Tag Archives: Syria

Gotta give those weapons to someone

Back in 2013, the CIA carried out an internal study to examine the history of the agency’s covert support for foreign rebel movements. It determined that covert intervention in foreign conflicts rarely if ever produced positive results. In fact, it could produce only one example of ‘success’ – the support given to the mujahideen in Afghanistan, although even that didn’t look too good given what happened later.

Despite having this information at hand, the Obama administration went ahead and decided to support the rebels in Syria. The results are now in: total, abject failure. Remember the 70,000 ‘moderate rebels’, which British Prime Minister David Cameron said existed in Syria? Where are they now? Nowhere to be seen. Yesterday, the last outpost of the alleged ‘moderates’, Idlib, fell to the armed group Hay’et Tahrir al-Sham (HTS), which is often described as an ‘affiliate’ of Al-Qaeda. As Gareth Porter reports in The American Conservative, the main consequence of the US decision to arm the Syrian ‘moderates’ has been to funnel thousands of weapons into the hands of Al-Qaeda. Meanwhile, far from being overthrown, the government of Bashar al-Assad is rapidly increasing its control over the central and eastern parts of Syria, pushing deep into ISIS-held territory. American policy is in tatters.

Donald Trump’s decision last week to stop arming the Syrian rebels is, therefore, a welcome recognition of reality. The question which now arises is how far reality has managed to intrude into the thinking of the American security community. Is this just an admission of defeat in this particular instance, or is a different view of the world now beginning to make itself felt on US policy more generally?

Many non-interventionists supported Trump in last year’s presidential election because they hoped that he might make the second option a possibility. So far they have been disappointed, and sadly the evidence suggests that the decision on Syria represents a tactical retreat not a strategic rethink. A large segment of the American foreign policy community continues to think that every internal conflict everywhere in the world is somehow its business, obliging it to pick one side or the other as its ally and to support it by sending it weapons.

So it was that less than a week after the US said it would no longer supply arms to the Syrians, the new US ‘special representative for Ukraine’, Kurt Volker, said that the American government was reviewing whether to send weapons to Ukraine. American foreign policy thinking is clearly in a state of confusion. On the one hand, a US official said that the decision on Syria was ‘a signal to Putin that the administration wants to improve ties to Russia.’ On the other hand, the same administration is considering a policy designed precisely to damage ties. It’s hard to make sense of it all.

Giving some details of what he had in mind, Volker said: ‘defensive weapons, ones that would allow Ukraine to defend itself, and to take out tanks for example.’ I’m guessing that would mean anti-tank weapons, like the TOW missiles which used to be supplied to the ‘moderate rebels’ in Syria. After all, you can’t just keep them sitting in storage boxes. If you’re not sending them to Syria, you gotta send them somewhere else. Right?

 

Strategy-free time

It’s a depressing truth, but at least someone has finally had the guts to admit it. The United States has no strategy for its war in Afghanistan, or as Defence Secretary James Mattis put it in testimony to the US Senate, it is a ‘strategy-free time’. Mattis promised to put a strategy together. ‘We are not winning in Afghanistan right now,’ he said, ‘And we will correct this as soon as possible.’

Forgive me if I’m sceptical. The United States hasn’t managed to come up with a winning strategy in the 16 years it has been fighting in Afghanistan. It beggars belief that Mattis has the solution up his sleeve. After all, he’s been part of the war since the beginning.

The United States lacks a workable strategy in Syria as well. Theoretically speaking, US support for rebel forces in Syria is justified by the threat from the Islamic State in Iraq and Syria (ISIS), and is meant to help destroy ISIS. But because of recent advances by troops of the Syrian Arab Army (the official government forces), the rebels are no longer in physical contact with ISIS. As you can see from the map below, they couldn’t fight ISIS even if they wanted to.

Syrian_civil_war

Continue reading Strategy-free time

Selection and maintenance of the aim

Strategy, Clausewitz said, is about applying means to achieve ends. It follows that good strategy requires one first to select sensible and achievable ends, and second to ensure that one actually apply one’s resources in such a way as to advance towards those ends. This is what one might call ‘instrumental rationality’. Selecting objectives which don’t benefit you, or deliberately acting in a way which undermines your own objectives, is not instrumentally rational.

For good reason, therefore, the first ‘principle of war’ as taught to British and Canadian military officers is ‘selection and maintenance of the aim’. Pick a bad aim, or fail to maintain a good aim and instead get sidetracked into pursuing something else, and failure will almost certainly ensue.

This is pretty obvious stuff, but what is remarkable is how bad Western leaders are at putting it into practice.

