By Praveen Swami
Mar 15, 2012
Bashar al-Assad's brutal counter-insurgency crackdown in Syria raises many moral questions. It also raises a less moral, but critical question: does force really win wars?
“We've been preparing for the worst,” a senior Syrian Defence Ministry official said earlier this month, “for the past 40 years.”
For the past month, Syria's army has subjected the Bab Amr neighbourhood in Homs to a savage bombardment that has left thousands of civilians homeless, injured — and dead. Homs has seen the most murderous assault since the 1999-2000 siege of Grozny — reduced by Russian forces into what the United Nations described as “the most destroyed city on earth.”
Even though President Bashar al-Assad's lethal blows to his insurgent opponents have secured his regime, it has little chance of securing what might meaningfully be called a victory. There is good reason to believe that worse lies ahead: a long, dirty war that is about death, not winning.
In much of the world, the war in Syria is being written about in a language reminiscent of a morality play: a real-life allegory in which hope is fighting fear, democracy despotism, people tanks.
There is, however, one less-edifying lesson that needs careful attention. The Syrian case demonstrates the bankruptcy of maximum force doctrines as a response to existence-threatening insurgencies many states across the world face or fear. In India, wherever greater force is being committed to stamp out the growing Maoist insurgency, the lesson is urgent.
Hassan Ali Akleh marched out into the main street in the small town of al-Hasakah last January, armed with a can of kerosene, and set himself on fire. The previous year, a similar gesture by a young Tunisian sparked off what came to be called the Arab Spring. For six weeks after Mr Akleh's self-immolation, though, Syria was quiet. Then large-scale protests broke out, often ending with forces regularly firing on — and killing — demonstrators.
In June, a slain protester's funeral march in the town of Jisr al-Shughour — a historic centre of Islamist resistance to the ruling Ba'ath party — turned violent. The local police station was sacked, and several officers were lynched. Later, military defectors and the local militia ambushed a patrol sent in to contain the violence. Hundreds of armoured vehicles were used to back a subsequent military assault, which pushed the insurgents — and as many as 10,000 civilians — across the border.
But the insurgent campaign — barbarous in its own right — continued to escalate. In September, insurgents succeeded in holding off a military assault on the town of Rastan for four days. From October to December, the rebel forces staged successful hit-and-run raids on convoys travelling through the Jebel al-Zawiya region. In January, they registered their first significant success, repulsing an armoured assault on Zandabani, just 30 km from Damascus.
Late last year, the insurgents evicted from Rastan set up base in the Sunni-dominated Bab Amr neighbourhood of Homs. The army tried, without success, to evict them from dug-in positions in the city — and then, after weeks of skirmishes, began shelling the entire area. From satellite pictures, it is clear the firing was indiscriminate.
Five decades ago, the French Special Forces officer, Roger Trinquier, described the military machine fighting in Algeria as “a pile-driver attempting to crush a fly”. President al-Assad's military was doing precisely the same thing —and, like the French, failed. The regime's tactics, scholar Joseph Holliday has pointed out, dispersed the insurgents from held positions, but “generated [new] pockets of rebel control that will stretch security forces thinner still.” Fresh units have spread out into areas like Idlib and rural Hama — armed by states like Saudi Arabia.
From December to February, there were also three car-bomb strikes — attacks James Clapper, the United States' Director of National Intelligence, said “bore the earmarks” [sic.] of the al-Qaeda. Fighters from jihadist organisations earlier involved in Iraq — many of whom transited through Syria, with the quiet support of its intelligence services — have joined the insurgents' ranks.
Nir Rosen, in a rich account based on extensive time with rebel groups, noted that Islamist organisations were acquiring increasing influence on the rebellion's political culture. Increasingly, the language of the rebellion suffused with religious chauvinism, suggesting that the prospects for a negotiation built around secular-democratic values are rapidly diminishing.
