Getting Kofi Annan for Free*
   by Michael Neumann, followed by a reply to Matt Carr

There are two live options in Syria. The first is (at least) arming the FSA. The second is letting Assad continue to torture and murder. Since only the first option will stop Assad, there are no other choices.

Of course, no one thinks of themselves as backing the second option. They call it by many different names. Some are just slogans that don't sound like an option at all. "Don't trust the imperialists and neoliberals!" "We support the Syrian people in their nonviolent struggle." "Let negotiations take their course." "Libya was a disaster!" "There will be civil war!" "The opposition has committed human rights violations!" "The West is hypocritical!" "The Gulf States are hypocritical!" "We don't know who the opposition is!" "This may lead to a Sunni-Shia bloodbath!" "Don't fall for the warmongering press; remember Iraq!"

Some of these statements are reasonable, but that changes nothing. If you're against arming the FSA, you're for letting Assad torture and murder. You may not want to admit it, least of all to yourself, but that's what you favor. In leftist jargon, you 'objectively' support Assad. Your slogans are just excuses.

The excuses come in roughly three categories. Some deny the realities. Some fantasize about solutions. Some raise spectres.

Denying realities

Denying realities comes in two varieties, crazy and sleazy.

James Petras exemplifies crazy:

There is clear and overwhelming evidence that the uprising to overthrow President Assad of Syria is a violent, power grab led by foreign-supported fighters who have killed and wounded thousands of Syrian soldiers, police and civilians, partisans of the government and its peaceful opposition.

"Clear and overwhelming evidence"? Petras provides not one single reference to anything at all. He probably just takes the Russian newspapers as authoritative and everything else as entirely valueless. Before the internet, this might have worked. It was easy to say "nothing to see here!" when Pol Pot was in power. It's harder today, when the opposition in Syria has uploaded 190,000 (not a misprint) videos of what's happening, and journalists do manage to report from the scene.

Sleazy, as you'd expect, looks much better. Here is Matt Carr, writing for Stop the War Coalition:

[Western reporters] have, for the most part, accepted a fairytale version of the Syrian conflict in which a) an utterly evil dictator is slaughtering a peaceful and unarmed opposition that represents the 'Syrian people' in its entirety, b) crimes and atrocities are only committed by one side and c) the interests of the 'international community' in Syria are entirely driven by a humanitarian desire to 'stop the violence.'
To say that this narrative does not fully encapsulate the complexities of the conflict would be an understatement. It isn't surprising that governments whose essential goal in Syria is regime change should be peddling this version of the conflict. But the fact that so many journalists and media outlets are uncritically and unquestioningly peddling the same mythologies, is a depressing reminder that press freedom and the absence of censorship is not always synonymous with independent thought or even basic journalist [sic] standards.

The advantage of this stylish gesturing is that no questions of evidence even arise. Yes, Matt, media tend to be slanted and not to tell the whole story. Does that mean Assad is not an utterly evil dictator, or that the opposition's atrocities were on a par with his own? Human Rights Watch, talking about him, must be another one of those mainstream dummies:

The level of torture is not comparable to any other conflict I've worked on," said Anna Neistat, associate director for Program and Emergencies at Human Rights Watch, who has worked for more than a decade in crises from Chechnya to Zimbabwe to Sri Lanka.
"There are a disproportionate number of children trapped in this system. Children are tortured alongside adults and are even subject to more brutal torture as interrogators believe children could crack faster and give them names."

What's so sleazy is the suggestion that somehow, hidden facts are going to tip the balance in favor of letting Assad torture and murder some more. Hidden facts about what? In World War II, the allies had some hidden agendas and committed many atrocities. This would not have been justification for backing Hitler, or for claiming the two sides were equally bad.

Fantasy solutions

These are more popular than denying the realities. The idea here is that we have an urgent situation which calls for leisurely alternatives. Thus John Pilger, who applauds

[Alasdair] "Crooke's attempt to explain to a media salivating for "intervention" in Syria that the civil war in that country requires skilled and patient negotiation, not the provocations of the British SAS and the familiar bought- and-paid-for exiles who ride in Anglo-America's Trojan horse.

Someone who actually thinks skilled and patient negotiation will do the trick is in no shape to warn us about Trojan horses. So would say that well-known Sunni fanatic and shill for the Americans Walid Jumblatt:

Anyone who believes that a settlement can be reached with the Assad family is crazy.

Oh well, another dupe, I suppose.

Others, perhaps not living amidst torture and murder, love non-violence. What follows, for example, comes from a statement endorsed by many apparently well-meaning Canadian organizations such as Solidarity for Palestinian Human Rights and Independent Jewish Voices:

Recognizing the diversity of Syrian society and understanding the harmful consequences of any foreign military intervention, much of the popular movement for change in Syria has been committed to three fundamental principles: non-violent struggle; unity and equality of Syrians; and self-determination, which precludes foreign military intervention.

and later:

In solidarity with the Syrian people, we declare our support for the Strike for Dignity and its demands. We believe that international solidarity for the strike, and more broadly for the movement, can play a role in maintaining the principled, accountable and effective nature of the movement for freedom and dignity, and help prevent a slide into civil war.
At the same time, we categorically oppose foreign military intervention. The violence the state is using to quell the uprising, especially in Homs, is outrageous, and we must respond urgently, using all means at our disposal to protect the Syrian people and their struggle for self-determination. But foreign military intervention will not help stem the bloodshed - on the contrary, it will only lead to greater loss of life and destruction.

