Diatribes of Jay

This is a blog of essays on public policy. It shuns ideology and applies facts, logic and math to economic, social and political problems. It has a subject-matter index, a list of recent posts, and permalinks at the ends of posts. Comments are moderated and may take time to appear. Note: Profile updated 4/7/12

03 September 2013

Naming Syria’s War Right


Words matter in human affairs. Name something correctly, and you can think about it clearly. Name it incorrectly, and your thoughts go awry. Clear thinking becomes impossible.

And so it is with Syria. Ask Americans on the street, or even our highest officials, what is going on there. Most will answer “a civil war.” Those violent Muslims (or Arabs) are killing each other yet again, some will say. We have no dog in that fight.

But is that really so? Does the pallid term “civil war” capture the essence of what is going on in Syria—who the actors are and what they are doing? I think not.

Just days ago, the world celebrated the return of 95-year-old Nelson Mandela from the hospital to his home. His health is still precarious, but he has the whole world’s love.

Why do we all love him so? Because he averted a race war. He did so not with weapons or military power, but by the force of his own personality—his wisdom, sense of justice, compassion and humanity.

Imagine the recent history of South Africa without Nelson Mandela. There would have been a race war between the then-ruling whites and the much more numerous blacks.

It would have been a bloody, murderous, hideous affair. The whites had the weapons, technology and industry on their side. The blacks had numbers, justice, and the fierceness of a people long disrespected and oppressed. The resulting slaughter would have made any rational being question whether our species is civilized and worthy of the description “sentient.”

It would, in fact, have been just like what is happening in Syria today.

There a small, ruling ethnic minority (Assad’s Alawites) has the better weapons. It is slaughtering the vast majority, consisting of Sunnis, other Shiites and a few Christians.

Call it a power struggle if you like. But so would have been the averted race war in South Africa. This is no ordinary “civil war.”

Four things about this war are extraordinary. First, it had (and mostly still has) nothing to do with religion.

Although nominally Muslims, Syrians have been mostly secular for almost two generations. The present war is the means by which an ethnic minority among them seeks to continue and extended its absolute dominance over the vast majority, who have grown tired of minority rule. The advent of extremist jihadis is becoming important only now, after the world stood by and watched the inter-ethnic slaughter for over two years.

Second, it is a tribal war. Assad and his Alewites have resorted to more and more brutal means of mass slaughter because they fear tribal retaliation if they lose. And why do they fear it? Because they themselves have perpetrated tribal oppression for several decades, with increasing violence and bestiality during last two years. Their position today is precisely what would have been the position of whites in South Africa without Nelson Mandela.

Third, this is primarily a war against civilians. The overwhelming majority of the war’s 100,000 dead to date are civilians, murdered in their own cities or towns by air strikes, artillery and mortar fire, and now chemical weapons. Over seven million of them are now displaced internally in Syria or in neighboring countries, whose civilian economies strain to support them.

Furthermore, there is vast evidence that Assad’s forces have deliberately targeted civilians on numerous occasions, in a ghastly echo of Serbs’ efforts to “ethnically cleanse” neighborhoods in Kosovo. Calling it “ethnic cleansing” doesn’t make it clean. It is, in fact, a partial or attempted genocide of one ethnic group by another. We Jews are not unfamiliar with that.

Finally, there is the matter of chemical weapons. Civilians killed by small arms or mortar fire are just as dead as those killed by chemical weapons. That is so. But there is an important difference. Small arms and mortars are not universally outlawed.

Syria is one of only five countries that have not signed the Chemical Weapons Convention, which bans the manufacture, stockpiling and use of chemical weapons. Can one nation, ruled by a single dictator, flout a global consensus, and thereby hope to gain a military advantage? That’s what Assad is trying to do. And guess what value the Convention will have if he gets away with it.

The ban on chemical weapons is no legal technicality. It is century-old prohibition among civilized nations, put in place after the appalling, pointless slaughter of World War I. Its flouting shows the extremes of bestiality to which a ruling minority may stoop in order to preserve its oppressive rule against the will of a hapless, less weaponized majority. It shows, in short, how much ethnically-motivated violence knows no restraint. (The Holocaust, Rwanda and Bosnia should have taught us that, but apparently we are slow learners.)

We civilized folk go the great lengths to preserve endangered species of other animals, not like us. Should we not exert at least equal effort to preserve a group of our own species threatened with decimation or extinction for tribal reasons?

