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Understanding the War in Syria

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PutinAssadThe recent intervention of the Russians in Syria raised hopes among many in the Alt-Right that ISIS (a.k.a. Israeli Secret Intelligence Service) would be swept away like dune dust, and President Assad restored to his adoring people. Since the Russians got involved, however, not much has really changed. Assad may be looking a little more stable and one or two villages may have changed hands, but the country remains a chaotic mess. Why, one wonders, is this the case? 

The truth is because – unlike normal businesses, which now rely on practically Communist level of support through financial chicanery, bastardized Keynesian economics and a consumerist economy bloated in various unnatural and ungodly ways – the military sector in most countries remains a rigorously efficient and economical entity that has to scrape by with limited supplies.

This might sound surprising, given the fact that there are now so many actors involved in Syria – the West, the Russians, the Israelis, the Iranians, the Turks, the Kurds, Hezbollah, the Saudis, and various other Gulf States – but for a war with so many participants it is also a remarkably small war.

The large number of participants is also the reason why not much real progress is possible. Each player in this game knows that if it ups its stake drastically, the other players will respond with the result that the stalemate will persist, but with a mutual loss in wealth and resources to both. Putin’s recent move was more an act of shoring up Assad than resolving the crisis in one fell swoop, as it was wrongly seen by many in the Alt-Right-o-sphere.

There are a number of obvious cost-saving mechanisms that have become apparent as the war has progressed – a preference for aerial combat, the use of proxies, and allowing front lines to evolve an ethnic or sectarian character.

Aerial combat may sound expensive, and indeed not everyone can afford the start-up costs, but contrasted with the alternatives, it is actually one of the cheapest forms of warfare. A warplane flying over hundreds of square miles and dropping a payload on a weapons dump or hospital is the cheapest way of sending a “war signal” to the largest number of people in an area.


The use of proxies is another effective way of economizing. If Russia brought in actual Russian frontline troops in significant numbers, they would clearly roll up the anti-Assad elements fighting against them. But introducing such instability would not go unchecked, and would lead to the deployment of troops capable of stopping the Russians, whether Turkish, Western, or Israeli.

Putin knows this and so the battles will continue to be fought by Middle Eastern troops – Arabs, Kurds, Iranians – fierce looking bearded fellows, who nevertheless shoot high or shoot round corners without looking, and who run away when it suits them and cry like babies when captured.

The third way of “economizing” the war is to let it develop an ethnic character. Good old-fashioned “fear of the other,” and the possibility of seeing one’s sisters, daughters, and mothers raped, is the best way to keep the lackadaisical Middle Eastern militia man at his post and performing his desultory military duties cheaply.

This is the reason the frontlines in Syria are such a mess, because in ethnic terms Syria itself is a bit of mess. ISIS and the al-Nusra Front, whatever their outlandish Islamic excesses, are simply the Sunni team. The Kurdish areas of Syria are almost completely under Kurdish control, while Assad’s own Alawite people provide the heartland of his territory with a few tribal clientist excrescences extending into Christian and Sunni areas.

Let’s be clear, then, this is a war that no-one is now trying to win, as that would be (a) expensive and (b) provoke counter-moves by the other players, that would (c) make it very expensive and pointless. The question then is, if the war is going nowhere, why do the participants continue with it at all?

One answer is that pulling out would be a defeat. Assad falling would be a defeat for Russia and even Israel, which stands to suffer from having a strong radical Sunni state on its North Eastern border. On the other hand, the destruction of ISIS, or whatever rebranded Sunni movement takes its place, would be a defeat for the Saudis, Turks, and the Gulfers.

The other answer is that the war is not actually going nowhere – over time it is slowly sorting the country into more solid ethnic and sectarian blocs that can increasingly operate apart from each other and form the basis of future statelets.

But this is not that important for most of the participants. The Russians, the Saudis, the Israelis, and the West have little interest whether this particular village or that particular suburb is under Druze, Christian, Sunni, or Kurdish control. The main exception is the Turks, who are reluctant to see a Kurdish statelet crystallize along their border.

