11:01 a.m. October 20, 2012

War Nerd: The Syrian Boot

Max Boot. Believe it or not, that’s the name of a guy who writes about war. Unfortunately, you’re not supposed to make fun of people’s names. A durn shame, especially because Max — currently the "Jean J. Kirkpatrick Senior Fellow for National Security Studies at the Council on Foreign Relations" — is the leading advocate of a new style of intervening without putting “boots on the ground.” He wants us to jump right into the free-for-all in Syria. But hey, he’ll tell you, it’ll be OK this time because we won’t use American troops.

What this shows is that Boot and his neocon friends have learned one thing, and one thing only, from the disaster in Iraq: dead GIs don’t play well with the stateside audience, even when you black out all coverage of the coffins coming home like Karl Rove did.

Boot was up to his doughy neck in pushing the Iraq invasion. He’d like you to forget that now, which is good enough reason to quote the statement he signed in the leadup to the war:

“Even if evidence does not link Iraq directly to the [9/11] attack, any strategy aiming at the eradication of terrorism and its sponsors must include a determined effort to remove Saddam Hussein from power.”

In other words, “True, Saddam had nothing to do with 9/11, but let’s invade Iraq anyway; it couldn’t hurt!”

Boot was the hardest of hardcore Iraq hawks, even when the rest were finally admitting that it was a total disaster. He even advised Obama to get his take on Iraq from George W. Bush, who according to Boot showed “steeliness” in Iraq. I guess you could call it that… if it’s “steely” to gun your car at the biggest tree you can find and not swerve an inch until you plow into it.

And now Das Boot wants us to try our luck in Syria, but using proxies instead of our own troops—as if that’ll turn an impossible job into another of cakewalk. Boot co-wrote a New York Times guest editorial laying out the case for a new, improved debacle in Syria.

It was called “Five Reasons to Intervene in Syria.” Another list. That’s every bad writer’s solution to any topic, from “Ten Veggies You Must Eat or You’ll Die” to “Seven Psychopaths.” Actually, that might be a better title for Boot’s article, something like “Five Psychopathic Excuses for Wading into A Sectarian Blood Feud.”

You can tell from the start that Boot is writing in bad faith, which is SOP for neocons. These sleazes can never say what they mean, because it’s so horribly simple it’d disgust everyone who reads it. So, since they won’t say, I will: here’s the actual meaning of every neocon article ever written, in one easy sentence: Likud wants it, so I’m in favor of it.

Boot’s Syria invitation to a bloodbath is typical of this dishonest, squirmy style. His real position is simple: Likud wants the US to intervene in Syria, so please do so. But he can’t say that, so he actually starts with some talk about “the Obama Doctrine,” even though he’s signed on as Romney’s Middle East advisor, and totally despises Obama. And like most people when they’re writing in bad faith, he overdoes it, laying on the Obama-flattery with a big fat shovel:

“WHETHER you agree or disagree with President Obama, there is no doubt that he has formulated a coherent approach to the use of American power. The Obama Doctrine involves getting into a conflict zone and getting out fast without ground wars or extended military occupations. This approach proved its effectiveness in Libya last year. But the president is not applying his own doctrine where it would benefit the United States the most — in Syria.”

Boot’s argument here is that since Obama intervened in Libya, he has to intervene in Syria. This is like saying that because you shooed that Yorkshire Terrier off your lawn, consistency demands, Mr. President, that you go out and separate the pit bull and Dogo Argentino who are tearing chunks off each other next door.

Syria ain’t Libya. Intervening in Libya was a reasonable move; intervening in Syria, whether with boots on the ground or by proxy, would be insane.

In fact, the differences between Libya and Syria are so obvious it’s hard to believe Boot really doesn’t see them. He gives one quick nod to reality: “Syria is a mess, and it is tempting to stay out, especially in an election year.” That’s a classic example of dishonest writing right there. It’s the way kids try to shame each other into jumping off the roof. There’s the nice little dig at Obama with the “election year” line. I remember that from the playground: “I guess I don’t blame you for wimping out, you mighta got detention.” Buuuuuurn! Then there’s the hint that it would be “tempting” not to intervene, which in playground terms means you’re a wimp if you don’t. And buried in the middle of all this grade-school bluff is the only real point: “Syria is a mess.”

Amen, Brother Boot. In fact, you underdid it with that phrase. Rwanda is a mess; my Uncle Steve is a mess. Syria is in a league of its own, and there’s no way on earth you can compare it to Libya.