To be clear, these people are against not only bombing or invasion, but simply arming the rebels: "Military intervention and armed conflict [my italics] will imperil the integrity and success of the so-far non-violent revolution in Syria." and "No to militarization of the struggle!"

Here we're offered 'solutions' that no rational being would even consider. A strike? This was tried in Syria months ago, with minimal effect. Non-violence? after a year of non-violent protests, the idea that this could work in Syria is beneath contempt. 'International solidarity'? There's been a lot of that, yet those ungrateful Syrians still complain about being, well, tortured and murdered. These proposals marry a pretense of rational analysis with a completely irrational disregard of the most obvious evidence.

How do those who deny reality and/or advocate fantasy solutions get anyone to take them seriously? They bolster their case with spectres.


For some light relief, consider the very popular concern that aiding the FSA will plunge Syria into civil war. Right now, the largest field artillery calibre employed by the US army is 155mm; the largest mortar is 160mm. Assad is using 240mm mortars to shell residential areas; rockets are used to deliver even heavier munitions. Ban Ki-moon speaks of war zones. So what's happening, now, if not civil war? Crowd control? peace in our time? UFC Extreme Hyper-Sadistic Apocalyptic Slugfest?

There's another favorite, an outbreak of sectarian strife. On this account, the cure might be worse than the disease. Suppose that's true. It provides no rationale for letting Assad have his way. It's bad afterwards, that doesn't mean, do nothing now. It means there's more to be done. Do we suppose that, since a flood might be followed by disease and food shortages, we shouldn't help people escape the flood?

'Experts' like Aaron David Miller, writing in Foreign Policy, use the sectarian strife spectre to raise another one, rushing into things. Let's not get guilted into doing something anytime soon: "We should stop beating ourselves up for once." Let's just relax and think things through. Later, maybe, we should do something, possibly, eventually...

This is plain silly for three reasons. First, maybe, possibly eventually is already here. It's been over a year. Contingency plans are known to have been in place for quite some time. So define "rush". Second, define "into things". Miller and others make much of the difficulties of full-scale intervention, and suspiciously little of the ease of providing arms, which cannot lead to a quagmire and which worked very well for the US in the 1980s, in Afghanistan, which, also suspiciously, isn't mentioned. Which leads us to number three: presumably the allegedly looming ethnic or confessional conflicts get more and the more likely as time goes on and the blood keeps flowing. Why, then, would letting time pass make intervention a more palatable choice? How can a bad outcome become more attractive as its likelihood increases?

Finally there is that über-spectre, The Horrible West. Like so many really destructive ideas, this one relies on truths to introduce obfuscation and falsehood.

The obfuscation comes from serving up the Iraq and Afghanistan wars as bogus cases of humanitarian intervention. But these adventures weren't even called humanitarian intervention, and no one took Bush's humanitarian pretensions very seriously. Instead we heard about terror, weapons of mass destruction and, from the left, oil. In fact the West has rarely gone in for the real thing. Kosovo and Libya are genuine cases, and questionable, but nothing like Afghanistan or Iraq. Two other Western-staged or supported interventions, in Sierra Leone and Liberia, were relatively successful. And what of the cases where the West did not intervene? Are we to be thankful that the dastardly imperialists did nothing in Rwanda, and do nothing in the Congo today? Are these genocides preferable to giving the naughty West some brownie points? Some seem actually to believe this; that having sinned, the West must be denied the opportunity, the grace, to redeem itself.

In any case, this spectre is over-rated. Western imperialism is not as fresh and fit as it was in, say, 1890. In the Middle East, the US has just lost two big wars, in Iraq and Afghanistan. In fact imperialism has never been as dominant in the region as the left would love to believe. The Saudis, have, for over half a century, increased the ownership share and royalties demanded of foreign oil companies, and foreign powers have simply capitulated to these practices. In Lebanon, the Americans were blown to bits and beat a hasty retreat. Turkey has always been independent. Israel is certainly no colony and treats America with contempt. Even Iraq today is uncooperative. Only Jordan and some emirates really fit the bill; even they rely almost as much on the Saudis.

Things change. Today, oil is America's ticket out of the Middle East. "The U.S., now the world’s fastest-growing oil producer, supplies about 80 per cent of its consumption. U.S. dependence on imported oil is at a 17-year low."** The Western Hemisphere is now estimated to hold 300 years' worth of reserves. America's chief ambition is to disengage from the Middle East and its oil, not to use Syria as some hard-to-imagine platform for imperial dreams.

