Tuesday, 31 December 2013

From Peggy and Cato

Monday, 30 December 2013

Syria (still) needs a No-Fly Zone

In early 2011 anti-regime protests started in Libya, and also in Syria. In both cases the protests were met with deadly force, and escalated into armed uprisings. In the case of Libya, the UN Security Council authorised international military intervention to protect civilians. In Syria, it did not.

Today Libya is not stable, but it is no longer a war zone. Syria is still at war, with no end in sight.

Of the more than two million Syrian refugees who have fled their country, over fifteen thousand have sought safety in Libya.

Military intervention has risks. In NATO’s seven-month bombing war in Libya, it’s likely forty to seventy civilians were accidentally killed by NATO bombs according to The New York Times. According to Amnesty International the number may be between 55 to 115 civilians killed by NATO bombs.

Weigh that toll against the toll in Syria, where in just over a week of aerial bombing in one city, Aleppo, Assad’s military killed over 300 people. On December 24th the Telegraph reported that as many as 480 people were said to have been killed, most of them civilians, including 86 children.

By the 29th, BBC News reported 517 killed by aircraft bombing Aleppo in the two weeks since December 15th. According to The Syrian Observatory of Human Rights, 151 of them were children.

The numbers crippled and maimed are more rarely reported.

In November a report on the child casualties of Syria’s war gave a toll of 11,420 children killed to the end of August 2013, out of a total of 113,735 civilians and combatants killed. The majority of children, 7,557 individuals, were reported killed by explosive weapons. Of those, 2,008 cases specified aerial bombardment: that’s 19% of all children where a cause was recorded.

In June, arguing against mounting a No-Fly Zone operation in Syria, US Army General Martin Dempsey, Chairman of the Joint Chiefs of Staff, said that only about 10% of casualties amongst the Syrian opposition were being inflicted by aircraft, the others being caused by artillery or direct fire.

How many lives lost by air attack does that 10% indicate? It’s likely to mean over 10,000 people directly killed by aircraft.* And beyond direct killing, the forces of Assad and his allies also use aircraft for artillery spotting, and they rely heavily on air transport for resupply.

Syria has been an unwanted experiment in non-intervention, and the results are clear. Comparing events in Libya and Syria, there is objective evidence that while enforcing a No-Fly Zone early in the conflict might have led to civilian casualties numbering over a hundred, it would likely have prevented several thousands of killings by aircraft, and would have restricted the ability of Assad’s forces to kill on the ground.

It’s a truism that Syria’s war is complicated, and increasingly so. A No-Fly Zone is not a solution to the conflict, but it is a proven means to restrict the killing. The logic that eliminating chemical weapons from the conflict is a good thing applies all the more to conventional air bombardment as it has taken many more lives.

Enforcing a No-Fly Zone is not an easy option. It needs money, advanced technology, expertise, and bravery on the part of many of the volunteer combatants who have to see it through. Only a few nations have the resources needed to succeed.

Enforcing a No-Fly Zone is not politically easy. In the case of Syria, it requires willingness to defy Putin’s policy of obstruction in the UN Security Council. It requires making the case that defence of collective security requires and justifies this military action even in the absence of a Security Council resolution.

There is more than one way to impose a No-Fly Zone, from the regular air patrols seen in the 1990s over Iraq, to bombing air bases in response to attacks by Assad aircraft. A discussion in May at USIP explored some of the options and constraints.

The war is far from over. Assad’s air force may yet kill several thousands more, possibly tens of thousands more.

Syria still needs a No-Fly Zone.

*The most recent UN report on violent deaths, commissioned by the Office of the UN High Commissioner for Human Rights, cross-referenced casualty counts by different organisations to arrive at a minimum count of 92,901 unique killings from March 15th 2011 to April 30th 2013. However this number includes combatants from both sides as well as civilians. One of the UN’s sources, the Violations Documentation Centre, or VDC, counts 10,182 violent deaths amongst regime forces up to April 30th 2013, but there is likely to be up to half as many again from the other sources used for the report. (The VDC’s identifiable records for the period covered 62,386 individual killings, just over two-thirds of the total number identified in the UN report, a significant undercount.) On that basis, 10% of non-government people killed would be approximately 7,700 killed by air attacks up to April 30th 2013.