Take, for instance, the so-called ‘War on Terror’. This began in 2001 with an invasion of Afghanistan designed to destroy Al-Qaeda. Having occupied Afghanistan, however, the Americans and their allies decided to shift focus to rebuilding the country, and so became involved in the longest war in American history, fighting an enemy (the Taleban) who don’t pose an obvious threat to the American homeland.

As if that wasn’t bad enough, in 2003, the UK and USA got further distracted and decided to invade Iraq, on the dubious grounds that there was a link between Iraq and Al-Qaeda and that Saddam Hussein might provide Al-Qaeda with weapons of mass destruction. Once Iraq had been defeated, the Anglo-American alliance found itself fighting yet another insurgency. This involved not just Iraq’s Sunni minority, but also its Shia majority, which received support from Iran. Attention therefore now shifted yet again, with Iran being seen as the enemy no. 1. Commentators began stirring up fears of the ‘Shia Crescent’, stretching from Iran through Iraq and into Syria. American security was now associated with defeating those who made up this crescent. This meant undermining Iran and toppling the Assad regime in Syria. In this way, a war on terror originally designed to fight Sunni terrorists morphed into a war against Shia states.

The Arab Spring in 2011 then added yet another objective – democratizing the Middle East. Now the aim became toppling dictatorial regimes wherever they might be, in order to give a boost to the wave of democracy allegedly sweeping the region. Thus, NATO bombed Libya to ensure the overthrow of Colonel Gaddhafi. This, of course, then enabled Al-Qaeda to spread its influence in north Africa, most notably in Mali.

In short, Western states, especially the USA and UK, have changed the aims of their policies in the ‘war on terror’ multiple times over the past 16 years. And they are changing them backwards and forwards as I write. One day, their focus is on toppling Assad in Syria; the next, it’s defeating ISIS; then it’s back to toppling Assad again. It is no wonder that the Brits and the Americans have made such a hash of things. They are incapable of keeping their eye on the ball. They have no strategy worthy of the name.

The problem derives from their inability to choose achievable objectives in the first place. As they fail to reach each objective, they feel obliged to change their target in an effort to avoid admitting defeat.

This fundamental lack of realism can be seen in the Anglo-American approach to Russia, which is based on the assumption that Russia can be coerced into changing its policies in Ukraine and Syria. Boris Johnson’s efforts this week to drum up support for additional sanctions against Russia are a case in point. Yet to date, the policy of coercion has achieved no success, and there is no reason to believe that it will be any more successful in the future. Russia just isn’t going to abandon Donbass or Assad. It’s not going to happen. Wishing it won’t make it so. Boris can demand regime change in Syria all he wants, but he’s not going to achieve it. Regardless of whether it is desirable, by selecting this goal, he is dooming himself to failure.

So why do Western states persist in selecting unachievable objectives, in putting so much stock in what they would desire as opposed to what they can actually do? The answer, I think, is that they seem to be unwilling to admit that the days of their hegemony are over and that they are not the bearers of universal moral truth. Despite all the overwhelming evidence that they are not able to mould the world to their wishes, they fear the consequences of admitting this more than they fear the consequences of trying and failing. That is because the costs of the latter are borne by their publics and by the people at the receiving end of their interventions, but the former are borne by the politicians in the form of a humiliating reduction in prestige. Unsurprisingly, the politicians choose to transfer the costs onto others, aided and abetted by the media and the military-industrial complex, which have similarly invested in current policies and wish to avoid the backlash which an admission of failure would involve.

Things will only get better when our leaders start selecting sensible aims. When they do so, they will find that they can actually maintain these aims, and so achieve success. But that will only happen when the illusions of military hegemony and moral superiority vanish. Unfortunately, I don’t see that happening any time soon, due to the psychological distress and political damage it would cause. Alas, therefore, I see no obvious way out of this mess for some time to come.

The peaceful city

The newspapers here in Canada (as elsewhere in the West) have been full of commentary lamenting the recapture of Eastern Aleppo by the forces of the Syrian government. For instance, in today’s copy of The Globe and Mail columnist Doug Saunders says that ‘The Libyan option was preferable. … Libya is an unstable mess verging on a civil war of its own. But it is not the site of the sort of enormous-scale monstrosities, involving hundreds of thousands of deaths, that it would have been if Moammar Gadhafi had been kept in power.’ Saunders suggests that the Western world should have done in Syria what it did with Gadhafi and overthrown Bashar Al-Assad when it had the chance.

Elsewhere in today’s Globe, though, is an article by reporter Justin Giovannetti entitled ‘What the world lost by ignoring Aleppo’. Despite the headline, this contains a somewhat different message.

