Saturday, August 20, 2016

Yes, do compare atrocities!


Though it is nothing like the cause of Syria's misery, one culprit has played a major role in its perpetuation.  It not only erodes the will of the West to do something.  It also actually undermines the international order.  That culprit is the human rights discourse that has built up since the end of the Second World War.

The development of human rights discourse has consistently broadened the world's notion of atrocity to the point where accusations of atrocity simply carry no weight.  This began when Raphael Lemkin created the term 'genocide' in 1944:

 By ‘genocide’ we mean the destruction of a nation or of an ethnic group. This new word, coined by the author to denote an old practice in its modern development, is made from the ancient Greek word genos (race, tribe) and the Latin cide (killing)…. Generally speaking, genocide does not necessarily mean the immediate destruction of a nation, except when accomplished by mass killings of all members of a nation. It is intended rather to signify a coordinated plan of different actions aiming at the destruction of essential foundations of the life of national groups, with the aim of annihilating the groups themselves. Genocide is directed against the national group as an entity, and the actions involved are directed against individuals, not in their individual capacity, but as members of the national group”.
           
Lemkin was inventing a concept.  He wanted to transcend immediate circumstance, give his idea the majesty of a wide sweep.  So he opened the door to most expansive views.   No, he's saying, genocide isn't just killing people.  The 'foundations of the life of national groups' is not the same as 'the survival on this earth of the members of those groups'.  It almost seems as if you plan to destroy the national identity of some group, even without violence, that's genocide.

The Geneva Convention against genocide, adopted in 1948, took the potential weakness of the original definition and ran with it.  It defined genocide as (*)

..any of the following acts committed with intent to destroy, in whole or in part, a national, ethnical, racial or religious group, as such:

                        (a) Killing members of the group;
                        (b) Causing serious bodily or mental harm to members of the group;
                        (c) Deliberately inflicting on the group conditions of life calculated to bring about its physical destruction in whole or in part;
                        (d) Imposing measures intended to prevent births within the group;
                        (e) Forcibly transferring children of the group to another group.

Consider what this means.  Suppose all the females of a religious sect, even one with the most repugnant practices, were sterilized.  The sterilization was imposed because if you didn't submit, you were fined $100.   This comes within the exact definition of genocide.  So the sterilization is every bit as much a case of genocide as taking six million people and putting them to death through beatings, starvation, torture, gassing and other means.(**)

The framers of the Geneva Convention were probably didn't do this by inadvertence.  They are likely to have thought:  "so much the better.  We want to cast our anti-genocide convention in the most expansive terms.  That way, we get to outlaw more bad things than a narrow definition would permit.  Hey, why stick with race?  Why not add religion?  Aren't all attempts to eliminate a religion terrible crimes?  Any why stick with killing?  Aren't nonviolent means to this end just as bad?"

Well that's the problem.  No, the sterilization case is not just as bad.  When you put what is very questionable in the same category as catastrophic evil, you risk desensitizing people to the difference.  And as this practice has flourished over the decades, that's what has happened, and that has exacted a terrible price on Syrians.  Indeed since many Syrians have themselves enthusiastically signed on to the expansionist approach to atrocity, they have been duped into complicity with their own neglect.

The expansion runs rampant through the documents of international organizations.  The Fourth Geneva Convention states that

The Occupying Power shall, with the cooperation of the national and local authorities, facilitate the proper working of all institutions devoted to the care and education of children.

In the UN's Universal Declaration of Human Rights, violations of privacy, freedom to marry, travel and vote are every bit as much human rights offenses as enslavement and murder.  Of course this prevents no one from saying that some of these crimes were of a quite different order than others.  But that isn't how it has worked out.

'Human rights violation', like 'war crime', sounds like and is in fact taken for a very serious matter, whether or not it would, but for those labels, count as an atrocity.  The categories are invested with immense but largely imaginary authority.  They were created in an orgy of half-sincere good wishes.  Nations did not intend them to be taken seriously, which is why the documents which enshrine them never came with serious enforcement mechanisms.  Yet here we allegedly have a collection of the most heinous crimes conceivable, ratified (literally or figuratively) by the most allegedly august international bodies.  All this has created or at least encouraged an almost irresistible tendency not to distinguish among these heinous acts.  Aren't they all just terrible?  How can we diminish one by deeming it less serious than another?

The intention underlying this refusal to distinguish is exalted.  It is to eliminate all war crimes, human rights violations, and crimes against humanity such as genocide.  It is equivalent to a zero tolerance approach to, say, drugs, or speeding.  The ambition might be thought noble were its effects not so disastrous.  What presents itself as high morality is merely intense and harmful moralizing.

The harm comes from the zero tolerance attitude coupled with the fact that all nations and certainly all parties in all civil wars commit war crimes that violate human rights.  Often they even adopt policies that fit the very broad notion of 'genocide' or its close relative, ethnic cleansing.  So not only in Syria, but pretty much elsewhere and everywhere, all parties to the conflict are officially reprehensible.  According to zero tolerance, the crimes of one are not to be compared to the crimes of the other:  that would be forgetting that all violations of human rights etc. are extremely serious.

Why then is there such surprise that, despite all reports of régime atrocities in Syria, no people of no nation seem able to work up enduring outrage?  Report what you like, and soon you will get the reaction inculcated in us for decades:  well yes, but doesn't the other side commit terrible crimes?  Won't atrocities always be with us until we learn to respect international law?  Isn't it suspiciously hysterical to scream about this one offender?

Policy analysts refashion this into a mantra replete with adolescent wisdom:  there are no good guys in Syria.  This slides easily into:  let's just back whoever we like, however much we like, for our own interests.  "Our own interests" means, for US governments, what won't upset the voters.  That in turn means no serious commitment in Syria, because that would entail either American deaths and great expense, or arming 'Arabs'.  So already the moralizing has important effects on policy.

There is another, equally damaging effect:  the almost universally accepted convention that when it comes to atrocity, we don't need to know the details.  It's all criminal, isn't it?  Why wallow in sadism and cruelty?  This is why, for instance, the Caesar archive of photos, widely distributed, has had no impact - and why so many see no reason to view them.  They are supposed to force people to confront Syria's realities but the fact is, they don't.  They are supposed to present details but the fact is, they do no such thing.  We see emaciated corpses, some with injuries.  That doesn't tell us how these people died, and zero tolerance tells us:  "well, aren't people dying all over in this terrible conflict?   Don't people die terrible deaths worldwide?  Why then should these pictures tell us anything about what should happen in Syria.? After all, isn't it just a question of backing one bad guy rather than another?  After all, why should Americans die to clean up a mess created by a bunch of bad guys running around killing each other?  Can we really change the sort of society that generates these crimes?  Is it really our job to do so?"

