The leftwing has a systematic bias to misrepresent the causes of civilian deaths in Syria as much more due to US allies’ (including UK) bombing than is in fact the case (<0.2%), and the rightwing has a systematic bias to misrepresent the causes of civilian deaths as much more due to Daesh than is really the case (0.9%). In this post I examine how and why these biases persist and what consequences they have.
I could have chosen to sensationalise this topic with a headline such as “How Stop the War Coalition has indirectly caused more civilian deaths in Syria than the US Allies’ bombing”, or “How the typical Telegraph readership’s views on State sovereignty would please Mao Tse Tung,” and either way it would probably get more circulation among the opposite side. I didn’t choose such a title because:
- neither title would get this article read by the side which its headline targeted then, because no-one likes to have their own cognitive dissonance amplified or reflected back to them,
- it would make it harder both for me to think and write dispassionately and clearly examine the roots of our biases and for you to read it in such a way, and
- more generally than just for this issue, I think it’s more important for us to learn about how we choose what we choose to ignore than just to be informed about particular issues, even if we learnt about as many issues in aggregate.
Of course it’s an assumption that ignorance due to bias is always a bad thing, but I think this is a realistic and fair assumption.
This is really a comment on the data graphically represented here: https://diary.thesyriacampaign.org/whats-happening-to-civilians-in-syria/ Please read that article closely first.
After six months of being deeply involved in the humanitarian volunteers and solidarity activists for refugees movement and repeating this argument with many different people, it’s so obvious I’d almost forgotten it was worth noting that the biased misrepresentations of the initial and maintaining causes of the Syrian conflict and particularly causes of civilian deaths and causes of refugees fleeing are so politically polarised in the UK.
I’ve explained that the data don’t fit the Stop the War Coalition storyline to friends in the volunteer movement repeatedly, even the same friends repeatedly, and they still carry on repeating their line that UK bombing is killing civilians in Syria as if it was a major cause of deaths or higher than could plausibly be genuinely accidental, as if I hadn’t told them that it is just plain objectively not true.
No doubt it seems like a good thing to choose, to simplify the causal explanation of violence in Syria into something which it seems more feasible for us to change, so that at least that part of the causes could change, even if it is not really a major cause. But goodness must have an element of objectivity about it, it is not just a matter of opinion, and what matters most is how it affects those who are most affected by any view’s practical consequences.
The fact is less than 0.2% of civilian deaths in Syria have been caused by US Allies’ bombing or military actions. The various Syrian human rights organisations vary slightly on the percentages for the minor actors, but they agree very closely on the percentages of civilian deaths caused by the major actors. In absolute and proportional terms the number of civilians killed by US Allies in Syria is tiny, and it is tiny enough that it is at least highly plausible that those deaths were all genuinely accidental and not culpably negligent either. Of course we can’t be certain about every individual in such circumstances, but the numbers plausibly match the claim that airstrikes on Daesh are being carefully targeted to avoid hurting civilians, and are being done in order to protect civilians from Daesh.
I have no objection to ideology or ideologies per se as long as they are reasonably explicit, objective and ethical. I think ideology is one of those human behaviours which are really un-suppressible and undeniable, such as sex and religion, so it’s better done explicitly, consciously and carefully than denied or suppressed. My problem with the ideology which e.g. Stop the War Coalition promote is that it’s not reasonably explicit, not reasonably objective and not reasonably ethical.
Intentionally misrepresenting the facts in order to bend objective reality to fit one’s own ideological narrative is not acceptable. Since it’s been explained to you before that it just isn’t factually true that a significant proportion of civilian deaths in Syria are caused by US Allies including the UK bombing and yet you keep on repeating it as if you’d never heard or read that information, then it cannot genuinely be unintentional when you are still effectively misrepresenting the facts. It is also covertly ideological while pretending to be factual, not an explicit and reasonable ideology. And it is neither ethical in its means nor its ends.
If or to the extent that police do not protect black people or apply the law to protect people effectively in majority black or minority ethnic neighbourhoods, then we rightly call that racist. If we agree that borders do not make a moral difference to the value of a human life or the rights intrinsic to being human, then how is withholding policing from people in ‘foreign’ countries really different from withholding police protection from the subaltern within our country, so why should the judgement differ?
