Thursday, June 13, 2013

Weapons Not Food Not Homes Not Shoes

Maybe they could use some cool uniforms
Nobody has any idea what to do about Syria.  People who offer sage counsel are either lying to promote an agenda or are utterly delusional and you should run from them as fast as you can.  In general, it's a civil war where neither side can win and neither side can quit. In specific, there are many more than two sides, each with a different vision for Syrian post-war society, and none with any historical or ideological ability to compromise.  On a larger level, the conflict is spreading and metastasizing, dragging in Iraq, Lebanon, Israel, Egypt, Turkey and Iran.  This is quite possibly the root of the "regional conflagration" people have feared in the Mideast since the end of WWII.

Intervention is a non-starter.  Western military power could certainly tilt the balance in one direction or another, but that wouldn't end the fighting - very likely NOTHING can end the fighting.  Certainly there's no military path to peace, or even a stable Syrian government.  Negotiations aren't viable because the al-Assad government cannot accept the primary rebel demand - if they step down they'll either be tried for war crimes or murdered outright.  And with 100,000 dead and millions immiserated, the sectarian and ideological hate will not be affected by a signed agreement.

But nonetheless, in capitols all over the world politicians squirm, and feel a powerful drive to "do something", urged on by pundits with clean hands and dirty souls who know no compunction when it comes to destroying lives violently and on an industrial scale.  So it becomes a political calculation.  How to achieve political goals without getting ensnared in an endless, increasingly sectarian conflict with no viable way to define 'victory' and no end-game.

There is an easy answer, a short-cut that, in the manner of 'prayer', allows nations to do claim to be doing something without actually doing anything at all.  That is the historically popular and effectively meaningless strategy of arming the rebels.  Let's be clear - the rebels HAVE arms.  They have fought the Syrian army to a standstill over two years despite having a qualitative disadvantage in battlefield weaponry.  Why?  Because they are rebels.  It's a matter of ambushes and bombs, short sharp firefights and controlling crossroads to control territory.  It's sniper rifles and IEDs, PKM machine guns and some of the infinite supply of Kalashnikovs in which the continent is awash.

The arms calculation is ultimately simple. It is as it was in Libya, as it might have been in Tunisia and Egypt, as it will be in Iran and Bahrain and Saudi when their turn comes.  The regime loses people, and weapons, and territory, but holds on by dint of three things: Air Power, Armor and Artillery.  The regime equips its most loyal troops with heavy weapons, and deploys them against the rebels in population centers in a kind of collective punishment that is designed to chill support for the rebels while punishing anyone in proximity to them.

But here's the real question.  What are you going to give them that might make some kind of difference?  The challenge is Air, Armor and Artillery. You can't really give a rebel army tanks, and if you give them artillery or vehicles they are only vulnerable to air attack.  Of course, you could give them shoulder-fired MANPADS air defense systems to protect these assets, but if you're worried about terrorists that is pretty much the LAST weapon system you want to put into circulation.  So the question that needs to be asked - and nobody seems to be asking - is what weapons, and why?  What is the goal?  Because if you just give one side enough firepower to stay on the battlefield, you've done nothing more than extend the conflict, and increase the suffering.  The idea behind intervention in a civil war is to make that intervention decisive, and if it can't be decisive, it's probably pointless.

There are things the rebels could make great use of, certainly, but they are all small-bore, incremental options, nothing sexy or impressive enough for the mouth-breathers and grandstanders in the US Congress, not to mention the various EU Capitals. Digital communications gear, night vision equipment, possibly even something as mundane as boots and body armor.  For that matter, obsolete but effective weapons like 106mm Recoilless Rifles and M-72 LAWs sit in stockpiles all over the world - they could be delivered at low cost in large numbers.

To me, the only intervention worth considering in the Syrian civil war is to carve out some territory on the Turkish or Jordanian border and set up real, comprehensive refugee services.  Water, food, housing, health care and serious, committed defense against al-Assad's murderers.  Build a perimeter, defend it and try to relieve some of the suffering.  These are not your grandfather's wars.  They don't end, not for years, not for decades. There are too many '-isms' in play.  Sectarianism, nationalism, tribalism - along with layers of ideology, resource and wealth distribution and just plain hope for the future.  No one can win, and no one can quit fighting.

Dan Drezner and others float speculation that a viable explanation for an American strategy that has no upside, no benefits for US interests and only serves to widen and escalate the Syrian civil war is that it significantly ties down and weakens virtually all US/Israeli adversaries in the region, including al-Assad, Iran, Hezbollah and al Quaeda.  While it's true that this may be the result of the US and European position, I really don't want to believe that the US government would contribute to the ongoing slaughter in pursuit of such opaque and ambiguous goals.  If it is the case, however, it is a very dangerous game.  If the slaughter does create a regional sectarian conflagration, US and Israeli interests, both economic and geopolitical, are very likely to suffer some very serious setbacks.


  1. To me, the only intervention worth considering in the Syrian civil war is to carve out some territory on the Turkish or Jordanian border and set up real, comprehensive refugee services. Water, food, housing, health care and serious, committed defense against al-Assad's murderers.

    Indeed. Be the good guy.


  2. Indeed. Be the good guy.

    Wait. Isn't this AMERICA we are talking about?