Syria: the West makes the usual mistake

I got wound up by this whilst reading news on my phone while sitting in a boring meeting. So I'll vent here.

The usual scheme of things that we see so often is that bad things happen (the Assad regime in Syria); it goes on and on and people wring their hands, or ignore it, and anyway whilst bad the people are useful anti-commies or somesuch; and then it gets bad enough that the locals start revolting. At this point, its very much a "which way are you going to jump" issue for everyone in the country. Do they throw in their lot with a pile of untested rebels? Or do they sit on the fence quietly? Or do they take this as a chance to ingratiate themselves with the regime by demonstrating loyalty? If you're such a person, what the international "community" is going to do matters a lot. If you expect the "community" to intervene actively on the side of Justice and Freedom, to vigourously hunt down war criminals and prosecute them and confiscate their assets, then you have a strong incentive to jump onto the rebel side. But if you expect the West to be a useless shower like usual you have an incentive to hang on in and loot the country for as long as possible, meanwhile doing your best to be as nasty as possible and polarise the fight in order to commit people onto your side, by making it impossible for them to live under a changed regime. After not very long it becomes clear that attempting to talk about regime change is a waste of time, and so the people on the rebel side that come to the forefront are those with the least to lose, those most deeply committed to violence - in short, we do our best to marginalise those who we're pretending to favour. And pretty well inevitably this is a chance for the Al-Quaeda types to step in; at which point the idiots who argue for nothing but talks chirp up brightly with "see! We told you so! Violence just encourages Al Quaeda". Whereas its really the do-nothing-but-talk people who are recruiting for Al Quaeda. And don't get me started on the Russian govt, whose role in this is so utterly stinkingly amorally sadistic.

[Update: the NYT says that Syria is starting to break apart. The other classic mistake the West usually makes is to try to enforce territorial integrity of artificial borders. Iraq is a case in point - the obvious thing it to allow Kurdistan to break away. But that would make the Turks Really Very Sad. We shouldn't listen to them -W]

[Further update, 2014/01/11: when I last looked, things were not looking rosy. And Syria has disappeared from the news, which suggests the long-drawn-out grinding to destruction continues. So I'll add two further thoughts:

1. Hobbes says (somewhere, though this is from memory) that citizens are allowed to rebel, but only if they succeed. Or something like that. Which naturally you can't know in advance. But the point is that civil war is such an evil that almost anything else is better. And also that the legitimacy of the Civil Sword depends on it being in power; if its not in power - if it doesn't provide the protections that we gave up our freedoms for - then the obligation to submit vanishes. In a sense, its self-defining. I think, at this point, Hobbes would like say that his conditions were not met; that the good people of Syria should not have rebelled.

2. An opinion piece in a paper suggesting that the West made almost the opposite mistake to what I'm suggesting: that it encouraged the rebels with fake words promising fake help. And instead, it should have made clear that we're useless. Though I would have thought experience would have said that much louder.]

[2015/07/11: The Economist agrees with me.]


* Boris in 2015
* The former president talked early and often about Syria, but wasted six years and countless lives with hand-wringing dithering - NYT from 2017.

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So, which side is the Justice and Freedom side there? The guys with the chemical weapons or the cannibals? And no one in Syria gets to actually pic a side; one's allegiance is based on religion and 1333 years of massacres (if you take Karbala as the watershed).

[Assad's side is the bad guys. Everyone else has the potential to be the good guys, if they want to be. No-one's allegiance is pre-determined, and you're doing everyone a disservice with your faux-cynicism by asserting otherwise -W]

But surely military action always has to be the last resort when other avenues have failed? You may see people who advocate pursuing other means first as "hand wringing" but I'm not sure that saying that we must "do something" when it is far from clear what action is possible and whether it would be successful (or legal) is any better. And it is hardly surprising that military intervention is not popular with the public given the outcomes in Iraq and Afghanistan (and to an extent in Libya). And I think there will always be a tendency for extremist elements to try to put themselves at the forefront of resistance movements.

