Tuesday, 7 February 2012

The case against intervention in Syria, and more broadly

 A  number of prominent Middle East specialists, ex-government types and the like have started to make the case for foreign military intervention in Syria in order to put an end to the regime’s killing of its own people. This is easy to understand and even sympathise with. While I think there is a real possibility that events in Syria are being misreported and casualty figures perhaps exaggerated to some extent, it is clear that horrific violence is taking place in Syria and that shelling of heavily populated residential areas by regime security forces for example has killed numerous innocent people in recent days, which it is only natural for good-hearted people to want to stop. However I nevertheless want to make a case for why they are wrong to call for the use of external force in the case of Syria, and usually also wrong when doing so more generally. 

My case isn’t about hypocrisy and selectiveness, though it might be argued that there’s some of that going around; there is no reason not to do good in some cases just because you don't do it in others. It largely isn’t about the fact that we don’t actually have a very good picture of what is going on in Syria, how many people have been killed and to what extent who is really doing the killing (the fog of war being unusually thick here given that media reports are relying very heavily on opposition activists, while evidence that opposes to dominant narrative, such as the Arab League report is being ignored), or about the fact that we don't really know if most Syrians would support an intervention - and some evidence strongly suggests they don't. It isn’t just about the facts that military intervention can have severe unintended consequences, rarely leading to the establishment of democratic states and often triggering civil war – though that’s an important part of it. It’s primarily about opportunity costs and the fact that foreign military intervention is almost always at best an incredibly inefficient way to save lives.

That sounds both coldly calculating and boring, and it’s an argument that even anti-war types rarely make, but it’s actually extremely important. 

People are justifying foreign intervention in Syria, as they did in Libya, Iraq and elsewhere, largely on the grounds that someone needs to stop a dictator murdering his own people – that those lives need to be saved. Looked at out of context, ignoring the direct and indirect costs, that’s a persuasive argument. 

But what’s happening in Syria, what was happening in Libya, what happened in Iraq were not the only things killing innocent people around the world on a daily basis, not by a long stretch. People - many or most of them innocent children - in the third world are crippled and die every day from things we could prevent such as malnutrition and preventable diseases, and we could save magnitudes of order more lives if we used the resources put into wars to save them. According to the WHO, eight million children die a year from malnutrition and mostly preventable diseases. Two thousand African children die a day from malaria, which can be prevented by mosquito nets and prophylactic drugs, and cured when it is contracted. 164,000 people, mostly children under five, died of measles in 2008 even though the vaccine against it costs less than a dollar. Those are just some examples. This is a boring, almost trite thing to say; most people realise this, shake their heads and carry on. But it nonetheless happens to be true; vast numbers of people - as many or more as die in conflict - including millions of children from causes that we could undoubtedly prevent.

As an alternative to stepped-up efforts to solve these problems, "humanitarian" wars are an incredibly cost-ineffective way to save lives. Look at a relatively “cheap” example of foreign intervention, Libya. It cost a few billion dollars, over approximately six months, and supposedly saved maybe several tens of thousands of lives in Benghazi and elsewhere. (I’m extremely skeptical about that - Hugh Roberts for example makes a convincing case that while many people would undoubtedly have died in the retaking of Benghazi, there was little reason to believe Ghadafi intended the mass slaughter of its inhabitants - but whatever). The point is that that justa few billion dollars spent on Libya could for example have been used to wipe out some preventable diseases that kill tens or hundreds of thousands of people every year FOREVER. Based on the figures above for example, even accounting inevitable waste and logistical costs, it could have eradicated measles many times over, saving tens of thousands of children's lives every year, with ample change to spare. Instead we got a war that, though it toppled a brutal regime, also left us with an extremely precarious Libya where militia groups, some of whom committed mass murder, summarily incarcerated  hundreds of people for being black, just recently killed unarmed civilian refugees and continue to torture people to death, now threaten to start fighting each other.

And Libya was just a campaign of air strikes on the cheap. Now look at a much larger scale undertaking, Iraq, which obviously was not really fought for humanitarian purposes but which plenty of liberal hawks ostensibly supported based on them. The immediate out-of-pocket costs of the Iraq war run into the high hundreds of billions of dollars, and when other indirect costs are taken into account, economists such as Joseph Stiglitz believe the cost could be as much as three trillion dollars. That’s three thousand billion dollars.

