A selection of articles from the blog Greater Surbiton has been published in book format by the Centre for Advanced Studies in Sarajevo, and can be downloaded in PDF format for free via its website. The following is the foreword to the book:
The articles in this volume were published on my blog, Greater Surbiton, since its launch in November 2007. Although Greater Surbiton was devoted to a number of different themes – including the southern and eastern Balkans, Turkey and Cyprus, Russia and the Caucasus, the meaning of progressive politics and the fight against Islamophobia, anti-Semitism and other forms of chauvinism – Bosnia-Hercegovina and the former Yugoslavia were at all times central to it. Twelve years after Dayton, when the blog was launched, the war over the former Yugoslavia was being waged as fiercely as ever – not on the battlefield, but in the realm of politics and ideas, both in the region and in the West. Genocide deniers and propagandists who sought to downplay or excuse the crimes of the Milosevic and Karadzic regimes of the 1990s – people like Diana Johnstone, Michael Parenti, David N. Gibbs, Nebojsa Malic, John Schindler and Carl Savich – continued their ugly work. Yet the ongoing struggle to counter their falsehoods was just one front in the wider war.
The period since 2007 has witnessed the rise of Milorad Dodik’s separatist challenge to the precarious Bosnian-Hercegovinian unity established at Dayton, and the consequent degeneration of the post-Dayton political order in the country; the declaration of Kosovo’s independence and Belgrade’s efforts to derail it; the struggle in Serbia between reformist and nationalist currents; the increasingly aggressive challenge of Russia’s Vladimir Putin to the West, manifested most starkly in the attacks on Georgia in 2008 and Ukraine in 2014, but also in support for Belgrade over Kosovo and for Dodik in Bosnia-Hercegovina; the increasingly apparent failure of the International Criminal Tribunal for the former Yugoslavia to punish adequately the war-criminals of the 1990s, despite the spectacular arrests of Radovan Karadzic in 2008 and Ratko Mladic in 2011; and the increasingly stark failure of Western leaders to confront murderous tyrants like Putin, Sudan’s Omar Hassan al-Bashir and Syria’s Bashar al-Assad – reminiscent of their failure in the 1990s over Bosnia-Hercegovina.
Today, the truth about the war in the former Yugoslavia is more widely known and understood than ever. The battle for the recognition of the Srebrenica genocide worldwide has largely been won; the remains of most victims of the massacre have been identified and reburied. The deniers and their narrative have been largely discredited. Yet the Bosnian question is further from a happy resolution than ever, while the West – the US, EU and their allies – look less likely to lead positive change in the region than they did a decade ago. Kosovo’s full international recognition is still being blocked by Serbia and Russia; Macedonia, kept out of the EU and NATO by Greek nationalist intransigence, is in crisis; not a single official of Serbia has yet been found guilty by the ICTY for war-crimes in Bosnia-Hercegovina, or is likely to be in the future; and leading former-Yugoslav war-criminals such as Biljana Plavsic and Momcilo Krajisnik have been released after serving short prison-terms in comfortable conditions.
The outcomes of the struggles tracked by my blog have therefore been far from unambiguously happy. Yet the politics and recent history of Bosnia-Hercegovina and the rest of the former Yugoslavia are much better understood than they were a decade ago; new generations of scholars, analysts and activists are discovering and explaining more all the time. I hope that the articles contained in this volume have made a contribution to this process of discovery.
Marko Attila Hoare, June 2015
On 21 January, the Croatian journalists’ website autograf.hr published an article about me written by Dejan Jovic, chief analyst and special coordinator at the office of the president of Croatia, Ivo Josipovic. The Croatian newspaper Vecernji list republished Jovic’s article, then published my reply on 30 January, which is reproduced here with Croatian-language passages translated into English. My reply was also published in BCS translation by tacno.net.
[My four-part refutation of David Gibbs’s book ‘First do no Harm’ can be found here.]