If you think the West has behaved like a "useless shower" over Syria what would have had Western countries do instead?

I certainly agree about Russia though.

[Well, yes. Deciding when to intervene is the key. Afghanistan and Iraq are / were clearly disastrously badly done. But to some extent the evil people that wanted those invasions, for their own purposes, are now using them as excuses for not doing other things - again, for their own purpose rather than the greater good. Libya, but comparison, was a success - about as good as you can hope to get from our broken international politics. We should be doing, in Syria, roughly what we did in Libya. Perhaps in a "lite" version. Or rather, we should have done it a year ago, or whenever -W]

By andrew adams (not verified) on 16 May 2013 #permalink

Faux-cynicism? I'm looking forward to your list of successful mixed shia-sunni democracies. Actually, skip the democracy requirement, any state in which the groups lived together in peace and harmony without the sectarian affiliation being the main identity and dividing line.
As for Assad being the bad guy, at least his country was semi-secular, with something approaching gender equality if only under the law. Now, with Assad being forced to lean on Iran and Hezbollah for support based on religious affiliation, I don't see any way Syria doesn't turn into the next Islamic republic, independent of which side ultimately wins out.

[Assad is a dictator. He got away with that for years, but the world is a different place and a dictator in Syria won't survive. He's the bad guy for that, and because that is causing immense pain to Syria. Assad isn't "forced" to do anything. He can just pack his bags and get on his private jet and leave. And the world will be a better place for everyone - including him. It would have worked much better had he done this a year ago, but its still worth doing now -W]

Intervening in these tribal/religious conflicts is a fool's game.

Save the blood and treasure for people who aren't stuck in a Bronze age mentality.

[You're doing your best to demonstrate why a lot of people hate typical American attitudes -W]

By TheGoodLocust (not verified) on 16 May 2013 #permalink

I'm not sure exactly who the "evil people" you mention are but I agree that there are some parties opposing action in Syria for reasons which are far from honourable. But there are also real practical and legal obstacles to intervention - I don't pretend to be any kind of military expert but even if it was possible to get international agreement for intervention surely Syria is more powerful and well armed than Libya was, and there is more potential for it to escalate into a wider conflict. I know it is unsatisfactory do urge caution when people are already dying but I'm not comfortable being an armchair warrior either.

[I agree there are large practical and legal obstacles; Libya only worked, probably, because the Arab league asked for help; they haven't, in the case of Syria. Syria *is* better armed that Libya, but the rebels are doing fairly well with no help at all, and would be doing far better (well, it would be over) if we'd helped. More (as I was trying to say in the first place) if we'd helped then more people would be on the rebel side -W]

By andrew adams (not verified) on 16 May 2013 #permalink

Before anyone gets involved in any military action, the first question that needs to be asked and answered is - what is the outcome that we wish to achieve?

If you can't answer that one, then you have no hope of answering the second one, which is how do we go about achieving that?

So what is the outcome that we want in Syria, bearing in mind that any action will also affect the region? It is useless phrasing the outcome in meaningless feel good phrases like respect for human rights, or to spread freedom and democracy. What do we want the country and government of Syria to look like? Do we have a right - or the capability - to impose a system of governance on a different culture? Who will run the country if we intervene and after we leave? Will it be stable? What will other countries in the region do? Will the population welcome intervention, or will there be a large resistance to occupation? How long will it take? How many resources will it take?

These are basic questions - and there are a lot more complicated ones that need to be answered as well. And if you can't answer the basic ones, it is pointless wringing your hands or criticising the government for inaction.

Maybe the government knows the answers to these questions, and doesn't like the answers.

@WMC "[You're doing your best to demonstrate why a lot of people hate typical American attitudes -W]"

If it was "typically American" then we wouldn't be involved in Iraq or Afghanistan.

[Not at all. Afghanistan was a temper tantrum after the "art installation" bombings; Iraq was because swatting a minor country most Yanks hadn't even heard of wasn't satisfying -W]

In any case, my Marxist British father agrees we need to stay out of such conflicts.

