Bravo, Mr. Trump

For those of you who have forgotten, it is now almost exactly six years since President Barak Obama, that left-wing, hesitant, weak, and vacillating Obama, launched his cruise missiles at Libya, thereby firing one of the first salvoes in what soon became a French and British air campaign against that country. A few months later Dictator Muammar Gadhafi was captured and killed; not that he had not richly deserved it. Leaving the stage, he took with him the last government Libya has known or is likely to know in the foreseeable future.

As the war expanded it turned into a struggle of all against all. A country whose per capita income had been about $ 11,000, which in “developing world” terms is nothing to sneeze at, literally fell apart. Uncounted thousands were killed, hundreds of thousands more forced to flee from their homes. Taking to any rickety boat they could find they poured across the Mediterranean, hoping that the Italian Navy would pick them up on the way. Sometimes it did, sometimes not. Thank you, US, thank you, France, thank you, the United Kingdom (which is not so United any more, but never mind.) The war whose flames you helped stoke is still going on. And on. And on.

Last week it was the turn of right-wing brave, confident, daring President Donald Trump—he who, unlike presidential candidate Hillary Clinton, had promised not to take the US to an unnecessary and unwinnable war—to resort to cruise missiles. The very weapons, nota bene, of which right-wing brave, confident, daring, President George Bush Jr., and his equally right-wing, brave, confident, daring, secretary of defense Donald Rumsfeld, famously said was that all they could do was to hit a camel in the ass. In doing so Bush was referring to his own predecessor, the left-wing, hesitant, weak and vacillating President Bill Clinton who had used them in Iraq.

Syria being further away, France and Britain, too weak to play any significant role, stood on the sidelines, cheering Trump’s action and egging him on. So, of course, did Israel. The latter’s role in the conflict has been especially contemptible. Hyena-like, for years now it has been trying to push someone, anyone, into doing its dirty work for it and bring down Assad. Never mind that the alternative, namely the total collapse of government in Syria, is even worse.

All these, and many others besides, were happy to assume the high moral ground. All also willfully overlooked the fact that, when it comes to breaking the laws of war as well as engaging in sheer cruelty, there is little or nothing to choose between the warring parties in Syria. Look at the Net! Assad’s forces, long specialized in dropping dynamite-filled barrels on markets, have now graduated to gassing children as well. However, some of his enemies boast of turning people into human torches, roasting them, and killing them in all kinds of other exotic ways.

The immediate casualties, of which there seem to have been very few, apart, the two people most affected by the American strike are Assad and Putin. Neither is exactly a kind, liberal guy, as Donald Trump notoriously is. But both have a finger—in Assad’s case, much more than a finger—in the pie. And both are determined to safeguard their interests. Nor, at any rate in Assad’s case, is it a question of interest alone. Should his forces be defeated and his government collapse, then the fate of the Alawite community to which he belongs and which in Syria numbers anything between 1.5 and 3 million people, cannot even be imagined.

For these and other reasons, it is inconceivable that the war will end in a way that will not take account of Putin’s interest, which is to re-build and maintain his country’s presence in the eastern Mediterranean. As for Assad, barring some unforeseen accident he will stay in power for as long as Putin wants him to. Putin’s immediate reaction to the American strike was to terminate military coordination with the Americans, thus making any future operations considerably more difficult. If necessary he could also make Russian troops share the bases of their dear Syrian brethren, thus rendering such operations impossible.

To be sure, Assad and Putin are bad, bad people. Though whether they are really worse than the American heroes who, in December 2016, deliberately (as they themselves say) bombed an Iraqi hospital is another question. However bad they may be, without their cooperation no solution will be found.

So bravo, Mr. Trump. Thanks partly to you, this war too will go on. And on. And on.

At War for Aleppo

For those of you who have forgotten, Syria’s civil war, which broke out in May 2011, reached Aleppo in July 2012. That was when the rebels, comprising a loose coalition of militias (at last count there were several dozens of them, some religious, others secular) entered Syria’s largest the city, estimated population three million, from the northeast. This caused it to be divided into two: an eastern part under rebel control and a western one held by government troops. That is how things remain down to the present, albeit that the militias have lost some ground and the government has gained some.

In the autumn of 2015 Russia, which up until then had been providing the Syrian Army with weapons and logistic support, joined in the fighting. Since then its combat aircraft and cruise missiles, including some of the world’s most sophisticated, have been hitting Aleppo (and other targets, but those do not concern us here) almost non-stop. In doing so they were joined by Syrian helicopters dropping their notorious barrel bombs. The total number of strikes of both kinds has been in the many hundreds, perhaps in the thousands.

helicopter-carrying-barrel-bombsThroughout the period in question, and indeed right from the beginning of the conflict, the rebels on their part did not possess a single weapon or weapon system capable of contesting their enemies’ near total command of the air. Even their anti-aircraft defenses, the kind that back in Afghanistan during the 1980s were said to have played a critical role in forcing the Soviets to concede defeat, were practically non-existent. Or else surely Assad would have had to withdraw his helicopters, which as weapons go are in many ways exceptionally vulnerable, months it not years ago. Just look at the above image!

