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Syria in the Media: “Too many notes, Herr Mozart”

December 12, 2015


Has there ever been a war more widely written about, and  from so many perspectives, as the Syrian conflict? The extra dimension, of course, is the online media. Social media conversations, opinion from online versions of the mainstream media that one would never have encountered even ten years ago, new magazines started by journalists who began their careers in newspapers. And of course people like me.

Many moons ago I played the role of the Emperor Joseph in Amadeus, Peter Shaffer’s magnificent play about the rivalry between Mozart and his infinitely less talented rival, Salieri. The Emperor, on being invited to give his reaction to the first performance of Mozart’s The Marriage of Figaro, observes that there are “too many notes”. “My dear fellow,” he adds, “there are in fact only so many notes the ear can hear in the course of an evening.”

The Emperor’s words come to mind when I struggle through the umpteenth tweet of the day about Syria and ISIS, or the latest analyst’s opinion. It’s not a matter of understanding, but of making sense. Too much information, too little sense. Too many notes. Consider these words, starting with a random Facebook post:

“The thing is the elite don’t want isis, or whatever they’re called this week to be defeated. The idea is to prolong the (war) in order to cash in on the arms needed and then send in their own contractors to rebuild the devastation they’ve caused, thereby making even more profit. War makes money so why would the powers that be want to stop it? Look at Iraq! I rest my case.” (Facebook post)

“Perhaps in this time of confusion, and especially regarding the horror which unfolded in Paris, we should look to history to help instruct the present. As the idiom goes, insanity is doing the same thing over and over again and expecting different results.” (Megan Hanna, writing in Middle East Eye.)

“It is not widely known that US, British, French and Israeli oil companies have had a range of overlapping interests in exploiting Syria’s unconventional oil and gas resources, which are believed to be considerable.” (Nafeez Ahmed, writing in Middle East Eye)

“No one wants to admit it, particularly not in the middle of a presidential campaign, but the hard truth is that America faces two bad choices on ISIS. Either it can adopt the high-risk, high-reward strategies necessary to wipe out ISIS, even though these strategies could fail or even backfire, perhaps catastrophically. Or the US can choose the safer path, managing and minimizing ISIS’s threats without solving the problem completely, knowing this means that some number of attacks will probably continue.

Both choices are terrible. But they’re the only choices that exist.” (Max Fisher, writing in Vox)

“What we have to do – and this is really key – is we have to engage the local people. As soon as the people have hope for a political solution, the Islamic State will just collapse.

“There will be a very easy way to make Isis lose ground at a high speed. The international community must decide all regions held by the Syrian opposition are no-fly zones.

“No-fly zones for everybody. Not the coalition, not the Russians, not the regime, nobody. Providing security for people [there] would be devastating for Isis. That’s what the international community should focus on.” (Nicolas Henin, interviewed by The Independent)

Just a tiny sample of the millions of words being written about Syria and ISIS every day.

No wonder the vast majority of us who watch events unfolding in the Middle East, and read about murder, mayhem and plots in their own countries are deeply confused by what’s happening. No wonder many don’t even try to understand. And no wonder they comfort themselves with the panaceas offered by the likes of Donald Trump and Marine Le Pen.

The quotations are examples of the most common streams of thought about the Syrian tragedy: conspiracy – it’s all about the oil, it’s all about capitalism, it’s all about the neocons; history repeating itself endlessly – we’re not learning from previous mistakes; non-intervention – back off and let the oppressed free themselves.

Each argument makes sense to the person making the statement according to the principles of the ladder of inference – which effectively means that I interpret events and situations according to my personal experience and view of the world. All of them have some validity, yet none of them stand up on their own.

Let’s look at each of them a little closer, starting with the military-industrial motive.

Yes, of course the companies that make bombs and bullets do very nicely out of supplying the combatants in Syria, and Iraq, and Yemen too. Yet are they the masters or the servants of the politicians? If they were the masters, then the US, the UK, Russia and all the other countries with flourishing arms industries would already have boots all over Iraq and Syria. Probably Iran too.

And yes, Syria is a useful test bed for the latest generation of munitions and delivery systems. But you only test things once you develop them, and once developed they become commodities. The real dollars lie in developing new systems in response to perceived future threats. And in terms of military technology, the conflict in Syria is relatively familiar ground.

The US in particular, and consequently its military contractors, will be far more exercised about the potential threat posed by a resurgent Russia and by China, with its increasingly assertive quest to dominate the waters of the South China Sea.

