Saturday, 28 November 2015

Syria from my Armchair

The armchair generals of the British media are unanimous that we must drop bombs on Syria, though none are able to justify it in terms of military utility. When killing foreigners as a political gesture is under discussion, there are generally two approaches you can take: claim that its a regrettable but necessary component of a bigger plan, or admit it is a cynical calculation to satisfy an ulterior motive. Natalie Nougayrède goes for the former, because the Guardian doesn't do cynical (though it does do bigotry: she claims "The Middle East is spewing out its violence on to our continent"). Her plan is to persuade Russia to execute a "strategic shift", laying off the anti-Assad rebels and concentrating fire on Daesh: "If those [moderate] rebels can be 'freed' from having to fight on that front (located in the west of Syria), they would become available to move against Isis (mostly in the east)".

She does not explain why rebels in Western Syria, many of whom are defending their own local communities, would wish to fight in the east, thus leaving their homes vulnerable to the Assad regime. Perhaps she imagines Putin can provide guarantees. To put this in perspective, there were relatively few in Western Ukraine prepared to trudge over to the Donbass or Crimea last year (many Ukrainians thought they were well-shot of ethnic Russians), so why would we expect this strategy to work in a state that is an ethnic and religious patchwork? Like David Cameron's 70,000-strong phantom army, this is an example of the sort of magical thinking that led the US and its allies to imagine that destroying the institutions of the Iraqi state in 2003 would prompt an efflorescence of civic-minded democracy and "freedom-loving".

Janet Daley in the Telegraph attempts a more nuanced position (I never thought I'd find myself writing that), combining both a cunning plan and a cynical calculation, in which she deploys both internationalist and isolationist tropes (incidentally illustrating my point from the previous post). But first, Daley must vent her spleen against the unknowable other, both Arab and Russian: "What we are faced with is a virulent and highly contagious madness, a hysterical death cult which has, almost by accident, fallen on the fertile ground of global circumstances: chaos in the Middle East, confusion and lack of resolve in the West and the awakening of a ruthless, opportunistic power base in the East." It sounds a bit like Tolkien fan-fiction, though I'm still struggling to understand what she means by "almost by accident".

Her cunning plan is another coalition (fellowship?) of the willing: "But there is no time any more for international recriminations or parochial introspection. The old enmities and suspicions – between the West and Russia, Turkey and the Kurds – are going to have to be put aside in the name of one unified, relentless effort to stamp out an epidemic of murderous lunacy." Short of a genuine existential threat, which Daesh is not, it is hard to see why these old enmities would be so easily put aside. Her ulterior motive is to chip away at the EU as we simultaneously cleave to France, one of its main props: "Europe will have, paradoxically, to be both more united and less convergent. If the Schengen agreement – the sacred principle of 'open borders' – was already in question because of the flood of migrants from precisely the region which is spawning this movement, it must now be regarded as outrageously dangerous."

The wholly cynical position is outlined by Fraser Nelson, also in the Telegraph: "This is a political mission more than a military one. For years, Britain has been haemorrhaging influence in Washington – diplomats there have been shocked to hear France being mentioned as America’s most reliable European partner. Our absence from the Syria campaign stands out – and sends worrying signals about our reliability as a partner. With our troop numbers being cut back, we need partnerships. And this means stepping up to join alliances when the time comes." What Nelson is perhaps too coy to mention is that standing shoulder to shoulder with the French now will also put credit in the bank ahead of the negotiations over EU reform. The risks to Britain of air-strikes are small, assuming we steer clear of Turkish air-space, while the political capital to be gained is significant if not great. The possibility of collateral damage, i.e. dead civilians, is a marginal consideration.

The central failure of the media in its coverage of Daesh has been the reluctance to discuss the geopolitical balance of the Middle East in anything but the most cartoonish of terms: evil Daesh, slightly less evil Assad, a bunch of other people we know little about, and those crazy Russkis. The region centred on Baghdad (draw a circle with a radius of 550 miles) is the confluence of continents: Europe, Asia and Africa. The Northern half of the circle is dominated by what was traditionally referred to as the "fertile crescent", or the "cradle of civilisation" (ironic in the current context), which runs from the lower Nile via Syria to the Persian Gulf. The area has always been a contested, volatile melting-pot, and the site of imperial ambitions from the Assyrians through Alexander the Great to the Ottoman Turks. The current religious, ethnic and cultural patchwork that is Syria is the product of millennia, not just centuries. Janet Daley's "accident" has been a long time in the making, and enmity and suspicion remains the norm.

The contemptuous references by Daesh to "crusaders", like the predictions of an apocalyptic battle near Dabiq (which echoes the historical role of many earlier "decisive" battles in the region, such as Guagamela, Yarmouk and Manzikert), points to the degree to which the organisation's ideology is dependent on the necessity of foreign, and specifically Western, intervention. It is also a back-handed compliment as the medieval crusaders considered the region, and specifically Jerusalem, to be the centre of the world (graphically displayed on the Mappa Mundi). The public image of Daesh is a postmodern performance of ironic Orientalism, often by Western recruits who know little of the region, in which the traditional slurs against Arabs (cruelty, sexual excess, slavery etc) are adopted as badges of distinction for all Muslims (the vast majority of whom are not merely appalled by it but baffled). This theatre obscures the geopolitical contest between Saudi Arabia and Iran, which transcends theology, and allows Western powers to justify their intervention on "civilisational" grounds.

