Friday, November 30, 2012

Warfare in Syria: Opposition mistakes or media ignorance?

Many in the press and among the commentators persistently misrepresent the military situation in Syria - always to the detriment of the opposition.   Why they do so is a mystery.    The misrepresentations don't seem malicious.  They seem to originate in mistakes that proceed from an oversimplified, almost impatient view of warfare, as if we have grown unfamiliar with its pace and strategic constraints.   Unfortunately the result is to under-rate the achievements and competence of the opposition forces, with the political consequence that these forces seem poor candidates for support.   What follows attempts to correct this quite false impression.


As in Libya, where the opposition stalemated its way from Benghazi all the way to Tripoli and back to Sirte, we hear a lot about stalemates.   Though the term can legitimately describe briefly static situations, these should not be mistaken for dead-end strategies grinding to a halt.   There are, as in any conflict or for that matter any wrestling match, brief, tactical stalemates in Syria.   There have never been strategic stalemates so that, of course, Free Syria Army tactics have never produced them.

The haste to call 'stalemate' bespeaks a failure to realize that wars and revolutions generally don't fit within contemporary attention spans.   World War I lasted four years.   The war in Vietnam, about twenty.  The Algerian revolution, about fifteen.   The Chinese revolution, about twenty.  World War I produced a genuine stalemate in which both sides committed themselves to tactics that literally went nowhere and - more important - were intended to go somewhere.   Compare this to Stalingrad, where Stalin's strategy of attrition did indeed produce a tactical stalemate that in turn produced perhaps the greatest victory of World War II.

In this context it is ludicrous to speak of stalemates in Syria, as it was in Libya, except in the mildest and least important sense of the term.  The FSA has persistently engaged in the general strategy of striking where it could, first against checkpoints, then against larger targets.   It has tried to take and keep ground when it thought it might succeed.   Sometimes it did, sometimes it didn't.   It has made steady progress and never over-reached in a big way - that is, in a way that resulted in important military losses.   Naturally at times no progress was made, but again - this is normal.   To harp on these phases as stalemates is simply to give the false impression of a bankrupt strategy, as in World War I.    That impression, applied to the FSA, is badly misleading.


Syria's 'rag-tag' opposition forces make many mistakes, but no more than nicely dressed generals in regular armies.   The constant in most warfare is lack of information:  you don't know what the other guy is up to, or how strong he is.   You therefore make attacks very much 'on spec' and the elaborateness of your planning should not be mistaken for confidence about the outcome.   This is not just a matter of probing attacks designed to test the enemy's strength.   Full-scale, grand-strategy attacks are also fully expected to run into severe trouble.  Not to advance, to fail to meet your objectives, even to be thrown back, is as much the rule as the exception.   It is distinct from a military disaster which more or less permanently diminishes your capacity to fight. This is the case even when your units do not behave as desired and expected.

Not one mistake of the FSA goes beyond the normal reversals of warfare.   Certainly, as many allege, there have been failures due to lack of coordination, but they have not been ignominious failures.   On the other hand, the impeccably organized forces of World War I were commanded with much idiocy by the least rag-tag generals conceivable, and the scope of the disaster was greatly augmented by the tight command structure of the armies.

Yes, often districts change hands, often at substantial cost, almost always at horrific cost to civilians.   This too is quite normal in warfare - and to say so in no way diminishes or dismisses the terrible suffering it produces.   Only Godlike knowledge of the exact strengths, weaknesses, morale and positions of the enemy could avoid it.    So to speak of mistakes here, while strictly speaking correct, is again misleading.   The FSA's setbacks are no reflection on its strategies and even, in most cases, its tactics.   Warfare is like that.

Why it matters

The distorted characterizations of the FSA's efforts are not just distortions; they have political implications.   They diminish the stature of the FSA.   They suggest that the opposition's military efforts are, more often than not, displays of blood-drenched incompetence, bringing misery on the civilian population for no reason.    They feed into all the claims that these are rank amateurs, hopelessly disorganized and as unfit to have a say in Syria's future as they are to conduct its revolution.   And of course all this militates against the idea that these Keystone-Cop rebels are worthy of support.   Yet the FSA, disunited, has done much better than many regular armies, united, and they have shown something like professionalism from the very start.   You only had to observe how they used their assault rifles in single-shot mode - unlike the real amateurs in Libya - to know this.  Perhaps what made the difference was the involvement of army deserters, from the very start, in the resistance.   As I understand it, army units defected from Gaddafi in Libya, but remained separate from the militias who did most of the fighting.

