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Syria, Bombing, Economics and Reality

[R.T. Stone is the pseudonym for a long-time observer of the Middle East and American politics, from both inside and outside government. We are grateful for this contribution. Republication is encouraged.]

To listen to Western leaders in the aftermath of the Paris bombings, you would think the civilized world was now ready to do “what is necessary” to end the run of Daesh (ISIS) in Syria. Now, by implication, ready to take on the final difficult and dangerous deed necessary to bring peace to the Middle East. In fact, the blind reaction is now producing just another fear-induced blunder in a series that does not diminish Daesh, but inflates it.

The course to peace and stability lies in exactly the opposite direction. It was charted as far back as 2006 by George McGovern and William R. Polk. Peace and stability in the region must rely on building the political fabric of the nations economically, socially and politically, as opposed to Kissinger-style finding the guy with the most guns and backing him with more. 

Before re-framing the situation in terms of society and peace, let me take a moment to make a few points on the hysteria. First, the murders of hundreds in Paris was a brutal tragedy. But it is an illusion that attacks in Syria are anywhere close to the right thing to do, no matter how good they may feel. bombing Raqqa by the French may be a feel-good moment, and David Cameron may think he is being strong by saber-rattling, but the threat is not now in Syria or from the desperate Syrian refugees.The killers were not in Raqqa, they were in Paris and Brussels. The police action in those countries has been exemplary and addresses Daesh as what it is, a criminal gang recruiting cannon fodder on the pretext of religion.

As many are aware, the attack in Paris was carried out precisely because Daesh is failing in Syria and Iraq and needs a new display of brutality to keep their internal morale alive. Recruiting into its home territory is down from a one-time 500 to 1,000 per day to now less than 50 or 60 per day, which is not enough to make up for casualties. Daesh have suffered immense losses to their seeming invincibility. So their recruits are now being urged to stay where they are, develop sleeper cells, and concoct as gruesome displays of gore in the name of God as they can imagine.

And here we see the absurdity of American governors trying to close the borders on Syrian refugees. Daesh is not manned by Syrians, but by radicalized men and women from around the world. Are terrorists likely to come in by boat from Syria, concealed among widows and orphans, when Daesh can fly them in first class from any one of a hundred countries? If it needed to. Thanks to social media and bleak prospects around the world, the recruits are likely already in those states. To focus attention on desperate asylum-seekers is laughable.

But the larger point remains. Daesh’s move into the West is necessary because Daesh is suffering defeat where it is. First, the Syrian Kurds under the YPG and YPJ defeated Daesh in the city of Kobani, pushed them across the Euphrates to the west, below a major supply line to the south, and cut them off from their supply lines from Turkey in the east. Now these Kurdish fighters are looking south to the “capital” Raqqa. American air power has been essential in their operations, and new American logistics assistance — not fighting assistance — makes a move on Raqqa by the Kurds a real threat to Daesh. These Kurds are not just another heavily armed self-interested group. They are politically sophisticated, gender equal, democratic, inclusionary, and motivated. They have alliances with Assyrians, Yezedis, Arabs, Christians and others who recognize what is up. 

Within Iraq and Syria, the unwelcome influx of mercenaries recruited from elsewhere in the world and its strategy of rule by terror is eroding whatever support Daesh has among the locals. Much more could be said. The region is complicated and in turmoil. A basic first step would be to eliminate funding from the Mideast potentates. But standing up to the Saudis and others is outside the courage of Versailles and Downing Street, and it is much easier to bomb. Voters might believe that more bombs in Syria that kill civilians show something is being done, but it only replicates past blunders. Again, Daesh is not a legitimate religious, historical or political force; it is no more than a criminal gang. It relies on Westerners reactivity to give it credibility. And if bombing Raqqa were to be effective, it would have produced results by now. 

One always gets the feeling from Western reactionism that history started from today. We don’t look back at what failed and what worked, we just go with what our impulse of virtue is at the moment. There at hand are the convenient explanations — neat, plausible and wrong — that would never be tried again if we only tested them with reality. And just as with economics, the orthodox Neoliberalism escapes accountability and rides on hysteria to the benefit — short-term — of the established power elites.

The greatest American foreign policy blunder of the modern era rode on similar hysteria and was executed for the benefit of the same interests. The invasion phase in Iraq under cover of lies was only step one of the methodical blundering. Step Two, equally if not more destructive, was the botched “rebuilding” of the country via sweetheart deals with Halliburton and other mega corporations, with the administration of the effort by naive Neocon apparatchiks in the occupier’s Green Zone. There was no counsel with history. No listening to those who were right. No check on what had worked in similar instances before. The Bush Administration simply fanned the flames of fear and sent in more bombs, while American-based multinationals profited and did not produce. When that run was over, the Americans erected a cardboard prop of a government, fed them billions and pretended that would work. Extend and pretend.