Policing is really different from war. They have opposite functions. They do indeed look structurally similar in some ways: varying degrees of violent force are used in order to control or limit another’s behaviour. (In general, complex behaviours are difficult to categorise by structural features only and we have to include functional characteristics in order to construct definitions which sensibly and intuitively match reality.) Consider ‘play’ for a nice neutral example: how do you tell the difference between typical mammalian social play – play fighting, and ‘real’ fighting? We intuitively recognise that mammalian juvenile play-fighting is not just a quantitatively lesser form of real fighting, it is categorically different. (If you try to define ‘play’ as a category, you’ll quickly find you can’t make a category that consistently makes sense and doesn’t mislabel non-play as play or play as non-play on the structure of behaviours alone (e.g. ‘pouncing’, ‘mouthing without closing the jaw hard’) without including functional characteristics (e.g. it creates and maintains social bonds, it tends to reverse ‘real’ social dominance hierarchy during play, it develops behavioural new variants which can then be selected by social learning, i.e. analogous with the function of sex for increasing the rate of genetic variation to keep pace with the co-evolutionary antagonism with micro-parasites). I think this impossibility of defining complex social behaviours by structures alone and having to include functions to make sensible, reliable definitions is generally true, since it also applies to e.g. sex and religion.) (I did an animal behaviour biological degree.)
Take it a step closer to the relevant issue: suppose you see a typical Saturday night minor street brawl between drunken men (or any male animal) competing for social status directly or indirectly over access to mating opportunities, and then you see one or more of their friends or a bystander wade into the fight and using minimal force makes them stop. We intuitively recognise that this is called ‘breaking up a fight’ not ‘getting into a fight’. This is the natural origin of policing. You might hear them saying different things to the opponents in the fight while using or threatening force to stop them, such as ‘that’s enough, stop now’ or ‘just back off now’. If you hear ‘I’m gonna f*****g kill you’, then you don’t interpret their posture and movements in the same way at all.
Of course ‘humanitarian military intervention’ can be misinterpreted and misused, and it probably was in the Second Iraq War and to an extent in Afghanistan. The fact a concept has been misused in the past does not necessarily invalidate the concept. E.g. ‘Socialism’ – has been massively misused, it’s probably fair to say it has mostly been misused, and if so one can reasonably question whether there’re one or more unrealistic assumptions in the model which make it tend to fail to function as intended, yet the failure of a strategic model doesn’t necessarily invalidate its aims. I’m asking for the same sort of logic to be applied to the idea of intervention using force for humanitarian policing purposes. The fact the idea can and has been misused may mean that the strategic model for how to implement the idea of protection by using minimal and proportionate force is not really relevant to assessing its aims. Logically it is possible that the aims are valid and the strategy was totally mis-designed and inadequate, and I suggest that that explanation fits the case of the Second Iraq and Afghanistan military operations better than that they fundamentally invalidate the aims of protecting people beyond conventional borders from the worst kinds of human rights abuses.
I have been making this argument for years, alienating myself in the process from social groups I valued. Recently I came across a book explaining this view- Just Policing, Not War, by Gerald W. Schlabach, 2007, which was a fuller working out of an article he wrote in 2003 in the America Magazine.
Also formative in my own thinking on the ethics of forceful intervention to limit overall violence was proofreading a friend’s LLM dissertation on Just War Theory and Modern International Law. I found it excellent, so did his examiners, and I wish he would publish it. What he didn’t say in it but I thought was a theme underlying the whole thesis was that there is a tension between legal positivists (Anglo-American) and natural law theorists (continental European and Latin American) attitudes and approaches to developing international humanitarian law of conflicts, and that there are real inconsistencies in the international legal framework on just intervention by force to limit overall violence that resolve down to this tension.
Consider another implicit assumption of the stereotypically leftwing ‘anti-war’ over-simplification of the causes of civilian deaths in Syria: the idea that Syria being a different State means that we have no right to intervene to protect people there. What is the nature of a State and in what way can it rightly have sovereignty?
The concept of a State I would support is the idea that a State is an intermediating agency for society to organise itself. When societies get too big for community intermediated indirect reciprocity to function without compartmentalisation, a similar kind of indirect reciprocity can still function if it is intermediated via a more efficiently organised State. I think a State can legitimately have a contingently derived kind of ‘sovereignty’ when it represents collectively the intrinsic dignity of every person it serves, but only if it really does so. I consider the notion of absolute, intrinsic State sovereignty in general to be an anathema. (I do know the origins of the word and I mean that exactly.)
