Tag Archives: Syria

Spot the difference

Remember this story, which appeared on the BBC in September 2016?

The US ambassador to the UN has accused Russia of “barbarism” over the bombing of the Syrian city of Aleppo. At an emergency meeting of the UN Security Council, Samantha Power said Russia had told the council outright lies about its conduct in Syria. She said Russia and the Syrian regime were “laying waste to what is left of an iconic Middle Eastern city”.

Samatha Power’s accusations against the Russians were hardly unique. They were in fact pretty much the norm among American commentators throughout the battle for the Syrian city of Aleppo. For instance, Max Fisher of the New York Times wrote the following denunciation of Russian ‘brutality’:

The effects of Russia’s bombing campaign in the Syrian city of Aleppo — destroying hospitals and schools, choking off basic supplies, and killing aid workers and hundreds of civilians over just days — raise a question: What could possibly motivate such brutality?

Observers attribute Russia’s bombing to recklessness, cruelty or Moscow’s desperate thrashing in what the White House has called a “quagmire.”

But many analysts take a different view: Russia and its Syrian government allies, they say, could be massacring Aleppo’s civilians as part of a calculated strategy, aimed beyond this one city.

Meanwhile, the ‘brutal’ and ‘barbaric’ methods of the Russians were contrasted with the relatively benign tactics of the American military. As Zack Beauchamp commented in Vox:

While the United States and its allies are waging a targeted air campaign against ISIS and other extremists, Russia and the Syrian government are launching an all-out assault on a single city, an assault heedless of the civilian casualties. Washington and its allies have killed innocents but work to avoid it. Russia and Syria — which are carpet-bombing densely populated civilian areas with indiscriminate weapons like barrel bombs — don’t.

Americans weren’t the only ones to take this line. Former British foreign minister Boris Johnson, for instance, remarked that Russia was becoming a ‘pariah nation’ due to its attacks on Aleppo, some of which, he claimed, were ‘unquestionably a war crime’.  And Mark Galeotti commented in Foreign Policy magazine, that:

Anyone trying to understand Russia’s military strategy in Syria would be wise to examine the heavy-handed methods Vladimir Putin used during his first war as Russia’s commander in chief, the bloody Second Chechn War. … These are very different wars, fought in different ways by different forces, but they nonetheless highlight one central aspect of Putin’s approach to fighting insurgents: the value of brutality.

Fair enough, you might say – a lot of innocent people died in Aleppo. According to Wikipedia:

The Syrian Network for Human Rights (SNHR), a pro-opposition non-governmental organization, reported that the Russian bombardments killed at least 1,640 civilians in the Aleppo area: 1,178 civilians died between 30 September 2015 and 1 August 2016, while additional 462 civilians were killed from 19 September 2016 until 30 November 2016.

It’s impossible for me to validate these figures, which could be criticised for the fact that they come from a ‘pro-opposition’ organization. But for simplicity’s sake, let’s take them as reasonably accurate. Now let’s compare them with something else – the numbers killed by air and artillery strikes carried out by American forces and their coalition allies in the battle for the Syrian city of Raqqa. As I reported a year ago, when a team from the  UNHCR entered Raqqa after its liberation from the forces of the Islamic State, its members recorded that they witnessed a ‘level of destruction which exceeded anything they had ever seen before.’  Since then, analysts have been trying to calculate the human cost of this destruction, and today we have the results.  According to the BBC:

More than 1,600 civilians were killed in US-led coalition air and artillery strikes during the offensive to oust the Islamic State group from the Syrian city of Raqqa in 2017, activists say.

Amnesty International and monitoring group Airwars said they had carried out investigations at 200 strike locations … Researchers spent about two months on the ground in the city, carrying out investigations at strike locations and interviewing more than 400 witnesses and survivors. They were able to directly verify the names of 641 victims, and there were very strong multiple sources for the rest, Amnesty said.

So, there we have it. In a campaign marked by ‘war crimes’, ‘brutality’, and ‘barbarism’, the Russians killed 1,600 civilians. Meanwhile, in the campaign for Raqqa, the Americans killed … 1,600 civilians! Can you spot the difference? I can’t.

