Saturday, July 15, 2017

Forget the 'child soldiers' defense of Omar Khadr

We hear confident claims that Omar Khadr should have been treated as a child soldier, as if international law imposed some such obligation on the US.  It doesn't.  The UN convention on the rights of the child binds only its ratifiers.  The US (not to mention the Taliban) never ratified the convention.  Since child soldiers appear only as an 'optional protocol' to the convention, the US can hardly have incurred an obligation to respect its provisions or heed signatories' complaints.

But that's not the most troubling aspect of the child soldiers' defense.  The defense, even if valid, essentially abandons the field to United States' mouthpieces.  It suggests that but for his age, Omar Khadr would have been guilty as charged.  If you suppose his age is the only legal reason for letting him go free, the implication is that the US would otherwise be within its rights to convict and punish him for war crimes.  This is arrant nonsense.  Omar Khadr, child or adult, may not have been justified in fighting the Americans, and the Americans may have been justified in fighting him; indeed in their invasion of Afghanistan.  But the American invasion of Afghanistan was certainly illegal, so to accuse Omar Khadr of war crimes is mere impertinence.

Invading another country is, under international law, legal only in urgent, imminent self-defense -  that is, if it is undertaken to fend off an attack known to be conducted in hours or days, not months or years.  The US never even claimed this.  Even if they had, the idea that bombing and attacking the Taliban, who had offered to turn Bin Laden over given evidence of his guilt, isn't even a remotely plausible case of 'staving off'.  How would bombing and attacking the Taliban have disrupted Al Qaeda plans, if these plans were so far advanced that an attack was truly imminent?  You stop an attack by attacking or capturing the attackers, not by waging war against some people who were sort of associated with them.  The invasion might have been a reasonable long-term strategy to combat a broad terrorist threat, but that doesn't even come close to urgent self-defense against an imminent attack by an underground, internationally based movement - one which wasn't known to be on the brink of launching such an attack.  Again, to be clear:  the invasion might have been 'justified' in some broad sense of the term.  It certainly wasn't legal.

If the invasion wasn't legal, resistance to the invasion was at least not illegal:  nothing in international law forbids countering an illegal attack.  So when Omar Khadr tossed a grenade, not at civilians, but at heavily armed illegal invaders who had attacked his position, the idea that he could have been committing any kind of 'war crime' is ludicrous.  Stop letting him off as a child soldier.  Start noticing that as a member of a force countering illegal state violence, he was entirely within his rights under international law.

Thursday, May 18, 2017

Syria isn't complicated

It's sometimes said that Syria is complicated, or at least beset by incoherent alliances.   It isn't that complicated if you accept that some of the allies passionately deny they're allied.

Bullshit aside, there are three sides in Syria, each opposing the other two (so, yes, just a little complicated).  They are:

1.  The rebels, Turkey.

2.  ISIS

3.  Assad, Russia, Iran, the Syrian Kurds (those represented by the PKK affiliate, the YPG), the US, Australia, Canada, the EU, Jordan, plus some less involved parties like Egypt.  Were the term not already taken, this group might be called The Coalition.

One of these parties, ISIS, needs no explaining as far as alliances are concerned.  ISIS has no allies.  As for the rest, explanation is a straightforward matter of ignoring statements and observing actions.

This approach clarifies relations between the rebels and Turkey.  Turkey and the Free Syrian Army undertake joint operations in northern Aleppo.  Some rebels don't want Turkish troops on Syrian soil, and they sound like they are enemies of Turkey.   But even these rebels want and get indirect support from Turkey or via Turkey, so despite the trash talk and occasional confrontations they are pretty much allies.

So most of the explaining has to do with the third group, which developed in the last couple of years, partly as a reaction to the expansion of ISIS.

First, the EU and the US are enemies of Turkey, the NATO link notwithstanding.  The US and the EU have never shown the smallest inclination to defend Turkey against Assad or Russia.  They have instead protected Turkish expatriates associated with the very serious, very bloody coup attempt of 2016.  They have also backed the armed Kurdish insurgency inside Turkey.  They do this by supplying large quantities of arms to the insurgents' Syrian affiliate.  Like Russia, the US has installed troops to block the expansion of Turkish/rebel operations.  In other words if you simply ignore a bunch of verbiage divorced from reality, the active campaign against the Turkish government could hardly be more obvious.

