How swift or certain justice in Syria?

In criminal justice it is well understood that swiftness and certainty of punishment is more important than severity. Our strategy in Syria is giving us the worst of all worlds: swift but unpredictable and severe but counterproductive we are making the world and Syria more dangerous.

While lots of people are scared of another Iraq, the prospect seems to be receding. Cameron is taking a resolution to the UN with wording similar to that in UNSC 1973, authorising all necessary means to protect civilians, but the will to war doesn’t seem so strong as in 2003. Famous last words, as they say.

Instead Cameron, Hollande and Obama are all emphasising that it is necessary, perhaps sufficient, to strike hard and decisively to punish Assad to prevent future chemical weapons attacks. Even if this has little effect on the Syrian civil war itself it will underline the red line around chemical weapons use in this, and other conflicts. The argument is weak and sounds as though it’s been cobbled together in a hope it sounds coherent to justify a policy their gut feels is right.

Hundreds of people were killed last week in Ghouta by chemical weapons. It is too hard to say whether they were deployed with Assad’s direct say so but it looks very likely they were deployed by the government. It could have been a rogue commander or something more cynical ordered by Assad himself. The public still don’t know for certain, the UN have not officially reported, but Obama, Hollande and Cameron seem convinced. They may be party to incontrovertible evidence, but we have not seen it. In fact, from what we’ve seen the case for extraordinary action doesn’t seem strong enough, given the potential downsides.

Ghouta is the most deadly gas attack of the Syrian civil war, but it’s probably not the only one. There have allegedly been ghastly gas attacks going back to at least 2012, some of which may have been perpetrated by rebel forces. If we have seen “just” another gas attack, the red line crossed  must be very wide. Beyond Syria and looking back a few years, we see other, presumably lesser, chemical weapons being deployed without warranting death from above. The argument that Assad requires punishment, hard, certain and now is not very strong as a deterrent. I want him punished too, but not at all costs. White Phosphorus has been deployed by Israel in Gaza and by the US in Iraq. It may be that White Phosphorus is a lesser chemical weapon.

But that just leads us to the question: what’s so special about chemical weapons? They are horrific, but so is war. If we’re drawing arbitrary red lines around weapons of mass destruction, one that surrounds Ghouta, Halabja and Hiroshima isn’t logically more coherent than one which includes Gaza, Faluja and Nagasaki. It’s killing that’s terrible, a red line that includes Tahrir Square and the Pearl Roundabout would be better than one targeting some states targeting some citizens with some classes of weapons.

This is a roundabout way of saying that a limited and punitive intervention won’t work on it’s own terms.

If it punishes Assad enough to tip the balance of power definitely away from him he will become more desperate and may become more brutal in his campaign. He may eschew chemical weapons, but it doesn’t mean civilian casualties won’t escalate.  If it punishes Assad enough other states may look at their chemical weapons stockpiles and think: “what are my chances?” A rational actor would certainly revise their strategy, but they wouldn’t necessarily presume they can never use chemical weapons. Simply that they need to keep the UN further away; or ensure a higher kill rate to minimise witnesses; or keep its usage to small doses to maintain deniability; or to use one class of chemicals but dispose of the sarin; or… and so on.

A rules based international realm is a safer one, predictability and boredom are excellent things for humanity to aspire to. The reaction to the Ghouta massacre shows that our leaders aren’t heartless, but it also shows they aren’t governed by rules. In criminal justice the certainty of punishment matters more than its severity, if the international community want to set a precedent it’s too late. Firing cruise missiles at the bad guy feels like a just, rules based strategy, but it is not.

In criminal justice ensuring that punishment follows swiftly and predictably after a crime is more effective than sporadic but severe punishments. Swift doesn’t necessarily have to mean immediate, just without unnecessary delay. We are getting all of this wrong. The middle of a civil war is not the best time to mete out “precision” justice or “surgical” slaps on the risk. The logic behind the imperative to punish war crimes is a sound one, but the execution has been abysmal and won’t have the desired consequences.

