Small Arms in Syria

Elias Isquith

Elias Isquith is a freelance journalist and blogger. He considers Bob Dylan and Walter Sobchak to be the two great Jewish thinkers of our time; he thinks Kafka was half-right when he said there was hope, "but not for us"; and he can be reached through the twitter via @eliasisquith or via email. The opinions he expresses on the blog and throughout the interwebs are exclusively his own.

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16 Responses

  1. CK MacLeod says:

    Otherwise interventions on behalf of human rights will continue to be seen by many — and not unreasonably — as neoimperialism’s trojan horse.

    Or what’s unreasonable is to presume that in the final analysis hard and fast distinctions along those lines – between a human rights regime and a neoimperial regime – are ever very hard or fast.

    Put differently, R2P is inherently imperialistic or neoimperialistic, but saying so may confirm that the neoimperial interest, which most of us embrace more or less unconsciously, includes values, goals, and norms that we consider universal. In a different sphere, if we presumed that cooperative international and transnational action involving “leadership” by the major industrial powers is necessary to cope with and eventually halt destructive climate change, and will implicitly require relinquishment of elements of national sovereignty as understood historically, then combating climate change would be an authentically “neoimperial” project, but not undesirable for that reason (except to extremist right libertarians who would rather see the world destroyed than have their perfect freedoms pried from their cold dead hands etc.). Likewise, if we agree that we want a world in which nation-states don’t use chemical weapons against their peoples, or a world in which chemical and other WMD use does not spread in interstate or other conflict situations, and the only way to ensure that worthy goal is to assert and enforce a transnational imperative (there’s that root again), then we are neoimperialists, and the only reason we don’t confess as much is that we have inherited an ideological allergy to doing so.

    We want to be neoimperialists but call what we do liberal internationalism or human rights activism. Yet a global state of affairs in which human rights are guaranteed requires and would actually constitute a global state, whether or not we sing a global anthem and vote for a global president. We have found that the system that works best or at all, in other words practically, is that the nation geographically least suited to occupation and for related reasons best suited to power projection – the US of A – handles the role of global hegemon or neo-hegemon, or neo-imperial power, producing an equilibrium between nation-state and global-state responsibilities. The latter are partially, but unevenly, shared with weak, possibly nascent, possibly hollow international institutions that also provide less well-suited candidates for world cop to join forces and somewhat peaceably establish rough accountability and restraint.

    The overall picture happens to be a bloody, complicated, uneven, rough, contradictory, and difficult one, since it’s the equivalent of the administration of all of human history, including future history, in real time, but the only alternative we have known is an international state of nature, which was already often incredibly savage and destructive even under pre-modern technological and economic conditions, and reasonably judged intolerably so under modern ones.Report

  2. Shazbot5 says:

    I am not sure what to think about the whole issue, but I am worried that there is some invalid slippery slope reasoning at play in some people’s appraisal of the situation.

    What reason is there to believe we won’t just supply arms and not impose a no-fly zone, an aerial campaign, or ground troops? What is the evidence that our involvement WILL increase over time. (I get that it might increase over time, but that is always true and was true before we gave the arms.)

    IMO, you evaluate giving arms on whether that action is a good one, not whether it willlead you down the slippery slope of doing more, especially if there is little to no evidence that the slope is that slippery.

    That said, I don’t know if giving the arms is ethical or prudent at this pointa, regardless of the slippery slope.

    IMO, the real issue here is sovereignty. Does the U.S. have the right and/or the duty to interfere in Syrian affairs. There are times when a country falls apart so badly, its government is killing its own people, amd the international and local community agrees that the government isn’t legitimate, where military intervention is justified.

    But in cases like Syria, where the government has supporters, there is a civil war with ethnic fault lines, and the local and international communities are split on what to do, as the Arab community in surrounding communities is split along sectarian lines, and internationally Russia favors Syria… it is tough to figure out if you should interfere.Report

    • J@m3z Aitch in reply to Shazbot5 says:

      But in cases like Syria, where the government has supporters, there is a civil war with ethnic fault lines…it is tough to figure out if you should interfere.