 

The Peace President

And another bus heaves into view…

I think that the first time I came across James Mattis was when reading Chris Mackey’s 2004 memoir The Interrogators, in which Mackey (a sergeant in the US army) described his experiences interrogating Al Qaeda and Taleban prisoners in Afghanistan in the early 2000s. According to Mackey, at one point, then Marine Corps Major General James Mattis turned up at his interrogation centre near Kandahar one day and made a speech which went roughly like this:

You are helping us to kill the enemy. Let’s not make any mistakes about this. Let’s not try to sugarcoat it. You are assisting my marines to kill evil. To bayonet it, to grenade it, to shoot, it with machine guns, to cut its eyes out and shit in the sockets. And you can take pride in that. You can take pride in knowing that you had a hand in gouging out the eyes and cutting out the tongue of evil.

As somebody who was trained as a military interrogator, I found this more than a little disturbing. This isn’t the sort of language you want to use if you want your interrogators to treat their prisoners with the respect required by the laws of war. Suffice it to say that after reading this, subsequent scandals such as Abu Ghraib didn’t come as a big surprise.

No doubt Mattis is a formidable soldier. But I’ve never understood why people think that generals are suitable political leaders. Leading men in combat and making judgments about the nature of the international order, threats to national security, national strategy, and the like are entire separate things, and to be frank Mattis never showed himself to have particularly good judgement on any of the latter. Instead he stood out as a proponent of ever expanding defence expenditure and the prolongation of wars for which he offered no obvious path to victory. Quite how America benefited from the policies he supported, I cannot fathom.

So it is that I can’t share the general belief that his resignation yesterday is a severe loss for the United States. Moreover, I think that the reaction to his resignation and to the event which provoked it reveals something rather disturbing about the American attitude to war and peace.

As a candidate for the presidency, Donald Trump took a lot of provocative positions. There were very few of them which a good Western liberal like myself could support. But two did make sense: that it was in America’s interests to improve its relations with Russia; and that America’s endless wars in the Middle East and Central Asia were harming the United States without bringing any benefits, and so ought to be ended. To my mind, both of these propositions are blindingly obvious, but in the odd atmosphere of American politics, they were viewed as downright dangerous. Trump’s support of better relations with Russia has resulted in him being denounced as a traitor, a paid agent of the Kremlin. And his idea that America ought to bring its wars to an end has seen him being condemned as foolish and irresponsible.

Once elected, Trump rapidly turned his back on these views. His government imposed more and more sanctions on Russia, and Trump filled his cabinet with hawks like Mattis, Pompeo, and Bolton, and then proceeded to pursue reckless policies such as ripping up the nuclear deal with Iran. Those who hoped that Trump would bring peace were cruelly disappointed.

Until this week, when Trump suddenly declared victory in Syria and announced that he was ordering American troops to leave that country and return home. One might imagine that this would be a cause for celebration. American interference in Syria has had catastrophic consequences. On the assumption that the government of Bashar al-Assad was doomed, the United States funnelled weapons and money to a range of opposition groups who in some cases ended up fighting themselves, and in other cases defected to join ISIS, taking their American weapons with them. They failed to overthrow Assad, but did weaken him enough to open the way for ISIS to spread across a large part of Syria. Only after the Russian intervention in Syria began in late 2015 did ISIS finally begin to retreat. Now with ISIS largely defeated, any pretence that there is a legitimate reason for American troops to be in Syria has disappeared. Trump’s decision to get out is entirely warranted.

Yet it has led to howls of protest. Leading Republicans responded to the announcements of the troop withdrawal and Mattis’s resignation by saying that, ‘we are headed towards a series of grave policy errors which will endanger our nation,’ and that they were ‘legitimately frightened for the country’, as if ISIS were now going to be suddenly landing its troops on Roanoke Island. But it isn’t only Republicans who have been complaining. The reaction among Democrats has been equally outraged. Democratic Senator Mark Warner, for instance, described the situation as ‘scary’, while CNN (not noted for its love of the Republican Party) declared that Washington was ‘shaken, saddened, scared’, and the New York Times ran headlines such as ‘US Exit (from Syria) Seen as Betrayal of the Kurds, and a Boon for ISIS.’

