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

27 July 2014

Accurate Weapons II: Gaza, Syria and the “Donyetsk Republic”

Introduction: what are “accurate weapons” today?
The evanescent “Donyetsk Republic”

Introduction: what are “accurate weapons” today?

What I deem one of my most important posts recently redefined the term “accurate weapons.” In the context of modern geopolitics, and at our species’ present stage of social development, “accurate weapons” are not just those that hit their targets. They are those that accomplish a military/political objective with a minimum of what we now euphemistically call “collateral damage.” To drop the euphemism, they are those that kill or disable the bad guys without slaughtering innocent people and wantonly destroying useful property.

Applying this definition, I concluded that nuclear weapons are “accurate,” but only if they are never used. Used as deterrents only—as they have been since 1945—they tend to avoid war and therefore minimize civilian casualties. But if ever used again in anger, they will be the most inaccurate of weapons possible. For who can ever claim that an entire city’s population is bad guys?

Actually using nuclear weapons again would take us back to the last century’s utterly insane notion of “total war.” The goal of war today is not to annihilate an enemy’s people, as Rome did Carthage (and as Hamas seeks to do to Israel today), but to change behavior and achieve political goals. Thus does Von Clausewitz remind us that we are all human.

Starting with that definition, I analyzed a few modern conflicts and concluded that such weapons as snipers, drones, ninjas, and shoulder-fired anti-tank and anti-aircraft missiles are the weapons of the future. Properly and judiciously used, they are capable of achieving political objectives without making tidal waves. The latter two, in particular, are better weapons for rebels than for tyrants.

This essay applies that analysis to three of the globe’s worst current conflicts: the Hamas/Israel war in Gaza, the devastation of Syria, and Russia’s apparently continuing attempt to grab the “Donyestsk Republic” (and maybe Luhansk, too) as part of its own territory. This essay assumes familiarity with the analysis of the earlier one.


Hamas, which now rules Gaza, is founded as a political organization on little more than revenge and hate. It’s therefore not surprising that its chief weapons, besides small arms, are among the most inaccurate in use today.

Its rockets are many but notoriously inaccurate, even in the conventional sense. They are easy to shoot down, and they fail to hit their intended targets, as in the case of Hamas’ most recent Hail Mary pass—an attempt to disrupt Tel Aviv’s Ben Gurion Airport.

But Hamas doesn’t mind. Conscious of its weakness, both militarily and politically, it sees killing innocent Israelis as its only option to achieve its inaccurate goal: wiping out Israelis, some two thirds of whom, from time to time, reveal in polls a yearning for peace.

That’s why we Yanks, Israel and many other nations have labeled Hamas a terrorist organization. But Hamas persists with its extremist goals and methods because, as in the present war, sometimes they work to advance political ends. Read on.

Israel, on occasion, returns the favor. When its invading forces blow up tunnels, its troops, tanks and explosives are “accurate weapons” in the sense used here. Tunnels are inanimate, and no Palestinian fanatic builds them with the nearest-Israel ends in a heavily populated area. To be effective, tunnels into Israel have to end in the no-man’s land between Gaza and Israel. So destroying them is not just a legitimate military/political objective, but one that can be achieved with a reasonable minimum of civilian casualties.

Yet tunnels are not Israel’s only targets. Israel also targets Hamas’ leaders, including propagandists and other non-combatants, and of course Hamas’ stashes of rockets and other weapons. Hamas, Israel says, keeps these stashes in and under mosques, schools, hospitals and areas heavily populated with civilians, in order to use innocents as “human shields.”

Hamas denies this, but without much conviction or credibility. It seems just one of Hamas’ many unfortunate but logical acts of desperation. A cornered rat, which Hamas has resembled for years now, has few choices. But how could/should Israel respond?

There are three logical possibilities. First, Israel could go after only the most important targets and, of those, only the ones whose precise whereabouts can be pinpointed at the moment of weapons release. Then, at very least, no civilians would die except in a militarily successful strike. Second, Israel could broaden its air strikes by relaxing the second criterion, at the risk (and the likelihood) of broader civilian casualties. Third, Israel could go after targets without much regard for minimizing civilian casualties (other than political lip service) in a bold attempt to crush Hamas militarily by killing its leaders and troops and destroying its weapons caches.

