Are You Listening, President Trump?

Fifty-six years ago, President Kennedy entered office eager to show how weak his predecessor, Eisenhower, had been and how brave and decisive he himself was. He sent his troops to Vietnam, and the rest is history. Two months ago, President Trump entered office eager to do the same in respect to his predecessor, President Obama. To do so, he has hit on the brilliant idea of sending more American troops to Syria. In response, President Assad of Syria has told him that such troops, deployed without his permission, would not be welcome. Also that, over the last seventy years or so, almost every time Western, specifically American, troops went into the so-called developing world they failed to achieve their objectives. In quite a few cases the outcome was to open the gates of hell, as the Koran put it.

As the following, extremely partial, list of their failures shows, Assad is right.

1944-1948. A few hundred active “terrorists” hound the British out of Palestine, leading to the establishment of the State of Israel.

1946-1954. French troops are defeated in Indochina, leading to Vietnamese, Cambodian, and Laotian independence.

1948-1960. British troops fail to hold Malaya and end up by withdrawing from the country. Thanks to a masterpiece of propaganda, the Brits make most of the world believe that they had actually won the war. But this does not prevent Malaysia from becoming independent state.

1950-1953, Western forces, operating under UN auspices, wage against North Korea and China. The outcome, stalemate, is probably the best that could have been achieved.

1953-1960. British troops fail to defeat the Mau Mau Revolt in Kenya, ending up by withdrawing from the country, which gained its independence.

1954-1962. The War in Algeria, which had been a French colony for well over a century, ends with a humiliating defeat for France.

1955-1960. An insurgency forces the British to give up Cyprus, which becomes an independent country.

1963-1967. Another insurgency forces the British to surrender Aden. Ditto.

1965-1972. The Second Vietnam War, which was the largest of them by far, ends with the decisive defeat of the US and its allies and their final withdrawal.

1970-1975. As part of the Second Vietnam War, the US invaded Cambodia. In 1975 it had to throw in the towel. With the US cowed and decolonization all but complete, major Western attempts to intervene in the developing world came to a halt.

1982-1984. A small continent of US troops enters Lebanon, but quickly leaves again after terrorists start blowing them up.

1991-1992. The US and its allies, provoked by Saddam Hussein’s invasion of Kuwait, go to war. In almost seventy years, this is the only campaign that resulted in a clear victory. As a result, President George Bush declares that the US “has overcome the Vietnam Syndrome.”

  1. The US and its allies send troops into Somalia. To absolutely no avail, except for turning that country into an even worse hell than it already was.

2002-present. To avenge 9-11, the US and its allies invade Afghanistan. The resulting mess is still waiting to be cleared up.

2003-present. The US and its allies invade Iraq. Saddam Hussein is overthrown and, ultimately, killed. However, once again the outcome is a mess that has still not been resolved.

2005-present. French and British forces, initially supported by US cruise missiles, assist local militias in overthrowing Dictator Muammar Gadhafi. The outcome is the same as in Iraq.

2011-present. Small NATO contingents take part in Syria’s murderous civil war, but achieve practically nothing. Thanks in part to Russian aid, the side whom the US and its allies oppose, i.e. President Assad, seems to be gaining the upper hand.

Are you listening, President Trump?

“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?

Blaming Obama

As Aleppo has finally fallen and a new Republican administration, supported by a Republican Congress, is about to take over, everyone is pointing fingers at outgoing President Barak Obama. He left America’s allies in the lurch. He did not stand up to Assad, Hezbollah, Khameini, Putin, and other wicked people. He should have done this and he should have done that. He was hesitant and he was inactive and he was ineffective. He has left the US weaker than it was when he entered office. He was a second Carter (the worst thing, in this view, anyone can be).

The charges are baseless. What they overlook is the fact that, at the time the Syrian civil war broke out in May 2011, the U.S was just emerging from its involvement in two disastrous wars. One in Afghanistan, the other in Iraq. Between them these two wars cost the U.S tens of thousands of casualties, including thousands of dead. They also cost fortunes so large as to be almost incalculable. Yet neither of them has achieved anything except increase the mayhem in Central Asia and the Middle East respectively.

The man who created the situation that led to this mess was not President Obama. It was his Republican predecessor, George W. Bush. Bush, it seems, entered office without any particular agenda. That may have been why, once 9/11 had taken place and almost three thousand Americans had died, he reacted instinctively and ferociously by sending his troops into that graveyard of empires, Afghanistan. Initially almost no one could quarrel with his decision and almost no one did. With good reason, it should be added; a Superpower, if it wants to remain a Superpower, cannot afford to take a spectacular act of war such as 9/11 lying down without mounting an equally spectacular one in response.

