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Tuesday, December 01, 2015 

About those 70,000 moderates.

Back in February of 2013, Ghaith Abdul-Ahad in the London Review of Books wrote what is still the best article on understanding the armed Syrian opposition, or what we now know as the "moderate" opposition.  Basically, if you had a few men, a couple of weapons, and crucially, a laptop and a video camera, you could form your very own battalion by little more than posting a video on YouTube.  Funding would come from the diaspora or Gulf financiers, especially if the latter were impressed by the name of the group, something involving lions, tawhid, conquest or even better, referencing a heroic figure from Islam's past, and you would go from there.

At some point all these battalions and factions were meant to come under unified command, or join the Free Syrian Army.  It never happened, for a whole host of reasons.  Fighters started drifting off to the groups that were better funded, or were more hardline in their ideology, and the "moderates", such as they always were, pretty much stayed where they had started off.

This is one of the underlying reasons why it's so difficult to believe there really are the 70,000 moderates on the ground we've been hearing so much, or in actuality, so little about.  It doesn't make any sense to us how at this point into the civil war there could still be so many factions that are on their own rather than part of a wider, cohesive whole.  Abdul-Ahad asked the question of a Syrian journalist and activist, who told him it's because they are Syrians, and relates a joke about a former Syrian president handing over power to Nasser, only to tell him he now has a country of 4 million presidents.

According to James Bloodworth, in another of those wonderful examples of projection that the pro-war left are so prone to, "nuance is alien to the anti-war politics that prevails on the British left under the leadership of Corbyn".  In the spirit of regarding nuance as completely alien, let us consider the arguments of those who do believe there are 70,000 moderates whom we could potentially work with in Syria.

Pretty much leading the field is Charles Lister, an analyst with the Brookings Institute in Doha.  Author of a recently released book on the jihad in Syria, his piece for the Spectator provides the kind of detail that David Cameron should and still could give to MPs.  He accepts that we all have different definitions of what "moderate" means in practice, and explains that while some of the groups he lists are part of the "vetted" opposition that have been provided by the US with heavy weaponry like TOW missiles, others are recognised as "mainstream" by Syrians themselves and might be "moderately" Islamic.

Altogether, with a few even smaller factions also included, these 105-110 factions have a strength of around 75,000 men.  These groups, Lister goes on, "seek to return to Syria’s historical status as a harmonious multi-sectarian nation in which all ethnicities, sects and genders enjoy an equal status before the law and state".  If you're sceptical, first about whether these figures are up to date, whether the leaders of the factions are telling the truth about the number of men under their control, and lastly and to my mind most pertinently, whether they truly do represent those values Lister ascribes to them, there's very little extra offered to persuade you.

Indeed, it's somewhat telling that Lister then quickly goes on to talk about Jaish al-Islam and Ahrar al-Sham, both of which he describes as "avowedly conservative Islamist movements", or as you and I would probably call them, jihadists of a slightly less vehement bent than Islamic State and the al-Nusra Front.  Lister implies that if they were included "in a formal political process, they will become one of many factions involved".  Alternatively, if they're excluded "they could become immensely powerful spoilers".  In other words, they might well ally themselves with al-Nusra fully if we don't let these people who are assuredly not moderates in with the people who are, despite how they're allied with al-Nusra currently anyway.  Finally, Lister argues that if only we had intervened definitively earlier, then we would have had a wider field of moderates to work with.  This assumes a whole plethora of things, not least that our intervening against Assad would have resulted in a victory for said moderates, rather than for the jihadists that were around then, or would have got involved sensing their opportunity with the fall of Assad.

Very much second to Lister is Kyle Orton, of the very much secondary Henry Jackson Society.  Orton has been sounding off on Left Foot Forward for some time with the permission of the aforementioned James Bloodworth, essentially making the argument that the only way to solve the Syrian civil war is to fund/arm the Sunni Arab groups, be they moderate or Islamist, just as long as they're not al-Qaida.  Orton in his piece for Now goes into a lot more detail than Lister, detail which makes clear just how complicated and fragmented the opposition is, and also how embedded it is with the non-moderate groups.  He relies extensively on a report from the Institute for the Study of War, which claimed to be able to identify groups that were "separable" from their current alliances which include the likes of al-Nusra and Ahrar al-Sham.