The danger posed by Daesh to the West is objectively trivial, just as was the threat of al-Qaeda after 9/11. This is not a glib point about peanut allergies killing more people than terrorism, but a recognition that asymmetric warfare does not pose an existential threat to foreign states. Just as the Viet-Cong did not defeat the USA, nor the IRA defeat the UK, so Daesh will not defeat any country, let alone NATO. At best it will make its own extirpation so costly that its enemies will be drawn to the negotiating table. The reason why Daesh will fail is because it cannot credibly negotiate without compromising its USP in the eyes of Sunnis - i.e. the implacability performed in its videos. Given that it is engaged in a long suicide mission, and assuming that the Sunni tribes that currently support it in Syria and Iraq have no desire for self-destruction, the best hope for Daesh's opponents is an internal revolt.

The chief impediment to that is not the strength of Daesh (or its paranoid culling of local Sunnis deemed traitors or apostate), or even the fear that a freed Eastern Syria would be reabsorbed by the Assad regime, but the reluctance of Saudi Arabia to risk any action that might benefit Iran. A revolt by the Sunni tribes in the areas now controlled by Daesh could provide a pretext for the Iranians to intervene directly in Syria, and that is a risk that the Saudis do not want to run. Contrary to the claims of Natalie Nougayrède and David Cameron, the only military force in the region capable of decisive intervention on the ground is Iran. Given a free hand, it could eliminate Daesh within a few weeks, with or without Russian or NATO air support, but the blow to Saudi prestige would potentially trigger further Shia advances from Yemen through the Gulf to Lebanon. The nightmare scenario in Riyadh is a new crescent of Shia ascendancy stretching from Iran through Northern Iraq and Syria to the Mediterranean, adding to their existing worries over Yemen and Bahrain.

It is worth remembering that the current presence of Iranian Revolutionary Guards in Iraq is the long-run result of the Iran-Iraq war of 1980-88, a conflict triggered partly by fears of a wider Shia resurgence following the Iranian revolution of 1979, and in which Saudi Arabia and the US both actively supported Saddam Hussein's regime. Viewed over the long term, the Western invasion of Iraq in 2003 was merely another miscalculation in the ongoing strategy of containing Iran, in which the attempt to decapitate an unreliable buffer (Saddam) simply led to the trashing of Iraq and the extension of Iran's influence to Baghdad. Arguably, you can trace the roots of this strategy back a further 50 years to the US and UK-engineered 1953 coup d'etat against the democratically elected government of Mohammad Mossadegh, who had nationalised the previously British-controlled oil industry in Iran (the Anglo-Persian Oil Company subsequently evolved into BP). The US was initially reluctant, considering the UK policy to be hell-bent on "rule-or-ruin", but came round when the Brits suggested Mossadegh would cosy-up to the USSR (familiar attitudes, familiar players).

With Saudi Arabia itself a fragile state, corrupt and facing falling oil revenues, there is the possibility of a populist Salafi coup against the monarchy in the event of a Shia advance, which means that the "really existing Caliphate" might simply transplant itself to the Arabian Peninsula and look to proactively protect Sunnis not only in Syria and Iraq but in Jordan and Palestine, leading to a wider conflagration. The bind for the West is that Saudi Arabia remains the chief source of Sunni-Shia antagonism, and thus the fuel for clerical conservativism in Iran and Afghanistan, but its nature as a kleptocracy, dependent on artificially-maintained antique social relations, means that it cannot reform without the risk of turning overnight into a failed state. Saudi Arabia is an unexploded bomb that cannot be defused.

At present, the Western calculation is that propping up the House of Saud is the least-worst option, much as they calculate that indulging settlement expansion is an acceptable price to pay for Israel's covert role in keeping Saudia Arabia stable and supporting its constraint on Iranian ambitions. The Arab-Persian conflict, manifested in the Sunni-Shia schism, is ultimately the reason for the limbo of Palestine and the failure of Syria. This has led to tacit Western backing for the Saudi policy of doing nothing and letting Syria burn. In this context, more Western bombs or drones really don't help. Indeed, a cynic would suggest that neither Hollande nor Cameron expect the air-strikes to do more than satisfy domestic blood-lust until the first Syrian hospital or school is hit and public opinion turns. By then the armchair generals will no doubt be blaming the phantom army for failing to turn up.


  1. As usual, the interesting thing about Syria is what is not being talked about - like Libya. So good observations about Iran and Saudi. And not the first time that Nougayrède has revealed her racist side.

    "The risks to Britain of air-strikes are small, assuming we steer clear of Turkish air-space ..."

    Nice touch.

  2. Herbie Destroys the Environment30 November 2015 at 17:22

    “The Middle East is spewing out its violence on to our continent”

    This is a rather startling statement given the history of imperialism in the Middle East!

    Given all the violence the imperialist powers have unleashed in that part of the world I would say we have had relatively little blowback. People say Islamism is an intolerant and violent religion but I would say they have been remarkably restrained in their response to the violence they have endured. If we compare the reactions of the ‘Islamic world’ to injustice with that of the ‘secular world’ I would say we would conclude the ‘secular world’ is far more violent and hateful than the ‘Islamic world’.

    “The reason why Daesh will fail is because it cannot credibly negotiate without compromising its USP in the eyes of Sunnis”

    The main reason it will ultimately fail is that ISIS grew out of a great trauma, a trauma that people in the West cannot begin to understand. ISIS is the product of societies in collapse, of murderous imperialist policy. Nothing ever ultimately succeeds when born into these circumstances.

    We can regard ISIS as a severely abused child, and the USA as the leader of the ring of child abusers. This never usually ends well. What we are now seeing are the child abuse ring tidying up their problems by killing the child. Only this time polite society nod in approval.