Dejan Jovic’s attack on me, published by autograf.hr on 21 January, contains numerous falsehoods. For example, he accuses me: ‘To justify the war in Iraq, they employed the metaphor of Hitler (for Saddam Hussein)’. Yet I have never used the Hitler metaphor to describe Saddam Hussein, and in June 2013 I described the Iraq war in the pages of the Guardian as a ‘misguided adventure’. He claims ‘people like Hoare advocate further interventions as the solution to new problems: in Syria, maybe afterwards in Iran, then who knows where tomorrow.’ In fact, I explicitly condemned the idea of a US or Israeli attack on Iran on my blog back in April 2012. Jovic claims: ‘Indeed, those same people who attack me have already attacked many others, including the Washington Times, The Guardian, and proclaimed some other reputable individuals and media outlets to be “genocide deniers”.’ But I have never accused either the Washington Times or the Guardian of genocide denial, and I doubt whether Jovic’s other critics have either. Jovic links me to the politics of the Henry Jackson Society. Yet I resigned from that organisation at the start of 2012, and have explicitly and strongly condemned its politics repeatedly since.
Jovic’s string of ad hominem falsehoods directed against me appear to be his way of distracting attention from the matter at hand: his uncritical endorsement of David Gibbs’s Great Serb propaganda tract (First Do No Harm: Humanitarian Intervention and the Destruction of Yugoslavia, Vanderbilt University Press, Nashville, 2009), which denies the Srebrenica genocide. Jovic claims: ‘In criticising my review of Gibbs’s book, Hoare “forgets” that Gibbs personally replied to his thesis on “genocide denial” – and completely refuted it.’ But this is untrue. In his book (p. 281), Gibbs says of Srebrenica: ‘Certainly, the murder of eight thousand people is a grave crime, but to call it “genocide” needlessly exaggerates the scale of the crime’ (p. 281). Furthermore, Gibbs claims the massacre was provoked by the Bosniak victims: ‘The origin of the Srebrenica massacre lay in a series of Muslim attacks that began in the spring of 1995… Such actions invited Serb reprisals, and this dynamic contributed to the fall of the safe area’ (p. 160). As for Jovic’s claim that Gibbs ‘totally refuted’ my accusation of genocide denial: this is also untrue; Gibbs was completely unable to defend himself from the charge. Readers can view my refutation of him and see for themselves.
Jovic first tries to deny that Gibbs engages in genocide denial, then tries to justify Gibbs’s genocide denial. He argues that ‘in the academic community – not our own post-Yugoslav one, but more broadly – there is no consensus on whether in the wars in the former Yugoslavia genocide was committed or not.’ But none of the people he cites, in support of the view that there was no genocide, is an expert on the former Yugoslavia. Jovic then claims ‘courts have ruled that in Bosnia-Hercegovina there was no genocide (apart from in Srebrenica)’. But this is untrue: the ICTY has not ruled that there was no genocide in Bosnia-Hercegovina apart from in Srebrenica. Both Karadzic and Mladic are currently being tried for genocide in municipalities across Bosnia-Hercegovina – not only in Srebrenica. Karadzic’s acquittal by the ICTY Trials Chamber for one count of genocide (in municipalities outside of Srebrenica) was recently reversed by the ICTY Appeals Chamber. Furthermore, in 1997, a German court convicted Nikola Jorgic, a Bosnian Serb, for genocide in the north Bosnian region of Doboj in 1992, and this ruling was upheld by the European Court of Human Rights.
Finally, Jovic claims that genocide is something invented by warmongers to justify military intervention, whereas people who deny genocide are really just trying to protect peace:
‘”Genocide” and “Hitler” are always there when it is necessary to start a new war – they are the “idea” explanation of the reason why one more is being launched. The difference between Gibbs and Hoare is, therefore, that one thinks that the wars are not waged out of altruism and that they do not solve problems, whereas the other maintains that liberal interventions are necessary and important, and that there is nothing controversial in them even if they result in a large number of deaths. One is an advocate of peace, the other of war.’ The reality is somewhat different: both Jovic and Gibbs seek to minimise the guilt of the Serbian aggressor for the 1990s war, and to shift as much blame as possible onto the Croatian and Bosnian victims of the aggression. The agenda of people like Jovic and Gibbs is to ensure that the real warmongers – tyrants like Slobodan Milosevic and Bashar al-Assad – should be free to wage their wars without fear of Western military intervention, or even of serious condemnation from the Western media.
Following his review of Gibbs’s book in Politicka misao, Jovic has now for the second time, in his reply to me and to the Bosnian organisations who criticised him, praised this book in glowing terms, while refusing to make any substantial criticisms of it. Yet Gibbs’s book is a Great Serbian propaganda pamphlet of no scholarly value. Gibbs has no expertise on the subject of the former Yugoslavia; he does not even read Bosnian/Croatian/Serbian; and his arguments are based on the distortion and manipulation of source material. He minimises the guilt and crimes of the regimes of Milosevic and Karadzic and of the JNA; exaggerates the guilt and crimes of the Croatians and Bosnians; and seeks to blame the West for the break-up of Yugoslavia and war.