So ignorance of military basics, rife throughout the media, has had a bad political effect.  You might ask, who am I to know this?  I would reply, who are you not to know it?   How is it that these grade-school level basics about war  have dropped out of our culture?   We seem overprotected from war's realities, and it is serving us poorly.

Saturday, November 24, 2012

Has Morsi overthrown the rule of law?

I am in no position to predict whether Morsi is actually set to become a dictator, or anything else about his plans.  I don't presume to say what is best for Egypt.   However some leftists and liberals appear to believe that Morsi's decrees are themselves some sort of constitutional disaster.   This is unreasonable.  It rests on notions of legality and legitimacy that are, in the current circumstances, inappropriate.   You cannot coherently apply  the political principles of a settled state to a state under construction.

One commentator asserts that “Egypt is facing a horrifying coup against legitimacy and the rule of law and a complete assassination of the democratic transition.”

One wonders what country this person is describing.  The rule of law does not exist in Egypt.  It is flouted at every turn by the police, the army, and indeed the judiciary which protect their abuses.  Human Rights Watch reports that "Egyptian police and military officers have arrested and detained over 300 children during protests in Cairo over the past year, in some cases beating or torturing them,"  courts regularly exonerate those guilty of such abuses.   What then is so sacred about the institutions that Morsi clearly intends to remake?   And how could he remake them while remaining within the protocols and laws which were created by the old régime and are deployed to protect its remnants?   Until these old institutions are swept away, there is no revolution,  yet many self-described revolutionaries seem shocked by the very idea of such a thing.  They call for the rule of law, and reproach Morsi for failing to end police and army abuses.   Yet they complain when he tries to build the power that would permit a cleanup, that would establish a rule of law.

But it is not just that laws are flouted:  there is no rule of law because, properly speaking, there is no law.   There are the old régime's statutes whose foundation, the old constitution, has been rejected.   No new constitution replaces it and there is no uncontestedly recognized legislature to give the old statutes even temporary validity.    The low-level, criminal-law components of these statutes are followed for good reason, to ward off anarchy: it wouldn't be a good idea for the authorities to act as if there were no laws against murder and robbery.    But the idea that there is existing  legal edifice that Morsi has demolished is ludicrous.  His decrees do not touch the low-level statutes that keep some sort of order in society.   At the same time they cannot violate the rule of some supposed higher-level law that would allocate the powers of the state to various institutions.  Any supposed 'law' of that sort has neither legal reality nor immediately practical necessity.

As for legitimacy, Morsi acts according to the closest thing to legitimacy available, an election win.   In a state, legitimacy would be conferred by the state's democratic institutions, normally a parliament, and normally established by a constitution recognized as valid.    But there is no parliament in session and accepted as legitimate - though if there were, it would certainly endorse Morsi!   As for the judiciary, a product of the old régime, it is hard to understand what legitimacy it could claim, since the old régime itself is seen as illegitimate.   In other words, this is not the judiciary whose operations span a transition from one democratically validated  administration to another.    It is a judiciary deeply implicated in assaults on democratic government.   Its bogus claims to legitimacy in the actual process should not be mistaken for valid claims within a democratic process.

What then of the claim that Morsi has seized absolute power?  This too is wrong-headed.   The decree doesn't give Morsi absolute power; because that's not something a decree can do.   It would give him absolute power if combined with firm control of the state, but he doesn't have anything of the sort.   He can't, because there isn't a state.  There is a presidency.  There are various institutions, often at odds with the presidency, without a parliament that can sort things out, or a constitution on the basis of which to do the sorting.  Morsi's decree is just a bid for the authority to bring the old institutions  to heel.   Yes, it may be part of some totalitarian plot, but there's no indication of that so far.   If he put off the formation of parliament or the drafting of the constitution, that would be another matter.