The very same people who cannot believe that the world just throws up its hands over Syria belong to those who enable that reaction.  They cry out about human rights and war crimes, legitimating ridiculously broad categories that level out all choices into exercises in futility.  Human rights discourse sets you up to say, there are no good options.  And that indeed is how people react.

Well, what's wrong with that?  Drop the refusal to compare and the problem becomes apparent.  The situation in Syria presents far more than a choice between alleged evils.  Comparison would show the crucial fact whose neglect affects all the West's reactions and policy decisions about Syria:  that Assad represents an evil orders of magnitude greater than what is normally encountered in this world.

Imagine that people did actually examine and compare the record of the various parties to the Syrian conflict.  They might find reasons why it is not only morally permissible but morally obligatory, at times, to give full military support to people who commit war crimes and violate human rights.  That realization can occur only when people stop saying it's all the same and really look at the details of atrocities.

The worst atrocities are almost never reported.  Incredibly, the latest Amnesty International account of torture in Syrian jails specifies the details of only of cases which are mild by Assad's standards.  Perhaps here again, to report worse is thought merely prurient by an agency known for its 'even-handedness', that is, its refusal to compare.

But the details say something otherwise impossible to convey:  that the Assad régime, even in the face of all the other horrible régimes around the world, introduces a level of barbarism scarcely conceivable.  How typical for the world to focus on Assad's bombing, as if this was his worst, as if some fancy American fighter jets could do some flyovers and make all well.  There are two reasons this won't do.

First, the focus won't overcome the refusal to compare: think how many will say, "but doesn't the West bomb civilians too?  Didn't the US and Britain do this, deliberately, in the Second World War?  Isn't bombing civilians, whether or not it is fully expected 'collateral damage', a terrible thing?  What, are we going to compare atrocities now?"  Second, the focus on barrel bombs is oblivious to Syria's realities.  For Assad, barrel bombs are a mere convenience.  Before the barrel bombs, his forces didn't kill children from the sky.  They took knives and slit the throats of babies and toddlers.  There are photographs and well-confirmed reports of this for anyone who takes the trouble to find them.

The refusal to compare and its consequent avoidance of details conceals uncomfortable facts.  ISIS' beheadings that so shock the world take moments; they are humane compared to the slow deaths Assad's torturers have inflicted on victims as young as 11.  Bombing hospitals is indeed terrible:  before the bombings, régime troops invaded the hospitals on foot and tortured people in their hospital beds.  And the tortures of Abu Ghraib are love pats compared to what Assad inflicts on human flesh.

To these qualitative comparisons must be added quantitative ones.  Assad murders and tortures many times more people than any other participant in the conflict.  To first preach about the awfulness of atrocities, and then assign no weight to how many human beings suffer them, is nothing short of bizarre.

It's hardly a surprise that honest comparisons are avoided: the conclusions they compel are so unwelcome.  But they loom large because they point to a crossroads of morality and political realism.  The fact - it is a fact - is that ISIS, which conducts massacres, beheads people, blows up civilians, executes by burning alive and throws homosexuals off buildings - is, according to all reports on the scale and nature of the atrocities, much less brutal than the Syrian government.  That is not a world it is in anyone's interest to legitimate and therefore to perpetuate.  Before Assad we already lived with fine declarations masking pathetically low real standards governing how we treat one another.  To let Assad remain in power - or his entire régime minus the man himself - is to lower standards even more.  The fact that many prefer ISIS' horrible rule to his own is clear evidence what dangers lie in the refusal to compare.

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(*)     Convention on the Prevention and Punishment of the Crime of Genocide, Article 2[3].
(**)  Even less questionable cases fit definition of genocide.  Suppose a religious sect is found to mistreat all its children in significant ways.  These children are (forcibly) taken away and placed with a similar religious sect which does children no harm.

Thursday, May 5, 2016

Charles Lister's jihad against Jabhat al Nusra

Charles Lister's recent Foreign Policy piece compounds the shoddy thinking behind his previous warnings about Jabhat al Nusra.

He tells us without evidence that senior Al Qaeda figures 'almost certainly' travelled to Syria to meet with Jabhat al Nusra leaders.  Maybe so.  He also emphasizes that these senior figures are very close to Al Qaeda leader Al Zawahiri.

Why, according to Lister, is this so alarming?  It's not obvious, because Lister clearly states that Al Zawahiri has taken a moderate direction and isn't interested in mounting attacks on the West.  Nor does Lister assert anywhere in his piece that these 'senior figures' will urge Nusra to undertake such attacks.  In fact he asserts that the senior figures crossed into Syria because their focus is on, well, Syria.  So the presence of senior Al Qaeda figures should, one would think, be reassuring.  After all, every recent attack on the West has been carried out by groups not closely linked to Al Qaeda.  The attackers have all identified with ISIS, which is hostile to Al Qaeda, to a significant extent because Al Qaeda is too moderate.

But Lister puts "moderate" in scare quotes.  Why is that?  Not because Al Qaeda is showing itself bent on attacking the West.  Instead we hear that Jabhat al Nusra "has slowly revealed more and more of its extremist face while trying to avoid risking its accepted status within the mainstream opposition."  Here Lister indulges in his habitual practice of conflating extremism in social or cultural policy with extremism in anti-Western policy.

Jabhat al Nusra is arguably extreme in what it expects of women and in its attitude to secular vices - though not much moreso than the Gulf States whom the US feels secure enough to arm, collectively, on a scale exceeding even what's showered on Israel.  As US arms policy shows, this 'domestic' extremism, however deplorable, hasn't the slightest tendency of indicate any danger to the West.  Hopefully Lister's readers are aware of this transparent bait-and-switch.

Finally, Lister warns that Jabhat al Nusra intends, down the road, to establish a 'caliphate'.  Is this word supposed to frighten us?  A caliphate is a kind of authority.  That Nusra seeks to establish it, again, hasn't the slightest tendency to indicate aggression towards the West.  To seek authority doesn't have some built-in intention to use it to threaten the world, or the West.  And, also again, Lister doesn't even claim Nusra is out to threaten the West.  In fact he pretty well says the opposite.