For one thing, Libyans can’t fight. Libya is the only country in the history of the world to be defeated by Chad -- Chad the country, not the wide receiver formerly known as Ochocinco. In 1987, after Ghaddafi tried to turn Chad into a Libyan puppet, Chadian irregulars hanging off Toyota Hiluxes not only threw Libya’s troops out of their country—even though the Libyans had a force of 300 tanks in the fight--but invaded Libya, destroying a huge airbase in Southern Libya and threatening to move on Tripoli before their French advisors told them they had to stop.

In 2011, the Libyan Civil War dragged on for nine long months even though NATO air was blasting anything that moved in Ghaddafi’s territory, because no Libyan on either side was willing to engage. Ghaddafi fought with artillery, helicopters (until NATO started air patrols) and African mercenaries. NATO brought in mercs of their own, special forces from France, the UK and the US. The Libyan rebels mainly shouted and cheered, fired rockets from long range, and focused on killing prisoners in their time-honored manner. Not a lot of Libyan passports among the real combatants on either side.

Other key differences: Libya doesn’t have the deadly serious ethnic and religious fault lines that cracked Syria wide open. Libya is 97% Sunni Muslim, and 97% Arab/Berber. Arabs and Berbers are pretty well mixed up in Libya by now; even Ghaddafi had some Berber blood, and the fact that both groups are pure Sunni makes intermarriage easier. To sum it up, Libya’s population is a small (six million people), unitary group of Sunni Arabs who don’t particularly like to fight.

Syria is a whole different kettle of scorpions. Syria runs on one of the world’s biggest ethnic/religious fault lines, the eastern Mediterranean, what they used to call “The Levant.” This is where the Euro-Christian tectonic plate has been grinding against the Arab-Muslim plate for 1500 years, with seismic activity picking up no end just recently. Greeks, Romans, Carthaginians, Byzantines, Crusaders, British, French—they all had a shot at the coastal strip and the country around Damascus. So the hills in the west of Syria, along the coastal and a few miles inland, have been fizzing with foreign influence for two thousand years now.

That’s led to some weird, complicated tribes and religions developing in those parts. There are the Druze in southwestern Syria, a very cool, very weird people who adapted to Muslim conquest by insulating their real religion, some kind of quasi-Greco-Buddhist thing, with an outer shell of Islam. There are the Christians who hung on, God knows how, after the Muslim conquest, in their mountain villages, in spite of pogroms and massacres; and most of all, there are the Alawites, Assad’s people, Shi’a mountain tribes who were hated by the Sunni Arab majority in the east.

East of the coastal hills, in the desert, the wild ethnic patchwork ends and the people are pretty straightforwardly Sunni Arabs, who look south and east to Arabia for their cues. Their big city is Aleppo in the northeast, and they have a little motto that gives you a nice, clear blueprint for their political program: “Christians to Beirut, Alawites to the graveyard.” Meaning: once we’ve crushed Assad’s army, we’ll let the Christians emigrate, but we’re gonna fuckin’ kill those Alawites.

That little slogan is spray-painted on walls all over the Sunni zone of Syria. It’s not something the interventionists want you to know, because any idiot could figure out from that slogan that if we intervene—directly or indirectly—to help the Sunni in Syria, they’re going to massacre the Alawites, Assad’s tribe, expel the Christians, and take Syria down Sharia Road. (“Sharia” means “road” anyway; it’s what most of the streets are called out there.)

Actually, the Syrian ethno-religious map is even more messed-up than I’ve laid it out. For one thing, there’s the Kurds, 10% of the population, who are Sunni but not Arab, which has made for all sorts of gory complications. And there used to be a dozen other non-fighting tribes mixed into the cities and the coastal hills: Armenians, Greeks, Jews and Turks. Most of those are gone now, and the stage has been clear for the big showdown between Alawite and Sunni, with the remaining minorities, mostly Christian and Druze, just hunkering down and realizing that no matter who wins, nothing good will come of it for them.

This big death match has been building up for a long, long time, and nothing we do can change that momentum. Sectarian feuds have their own momentum, their own logic. The Alawites, along with the Druze, were persecuted minorities who had to fight to keep their mountain villages from being massacred by the Sunni majority. That led the French colonists to admire their fighting spirit and use them as native auxiliaries, in the usual European way, to keep the big tribe, the inland Sunnis, in their place. It also led to the Alawites being exposed to French intellectual currents that never made it inland to the Sunni desert. So the Alawites took the leading role in the Ba’ath, the big pan-Arab socialist party of the mid-20thcentury. Socialism was big then, and Islam was small; next thing you know ol’ Jed’s a millionaire, as they say—or rather, next thing you know, Assad and his Alawite kin, the original hillbillies, are running the whole country at the head of the Ba’ath Party.

