Sunday, May 26, 2013

Why Syria is More Serious Than We Are Being Told

F-117 Nighthawk


The press coverage of the civil war in Syria started by telling us that the opposition were activists seeking freedom, presumably things like our First Amendment freedoms of speech, press, assembly, religion, and even to vote, from an oppressive dictatorial regime.  It was, they told us, all of a piece with the Arab Spring. Only slowly did it start to leak out that the conflict was actually about a Sunni majority seeking to overthrow a minority Alawite-Shi'ite regime, not to establish freedom but to establish a Sunni regime.

Still, the story went, the rule of a majority is more like democracy than the rule of a minority and some of the Sunni rebels as they started to be called  were fighting for a secular democratic Syria.  Calling them "activists", people who go to meetings and demonstrations and organize committees and hand out leaflets, was getting pretty thin even for our press when there were pictures of them shooting Kalashnikovs and anti-tank weapons.  There has yet to be an any public admission that they never were activists.

These activists, these concerned citizens, somehow had large amounts of firearms and stockpiles of ammunition.  My sister is a long-time activist in Marin County politics but, unless she is keeping something from me, she has no anti-tank weapons in her garage nor rocket-propelled grenades, nor Kalashnikov rifles.  Which is nothing for her to be ashamed of - lots of people don't have them.  Only dribs and drabs of where the money for the weapons and the weapons themselves came from.  That has turned out to be Qatar and Saudi Arabia and the international arms black market.

This made a joke of the prior press reports, presumably by people who, like all reporters, claimed they were telling the truth, that the rebels were secular Arab Spring activists like the hundreds of thousands of unarmed Egyptians who filled Tahrhir Square night after night.   When it became clear that many of the heavily-armed rebels were actually affiliated with al-Qaeda and similar Salafist groups, the press narrative changed to how they were an unspecified sub-group, presumably a minority, within the rebel camp and that we as Americans should help the non-al-Qaeda rebels to keep the al-Qaeda groups from taking over the rebel movement.  The press continued to maintain that the people fighting the regime, even if not exactly activists, nor exactly secular rebels, were at least an uprising against an unpopular and oppressive regime.  And how could we oppose that?

But even though the money and arms were coming from foreign sources, the press led us to believe that it was only fair because the regime had the weapons, money, and organization of the national army.  Outside money and arms no more than leveled the playing field (an impossibly stupid and vicious sports metaphor - people are generally not killed with machine guns and explosives during soccer matches - except in England.)   This story also began to fray as interview after interview showed that some significant fraction of the "activists" were foreign Sunni jihadis, many of them veterans of Iraq and Afghanistan.  What we were told was an uprising against an oppressive military regime began to look more like an armed invasion by outsiders.

Syria, as I have noted here before, is only an instance of a larger zone of conflict between Sunnis and Shi'ites.  This zone stretches in a vast arc from Lebanon on the Mediterranean through Syria, Iraq, Iran, to Kuwait, eastern Saudi Arabia, Qatar, and the UAE (United Arab Emirates) on the Persian Gulf..  The big dog among the Shi'ites is Iran.  The leading powers among the Sunnis are Egypt, Turkey, and Saudi Arabia.  This arc happens to match roughly what used to be called the Fertile Crescent.  It is conceivable that the place where civilization began could be the place where it ends. The Fertile Crescent may become the Fatal Crescent.

A public demonstration of the Sunni vs. Shi'ite character of the Syrian civil war has been the role of Hezbollah.  Hezbollah is a nominally Lebanese, specifically Shi'ite, terrorist militia.  It has fought two wars with Israel and lost them both,  Our press claimed that Hezbollah somehow "won" the last one because Israel did not kill every last one of them.  The Gentlemen of the Press blithely ignored that Israel's war aim was not to conquer Lebanon but to make Hezbollah stop shooting rockets at civilians in their northern cities, specifically Haifa.  The IAF (Israel Air Force) and IDF artillery put such a beating on Hezbollah that the "victors" have fired no rockets since, and Haifa lives in peace.

