Fractured Lands: How the Arab World Came Apart

I’m reading this rather lengthy article on NYT interactive, and it feels like I’m immersed in a documentary film. It’s not fun reading, but I think it’s important. If you have an hour or two to spare, you may wish to check it out yourself.

A couple times, in comment-threads on FtB, I’ve railed against contextualizing the actions of ISIS or jihadis solely through the lens of religion. The stories in the NYT article are really painful to read, and – while religion is a component of what is going on – the story seems to support what I believe: these are political events, sometimes contextulized religiously and sometimes religious vocabulary blurs our vision and makes us interpret political machinations as being faith-based when they aren’t.

When I’m having a good orgasm and say “Ooooo god” it doesn’t mean that I actually believe in god or that god had anything to do with it. It’s that sometimes, when we’re fumbling around for words to express something, we fall back on vocabulary that is part of the environment around us. I remember once watching some footage of an irregular jihadi mortar-crew, yelling “allahu akbar!” every time they dropped a round down the tube. They weren’t religiously inspired any more than some other mortar operator who yells “CLEAR!”

The people in the NYT article may believe different things but, to me, they sound less like people operating out of some kind of faith and more like people who are mostly puzzled; sometimes just happy to be alive – sometimes not caring so much, anymore. Doubtless it’s true when some pundit says that ISIS is a bunch of nihilists – no doubt they do have nihilists, but there’s the nihilism of being absorbed in a self-supporting set of beliefs that tear apart everything you value in the outside world, and there’s the nihilism of watching the outside world apparently swirling down the toilet around you.

I’m not arguing that islam doesn’t produce corrupting and violent beliefs; it does. But what really kicks corrupting and violent beliefs into overdrive is being in the hopeless swirl of political corruption and political violence.

A few years ago I had a really unsettling experience in which I had to keep a Vietnam veteran friend awake – he was on a maintenance dose of Haldol thanks to injuries from that war, and when I offered him beer, he said “sure” without thinking about it. And I didn’t know about the Haldol and how it interacts with alcohol.* To keep him awake I set up some microphones and my MP3 recorder and started interviewing him about the war. He relaxed into the chair and his eyes hardened into the “thousand yard stare” that I suspect he wore constantly during his two combat tours. And, as he talked, all I could think about was the psychological trauma that inflicting and having inflicted upon one does to a 19 year-old whose idea, prior to de-planing at Da Nang, of “hard times” was working a paper-route. The NYT account carries that same scent of the destruction of lives and hopes. The puzzlement, the randomness, the nihilism of the thousand yard stare.

I’m never going to pass up a good chance to make fun of religion, so please don’t take this as me sticking up for islam. If you need to take this as me promoting any idea it’s that politics sucks and politicians suck. They suck worse than imams and popes. Sure, in some countries, religion and politics are closer than in others. It’s odd that people can say “ISIS are cold-blooded islamic killers” while ignoring the fact that “politicians are cold-blooded killers” – sometimes you get one like George W Bush whose faith helps blind him by giving him undeserved confidence and other times you get one like Henry Kissinger whose antiseptic “realpolitik” has been offered as an indictment of atheism. Realpolitik is more a religion of hate than islam; all politics is.

For years I was a fan of Christopher Hitchens, whose religion-bashing was truly delicious. He was as atheistic as he could be, yet he supported the US’ taking sides in a political civil war that defined itself along religious lines, and sneered about “draining the swamp” and killing the mosquitoes. So on one hand he blamed religion for war and rapine and on the other hand – as an atheist – cheered on the same war.

The NYT story is about how complicated everything feels when you’re in the whirlwind. I don’t think any of the people in that story would say that faith drove much of any of what they experienced. Maybe whatever faith that came up was more of a refuge, in which people bewildered by events find shelter. It’s complicated, and simple “islam is a religion of violence” narratives don’t make atheists look smarter when we offer them.

I listened to a piece on NPR the other day, talking about what refugees from the US and NATO powers’ ostensibly well-meaning but largely unasked-for “regime change” efforts** have brought on hundreds of thousands of people – the “refugees” and “immigrants” that the racist brexit fearmongers held up as Exhibit A. Let me tell you, if I had a family and they were being put through that? Ugh. It is rational to want to kill the motherfucker who did that to you.

You can’t turn hundreds of thousands of people’s cities into this:

Street scene in Syria

Street scene in Syria

and make them live like this:

Syrian Refugee's camp

Syrian Refugee’s camp

Then talk shit about them being bad people for having that happen to them…

… and then tell me it’s religion making some of them snap.