What might have been done? The McGovern Plan.

Proposed by former Senator George McGovern and William R. Polk in 2006. It was founded on the principles of the Marshall Plan and the experience of rapprochement with Vietnam. The bare outlines of the plan (a promo for the book “Out of Iraq”) reveal both why it would have worked and why it was not adopted: 

Former senator George McGovern and William R. Polk, a leading authority on the Middle East, offer a detailed plan for a speedy troop withdrawal from Iraq. 

During the phased withdrawal, to begin on December 31, 2006, and to be completed by June 30, 2007, they recommend that the Iraq government engage the temporary services of an international stabilization force to police the country. Other elements in the withdrawal plan include an independent accounting of American expenditures of Iraqi funds, reparations to Iraqi civilians for lives lost and property destroyed, immediate release of all prisoners of war, the closing of American detention centers, and offering to void all contracts for petroleum exploration, development, and marketing made during the American occupation. 

A link to the proposal brought to Congress by Rep. James McGovern is here

Essentially the plan involved rebuilding the country by rebuilding it, not by occupying it for the benefit of multinational oil and industrial interests. That meant rebuilding public services and the health care system (damaged by the first Gulf War and demolished by the Iraq invasion) and enabling (not supplanting) the domestic business and public interests. The indigenous resources, skills and systems were to be strengthened from the inside to become the pillars of the new nation. Instead a game of warlords was played. Jobs for the people came only as labor for the occupiers.

What is working now?

Americans have no interest, it seems, in what is actually working in Iraq and Syria, in terms of security, inclusion and viable political structure. Americans prefer to move on to the next war, the next blunder. Part of this is because what is working is not Neoliberalism.

Of course the situation is complicated. Turkey under Erdogan is becoming a police state, covertly supporting Daesh itself, overtly suppressing its own Kurdish population. (It is alarming that as a NATO nation, Turkey is shooting down Russian planes.) The fall of Assad is being delayed by its alliance with Russia, but even when the fall occurs, it will not end the chaos any more than did the fall of Saddam Hussein. A century of arbitrary national boundaries and the corruption of the resource curse have now combined with a religious rivalry to make the only answer a complete answer.

But something is working, particularly in the Northern Syrian region of Rojava, the Kurdish region, a political stability, a robust security for its population, an ethnic and religious inclusion and gender equality that is deep and widely accepted have been established. This is a far cry from the model of the rest of the region. We suspect the radical democracy there is one reason the West does NOT support is as they ought. Nearby, in the Kurdish region of Iraq, in spite of its blustering and corrupt leadership under Masoud Barzani, a certain security also exists.

The Syrian Kurds of the YPG and YPJ (women s fighting force) dealt Daesh its first and still most major defeat when they defended Kobani, and they were victorious in spite of their being cut off from supply by Turkey (while Daesh men and material flowed freely through Turkish borders). Thousands of Daesh recruits were sent to Kobani to die, cannon fodder to the determined Kurds and American planes. Not wasting a moment after victory, the YPG moved Daesh out of the region, taking back thousands of villages, west across the Euphrates, south cutting a major east-west supply line, and east cutting a major north-south supply line from Turkey. With the fall of Sinjar, another supply route to Raqqa has been cut. This has come with substantial American help from the air. The Kurds are the “boots on the ground” that have been effective. (Any fall of Raqqa will be the direct accomplishment of these activities, not the macho blind bombing of post-Paris.) The model of the Syrian Kurds is already being embraced by some Arabs and Yezidis.

What can work?

The Syrian refugee crisis in Europe is, of course, the direct outcome of American blundering, and 12 years of stirring the quagmire ever deeper. It has created an impossible situation for millions of people and is generating the migration we are now witnessing. The ultimate and only answer is not wholesale resettling of the victims, but the return of their prospects in their own nations — at our expense.

We can begin by supporting with all resources nations like Jordan. Food, health services, anything they would like. Those regions which have shown they have the domestic integrity of political and social systems should be empowered, just as with the Marshall Plan. That is, indigenous actors who come up with viable plans ought to be bankrolled. No Halliburtons. No Totals. Reconstruction, rebuilding, reinvention, sovereignty. Corruption ought not to be rewarded, as in Iraqi Kurdistan, simply because they are “our bad guys.” The Kissinger model has failed along with Neoliberalism.

And those who were right before ought to be listened to now. Not the hysterics of the moment. Not the feel-good bombing. Aircraft carriers make the voter think something is being done, when it is simply a gruesome business as usual.

R.T. Stone