The lesser of two evils – why the West shouldn’t intervene in Syria

At present there is a growing chorus of voices calling for a more ‘muscular’ Western intervention in Syria. This is not a sensible call; the consequences would be bloody civil strife and a quagmire of ‘insurgency’.

Syria and Iraq have many many similarities. Whilst the Shiite/Sunni balance is inverted in Iraq compared to Syria, they share a similar culture and societal make-up. Syria is full of Iraqi refugees, who are often denied the right to work even though many are highly qualified. The Syrians had a first row seat to witness the disintegration of Iraq. People are painfully aware of what can be the consequence of foreign intervention. What comes now may sound sickening but is probably sensible: it’s not in anyone’s interest for the West to intervene to remove Assad. Although one should always be wary of making predictions based on precedent from other states, Iraq descended into a maelstrom of sectarian violence with the removal of Hussein or as Mamdani said, “the top was blown off” and all hell broke loose. I think if the Assad regime falls too quickly (that is, due to a foreign intervention), the Syrian people will suffer terribly. With a successful revolution this may happen anyway, but there is no reason to be the cause.

I also see another trend common to this region (from Iraq and Lebanon). In the words of Naim Qassem of Hezbollah, when the Israelis arrived in 1982, they were greeted with “perfumed rice and trills of joy” by the Shias. How long before their presence was resented? How long in Iraq before people were willing to kill to eject foreign forces?

Foreign intervention in Syria will prompt sectarian violence and an ‘insurgency’ which might make Iraq’s look calm (it would probably attract Hezbollah and the Sadrist Jaish Al Mahdi, as well as Iranian meddling). No Western power wants – or should want – to provoke such a conflict.


Mad, bad and dangerous to know? Some problems with labelling Bin Laden

A summary of a short debate on Osama Bin Laden – mad or just bad?

I started by stating that Christopher Hitchen’s labelling Bin Laden a ‘madman’ is off the mark. The reasons for this were drawn from another article on the general inappropriateness of the term for the description of terrorists. I wrote that the arguments generally put forward in support of the statement that terrorists are crazy revolve primarily around three contentions: they have no chance of achieving their ends; they are self-defeating; they draw spurious motivation and legitimacy from their own sacred texts. For me, these are all flawed for the following reasons.

Firstly, some objectives are eminently more achievable than others, and those that are not are often forms of self-aggrandisement. Even those which are unfeasible may not be ‘mad’ – we routinely make heroes of those who face certain destruction for what they believe in. We may have focused on his aims of establishing a global Caliphate, but we must remember that many other smaller objectives might not seem so ‘mad’.

Secondly, whilst a terrorist group may lose support or sympathy in ‘the outside world’, it may gain significant goodwill closer to home, and spawn numerous imitations and offshoots. This is not self-defeating.

Thirdly, anyone with a half-way decent understanding of the decentralised nature of Islam and of its holy texts will realise that there is in fact much theological justification for those who wage jihad. It is enough to say that without some basis in the holy texts, on a practical level the terms and concepts would not be used for the purpose of terrorism or armed resistance and on an academic or theological level there would be no debate over interpretation.

As a final point, alluded to above, I highlighted that rationality is a social construction. What is rational to one person, in one social context, is categorically ‘crazy’ to another. Furthermore, and possibly most importantly, a label of ‘mad’ or ‘evil’ means that there is no reason to examine motivation – the motivation is in the fact that the individual is mad or evil. To win the war, the West must understand why anti-Western terrorism and sentiment comes about. Applying ‘madness’ to describe terrorists impedes the successful prosecution of the War on Terrorism.