What did the Iraq war do? Well, it toppled a horrific dictator who had killed tens of thousands of his own people and started a war that killed hundreds of thousands more (though western egging on played a role in the latter too). But it also it killed tens thousands of people in its own right and led to a civil war that killed tens or hundreds of thousands more as well as displacing millions of others, causing incalculable misery. It significantly increased the overall death rate in a society that had by being sanctioned into abject poverty had already seen hundreds of thousands of deaths that would not have happened without the sanctions. And of course it took place at a time when the people that had suffered the most at the hands of Saddam, Iraqi Kurds, were effectively no longer seriously threatened by him or living under his rule. A very optimistic reading of the war might calculate the overall net number of lives saved being a wash, that the net number of lives saved by getting rid of Saddam counterbalanced the number of lives lost because of the war (ignoring the vast numbers killed by unnecessary sanctions). The war arguably also lead to a spike in the price of oil that significantly affected global economic growth and helped trigger a western debt crisis that cost countless jobs. 

And all of this at the cost of resources that charities tackling preventable diseases that kill millions of people will not see in a century or more. Just think what even a fraction of three trillion dollars could do if invested in things like clean water provision, vaccination campaigns, mosquito nets, hospital building, literacy campaigns and so on and so on and so on could do for parts of the third world.

 People may argue that this is a false choice – that you can intervene in places like Syria and still spend or even increase foreign aid; or that the money would not have been spent on aid anyway. I don’t agree. In the case of Iraq for example, the magnitude of money wasted on the conflict was just so vast and the global consequences so extreme, that there is just no way to argue that; the money that was wasted on the war could have done incalculable good if spent elsewhere and there is no way anything like that amount of money could have been simultaneously raised for charitable purposes or that it did not for example lead to a long-term reduction in aid budgets compared to an alternative universe where there was no war. But even “cheap” interventions like Libya have a real cost; in difficult economic times in the west governments are pinching pennies and any money spent “helping” countries like Libya through war is almost certainly money that is lost to better causes. Furthermore the hysteria that pro-intervention governments and pundits whip up around these kinds of events diverts everyone’s attention away from issues like the Somalia famine, never mind issues that barely manage to register on the media radar like preventable diseases, helping to kill any public pressure for a serious push on non-deadly aid. 

People of real influence are putting serious work into campaigning for wars that they could have used to make a real difference pushing for things like increased aid spending. They take up valuable time of decision makers and drown out others calling for more resources for non-violent interventions to save lives. And again, all of this without even mentioning the very real possibility that the foreign military interventions they push for  can and often do actually make things worse.

It is clearly much easy to get angrier at an evil dictator like Bashar al Assad or Saddam Hussein than it is against malaria, or rabies, or dysentery, or polio, or the famine sweeping Somalia, whether you’re a humanitarian or a trigger-happy neocon nut-job.  People killing other people obviously arouses anger in a way that “natural causes” killing people just doesn’t, even when they result in vastly more people dying. That’s understandable, and it’s even more understandable that Syrians for example are desperate for something, anything to stop the violence in their country. But when it comes to choosing how to spend extremely scarce resources to save real lives, there isn’t any room for emotional and often irrational preferences to fight personified evil rather than less tangible forms of mass death, and policy professionals with real influence should be making these calculations rather than allowing themselves to be swayed by the interventionist cause of the day.

War is extremely unpredictable, often making matters worse, and is extremely costly in the form of the lives of soldiers fighting it and “collateral damage.” When it comes down to it, it kills people no matter what, for a very uncertain gain. Vaccination campaigns kill almost no one and can save orders of magnitude more lives for the same cost. Not only that, but no one really knows or can predict how many people will die in Syria without foreign intervention; maybe many, maybe comparatively few. By contrast, there is absolutely no question that many millions will die from illnesses and the like that these funds could help prevent.

And to make matters worse these people are also calling for foreign countries to make war in Syria before negotiations have even been tried to resolve the conflict, dismissing the Russian initiative to mediate between the two and the regime’s apparent agreement out of hand. Yes, the prospects of successful negotiations are probably poor. Yes it’s regrettable to have to negotiate with the likes of Assad, who have buckets of blood on their hands. But the alternative is undoubtedly extreme violence of one sort or another, while negotiations are virtually cost free. The West should be pressuring the likes of the SNC and the FSA, the leaderships of which are extremely susceptible to foreign pressure, to at least give the possibility of a negotiated resolution to the conflict a chance before they call for stepped up violence. Instead they're calling for the backing of one side in a potentially incredibly brutal civil war. (On that point, though I haven't seen wider evidence that it's representative, I noted that the printed message on this picture that was reproduced alongside some news reports on the Homs massacre, says something along the lines of "Yes Asma (al-Assad, Bashar's wife), we're going to execute you and kill your children like you killed the children of Syria." The Assad children are 11, eight and seven years old. While to be fretting over threats to Assad's pampered children while other children are dying in significant numbers in Homs for example may be misplaced, people should be doing their absolute utmost to avoid any kind of a war when elements on the good side are threatening to murder children).

