The action fallacy and Syria

The UK House of Commons finished marathon debate over authorizing airstrikes in Syria. The government motion passed 397-223. In 2013 the same body defeated a similar intervention bill, with a united Labour joined by minor parties and defections from the Conservative-Liberal Democrat coalition.

It is not surprising that this vote will succeed, and do so by a considerable margin. The Paris attacks have turned dozens of Labour MPs into hawks. Jeremy Corbyn, the most anti-war party leader in recent memory, was unable to get his delegation into line. Ed Miliband, who led the opposition to the 2013 bill, also voted against airstrikes.

Corbyn is being pilloried by the press and by members of his own party, who has been given almost no breathing room despite an overwhelming mandate in his election.

This whole debate reeks of historical blindness. Corbyn and his anti-war brethren are just being consistent- 12 years ago the same debate occurred, about intervention in Iraq.

Is there a record of Western military intervention creating stable, secular nation-states?

No.

Was there an exit strategy before intervening in Iraq?

No.
Is there one now?

No.

Will an escalation of force undermine ISIS recruitment? Former hostage and journalist Nicolas Hénin thinks it’s a trap to rally support around ISIS.

The “good war” of today will be, just like Iraq, the “bad war” of a decade in the future. Each time a Noble Defense of Liberal Democracy(tm) turns into a bloody, expensive quagmire, there’s a whole round of editorials about a powerful lesson learned. Acquired wisdom will prevent the same mistakes.

I’ll forward the title of this post: the action fallacy. In times of crisis, it is always easier to defend doing something over not doing something. A wide range of people, including some of the Labour shadow ministry, see anti-war principles as weakness. Strength involves using people and money to destroy other people. Intervening in Iraq was worth creating free university, housing, investment in clean energy. Put this way- to dive into war with no evidence that it will improve the situation is to say you oppose programs that are guaranteed to improve a situation- not just in the United Kingdom, but Syria as well. For several million dollars you can build housing or turn one into a smoking crater.

Would ISIS exist in 2015 if there was no coalition invasion of Iraq in 2003? Highly unlikely, as its leadership in part are Sunnis who were displaced, and when the army was disbanded, they took their weapons and went home. If money was actually invested in creating a strong Kurdish state in northern Iraq, ISIS would never have been able to invade east.

The Western countries which are bombing (or will soon) talk about Western values and international cooperation. They’ve been completely unable to stop Turkey from bombing the Kurds, who are those secular anti-ISIS rebels that Westerners are always talking about. Never mind that the Kurds are the only thing keeping ISIS from having a long border with a NATO nation.

I’d like to finish by shaming one MP and praising another. Alison McGovern, a Labour MP who is voting for war but wants to couch it in humanitarianism, said this in her speech:

the biggest recruitment for vile extremism is want. It is dissatisfaction with the chances the world is offering you, whether in the back streets of Britain or the cities of Africa and the Middle East where young people find that the powerful in our world forget them far too quickly.

This is an awful chunk of hypocrisy, and exactly the sort of hawkish rhetoric you get from ostensibly liberal Democrats in the United States. The biggest recruiter for “vile extremism” are civilian casualties, creating the narrative that Islam is being attacked by a coalition of Western countries and needs people to come and save it. That ISIS is not in any way a genuine Islamic organization is irrelevant- violent intervention turns logical analysis on its head. Conflict narrows the focus of all involved. It stirs up the blood and legitimates cruelty.

Yet that’s not the most troubling part. It’s an argument about poverty being a key issue of the problem. This is in part true, and would make sense were it not in a speech justifying expensive military operations. Ending poverty requires money, which is wasted on weapons and a misguided form of ‘nation-building’ that failed to turn Iraq into a stable country. And many people in the Middle East do end up joining ISIS out of poverty- Western-created from warfare. The War on Terror has been a fourteen-year long lessons that attacking terrorism with military force both kills extremists and creates new ones. This ignores all the recruits from the West, including Paris, whose poverty is also Western-created through capitalist exploitation and inequality.

Alex Salmond, former first minister of Scotland, had a speech that had its issues, but summed things up well here:

we are being asked to intervene in a bloody civil war of huge complexity, we are being asked to do it without an exit strategy and no reasonable means of saying we are going to make a difference

Good point, Alex.

My inherent issue with Facebook solidarity

So I didn’t change my Facebook profile picture for Paris. Or Beirut, or Syria, or Kenya, or anywhere else. Nor do I have strong feelings about what people should or should not do after a tragedy, as long as it’s not rooted in bigotry. For me, I have an issue because I know Facebook solidarity is incomplete, and that my friends only focus on certain types of events.