What spoilt the party was the fact that, during the first weeks and months, the campaign seemed to go better than anyone had expected. Encouraging Bush and his evil geniuses, Dick Cheney and Donald Rumsfeld, to extend what had started as a punitive expedition into a sustained effort to create a more or less stable, more or less democratic, Afghanistan—an unattainable objective if ever one there was. By early 2003 it ought to have been clear, as in fact it was to a growing number of people, that Afghanistan was not a minor wound in America’s side. Instead it was a rapidly growing, extremely malignant, cancer that was frustrating the efforts of Bush and Rumsfeld and Cheney to deal with it.

However, the evil trio refused to look reality in the face. Drunk with hubris, they decided to take on Iraq as well as Afghanistan. First they invented, and forced their intelligence services to “discover,” non-existent “weapons of mass destruction” to justify their decision. Next they launched a massive invasion much larger than the one in Afghanistan. Again the opening moves went well, encouraging the evil trio and providing them with all the back wind they could have wanted. Again, though, within a matter of months things started going sour.

When Obama entered office early in 2009 he did so with an explicit mandate to end the agony. Two years later it was these facts, and not any weakness on Obama’s part, which prevented him from doing more to help the Syrian militias topple Assad. Had he tried to do so, neither Congress nor public opinion, let alone those weathervanes, the media, would have supported him. Had he used his position as commander in chief to overrule them, and had the bodybags started coming in, they would almost literally have crucified him. So he did the maximum he could, which was to send in weapons—by way of the Saudis, who provided the financial muscle—as well as drones.

Drones, no doubt, are useful machines. Particularly because, being unmanned, they save casualties. Like the manned aircraft which they are increasingly replacing, though, on their own they do not win wars and will not win wars and cannot win wars. The more so when the armed forces that use them are increasingly made up of feminized, traumatized, politically-correct, pussycats; and the more so when those forces are backed up, if that is the term, by a country rightly tired of pouring out troops and treasure in useless wars that result in nothing but casualties.

And so the seeds of the present mess were sown. Perhaps I should add that all this did not take place against a domestic background of economic prosperity, as had been the case during World War II. Rather, even as the U.S vainly struggled with the wars in Afghanistan and Iraq it was hit by the worst economic crisis in seventy years. The causes of the crisis do not concern us here. It is, however, worth pointing out that, entering the White House at a supremely difficult juncture, in economic matters as well as foreign-political/military ones Obama did the best he could. Not entirely without success, as the decrease of U.S military involvement in Afghanistan and Iraq on one hand and the recent raising of interest rates on the other show.

Let the Republicans go on sticking pins into Obama’s effigy. Now that he is leaving the White House and Trump is coming in, all one can hope for is that the new president will do no worse than the old one did.

The Idiots

islamic-terrorist-e1424196060104For the purpose at hand, it all started in Israel. Back in the early 1980s General (ret.) Ariel Sharon was minister of defense under Prime Minister Menahem Begin. Assisted by a Hebrew University Professor whose field was Islamic studies, he came up with the bright idea of forming a religious-conservative opposition to Yasser Arafat’s Palestine Liberation Organization (PLO). The center of the movement was to be in Hebron, the principal city of the southern, and socio-economically less developed, part of the West Bank. In return for the right to rule over their people’s day-to-day affairs, the so-called “Rural Societies” were to oppose the PLO and tacitly accept Israeli rule. The outcome? Hamas, meaning Islamic Resistance Movement. In 2006 it took over control of the Gaza Strip. Having done so, for years on end it waged a terrorist campaign against Israel. Though apparently cowed by Operation Protective Edge in 2014, it is even now threatening to renew the rocket attacks at any time it feels like doing so.

Others, the Americans in particular, have committed similar errors. First, during the early 1980s, came their attempts to resist the Soviets in Afghanistan. This meant supporting the Mujahedeen, a movement that combined nationalism and religion in fighting the Red Army which had invaded the country. And, yes, it worked. After almost ten years of warfare the Soviets were forced to retreat. And what happened? Some Afghan “freedom fighters” spread all over the world, promoting terrorism wherever they went. Others joined the Taliban and, later, Al Qaeda. Enough said.