An initial objection to the argument was that

“there are states of mind which are only possible with a certain cranial development. Whether or not you label someone clinically insane (with a dysfunctional brain), there *are* cultural and religious positions which are, through their lack of rationality, tantamount to insanity; to label such people as “madmen” is perfectly justified…. I do not think you are correct though, because in this case “madman” was obviously not used to denote a clinically diagnosable condition, but rather an ideology, the espousal of which is tantamount to intellectual suicide and self-afflicted debilitation. To call someone insane, who through inappropriate measures wishes to attain nonexistent (let alone non-attainable) goals is highly appropriate”

I replied that although Hitchen’s use of the term was related to the ideology, rather than the clinical condition, this is the position I criticise. My objection is to the ascribing of irrationality to those thinking within a different framework to our own. As Westerners, with the benefit of the enlightenment and all the progress since, to act in the way that OBL did, seemed ‘mad’. For our religious ancestors, it may have seemed rational. Rationality is dependent on your context – for me, it is irrational to undertake much religious practice (such as reciprocal prayer with god), yet people do and we do not call them ‘mad’.

As for his aims: some are non-attainable, some are very attainable (the more local aims). The overthrow of weak states in the Muslim world by extremists is a possibility. Remember, one of OBL’s main local aims was the establishment of an Islamic state in Egypt. We should wait and see whether the Muslim Brotherhood win the elections before declaring all aims unattainable.

I reiterated my most important point: labelling the enemy ‘mad’ leaves us with no motivation to examine the rationale behind why they act the way they do – there is no rationale because they are ‘mad’. This means we will not win the fight (if we can address certain issues and legitimate grievances we will erode support etc). A good source on this point of view is David Kilcullen, Chief Strategist, Office of Coordinator for Counterterrorism in DC, particularly in his articles on ‘Countering Global Insurgency’ and ‘Counterinsurgency Redux’.

Another commentator raised the point that

“Robert Aumann (quoted in The Israel Test) defined “rationality” as the “effective pursuit of ones goals”. By this measure Bin Laden was certainlly irrational and insofar as that relates to a state of mind, mad.

Goals, in and of themselves, cannot be placed in the context of rationality or madness except to the extent that they serve an ultimate purpose or goal. The goal of attacking the United States on 9/11 could have been seen as completely rational if it had served the larger purpose of OBL and Al Qaeda. That being, the removal of American troops from the Arabian Peninsula and cessation of support for Israel (as stated by OBL in his 1996 and 1998 fatwas). The basis for OBLs belief was founded in recent historical examples (perceived American retreat in Somalia and lack of a serious response to the USS Cole attack). The problem of course was that OBL lacked a larger historical perspective (as alluded to by Hitchens) about how Americans would respond to an attack against their very citizenry on their very own soil. The fury of the response to 9/11 clearly indicated The United States was not weak or lacking in will. Once it became clear that neither of his stated goals was in any way being accomplished (in fact they were further undermined in an almost “Screw You” moment from America) a rational mind would have formulated a different approach to achieve the desired outcomes.

Yet OBL doubled down on terrorist attacks against civilians within the U.S and Europe. Perhaps OBL believed that his methods would be effective in the long term or that his example of defiance would spur future generations of Al Qaedists to victory, though once again had OBL been following events and formulating cause and effect he might have considered how attacks against civilians (particularly by Al Qaeda in Iraq against Muslims) continued to degrade his standing in the Muslim world (Al Anbar Awakening) and continued the undermining of his goals.

Pride it would seem was a large factor in the self delusion practiced by OBL. The mighty spiritual warrior was suddenly reduced to hiding in caves and issuing taped messages delivered by lackeys. How could OBL remain the face of Islamist defiance should he lose face with his flock? Pride induced the need for direct conflict and violence against all but the most fervent loyalists to the cause. I would say that pride induced an initially rational man to degrade into a irrational, and yes insane, animal”

This is a good point, and one I hadn’t considered – a rational actor can degrade under certain circumstances to a point of irrationality and indeed madness (by anyone’s yardstick). Although I continue to argue that it is fallacious to label terrorists as ‘mad’ or ’crazy’ in general, I do concede that perhaps, after five years holed up in a single room, Osama Bin Laden may well have descended into insanity.

Many thanks to those involved in the debate.

The King is dead; long live the King? – Obama, Osama and the future of the War on Terror

Michael D. Clark

In light of the reports of the death of Osama bin Laden, it is opportune to offer a brief analysis of what this might mean for the Middle East and the War on Terror.  