The real game that is going on – and the essence of the Syrian conflict – is the struggle to resolve competing economic interests. The Russians are the de facto leaders of an alliance (Assad, Hezbollah, Iran, & Iraq) that can be characterized as “Shiite,” but this is only due to circumstance and opportunity. The Russians know that in order to benefit from the conflict in Syria, they will have to reach “across the aisle” to Sunni elements.

The real coalition of interests in this conflict – and the one that will ultimately decide it – is that between the oil and gas interests of the main players, namely Russia, Saudi Arabia, Iran, and the Gulf States.

Both the Russians and the Middle Easterners want to improve their access to the European markets. The Russians want to revive their South Stream pipeline project, which aims to transport natural gas through the Black Sea to Bulgaria, Serbia, Hungary, Slovenia, and Austria. This was stopped by the EU in the wake of the conflict in the Ukraine, but Russia hopes that resolving the Syrian conflict might lead to a new agreement with the EU on this. There is also another proposed pipeline, the Turkish Stream, which means that Russia and Turkey have mutual interests.

But the main coalition of interests is that between the Russians and the Saudis coming to an understanding on the pricing of these commodities. Recently there have been several scare stories about the Saudi economy being in trouble. These no doubt originate in Moscow and are mere propaganda, but the truth is that Russia and Saudi Arabia coming to a deal on oil would suit both their interests.

In late 2014, the Saudis flooded the oil market in a move designed to hurt their main Middle Eastern rival Iran by crashing the price of oil. But this also hurt Russia (not to mention the US fracking industry). This was what probably pushed Putin towards a more proactive policy in the Middle East.

The Russians decided that they needed a more direct means of exerting pressure on the Saudis, and so escalated their support for the failing Assad regime. The Saudis for their part have been disappointed with America’s conciliatory attitude to the Iranians, something that has pushed them closer to Israel. But their position remains fragile in numerous ways, so improving relations with fellow oil exporter Russia makes sense.

To the man on the street Syria is the place where gays are thrown off tall buildings, women are sold into slavery, POWs have their heads removed by chainsaws, and the source of many of Europe’s future rape gangs. But it is also the fulcrum in which a game of “war poker” is being played with plenty of bluff, winks, under the table dealing, and chips correlated to the price of oil.

The determinants of war and peace will not be the self-determination of the Syrian people or the nature of Islamic radicalism – these are mere pawns – but the degree to which cynical Russian, Iranian, Saudi, Israeli, and Turkish interests can coincide and coalesce.

The groups that stand to lose the most in this combined poker and chess game will be the various Syrian ethnicities caught up in it, and those countries most adversely effected by the flows of refugees. This at least will incline the EU to accept a wider deal when it emerges.

As for America, with little inclination to get involved militarily and no direct economic interest of the sort that Russia has, it is in danger of being sidelined in a way that may involve a loss of face for a so-called superpower.



  1. Dane
    Posted November 9, 2015 at 5:50 am | Permalink

    Interesting helicopter ride.

    Makes me wonder about what interests will weight in when/if civil war brakes out in Sweden. I cant imagine than the world would just look on, as heroic northern white men fought muslims to win back a white country. It would be a perfect scenario to make an exemplary case of, like with the serbs in Kosovo. Luckily the country might be much less interesting with their lack of natural resources such as oil, but even then, a Liddell´esque foresight analysis of what powers might ascend, would be interesting and useful.

  2. Posted November 9, 2015 at 9:47 am | Permalink

    There are a couple of things that might be useful to consider in this interesting context.

    First, there is a danger in oversimplifying IS by branding it a Mossad project. If I grant the claims I have heard being made, that IS is receiving funding, training, and support, that no more makes IS a Zionist project than it made Hussein’s US-supported Iraq Reagan’s, the Afghan Mujahideen “CIA operatives,” or the Khmer Rouge (who owed their existence directly to US interventionism, as in Iraq with IS) Nixon’s project. IS fighters and leaders are possessed of a serious, singular vision; they sincerely believe that they are doing something great and historical. We put ourselves, and our interests, at a greater advantage if we take this movement seriously.

