Two and a half years. Approximately 100,000 documented deaths on all sides. And despite fractures in the regime, despite some advanced forms of decomposition, there seems to be no prospect of Assad falling soon.
The opposition, meanwhile, has never cohered. It has made advances, and it has taken control of local state apparatuses – a town here, a police station there. But this has merely accelerated the fragmentation and disintegration of political authority within Syria. The one area of the country where the opposition is unified is in the Kurdish north-east, where a regional administration is governing with the support of Iraqi Kurdistan.
The formation of the National Coalition for Syrian Revolutionary and Opposition Forces - out of a fusion between the old SNC, the Muslim Brothers, the secular democrats, the socialists, the Free Syrian Army and the Local Coordinating Committees – might suggest that some cohesion has been achieved, and that a popular interim government is ready to take power if the military balance of forces changes.
It is not as simple as that. It is true that the regime is militarily backed by Russia, but it clearly retains a significant degree of popular support, from which it has been able to forge a counter-revolutionary armed force with which to defeat its opponents. It is not, and never is, purely a military calculation: the revolution has failed to spread because it has not won politically. And this is because despite what some people would call ‘top table’ agreements between leaders, there is very little practical unity on the ground between anti-Assad forces. It is this which has given a certain space to the salafists, so-called ‘Al Qaida in Syria’ (Jabhat al-Nusra), to punch well above their weight. Of course, the idea that the opposition is dominated by a few thousand salafists is as implausible as the idea that when US boots land on Syrian soil their major foes will be ‘Al Qaida’. It’s horseshit. But it is better organised and more efficient than many of the other groups, it does get involved in most major anti-government actions, its politics are extremely reactionary, and it bears responsible for some of the worst war crimes.
Now we are potentially on a war footing*, with the ostensible issue of the conflict being the use of Sarin nerve gas in the suburbs of Damascus. Think about this gas. It works by causing the muscles to spasm, causing your respiratory system to stop working. It literally renders you helpless. There is nothing you can do except die, through a sequence of convulsion, vomiting, defecating and urinating until terminal suffocation. That is the grim end that hundreds of pale corpses reached in Damascus. It is true that hundreds of people are dying grisly deaths every day in Syria. It is also true that war crimes, some committed by the revolutionary forces, are a routine occurrence. It is true that most of the weapons used by the regime are indiscriminate in nature – shelling, cluster bombs, thermobaric bombs. Still, I think there’s something specifically obscene about this type of attack. It solicits attention; and it says ‘fuck you’. I don’t claim to know who carried out this attack. And the fact that we have bounced into ‘humanitarian’ war before, on the pretext of certain salient atrocities, is reason enough to maintain a wary caution about official attributions of responsibility. Still, this atrocity has been used to push the button for ‘intervention’. And, as we all know, ‘intervention’ solves all problems everywhere, ever.
What are the possible justifications for war, then?
1) Punishment. This strikes me as the most futile idea in the history of war. The concept of punishment has always been futile, but in this case it is woefully underwhelming and incredibly vague. How much ‘punishment’ exactly would be sufficient? If you bomb a police station or a barracks, is that enough? If you bomb a palace or two, will that do it? How much is enough to express the disapproval of ‘the international community’ at the use of nerve gas? Yet, staggeringly, this is the main justification for war being reported. I now suspect Robin Yassin-Kassab was correct when he said that the idea was to save face.
2) Tilt the balance of the war in favour of the opposition. It seems highly unlikely that this would be the goal of any such intervention. After all, it would take more than a few scuds to do that. As I said, the balance of forces is necessarily, though not exclusively, a political problem. And indeed one aspect of that political problem is likely that significant sections of the Syrian population regard the revolutionaries as too dependent on external support. If the US intended to overcome that, it wouldn’t be enough to bomb a few targets; it would have to start funnelling arms in a serious way directly to the opposition. It would have to start sending in special forces to start training opposition fighters, and bring a load of cash to buy favour and keep the influence of well-organised jihadis at bay. It would have to think about bombing strategic targets. Given how entrenched the regime appears to be, it would have to seriously consider the possibility of significant aerial and ground commitments. ’Mission creep’ would be an obvious peril, and the military leadership of the US is, I suspect, profoundly wary of this.
3) Regime change. This is the most obvious goal in a way, but it seems unlikely again. They would need a government-in-waiting, and the opposition is too fragmented to be that; the bourgeois leadership doesn’t have sufficient control over the base, and is too divided among itself. The Obama administration has recognised the opposition as the legitimate government of Syria, but it has been extremely lukewarm. So if regime change did become the goal, they would have to find a way to knock the opposition into their desired shape – the ‘interim government’ that Hollande claims it is – and fast. Then they would have to be prepared for precisely the sort of escalating commitment that the Pentagon and imperial planners would do a great deal to avoid. This is to say nothing of whether such means would actually reduce the amount of civilian incineration and slaughter, which seems extremely unlikely at best.
4) ‘We have to do something’. This argument isn’t an argument. It’s just one step up from ‘think about the children’. If you’re thinking ‘we have to do something’, just do yourself a favour and fill your mouth with cake or something. And anyway, as I was saying, who is this ‘we’, mammal?
*The UK parliament voted against war tonight, with Labour voting against the government. David Cameron, summoning up his immense, salesmanlike dignity, said: ”It’s clear to me that the British parliament and the British people do not wish to see military action; I get that, and I will act accordingly.” He might actually have to resign. Well, fuck my socks.
Originally posted here