President Obama made a speech to deliver the news. There is much to consider on a re-examination of the text. For example, Obama stated that
“The American people did not choose this fight. It came to our shores, and started with the senseless slaughter of our citizens”

This is not strictly true. The terrorists involved in the conception, funding, planning and execution of 9/11 did not randomly wake up one day and decide to come together from their disparate states of provenance to attack the US. This is a vital point to comprehend in the history of anti-US terrorism. Whilst the 9/11 attack was the first time many Americans were made aware of the fight, it was ongoing at the time and had started long before. There had been numerous al Qaeda attacks on US targets throughout the 90s – indeed, even the twin towers were bombed in 1993. Attacks by other groups started decades before that.  

Al Qaeda and other groups are motivated by US involvement in the Middle East and Islamic world. Support for Israel, maintenance of numerous dictatorships and common (and perceived partisan) interference in domestic politics all helped foster a sense of hatred and animosity towards the USA. For over a decade before 9/11, the fight had been raging – just not on US soil (particularly).  

To put it simply: if the US did not have decades of engagement in the Middle East, 9/11 would not have happened. 

This is not to say of course that it was deserved – that depends on personal outlook; few people ever think that their own ‘side’ deserves attack. But that it was part of a wider and pre-existing conflict is beyond sensible debate. To claim therefore that it started with the slaughter of US citizens is nonsensical. To state that the US did not choose the fight is equally illogical: had the US withdrawn from being an actor in the Middle East after the first signs of trouble (terrorist attacks) in the 1970s and 80s, the ‘fight’ would have stopped there and then. By staying the course and continuing with certain policies, the US certainly chose to keep in the ‘fight’. Who started it is perhaps best left to another post.  

The president went on to say that “the cause of securing our country is not complete” and that America has a “commitment to stand up for our values abroad”.

Two points to note: (1) the war will go on (as if anyone doubted it) and (2) it is important to consider that standing up for US values abroad means imposing US values abroad. Obama stated ‘our’ values. This is a great part of what provokes anti-US terrorism. By continuing to stand up for US values abroad, more 9/11s will be provoked. As Naim Qassem, deputy secretary general of Hezbollah, stated, “when the West moves into a region, it does so with the intention of marketing its principles (that is to say, values), in a bid to impose its ideologies in our region… They seek to impose their own Western idologies, not taking ours into consideration… From here we consider that there is a cultural conflict between us and the West”. From the horse’s mouth, so to speak. The US ‘standing up’ for US values abroad is a primary motivating factor of those who wish to perpetrate acts of terrorism against the USA. By commiting to continue this policy, further conflict is inevitable.

Sorry, our hands are tied – why Britain has Syrian ‘limitations’

Michael D. Clark

From the Foreign Policy journal morning brief, April 27, 2011:

When asked why the international community had intervened to protect civilians in Libya but not Syria, British Defense Secretary Liam Fox replied “there are limitations to what we can do.”

There are indeed limitations. The coalition government are not super-heroes you know. But what exactly are these limitations? Are there limitations particular to Syria which did not apply to Libya? Or perhaps the limitations are more of a constraint in this case.

Perhaps this might help elucidate the issue: ‘Syrian officers received training in Britain’ (The Guardian)

I remember such visitors well. The British Cadets nicknamed them ‘floppies’, in homage to their outstanding physical prowess and as an acronym for ‘Future Leader Of Potential Enemies’. But no, half a dozen alumni from Sandhurst are hardly likely to put Liam Fox off.

Maybe this will make things a little clearer: ‘Syria and UK ‘share intelligence’’ (BBC)

Now that’s more like it. “We hope that the co-operation with Britain will bring much better results in the fight against terrorism,” a senior Syrian source told the BBC.  Jolly good. It does rather depend on who the ‘terrorists’ are though…

Not to worry, the Foreign Secretary at the time, one bright young thing named David Milliband, said “Syria could play a constructive role fostering stability”. There you are then, there are certain limitations. Coyly however, Mr Milliband expressed caution, saying the country could be a “force for stability or it can be a force for instability”.