1) Gibbs writes ‘And we will see later in the chapter that the post-Yugoslav state of Croatia, which became independent in 1991, had important historical links with Pavelic’s puppet state.’ (p. 48).
Discussing World War II, Gibbs mentions Ustasha genocide and collaboration, as well as the collaboration of Bosnian Muslims and Albanians, but fails to mention the crimes or collaboration of the Chetniks, or of Serbia’s Nedic regime.
2) Gibbs claims Tudjman ‘recommended’ genocidal violence against the Jews (p. 67)
3) Gibbs claims Croatia and Slovenia were not experiencing any oppression at Serb hands prior to declaring independence, so had no legitimate grounds for seceding: ‘In fact, there was no serious evidence of Serb oppression in Slovenia or Croatia prior to the secessionist actions. The main reasons for seceding, as we saw in the previous chapter, were economic in nature. The JNA’s initial use of force in Slovenia was quite mild’ (p. 97). Thus, he disregards the Serbian economic sanctions against Slovenia; the JNA’s disarming of the Slovenian and Croatian territorial defence; the Serb rebellion in Croatia; the ‘Log Revolution’; the JNA’s intervention in support of the Serb rebels; and the massacre of Croatian policemen at Borovo Selo.
4) Gibbs blames the war in Croatia on the Croatian side: ‘The Croatian war had its origins with the nationalist forces that were unleashed during the election campaign of 1990, when Franjo Tudjman’s HDZ party came to power.’ (p. 87)
5) Gibbs claims Germany engineered Croatia’s independence and the war in 1991: ‘We will see that Germany began encouraging Croatian nationalists and preparing them for independence months before the war began. Based on this new information, I argue that German officials did not simply respond to the war; they helped initiate it.’ (p. 77)
And again: ‘Germany played a key role in encouraging Slovenia and Croatia to secede, and surreptitiously assured them of external support for the secession efforts. Once the republics actually seceded, the European Community (backed by the United States) condemned the JNA’s efforts to block secession.’ (p. 105)
Gibbs’s anti-German conspiracy theory – which Jovic particularly praises – is based on biased, unserious and manipulated sources; he does not have even a single piece of real evidence to demonstrate that Germany encouraged Croatia to secede from Yugoslavia. I have exposed Gibbs’s anti-German falsifications in detail.
6) Gibbs condemns the European Community for recognising Croatia’s independence in its republican borders, and its failure to recognise the independence of the Krajina Serbs: ‘The European Community took the view that Croatia and other republics could not be divided. In effect, this meant the following: Croatia had the right to secede from Yugoslavia but this same right would not be recognised for the Krajina Serbs, who wished to separate from Croatia. In the ensuing conflict in Krajina, the European Community supported the Croatian position and opposed that of the Serbs. At the Hague conference, Van den Broek, the Dutch foreign minister, affirmed that any changes in the republican borders “were not an option”. This anti-Serb bent was evident at many levels.’ (p. 96).
And again: ‘On the one hand, the Community accepted the right of Croatia to separate from Yugoslavia, or at least viewed such separation with leniency. On the other hand, the European Community condemned efforts by the Krajina Serbs to separate from Croatia. Why the double standard ?’ (p. 97)
7) Gibbs claims: ‘In addition, the Muslim/Croat alliance of 1990-1991 recreated a similar alliance that had existed during World War II, when the two groups were the main supporters of the pro-Nazi Ustasa state, and both participated in the massacres of the Serbs that occurred during this period.’ (p. 116)
8) Gibbs claims: ‘Operation Storm also generated a humanitarian disaster. The attack forced from 150,000 to 200,000 Serbs to flee, producing what was probably the largest single act of ethnic expulsion of the entire war.’ (p. 163)
9) Gibbs writes: ‘Another feature of the Balkan conflict was the tendency of the Western media needlessly to exaggerate the atrocities committed by Serb armies… Atrocities committed at Serb-run detention camps were presented in sensationalist fashion, for example, and they became “extermination camps” comparable to Auschwitz. President Izetbegovic himself encouraged these interpretations. Yet, in 2003, shortly before his death, Izetbegovic conceded that “there were no extermination camps” in Bosnia. He also conceded that his previous claims to the contrary had been deliberate misrepresentations, intended to outrage Western public opinion and thus trigger Western military intervention against the Serbs.’ (p. 216) In this way, Gibbs minimises the criminal nature of Serb concentration-camps like Omarska, Keraterm and Trnopolje.