I agree with the aims of international customary legal principle of the Responsibility to Protect. However, I think the implementation structures need to be more thoroughly designed to match its aims, which are categorically opposite to ‘war’. Community policing is a more appropriate model to start modifying to fit an international context than to start from the model of warfare and then moderate that. If humanitarian interventions using force are to really be categorically different from warfare, then the whole system of implementation has to be radically redesigned. I am not assuming this would be easy or likely to ever be perfect, but the consequences of not doing it are even harder to deal with in the long-term.
Both carrying on with inappropriately war-like dubiously or partially humanitarian interventions using force or totally avoiding getting involved in such interventions due to horror of having done it badly before are contributing to maintaining and developing the world in a state of FUBAR-ness. Isolationalism just cannot not work any longer, if it ever really did, so if you abandon responsibility for maintaining and developing the ‘international community’ to be more real and effective and positive to those who will do it less consciously, carefully and responsibly, that does not improve the outcomes, and your individual purity by dissociation has no benefit or relevance to those who are most directly affected.
The failure of the UN Security Council member States to actually enforce UNSC Resolution 2139 or to respond to the calls from the High Commissioner for Human Rights and the Special Adviser on the Responsibility to Protect for enforcement of humanitarian law to protect civilians in Syria in 2012 probably resulted partly from the popular opposition to ‘bombing Syria’ in the UK which misrepresented the aims and strategy of the proposed intervention so grossly that it can hardly be credible that it wasn’t intentional tactical obfuscation in order to win their campaign more easily. It would have been fair to question and amend the government’s proposal to make it even more thoroughly designed as a policing rather than a warfare kind of intervention, but it clearly never was the intention to start targeting Syrian civilians or even to bomb in areas where there were likely to be civilians.
The specific intervention strategy which I would support is the No Bombing Zone enforced by Retaliate and Deter – see No Fly Zone Options. That would be a fairly minimal intervention, but it would have set limits on the war crimes that were possible for the regime to continue by air strikes and barrel bombs, and it wouldn’t require direct military confrontation with Russia, which is obviously too risky.
Objectively it’s highly likely that far more civilians have now been killed by the Assad regime and its ally Putin since than would have died by violence if the UNSC member States had intervened responsibly to protect civilians and set limits on the violence by at least destroying the regime’s capacity for airstrikes and dropping barrel bombs from helicopters. I believe Stop the War Coalition’s campaign against ‘war’ in Syria actually stopped a policing kind of intervention which would have prevented far more deaths caused by Assad and Putin than were actually directly caused by US Allies bombing of Daesh so far or would have been likely to have occurred if the intervention had gone ahead. Your casually claimed ‘good’ intentions with no careful investigation or respect for real details do not change the consequences for those directly affected. If you really want to care for people then you have to care about what affects them in detail, and accept that your objectivity about what affects them matters to them more than your own social identity politics.
Turning to the typical Telegraph readership’s biases in causally understanding the Syrian conflict and who is causing how many civilian deaths in Syria, the typical misrepresentation on this side of the political discourse is to fixate repetitively on Daesh (ISIS) and ignore the fact Daesh has caused only about 0.9% of the civilian deaths in Syria, whereas Assad and his ally Putin have caused the vast majority of civilian deaths (>95%).
Stereotyping somewhat, the usual arguments on this side tend to be that Assad’s regime is the Syrian state, that it was elected, that it previously enforced ‘stability’ or ‘security’, and that it is the lesser of two evils, by contrast with Daesh. There are factual, logical and moral problems with this set of assumptions.
Factually first, it’s grossly unrealistic to assume that the Assad regime having done what it has done could return to its former position of even being capable of enforcing that sort of security it did before by using terror tactics to suppress political opponents and protesters. Besides being morally wrong, it just couldn’t work now, because: the starting level of insecurity is far too high, and there would be no tacit tolerance from the majority for Assad. I have many Syrian contacts now in the volunteers for refugees movement, and none of them as far as I’ve asked or heard or read their opinions supports an absolute pacifist approach to the violence in Syria, most seem to want some sort of very carefully designed intervention, and I have not yet met or heard of one Syrian who would willingly tolerate Assad remaining in power. As soon as the recent ceasefire was one week old, there were mass protests in Aleppo calling for the same as the original protests which the regime reacted to by violently suppressing.
The Assad regime was ‘elected’ with a 99% majority, in elections only in regime held territory, where all the ballot papers were pre-marked and if you didn’t go to the polling station and post your ballot card pre-marked for Assad then you would be disappeared and probably tortured to death by the Shabiha (pro-regime militias/ death squads). It was just a sham election, for the purpose of confusing and deflecting some of the foreign criticism of the regime. No-one gets to be a State just by claiming it loudly with a gun.