Is there much doubt that Israel has taken the third path? Egypt’s closing of the Rafa crossing, through which many of Hamas’ weapons previously flowed, gave Israel a tempting short-term military strategy: destroy the weapons caches now and rely on blockades on two sides (Israel and Egypt) to render Hamas helpless.

What this strategy neglected was the rule of accurate weapons. In the world’s eyes—and with some reason—Hamas’ more-than-25-to-one casualty ratio as compared to Israel, coupled with the devastated landscape of post-conflict Gaza, gives Gazans and (by association) Hamas much more international sympathy than perhaps they deserve. To put it simply, Hamas has made political strides, where it couldn’t on the merits of its policies and tactics, by turning itself and its unwilling people into victims.

And so we now have violent demonstrations in the West Bank and in Islamic (and a few non-Islamic) nations around the world, supporting a terrorist organization whose popularity at home and abroad was diving before the conflict. Israel’s responding to Hamas’ use of inaccurate weapons with patently inaccurate use of weapons of its own has improbably given Hamas new life.

The furture, of course, is not ours to see. It is possible that, after global disgust at the carnage dies down, and after Gaza’s people suffer some more, Hamas’ fortunes will sour again. But is is also possible that Hamas, having thrown a Hail Mary pass by turning its own people into unwilling victims, will enjoy new life and broader support. Gazans may conclude, like the Jews in the Warsaw ghetto, that they have no alternative but to fight.

If that happens, the result will be further proof that using accurate weapons is the best approach, even in the face of an “assymetrical” attack with inaccurate ones. Discipline, restraint and intelligence matter, even (maybe especially!) in warfare.


The case of Syria is much simpler, and much more tragic, than the case of Gaza. Assad and his tiny one-eighth minority of Alawites have utterly destroyed Syria in order to save it for themselves. And they have done so with the most inaccurate weapons possible in modern warfare, save nuclear ones. They have bombed, strafed, shelled, and at times gassed heavily populated cities, creating utter urban devastation and a vast refugee crisis.

Russia and Iran, to their eternal shame, have assisted this deliberate carnage by supplying as many inaccurate weapons and as much ammunition for them as Assad could request. And they’ve done so consistently and with apparent glee at Assad’s Pyrrhic victory (so far).

From the very beginning, the answer to this inaccurate carnage was accurate weapons. Give the rebels accurate shoulder-fired anti-aircraft missiles, or something like the missiles used to shoot down MH-17, and Assad’s small air force would soon be grounded or degraded. Ground-aiming shoulder-fired missiles and/or rockets might do the same for Assad’s tanks and artillery.

But no one in the West wanted to give the rebels these accurate weapons for two reasons. First, the rebels were and are highly diverse and divided among themselves, and the West couldn’t find a center of rebel gravity that it felt it could trust. Second, the most effective rebel fighters were and are Islamic extremists, and the West feared they would divert any accurate weapons it gave them to, among other nefarious uses, shooting down civilian aircraft in acts of global terrorism.

So the Syrian rebels never got the chance to answer Assad’s inaccurate carnage with accurate weapons. The result is what we see today: a nation of killing fields and rubble, devastated, bleeding, torn and displaced.

The evanescent “Donyetsk Republic”

The so-called “Donyetsk Republic” is perhaps the most interesting case of all, if you can call pointless carnage “interesting.” I write “evanescent” because the so-called “republic’s” promoters’ stated purpose is to make it part of Russia as quickly as possible, must quicker than the Lone Star State (Texas) became part of the US in the nineteenth century.

Why is this the most interesting case? Because Vladimir Putin has apparently decided to realize his nineteenth-century imperial ambitions with accurate weapons.

For weeks, Putin massed Russia’s troops and tanks near the border with Donyetsk. Then he backed them off, suggesting that their presence there had been a threat and deterrent, a feint only. Now he’s massing them again, perhaps casting doubt on the feint theory. But the fact that he hasn’t yet sent them across the border suggests that Putin, a highly intelligent if now bent man, may understand the value of accurate weapons.

