The Killing of Syrian Evacuees, and MOAB

One of the biggest news items the previous week was “the mother of all bombs” was dropped on Afghanistan. My first thought was, how come the children came first? My next thought was, why did the Americans use those words? Suppose they had said, “We dropped an 11 t bomb to break up the ISIS tunnels,” they could have still shown the same footage, but it would not have sounded so arrogant. Since this bomb had to be dropped from a cargo plane, it would presumably only be used on populations that have no significant air defence. The Americans also claimed that they killed thirty-six ISIS fighters and no civilians. Exactly how do they know that? (Sorry, but I persist. I want evidence, or at least some reasonable explanation that evidence has been seen by someone who will tell the truth.) One of the clips showed the ground around where the blast took place, and there was plenty of green there. Explain to me why there were no tribal farmers there?

Another disturbing event occurred at al-Rashideen, in Syria. Busloads of Shia evacuees from Foua and Kefraya permitted to leave the al Qaeda held Idlib province were attacked by what appears to have been a van-bomb. At least a hundred and twenty-six were killed, and more will die, and of those who died, at least sixty-eight were children. You may recall President Trump spreading empathy for the innocent children who died at Khan Sheikhun; silence on this incident, though, and the question is, why? There was also essentially silence from the Western press. Why, after all the fuss made of the sarin event? Particularly since these people were being evacuated under an agreed exchange whereupon rebels were permitted to leave Aleppo in exchange for free passage for them. They were obviously killed by al Qaeda affiliates, so why no bombing of them? Presumably because they are “nice” Muslims. Has he already forgotten 9/11? More to the point, this is a clear indication that you cannot negotiate with such terrorists because they have no honour.

What should be done about Syria? In my opinion, ISIS and the al Qaeda factions should be eliminated. As von Manstein noted, in terms of military strategy the first requirement is to prioritize. It is true that Assad is currently handling his population rather badly, but nobody else seems to have any constructive suggestions as to what should happen. Everyone says, negotiate a peaceful settlement, but it is difficult to do this when the issues are discrete and if, as shown by the example above, one side will not honour the terms of any agreement. If it is one or the other, the absence of middle ground makes compromise near impossible. Neither al Qaeda factions nor ISIS will moderate their extreme views, so I am afraid they must be removed. Assad at least ran a secular government, and in my opinion, he is the only one visible who has any chance of doing that in the future and do it for long enough to be effective, so swallow the dead rat. The best example of what I fear was Saddam Hussein. Nobody would accuse him of being “good”, but nevertheless he ran a secular government, and under his government, there was no al Qaeda of any significance in Iraq. The US deposed him and executed him, and did not attempt to govern, despite the antics of Paul Bremer. Why not? Insufficient troops. The net result was that disgruntled Iraqi soldiers got tangled up with ISIS, and look where we are now. It is better to do nothing about Syria than make it much worse.

Why do I discount the military option? The troops needed for a military occupation depend on what is expected of the occupied population. During the Czech invasion, everybody expected the Czechs to behave, and from memory five divisions comprised the invasion. That would be somewhere between 50,000 – 75,000 men, and probably about another 30,000 support staff. However, they concentrated on “important” sites. I recall that if you stayed out of city squares, or around things like radio stations, the chances of actually seeing Russian troops were very low. You saw them on roads if they were moving, and of course they had bases, but otherwise they were invisible. I even drove essentially across the country and only saw troops using the road to go from A to B. That would not work in a place like Syria, where you have to assume everybody there will hate you. Al Qaeda and ISIS, and their sympathizers will definitely hate you; the Alawites will most likely hate you for overthrowing their man, and that leaves the Kurds and Turkmen, both of whom will fear your leaving with whatever ISIS morphs into remaining. In an occupation where you are hated, you have to remove all the weapons, you have to check all transport, and have frequent checks on people in the open. That is why Israel, which has recognized what occupation means, does what it does in Palestine, and overall, while the Palestinians hate it, it does a good job of occupying. For Syria, I think you would need at least 500,000 soldiers, and preferably about 700,000. Who wants to pay for that? And on top of that, if you want it to succeed, you had also better spend a lot on reconstruction. To make a job of it, it would probably take ten to fifteen years, and initially there would be a lot of body bags because the likes of ISIS will have secreted arms dumps. Not very attractive, is it?