Can Morsi be trusted when, through his spokesman, he claims the power grab is temporary?   Of course not, and it has been many years since Egyptians could be accused of trusting their leaders.   Renouncing appeals to the rule of law doesn't mean abandoning a struggle to contain the Islamist trend in Egyptian politics and it does not mean endorsing Morsi, or softening demands for change.   But such demands should not invoke bogus legalisms, and those who do the demanding should realize that they are not necessarily the defenders of the Egyptian democracy.  The opposition tries to take on the mantle of January 25th, but in a very different context.   The thousands who protest would be more plausible guardians of the revolution did their numbers not include and get support from the partisans of the old régime.   As Soraya Morayef remarked on twitter, "Worrying that ppl who once said protesters deserve to be shot coz they're dirty vandals now very enthusiastic about them burning down MB HQs."

It's hard to avoid the conclusion that opposing Morsi at this point strengthens the worst elements of the old régime.   It's not for me to say whether this is a price worth paying, but surely it should give pause to progressive forces.  It's worth remembering that it was not the 25th that sealed the revolution but February 1st, when the streets were filled, not with tens of thousands, but hundreds of thousands.   Among them were those who became the electoral majority that  brought Morsi to power.  To all appearances they still  support today him today, and it is the secularist minority that oppose him.

The opposition's ideological problem lies primarily in its invocation of law and democracy.  There is no law to invoke, and at this stage, democracy manifests itself not in formal institutions but in popular will.   Yet the opposition's demands may well run counter to popular will.   You can't have everything.  Perhaps the opposition is fighting for freedom, not democracy.   They're not the same thing.

Thursday, November 22, 2012

Human Rights Watch should calm down about Libya

Human Rights Watch has gone completely off the rails in its criticism of the Libya integrity commission.

In the first place, suppose its criticisms are entirely justified, and - as HRW says - the criteria for who can hold high elective office are "far too broad and vague and should be limited to concrete and provable claims of wrongdoing, rather than poorly defined connections with the previous government”.   One may still say, so what?  how is this the business of HRW?.   If holding high elective office is going to be termed a human right,  humanity is done a grave disservice, because the whole notion of human rights will be trivialized.    We may well be concerned about human rights if we are speaking of rights against torture, starvation,  arbitrary imprisonment.   But holding high elective office?   This is to confuse privilege with necessity.   Indeed there may be unfairness here.   There may also be unfairness in the judging of American Idol.   Will Human Right Watch come to the rescue?

Second, some rights - 'human' or not - are essentially political rights.   The right to hold high elective office belongs to this category. These rights relate to the decision-processes of a state:  this immediately tells us they can't be as fundamental as survival rights.   (Indeed they take on the paramount importance associated with the phrase 'human rights' only when linked to decisions affecting survival.)   But this means that not only does HRW get their importance wrong; it misunderstands the very conditions of their existence.   You can have political rights only if there is a full-fledged state in operation.    But in Libya, there is no full-fledged state yet; it is a work in progress.  It trying - perhaps even too patiently, tentatively - to assert its sovereignty over the area is is charge with governing.   This puts the government in position much like that of a democratic government when invoking the emergency legislation that virtually all governments possess.

This is something HRW cannot understand - the difference between the responsibilities of a settled state and revolutionaries trying hard to establish a state.   Perhaps the organization has swallowed some insolent, patronizing claptrap about 'learning democracy' or  'learning to respect the rule of law'.   No, it is not about learning or respecting these things;  it is about establishing them.  That requires supreme power, not lectures from human rights schoolmarms.   Can the teachers be taught some painfully obvious facts?     The Libyan government wants to make sure that the forces of the old régime - still violently active, still armed to the teeth, still themselves beyond the reach of law - have no chance to infiltrate the halls of power.   Being rational, that government would rather err on the side of caution and allow itself the discretion to do so.   That is why its criteria of exclusion are broad and vague.    The price to pay, in terms of human rights, is roughly nil.   Unless the government is strong and free of the schemes of the old régime, protecting human rights will be impossible.    And the cost of this caution is the possible denial, to some, of at most a very minor human right.

Perhaps the contemplation of those who died under torture at Gaddafi's hands might teach HRW some sense of proportion.   Then it could help rather than hinder the cause of human rights.

Wednesday, November 14, 2012

Syrian unity?

