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.

“We Shall Win This War, and Then We Shall Get Out.”

No, this is not Vladimir Putin speaking. This is Winston Churchill, not long after returning to power in 1951. The context? The conflict in Malaysia, which at the time had been ongoing for three years with no end in sight. The immediate outcome? The war came to an end and the Brits left. The ultimate outcome? To this day, whenever anyone suggests that brushfire war, alias guerrilla, alias people’s war, alias low intensity war, alias nontrinitarian war, alias fourth-generation war (currently, thanks to my friend Bill Lind, the most popular term of all) is beyond the ability of modern state-owned armed forces to handle, someone else is bound to ask: but how about the British in Malaysia?

In response, let me suggest that, had Israel agreed to get out of the territories (I wish!) it could have “won” the struggle against Palestinian terrorism in twenty-four hours. But this is not what it pleases me to discuss today. It is, rather the situation in Putin’s own stamping ground, i.e. Syria.

The following is the story of the war, as far as I can make it out. It all started in May 2011 when terrorism against Assad dictatorial regime got under way. At first it was local, sporadic and uncoordinated. Later the opposition coalesced and assumed a more organized character; even so, by last count there are, or have been at one time or another, about ninety different groups fighting the regime. And even this mind-boggling number includes neither Hezbollah, nor Daesh, nor the various Kurdish militias, nor the so-called Baby Al Qaedas.

As in many similar wars (the one in the former Yugoslavia is a good example), some of the militias form coalitions, whereas others spend most of their time and energy combating each other. Some see the whole of Syria as their battlefield, others are local gangs out to keep certain regions or cities in their own power. Some are quite large (though none seems to have more than a few thousand fighters), others very small. Some are secular, others religiously-motivated.

What keeps the militias going are Saudi and Qatari money and weapons. Both the money and the weapons reach them mainly by way of Iraq a country which thanks to the U.S has ceased to be a country at all and is unable to control much of its territory. Earlier in the conflict Jordan too acted as a conduit. Later, though, the Jordanian Government, determined to look after itself first and stay out of the conflict as much as it could, all but closed this route. Bravo, King Abdullah. Well done.

In this war, as in so many other nontrinitarian ones, the largest formation on either side seems to be the reinforced brigade. Most, however, are much smaller. There is some use of tanks and much of artillery; however, on both sides most of the damage is done by lighter weapons. Including light quick-firing artillery (the kind that fires 20-30 millimeter rounds), mortars, machine guns of all calibers, antitank rockets and missiles, grenade launchers, assault rifles, and car bombs.

Most of Syria being an empty desert, most of the fighting takes place in and around the towns. Airpower, which the militias do not have, is used only by the Syrians and their Russian supporters. The Syrians in particular have specialized in helicopters which they use to drop explosive-filled barrels. As in so other nontrinitarian wars, often little if any distinction is made between combatants and noncombatants. That is why the number of dead is as large as it is: half a million, and counting.

In his famous work on “Protracted War” (not, as Western translations often call it, “guerrilla war”) Mao Zedong, writing from the point of view of the insurgents, divides this kind of struggle into three stages. First comes what we would call terrorism, individual attacks whose main purpose is to destabilize the government and show that it is not in control. Of necessity, such warfare does without any firm territorial base; it is at this stage, above all, that the guerrillas must be like fish swimming in the sea. The second stage is to consolidate some kind of base, usually in remote, difficult terrain that the government forces find it hard to penetrate, where the guerrillas can find refuge, train, and in general consolidate their power. The third stage is the switch to full-scale conventional war, waged against a demoralized opponents and at least partly with the aid of captured weapons and supplies.

In all this, the really critical step is finding the right moment to make the shift from the second stage to the third. Wait too long, and watch your forces becoming demoralized and perhaps disintegrating. Move too early, and you put everything you have achieved at risk. This, for example, was the error General Giap committed back in 1972. Switching from guerrilla to conventional warfare, twice he tried to launch a massive invasion of the south. On both occasions doing so left his forces exposed to US airpower which pulverized them.