10) Gibbs accuses the Bosnian armed forces of shelling their own civilians during the siege of Sarajevo, in order to blame it on the Serbs ‘: ‘In several cases, Bosnian forces themselves bombarded Sarajevo and blamed the resulting deaths on the Serbs.’ (p. 125)
Furthermore: ‘In should also be noted that the [Bosnian] government restricted the right of Sarajevo residents to flee the city, effectively blocking the exit for many besieged civilians. This policy increased the potential for casualties and fit in nicely with the government’s public relations strategy. In the world’s media, the deaths from shelling and sniper fire were blamed exclusively on Serb forces, but in reality the Bosnian government bore some responsibility as well.’ (p. 126)
11) Gibbs claims the Serbs legitimately owned most of Bosnia: ‘: ‘It is clear that Serb forces were on the offensive during much of the war, and they conquered large areas of Bosnia-Herzegovina. But the extent of Serb aggression was once again exaggerated. Newspaper articles repeatedly noted that Serbs controlled some 70 percent of Bosnia’s territory, despite the fact that they only constituted 31 percent of the total population… What such reports omitted was that Serbs had always occupied most of Bosnia’s land area, owing to their demographic dominance in rural regions.’ (p. 124)
12) Gibbs claims that it was the Muslims and Croats who caused the war to break out in Bosnia in 1992, whereas the Serbs wanted peace: ‘In March 1992, however, before full-scale war had begun, Serb leaders welcomed the Lisbon agreement and they endorsed it in the strongest terms. Radovan Karadzic, who represented the Serbs at Lisbon, called the agreement a “great day for Bosnia and Herzegovina.” And it should be recalled that it was the Muslims and the Croats, not the Serbs, who actually reneged. There is no evidence that the Serbs were bent on war at this point.’ (p. 111)
So, those are the theses of David Gibbs, which Jovic has now chosen to praise on two occasions. For Jovic to praise so highly Gibbs’s extreme anti-Croatian, anti-Bosnian and Great Serb propaganda tract is scandalous. Yet it is scarcely surprising, since in his own book about the break-up of Yugoslavia (Jugoslavija – država koja je odumrla: Uspon, kriza i pad Kardeljeve Jugoslavije (1974-1990), Prometej, Zagreb, 2003), Jovic already revealed that his sympathies in the 1990s were with Slobodan Milosevic and the JNA. Jovic praised Milosevic as a fighter for Yugoslav statehood and unity and defender of Tito’s legacy, regretted the failure of the JNA to crush Croatian rearmament in 1991, and absolved both Milosevic and the JNA as instigators of the war and perpetrators of the mass killing:
1) Comparing Slobodan Milosevic and Vaclav Havel:
Jovic, p. 56: ‘The direction of the protests against the regime, for example in Czechoslovakia and in Serbia, was totally different, so Havel and Milošević became antipodes in everything. While one led a liberal-democratic revolution against the state, the other led an anti-bureaucratic revolution against an anti-state ideology and anarchy, for the establishment of a state. ‘
2) Lamenting the JNA’s inability to halt Croatia’s rearmament
Jovic, p. 64: ‘The British reaction to separatism in Northern Ireland is a typical example of a liberal (minimal) state, which did not refrain from introducing a state of war and employing tanks in order to halt a civil war before it had begun. In contrast to this, in the state that was withering away, Socialist Yugoslavia, the Yugoslav People’s Army turned itself into a filmmaker recording the illegal import of weapons at the border (with Hungary) whose duty it was to protect from that sort of illegal activity.’
3) On Milosevic as a ‘Yugoslav nationalist’
Jovic, p. 65n: ‘In his first phase, Milosevic was probably a Yugoslav nationalist, but he never became a Serb nationalist, as many call him today. Never, indeed, did he want to form a Serb national state. His attachment to Yugoslavia, even to the point when Yugoslavia had become just a name and nothing more, was the main reason why he in the end lost popularity and the elections (2000).’