Second, the US is allied with Assad, Russia, and Iran.  It bombs ISIS assets engaged in attacking Assad in the Deir Ezzor region.  In supporting the Kurdish YPG, it supports a force whose alliance with Assad is day by day establishing itself as an open secret.  Moreover the US is dedicated to destroying the only remaining serious armed opposition to Assad, the (anti-ISIS) radical Islamists.  Again like Russia, it regularly conducts air strikes against these factions, a practice instituted already years ago.  The EU goes along with all of this.*

The motive for supporting Assad is extreme paranoia about association between rebel groups and Al Qaeda.  But why the US and the EU support Assad is not at issue here.  The point is, they do in fact support him.

Yes, years ago, the US CIA actually armed rebel groups that actually fought Assad.  This is very old
news.  As of about three years ago, US support for these groups, now via the Pentagon, was accorded on condition that these groups cease to rebel - that is, that they fought only ISIS, not Assad.  US and Jordanian relations with formerly rebellious 'rebel' groups is now entirely confined to restraining their anti-Assad operations as much as possible.  Occasionally, especially in the south around Daraa, these groups do attack Assad, but feebly, because always without US and Jordanian backing.

Since the US is allied with Assad, it is also allied with Russia and Iran.  The US and Russia mount air attacks on the very same rebel groups.  US operations against these groups are a minor adjunct to very serious régime and Iranian operations against them.  The US is also very closely allied with Iran in its Iraqi anti-ISIS campaigns.  Again, verbiage to the contrary does nothing to obscure these realities.

Exactly why things have turned out this way is another story.  Essentially the US has decided that its allies are the best bet for over-running all of ISIS' holdings.  Probably that's correct.  However there is no question that by at least one powerful objective measure - civilians killed, tortured, maimed - Assad is not the least but the greatest evil.  Many also argue that to prefer this evil, to back yet another pathologically sadistic secularist is, in the medium or long term - hell, in the all-but-extremely-short term - hardly the strategy most likely to blunt anti-Western Islamist extremism.  This piece isn't intended to engage in this debate.  It just seeks to undermine the pretense that the debate is about something complicated.


*  It appears that Trump's missile strike in response to an Assad chemical attack was a momentary outburst of decency, not a policy change.  The May 18th strike on a régime/Shia convoy at Tanf was stated to be a ground commander's response to a threat, again, not a change of policy.  The US claimed it happened after Russian attempts to dissuade the convoy from its course.

Tuesday, February 14, 2017

Should we worry about the Muslim Brotherhood?

Should we worry about the Muslim Brotherhood

Hassan Hassan warns that the Brotherhood is not moderate.  His warning is based entirely on the pronouncements of one associated cleric, Yussuf al Al Qaradawi.  This, frankly, is not only ill-founded but dangerous.

Al Qaradawi, not a member of the Muslim Brotherhood, said suicide bombing was "permissible for Palestinians".  He restricted the practice to groups, not individuals, but in 2014 extended the permission to "civil wars in the Middle East", in particular Syria.  Hassan Hassan said this let the genie out of the bottle.

Suicide bombing in the Arab world goes all the way back to the spectacular attack on the US marine barracks in Beirut, in 1983.  In Palestine it goes back at least to 1996, five years before Al Qaradawi's original fatwa, so the cause-effect relation doesn't even get started.  He could have made it more prevalent, or not; neither Hassan Hassan nor, anyone else has the slightest idea.  What we do know is that no member of the Muslim Brotherhood in its main contemporary incarnations, in Egypt and Tunisia, engaged in a Muslim Brotherhood suicide bombing campaign.  Since both Brotherhood movements renounced violence of any kind, it's a little hard to see how Al Qaradawi's dastardly influence operated within the Brotherhood framework.  Yet Hassan Hassan seemingly wants to blame the Brotherhood, not only for Al Qaradawi's pronouncements, but for suicide attacks all over the world, even in Bangladesh, where the organizations involved have nothing to do with the Brotherhood.

So we are asked to believe that all branches of the Brotherhood are scary because a cleric, not a member of the Brotherhood but an 'intellectual influence' on the Brotherhood, approved of suicide attacks. In support of this position, we are to note some suicide attacks which had no connection with the Brotherhood, some of which took place in parts of the world in which the Brotherhood has no presence.  We are to fear the Brotherhood because of a pronouncement of this cleric.  The pronouncement is fearful because his theology purportedly encourages suicide attacks which, however, are quite adequately explained as a weapon of the weak, not as a response to some johnny-come-lately theological pronouncement.  This is not reasoning but fear-mongering. 