While Lister is credible, Orton is very much not, as can quickly be ascertained by a look at his tweets.  One gem is "#Iran has been for 36 years the preeminent global terrorist threat to the West. IS shouldn't distract from that. http://bit.ly/1jtLZIt", while another is "In #Iraq, all the worst failures came from a *lack* of intervention: not finishing Saddam in 1991, backing down in 1998, pulling out in 2011".  Yes, by far the worst failure in Iraq was pulling out, rather than de-Ba'athification, disbanding the Iraqi army, walloping Fallujah the first time round, or hell, intervening on the basis of claims that turned out to be mistaken in 2003.

Lister for his part has tweeted saying "Uninformed armchair (YouTube/Twitter) black/white analysis of #Syria’s armed opposition continues to dominate UK debate. Very unfortunate."  Surely much of the responsibility for the uninformed debate must be put on the prime minister for coming up with the 70,000 figure and then not providing a breakdown or explanation as Lister has.  Few are prepared to give the intelligence agencies the benefit of the doubt when their record is so poor.

Even if we accept completely that what Lister and Orton are saying is accurate, it doesn't alter the fundamentals.  Why would these moderates leave the areas they control and travel half away across Syria to fight Islamic State, assuming the Vienna talks lead to a ceasefire between them and the Assad government? Doing so would leave their territory wide open to infiltration by the groups that are unlikely to agree to a ceasefire, a tactic much used by Islamic State itself, picking off weak resistance.  Why would the non-moderates, opposed to IS as they might be, abandon their alliance with al-Nusra when the talks will offer only ceasefires rather than the removal of Assad and when their goal is an Islamic state?  Again, even if we accept that the moderates want a fully representative state and government, the chances of that being the end result are next to none as trust has completely broken down between all the various sects, tribes and religious groups.

Cameron if anything erred by going down the route of trying to meet the stipulations laid down at the Labour conference.  They clearly haven't been met, but those always inclined to vote to bomb Islamic State for the reason that it's far too much bother to keep our nose out will have supported him anyway.  Considering he's dropped the pretence of acting the statesman and is bandying about once again the "terrorist sympathisers" line, we might as well drop it also.  The case for war is utterly bogus, the 70,000 and those defending the figure a preposterous sideshow.  MPs tomorrow on all sides should oppose and defeat the government's war motion.

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Orton is just a neocon uni grad reporting on Syria from his bedroom, I have no idea why anyone takes his seriously as credible source, he's just a UK Michael Weiss. Having followed his tweets he seems to accuse someone else of creating and supporting ISIS every few months. First it was Assad doing to make the opposition look bad, then it was Iran, then it was Saddam Hussein's ghost, now it's Putin, by new year it will be North Korea or Corbyn. Everyone other than where the evidence points to - the gulf states and and Turkey.

Bloodworth is a classic ex-Trotskyist turned red-baiting neocon, arguing with his former self. He and Orton seem to constantly big each other up and promote the others work and media appearances. It was Bloodworth who came out with classic claim c.2012 that Syria in a state of warfare because all the Iraqi jihadists had been driven there due to the "success of that occupation".

As usual, an excellent post. On Lister I came across this:


To me (apart from him potentially being a Qatari sockpuppet) this was one of the most ridiculous quotes in the Spectator article: Moderate meaning "(a) what groups are acknowledged as being opposed to ISIL and (b) what groups our governments want, or need to be involved in a political process."

Groups our governments want or need to be involved! Groups they want or need to be involved? They don't exist. Do they. You just hope they will, and that they will magically rush to help being the sensible moderates that they are and will continue to be. I don't know if the 70,000 claim is more fantastical or farcical to be honest.

Add in the absolute guff coming out of pro bombers (such as Mary Creagh on Newsnight yesterday) and it's baffling how total the mental capture of these people has been, especially after all the previous experiences.

Let's just say that I was giving very much the benefit of the doubt to both. Lister's analysis and insight into the rebels seems fairly sound (I might well buy his book as it looks interesting on that basis alone), it's his conclusions and recommendations that are most certainly coloured by where his wages originate from.

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