Campaigning for the start of an extremely unpredictable new war in Syria whose absolute, not at all likely best case outcome is a net saving of perhaps several tens of thousands of lives, at the serious risk of causing more problems than the war would solve and at a likely cost of billions or tens of billions of dollars that could save many times more if properly spent elsewhere, all without even trying some apparently available non-violent avenues to resolve the crisis, is not humanitarian, even if the motives behind it are. It’s madness. Rather than waste them on another war, we need to call wealthy western and Arab oil monarchies countries to spend their billions on saving incalculably more lives through peaceful means.

Wednesday, 30 November 2011

Has the war against Iran already begun?

Warning: admittedly highly speculative post ahead:
Reuters has just published yet another “will there be an Israeli attack on Iran?” piece , amidst the latest spike in speculation of a possible strike against its nuclear programme. I'm beginning to wonder if such speculation is not a little behind the times.
In the last two weeks there have an explosion at an Iranian missile facility that killed a senior Revolutionary Guards figure described as the architect of the country’s missile programme h; another alleged explosion at what may have been a Hizbullah site in Lebanon ; and yet another alleged explosion at Iran’s uranium conversion facility in Isfahan.
The circumstances behind all these explosions are murky and it’s not even certain that the last two explosions happened at all, or at least not at the sites described above, never mind whether or not they were the result of sabotage or an attack. Nor is it out of the question that any of the explosions were the results of accidents. But following on from the assassination of prominent Iranian scientists with alleged links to the country’s nuclear programme (again, it’s far from clear that all of the scientists killed really were involved in the nuclear programme, but at the same time it seems unlikely that they were assassinated merely for giving boring lectures) over the course of the past year, a sudden string of “accidents” at these sensitive sites to occur back to back merely as a result of coincidence seems a little far-fetched. An explosion at a missile facility that kills such a prominent figure also seems highly suspicious and the latest evidence for an explosion having taken place at the Isfahan facility also seems pretty strong , though I suppose it’s never wise to take anything reported in the Murdoch press at face value. While these aren't the first explosions blamed on Israel to have allegedly occurred at Iranian missile sites or Hizbullah arms dumps, it does seem to be a particularly concentrated spate.
The timing of the spate of alleged attacks is also interesting. A major factor in the “will Israel/won’t Israel” equation is the US presence in Iraq, which has always been a major deterrent to an Israeli attack due to US fears that Iran could retaliate through Iraqi allies and proxies by launching major attacks on US troops in the country, as well as the fact that the shortest flight route to Iran would be through US-controlled Iraqi airspace, which would put the US in an extremely difficult position. So the likelihood of an attack was always going to increase once the US got out of Iraq. In mid-October the Obama administration announced that it had decided (or had the matter decided for it) to withdraw more or less all troops from Iraq by the end of this year. http://www.huffingtonpost.com/2011/10/15/iraq-withdrawal-us-troops_n_1012661.html. Within a month, and very close to the withdrawal date, the first of what appears to be an escalated series of attacks on Iranian military and nuclear targets began.
If these explosions are real and are the result of Israeli or US/Western attacks, doesn’t that mean the much anticipated war against Iran has essentially already started? Clearly the means are different, and the scale so far smaller, than the widely expected large scale simultaneous airstrike blitz on multiple facilities; but the end result is still explosions at Iranian nuclear and missile facilities (not to mention dead Iranian scientists) and at facilities belonging to its ally Hizbullah. How many more explosions can we expect and at what point do people start describing what is happening as war, which repeated attacks on Iranian military and infrastructure facilities clearly amounts to, rather than “sabotage”?
Another thing I’m curious about is how these attacks, if that’s what they are, are being carried out. It’s generally assumed that various forms of sabotage or attacks by intelligence forces are at play. I’m willing to buy that the occasional accident or explosion. But I find it hard to believe that Mossad or the CIA and local allies such as the MEK have penetrated the Iranian military establishment so deeply as to have been able to carry out sabotage against or plant bombs in two ultra-sensitive and presumably extremely well-guarded Iranian facilities within two weeks, especially at a time when Iran has supposedly recently rolled up a local CIA network. I also find for example Richard Silverstein’s explanation for how Israel supposedly attacked the Hizbullah arms dump (by deliberately crash-landing a booby trapped drone that Hizbullah than brought to the facility) a little convoluted.
