A Game of Homs

What striking about Syria is how so many people insist on speaking about it in profoundly moralistic, Manichaean terms. This is complete nonsense, given that its civil war isn’t a showdown between democracy and dictatorship, but an ethnic and religious conflict. Here’s a more realistic guide:

The Assad regime

The rhetoric: He kills his own people! He is the Evil Overlord (TM)!

The reality: That’s kind of what happens in a civil war. Abraham Lincoln also “killed his own people,” you know. It is obvious why the “regime” fights on: That is what regimes do – as a general rule of thumb, they’re fond of surviving. The rather more interesting and telling question is: Why do key elements of the population continue to back them?

As far as the Alawites and Christians are concerned, it’s pretty clear: The Sunnis have never been particularly well disposed to them, and the past few years haven’t made them any fonder. The last time the Sunnis revolted in Hama in 1982, one of the slogans of the Muslim Brotherhood was “Christians to Beirut, Alawites to the graveyard.”

In the game of Homs, you win or you die – and the “you” is in its plural form. No wonder Assad has a solid support base.

The rebels

The rhetoric: Democratic freedom fighters! or, Lung-eating demons!

The reality: They encompass the entire spectrum of “morality” (to the extent such a concept is even applicable). It is reasonable to posit that at the beginning, a substantial part of the opposition fighters were basically normal Sunnis who were disenchanted with the regime – or rather, with dearth (all the Arab revolts coincided with a peak in global grain prices) married with lingering resentment over the pro-Shi’ite favoritism that is said to predominate within Syrian state structures. This is not to say there were no genuine “idealists” and “democracy supporters” – democracy as in democracy, not particularistic ethnocracy – but we have to be realistic about their true influences. Considering that opinion polls in Arab countries indicate the vast majority of their denizens want the death penalty for adultery and apostasy, claiming that they ever constituted the majority is nothing short of willful blindness.

Furthermore, it seems that on balance, the pendulum is swinging away from the Big Mac eaters to the lung-eaters within the Free Syrian Army. For a start, many rebels have started defecting back, repulsed by the more hardcore Islamists’ brutality, demoralized by the revival of the Syrian Arab Army, and enticed by the regime’s offer of amnesty. The rebellion has also become more dominated by foreign elements as the original instigators were killed off and Saudi intelligence – with its links to global armed Islamist movements – began to take a more direct hand. ”War makes monsters of us all,” as some might say.

Israel

The commonsense refrain: Why would the Israelis have any interest in Assad being replaced by jihadists?

The reality: They’re not.

What they are interested in, however, is crippling Syria’s military capabilities, and – best of all – its chemical warfare capacity. That means whichever side eventually takes over – potentially after many years of internecine warfare – won’t be able to pose even a minimal threat to Israel that a CW-eqipped Syrian Arab Army once posed. A weakened Syria will also mean that Israel will be able to strike at Hezbollah depots and supply routes with that much more ease and impunity.

Egging on the US to carry out airstrikes against Assad fully fits into that position. And, as Craig Murray recently pointed out, it is most curious that it was the Israelis who detected the “incriminating” phone calls that ostensibly pointed at Syrian state complicity in the recent gas attacks, while the Brits – possessing the most advanced EW facility in the Middle East – failed to pick up on it.

The Saudis/Qatar

The rhetoric: Admittedly, even well-tuned propaganda organs have difficulty coming up with a plausible reason for why highly repressive Arab monarchies would be interested in Syrian democracy.

The reality: This is all part of the Sunni vs. Shi’ite struggle – and their broader geopolitical standoff with Iran. Bahrain in particular brutally put down a Shi’ite uprising back in 2011, with Saudi military help and the cynical non-chalance of the US – which happens to base its 5th Fleet there. Syria is a close friend of Iran.

Russia

The rhetoric: Just the Mutual Support Group of Dictators in action. Plus broken-down Russia needs all the $$$ from weapons sales to Damascus.

The reality: Which is why Assad visited Paris more often than Moscow, and used to take dinners with John Kerry before he began calling him a “two-bit dictator” and comparing him with “Hitler.” And Russia’s yearly trade with Syria amounts to just about $2 billion. This is peanuts compared to its total trade of almost one trillion dollars.

The only reasonable explanation left is that given by Putin himself:

We aren’t defending the government. We are defending something completely different. We are defending the contemporary order of the world. We are defending the modern international order. We are defending the discussion of the possible use of force exclusively within the confines of international order and international rules and international law. That’s what we are defending. These values are absolute. When issues related to the use of force are solved outside the UN and the UN Security Council, the danger arises that such illegitimate decisions could be made against anyone under any pretext…..