Nusra may be reprehensible in its enforced puritanism, though its enforcement is, again, no more Draconian than what's frequently encountered in the US' Gulf State allies.  Nusra also has strong popular support, and little wonder, because it has often provided the most effective resistance against Assad's atrocities.  Lister himself seems to believe that Assad's war on Syrians lies at the heart of the 'jihadis'' rise and therefore of attacks on the West. So Nusra is more plausible as a counter to extremist threats than as the embodiment of it.

This is not to say that, if the US continues to bomb Nusra and treat it as a major menace, Nusra will never respond.   It is to say that the campaign against Nusra is far more likely to create a danger than to avert one.

Monday, March 28, 2016

Really, IS and the Syrian régime are enemies

Two claims about some purported ISIS-régime alliance refuse to die.  One can be disposed of in short order.  Yes, too-clever-by-half Syrian intelligence agencies supported various extremist Islamists in 2008-2011 or so.  But this is hardly the same as supporting ISIS, which had no independent identity back then.  It's not even as damning as, say, Israel's early support of Hamas.  No one supposes Israel and Hamas are, therefore, buddies in secret.

The other claim requires only slightly more attention.  With the dogged sophistry of 9-11 conspiracy theorists, some still hold that, if now IS and the Syrian régime do fight one another, this is new.  Before, they were in a tacit alliance.  They didn't really fight one another.  Indeed the régime and IS ganged up on the rebels.

It's true that the Syrian régime, not being insane, probably did on occasion see in IS attacks on the rebels an opportunity to mount their own assaults.  But to take advantage of fighting between your enemies doesn't mean they're not your enemies.  The reason for the current régime campaign against ISIS has nothing to do with a change in alignment.  It has to do with obvious strategic priorities.

The régime, all along, has fought its battles where it was most threatened.  This meant securing, as much as possible, its coastal enclave (Latakia/Tartous), Damascus, and population centers near Damascus.  That's why it made little effort in the extreme South, where the rebels did well, or the remote Northeast, where IS established itself in Raqqa.  In the Northwest it lacked the resources to retake Aleppo at a time when that would have meant confronting the US-backed rebels, the Kurds and perhaps Turkey.

With Russian support, things have changed radically.  Homs, once the most important rebel stronghold in the core region, is under régime control.  The Western enclave is secure.  Even the less important areas are no concern.  In the South the rebels' US and Jordanian backers are interested only in diverting anti-Assad militias into anti-IS proxies.  US support in the Northwest has come to have much the same objective.  What's more, America's (and Russia's) Kurdish allies can be counted on to neutralize the rebels not only in Aleppo, but all along the Turkish border.  Russian support also means far fewer casualties for the Lebanese and Iranian-backed Iraqi militias, so that Assad no longer has manpower problems.  The one remaining problem area is Idlib, where Jabhat al Nusra refuses any truce with the régime - but there the US-backed rebels know they cannot support a Nusra-initiated offensive without losing their backing.  This means that the danger from Idlib is very moderate.  Finally Russia is very successfully making problems for Turkey via the Kurds, so that Turkey, and therefore Gulf State powers who supply the rebels through Turkey, are in no position to give the rebels serious support.

That's why the régime fights IS now, and why it didn't fight IS as much before.  It has nothing to do with alliances or cooperation.  It's because the major threat to the régime, the rebels, became a very minor threat.  The change in strategy occurred as soon as that became clear.

The insistence in the face of these indisputable facts that IS and the régime have some covert relationship, or some de facto alliance, is disturbing, because it is so clearly false.  When the rebels' supporters display delusional behavior, it can hardly help what's left of the rebels' cause.

Monday, February 29, 2016

Get serious about removing Assad: disengage from Syria

                                                                              
The 'German idealist' Immanuel Kant could be hard-headed.  "Whoever wills the end, wills the unavoidably necessary means," he said.

There are many non-Syrians who rant and rave against Assad.  They demand that the world 'do something' about him.  They 'support' the rebels, or some of the rebels.  These people allegedly want Assad gone.  But they do not will the unavoidably necessary means to remove him, so they do not will the alleged end.  Their ranting expresses mere dislike, not serious intention.  Since they will not so much as advocate what it takes to end the catastrophe, even their dislike can't run so terribly deep.

What it takes to end Assad's catastrophe is support for all the rebels, including some radical, anti-democratic Islamists who have pledged allegiance to Al Qaeda's leader Ayman al-Zawahiri.  It takes willingness, directly or indirectly, to supply these extremists.  Try, if you like, to find one single commentator who doesn't espouse some sort of falsehood or sophistry to avoid this conclusion.

The main maneuver is to claim that there is a secularist democratically-minded rebel force, usually called the Free Syrian Army, sufficient to defeat Assad.  Sometimes it is said, approvingly, that this force is 'vetted' by the CIA.  With more backing, some say, this force is also the best bet against ISIS, far better than Assad.  Or, even if they're not the best bet in the short run, they're the best bet in the long run:  even if Assad might do as well as a weapon against the immediate threat of ISIS, only the FSA could provide a long-term, solid counter to ISIS - by eliminating the Assadist tyranny that spawned ISIS in the first place.

None of this is right - it's false, misleading or incapable of making its case.

There are incorruptible secularist democratically-minded forces, but they are small; on their own they couldn't even hold their own.  In the South, where they are strongest and most independent of Islamist influence, big things have been promised for years.  The promises faded and now, with Russian assistance to the régime, they have vanished.  In the North, also for years, the FSA has needed help from and alliance with radical Islamists.  Fear of these Islamists is why the US is so squeamish about supplying arms, in North and South alike.  Now, with Russian-backed attacks from the régime and the Kurds, no one seriously suggests that the FSA is going to overthrow Assad.

But suppose, somehow, the FSA were generously reinforced and redirected against IS - presumably in exchange for some sort of shameful deal with the régime.  Would they be the best military answer to ISIS in Syria?  This would be as much as to say that a heavily reinforced Syrian army, backed by Russian close air support, Iranian regulars and Shia militias, would not do as well.  There isn't the slightest reason to suppose this.  What's more, it's not even clear that Iran, Russia, the Kurds and Assad won't put an end to ISIS on their own.