There was a time when going to war was seen as a measure to be taken only in extremis. Unfortunately, lacking serious military competitors following the collapse of the Soviet Union, Western powers decided to use the ‘unipolar moment’ to flex their muscles, with the result that they got mired in a series of apparently never-ending wars. Instead of discrediting the idea of war, these had the opposite effect – they habituated the political classes to it, so that now waging war has become normal and making peace is seen as ‘scary’. Conventional judgements about the national interest, international law, and the ethics of war have been turned on their head.

There’s not much to like about Trump, but the one (actually very significant) thing in his favour is that he professes a desire to put a stop to all this. It would be wrong to say that Trump has been a ‘peace president’. He has, after all, continued American involvement in wars such as that in Yemen. But, to date he has yet to start a new one. This is actually quite remarkable. Barack Obama launched a war against Libya and got American involved in the wars in Yemen and Syria. His predecessor, George W. Bush, invaded Iraq and Afghanistan. Before Bush, Bill Clinton bombed Yugoslavia, and before him George H.W. Bush fought the first Gulf War. And of course, Bush Senior’s predecessor Ronald Reagan invaded Panama and Grenada. One has go to back 40 years to Jimmy Carter to find a president who didn’t start a war. So, despite what I said above, by American standards Trump is indeed a peace president and, if he keeps it up, far more deserving of a Nobel Peace Prize than Obama ever was.  The fact that so many find this worrisome indicates that something has gone seriously wrong not only with our understanding of the world but also with our moral compass.

Stubborn resistance

The latest edition of the journal Ethics and International Affairs contains a number of interesting articles on international law and the ethics of war. Several of them are worth commenting on, but I want to focus on a piece by Alex Bellamy, Director of the Asia Pacific Centre for the Responsibility to Protect and Professor of Peace and Conflict Studies at The University of Queensland, Australia. Bellamy is the author of quite a good introductory book on just war theory. As his job title would suggest, he’s something of an R2P advocate, and in his latest article he tackles the idea that during civil wars outside parties should support the state against insurgents. This idea rests on the principle that the state will probably win, and so it’s best to help it win as quickly as possible, so reducing overall bloodshed. The fact that Bellamy considers it necessary to address the idea is almost certainly a product of the situation in Syria, where government troops are the on verge on launching a final offensive to clear the country of rebel forces. The final triumph of the ‘Assad regime’ now seems so certain that even as hawkish a commentator as Max Boot has said that it would be best at this point if everybody helped Assad so as the get the war over and done with. Bellamy doesn’t like this. He calls it the ‘fatalist approach’ and in his article, entitled ‘Ending Atrocity Crimes: the False Promise of Fatalism’, he urges the likes of Boot to reconsider.

Now, I’m all for people taking on Max Boot, and would normally side with anybody who wants to do such a thing, but in this case, Boot is closer to the truth than Bellamy. For all his aggressiveness, Boot’s ultimately about the forceful pursuit of the national interest, not grandiose ideas of human rights or the international order. Liberal interventionists like Bellamy, by contrast, are all about the latter. And that’s where they go badly wrong.

In his article, Bellamy admits that the idea of helping states to defeat insurgents is not without merit, even in cases where the states in question are guilty of serious crimes. He points out that ‘when states prevail quickly over their domestic opponents, they tend to kill fewer civilians’. Wars in which the rebels prevail and which end in regime change tend, by contrast, to be very prolonged and involve much more death and destruction. Also, peace is normally more long lasting when one side or other wins decisively.

Despite this, Bellamy argues that helping states defeat their rebel enemies is a bad idea. He provides three reasons, which he calls ‘recurrence, precedence, and rights’. First (‘recurrence’), if states learn that they can employ atrocities against their citizens and get away with it, they will do so again and again. As he says, ‘Vladimir Putin came to power by employing indiscriminate violence against Chechnya to good effect in the Second Chechen War, and went on to support similar tactics in Syria.’ Second (‘precedence’), if states see that the international community turns a blind eye to criminal activity by other states, and even helps those states achieve victory, they will draw the conclusion that they can behave badly too. Again, he cites ‘the aforementioned adoption by Syrian government forces of tactics perfected by Russia during the Second Chechen War.’ And third (‘rights’), ‘Privileging order by standing aside as grave violations of rights are committed is patently inconsistent not only with the obligations of international human rights and  humanitarian law but also with the principles and purposes of the United Nations itself’. Ignoring such violations in order to bring wars to a quick end would do ‘great harm to the legitimacy of both the international legal order itself … and the compact between states and peoples.’

