To Live and Die in Syria

Nietzsche once said, “when you gaze long into a computer screen the screen also gazes into you.” Maybe he didn’t put it quite that way, but he would have if his timing was better. Attempts to deflect the screen’s unrelenting gaze by deploying ranks of gray squiggles from one side to the other seems hardly worth the effort. They march, nothing changes; the screen is too stupid to reason with … If this is the end, it is boring.

The world’s product at the dawn of the millennium, at the apogee of human development and economic power is banality. “Take it to the limit … ” croons the singer, “one more time.” You have to wonder how ridiculously low that limit is? Whatever minimum is required to gain each of us that fraction of a second’s worth of notoriety the screen has allotted for all but a select few. Democracy in the Modern World gives each man the same right as every other to be a guest on Springer.

What happens when nobody watches? The Russian military just bombed targets in Syria claiming to destroy terrorist bases, instead they murdered unlucky Syrian civilians.

People ask, “Isn’t Syria a long way from the Russia?” The answer is that the Americans are even farther away and that Russians must follow the Americans closely or risk being left behind. “Behind what?” Nobody has a good answer other than Moscow wishes to be a ‘Great Power’ and Great Powers attack other countries, the farther away the better. Because the Americans are engaged in ‘humanitarian bombing’, the Russian are compelled by Christian charity to offer humanitarian assistance as well.

Russia is an ally of the Syrian government, or rather, Syria has been a long-time client- and purchaser of Russian military hardware, all of it paid for with hard-currency proceeds from oil sales. The Russians don’t want to surrender their Syrian trade so they’ve set out to out-bomb the Americans, to murder their own clients and hope for the best.

“The supreme art of war is to subdue the enemy without fighting.”

— Sun Tzu

Looked at from the Russian perspective, bombing appears to be a low-cost activity for everyone except the Syrians, whom nobody cares about. There is little to lose by bombing and potentially some gains. In today’s bereft political economy, any (potential) gain is a good one. Bombing Syria = gambling with house money!

The Russians bomb the Syrians as so many others have bombed before; ‘dehousing them’ as Lord Cherwell, Winston Churchill’s mad-science adviser liked to say. There is never any end to it; today’s bombs is followed by bombings tomorrow and the next day and the next, nothing changes except the death toll. One side wins for a minute then the other side catches up. It never ends, this maddened war of all vs. all.

At least Churchill had a plan. Such things are unfashionable these days, what matters more than anything is attitude and that we have plenty. Americans bomb because we are exceptional, we falter elsewhere but bombing is what we do better than anyone else. The Americans will bomb their mothers if there is a dollar in it. There are British bombing, Canadians, also French … the Turks have bombed and bombed and bombed some more; the Jordanians have bombed, and lost a pilot; so have the Israelis along with Qataris, Bahrainis, Emiratis and Saudis, who in addition, are bombing Yemenis. Those without bombers but with excess populations to squander such as the Iranians and Lebanese are seeding Syrian graveyards with foot soldiers. This is on top of the Syrian government which has been bombing, gassing, torturing and shooting its own citizens for years. Almost at no time since the Vietnam war has there been so much bombing — at such an exorbitant cost — to so little effect.

“If you know the enemy and know yourself, you need not fear the result of a hundred battles. If you know yourself but not the enemy, for every victory gained you will also suffer a defeat. If you know neither the enemy nor yourself, you will succumb in every battle.”

— Sun Tzu

Causes of Middle Eastern conflicts are complex and structural; they include galloping overpopulation, resource draw, drought and peak oil, the unquestioned belief in efficacy of mechanical military and reformist ideologies that have taken on lives of their own. Much of this is excluded of the conversation, instead there is purposeful ignorance: the bombing process is an end in itself. To the bosses, ratcheting up the violence will solve everything.

Take it to the limit: four years of ratcheting the violence have reduced Syria to an extremist- infested ruin. Assad long ago dribbled away whatever writ or political reach he might have had outside of a shrinking circus of deluded/self-interested cronies. Nobody has any idea how to win the war or how to stop it … how or even whom to negotiate with. Assad has become too weak to gain a victory, his exit would only reduce by one … the number of competing gangs of robbers and murderers who have papered themselves over with religion … who are absent any organic political capital.

The governments supplying funds and arms to the contestants — the US, Russia, Europe, Saudi Arabia, Turkey and Iran — have so- far kept themselves clear of consequences to their recklessness. So-far … yet, the Syria war spreads to Turkey and to the doorstep of Saudi Arabia; where does it stop? The warrior’s impulse is to expand the scope of the destruction until something important breaks; but everything that matters within Syria is broken already. The absence of strategy taken to its logical conclusion reduces Syria and its neighbors to uninhabitable wasteland; this isn’t policy it is insanity.

Russia Cannot Save Assad.