First, as people have pointed out before, there are many places on Earth in perpetual crisis. Syria recently, but also the Rohingya refugee crisis that extends from Burma into Bangladesh and various surrounding territories. Central Africa has been in a series of ongoing conflicts where rape is a major weapon of war. Billions of people are in varying degrees of poverty, most of which is long-standing. There is something ethically troubling about showing visible solidarity with other people when there is an acute incident. Haiti has never recovered from the earthquake several years back- we had a brief period of solidarity, money was raised, and much of the humanitarian crisis was not solved. It still hasn’t been, but our Haiti Facebook pictures have long since been taken down.

Second, since I am an American (along with my race, class, sex . . ) I have a bias towards places and people I can directly relate to. I’ve been to Paris, I’ve never been to Beirut or Nigeria. The entire way I receive information about the world is skewed, and even with wonderful outlets like Al Jazeera English, the lack of coverage of Africa, south Asia, etc. creates an unconscious tendency to think that even when atrocities are reported from there, they aren’t as important as events of a similar magnitude in the developed world.

Which is a long way to say that I feel not changing my profile picture is not a signal that I don’t care about terrorism and imperialism. Rather, it’s an acceptance that the world is immensely fucked up all the time, and only recognizing a tiny portion of the new evils introduced to the world seems somehow wrong. It goes without saying that ultimately fighting global problems on an individual level is about donating money, donating time, and standing against imperialism and exploitation. But don’t lose the past when the unpleasant present roars into view. Because the Haiti crisis is still here, and they don’t get their flag on social media anymore.

What our wars create: ISIS and the persistence of terrorism

ISIS soldiers celebrate. Credit: AFP/Getty
ISIS soldiers celebrate. Credit: AFP/Getty

A conservative Facebook friend posted a story from the YoungCons website (you know it’s a great right-wing website when one of the top results is “is this site satire?”) about the battle of civilizations- America vs. Islamic fundamentalism. It suggested that the US take after Jefferson and his war against the pirates in Tripoli- use force against these Islamic powers, and don’t back down, surrender, or be held for ransom. Those three things being what the Obama administration is currently doing re: ISIS. Apparently.

Here was my reply, and a reply against the US policy in the Middle East since 9/11:

Islamic fundamentalism post-dates Jefferson. It is a creation in response to colonialism and perpetuated by Western anti-terror actions that lead to far more civilian casualties than militant ones.

We’ve been actively killing people in the Middle East for thirteen years and radical fundamentalism is stronger than ever. A secular leader in Iraq was overthrown, the armed forces disbanded, and a Sunni insurgency created by former officers let loose with their training and weapons. The strongest terror-backed entity is using American weapons to massacre civilians.

So when is America going to bomb the Islamic world into prosperity and peace? Or perhaps basic history shows that’s not the case, and we’re actually fighting a war against groups that would not exist without the weapons and instability from Land of the Free, Home of the Brave, the United States of America.

Now please note that I am not a Hussein apologist, but we need to be honest and see what the early-stage plan in Iraq was, and how in toppling one dictator we sowed the seeds for others to come.

ISIS with captured tank
ISIS with captured tank

With ISIS, we must stop the ongoing nationwide amnesia about the two main wars fought with 9/11 as justification, and confront the new, post-Coalition Iraq. Any additional use of force in the region has to be weighed against what has happened with past uses of force. ISIS may not be a direct creation of the United States (with an assist from early 20th century France and Britain), but its current structure and power is related to US actions, and the War on Terror philosophy that terrorism must be stomped out using overwhelming force.

This is a terror group which is now confirmed to have access to chemical weapons. Just this week another Iraqi Army base was overrun, giving ISIS access to huge amounts of US-provided weapons and transportation.

The biggest discussion since 9/11 that nobody in the government or national media doesn’t want to have is a huge one: what it terrorism, and how is it persisting despite sanctions and military action? Central to this indefinite War is the justification of force without the analysis of its consequences. The Sunni insurgency comes from how the initial invasion of Iraq was manage, and how the Shi’ite and Sunni constituencies have their own paramilitary groups that can act independently of governmental authority. ISIS is a product of dysfunction, and there is no way to remove Coalition action from that dynamic.

Patriotism is a cheap word these days. Only brash, simple action can be patriotic, and dissent is met with ambivalence, if not outright hostility. No matter what ideology you subscribe to, what the United States does or does not do in the Middle East has a body count attached to it. Its size is important, as well as how we take responsibility for collateral damage, if at all.

The Kurdish experiment: democracy and freedom in the 21st century

Thousands of Yazidis were rescued in August by terrorists. Wait, I thought ISIS (Daesh) were the terrorists?

Oh they are, to be sure. Just that the United States government hasn’t been eager to admit that it wasn’t United States humanitarian intervention that saved these people hidden in those Iraqi mountains. It was the Kurdistan Workers’ Party, best known by their acronym, PKK.

