Martin van Creveld explains why our actions in the Syrian civil war will fail

Summary:  Today Martin van Creveld, one of our generation’s most acute geopolitical analysts, gives a brilliant brief on the Syrian civil war, putting it in the larger context of America’s mad Middle Eastern policy. I recommend reading, especially his conclusions.   (2nd of 2 posts today.}

“Any wise enemy is better than an ignorant friend.”
— Arab proverb.

Bashar al Assad. Photo by Reuters.
Bashar al Assad. Photo by Reuters.

For Whom the Bells Toll

By Martin van Creveld
From his website, 11 June 2015

For Bashir Assad, the bells have been tolling. If one believes the media, he and the regime he represents are on their last legs. Whether or not that is true is not at issue here — similar predictions have been heard ever since civil war broke out in Syria four years ago. What I do want to do is take a look at the origins of the war, the way it has been going, and what the future may look like in case the predictions come true.

The decisive fact about the Assad — meaning, in Arabic, “Lion” — family is that they are Alawites. The Alawites are a section within the Sunni Shia tradition. They do not, however, form part of the mainstream. Some Islamic scholars do not even regard them as Muslims; claiming that they are basically pagans who worship the moon and the stars. The community is scattered among Syria, Turkey and Lebanon. It is, however, only in Syria that they form a significant minority, counting perhaps one seventh of the population. That explains why Bashir’s paternal grandfather, Ali Suleiman al Assad (1875-1963), supported French colonial rule. He and his fellow Alawites knew well enough how majority Muslims deal with minority ones.

Suleiman’s son Hafez made his career as an air force officer. In 1963 he took part in a coup that brought the Ba’ath, a party that professed a curious mixture of secularism, nationalism, and socialism, to power. In 1966 he co-authored another coup, this time one that took place inside the Ba’ath leadership; in 1970, following a third coup, he assumed power as a military dictator. He did not, however, do much to change the nature of the regime. The latter remained what it had been. An amalgam of secularism, nationalism, “Arab” socialism; and of course the kind of brutal police state which seems to be more or less the only kind most Arabs understand and can live under.

{Read the rest at Martin van Creveld’s website}

21 thoughts on “Martin van Creveld explains why our actions in the Syrian civil war will fail”

  1. Wasn’t the impetus for the current war a 4 year drought that caused many Syrians to head to the cities where they were not welcomed. The opposition psychopaths, welcomed them into their fight. Why do the neocons want Assad out?
    If I was Turkey I would be worried, very worried.

    1. ellifeld,

      To read climate activists, everything results from climate change. It’s an odd claim. Droughts are a normal climate cycle in Syria. Religious instability, ethnic conflict, a massive increase in population, waves of political change — these have set the entire region — from North Africa to Pakistan & Afghanistan — aflame. While a drought in some areas of Syria didn’t help, I’d like to see a deeper analysis than the now commonplace knee-jerk blaming the weather.

      1. I’m not blaming the entire Syrian problem on cllimate change. I didn’t even mention it. I only mentioned a drought, from what I have read was unusually long even for that area. For sure there had to be problems existing before, for a civil war to begin. On the other hand if you’re starving and your government is allowing you to starve, and someone (like the Nusra Front) puts their hand out with some food and water, you just might join them. What other choice would there be?
        It seems that entire area has to be ruled by force. The religious and ethnic differences are so stark that killing each other is no problem. Maybe that’s why S. Hussein, Assad, Mubarak, etc. exist, to keep the peace, in a way, by secret police, overt force, disappearances, poor judicial systems, brutality.

      2. Ellifeld,

        “I’m not blaming the entire Syrian problem on climate change”

        Yes. That’s why I said “climate activists have”.

        “from what I have read was unusually long even for that area.”

        I too have read that. But I’ve seen no analysis showing that. Given the widespread tendency these days to exaggerate weather (decadal records become “unprecedented”; generational records become “all time”), I’d like to see some stats before belief.

        As for the rest, you might be correct. Or that might be just another war narrative. Truth is the first casualty of war. Western media has a long tradition of feeding us war narratives that turn out to be totally invented. As in Iraq’s soldiers killing the babies in Kuwait.

  2. I remember well the session in the Knesset in October 2001. Ariel Sharon was promising the membership how Israel was going to get the United States to crush Iraq first, Syria second and Iran third. Meanwhile, Israel would take care of Lebanon on its own. After that, Israel would be able to reshape the states of the middle east to its own liking. The reasons why all these states had to be destroyed was that they opposed the existence of a Jewish state in Israel. (This was the session in which he famously said -in Hebrew of course- “Let me tell you something…. We, the Jewish people, control America. And the Americans know it.” Vice President Joe Biden congratulated the Presidents of Major American Jewish Organizations for taking over America during their annual conference in 2014.)

    Suppression of Arab – Moslem nationalism has not gone as well as the founding members of the Project for a New American Century anticipated. So, brilliant geopolitical analysts, like van Creveld, now want to put the genie back into the bottle. Sorry! The genie is out of the bottle and out of control.

    The Middle east was better when Saddam Hussein held sway over all Iraqis, Assad had full control over the Syrians, Gaddhafi was the benevolent dictator in Libya, The Taliban and the Northern League had divided Afghanistan, and Mubarak was president of Egypt. Of course, very few realized that in 2001. “Regime change” dd not lead to “Nation building”.