Hezbollah is not Syrian except to the extent that Syria has been a conduit for Iranian arms and money.  Yet Hezbollah has now marched into Syria and entered the war on the side of the Alawite/Shi'ite regime.  Hezbollah, officially designated a terrorist organization by both the United States and the European Union, is now one of the main pillars of the Syrian regime.  It is an irony of the Middle East that Syria, which conquered and then occupied much of Lebanon for many years, is now in a fair way of being occupied from  Lebanon.

Still, so what?  It was and is hard to gin up much sympathy for a minoritarian military dictatorship, especially one as reputedly nasty and brutal as the al-Assad regime.  Why should we care which collection of brutal thugs runs Syria?  People of good will came to see the question not as which thugs should rule, but how most quickly to end the war and its disastrous effects on the great mass of the civilian population.

Here the press came up with a new story - that the conflict could be settled and peace restored if only al-Assad were to go.  This seemed eminently sensible.  The worst that was likely to happen to al-Assad and his family if he left power was that they would spend the rest of their lives in the comfort of the Old Dictators Retirement Community (which used to be the fancy resort town of Estoril in Portugal.  Decades ago Patty and I saw their beachfront villas with their bodyguards and their Rolls-Royces.).

 As with so many other press explanations, the flaw in the argument was that it wasn't true.  Bashar al-Assad is not just a military dictator, he is also a dynast.  He rules Syria because his father, Hafez al-Assad, ruled Syria.  He is the one person on whom all the factions in the regime can agree.  Without the political focus of loyalty to the al-Assad family to unite it, the regime, which is under enormous pressure because of the war, would likely collapse.  Which is precisely why the opposition demands his ouster.  Why else would they care whether the dictator were al-Assad rather than someone else just like him?  So that is a scam.  One eagerly pushed on their media audience by the press, but a scam.

Affairs had gotten that far when the Obama administration proposed at the UN that a peace conference be convened with the understanding that the prearranged outcome would be that al-Assad would go and that Iran would not be invited.  The Putin administration vetoed it in the Security Council.


But why?  The press hinted broadly that it was on account of Putin being an authoritarian and a bad guy and besides he was mean to Pussy Riot.  (As an aside, how much jail time would Pussy Riot have gotten had they done the same thing in the Washington National Cathedral?  Probably about the same.  The guy who hit Willie Brown in the face with a pie when he was mayor of San Francisco got six months for it.)
It is beginning to leak out through dribs and drabs of information in the better newspapers (e.g. the Wall Street Journal) that there are two big reasons why the Putin administration cares desperately about what happens in Syria.  One is that they have a naval base there, at Tartus on the Mediterranean coast of Syria.  Getting run out of Syria by the Sunni rebels would be a huge defeat and loss of face for Russia.

Second there are, according to one report "tens of thousands of Russians" in Syria.  They aren't expatriates living there because Syria is such a pleasant country.  They are there to support the al-Assad regime as technical experts, medical personnel, teachers, and such.  If the war goes badly for the regime they would have to be evacuated to avoid becoming hostages.  If the Russian government were to withdraw those advisers it would likely lead to the quick collapse of the al-Assad regime, followed by a massacre of those Russians who could not get out in time and of course every Alawite (Shi'ite) in the country, by the victorious Sunnis.

That is the short term consequence that Moscow fears.  The longer term consequence is that another Russian defeat by Sunni Muslims (after Afghanistan) would embolden and legitimize Muslim separatists in Russia itself.  Muslims make up 14% of the Russian population, about 20 million people, almost all Sunnis.  Unlike in Europe or America, they are not primarily urban nor are they immigrants.  They are territorial majorities in many areas in the south and east of Russia, such as Chechnya and Daghestan where they have lived for centuries. They typically have their own cultures and languages and regard Russia as an imperial overlord.  The brothers Tsarnaev were Chechens.