Next, in 2003, came the invasion of Iraq. In the name of democracy, women’s rights, and, some dared suggest, oil. To be sure, Saddam Hussein was not exactly a nice man. In 1990 he invaded and occupied Kuwait; defeated, he continued to tyrannize his own people. Earlier he had even used gas to asphyxiate his enemies. Yet he was neither a religious fanatic nor, it seems, more involved in terrorism than many other states are. Sitting in his “box,” constantly attacked from the air, and laboring under sanctions that severely hurt his economy he had long ceased to present a danger to any of his neighbors. The invasion of Iraq, followed by his own execution, destabilized the country. It also stoked the religious antagonisms that had been waiting just under the surface of his secular rule. The outcome: massive terrorism committed by Shi’ites against Sunnis and by Sunnis against Shi’ites. Not to mention the birth of Daesh which started in Iraq and has since spread to Syria as well.

One might think that the West, with the US at its head, should have learnt something from its disastrous attempts to support religious Islamic movements. But no, no way. The next war in which the West intervened was the one in Libya. Again it was done in the name of democracy, humanity, and women’s rights—the dictator and his collaborators, it was later claimed, had been raping their own female soldiers left and right. Again the opponent was a secular dictator. Muamar Gadhafi was as cruel as many and more quirky than most. But at any rate he was able to maintain order in his own country. During his last decade or so in power he even opposed terrorism. Following a civil war that lasted some six months, he was defeated and killed. With the result that his country fell apart and is now one of the happiest stamping grounds where Daesh is having a field day recruiting supporters and threatening Europe with terrorism.

Next, Syria. Like Iraq, Syria was ruled by a military dictator, Bashir Assad. As a ruler he was neither better nor worse than Hussein and Gadhafi had been. He supported Hezbollah against Israel and allied himself with Iran, in many ways acting as the latter’s long arm on the shore of the Mediterranean. However, like the other two, he ruled his country with an iron fist and does not seem to have engaged in international terrorism. Not perfect, one would have thought, but as good a regime as a country like Syria can have. In May 2011 civil war broke out. In this war the West, and less actively Israel, found themselves siding with Assad’s opponents. They even invented a “liberal” opposition which, as it turned out, hardly existed. Three years passed before Washington suddenly woke up to the existence of Daesh, a Sunni-led terrorist organization that had spread from Iraq. Again, enough said.

Yet another country, one in which a similar error was narrowly avoided, is Egypt. Coming to power, President Obama promised to reach out to the peoples of Islamic countries even if—partly because—it meant going over the heads of their loathsome despots. Feeble as it was, the attempt does seem to have played some role in the so-called Arab Spring. One country in which it did so was Egypt whose population rose against President Mubarak and toppled his regime. And what happened? In the only more or less free elections ever held in Egypt’s 5,000 years’ history, the Moslem Brotherhood won. The outcome for Israel, and therefore for the Middle East, in particular could have been catastrophic. Mounting a coup, General Assisi prevented the worst. But no thanks either to Obama or to the West as a whole.

Let’s finally cease kidding ourselves. Arab countries, all of them without exception, are backward. Most are still tribal. That means that they are organized on lines other, more developed countries, have left behind centuries ago. Very few have what one would call a civil society consisting of a solid middle class. None has ever known the meaning either of democracy, or of the rule of law, or of human rights, or of freedom as Westerners understand it. During the middle ages they set up a brilliant civilization, or so historians say. Next, however, they missed the Renaissance. And the Reformation; and the Scientific Revolution; and the Enlightenment; and democracy in the form of the American and French Revolutions; and finally the Industrial Revolution as well. Not to mention the great and glorious Feminist Revolution, of course. Apart from that, they are the most progressive people in the world. Especially when yelling Allahu Akbar before sticking a knife into someone, or shooting him, or blowing themselves up.

Such is the situation. That is why, when it comes to an Arab country, the choice is always between a dictator—either hereditary or other, either with a moustache or not—and anarchy. A dictator may mean war. But that is something which, as the Israeli-Arab wars and the two successful campaigns (1991 and the first few weeks of 2003) against Saddam Hussein have shown, can be handled if necessary. What the West, and indeed the world as a whole, cannot handle is anarchy and the terrorism it spouts indiscriminately in all directions.

Will the idiots, and I don’t mean the Arabs of whom nothing can be expected, ever, ever learn?

