Syria: Slippery Slope and Other Metaphors

Make the small big and the few many.
Return animosity with virtue.
– Lao Tze

Everyone appears to be scrumbling toward expanding the war in Syria. The news coming from there doesn’t make a lot of sense; it’s harder and harder to read between the lines and try to get an idea of what’s going on. That’s normal – like when the Obama Administration invaded Syria in 2016 while saying “no boots on the ground” – it takes a while for interpretations of the facts to trickle out. It then takes another 50 years for the actual facts to start to surface; what we’re always dealing with in the first blush of news is the sound of history being made: the top-level analysis of whose fault is what, and who shot first.

We need to be careful with that, because often that top-level analysis is false and self-serving (WMD in Iraq, the Spanish blew up the Maine, The Maddox was fired on by Vietnamese gunboats, the Taliban refused to turn over Bin Laden, etc) – it looks like a great big muddle but we need to watch it because otherwise mistakes are made where they can be swept under the carpet.

I did not know, for example, that Iran apparently has military bases in Syria, now, or that those bases are being used to operate drones which are flying into places that annoy Israel. That didn’t get a lot of play in the news over here. I did know that Israel had taken to bombing targets in Syria that they were claiming Hezbollah was using to stage weapons for Palestinians, so apparently Israel is not deeply concerned with Syria’s sovereignty (and not very concerned with negotiation, either). That has been going on for some time, now – since spring of last year. But, then, Iran flew a drone into Israeli air space, so Israel went and bombed the Iranian control-points for the drone (which are in Syria) and lost a plane, vowed revenge, and bombed a dozen other places in Syria. I can’t see any of that as anything but provocation. For one thing, Israel was not invited by Syria to bomb targets in Syria. Iran was invited into Syria. But we didn’t hear about it in the US because it’s embarrassing to the US regime that its injudicious actions did exactly what analysts warned would happen: brought Syria and Iran closer. Oh, and brought Syria and Russia closer, too.

An expensive US-made F-16-shaped crater

That ought to give you a better feeling for how carefully the information is flowing about what’s going on in Syria. Did you notice how smoothly and slowly it was broken to us that we had begun another war of aggression, in complete contravention of international law? Did you notice that Israel, Turkey, and who knows who else has jumped in, as well? It’s as if the international militarist community has decided to declare that Syria is Thunderdome: “Y’all come and bring y’all stuff you want to test.”

Last week I reported that the US apparently bombed a few Syrian troops. [stderr] Now the story has morphed – apparently now the US bombed a bunch of Russian troops. Except they’re Russian mercenaries not Russian government troops, so apparently, what? Nobody’s going to care? This is madness. The story being put out now is that there were around 200 casualties: [beast] At the same time, there are other reports (also in the Daily Beast that the numbers were maybe inflated) [beast]

Citing U.S. and Russian sources, Bloomberg News reported more than 200 contract killers – mostly Russian citizens fighting for Syrian President Bashar al-Assad – died in what is believed to be the deadliest incident between Russian and U.S. citizens since the Cold War. Russia’s military has disowned any responsibility for the attack in the Deir al-Zour region and a U.S. military spokesperson appeared to accept that claim in a statement. No U.S. coalition casualties have been reported from the attack, but the death toll from the mercenary side is still rising, with soldiers being treated in hospitals in Moscow and St. Petersburg. Defense Secretary James Mattis is reported to have called the incident “perplexing.” The reported death toll would be far greater than all of the Russian casualties the Kremlin has acknowledged during its Syrian incursion.

“Contract killers” are totally different from our “professional military” (I remember, vividly, that a contract was involved that summer in 1983!) and when the US Secretary of Defense is saying it’s “perplexing” how in the hell do you think I feel?