Not only were the rebels almost totally exposed to air attack, but at no time during the five-plus years that the conflict has lasted were they united under a single command capable of formulating a coherent strategy and carrying it out. Indeed one reason why the government has been able to survive at all is because, in addition to periodically butchering each other, they also had ISIS, coming at them from across the Iraqi border, to cope with. Not to mention Syria’s Kurds many of whom saw the war as an opportunity to rid the provinces in which they live from Damascus’ rule and set up their own militias. Facing the government forces and their Russian allies, basically all the rebels in Aleppo can do is take cover and hold out.

Whenever Western armed forces lose a war in the “developing” world, as they have regularly done for the last six decades or so, there is no lack of excuses and explanations. Here I want to focus on the kind of excuse that attributes the defeats to “Western values,” or “humanitarianism,” or “democracy,” or the “media.” Briefly the factors that allegedly made the troops fight “with one (or two) hands tied behind their back” and prevented them from “kicking ass.” See the American wars in Iraq, Afghanistan, Somalia, and Vietnam. And see so many others, specifically including the Israeli ones in Lebanon in 1982 and, to a lesser extent in 2006, as to make one lose count.

Yet none of these factors apply in Syria. Neither President Assad nor his patron Putin are Western, humanitarian, or democratic. Neither allows the media to operate freely in their respective countries so as to influence public opinion against the war, let alone interfere with military operations. Neither gives a hoot about the death and destruction their forces are inflicting on civilians; which is one reason why the latest estimates speak of half a million dead, more or less.

So why are Putin and Assad unable to recapture Aleppo, let alone the rest of the country, and how were the militias able to hold on? To use the terminology I first developed in The Transformation of War (1991), the war in Syria is a classical “nontrinitarian” one. That means that, on one side (the rebels) “government,” armed forces are not separate but thoroughly mixed so that distinguishing between them is often all but impossible. In this respect it resembles plenty of others. One characteristic that all these wars, without a single exception, had in common was that the “forces of order,” or “counterinsurgents,” or whatever they were called, had control of the air. Albeit that it was not always as absolute as it seems to be in Syria. Yet in not one of these wars did airpower on its own decide the issue, and in many cases it was unable to prevent dire defeat.

Bombing defenseless civilians in Aleppo is easy. But hitting the fighters who conceal themselves among them is very hard. To repeat, the Russian Air Force in Syria is using some of its most advanced weapons, specifically including the latest “precision-guided” munitions in its arsenal. Yet in the end those weapons too are unable to distinguish between civilians and the combatants with whom they share the same neighborhoods, the same streets, and often, the same buildings. That explains why, by some estimates, out of every hundred people killed by Russian and Syrian government forces in Aleppo only one is a militiaman.

Nor will even more bombing necessarily do the trick. As experience from Stalingrad, Monte Casino, and many other places proves, cities and buildings provide those who know how to fight in them with the best cover imaginable. Should they, the cities and the buildings, be thoroughly destroyed, then the only result will be to make them provide better cover still.

And when will America’s campaign in Afghanistan, started fourteen years ago and now conducted almost exclusively from the air against an enemy who is all but defenseless in that medium, finally end in victory?

A Thirty Years’ War?

For those of you who have forgotten, here is a short reminder. The Thirty Years’ War started in May 1618 when the Protestant Estates of Bohemia revolted against the Catholic Emperor Ferdinand II. They threw his envoys out of the windows of the palace at Prague. Fortunately for them, the moat into which they fell was filled with rubbish and nobody was killed.

imagesHad the revolt remained local, it would have been suppressed fairly quickly. As, in fact, it was in 1620 when the Habsburgs and their allies won the Battle of the White Mountain. Instead it expanded and expanded. First the Hungarians and then the Ottomans were drawn in (though they did not stay in for long). Then came the Spaniards, then the Danes, then the Swedes, and finally the French. Some did less, others more. Many petty European states, cities, and more or less independent robber barons also set up militias and joined what developed into a wild free for all. For three decades armies and militias chased each other all over central Europe. Robbing, burning, raping, killing. By the time the Treaty of Westphalia ended the hostilities in 1648 the population of Germany had been reduced by an estimated one third.

The similarities with the current war in Syria are obvious and chilling. This war, too, started with a revolt against an oppressive ruler and his regime. One who, however nasty he might be, at any rate had kept things more or less under control. At first it was a question of various “liberal” Syrian factions—supposing such things exist—trying to overthrow Bashir Assad. Next it turned out that some of those factions were not liberal but Islamic, part of a much larger movement originating in Iraq and known, for short, as IS or Daesh. Next Hezbollah, which in some ways acts as an extension of Assad, and Iran, which had long supported Hezbollah against Israel, were drawn in. The former sent in fighters, the latter advisers and arms.

