As often noted here, one of the very best analysts of the Middle East writing today is the acerbic and astute As’ad AbuKhalil, the “Angry Arab.” Below he offers up a critique of Noam Chomsky’s recent take on the situation in Syria, and finds it marred by false analogies:
I don’t know who Chomsky talks to learn about the Syrian non-revolution and I don’t know what he is relying on to follow-up developments on Syria but he seems to me woefully ill-informed. I am quite displeased with his analysis here. The worst part is when he draws an analogy to the Vietcong. Vietcong? The Syrian rebels are reactionary and conservative and anti-revolutionary forces (and I am talking about the armed bands of the Free Syrian Army which the US considers “moderate” and not about the obvious right-wing reactionaries of the Jihadi groups) and can’t be compared to communist liberation movements. To Chomsky I say: the Syrian rebels are the Contras of Syria, and not the Sandinistas of Syria. And also, it is not a coincidence that Prince Bandar, who had helped fund the Contras–as Chomsky remembers–is the same man who is now organizing all funding and arming for the Syrian rebels. I don’t want to invoke analogies too much because I detest the Asad regime much more than I dislike the Sandinistas, especially Ortega. So I am on board in considering the Asad regime also a counter-revolutionary regime and his regime is not revolutionary like the Sandinistas when they came to power. But the Syrian rebels (supported and armed by the likes of Saudi Arabia, Qatar, UAE, Jordan, US, France, Germany, UK among other non-progressive forces) have to be considered for what they are: counter-revolutionary forces who are responsible for the GCC hijacking of a potential revolution in Syria….
Of course, historical analogies are always dicey — witness Kerry and Obama’s witless evocations of Hitler, and the neocon warhawks’ endless cries of “Munich” in any and every situation where the Imperium refrains from (or, in most cases, merely delays) the mass, indiscriminate slaughter of human beings. However, used judiciously, and informed by historical knowledge and nuance, they can be of some use in helping put current situations in a broader context.
In the case of Syria, I think the most useful historical analogy might be Afghanistan in late 70s and 80s. Then, as now, you have an unsavory and often brutal one-party state committed to secularism and modernity beset by an insurgency led by retrograde religious fundamentalists armed and financed by Saudi Arabia and the United States. In both cases, the secular government is backed by the Kremlin.
(On a side note, the Soviets didn’t actually send troops into Afghanistan — at the request of the sitting government –until the US/Saudi-backed holy war (along with inter-party feuding on the government side) had reduced the country to a state of violent chaos — which, as Zbigniew Brzezinski tells us, was the plan all along: to destroy Afghanistan’s secular society, kill off its imperfect but impressive strides toward social equality and progress, and bait the Soviet Union into a quagmire by creating an armed global jihad movement. This American-Saudi golem of global jihad has long since escaped the control of its creators, of course, and gone rampaging around the world — although, as we see now in Syria and saw in Libya, sometimes the golem and its fashioners are happily reunited and work together toward the same ends.)
The Kremlin won’t be sending in troops to rescue an ally this time, of course, but if American-Saudi efforts to bring down the Syrian government are successful, the result will likely be a good deal like what we saw in Afghanistan: the ultimate triumph of violent extremism, after years of vicious sectarian conflict and warlordism. But our own gilded warlords and their scurrying sycophants won’t care about that; it will just be yet another boiling pot of danger and instability to keep the money and power flowing to their system of fear-based rule.
Many people are rightly pointing to an analysis of the Syrian situation by William Polk, which I ran across while writing the above. While Polk is very much a man of the Establishment, he has put together a dispassionate, informative overview of the situation that, in the end, makes a compelling case for the immediate idiocy and long-term tragedy of Western intervention in the Syrian civil war. Polk gathers up what is known for certain about the gas attack (very little), what is not known for certain (almost everything), and what has been reported (almost all of it specious, speculative, and spin-ridden when it is not brazenly false). He also provides a cogent encapsulation of the hydra-headed Syrian opposition, and lays out the arguments on who would actually benefit from launching a chemical attack in this situation.
But beyond this, Polk also points to the very specific, physical realities underlying the outbreak of the uprising, which goes back to bedrock realities that have bedevilled human communities from the beginning of time: drought, hunger, the basic need for food, water, shelter, sustenance. These basic issues have a modern twist, however, having been exacerbated by the effects of climate change, which is even now sending destructive if largely hidden shockwaves through human civilization, long before any worst-case dystopian scenarios of sunken cities and parched continents become a reality.
As Polk points out, Syria has been struggling with a drought of Biblical proportions since the middle of the last decade. The results have been devastating:
In some areas, all agriculture ceased. In others crop failures reached 75%. And generally as much as 85% of livestock died of thirst or hunger. Hundreds of thousands of Syria’s farmers gave up, abandoned their farms and fled to the cities and towns in search of almost non-existent jobs and severely short food supplies. Outside observers including UN experts estimated that between 2 and 3 million of Syria’s 10 million rural inhabitants were reduced to “extreme poverty.”
The domestic Syrian refugees immediately found that they had to compete not only with one another for scarce food, water and jobs, but also with the already existing foreign refugee population. Syria already was a refuge for quarter of a million Palestinians and about a hundred thousand people who had fled the war and occupation of Iraq. Formerly prosperous farmers were lucky to get jobs as hawkers or street sweepers. And in the desperation of the times, hostilities erupted among groups that were competing just to survive.