It is not my place nor within my abilities to evaluate the new Syrian national council (call it the NC).    However a number of Syrian activists have expressed doubts about its role and prospects.   I hope it is acceptable for me to offer some general comments, not on the council, but on the leadership of other resistance movements, and to note the differences between those movements and what seems to be the case in Syria.

There have been incessant calls for a unified Syrian opposition.   Some of these calls come from activists who cite the obvious tactical and strategic advantages of a united military force.   Others come from great powers who seem to seize on this theme as an excuse for doing nothing:  "oh, we don't know who we're dealing with."   The issues involved here might be clearer if there's attention paid to the different sorts of unity that, in the past, have been found effective for different sorts of resistance movements.    There is the political unity of a government in exile, the unity of a military command, and the often loose organization of an underground movement.

For a clandestine movement, unity can be a distinct disadvantage.   Underground movements are vulnerable to régime repression:  otherwise they would not be underground!   That's why underground movements - for example in Algeria - frequently adopt a highly decentralized structure.   In fact the hardest underground movements to suppress often have no unity at all.   Al Qaeda is a prominent example.   There are many 'Al Qaedas' whose links seem to be tenuous, perhaps not much more than a  sharing of general outlook and goals.    Terrorism 'experts'  speak of a 'hydra' in testimony to the resilience of this model.

In Syria, resistance is not confined to an underground, but has a military component.   There are fighters more or less out in the open, in battle against the régime's armed forces.    There have been specific complaints about weaknesses due to logistical and coordination failures.   It is said, and it seems hard to deny, that unity would help overcome these problems.

Finally there is political opposition.   Within the country, it takes the form of demonstrations, which seem spontaneous or locally organized.   No one seems to complain about the decentralization of these efforts.    Then there are the exile groups who have come together to form a council in the recent Doha negotiations.   They at least resemble a provisional government in exile.   They unite various political opposition groups in a single decision-making body.   Some activists have asserted that the council is well-suited to count as the representative of the Syrian people.

Representation is a political function and the NC is a political body.  Perhaps, like a government, it can fulfil administrative functions, not simply act as a discussion forum in which its component organizations can agree on broad policy matters.  But even if this is the case, its connection with military unity would be atypical in historical terms.

Military unity, of course, implies a clear and more or less unquestioned chain  of command.    Successful armed resistance movements often achieve this - witness China (Mao's Red Army), Vietnam, Algeria (the FLN), Nicaragua (the FSLN) and Cuba.   These organizations take direction from either an individual or a small group:  there is no broad-based deliberation and no pretence at a representative process.   The NC doesn't resemble the leadership of a militarily united organization.

What then do recent developments hold for the prospect of military unity?    In the cases where this unity prevailed - as far as I know, and in all the cases cited above - it was there more or less from the start.   In the cases where there were a number of armed organizations - e.g. Rhodesia, Ireland, Mozambique - these movements stayed separate.    In any event it is difficult to see how a political body in exile can engage in the detailed administration and exercise of authority needed to unify the various military units.    The task would be much easier if all units had adequate weaponry and secure supplies of ammunition; that would reduce real conflicts of interest.    But the West apparently wants unity to be a precondition of adequate supplies, not a consequence!

In the final analysis I'd suppose that events on the ground, not abroad, will be decisive in determining Syria's future.   If so, history seems to caution against expecting too much of the new national council.    If it fails to effect military unity, that may be only because it isn't suited to the task, and shouldn't be charged with that responsibility.   And if military unity is made a condition of substantial military aid, the council's activities are unlikely to satisfy that requirement.

History also suggests that the unity demand, if it's more than a mere excuse for withholding military aid, bears re-evaluation.   Military disunity needn't spell post-war disaster.  Military unity - witness Cambodia - is no guarantee against it.   The post-war outcome seems to depend on post-war support for an enlightened provisional  government such as the national council seems likely to provide.   Libya disunited, for all its problems, is a lot better than Cambodia was, united.

