Hard Copy:
Cockburn on Syria
13 June 2013

¶ Patrick Cockburn weighs in at the LRB with a fine piece about the cosmic complications of the storm that is gathering around the hot flash of the civil disorder in Syria, and he gives it a title that suggests the full scope of the folly of intervention by the West: “Is it the end of Sykes-Picot?” This refers, of course, to the secret, ultimately embarrassing agreement between two diplomats, one French and one English and neither playing with a full deck of cards, that determined not only the borders of the post-Ottoman Arab world but the hatreds within within and without them. Cockburn identifies five separate fights that are going on simultaneously, something that ought to stay any nation-builder’s hand.

Five distinct conflicts have become tangled together in Syria: a popular uprising against a dictatorship which is also a sectarian battle between Sunnis and the Alawite sect; a regional struggle between Shia and Sunni which is also a decades-old conflict between an Iranian-led grouping and Iran’s traditional enemies, notably the US and Saudi Arabia. Finally, at another level, there is a reborn Cold War confrontation: Russia and China v. the West. The conflict is full of unexpected and absurd contradictions, such as a purportedly democratic and secular Syrian opposition being funded by the absolute monarchies of the Gulf who are also fundamentalist Sunnis.

But the line that caught my attention was simpler.

Assad isn’t going to win a total victory, but the opposition isn’t anywhere close to overthrowing him either. This is worth stressing because Western politicians and journalists so frequently take it for granted that the regime is entering its last days. A justification for the British and French argument that the EU embargo on arms deliveries to the rebels should be lifted – a plan first mooted in March but strongly opposed by other EU members – is that these extra weapons will finally tip the balance decisively against Assad. The evidence from Syria itself is that more weapons will simply mean more dead and wounded.

This raises the very interesting fantaasy: what would happen in Syria if there were no guns? If, as in much of old Britain, a constabulary armed with nothing deadlier than truncheons were charged with maintaining civil order? You would think that the lesson of World War I would have been learned by now: wars cannot be won by arms alone. I’m seeing a new lesson in Syria: as all wars approach the condition of wars of occupation, no wars can be won by arms at all.

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