But what about the long term?  Wouldn't the FSA offer a better solution than the régime, whose oppression spawned the extreme Islamists in the first place?  In the long term there is little reason to suppose so.  Assad's oppression was far from the only factor that spawned extremist Islam, which took root and flourished much earlier.  The West's gratuitous assault on Iraq, following decades of  foolish interventions in the Middle East, had much to do with it.  The FSA can't undo these injuries, and it will not easily shake its association with the Americans held responsible for them .  Nor do the programs of the FSA testify to the slightest interest in addressing the poverty and inequality that are probably the deepest causes of the Islamist surge.  Instead FSA & its supporters issue declarations  that voice commitments to liberal and democratic values.  They are sometimes mildly welfarist but offer no economic or social transformation likely to interest poorer Syrians.  So the idea that the FSA, as opposed to Assad, offers some lasting solution to the problem of extremist Islam is implausible.

The military and political shortcomings of the FSA begin to make the case for un-vetted support for the rebels, including the extreme Islamists.  Contrary to received opinion, it is a strategy which holds very little risk to the West, very little cost, and some benefit.

Vetting

Consider the whole idea of vetting Syrian fighters, as pure a product of American insularity and ignorance as you're likely to find.  For one thing, anyone born and raised under a brutal police state has learned to conceal his opinions and leanings from much tougher and wilier intelligence authorities than a CIA officer.  For another, the vetting project flies in the face of Syrian realities.

Vetting has never been wonderfully effective.  The latest notable failure in the region became apparent when "a Jordanian physician named Humam Khalil al-Balawi" blew up seven CIA officers at a meeting in Afghanistan.  I knew someone who vetted French resistance fighters for the OSS and considered the whole exercise a joke.   But Syria is far, far less favorable terrain for vetting than Nazi-occupied  France.  It is far, far less favorable terrain than contemporary Middle Eastern countries that have experienced unrest such as Algeria or Egypt.

In wartime France there were maybe two or three factions to which you could belong.  In Egypt or Algeria, there have been two or three radical Islamist factions, and it doesn't even matter too much which one has your allegiance.  In Syria there are literally hundreds of opposition groups, many of them ephemeral.  Not only do these groups have very different orientations; the groups themselves quite often change their orientation.  Even CIA-vetted groups have done this.  So vetting can easily be invalidated both at the group and at the individual level.

It's not just that these opportunities for 'deviance' exist:  it's also that constantly changing circumstances provide powerful motives to deviate.  Groups may change for ideological reasons:  they are disillusioned with the Islamist or secularist movements, or they come to adopt the agenda of some external supporter.  Individuals may change for these reasons too, but also for many non-ideological reasons.  They find that another group has come to be far more effective against Assad, or they become disgusted with the tactics of their own group, or they come to consider their current leaders corrupt, or they are attracted by the salaries of some other group, or they find that their own group simply isn't militarily viable any more.  Finally and perhaps most important, vetted groups may and frequently do find alliance with un-vetted groups a pressing strategic necessity.  So even if vetting produced correct conclusions today, those conclusions quite frequently don't hold tomorrow.  The plethora of options afforded to groups and individuals in Syria is likely unique and completely undermines the vetting project.

This makes me impatient with analysts' and commentators' suggestion that such-and-such group or individual might not be really sincere in their professed commitment to this or that Western Value.  Of course they might not be; what adult isn't aware that you can't really see into others' hearts?  Syria analysts seem to live in a world of rebel statements and organizational charts which they treat like a window on reality.  Better not to take the statements and charts too seriously in the first place, and look instead at actions and the immediate pressures of circumstances.  When you do this, it's immediately clear that in Syria, individuals frequently and radically change their minds.  Rather than fuss about depth of commitment, policy makers should think about how to give people reason to commit.

Risks

Since rebel groups and individuals cannot be effectively vetted, they can be supported only un-vetted.  This is the only real alternative, largely because once the US starts vetting, its hysteria about al Qaeda deters it from delivering even minimally adequate support, even to those it distrusts least.  But isn't unvetted support terribly risky, particularly in the case of 'al-Qaeda affiliated' Jabhat al Nusra?  The short answer is no, if by 'risky' is meant increasing the risk of attacks on the West.  Only the same sort of bad analysis that underlies vetting can make it seem otherwise.

From the West's point of view, the main risk posed by Nusra lies in the threat of attacks on the West.  (The West has certainly shown it is not overly concerned about attacks on Syrians.) 

To be clear from the start, there is absolutely no doubt that Jabhat al Nusra does indeed pose a terror threat to the US.

Immigrants and indeed visitors to the US also pose a clear and documented terror threat.  Of course there are some other threats.  Hezbollah is a threat.  Unlike Jabhat al Nusra, it has actually carried out a truly massive terror attack against US troops.  So Assad, Hezbollah's close ally, is also a threat.  The Druze, since many are allies of Assad and therefore of Hezbollah, also pose a threat.  So do many Syrian Christian groups, for the same reason.  Saudi Arabia, the Gulf States and Turkey, all linked to groups linked to Jabhat al Nusra, must pose a threat as well.  Arguably the US poses a terror threat to itself, because it trains soldiers knowing some will go nuts and kill people at random.

In other  words, it is not enough just to say something is a threat.  You need to know the scale and nature of the threat.  Even more important and usually ignored, you need to know whether the existence of the threat actually increases the risk of an attack on the West.  We'll see that the answer isn't obvious.

The scale and exact nature of Nusra's threat to the US is, of course, unknown.  We can only look at the evidence that Nusra plans to attack the US, or is likely to do so in the future.  That evidence hardly exists.

The principal ground for seeing Nusra as a threat is that it is 'affiliated' with Al Qaeda.  That at least is actually confirmed by official Nusra statements.  What does it mean?

In the first, place, affiliation with Al Qaeda does not mean subordination to the Al Qaeda leadership.  Al Qaeda's leader, Ayman al-Zawahiri, does give orders or at least exhort affiliates to do or not to do certain things.  Whether they pay attention is an entirely different matter.

Al Qaeda is now frequently characterized as a brand - in the loose sense of some set of names and symbols un-enforced by some sort of intellectual property police.  As Richard Reeve, terrorism analyst at the UK based Oxford Research Group, puts it:  "Brand franchising is essentially what the AQ 'central' leadership now does..."  And according to Myriam Benraad, policy fellow on the European Council on Foreign Relations, the al Qaeda affiliation no longer has the impact it was designed to have.  "What we see... very clearly is the fracturing of what is called al Qaeda, which has more or less become a brand."  Yet this characterization of Al Qaeda's relation to its 'affiliates' does not begin to provide an assessment of the strength of such links.  To assess that, you have to look at the affiliates themselves.