Three PKK fighters pose with an captured ISIS tank.  Taken August 25, 2014.
Three PKK fighters pose with an captured ISIS tank.
Taken August 25, 2014.

The PKK has a history of violent conflict with Turkey, which earned it a spot on the Foreign Terrorist Organization list. The past few years have seen one of the most radical political transformations in modern history. Led by their imprisoned leader, Abdullah Öcalan, the PKK has ended their armed conflict and replaced that struggle with another. Something special is happening in parts of Kurdistan- the most daring democratic experiment of the 21st century.

Writing for The Guardian, David Graeber gives an idea of the political transformation led by the PKK and its Syrian sister party, the PYD:

But what has happened in Rojava, where the Syrian revolution gave Kurdish radicals the chance to carry out such experiments in a large, contiguous territory, suggests this is anything but window dressing. Councils, assemblies and popular militias have been formed, regime property has been turned over to worker-managed co-operatives – and all despite continual attacks by the extreme rightwing forces of Isis. The results meet any definition of a social revolution.

These assemblies start at the lowest level, electing higher levels. Diversity is mandated, including women in positions of authority. Radical literature is discussed frequently in meetings. In some places, the non-state assembly structure is more powerful than the regular government. In some sense, the PKK is replacing the independent country they cannot have with a new sort of free society- one that comes from direct democracy and an end to oppressive institutions.

As Reflections on a Revolution (ROAR) published earlier this year, the PKK has gone through a earnest transformation thanks in part to the honesty of its leader:

Öcalan embarked, in his prison writings, on a thorough re-examination and self-criticism of the terrible violence, dogmatism, personality cult and authoritarianism he had fostered: “It has become clear that our theory, programme and praxis of the 1970s produced nothing but futile separatism and violence and, even worse, that the nationalism we should have opposed infested all of us. Even though we opposed it in principle and rhetoric, we nonetheless accepted it as inevitable.” Once the unquestioned leader, Öcalan now reasoned that “dogmatism is nurtured by abstract truths which become habitual ways of thinking. As soon as you put such general truths into words you feel like a high priest in the service of his god. That was the mistake I made.”

So many hardline Marxist-Leninist militias are unable to break out of their dogma, and they either forsake socialism altogether, or ossify into obscurity. Perhaps there is another way to move forward, to transform from a failed revolution to a thriving one.

Everything that is reprehensible about ISIS is countered by the Kurdish revolutionaries. Clearly they are not terrorists of the same ilk.

Female and male PKK fighters pose during training.
Female and male PKK fighters pose during training.

Thankfully the past day has seen CNBC post a short editorial with a simple title- “Why the US should take PKK off the terror list“. Put simply, the United States has gotten its ass saved by the PKK showing up to save Yazidi- especially after the US-trained peshmerga forces ran away after a brief fight with ISIS. For Western powers, the story of PKK should be positive- an enemy has become a friend. Not due to shifting alliances (the old Cold War mentality), but the transformation of a strong, dedicated group of people.

ROAR ends their feature with a call to action:

those of us who value the idea of civilization owe our gratitude to the Kurds, who are fighting the jihadists of Islamist fascism day and night on the frontlines in Syria and Iraq, defending radical democratic values with their lives.

The Kurds, in particular the PKK and the PYD, should be the talk of the radical left, and any that oppose what ISIS is doing to Iraq and Syria. But the Kurds are often ignored, and even moreso the democratic revolution that is going on in some areas. Let that not be the case. The Kurds are a stateless people, their history is one of cultural loss, genocide, and struggle- armed and unarmed. They have a story to tell us all, we only need listen.

Journalism is the first rough draft of history

“Journalism is the first rough draft of history.”

This line has over time become a maxim within the industry as a whole. It connects what explains unfolding events with events that have unfolded and must be explained. I thought this quote had an obvious origin in former Washington Post president Philip Graham, however a feature on Slate pointed out that it comes out of the 1940s and has been said by many people in the same era that Philip did.

One news trope that has emerged, most egregiously at Vox, are articles about big issues stating that they are “everything you need to know”. Several red flags come from titles like that. In some cases it comes off as empty swagger; does anybody really think that this article explains everything you need to know about the Israel-Palestine conflict? This attitude about big issues has received criticism (examples here for fairly apolitical and here for a conservative response). When media outlets go big-scale, they run into the maxim: journalism is not equivalent to history, rather they are two points connected within the same space but quite different times.

Vox is a fun site. WonkBlog was a place for very smart people to analyze really dumb, ineffective legislation. In contrast, Vox is more free-flowing and creative. Still, they run into a wall when it comes to big, long-standing issues. What many data-driven news sites attempt to do (538 is another, though narrower in focus) is explain historical issues within the style and vocabulary of news. Any deference to history would see “everything you need to know” stricken from article titles. Israel-Palestine is still unfolding, so is the war on terror and the Eurozone crisis. One thing that history guarantees us is that more significant events are around the corner, and it will take time to see if this news reporting supports or conflicts with prior history.

