Sunday, June 16, 2013

On the Syrian civil war

That civil wars, understood as those which take place within the borders of a single country, never remain like that for long is a point well made by the criminally under-read Peter Ryley.  With Syria, as with any number you care to mention, it's not so much a question of whether but rather which countries will intervene.  It goes without saying that another way that a civil war can never be considered solely a matter for the country hosting it is the inevitable displacement of refugees, which in the case of this one is of appalling proportions.

This civil war like others before it has brought insistent demands that one should take sides.  I decline to do so on the grounds that I am insufficiently familiar with the situation - but I would say that making the observation 'non-intervention has costs', while perfectly valid, is one that only those who are perhaps pacifists or the kind that see any Western military action on foreign soil as 'imperialist' need persuading of.  For those of us that are neither, who witnessed the incarnation of this in Rwanda and Bosnia, it is accepted but it is not enough in itself to convince that intervention in this case is the 'no-brainer' that some apparently think.

During the bloodiest years of post-Saddam Iraq, some of us were dismissive of those leftist factionalists who gave their support for the insurgency, seeming to have at its base the weird notion that the 'Al-Qaeda in Iraq' fundamentalist head-choppers bore some kind of resemblance to the French Resistance during the Second World War.  What those favouring intervention have conspicuously failed to do is to explain why this situation is so different?  We have Hezbollah on one side, and some extremely unsavoury Sunni fanatics on the other.  Quoting the appalling civilian casualties is all very well - what the pro-intervention side has failed to do is to persuade that arming the latter would do anything to reduce these.  Put plainly, one arms the side you want to win.  Even if we could assume such an action would not merely extend the duration of this conflict but hand the rebels a decisive advantage, is there any reason to think this would be desirable, that it would reduce the death toll in Syria?  There may well be one, in which case it would be nice of those calling for intervention could take a rest from being certain about everything and share it with us.


The Plump said...

The problem is that the situation as it stands is the direct result of intervention by unlovely powers that have backed either Assad or the Sunni Islamists and the non-intervention that has left the democrats (who started the revolution) to stand on their own and become increasingly invisible to the media. An even bigger problem is the fragmentation into sectarianism, which is partly the result of the pattern of intervention/non-intervention.

Assad and his supporters have tried to portray the conflict as a simple one between 'secular' Ba'athism and Islamism. It is quite clear that this is not the case. It is much more complex.

Ba'athism is dead. An Assad victory would be beholden to Hezbollah. A victory for the opposition that allowed for a Sunni Islamist power grab would also be a disaster for the vast majority of Syrians who support neither. The conflict between Islamism and a secular liberalism is what Paul Berman has called the third phase of the Arab spring. So, there is another side. This site is worth exploring when they manage to stay online.

PS Thanks for the compliment.

kellie said...

With respect Shuggy, I think the problem you have might be on the "insufficiently familiar with the situation" point.

Most grotesque is your assertion that "those favouring intervention have conspicuously failed to .. to explain why this situation is so different" to Iraq. The insurgency in Iraq targeted civilians as a core strategy. The insurgency in Iraq had as its aim the maintenance of rule by a sectarian minority and the prevention of democracy. The difference, Shuggy, is that in Syria these are the strategy and aims of the regime. They are not the strategy and aims of the majority of the opposition. If you haven't understood that, then you've understood very little indeed.

There have been very many advocates of intervention making very detailed arguments. I'm not clear that you've actually read any in detail. Nearly all the ones I've been following doubt that arms alone will be enough, particularly the kinds of arms Western nations seem prepared to provide. Most argue for some form of air campaign, whether a No Fly Zone or a more limited campaign against Assad's air force.

As you mention Bosnia, an accessible book that I think is very relevant is Joe Sacco's comic The Fixer. Less well known than his Safe Area Gorazde, it deals with the militias who defended Sarajevo in the earlier part of the war, how the Bosnian government was forced to rely on experienced gangsters in the absence of a proper army, how this led to corruption and war crimes, and how the militias were eventually pushed out when the Bosnian government finally started getting resources from Western governments to train and equip a proper army.

Western intervention is essential not just to end Assad's terror, but also for there to be any decent chance to build a stable political - and necessarily also military - centre of gravity in Syria.