Matters may be very different in North Africa, but in the case of Jabhat al Nusra, what the leadership maintains is not, for the membership, written in stone.  As we've seen, people join Nusra for all sorts of non-ideological reasons.  What they have in common is a desire to fight Assad, not some Al Qaeda dogma.  So it is not as if Nusra provides hordes ready to do anything the leadership says.  The idea of its rank and file suddenly devoting themselves to attacking the West is a non-starter.  And since the leadership depends on its rank-and-file, there is a definite limit to its capacity to turn anti-Western sentiments into anti-Western plans of action.

Evidence

But aren't there some serious anti-Western terrorist operatives within Nusra?  The chief proponent of this claim is Charles Lister, who tells us that Nusra is a bigger threat than ISIS.  Why does he say this?  What follows does not review all his case, but portions representative, I think, of its character.

The overwhelming bulk of Lister's evidence for his contentions comes under the rubric of:  some people said some words.  It should be obvious that anywhere, but especially where the Syrian conflict is concerned, this has little weight.  But Lister's claims get credibility because, in part, they conform to facts on the ground. For the hostility of Jabhat al Nusra to Western ideals, it is not just a matter of their statements;  it is apparent from, for example, their regulations about women and their modes of governance.  But for the claim that Jabhat al Nusra is a threat to the West, there isn't one single fact on the ground to support, let alone confirm it.

Lister notes that Jabhat al Nusra has bomb experts and that it has planted bombs in Syria and Lebanon.  Yes, it is fighting a war in Syria and like other groups this leads to occasional conflict with Lebanese government forces.  In this conflict, everyone uses bombs:  that hasn't the slightest tendency to suggest that any of these parties will use bombs in the West.  Indeed it undermines Lister's identification of  the presence of Al Qaeda bomb experts in their ranks.  Given that Jabhat al Nusra actually does use bombs in Syria and Lebanon, and nowhere else, might not they need bomb experts for this purpose, and not for attacks on the West?  Certainly it is possible that Jabhat al Nusra will in some distant future blow up a shopping mall in Kansas; it is also possible that the US will invade Canada.  These possibilities become serious worries if and only if there is something more than the presence of individuals who theoretically could help make these possibilities a reality.

Well, then, is there some reason to suppose that these individuals have ever planned an attack on the West?  No. 

The basis for claiming otherwise is laughably thin.  Lister tells us that "The first public recognition of this came in early July 2014, when security at airports with direct service to the United States was tightened due to “credible threats.”For one thing, this is not only the first but also the only 'evidence' that the Khorasan group - alleged super-terrorists whose members Lister has laboriously documented as belonging to Nusra's core membership - planned an attack on the US.  But this is no evidence at all; it is a claim that there is evidence.

What then is the actual content of that claim?  Lister points to an article which has some US-based fans of Nusra doing exactly nothing, plus a government warning about the July 4th weekend. The warning, however, stated that "At the moment, U.S. officials say there is no specific, credible threat to the homeland."  Here is an evaluation of such warnings from Buck Sexton, a former CIA intelligence officer who was assigned to their Iraq and Afghanistan offices and later joined the NYPD intelligence division.  He is now a TV commentator, loud and aggressive about terrorism.

The overall odds are low that a major terrorist attack will be attempted over the July Fourth weekend. Authorities say there is "no specific, credible threat," which is bureaucrat-speak for "we don't really know" and is a strong indicator that our intensified counterterrorism posture is based more on gut instinct than actionable intelligence.

As for reports from Syria itself, they seem more like hints than evidence.  Consider the basis for the US threat assessment regarding the Khorasan Group. 

The assessment's character is suggested in Kevin Jackson's "From Khorasan to the Levant:  A Profile of Sanafi al-Nasr", posted by the Combating Terrorism Center at West Point.  Jackson, says Lister, is one of those "experts whose consistent excellence in researching and analysing international terrorism has influenced my work."  Jackson states that

[al-Nasr's] writings reflect a deep-seated animus toward the United States that has both ideological and personal components. In the years after 9/11 one of his brothers was killed and two of his brothers were imprisoned by the United States.

Allegedly in 2007 he went to the Afghanistan-Pakistan tribal areas, where he allegedly befriended Al Qaeda leaders. 

What did he do there?  Oh, as far as anyone knows, mainly media stuff:

There is little documentation of al-Nasr’s engagement in al-Qa`ida’s military efforts. He is said to have featured in an al-Sahab production showing rocket attacks in Paktika, a province in southeastern Afghanistan.[26] Al-Nasr also provided a vivid account of a multi-pronged attack he had been charged with filming in 2007.[27] This supports other sources in which he was characterized as one of the “media men of Qa`idat al-Jihad in Khorasan” by a fellow member of the organization.[n] Al-Nasr’s only other appearance in al-Qa`ida’s official media was his later article for the group’s magazine Tala`i’ Khorasan in which he addressed the issue of Saudi women in custody.

To shorten the tale, he then went to Iran for a while, did media and supposedly financing, was arrested, released, and did some more media stuff.  Later he went to Syria, and in Jabhat al Nusra engaged in combat, against Assad of course.(*)  He was involved in Nusra internal politics.  There is no reason to doubt his importance in the organization (before his reported death).  But Jackson tell us "It is unclear if al-Nasr had any operational role in the alleged plotting of international attacks by the Khorasan Group."

If I may translate:  there is not the slightest, tiniest scrap of evidence that he ever had such a role or that any such attacks were planned.  All Jackson can muster is the observation that, in the case of any such attacks, it is most likely that he was involved, because he had "close working relationship with al-Fadhli, who headed external operations for al-Qa`ida Central in Syria."  Jackson offers no reason to suppose there was any such "case", and admits that Jabhat al Nusra doesn't seem to be planning any such attacks, but well...  you know... Jabhat al Nusra did use bombs in Lebanon during fighting there.