It gets worse.  Though Al Qaradawi said suicide bombing was permitted in Palestine, he retracted the permission as, he said, conditions had changed.  Hassan Hassan warns that he did not "disapprove of the practice in general".  Apparently this is meant to suggest that the Muslim Brotherhood is soft on terrorism, or covertly pro-terrorist, or something like that.  Yet today the majority of suicide bomb attacks  occur in Syria, a country to which Hassan Hassan draws our attention.  These attacks are carried out on military targets during assaults, which in turn are part of military offensive or even defensive operations.  They do not fit most definitions of terrorism.

If we are to be cautioned about the Brotherhood, how about this?  Their greatest success has been in Egypt, where they renounced violence almost forty years ago, where they were robbed of their electoral victory and then massacred.  In Tunisia, minus the massacre, something very similar happened.  Now the Brotherhood is hunted, persecuted.  Then analysts insist the Brotherhood is scary, dangerous:  they sign on to a demonisation that can only lead - we do live in the real world - to more arrests, more killings, more torture, all of it completely unjustified.  Ask yourself then, which pronouncements are likely to encourage 'radicalisation'?  Which counsels are likely to undermine moderation?  What warnings are likely to become self-fulfilling prophecies?

Monday, November 28, 2016

Racial sewage: Syria and the West

Racism runs like sewage underneath Western attitudes to Syria.   It is not obvious, and not the sort we endlessly uncover and deplore.   But it is key to an understanding of how the catastrophe could happen.

What makes Syrian lives worth so much less than nothing?   It is not Islamophobia or what, inaccurately, is labeled racism against Muslims.  Islamophobia is widespread in the West, and it may shape Western policy once Trump - and perhaps LePen, or Fillon, or Frauke Petry take power.  But they are not in power now and they are not responsible for the West's worse-than-nothing response to sadism and slaughter on a truly historic scale.  Obama, Hollande, Merkel and other diversity-worshiping Western leaders are responsible.  They and all their terribly nice supporters don't hate Muslims.

Quite the contrary.  Decent People all over the West deplore Islamophobia with all their hearts; after all it's such a low-class sentiment.  They are so self-reproachingly reverential about Srebernica's massacre of Muslims, you fear they'll never recover.  They also show deep love for the Kurds, even those aligned with the monstrous Syrian régime.  Perhaps they even know the Kurds are Muslims.

No, Decent People don't hate Muslims.  And the policymakers deplore atrocities committed by Muslims only when ideology demands it.  In 1965, Muslims murdered between 600,000 and a million Indonesian communists.  No one minded much, then or ever since.  More recently Chechen Islamists were able to commit quite vicious acts of terrorism against Russians, which was ok, because that was the Russians' fault.

Palestinian terror, by contrast, doesn't get the red carpet treatment, even among the most bleeding-heart 'supporters' of the Palestinian cause.  In Syria, ISIS arouses horror like no other; the whole world goes to war.  Assad can kill literally ten times as many, nothing happens.  Why is that?

It's not because of any political imperatives.  Before Syria became a charnel house, it was a pariah, an ally of the detested Iranian régime, the main supporter of the terrorist group Hezbollah, and the enemy of that beacon of democracy, Israel.  Why, then?

Palestinians and Syrians are, on dubious but widely accepted definitions, Arabs.  Assad is as un-Arab as his secularism, his UK education, and his London-born wife can make him.  He is as un-Arab, indeed, as the West's darlings, the Jordanian rulers, with their thoroughly Westernized ways and wives.  This matters.  It's not that the Decent People of the West hate Arabs, any more than they hate spider monkeys.  It's just that they can't really see Arabs as part of the human race.

Consider the evidence.  6000 terribly human, utterly important Muslims die in Srebernica, but they are Europeans.  Compare this with the deaths that don't matter in the Middle East.  The thousand unarmed protesters slaughtered by Sisi, out in the open before the eyes of the world.  The million Iraqis who died in the shadows of Western press coverage.   The 175,000 who died in Algeria.  The long, bloody tyrannies in Tunisia and Libya, and well before the current holocaust, Hafez Assad's mass killings in Hama, 1982.  Even black people are thought to deserve at least tears for their agonies, in Biafra, in Nigeria, in Ethiopia, in Sudan, most of all in that locus of Western breast-beating, Rwanda, but Arabs?  Frankly, they can just fuck off and die.