Here we see physical realities like drought and climate change are compounded by the political realities of war and aggression, as Syria continues to bear the burden of the American invasion of Iraq and the Israeli displacement of Palestinians. The effect of power politics was also evident in a decision made in Washington that worsened the situation and sent it spiraling toward the flashpoint of conflict and repression. As Polk notes:
The senior UN Food and Agriculture Organization (FAO) representative in Syria turned to the USAID program for help. Terming the situation “a perfect storm,” in November 2008, he warned that Syria faced “social destruction.” He noted that the Syrian Minister of Agriculture had “stated publicly that [the] economic and social fallout from the drought was ‘beyond our capacity as a country to deal with.’” But, his appeal fell on deaf ears: the USAID director commented that “we question whether limited USG resources should be directed toward this appeal at this time.” (reported on November 26, 2008 in cable 08DAMASCUS847_a to Washington and “leaked” to Wikileaks ).
Syria’s suffering people were not to be helped, because their government was now on the outs with the Potomac Imperium. Just a few years before, Washington was happy to “render” innocent people like Maher Arar to be tortured in Syrian prisons as part of the great GWOT jihad. (See “The Inhuman Stain: Saying Yes to State Terror” and this follow-up.) But by 2008, Syria was once again a “pariah” state, chiefly due to its alliance with Iran. So a chance for a true “humanitarian intervention” in Syria — one that might have helped stave off social breakdown and the horrific violence that has followed — was thrown away.
Left to its own devices, the cack-handed Asad regime then bungled and brutalized its way into an uprising that was very quickly hijacked by outside forces, as AbuKhalil noted above. Polk writes:
Lured by the high price of wheat on the world market, it sold its reserves. In 2006, according to the US Department of Agriculture, it sold 1,500,000 metric tons or twice as much as in the previous year. The next year it had little left to export; in 2008 and for the rest of the drought years it had to import enough wheat to keep its citizens alive.
So tens of thousands of frightened, angry, hungry and impoverished former farmers flooded constituted a “tinder” that was ready to catch fire. The spark was struck on March 15, 2011 when a relatively small group gathered in the town of Daraa to protest against government failure to help them. Instead of meeting with the protestors and at least hearing their complaints, the government cracked down on them as subversives. The Assads, who had ruled the country since 1971, were not known for political openness or popular sensitivity. And their action backfired. Riots broke out all over the country, As they did, the Assads attempted to quell them with military force. They failed to do so and, as outside help – money from the Gulf states and Muslim “freedom fighters” from the rest of the world – poured into the country, the government lost control over 30% of the country’s rural areas and perhaps half of its population. By the spring of 2013, according to the United Nations High Commission for Refugees (UNHCR), upwards of 100,000 people had been killed in the fighting, perhaps 2 million have lost their homes and upwards of 2 million have fled abroad. Additionally, vast amounts of infrastructure, virtually whole cities like Aleppo, have been destroyed.
In his conclusion, Polk also draws an analogy between the current situation in Syria and the Saudi-American intervention in Afghanistan 30 years ago. After noting the near-inevitability of “mission creep” involved in Obama’s plan to kill Syrians, Polk asks the question: “What could we possibly gain from an attack on Syria?” His answer is grim:
Even if he wanted to, could Assad meet our demands? He could, of course, abdicate, but this would probably not stop the war both because his likely successor would be someone in the inner circle of his regime and because the rebels form no cohesive group. The likely result would be something like what happened after the fall of the Taliban in Afghanistan, a vicious civil war among competing factions.
No one, of course, can know what would happen then. My hunch is that Syria, like Afghanistan, would be torn apart not only into large chunks such as the Kurds in the northeast but even neighborhood by neighborhood as in the Iraqi cities. Muslims would take revenge on Alawis and Christians who would be fighting for their lives. More millions would be driven out of their homes. Food would be desperately short, and disease probably rampant. If we are worried about a haven for terrorists or drug traffickers, Syria would be hard to beat. And if we are concerned about a sinkhole for American treasure, Syria would compete well with Iraq and Afghanistan. It would probably be difficult or even impossible to avoid “boots on the ground” there. So we are talking about casualties, wounded people, and perhaps wastage of another several trillion dollars which we don’t have to spend and which, if we had, we need to use in our own country for better heath, education, creation of jobs and rebuilding of our infrastructure.
We need to remind ourselves what Afghanistan did – bankrupting the Soviet Union – and what Iraq cost us — about 4,500 American dead, over 100,000 wounded, many of whom will never recover, and perhaps $6 trillion. Can we afford to repeat those mistakes?
Of course we can’t afford to repeat those ‘mistakes’ (a rather demur term for what in the latter case was a brazen, conscious, deliberate crime); we couldn’t afford them in the first place. But that doesn’t mean such actions will not be repeated. In fact, it is almost certain they will be. Obama has already proclaimed his right to kill Syrians no matter what Congress says when it returns next week. Congress actually voted against Obama’s killing of Libyans, but it didn’t make the slightest difference. In any case, it almost certain that Congress will approve the killing of Syrians; indeed, many powerful figures in both parties are eager to kill even more Syrians than Obama is proposing to kill at the moment. So barring some unforeseen turn, the killing will come — and the tragedy in Syria will be darkened with new blood.