Needless to say Putin doesn’t say this because he is a nice and fluffy rule of law type, but because the US is strong and Russia is weak. And since the default state of the world is for strong do what they can and the weak to suffer what they must, appeals to the proprieties of international law – a sphere in which Russia has a veto via the UN Security Council – are eminently logical.

The West (aka US, UK, France)

The rhetoric: Do I have to echo Dave’s and Barry’s talking points?

The reality: As a certain friend on Facebook put it, here is the crux of Obama’s dilemma: “He doesn’t want to repeat Iraq, but it ideologically committed to liberal internvetionism – the Democratic Party’s version of neoconservatism.”

That, or he really believes his own shit. On second thought, the two positions aren’t really mutually exclusive.

Comments

  1. There is of course another factor in Obama’s decision-making. As the NYT recently wrote (and later tried to delete, but whatever):
    “Administration officials said the influential American Israel Public Affairs Committee was already at work pressing for military action against the government of Assad, fearing that if Syria escapes American retribution for its use of chemical weapons, Iran might be emboldened in the future to attack Israel. In the House, the majority leader, Eric Cantor of Virginia, the only Jewish Republican in Congress, has long worked to challenge Democrats’ traditional base among Jews.

    One administration official, who, like others, declined to be identified discussing White House strategy, called AIPAC “the 800-pound gorilla in the room,” and said its allies in Congress had to be saying, “If the White House is not capable of enforcing this red line” against the catastrophic use of chemical weapons, “we’re in trouble.””

    http://www.theatlanticwire.com/politics/2013/09/case-new-york-times-missing-aipac-gorilla-has-easy-answer/68985/

    Bearing in mind AIPAC funds most of the big shots in Congress this would not be particularly surprising.

    • A nice dimension. Thanks for point it out!

      It would influence Obama, surely, however AFAIK the Jewish lobby is far weaker in the UK and practically non-existent in France. So surely there must be some other reason for Hollande’s… enthusiasm. What would that be? Genuine conviction? A fervent desire to suck up to the US as with the denial of airspace rights to Morales? The Muslim lobby/constituency? (Most Muslims in France AFAIK vote for the Socialists, and I would imagine the vast majority of them – them being Sunnis – would support intervention).

      • georgesdelatour says:

        Good point. I seem to remember Wikileaks revealing that it was not Israel but Saudi Arabia which was most eagerly pressing the USA to bomb Iran. But the kind of people who worship Julian Assange don’t want to believe that. It doesn’t fit with their Weltanschauung. So they tend to talk as if had said what they wanted it to say.

        • Anatoly – The French Jewish population is 550,000, about twice as much as the UK and half the U.S. per capita. But that isn’t really the critical factor. The fact is the official Jewish leadership in France (and as in the U.S. one might dispute their representativeness) – such as leading rabbis, “anti-racist” groups (equivalent of the ADL in the U.S.) and many public intellectuals (Bernard-Henri Lévy..) – tend to be systematically and unconditionally “pro-Israel” (irrespective of international law, settlements, French interests). In addition, Jewish-French have been amazingly successful in business, politics and media, and these are very often pro-Israel. (Jewish-French do not make up 1% of media owners, 1% of journalists or 1% of UMP or, especially, Socialist Party apparatchiks.)

          There is no doubt this ethnic bias has an influence and that the Israel lobby has an impact in France, although it is difficult to say how much. (Just as, as multiculturalists have pointed out, a political system that is disproportionately white-male-Christian will find its judgment on a diverse society biased by its prejudices).

          Personally I have a hard time interpreting France’s foreign policy under Sarkozy-Hollande. To some extent they’re sucking up to the U.S. – which is rational for selfish politicians in terms of feeling important, networking, business opportunities, and political jobs (NATO, UN, IMF, WTO…), rational for the State in order to benefit from U.S. intelligence and military power, understandable because of America’s massive soft power (I am convinced U.S. culture/film/TV have made French leaders identify more with the U.S.). But, both in Libya and Syria, France is going *beyond* an (understandably) pretty skittish Obama. So there has to be more to it.

          I think there’s a good deal of compensatory showmanship: after having fought hard to get elected, French leaders find they have no control over economic policy, so they’re job is to just deliver bad news, get attacked and suck it up, they’re castrated, to lash out against the Arabs with a few well-placed bombs and civil wars is a good way for them to feel powerful and as good an attempt as any convince themselves and the world that they’re not completely irrelevant.

          Georges – I think Israel-Saudi Arabia-Gulf States have been mostly on the same side in both Libya and Syria.

Trackbacks

  1. […] A Game of Homs – “What striking about Syria is how so many people insist on speaking about it in profoundly moralistic, Manichaean terms. This is complete nonsense, given that its civil war isn’t a showdown between democracy and dictatorship, but an ethnic and religious conflict. Here’s a more realistic guide.” – really good stuff from anatoly! […]

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