(* Spoiler: he survived; pancreatic cancer finished him 2 years later)

(** The CIA’s involvement in the Libyan uprising was hidden fairly well, but it was there. The US hasn’t even bothered to hide its attempts to fuel the conflict in Syria and may have helped ignite it. The CIA has been funding opposition forces all over Syria for decades.)


  1. abear says

    (** The CIA’s involvement in the Libyan uprising was hidden fairly well, but it was there. The US hasn’t even bothered to hide its attempts to fuel the conflict in Syria and may have helped ignite it. The CIA has been funding opposition forces all over Syria for decades.)

    I wasn’t aware of the CIA funding Syrian opposition before the Arab Spring. Do you have sources for that?

  2. abear says

    To be clear, I mean from 1960 to present, I am aware of the earlier interference from the US. It would seem to me that Soviet interference in both Syria and Iraq had considerably more influence on the current mess than western countries as they have been the trainers and weapon suppliers for the Baathists and their secret police and military.

  3. polishsalami says

    It’s interesting that you mention Hitchens, as I remember him saying that before WWI, the idea of there being a Christendom was still in vogue, but afterwards the sheer size of the slaughter damaged that idea irreparably. I wonder if the same thing isn’t happening to Islam-dominated societies in the Middle East.

    abear #2:
    All societies are burdened by history, but the idea that the Soviets are primarily responsible for Syria’s problems today is ludicrous. The USSR ceased to exist in 1991.

  4. says

    I wasn’t aware of the CIA funding Syrian opposition before the Arab Spring. Do you have sources for that?

    As always with the activities of the CIA it’s a bit tough to tell what they’ve been up to. There are some references to operations in Syria in “Legacy of Ashes” by Tim Weiner – a book which I officially recommend though it’s very very depressing. He’s scrupulous about his references. I’d go type a few in except I’m 1600 miles from my bookshelf right now. Wikipedia has a page of CIA activities in Syria that appears to substantially match what I’ve read about in Weiner and elsewhere.

    Operation Straggle, Operation Wappen – both coup attempts sponsored by the CIAAssassination attempts. You know, that kind of stuff. Nothing the US would tolerate for a second if it were directed at us.

    When the insurgency began, the US openly funnelled arms and assistance to the “rebels” by funding weapons deliveries through Saudi Arabia to make it less obvious where they were coming from. The US openly talked about providing the rebels with satellite intelligence and there was open discussion about providing them MANPADs to ground the Syrian air force. The whole charade with the chemical weapons rocket also appears to have been a set-up to justify US intervention that was backed away from when the story began to fall apart and Russia began to get involved.

    I am very concerned that US policies in Syria have nearly resulted in US assets shooting at Russian assets (the Turkish shootdown of a Russian plane being an example) I do not believe, as some do, that it’s a likely grounds for a nuclear war — my concern is that the Russians could very easily do some horrible things to US Navy ships in the area. One of the things the Russians did, right around the time of the Turkish shoot-down, was demonstrate openly that the CIA had utterly mis-estimated the range of and number of ship-launched cruise/antiship missiles the Russian Navy could put in the air at once. They rather neatly demonstrated that with a set of strikes against US-backed rebels, using enough ship-launched cruise missiles to oversaturate the defensive envelope of the nearby US Navy assets (i.e.: “we could kill you and you could not do anything about it.”) The Russians are actually playing nice. Although they are taking it out on the US-backed rebels, who they are manhandling horribly. As with the Bay of Pigs the CIA strung them out and is letting them die. Realpolitik.

    I think that rather than googling stuff and posting links it’d be better for you to form your own assessment with a few google searches for “US to provide intelligence for syria rebels” “US to provide weapons for syria rebels” “US provide MANPAD syria rebels” – that kind of thing.
    That is scary shit. We’ve already seen that US-backed rebels aren’t the most reliable forces (remember: Bin Laden was “ours” for a while, as was Ayatolla Khomeini) – MANPADs can bring down civilian jet liners like nobody’s business. They can also bring down very expensive US bombers if the bomber is on an approach run. If the CIA starts deploying stuff like that, they’re crazy. Which – they are.

    I am also very very concerned at the number of Milan and TOW missiles and other fairly advanced wire-guided anti-armor missiles. They have devastated the Syrian military’s tanks. The rebels did not get those on Ebay. They are probably provided by the US through Saudi, to soak up the Syrian army. Which is why the Russians came in: they have better gear and they hit harder.

    Basically, the Russians are setting Syria up to be the next Vietnam, just like the US set Afghanistan up for them.