Today the VDC has records of 83,117 non-government people killed, 61,493 of them civilians and 21,606 anti-regime fighters. Its toll of regime forces killed is 12,018. Of the non-government people killed, 7,425 are identified as having been killed by warplanes. 1,017 are listed as killed by chemical weapons without means of delivery being named. 1,750 are listed as having been killed by explosions without shelling or aircraft being named. Others are listed as having been killed by shelling, by execution, by torture, or by other means. Bearing in mind that the VDC’s figures showed an undercount of a third when cross-checked with other sources for the UN OHCHR report, it is reasonable to conclude that likely over 10,000 people have been directly killed by aircraft in the Syrian war.

Saturday, 21 December 2013

America’s anti-interventionist prophets of doom

This is not about Syria, much, but about the first year or so of that earlier and incomparably bigger war where anti-interventionists were (similarly) not just against any direct involvement of American forces, but also against supplying arms. In those days of 1939 to ’41 there wasn’t of course any fear of such arms falling into the hands of Islamists, but there was, as today, a fear on the part of some that sending arms would be just a step on the road to direct intervention.

The pro-arms side argued that enabling Britain to defend itself would serve US interests by reinforcing an obstacle between Nazi Germany and the US. The anti-arms side countered that Britain was doomed in any case, and that any arms sent would be arms wasted at a time when the US defences were desperately weak and in need of urgent build-up.

If the prophets of doom had won the argument, their prophecy would most likely have been self-fulfilling.

Lynne Olson’s recent book, Those Angry Days, is an engrossing history of the time. She gives a number of examples of its doomsayers.

General George Marshall, Army chief of staff, argued in 1940 that if Britain were defeated after America sent arms needed at home, “the Army and the Administration could never justify to the American people the risk they had taken.” On June 24 General Marshall and Admiral Harold Stark urged Roosevelt to stop all aid to Britain. Roosevelt rejected the suggestion (Chapter 9).

A majority in Congress were also against sending arms. Senator Key Pittman, chair of the Senate Foreign Relations Committee, urged Britain to surrender to Hitler, saying “it is no secret that Great Britain is totally unprepared for defence,” and that “nothing the United States has to give can do more than delay the result.”

Churchill commented “Up till April [US officials] were so sure that the Allies would win that they did not think help necessary. Now they are so sure we shall lose that they do not think it possible.”

By 1941 there had been some shift in military thinking. Admiral Stark now believed American security required Britain’s survival, and pressed Roosevelt  to start US Navy escorts of convoys to Britain. General Marshall also supported escorts, but more as a way of strengthening America’s hemispheric defence and of buying time, rather than to ensure Britain’s survival. Similarly he supported Lend-Lease as a spur to US industrial capacity which would serve American defence even if Britain were defeated (Chapter 19).

Lynne Olson writes that “throughout 1941, Marshall received much of his military intelligence from staffers who were both anti-British and antiwar.” She gives the example of General Stanley Embick, who had openly aligned with the National Council for Prevention of War. A few weeks before Embick was to retire, Marshall had him included in War Department strategy discussions and White House meetings where Embick spoke not just against American entry into the war, but against any military or economic aid for Britain. Subsequently Marshall made Embick his senior military adviser.

Another example was Colonel Truman Smith, friend of isolationist campaigner Charles Lindbergh, and at the same time General Marshall’s main expert on Germany. According to Olson, “like most of his colleagues in Army intelligence, Smith made no secret of his belief that Germany would soon overpower Britain and that America should abandon what Smith saw as its hopeless attempt to save the country.” Smith circulated pessimistic intelligence reports about Britain’s chances of survival that charged Churchill’s government with “disastrous interference” in British military affairs. Smith also passed on military information to prominent anti-interventionist campaigners.

Secretary of the Navy Frank Knox experienced similar attitudes, and described to Secretary of War Henry Stimson “how he had to fight against the timidity of his own admirals on any aggressive movement … how all their estimates and advice were predicated on the failure of the British.”

I recommend the book. For more see Gene’s recent Harry’s Place post, After Kristallnacht.

Also related, Conflicting ideas, a post by Peter Ryley looking at recurring standpoints in debates on war and intervention down the years.

Cartoon by Dr Seuss, first published in PM Magazine, October 1st 1941. From UC San Diego Library Special Collections and Archives.

Tuesday, 17 December 2013

Silencing the witnesses

Among countless horrors in Syria, the first half of December has seen the killing of a freelance Iraqi journalist, the kidnapping of four Syrian human rights defenders working at the Violations Documentation Center, and the announcement that two Spanish journalists have been imprisoned since September 16th by members of the Al Qaeda-linked Islamic State of Iraq and Syria.