Tuesday, November 6, 2012

Syria and the End of the Left

The Anglo-American left - at least that portion of the left concerned with foreign affairs - has consistently backed Assad. At one extreme, this is explicit and based on the acceptance of an alternate-universe sort of news flow. At the other end of the spectrum, there are pro-forma condemnations of Assad coupled with calls for 'patient negotiations,' or condemnations of ' Western meddling', or just a throwing up of hands, like Chomsky's "I don't know."(*)  It hardly matters which of these responses predominates. If heeded, they can only benefit the régime, and everyone knows it.

Does anyone who counts for anything listen to the left? It's possible. For one thing, however modest the left's more obvious victories, it's had extensive indirect and diffuse influence - witness the rise of 'political correctness', which originated in 1960s leftism. For another, the left may have influence on Western policy because - as was the case with 'political correctness'- it's pushing at a partly open door. The West is too frightened to act on Syria; it looks for reasons not to. The left's incessant calls for inaction and disengagement have gained audience by their inclusion in papers/websites such as The Guardian, which has attained virtual mainstream status. Perhaps this gets the attention of decision-makers, or those who have real influence with the decision-makers. So the left might modestly congratulate itself on helping Assad survive a bit longer.

It is hard to imagine a more clearly mistaken and less excusable stance. Mistaken, because the facts on Syria are cloudy only to those who want them to be. And even those who supported, say, the Stalin trials, had more excuse, because they had more reason to be mistaken and later, to plead ignorance. How did this happen? The causes lie in an ideology which fostered obliviousness to change.

The bad-person ideology

At the heart of Chomsky-style anti-imperialism is the judgement that America has a bad character. It is selfish, mean and - apparently worst of all, from the thousands of articles devoted to the topic - hypocritical. This claim is supported by surveying most or all of American history and finding a pattern of selfishness, covetousness, brutality, hypocrisy and other vices.

Philosophers can defend the idea of abstract entities such as America, and you could devise some coherent notion of what it is for those entities of have a character. Is America a specially immoral abstract entity, as opposed to all the other nations? Perhaps Chomsky cherry-picks a bit - America has done some good things, like abolishing slavery, instituting some civil liberties, fighting Hitler, and so on. But even if he's perfectly correct, theories about the character of abstract entities are not an adequate basis for politics. For one thing, you don't support or not support political agents just because they're of good or bad character. You have to look at the actual effects of supporting them. For another, politics depends crucially not only on what stays the same - on the enduring features of an abstract entity, for instance - but also on what changes.

Obama, for instance, is not Jack Kennedy, the son of a bitch who invaded Cuba and pushed the Vietnam War into the criminal slaughter it became. And other things have changed too. America does not, as in days of yore, want to plunder the world for resources. What would it do with them? It doesn't manufacture any more and - this is much too recent and fundamental a change for the left to process - it doesn't have to worry about oil supplies any more. It doesn't need an empire or 'hegemony', because there are now numerous independent and vile régimes with whom it maintains a mutually beneficial relationship. Even more important, America has lost too many wars. Some say this started with Korea. Certainly Vietnam was an ignominious defeat, and Afghanistan will be the same. In Iraq, the US never achieved effective control of the territory: if the situation in Germany circa 1946 or later had been anything like the situation in Iraq, ever, Truman or Ike would have sacked the entire general staff. So that, even in narrow military terms, counts as a defeat as well.

As a result of all this, America is weak, both in relative and in absolute terms. It has been pretty consistently unable to impose its will despite its best efforts. It's timid, too. It doesn't want to extend its global reach. Even to maintain its position, it puts it faith in others' armed forces, with almost comical results in Iraq and Afghanistan. It wants the UN and NATO to take over so America doesn't keep getting defeated in its farcical adventures. Since this isn't going to happen, it doesn't know what to do.

Bad-person ideologues have a hard time acknowledging this because, for them, it isn't enough for America to be bad. It has to be importantly bad, and therefore very powerful; only this can justify the good old routine of condemning America to the exclusion of pretty much everything else. The stubborn commitment to America as a juggernaut has an unpleasant yet typically American side effect: the rest of the world is virtually deprived of agency. That's why, for bad-person ideologues, 9/11 was a mere crime, a police matter, not a major assault on US power. And that's why, to the left, America's victims seem tiny, helpless, hardly human. How, after all, could these little people stand up to America? This stealth-chauvinism naturally distorts the analysis of events like the Syrian or Libyan uprisings which, because applauded by the US, are seen as mere pawns in an American game.

