Thursday, October 11, 2012

When is a weapon not a weapon?

The plucky Turkish defenders of liberty have confiscated several terribly dangerous weapons on a commercial airliner headed for the dreaded evil Syrian regime.
"We are determined to control weapons transfers to a regime that carries out such brutal massacres against civilians," said Mr Davutoglu. "It is unacceptable that such a transfer is made using our airspace.
 Well said, defender of freedom, what were these fiendish devices?  Please let us know!
Military communications devices were reportedly confiscated before the plane was allowed to leave hours later.
Military communications devices!! Those evil no-good...wait, commo?  Just commo?  Are these weapons?  Just last month I saw this...
Secretary of State Hillary Clinton said the United States would contribute an additional $15 million in nonlethal gear — mostly communications equipment — to the civilian opposition trying to oust Assad...
So when the US sends radios in, its nonlethal gear.  When its the Syrians, radios become weapons.

This sort of hypocrisy is nothing new, but it did make me pause and consider the question of perspective in the increasingly likely war in the Middle East.  At some point in the future, someone is going to need to look back and try to figure out when and where it went wrong.  I think the answer might have something to do with when Washington got its head so far up its own ass it started to believe that distinctions between nonlethal and lethal aid matter to other countries.  Perhaps also that tiny escalations that added up to a lot over time were viewed the same way overseas as they were in America. 

At the end of the day, though, some poor Syrian S6 must be catching hell right now...can you imagine the FLIPL on that?


  1. Putin is quite irritated by Turkey, and rightly so.
    The Turks pointed out by their action that Russia has poor geographic access even to countries such as their protected Syria. They will need to send a warship with the freight next time - through Gibraltar, not Bosporus.

  2. Well, I am sure some fire support types might argue that a radio is certainly a weapon.

    I wonder how much of US policy in this Syrian crisis mirrors US policy at the beginning of the Yugoslav break up. Remember when the US talked a big game, protect human (Muslim) life, but didn't really do much except talk, and later drop a few bombs. While Muslim countries like Iran and Saudis were supplying fighters, weapons, a had real effects (although many of the effects we later learned to be bad like radicalization, reverse ethnic cleansing, etc).

    ISTM that our policy in Syria, like our early policy in Bosnia, shows the US talking the talk about defending Muslims under duress, but not backing that with any real action in the eyes of the Muslim world. Surely the Muslim world will compare this to other US interventions, where oil wasn't at stake and ask themselves, "does America really care about protecting Muslims, or is that just political rhetoric."

  3. BG, What's your take on Syria?

    CJCS said tis' a bigger bite to chew on than Lybia. No Shit, but how many people know that besides ahistorical, non map readers?

    A recent MSF (Médecins Sans Frontières), Doc. (The founder I think), went over to the Levant to help out with the wounded. He reported that half the people he came across as fighters were non Syrians, and were Salafists of differing flavors.

    The US of A NCA did not intervene in Rwanda (once), nor in Sudan (twice now), yes, yes I know, they're super dusky. Can we say a hue too far?

    I have no dog in this fight, but I feel for any Military combatants who have to try to Unfuck this Scenario.

  4. This whole series of incidents seems to me a sequence of intimidating moves by the Turks. The shells landing in Turkey were mortar rounds according to the latest reports I've read and the Syrian rebels (supplied by Turkey) are on the Syrian side of the border. They also have mortars . . . So was it really the Syrian Army at all? Now this with the Russians? The Turks are playing hardball and pushing the envelope. What the US says or does doesn't really seem to matter . . . Perhaps yet another indication of US decline . . . which of course follows endemically our strategic confusion . . .

  5. fasteddiez-

    I read the same thing regarding the MSF doc. Syria is to be the next Al Qaida playground (via Saudi gold) in the ME . . . what was the Global War on Terror about anyhow?

  6. fast, I think Libya and Syria are apples and mammals. I see this as very much a political problem, not military. (although yes, the military problem would be very complex, probably the most developed nation that we would have fought since Vietnam).