Look at that map, that lovely map. Notice how the lines are drawn so that “Kurds” might be interpreted as a national boundary? Those aren’t national boundaries – that’s a power-map. The Russian “mercenaries” that “worked for the Assad Regime” were attacking a US base that is inside Syria. Were they “attacking” or were they “defending Syria”? Remember, Russia is in Syria by invitation, right now. Iran is in Syria by invitation, too. The US has not been invited to “y’all come and bomb stuff, ok?” by Syria – we are the invading force. Israel has not been invited to “hey come give us some missiles LOL?” by Syria – they are attacking targets in a sovereign, neighboring country. It all depends on how you rotate the map around, doesn’t it?

Usually when the US feels it’s attacked or put upon, someone says something (like Obama did, often) “We will respond in a time and manner of our own choosing.” Do these blockheads think that the Russians are going to just take that? Is Trump going to send Valentines’ cards to the families of the dead? I wonder what happens if the Russians just say “all that stuff we did to your elections was payback for what you did in Ukraine and Crimea.” Endless rounds of payback don’t work, though. As Miles Vorkosigan says, “if we all go ‘an eye for an eye’ there are going to be a lot of blind, toothless people.”

This is exactly why the founding fathers of the US came up with the idea of having Congress approve or disapprove wars that the president proposed. Failure to openly discuss and decide on military action has brought serious trouble, expense, and moral shame on the US in the past, and that’s why Congress passed the War Powers Resolution framing limits on the president’s authority to just deploy troops and start wars. Unfortunately, it was Nobel Peace Prize-winner Barack Obama who did this, not Donald Trump or George Bush – or I’m pretty sure the Democratic wing would be screaming peace chants right now.

We need to realize that the US political system is a one-party system: it’s the party of war and the military/industrial complex; the imperial party.

Here’s the problem that the Israeli and US approach does not address: let’s say I break into your house and am rummaging through your downstairs for loot, shoot your dog (because it barked) and – when you fire a couple shots down the stairs to try to drive me off – I respond by killing your kids. That’s not a moral proposition – I am not allowed to claim “self defense” and exact revenge. The Israelis launched a new wave of strikes against Syria (and Iranians in Syria) in retaliation for the Syrians and Iranians trying to defend themselves. The US launched a successful counter-attack against Russian mercenaries who were trying to defend Syria. The story would be different if those Russian mercenaries were attacking Columbus, Ohio. But they were not.

We, The People, who are allegedly in control of the US Government, and who are definitely paying for the US Government – are left without a clue what’s happening, as America slides deeper and deeper into a war that it started. For those of us who grew up with the Vietnam War as an ongoing drumbeat in the background, this is familiar and unsettling.

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“scrumbling” was a brain-o between “stumbling” and “scrambling” and rather than correct it, I decided it fits.

They lie to us; they lie to us all the time. Why do we believe that the Russian/Syrian forces attacked the US base? Do we believe that? The consequence of all the lies we hear is an inability to hear the truth, even if it’s told.

The casualty claims for the incident are suspicious. Usually, in a modern military engagement, casualties are 4 or 5 to 1, wounded versus KIA – or better (depending on who is in the field and who they are fighting) It’s plausible that there might be such a lop-sided engagement that you’d have 2 KIA per one wounded but you’d only see that if it was a battle of eradication where one side penned the other up and obliterated them – like the “Highway of death” in Kuwait, where the US mercilessly bombed and strafed troops that were already hiding and unable to surrender. From descriptions of the engagement it was a big fight, including US ground support aircraft (AC-130s, A-10s, and F-22s) as well as heavy artillery. Possibly what happened is that the US forces saw what appeared to be a strong attack, and just threw the kitchen sink at them.

In terms of force structures, 200 dead and 100+ wounded is a huge defeat and a massive battle. Since the Korean War there haven’t been many of the sort of stand-up carnage matches that result in thousands and tens of thousands of casualties. If the US lost 200 dead and 100+ casualties at a battle in Vietnam it would be considered a big fight; for example the US lost 30 killed in a single day at Khe Sanh and that was a big deal. At its peak US casualty rates in Vietnam hit 500 a week. This battle with the Russian/Syrian forces was not a small thing and probably was not an accident. That kind of casualty-rate brought protests in the US like this:



  1. jazzlet says

    I don’t know where to start on this whole mess, but Israel bombing a bunch of targets in Syria because someone had the cheek to down one of their jets that was flying over Syria? How long can they get away with this stuff? And ‘contract killers’? Sorry, but that’s what all military are. Urgh. the more news trickles out the more WTF’s I feel and the less I’m able to analyse.