So this is a mostly media guy who really doesn't like the US and has fought Assad a bit.  There is no evidence, specific or general, of any planning whatever of any attacks against the US.  This is not like the level of intelligence available to the US before 9/11, and ignored.  It is like the level of intelligence that would justify Russia acting on 'reports' that the US was about to strike Russia.  After all, some high-ranking US military guys and influential congressmen no doubt know some guys who hate the Russians and talk a lot about nuking them.  And typical of these analyses, we get extensive, minute detail about individuals who, for all anyone knows, are up to approximately nothing, followed by stern conclusions about the menace of the organizations to which they belong.

What about something more like hard evidence?  Well, not a single Nusra sleeper cell has been identified.  No one even states that such cells exist in the West.  Western police forces have discovered no Nusra-linked documents or arms caches or laptops or cell phones.  So the entire case for the Nusra threat is based on what are essentially mutterings about some members of the group, or some statements someone associated with the group has at some time made.  That's enough, I suppose, to say a threat exists, because for all we know Nusra might attack the West tomorrow morning.  But threats based on such evidence are not rational grounds for policy.

The terror threat

However, absence of evidence is far from the main reason support for Nusra should  not be considered risky.  The main reason is that the obsession with this or that potentially terrorist group is futile.  The terrorist threat will not change in any substantial way because this or that group is strengthened or weakened.

Most groups affiliated with Al Qaeda have little or nothing to do with terrorist attacks on the West.  They are almost invariably opposing local governments and use terrorist tactics because they cannot achieve much through conventional warfare.  ISIS itself has that origin.  Oddly enough, any slight shift they exhibit to attacks on the West occur after the West has sent planes and weapons to kill and mutilate as many of them as possible.  What's more, in any particular area, the suppression of one group actually causes another to emerge.  Now there are anti-Western terrorist or potentially terrorist groups in at least Somalia, Algeria, Mali, Cameroon, Nigeria, Kenya, Syria, Iraq, Afghanistan, Pakistan, the Philippines, Indonesia, Yemen, Lebanon, Palestine, Tunisia, Libya, and Egypt.  Anti-Western terrorists move among almost all these countries with ease.  They have “a huge reservoir of sympathizers who all have western or European passports and who were born or raised” in the West.  The idea that eliminating the very slight terrorist threat posed by Nusra will make a noticeable difference is absurd.  Eliminate Nusra, and it will strengthen IS in Syria by quite a lot, as well as most certainly fostering another Syrian al Qaeda branch, most likely more anti-Western than Nusra ever was.  So Nusra's existence makes does not increase the overall terrorist threat to the West one bit.  So it does not, after all, increase risk to the West if Nusra gets its hands on Western arms.  The claim that you can substantially reduce the terror threat only by addressing deeper causes such as invasion, poverty, inequality and oppression may amount to useless preaching: no, these woes will not be eliminated.  That doesn't change its truth.

Suppose then that the West and particularly the US doesn't care about what happens to Syrians and doesn't care that much - since Obama wants to 'disengage' from the region - about what happens in the Middle East.  What the West does care about are attacks on Western soil.  We've seen that backing Nusra doesn't appreciably increase the risks, because deep injustices assure that the threat will remain robust and widespread.  So the terror threat can be reduced only by addressing these deeper causes.

Disengagement

The problem is that the West can do nothing positive to remedy these  injustices:  its destructive incompetence at the silly project of 'nation-building' is almost universally acknowledged.  But the West can do something negative that will help:  it can remove itself as an obstacle to any remedies.

If the West cannot improve conditions in Middle Eastern nations, the best it can do abroad to ward off terror attacks is to remove the grievances that help spawn them.  Un-vetted backing of the rebels can help the West and especially the US achieve what may seem like incompatible goals:  reducing the threat of terror attacks and disengaging from the region.

 The key to seeing how this works is to note that, apart from anti-IS campaigns, the only essential function performed by the US in Syria is to obstruct regional powers from aiding the rebels.  The futile vetting project is complemented by a far-from-futile project to stop the regional  powers from supplying whom they please with what they please.  To achieve the 'activist' goal of removing Assad - and incidentally to curb both  Russian and Iranian influence - the US doesn't have to do anything.  It simply has to not do something, to remove the constraints on the Gulf States and Turkey.  The massive aid they can and should provide wouldn't even need to come from the US; both nations have ample stocks of arms.  That the US would very likely be the main replenisher of these stocks is hardly the sort of risk that wannabe policy wonks invoke when they speak of quagmires or 'boots on the ground'.  So massive support for the rebels isn't just compatible with disengagement; it is disengagement.

Might this disengagement also reduce the risk of terror attacks - always assuming that Syria generates appreciable risk in the first place?  Here's the correct answer:  no one knows.  But that is also the correct answer to the same question about current US policies, including the campaign against ISIS.  That said, there is reason to suppose that any such risk would be reduced.

If the deeper roots of terrorism are beyond the reach of Western efforts, the same doesn't seem to hold for the reasons terrorists attack the West.  The main grievances against the West are said to be that its forces occupy the region and it supports repressive secularist régimes.  In Syria, despite US evasions, this is certainly the case:  the US has explicitly said it prefers the régime to an Islamist takeover.  Well, disengagement from Syria is at least a small step away from the status of an occupying power in the region.  It is a large step away from supporting repressive secularist régimes.

Looking at the longer term, US disengagement in support of the rebels and against Assad seems to go quite far towards neutralizing extremist resentment of the West.  Recent experience throughout much of the region suggests that, absent brutal repression, the future of Syria and other states is Islamist.  This cannot be stopped; it can only be delayed by shedding oceans of blood.  For the US quite clearly to indicate that it prefers even a radical Islamic presence in the region to atrocious secularist régimes addresses fundamentalist grievances pretty directly.  If indeed foreign policy can do anything to reduce the threat of terrorist attacks, this would seem the most promising direction it could take.

There are other advantages to  the sort of disengagement that gives regional powers a free hand against Assad.  Middle Eastern people, like people everywhere, are selective in their moral outrage - but no less serious about it for all that.  Just as, say, many Americans care deeply about police murders of black people, but don't give a shit how many Syrians die in agony, so Middle Eastern people are genuinely outraged that the West is indifferent to atrocities in Syria, where more innocents can die in a day than are murdered by US police in a year.  So at some primitive level, morality and Western self-interest converge.  Terrorists, we often hear, are at least in part motivated by a well-founded sense of justice that, it seems, is baffling to many Westerners.  Perhaps if these terrorists were humoured by genuine, consequential Western opposition to Assad's off-the-charts atrocities, the West would be hated a little less.  This too might undermine anti-Western agendas.

