Monday, September 14, 2015

Will a limited no-fly zone help Syrians?

Increasingly and with varying degrees of optimism, more and more opponents of Assad advocate a no-fly zone in Syria.  It would be great if it saved civilian lives.   But probably its capacity to do so has been exaggerated, and certainly it isn't nearly enough to bring substantial protection to Syrians.   To avoid its being touted as some sort of 'solution', its limitations need keeping in mind.

What sort of zone is at all likely?   Certainly a no-fly zone over all of Syria would save many lives; it might even help end the conflict.   But no such zone is suggested by any prominent advocates, and for good reason.   It would, in the attempt, be more costly than the West would ever countenance.  Syrian air defences are not state-of-the-art but they are substantial and in large measure located near populated areas.   Taking  them out would certainly mean civilian deaths.  But the main problem with any such proposal is political, not military.

Such a zone would rightly be seen as a fatal blow to Syria's sovereign government.  (Indeed that would be the best thing about it!)  It could never pass muster as a mere implementation of some alleged 'duty to protect'.  Russia would veto its endorsement in the UN, and without that endorsement there is no reasonable chance the West would go ahead with it.  Indeed Russia's ability and its unknown degree of willingness to provide Syria with advanced means of air defense would alone make such a proposal too radical for the West to contemplate.  The remote possibility of confrontations between Western and Russian air assets in Syrian skies would seal the death of such ideas.  It is now clear that Russia would at the very least not tolerate a no-fly zone anywhere near its base in Tartous.

So the live option is a no-fly zone over part of Syria.   This will accomplish little.

There is a fundamental difference between a limited zone and the no-fly zones of Iraq, Libya - or even what some hoped for in the earlier stages of the Syrian conflict.   In Libya and Iraq, the zones were to function, or did function, as a stage in the overthrow of the régime.   In Libya's case this was less than explicit only not to offend Russian sensibilities.  In Iraq it was always understood, and indeed the source of complaints, that humanitarianism was not the sole motivation:  the US and the UK were bent on Saddam Hussein's removal.  In Syria today, removal is at most something contemplated as a long-term possibility, and then with considerable reluctance.

The difference has to do with the factor not present in Iraq or in the Libya prior to Gaddafi's fall.   In Syria today, of course, the West is virtually panicked about strong Islamist elements.  This concern isn't confined to ISIS, and its extension to Jabhat al Nusra has to do with more than its 'official Al Qaeda' label.  It's not just that the West is appalled by ISIS' conduct.  It's also that it doesn't trust any Islamist elements in the Syrian revolution, which means that for all practical purposes it doesn't trust the revolution itself.  Groups like Ahrar al Sham, despite their attempts at rapprochement with the West, will never gain Western confidence:  who knows what these guys are really up to?   And that produces a kind of chain reaction.  If you can't trust the radical Islamists, you can't trust the moderate ones, because they're too chummy with the radicals, and you can't even trust the secularists, because they're too chummy with the moderates.  Long story short, by now the West has no enthusiasm for the fall of the régime, so that a no-fly zone would actually be what it pretended to be in earlier cases:  a humanitarian gesture.  But the West is far more interested in fighting ISIS than in humanitarianism.

Anyway, as a gesture, how humane is it?

It will do no great harm to Assad's air capacity; his air force would escape damage because it would not confront advanced US aviation.  So that air capacity would still be fully available for attacks on civilians outside the zone.   Outside the zone, in other words, the slaughter from the air would continue.

What about inside the zone?  Bear in mind that the Syrian armed forces have operated without air cover for over half a century; their air force was entirely outclassed by Israel's.  Today it would be far, far easier for the Syrian army and its allies to accomplish most of their objectives inside the zone.

Their prime objective would be what it has always been, to terrorize civilians in rebel-controlled areas:  beyond that its operations have been largely defensive.  It would be an extreme of wishful thinking to suppose that Syria, with its very extensive artillery and rocket resources, would spare civilians in a no-fly zone.  Such terror operations wouldn't require anything remotely like the exposed troop formations it fielded against Israel, and these operations would be supplemented by militias, operating in built-up areas, utterly beyond the reach of a mission whose sole purpose was to deny them air cover.  Indeed since no one is in any case threatening régime forces from the air, the denial would mean nothing.

Note too that the infamous barrel bombs were themselves a novel improvisation.  It is impossible to believe that the sadistic ingenuity of the régime would be hard-pressed to find some equally devastating means of inflicting agony on civilians, one that did not require delivery from the air.  Indeed not much ingenuity seems to be required.  Even in Aleppo, well within any proposed no-fly zone, the régime has attacked bakeries with artillery.  Every inch of the no-fly zone would be within the reach of régime missiles, rockets or field guns.

You might say that if a no-fly zone proved inadequate, further measures would be taken.   But this is exactly why a no-fly zone encounters such opposition in the first place.  Every new measure would encounter enormous political obstacles and - given years have past and a no-fly zone itself is still only a possibility - there is no good reason to suppose that further measures would in fact be implemented.  And since there is no real political desire to overthrow the régime, the governments implementing the no-fly zone won't have the will to extend it at Assad's expense.

In short the limited no-fly zone proposals seem little more than comfort for those unwilling to countenance a real attempt to destroy the Assad régime.  Only such an attempt will end its murder of innocents.  It would require an unlimited no-fly zone, not a limited one.

Sunday, September 6, 2015

Really 'doing something' about Assad: good wishes and realities

Of course it's great that the EU will accommodate many Syrian refugees.  It's also a good thing when a child is saved from a burning building.  But it gives pause when one child is saved, and 80 that could be saved are left to die.

