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.

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

Tuesday, February 14, 2017

Should we worry about the Muslim Brotherhood?

Should we worry about the Muslim Brotherhood

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

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

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

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

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

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