The Russians fought not one but two long and bloody wars to suppress the attempted secession of Chechnya.  The Chechen separatist movement was and is explicitly Islamist.  In 2002 during the Second Chechen War, 40 Chechens seized the Dubrovka Theater in Moscow during a performance and took 850 Russians hostage.  In the retaking of the theater by security forces 130 Russians and all 40 Chechens were killed.  Mother Russia does not take kindly to mass killings of Russians in Moscow.

The parallel with 9-11 the previous year was obvious.   While 9-11 was traumatic for us, in Russia the attack came from within Russia's own borders.  Imagine if 9-11 had come, not from remote and foreign Afghanistan, but from the Texas or Alaska independence movements. How would we look on anybody who encouraged those movements afterwards?   In Russia, suppressing Sunni rebellions abroad which could embolden and legitimize Sunni separatists at home is what we would call 'Homeland Security'.

In the near term Russia faces the loss of its Syrian protectorate and the possible massacre of thousands of Russians living in Syria.  In the longer term Russia faces the prospect of moral, political, and even material support from a victorious Sunni rebellion in Syria to potential Sunni rebellions in Russia.  The Putin administration are not just being troublemakers.   They are protecting vital Russian national interests.


None of the combatants in Syria is any friend of Israel and on the face of it, it shouldn't matter much which tyrannical regime is in power in Damascus so long as they leave Israel alone.  But the connection with Hezbollah changes everything.  The safety of Haifa and indeed all of Galilee, depends on the IAF having command of the skies over Israel, Lebanon, and Syria,

Israel made it clear by direct action what their interests are.  Israeli fighter jets destroyed at least two major arms shipments being sent from Syria to Hezbollah in Lebanon.

For reasons that are not clear, Russia has transferred A-300 ground-to-air anti-aircraft missiles to Syria.  The Sunni rebels have no airplanes so the regime has no need for ground-to-air missiles against them.  Indeed the missiles are a threat to the government forces because if they were captured they could be turned against the regime's own aircraft.  The missiles make no sense as aid to the Syrian regime but they make a lot of sense if they are intended not for Syria but for Hezbollah.  Clearly they are intended to shoot down Israeli aircraft not Syrian ones.  My speculation is that they were Hezbollah's price for sending their army to fight in Syria.

One can imagine a debate within Putin's cabinet on whether to send armed Russian "advisers" to support the al-Assad regime.  Arming Hezbollah with anti-aircraft missiles is likely almost as distasteful in Moscow as it is in Washington (missiles that can shoot down Israeli planes over Galilee can also shoot down Russian planes over Chechnya) but it would be seen in the Kremlin as a lesser evil than sending Russian troops.  In this regard the American experience in Iraq and both the US and Soviet experiences in Afghanistan would be instructive.

Prime Minister Netanyahu made a special trip to Moscow to talk to President Putin about it.  While he reported that Putin had refused his request to not send the missiles, it is not the way of heads of state talking about sensitive negotiations with other heads of state to be completely open and candid with the public.  So there is no knowing what actually transpired in the Putin-Netanyahu talks nor what, if anything, was agreed.


The United States is the ally of Israel and cannot stand idly by while missiles, especially Russian missiles, rain down on its cities.  The defense against the A-300 is probably American stealth technology, on the theory that one can't hit what one can't see.  Stealth fighter planes, being invisible to radar, could destroy the A-300 batteries before their operators knew the fighters were coming.

Stealth is enormously expensive and only the US has  it.  It works.   Stealth is the reason US forces were able to defeat Saddam Hussein's army in only 100 hours.   The Stealth fighters destroyed the radars around Baghdad because the Iraqis never saw them coming until it was too late.  Once the radars were gone the rest of the destruction was inflicted by conventional attack bombers.

It is hard to imagine that the US would let Israel have its way-ahead-of-what-everyone-else-has technology.  The temptation to reverse-engineer American stealth aircraft and manufacture their own would be overwhelming.  The US has complained before of Israel selling American military technology to unfriendly countries like China.