Look too at the West's allies:  the more Arab they are, the more they are detested.   Decent People hate the Saudis and look on the Gulf States generally as, well, a bunch of jerks.  Already in the 16th Century, Francis I of France saw fit to enter into a military alliance with the Muslim Turks.  Two centuries later, Montesquieu saw much to emulate in Muslim and Ottoman ways, but thought Arabs were the dregs of humanity.  The Enlightenment could admire the Persians as well.  But the Arabs, never.  Perhaps their wave of conquest so appalled the Westerners, they never got over it.  Only a few rogue Englishmen and women in the 20th Century, from Gertrude Bell to T.E.Lawrence and Wilfred Scawen Blunt, could sympathize, and even admire something in Arab culture.  Their voices fell on deaf ears.

Racism against Arabs helps explain why even the most professedly anti-Assad pundits and analysts, to a man, would never support giving the rebels serious arms, and especially not MANPADS.  Whatever the 'solution' to the Syrian 'problem', it's something for the Great White Powers, not the excitable little Arabs who - all of them - would do God knows what with grownup weaponry.  (Instead, the 'anti-Assad' commentators have the effrontery to propose 'concrete plans' they know with absolute certainty will never be adopted.) Arabs, in the eyes of their Western 'supporters', are incapable of autonomous activity.  They can't be trusted to run their own affairs.   The only Arabs who get serious military equipment are those who can pay fabulous sums - however low the Arab race, their money's still good.

The point of this exercise is not to excoriate Westerners yet again.  Anti-Arab racism needs noticing because it explains not only Western policies, but Western attitudes and especially the attitudes of enlightened, intelligent Western 'analysts'.

Assad is a killer and torturer on a level with Pol Pot or Idi Amin, or the butchers of Rwanda, in savagery far exceeding even swine like Pinochet, the Greek colonels, or the Argentine junta.  Yet he is regarded like the latter, not the former.  No one talked of compromise, accommodation, with the first bunch.  No one had nice interviews with them.  No one thought that well, maybe after all, keeping them in power would be the least bad option.  No political scientists worried about their sovereignty or their place in the international order.  No analysts preened themselves on their Olympian neutrality between the butchers and those resisting them.  No nation bombed resistance groups because someone somehow managed to imagine they might someday possibly pose some danger to the West.  Above all, no one thought that, while the leaders of the massacres should be deposed, it might be best if their administrations be kept in place: public order, you know.

The best, simplest explanation of why the monsters of Syria get a free pass is that their victims are Arabs.  Muslim lives, black lives, Cambodian lives may matter.  Arab lives do not.  And the next time Arabs look for even the most minimal decency from the West - including from the Decent People who deplore Islamophobia - they would do well to remember this.  In the West, their agonies serve only to invigorate the careers of professional Middle Eastern experts.

Tuesday, August 30, 2016

Is Turkey 'difficult to work with'?

Many abhor the Assad régime and say that 'something must be done'.  This typically means 'by People like Us', Westerners who know how to behave morally -  an odd restriction given the only world leader consistently to support the rebels against Assad is Erdogan, the president of Turkey.  Western leaders (contrary to the left's 'anti-imperialist' faith) will never do anything against Assad.  They don't want to confront Russia and they like Assad's hostility to all Islamists - as do their electorates.

Yet Turkey is officially allied with these Western powers.  They incessantly reproach Turkey for not doing enough about ISIS - even though, one would think, the whole Western alliance plus Russia plus the Iraqi Kurds plus Iran and its Iraqi proxies should be able to get the job done without Turkey's help.  No matter.  Because Turkey opposes America's Syrian proxy, an affiliate of the Kurdish PKK, Erdogan is treated like a naughty boy - a 'difficult ally'.  This slant does much to undermine Erdogan's attempt to drag the West, tooth and nail, into putting its money where its mouth is when it comes to deploring Assadist atrocities ( - or at the very least, to stop obstructing aid to the rebels).  Western commentators hold against Erdogan his very open anti-PKK campaign, which they disingenuously portray as some dirty secret.

There is no stopping Assad's march of slaughter without giving Turkey freedom to act.  The idea that Erdogan is some sort of loose canon stands in the way of this objective.  Yet it is not Erdogan who has proven an unreliable, indeed treacherous ally.  To appreciate how Turkey has been maligned, you have to look at its reputation and situation.

The West has had many decades of treating Turkey with contempt, at least from the time when, at the outbreak of World War I, the British Royal Navy seized two battleships constructed for the Ottomans and paid for by donations from the Turkish public.  A piece by Turkey expert Aaron Stein typifies the condescension with which even the most well-informed analysts view Turkish affairs.  It can serve as a point of departure for exploring what's wrong with current views of the US-Turkish alliance.