Russia enters with its handful of airplanes and mercenaries, bluster and threats, as if the problem is a shortage of these things. Moscow accuses the Saudis of waging a price war against the Russian oil business; the real war is to be laid at the Saudis’ feet! According to theory, magic will take place: the Russians will bomb, oil prices will rise and Western Europe will again be dependent upon high-priced Moscow fuel supplies. With the flow of fresh funds, the dilapidated Putin regime will gain a new lease on life.

What the Russian government does not understand is that prices of petroleum have declined because customers everywhere are broke, not because of the Saudis. Broke includes the Europeans, they cannot afford to borrow, as such they cannot afford to buy fuel. There is no rescue for Russia or for Putin either. Killing Syrians does nothing to solve the price problem; bankruptcy propagates stealthily in the background while Russia is on the road to becoming another scummy militant group.

The Russians can die in Syria and spirit Assad out of the country and nothing else. Russia will not win because they do not know themselves; they believe in fairies, in the demeanor of the their dictator, in the efficacy of Sukhoi 24s and vacuum bombs. They do not understand an enemy they dehumanized before they even arrived, reduced them to spots on a map. They cannot win because there is almost nothing left to win … perhaps a neighborhood or two in Damascus and resorts on the coast. Russian outrages cannot exceed what the Syrian army- and security forces have already inflicted on a far greater scale. If nothing else, Assad has been the Kremlin’s most assiduous student in cruelty. Four years of unrelenting combat have bled out Assad’s army; casualties are replaced by Hezbollah militiamen, Shiite Iraqis and Iranians. These mercenaries have nothing in common with Syrians; nor can they can gain anything from whatever transitory success they might win. Despite Hezbollah’s formidable reputation, the group has been modestly effective against their irregular adversaries and only in the territory immediately adjacent to their home bases in Lebanon. The Iranians are despised as carpetbaggers by Assad’s officers. The Russians are riding on the coattails of the Iranians; Like the Americans, British and the rest, the Iranians do not know much about either their allies or enemies and cannot be bothered to care.

The war is of a piece with decline and collapse. Syria’s demise is little different from that of an Alzheimer’s patient, the end is a matter of time. The agony is one unwinding among many others, with more to come; the refugees are the first of many more to come; the droughts and floods with more to come, the unwinding of foreign exchange- and credit marketplaces … the decay of politics into factionalism, of ‘liberty’ becoming license; all of this and more to come. Syria is what collapse looks like, what our post- Peak Oil ‘World of Less’ will be unless we wake up right away and become lucky.

In a sensible world, the fighting would end with negotiations and power sharing. Patrons would withdraw and exiled Syrians would return to rebuild their homes. This is not a sensible world: ending this war requires facing reality about limits and jettisoning defective geopolitical narratives and outdated, malfunctioning ideology. The likely outcome is for fighting to continue to a logical conclusion and impose its own reality. The danger is that nobody can outline the absolute limits to the conflict, it could end in a nuclear exchange or decades of grinding cruelty and destruction spreading from Syria-Middle East to the rest of Asia including Russia, then China, Africa and the rest of the world.

Wars and militants are externalities of our Western lifestyle, no different from air pollution and credit exhaustion: costs are shifted to ‘others’ such as Syrians who have their own costs to shift. Westerners refuse to connect the dots between our toys, our resource waste and our conflicts. Motorists fund Islamic militants by way of agents such as Saudi Arabia that support them. Wars are expensive, combatants need funds, cutting them off by using less fuel puts militants out of business. A ray of hope is the ongoing collapse of oil prices. The price decline since last summer has slashed the combatants’ budgets in half. As prices decline further the ability of countries to engage in ideological ‘hobby wars’ fades. Both Russia and America wobble at the lip of economic ruin, not much more bombing and killing on their part is needed to send them over the edge.

Countries today are saddled with obsolete economic ideology that intends to manage the costs of surpluses. The industrial-capitalist economic system cannot manage shortages: in our new world of less, industrial governments have become obsolete because they are disconnected from reality. Like the militaries they command they do not know themselves. Managers pretend while actual work is left to technicians who provide the service platform upon which the ideologues dance. They deny fuel- and resource constraints; deny climate change, deny the effects of pollution, the contamination of food supply, they deny the loss of habitat and the extinction of millions of plants and animals; the effects of overpopulation on resource provender, credit costs and more. Managers insist that the hair-brained ideas of long dead economists can pull value out of thin air like rabbits out of a hat … out of borrowed money or from the barrel of a gun. Citizens look to the governments with fluttering upward-turned hearts … they see malfunction, murder, incompetence, lies and corruption. Governments repeat errors because they succeeded ‘once upon a time’. Fast forward to the present and nobody knows what to do except bomb.

We have less in the way of resources, we must learn how to cope. The Syrians are teaching us the consequences of denial. Syria’s cupboard has been stripped bare. The survivors are left to cobble together the political arrangements needed to make do = ‘Conservation by Other Means™’. One way or the other our politics must change, the question is how difficult the transition will be. From here on out there is no growth to allow recovery from wars or other disasters, destroyed countries will remain so, it is important to learn not destroy in the first place.