I get the impression the logical lack of clarity in the typical rightwing narrative on Syria is because it is mainly secondary rationalisation and the real reason behind the claims made is that conservatives value authority and loyalty/ group cohesion more highly than universal justice or care for others. (See: Righteous Mind: why good people disagree about politics and religion, Jonathan Haidt, 2012, which summarises several decades of social psychology research.)
The kind of ‘security’ based on systematic torture, forced disappearance, arbitrary detention, murder of political opponents, is not real security, nor does it ever lead to peace. I think if people were directly affected by their own concepts of what ‘security’ and ‘peace’ mean, then they would not subscribe to or support such thin concepts. Peace is what happens when justice is established reliably, it is not the same as successfully suppressing resistance to injustice.
The idea of intrinsic and absolute State sovereignty based on actual possession of power by whatever means resolves down to “power grows out the barrel of a gun”, so Mao Tse Tung would approve. Again, if people just thought through what they’re saying more carefully and thoroughly, which they would if they were the ones directly affected, then I cannot see how they would be satisfied with such lazy, vague and careless definitions and views which lead to propping up tyrannies and creating environments in which terrorist reactions to those tyrannies are almost bound to evolve. Yes, realistically we have to acknowledge that terrorism emerges as a strategy where people have chronically experienced and suffered from tyranny, because they are functionally the same or very similar things. We just label tyranny and terrorism differently if we accept an authoritarian version of State sovereignty, but there is very little if any real difference on the receiving end. If you really want an end to terrorism, I recommend basing your strategy on this data-driven analysis How Terrorism Ends: understanding the decline and demise of terrorist campaigns, Audrey Cronin, 2010. In my opinion, if we want terrorism to end, we also have to be as strict and ruthless on tyranny as on terrorism, because they are really a causally interlinked pair, or even more strict on tyranny because it is the root cause of terrorism and more culpable because it starts from a more powerful position with more options how to behave.
You can have your cynical nihilistic Realpolitik world-view, but you cannot actually keep its consequences outside your conventional borders any longer. The world is far too interconnected and interdependent for that level of in-group morality and out-group amorality to even be functional now. The consequences of supporting oppressive regimes and tyrannies, by action or omission, include having mass influxes of refugees. If that’s unacceptable to you, then don’t carry on choosing what causes it.
The main factual problem with the biased narrative that Assad is the lesser of two evils because Daesh are so incredibly nasty is that while Assad does not perform the same spectacular, dramatised and commercially video edited atrocities, he has actually killed 95% of the civilians directly killed by bombing with barrel bombs, torture in prisons, etc., whereas Daesh has killed about 0.9%. Daesh are indeed incredibly horrible, but also really tiny comparatively. About 11.5% of the Syrian population before the conflict are estimated to have been killed now.
Assad also is not really opposed to Daesh, nor Daesh to Assad. They do not attack each other most of the time or on a big scale, and the regime still buys oil from Daesh. There are Russian engineers still working on oil wells in Daesh territory and only about 8% of Russian airstrikes were even in Daesh held areas. Assad needs Daesh for his cover story, and Daesh need Assad for their recruitment story. Of course this must be just a loony-left narrative, which is why the Telegraph explains the same view here – www.telegraph.co.uk/news/worldnews/middleeast/syria/12038032/As-long-as-there-is-an-Assad-there-will-be-an-Isil-hell-make-sure-of-it.html
The politically polarised systematic biases on both sides of political discourse in countries such as the UK, I think, both come from a sort of self-absorption that mis-associates our own society’s politics with the objective reality of the situation in Syria and what the people directly affected actually need. Both biased responses show a lack of respect for the people who are most affected. There is noticeably extremely little attempt to listen to Syrian exiles on what they think could and should be done to help bring an end to the violence. Our unconscious collective ‘racism’ (or what was underlying racism as an ideology before) has moved on from focus on race to focus on civil nationality – on both political sides of the discourse.
Both the typically rightwing faults of not caring enough about the details of strategically designing an intervention so that it is really consistently a humanitarian policing kind of intervention or tolerating a tyrant and neglecting the international responsibility to protect and the typically leftwing faults of not really caring enough to acknowledge that refusing to accept international responsibility for collectively enforcing humanitarian protection of civilians from genocide, war crimes, crimes against humanity and ethnic cleansing, and their incitement, are forms of not respecting people for being born on the other side of the planet.