Thursday, January 30, 2014

Syriasly, Yo

This was a couple of weeks back, but ties nicely into the current, frustrated state of the UK's Surely bombs will resolve (whatever) war enthusiasts.

Ever since the current round of Syria talks in Geneva began, my Twitter timeline has been filled with harrumphs and wails and complaints - Oh, why are we so weak and ineffectual?  I'm sick and tired of us sitting on our hands and doing nothing while Assad massacres his people.  We will regret our weak, do-nothing attitude in future, because doing nothing encourages jihadists and is effectively pro-Assad. Oh, the Horror, the Horror.

This holds good if you view our fruity little trans-Atlantic Anglo bloc as basically benign, scanning the globe for ways to help suffering humanity, rather than an entirely amoral system of urges and impulses sniffing out profit and loss in every conflict and upheaval. 

Well, let's unpick the Why Are We So Indifferent analysis of the situation a bit and try to address a few of the complexities here...

Why are "we"

First up and most obvious, let's just note that "we" never take any type of military action, in Syria or anywhere else.  "The President of the United States" will do something or nothing, but "we" - you, me and Sunny himself, good reader - aren't going to be included in any email trails on the matter.  Our opinions carry no weight whatsoever.

Furthermore, however "we" feel about the ongoing bloodbath in Syria, "we" absolutely are not going to spend any time at all garrotting Allawites in a trench outside Homs.  "We" are writing things on the internet, rather than eviscerating militiamen with a bayonet.

Why are "we" so weak and ineffectual

This one, premised upon the idea that since the US & UK haven't, I don't know, carpet-bombed Damascus to blazing rubble or napalmed a few loyalist villages, they must somehow be cringing in moist-trousered terror because of the Iraq catastrophe or something.

Well, no.  Britain's Libya adventure post-dated the Iraq debacle, and only thirteen MPs voted against that little jaunt, so I doubt the UK's martial spirit is quite so wrinkled and flaccid as some would have us believe.

I suggest that at every stage in the emerging Syrian disaster, both Britain and the Americans have done precisely what they intended to do, no more or less, and that they still retain the capacity to obliterate almost every human being in the loyalist zones in a few days...  And choose, from free will, not to do so.

I'm sick and tired of us sitting on our hands 

This one seems to be universal - "We" are doing nothing about Syria, alas and alack. 

And yet in reality, Britain and the US have been involved from the start, encouraging this faction and prodding this country here, laying down the law to that faction and nation there, and generally handing out advice and armaments on a whim.

The US has been loudly signalling from the start that it won't accept any outcome short of the Assads stepping down, terms which - in an amazing coincidence - are utterly unacceptable to the regime.  It's also been encouraging the rebels throughout, organising meetings and dishing out kit; denouncing the Russians, Chinese and Iranians in fiery tones and generally waving its dick around like it had a big stake in the outcome.  Which it kind of does, but not in the way that most folk would think.

So again, no.  Barack Obama is the most powerful human being on Earth.  If he was nursing a raging war-boner for Assad, literally nothing could've prevented him from kicking arse and taking names with the world's most terrifying arsenal.

Despite all the horrified gasps over Labour's vote against "limited strikes", do you really think that one politician politely asking for some semblance of a plan would've derailed the invasion of Iraq, or even slowed our Gee-Whizz regime-change scam in Libya?  I'm guessing no, not at all. 

"We" are doing exactly what "we" always intended to do - trying to feed and tamp the conflict as necessary, and making a big fucking song and dance about how very moral we are while doing it.  Remember however that nothing these people have done in the last decade suggests that they're moral at all - it suggests they're entirely amoral and pragmatic, willing to accept all manner of enormities for future benefit. 

Could "we" have done anything else?  Yes, but it's not the type of action that arouses the passions of war-wailers.

"We" could've been honest with the Syrian rebels from the start and said look guys, we sympathise, but we have no intention of seriously helping you out if you can't win, and since you obviously can't, you might as well ask for peace on the best terms that you can get before the place gets too badly bashed up.  

But we didn't.  Why?

