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

04 June 2013

Syria: Jihadi Armageddon?

[For a post on Russia’s and Iran’s roles and interests in the Syrian civil war, click here.]
    “Blessed are the meek; for they shall inherit the Earth . . .” The Bible (Matthew 5:5)
What’s really going on in Syria? At first glance, the answer seems simple. An increasingly cruel dictator, Bashar al-Assad, is using modern aircraft and heavy weaponry to put down a popular rebellion led by foot soldiers.

The means and methods are primitive. They recall ancient Rome’s “final solution” to its commercial dispute with Carthage. There the Romans slaughtered every man, woman and child, burned the city to the ground, pulled the city’s walls down, and sowed its fields with salt. That was a sordid example of successful genocide, which our history books unfortunately fail to designate as such. (The moral nastiness usually gets lost in awe for ancient Rome’s “strength.”)

You can now see a similar “final solution” taking shape in the ashes and rubble of Syria’s increasingly empty cities. It’s not a pretty picture. The salient difference—an important one—is that many Syrian refugees are getting away.

Where they manage to emigrate the war zone, they enrich the countries they bless with their presence. Steve Jobs (the offspring of a Syrian immigrant) and an unnamed baba-ghanouj chef did so here. But where Syrian refugees squat in squalid camps, they become a sordid waste of lives and “human capital,” a reproach to the entire world.

Dig deeper into the Syrian conflict, and it no longer looks so simple. Vast historical forces lurk just under the surface. Besides a burning desire of modern people to be free of a medieval despot with jet fighters, the drivers of the conflict are the same they have always been for our species. Tribalism rules.

Two types of tribalism matter in Syria. First, the Alewites (Assad’s tribe, a subsect of Shiites) are fighting the Sunni Muslims, who are the vast majority of Syrians. But now there is a new development (new to Syria but age old). As Shiite fighters from Hezbollah in Lebanon pour into Qusayr, the great schism in Islam is becoming a ground war.

Who are the best foot soldiers in the war? The jihadis, on both sides. Syria may now be in the process of becoming the Jihadi Armageddon: Al Qaeda against Hezbollah, Sunni jihadi versus Shiite jihadi. The Alewites and their fellow travelers pound from the air, but the real fighting is becoming jihadi on jihadi, on the ground.

What does this new development mean? To answer that question, you have to ask another one, seemingly unrelated. What was the most pointless war in human history?

Consider a “pointlessness coefficient.” Multiply the senselessness of the motivation for war by the magnitude of its slaughter. By that measure, World War I wins hands down.

Next to World War II, the first Great War caused the greatest slaughter in human history. Over 8.5 million soldiers died, not to mention civilians. They died in the trenches, in the defenseless “no man’s land” between them, and from massive use of mustard gas, which has now been outlawed.

In World War II, the global slaughter was about seven times greater. But it had its reasons. The Axis attacked the Allies, en masse. The Allies had to respond or be overrun. It was a simple matter of survival. And the Axis attacked the Allies for economic reasons, including a dearth of oil resources, the exclusion of Japan from trade, and the collective punishment of the German people after World War I.

So World War II is easy to explain. I just did it, in a nutshell, in a single short paragraph.

Not so the first Great War. There the causes were so obscure that only historians know them.

Sure, we all know the trigger: the assassination of Archduke Ferdinand and his wife by a Bosnian Serb nationalist in Sarajevo in 1914. But why did the nth in a seemingly infinite series of Balkan conflicts draw the whole of Europe into a vast conflagration? Why did nations as far away from the Balkans as England, France, and Russia throw millions of promising young men into a meat grinder, destroying the flower of European youth for a whole generation?

Only historians of the conflict know for sure. And why don’t the rest of us know? Because the reasons are meaningless today. In fact, they were meaningless by 1945. They were a combination of imperial family feuds, imperialist leaders’ territorial ambition, and the age-old tribal goads: “duty” and “honor.” They were simple products of imperialism’s hubris and deadly irrational exuberance.

So what does this have to do with Syria today? Stay with me.

Focus on the words “duty” and “honor.” Those are the words that old men use—while mostly sitting comfortably far behind the lines of battle—to get young men (and today, women) to throw their lives away in useless conflict that has no justification but tribalism.

And those are precisely the words used by misguided imams and sheikhs to propel jihadis into the Syrian conflict on both sides today.

We all know about bin Laden’s famous so-called “fatwa,” advising Muslims (mostly Sunnis) to kill Americans world wide. That was a call to a tiny band of Islamic extremists to fight the greatest empire in human history, 300 million strong, which had enough nuclear weapons to extinguish our species, and enough submarines carrying them to extinguish any nation in the Middle East in about fifteen minutes. Talk about a suicide mission!

Bin Laden was the guru of Sunni jihadis, and the most extreme. This Monday, we got a view of both Shiite jihadis (Hezbollah) and Sunni jihadis, courtesy of courageous reporter Margaret Warner on site in Lebanon. Watch carefully the clip of the Sunni jihadi acknowledging sending his disciples into a meat grinder, but nevertheless declaring it their “duty.” The ghosts of World War I’s imperialists were nodding their heads in silent assent.