How to Fight Daesh

paris-military-exercise-634x350Ever since Daesh first burst on the international scene back in the spring of 2014, a vast amount of ink has been spilt over its relationship with its parent organization, Al Qaeda; its objectives; its peculiar ability to attract Muslim volunteers from all over the world; as well as its methods—the latter, it turns out, taken straight from the days Mohammed and his followers first started their campaign of terror and conquest. Including beheadings, crucifixion, and the enslavement of both men and women. Let those who are interested consult the literature in question; here I want to focus on the most important problem of all, i.e. how to fight and win.

Four separate theaters of war must be distinguished, viz:

  1. Syria and Iraq. Daesh is essentially the product of the foolish American invasion of Iraq. As former President Hosni Mubarak of Egypt, drawing on a traditional Islamic image, predicted, it “opened the gates of hell.” It is in these countries that Daesh was formed and where most its fighters are concentrated. The essence of the problem is political. Let Presidents Obama, Putin and Arduan finally decide on who the main enemy is and start cooperating against him. Even if it means leaving President Assad in place, at least for the time being. Let the US, Russia, and Turkey mount a combined air offensive against Daesh, targeting its forces in Syria as well as the oilfields from which it draws its revenue in Iraq. However, as over a year of strikes by aircraft and drones has shown all too clearly, air operations on their own will not do the trick. For that the assistance of Syria’s ground forces is needed. To be sure, all this means teaming up with some pretty unsavory people and countries. But what other choice is there? As long as Daesh’s main forces and leadership are not smashed, terrorism will continue. If not here then there, and if not there then here.
  2. France and Europe. Stop shilly-shallying and start controlling immigration by every available means with the objective of bringing it to a halt. Also at sea to take care of Libya. Net install passive defenses. That means guards, metal detectors and surveillance cameras at every parking house, shopping center, theater, university, school, etc. If considered appropriate, arm them and train them in self-defense. Such measures need not be as expensive as they sound. Europe has plenty of unemployed. They should be happy to work, and their wages can be offset against the benefits they currently receive. At the most sensitive installations, such as airports, use profiling, i.e. separate people into various classes so as to identify those considered particularly dangerous and subject them to extra scrutiny. Profiling may not be very democratic. However, experience shows that it works. Set up volunteer neighborhood watches—no one knows neighborhoods better than the people who live in them. Provide them with good communications to call in reinforcements if necessary and have them cooperate closely with the local police. This method has the additional advantage of engaging people and make them feel they can do something to help. Repair any damage terrorists cause as quickly as possible so as to restore normal life and enable it to continue.
  3. The intelligence services. Passive measures on their own are insufficient. What is needed is a high-quality organization capable of identifying terrorists, tracking them, and foiling their plots ahead of time by arresting or killing them if necessary. Also, of tracing the financial flows on which they depend and making them dry up. So beef up your intelligence services. Provide them with the most modern surveillance equipment and pass the laws that will allow them to use it. Focus on communications; by making it hard for terrorists and their supporters to talk and work together, you will draw much of their sting. Inside the national borders, make sure the various departments work in tandem. Across such borders, make sure that the borders do not stand in the way of the information flow. In other words, that the services cooperate closely both with their counterparts in other countries and with the police. A Pan-European Intelligence Czar, responsible for overall coordination, would surely be useful. Do the political problems facing the establishment of such an office turn it into an impossible dream? If so, tant pis.
  4. The courts. An essential part of any anti-terrorist campaign is deterrence. So make sure judges have the necessary authority to do what has to be done. The establishment of special courts with augmented authority for the purpose should be considered. Punishments of the guilty should be appropriate and follow swiftly after terrorists are apprehended. They should also be well publicized.

The above are the main elements of any successful anti-terrorist campaign. Let me conclude by listing, in addition to the does, some of the don’ts:

  1. At all cost, don’t allow mobs to attack real and suspected terrorists and lynch them without due process of law. Uninformed and undirected, such attacks can mean gross injustices in the form of mistaken identities etc. Worse still, they will encourage the populations from which terrorists come to unite and fight back. You may end up with just what you want to prevent, i.e. civil war.
  2. For the same reason, do refrain from using collective punishments. There is a good chance that they will turn out to be counter-productive.
  3. Finally, the war on terror will not be won quickly. So do not expect quick results and do not allow yourself to be discouraged by possible setbacks. To be sure people are not, mount a sustained public relations campaign to explain why all those measures, as well as the inconveniences they inevitably cause, are needed.

Good luck.

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.