We will regret our weak, do-nothing attitude in future

No, we probably won't, unless you imagine that humanitarianism is a primary concern.

You really can't miss the huge, region-wide war that's going on across the Middle East - at brass tacks, a great Sunni vs Shia barney with all manner of national, political and religious aspects.  The US is broadly on the Sunnis' side, while Iran are the big hitters among the Shi'ites.   The Assads aren't Shi'ites, but they have long been in bed with the Iranians.

So here are the three possible outcomes from Syria for the US & UK in the long-term:

1)  Knock-out victory for the rebels.  This is the ideal result for the US, since it removes a major Iranian ally and empowers the Americans' allies, like e.g. Saudi Arabia.  Oh, and like, democracy and all that shit that we care a lot about, as well.

2)  Knock-out victory for Assad.  This is the least desireable outcome but it still isn't that bad for the US because, even though the Iranians might regain some small portion of their lost prestige, the Assads still end up ruling a devastated, viciously fractious nation that can't even help itself, never mind its neighbours.

3)  The current situation.  Interminable war with no clear victory, endless gore and terrifying extremism.  Still perfectly acceptable to the US and way better than an Assad victory, since it's brutally grinding down almost all of their regional enemies - Iran, Assad, Hezbollah etc - and it's also keeping their allies focused on a pleasingly distant threat.   

Straight up readers, I'm telling you that the US and the UK were holding out for 1) and when they couldn't get that, were happy to accept 3) in the hope of forever staving off 2)*.

Barring an utterly unexpected outcome, Syria is a no-lose situation from a western perspective, which is why the only issue to spring from the war that really, really riles up the Tories is the possibility that all those crazy British jihadis might come home fired up to deliver the wrath of Allah to the Home Counties. 

You remember what President Obama said on the campaign trail, right?  He said he'd fight America's wars smarter and better, which is why he loves drone strikes so much - neat, quiet and far from the cameras.

Syria is just about the opposite, with one distinct difference from the Iraq war - the brutality of it is no skin off America's nose, and it's chewing up Shi'ites like crazy just as effectively as it's obliterating Syrian civilians.  Think of it as Iran's Iraq, if you will - after all, if our demented sojourn in Mesopotamia effectively handed the keys to Baghdad to Tehran, then this is payback time.   

Which brings us to

The Horror, The Horror 

And this is where things get sticky.  All those dead civvies look bad on TV, so appropriate noises need to be made - banging shoes on desks at Russia in the UN; bewailing the horrror, and threatening limited missile strikes which inconveniently never get the chance to explode.  Tsch, such a shame, we tried so hard, but what are we going to do?

What Barry O is going to do is the same as what he's done throughout, and what he's always intended to do - sit back and watch the fun without getting any blood on his shoes.

As war fans are always fond of saying, not intervening has consequences as well.  Take a look at our recent adventures and I find it hard to see what's going on in Syria that we didn't blithely sit through for most of a decade next door.

Readers, you might think this analysis is cynical, even nihilistic...  But on the very day that Tony Blair announces that the Egyptian generals staged a military intervention to save democracy via overthrowing democracy by force and shooting hundreds of its supporters, I suggest that this isn't nearly cynical enough.  

*You can reverse all this for Russia and China, although they have different but similar priorities.  Everyone is lying, folks.


ejh said...

Our opinions carry no weight whatsoever.

You know this, and I know this, but Sunny Hurndal does not know this, because he is under the impression that he is something more, and more influential, than a tenth-rate Polly Toynbee.

Anonymous said...

One group of people whose opinions carry weight is the military. The UK and US military were quite keen on the invasion of Iraq because it looked easy in 2002 and it gave them the chance of playing with their kit. They won't be very keen on getting involved in a three-way fight with boots on the ground in Syria. The military really don't like being in the ground between two potential enemies and protecting civilians; it's not their business, they will say.

It is a delusion to think that politicians simply tell the military what to do; the military quite often say no. It is more delusional to think that the public can tell the military what to do, and even more delusional that the UK public can get the USA military to do what the UK public wants. It was, at one time, part of Blair's narrative that the UK could get the US to engage with the world and solve the world's problems: I cannot imagine why anyone believed that the UK could leverage the US military to carry out humanitarian missions.