We Yanks are not unfamiliar with civil war. We had our own not so long ago. In terms of our own casualties, it was the bloodiest war we ever fought. It was about the fate of our then-young nation. But it was also about the rights of an oppressed minority in our homeland.

As any informed observer then might have expected, the North won. It had the weapons, the population, the military might, and the support of most of the rest of the world. But the South had by far the most talented general, one Robert E. Lee.

Lee had one quality sorely missing today, and not only in Assad. He was a gentleman. When it became clear that his forces’ position was militarily hopeless, Lee surrendered. He did so formally and in person, in order to discourage zealous guerilla fighters from continuing the fight interminably. (There were many zealots in the South then, just as there are still today.)

In the political arena, our Civil War continues to this very day. It is responsible for our gridlock in Congress and our national paralysis. But Lee’s wisdom and restraint made sure that it continued only in politics (and in low-level criminal violence like the old Ku Klux Klan’s), rather than in open warfare. He made the peace by turning Von Clausewitz’ famous saying on its head: “politics is war by other means.”

Assad has not the wisdom of Robert E. Lee, let alone that of Nelson Mandela. He is a butcher without cleverness or restraint. Left to his own devices, he would clear Syria of all but his own tribe by murdering or displacing all others. He would leave Syria’s cities in rubble tainted with poison gas. He would, in the words of one of our own war criminals, “destroy [Syria] in order to save it.”

So this is no ordinary civil war. This is an abomination of ethnic cleansing and attempted genocide that screams to heaven for outside intervention. It is Bosnia and Kosovo redux, or South Africa without Nelson Mandela.

Assad is its symbol and its combustible fuel. Those who oppose him will fight to the death, or flee Syria, rather than submit to his rule. Those who support him believe that, if he dies, they die, too. What Syria needs is a leader or group of leaders who can square this circle and, like Lee, make a teeth-gritting and uneasy peace that leads Syria, slowly and surely, out of the darkness of total tribal war back to the light of human civilization.

It’s clear as day that Assad is not the man to do that. Every time he has been offered a choice, he has driven deeper into genocide and bestiality. Chemical weapons are just the latest proof of that. With him in power, the attempts at ethnic cleansing and genocide will continue.

So outside intervention is essential. Our President has decided to intervene, using the most recent gross violation of international law as a trigger. Other nations will come on board once they recognize the historical precedents.

Tribe and religion don’t matter much to us Yanks. We have a president whose ethic group once were slaves. We have a First Amendment—our constitutional “prime directive”—that makes all religions equal before our law. We intervened in Bosnia and Kosovo to save Muslims from the bestiality of Christians. Here we are about to intervene to save a Muslim majority from the bestiality of a Muslim minority. Our sole reason for tardiness in intervening is that we don’t want to support terrorists, who are equal-opportunity assassins bestial toward everyone, even at mosques, weddings and funerals.

We Yanks certainly have no military or territorial ambitions in Syria. How could we, after our awful experiences in Iraq and Afghanistan? We even have some sympathy for the Russians, who see Iran and Syria as buffer states against a rising tide of Sunni terrorism financed by medieval kingdoms like the Sauds’.

But permitting or encouraging a jihadi Armageddon in Syria will only increase the incidence of terrorism, not to mention the chance of an all-out sectarian war in the Middle East. No one would gain from that, not Russia, not Iran, not what is left of Syria, and not the Saudi princes hiding in their so-far-intact ivory tower built with oil money.

In order to avoid spinning that Russian roulette, international leaders must find someone more human and skilled in politics than Assad to heal Syria.

When foreign leaders begin to understand these truths, and to see how close an analogy is Syria today to Bosnia and Kosovo and the horror that South Africa might have become, they will shuffle aboard the intervention train. The two-steps-forward-one-step-back advance of human civilization demands no less.

Erratum: An earlier version of this post stated erroneously that Syria had signed the Chemical Weapons Convention. I regret the error, which the President’s use of the word “norm,” rather than “law,” should have alerted me to.

In the abstract, Syria's refusal to sign might appear to strengthen Assad’s legal position. But the Chemical Weapons Convention is not a contract for a home improvement. It’s a statement of fundamental moral values by the signatories, i.e., the vast majority of civilized nations of the world. Its legal and normative regime means little or nothing if a single tyrant can flout it by the mere expedient of refusing to sign. The question before us is whether those civilized nations will do anything real to enforce the moral value and consensus they spent a bloody and horrible century building.




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