Finally, disengagement would improve US and Western credibility.  Given all the fine words uttered against Assad, it would be a bit less confidence-destroying if the West actually allowed him to be removed, rather than fussing about the Values of those involved in removing him.  Syrians are probably not impressed by world powers that tut-tut about Nusra's democratic credentials but apparently accept the democratic credentials of a man who killed over 100,000 dissidents to stand for election. This is, indeed, speculation.  But again, so are any claims about the virtues of current US policy, assuming always there is one.  In any case, with Russia's entry into the conflict, those claims have relapsed into silence. (*)

How, then, does all this bear on the panic about Jabhat al Nusra's Al Qaeda affiliation?  Many in the group are not fanatics; they joined to fight Assad or even for a salary to feed their families.  None, so far as any hard evidence suggests, have joined to attack the West:  that would be a very odd way to go about such a project.  The leadership may possibly be a different story, but the leadership must depend to some extent on its membership, and it's hard to believe its membership would want to attack Western nations that, finally, had make removal of Assad possible.

And even the leadership are people.  People change their minds, their loyalties and their strategies.  It used to be considered naïve to suppose your alliances had to be with those who like you and share your moral outlook.  Perhaps that attitude is worth revisiting.  At this moment Hezbollah is an essential ally of Bashar al Assad despite the fact that its militants were slaughtered by his father Hafez.  And the US is in a de facto anti-ISIS alliance with Shia militias who killed American soldiers.

----------------------------------

(*)  Jackson's references to al-Nasr's alleged combat role simply name interviews with Charles Lister and Aimen Dean, so one has to guess how they provided confirmation.  Aimen Dean is a defector from Al Qaeda turned MI5 spy.  However I have found no indication that Dean ever set foot in Syria, much less Latakia or Idlib.

(**) Backing rebels who may well come to be dominated by extreme Islamists does pose one very real risk, to Syria's minorities.  On this score there is reason for optimism.
The West and especially the US loves to defend minorities against Arab Muslims.  This is because while involvement in Syria generally goes over poorly with the voters, who couldn't care less about Muslim Syrians, that same electorate is always in favor of defending someone, anyone, against them.  So here there is no political risk to the US president, which is all that really concerns him.  So non-Muslim minorities will very likely get Western protection if they need it, and, since Russia tends to favor these same minorities, probably under UN auspices.  As for the Shia, Iran and Hezbollah can and almost certainly will protect them.  So even assuming ill will and fanaticism among the rebels, any threat they pose to minorities will very likely be addressed.

Wednesday, February 10, 2016

Too late for a no-fly zone

Michael Ignatieff and Leon Wieseltier, in a passionately moralistic Washington Post piece, have revived interest in the idea of a no-fly zone in Syria.  This proposal, once attractive, has become preposterous.

Even before Russian intervention, the no-fly zone idea was dubious, if only because the Syrian army possesses many long-range weapons which would cover the entire zone from the ground.  But when only the Syrian air force was in question, it was certainly possible, both militarily and politically, to establish such a zone.  Today, the strategy is a non-starter.

A no-fly zone would have to be established either with or without Russian cooperation.  If with, it would be nothing but an oblique agreement to bomb IS.   Russia would certainly carry on much like today - it would insist on its right to bomb 'extremists', that is, whoever it liked.  So Russian-supported no-fly zone would not deserve the name.

Suppose then, as Ignatieff and Wieseltier imagine, it would be established in defiance of Russia.  It would then come with a commitment to shoot down Russian air assets.  The US would foresee sustaining some losses from advanced Russian anti-aircraft installations, and would therefore want preemptively to bomb these installations.  In other words there would be a great deal of flying in this no-fly zone.  After all, a simple Russian capitulation would be utterly disastrous for Putin and indeed for Russian prestige.

These are the military likelihoods.  What matters even more are the real military possibilities.  It is one thing to talk of a no-fly zone imposed on the Syrian air force, which Israel proved a pushover decades ago.  It is quite something else to initiate violent confrontation with the world's second nuclear power.  Even supposing this step could not possibly lead to nuclear Armageddon, nuclear powers have less disincentive to engage in serious conventional warfare:  they feel that their opponents will never dare push them to desperate measures.  Despite the apparent US lead in high-tech weaponry, it is by no means clear that the US would do well in a ground conflict against a formidable enemy thousands of miles from its shores.

These military uncertainties make the idea of a no-fly zone politically absurd.  Europe would never even consider consenting to such measures - and whatever the true importance of Europe to US interests, America would never risk offending Europe on such a serious matter.  Perhaps more important, China would have to take clashes with Russia as proof positive that preparation for a full military confrontation with the US was a pressing necessity.

Yet this obstacle is as nothing compared to the domestic political barrier.  The American people couldn't care less about Syrians.  They could never be sold on the measure as a wise step against terrorism, because they are convinced that the Syrian opposition is in bed with terrorists.  They could never accept making enemies of Russia and Assad, who fight the Islamic State as well as rebel units that allegedly pro-rebel commentators insist on calling 'Al Qaeda'.  There isn't the slightest, tiniest chance that establishing a no-fly zone against Russia could get Congressional approval.  A country that wouldn't aid the rebels when the cost was almost zero is hardly going to aid them when the cost is potentially astronomical.

Is it really possible that Ignatieff and Wieseltier don't realize this?  Perhaps their screed is just empty posturing.  If not, it suggests something very different from its apparent humanitarianism.

The presupposition of their no-fly proposal is that the US must take the Syrian conflict in hand rather than entrust it to regional powers.  Better clean-shaven American Top Guns at 30,000 feet than a bunch of crazy Arabs running around with Kalashnikovs on the ground.  This is amusingly obtuse given that the Russian's Ukrainian adventure has just given the world an excellent lesson in how to intervene 'asymmetrically', without provoking a serious great power confrontation.  The US could turn this strategy against Russia through massive, whole-hearted support of local anti-Assad ground forces via the states who back them.  Indeed this is the only possible way to end the war that so appalls Ignatieff and Wieseltier.  But most likely their contempt for the people of the region blinds them to this opportunity.

Sunday, February 7, 2016

US-backed Kurds coordinate with Russia, Assad to attack rebels

On February 6th, 2016, a Washington Institute for Near East Policy piece  brought into full light an aspect of the Syria conflict long shrouded in willed obscurity.  Kurdish units - US armed, trained and financed - attacked FSA positions in Western Aleppo.  The attackers were aided by Russian bombs and a simultaneous attack by the SAA, Assad's army.

