win, or he can lose.

If he wins, there will be an Armageddon, possibly sectarian.  There will be a prolonged explosion of anger and revenge.  It will look like what Syrian government forces now inflict on the population.

If Assad loses, there may also be an Armageddon, possibly sectarian - whether it will be better or worse than what Assad, post-victory, will inflict, no one knows.

You might suppose it more rational to pick the second outcome, because there is far less evidence that it will be catastrophic.   But there is no picking outcomes any more, for anyone.   The fighting will stop only when one side collapses.   It really doesn't matter whether some future Armageddon is sectarian or not.   Because there is nothing to choose, and hasn't been for a long time, this is a dead issue.   We know how Assad conducts himself.   Whatever anyone may suspect about his opponents, whatever indications of violent sectarianism may surface, there is no reason to suppose that opposition victory would be worse than Assad's defeat.

So maybe we can hear less about who wears what kind of beard.   We might also hear less about which side 'we' should support.   As if the great powers, much less the 'anti-imperialist' left, ever had any real support to offer!   It is not only on the right of the political spectrum that colonial mentalities die hard.

Sunday, July 29, 2012

Fisk's Indignation

Robert Fisk, who years ago outlived his reputation for competence, can usually be ignored, but not when he brings gifts to Assad in The Independent's lead commentary.

He tells us that the US does not oppose Assad out of love for freedom and democracy.   The US is hypocritical because it supports undemocratic régimes like Saudi Arabia and Qatar.   The US doesn't care about Syrians, it just wants to undermine Iran.


Fisk offers us Protestantism masquerading as political analysis.   His outrage is directed against the American soul, which he finds to be impure.   How this distinguishes the Americans from any powerful nation in the last 6000 years, he does not say.  He does tell us that Assad's régime is atrocious, but this is just ass-covering.   The basic idea is:  "never mind about Syria; look how the US is manoeuvring against Iran with tainted motives."

Clearly Fisk is concerned with spirituality, not outcomes.    Assad is perpetrating atrocities daily and the West won't even provide effective armaments to the FSA.  But Fisk doesn't care about this; he cares only that Western hypocrites should hide their heads in shame.   So he's furious that Western assistance is not more ineffective still, and he encourages efforts to cripple the opposition.

A crippled opposition means Assad stays in power.   If Fisk didn't consider this a bad outcome, he'd be a swine.  Let's suppose that outcomes just don't matter to him, as long they're untainted by hypocrisy.

Does, in fact, Fisk make some case for something or other, or is he just fuming?   Several points seem worth making.

First, when there is slaughter, any genuine morality evaluates the responses according to their effects, not according to the motives of the responders.  Preventing 10000 deaths with a bad heart trumps letting 10000 die with a good heart.  Crying hypocrisy has no moral weight whatever.

Second, to obtain good outcomes, it is sometimes necessary to use bad allies.   True, the US should not be allied with the Gulf States, just as Castro and Chavez should not be allied with Assad.   However the US alliances are nothing new and no further crime is committed by using them to good ends - like stopping the butchery.   Fisk's own causes have always involved some sort of political impurity.  He can argue, if he likes, that Iran needs defending against the US, Israel and the Gulf States.  But any such argument clearly works against efforts to topple the Iranian régime, notorious for horrific torture and injustices of every kind - not to mention its very active support for Assad.

How then does Fisk want us to make our choices?   Either he's concerned to produce good results, or he isn't.   If he isn't, he is of course immoral and shouldn't preach.   If he is, whether he's opposing America's anti-Iranian policies or supporting Palestinian rights or anything else, he can't help but favour torturers, murders, and, of course, enemies of democracy and freedom.   This is understandable; often the best alternative is only the least evil one.   But then Fisk ought to understand this himself, and ask which evil really is lesser.

Third, Assad, win or lose, is finished.   Even if he wins, he will be isolated and in charge of a turbulent shambles.  He will be no good to anyone, including Iran or the Palestinians.   So the idea that America or Israel or Satan can gain something by neutralizing Assad is a non-starter.    He will be neutralized whatever America or Israel or Satan may or may not do.   So the idea that America or Israel or Satan is out to undermine Iran by neutralizing Assad is another non-starter.   Iran is going to be undermined anyway.  Indeed that's probably why the Evil West is content to do so little.

Fourth, the Gulf States hate Iran and don't need American encouragement to undermine it.   So they don't need American encouragement to back the FSA.  Yet the backing is largely verbal.   The West's own aid to the Syrian opposition, directly or via the Gulf States, is pathetic.   Western policy towards Syria is an utter disaster because, morality aside, it shows the West to be weak, useless.  But Fisk, were he to admit this, would rejoice.   He'd be very upset if Western or Gulf States arms turned the tide against Assad.