4) On the Chetniks as a ‘strong-pro-Yugoslav resistance movement’
Jovic, p. 141: ‘He who claims that Yugoslavia had to collapse in 1941 because of ethnic tension, should have to explain how it was possible that there arose, immediately following the occupation, two strong pro-Yugoslav resistance movements (Mihailovic’s and Tito’s).’
5) On Milosevic’s loyalty to Tito’s legacy
Jovic, p. 156: ‘In destroying the fourth Yugoslavia, Milosevic rejected Kardelj but not Tito.’
6) On Milosevic’s desire to bring about the ‘unity of Yugoslavia’
Jovic, p. 400: ‘His program now [in 1987], for the first time, seemed clear even to those at the lowest level of the social hierarchy, and he carried it out decisively: first the unity of the Serb Party, then unity of Serbia, then of the Yugoslav Party, then of Yugoslavia. That programme had four phases – Milosevic had now accomplished the first; at the third he would be halted, and at the fourth defeated.’
7) On Milosevic’s desire to restrain Serb nationalism
Jovic, p. 471: ‘Treating Milosevic and Kucan with a bit of benevolence, one could say that at least part of their motive could be explained by an attempt to retain power in order to prevent the “real nationalists” (those gathered around the New Review or people such as Vuk Draskovic was at the time) from coming to power in Slovenia and Serbia. As David Owen later said of Milosevic, they had to “ride the tiger of nationalism if they did not want the tiger to swallow them” (1995: 129). They appeared powerful, omnipotent, but in reality they were both afraid that the exit of the League of Communists from the political scene could bring about only worse nationalism. They accepted nationalism in order to prevent it.’
8) On the JNA’s ‘good intention’ to prevent ethnic conflict in Croatia
Jovic, p. 485: ‘When the Croatian government attempted to prevent the [Serb rebel] takeover, the Yugoslav People’s Army imposed itself between it and the Serbs, perhaps with the good intention of preventing direct ethnic conflict in Croatia.’
9) On Milosevic as ‘genuinely surprised’ by break up of Yugoslavia and war
Jovic, pp. 491-492: ‘The sources that were at the disposal of the author of this book do not give sufficient reason to support the conclusion that the members of the Yugoslav political elite in this period (including, thus, Slobodan Milosevic and Milan Kucan as well) intended to destroy Yugoslavia. Many of them, like most Yugoslavs, most analysts at home and abroad and the international political community as a whole, were genuinely surprised by the break-up, and still more by the war that broke out after that.’
10) On war in Yugoslavia as expression of state weakness and ‘private violence’
Jovic, pp. 492-493: ‘‘The violence that, in the ruins of Yugoslavia, in a stateless terrain, erupted in the ‘90s of last century had, indeed, the same cause as the collapse itself: it was the expression of a weak, ineffective state that was not in a position to suppress the private armies, private revenge, private “laws” and private violence. The wars that were waged in those ruins were to a large extent private revenge in which neighbours repaid some imaginary quid pro quo to their neighbours.’
Jovic is right about one thing: the criticisms being made against him are political, not academic in motivation. If Jovic were simply a scholar expressing his private opinion, it would not matter that his work rehabilitates Milosevic and the JNA. It would not matter that he praises a propaganda pamphlet with no academic value, that supports Croatia’s territorial dismemberment and denies the Srebrenica genocide. Jovic has the right, as a scholar, to express his views freely. But he is the Croatian president’s chief analyst and special coordinator. It is dangerous to both Croatia and Bosnia-Hercegovina for someone holding such views, and with such poor analytical judgement and grasp of reality, to occupy the position that he does.
Marko Attila Hoare
The Daily Mail’s leaking of Mehdi Hasan’s letter to Paul Dacre did not reveal Mehdi’s hypocrisy, merely an uncomfortable truth: these days, if you want to write for any outlet, you will probably have to disregard profound political differences with it while capitalising on the ground you share. That a left-wing journalist like Mehdi should admire some of the Mail’s values while loathing others is almost inevitable. For though the model of a simple binary political division between the Left and the Right may have appeared plausible during the 1980s, today it no longer does, and boundaries are increasingly blurred.