    The Arab and Moslem world is undergoing a realignment even more radical than what occurred in the wake of the dissolution of the Ottoman Empire. No one can foretell the way that this will eventually stabilize. But, surely, nothing is going back to the way it was. Especially Syria.

    1. “The latter remained what it had been. An amalgam of secularism, nationalism, “Arab” socialism; and of course the kind of brutal police state which seems to be more or less the only kind most Arabs understand and can live under.”

      “There is nothing very special about any of this. To the contrary: in the absence of democracy violence, great or small is simply the way Arabs normally use to settle their political differences.”

      Really sorry, but Orientalism, it’s the polite word for this kind of ‘national character’ argument. Replace ‘Arab’ with any other race of people, feel how it reads.

      1. Cathryn,

        I agree, that’s a good test!

        • Replace Arab with “Nordic” — no, brutal police states are quite rare.
        • “Polynesia”? Socialism, nationalism, and police states are all quite rare.
        • Tropical African? Socialism and nationalism are quite rare.
        • India? Secularism and police states are quite rare.
        • Let’s narrow the focus! Canadian? Well, 2 of the 4. Swiss? 2-4. Belgium? 0-4. Japan? Difficult to score, but I’d say 0-4.

        Also, to say there is no such thing as “national characters” seems a bit much.

    2. Re: Orientalism

      It does sound like a textbook example of Orientalism to me, not because it states a fact which happens to be true, but because it implies causation.

      “in the absence of democracy violence, great or small is simply the way Arabs normally use to settle their political differences.”

      If you remove democracy, violence is the language ALL people will understand. The question is why has democracy naturally and automatically flourished in the benign and friendly recent history of the Arab world the way it has in Western Europe. Is it because of a national character? Or some other factors?

      Considering the article seems to, perhaps, be written with the hope of influencing western policy makers, framing the argument in terms that align with their way of seeing the world might be appropriate. Maybe it’s orientalist, I don’t know.

      As for national character, I think it’s all over the map, with varying levels of actual violence vs unchallenged threat of it standing in for democracy, and varying levels of how “smooth” the process is. China (full state power, tremendous success) ? Russia (around time of Yeltsin)? Thailand (many military interventions in democratic system but low violence)? Philipines? Pakistan? Mexico? Ukraine? In western Europe and the US you could say our societies are free from internal use of physical violence to resolve political problems, but we’re leaning pretty heavily on the “internal”, which I think often becomes “external” for some of the countries which we look at as deficient in terms of developing democracy.

      Actually it reminds me of a scifi quote from an Isaac Asimov character — “violence is the last refuge of the incompetent”. If violence is an option theoretically available to all, what does that imply about the order in which those who are competent rank violence among their options?

      1. Pete,

        “If you remove democracy, violence is the language ALL people will understand.”

        You have changed the subject. MvC said something more specific: ““violence, great or small is simply the way Arabs normally use to settle their political differences.” That is unusual and hence notable: most societies have evolved other means to resolve political differences, so that violence is an unusual outcome (i.e., a breakdown of those mechanisms).

    3. “You have changed the subject.”

      Maybe, but I think it’s a central part of how Syria got to be where it is.

      “… That is unusual and hence notable”

      Yes. Was it more a consequence of Arab cultural traits or a relatively recent historical outcome, a version of post-colonial national development especially fouled up by the cold-war and some very powerful side effects of US foreign policy and strategy which we haven’t stopped applying. The way that one quote in the MvC article was phrased avoids dealing with the latter possibility… that’s how it’s coming off to me.

      BTW I agree completely with what the article is saying, but I also picked up on what Cathryn Magata did. It’s a pattern of speech or writing that sets off this little alarm in the back of your head.

  3. Appears not to be a supporter of the Yinon Plan that Netanyahu appears to support with his support of Jihadis in Sysria!

    The Jewish Plan For The Middle East and Beyond

    By the way, you should should read Visas for Jihadis. he discusses the continuing policies.
    Interview 1019 – Michael Springmann on Visas for Terrorists

    Meanwhile another book discusses public facts not dicussed or tied together:

  4. Taking down Assad would be an excellent way to snub the russians/Iranians and besides the caliphate is a photogenic enemy, useful to whip up support for this or that program. No wonder it is the option American pols are gravitating to.
    Israelis are fine with too: Syria, one of their most steadfast state enemies, has ceased to exist. Hezbollah, one of their most effective non state opponents, is engage in a war of attrition. What’s not to like?

  5. No mention in the article of oil or natural gas – namely the 2011 pipeline deal between Iran, Iraq and Syria for Iranian gas to flow into European market, while a similar pipeline proposal from Qatar was rejected by Syria. Qatar and Iran both access the same massive natural gas field, both had to cross Syria with a pipeline to reach Europe, Syria accepted Iranian deal and rejected Qatar’s, then “coincidentally” the war in Syria began. War in Syria is energy business competition gone insane.

    1. Jimmy,

      That’s a great catch! I’ll pass it on.

      Also, MvC is not writing as an area expert — but as an expert in western history applying that broad perspective to this area. In any case, I suspect this was a glitch (i.e., writing “left” when you mean “right”). I write several thousand words a day. These mistakes are easy to make and difficult to catch when reviewing (my wife proofs my writing, and can’t catch technical mistakes).

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