16 March 2013
Iraq Ten Years Later
By Gwynne Dyer
Why did George W. Bush choose 19 March, 2003 to invade Iraq, rather than some day in May, or July, or never? Because he was afraid that further delay would give United Nations arms inspectors time to refute the accusation (his sole pretext for making an unprovoked attack on an independent country) that Saddam Hussein’s regime was working on nuclear weapons.
The US president couldn’t say that, of course, and so instead his administration’s spokesmen mumbled about the need to get the war over and done with before the summer heat made fighting impossible. Yet American soldiers proved perfectly capable of operating in that summer heat during the ensuing seven years of fighting, in which over 4,000 of them were killed.
That was nothing compared to the number of Iraqi deaths. At least five times as many Iraqis have died violently in the decade since the US invasion as were killed by Saddam’s regime in the ten years before the invasion. The exact number is unknown, but Saddam’s secret police were probably killing less than 2,000 people a year in 1993-2003. An estimated 121,000 Iraqi civilians have died in the military and political struggles of the past ten years.
Iraq’s infrastructure has still not recovered to its prewar level. More than a million Iraqis still live in internal exile, unable to return to the homes from which they were “cleansed” during the Sunni-Shia sectarian war of 2006-2007. Another million have fled the country for good, including a large proportion of the country’s intellectual and professional elite.
Iraq ranks eighth from the bottom on Transparency International’s corruption index, ahead of Somalia and North Korea but below Haiti and Equatorial Guinea. The government in Baghdad, though dominated by sectarian Shia politicians, does little for the impoverished Shia majority. The Sunni minority fears and hates it. And the Kurdish ethnic minority in the north just ignores Baghdad and runs a state that is independent in all but name.
Iraq’s courts do the regime’s will, torture is endemic, and the swollen army and “security” forces (used almost exclusively for internal repression) eat up a huge share of the budget. And from the perspective of American grand strategy, the main result of the war has been to weaken the position of the US in the Gulf region and strengthen that of its perceived opponent, Iran.
The United States spent about $800 billion on the Iraq war, and will eventually spend at least another trillion dollars on military pensions, disability payments and debt service. Yet it achieved less than nothing. Why on earth did it invade in the first place?
Even the defenders of the invasion have stopped claiming that Saddam Hussein was cooperating with al-Qaeda terrorists who were plotting to attack the United States. They were also plotting to overthrow and kill Saddam, as everyone with any knowledge of the Middle East already knew.
The UN weapons inspectors never found the slightest evidence that Saddam had revived the nuclear weapons programme that had been dismantled under UN supervision in the early 1990s. The people in the White House who took the decision to invade must have known that there was no such programme: the way they carefully worded their propaganda in order to avoid explicit lying is ample evidence of that.
The strategist Edward Luttwak once suggested that the real reason was that the invasion of Afghanistan in 2001 had been too easy. After 9/11 the American people really wanted to punish somebody, and Afghanistan had not provided enough catharsis. So another invasion was an emotional necessity, and (given the American public’s ignorance about the Middle East) almost any Arab country would do.
There was certainly a parallel desire among the neo-conservatives in the Bush White House to restore American power to unchallenged dominance after what they saw as the fecklessness of Bill Clinton’s administrations in the 1990s. That required a short and successful war that would put everyone else in awe and fear of American military might – but, once again, any weak and unpopular country would have done. Why Iraq?
The closest we can come to a rational answer is the argument, common in Washington a decade ago, that permanent military bases in Iraq would give America strategic control of the entire Gulf region.
The role of those bases would not be to ensure prompt delivery of the region’s oil to the United States at a low price: only 11 percent of US oil imports come from there. The bases would instead enable the United States to block Gulf exports of oil to China if the United States found itself in a confrontation with that country. (Geo-strategic arguments are often frivolous.)
None of these explanations can justify what was done, and we haven’t even gone into the damage done to international law by this blatantly criminal act. But can we at least conclude that the world, or even just the United Nations, has learned a lesson from all this?
Probably yes for the United States, at least until memories fade. (Give it ten more years.) Not so much for the rest of the world, but then most other countries are less prone to invade faraway places anyway.
To shorten to 725 words, omit paragraphs 5, 8 and 9. (“Iraq…name”; and “Even…that”)
20 July 2012
Can Syria Avoid Ethnic Cleansing?