Back to Syria. Until the spring of 2015 the various militias did very well. Encouraged by their success, they got to the point where they made the transition, assuming control over much of Syria in the process. By doing so, however, they changed their character and became more and more like their regular opponents. Becoming like their regular opponents, they exposed themselves to those opponents’ firepower, now directed at them not only from the ground (by the Syrian Army) but also from the air (by the Russians). Subjected to a combined conventional offensive, as at Aleppo, the various militias fought but, in the end, lost.

The recent ill-observed cease fire notwithstanding, that does not mean the struggle is over. Too many different parties are involved, of which many have not yet achieved their objectives and remain full of fight. With Assad’s forces on the upswing at the moment, fhe most likely outcome is a regression from Mao’s stage 3 back to stage 2, perhaps even stage 1. Precisely the kind of war which, in both Afghanistan and Iraq, gave the Americans as much trouble as it did.

And Putin? He seems be following Churchill, first proclaiming victory and then getting out. In other words, he knows where to stop. Isn’t that more than the Americans can say?

Guest Article: China and Iran

by William S Lind*

President-elect Donald Trump’s choices for cabinet positions have reassured his supporters that change will be real. However, for his presidency to begin successfully, there are two countries where change is needed in his approach. Those two countries are China and Iran.

As always, to see how we should relate to any state we must begin with our own grand strategic goals. The most important of those goals should be forming an alliance of all states to confront the threat Fourth Generation war presents to the state system itself. Obviously, we want that alliance to include China and Iran; all states means precisely that. China is one of three genuine Great Powers (Britain and France have that title by courtesy). An alliance of all states is possible only if it begins with an alliance of the Great Powers. Otherwise, Great Power rivalry will undermine it from the outset. Iran is an important regional power whose cooperation against 4GW elements in the Mideast is important. At present, Iran is playing a central role in upholding the state in Syria.

This grand strategy reminds us that in any situation, the worst possible outcome for our interests is the disintegration of another state and its replacement by a stateless nursery for more 4GW elements. The U.S. foreign policy Establishment has given us that outcome in Iraq, in Libya, and, in part, in Syria. A Trump administration should do its utmost not to add to that list of failures.

In this context, Mr. Trump’s initial actions vis-a-vis China, including receiving a congratulatory phone call from the leader of Taiwan, do serve to strengthen his bargaining position with Beijing. But it is important he accept the “one China” policy, with which both the Chinese Communist Party and the Kuomintang agree. Taiwan is an existential issue for China because of China’s history of centrifugal movements. If one province can become independent, so can others, and China would be heading back to a situation of “warring states”. That is the nightmare of every Chinese.

Because any movement of Taiwan toward independence has this implication for China, Taiwan has the highest potential for bringing about a war between China and the U.S. Such a conflict would be a disaster for both parties. But from the United States’ standpoint, it would be a lose-lose scenario. In the unlikely event the U.S. lost the war, our Great Power status would be called into question. If China lost, the result could be even worse. A defeat might destroy the legitimacy of the current Beijing government and with it the Chinese state. China could disintegrate into warring states in a huge victory for 4GW elements. We need China to be a center and source of order in the world. A defeat followed by disintegration would turn China into a vast source of disorder.

As China resumes her historical Great Power status, we should not merely allow but encourage her to take over the job of preserving peace, order, and commerce in a growing portion of the world. China must agree that is her role, but Chinese culture puts high value on order and harmony so that should not be too difficult. In that context, if China wishes to take over the job of protecting freedom of the seas in the South China Sea and is able to do so, we should welcome it. We should have no desire to be the world’s policeman. China, like Russia and the U.S., should have her sphere of influence, again and always in the context of upholding order and the state system.

Much the same is true of Iran on a regional basis. If the U.S. and Iran were to go to war–and Mr. Trump was elected in part because he opposed avoidable wars in the Middle East–an Iranian defeat might lead to the break-up of Iran, where the Persians are not a majority of the population. As has been the case in Iraq and Libya (thank you, Hillary), a disintegration of Iran into stateless disorder would be far worse for our interests than is the present Iranian state.