We live in small-minded, mean-spirited times. More than two years into the Syrian civil war, with 100,000 dead and Iran, Russia and Hezbollah openly supporting Assad’s murderous campaign, Britain’s parliament has narrowly voted to reject Cameron’s watered-down parliamentary motion for intervention. This motion would not have authorized military action; merely noted that a ‘strong humanitarian response is required from the international community and that this may, if necessary, require military action that is legal, proportionate and focused on saving lives by preventing and deterring further use of Syria’s chemical weapons.’ Cameron would still have needed a second parliamentary vote before he could have authorised the use of force. Parliament’s rejection of even this feeble step sends a clear message to Assad that he can go on killing without fear of British reaction.
The strength of isolationist, Little Englander feeling in Britain has been demonstrated. Cameron was defeated by the same uncontrollable ‘swivel-eyed loons’ of the Tory backbenches and grassroots who tried to sabotage gay marriage and want to drag Britain out the EU. It was perhaps too much to expect a parliament that is so savagely assaulting the livelihoods of poorer and more vulnerable Britons to care much about foreigners, particularly Muslim foreigners.
“I’d prefer Assad to win.” Not his actual words, but that is the only conclusion to be derived from the suggestion of Boris Johnson, the London mayor, that arming the Syrian opposition would lead to British weapons in the hands of “al-Qaida-affiliated thugs”. With 93,000 of Syria’s citizens dead, a kill rate in the country higher than in post-invasion Iraq, and one of the world’s most murderous and tyrannical regimes poised to win a historic victory thanks to western inaction, Johnson can only fret about hypothetical dangers.
In fact, it is the west’s failure militarily to support the Syrian National Coalition and its principal military counterpart, the Free Syrian Army (FSA), that is strengthening the hand of al-Qaida in Syria.
Continue reading at The Guardian, where this article was published on 18 June.
According to the dictum attributed to Edmund Burke, all that is necessary for the triumph of evil is that good men do nothing. Yet evil will triumph even more easily if good men help the evil-doers. In the Syrian civil war, with more than 80,000 dead and no end in sight, that is what the European Union has been doing, by upholding an arms embargo on the supply of weapons to all sides.
This in practice assists Bashar al-Assad’s dictatorship; freezing in place its military superiority over the poorly armed Free Syrian Army, and enabling the dictatorship better to massacre its own citizens. FSA soldiers, demoralized by their shortage of arms, have been responding by defecting to the relatively well-equipped Islamist militia Jabhat al-Nusra, whose leader Abu Mohammed al-Jolani had pledged loyalty to al-Qaeda.
Meanwhile, Iran systematically violates the arms embargo by sending arms to its Syrian ally.
Continue reading at Left Foot Forward
With the massacre at Homs, Bashar al-Assad’s Baathist regime has given notice to the world that the slaughter in Syria will continue until it falls, which it must inevitably do in the not-too-distant future. The question is how many people will be killed before it does. The fall of this regime will be a tremendous step for peace and progress in the Middle East. Yet set against the strong humanitarian and geopolitical arguments in favour of intervention is awareness of the price that we will have to pay to do so.
In Libya, the human loss involved in the overthrow of Gaddafi was greatly reduced thanks to Western military intervention; without it, the Gaddafi regime would probably still be slaughtering civilians today. The West has not been hypocritical in singling out Libya for military intervention. Libya differed from the start from other countries affected by the Arab spring, insofar as the rebels captured large areas of ground, which could then be defended by regular military means. It is something else entirely to protect civilians from the soldiers and police of a regime that still controls the ground in question. Even in Libya, we could not immediately protect civilians in Tripoli and other towns under Gaddafi’s military control from his security forces; these had to be driven out or destroyed first, and this was only possible because we began with rebel forces, in control of substantial liberated territories, that could be defended and built up. That is why the accusations that the West has been ‘hypocritical’ in intervening in Libya, but not in Bahrain, Yemen or Syria, have been unfounded. But the situation in Syria is rapidly approaching the stage when a Libyan-style intervention may be feasible.
The overthrow of the Syrian regime is both a pressing humanitarian necessity and would bring enormous benefits to the Middle East. Baathist Syria has shown an exceptional readiness to massacre its own citizens, perhaps surpassed in the Arab world only by its defunct Baathist counterpart in Saddam Hussein’s Iraq. The current slaughter still has not reached the scale achieved by Bashar’s father Hafez al-Assad at Hama in 1982, when as many as 40,000 may have been massacred, but the Hama massacre should stand as a warning to what may yet occur if the outside world does not act. Furthermore, Baathist Syria plays an exceptionally egregious role in regional affairs: as the principal regional ally of Iran, supporter of Hezbollah and Hamas and most virulently anti-Israel of all Arab states, it contributes more than any other Arab regime to obstructing Middle Eastern peace. The overthrow of this regime would lower Arab-Israeli tension, weaken extremist forces in the region and further isolate the regime in Tehran.