      Two factors in particular make this a tough call as a humanitarian mission. One is that some of the multiple revolutionary groups are religiously oriented, interested in replacing Syria’s secular government with a religiously based one. The other is that the dominant ethnicity is a minority, unpopular for their religious beliefs* as well as for their regime’s brutality and it’s utter failure to share the fiscal benefits of the state with anyone but themselves and their supporters among the urban Sunni business class. This leads many educated observers to expect a brutal retaliation against them if/when they lose this war.
      *Assad and most of the folks in power are Alawite/Alawi a Shia offshoot with some fairly obscure practices/beliefs of its own that cause it to be viewed by many Muslims as a heretical, even non-Islamic sect. They have a history of persecution, particularly after Syrian independence, before Hafez Al-Assad grabbed power. But the relative secularism of the Alawi–for example, they see the five pillars of Islam as something to strive for, but out if reach for ordinary people, so they don’t put as much emphasis on achieving all if them–is what makes them delightful people. They have absorbed the inherent generosity if their culture and of Islam, without the moral uptightness.Report

  3. LeeEsq says:

    Shazbot lists all the reasons why intervening in Syria is a really, really bad idea. Syria is a mess and horrible things are happening in it. More people have been killed in the Syrian Civil War than the entire Arab-Israel conflict. I think that intervention in Syria is going to make things much worse and we really shouldn’t intervene because of this.

    Assad is bastard but its not really that clear whether the opposition would be much better except in the sense that leadership would be more widespread so we would have more people participating in the making of really bad decisions. The best we can do is make sure that Syrian troubles remain internal.Report

    • BlaiseP in reply to LeeEsq says:

      It doesn’t matter who wins in Syria. Egypt is what matters just now. They’re summoning up tens of thousands of jihaadis. That, folks, is going to open a Sunni-Shiite war which stretches across three time zones.Report

      • LeeEsq in reply to BlaiseP says:

        Egypt seems intent on turning itself into Pakistan-on-the-Nile. Is there anyway we can convince the Muslim-majority countries to keep the fighting among themselves and leave the rest of the world out of it?Report

  4. Stillwater says:

    These things are always overdetermined, it seems to me. We need to defend insurgents against despotic regimes! Sarin gas! Stability! Democracy! Oil!

    Take your pick, I suppose, and hang your hat on it. But I completely agree with Josh Marshall that recent history suggests that it’s time for the US to just say no to intervention. That we aren’t saying that is evidence of something I wish weren’t the case.Report

    • BlaiseP in reply to Stillwater says:

      I cannot believe Obama is stupid enough to arm the very people who were shooting our troops in Iraq.

      At any rate, this is par for the course for Obama. Half o’ this and none o’ that. Small arms aren’t what’s needed in this situation, even if the “rebels” were angels. They need antitank weaponry, surface to air missiles, precision guided munitions, drones — all of which the Syrian military has and the rebels don’t. Even if we gave them all these weapons, they wouldn’t know how to use them and we’d have to train them.

      Were Obama serious about balancing this war out, he’d do what Clinton did in Bosnia: bomb the Syrian armour and destroy their air force. He’d give Hizb’allah a richly deserved beatdown and get them the hell out of Syria. I’d beat on Hizb’allah until they stopped screaming and then I’d beat on them until they started screaming again. After what they did to COL Rich Higgins USMC, a friend of mine, I wouldn’t rest until Hizb’allah was a smoking pile of cinders. I would fucking annihilate them. They’ve been nothing but a horror for Lebanon and a proxy for Iran, another malign influence in the region. If Iran isn’t stopped in Syria, a wider war will break out in the south of Iraq. KSA and Kuwait will not stand by and watch Iran’s military take over in Damascus.Report

  5. North says:

    I’m with Sully. Obama’s opening a Pandora’s box on this one. Libya was clear cut in comparison. Once we’re involved in any way then escalation becomes a sign of strength and resolution, deescalation becomes surrender, retreat and loss. That then sets the ratchet going dragging us deep and deeper into entanglement. Syria is an utter clusterfish, I am horrified that Obama has been unable to resist putting his finger into that pie. I had assumed his enormous caution would keep him out of such adventures. Alas I fear that the siren song is beginning to be heard “Legacy! Legacy!” He’s afraid he’ll be remembered as craven.

    God(ess?) help us if he fishes this up.Report

    • BlaiseP in reply to North says:

      Russia and Iran are already involved. If Assad is allowed to win this one conclusively with outside help, then the doo-doo will indeed hit the whirling blades of fate. But small arms? That’s far too little, far too late.

      Russia is already making Diplomatic Noises about a no-fly zone in Syria, though that option hasn’t even been put on the table at this point. Assad needs a Pointed Reminder, pronto. He’s hoping he can do as his father did in Hama and get away with it. If Obama doesn’t act, now, believe me, this fire will spread farther and faster than any of us can imagine.