    Soviet interference in both Syria and Iraq had considerably more influence on the current mess than western countries as they have been the trainers and weapon suppliers for the Baathists and their secret police and military

    It would seem that way, except that the CIA also bought off the Syrian regime to do extreme renditions. What currency did the Syrian regime accept? Weapons systems, of course.

    The Russians did have a substantial influence. Syria was their client state – that’s why the US (with constant nudging from Israel) wanted to destabilize it – to outflank Iran and Russia.

    Back to my main point: none of this has anything to do with islam.

  5. says

    PS – Libya looks pretty clear to be a CIA op. If you read up on Khalifa Haftar he’s got spook-prints all over him. The thing that made me immediately suspicious was when the “rebellion” started the Gruaniad had a picture of “Libyan rebels” who were all: grinning white guys with “operator beards” sunglasses and personal molle gear, carrying M-4s. Maybe they got the wrong picture and actually published a picture of a bunch of retired SEALs and special ops operators at a barbecue but I don’t think so.

    I suspect that enough image searches for “libya rebels” would turn up some characters that look like they came from closer to Detroit than Benghazi.

  6. says

    This is funny

    More appropriate timing:
    Where the british special ops are, the american special ops are, and they probably were dropped by american blackhawk helicopters.

    These “Libyan rebels” forgot to take their US Army flash off their jackets. When you see insurgents carrying really nice gear (especially knee pads and top of the line molle) they are not locals.

  7. abear says

    #3: The Soviets and now the Russians had a large part in the formation and sustenance of the Baathists in Syria and Iraq. The KGB trained the secret police in both countries and the security systems of both countries were were modeled on the KGB. Saddam studied Stalin and emulated not only his mustache but also his style of ruling.
    The US and european powers have had little influence in Syria for the last 65 years as the USSR and Russia have been closely connected during that period. The Russian military base at Tartus is a case in point as is the fact that Bashar would be toast now without their backing.
    By the way, I’ll bet you 95% of the destruction in Syria today such as the devastation in the above photo was carried out by Russian made weapons, mostly carried out by Assad and recently by Russians.
    The Soviets (and yes now the Russians) have much more to do with Syria than the US in the last three generations and if it is ludicrous to say they are the primary cause (which by the way I didn’t say), then it ludicrous plus to say it is the US that is the primary cause.

  8. says

    The Russians do love their artillery and it sounds like they are going full Grozny on some parts of Syria. No question. But:

    “We have conducted 67 percent of the nearly 11,000 airstrikes,” said Raymond, deputy chief of staff for Air Force operations. “From F-15s to F-22s to A-10s to B-1s to [remotely piloted aircraft], we use all of the aircraft to meet the … demands of the mission at hand.”

    One load from a B-1 will do that kind of damage.

    It’s also complicated because Russian weapons are being used by all sides. So saying “the damage is being done by Russian weapons” risks sounding like disingenous word-choice.

  9. abear says

    Regarding Syria, your citation regarding CIA interference is pre-1960, a long time ago, and it is difficult to say if Syria would or wouldn’t have been able to form a better system without that interference.
    After the early months of Bashar slaughtering his own citizens the US and others have given military support to the rebels, however, I have some disagreements with your characterization.
    First, the RT article: Honestly if you could find a source that is even worse that Fox news it is RT. The Americans have been known to do some stupid shit but intentionally inserting state of the art anti aircraft manpads into Syria would be beyond the pale. The rebels have been able to seize anti-aircraft artillery and likely some shoulder launched weapons from the Syrian and Iraqi army bases they were able to overrun, but as far as I’m aware there has only been one (Syrian) aircraft that has been reported shot down with an advanced manpad, one that had a proximity fuse. Some fixed wing planes have been brought down with AAA and helicopters with anti-tank missiles.

    Back to my main point: none of this has anything to do with islam.

    The Syrian conflict has plenty to do with islam though.
    As far as CIA involvement in Libya, I don’t disagree with that.

  10. says

    I mean from 1960 to present

    Why that arbitrary date? I ask because often when someone puts down an arbitrary date I think it’s because they’re trying to cherry-pick timelines on me, “oh, that regime change attempt doesn’t count because it was a year before the cut off date that I just so conveniently happened to choose.” If we’re talking about US political manipulation and regime change attempts in Syria it actually makes most sense to look at the fact that the US has been pushing for it for a very long time. That’s why I chose to ignore your cut-off date. Care to explain why nothing prior to 1960 ‘counts’? I would have thought someone would argue nothing before Assad père counted because that was the beginning of the regime (though not the beginning of US interference)