No wonder Fisk gets snide about about the death of Syrian babies.

Saturday, July 28, 2012

Crap about Al Qaeda

For decades now, the US and NATO have been unwilling to get military without something vaguely resembling world permission.   They will never get this because denying them permission is Russia and China's only chance at making themselves look no worse than the West.   So the West will never act on Syria.

What, in this context, are we to make of Western fears about Al Qaeda militants lurking among the opposition to Assad?

Perhaps some few Western politicians don't really have such fears and are just looking for another feeble excuse not to act.  In any case, facts will not persuade these people; they don't want to be persuaded.   What follows just tries to show that, whatever the facts on the ground in Syria, any genuine fears are idiotic.

The West worries about two Muslim spectres, Al Qaeda and The Islamists, whom they may or may not identify with Al Qaeda.   Let's ask ourselves, what sort of Islamists might actually take power in Syria.

Well the only major Middle Eastern nation that has anything like a real Al Qaeda presence is Iraq.   That's because Iraq's Shia government is virtually at war with its Sunni population.   What chance does Syria have of getting a Shia government?  None.

So suppose the West is terrified of Islamists.   What could they possibly be terrified about?  For almost a century 'Islamist' in Syria has meant 'Muslim Brotherhood'.   Oh, the same tendency the US has been willing to support in Egypt.   The chances of Al Qaeda prevailing against the Muslim Brotherhood?  None.  No country in the world has both a strong Al Qaeda presence and a strong Muslim Brotherhood.

So Syria will end up with either a secular or with an Islamist government.   In either case,  no Al Qaeda.  Well duh.

Wednesday, July 25, 2012

Criticizing the FSA

The FSA might well extend its accomplishments through informed, constructive criticism, but it's all too easy to underestimate the difficulty of providing any such thing.

Some Syrian activists on twitter reproach the FSA every time it withdraws from an area.  "They should have been better prepared." I have even seen people pointing to instances when the FSA "should have used an IED",  "missed an opportunity."  To these specific criticisms are added general complaints about disunity, lack of organization, bad 'command and control', and so on.  This is demoralizing, and can't help:  presumably no one supposes that these criticisms will actually affect the operations of the FSA.

The complaints also are at odds with military history, for several reasons.

First, lack of unity isn't disunity.   Disunity is normally a bad thing and in some cases it can lead to active conflict, as it did in Libya.  Lack of unity, in the face of a powerful enemy with extensive intelligence resources, can be an asset:  in fact it is common practice in resistance movements.   I have no idea whether lack of unity is a bad thing for the FSA, but one should not jump to conclusions.

Second, withdrawals, even unplanned, are not necessarily worthy of complaint.   Even set-piece wars are terribly complex and confusing, as any history of the Russian front in World War II will confirm.  The Syrian war is far more complex, and strategic predictions well-nigh impossible.  (The incredibly courageous journalist, Austin Tice, deeply embedded with the FSA, has emphasized the confusion.)   No doubt some FSA offensives that end in withdrawals are worthy of criticism, but we have no idea which ones.  Others may be part of a well-conceived strategy; others, entirely understandable mistakes.   I find it very odd that anyone not in command of a full view of FSA operations - in short, anyone - should think themselves in a position to pronounce on the wisdom of those operations.

Third, it would be unprecedented in modern warfare if no individual or unit of the FSA committed atrocities.  It may be salutary to condemn them, but it would absurd to suppose that the FSA is, on the whole and so far as we know, very scrupulous by military standards.

Fourth, the FSA is accused of endangering civilians.  It was the régime that endangered civilians when it fired and even unleashed artillery on peaceful demonstrations; the FSA was formed in part to protect the demonstrators.  By now, it is far from clear that the FSA has any choice but to put civilians at grave risk, or that this is worse than the alternative.   The FSA cannot avoid endangering civilians except by never entering any town, city, or village, in other words by resigning itself to utter insignificance and eventual extinction.   Besides, civilians have been in mortal and unavoidable danger since before the formation of the FSA.   No one imagines that the régime, given a free hand, would do anything but engage in an orgy of unbridled savagery.  This repression would doubtless last for months, even years, and of course any possibility of a decent existence for most Syrians would become unimaginable.   So the idea that there is something criminal in the FSA's endangering civilians is untenable.

In short, a qualified military expert in possession of full information about the operations of the FSA might be entitled to criticize their operations.   It's not clear that such a person exists.