Unprecedented destruction

In October last year, troops of the Kurdish-led Syrian Democratic Forces, with the assistance of the US Air Force, finally captured the city of Raqqa, which had previously been the capital of the Islamic State in Iraq and Syria (ISIS). On 1 April this year, an inter-agency team from the United Nations (UN) entered Raqqa in what was the first UN visit to the city since ISIS’s defeat. According to the website of the UN refugee agency, UNHCR:

The UN team entering Raqqa city were shocked by the level of destruction, which exceeded anything they had ever seen before. A cascade of rubble lies along the streets with hardly a single building intact.

It’s worth repeating some of that again. The UN team found a

level of destruction, which exceeded anything they had ever seen before.

That’s quite something. There have been a fair number of destructive wars in recent years, including some which have done quite a lot of damage to urban infrastructure (e.g. the various wars in Iraq, the war in Libya, and so on). Yet Raqqa exceeds them all. Specifically, the UN reports that in Raqqa:

With nearly the entire infrastructure totally destroyed, public services barely exist and no safe water or electricity. The widespread presence of explosive hazards, including unexploded ordnance, landmines and improvised explosive devices, particularly in those neighborhoods of the city that were the stronghold of ISIS towards the end of hostilities, pose a significant threat to civilians; some 130 civilians having been killed and a further 658 injured in blasts since the city was retaken from ISIS in October 2017.

In addition to unexploded ordnance, the UNHCR protection team on the mission, who met with women, men and the youth, identified numerous protection and other challenges, risks and threats, ranging from criminality, early marriages and other SGBV [sexual and gender based violence] concerns, to lack of safe water, electricity, healthcare and education services. But these are just a few of the many challenges preventing people from regaining their dignified life.

I mention all this because throughout the civil war in Syria, and particularly since the Russian Federation became involved, we have bombarded with complaints about the particularly barbaric methods of war used by the Syrian Arab Army and the Russians. British Foreign Secretary Boris Johnson, for instance, ranted about the ‘flagrant disregard for human life’ displayed by the Syrian government during the battle for East Aleppo.  Former American ambassador to the United Nations, Samantha Power, accused Russia of ‘barbarism’ in Syria.  ‘Russia is abetting mass murder in Syria’ shouted the headline of a recent article in The Atlantic magazine. And so on. There’s far too many such statements to count.

Accompanying these complaints are repeated claims that ‘something must be done’. This normally means something military. The aforementioned Atlantic article, for instance, claims that,

Military force and deterrence may also be the key to ending the Syrian war. … The war in Syria will only end when the aggressors know America is serious—about diplomacy, about sanctioning the aggressors, and about using military force not just to fight isis, but to protect Syrians. Continued failure to take these steps will only make America an accessory to evil.

And yet, if we are to believe the UN report I began with, the United States and its allies have been more destructive than the Syrian government and the Russians. Raqqa is not a unique case either. Patrick Cockburn of The Independent newspaper, for instance, has described the ‘mass slaughter’ of civilians in Mosul, with ‘appalling damage inflicted by continuing artillery and rocket fire aimed over a five-month period at a confined area jam-packed with civilians who were unable to escape.’ Despite this, there seems to be an extraordinary lack of indignation over such matters, let alone any calls to ‘do something’ to stop the Americans and their allies from killing civilians.

Of course, none of this excuses any excesses committed by the Syrians and the Russians, or means that they have been particularly mindful of civilian casualties during their military operations. It also shouldn’t be interpreted as meaning that the Americans are worse than the Russians. In my view, they’re one and the same. The massive destruction one can see in places such as Raqqa, Mosul, and Aleppo is simply an inevitable consequence of urban warfare. There is no way that you can destroy an enemy who is in a city and who is determined to stand and fight without destroying much of the city in the process. And if a lot of civilians are present (perhaps because the defenders won’t let them leave), there’s no way that you can do it without killing large numbers of civilians as well. This is reality, and the fact that both Americans and Russians end up doing much the same thing is a reflection of it.