  2. says

    Israel bombing a bunch of targets in Syria because someone had the cheek to down one of their jets that was flying over Syria?

    It freaks me out too, it’s like: “how dare you shoot at us while we’re bombing you!?”

  3. brucegee1962 says

    Another thing that’s bizarre about all of this is that nobody seems to want to come right out and say “Yeah, we killed a whole bunch of Russians.” The Russians apparently don’t want to make a big deal of it because they aren’t officially admitting they’re there — hence the “mercenary” fiction — and we’re maybe a bit embarrassed and worried that this whole thing could blow up into Cold War proportions.

    All I can think of is “This is supposed to be a happy occasion! Let’s not bicker and argue over who killed who!”

  4. jrkrideau says

    Dueling press sources.

    RT basically says that the reports do not seem to have any basis they can identify:
    The Kremlin and the Pentagon do not have any information on the alleged deaths of Russians during a US attack in Syria, respective officials have told journalists.

    The Russian military suggest asking them, and say We urge not to use media reports as a primary source in that case. and give some context to the comments by James Mattis.

    I don’t have any reporting — that some Russians — non-Russian federation soldiers, but Russian contractors were among the casualties. I can’t give you anything on that. We have not received that word at Central Command or at the Pentagon,

    Assuming the quote is accurate, both the Russians and the USA are saying that it looks like a brain fever at the Beast and in the social media.

    If there were any “Russian” mercenaries, not contract killers among the Syrian Arab Army they probably would have been renegade Chechens seeking a haven after ISIS got so badly beaten but, to be honest, I suspect the Beast has succumbed to the standard US hysteria.

    From the Russian side, it seen that the feeling is than they and the Pentagon don’t have a clue what the Beast is talking about. Of course we know the Russians would never lie.

    Based on the Beast’s use of the inflammatory term contract killers and the just slightly unbelievable claim of Syrian mercenary soldiers being treated in hospitals in Moscow and St. Petersburg, I’m inclined to give more belief to RT than the Beast for the moment. Say 70–30 at the moment, subject to change without notice.

    Re my disbelief in the soldiers being treated in hospitals in Moscow and St. Petersburg, why the devil would the Russian military send a bunch of mercenaries, even with Russian citizenship, to the most prominent cities in Russia. At least it was not in the Kremlin. And yea, I am being sarcastic.

    The bizarre thought just crossed my mind that the Beast story is some kind of role-playing game script written by a teenage male that mistakenly got loose. This might explain the Moscow and St. Petersburg references. Possibly the only two cities he knew in Russia?

    I did not know, for example, that Iran apparently has military bases in Syria,

    I am not sure but I had thought that Al Jazerra, RT (and perhaps the BBC and even CBC?) were discussing this 3 or 4 weeks ago? Not necessarily as independent news since it was just assumed everybody knew about them but in relationship to Turkish moves.

    I don’t remember hearing about the Iranian drones but they may have been mentioned in passing among the discussions of other drones and drone attacks on Syrian and Russian bases.

    Why do we believe that the Russian/Syrian forces attacked the US base?
    Damn if I know. Even the US military were not claiming an actual attack but enough “hostile” maneuvering and massing forces that they felt a pre-emptive strike was required.

    I’d question whether the US forces should have done it, but one can understand the rationale of a commander in such a situation.

    Defense Secretary James Mattis is reported to have called the incident “perplexing.”
    I’d check this. I suspect that he may have said he finds the media “report” of the incident “perplexing”. Never trust secondary sources on such quotes.

    BTW, did William Randolph Hearst just buy the Beast?