    Libya was a no brainer, there were no countries that back Qaddafi's regime. It was a fairly conventional fight, islands of cities along major lines of communications close to the coast. An organized resistance. And lots of happy feelings from Arab Spring.

    Syrian Regime has too much support from Russia and Iran. Of course, I don't think either country cares too much for Assad, but I think the truth is that Russia fears another unfriendly Muslim state near their borders (that could potentially support Muslim separatists and Muslim countries on Russia's border). I think the hope is that Assad will fall, with or without our military help, and we win either way. (yes, the word "hope" was used intentionally)

    As far as Iran, I think they WANT us to get involved. That will continue to paint the US as the great Satan that does nothing but kill Muslims around the world, and paint Iran as the only Muslim country that is willing to come to their aid. Of course, if we don't get involved and more Muslims die, Iran can say that we did nothing to help. It is kind of a lose-lose.

    As far as Turkey, I think I see a government who is taking advantage of the situation. Turkey knows that Syria is way too busy dealing with rebels and the rest of the International community than to have a serious spat with Turkey. I don't know what Turkey's endgame is, but I think they are just setting themselves up to get something from Syria. If they think the current regime will survive, they will probably push and push until they get some concession, because they know they have Syria bent over. If the regime falls, then Turkey can make a claim to the new regime that they supported the rebels.

    My biggest concern is that fact that all of these Arab Spring conflicts are breeding grounds for fundamentalists, and against Western hopes, instead of liberalization of the ME, we are seeing radicalization. In the next couple of years, we could have a whole coalition of Iranian like countries controlling the region.

  7. And the other wildcard here is that the "rebels" that we seem to be nervously sidling up to contain a hell of a lot of Sunni fundamentalist factions who loves them some people we don't, much, like the Muslim Brotherhood in Egypt and a number of Al Qaeda siderunners.

    This is another fight that I wish the hell the U.S. would realize that we don't really have a dog in. Neither faction will be "friendly", either to the U.S. or it's client, Israel - frankly, I'd guess that the Assad Alawite faction is more likely to give the U.S. "what it wants", that is, an accomodation with Israel and relative quiesence along the Iraqi border.

    And Arab Spring, Summer, Winter, or Fall, the bottom line is that ANY process that "democratizes" the Middle East is likely to produce more Islamic fundamentalism, the end product of broadening political power in a polity that has not undergone a depoliticization of religion as the West largely did after the Enlightenment. Many, many people in the Middle East share the ideals of people like the religious wing of the GOP here and believe that all you need is that ol' time Religion to make people all nice and happy. Unless and until the Muslim nations make the conscious decision to keep religion out of politics there's no real way to avoid that - why do you think we supported all those dictators there for so long, among other reasons..?

  8. FDC,

    Fundamentalist step into these fights when there is a vacuum. The locals don't want to let them in, but like in Bosnia, and the Caucuses, when no one else will help prevent your family from being slaughtered, you take whatever help you can get.

    We could argue this is a fundamentalist strategy, that they try to lure a secular government into overreaction, leading to violence, giving the fundamentalists cause to enter the fight and become the saviors of the people. Classic subversive insurgency.

    So I think that is the cognitive dissonance. You do nothing, and watch the fundamentalist gain a foothold in a country (see Egypt). But, if you interfere, you risk being entangled and/or blamed for all the problems of the new order (see Iraq). Americans don't like to think that a game can't be won, but this game is a lose-lose. So we can either accept the fact that we can't win and plan for it, or we can keep up the facade that we can somehow have influence to mold the world in a way that is favorable to our interests and continue to play in a costly, reactive policy.

    caveat: It is hard to compare Iraq to Syria, however, I think it is a fair comparison. Saddam was equally as brutal on his people, killing far more than Assad ever did. True, we went to Iraq because we felt like it, it wasn't prompted by any killings or revolt, but the situation is still similar when you ignore timing.