One possibility that I haven’t seen widely considered yet is that Israel, or even the US, is simply carrying out good old-fashioned airstrikes, possibly in the form of unmanned drone strikes (though interestingly, Le Figaro reported that an explosion last year at Imam Ali Shehab-3 missile base might have been the result of an Israeli airstrike). After all, unclaimed drone strikes have expanded massively throughout the region in the past few years are being carried out routinely in several other countries by the US in particular. Israel last year was reported to be in possession of a new range of drones capable of reaching Iran , while the US unquestionably has bases in the region that it could launch such strikes from. Of course, in many ways it doesn’t really matter how the attacks were carried out -– a bomb attack is a bomb attack and an act of war is an act of war, regardless of how it’s delivered – but I think the opening up of some sort of air campaign would be widely perceived as a notable escalation in the conflict against Iran in comparison to “sabotage” activities that have long been widely regarded as taking place in Iran.
A covert, low intensity (compared to a full-on simultaneous strike at a range of nuclear and military targets) campaign of drone strikes or other forms of bombings in combination with other activities such as assassinations and sabotage seems like a logical choice for anti-Iranian forces, given widespread claims that such a large-scale strike would not do much more than delay the programme while also potentially sparking sparking a major regional war and  an oil price spike that would be crippling for the already stalling US and global economies.  
Why would smaller scale strikes not do the same (ie trigger Iranian retaliation and a regional war)? One reason is that isolated explosions are deniable in a way that the full-on simultaneous destruction of numerous nuclear facilities isn’t, allowing for the consequences of a full-scale attack to be avoided. That matters for whoever is carrying them out but it also matters for Iran, because Iran almost certainly doesn’t want to get sucked into a war with Israel and the US, because it would inevitably lose. Of course Iran has retaliatory options, and knows that the US is unlikely to have the capability or desire to actually invade Iran and overthrow the regime. All the same, if Iran were to start sustainedly lobbing missiles at Israel and Saudi oil infrastructure and to try to cut off the flow of oil through the Strait of Hormuz, the US would almost certainly bomb its military infrastructure, and probably its civilian infrastructure too, back to year zero, which is not exactly an attractive outcome for the regime. That Iran does not appear willing to get dragged into such a conflict is underlined by the fact that, with the possible exception of the absurd-seeming alleged plot to carry out attacks in the US through an incompetent used car salesman and a Mexican drugs cartel, it has so far appeared to fail to respond to other blatant provocations and attacks such as the blatant assassination of Iranian scientists and the Stuxnet computer virus attack on its nuclear programme; just as Iranian ally Syria failed to respond to the Israeli air raid on a nuclear reactor several years ago and the assassination of one of their senior military figures, and Hizbullah and Hamas, despite much doom-mongering, have failed to respond to the assassination of high-level members such as Imad Mughniyeh.
Of course,  if Israel launched an obvious undisguised large scale airstrike on Iran, it would clearly be politically very difficult for Iran to sit back and do nothing; the regime could well feel forced by popular and nationalist pressure, as well as the dangers associated with being seen to be powerless to respond to large-scale military attack, to engage in some kind of retaliation, irrespective of the consequences. But when it comes to smaller-scale, isolated attacks, the regime can write them off as accidents or isolated incidents not worth responding to, which makes them more attractive for everyone.  
The risk of course is that such attacks continue to the point where it becomes obvious to everybody what’s actually happening and the regime figures it can no longer feign ignorance, potentially sparking a catastrophic full-scale war.

Thursday, 10 November 2011

Examining the IAEA's evidence that Iran "may" be pursuing a nuclear weapons programme

The latest International Atomic Energy Agency (IAEA) report on Iran has been receiving a lot of attention in relation to the fact that, for the first time, the agency has explicitly said it believes not only that Iran may have had a nuclear weapons programme but that “some activities may still be on-going.”

