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Monday, June 17, 2013 

Guns for everyone.

Oscar Wilde supposedly said that you'd have to have a heart of stone not to laugh at the death of Little Nell in The Old Curiosity Shop.  Reading Hopi Sen's post on Syria, I feel exactly the same emotion (and yes, it is slightly unfair to pick just on Hopi).  He writes of our "grotesque failure" in the country and how he wishes we "felt more shame for what we have not done for the people of Syria".  Has it really not became blindingly obvious that our politicians care absolutely nothing for the poor bastards caught in the middle of the "Free" Syrian Army, the jihadists, Hezbollah and the Assad regime's forces?  Can even those normally dialled in to the very heart of politics not see that the situation in Syria has developed precisely because of our involvement, rather than because we have failed?  And are we really now going to rehash the exact same arguments we had 10 years ago?

Let's start at the very beginning.  In the spirit of the Arab spring, large numbers started protesting against Assad.  Their demand at the outset was not for the fall of the regime, but for reform.  Assad responded with bullets.  The protests continued, the demand changed to the fall of the regime.  The bullets kept coming.  Slowly but surely the revolution morphed from a peaceful one which was inclusive to one where some protesters began taking up arms.  These arms were mainly obtained from Iraq and neighbouring countries, but they also came from Libya, and then and most crucially, from Qatar and Saudi Arabia.  While the Assad regime has for the most part rejected sectarianism in its public statements, it's undoubtedly the case that Sunnis were and have become specifically targeted.  In part in response to this, and in part because they saw the fall of Assad as a way of delivering a set back to both Iran and Hezbollah, the funding and supply of weapons from Qatar and Saudi Arabia increased.

Ourselves, the French and the Americans have been covertly supporting this gun running for some time now.  Increasingly though we've become alarmed that something truly astonishing was happening: the money and weapons from the gas kleptocracy and the oil kleptocracy respectively were going to Sunni Islamists, some of them even directly aligned with the Islamic State of Iraq (aka al-Qaida's franchise in the country) rather than the more secular rebels.  That the Saudi Wahhabis would fund other Wahhabis was clearly something that couldn't have been predicted.  In response, while still helping with the smuggling of weapons into Syria via Turkey, special forces have been training some of these "more secular" rebels in Jordan.

Seeing that the bloodcurdling rhetoric against Alawites and the Shia in Syria was reaching new heights, and also recognising that if the Saudis and Qataris wanted to play at proxy warfare then they could too, Hezbollah went from covertly helping Assad's army to openly intervening on his side, on the pretext that the fall of Assad would have dire consequences for Lebanon.  While the situation already seemed to be turning somewhat in the favour of Assad, as the attack on the capital Damascus by the rebels failed, the help from Hezbollah helped shift the balance on the crucial road to the city of Qusayr, with the rebels retreating.  Morale up, it looks certain that the Syrian army and Hezbollah will next attempt to take back the city of Aleppo.

It's this, rather than any nonsense about chemical weapons which explains why it is the Americans have now decided that they must also overtly intervene.  As Mark Urban explained on Newsnight on Friday, and as Marc Lynch also writes, the potential for a Hezbollah-Iran victory in Syria is just too much to bear.  It doesn't matter if all it does is re-establish the status quo ante of two years ago, before the uprising; ourselves, the Americans and the Saudis had all banked that Assad was as good as gone.  Ever since we screwed up by overthrowing a Sunni dictator in Iraq and installing a Shia elective dictatorship, we've been looking to desperately redress the balance.  It didn't matter exactly what sort of government eventually emerged in Syria, even if it was of a far from moderate Islamist variety, so long as it was no longer an ally of Iran.

The fact is, if we really cared about the horror of the war in Syria and the war crimes being committed either by the regime or the rebels, we would have found a way to intervene by now.  We found a way to get rid of Saddam, we found a way to get rid of Gaddafi, we found a way to get rid of the Islamists in Mali who had taken root there as a direct result of our getting rid of Gaddafi, and so on.  We haven't up till now because the situation, however much our politicians criticised Russia, China or the UN, or Assad himself, suited them.  Bleed the regime dry without putting boots on the ground or getting our expensive missiles dirty; let the autocrats we supply with shiny deadly toys do the work instead.

Who then knows if the regime has been using chemical weapons.  It's more than possible that one or more of the generals in charge of the Syrian army have become so deranged that they've taken matters into their own hands and authorised the use of sarin in limited quantities, which would explain the reports we've seen that otherwise seem difficult to understand militarily.  Whether it's been authorised at the highest ranks of the government is far more difficult to ascertain.  Either way, it was always absurd to place a red line on the use of chemical weapons unless they were being used widely and to horrifying effect.  Even if 150 people have died of exposure to sarin, it's a figure that pales close to inconsideration when the UN says that over 90,000 have now died.

That figure is interesting in itself.  Those who like me recall how the Lancet's excess death studies in Iraq were criticised might be surprised to learn that the UN's estimate is based on some extremely unreliable or otherwise biased sources.  Indeed, if we're to take the figures at face value, then they suggest that 25,000 Syrian government troops have been killed since the uprising began, and another 17,000 militia.  That these figures are being used by politicians to suggest that Assad has killed 90,000 of his own people when that simply isn't the case is a classic example of the softening up process that is now in operation to justify the ratcheting up of our support to the "good" rebels.

As for those concerns about just how moderate, secular and committed to democracy our chosen rebels are, well, we'd rather not talk about how the man we've taken to bosom, Salim Idris, was a general in the Syrian army for decades and only discovered he wanted a free society last year.  Our understandable wish to compartmentalise the rebels simply doesn't work on the ground; they work together regardless of their different allegiances or how they see the future of the country.  Nor are they going to refuse to help those battalions that run out of ammunition or have their weapons captured by the regime, so any weapons we do supply will almost certainly end up in the hands of the extremists, as has already happened with previous shipments.

Our policy on Syria has never made sense precisely because it has been so dishonest.  We backed the Saudis, as we always do, somehow forgetting that wherever Saudi money goes Wahhabism goes along with it.  We claim that our supplying of weapons now is to meant to somehow reorder the balance of power and force Assad to the negotiation table when it will do nothing of the sort.  As the Graun argued, we've just rewarded the rebels for refusing to attend the now apparently indefinitely postponed Geneva peace conference, rather than saying attend and if nothing comes of it then we'll do something about it.  Our ultimate unstated aim is to damage Iran at the exact moment that the people in that country overwhelmingly voted for a moderate as president, in the kind of elections that though neither free or fair have never so much as occurred in either Saudi Arabia or Qatar, nor ever will should the ruling families have their way.  And now, now, we have those who always argue for intervention without having the first idea of what that means in practice, of the cost, of the planning, of the need for an exit plan, or following Iraq any kind of long-term plan whatsoever, saying that something must be done.  Forgive me if I say that I think we've done quite e-fucking-nough already.

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