Here is a passage that gives the flavor of the piece:

...the United States worked for months to assuage Turkish concerns about the military operation to take Manbij from the Islamic State. The ground force, the Syrian Democratic Forces (SDF), is made up primarily of the YPG. The YPG, in turn, rely on air support from a variety of platforms, including drones, A-10s, and allied F-16s based in Turkey. Incirlik was the hub for the planning of the Manbij operation and, eventually, a meeting between Arab, U.S., and Turkish officials to reach a final agreement  for the “holding” of the city once ISIL was defeated. The agreement was designed to assuage Turkish concerns about a heavy Kurdish presence west of the Euphrates, something that Turkey had warned was a “red-line” in the past and would prompt military action. Turkey was, without question, difficult to work with during this time, but it ultimately supported the operation and the American-backed plan.

In other words Turkey was reluctant to back an expansion of SDF power; they were "without question, difficult to work with".  Stop a moment and consider exactly what this is supposed to mean.

The SDF is nothing but the YPG ("People's Protection Unit"), a Kurdish militia, with some Arabs recruited for cosmetic purposes.  The YPG is an arm of the PKK ("Kurdistan Workers' Party"), a fact only the PKK occasionally and feebly denies, also for cosmetic purposes.  The PKK and Turkey have been at war for decades.

This is not a small war.  It involves hundreds of casualties on both side and extensive use for heavy weapons.  It is accompanied by terrorist attacks in which many civilians die.  Most recently, the PKK broke a truce and killed three Turkish policemen. The stated reason for this act wasn't any of Turkey's attacks on the Kurdish people.  It was because the Islamic State had blown up a gathering of young PKK supporters on Turkish soil.

Turkey can't make decisive progress against the PKK because it has sanctuary in Northern Syria.  There the PKK has an alliance of convenience with the Assad régime, also an enemy of Turkey.  The US has adopted the YPG, the PKK's Syrian affiliate, as a proxy against the Islamic State.  The US and its 'coalition' have provided the PKK with huge quantities of weapons and millions of dollars.  They have also provided extensive close air support for PKK operations.  This of course has strengthened the PKK immeasurably, and emboldened them.  Reports refer to "the Kurds’ ambitions, which have been fueled by the support they have received from the U.S military."

Via its SDF militia, the PKK has attacked Turkish-backed anti-Assad forces.  In so doing it has crossed the Euphrates from east to west.  This is what Turkey termed a red line, because PKK expansion in that direction promised to give the PKK control over extensive, crucial stretches of the Syrian-Turkish border.  Of course that would facilitate PKK actions against Turkey immensely.  The US agreed not to let this happen and then did nothing to enforce its agreement.

Because the geography is so different, it is hard to construct a comparison which helps decide whether Turkey is being 'difficult'.  But here's a very imperfect attempt.

Suppose Al Qaeda had established itself in central Canada and conducted intermittently successful military actions in the American Midwest.  It then gained some territory on the New York-Canada border.  The EU, having found Al Qaeda useful for its own purposes, was pouring arms and money into the AQ forces using, incredibly, bases in Boston to do so.  It gained access to these bases by promising not to let AQ into New York state.  AQ, however, did deploy in upper New York  state, and the EU did nothing about it.  Having lost thousands in the fight against AQ, the US was kinda upset.  Did that make the US a difficult ally?

The example is absurd because the story can't get started.   A US government that granted the EU bases for supplying Al Qaeda operations inside the US wouldn't last for a second.  So there's no puzzle about Turkish reaction to US policy except why it was so mild in the first place.  Turkey might quite reasonably have withdrawn its ambassador to Washington at the first suggestion that 'The Coalition' should have anything to do with the Kurds.  So here's what's really hard to understand:  how analysts and news media can muster enough obliviousness not to marvel at the abuse to which Turkey is subjected in virtually all discussions of the US/EU/NATO alliance.

None of this is to deny that or discuss whether the PKK, much less the Kurds, had excellent reason for every single action they ever mounted against Turkey and Turks.  Maybe they did.  The issue is whether Turkey was a difficult ally.  That turns not on whether Turkey acts with moral justification but on whether the US treats Turkey as allies normally do.  The US does nothing of the sort.

Saturday, August 20, 2016

Yes, do compare atrocities!