Evading realities

These distortions may divorce the bad-person ideology from political reality, but they don't raise doubts among its adherents. After all, their moral beliefs are unaffected, and are likely to remain so. America is and will continue to be bad. That's because states, generally speaking, are indeed of bad moral character. Countries generally pursue their own interests, often at the expense of the world's poor and oppressed, often as part of their national democratic mandate. Yet they pretend to do otherwise, so they're hypocritical. As long as this doesn't change - and it won't - bad-person ideologues can keep preaching with minimal regard for the course of history.

What would it take to expose the weakness of the bad-person ideology? recognition that being a morally bad country doesn't preclude being on the morally right side of things. Bad countries can pursue good policies, just as bad people can do good deeds. Until recently, this wasn't happening: the US was pretty consistently on the wrong side of any conflict. But what about Syria? The US, ineffectually as usual, sides with the Syrian revolution. Because the US is for it, and the US is bad, the left is against it. Rather than abandon its obsession with bad character, it sides with atrocity. Since, of course, it can't admit this, it does what all bankrupt ideologues do: it denies reality. It can persist in this denial because, once more oblivious to change, it doesn't realize it's lost one of its main assets: access to secret or suppressed information.

Once, the left had such access. It exposed atrocities in the American South, in Vietnam, in Chile, in Palestine and many other places. Indeed this was probably the chief immediate and concrete accomplishment of the left. Today - at most in the past couple of years - things have changed. The left no longer has special access, and has moved from sources no one else had, to sources no one else wants.

This has very little to do with social media; it has much to do with the brand-new ubiquity of smart phones and camera phones. We're flooded with data from everywhere. Yes, some of that is fake, but here too, the left doesn't get it. For one thing, most of the material is video. It can be faked or misrepresented, but it's a much tougher proposition than faking a single image - and by now there are well over 100,000 mutually reinforcing videos presenting the opposition case.(**) For another, online activity doesn't just repackage data as truth; it analyses it. Every day, even the videos favorable to the Syrian opposition are examined for forgery by the Syrian opposition. And because journalists now get most of their information from online sources, they too participate in the vetting process. It's not perfect, but when a conflict produces literally hundreds of thousands of videos, it's accurate enough: so far, no important falsehood is known to have survived online examination for more than a few hours.

The left protects itself from dealing with this change by ratcheting up selective scepticism. "It's all faked!" This level of suspicion, oddly enough, never extends to pro-Assad reports, just as it never extends to pro-Qaddafi reports. If the left applied to Israel the childishly distorted standards of evidence it applies to Syria, the Israelis could claim with impunity that they've never harmed a hair on any Palestinian's head.

Bereft of genuinely special information, the left has made a fool of itself. It has turned to beyond-the-fringe 'experts' like Michel Chossudovsky, whose Global Research site offers 'anti-imperialists' new levels of delusion. When, for example, the Syrian and Turkish governments agreed that Syria had fired shells across the Turkish border, Chossudovsky ran a piece citing "widespread speculation that the one Syrian mortar that killed five Turkish civilians well might have been fired by Turkish-backed opposition forces intent on giving Turkey a pretext to move militarily, in military intelligence jargon, a ‘false flag’ operation.[1]" The footnote is to a Reuters piece which, being sane, says nothing of the kind.


It is difficult to know how much of this fringe material is offered in good faith. No doubt some of the bad ideologues realize that the Syrian revolution is not a great-power plot allied with a fundamentalist rampage, but want to oppose the US for supposed geopolitical reasons. In other words, the less deluded part of the left apparently believes it is engaging in Realpolitik: let the Syrians bleed because, though Assad is a bad person, he is the enemy of a worse person, America, and therefore our friend.

This is an infantile sort of realism. When Bismark instituted a welfare system to co-opt the socialists, when Stalin allied with Hitler and when the West later allied with Stalin, that was Realpolitik. Supporting Assad is not. It lacks one essential ingredient of any 'Politik' - an objective.