Even that was only the beginning. Smelling blood, the Kurds, whose territory straddles both Syria and Iraq, tried to use the opportunity to gain their independence. This necessarily drew in the Turks. To prevent its native Kurds from joining their brethren. Ankara started bombing them. To satisfy Obama, it also dropped a few bombs on IS. The US on its part started training some of the “liberal” militias, to no avail. US instructors did no better in Syria than their predecessors had done in Vietnam, Lebanon, Afghanistan and Iraq; what is surprising is that they, and their bosses in the White House, never learn.

Next the US itself entered the fray. Fearing casualties, though, it only did so to the extent of launching drone-strikes, which are more or less useless. The Russians, determined to avoid the loss of their only remaining base outside their own country and to keep Assad in place, launched airstrikes on some, but not all, the militias. The French, hoping to achieve God knows what, did the same. Fueling the conflict are the Saudis who will oppose anything the Iranians support. Too cowardly to send in their own useless army, they are trying to get rid of Assad by heavily subsidizing his enemies.

With so many interests, native and foreign, involved, a way out does not seem in sight. Nor can the outcome be foreseen any more than that of the Thirty Years’ War could be four years after the beginning of the conflict, i.e. 1622. In fact there is good reason to believe that the hostilities have just begun. Additional players such as Lebanon and Jordan may well be drawn in. That in turn will almost certainly bring in Israel as well. Some right-wing Israelis, including several ministers, actually dream of such a scenario. They hope that the fall of the Hashemite Dynasty and the disintegration of Jordan will provide them with an opportunity to repeat the events of 1948 by throwing the Palestinians out of the West Bank and into Jordan.

That, however, is Zukunftsmusik, future music as the Germans say. As of the present, the greatest losers are going to be Syria and Iraq. Neither really exists any longer as organized entities, and neither seems to have a future as such an entity. The greatest winner is going to be Iran. Playing the role once reserved for Richelieu, the great 17th century French statesman, the Mullahs are watching the entire vast area from the Persian Gulf to Latakia on the eastern shore of the Mediterranean turn into a maelstrom of conflicting interests they can play with. Nor are they at all sorry to see Turks and Kurds kill each other to their hearts’ contents.

Finally, as happened in 1618-48, the main victim is the civilian population. Just as in 1618-48, people are being robbed, despoiled, and killed. Just as in 1618-48 the slave trade, especially in nubile females who can be raped and young boys who can be conscripted, is undergoing a revival. Not only in Syria, but in Iraq, where IS is fighting both the local Kurds and whatever ragtag units the Iraqi “Army” can field. Ere it is over the number of refugees desperately seeking to escape will rise into the millions. Many, not having anything to lose, are going to risk life and limb trying to reach Europe. Joining others from Libya and the rest of Africa, at least some will link with the Salafists, an extreme Muslim sect that is already very active in the continent’s cities. Of those who do, some will turn to terrorism. Terrorism, unless it can be contained, will increasingly be answered not just by extremism, the loss of civil rights and the breakdown of democracy—that is beginning to happen already—but by terrorism.

And whom will everyone blame? Israel, of course. But that is something we Israelis, and Jews, are used to.

For Whom the Bells Toll

bashar-al-assadFor Bashir Assad, the bells have been tolling. If one believes the media, he and the regime he represents are on their last legs. Whether or not that is true is not at issue here—similar predictions have been heard ever since civil war broke out in Syria four years ago. What I do want to do is take a look at the origins of the war, the way it has been going, and what the future may look like in case the predictions come true.

The decisive fact about the Assad—meaning, in Arabic, “Lion”—family is that they are Alawites. The Alawites are a section within the Sunni tradition. They do not, however, form part of the mainstream. Some Islamic scholars do not even regard them as Muslims; claiming that they are basically pagans who worship the moon and the stars. The community is scattered among Syria, Turkey and Lebanon. It is, however, only in Syria that they form a significant minority, counting perhaps one seventh of the population. That explains why Bashir’s paternal grandfather, Ali Suleiman al Assad (1875-1963), supported French colonial rule. He and his fellow Alawites knew well enough how majority Muslims deal with minority ones.

Suleiman’s son Hafez made his career as an air force officer. In 1963 he took part in a coup that brought the Ba’ath, a party that professed a curious mixture of secularism, nationalism, and socialism, to power. In 1966 he co-authored another coup, this time one that took place inside the Ba’ath leadership; in 1970, following a third coup, he assumed power as a military dictator. He did not, however, do much to change the nature of the regime. The latter remained what it had been. An amalgam of secularism, nationalism, “Arab” socialism; and of course the kind of brutal police state which seems to be more or less the only kind most Arabs understand and can live under.