Though it is nothing like the cause of Syria's misery, one culprit has played a major role in its perpetuation.  It not only erodes the will of the West to do something.  It also actually undermines the international order.  That culprit is the human rights discourse that has built up since the end of the Second World War.

The development of human rights discourse has consistently broadened the world's notion of atrocity to the point where accusations of atrocity simply carry no weight.  This began when Raphael Lemkin created the term 'genocide' in 1944:

 By ‘genocide’ we mean the destruction of a nation or of an ethnic group. This new word, coined by the author to denote an old practice in its modern development, is made from the ancient Greek word genos (race, tribe) and the Latin cide (killing)…. Generally speaking, genocide does not necessarily mean the immediate destruction of a nation, except when accomplished by mass killings of all members of a nation. It is intended rather to signify a coordinated plan of different actions aiming at the destruction of essential foundations of the life of national groups, with the aim of annihilating the groups themselves. Genocide is directed against the national group as an entity, and the actions involved are directed against individuals, not in their individual capacity, but as members of the national group”.
Lemkin was inventing a concept.  He wanted to transcend immediate circumstance, give his idea the majesty of a wide sweep.  So he opened the door to most expansive views.   No, he's saying, genocide isn't just killing people.  The 'foundations of the life of national groups' is not the same as 'the survival on this earth of the members of those groups'.  It almost seems as if you plan to destroy the national identity of some group, even without violence, that's genocide.

The Geneva Convention against genocide, adopted in 1948, took the potential weakness of the original definition and ran with it.  It defined genocide as (*)

..any of the following acts committed with intent to destroy, in whole or in part, a national, ethnical, racial or religious group, as such:

                        (a) Killing members of the group;
                        (b) Causing serious bodily or mental harm to members of the group;
                        (c) Deliberately inflicting on the group conditions of life calculated to bring about its physical destruction in whole or in part;
                        (d) Imposing measures intended to prevent births within the group;
                        (e) Forcibly transferring children of the group to another group.

Consider what this means.  Suppose all the females of a religious sect, even one with the most repugnant practices, were sterilized.  The sterilization was imposed because if you didn't submit, you were fined $100.   This comes within the exact definition of genocide.  So the sterilization is every bit as much a case of genocide as taking six million people and putting them to death through beatings, starvation, torture, gassing and other means.(**)

The framers of the Geneva Convention were probably didn't do this by inadvertence.  They are likely to have thought:  "so much the better.  We want to cast our anti-genocide convention in the most expansive terms.  That way, we get to outlaw more bad things than a narrow definition would permit.  Hey, why stick with race?  Why not add religion?  Aren't all attempts to eliminate a religion terrible crimes?  Any why stick with killing?  Aren't nonviolent means to this end just as bad?"

Well that's the problem.  No, the sterilization case is not just as bad.  When you put what is very questionable in the same category as catastrophic evil, you risk desensitizing people to the difference.  And as this practice has flourished over the decades, that's what has happened, and that has exacted a terrible price on Syrians.  Indeed since many Syrians have themselves enthusiastically signed on to the expansionist approach to atrocity, they have been duped into complicity with their own neglect.

The expansion runs rampant through the documents of international organizations.  The Fourth Geneva Convention states that

The Occupying Power shall, with the cooperation of the national and local authorities, facilitate the proper working of all institutions devoted to the care and education of children.

In the UN's Universal Declaration of Human Rights, violations of privacy, freedom to marry, travel and vote are every bit as much human rights offenses as enslavement and murder.  Of course this prevents no one from saying that some of these crimes were of a quite different order than others.  But that isn't how it has worked out.

'Human rights violation', like 'war crime', sounds like and is in fact taken for a very serious matter, whether or not it would, but for those labels, count as an atrocity.  The categories are invested with immense but largely imaginary authority.  They were created in an orgy of half-sincere good wishes.  Nations did not intend them to be taken seriously, which is why the documents which enshrine them never came with serious enforcement mechanisms.  Yet here we allegedly have a collection of the most heinous crimes conceivable, ratified (literally or figuratively) by the most allegedly august international bodies.  All this has created or at least encouraged an almost irresistible tendency not to distinguish among these heinous acts.  Aren't they all just terrible?  How can we diminish one by deeming it less serious than another?

The intention underlying this refusal to distinguish is exalted.  It is to eliminate all war crimes, human rights violations, and crimes against humanity such as genocide.  It is equivalent to a zero tolerance approach to, say, drugs, or speeding.  The ambition might be thought noble were its effects not so disastrous.  What presents itself as high morality is merely intense and harmful moralizing.