The other fallacy is that the presence of Al Qaida groups in Syria is due to lack of public support for western intervention. One of the big factors in lack of public enthusiasm for western intervention in Syria is that it has always been very vague who our governments support. Qatar and Saudi Arabia have supported some very dodgy groups since 2011 and you have to wonder whether the UK government was actually going to arm other groups who would potentially be their opponents. The UK is highly dependent on Qatar for natural gas.


organic cheeseboard said...

The reference here to Russia is pretty interesting I think. From memory (and much as I enjoy scouring the Aarowatch archives, I really haven't got time here) the general position therein from most commenters, though not all, on the proposed Gadaffi onslaught of Benghazi was that something should be done, and that 'something' was a targeted campaign of bombing to prevent the massacre Gadaffi was threatening. In general, and again from memory, it seemed to have been quite well-supported, across the board. And those evildoers Russia and China actually signed up too.

But, surprise surprise, the bombing campaign went a teeny bit further than that, and was in fact an all-out war on Gadaffi, something the UN resolution specifically said 'no' to.

All the table-banging about Russia 'enabling Assad' never mentions this though - that their reluctance to approve punitive bombings from the UK/US might be grounded not only in their strategic alliances, of which many of ours re deeply dubious, but also in their belief that if you give us an inch, we'll take a mile, and leave things just as fucked up after the event as they were before.

another legacy not of Libya but Iraq is a general reluctance to take the word of noisy expats who seem to have easy solutions at face value.

blair on Egypt is just too priceless:

the fact is, the Muslim Brotherhood tried to take the country away from its basic values of hope and progress. The army have intervened, at the will of the people

So an unelected army removing the democratically-elected government by force is somehow reflective of 'the will of the people'? Huh? By that logic, the British army removing the Tories would be similarly approved. Rentoul lauded the Egyptian military's secularism (before rowing back and admitting that the only thing he actually knows is that Blair is always right). Presumably he also lauded another secular military ruler from the ME, big on the scene til about 10 years ago - Saddam Hussein...?

flyingrodent said...

The other fallacy is that the presence of Al Qaida groups in Syria is due to lack of public support for western intervention... Qatar and Saudi Arabia have supported some very dodgy groups since 2011...

I left this out to bring up in comments but this is another crossbow bolt in the neck of the Why Aren't We Doing Anything farrago. One thing that "We" are observably Not Doing Anything about is the mass transit of arms and highly-motivated religious nutters from e.g. Saudi to Syria.

Now Barry O. might not carry the same clout in Riyadh that George W. did, but I sure as hell haven't seen many "Obama politely asks the Sauds to desist exporting death-crazed Soldiers Of God to horrific civil war" headlines.

Let's be clear that one way to lessen human suffering in a war is to not fill the warzone with jihadists. Has the White House been asking Saudi Arabia's scumbag royals to knock it off? If it has, it's been asking really quietly.

All of which is a pretty substantial demerit against the idea that "our" main interest in Syria is humanitarianism. Because if "we" thought humanitarianism was more important than keeping the war going, there would be planeloads of diplomats zipping between Washington and Riyadh, rather than busloads of jihadis on a one-way street heading west, then heavenwards.

flyingrodent said...

All the table-banging about Russia 'enabling Assad'...

The Russians do plenty of table-banging about the US "enabling terrorists" too, and just like the Russia-Assad thing, it has more than a bit of truth about it.

From the very start, one of the most telling things about this war has been the way that

- William Hague and Bob Gates went suddenly and deathly quiet about the calamity and horror of Syria at precisely the time that the rebels started to make concrete gains against Assad's army, a year-plus ago, and that

- Vladimir Putin started screeching and yowling about terrorism at exactly the same point, with a precisely inverse level of outrage.

People should really have spotted that you can tell who's winning in Syria on any given day by turning on the TV and seeing which bunch of white people are yelping most loudly about it.