Most of the report is based on documents that have long been in the IAEA’s possession as well as widely reported on, and that largely relate to alleged nuclear activities carried out prior to 2003 (when the US intelligence community judges Iran to have suspended an allegedly pre-existing nuclear weapons programme). These are most importantly the “alleged studies”/“laptop of death” documents, as well as some documents from the AQ Khan nuclear network (which are different in that Iran admits these are genuine and that it received them, though it says it was given weapons-related Khan documents that the IAEA is particularly interested in without having requested them). As several other observers have pointed out, former head of the IAEA Mohammed el-Baradei declined to publish the alleged studies documents or to use them as a basis for accusing Iran of having a nuclear weapons programme because of questions about their authenticity but his politicised pro-US successor Yukiya Amano has decided to give them the IAEA’s backing. Gareth Porter provides the most comprehensive critical examination of the alleged studies’ veracity here (subscription/log-in needed).  

It is bizarre that a report overwhelmingly focused on weapons work alleged to have been largely wrapped up nearly a decade ago is attracting so much hype and being so widely used to call for yet more sanctions on Iran and even outright war. However, while the “Possible Military Dimensions to Iran’s Nuclear Program” is overwhelmingly concerned with claims about Iran’s pre-2003 activities, the report does also include the vague but serious charge that “some activities may (my emphasis) still be on-going,” which is rather more relevant to the world today. I thought that it might therefore be interesting to dig out and scrutinise the sections that specifically deal with weapons-related activities that have allegedly taken place since 2003 and/or are allegedly still on-going.

The first such claim is presented in paragraphs 23 and 24 of the annexe. These paragraphs state that the AMAD project, an alleged nuclear weapons programme, was wrapped up in 2003 but that, based on “information the Agency has received from Member states”, “staff remained in place to record and document the achievements of their respective projects.” Furthermore, some IAEA member states have provided it with information that “some activities previously carried out under the AMAD Plan were resumed later” and that the head of AMAD “retained the principal organization role,” first under a new organisation and then as the head of an Iranian university. The section concludes: “The Agency is concerned because some of the activities undertaken after 2003 would be highly relevant to a nuclear weapon programme.”

It is worth noting how vague and poorly sourced this is. Some staff stayed in place to write up the results of a terminated program. Then, “some member states” provided information that “some activities” that “would be highly relevant to a nuclear weapons programme” were resumed, but no details of these activities are given (or whether or not they might have non-nuclear applications”. So the charge is that some unidentified intelligence agencies have said that some sort of unspecified work with (potential?) relevance to nuclear weapons research continued after 2003, based on unspecified and unverifiable evidence.

The next section explicitly referring to post-2003 activities is paragraph 45, which says that two member states provided the IAEA information that “Iran engaged in experimental research involving a scaled down version of the hemispherical initiation system and high explosive charge referred to in paragraph 43 above, albeit in connection with non-nuclear applications.” Again, poorly sourced and unverifiable, and this time referring to research “in connection with non-nuclear applications,” which raises the question of why this is included at all.

All of the rest of the allegations relating to post-2003/on-going weapons research appear in paragraphs 52 to 56. Paragraph 52 of the report states that, again, two member states provided the IAEA with information relating to “modelling studies alleged to have been conducted in 2008 and 2009.” These “involved the modelling of spherical geometries, consisting of components of the core of an HEU nuclear device subjected to shock compression, for their neutronic behaviour at high density, and a determination of the subsequent nuclear explosive yield.” So here we do have at least have a specific, nuclear weapons-related accusation with a fairly precise timeframe, though the basis for the accusation and the strength and type of evidence for it is not given; again, all we are told is that “two member states” (at least one of which is presumably Israel - see the last paragraph of the link) say so.
Paragraph 53 states that a member state told the IAEA that in 2005, Iran moved to set up projects in an institution overseen by the alleged head AMAD “to establish a databank for “equation of state” information  and a hydrodynamics calculation centre.” Not being a nuclear expert, I don’t know whether these could have a plausible non-nuclear weapons application and the report doesn’t say so. The paragraph also states that “”a different Member State” told the agency that, also in 2005, a “senior official in SADAT solicited assistance from Shahid Behesti University in connection with complex calculations relating to the state of criticality of a solid sphere of uranium being compressed by high explosives.” This sounds pretty clearly related to nuclear weapons. Again we have (presumably the same) two member states providing the IAEA with unverifiable information, this time relating to alleged weapons related research from six, rather than the usual eight-plus, years ago.