Lessons for armies
In an evocative 2000 article, communist leader Riyad al-Turk described Syria as “the kingdom of silence”: a state which ruled through a single instrument, fear. Few military historians, though, would be persuaded by the proposition that the Syrian army's way of warfare derives from the regime's world-view.
From the time of Timur Lang, armies serving quite different kinds of regimes have fought rebellions in similar ways. Less than a decade ago, the United States' twin campaigns against insurgents in the Iraqi city of Fallujah led to the levelling of between two-fifths and a third of the city's buildings — and the death of over 1,000 civilians. Lethal white phosphorous bombs were dropped on Fallujah; there is evidence that dozens were executed in cold blood.
Indian soldiers who, ever since the bombing of Aizawal by the air force in 1953, have carried out counter-insurgency operations without heavy weapons or air support, nonetheless burnt down hundreds of homes in Sopore in 1993. Pakistan's campaign in Waziristan has inflicted devastation with regularity.
These armies learned, as historian Christopher Coker wrote of Fallujah, that “hearts and minds cannot be won by using Abrams tanks, armoured personnel carriers, fighter-bombers, and C-130 gunships within the confines of a modern city”.
How is it, then, that militaries continue to make the same mistakes? The case of Syria's army is instructive. From 1973 to 1997, Syria's military grew from 118,000 to 421,000 — all designed to ward off a perceived existential threat from Israel, which had half as many soldiers but access to vastly superior military technologies and equipment. The collapse of the Soviet Union hollowed out this massive force, reducing it to a pool of ill-trained manpower.
“Large elements of Syrian forces,” scholar Anthony Cordesman wrote in an authoritative 2007 survey, “have become garrison units with limited recent practice in moving and operating outside of their bases and caserns”.
Syria's combat-fatality figures — 800 insurgents killed, against up to 2,700 soldiers — make clear how poor its fighting skills were — and why the seduction of maximum force was so strong.
Philosophies of war
In 69AD, the stoic philosopher, Musonius Rufus, lectured imperial Rome's legions on the evils of a looming civil war. He was saved, historian Cornelius Tacitus tells us, because he “listened to the warnings of the quieter soldiers and the threats of the others, and gave up his untimely wisdom.” In centuries since, human rights organisations had somewhat better success in their struggle against barbarism. In many militaries, these codes are deeply internalised.
Yet, we know from the experience of United States troops in battlefields from Vietnam to Iraq and Afghanistan, that barbarism continues to flourish, even when soldiers aren't fighting existential enemies at home. From the memoirs of British soldier Tony Banks, it has emerged that troops in the Falklands received orders to take no prisoners — and did what they were told.
Tacticians of counter-insurgency often respond to criticism of barbarism by noting no one has devised a clean way of fighting dirty wars. Even Britain's anti-communist campaign in Malaya, often invoked to illustrate how insurgencies can be defeated without barbarism, involved torture and population displacement. Historian David Benet has noted: “coercion was the reality — ‘hearts and minds' the myth”. Field Marshal Gerald Templar, the architect of the Malaya campaign, called ‘hearts and minds' “that nauseating phrase I think I invented.”
Yet, advocates of maximum force must also concede that power alone doesn't win wars: India's counter-insurgency successes have come from patient police actions that sought to restore order, not secure victory. From the work of scholars like Ivan Arreguin-Toft, we also know this: asymmetrical wars and insurgencies are increasingly ending in grim stalemates. From 1800-1842, states decisively won 88.2 per cent of wars; in 1950-1998, that figure had come down to 45 per cent. Barbarism is an excellent tool for desolating the ranks of enemies — but it rarely wins peace.
Part of the answer to insurgencies, perhaps the greater part, lies in a politics that pushes states to respect human aspirations and rights — addressing the complex networks of causes that underpin all wars.
Part of the answer, however paradoxical it might seem, must also lie in thinking about how to fight wars better: a task that cannot, and ought not, be left to militaries alone.
Source: The Hindu, New Delhi