From this perspective, we should accept the Iran deal negotiated by the Obama administration. It may not be ideal in its terms, but if we tear it up, we will be on course either to accept a nuclear Iran in the near future or go to war with Iran, with all the dangers therein described above. Of these three alternatives, the present deal is clearly the least bad.

The foreign policy opposite of the neo-con/Jacobin “idealism” of Hillary and President Obama is realism. It is reasonable for those of us who supported Mr. Trump to expect realism will be the basis of his foreign policy. Realism often means accepting arrangements that are less than ideal. Realists do accept them because the other plausible alternatives are worse.

In the 21st century, the worst outcome of all will be destroying another state. Whenever and wherever the question of war against a state comes up, our thinking must begin with the realization that “victory” may, indeed is likely to, yield that outcome. We, and China and Russia and Iran and all other states face real enemies in the form of non-state opponents. Let us join together in confronting those enemies rather than pursue obsolete conflicts with each other.


* William (“Bill”) Lind is author of the Fourth Generation Warfare Handbook. This article has been previously posted on his website, The View from Olympus.

What Should Really Worry Putin

ppl4Have you ever been to Moscow? I have, a couple of times. What I remember best are not the great landmarks. It is the duty-free at Domodedovo airport. West-European jewelry, luxury articles, clothes, wines, and spirits. Japanese and Korean electronics. Very posh. But practically nothing made in Russia itself. About the only exceptions are matroshkas, the painted wooden dolls that fit into each other, and vodka. Lots and lots of it.

There is nothing new about this. There was a time when, throughout the world, all non-agricultural products had to be manufactured by hand. Next, at some time in the seventeenth century, industry, driven first by water, then by steam, started taking over. Once this happened the Russians, for some obscure reason that has never been explained to my satisfaction, were no longer able keep up. Enlisting foreign experts, they succeeded in building up an arms industry. Its products were often crude, but they did the job. As, for example, the World War II Yak-9 fighter and T-34 tank did. And as the Kalashnikov assault rifle famously does to the present day.

The situation with non-military Russian industrial products the situation was just the opposite. Though serviceable, more or less, they tended to be crude. As a result, they never commanded much of a foreign market. Whoever has seen an item marked, “made in Russia”? Until 1917 at any rate the Russians enjoyed an agricultural surplus, mainly wheat, which they sold in Western Europe. Come Communism, though, and that trade disappeared. Not even the collapse of the Soviet Union could repair the damage. Currently Russian agricultural imports are four times as large as its exports. This, in spite of the fact that 9 percent of the workforce is employed in agriculture and fully 25 percent of the population lives on the land. Almost the only commodities Russia produces that foreigners want to buy are oil and gas. As someone has said, first the Soviet Union and then Russia turned into a “Saudi Arabia with an arms industry.”

In terms of its armed forces, the Soviet Union during the last two decades of its existence was probably the second most powerful country on earth. By some calculations it may have been the first. These forces fed on what, at the time, was supposed to be the second or third largest GDP. But things have changed. In terms of GDP Russia now ranks tenth in the world, behind not only the old-established industrial powers but China, Brazil, and India as well. However, its armed forces are still ranked as the second or, at worst, third most powerful. That is hardly a situation that can be sustained for very long.

Particularly enlightening is the comparison with China. Starting in the 17th century Russia, when dealing with China, always did so from a position of strength, enabling it to tear off and annex huge stretches of territory. This remained true even as late as the 1970s when the Chinese, perfectly aware of their weakness, prepared to meet a possible Soviet invasion by waging a “people’s war.” Since then, by contrast, so enormous has Chinese growth been, and so weak has Russia become, that the latter is in real danger of becoming a mere appendage to the former.

Worst of all is the demographic situation. Back in 1914 every tenth person on earth was governed from the Kremlin. Russia’s population exceeded that of the United States, let alone that of every European country. That is why people talked of “the Russian steamroller.” Even as late as 1990 just over one in twenty persons was Soviet and the Soviet population exceeded that of the US 270,000,000 to 240,000,000. Since then things have changed. Currently Russia’s population is just over 140,000,000, rather less than half that of the US. Only about one in fifty persons on earth is Russian.