If there is anything that history teaches us, it is the complexity of events, even those that seem straightforward. Journalism has neither the space nor the context to accommodate deep complexity. News is like soda- produced to exacting standards, each unit identical in quality and makeup. History is wine- full of variation and changing over time. It is important to bring historical context to new events- how else can you understand why ISIS exists, and has gained such power in a few short years? But that’s just a thumbnail. To claim to be comprehensive is dishonest, and stunts the intellectual growth of readers. After all, if Vox really had everything I needed to know about Israel-Palestine, why do any more research on the subject?

Syria’s civil war machine keeps chugging

Last week an estimate came out; with over 1,700 dead, the third week in July may have been the deadliest in the Syrian conflict to date. This combines with a press conference held by a regime defector who has tens of thousands of pictures of dead Syrians, who had been brutally tortured. This man surfaced back in January, which led to a post I made located here, which links to a gallery of photos, most not for the faint of heart.

Destruction in the middle of Homs, Syria. Credit: Yazen Homsy, Reuters

In the international community, a cadre has long hoped that the Syrian conflict would reach a stalemate. The parties would then be open to a negotiated settlement, and large-scale violence would cease.

There has been no slowing down. Syria’s army, the Free Syrian Army, the fundamentalists, the Kurds, and all the other groups trying to survive are not out of will and fight.

Assad’s regime continues to get heavy weapons from Russia, while the Islamic State is now making huge sums from the oil fields it has captured. As long as the various factions have the money and arms to sustain a struggle, the idea of a lasting peace seems absurd.

 

 

Expansion of ISIS into Iraq, another bloody stalemate?

From The Economist (http://www.economist.com/news/middle-east-and-africa/21604230-extreme-islamist-group-seeks-create-caliphate-and-spread-jihad-across)

What used to be, in Neolithic and Bronze Age times, the Fertile Crescent, is a complete mess. Not that it’s unusual- on any scale of time the region is unstable and its political powers shifting.

ISIS/ISIL has won stunning victories in Iraq, after more measured and slow success in Syria. Part of that may have been the crowded and diverse ethnic and religious makeup, where they were hemmed in by Kurds, the Syrian government, and other rebel groups. Taking over the Sunni-dominated portion of northern and western Iraq was a bit simpler. Anonymous Twitter account @wikibaghdady throws in suggestions that the displaced Baathist regime is bolstering ISIS/ISIL. Its success was not instantaneous, and its progress was underreported in Western media. Now it is gaining weapons, money, and a population base to tax (or perhaps extort) funds from. There are certainly benefits in a shift from a terrorist militia to a political state. It cements power and creates a structure for expansion and resistance to attack.

The big-scale forces seem to be restraint and stockpiling weapons, intelligence, and resources. Each side in Iraq- the Shias, Sunnis, and Kurds- have a rope pulling them back towards the land where their faction holds a strong population advantage. The Kurds are now openly selling oil on their own terms, and have gained Turkish support that they didn’t have during the independence campaign by the PKK and others within Turkish borders. With Kirkuk, their territory in Iraq is more or less as big as it could realistically be without currying a civil war with the government in Baghdad. While that government is gaining significant popular support from Iran and the Shia population, as long as ISIS/ISIL has a base in Syria to launch reinforces, long term occupation of Sunni lands seems untenable. As the linked story shows, shrine cities will be fought fiercely for, but more distant towns with no religious significance?

ISIS/ISIL is doing the expansion right now, but it remains to be seen if Baghdad could realistically fall (and how long it could be occupied). At some point, eastern advancements get close to the Iranian border.

It seems that stalemate is a likely result in the weeks and months to come. After all, that’s what Syria has devolved into- even if one side is gaining the upper hand, it takes an long time for any advantage to become clear.

These situations of a civil war reaching an equilibrium can be seen in Africa as well, it’s not a recent phenomenon or a Middle Eastern phenomenon. From a policy perspective, the question is what can be done beyond humanitarian damage control. Refugee camps in Jordan or Lebanon that persist for years point to a social and national structure that is collapsing. Social services are very limited, education is spotty and inferior. It all leads to populations that are losing an ability to proceed, to rebuild economies and governments if and when the conflict ends.

Without strong policies that try to build (or maintain) healthy social structures, any peace will by nature be fragile. There are certainly many civil wars, in many different areas and continents, where nothing of value is learned.

If nothing is learned…

Same groups
Same factions
Same weapons
Same refugees
Same suffering
Same stalemate.