The article cites a former resident, Bakri Azzin, saying that before the war, Aleppo ‘was a warm, welcoming city, where you could spend your days in peace’. Giovannetti records that in those days, Aleppo was a ‘cosmopolitan’ city, which was ‘shaped by every major empire since the Roman and thrived through centuries of relative peace and stability.’ It ‘was a city that didn’t sleep’, says Mr Azzin, ‘I’ve never seen it anywhere else, whenever you wanted to go out, you could always find a restaurant that was open.’ Giovannetti writes that, ‘Centuries of trade had made Aleppo a welcoming place, where helping strangers was considered a duty, according to Mr. Azzin. If you got lost, you could knock on a door and get helpful directions.’

Similarly, the article cites a book about the city by British historian Philip Mansel, which says: ‘Until 2012, Aleppo was distinguished by its peaceful character. For 500 years, whatever their origin, its inhabitants had lived together relatively harmoniously.’ Giovannetti then quotes Canadian Tania Frangié, whose family lived in Aleppo for many years:

‘There was a joie de vivre in Aleppo, there was constant excitement,’ Ms. Frangié says of a city that has always loomed large in her life … ‘The biggest part of Aleppo that I remember was the harmony. … There was a marvellous energy everywhere’, she said. When her father returned from a trip to his hometown in 2000, she says he could barely contain his joy about how much the city had changed. Money was pouring in and new districts were going up, while UNESCO’s attention had helped propel conservation efforts in the city. ‘He was just so impressed about how modern it had become’, she said.

Finally, the article cites ‘Len Davis, an American film-maker based out of Seattle’, who ‘visited Aleppo during the same time as Ms Frangié was there.’ Mr Davis ‘says he was struck by its international feeling’, adding that:

Drinking in the shadow of the city’s centuries-old citadel, he later met a gay artist lobbying the government for more liberal acceptance in the art scene. ‘It was a capital of creative thought as I understood it’, he added.

But wait! Who was ruling Aleppo when it was such a booming, ‘modern’, ‘cosmopolitan’ and ‘peaceful’ city, in which one could meet ‘gay artists’ lobbying the government for a more liberal arts scene? It was Assad!! And how much of this cosmopolitan ‘creative thought’ would have been likely to survive if the rebels had secured full control of the city? Given the rigid Islamism of many of them, not a lot, I suspect.

After four years of internecine violence, the fighting has now almost come to an end. Peace is returning to Aleppo. Let’s not listen to those who want to unleash the dogs of war all over again, but instead do what we can to see that the cosmopolitan Aleppo of old is reborn from the rubble.

Moronic speech of the day

Amidst hyperbolic, and it has to be said unsubstantiated, claims that the Syrian army is massacring civilians in Aleppo, the British House of Commons held a debate today to discuss taking action to protect the city’s inhabitants. MPs discussed ideas such as creating a ‘humanitarian corridor’ into rebel held areas, ignoring the rather obvious fact that these areas hardly exist anymore. The debate had a distinct air of unreality about it.

Unfortunately, reality doesn’t seem to feature much in Britons’ understanding of international affairs and their country’s role in them. After 20 years of failed military interventions in the Middle East and Central Asia, almost nobody in the upper echelons of British society seems to be willing to question the fundamental principles of the UK’s foreign policy. Perhaps the only prominent figure who does so is the Leader of the Opposition Jeremy Corbyn, and the general consensus is that this eminent good sense marks him out as an extremist lunatic. The problem, you see, is not that Britain’s military interventions have been wrong per se, but rather that they haven’t been pursued aggressively enough. The world doesn’t need less Anglo-American aggression; it needs more!

At least that’s what former Chancellor of the Exchequer George Osborne said in today’s debate.  According to Osborne, the destruction/liberation (depending on your point of view) of Aleppo was a direct result of the British parliament’s prior refusal to bomb Syria. Osborne said:

We lack the political will as a West to intervene. … I have some hope out of this terrible tragedy in Syria, which is we are beginning to learn the price of not intervening.

We did not intervene in Syria: tens of thousands of people have been killed as a result, millions of refugees have been sent from their homes across the world; we have allowed a terrorist state to emerge in the form of Isis, which we are now trying to defeat; key allies like Lebanon and Jordan are destabilised; the refugee crisis has transformed the politics of Europe, allowed fascism to rise in eastern Europe, created extremist parties in western Europe; and Russia, for the first time since Henry Kissinger kicked them out of the Middle East in the 1970s, is back as the decisive player in that region.

That is the price of not intervening. … let’s be clear now that if you don’t shape the world, you will be shaped by it.