    Second, there is also a potential difficulty in investing too much in Syria or Iraq framed within ethnic nationalist categories. Syria is a geographic entity, and the identity that the “Syrian people” have formed over the past half century is grounded in this reality. Syria and Iraq grew out of a fading colonial context and decisions that framed them. I say this not to divest anyone of any concrete interests, but because nationalists dissecting Middle Eastern issues would be better off only carefully extending ethnic and national categories to peoples in this region.

  3. Arindam
    Posted November 9, 2015 at 11:23 am | Permalink

    In my view (and speaking as someone who lives in the region), the Syria conflict must be understood as part of a wider Sunni-Shia regional war, which has at least three major theatres and a number of minor ones. The major theatres are:

    1) Iraq: where the Shia-Kurdish backed Baghdad government is at war with IS/Sunnis in the north.

    2) Yemen: where a Sunni coalition led by Riyadh is fighting Shia Houthi rebels and their allies (forces loyal to the former president, Ali Abdullah Saleh).

    3) Syria: which is basically the Shia-backed Damascus government versus a Sunni-backed opposition.

    Minor theatres include Lebanon (where there is tension, but no mass violence… yet), Bahrain (I suspect it was the uprising in Manama that prompted Saudi Arabia and other Gulf States to attempt to overthrow the government in Syria), Pakistan (where violence against Shias is increasingly common), and possibly Afghanistan.

    The best historical parallel that I can think of is Europe’s Thirty Years’ War – but the sides are not so well balanced in West Asia. The Sunnis are the overwhelming majority of Muslims, and all but one of the major Islamic countries are dominated by them. The Shias are a minority, and Iran is the only major Islamic country among them; it is only superior organization and morale that is enabling them to put up a fight against the odds.

    The collapse in the oil price should encourage all parties go to the negotiating table, and ideally, accept a Russian-brokered agreement that protects both Saudi and Iranian core interests – which would enable the region return to some semblance of normalcy. However, that scenario is probably too optimistic, not least because the new ruler in Riyadh lacks the prestige and clout of the late King Abdullah.

    • The_Brahmin
      Posted November 9, 2015 at 4:40 pm | Permalink

      Digressing a little, there are some cosmic questions too that the civil war in the house of Islam throws up. To summarise bluntly – Middle-east is where all the 3 major Abrahamic religions arose. You would expect all peace and love in such a place with the ”prophets”, ”son of god” and what not. Sadly, it’s the most bloodthirsty place on the planet rivalled only by some sub-Saharan hell-holes. The Abrahamic religions are a disaster. Their acceptance by the Aryan nations is a greater cosmic disaster.

      Why are the civilizational strands seeded by the Aryan cultures intervening in these conflicts of the Arab-Hebrew (the Semite)? They don’t seem to be gaining much, not in the last 20 – 25 years surely. They seem to be operating rather blindly and purposelessly. E.g. Anglo-French intervention in Libya; Bush in Babylon. Nothing gained. Much lost.

      The American evangelical-protestant voting bloc (perhaps the stupidest in the world) are getting more deracinated, more Judaised, more de-historicised and more dumbed-down with each passing day. This group looks up to the Judaic as its moral big bro. Could anything be more ludicrous? The neo-con and evangelical combo may just manage to bring down America over the next 10 – 15 years with its focus on mid-east conflicts. Watch Ben Carson, a black trying to revive the neocon- evangelical axis. God help.

      The Aryan gods must be weeping.

      • Arindam
        Posted November 10, 2015 at 11:37 am | Permalink

        ‘The Abrahamic religions are a disaster. Their acceptance by the Aryan nations is a greater cosmic disaster.’

        Indeed. It leads one to wonder what exactly these religions are worshipping.