By Gwynne Dyer
In war, moral power is to physical as three parts out of four, said Napoleon, and the past few days have seen a sudden and drastic shift in the balance of moral power in Syria. The bomb that killed the three most senior members of the security establishment last Wednesday may just have been a lucky fluke for the rebels, and the street fighting in Damascus may end with a (temporary) regime victory. But everything has changed in terms of expectations.
Until last week, the regime seemed secure in the short term, although potentially doomed in the long term. President Bashar al-Assad’s army was well-armed and apparently loyal, and he still had the support of much of the population. The opposition was poorly armed and only loosely organised – and as Napoleon also remarked, God is on the side with the best artillery. (If you want to be thought wise, contradict yourself frequently.)
Perhaps “morale” is a better word than “moral”. The reason the regime seemed secure until last week was not its weapons, but the confidence of its supporters that their side was still able to win. That confidence has now been profoundly shaken. The fighting has reached the heart of the big cities, and the rebels have struck even at the core of the regime, the national security building, to kill key members of Assad’s innermost circle.
So it is suddenly occurring to a lot of people who formerly saw the regime as the protector of their privileges that these guys could actually lose. If they are going to lose, you do not want to be in the last ditch with them. Maybe it’s time to change sides.
About ten minutes later, it will also occur to the same people that many others are undoubtedly having the same thoughts – and that means the collapse could come quite quickly. This kind of thinking operates as a self-fulfilling prophecy, so the regime’s final slide into defeat could be coming within days or weeks.
That is by no means guaranteed, of course. In material terms the regime is still vastly superior, and morale is a volatile thing. If the uprisings in parts of Damascus and Aleppo are crushed quickly and decisively, the morale of the regime’s supporters could recover, and the civil war might continue for months or years more. But Syrians must now reckon with the possibility of an early collapse of the Baath Party’s 49-year-old monopoly of power.
So the question is: what would happen then? The great fear is that it could go the same way as Iraq and Lebanon, two neighbouring countries that share about the same mix of ethnic and religious groups (in differing proportions) as Syria itself.
Lebanon tore itself apart in a civil war among those groups in 1975-90, and a quarter-million Lebanese died. Iraq tore itself apart in 2005-2009, and at least half a million Iraqis died. Two million people fled the country permanently, including almost all of Iraq’s Christian minority, and the Sunni Muslims have almost all been driven out of mixed and Shia-majority areas.
Any thinking Syrian, aware of these dreadful precedents, will be frightened by regime change no matter how much he or she loathes the existing regime. Indeed, the Assad regime’s principal means of garnering support has been to insist that only its tyrannical rule can “protect” the Shia, Druze, Alawite and Christian minorities from the 70 percent Sunni Muslim majority.
It could easily go wrong. The original pro-democracy movement was non-violent and emphatically non-sectarian. It was mostly Sunni Muslim, but it deliberately sought to attract the support of the various minorities as well. All the leaders understood that only a non-sectarian revolution could produce a democratic Syria.
Unfortunately, the Assad regime drowned that non-violent movement in blood, and instead Syria wound up with a violent revolt that has grown into a veritable civil war. What the rebels must do now is to end it without a massacre of the minorities. The price of failure is that the civil war won’t end at all.
The most exposed minority is the Alawites, because they have been the mainstay of the regime. The Assad family is Alawite, as are most senior figures in the military, intelligence and Baath Party elites. Their dominance has been based on close clan ties, not on their religion (they are a “heretical” Shia sect), and most Alawites have not benefited much from the regime, but they could easily be held responsible for its crimes – and massacred.
If they think they face that sort of future, they will withdraw to their mountainous stronghold along the Syrian coast (and effectively cut Syria off from the sea). Other minorities will also take fright and arm themselves, and the country will be trapped in a long, cruel war of massacre and ethnic cleansing.
So if the Baath regime goes down soon, the rest of the world should be ready to go in fast with economic help for the post-revolutionary regime, and with multitudes of observers to document what is actually happening to the minorities and dispel false rumours. The rest of the world can do nothing to help now, but it will be sorely needed then.