Bellamy remarks that his approach is a rule-consequentialist one, that is to say that he is arguing about what would be the best rule rather than what is best in any single instance. The fact that in some individual cases supporting a repressive government would bring a war to an end and so reduce suffering is not reason enough to create a rule that one should always do such a thing. If this was done all the time the negative consequences would outweigh the positive ones. One must, therefore, accept the additional suffering in this one case in order to support the rule which does the most good when applied repeatedly.

I have no problem with rule consequentialist arguments and have often used them myself. But they are very dependent upon judgements of future consequences which one cannot actually know. In this specific case, I think that Bellamy’s judgement is rather coloured by inaccurate assessments of how actions in one instance impact upon actions in another. His arguments concerning recurrence and precedence, for instance, draw on the Chechen example and claim that failure to confront Russia in Chechnya led to Russia, and Syria, committing atrocities during the Syrian civil war. But the link between Russian tactics in Chechnya and the methods used in Syria is decidedly tenuous. As I’ve said before, the tactics and level of force employed by the Russians and Syrians are not very obviously different from those employed by the United States and its various allies in places such as Fallujah, Mosul, and Raqqa. And that is for the very good reason that if you’re going to expel a heavily armed and determined enemy from a city, then you don’t have many options other than to act in that way. In short, it’s got nothing to do with recurrence or precedence.

Moreover, as I’ve also said before, the elevation of ‘rights’ over peace is contradictory because by extending war and increasing the level of violence one inevitably undermines people’s rights, in particular the right to life. It’s also wrong to claim, as Bellamy does, that it’s a mistake to prioritize order over rights, for the simple reason that order is an essential precondition of rights. Bellamy ends his article by saying that we ‘need a politics of stubborn resistance.’ I find this phrase rather scary. In the case of Syria, what could this mean but war and yet more war? After all, if we aren’t going to let Assad win, there’s only two alternatives: war without end; or a war to overthrow the government (which only be achieved at a massive cost in human life). It’s hard to see how either option would enhance Syrians’ rights.

In any case, I think that Bellamy is tilting at windmills, in that I don’t think that there are many people who are saying that it should be a general rule that in civil wars one should always support the state. After all, if it’s a war which the state is losing, the logic of ending it quickly would dictate supporting the rebels. Perhaps a better rule might be to support whichever side is most likely to win in order to enable it do so as rapidly as possible. But that also wouldn’t be a very good rule, as it’s not that easy to predict who’s going to win and people are going to get it repeatedly wrong and end up supporting the weaker side, so making things worse. For instance, based on my memories on what was being said at the time along the lines of ‘Assad is doomed’, I’m reasonably confident that when the Americans decided to get involved in the Syrian civil war on the side of the rebels they were pretty confident that they were backing a winner. Instead, they backed a bunch of losers, and so prolonged the war and increased the suffering of the Syrian people.

Studies have shown very clearly that, absent foreign intervention, civil wars generally finish fairly rapidly. Foreign intervention is strongly correlated with longer wars and increased suffering. If I may turn Bellamy’s rule consequentialist logic against him, then it is clear that if one is looking for the rule which over time does the least harm, then it isn’t one which says intervene on behalf of the state in civil wars, nor is it one which says intervene on behalf of the rebels, nor is it one which says intervene on behalf the side most likely to win. Rather, it’s one which says ‘Don’t intervene at all!’ For sure, that would require us to refrain from intervening in the few instances when intervention might do some good, but it would also force us to refrain in the far more numerous instances when it would do harm. Overall, the world would be much better off as a result. The dogmatic pursuit of human rights may make people feel virtuous, but in the end morality has to rest on practical realities, and those dictate that the strategy of ‘stubborn resistance’ is deeply counterproductive.