  5. sonofrojblake says

    ” Israel is not deeply concerned with anyone’s sovereignty (and not very concerned with negotiation, either). That has been going on for some time, now – since 1967.


  6. Dunc says

    “Contract killers” are totally different from our “professional military”

    I see what you’re getting at, and generally agree, but I think a more accurate equivalence would be “military contractors”.

    jazzlet, @ #1:

    I don’t know where to start on this whole mess, but Israel bombing a bunch of targets in Syria because someone had the cheek to down one of their jets that was flying over Syria? How long can they get away with this stuff?

    Given the number of UN resolutions against Israel that have either been vetoed by the US or simply ignored over the last 5 or 6 decades, I’d say the answer to that is “indefinitely”.

  7. komarov says

    They lie to us; they lie to us all the time. Why do we believe that the Russian/Syrian forces attacked the US base? Do we believe that? The consequence of all the lies we hear is an inability to hear the truth, even if it’s told.

    I’d give even odds that, if pressed on the matter, the US might admit to striking first. We’d probably be treated to charming euphemisms of an “active” or “preventative defence”.

    Re: Isreal jet shot down

    I was similariy exasperated by Israel’s reaction. Apparently these attacks have been going on for years. Upon reading that I couldn’t help but think that it was about bloody time they lost a plane. Once again this illustrates the power differentials in modern wars.

    For a while now I’ve occasionally wondered if what was needed was a sort of military Red Cross. Let’s call it the Red Crosshair and it’s job would be to “discourage” the blatant war crimes and casual bombing runs we’ve been seeing for decades now. Mostly I came up with this after various “accidental” hospital and school bombings. Basically they’d have to put up missile batteries and whatever else they need near “anti-strategic” targets like hospitals, civilian population centres etc. and indiscriminately shoot down anything remotely threatening before it could do any damage.
    If you’re not a known civilian aircraft on an exact course to wherever you’re meant to you’re fired upon. Just in case. If you decide to attack the Red Crosshair in retaliation, well, that counts as a war crime, not that you’d care. But it might also result in creative risk-reassessment. Instead of “That aircraft is a threat, we need to intercept” it might be “That airbase is a threat, we need to raze it.”* At the moment it feels like that if every nth dollar donated to the actual Red Cross and similar organisations went to the Crosshair instead, it might just be a worthwhile investment for the region. Fewer casualties, fewer refugees and the protection of critical infrastructure should be worth it. Besides, apparently noone is even trying something resembling diplomacy so the Crosshair wouldn’t have to feel bad for wiping out random military targets without talking to them first.

    Of course in reality all this would do was add yet another party randomly shooting at people in a war zone. This one might be slightly better at picking “acceptable” targets but it would still just be more gasoline on the fire. Oh well, we’re a stupid species that obviously does not have enough problems already.

    *The inevitable end-game might be, “That country is a threat, we need to nuke it”, because feedback loops are fun. Especially if one of the factors is a military budget like that of the US.

    Re: Scrumble

    I thought that’s where it came from but made the mistake of googling it anyway.

    Noun. scrumble (plural scrumbles) A small piece of freeform crochet or knitting that can be joined to make a larger piece of freeform work.

    The Military-Industrial Crochet strikes again. Although the war(s) in Syria seem(s) pretty free-form right now.

  8. jonmoles says

    I live in Columbus, Ohio, and if some Russian mercenaries showed up it would be the most interesting thing to ever happen here. Hell, they’d probably get some tax breaks to set up shop here indefinitely, how much worse could they be for the community than Amazon?

  9. jazzlet says

    @ #7I know Dunc, I know, but at some point one of the nations they have shit on is going to say ‘enough’ and actually have the wherewithal to do Israel some serious damage, unlike say Lebanon. If the USA continues to lose ‘respect’ and to act irrationally someone is going to say ‘What the hell? We’re fucked if we do, but we’re fucked anyway so let bloody do it’.

    Komorov @ #8 “Military-Industrial Crochet” made me smile, thanks.