For the left's 'Realpolitik' to have an objective, keeping Assad in power would have to be good for something. It can't be. Assad, win or lose, is a spent force. The most he can ever do is fight and repress an opposition which will never cease to struggle for its very survival. Even if they were all wiped out, there would be hundreds of thousands seething with anger and looking for any opportunity for revenge. Assad's atrocities are not the sort of thing forgiven or forgotten. That covert rage was essentially the reaction to Hafez Assad's repression of the 1982 Hama revolt; a much broader and deeper reaction is all that could be expected today. Nor will the régime be able to buy its way towards reconciliation: if Assad wins, his economy will be choked by sanctions and trade disruptions. No one can rationally expect him to be any good to anyone - not Iran, not Russia or China, not Hezbollah, not the Palestinians, not any great cause. So there is nothing to 'anti-imperialist' support for Assad, and opposition to toppling him, but spite and resentment, nothing but bitterness towards the Morally Bad Person, the West, or the US. That's not politics, that's sulking.


The Syrian revolution is a political watershed. Never have the facts - for those willing to look - been so clear. No amount of scare-mongering can offer reasons to favor the régime. If Assad wins, unending atrocities are certain. If the FSA wins, the future may turn out to be anything from as bad to much better: no one has offered scenarios that look worse, and it seems as if only the more optimistic possibilities are discounted. The certainty of Assad's horrors cannot be preferred to the uncertainties of his overthrow.

Of course contemporary leftists are far from the only ones to have chosen brutality over humanity. But they are perhaps the first to make that choice quite so pointlessly and in the face of such undeniable realities. Their decision is driven by hard-hearted petulance and the conviction that their aimless, obsolete moralizing somehow exempts them from common decency. These are reasons that do not even rise to the level of intelligent cynicism.

Syrians say they will never forgive this. Neither should anyone else. If there is to be a left that can be mentioned without disgust, it will emerge only when the existing 'anti-imperialist' left is thoroughly dismissed. It is in that sense that we witness the end of the left.

(*) Allegedly his response to a question on Syria at a talk in Cairo, October 2012. After a year and a half, he doesn't know? Hard to imagine clearer evidence of ideological paralysis.

(**) "Anyone can make a fake video and post it just as anyone can send a fake picture to the BBC, but over a hundred thousand videos of the struggle in Syria have been posted to YouTube in that last year and they make up a very convincing record that can not be faked." - Daily Kos: Fake Houla Massacre Photo: Was the BBC set up? See also Jess Hill on "Assad's Useful Idiots".

Saturday, November 3, 2012

Executions, Procedures and Justice

The same people who emphasize the disunity and lack of leadership among the FSA are eager to attribute summary executions to the FSA.     But summary executions pose problems beyond the mere attribution of responsibility.   There are issues about the laws and conventions invoked to condemn the executions - I've discussed these issues at excessive length in another post and will be very brief about them here.   Then there are questions about due process.   These require close examination because due process, 'procedural justice', has become an article of faith.   Maybe that's overdone.  Finally there are questions about justice in a viciously oppressive state.

Laws, conventions and their application

First, international laws and conventions are just good wishes.   Unlike the laws of a state, they're not backed by generally accepted tribunals or enforcement arms - if at all.  They're also not the product of anything like a democratic process.  So it doesn't do to go on about these laws and conventions as if they were the bedrock of civilization.

Second, the summary executions of the FSA, however similar, should not be equated with those of the régime.   The régime is supposedly a state,with an established criminal justice system and all its infrastructure.   The FSA has nothing of the sort.

Third,  the FSA is not a cohesive body.   It's a fragmented, undefined collection of wildly disparate groups.   Nothing can be attributed to that collection, including the excesses of FSA fighters.   Keep it simple and attribute responsibility to those who perform the acts.

The outrage at summary executions obscures a much more disturbing problem.   In settled societies where law and order generally prevails, the insistence on proper judicial procedure is extremely important:  we don't want vigilante justice because we have something we presume is much better.   And belief in the importance of procedural justice of course helps cement the supremacy of the government, which has a monopoly on these procedures.   But those who must live under tyrannical or nakedly unjust régimes - let alone rampantly murderous ones - might well take a different view.   They might ask some tough questions.