The Donyetsk rebels are a minority of a minority. Ukrainian speakers are a majority in Donyetsk, as in Ukraine as a whole. And not even all Russian speakers there want to separate and join Russia (the “Doynetsk Republic’s” transparent goal), let alone if doing so requires a bloody war.

Crude, local armed thugs thwarted and disrupted the local part of Ukraine’s recent elections to obscure this point. They did the same with several international attempts to poll Donyetsk’s and Luhansk’s people to gauge their mood.

Yet demographics indicates that they would lose any such electoral or polling contest, and so does their behavior. So we assume, in the absence of any evidence to the contrary, that the Donyetsk rebels, unlike their Syrian counterparts, are a small minority of the population of Donyetsk.

Nevertheless, Putin has given them unexpected life with accurate weapons. The Buk or SA-11 high-altitude anti-aircraft missile batteries that shot down MH-17 also have shot down at least four Ukrainian military planes.

The Buk is undoubtedly an accurate weapons system, designed to shoot down single planes up to 72,000 feet. The downing of MH-17 was a tragic result of catastrophic and criminal stupidity by the operator of the battery, his commander, and perhaps “Strelkov,” the self-proclaimed “defense minister,” apparently now in hiding. Of course the international community should prosecute those responsible with all the doggedness and cleverness of SDNY prosecutor Preet Bharara. But that tragic error does not belie the general usefulness (and humanity) of accurate weapons in the twenty-first century.

So Putin apparently has decided not to invade, but to fight a proxy war in Donyetsk (and, to the extent successful, maybe in Luhansk, too) to expand Russia’s empire. If you accept his antiquated and inhuman goal, his plan makes some sense.

Syria may have failed to teach Putin that putting minorities in charge by force is not a good idea. But at least for the present, he has learned the lesson that accurate weapons are better than inaccurate ones—and in the sense of “accurate” used in this essay. The shooting down of MH-17 was catastrophic not just in its human toll, but in its understandable distraction from this lesson.

Putin may have learned this military/political lesson, but have we? He is all but challenging the West to a proxy war in Eastern Ukraine with accurate weapons. With his SA-11 batteries, he has effectively neutralized Kiev’s air force. Does he also have other accurate weapons up his sleeve, so as to neutralize Kiev’s tanks and artillery and condemn Donyetsk’s people to a horribly inaccurate ground slog to recapture the city of Donyetsk from the rebels?

Maybe Putin’s reluctance to invade comes from caution, not restraint. Almost four months ago, I suggested that accurate weapons in Kiev’s hands might prevent or curtail a Russian invasion of Eastern Ukraine. In Ukrainian patriots’ hands, shoulder-fired anti-aircraft and anti-tank weapons might reproduce the Soviet Union’s unforgettably bad experience in Afghanistan, which an unprecedented (and not well known) letter-writing campaign by Russian mothers ended.

If accurate weapons could drive the Soviets out of Afghanistan, and if they are now giving Russian-backed rebels the advantage in Donyetsk, could some in the hands of Kiev’s forces even the proxy war and bring all parties to the bargaining table?

It’s worth a try. Both factors that kept the West from arming Syrian rebels are absent in Ukraine. Outside Donyetsk and Luhansk, Ukraine is hardly split. The majority of all Ukraine wants Ukraine to stay whole, at least as much as is possible after Russia’s successful land grab in Crimea. The nation has had chance to unify in the most recent election, and it will have another in the upcoming elections triggered by Yatsenyuk’s resignation. And, to my knowledge, there is little Islamic extremism in Ukraine, so not much risk of the West’s accurate weapons falling into terrorists’ hands.

Add to that my analysis, in my earlier essay, that shoulder-fired missiles restricted in both area of operation and longevity are technically feasible, and may already have been developed. Then the case for arming Kiev with accurate weapons, which are far more useful for defense than offense, becomes strong.


The three histories briefly summarized in this essay—of Hamas against Israel, Assad against the Syrian people, and Russia and the Donyetsk rebels against Kiev and the Ukrainian people—all illustrate a common point. Inaccurate weapons cause vast human suffering while facilitating only transient or temporary gains.