Some details and implications:

The attacking units apparently belong to the all-Kurdish YPG (People's Protection Units) and the SDF (Syrian Democratic Forces), a  mostly Kurdish militia with a sprinkling of Arab recruits.  The SDF is simply an unofficial asset of the PYD ( Syrian Kurdish Democratic Union Party), a Syrian Kurdish party fighting and holding territory in Northern Syria.  The PYD and its YPG units are to all intents and purposes an arm of the Turkish PKK, one of the two main Kurdish insurgent groups in Iraq, Syria and Turkey itself.

The PYD has for over a year been a major recipient of US military support, including close air support, most notably in Kobane.  Its territory is centered in Hassakeh province.  It has had minor turf disputes with Assad, diligently inflated by pro-Kurdish propagandists.  It has also clashed the Syrian rebels, including the FSA.  More important, it has had at the very least a long-standing modus vivendi with the régime.  More recently, collaboration with Assad through his Baath party has almost come out into the open:
LCC [a rebel information agency] was informed that Hilal al-Hilal, Assistant Regional Secretary in Baath Party, visited Hasaka city (northeast of Syria) in Feb 02 and met with Kurdish Units accompanied by party leaders and security personnel of the regime in the city. LCC sources said that the attendees discussed coordination between both sides on city administration. Al-Hilal promised the Kurdish Units in the meeting with ammos and weapons support to fight against ISIS in the southern suburbs. The source mentioned also that regime’s forces is about to form a new military troop of “Volunteer Brigades”, and supervised by Hezbollah to support the Kurdish Units in their war with ISIS.
Like every announcement of Western support for the PYD, this report portrays régime-Kurdish collaboration as part of the fight against ISIS.  However Hezbollah is, of course, a Iranian-backed militia that has been the most prominent among Assad's non-Syrian support troops.  It virtually never fights ISIS but only the rebels.

From these reports it follows that the US is now underwriting a Kurdish movement which attacks, not only ISIS, but the rebels.  In particular it is now part of a major joint assault on crucial positions of the FSA (Free Syrian Army), the very group the US purports to support.  This assault is backed by Russian air strikes and complemented by simultaneous régime attacks.  The Kurdish attackers belong to an extension of the very same organizations whose main support, up to now, has been the United States.  Wherever Obama renders these organizations stronger, including all advances against ISIS, he frees up resources for attacks on the FSA.  He does so, not in a small way, but to a crucial extent.  So while the US condemns Assad and Russia, at the same time it backs attacks on the opposition to the régime - not just any part of the opposition, but the part which the US has 'vetted' as free from extremist leanings.

This is not entirely surprising.  It has long been clear that, at the end of the day, the US prefers the atrocious reality of Assad to the possibility that a rebel group, any rebel group, comes to power.   That's because the US doesn't trust even 'vetted' rebel groups to remain free of Islamist taint.

Perhaps more surprising is the curtain of silence drawn across the scene by almost every source of information allegedly disgusted with Assad and sympathetic to at least some of the rebels.  Even genuine experts on the situation don't say plainly that the Kurds are attacking the FSA with régime and Russian support. On the contrary they express themselves so obliquely the average reader could never know what's going on:
YPG forces in Efrin appear to be receiving Russian air support, particularly near Azaz, a key city currently occupied by elements of the Turkish-backed anti-Assad insurgency. Open source airstrike data suggests that the SDF could seize Manbij with US backing, while the Assad regime moves north from Aleppo to Al Bab. The YPG, in turn, could then cut a deal with the regime to travel through regime held territory to Efrin.
Thus the FSA becomes 'elements of the Turkish-backed anti-Assad insurgency', which could mean extremists.  There is not even a clear mention of any Kurdish offensive - just the support they 'appear' to be receiving which 'could' enable them to seize some locations.  But passages like this, buried in peripheral information sites, are a model of forthrightness compared to what appears, or rather doesn't appear, elsewhere.  No major newspaper speaks of the Kurdish offensive - surely one of the biggest developments in the entire five-year conflict.  None of the prominent supposedly anti-Assad analysts mention it.  Expert military observers who seem to know the movements of every tank in Syria say nothing.  Almost invariably, Kurdish attacks on the rebels are studiously ignored in favour of imprecations against Russia and Assad.

We seem to be in a media climate that mimics the McCarthy or Stalin eras.

Sunday, January 24, 2016

Egypt's Arab winter

The reflections on January 25th, the date of Egypt's failed revolution, are painful to read.  Far more painful the experience of those now entombed in the military's prisons.   Alaa, in a truly heart-rending piece, decides he has nothing more to say.   Few even try to be hopeful.

Perhaps one reason the situation today seems so utterly hopeless is that none of the commentators show any sign of having learned the one sure lesson of Egypt's 'Arab Spring'.  This is not at all for lack of insight.   It is because that insight itself is, for the secularist revolutionaries who write now, painful indeed.

I do not claim to know if Egypt's revolution could have succeeded.   I do know what, I am quite sure, every Egyptian knows.   There can be no real change in Egypt unless the army is defeated.   That may be impossible, but it is certainly impossible unless secularists are fully committed to supporting the main opposition in Egypt, the Muslim Brotherhood.

Secularists deceived themselves when they could not make this hard choice.   They pretended there were other choices.  They can pretend no more.  The record of secularism in the Middle East, thanks in part to Western interference, has been abysmal.   Even today, bloodstained, stagnant Egypt is not the worst of the secularist bunch; it is probably among the best.

Lebanon and Algeria had civil wars in which over a 100,000 died.  Libya is in chaos.   Syria and Iraq experience catastrophic slaughter.  Jordan may have killed as many Palestinians as any other nation before abandoning its West Bank to Israel's tender mercies.  It retains some measure of stability largely due to its smug and total subservience to the US.  It is always ready to connive with Israel,  itself a disgrace to decency and 'democracy'.  Then there are the despairing societies of Morocco and Tunisia.  Those who still champion a secularist alternative are following their heart or their faith, but not the evidence.

Secularism may be the best solution everywhere, but nowhere do the populations of the Middle East have good reason to believe it - and they don't.   Change, if it comes, will be Islamist.   Those who don't accept this, might as well join the forces of repression.