      Even Bill Clinton is disgusted with Obama just now. As with Bosnia, the world looked on, especially those feckless Europeans, with one thumb in their mouths and the other in their asses, periodically switching them out, as the Serbians conducted the longest siege in the history of modern warfare. Obama needs to do exactly the same. Clinton didn’t put boots on the ground for well after a year of lifting the siege of Sarajevo. Clinton’s war ended with trials in the Hague. Syria needs to end the same way.Report

      • North in reply to BlaiseP says:

        I’m a big Clinton fan but isn’t Syria a much tougher problem than Serbia BP? For one I don’t recall the Serbians having much in the way of air defense. Word is Syria has a nasty little array of anti air defenses. Also was Russia backing Serbia the way it’s backing Syria?

        Also I’m a bit vague on what doo-doo is going to hit the fan if Assad pulls it off? I mean from a realist point of view I look at Syria and I see Al Qaeda and Hezbollah quite literally killing each other. I see Iran, who we’re not exactly chummy with, fighting a proxy war with some nominal allies who’d otherwise be spending that dough on funding Wahhabi extremist generating madrases world wide. I see Arabs all over the middle east furious with Assad, furious with Iran but compared to their usual anti-american fury I don’t see em getting enormously worked up about us staying out.

        Now from a humanitarian point of view it’s obviously an epic horror but can we really straighten it out? I mean we could bomb the living crap out of the place (and take our lumps busting their air defense) but is that really going to make the Arab street love us any more? I’m dubious. Only way you’d stop the sectarian killing that seems to be pretty much lined up now in Syria’s future would be with troops and if Obama is insane enough to even consider it he’ll get ridden out of DC on a rail.Report

  6. Kolohe says:

    Maybe the current Administration will bring Ollie North out of retirement.Report

  7. George Turner says:

    It’s hard for me to find much to firmly say about the Syrian intervention, good or bad. US intervention could help prevent a massive Sunni-Shiite sectarian war, or it could make one far more likely. If Assad is going to get toppled, supply arms to moderate rebel groups could help prevent radical terrorists from claiming victory and creating a regional future far worse than the past, or it could pave the way for a radical takeover by being the increment of force that can topple Assad while being insufficient to reestablish order, leaving a power vacuum that al Nusra, al Qaeda, and a vast swath of jihadists will fill.

    If Assad wins it will embolden Iran and Hezbollah, yet the Assad’s have run Syria for decades and an Assad victory would merely mark a return to the status quo ante. Although almost nobody in the region and the world liked the Syrian government, except other bad actors, we are at least used to coping with them. In the abstract, an Assad win would just be a missed opportunity, not a disaster. Of course in reality, his victory will see his forces slaughtering suspected Sunni rebels in every village, town, and city, the very thing that is driving the region toward sectarian war and attracting a generation of jihadists to rally to the opposition.

    Politically, Hezbollah was largely washed up in Lebanon prior to this (once fighting Israel was out of the picture, they went from being perceived as patriots to dismissed as worthless thugs). Yet they still existed as a threat in being. If they get destroyed in Syria it will be a great improvement for the region, but if their ranks are swelled by Shiite recruits and they get unlimited arms from Syria and Iran they’ll get reinvigorated.

    It’s hard to know whether persuasive or nuanced arguments from State and CIA finally convinced Obama to act, or whether he made the decision off the cuff in response to the crippling scandalanche, or whether he’s just another Sunni who wants to smack some Shiites down. However, I predict we’ll just do things halfway, with no clear purpose to most of it, flail around, and then run from the aftermath and blow back. Given the nature of most of the front line fighters, our best option is probably to provide lots of close air support – with nukes.Report

  8. DRS says:

    See now, if Assad had been thinking properly, he’d have used napalm instead of sarin. That has, shall we say, precedent behind it.

    I cannot believe America is going to do this again. After Vietnam. After siding with the anti-Soviet forces in Afghanistan – which worked out so well in the long run, didn’t it? After Afghanistan the Sequel – America’s longest war. After Iraq. Is nothing allowed to get in the way of American vanity? Do you seriously believe that you can guide the outcome of a war like you’re playing a video game? Have the past dozen years taught you nothing?

    You have no business intervening in a civil war. This is not going to end well for you. And please don’t moan to the rest of us about “they hate us for our freedoms” when it blows up on you. Literally.Report

  9. Damon says:


    I’ve been “away from the news” for a bit, but I don’t recall seeing any evidence of Sarin gas use. I’m sure the evidence is “classified” so us proles can’t see it. I find it unlikely that Assad would use it knowing that that would open the floodgates to our intervention. More likely that it’s a set up. That being said, we should not be going in anyway.

    That regime change in Libya and Egypt and Afghanistan and Iraq are all turning out so well. Responsibility to Protect? Please, only if it’s in our strategic interest, never a goal in and of itself. The whole region is going up in flames and we’re fanning it.

    And folks wonder why I’m an anti-interventionist.Report