In short, the problem isn’t that either the Russians or the Americans are particularly barbaric, it’s that war itself is brutal, and there is no getting around it. This is a message that the ‘something must be done’ crowd seem unwilling to learn. They seem to believe that there is some simple, cheap, and relatively benign way of applying force, which will solve all sorts of problems without killing a lot of innocent people along the way. This is (99 percent of the time) a myth.

Yes indeed, the Syrian government led by Bashar al-Assad is hardly a shining example of liberal democratic values. Yes, it would be nice if it could be replaced by something which was. But how exactly do the would-be intervenors imagine that Assad could be overthrown? Their problem is that they don’t have a plan. Well, let me tell them what their plan would have to be if they were serious about ‘regime change’. They couldn’t just drop a few bombs or fly in a few rockets, and expect that to do the job. It wouldn’t. They’d have to create a land army, and support it over a prolonged period of time as it ground its way slowly forward taking government-held cities one by one: Aleppo, Homs, Latakia, and others, and ultimately Damascus. And every time, they’d have to do to them what they did to Raqqa.

So, I have a simple question to our armchair humanitarian warriors: How on earth would that help save the lives of innocents?


14 thoughts on “Unprecedented destruction”

  1. A very well written article – quote from a great American – War is cruelty you cannot refine it – William Tecumseh Sherman

    Modern Americans regard war as something they do to other, mostly brown people

    An interesting article on the war gap – in the diplomat website

    key points – the Americans in particular but also the Brits have been shielded from the consequences of war and therefore see it as a solution rather than a last resort
    1. geographical distance has shield civilian populations – no home civilian casualties caused by a foreign military ( apart from victims of terrorism)
    2 . Because of geography no attacks on civilian or military infrastructure at home – this is something we do
    3. Expeditionary warfare by professional troops (who are normally on short deployments) shields society from the psychological effects of war- use of special operations forces leads the public to expect swift victories. The troops are often drawn from a limited section of society, with many from multi generation military families, making their losses seem remote to most people
    4. Technological solutions such as drones further shield Anglos from wars grizzly effects. The wunderwaffe means that we don’t need strategy or tactics

    “As a result of the four distinctions outlined above, American policymakers and military leaders, despite continuously waging war, paradoxically have a more “benign” and “cleaner” understanding of war, contributing to what I call the “War Gap.” Almost by definition, war for Americans now denotes conflict in a faraway country where only American troops and foreign combatants and civilians are killed. No American homes are ransacked or bombed and no foreign occupational regime (if only temporarily) is imposed. American citizens remain physically removed from mayhem and death. This is in stark contrast to the Mainland European, African, Asian, and Middle Eastern experience of war in the same context”.

    Liked by 2 people

  2. Paul – any ideas as to the impending insanity can be stopped? The Anglo-Americans appear to have lost all rationality and the unremitting diet of war propaganda can lead to the end of humanity. Listening to British politicians they seem utterly unaware (or unwilling to contemplate) what a war with a nuclear power would be like. Maybe a re screening of Threads ( https://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Threads) or The Day After ( https://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/The_Day_After) or When the Wind Blows (https://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/When_the_Wind_Blows_(1986_film)


    1. I wish I had a decent answer, but I don’t. At one point, I thought that eventually the proven failures of our repeated wars – especially the disaster in Iraq – would cause people to wake up and rethink. But it doesn’t seem to have happened.

      Liked by 2 people

      1. They were failures, but you did not pay enough for them.
        Your countries’ leaders were not held accountable for them.
        You were not humiliated sufficiently.

        That is why they are willing to repeat them.

        Just compare it with another British failure in the Middle East, the Suez crisis.
        Britain and especially PM Eden were humiliated.
        Never again would they do something like that without American approval.

        Liked by 2 people

  3. “which exceeded anything they had ever seen before”

    Couldn’t be worse than Fallujah 2004, could it? I thought that was pretty extreme.