To shorten to 725 words, omit paragraphs 2 and 6. (“Until…frequently”; and “That is…power”)
30 June 2012
Syria XIV (or whatever)
By Gwynne Dyer
Kofi Annan does the best he can. At least he’s back in harness, doing what he does best: trying to make peace where there is no hope of peace. The rest of them do the best they can, too, give or take the odd Russian. Well, not exactly the best they can, but at least they do enough to make it look like they’re trying. And you can’t really blame them for faking it, because they all know it that it can’t work.
On Saturday Kofi Annan, ex-United Nations Secretary-General and now special UN envoy for Syria, announced that a special “action group” meeting in Geneva had come up with a plan to stop the carnage in Syria. Or at least a faint hope. Or not, as the case may be.
The five permanent members of the UN Security Council were there, plus some of the biggest regional players (but not Iran, which backs the Syrian regime, or Saudi Arabia, which supports the rebels). They condemned “the continued escalating killing” and agreed that there must be a “transitional government body with full executive powers.” Then they all went outside and spat into the wind, just to show how determined they were.
I made up the last bit, but they might as well have done that. The final communique said that the transitional government “could include members of the present government and the opposition and other groups and shall be formed on the basis of mutual consent.” US Secretary of State Hillary Clinton claimed victory, saying it clearly signalled to President Bashar al-Assad that he must step down. But it didn’t, actually.
An early draft of the communique said that “those whose continued presence and participation would undermine the credibility of the transitional government” – Bashar al-Assad, in other words – should be excluded, but that wording was gone from the final document. So Russian Foreign Minister Sergei Lavrov said he was delighted with the outcome, since “no foreign solution” was being imposed on Syria.
Meanwhile, the Syrian National Council, the most coherent opposition group, said it would reject any plan that did not include the unconditional departure of Assad, his family, and his close associates. Assad himself told Iranian television that no amount of foreign pressure would make his government change its policy. And on Friday, the day before the Geneva meeting, an estimated 190 people were killed in Syria, most of them by the government.
Assad’s regime has now killed around as many people – 16,000, by last count – as his father did in suppressing the last revolt against the regime in 1982. He must take hope from the fact that his father, in the end, terrorised all opposition into silence, and ruled on until his death in 2000. Bashar might win, too – and besides, what choice has he, at this point, but to fight until the last ditch?
So many people have already been slaughtered by Assad’s troops and their Alawite militia allies that there is no forgiveness left among the opposition. There is so little trust that a negotiated handover of power could not succeed even if Assad wanted that. His only remaining options are victory, exile or death.
It bears repeating that this is not how the Arab Spring ended up. It’s just how Syria has ended up, after eight months of non-violent demonstrations in the face of extreme regime violence gave way to armed resistance. The other Arab revolutions have not been drowned in blood (with the exception of Bahrain), and some of them, like Tunisia’s and Egypt’s, have already wrought huge changes. There’s even another one starting up in Sudan right now.
Two things make Syria different. One is its extreme religious and ethnic complexity, which makes it hard for protesters to maintain a united front against a regime that is adept at playing on inter-group fears and resentments. The other is that Assad heads the Syrian Baath Party, an utterly ruthless machine for seizing and holding power that copied much of its organisation and discipline from the Communists.
Why, then, would we expect it to behave any better than its former twin, the Iraqi Baath Party that was led by Saddam Hussein? Even the party’s role as the political vehicle for a religious minority was the same: Alawites in Syria, Sunni Muslims in Iraq. So if you were wondering how Saddam Hussein would have responded to the Arab Spring, now you know: just like Bashar al-Assad is responding.
(At this point in the argument, the American neo-cons will be getting ready to claim that the US invasion of Iraq was a blessing for Iraq after all. Not so fast, boys. Iraq is still not a very democratic place, and at least ten times as many Iraqis as Syrians have already been killed in the process.)
How long will the killing in Syria last? Until the rebels win, or until they are crushed. Are they going to win? Nobody knows. Will the neighbouring countries get dragged into the fighting? Probably not, although Lebanon is seriously at risk. Can Kofi Annan, the United Nations or the great powers do anything about this? Not a thing.