The harm comes from the zero tolerance attitude coupled with the fact that all nations and certainly all parties in all civil wars commit war crimes that violate human rights.  Often they even adopt policies that fit the very broad notion of 'genocide' or its close relative, ethnic cleansing.  So not only in Syria, but pretty much elsewhere and everywhere, all parties to the conflict are officially reprehensible.  According to zero tolerance, the crimes of one are not to be compared to the crimes of the other:  that would be forgetting that all violations of human rights etc. are extremely serious.

Why then is there such surprise that, despite all reports of régime atrocities in Syria, no people of no nation seem able to work up enduring outrage?  Report what you like, and soon you will get the reaction inculcated in us for decades:  well yes, but doesn't the other side commit terrible crimes?  Won't atrocities always be with us until we learn to respect international law?  Isn't it suspiciously hysterical to scream about this one offender?

Policy analysts refashion this into a mantra replete with adolescent wisdom:  there are no good guys in Syria.  This slides easily into:  let's just back whoever we like, however much we like, for our own interests.  "Our own interests" means, for US governments, what won't upset the voters.  That in turn means no serious commitment in Syria, because that would entail either American deaths and great expense, or arming 'Arabs'.  So already the moralizing has important effects on policy.

There is another, equally damaging effect:  the almost universally accepted convention that when it comes to atrocity, we don't need to know the details.  It's all criminal, isn't it?  Why wallow in sadism and cruelty?  This is why, for instance, the Caesar archive of photos, widely distributed, has had no impact - and why so many see no reason to view them.  They are supposed to force people to confront Syria's realities but the fact is, they don't.  They are supposed to present details but the fact is, they do no such thing.  We see emaciated corpses, some with injuries.  That doesn't tell us how these people died, and zero tolerance tells us:  "well, aren't people dying all over in this terrible conflict?   Don't people die terrible deaths worldwide?  Why then should these pictures tell us anything about what should happen in Syria.? After all, isn't it just a question of backing one bad guy rather than another?  After all, why should Americans die to clean up a mess created by a bunch of bad guys running around killing each other?  Can we really change the sort of society that generates these crimes?  Is it really our job to do so?"

The very same people who cannot believe that the world just throws up its hands over Syria belong to those who enable that reaction.  They cry out about human rights and war crimes, legitimating ridiculously broad categories that level out all choices into exercises in futility.  Human rights discourse sets you up to say, there are no good options.  And that indeed is how people react.

Well, what's wrong with that?  Drop the refusal to compare and the problem becomes apparent.  The situation in Syria presents far more than a choice between alleged evils.  Comparison would show the crucial fact whose neglect affects all the West's reactions and policy decisions about Syria:  that Assad represents an evil orders of magnitude greater than what is normally encountered in this world.

Imagine that people did actually examine and compare the record of the various parties to the Syrian conflict.  They might find reasons why it is not only morally permissible but morally obligatory, at times, to give full military support to people who commit war crimes and violate human rights.  That realization can occur only when people stop saying it's all the same and really look at the details of atrocities.

The worst atrocities are almost never reported.  Incredibly, the latest Amnesty International account of torture in Syrian jails specifies the details of only of cases which are mild by Assad's standards.  Perhaps here again, to report worse is thought merely prurient by an agency known for its 'even-handedness', that is, its refusal to compare.

But the details say something otherwise impossible to convey:  that the Assad régime, even in the face of all the other horrible régimes around the world, introduces a level of barbarism scarcely conceivable.  How typical for the world to focus on Assad's bombing, as if this was his worst, as if some fancy American fighter jets could do some flyovers and make all well.  There are two reasons this won't do.

First, the focus won't overcome the refusal to compare: think how many will say, "but doesn't the West bomb civilians too?  Didn't the US and Britain do this, deliberately, in the Second World War?  Isn't bombing civilians, whether or not it is fully expected 'collateral damage', a terrible thing?  What, are we going to compare atrocities now?"  Second, the focus on barrel bombs is oblivious to Syria's realities.  For Assad, barrel bombs are a mere convenience.  Before the barrel bombs, his forces didn't kill children from the sky.  They took knives and slit the throats of babies and toddlers.  There are photographs and well-confirmed reports of this for anyone who takes the trouble to find them.

The refusal to compare and its consequent avoidance of details conceals uncomfortable facts.  ISIS' beheadings that so shock the world take moments; they are humane compared to the slow deaths Assad's torturers have inflicted on victims as young as 11.  Bombing hospitals is indeed terrible:  before the bombings, régime troops invaded the hospitals on foot and tortured people in their hospital beds.  And the tortures of Abu Ghraib are love pats compared to what Assad inflicts on human flesh.