If by ‘we’, Osborne means only the United Kingdom, he is thoroughly deluded about the UK’s capacity to control international events. If by ‘we’, he means ‘the West’, then he’s just talking out of his hat. The ‘West’, in the form of the United States, has intervened in Syria from the start of the civil war there, providing arms, money, and training to rebel forces. In any event, Britain has not stayed out of the war, as reports suggest that British special forces have been operating in Syria. Britain’s Foreign Office has also been helping the Syrian rebels in their propaganda efforts.

Osborne’s claim that ISIS was a product of Western failure to intervene in Syria is also bizarre. ISIS is a product in large part of the chaos created in Iraq by the Anglo-American invasion of 2003 and of the subsequent failed counterinsurgency campaign. The British Army spent several years fighting to gain control of Basra province. Its efforts achieved absolutely nothing. Similarly, the British Army’s campaign in Helmand province in Afghanistan was a dismal failure, and several former British officers (most notably Frank Ledwidge) have credibly demonstrated that the British Army actually helped to destabilize Helmand rather than the opposite.

What good precisely did British intervention do in these cases? How did it help bring law, order, and good government to Iraq and Afghanistan? And how did it help bring any of those benefits in other cases such as Libya?

The recent dismal record of the British military is not an aberration. In fact, the overall historical record of British military involvement in other countries’ affairs is decidedly poor. In a study published in International Studies Quarterly, Jeffrey Pickering  and Mark Peceny concluded that of the all the cases studied,

Not a single target of hostile British military intervention liberalized or became a democracy. Hostile British intervention consequently drops out of [our model] because it predicts failure perfectly. Furthermore, hostile British intervention has a negative and significant impact on political liberalization.

Other states have been a bit more successful, but not a lot. As Stephen Walt points out:

Similarly, George Downs, and Bruce Bueno de Mesquita of New York University found that U.S. interventions since World War II led to stable democracies within ten years less than 3 percent of the time, and a separate study by their NYU colleague William Easterly and several associates found that both U.S and Soviet interventions during the Cold War generally led to “significant declines in democracy.” Finally, a 2010 article by Goran Piec and Daniel Reiter examines forty-two “foreign imposed regime changes” since 1920 and finds that when interventions “damage state infrastructural power” they also increase the risk of subsequent civil war. 

What then explains the continuing belief in the value of bombing, invading, and occupying foreign countries? I find I cannot easily explain it, except perhaps in terms of post-imperial delusions of grandeur combined with an arrogance brought about by the West’s victory in the Cold War and by the West’s belief in the universal supremacy of its own supposed value system. The combination of untrammelled military supremacy and a total belief in their own moral superiority has created an incentive to act which some find too tempting to resist, despite the fact that acting has been shown to fail again and again.

I registered as a British overseas voter in order to vote in the Brexit referendum. That means I will get a vote in the next general election (in East Hull). For the first time in my life, I will vote Labour – not because of the mass of Labour MPs, most of whom remain committed interventionists, but because in Corbyn they have a leader who actually realizes how counterproductive British policy has been. I disagree with just about everything else Corbyn stands for, but at least he’s right on this. It makes me understand why Americans voted Trump.

Western power. What use is it?

There is ‘no need to fear Russia’, which is ‘much weaker than is commonly thought’ says economist Tim Congdon in the British weekly political magazine Standpoint. Claims that Russia is about to ‘overtake the US in power and prestige’ are ‘bizarre’, he says. While the Russian economy is the sixth largest in the world based on purchasing power parity, ‘the countries in the North Atlantic Treaty Organization have a combined national output that is at least 15 times (and perhaps 30) Russia’s. … Russia can never outspend the West in weaponry.’ Media talk of the Russian threat, Congdon concludes, is ‘hyperbolic and overstated.’

Congdon’s article contains some typical Russia-bashing accusations. ‘When its stooge in Kiev was removed by democratic elections [???!!!], Russia ignored the niceties and just walked in’, Congdon writes. ‘Russia’s alignment with Assad in the Syrian conflict has resulted in barbarism’, he says. But his basic point is correct. Economically and militarily, Russia is much weaker than NATO. The idea that the Russian government would risk a direct military confrontation, or even seek to wage some form of ‘hybrid war’ against the West, would only make sense if Russian leaders were completely out of touch with reality. The ‘Russian threat’ is indeed exaggerated.

