Tuesday 1 December 2015

Off-Topic Post: Thoughts about Paris and Syria

A fortnight ago, the world was in shock over the atrocities that had been committed in Paris. I have been mulling these events, and what follows may not always be coherent. I sometimes play devil's advocate when trying to decide what to think about something, and I pontificate from the comfort of being far away from events and not knowing anyone directly involved. Therefore, this blog post may well be insensitive and, when playing devil's advocate, outright offensive to some. If you were affected by events in Paris, or if you feel strongly about them, you may not wish to read on.


Let's start with the obvious. The attacks in Paris were reprehensible atrocities, committed by despicable human beings. Nonetheless, something rang hollow about the news coverage and all the statements issued by politicians in the aftermath.

The more I thought about it, the more I realised that what rang so hollow was the outrage. The bereaved, the survivors - they have every right to be aggrieved and outraged. But, politicians? European leaders? Hollande, Cameron? Newspapers like the Daily Vile and The Scum?

It's not just disgusting how media (and politicians whose career is built on hatred and bigotry) instantly began to speculate (cough, assert, cough) that the attackers must have come to France among refugees, although that is certainly the most disgusting aspect of the popular outrage being peddled at the time. No, what felt really hollow and wrong is how different the reactions were compared to the reactions when atrocities happen elsewhere.

Worse, there is an outright taboo on saying, writing or thinking something that's very, very obvious, and very very true: the attacks did not come out of nowhere. They were not unprovoked. The murderers are guilty of committing the bloodshed, but Francois Hollande's government shares some responsibility for the attacks on Paris, just as Tony Blair is responsible for the 7/7 attacks on London. Yet to say both these things is taboo among leaders and politicians.

Let's take a step back. If I am saying something taboo, let's work out the logic of that statement. Let's play devil's advocate.

Our governments keep telling we're at war. We're not currently at war with Iraq, but we're at war with Islamic State, at war with Terror, at war with Drugs. But these wars are not like other wars in the distant past: they are certainly not wars where governments face other nation states with similar weaponry and similar might. Instead, stealth aircraft and drones do violence to targets below while being almost untouchable. So modern wars cost us nothing more than money, while whoever we're at war with does all the bleeding. We've become quite comfortable with that. So comfortable, in fact, that there is outrage when the people we are bombing have the audacity to fight back. There's something almost collectively sadistic about this - like a head teacher beating a pupil and expecting to be thanked, not hated, for the violence they dish out.

Now, the attacks in Paris were mass slaughter of civilians. That's not self defence - to us. But, for a crazy moment, let's think ourselves into the enemy's shoes. Drones and stealth aircraft are untouchable. Armies and soldiers are well defended and have overwhelming force. (Not that the reaction over here is any different when a soldier is killed when he's defenceless). So how to fight an invincible enemy? Is it really a surprise they target civilians? Isn't it, in fact, a logical conclusion of our nations being at war with them? Have Islamic State signed up to the Geneva Convention, international treaties on human rights, etc.? No, of course not. They don't believe in human rights for the people they claim to rule, so why would they have any more respect for Westerners' rights? How can our leaders feign surprise and outrage when enemies defend themselves, and don't play by our rules?

I use the words 'defend themselves' intentionally: it does not imply victimhood or blamelessness. When Britain declared war on Germany, they did not expect the Nazis to just take their lumps and not fight back. Any war is a two-way street of violence. To expect anything less is unreasonable.

The attacks on Paris were a logical and likely outcome of France's involvement in the fight against Islamic State / terror.. That doesn't make them less atrocious and vile, it does not absolve the attackers of blame, It simply means that France's politicians are partially responsible for them, and that all their outrage is hypocritical.

Islamic State

Every indication is that Islamic State is, essentially, a death cult. There are only two things they appear competent at: getting publicity and inflicting suffering.

Obsessed with violence and death, fuelled by hatred, vanity and insanity, they are filled with self-destructive urges. Their glossy magazine celebrates the gory photos of their dead fighters as much as it celebrates the violence they inflict on others. Islamic State is to Islam what the Lord's Resistance Army in Uganda are to Christianity. As such, they are dangerous, sick, and it's pretty obvious the world would be a better and safer place without them.

I don't know enough about the Lord's Resistance Army (beyond their use of child soldiers and their mass abductions etc.), but it seems to me that the totally batshit crazy psycho cults out there (central American drug cartels, LRA, ISIS) have some things in common. According to some, much of ISIS was moulded into shape by going through a joint experience of suffering - being locked into an American prison camp - and used the resentment at their mistreatment to fuel a rage that would ultimately lead to IS. Similarly, drug cartel violence seems to be on an escalating cycle, which was only fuelled, not extinguished, by the War on Drugs and its more violent interludes and phases.

Basically, violence and abuse seem to create insanity, rage, revenge, more violence and worse abuse. I shudder to think what the populations currently under ISIS' gruesome rule might one day retaliate as.

At the same time, ISIS and drug cartels have other commonalities: ultimately, they are psycho creeps with guns. Do they have an armed vehicle or two, maybe some missiles? Sure. But when it comes down to it, all they need to be sources of terror is guns and swords. The Rwandan genocide was largely carried out by people with machetes - all it takes for genocide to happen is people willing to commit it, and relatively light weaponry against a comparatively unarmed population.

What good are drones, missiles and bombs against widely dispersed psychos with guns?


Syria has become a battleground for every nation with aspirations at exerting power in the Middle East. It's a tragedy of unimaginable proportions. Here's a history of events since the Arab Spring:

If you were a person living in Syria, what would you do? If you were a parent in Syria, which faction would you turn to? From outside, it does not look as if any of the armed factions are 'the good guys'. Being a civilian / unarmed person in Syria must be terrifying.