There are people who live and build. There are people who kill, destroy and die. And there are leaders who encourage each kind of behavior.

It would be nice if we could hold the evil leaders individually responsible, as we did at Nuremburg. It would be nice if we could snatch Assad and both sides’ jihadi inciters and put them on trial before something like the International Criminal Court. Then we could all assemble in cyberspace and cheer as they were hanged.

But to do that, we would have to catch them first. When the society that surrounds them protects and nurtures them, if only by inertia or default, we would have to make war to get them. We would have to become like them to stop them. Somehow, that doesn’t seem like such a good idea. (We tried doing that in Iraq, and it didn’t work out so well, either for us or for the Iraqis.)

An alternative is learning through history. That’s how Europe did it. Pointless World War I followed centuries of pointless religious wars between Protestants and Catholics and pointless imperial feuds. Then the echo of World War I turned out to be the greatest war of all. But finally, Europe and (at least for now) Asia is at peace. (The Pax Atomica is one reason, but better government is another. Free trade is a third.)

Maybe it takes a history like that for the builders to prevail over the killers. Maybe vast suffering and devastation are the best (or the only effective) teachers of our species.

But suppose we could attract all the killers into a single arena. Suppose we could have them fight each other to the death, or until their own suffering and exhaustion burned out their jihadist spirit. Suppose we could confine the conflict to a single nation, and predate the entry of nuclear weapons to avoid radioactive carnage. Might that arena be Syria today?

After the devastation of civil war, moral objections are less acute. The long war already has destroyed most of Syrian society. Syria today is more a battlefield than a nation.

More telling is the question whether such a localized meat grinder will have the desired effect. Maybe it takes a full-scale invasion, massive civilian casualties, rape of women, slaughter of children, and cities turned into rubble to teach the lessons of World War II.

But maybe today, with the Internet and greater enlightenment, World War I is a fitting model for what not to do. There, unlike in World War II, most cities were spared. The young men just went away to the trenches in the countryside and never returned. Or they returned blinded or maimed, living evidence of the folly of war.

Maybe seeing many sons, brothers and husbands just go away into the black hole of Syria and never return—or return as corpses and “martyrs”—will be enough to teach the lesson throughout Greater Arabia and even Iran. Maybe it will elevate “jihad” to an internal spiritual struggle and away from real-life mayhem. Maybe it won’t. But as nuclear weapons come ever closer to the most volatile region on Earth—with the most pointless and abstract “reasons” for ceaseless carnage—it’s worth a try.

Footnote 1: Cato the Elder almost singlehandedly triggered this Roman genocide. He made a practice of declaiming, in every session of the Roman Senate, “Carthago delenda est!” (Carthage must be destroyed!). His motives for the genocide were mainly economic, involving competition in Mediterranean trade. (He should not be confused with his great-grandson Cato the Younger, whose republican views were the inspiration for a series of much later English letters. Our conservative think tank, the Cato Institute, takes its name from these letters and hence the later and less barbaric Cato.)

Footnote 2: To see this part of the clip, from an interview with Sheikh Ahmad Al-Assir, set the timer to about half way. Sheikh Assir said, “They [Hezbollah fighters] have more military experience and they have much more developed weapons. We know that our people are not going to make a difference, but it is our duty to send them.” Kaiser Wilhelm, Czar Nicholas II, and Prime Ministers Georges Clemenceau and David Lloyd George would heartily agree.



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  • At Wednesday, June 5, 2013 at 11:19:00 PM EDT, Anonymous Anonymous said…

    Dear Jay, I and my 10.5 year old son (Ben) both enjoyed reading this! It was an interesting weave of history with modern day conflicts. I think you know I require Ben to put about 2 hours effort into the violin, mandarin and math each of these/the summer days. However, when I see an interesting post as your "Syria: Jihoadi Armageddon" or other post/artical I let him read that to instead count for part of his the normal daily work for his future.

    Ben and I (maybe more "I") enjoyed discussing your writing style and how it is good to change that style to keep the reader fully engaged during what can be long winded text.

    Of course, a 10.5 year old boy cannot 100% understand everything you write but it was fun and very nice to see him fully engaged with your recent post.

    In summary, please keep your writings flowing as you can be assured I (Rod H) and (now hopefully so, Ben H) are looking forward to enjoying them for many years!

    Best Regards, Rod H.

  • At Thursday, June 6, 2013 at 11:35:00 AM EDT, Blogger Jay Dratler, Jr., Ph.D., J.D. said…

    Dear Rod,

    Thanks again for your encouragement. It gives me hope that a ten-year-old has an interest in this point of view and can understand most of it.

    Some day it, will be up to people like him to change history for the better, after two millennia of (recently) recorded genocide and tribalism. If they can’t or won’t make the necessary changes, our species’ future is not bright.

    I have a post percolating on that very subject, with some unusual travel suggestions.

    Best to you, Ben and Gem.



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