And that hits the nail squarely on the head. A major ‘limitation’ is that Britain is not troubled by Assad’s regime. It does not export terrorism to the UK; on the contrary it seems to be cooperating with our ongoing War on Terror.

Additionally, might it be that Syria benefits from a hefty protector to the East? Tehran is hardly top of Britain’s list of governments to annoy. Iran actually helped with the invasion of Iraq; such assistance is unlikely to be forthcoming in any conflict with Damascus. A connected point worth raising is that Britain has most likely learnt valuable lessons from its involvement in regime change in another nearby Arab state. There are many similarities between Iraq and Syria, such as sectarian undercurrents which may easily spin out of control, sucking in mission creep like some insurgent Charybdis.

As Mahmood Mamdani notes in his excellent review article,

“Every Middle Eastern movement that opposes the American empire–secular or religious, state or nonstate–is being drawn to Iraq, as if to a magnet, to test out its convictions. More than a year after the U.S. invasion, it has become clear that, by blowing the top off one of the region’s most efficient dictatorships, the United States has created a free-for-all for fighters of every hue–Islamist and nationalist, from the homeland and the diaspora–sparking a contest that will influence the course of political Islam for years to come”.

Hezbollah sits on the doorstep, a rather off-putting guard dog. Muqtada al-Sadr’s Mahdi Army is only a short hop away, over the border in Southern Iraq. Who knows what agents provocateurs Iran might send.

The main ‘limitation’ is that the British government cannot afford another Iraq, has no wish to anger Tehran, and probably has little desire to burn useful bridges.

What would Jibran say?

Michael D. Clark

Unfortunately I can’t work out how to post in Arabic; this English translation is a poor substitute but it will have to do. The Lebanese poet and philosopher Jibran Khalil Jibran on freedom.

A verse from The Prophet – by Jibran Khalil Jibran


Then an orator said to him: Speak to us of Freedom.

He answered:

At the city gate and by your fireside I have seen you prostrate yourselves and worship your own freedom,

Even as slaves humble themselves before a tyrant and praise him though he slays them.

Ay, in the grove of the temple and in the shadow of the citadel I have seen the freest among you wear their freedom as a yoke and a handcuff.

And my heart bled within me, for you can only be free when even the desire of seeking freedom becomes a harness to you, and when you cease to speak of freedom as a goal and a fulfilment.

You shall be free indeed when your days are not without a care nor your nights without a want and a grief,

But rather when these things girdle your life and yet you rise above them naked and unbound.

And how shall you rise beyond your days and nights unless you break the chains which you at the dawn of your understanding have fastened around your noon hour?

In truth that which you call freedom is the strongest of chains, though its links glitter in the sun and dazzle your eyes.

And what is it but fragments of you own self you would discard that you may become free? If it is an unjust law you would abolish, that law was written with you own hand upon your own forehead.

You cannot erase it by burning your law books nor by washing the foreheads of your judges, though you pour the sea upon them.

And if it is a despot you would dethrone, see first that his throne erected within you is destroyed.

For how can a tyrant rule the free and the proud, but for a tyranny in their own freedom and a shame in their own pride?

And if it is a care you would cast off, that care has been chosen by you rather than imposed upon you.

And if it is a fear you would dispel, the seat of that fear is in your heart and not in the hand of the feared.

Verily all things move within your being in constant half-embrace, the desired and the dreaded, the repugnant and the cherished, the pursued and that which you would escape.

These things move within you as lights and shadows in pairs that cling.

And when the shadow fades and is no more, the light that lingers becomes a shadow to another light.

And thus your freedom when it loses its fetters becomes itself the fetter of a greater freedom.

What’s good for the Goose isn’t good for the Gander – Israeli-British relations

 Michael D. Clark 

A few days ago, The Daily Telegraph broke a story that during the Falklands War, Israel supplied, armed and advised the Argentine Government. In the light of the huge changes in the Arab world, the deal between Hamas and the PA, and shifting public opinion towards Israel, it is time for Britain to reassess its position.