On the other hand, however overwhelming the case for humanitarian intervention in Syria is, the West will pay a stiff price in propaganda terms if and when it does. Unlike Gaddafi’s Libya, but like Saddam’s Iraq, the Syrian dictatorship is based upon the rule of a religious minority over a majority. As Saddam’s regime embodied Sunni Arab hegemony over Kurds and Shia Arabs, so Assad’s regime embodies Alawi hegemony over Sunnis. The overthrow of the Syrian regime will inevitably be bloody and is likely to assume the appearance, at some level, of an Alawi-Sunni inter-communal slaughter. Although Western military intervention, by speeding the transition, may result in less bloodshed than would otherwise be the case, it will inevitably mean that the West will be blamed for whatever such bloodshed – undoubtedly substantial – does occur. The massive slaughter that followed the fall of Saddam’s regime in Iraq, perpetrated above all by the Iraqi insurgency, was not caused by the US intervention – although the Bush Administration’s clumsy occupation policy undoubtedly exacerbated the problem. The fall of that regime would inevitably have had a bloody aftermath involving substantial violence between Sunni and Shia elements. But the US’s role in overthrowing it did mean that the US was blamed for the violence that occurred; violence that, more than anything else, discredited the intervention.
This does not mean that the West and its allies should refrain from intervening. But it does mean that we should be extremely careful how we do so, studying the lessons of the propaganda disaster in Iraq as well as of the essentially successful interventions in Kosovo and Libya, and treating the propaganda front in any future intervention as of primary importance. We do not need a UN Security Council resolution to intervene, and it would be wrong to grant the Assad regime’s friends in Moscow and Beijing absolute power to block intervention. But we do need a broad coalition incorporating Arab states, Turkey and (informally) Israel, and enjoying at least the passive approval of a significant part of the international community as a whole.
As a precursor, Britain and other Western states that have not done so should recognise the Syrian National Council as the legitimate representatives of the Syrian people, withdraw recognition from Assad’s regime and draw up plans to provide arms, training and intelligence to the Free Syrian Army. The coalition should prepare the ground for the eventual imposition of a no-fly zone over part or all of Syria, and for air strikes to defend cities liberated by the Free Syrian Army and other rebel forces, if and when this becomes strategically and diplomatically feasible. A no-fly zone could be followed by the establishment of a liberated area in northern Syria under Turkish-led Western military protection, where Syrian civilians would be safe and where rebel forces could operate freely and begin to build a new administration for the country.
Two further conditions should be met before such full military intervention is launched. The first should be an unambiguous request for such intervention on the part of the Syrian National Council. The second should be confidence that any intervention would have to be reasonably safe for the forces intervening – Kosovo and Libya were successes in part due to the absence of Western casualties, which the Western public, after the experience of Afghanistan and Iraq, will not tolerate.
Western leaders need to be very clear, however: though we can help the Syrian revolution to defeat the old order, we cannot guarantee that it has a happy outcome. It is the responsibility of the Syrian people and their revolutionary bodies – the Syrian National Council, Free Syrian Army and Syrian Revolution General Commission – to do this, and above all to prevent any sectarian bloodletting. But come what may, we should never accept the premise that those outside forces trying to halt the bloodbath are the villains: that title goes to the murderous regime in Damascus, and to its criminal defenders – in Tehran, Moscow and Beijing.
The evident domination of Islamist elements in post-Gaddafi Libya, symbolised by the announcement of National Transitional Council chairman Mustafa Abdul-Jalil that Sharia would form the basis for legislation in the new Libya and that the law against polygamy was to be relaxed, raises the question of whether the West was wrong to intervene against Gaddafi. And the answer is that no, we were not.