Playing at war

So, the Americans, British, and French have done their bit, and fired off 100 or so missiles at Syria. After all the fears expressed by pundits that this could be the start of World War III, it’s turned out to be a bit of a nothing-burger. That’s not to downplay the symbolic significance of the Western states’ assault on Syria, in which they acted as judge, juror, and executioner while the investigation into the alleged misdemeanour was still ongoing and chemical weapons inspectors were on their way to the site of the supposed incident. But, if early reports are to be believed, nobody was killed in the attack and the physical damage is fairly minimal. The Brits fired a mere 8 missiles; the French only 12. Those are hardly significant numbers. Given that the Brits and Americans have been meddling in the war in Syria for several years now, arming and training various groups, and bombing targets on their behalf (including occasionally bombing the Syrian Arab Army), this doesn’t really constitute much by way of escalation. Tomorrow, the Syrians will brush off the dust, and things will go back to the way they were. Russia (along with Iran) will continue to back the Syrian government, and the latter’s forces will continue to advance and regain more and more territory. It is most unlikely that this assault will have any meaningful impact on the outcome of the struggle in Syria.

What stands out for me is the choice of weapons in this attack: long-range missiles. The Brits, for instance, fired their missiles from close to their airbase on Cyprus. They didn’t come close to Syria. It seems that they were afraid of Syrian and Russian air defences, and they weren’t prepared to go to the effort of suppressing them, which would have required a long and costly campaign and would have run the danger of getting them into a war with the Russians. The Russian Ministry of Defence says that its own air defences didn’t get involved but that those of the Syrian army shot down 71 of the 103 missiles fired. The Syrian Observatory for Human Rights (not normally noted for promoting pro-Assad propaganda) claims that 65 were shot down. The Americans are currently denying this. The truth is hard to determine. It may be that the Western allies are right to be fearful of the Syrian/Russian air defence system. Or maybe not. What is clear, though, is that they don’t seem to be willing to take the chance. They also don’t want to get too deeply involved. So, they have limited themselves to firing a few missiles in an utterly pointless manner, while making some wild claims that this would ‘set back Syrian chemical weapons programme for years.’

This is playing at war. Unfortunately, it is symptomatic of how the Americans and the Brits wage war nowadays. They can’t resist getting involved, but the outcome doesn’t matter to them enough for them to commit the resources, and make the sacrifices, required for a successful outcome. So, in Afghanistan they committed themselves enough to stir up the locals, to flood the country with money which boosted corruption and filled the coffers of the Taliban, and generally to make everything worse, but not enough to win (which would  have required a simply enormous amount of resources). In Libya, they did just enough to push the country into chaos, but not enough to put it back together again. In Syria, they’ve pumped in enough weapons and money to thoroughly mess the place up (and in the process supply a whole bunch of people who really aren’t their friends), but not enough to overthrow Assad. And so on.

Now, to be fair, it’s a sign of some intelligence that they haven’t gone any further than they have. It would have been completely disproportionate to have done so. We must welcome the fact that in attacking Syria, they limited themselves to a symbolic gesture and stayed well clear of Russian targets. As I said in my last post, achieving the objective of regime change would require enormous destruction. It’s a good thing that our leaders aren’t prepared to go that far. The problem is, though, is that if they want to succeed that’s how far they have to go. If they’re not prepared to do so, they shouldn’t get involved at all in the first place. Unfortunately, they just can’t stop themselves. Consequently, they end up playing at war, failing time after time, while causing a lot of death and destruction in the process

These endless wars allow politicians to claim that they are being ‘strong’, or more precisely fend off complaints that they are ‘weak’. But they don’t make Britain, America, or France any safer, while those at the receiving end of Western militarism suffer greatly because of it. As far as Syria and Russia are concerned, I suspect that the net result of the latest assault will be to reinforce Russian perceptions that the West is hell-bent on a policy of military and political aggression in which Syria is the front line. They will conclude that Russia must see the war in Syria through to a successful conclusion, and also that the Western states, despite all their bluster, don’t possess the will to stop it. One can therefore expect Russia to press on, and because it has the superior will, it will most likely succeed.

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?

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

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