4:50 p.m. August 30, 2013

Little Kerry and the Three Bad Options

I don’t pretend to know what Obama’s people are going to do about Syria in the next few days. I doubt they know themselves. And to be truthful, I just can’t push my nose low enough to read the stinking entrails of Washington D.C.

It’s funny; I can read communiques from the most disgusting irregular groups in the world—say, Lashkar e Jhangvi, the worst of the worst—but I can’t watch John Kerry give speeches or listen to Obama stumble through another peanut-cluster of patriotic clichés explaining why we’re going to do something stupid, with the exciting twist that the guy shoved out in front of the cameras this time is black. That little plot twist stopped being fun sometime in Season Two. Obama has gone from disappointing to just plain depressing, a Wall Street technocrat way out of his depth when trying to think about anyplace not on the campaign trail, the one place he’s at home.

One way or another, the US is going to do something stupid in Syria—even if it does nothing. The three options the US has are:

  1. Attack the Alawites’ forces decisively, with the goal of seriously weakening Assad’s ability to make war;
  2. Stage a pure FX attack, with lots of noise and explosions but no effect on the Alawites’ military power;
  3. Do nothing.

It’s obvious that #3, “Do nothing,” is the right option, like it has been all along. It’s starting to look like even Obama’s mentally-confused team of Imperialist do-gooders realizes that. But if they had the guts to do nothing, after making all this belligerent noise about red lines, they’d look stupid. They’d be laughed at. Worst of all, from a DC insider’s view, the people who really count, the Saudis and the Israelis, would be un-pleased.

That’s the big twosome in DC lobbies, Saudi and Israel. They’re bitter enemies, you hear. Yeah, such bitter enemies that they keep ending up on the same side. They both hate and fear Hezbollah. They both want the US to take out Iran for them. And now they’d both be delighted if we wiped out the Syrian Arab Army (SAA). The Alawite fighting force. That’s a strange way of being bitter enemies. You might almost suspect that these two are the kind of bitter enemies who like to have a drink or two—tea, naturally, because on some issues the Saudis don’t compromise—after making a big show of yelling at each other.

It would take an administration much braver than this one to oppose Saudi and Israel combined. So you probably don’t have to worry about the US doing nothing. Which means the US is stuck with options #1 and #2: a powerful blow to the SAA, or a “limited” attack, meaning a few chemical-weapons units wiped out as some sort of cosmic justice, with no real effect on the Alawites’ military capability.

Of the two, the less bad is Option #2, the limited strike. It might satisfy the Saudis and the Israelis, and salvage whatever credibility the administration thinks it still has in the Middle East. Best of all, it would allow them to run away from Syria as fast as possible, which is still the best thing they could do. The SAA is weaker every day, and there are reports of mass defections again. Hezbollah seems less inclined to prop up the Alawites than it was a few months ago, and the Iranians are signaling that they could live without Assad. This is a dying regime, and you don’t want to be the one to send it into extinction.

Why not, you ask? Isn’t Assad a bad guy? Isn’t his regime evil? I don’t really understand those questions as well as everybody else seems to. The Alawites have reason to expect the worst, to stick together, and to fear Sunni domination. Those fears go way back to Ottoman rule.

Under the Ottomans, Alawites were kaffir, “heretics.” That meant, basically, “fair game.” At the moment, there’s a lot of nonsense going around about how sweet and tolerant the Ottoman Empire was from people who read Said’s Orientalism, or at least got the gist from the back cover, and went from the old European cliché “Ottomans—evil” to a new one, “Ottomans—good.” It makes me tired, this binary crap. If you can’t handle anything more modulated than that, stick to tweeting “Miley Cyrus: Saint or Sinner?”

Yeah, the Ottomans were occasionally considerate of minorities who had powerful connections abroad, like Western Christians (not Armenian, of course) or who performed useful state functions, like some Jews (not all)—but groups like the Alawites, without powerful foreign connections, huddled in the coastal hills hoping not to be noticed, were prey in the Ottoman view. The Alawites only survived by sticking together, fighting the Sunni when attacked, and above all, hoping not to be noticed. If the local authorities were kindly, they’d just be taxed to death for their heresy. If the Pashas were in a bad mood, troops would descend on Alawite villages and carry off all likely-looking women and children to be sold as slaves.