This holds especially when saving one child is made to excuse the abandoning the others.  The refugee drama has something of that character.  For the mainstream Westerners who consider themselves humane, is it nothing short of cathartic.  They agonize over pictures of drowned children.  They welcome the refugees and rage against those who don't.  They tell themselves they've failed and that they're racists: perhaps appropriately this is a matter for the BBC's entertainment section.  And leaders of major Western nations unite in serious efforts to manage the inflow of refugees.

Beyond this, human rights organizations and pundits demand more.  They insist that these measures do not get to 'the root' of the problem.  They say that 'something must be done' about the civil war in Syria and about Assad.  Yet none of these humanitarians would dream of endorsing anything that actually did get at the root of the problem.  Aside from Turkey, only the Gulf States and Saudi Arabia, whom they condemn for not admitting refugees, have shown any inclination to do that.

In fact the refugee drama, with all its humanitarian distractions and satisfactions, absolutely guarantees that the West will not take serious action against Assad, who has murdered roughly eighty times as many as have died trying to reach safety.  (Not a typo; that's 8000% more.*) Accepting the refugees allows the West to see itself as springing into action.  At the same time the crisis allows even those who cry for 'action' on Syria to conceal from themselves their discreet but utterly firm commitment to do nothing whatever about Assad.

For over four years now, these vociferous humanitarians steadfastly refuse to make the hard choices that would put Assad's slaughterhouse out of business.  Or perhaps better to say, the humanitarians have indeed made their hard choice.  They refuse even to consider any solution that likely includes hard-line Islamists coming to power.   Since these are the only realistic solutions, that's exactly equivalent to preferring that any number of Syrians die and are tortured to death to a hard-line Islamic government in Syria.

Why?  For a genuine, lasting solution to the Syrian part of the refugee problem, there is one choice and one choice alone.  After four years it's clear: the war and all its atrocities will continue until one side wins.  The throw-up-our-hands talk about how hard it is to get both sides to a power-sharing agreement is absurd:  were these not 'Arabs', would the victims of a mass murder be expected to share power with him?  Being absurd, it can't happen.  The rebels cannot negotiate because they know Assad can be trusted only to go on murdering innocents.  Assad can't negotiate because he has too much blood on his hands;  he and his supporters have no reason to expect rebel forbearance.  As for talk about how 'Assad must go'; it is fatuous.  If Assad bows out of negotiations, the régime will stay, and find some other monster to lead them.  So the solution is not negotiation; one side must defeat the other.

Which side, then, must humanitarians choose?  If Assad wins, the slaughter will continue unabated:  Assad will want to crush his opponents once and for all, just as his father did a much less sustained rebellion in 1982.  With Russian and Iranian support complemented by Western cowardice, nothing will stop him.  There will be more refugees and many more deaths.

If the rebels win, it's a different story.  They can defeat Assad only with truly massive weapons deliveries, plus money to pay fighters' salaries.  The weapons would have be provided to pretty much anyone but ISIS:  otherwise, as recent experience shows, the effort will fracture.  This precludes a glacial 'vetting' process that the US has proven incompetent to conduct in any case. That means arms will flow, directly or indirectly, to hard-line Islamist fighters.  There is no alternative; their militias have proven by far the most effective against Assad.  They have earned the loyalty of hundreds of thousands of Syrians who will never abandon them because Westerners, safe in their homes, dislike the Islamist agenda.

More or less indiscriminately arming the rebels will make a pretty hard-line Islamist takeover very likely.  That would preclude anything like freedom or democracy or equality for women.  It would all but eliminate the chance of a liberal future for Syria.  Yet this prospect is, from any vaguely moral standpoint, clearly preferable to unending atrocity.

There is even some room for optimism because the aftermath of a rebel victory could be managed to moderate its prospects.  Such prospects seem to exist:  considerable anecdotal evidence suggests many rank-and-file members of hard-line groups are not hard-liners themselves, but have joined up simply for the chance to fight Assad.  The massive aid a rebel victory requires would inevitably come with a large measure of dependence and therefore control.  This would enable the West to steer the victors away from orgies of vengeance.  Some optimism but not too much:  quite possibly the West would have on occasion to send ground troops to prevent sectarian massacres.

So there is some risk.  At this point experts warn about mission creep and the West's inability to build nations.  But no one is suggesting nation-building, and a mission creeps only when its scope has been grossly misconceived.  The West would indeed have to maintain a force of perhaps 30,000 troops to intervene should sectarian violence blossom.  That's triple the number of troops employed by the UN in its current five peacekeeping missions.  Together, the US and the EU alone have a population of 800 million; surely they can spare that many to save so many innocent lives.  But for the experts, it seems that any risk to Western troops is too much risk for the benefit of some crazy Arabs.

After much hand-wringing and impotent indignation about what 'must' happen, the West does indeed welcome some Syrians who haven't been shredded by barrel bombs, or starved to death in besieged areas, or slowly bled out in Assad's torture chambers.  Few if any seem confident that this symptoms-not-causes approach will provide any lasting benefit.  It will certainly make for press awards and for touching moments in school assemblies.  Meanwhile 'humanitarians' don't want Syrians to get the weapons they need to stop Assad's torture and murder - that might lead to an Islamist takeover!  Some 'humanitarians'.


(*) Most of the refugee deaths have to do with arrival by sea, and Syrians (2100) seem to represent 1/8th of the total of 26,200.  Making pessimistic assumptions about unreported casualties, say 2900 deaths.   The 8000% figure uses the very conservative estimate of 230000 deaths in Syria's war. Perhaps some of these don't count as murdered but on the other hand estimates of those killed run as high as 330,000.