Bombing ISIS

Reading all the above, you might conclude that I am dead against bombing IS in Syria, or bombing Syria. I wish I could be that categorical. I am doubtful that bombing will have any positive effect. In fact, it seems to me it will only feed the cycle of violence, and has no way of replacing a mess with something good.

At the same time, the atrocities committed by IS are such that I can't be entirely opposed to our governments trying to get rid of them. Clearly, anything would be better than that lot. Well, anything except Assad's regime, maybe.

I do believe that voting to bomb IS effectively means voting for IS to retaliate against British civilians. The UK government has already joined the fight against IS in Iraq, so from that point of view, they have already voted to make the civilian population in the UK a target for more attacks by IS sympathisers. Expanding to Syria just makes us a bigger target. That isn't necessarily a reason to vote against intervention - if the UK could make a difference & genuinely improve matters, then some innocent British lives may be a fair price to pay for saving thousands of innocent lives in Syria. But can the UK make such a difference?

If the Western governments have a good, realistic, achievable plan (hah!) for how IS can be defeated, and Assad removed, and peace and stability brought to Syria, then I wouldn't be opposed to war / force being involved. Unfortunately, there is no indication that any plan, let alone a good one, exists.

Things Our Governments Should Do Instead

Here's a TED Talk:

It seems to me that there are much more effective things the UK and Europe (and America) could do than throwing more bombs and death into the Middle East. The first and foremost of these is to help people who have been fleeing from the chaos and violence.

Now, personally, I am not opposed to opening borders and letting them in, but I understand that there is significant popular resistance to that approach in most European nations. So, short of helping everyone fleeing the chaos and death to Europe, there are still things our governments can and should do.

1) Fund Refugee Cities, not Camps

Refugees who have fled the violence live in tent cities, in a permanent limbo. The UN, to some extent, looks after them, but they are critically underfunded and unable to offer people anything but the barest minimum of life support. Having millions of people live in poverty, with nothing to do, is a recipe for disaster. It's a recipe for letting people stew in their trauma, their anger at their misfortunes, and ultimately, it could be a recipe for turning people into our enemies because we did not help out when they desperately needed it. At best, it turns them into enemies of other Syrians, and ensures that grievances can fester and conflicts continue for more generations to come..

In this video, a Swedish economist points out that we spend £50 a day on refugees who make it to Europe, but only £1 a day on refugees who are stuck in Lebanon or Jordan.
Hans Rosling on the refugee crisis
Europe is getting its response to the refugee crisis all wrong. That’s the view of Professor Hans Rosling of Gapminder – watch him explain why.
Posted by Channel 4 News on Tuesday, 24 November 2015

It's perfectly within the powers of our government to spend more. It's overdue. Let's treat the Syrian diaspora the way we'd treat cities flattened by tsunamis, earthquakes, volcanoes and hurricanes. Let's pump in billions, and fund the building of permanent, viable cities. Let the refugees build their own futures - give them materials, work and opportunities and a sense of a sustainable future, and a chance to live, rather than expecting them to rot in limbo and stay there.

Also, from a purely strategic point of view, wouldn't it make sense to start building a (municipal) government from the ground (& grassroots) up, in those refugee camps? Perhaps a viable Syrian government-in-exile can grow, and learn the art of governing, co-existing, self-policing and, ultimately, once the bloodletting in Syria itself fizzles out, be in a position to help Syria reunite and heal? Where are Syria's future rulers supposed to arise from? Armed militias? How would that be any better than Assad's regime?

2) Strangle the Arms Trade

Where do the various factions get their guns & ammo from? Shockingly, the answer is "pretty much everyone". (This 2013 article precedes much of the rise of IS).

As long as arms are freely flowing into Syria (and Northern Iraq), and as long as every other nation with aspirations to exert control in the region keeps running a proxy war, the bloodletting won't stop, the trauma will continue, and we can only create more enemies.

3) Come up with a f***ing plan

Seriously, is "let's throw bombs on it" the only answer our governments can think of? Is this a matter of "if the only tool you have is a hammer, treat everything as if it were a nail"?


I mean, seriously, WTF?

Syria should be under a complete UN arms embargo. There shouldn't be efforts to get more nations to pile on and add bombs to the fire. All efforts should be towards getting Iran, Saudi Arabia, Russia and the rest (including Western governments) to step back and take their military support with them.

Where are the diplomatic efforts to disengage all the proxy powers?

And where are the efforts for planning for a post-civil-war future? The trauma inflicted by this conflict will last for decades, even generations. What planning is there for overcoming that? Where are our governments' plans for preventing another Taliban, another ISIS, another Al Queda from forming ten, twenty years from now, from the ashes of this conflict (even if IS and Assad are defeated / erased)? If we want to defeat IS and Assad and fix Syria, how come our plan appears to be "let's bomb them and expect them to be grateful for our benevolent bombings"?

4) Anyhow

I'm glad Jeremy Corbyn is giving his MPs a free vote. I'm not in support of bombing IS in Syria, but I'm not opposed enough to join a Stop The War Coalition protest.

I just really wish our governments came up with complex answers to complex problems, rather than opting to try for simple solutions which don't stand much chance of fixing anything.

(For the record: I was in favour of intervention in Kosovo, moderately against intervention in Afghanistan, very strongly against the 2003 Iraq war, undecided about intervention in Libya, and I am moderately against intervention in Syria at this time)

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