Saturday, 14 December 2013

Peggy’s moustache

There are plenty of boys in Peggy’s class already, but for Romeo and Juliet she decided to be one more. Here she is playing Benvolio.

Below, more of the great cast of classmates. Thanks to Sandra Jacobs for the photos.

Friday, 13 December 2013

The Random Walk

Christmas is saved, thanks to John Dog. Here’s his new album, and it’s available to download – for free!

In case you missed it, his lovely promo for the first track, Video Shop, is below. Find more John Dog songs, as well as full lyrics to sing along to, on Raymond Butler’s Bandcamp page.

Tuesday, 10 December 2013

For readers of the LRB

The London Review of Books has published an article by Seymour Hersh, titled Whose sarin? The article presents accusations that the Obama administration engaged in “the deliberate manipulation of intelligence” in its response to the August 21 chemical attack in Syria.

Seymour Hersh has established a notable reputation as an investigative reporter, a reputation that will weigh the balance for some when considering how reliable this article might be. In this case though, it’s also worth considering the two reputable publications that declined to publish this article, Mr Hersh’s regular customers The New Yorker and The Washington Post.

Rather than rely on reputation then, it might be better to turn to expertise and evidence.

In Sy Hersh on Syria: Some Problems, Cheryl Rofer, chemist, chemical weapons expert, and retired supervisor at Los Alamos, focuses on his use of anonymous and uncheckable sources, his claims about the technical abilities of US agencies to monitor Syrian chemical weapons sites, his characterisation of intelligence analysis as cherry-picking, his focus on one analyst’s view of the range of Assad’s rockets, and his treating reports of certain rebels having some technical knowledge of sarin as meaning they had the capacity to actually produce the large volume of sarin used in the attack. On this point she links to an article by Dan Kaszeta, No, you can’t make sarin in your kitchen.

Dan Kaszeta is a former officer in the U.S. Army Chemical Corps and a former member of the U.S. Secret Service. He has 22 years’ experience in the field of chemical defense. His own response is titled Why Seymour Hersh has it wrong this time. He also criticises the characterisation of analysis as cherry-picking, and criticises the use of anonymous sources:
From the logical standpoint, Washington is full of “highly-placed sources,” and there is (and always has been) a wide diversity of opinion within the intelligence community. You can get someone to support nearly any opinion that one might have. There are well-known former intelligence employees who clearly have strong opinions and an axe to grind. I can find them in 10 minutes on the internet, so one concludes that Mr. Hersh can find one as well. And as an editorial matter, how can one reliably build an argument on a single informant who is anonymous, particularly when there are dozens if not hundreds of sources saying the opposite. There’s a word for this: “cherry-picking.”
On Seymour Hersh’s insinuation that a rebel group might have manufactured the sarin used in the attack, Dan Kaszeta brings his expertise to bear. Based on the number of victims and the capacity of the rockets found at the attack sites, Mr Kaszeta estimates that “a rough range of sarin from 370 kg to 4400 kg of sarin” was used, his best guess being “somewhere in the middle of this range, perhaps a ton.” This amount would require “a large, sophisticated, and very expensive factory-scale facility” to manufacture. “To put it into proper perspective, in 1994-1995 the Aum Shinrikyo cult in Japan built a purpose-built facility, spent many millions, and had a number of chemists and engineers,” he points out, “but the best that Aum could do, despite mastering the mechanics of the process, was to produce bucket-sized quantities.”

Both Cheryl Rofer and Dan Kaszeta recommend Eliot Higgins’ work identifying and analysing weapons used in the August 21 attack by means of of the very many publicly available videos and photos of the Syrian war. Eliot Higgins has written a detailed response for Foreign Policy magazine, titled Sy Hersh's Chemical Misfire. In it he focuses on the munitions used in the attack, and the suggestion reported by Hersh that the missiles could have been manufactured in a local workshop by rebels. Eliot Higgins gives details of the missiles used and includes examples of the open source video and photo evidence linking the missiles both to chemical attacks and to Assad’s forces. The evidence included in the Foreign Policy article is only a fraction of that found on Eliot Higgins’ own blog, Brown Moses.

Brian Whitaker, journalist and former Middle East editor of the Guardian newspaper, contrasts Eliot Higgins’ open source reporting with Seymour Hersh’s secret source stories. In his post titled Investigating chemical weapons in Syria he writes of Hersh that “he seems to have spent so much time listening to his secretive sources, and perhaps became so enthralled with them, that he never got round to looking at a wealth of information about the chemical attacks which is freely available on the internet.”