When the uprising broke out in February against Gaddafi’s dictatorship, it was clear that the latter had to go, just as it is clear today that Assad’s dictatorship in Syria has to go. The only question over Libya then, as over Syria now, was how long-drawn-out, bloody and destructive the transition to a new order would be. Those of us who backed intervention in Libya did not do so in the belief that, if the revolution there were to succeed, Libya would turn overnight into Denmark or Holland. We did so in the belief that the alternative, of allowing Gaddafi a free hand against the rebels, was by far the greater evil. At the time of writing, over 3,500 Syrians have been killed by Assad’s security forces, and we have no way of knowing how many more are going to die, and how much destruction the country will suffer, before the Baathist regime is overthrown and Syria can reach the point where Libya is today. The more protracted, bloody and destructive the Syrian transition is, the more difficult it will be to build a healthy new order in Syria afterward. The ultimate danger is not a Libya or a Syria in which some form of political Islam is strong or in power, but an Afghan or Somali scenario in which the state is destroyed by civil war and collapses, creating a void that organisations such as al-Qaeda can fill. Only slightly less unpalatable is a Yemeni scenario, in which a discredited dictator holds onto power but loses full control of his county, allowing al Qaeda to gain a foothold. Yemen is the principal centre for operations of ‘Al Qaeda in the Arabian Peninsula’, despite Ali Abdullah Saleh’s pro-Western orientation.
As Bolshevik and Stalinist tyranny were the child of Tsarist tyranny, so the Islamist elements that have risen to the fore in Libya since Gaddafi’s fall are the children of Gaddafi’s system, which prevented any healthy, pluralistic system from developing and acted as an incubator for radical Islamism. Anyone who thought that Gaddafi’s regime acted as a Hobbesian Leviathan keeping Islamist elements in check was wrong: Gaddafi’s Libya sent more fighters per capita to join the Islamist insurgency in Iraq than any other country, including Saudi Arabia. Despite being in power for forty-two years and wielding absolute control over his country, Gaddafi never got round actually to abolishing polygamy; he merely restricted it. The foreign media has rightly highlighted the disgraceful treatment of David Gerbi, the Libyan Jew who joined the rebellion against Gaddafi, but was then driven out of the country after trying to re-open a synagogue; yet it was Gaddafi who banned the return of Jews to Libya, confiscated all Jewish property in the country and drove out the few Jews who remained, thereby establishing a Libya that was Judenrein. In 1972, in order to pursue his megalomaniacal regional adventures, Gaddafi established the ‘Islamic Legion‘ as an international paramilitary force with an ideology blending Islamism and Arab-supremacist, anti-black racism; it fathered the Janjaweed, with which the Islamist regime in Sudan carried out the Darfur genocide. Given this legacy, it would have been a miracle if a post-Gaddafi Libyan regime were not tainted with Islamism.
We in the West had a humanitarian duty in February and March of this year to protect the Libyan people from massacre at Gaddafi’s hands, and once we had embarked on that intervention, we could only ensure its ultimate success by bringing down the murderous regime. As John McCain said in April after visiting a hospital in Benghazi and seeing the dead and dying victims of the war, ‘It argues for us to help them and to get this thing over with and Gaddafi out.’ But now that we have helped the Libyan people to do what they could not do by themselves, saving their citizens from massacre and freeing them from a dictatorship, it is up to them to do what they have to do for themselves: build a healthy, functioning, pluralistic new order.
Western military intervention has helped maximise the chances of such an order emerging, but it cannot guarantee that it will. We cannot force Libyans or other Arabs to vote for secular parties, much as we would like them to do so. The struggle for a democratic Arab world will be slow and painful; it will be marked by setbacks and defeats, and Arab countries will not always make the choices that we might want. That, after all, is in the nature of democracy. Realistically, democracy in the Arab world will have to accommodate political Islam in some form, but there is a whole range of phenomena that that term embraces, from Turkey’s Justice and Development Party through the Muslim Brotherhood to al-Qaeda, and we should not see Armaggedon coming just because of the NTC chairman’s deplorable comments regarding Sharia law and polygamy – we are a long way from an al-Qaeda caliphate in Libya or Tunisia. Expressions of moderation by Mustafa Abdul-Jalil and by Libyan Islamists such as Abdel Hakim Belhadj and Ali al-Sallabi should be taken with a pinch of salt, but even insincere expressions of moderation indicate that Islamists are aware they do not have a blank slate, and that their agenda for the country is far from uncontested.
The battle for the new order in Libya is only just beginning. We cannot predict or determine the outcome, but we should not regret that we helped to give the Libyan people the chance to fight it.
This article was published on the website of the Henry Jackson Society.
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