[If he can't distinguish Afghanistan from Syria and rolls them all up together as "such" then he isn't thinking -W]

By TheGoodLocust (not verified) on 16 May 2013 #permalink

"I want to go on record as saying that this is the stupidest, most irresponsible action a diplomatic mission like ours could get itself involved in, and that we've started a series of these things that will never end."

"... Between 1947 and 1949 an odd group of idealists and hard realists in the American government set out to intervene in Syria. Their aim was to liberate the Syrian people from a corrupt autocratic elite - and allow true democracy to flourish. They did this because they were convinced that "the Syrian people are naturally democratic" and that all that was neccessary was to get rid of the elites - and a new world of "peace and progress" would inevitably emerge.

What resulted was a disaster, and the consequences of that disaster then led, through a weird series of bloody twists and turns, to the rise to power of the Assad family and the widescale repression in Syria today."

By Hank Roberts (not verified) on 16 May 2013 #permalink

That should have a hat tip to:…

[But you article makes it plain that the aim was *not* "liberate the Syrian people from a corrupt autocratic elite - and allow true democracy to flourish". Indeed, that's from… (which is, obviously, wrong) not from the Kos. The "liberate" stuff was just the PR angle.

The US did a lot of that kind of stuff (see Chomsky). But it isn't clear to me what you argument is. "The US did bad things in the past, and therefore should never do anything in the future"? That's wrong, obviously. "We should be careful"? That's right, trivially -W]

By Hank Roberts (not verified) on 16 May 2013 #permalink

@WMC "[Not at all. Afghanistan was a temper tantrum after the "art installation" bombings; Iraq was because swatting a minor country most Yanks hadn't even heard of wasn't satisfying -W]"

I'm not sure if you understood me. I was saying that if the American populace held my beliefs then we wouldn't have entered the Afghan or Iraq wars.

In other words - my beliefs were atypical of most Americans at the time.

"[If he can't distinguish Afghanistan from Syria and rolls them all up together as "such" then he isn't thinking -W]"

He understands, as do I, that you can't bomb or befriend Muslims into not acting like Muslims.

It doesn't matter what we do. They will still stone gays, apostates, and atheists, while merrily imprisoning, torturing, and raping women for the crime of being raped.

I see no pressing need to waste resources on such people.

It should be treated as an internal Syrian matter (i.e. not our business).

By TheGoodLocust (not verified) on 17 May 2013 #permalink


You're not seriously asserting that the Afghanistan or Iraq interventions were for the good of the locals, are you?

By Martin Vermeer (not verified) on 17 May 2013 #permalink

@Martin Vermeer

I'm not sure how you came to that conclusion from what I said. I think we should've stayed as far away from those countries as possible.

However, that being said, it looks like the Iraqi people may benefit from our intervention, but it is too soon to tell.

As Benjamin Franklin said, "...only a virtuous people are capable of freedom. As nations become corrupt and vicious, they have more need of masters."

That sums up the Middle East (and other regions) rather nicely.

By TheGoodLocust (not verified) on 17 May 2013 #permalink

I’m not sure how you came to that conclusion from what I said.

It's the only way in which your statement "if the American populace held my beliefs then we wouldn’t have entered the Afghan or Iraq wars" can be true.

By Martin Vermeer (not verified) on 17 May 2013 #permalink

@Marin I have no idea how you are misreading my words.

My statements have clearly been non-interventionist in nature.

By TheGoodLocust (not verified) on 17 May 2013 #permalink

> what your argument is

My "argument"?

Er, my argument is that you're correct, and that doing the wrong thing is practically a tradition by now, with a deep history.

By Hank Roberts (not verified) on 17 May 2013 #permalink

There are no good guys over there. As with the Iran-Iraq war, best to just let them slug it out.