    And hey, looks like I am not the only one to see the parallels between Syria and Bosnia:

  9. The thing I've been after for a long time is that the U.S. shouldn't have a hell of a lot of "vital interests" in the region if we would look at the long game.

    Israel is a vanity project, and like all such is only worth the candle if the costs aren't unsupportable. They're starting to get there, and my suggestion would be to reconsider the degree to which we're going to be willing to go to the mat for a foreign nation that hasn't always been all that friendly to the U.S. in return.

    And the other big "interest" there is petroleum, and if we'd been really intelligent back in the Seventies when the cartel made it clear that petroleum was going to be a useful lever against us we'd already have more than forty years experience in conservation and alternative fuels, coal, natgas, and nuclear. Instead we drove our Hummer and our head up our ass and look where it got us.

    But overall I have to just observe that one man's "fundamentalist" is another man's "rock-ribbed Godfearing Conservative." Rick Santorum would have been the Muslim Brotherhood's candidate if he'd been born in Riyadh. SOME of the locals don't want them. Some of the locals ARE them. Again, in a society without a fundamental prohibition against letting religion into the public square it's not all that clearcut...

  10. FDC,

    as far as vital interests in the ME, I think you are missing nuclear proliferation. If you read about Afghanistan, many in the administration (and I agree) believe that AFG and PK are linked, they are conjoined dysfunctional twins. You can't have instability in one without the other. Even known we don't talk about it much, there is more concern about Pak's nukes than concern for political stability in AFG.

    There is genuine, and well founded concern, that nuclear weapons in Pakistan can find their way anywhere in the world. And if Iran had them, their rhetoric suggests that one or two of them might accidentally fall into the hands of a group who might use one. (There is a similar fear for other mass destruction weapons, such as chem-bio, hence, the strong interest in Syria and Libya).

    I think the chances of a nuke being used in the US is low, however, the intent is absolutely there. But when you do a political risk calculation, hell, all politics aside, as a leader of the nation, would you not feel compelled to ensure that hundreds of thousands of US citizens don't get vaporized because you ignored a low probability threat?

    We can't ignore that fact that there are people on this planet that have clearly stated their intent to gain WMD and use them in the US. This is a fact (hate to say trust me, but there is evidence out there that may not be known to all if you know what I mean).

  11. bg.
    It's hard to base a policy on non nuclear proliferation when the entire US policy is still based on MAD.
    We'd use the WMD so how can we preach other wise.
    Isn't instability in the region just as reasonable to US interests than is stability.
    If they get nucs lets give them Cleveland, Detroit and all the other decayed cities in America as authorized targets.

  12. jim,

    1. MAD only works when you have a nation state to shoot back at.
    2. Agreed, we've used Nukes, but many other have used other forms of WMD.
    3. Yes, instability can be good for us, to a certain degree. Instability is good as long as a certain amount of control continues to exist, just enough instability to prevent an adversary from mounting a threat with too much growth. Pakistan is the classic example. Instability is ok, but if they can't control their nukes, we have a problem. That is, anyway, the main concern of the administration as I see it, and the biggest fear making it a national interest in the region.

  13. Hmmm...

    Well, since we "don't know" it's hard to base a sensible policy on the possibility that one nutjob might get his or her hands on the odd nuke. What I DO know is that so far most of the people who have told me that we're "fighting terrorists" have fucked the pooch so hard that the poor mutt's eyes bugged out of its head.

    So while I'm willing to admit the possibility, it's hard to hear "trust me on this" again and not suspect that things will end badly.

    The other aspect of this is the sheer flat-out difficulty of NBC terrorism. Nukes are complex and difficult to use, while chemical and biological weapons require a certain level of skill to manufacture and deploy. The closest I can think of a non-state actor getting to true NBC capabilities was the Aum guys in the Nineties, and they had some pretty serious stuff, sarin, some pre-weaponized bio agents. While I don't doubt that there are some groups, including some Islamic groups, who would LIKE to get their hands on this kind of thing, I also can't think of any with tons of technical and tactical skills, either...