To shorten to 700 words, omit paragraphs 4, 8 and 12. (“I made…actually”; “So many…Damascus”; and “At this…process”)
24 March 2012
Symmetry of Slaughter
By Gwynne Dyer
After Mohamed Merah died in a hail of French police bullets last Thursday, people who had known him talked about “a polite and courteous boy” who liked “cars, bikes, sports and girls.” His friends had trouble believing that he had murdered seven people, including three children, in a ten-day killing spree in the city of Toulouse, and none of them believed his claim to be a member of al-Qaeda. “Three weeks ago he was in a nightclub,” one said.
The following day, in Fort Leavenworth, Kansas, US Army Staff Sergeant Robert Bales was charged with murdering seventeen Afghans, including nine children, in a lone night-time attack on sleeping civilians in two villages near Kandahar two weeks ago. “I can’t believe it was him,” said Kasie Holland, his next-door neighbour in Lake Tapps, Washington. “There were no signs. It’s really sad. I don’t want to believe that he did it.”
There are startling parallels in these cases, right down to the fact that Mohamed Merah held a little girl by the hair as he shot her in the head, and that Robert Bales allegedly pulled little girls from their beds by their hair to shoot them. And there is, of course, the underlying symmetry of the motives: both men were responding, in confused ways, to the “war on terror” that former US president George W. Bush launched after the 9/11 attacks.
In Bales’s case, the trigger may have been a fourth deployment to a combat zone after three one-year deployments in Iraq since 2003, during which he suffered concussion and lost part of a foot. He also had money problems, but it was Afghans he shot, not bankers. In his mind it was Afghans, Muslims, whatever, who were causing his problems.
Both men had had run-ins with the law: Bales for assault in 2002, Merah for stealing a woman’s handbag in 2007. But Merah spent two years in prison for the mugging, and while there, as is often the case with teenage Muslim thugs, he was converted to the extremist Islamic ideology called Salafism.
Mohamed Merah videotaped his attacks, so we know that just before he shot his first victim, an unarmed French paratrooper, Merah told him: “You kill my brothers, I kill you.” He was an unemployed small-time criminal with delusions of grandeur, and he wanted to “bring the French state to its knees” in retaliation for French participation in America’s war in Afghanistan. His claim to belong to al-Qaeda, however, was probably just a private fantasy.
Predictably, Marina Le Pen, leader of the extreme right National Front, called on French voters to “fight…against these politico-religious fundamentalists who are killing our Christian children, our Christian young men.” (She is running in next month’s presidential election, after all.) The incumbent right-wing president, Nicolas Sarkozy, says much the same thing, but less bluntly.
Yet two of the three French paratroopers Merah killed were Muslims. The other dead soldier, a Christian of West Indian origin, just had the bad luck to be in the street with two Muslim comrades when Merah found them. (He was deliberately targeting French Muslim soldiers as traitors to his cause.)
Merah was hunting another Muslim soldier when he found himself outside a Jewish school and seized the chance to murder a young rabbi, his 5- and 3-year-old sons, and 8-year-old Myriam Monsonego. It was a monstrous act, but in his disordered mind he believed that he was taking revenge for the Muslims who had been killed in the wars in Afghanistan and Iraq.
It’s no excuse, but it is an explanation. And the more relevant fact is that only one out of perhaps two million young Muslim French males has committed such an atrocity. What happened is appalling, but it is statistically insignificant. It should also be politically insignificant, but that may be too much to ask in the midst of a presidential election campaign.
The United States is also heading for a presidential election this year, but the only role that the war in Afghanistan has in the campaign is ritual accusations by Republican candidates that President Obama is “soft on terror.” (On the contrary, he has become the willing prisoner of the Washington foreign policy consensus that still defends the profoundly misconceived Afghan adventure.)
As for the Bales atrocity, it is already being written off by the American media and public as a meaningless aberration that tells us nothing about US foreign policy or national character. Not so. It tells us that the character of American soldiers is no better or stronger than anybody else’s, and it is a reminder that ten years occupying a foreign country will make any army hated from without and rotten within.
The army will become even more demoralised and undisciplined if it is a professional force that rotates the same soldiers through repeated combat tours with no visible success on the horizon. Recent instances of American soldiers urinating on dead Taliban fighters and burning Qurans are symptoms of the same malaise that finally drove Bales around the bend. Obama should not wait until 2014. It’s time to go home.
To shorten to 725 words, omit paragraphs 5 and 11. (“Mohamed…Salafism”; and “The United…adventure”)