George S said...

Non-intervention means that Assad is very likely to win at some time, especially since Russia has long been supplying arms to Syria.

The situation is complex - see Peter's argument - the problem is simple. The problem is that the opposition is comprised of various factions, some of which would do more harm than good in the international sense should they win. How can you arm only that part of the opposition that you favour?

Those who argued most strongly for intervention when the firtst reports of mass murders came in have now retreated a little, or indeed entirely. Humanitarian and military interventions are not entirely distinct spheres.

I imagine that Europe and the USA are compelled to wait until something gets more sorted out in Syria.

ps Wasn't it also the case that Russia / Soviet Union was the main supplier of arms to Saddam too, ( with France second and China third, which might have been one reason at least that the three nations were so strongly opposed to the Iraq War.

kellie said...

George is right that there is a serious question over whether one can arm one faction without arms spreading to other factions. It's been established that Croatian arms supplied in co-operation with the US spread beyond their intended recipients in the Syrian opposition.

There are two parts to answering the problem. One is linking the arms to training in order to build a more coherent opposition military. This is already happening to some degree in Jordan and seems likely to be central to future plans - see for example
this WSJ report.

The other part of the answer is to withhold arms that might significantly increase the threat from Al Qaeda & Co. - particularly anti-aircraft weapons. This leaves a hole in the opposition's capabilities which is why some kind of outside intervention against Assad's air force is regularly called for by most advocates. Rather than a No Fly Zone in the true sense of the term, it may be preferable to have a more narrowly targeted bombing campaign to suppress Assad's air force. You can listen to a detailed informed discussion on options here.

Shuggy said...

@kellie: I say I haven't taken a position on this because I don't know much about it; you say, "You don't know much about it, do you?" Um, yeah, that's what I just said so I don't think there's any call for you to be taking that attitude.

I think I know probably enough to dismiss the notion that the case for intervention is unanswerable, yet some people are behaving as if this was not so. I'm afraid that for me these "very many advocates of intervention making very detailed arguments" you refer to have rather been lost under the pile of articles that purport to have identified moral failure in anyone that disagrees with them. They don't strike me as being very helpful contributions to the debate, to say no more than that.

kellie said...

Sorry I was grumpy, not the best approach. My problem with the post is your saying you don't know much while at the same time seeming to criticise advocates of intervention in these terms:

"Quoting the appalling civilian casualties is all very well - what the pro-intervention side has failed to do is to persuade that arming the latter would do anything to reduce these"


"it would be nice of those calling for intervention could take a rest from being certain about everything and share.."

Saying I don't know is fine and sensible. Saying 'I haven't seen good answers to X or Y is fine. But if you haven't had the time or inclination to immerse yourself in the argument, then it looks rather foolish for you to assert that nobody has made the argument. If you really want to hear, if you want people to share, then your sarcastic closing line might not be the best approach.

kellie said...

Reading back through your post, and through Peter's, and through the post Peter links to, your over-simplification of the situation as "Hezbollah on one side, and some extremely unsavoury Sunni fanatics on the other" is all the more incredible. Both of the other posts are precisely about avoiding that binary choice, and instead intervening to strengthen the moderate centre. Both of those posts are precisely against "arming the latter". You should re-read them, slowly this time.

Shuggy said...


So according to you, I'm indolent AND foolish? You may well be right but can you not see the way in which you're making my previous point for me?

P.S. 'grotesque, incredible'? Such hyperbole is an abomination unto the Lord.

kellie said...

Come on Shuggy, address the substantive point. You say (hyperbolically?) that Peter is "criminally under-read". So read Peter's post again and the one he links to. Then re-read what you wrote. Do you really think you're addressing his argument or are you ascribing to him one that's actually opposed to his true position?

The Plump said...

This is good and succinct on the problem of the fragmentary nature of the opposition.

I think the debate here is summarised in the final paragraph:

America hopes that by arming moderate groups among the rebels it will unify and empower them; but others reckon it is too late.

Luis Enrique said...


not related to this post, but thought you might be semi-interested in this research on Scottish education

Shuggy said...

Thanks Luis...

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