Like a lot of weak tribes, the Alawites were in a better position to benefit from a new set of masters than the formerly strong tribe, the Sunni. The French came in 1920 and saw the usefulness of a tightly-organized, warlike group like the Alawites. The fact that these coastal minority people were despised by the Sunni majority just made them less likely to conspire with the Sunni against the French, more loyal to their new masters.

The Alawites, ruled for the first time in their history by people who didn’t despise them, took to modern military service eagerly, like hundreds of other minority tribes all over the French and British empires. The Army was their way out of those miserable paranoid villages in the hills. They outperformed other groups and filled the officer corps by the time Syria got its independence from France in 1946.

The post-war years were full of wild experiments in the Arab world. The only constant was that military coups were the rule. Leaders came from the army—Nasser, Ghadafi, Saddam. So when an officer with coup-making skills happened to come from a tightly-knit community, he was almost sure to end up in charge. Saddam had his Tikrit clan in Iraq; Ghadafi had his academy buddies in Libya; Hafez Assad had his Alawite kin in Syria. The Alawites were perfectly placed to take advantage of this coup-centered polity. T. E. Lawrence said about them, “One Nusairi [Alawite] would not betray another, and would hardly not betray an unbeliever.” With Alawite officers filling the armed services in Syria, it was inevitable that an Alawite would come to power, as Hafez Assad did in 1970. From that point, they did what they had to do to remain in power. When killing was necessary, they killed. And in Syria, it was necessary fairly often. But I don’t know of any records showing that the Alawites were particularly cruel by the standards of the time and place. In fact, from the start of their rule in Syria, the Alawites have tried, via Ba’ath Party secularism and a long-term attempt to make Alawite ritual and doctrine closer to Sunni norms, to integrate with their neighbors.

I don’t see simple evil in that story. Good luck, historically, turning suddenly into precarious luck, then, maybe, very bad luck. That’s all I get from that, or from most tribes’ stories. No good, and very little you’d call “evil,” though a lot of suffering and blood.

Maybe I’m missing something. But what I think a lot of people like John Kerry are missing is what drove the Alawites’ grimmer measures: the simple fear of extinction. It’s a risk to go, as they did, from total obscurity to power in a place as fierce as Syria. Because when you fall, it won’t be to go back to Texas to paint puppies like Dubya. You and your whole tribe can reasonably expect massacres, mass rapes, ethnic cleansing, the works. When the Sunni revolted against Alawite domination in Hama in 1982, one of the slogans of the Syrian Ikhwan or Muslim Brotherhood was “Christians to Beirut, Alawites to the graveyard.” The SAA dealt with the revolt by blasting rebellious neighborhoods with artillery, killing thousands.

So, maybe the Alawites deserve this. They’ve been massacring Sunni right along. But since the SAA still has most of the heavy weaponry and aircraft, the Alawites have been doing their massacres in a way that the Western public can hardly recognize as massacres—by aircraft, by missile, by artillery. We’ve been trained ever since that allegedly glorious World War II to see massacres like that as just one of those things, an unfortunate fact.

The people whose families were in the apartment blocks leveled by the SCUDs fired by the SAA don’t see it that way. They will want revenge, and they may even be entitled to it by whatever notion of justice strikes your fancy. But I seriously, seriously doubt that you will want to see those retaliatory massacres, no matter how justified you think they are.

Because those massacres will be carried out old-style, up close, house by house. In other words, they’ll be the kind of massacre the Western public does not like.

No one will be in the right, or wrong, or whatever—those words don’t work here. I’m just suggesting you may not want your cruise missiles and fighter-bombers to do the softening-up for what will happen.