Behind the decline are two World Wars in which Russia suffered greater casualties than any other country. Also, of course, Stalin’s purges which took the lives of millions, though probably not 20,000,000 as one author suggests. But there has also been at work another factor which, though it is mentioned much less often, may have been the most important of all, especially after 1945. What I mean is the Communist version of feminism.

The way Karl Marx’s friend Friedrich Engels, and, above all, the German Social-Democrat August Bebel saw it, no woman was truly free unless she worked outside the home and earned her own living. To this was added Lenin’s idea that the only way to pull the war- and revolution devastated Soviet Union of his day out of its misery was to have women work like men. Come Stalin, and millions of Russian women entered the factories (and the universities, where the Tsar did not admit them). Women drove tractors and trains. Women operated heavy mechanical equipment. Women did construction work and worked in the mines. During World War II the Soviet Union had the dubious distinction of being the only country in history where female workers formed a majority even among those employed underground. No wonder they died like flies. In return they got the rights of men and the wages of men (but only if they were as high as men in the hierarchy, which seldom happened. Neither of which, in a country like the Soviet Union, amounted to much.

The outcome was predictable. Early in the twentieth century the women of the Russian empire, 90 percent of whom lived in the countryside, were the most fertile in the world, having 6-8 children on the average. Though many children died, there still remained room for healthy demographic growth. With Lenin, Stalin and their female colleagues Nadezha Krupskaya (Lenin’s wife) and Alexandra Kollontai breathing down their necks, things changed. As women found employment outside the home, the birthrate dropped. The more so because of bad housing conditions in the cities which often forced families to share flats. The typical urban Soviet family became smaller and smaller until most counted just four persons: father, mother, child, and a live-in babushka.

The fact that contraceptives were hard to obtain and abortion the most important method of birth control only made things worse. The downward trend was not evenly distributed. Partly because they were less urbanized, partly because of social and cultural factors, the decline among the empire’s non-Slav populations was much smaller than among the ethnic Russians. By the 1980s, well over one third of the Soviet population consisted of Moslems. Finally realizing what they had done, the authorities started paddling back. Some changes were made to make the lives of working women easier. Party hacks suddenly discovered the virtues of the “traditional” Russian kitchen as a place to relax, socialize, and gossip. Too little, too late. When the War in Afghanistan essentially left the Kremlin without an army able and willing to enforce its wishes the endgame, in the form of Soviet disintegration, got under way.

Today Putin, commanding armed forces that he has succeeded in modernizing during the last fifteen years, is trying to show that his country is still a world power. A part of this effort he has stirred up trouble in the Ukraine and the Middle East (though whether his support of Assad is really more ill-advised than Obama’s attempts to topple the Syrian president is moot). He has even succeeded in raising the birth rate a little bit. But there still can be no question of reversing the overall demographic decline. Let alone of addressing the most important problem of all, i.e Russia’s chronic inability to produce industrial goods anyone wants to buy.

By all historical logic Russia, or the Russian Federation as it pleases to call itself, is doomed. The disintegration may well start with the thirty percent of the population who are not Russian. Against this historical trend, not even Putin’s attempts to shore up his country by flexing its military muscle is likely to be of much avail.

Reining in the Macho

640px-Margot_Wahlstrom_Sveriges_EU-kommissionarIn a recent speech, Swedish foreign minister Margot Wallström expressed the hope that, by adopting a “feminist foreign policy, Sweden would help rein in Mr. Putin’s “macho aggression.” It is, however, much more likely that the opposite will happen. Directly or indirectly, Putin’s macho aggression will put an end to feminism. In Sweden and abroad, the least it will do is to prevent it from spreading its tentacles more than it already Feminism is, and always has been, a peacetime luxury. Come war, or even the threat of war, and it disappears like raindrops off the back of a duck.

There are several reasons for this. It is not for nothing that, with some rare exceptions most of which merely prove the rule, women have never worn armor or uniform. Physically they are just not suitable for the task. In terms of strength (especially upper-body strength), robustness, aerobic capacity, running speed, endurance, and the ability to throw things only a few of the strongest women can keep up even with the weakest of men. To this must be added the fact that, for obvious anatomical reasons, men’s bodies are much better adapted for leading rough, filthy, unwashed lives in the field.