 

The Monster

The monster—the Sunni militias which, equipped by the Saudis with the active backing of the U.S, have been waging civil war in Syria for over three years—has risen against its benefactors. Unable to make headway against Syrian dictator Basher Assad, they have turned to the much softer target that once constituted Iraq but is now, thanks to George Bush Jr, no more than an awful mess. Doing so, they shed any “secular” and “liberal” character they may once had possessed. Instead they revealed their true colors as murderous bandits who wage war with a ferocity rare even among Arabs.

Mosul, Iraq’s second largest city and home to one of the world’s most important oil fields, has already fallen to them. As resistance seems to be crumbling, the capital, Baghdad, may well be next in line. Should that happen then the way to Basra and the Gulf countries in the south will be open. The outcome could well be another Afghanistan threatening to export terrorism, and perhaps more than just terrorism, both to the Gulf States in the south and to Jordan in the west—not to mention what may happen to the world’s economy should one of its main oil-exporting countries be knocked out..

And the West? Following more than a decade of warfare in Afghanistan and Iraq, its armed forces are exhausted and urgently in need of recuperation. Many of them have also been made the subject of endless cuts. As a result, their strength has been reduced to a fraction of what it used to be even as recently as the early 2000s. For some of them, the American ones in particular, new threats are looming in other parts of the world such as Southeast Asia. Perhaps most important of all, the politicians responsible for the wars in question have been largely discredited. Their successors, with President Barak Obama at their head, may engage in loose talk about the need to use force, as German President Joachim Gauk recently did. However, as President Obama has said, they will not spend any considerable resources to intervene in the ongoing struggle.

Nor, in truth, is there any reason to believe that, if Obama did respond to Iraqi Government pleas and did spend such resources, the outcome would be at all satisfactory. True, an American aircraft carrier, the appropriately named GWHH Bush, is now cruising in the Gulf along with its various escorts. However, the number of attack aircraft it can launch is limited while the distances they will have to cover (first in one direction, then back) to hit the Jihadists in their present location is measured in several hundred miles. That fact would impose strict limits on the number of sorties that can be flown—probably not much more than one per aircraft per day on the average. Since the ISIS (Islamic State in Iraq and the Levant) fighters hardly do a regular army form, any eventual strikes will also be faced with a lack of targets.

The U.S armed forces might also resort to their favorite weapon, i.e. drones. Experience in Afghanistan and elsewhere has clearly shown that drones, which are relatively small, cheap and expendable, are better suited to combatting irregulars who do not have an air force of their own than manned aircraft are. But deploying any number of them in the theater and arranging suitable bases from which they can be operated, maintained and supplied will take time. Time that may not be available.

Under these circumstances, and barring some miracle, the only real hope of containing the ISIS rests with Iran. Compared with other interested countries, Iran enjoys the enormous advantage that it is right next door to the theater of war. Consequently, to intervene, it would not have to fly forces there from halfway across the world. It is also a Shi’ite country. Hopefully that gives it some interest in making sure the ISIS Sunnis do not gain the upper hand over their own coreligionists, who form the majority in Iraq; let alone unite Iraq with Syria so as to create, in time, a single powerful Arab state.

Clearly, though, Iran will not act as the West’s policeman in Iraq without extracting a price. Presumably that price will include a. the relaxation, if not complete abolition, of economic sanctions; and b. turning a blind eye to the continuation of Iran’s nuclear project. Is the price worth paying and the risk—whose existence cannot be denied—worth taking? In the opinion of this author, the answer is yes. Perhaps an agreement can be reached that will allow Iran to pursue the project but neither test a bomb nor open declare it. For this the kind of agreement, U.S diplomacy over the last few decades provides several precedents.

Taking a wider view, how capricious, how full of surprises and hairpin corners, does life turn out to be! During the days of the Shah (reigned 1953-78) the U.S considered Iran its strong arm in the Middle East, buying its oil and providing it with some of the most advanced weapons of the time. Following the Islamic Revolution Iran became part of the “axis of evil” whereas the Iranians on their part insisted that the US was “the big Satan” (the title, “little Satan” was reserved for Israel). Throughout the Iran-Iraq War of 1980-88 the U.S did whatever it could to support Iran’s enemies, even condoning Saddam Husein’s use of chemical warfare.

Now the tables have been turned again. Iran is good. whereas the Iraqi Sunnis—who President George Bush Jr. and his team hoped might follow up on the defeat of Saddam Hussein by building a modern, enlightened, even democratic Arab country in the Middle East—have become blacker than black.

As the saying goes, there is no end to illusions. And politics do strange bedfellows make.