Due process in theory and practice

What does proper judicial procedure  have to do with being just?  In theory, nothing.   A fair procedure isn't sufficient to produce a just outcomes:  perhaps the innocent are mistakenly convicted, and the guilty mistakenly go free.   A fair procedure also isn't necessary:  an unfair procedure might, even consistently, produce just results.   Among these unfair procedures is summary justice.   Nowhere is it written that summary justice must fall on the innocent rather than the guilty.   One might even wonder if summary justice must always count as unfair:  what if there's overwhelming evidence the  person judged is guilty?

So much for the theory.  What then about the realities?  Take the US, with its nice constitutional rights and elaborate judicial apparatus.   Only now, when DNA testing has been employed by such movements as the Innocence Project, are we getting some idea of just how often the innocent are indeed found guilty, and in capital cases.  (Don't say, 'but in these cases the judicial process was defective'.  We're talking realities now, and these are the realities of procedural justice.)   But convicting the innocent is probably not even the greatest defect of procedural justice - there are also procedurally just convictions under unjust or stupid laws, like the drug laws which have done much to give the US the world's highest incarceration rate.   This is how procedural justice functions in a society most of the world can only envy.

Yet this is only half of what would concern those living under unjust governments enforcing their rule by brutal repression.   Anyone with any experience of such régimes will be struck by the utter impunity enjoyed by those on the right side of wealth and power.   They do what they like, and the authorities do far worse.   So what tends to concern those oppressed by the régime is not simply that the innocent are punished, but also that the guilty - so many of them, with such terrible crimes to their name - go free.

Someone who's lived this - and whose grandparents' grandparents have lived it - can have no rational expectation that procedural justice will produce just outcomes.  Now suppose that, at long last, the régime is challenged and its procedures are in tatters, while its erstwhile victims are fighting for their lives.   They capture some soldiers of the régime.  What now?

Justice in Syria

Is procedural justice a live option?  The Geneva Convention was formulated with national armies in mind.  National armies generally have the capacity to accommodate prisoners.   Fighters in desperate circumstances generally don't.   But suppose they can set something up.   What then?   They could establish tribunals but these, given the viciously partisan atmosphere, will inevitably and rightly  be termed 'kangaroo courts'.   Or they could wait until victory - assuming it will come, assuming the prisoners will remain prisoners until then, assuming the aftermath of victory will be - what a large assumption! - a just society in which high standards of procedural justice prevail.

And what then?   Even then, only the realities of procedural justice, not the ideal, can be expected.  There will likely be a new criminal code, and already that makes trial for offenses prior to the code procedurally dubious.    Then there will be the matter of evidence.   Will there be any?  collected by whom?  how long ago?  according to what approved procedures?   Under the circumstances, it's very unlikely that anything incriminating will stand up in court:  even international tribunals manage to prosecute only high officials about whom there will be a wealth of authenticated material.    The plain ordinary folks of the old régime - the torturers, the murderers and those complicit in their crimes - will likely have little to worry about, at least if proper procedures are in force.  On top of everything else, with tens of thousands deserving punishment, justice if it comes will take decades, or forever.  Once again, the fighters would have no rational grounds for expecting procedural justice to produce a just outcome.

This is where the hardest questions arise.   We cannot robotically insist on procedural justice, which so often is no justice at all.   Its very modest real-life virtues have to be weighed not only against its defects but against other imperatives:  that crimes are to be punished, and that the punishment must fit the crime.  These are not the principles of barbarians frothing at the mouth for revenge; they are respectable elements of academic jurisprudence.   What becomes of them when procedural justice, in so many ways, proves inadequate?    Does the record of our judicial systems suggest that a judicial apparatus is fairer or more accurate than the snap judgement of the executioners?

Yes, given the resources and security, the FSA could establish a nice-looking judicial system and put on an impressive display of juristic sophistication before it machine-gunned its captives.   Would that be better?   What if we had videos, not only of the summary executions, but of what is endured by the victims of judicial injustice?  When Khatib4FreeSyria (@machkhatib) writes, "Cluster-bombing, rape-and-butchering, child-throat-slitting, livestock-torching, city-leveling #Assad army deserves mercy?"  we need to admit that justice really is about what people deserve.   Perhaps better to criticize brutalities - and the opposition admits there is much to criticize - than to wax self-righteous over violations of judicial procedure.