Paragraph 54 notes that the IAEA has discovered that Iranian researchers have, “over the past decade”, openly published a variety of papers on topics that “are commonly used in reactor physics or conventional ordnance research, but also have applications in the development of nuclear explosives.” This is such a pathetic piece of evidence for a clandestine nuclear weapons program that it’s not worth commenting on.

Paragraph 55 and 56 state that the IAEA has information from a “member state” that Iran “may” (my emphasis) have continued work after 2004 on research into the manufacture of “small capsules suitable for use as containers of a component containing nuclear material” that Iran, according to a different member state, “may” (again, my emphasis) have experimented with “in order to assess their performance in generating neutrons.” The agency says that such components could be used to generate a nuclear explosion, though it doesn’t clarify whether or not they could be used for another purpose. So again we have unverifiable intelligence from presumably the same two member states, this time to the effect that Iran “may” have continued after 2004 looking into components that it “may” have experimented with as part of a weapons program, without being clear as to whether such research has any other applications.

That, by my reading of the document, accounts for all the references in the report to alleged weapons-related research that the report specifically says took place after 2003. (There are other vaguely-worded references to research that don’t give a clear time frame and that could presumably also have taken place after 2003, but given that the vast majority of the evidence cited is the alleged studies, which refer to pre-2003 work, and the importance the agency would likely attach to any evidence of an on-going weapons program, it seems unlikely to me that the agency would have failed to make it clear when it was referring to alleged post-2003 activities).

So to summarise, apart from the absurd citation of openly published scientific research with clear non-nuclear weapons-related applications, it is all based on unverifiable intelligence from IAEA member states, in almost all cases from what appear to be the same two member states, one of which is likely Israel. In one case this relates to a claim that some staff hung around to write up some research after it had been terminated as well as entirely vague and unspecified allegations that "some" weapons-relevant research continued afterwards. In another, the alleged activities are acknowledged to have been “in connection with non-nuclear applications.” Another relates to an alleged piece of nuclear weapons-related research that allegedly took place six years ago. And then we have a claim that an intelligence agency told the IAEA that Iran “may” have continued some research beyond 2004 that it “may” previously have used as part of a weapons research programme, with being clear about whether or not such research has non-nuclear applications.

In only one case do we have a claim that Iran relatively recently (two to three years ago) carried out an unambiguously weapons-related piece of research, again based on the unverifiable claims of two intelligence agencies.

It hardly bears repeating that, in the light of the Iraq war, the record of (presumably) western intelligence agencies on accurately and honestly presenting evidence of WMD-programmes in four-letter Middle Eastern countries beginning with “Ira-” is some way from being unimpeachable; and in this case we have just one claim by these intelligence agencies that they have some sort of evidence of Iran fairly recently engaging in what is unambiguously nuclear weapons-related research. This is the “evidence”, combined with long-standing dubious claims about what Iran may have gotten up to eight or more years ago, that is being hyped as part of a push towards another potentially catastrophic war in the Middle East.  

Thursday, 13 October 2011

The Mexican connection

By now everyone is well aware of the alleged Iranian plot to use a Mexican drug gang to assassinate the Saudi ambassador to the US and blow up the Saudi and Israeli embassies in Washington.

Numerous observers such as Juan Cole, Glenn Greenwald, Gary Sick, Kevin Katzmann, Julian Borger and others have all done great jobs pointing to the holes in the alleged plot and raising key questions about it. I won't go over those again.

The only point I wish to make here is that the plot is too absurd to be real, but also too absurd to be a deliberate "Gulf of Tonkin"-type fabrication on the part of the US, as some have hinted. It also seems too ridiculous for even a third intelligence agency to have cooked up, though I suppose that's less unlikely.

On the whole though, my suspicion is that this is some kind of investigative cock-up by US law enforcement overly keen to effectively entrap another "terrorist" that the US government has embarrassingly jumped all over. The key questions are where the $100,000 came from (Juan Cole suggests it could have been the key suspect's own money), and how the name of an apparently real but largely unknown Iranian IRGC general came to be involved. I suspect that once the answers to those questions come to light, the  plot will be revealed to be a screw-up, or at least a vast overstatement and misinterpretation of the realities of the case.

Sunday, 1 May 2011

The Syrian uprising and the region

Writing in the Guardian, Zeki Chehab argues:

“The fall of the Assad regime would mean the loss of Iran's only ally in the region and thus a weakening of the clerical regime.”