In other words, the military-industrial complex has bigger fish to fry. And why would any construction contractor risk life and limb rebuilding Syria when there are so many infrastructure projects in the West awaiting the say-so of the politicians?

As for the oil motive, why is it surprising that the world’s major oil and gas companies are looking at Syria’s potential? Are they not doing the same in just about every region in the world? Their interest in Syria is hardly a hidden agenda then.

And what of the history argument? Again, it’s easy to say that we keep making the mistakes of the past. But the problem is that history is subjective. Just as for every verse in the Quran that inspires the violence of ISIS there’s another that condemns it, one can trawl the ocean of history to find examples of repeated mistakes, yet there are as many precedents that justify more or less any course of action you take (apart from invading Afghanistan possibly).

The classic in the case of the current conflict is “we went into Iraq in 2003, and look what it did for us”, versus “what would have happened if we hadn’t resisted Hitler?” to argue for against and for a ground war against ISIS.

Yet each situation was utterly different in terms of politics, economics and material conditions as to render comparisons virtually meaningless. And what of the aftermaths? De-Nazification worked. De-Ba’athification didn’t. The Marshall Plan worked in rebuilding Western Europe. The efforts of western contractors to re-build Iraq didn’t.

The killer of historical precedent is that context is king.

And finally we have the case for a no-fly zone.

Nicolas Henin, the French journalist who was imprisoned by ISIS for nine months along with other Western hostages, argues that “Strikes on Isis are a trap… The winner of this war will not be the party that has the newest, the most expensive or the most sophisticated weaponry, but the party that manages to win over the people on its side.”

I’m not sure whether Henin is arguing that a no-fly zone would prevent ISIS from making more territorial gains, or that it would cause the group to implode within the area it currently occupies. If it’s the former, then he has a point, but only if the fiendishly difficult task of reaching a political settlement between the various opposition groups and the Syrian government (with or without Assad) can be achieved.

But to suggest that any of the forces thus aligned against ISIS could bring it to its knees without air support is surely naïve. Even more naïve is the suggestion that under clear skies the cowed population of the caliphate would bring about the implosion of ISIS of their own accord.

There is of course a humanitarian argument against the bombing of Raqqa, Ramadi and other centres of population. Even the smartest bombs fail to find their intended targets. But ISIS depends for its legitimacy on its existence in the eyes of its followers as a state. No state, no caliphate. Without bombing, it will be free to consolidate its grip on the territories it now controls.

So the longer it is allowed to maintain even the most rudimentary characteristics of statehood, the longer it will serve as the inspiration for its affiliates in Libya, Yemen, Afghanistan, Nigeria, Mali and more.

And as the ISIS presence in those countries grows stronger and spreads across more territory, the task of eradicating the caliphate will cause exponentially more human casualties – whether from the air or on the ground – than would be caused by destroying it on its “home ground” as soon as possible. Not only that, but the greater chance of its followers, armed with money and logistical support, carrying out more Paris-style attacks, thus fuelling extreme anti-Muslim sentiment among the most vulnerable Western nations.

Therein lies the weakness of any containment strategy. With or without a no-fly policy, it’s not enough to keep ISIS at bay.

Leaving aside the humanitarian dimension, there’s another reason why containment is not the answer, and that’s the potential economic impact. Current estimates suggest that the Paris attacks have shaved a quarter of the country’s GDP growth for the last three months of 2015. What would a similar attack on Washington or New York do to the US economy?

Just as my late mother’s favourite phrase when faced with some seemingly intractable family conundrum was a plaintive “I don’t know what the answer is”, I can’t pretend that I have any easy solutions when all these people so much smarter than me can’t come up with them.

But I do know this. Big pictures, grand strategies and solutions of elegant simplicity advanced by politicians, pundits and generals will always find opponents willing to demolish them. To find a way forward there will inevitably be an element of suck it and see. And the appetite for continuing struggle will need to be sated before the guns in the Middle East fall silent.

To draw upon one of those inadequate historical parallels, it was not until 1917, three years into the world’s most destructive conflict thus far, that the generals in the First World War finally hit on the concept of integrating air power, artillery, infantry and tanks as an effective way to break the impasse of trench warfare. And even then, it took another year before an exhausted Germany finally threw in the towel.

If this conflict is to end without a massive and horrible conflagration, the decisive qualities will need to be the same on every front – political, diplomatic and military.

And those qualities are resilience and creativity. That should be clear enough for the Emperor Joseph.

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