    And the other aspect is that chasing around the ME whacking people is a good way to make the survivors pissed enough at you to start acquiring those skills. No surprise to me that the high water mark of the Islamic vs. Western warfare came centuries AFTER the Crusades; warfare is Darwinian - what doesn't kill your enemies can make them stronger.

    So the fact that there are people in the ME who don't like us seems like weak sauce as an argument for farkling about there MORE than we have been...

  14. FDC,

    I am not arguing that our current methods are correct in how we are going about it. But I am arguing that control of nukes is a national interest to us IRT the ME. I finally got to the end of Huntington's Clash of Civilizations, and his end statement, the way to avoid civilization WWIII, is that core states (US) should not intervene in other civilization's business. No matter how well intentioned, it just never turns out the way you hope.

    As far as chem/bio, you are right. That is really hard stuff to deal with and is more a threat than a capability for your average or even most sophisticated actor. It is the nukes that are scary, and what is driving our policy as much as anything else. Oh, and don't forget cyber, of course, that is all the rage right now, and yes, cyber adversaries are coming from the ME, Iran specifically. I won't say cyber is driving policy, but there is a huge chunk of money and effort going towards it.

  15. bg,
    the nation state ref. in your reply needs an addendum.
    we were willing to use WMD ,and considered doing so at DBP to pull the French outta their tailspin.
    this suggests that we're real flexible in using wmd's also.
    Istm that it's white men that used wmd in the past.
    maybe it's time for some payback in the islamists way of thinking. The br/fr used chem v. them.
    did they not?

  16. No argument that the U.S. is "interested" in what's going on in the AfPakNWIndia region - just skeptical as to whether U.S. influence can a) be beneficial to a "U.S.-positive" outcome of the politics there, or b) whether such an outcome can even be predicted with enough accuracy to gauge what sort of policy and influence to apply.

    IMO that well is truly poisoned. There's no really "good" option at this point, merely a selection of bad-to-worse ones. And even beyond that, I'm skeptical in regard to the point our man seydlitz likes to hammer on; that the U.S. foreign policymaking apparatus seems extremely incapable of making genuinely reasoned geopolitical/strategic analyses and decisions based on such analyses.

    Basically what I see this as is a "stop digging" sort of situation. IMO it's time to step back and continue to keep an eye on the place and see what shakes out. Even picking proxies is risky, given our piss-poor record for that business in this region.

    Quelle une mess, eh?, as GEN de Castries might once have said.

  17. Chief,
    Excuse my impertinance but i think that part of the problem is the feminization of the State Dept AND the UN ambassadorship.
    We are into touchy ,feely rather than reality based considerations.
    And of course DOD has become feminized also.

  18. jim-

    I think what you mention is more a symptom than a cause. In the case of R2P, it is the Demo response to the need to have some sort of intellectual scaffolding to what is essentially an unsustainable goal of maintaining US dominance (at home and abroad). The GOP have the Neo-Cons and the Demos have the flip side of that coin which happens to be mostly expressed by female officials . . .

    I can't see what the US gets out of supporting the Syrian rebels exactly, but then we've been pursuing incoherent, self-defeating policies for some time . . .

  19. R2P doctrine should be left to the UN. Unless of course there is an underlying significant benefit to American interests. In that case we should attempt to jump in and reap that benefit plus any goodwill generated from the R2P effort. I do not suggest that Syria falls into that category. There are some advantages to us in Syrian interference it is true, but there are also many dangerous pitfalls. Our Libyan intervention was not in our best interest either.

    Neo-Con doctrine should be excised from our foreign policy forever. Reduce it to ashes like what we do with biohazards. Or better yet place its necrotic bones in catacombs or an ossuary for remembrance sake. I disagree however with those who claim that the Monroe Doctrine was our first venture into neoconservatism.