Assad’s inaccurate heavy weapons may win in the short term. But, in the long term, he and his heirs and clan will pay a heavy price in hatred and opposition, perhaps eventually resulting in the partition of Syria, or its division and occupation by foreign powers such as Iran and Israel. Hamas has won a temporary reprieve from political extinction by using inaccurate weapons against Israel and causing Israel to use inaccurate weapons back, thereby victimizing Gaza’s people. (Whether a cleverer leader than Netanyahu could have avoided taking the short-term bait is another question entirely.)

Meanwhile, having apparently learned something from the humanitarian and political catastrophe that is Syria, Putin is experimenting with more accurate weapons in Eastern Ukraine. If the West is serious about driving the conflict to the bargaining table, and not into the crowded streets of Donyetsk City, it must answer Putin’s challenge with accurate weapons of its own.

Footnote: There is also a more sinister reason for not arming the Syrian rebels with accurate weapons. The Syrian conflict has attracted some of the most vicious and extreme jihadis from all over the world. Apparently there is now a tacit agreement among several interested parties—Iran, Russia, the US, and Europe—that it’s not a bad idea to attract all these future terrorists to the killing fields of Syria and let Assad slaughter them with advanced heavy weaponry supplied by Russia and Iran.



  • At Wed Jul 30, 12:01:00 AM EDT, Blogger Greg hodges said…

    Dear Jay,

    As always, thank you for your post. This seems darker than many of your posts, but both the context of each case-in-point and your conclusion are still clear and seem spot-on. Wars are a form of extreme negotiations, and maintaining as much of the "high road" by minimizing the loss of life to combatants only can go far to further the greater political goals of each side.

    Your post raises some interesting advise, but what are the chances that anyone in these hot spots are interested? As far as I can tell, in each case the factions are hell-bent on death and destruction. Is anyone still interested in being rational - or at least pragmatic? Are people in Israel, Gaza, Syria, Russia, Ukraine, or even the U.S. still thinking about casualties being *human* anymore? Maybe their goal is killing for the sake of killing, accuracy be damned?

    I've often found an irony in people who need smart advise the most are often the ones most likely to reject it when it is given. What, if anything, do you think the U.S. could do and/or say to get any of these conflicts to consider this advise that they haven't already tried (that we know of)?

    Once again, thank you for your articles and insight.

    - Greg

  • At Wed Jul 30, 02:11:00 PM EDT, Blogger Jay Dratler, Jr., Ph.D., J.D. said…

    Dear Greg,

    Thank you for your support.

    I’m sorry this post was darker than usual, but that’s reality. There’s little or nothing in Gaza, Syria or Eastern Ukraine today that is uplifting.

    We can lift ourselves up, but only if we all take care not to stereotype or demonize others. You come close to doing that in your second paragraph, arguing that people in the nations at issue are “hell-bent on death and destruction."

    I think not. I think the causes of the stupidity that leads to catastrophic violence are mostly fear and ignorance. My latest essay explains how fear lead us Yanks to err and sin in Iraq, and reminds us how it led us to our greatest-ever foreign-policy sin in Vietnam.

    If we Yanks can act so badly with our much-vaunted modernity and universal education, we ought to be understanding and patient with those whose entire (or primary) education comes from millennia-old scriptures.

    The big disappointment for me is ordinary Russians in Eastern Ukraine. Russians generally are among the best-read people on the planet, or at least they were before the Cold War’s end. So when I read of a Russian mother in Eastern Ukraine who was glad her son was wounded fighting with Kiev, I felt a pang of despair.

    We fight “because we’re Russian," she said. No Israeli, Sunni, Shiite, Alewite, or jihadi could better express pure, dumb tribalism.

    The antidotes, if any, are education, the Internet, time, patience, and, yes, democracy. I have hopes that some day the Israelis will elect a prime minister with a broader perspective than immediate tactical advantage.

    One strong piece of advice I can give to us Yanks. Don’t be seduced by foreign leaders who are mediocre or worse just because they speak good English.

    We nearly did that with Ahmed Chalabi in Iraq, and we are doing it every day with Netanyahu. If we Yanks want to play effectively in the arena of foreign policy, we are going to have to get better translators and begin to trust foreign leaders for their wisdom and goodness, not their language skills.

    And when foreign leaders speak good English, we must not stop our scrutiny there. There’s a world of difference between Netanyahu and Abba Eban, for example, although the latter spoke perfect English, too.




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