Alternately the US could bomb Hezbollah's A-300 batteries ourselves.  But that would be direct involvement in yet another Middle Eastern war.  Plus there would be the enormous risk that the missile batteries would be manned by Russians.  Americans killing Russians would be a disaster and in the worst case could lead to a renewed Cold War.

The only simple solution I can see is the destruction of the missile batteries with swarms of unmanned Israeli drones if that is militarily possible.  While the Russians would be outraged if their people were hurt or killed in the process, the Israelis would be defending their territory and their citizens and would do so no matter what the diplomatic consequences.  Presumably the Russians would foresee that and not put their people in harm's way.  Again, assuming that it is militarily possible to destroy anti-aircraft missile batteries with swarms of drones.


Every major Sunni country - mainly Saudi Arabia, Egypt, Turkey, and the various Gulf states - is vitally involved in supporting the insurgency.  There are Shi'ite majorities ruled by Sunni minorities along the whole southern coast of the Persian Gulf including eastern Saudi Arabia.  The south coast of the Persian Gulf is also where most of the Middle East oil is.  A Shi'ite victory in Syria could destabilize every government in the main oil producing areas.

Iran, the main Shi'ite power, is co-sponsor of the Alawite-Shi'ite regime in Syria and owns the northern coast of the Gulf.  Iran would face isolation and Sunni encirclement if al-Assad were to fall.

Even Turkey has cause for concern.  If the Syrian regime falls, it is possible that Syria's Kurdish northeast would seek and possibly get autonomy in the chaotic aftermath of the war.  An autonomous Syrian Kurdistan next to an already autonomous Iraqi Kurdistan would raise the specter of Kurdish unification.  Since the whole southeast of Turkey is ethnically Kurdish, this could cause Turkey big trouble internally.

Which means that this long brutal war figures to become even longer and more brutal.  Because so many parties are so vitally interested in the outcome, it is hard to imagine that it can be settled by anything but outright victory for one side and massacre for the other.  The stakes are far higher than just who runs Syria.


  1. Jasmin2:13 PM

    Our brothers in Syria now have a defense system to fend off the Jihadist threats along with the Zionist threat. Missiles that can take down Israeli jets. Israel's day's are numbered, the wind is changing Jack and I couldn't be happier.

  2. Anonymous1:15 PM

    Where are you? We miss you.

  3. I am so glad Jasmin is back, still making a fool of herself with her ignorance.

  4. The Israeli Air Force destroyed a cache of Syrian weapons destined for Hezbollah yesterday. So much for Jasmin's "brothers in Syria" and their defense system. Jasmin, why do you bother to have an opinion when you so clearly don't know what you are talking about?

  5. Jasmin2:43 PM

    Here I am Jack. And could not be happier. You're dirty little Israel tried to stop us getting the bomb, now we rejoice. Sanctions are lifted and we have the right to nuclear. Israel will be nothing.

  6. Iran is an international outlaw nation. Its days are numbered - the weapons that will destroy it are not bombs and missiles but natural gas wells in Canada and the United States, Norway and Qatar, even Russia. Natural gas is cleaner, cheaper, safer to transport, and does not pollute except for CO2. As the demand for oil contracts its price will fall and the Iranian economy will contract and fall with it. What will the Iranians do for a living then? Sell each other dates? Or will you compete with China in factory production? Not likely. Or with Israel in high-tech? Even less likely. Your mullahs will ride the dying economy into the ground. There will still be a market for petroleum to make lubricants and petrochemicals. It will be about one percent of the current world demand. Iran will be as poor and backward (and as forgotten) as Paraguay and the Central African Republic.

    As the Iranian economy circles the drain, Kurds, the Azeris, the Baluchs, the Arabs, and all the other subject nationalities will begin to escape Persian domination. Iran will soon begin to unravel like a badly-made rug. It will fall apart like the Soviet Union and Yugoslavia did. Lenin called the Russian Empire "a prison of nations". Iran is the same. The Tsar and Shah are gone. The Soviet Communist Party is gone. The mullahs will soon be gone too. They will be trampled in the subject nationalities' rush for the exits just as the Soviet regime was.