    There was also that weird US assassination raid into Syria before the war started, and a similar Israeli raid. Nobody’s ever said what those were about. I’m sure they had nothing to do with the Syrian regime; they were probably returning overdue library books or something.
    ( )

    the RT article: Honestly if you could find a source that is even worse that Fox news it is RT

    Now, I’m really starting to suspect motivated reasoning on your part. The article I cited was just something that popped up fairly quickly. There are plenty of articles that talk about US involvement and regime change efforts in Syria; I picked one. Shall I cite Sy Hersh? Oh, Hersh, he’s discredited, etc, etc. You appear to know enough about how reality works to understand that when we’re looking at near history, you have to look at a lot of sources and form your impression. Mine is formed from many many things I’ve read (mostly military stuff) – I’m not sure where yours comes from. But if you’re willing to maintain that the US hasn’t been actively trying regime change in Syria prior to the civil war’s beginning then you’re going to be having to fairly carefully cherry-pick your news in order to maintain that non-conclusion. If you’ve done your own research how have you been able to ignore things like US presidents calling Syria part of an Axis of Evil and talking about regime change? Maybe Wesley Clark was lying about Wolfowitz and the neocon regime change plan. Maybe wikileaks’ dump of State Dept stuff about Syria is all fake, or the analysis is bad. Maybe the arrangement whereby Qatar got weapons to the rebels as soon as they started was not in place before the rebellion. There are loads of references to this stuff and you can dismiss them as “as bad as Fox News” if you don’t like Democracy Now or Wikileaks or whatever.

    So, do your own googling and come to you own conclusion.

    The Americans have been known to do some stupid shit but intentionally inserting state of the art anti aircraft manpads into Syria would be beyond the pale.

    I agree. I am glad that apparently the push to provide that kind of stuff didn’t succeed. I am dismayed at the appearance of TOW clones and other high quality ATGMs – right at the time when the Syrians really started to deploy their tanks, which were slaughtered. You should do your own research on that point as well, but my best guess is that they came from Qatar. And Qatar would not have provided them without the US’ nod. The PKK has SA-18 MANPADs. (you can see them on youtube if you search a bit) I believe the SU-25 that was shot down was hit with an IGLA-1. During the early stage of the civil war, the helicopter shootdowns were mostly ground-fire and light AA guns, so it looks like whoever’s arming the rebels didn’t start them off with the good stuff right away.

    You appear to have mis-parsed what I said, though: I don’t think the US has had its Qatarese connection provide MANPADs. TOW missiles? Another story. You know that Putin’s going to pay back for things like this:
    The US has provided considerable support for the Free Syrian Army (FSA) including taking them into Turkey and giving them weapons and training in their use. Again, you can do your own googling on that, but there’s some pointers even on the wikipedia – which is suprising. ( ) “Helping with logistics but not arms” — that’s right: the Qatarese provided the arms, the US helped get the FSA to them and into and out of Turkey.
    And ( )

    The point of my posting was that the conflict in the middle east is about politics and the game of thrones, not about islam. I’m not seeing anything in our discussion about religion at all, which I take kind of supports my actual point.

    Oh, no, wait, you conclude:
    The Syrian conflict has plenty to do with islam though.

    That’s super convincing.

  11. says


    Seems pretty much bang on. Did you notice they’re ordering who’s at fault for the Syria war, and they put the US first and it’s all about politics, not islam? I do agree.

    I think this analysis is also pretty good:

    Sure, the footsoldiers are yelling “allahu akbar” but geopolitics is in the driver’s seat, not some mythical islamic love of violence or islamic nihilism.

  12. abear says

    Marcus: I agree with many of your points, however not all. For example:

    Now, I’m really starting to suspect motivated reasoning on your part.

    How much of your ideology do you get from what are clearly propaganda sites? You must be aware that RT is a propaganda organ of the same Russian government that murders journalists, opposition leaders, and defectors. If I came out quoting Voice of America , Breitbart, or Return of the Kings you wouldn’t question my sources? ffs. Who has the motivated reasoning here?
    Why the “arbitrary” date of 1960? The date wasn’t arbitrary. It was chosen to show that the US has had little influence on Syria for more than 50 years, a fact that counters the claim that the US had a primary role in the cause of the Syrian civil war. Of course after the early months of the conflict they have intervened.
    We disagree even more on how much influence Islam has on this. ISIS isn’t religiously motivated? It’s just coincidence that the combatants are aligned on religious lines? In my opinion religion is in the drivers seat although geopolitics may be the vehicle they are driving.
    The article I linked to does describe the American role in the conflict first but that doesn’t mean it shows that the US is the main actor, and neither does it contradict the point I made about how little influence the US had on Syria before the uprising.