Here and there attempts have been made to ignore these facts by making women train as hard as men do. The outcome has been a rate of injuries much higher than that which men undergoing similar training sustained. Quite some of the injuries damaged the women’s ability to have children more or less permanently. A few proved deadly.

Partly as a result of this weakness, partly because somebody must look after hearth and children (or else waging war would be pointless to begin with), historically whenever war broke out women have remained at home. Or, else, in case the enemy was near and the opportunity still offered itself, they were evacuated as were the Athenian women in front of the Persian invasion. Staying at home, the last thing they had on their minds was feminism, here understood—and the number of different definitions is as large as, if not greater than, that of feminists—to mean the idea that women should be independent of men.

Again, there are a number of reasons for this. First, women were kept too busy doing all kinds of heavy, dirty, and sometimes dangerous work men normally do to get all kinds of ideas into their heads. Second, with the enemy ante portas even the dullest, man-hating women understood well enough that only men could protect them against conquest, subjugation, and rape (sometimes said, in my view wrongly, to be “a fate worse than death”). Third, with the men gone to the front, some never to return, women did much as they pleased in any case.

Surely it is no accident that Sparta, the most militaristic Greek city-state of all, was also the one where women enjoyed greater freedom and more rights than in any other. Indeed this freedom and those rights may not have been altogether unconnected to the famous Spartan woman order to her son, “come back with your shield of on it.” After all, the more Spartan men were killed in action the richer Spartan women became. Aristotle claims that women ended up by owning most of Sparta’s land. Enough said.

Too, the inverse link between the occurrence of war on one hand and the spread of feminism on the other has other implications. It helps explain why women apparently enjoyed greater rights in the large, massive Hellenistic monarchies than they did during the classical period when all city-states were constantly fighting all the rest. It also explains why the shift from republic to empire was accompanied by an improvement in the status of Roman women. It is no accident that Sweden, as perhaps the world’s leading feminist state, has not engaged in even one war for the last two hundred years.

And the future? Nobody knows. Currently, in spite of intensive efforts to recruit more, only about five percent of Sweden’s uniformed personnel are female. That is considerably less than is the case in the U.K (9 percent), Russia (said to be 10 percent, though the real number may be smaller), and the U.S (15-6 percent). It is much less than the Israeli figure which, counting conscripts only, stands around 25-30 percent. Even some countries where feminism is notoriously weak, such as China (7.5 percent) have more women in their armed forces than Sweden does. From Ms. Wallström down, Swedish women seem to be more inclined to claim their “equality” and “rights” than to defend their country, and of course the rights themselves, weapon in hand, against a “macho” enemy.

Such being the case, not a person in the world, perhaps not even Ms. Wallström herself, knows what a feminist foreign policy could mean. In her speech, all she did was utter some vague phrases about the need to adopt a “soft” foreign policy and put more women in charge of it. Whether doing so will greatly impress Mr. Putin with his 850,000 active troops, ballistic missiles capable of turning much of the world into a radioactive desert, and, last not least, black judo belt, is, to say the least, a little doubtful.

Personally I can only imagine one kind of Swedish feminist foreign policy: it is called appeasement. Not to use less polite terms. I wish it much success.

The First Casualty—But Not the Last

The first casualty of war, it has been said, is always the truth. At no time was this more true that in the Ukraine right now. In the eastern districts of the country a civil war has broken out. Stories and images that deal with it, many of them of dubious origins and contradictory, are being flashed around the world. The one certain thing is that Ukrainian government troops are involved, not too successfully if one judges by the number of helicopters that have been shot down (assuming the reports are true). Whom they are fighting is anything but clear. Judging by media reports there is more than one “separatist” militia. That in fact, is what one would expect in such a situation. But just how they differ and how they relate to each other may be unclear not only to the outside world but even to many of their own leaders.