A detailed analysis by Scott Lucas and Joanna Paraszczuk, Chemical Weapons Conspiracy That Wasn’t – Hersh’s “Exclusive” Dissected, is published on the EA WorldView blog. They go into detail on aspects of the attack not mentioned in Seymour Hersh’s long article, particularly the scale and complexity of the attack against several areas simultaneously, and the strength of the siege by regime forces at the time. They also make detailed criticisms of his arguments and of the way he interprets the partial information that he does include. Uniquely they attempt to identify one of Seymour Hersh’s anonymous sources, the “former senior intelligence official,” suggesting that he is F. Michael Maloof, a former staffer in the Undersecretary of State of Defense’s office in the George W. Bush Administration. They point to the close similarity between accusations attributed to the secret source and public allegations made by Mr Maloof on WorldNet Daily, a highly partisan right-wing website. Mr Maloof later repeated his allegations on Russia Today. He has also previously appeared on the Iranian channel Press TV denouncing the lifting of the European arms embargo on the insurgency. Given his association with what are widely regarded as crude propaganda outlets, if Mr Maloof is Mr Hersh’s anonymous source then his anonymity would seem designed more to protect Mr Hersh’s reputation than Mr Maloof’s.

Foreign correspondent Richard Spencer summarises much of the above for Telegraph readers: Ignore the conspiracy theories: Assad was behind the Syrian chemical weapons attack.

Finally, turning again to Seymour Hersh’s reputation, it’s worth remembering the standard caveat that past performance is no guarantee of future results, and noting at the same time that beyond the highlights of his career he has previously produced some questionable stories. Bret Stephens provided a series of examples in a June 2011 Wall Street Journal article, Iran, Syria – and Seymour Hersh. Two erroneous stories related to Syria:
In February 2008, Mr. Hersh claimed that the mysterious Syrian facility Israel bombed the previous September "apparently had little to do with . . . nuclear reactors." Last month, International Atomic Energy Agency Director General Yukiya Amano wrote that "the Agency concludes that the destroyed building was very likely a nuclear reactor." In April 2009, he returned to Syria to write a hopeful piece about the prospects of a U.S.-Syria rapprochement, strongly hinting that Damascus could gradually be peeled away from Tehran. The evidence of the past two months suggests otherwise.
And so it seems this is a third strike on Seymour Hersh’s Syria record. Reader beware.

Sunday, 8 December 2013

Follow up re. Syria, Iran, and Hezbollah’s Friends in London

A number of items have been published in the last week that relate to the content of the previous post. The first part of that post dealt with a perception that the people of Syria are the immediate losers in US President Obama’s engagement with Iran.

Monday, 2 December 2013

Syria, Iran, and Hezbollah’s friends in London

Above: cartoon by protesters in Kafranbel, Syria. They see Obama trading away Syria under the table in order to get his Iran deal. Read more on Kafranbel’s history of protest in Rising Up and Rising Down, Amal Hanano’s October article for Foreign Policy.

A suspicion similar to the one expressed in the above cartoon appears in an article by Politico editor Susan B Glasser, The Price of Smart Power: Will Obama’s nuclear deal with Iran come at the cost of Syrian lives?

At Now Lebanon, Michael Weiss gives his version of this analysis, The Invisible Rider on the Deal: Syria has been ceded to Iran in exchange for a six-month pause on Tehran’s nuclear program.

The core of the analysis is this:
  1. Obama’s aim is to keep the US out of any major war. This requires avoiding direct involvement in the war in Syria, and avoiding war with Iran.

  2. The greatest risks that might lead the US into war are WMD proliferation in Syria or Iran, or an outright Al Qaeda victory in Syria.

  3. The deal to contain and remove chemical weapons in Syria requires the survival of the Assad regime, and the deal to contain nuclear development in Iran requires the co-operation of the Iranian regime. Both of those factors weigh against a strategy of building up non-Al Qaeda rebel forces in Syria in order to counter Al Qaeda, instead they weigh in favour of allowing Iran to continue to support the Assad regime in order to contain Al Qaeda and force the rest of the Syrian opposition to negotiate a settlement.
In essence Obama’s strategy seems to seek a cold peace by allowing Iran to consolidate a Tehran Bloc from Lebanon to.. Afghanistan? The eastern limit is not yet clear. What is clear is that while Iran negotiates on its nuclear program, its proxy force Hezbollah, along with other forces armed and trained by Iran, has a relatively free hand to keep Assad in power in Syria.