Meanwhile, the Sunni majority back inland is doing a slow burn at finding themselves ruled by these uppity hill folk they’re used to terrorizing. So, since their Alawite enemies are getting all French and Socialist, they go the other way, hugging Islam, cozying up to the Saudis who are funding Wahhabi madrassi all over the place.

Fastforward toward the end of the 20th century, and the balance has shifted big-time. Socialism is dead; Islam is huge and getting stronger. In 1982 the Muslim Brotherhood in Hama, an inland Sunni city, ambushes Syrian Army troops in the city. The Alawites running the Army bombard the city, then go house-to-house wiping out anyone who looks like an insurgent, or somebody who might have an insurgent for a relative. Somewhere between 20,000 and 40,000 people are dead, and that means 20,000 to 40,000 scores to settle. For the moment, the Muslim Brotherhood is broken, but the dead all have younger brothers and cousins, and you can bet that every family trains the youngsters in their sacred duty to avenge their big brothers.

Feeling the tide turning against them, the Alawite elite in Syria starts getting very nervous. Hafez Assad, “the man who took the Alawites down from the mountains,” is dead, and his son who looks like Beaker from the Muppets is in charge of a weakened regime, identified with a minority tribe and a religion that the Sunni consider totally un-Islamic. The Alawites start trying to act like Sunni, building mosques—Alawites didn’t use to be big mosque builders, but the Sunni love mosques and don’t consider you a Muslim unless you build one on every block—and praying five times a day, trying to be as Sunni as possible.

But it’s not enough. 2011: the Islamists overthrow the American proxy in Egypt, the French proxy in Tunisia, and the self-made little-bit-o-everything all-purpose loon, Ghaddafi, in Libya. The Sunni rebel again, and this time they get huge help from the Saudis, who hate the Alawites for their links to Iran, the big Shi’ite power and the Saudis’ most feared enemy. The Sunni are stronger now, all across the Middle East, and Assad Junior is weaker than his father; the rebellion can’t be wiped out so easily this time.

All you can do in a situation like this is kill and be killed. That’s the hardest thing for most people to get, that there’s no right or wrong in a world like this, there’s just fight or flight or letting them kill you. Right now, in Syria, there are Alawite death squads—guys with shaved heads and long beards—killing Sunni civilians. There are Sunni death squads—going for a more Saudi/jihadi look—killing Alawite civilians, and anybody else who looks like a weirdo, a Christian or a Druze. Everybody has a brother who was murdered, a sister who was raped, a home village that was torched or blasted to concrete chunks. This is momentum like an asteroid has as it enters the atmosphere. It’s going to play itself out, one way or another; that’s the physics of irregular war. And anybody who tries to get in the way is going to regret it, like idiots who try to break up bar fights and end up in Emergency.

So, with all that in mind, let’s hear Max Boot’s brilliant plan for intervening in this mess:

“The focus should be on Aleppo, Syria’s second largest city and commercial hub… With American support, Turkish troops could easily establish a corridor for humanitarian aid and military supplies. Defeating the government’s forces in Aleppo would deal a serious blow to Mr. Assad and send a powerful signal to fence-sitters that the regime was dying. Damascus, the capital, should be the second target. But unlike Aleppo, it can’t be easily reached from a Turkish base. It could, however, be supplied from Dara’a, which is 70 miles from Damascus and less than five from the Jordanian border.”

You see the problem here: Boot, like the dormie dweeb he is and always will be, is playing Risk here, talking about invasion routes, drawing little arrows on a map like he’s Patton. But the landscape he’s cutting through with this imaginary campaign is a set of feuding ethnic enclaves, not Normandy.

It’s not a logistics problem, or a map problem, it’s a tribal problem. You’d think Boot would understand that better than anybody, since his favorite country, Israel, is a classic Middle Eastern ethnic enclave. He wouldn’t be likely to recommend invading Cairo by sweeping south along the Levant, because that would mean stomping through Israel. But he’s totally happy to carve up the balkanized Syrian countryside, because he’s all for chaos and destruction there, as long as it brings down the Assad regime.

It’s either an evil plan like that, or it’s just stupidity. I really don’t know, because there’s only one thing more bizarre than Boot’s way of imagining the world, and that’s the fact that he still has a job.