Nor does the confusion end at this point. Russian volunteers may, or may not, be taking part in the fighting. Russia may, or may not, have withdrawn its troops from Ukraine’s frontiers (even if it did, it could easily put them back). It may or may not be providing the “separatists” with weapons and other equipment. The head of the CIA may or may not have visited Kiev. If he did, then presumably in an attempt to find out what kind of assistance the U.S can provide to the government there. “Heavily armed” American mercenaries may or may not be assisting the Ukrainian troops. Chechenian militias are said to have entered the Ukraine, presumably in an attempt to avenge themselves on the Russians who brutally suppressed their own country’s bid for independence. Yet war is an expensive business. Supposing the story is true, who pays the militiamen is another mystery—is it Iran, is it Saudi Arabia?

With the situation as confused as it is, making predictions is extremely difficult. Still, a few things may perhaps be said. First, unless some miracle happens, this is going to be a long and bloody war. There will be no end to civilian casualties, rapes, destruction, economic deprivation, and, perhaps, ethnic cleansing. Second, the war will be fought primarily on the ground rather than at sea—given the geographical facts, that is a matter of course—and in the air. One may also safely predict that the newfangled forms of war which so preoccupy American analysts in particular, such as space war and cyberwar, will only play a very minor role, if any.

Two recent examples, Syria and the former Yugoslavia, provide useful analogies. The Syrian Civil War has now lasted for over three years. As in the Ukraine, the beginnings were small. Since then the number of dead is said to have risen to 160,000, though in truth nobody knows. On one side are President Assad’s armed forces which get their equipment and perhaps other things from Moscow and Tehran. At one point they were assisted by Hezbollah troops coming from Lebanon, though whether the latter are still involved on any scale is not clear. Arrayed against them are any number of militias, some “liberal”—supposing that term can be applied to any Arab group or country—others Islamic. The latter are joined by volunteers originating not only in the Arab world but in Islamic communities resident in various Western countries. British Moslems, or Moslem Brits, are said to have a particularly ferocious reputation. Many militiamen—there seem to be practically no women among the fighters—keep butchering each other even as they clash with Assad’s army. All are said to be assisted by Saudi money and American weapons reaching them by way of Jordan. How it will end, if it will end, only Allah knows.

Another close analogy is the war in the former Yugoslavia. The war there has often been presented as if it were a question of nation—Serbs, Croats, Christian Bosnians, Moslem Bosnians, and others—fighting nation. It was that, of course, but just like the Syrian civil war it was many other things as well. Local politicians, many of them veterans of Tito’s Communist regime, fought other local politicians. Private armies fought other private armies. Gangs fought other gangs. Many did so with a strong admixture of criminal elements with no other objective in mind than to enrich themselves by murder, kidnapping, ransom, robbery, and smuggling. Most wars are supposed to be directed from the top down; it is governments which give the orders, armies that fight, kill and die, and civilian population that pay and suffer. Not so these two. To use a useful phrase coined by a British veteran of another such war, the one in Afghanistan, they were driven, to a considerable extent, from the ground up.

Bristling with atrocities as they did and do, both wars cast doubt on the idea that the better angels are on the march. Both were and are catastrophic to the countries in which they were fought. In the end, the Yugoslav war was resolved without spilling over into other countries. In spite of some attacks by anti-Assad forces on Hezbollah targets in Lebanon, so far the same applies to Syria. It is here that the situation in the Ukraine may develop in a different way. Should ethnic Russians in the Ukraine start dying in large numbers, then Mr. Putin may have no choice but to intervene even against his will. His forces, which are far stronger than any the Ukraine can mount, should be able to overrun the disputed provinces in a matter of weeks, perhaps less. The question is, what comes next? If they succeed in imposing peace and setting up some puppet government, well and good. If not, then just as the War in Afghanistan helped bring about the collapse of the former Soviet Union so the one in the Ukraine may bring about that of the Russian Federation.

That Federation in turn already contains about 32 million non-Russian people not all of whom are happy to be governed from Moscow. Should some of them try to use the opportunity to liberate themselves, then the first casualty would hardly be the last. In this connection it is worth recalling that rarely has an empire collapsed without massive bloodshed. However much many people in Moscow may detest Mr. Gorbachev, the former Secretary General of the Soviet Communist Party, his ability to avoid such bloodshed is one achievement history will remember him for.

The question is, will Mr. Putin be able to follow in his footsteps?