And again, what are we to make of these sudden superpower outrage fluctuations?

What I take from it is that e.g. Hague has a lot more in common with Putin than he has with any of us or with any of the UK's amateur war-fluffers. I also get the firm impression that if it were the rebels hurling barrel-bombs at children, our politicians would discover a sudden interest in domestic policy and our newspapers would be as quiet as the grave.

Because "we" are not interested in lessening suffering - we're interested in winning, and if that means keeping the whole horrible enterprise going down to the last Syrian well, so be it.

flyingrodent said...

And please forgive the triple-post, but this was a beauty yesterday, from Dave's column on the villainy of the indifferent British public and the perfidious Labour Party:

In August we - by which I mean mostly Barack Obama* - had the chance... to create some measure of influence over the outcome of the Syrian catastrophe. Mr Burnham's success, for which he invites celebration, was to surrender that movement and to position us on the edge of a sea of blood, dabbing at the spreading pool with a pocket handkerchief.

Now credit is due for good writing there, but seriously, let me paraphrase a young John Kerry when I ask:

How do you ask a man to die to create "some measure of influence over the Syrian catastrophe"?

Because that deliberately vague claim is, by a huge distance, the strongest that Dave makes for what "limited airstrikes" could achieve.

*Top marks to Dave for spotting this, as he usually doesn't in situations like this.

Anonymous said...

The think the thing is with this self-flagellation over Syria is - as with the inevitable yearly "Britain must apologise for Srebrenica" articles; is actually conceding that 'we' are not actually responsible. If 'we' truly were, we would not get these "oh for shame!" cries admitting any guilt. The silence or endless justification over what we actually are responsible for is enough evidence of that.

Taking the rap for something which can't reasonably be attributed to you is in its self a part of a propaganda tactic. a) its safe from any real consequences and b) rather than confirming guilt its designed for future reassurances of innocence, c) its a fake atonement for so-called, past mistakes as a justification for current wrongdoing which can be presented as noble and courageous acts. So, the Munich Agreement, Bosnia and Rwanda etc. can be made right by Iraq, Libya and Syria.

I kind of almost sympathise with Blair over Egypt (I don't, but almost). He's caught in a bit of a quandary between an undesirable - yet elected Islamist government and a military regime - what's a a great liberal ideologue to do?


ejh said...

So an unelected army removing the democratically-elected government by force is somehow reflective of 'the will of the people'?

I'm pretty sure though that if you went back to the period immediately before and after the coup, there were a fair number of people arguing precisely that, because of the huge demonstrations caling for the fall of the Morsi government.

flyingrodent said...

as with the inevitable yearly "Britain must apologise for Srebrenica" articles; is actually conceding that 'we' are not actually responsible.

I was at high school during the Yugoslav wars, so my comparison probably isn't going to hold up that well, but:

If Clinton had e.g. thrown his full rhetorical weight (but no actual action) behind the Croats, and encouraged the Croats to believe the US would jump in against the Serbs, and told the world that Milosevic was an unacceptable stain that the United States would not tolerate to exist and all of that shit, and turned a blind eye to all the militant Jihadis flowing from allied nations, I suspect that the Balkan wars might still be raging on.

Maybe, maybe not. On the other hand, this is what America has done in Syria.

Thus, the current situation.

Anonymous said...

I think having the Yugoslav wars drag on in Europe into the 21st century was too much for the US and EU to stand for. Syria is at least far enough out of the away.

Decent Atlanticism is essentially a Cold War, nostalgic, ideology, and Syria is a heaven sent Cold War revival proxy, complete with retro-Soviet weaponry. The Ukrainian crisis is just the glacee cherry on top because (with perfect timing) it really squeezes Putin on two fronts - hence McCain and an army of EUrocrats going to Kiev, cans of gasoline in hand.

I think the point about Iran and Iraq is basically on the button. Bleed the Shia axis white until it collapses or provokes an intervention. Similar to the trap that Saddam Hussein walked into.


flyingrodent said...

This might be useful, for posterity.

A key point is the sentence that ends " 2005".