But granted that the West has done some terrible things, and is not to be trusted, what are we to infer from that? Suppose a gang of sadists has trapped a family in a warehouse. The youngest daughter, ten, is being gang-raped in front of the rest. The younger brother has been sodomized with a broken bottle. The elder daughter will be raped, then sliced to pieces, alive. The older brother is having his flesh torn out with pliers, which are also being used to pull out his toenails. The father will be burnt alive after he's partially skinned alive. (Oh sorry, none of that is really hypothetical.) Now I don't trust the police one bit and I know they've done terrible things. Does that mean I don't call the police? Does the possibility that they will do something bad outweigh the certainty that if I don't call them, this will all continue?

Either or

The spectres are really excuses, unsuccessful ones. What's happening in Syria, like what happened in Tunisia and Libya and Egypt, has no precedent and there is no basis for prediction of outcomes. Yes indeed, the new order may be as bad as the old. Yes indeed, there may be endless strife, abject failure and utter defeat. Or not: we don't even know enough to preclude miracles; we have nothing to go on but a failure to predict what has happened already.

There is only one certainty: that what is happening now is so barbaric as to make all the daily cruelties and injustices of the world look small. Nothing but Assad's overthrow can help, and the motives don't matter. If impure nations want to meddle, they deserve encouragement and support . If the new order is just as bad, then whatever it takes to restrain it will be justified. Right now, let's hope that the phony, one-sided scepticism about Syria has no influence. Otherwise the sceptics, these partisans of reason, negotiation and nonviolence, are in the service of Assad's torturers - and the more vociferously they deny any such intention, the more useful their services will be.

* Sign at a Syrian demonstration: "Special Offer: Bleed for one full year, and get a free Kofi Annan". Many thanks to Michael Nahum for the translation.

** David Olive, "Gas prices: How Wall Street helps pump prices defy supply and demand".

Response to Carr

Just a few points about Matt Carr's April 15th response to my attack on him for a do-nothing position on Syria.

Carr says, no, it doesn't come down to a choice between arming the FSA and letting Assad continue to torture and murder: "But the current (admittedly fragile) ceasefire suggests that these are not the only choices." Perhaps this is an attempt at humour. There are no other choices because Assad both will not and now cannot change: he must eliminate the opposition or flee as best he can. His insulated outlook precludes fleeing just as it did in Gaddafi's case. Any truce can be no more than an intermission. When the coast is clear, his assaults resume. Even if Carr doesn't get this, people in the Middle East (I cited Jumblatt) do.

I insisted that the only real choices were to arm the FSA or let Assad continue to torture and murder. Carr replies: "Then, as now, such arguments were often couched in the same either/or terms. Do you oppose the NATO bombing of Afghanistan? Then you want the Taliban to enslave Afghan women. Are you against the Anglo-American invasion of Iraq? Then you want Saddam to stay in power and feed people into shredding machines. Opposed to the NATO bombing of Libya? Then you must be an apologist for Gaddafi who prefers to see a massacre in Benghazi."

I'll focus on the first two analogies. The Afghanistan one is really terrible, because the Taliban (and non-Taliban) enslavement of Afghan women is doing just fine whether or not NATO bombs. In addition, this was foreseeable. As I and many others argued years ago, intervention was bound to fail. If Carr wants to argue that the intervention in Syria must fail, more power to him, but it will be tough to do.

As for the invasion of Iraq, there may have been other alternatives, e.g., overthrowing Saddam Hussein by means other than the activities of lying idiots. Turkey, Iran, and Kuwait might have been encouraged to undermine him. Moreover Saddam Hussein, for all his past outrages, was not visiting catastrophe on his people, as Assad is doing today. Iraq's situation was very much like Syria's *before* the current crisis and *before* there was anyone to arm or anyone anyone wanted to arm. There was no ongoing civil uprising, like in Syria and Libya.

That said, even the less catastrophic situations of pre-invasion Afghanistan and Iraq did indeed offer hard choices. It's quite *true* that if you opposed invasion, your choice *did* amount to supporting Saddam Hussein, as he would have been the first to tell you. It's also true that if you were against any sort of armed interference in Afghanistan, you had chosen to do nothing serious about the enslavement of Afghan women. We made these choices look easy by ignoring what they entailed. It seems this was a bad idea, because now we obscure *another* hard choice with *another* sort of pretense, that the senile fussing of the UN can make everything all right.

In Iraq and Afghanistan, no real harm was done or *could be done*, because the anti-intervention voices counted for nothing. Now, the anti-intervention voices may well play a significant role; they do not oppose the Western governments, but reinforce their hesitation.

Carr says: "Just for the record, I am not an Assad supporter. The Arab world has been governed for too long by dynastic rulers that believe they have a right to rule indefinitely, that treat their populations like children and administer brutal punishment at the slightest sign of dissent or protest." But no one gives a shit whether he is an Assad supporter; they only care whether his choices support Assad. They do, and that's a crime.