Chehab appears to hint that it would also mean the end of Syrian support for fellow Iran allies Hamas and Hizbullah (Hamas, we are told, is looking for new headquarters to replace Damascus). He notes that “Analysts say that Assad's tacit support [for Palestinian factions] comes not from interest in Arab causes but a desire to gather cards to play against the US and Israel in negotiations to win back the Golan Heights.
Further into the piece he writes:

“Meanwhile, behind closed doors, leaders in Israel fear the fall of Assad could lead to the rise of a conservative Islamic regime. An end to the fragile stability of the Golan Heights, occupied by Israel since 1967, is a particular worry. Leaking of the news that Tel Aviv fears the Golan front could erupt again came as a surprise to many in the Arab world in light of the declared enmity between Israel and the Ba'ath regime.”

So on the one hand he argues that should Assad fall, Syria would likely withdraw from the so-called resistance axis, despite the fact that its membership is likely predicated not on regime ideology but on the occupation of the Golan. On the other, he suggests that a post-Assad regime might step up Syrian attempts to regain the Golan, possibly going so far as to start a new war with Israel.

Would a new regime really abandon all its anti-Israeli allies just as it went to war with Israel? Would a conservative Islamic (probably Muslim Brotherhood-linked) regime really cut off ties with the conservative Islamic (Muslim Brotherhood-linked) groups Hamas and Islamic Jihad and their main backer? Chehab’s argument seems to me to be entirely incoherent. Of course there is nothing wrong with presenting a variety of alternative scenarios, but that does not appear to be what Chehab is doing in the piece; rather, he appears to be predicting what the likely consequences of Syrian regime change would be on different fronts, only to come up with mutually contradictory ones.

The rather widespread idea that the fall of Assad would mean the end of Syria’s alliance with Iran and various resistance groups seems wrong-headed to me. As Chehab suggests, Syria’s place in the alliance is not about Baathist ideology but all about the on-going Israeli occupation of the Golan. The fall of Assad is not going to magically solve the Golan problem. It seems to me highly unlikely that any successor regime would be able to simply give up on regaining the territory and hope to stay in power very long; while there obviously isn’t much in the way of opinion poll data to support this, I think the general understanding is that popular Syrian desire to regain the territory remains strong. A successor regime would likely be dominated by Sunnis rather than Alawites and might be less inclined to maintain an alliance with Shiite Iran on sectarian grounds but this is not a serious long-term obstacle to the alliance; Hamas and IJ after all are hardline Sunni groups. As long as Syria remains in serious dispute with Israel over the territory, it has a strong incentive to try to bolster its strategic position by aligning itself with other anti-Israeli forces in the region.

Meanwhile Israel seems to remain very unwilling to return the territory, especially under the current hard-right government, regardless of who is in power in Syria. Even under a more moderate government, the presence of tens of thousands of Israeli settlers in the territory, Israel’s overwhelming military superiority and ability to fund the defence of the territory and the invariable reliance of any Israeli coalition on a number of right-wing parties suggests that the chances of Israel willingly returning the territory any time soon are very slim.

There is perhaps a possible scenario in which an entirely democratic new regime (which is far from being the assured outcome should Assad fall) would have enough democratic legitimacy to be able to take a dent in the national legitimacy stakes and tell the public that there is no hope of regaining the Golan and that Syria should accept it is gone and try to rejoin the international community by abandoning its unpopular allies, but this doesn’t seem a very likely scenario to me. A democratic government is likely to reflect the popular will to insist on the return of the territory while another autocratic one is likely to have to take a particularly hard line on the  issue to provide itself with enough nationalist legitimacy to make up for its weak democratic ones. Perhaps another scenario under which the alliance would break up would be one in which Syria slides into a sectarian war in which Iran and Hizbullah actively militarily support Assad, who eventually loses, alienating the new regime. However unless Israel did something to resolve the Golan issue very quickly under such a scenario, the prospects for Syria slowly sliding back into the alliance would seem high.

Staying with Chehab’s article to examine a slightly different point, he writes:

"The late Palestinian president Yasser Arafat and his successor Mahmoud Abbas consistently complained about Syria and Iran's interference in Palestinian affairs, which has always frustrated any reconciliation between Hamas, which controls Gaza, and Fatah, which controls the West Bank.
The irony is that the reconciliation process has been reinvigorated by the signing of a treaty between the two rival factions in Cairo last week. Observers have noted this d├ętente was only possible due to the distractions Assad faces at home."