You’ve had plenty of warning. One of the best Syrian Twitter accounts is from a guy calling himself @samersniper, a Sunni who’s been tweeting for months about seeing friends and family die at the hands of the Alawites. Now that he sees the regime weakening, he’s taken up a different topic: Revenge.

I like the way he introduced it by talking about American movies. This is something people who’ve stayed at home all their lives don’t get. Those movies imply rules, and those rules can be learned by people outside the domestic audience. Here’s the lesson Samer got from one, in this tweet from July 12 2013:

‏@samersniper 28 Jun
American movie: Member of a gang kills the movie star's wife. So he gets revenge by killing the gang's ~300 member. Every1 supports the star

He’s got us there. You don’t even need to know which movie it was. I’ve seen a million of them since I was a kid with the same plot. I remember Arnie killing an entire army once, back when he was young, because they kidnapped his daughter.

Samer went from the general principle—the legitimacy of revenge when you’ve been through what he and other Syrian Sunni have—to the case at hand in this tweet from early August 2013:

‏@samersniper 8 Aug
Ur so-called humanity belittles the awfulness of our suffering. A kind of revenge is a must, 2 preserve self esteem &restore usurped dignity

You could argue there’s a little Frantz Fanon in there, but it makes more sense to say there’s a lot of Schwartzenegger and even more just plain humanity. We’re expecting the Syrian Sunni to endure months of high-tech massacres at the hands of the Alawites without resorting to point-blank counter-massacres when they reconquer the Alawite homeland along the coast. And Samer is absolutely right about that hope: “Ur so-called humanity belittles the awfulness of our suffering.”

John Kerry could never hope to understand that, not if he had a hundred more lifetimes of sailing and late lunches and conferences. But it’s not hard to understand, if you accept that the men who are going to walk into the Alawite villages are as human as an action-movie hero.

The trouble is that if you grant them that humanity, they’re going to do bad things, that will be recorded—because this whole war is going into the permanent record, via cellphone cams.

Most people vaguely remember the Sabra/Shatila Massacre of 1982, but that was just one in a long, long series of massacres along the same coastal hills of the Levant a few miles south of the Alawite homeland. The one that still makes me wince was the Ehden Massacre of 1978. The Ehden Massacre was part of the long, bloody lead-up to Sabra/Shatila, because it started when the warlord of Ehden broke with Bashir Gemayel over whether to side with Israel or Syria, after becoming friends with Hafez Assad.

So there’s a link to the Assad regime--but to be honest, the reason I think of Ehden when trying to remind people what can happen in those coastal hills is that it’s just so fucking godawful, even by the standards of the Lebanese Civil War. Things can get very, very bad there, very quickly.

The Ehden Massacre wasn’t even sectarian. All parties involved were Maronite Christians, the dominant sect in Lebanon before the Civil War. Ehden was one of the hill villages they put on Lebanese tourist brochures, back when Lebanon was a big tourist destination. There was snow in the winter, a big treat for rich Gulf tourists, and quaint local churches. It was also the stronghold of a Maronite warlord named Tony Frangieh. The Frangiehs were big players in the complicated Maronite alliances back then. You don’t hear much about them now. That’s because of what happened on June 13, 1978.

Tony Frangieh’s decision to side with Syria rather than Israel annoyed Gemayel, and led to firefights among the Maronite gangs. Gemayel finally decided to wipe out the problem. He attacked Frangieh’s fortified house with hundreds of militia, who overran the place killing two dozen guards. Then the fun began. They tied up Tony and his wife Vera, then dragged their toddler daughter, Jihane, in front of them and killed her while her parents watched. Then it was Vera’s turn. Finally they put Tony out of his misery.

Frangieh was not a good guy. Gemayel was a bad guy, probably, but a bad guy in a bad neighborhood is just called fitting in. What happened to the Frangieh’s family has been happening in those hills for a long time, and it’s going to happen again in a few months, with Sunni/Jihadi militias leading the charge. Nothing can stop that, and who knows? Maybe it’s even justice or something like it.

I just doubt that you want your air force to be what opens the door to it.