    “Yes indeed, the Syrian government led by Bashar al-Assad is hardly a shining example of liberal democratic values. Yes, it would be nice if it could be replaced by something which was.”

    If the $6 trillion (or so) spent on ‘war on terror’ in the last 15 years was donated to the countries affected by it instead, then, I suppose, there’s a small chance that some of them might’ve looked now a bit more like Canada. But that was never the goal, obviously.

    Liked by 2 people

    1. ‘If the $6 trillion (or so) spent on ‘war on terror’ in the last 15 years was donated to the countries affected by it instead, then, I suppose, there’s a small chance that some of them might’ve looked now a bit more like Canada’. Indeed – if you consider the opportunity costs of all this military expenditure and endless wars, they’re enormous. There are so many so much productive things we could be doing with our resources.

      Liked by 1 person

      1. I find this writing depressing, actually, but perhaps not for the reasons you might first think.

        Are you really writing an article that assumes that the armchair warriors care about the Arabs who died in Ghoutta? And that they simply can’t ‘understand’ how many more would die in the overthrow of the Syrian government?

        Is that what I just read?

        If you insist on starting from the polite assumption that everything May or Macron – and their media and public supporters – say is guided by a higher moral calling you aren’t much use as a commentator in our time.

        If there is larger attack on Syria it is not because moral people want to limit the hardships of the Syrian people. (Any more than they are working to alleviate the catastrophic situation of the Yemenis.)

        It is to break Syria as a coherent centre of resistance to Israeli expansion (the Golan); to undermine the support for, and to allow the encirclement of, Hezbollah; to consolidate Syria and Iraq as failed states under the sway of the US, creating a buffer area between Israel and Iran prior to an attack on Iran.

        There are other secondary intentions for any larger attack on Syria, but those are the main strategic aims.

        Perhaps you think the “public” is really clueless and lost in a genuine moral dilemma, and you are helping them through it…. better you clearly state what the motives are.

        Liked by 3 people

      2. “Indeed – if you consider the opportunity costs of all this military expenditure and endless wars, they’re enormous. There are so many so much productive things we could be doing with our resources.”

        That’s commie talk, professor! Suport Your Nation! Fight For Freedom! Democracy! Liberalism! Military Industrial Complex is Your Friend!

        Giving away something for free instead of engaging in the war-profiteering? Seriously?

        P.S. I hope you will report yourself to the Office of the Liberal Re-Edcation Commisariat.


    2. “Couldn’t be worse than Fallujah 2004, could it?”

      Well Mattis is now Secretary of Defense. Not only that, he’s widely viewed as the voice of reason and restraint among top foreign policy leadership.


  4. I dont’s see any higher moral behaviour by the west and one thing I really hate is this genuine belief by Maron et al that they are higher moral beings and thus have right to do anything they like to those perceived by them as inferior. They feel they have an obligation to impose their values at the top of a missile or by invading countries such as Iraq and Afghanistan. What these people particularly hate are uppity countries or people who do not buy into their world view but see themselves as an alternative and do not submit. I believe that this is what explains the messianic hatred of Russia which will never stop as long as Russia maintains an alternative way of thinking regardless of what Russia actively does.

    This attitude is one of the things that drives terrorism and the hatred that supports it. The logic bubble that Anglo elites inhabit leads to their total inability to think not whether Iraq or Afghanistan were morally right or wrong. They just cannot understand that invading or bombing another sovereign country is just illegal. For these sick people use of force is a first resort and I really hope that they get their just deserts.


  5. “Yes indeed, the Syrian government led by Bashar al-Assad is hardly a shining example of liberal democratic values. Yes, it would be nice if it could be replaced by something which was.”

    Why? Are “liberal democratic values”(tm) the only one allowed? What kind of totalitarian dictat is that?


  6. Mr Robinson – I saw liberal values on show last night m

    Three security council members acting as judge and jury and bombing a smaller country.

    Absolutely disgusting


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