        I was leafing through a book I’d read over a decade ago, when I stumbled upon the following passage:

        ‘Whatever they believed about the death of Jesus the majority of Gnostics rejected the symbol of the cross. They believed it was wrong to worship an instrument of death and torture. Other Gnostics adopted the more extreme view that the god of the Old Testament, Jehovah, was Satan and that the Supreme Creator of the universe had sent the Christ to incarnate in the body of Jesus to save humanity.’ (The Occult Conspiracy, page 25).

        Allah = Jehovah = Satan/Angra Mainyu – that would certainly explain a lot…

        [The similarities between Allah and Jehovah have been noted in many different circumstances – for example:

        Circumcision – Jehovah and his cousin Allah 1996

  4. Whites Unite
    Posted November 9, 2015 at 2:11 pm | Permalink

    1. The Sunni Islamic extremist states that emerge when secular Middle Eastern dictators and/or Shiites are overthrown are always very weak (Afghanistan, Iraq, Libya, Syria, Yemen), if pitted against modern and resolute armed forces such as those possessed by Israel. Israel has benefitted immensely from American foreign policy in the region, and they will benefit even more if Assad is overthrown, and/or if Iran is destroyed. This is why the Israel lobby in the US supported the disastrous Clinton/Bush/Obama wars, and why they are clamoring for the overthrow of Assad and the destruction of Iran.

    2. The Russian intervention created a tripwire which stopped Israeli, and prevents Turkish/Saudi/American, air attacks on the Assad regime. While bad for Israel, this is good news for Europe. The fall of Assad / triumph of ISIS would cause a massive increase in the refugee flow into Europe. It would also increase the terrorist safe haven – no problem for a state with good anti-terrorist defenses such as Israel, but bad news for the open societies of the West. It would also be the final nail in the coffin of Middle Eastern Christianity.

    3. Before anyone accuses me of being a slavish Putin admirer, yes I know Putin’s immigration policies will doom Russia in the long term if they are not reversed, and yes I know Putin jailed honest Russian patriots who pointed out this obvious fact.

  5. Posted November 9, 2015 at 3:06 pm | Permalink

    The sooner Syria is formally partitioned along identity lines, the sooner even the most milquetoast European altruistic signalers will have to second guess their support for refugee colonization. The war won’t end any time soon so hopefully the right comes to power before then in enough EU members..

  6. Ryan
    Posted November 9, 2015 at 3:15 pm | Permalink

    “Arabs, Kurds, Iranians – fierce looking bearded fellows, who nevertheless shoot high or shoot round corners without looking, and who run away when it suits them and cry like babies when captured.”

    That is an inacurrate view on those people’s fighting capabilities. These are not individual tribesmen paid $50 to fire Kymer Pass AK’s a few 100m away.

    Hezbellohah and the Iranian republican guard are well trained troops with relatively up to date weaponary and are perpared to take casaulties.

    ISIS continues to have access to extremly potent light weaponary by Gulf states, whether by proxy ‘moderate groups’ or them directly supplying them. It’s core fighters/instructors have recieved special forces training.

    “even Israel, which stands to suffer from having a strong radical Sunni state on its North Eastern border”

    Israel has had it’s fingers in the Syria ‘rebels’ pie for a long time:

    An ISIS controlled Western Syria would give Israel the pretext to secure it’s holding on the Golan heights further and potentially expand into Syria under the guise of humanatarism.

  7. Posted November 10, 2015 at 12:11 am | Permalink

    I agree with Arindam. The Thirty Years War is a good comparison.

  8. Amerikaner
    Posted November 13, 2015 at 10:35 pm | Permalink

    When it comes to middle eastern states or North African states, only three options exist. Having an orderly country ran by a nominally secular dictator, having an orderly country ran by a radically Islamic/anti-Christian dictator, or Anarchy. The first option is always the best. “Democracy” is NEVER an option in the middle east. As it stands today, the USA supports nearly total anarchy in most of the region. What Putin is doing is trying to save the last reasonable leader over there, and his secular regime. Assad. And it looks so ugly now, he may not even be able to accomplish this.

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