The report, which was drawn from ‘Operation Israel: the rearming of Argentina during the dictatorship (1976/1983)’ by Argentine writer and journalist Hernan Dobry, stated:

“There were five flights in total from Tel Aviv to Buenos Aires via Lima, loaded with equipment such as gas masks, radar warning systems to prevent fire from enemy missiles, air to air missiles, duvet jackets and spare parts.

Additional fuel tanks for fighter bombers supplied by Israel were particularly important for Argentina’s war effort as they enabled pilots to fly to the Falklands and return to the Argentine mainland without stopping”.

The story has since been taken up by Haaretz and was met on the comments section with the usual (A) disbelief (B) reprisals against Britain or the British and (C) howls of ‘anti-Semitism!’.

These reactions are linked. The disbelief seemed mainly based in the fact that the report came from a British newspaper. Had those who commented in this way read somewhat more carefully, they would have seen that the author of the book is an Argentine.

The usual xenophobic rants about the British were prompted by either British history in the region and/or the colonial history of Britain in the Falklands. This is not the place to undertake a detailed explanation of the history of the Falklands and the war, but it is worth noting three things. The first is that those on the land are British, have been there for centuries, and there are no Argentines there. As such they are entitled to protection from attack. The second is that to compare that situation with illegal Israeli settlements, as many commentators did, is to stretch a passing resemblance too far. The Argentine invasion was illegal according to international law, as are Israeli settlements. The Argentines were the aggressors, as are the Israelis.

The third is that it seems a common tactic of many outright supporters of Israel to immediately adopt the counter-offensive when Israel is criticised. Instead of explaining or justifying Israeli action, the norm is apparently to make spurious and ludicrous analogies and attempt to draw fire elsewhere. In the same way, both the Argentine dictatorship and the British government of the time benefited from a war which distracted citizens from some terrible domestic issues. It is a lot easier to defend the indefensible when the critic is distracted by a tangent, as I have been above.

The point raised earlier regarding anti-Semitism hardly merits comment, except to say that overuse of any term leaves it cheapened.  

Israel is no friend of Britain. This is one example of Israeli ‘friendship’; another is the misuse of British passports as part of a Mossad hit in January 2010. All states are involved in sticky business; this is not the objection raised here. The objection is that the sticky business Israel undertakes is often far from beneficial to Britain.

Abbas has said that countries that in the past had not recognized a Palestinian state, like Britain and France, would accept such a state now.

I suspect the new Palestinian state might prove a better friend than Israel – it would certainly have to excel to be worse.

Divide and Rule – they learnt it from us

 Michael D. Clark

“The Palestinian Authority must choose either peace with Israel or peace with Hamas. There is no possibility for peace with both” Netanyahu said in a statement.

And once again we see the principle of divide and rule in play. As has been noted by others, Israel’s policy of (seemingly progressive) dialogue with the PA and concurrent isolation of Hamas is designed to impede reconciliation of the Palestinian camp. Paul Pillar has noted that this policy is designed to “push Hamas into irrelevance by accentuating the contrast between the relatively more favorable way of life in the ‘good’ Palestinian territory… and the squalor in the ‘bad’ Palestinian territory”.

This reported deal between Hamas and the PA throws a spanner in the works. Will Netanyahu now be able to point at the ‘good’ Palestinians and show how much ‘better’ their course of action is than the ‘bad’ ones? Will he now be able to claim that Abbas does not represent all Palestinians?

The immense pressure of the mere statement that the PA must choose Israel or Hamas, along with no doubt other more significant actions, will most likely scupper this reunion of the Palestinian people. Additionally, with PA dependence on US aid, we must ask whether the US knew of these talks or not. If not, the US reaction and subsequent pressure on the PA would almost certainly crack the deal. The only US statement to date is this: “We have seen the press reports and are seeking more information. As we have said before, the United States supports Palestinian reconciliation on terms which promote the cause of peace. To play a constructive role, any Palestinian government must accept the Quartet principles by renouncing violence, accepting past agreements, and recognizing Israel’s right to exist”.

If however the US was aware of the talks, then we may be seeing something more unpredictable and perhaps more encouraging.