[Hank has already pointed out that we didn't do that. We've already f*ck*d up Syria for our own political purposes, as well as Iraq and Iran well before we dropped bombs on them -W]

@Martin I have no idea

That's OK GoodLocust... propositional logic is somewhat challenging, and we cannot all be smart ;-)

By Martin Vermeer (not verified) on 18 May 2013 #permalink

Mandas seems to be asking the right questions.

At this stage, all we seem to be doing is facilitating a Sunni take-over, which will result in a Taliban-like government that will create a massive refugee problem as they try to exterminate their Kurdish, Alawite, Christian, and Shia rivals.

The *majority* of Syrians will in the future be able to look back on the Assad regime as one that allowed them to propsper in peace.

By Craig Thomas (not verified) on 19 May 2013 #permalink

Since the Arab league can't come to agreement about Syria, when it's in their own back yard, responsibility for non-intervention lies strongly with them.
Active support by the "West" is liable to trigger a backlash. OTOH enforcing a no-fly zone over Syria would be good, but I expect Iran would promptly load planes with civilians plus soldiers, weapons or supplies and "wedge" the no-fly: shoot down civilians if you want to enforce no-fly.

[I largely agree with that. TAL are hopeless and factious, so its necessary for them to commit beforehand. Otherwise they'll whinge endlessly afterwards -W]

Maybe we get lucky and they destroy each other leaving the victor feeling a bit like Pyrrhus. Thats a win win.

OT: Will anyone here be in Edinburgh next week? A Gay Girl In Damascus has organised a colloquium about 'Maintaining and changing identities' and 'Crossing boundaries, bridging cultures'. Admittedly it's an arcane historical doodad concentrating on the maintenance etc of 7th-century Mediterranean identities etc rather than the thoroughly modern mystery of a middle-aged male heterosexual American Christian posing as a youthful lesbian Syrian Muslim but if someone's in the neighbourhood, owns a dictaphone and has nothing better to do ... See for details.

By Vinny Burgoo (not verified) on 20 May 2013 #permalink

Mike, the pyrrhic victory will be the inevitable Sunni takeover: Assad defeated, but a far greater evil in power.

By Craig Thomas (not verified) on 20 May 2013 #permalink

Tried to post an earlier comment. It was beautiful, but now it's gone.

Anyway, establish a large safe haven on the Turkish border and start organizing a non-insane Free Syrian government to actually run things in the safe haven. That'll help.

Also support an Alawite opposition movement ASAP that can run the Alawite parts of the county post-Assad and reduce massacres.

By Brian Schmidt (not verified) on 21 May 2013 #permalink

Brian is talking about a Balkanisation of Syria, to create secure homelands for the various ethnic groups.

The very fact that this has been the approach to these sorts of conflicts puts the lie to the deluded multiculturalist utopia.

["Balkanisation" is a poor term, but (wrapped in more honeyed words) I agree its the best solution. The "multiculturalist utopia" works (vide the US, or the UK) but not with the degree of distrust and hatred and death prevalent in the region at the moment and in the past. This too is a regrettable feedback affair: the Kurds would like their own country, naturally enough, and so the Turks distrust them, and suppress their language, which only makes the Kurds want a country even more, and so on round the cycle; and the same for others.

In this case, its obvious that their should be a Kurd country, spanning bits of Turkey, Iraq, Syria etc. The only reason there isn't one is that we (the West, probably mostly the UK) f*ck*d it all up when we left; and/or boundaries didn't mean quite the same thing in those days. Everyone (including Turkey and Iraq and Syria) would be much happier of their was a Kurd country; but the leaders and the public are too dumb to realise it -W]

By Craig Thomas (not verified) on 23 May 2013 #permalink

I'm starting to see more and more what you were saying about inaction recruiting for the extremists. People are also now saying "Assad is getting enough from Russia and Iran to hold on, so we shouldn't give weapons/ammunition to the opposition - it will just make things worse." and "If the rebels win, they will be worse than Assaad was" which is true but irrelevant because if Assad wins, things will be much much worse as he slaughters former opponents.