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The mess that is Syria

In my futuristic SF ebooks, I have one extremely advanced alien race, and they have a very specific policy regarding communication with less advanced races: they do not intervene in that society’s development unless they are prepared to take full responsibility for what follows, and that what follows must be demonstrably better for all concerned than what the situation was at the intervention. The net result of this is they basically refuse to intervene, no matter what they see because there is too much danger that all they can do is make things worse. In short, “Do no harm!”

It is with this in mind that I cannot resist thinking about the Western interventions in what is referred to as the Middle East. As far as I am aware, Tunisia probably just happened, but since then there has been an “Arab Spring” contagion spread across the region, and many Western nations have acted to accelerate and fan the flames of whatever develops, seemingly with the view that they know best how the others should live. Then, before that, there was Iraq. In my view, just about everything the West has done in that region has turned to custard, but what has been learned from the experience? Bearing in mind what we see now, in my opinion, not much, because the same old mistakes keep turning up.

Just to be clear, people like Gadhafi, Hussein, Assad, and others were definitely not saints. However, they did manage some basic functions of governance, such as maintaining order within their boundaries, and as long as their people were not politically active, their lives were basically safe and as prosperous as they were likely to be in that region. And above all else, they enforced religious tolerance. What they knew, and what the West seems to have forgotten, is that when one religious group refuses to tolerate another, there is widespread bloodshed and persecution. These “strongmen” may not have been very bright with their public relations with the West, but they knew they had to keep the lid on a box of some very dangerous problems. All the West has done has been to ignore Pandora, and tear off that lid.

The Western policy in Syria, if there is one, seems to be to replace Assad with someone more moderate in which case (more in hope than based on any trace of evidence) everyone will live happily ever after. Obviously, no lesson learned from Iraq. As for logic, how can any moderate person contain the current religious hatred?

In my opinion, the only reason to intervene against the government in another country having a revolt is that there is a clearly superior replacement in line, should you succeed. There was no such person in Iraq, and instead in flew a number of Iraqis who had been living in the West, who had cultivated support, and who could not wait to get their hands on the treasury and oil money of Iraq. Then there arose a Shi’ite dominated government that was determined to put the boot into the Sunnis. Then there were all the unemployed soldiers and officials from Hussein’s time. By firing the civil service, there was no chance of reasonable governance, and those soldiers were a natural source of fighters for the newly emerged ISIS. What a great strategy that turned out to be.

So, what we have now is the US bombing ISIS and, along with the Saudis, funding “moderate” opposition to Assad. Then, into the mix we have the Russians bombing opposition to Assad, which may include but is not exclusive to ISIS. The “moderate” opposition includes a number of Sunni soldiers from what was the Syrian army, Ahrar al-Sham, which has strong al Qaeda connections, and the Nusra Front, which is the more official Syrian branch of al Qaeda. Thus we have the somewhat ironical outcome that the US is so keen to get rid of Assad that it is busy helping and funding al Qaeda. And just suppose Assad goes; who would you bet on to replace him?

From a military point of view, who, if anyone, is likely to beat ISIS? My guess is the best bet is the Iranians, including their Quds special force. The reason is you cannot win a war without imposing your will through ground troops. If the US really wants to get rid of ISIS, it should support the Iranians, but then again, the US is fixated on opposing Iran on its nuclear ambitions, and has indicated a willingness to bomb Iran. How about that for prioritizing? To add to the complexity, it is unclear whether Iran is really interested. Meanwhile, the Russians have a chance to flex some muscle and demonstrate to Europe that getting involved in the Ukraine might come at a price. And, of course, Iran has an incentive to learn from the Russians how to work advanced anti-aircraft defences in case the US or Israel decides to bomb it. I wonder if any Western politicians are wondering whether it might have been better to leave that area alone? A clear strategy does not guarantee winning, but in this case a virtual absence of clear strategy is a fairly good indication that, in the long term, loss is inevitable.