And yet, I think that Congdon is missing something. The Western dominance he speaks of may matter much less than he thinks. Western countries, most notably the United States, the United Kingdom, and France,  have spent the last four years trying to overthrow the government of Bashar Al-Assad in Syria, and also to roll back the Islamic State in Iraq and Syria (ISIS). For all their enormous military and economic power, they have been remarkably unsuccessful. Assad is stronger now than at any time since the start of the Syrian civil war, and the West’s ‘moderate rebel’ allies in Syria have failed to make any significant advances into ISIS territory. By contrast, in the one year in which its air force has been operating in Syria, Russia has enabled the Syrian government to recapture Palmyra from ISIS and is on the verge of helping it recapture all of Aleppo. In short, despite its vastly inferior power, Russia has been far more successful, and could even be said to have inflicted a ‘defeat’ upon Western strategy.

More generally, Western economic and military power has proven to be useless in transforming the Middle East and Central Asia in the direction desired by policy makers. In the past 15 years, the United States and its allies have spent hundreds of billions, perhaps even trillions, of dollars waging wars in Iraq, Syria, Libya, and Afghanistan. They have absolutely nothing to show for it. The Taleban are no weaker than they were 10 years ago; Iraq is a bloody mess; Libya has descended into civil war, which has spread south into Mali; and Assad still rules in Damascus.

What this reveals is that, while raw power matters, it isn’t enough. What’s even more important is how one uses it. In recent years, the Russians have proven to be far cleverer in using their power than the West has. This may even be because their power is so comparatively limited, a fact which has forced them to think before acting. The West, by contrast, has become arrogant; its uncontested military hegemony has encouraged it to think that there are no problems it cannot fix. Its power has thus become a source of danger to itself, rather than a benefit.

Congdon challenges the idea that Russia has used its power wisely. He remarks that it may come to regret its interventions in Ukraine and Syria, which he describes as ‘barmy’. But if so (and there are some good reasons for questioning this judgment), his argument just highlights another point: the relative uselessness of military power in the modern world. Congdon complains that ‘far too many journalists are swayed by military fireworks and glorify aggressors’. It’s a complaint that could just as easily be made about the West as about Russia. We in the West outspend Russia on defence, and we have been waging war in various parts of the globe for years, but it doesn’t do any of us any good. Congdon remarks that ‘Ultimately, the dominance of “the West” … has been based on economics’. This is entirely true, but it’s a point too many of our liberal interventionists and neoconservative strategists have forgotten in their pursuit of military glory. NATO countries spend about a trillion dollars a year on defence, and yet their military endeavours have been repeatedly unsuccessful. If we spent that trillion dollars on something more productive, imagine how much better off we would be!

Trading insults

This week, American and Russian diplomats have been trading insults, accusing each other of barbaric behaviour. Referring to the fighting in Aleppo, the US Ambassador to the United Nations, Samantha Powers, said that, ‘what Russia is sponsoring and doing is not counter-terrorism, it is barbarism.’ In reply, Russian Foreign Ministry spokesperson Mariia Zakharova stated that, ‘the world has seen nothing more barbaric in modern history than Iraq and Libya done the Washington way.’

The two diplomats were speaking past each other. Powers was commenting on alleged breaches of the laws dictating what people can do during a war – jus in bello. Zakharova was complaining about alleged breaches of the laws dictating when people can wage war – jus ad bellum.

The moral posturing concerning the war in Syria is entirely unwarranted. Neither side is in the clear, although for different reasons.

When it comes to jus in bello, the Americans on the whole behave fairly well. They make mistakes – intelligence is wrong and they strike the wrong target, or missiles go astray and kill civilians. But a lot of effort is put into avoiding civilian casualties, and military lawyers are normally consulted before any major targeting decision is made.  By contrast, judging by its behaviour during the battle for Grozny in the second Chechen war and during the current fighting in Aleppo, the Russian military seems somewhat less restrained in the use of force in bello. This may be a matter of culture and ethics, or it may simply be a question of potential (Russian military technology and the particular nature of the battles Russia fights may not allow for as much restraint). Nevertheless, from an American perspective, the Russian way of war seems relatively indiscriminate.

On the other hand, there can be little doubt that the Americans have consistently broken the rules of jus ad bellum. The bombings of Yugoslavia and Libya, the invasion of Iraq, and the support given to Syrian rebels, as well as other examples, indicate an unhealthy willingness to start wars. And in recent years, the Americans have definitely started far more wars than have the Russians. Regardless of how well its troops have obeyed the rules of jus in bello, the United States has thus ended up causing far more destruction than Russia.

The words of Justice Robert Jackson at the Nuremburg Tribunal come to mind:To initiate a war of aggression, therefore, is not only an international crime; it is the supreme international crime differing only from other war crimes in that it contains within itself the accumulated evil of the whole.’