Certainly Abbas is not a fan of Syrian involvement in Palestinian affairs, given that Syria supports Abbas’s domestic political rivals. One might as well point out that Hamas is not a fan of US or Egyptian or Saudi interference in Palestinian affairs. But US pressure on Fatah was at least as responsible, and most likely far more so, for the collapse of previous unity governments and reconciliation efforts than Syrian efforts (let’s remember for example Elliot Abram’s alleged plan to mount a Fatah coup against Hamas in Gaza), and it seems far more likely that it is the new Egyptian government’s reduced hostility towards Hamas that has helped bring about the latest break through than any developments in Syria.

Friday, 18 February 2011

More proof...

...if proof were needed that the Obama administration is a just another pathetically craven coward in front of the DC pro-Israeli lobby.

My thoughts at the time of Obama's Cairo speech was that it was rhetorically magnificent, but that at the end of the day he would be judged on his actions rather than his words. Well here are his actions.

Thursday, 17 February 2011


In the previous post I suggested a couple of political factors centred on regime legitimacy and the unity and willingness to risk instability of populations that help explain why certain countries and not others have seen major protests. I also suggested that based on these factors, the Libyan regime looks pretty vulnerable.

One issue with this model, if it can be called one (OK it can't), is that it doesn't have much predictive power, as a lot of these factors have existed in places like Tunisia for a long time without major upheaval being unleashed until very recently. I think that's one reason why people are attracted to the food price inflation theory, because there has been a notable rise in food prices recently and it therefore helps explain why these uprisings are happening now (though it doesn't really explain why they didn't happen in 2008, when there was some scattered rioting in places like Mauritania but not much else, or why they didn't happen 20 or 30 years ago when food actually accounted for significantly higher proportions of expenditure in a lot of these countries than it does now even despite recent inflation).

More generally, there's been a lot of discussion about which political and economic models and sub-disciplines have the most predictive power and whether or not intelligence services for example should have seen this coming, or more generally why nobody did. In response to this, I'm going to make two mutually-contradictory comments:

One is that noone and no model can really predict the future of extremely complex societies. It's hard enough to predict what one person will do, never mind millions interacting in complex ways. Even if the problem weren't so complex, the mere fact of successfully being able to predict the future can itself change the future (as people will act on their foreknowledge - eg if Mubarak could have predicted what was going to happen he might have tried to placate people earlier), which may in turn result in a different outcome than the predicted one. It's a pretty obvious and well-established (in the field of economic forecasting, for example) point that futurology is really just a parlour game.

The second is that, actually, some people did predict what happened in Egypt, more or less. Less than two years ago John Bradley published a book called Inside Egypt: The Land of the Pharoahs on the Brink of A Revolution. Obviously he didn't predict events exactly, but from what I remember of the book (I read a borrowed copy) he basically argued that Egypt was a total mess of a society that, as was, er, "on the brink of a revolution." (I think if I remember correctly he may have argued for a likely Islamist revolution, which this hasn't been so far, but I'm not sure). I'm surprised that I haven't seen anything in the way of citations of the book or interviews with Bradley recently (I may have just missed them, of course). Some Egypt specialists I know were sniffy about it, and it was more of a (sometimes sensationalist) journalistic work than a work of political science - but to be fair to Bradley, he seems to have been broadly correct in his assessment. Meanwhile another book has just been published (but obviously must have been written at least several months ago) entitled Egypt on the Brink, though I haven't read it and don't know what it's actual argument was.

Now, I actually think that these writers were probably fairly fortuitous in their timing rather than having been really able to predict with high confidence that Egypt would rise up in the very near future - though kudos to them all the same. But I think a more important point is that in cases like this, in many ways it doesn't really matter whether you could predict them or not. Egypt and Tunisia under their ousted leaders were both horribly repressive and corrupt regimes with major socioeconomic problems. Whether or not they were about to revolt didn't really matter in the sense that, either way, major change was clearly needed - change for its own sake, and not for the sake of avoiding instability or upheaval. If Obama really was annoyed that his intelligence people didn't see this coming, not only is he living in a fantasy world, he's missing the point that the US should have been pushing much harder for change in its Middle Eastern allies years ago, for the sake of the people living there if nothing else. Perhaps it's a naive point, but surely having disastrously-run, corrupt and repressive countries dominating a key region (or any region) is just a bad thing in itself, and bound to lead to no wider good in the long run. Who cares about the (unknowable) future when the present is already a total mess?