Assad Père governed Syria with an iron fist. In 1973 he and Egypt’s Sadat launched a massive war against Israel; the way he and most Arabs understood the outcome, it was a major success. To be sure, it did not return the Golan Heights to Syria. But it did increase Assad’s popularity and helped consolidate his rule. When civil war broke out in Lebanon in 1976 he played a major role in the conflict. Supporting now this militia, now that, at one point he made himself the de facto ruler of the country. So much so, in fact, that not even a major Israeli invasion of Lebanon succeeded in dislodging him for very long.

Assad’s greatest challenge came in early 1982. It took the form of a Sunni—Sunnis form just under 90 percent of Syria’s population—uprising against his Alawite, secular rule. So bad was it that, for several months, it looked as if he the regime was about to disintegrate. In response Assad had his troops, commanded by his own brother Rif’at, surround the city of Hama where the head of the snake was located. Opening fire, Rif’at turned much of it into a sea of ruins. Later reporters asked Rif’at whether he had really killed 25,000 men, women and children. Looking them straight in the face, he answered that he had probably killed more.

From that time on Assad no longer faced any serious opponents inside Syria. Though his troops withdrew from Lebanon in 1990, he remained a major player in the complicated ethnic politics of that country. The same applied to his son Basher who took over in the year 2000. Both Hafez and Basher tried to negotiate with Israel in an attempt to reach a deal that would return the Golan Heights. To no avail. Both Hafez and Bashir supported Hezbollah in Lebanon, causing Israel endless trouble along its northern border. Both were themselves supported by faraway Iran which provided arms as well as training. However, being concerned above all with the stability of their regime, neither launched a major war against anybody. To that extent they were a stabilizing factor in the Middle East.

In April 2011 civil war broke out. As in 1982, the perpetrators were mainly Sunni Moslems, combined with a sprinkling of “liberals.” Bashir used his army to respond in kind. However, unlike his father he was unable to quell the rebellion, causing it to go on and on. To-date, the death-toll is estimated to approach a quarter million people. Millions of others have fled, mainly into Turkey, Lebanon and Jordan. There is nothing very special about any of this. To the contrary: in the absence of democracy violence, great or small is simply the way Arabs normally use to settle their political differences.

What is remarkable about the conflict is not so much the butchery as the way the ropes are drawn around the rink. Assad Jr.’s only supporters are Iran, which does not want to lose its right-hand man on the Mediterranean, and Russia. He has, arrayed against him, practically the entire world—including most Arab countries, Israel and the West. Some of these actively assist his opponents; others pray for them day by day. They do so in spite of the fact that most of those opponents are associated with the kind of militant Islamic movement that, over the last four decades or so, has wrought havoc wherever and whenever it appeared; in Lebanon, Iran, Somalia, Afghanistan, Iraq, Egypt, Libya, and, most recently, Yemen. Not to mention any number of other countries all over the world where its troops have engaged in terrorism, including the single largest terrorist act of all time. And notwithstanding the fact that, as experience shows, it is only strong Arab dictators who are able to hold Arab countries together and keep them from causing even more trouble for themselves, each other, and the rest of the world they already do.

Much the most important of the numerous militias that are trying to unseat Assad is IS, also known as Daesh. Truth to say, Arabs have never been exactly famous for the gentle way they fight their wars. Daesh, however, prides itself on being even worse than most. That is why, writing on this site, I have called it “The Monster.” Why any kind of regime, Arab, Muslim, Israeli, or Western should support Daesh and its fellow Sunni militias is a riddle that does not have a solution. Unless, of course, that solution is simply called stupidity.

To repeat, Assad is not a nice guy. He and his Alawite cronies have plenty of blood on their hands and are going to have lots more. Nevertheless, his ties to Hezbollah and Iran notwithstanding, on the whole he and his regime have been stabilizing factors in the Middle East. Should Assad fall, then the consequences may well be unimaginable. The first to suffer will be Syria’s Alawites or, at any rate, those of them who have not yet fled. Having sustained the regime for so long, they are going to face genocide on a scale that may make that committed by the Turks on the Armenians a century ago blanche. The same applies to other minorities such as the Druze and the Shiites. But Daesh does not want to rule just Syria. It wants Iraq, Lebanon, Jordan, Saudi Arabia, the Gulf States, and Yemen as well. Whether or not it succeeds, in the short and medium run that means destabilization, terrorism, guerrilla, and civil war. In Iraq and Yemen, all this has already happened. Do we really want the same to happen in other countries too?

In the face of all this, it is high time for countries, leaders, and people to reconsider and stop ringing the bells for Assad’s funeral. Rather than trying to hasten his fall, they should finally agree to take for what he is: namely, the devil we know.

Or else.