Think local – Syria is not a conventional war

There are two things you’ll have noticed if you’ve been keeping an eye on Syria since things heated up there. The first is that the media likes to think of it as something big, part of a greater global movement (i.e. the Arab Spring, democrats meet despot), or a grand warfare of great power scale – a confrontation between East and West. The second is that the war is largely a stalemate. The two are related in some ways.

If you look at a map of ethnicities/sects (the two are often interchangeable in the region), you’ll notice something interesting. If you don’t, then look at a map showing who controls what areas. Alawite, Shia, Sunni, and Kurds, are the big things to remember in Syria. Syria is defined by sectarianism.

Demographics in Syria

Demographics in Syria

Rebel Activity in Syria

Rebel Activity in Syria

The Neighbourhood Watch

This is where it becomes interesting, because the lines have barely changed for the last two years. Normally in a war, one side starts winning and, taking the offensive, slowly gains more ground. In Syria, though, most of the rebels are winners only in home ground. Tanks come into their street and they pull together as a community and blow them up, give them an away match and they suddenly shuffle back to their houses.

Of course there are exceptions, and this is what will decide the war. Foreign contingents have no local loyalties, Jabhat al Nusra for the rebels and Hezbollah for the Sunnis are game changers.

Al Nusra may only have a few thousand soldiers, but a lot of them are committed jihadis, and the fact that the Free Syrian Army group hasn’t disowned them to get more support from the West, shows how effective they’ve been so far – at least for me.

Hezbollah sent over battle-hardened light infantry to show the regime that it would, in Nasralla’s words, “not let it fall”. One of the biggest events in the war so far, Qusayr, was mainly down to them. However, Hezbollah is cautious, and the soldiers won’t fight for death like al Nusra.

Anyway, those are my thoughts on Syria.

Chemical Weapons in Syria

So, there’s been recent reports of chemical weapons being used in Syria. This raised a few questions, and was seen as a ‘red line’ for intervention in the West. For this, I think it’s fair to add a few points of context and why this will probably make intervention less probable than it would seem to be. Also, I should say now that my stance is non-intervention in Syria, something you can see in my previous posts .

Most importantly, as soon as several politicians called chemical weapons a game changer, there were always going to be those on the rebels side who would want to stage a false flag attack to gain support. Analysts from the bottom-up predicted this (e.g. here ), something that actually comes out looking quite rational (especially when you consider the array of factions involved against Assad ).

First of all, countries such as the UK and the US need to recognise that the battle isn’t black and white; there is a tendency to idolise those fighting against enemies as freedom fighters, such as the Muhajideen against the Soviets, many of whom were later rebranded as ‘terrorists’.

In fact, the evidence points now that instead of one side using chemical weapons, and generally being the ‘bad guys’, both sides do. Defence Secretary Chuck Hagel announced that he had evidence the Syrian government had used chemical weapons in April ( source ), and yesterday UN human rights investigators reported that rebels had used the nerve agent Sarin ( source ).

So, this also turns into another claim made of the rebels that was said to be categorically wrong by those in the media. Here’s a list someone else made of some of the claims so far, that were later proved right:

  1. Rebels armed with advanced conventional weaponry such as AT, mortars, AA, grad rockets.
  2. Foreign fighters present.
  3. Foreign countries are financing the war (Qatar, Saudi Arabia…)
  4. Foreign countries are assisting entry and providing training to rebels (Turkey, Jordan, Saudi Arabia…)
  5. Syria is fighting terrorists. (Al Nusra, and other extremist groups)
  6. Rebels have used chemical weapons.

What this ends up looking at, is a painful and no-win war. Of course, this is only from an outsider’s perspective, but it seems that siding with either the rebels or Assad means siding with those incompatible with the norms and values of the West, and that sitting on the sidelines means we’re just going to ‘let people die’.

Comments & Curios V

Who did you rape in the war, daddy? (a question for veterans that needs answering)

A well-written article about the ‘Other’ in warfare, and how easy it is to glorify war. The title is not in reference to a child asking their parent the question, but related to a story heard from a Vietnamese grandmother who was raped by a GI with his rifle – that the GI (if he survived) is unlikely to have told anyone of the experience, much less their own children.

Six steps to fix a broken Mali

the French-led military intervention in Mali has at least brought the country back from the brink of disaster, and opened up a space in which Malians can finally begin to chart a way forward for their nation. If I were advising the people who hold Mali’s fate in their hands — not only Mali’s interim president, but members of influential donor governments in North America and Europe — here’s what I’d recommend …

Welcome to Palestine: What’s Your Faith?

Maysoon Zayid explains what he would show Obama on his visit to Palestine, and why.

Marxism focuses specifically on economic structure. Class and economic tension defines how agents act, and can thus explain events. From the example of the Rwandan genocide through Marxist analysis, we can see which aspects are important and how they would prevent further instances.

(French researcher) warned of class exploitation by the Hutu when hired to evaluate a World Bank project in the region. They were doing this systematically through favouritism and theft to encourage economic dependency.

The ‘commodity crash’ of the 1990s hit hard poor countries such as Rwanda dependent on their exports. The Hutu government relied upon these exports, as well as foreign aid to maintain their class structure . Amid famine and hardship the Rwandan government accepted a restructuring programme that devalued their currency, cut social welfare, and inflated prices. Other consequences of austerity were disease and malnutrition.

Instability and uncertainty due to economic woes caused actual conflict in the form of both war and genocide. Whilst it is debatable still whether the Hutu or the Tutsi first struck, both died in huge numbers due to a severely weakened government and economy.

One of the less graphic images of the genocide.

Other theories, such as Liberalism stress cooperation and community within the international sphere. Marxism refutes this. For instance, the economic dependency of Rwanda on international aid (especially that of the French who have fought previously in the name of freedom and human rights) meant that substantial influence was not used to stop the genocide or war and instead to maintain economic domination.

Countries such as China (which sold over 500,000 machetes) and Egypt (which financed interest-free loans in order to sell weapons to Rwanda) could too have used their economic position to promote peace. Marxist theorists would be worried that there is a real danger of re-igniting conflict today. Despite austerity being implemented, Rwanda has higher debt levels now than in the 1990s and there are a whole myriad of social problems that are yet to have been solved.

Russia, Syria, and the 20th Century Mindset

Syrian Protestors in September

Journalists reporting on Syria have recently, deliberately or not, missed out a lot of context. Who exactly supports which side and why, ‘citizen journalists/bloggers’ asserting that Assad is propped up entirely by Russia’s veto, and mad accusations of who has given arms to what side. All of this deserved a decent look at.


Is this the beginning of something new? Does America no longer hold a monopoly on drones?