Monday, 14 April 2014

Bashir's blowback

The sometimes dry-bones but meticulous London Review of Books has a disturbing article this week about the machinations of Syria’s horrible Bashir al-Assad in trying to corral and exploid jihadist agitation and militancy for his own nefarious goals. What does this story remind us of?

The author, Peter Neumann, outlines Assad’s active support for armed Sunni fundamentalists in making trouble for W in Iraq in the first years of the U.S. invasion. Assad’s thinking was based on the well-grounded fear that his regime was going to be next on the Bush-Cheney list—as was discussed quite openly in the heady days of neocon triumphalism circa 2004-05. Neumann writes:

Practically overnight, Syria became the principal point of entry for foreign jihadists hoping to join the Iraqi insurgency. Inside the country, Assad’s intelligence services activated their jihadist collaborators. . . .

According to records captured by the US military in the Iraqi border town on Sinjar, the logistics were handled by an elaborate network of at least a hundred facilitators, who were spread throughout the country and maintained weapons caches and safehouses in Damascus, Latakia, Deir al-Zour and other major Syrian cities. They, in turn, worked closely with tribes along the Iraqi border whose smuggling business had suffered as a result of the war and for whom facilitating the flow of jihadists was a welcome substitute.

Neumann says before long holy warriors from Libya, Saudi Arabia, Algeria and Morocco were flooding into Iraq via Syria along a well-established transit route. At one point some 90% of the suicide bombers turning Iraq into a dystopian nightmare were foreigners.

But the jihadists’ harassment of the Americans in Iraq quickly turned into a sectarian war aimed at Shiite heretics, which didn’t please Assad—whose Alawite sect is also Shiite. He tried to reel the fanatics back in and ship them westward to make trouble in Lebanon instead. But some stayed put in Syria and are now a real threat to his rule.

The parallels with the Americans’ cultivation of Osama bin Laden fairly leap off the page. In both cases, religious fanatics looked like just the handy thing to arm and send off to slaughter the enemy but—shock and awe—suddenly turned out to have minds of their own and now military skills and experience to go with them.

For some reason, the guys in charge always think they are smarter than their tools and that the social and political forces they stir up for their short-term ends can be controlled and managed after they’ve been unleashed. Then they find out differently after it’s too late.

This is nothing new in human history. But seeing the unintended consequences or “blowback” as it’s often called is a corrective to the common “realist” view that countries inevitably have to be cynical manipulators of all available resources and leave principles aside. Snatching the short-term advantage so often looks easy and cost-free—until it’s neither.

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