To these qualitative comparisons must be added quantitative ones.  Assad murders and tortures many times more people than any other participant in the conflict.  To first preach about the awfulness of atrocities, and then assign no weight to how many human beings suffer them, is nothing short of bizarre.

It's hardly a surprise that honest comparisons are avoided: the conclusions they compel are so unwelcome.  But they loom large because they point to a crossroads of morality and political realism.  The fact - it is a fact - is that ISIS, which conducts massacres, beheads people, blows up civilians, executes by burning alive and throws homosexuals off buildings - is, according to all reports on the scale and nature of the atrocities, much less brutal than the Syrian government.  That is not a world it is in anyone's interest to legitimate and therefore to perpetuate.  Before Assad we already lived with fine declarations masking pathetically low real standards governing how we treat one another.  To let Assad remain in power - or his entire régime minus the man himself - is to lower standards even more.  The fact that many prefer ISIS' horrible rule to his own is clear evidence what dangers lie in the refusal to compare.


(*)     Convention on the Prevention and Punishment of the Crime of Genocide, Article 2[3].
(**)  Even less questionable cases fit definition of genocide.  Suppose a religious sect is found to mistreat all its children in significant ways.  These children are (forcibly) taken away and placed with a similar religious sect which does children no harm.

Thursday, May 5, 2016

Charles Lister's jihad against Jabhat al Nusra

Charles Lister's recent Foreign Policy piece compounds the shoddy thinking behind his previous warnings about Jabhat al Nusra.

He tells us without evidence that senior Al Qaeda figures 'almost certainly' travelled to Syria to meet with Jabhat al Nusra leaders.  Maybe so.  He also emphasizes that these senior figures are very close to Al Qaeda leader Al Zawahiri.

Why, according to Lister, is this so alarming?  It's not obvious, because Lister clearly states that Al Zawahiri has taken a moderate direction and isn't interested in mounting attacks on the West.  Nor does Lister assert anywhere in his piece that these 'senior figures' will urge Nusra to undertake such attacks.  In fact he asserts that the senior figures crossed into Syria because their focus is on, well, Syria.  So the presence of senior Al Qaeda figures should, one would think, be reassuring.  After all, every recent attack on the West has been carried out by groups not closely linked to Al Qaeda.  The attackers have all identified with ISIS, which is hostile to Al Qaeda, to a significant extent because Al Qaeda is too moderate.

But Lister puts "moderate" in scare quotes.  Why is that?  Not because Al Qaeda is showing itself bent on attacking the West.  Instead we hear that Jabhat al Nusra "has slowly revealed more and more of its extremist face while trying to avoid risking its accepted status within the mainstream opposition."  Here Lister indulges in his habitual practice of conflating extremism in social or cultural policy with extremism in anti-Western policy.

Jabhat al Nusra is arguably extreme in what it expects of women and in its attitude to secular vices - though not much moreso than the Gulf States whom the US feels secure enough to arm, collectively, on a scale exceeding even what's showered on Israel.  As US arms policy shows, this 'domestic' extremism, however deplorable, hasn't the slightest tendency of indicate any danger to the West.  Hopefully Lister's readers are aware of this transparent bait-and-switch.

Finally, Lister warns that Jabhat al Nusra intends, down the road, to establish a 'caliphate'.  Is this word supposed to frighten us?  A caliphate is a kind of authority.  That Nusra seeks to establish it, again, hasn't the slightest tendency to indicate aggression towards the West.  To seek authority doesn't have some built-in intention to use it to threaten the world, or the West.  And, also again, Lister doesn't even claim Nusra is out to threaten the West.  In fact he pretty well says the opposite.

Nusra may be reprehensible in its enforced puritanism, though its enforcement is, again, no more Draconian than what's frequently encountered in the US' Gulf State allies.  Nusra also has strong popular support, and little wonder, because it has often provided the most effective resistance against Assad's atrocities.  Lister himself seems to believe that Assad's war on Syrians lies at the heart of the 'jihadis'' rise and therefore of attacks on the West. So Nusra is more plausible as a counter to extremist threats than as the embodiment of it.

This is not to say that, if the US continues to bomb Nusra and treat it as a major menace, Nusra will never respond.   It is to say that the campaign against Nusra is far more likely to create a danger than to avert one.