Finally: Chris makes the good point that there are people in a better position to make this call than me, I’ve references this above. I don’t have enough information on what’s happening in Syria, what happened in Ghouta, what might happen if we bomb this or that to come to a truly an informed opinion. Three things make me disbelieve our leaders. One, my anti-authoritarian streak. Two, the paucity and inconsistency of the arguments that have been made, as I’ve described above. Three, I just don’t trust them anymore. Fool me once, shame on you, fool me twice, I, uh, won’t get fooled again.

And another thing: I’m aware the Russians and Iranians and Hezbollah et al are intervening there even if the west is not. I see that as evidence we should not enter a quagmire as much as I see it as evidence we should.

One more thing: I haven’t spoken about mission creep or the temptation of committing ground troops or the potential civilian casualties of any western punishment of Assad, or my favoured alternative; supporting refugees, because this isn’t the place. I suppose I will get to each of those if and when necessary.



Feedly and Instapaper replacements

So I can’t use the search functionality in either without subscribing. It’s my only gripe with each,  but it’s something that I loved in google reader and is so useful for blogging when you read as much as I do.

Any free alternatives you guys can recommend?

Someone just proved the laws of physics wrong

Well, they’re always wrong, or subject to revision, but this is pretty interesting. Familiar with Dark Matter, the matter which we can’t detect but have to assume exists to make all our sums right? Well perhaps our sums were just plain wrong:

A modified law of gravity correctly predicted, in advance of the observations, the velocity dispersion—the average speed of stars within a galaxy relative to each other—in 10 dwarf satellite galaxies of the Milky Way’s giant neighbor Andromeda.

The relatively large velocity dispersions observed in these types of dwarf galaxies is usually attributed to dark matter. Yet predictions made using the alternative hypothesis Modified Newtonian Dynamics (MOND) succeeded in anticipating the observations.


At stake now is whether the universe is predominantly made of an invisible substance that persistently eludes detection in the laboratory, or whether we are obliged to modify one of our most fundamental theories, the law of gravity,” McGaugh continued.

The MOND hypothesis says that Newton’s force law must be tweaked at low acceleration—11 orders of magnitude lower than what we feel on the surface of the Earth. Acceleration above that threshold is linearly proportional to the force of gravity—as Newton’s law says—but below the threshold, no. At these tiny accelerations, the modified force law resolves the mass discrepancy…

via Noahpinion. More at the above link.

Free movement for rich white people

Boris might be talking diversionary shit as usual, but the idea that any American, Canadian, Australian, Kiwi etc have to get a visa to live or work in the UK is ridiculous.

It’s sweet that the powers that be don’t want to look racist by offering free movement to all these rich white people but they should. Not just whites obviously, any state with a GDP per capita at a similar level to ours should be granted free movement out of politeness. It’s mostly whites but a few arab and east asian city states would benefit too.

Getting people used to the idea of open borders is an important first step. It’s a pity that this is going to only help people who don’t need helping (irritating visa issues), but this seems like a useful step.

Tony Blair on Egypt and Syria: efficacy more important that democracy

To the surprise of nobody at all peace envoy Tony Blair, thinks we need another war, sorry, intervention in Syria. What he’s just said about Egypt illustrates why it has always been a terrible idea to listen to him.

The former prime minister said the use of chemical weapons by the Syrian government and the involvement of Iran in the civil war meant intervention was necessary.

“You’ve got the intervention of Hezbollah, at the instigation of Iran. The other big change is the use of chemical weapons. Once you allow that to happen – and this will be the first time since Saddam used them in the 1980s – you run the risk of it then becoming an acceptable form of warfare, for both sides,” he told the Times.

I hate to go on about underpants gnomes when we are perhaps only hours away from war but…this is the normal schema for middle eastern adventures, at least as sold to us plebs.

  1. Western intervention
  2. ???
  3. Liberal Democracy

I’ve not had much to criticise on step one or three, comparably speaking. The US and its allies can definitely defeat pretty much any developing state on earth. Liberal Democracy ain’t all it’s cracked up to be, but at least its an ethos man. It’s the middle bit that’s caused the problem. For problem read “pile of corpses.”

The middle steps have always been hazy, but the plan has always been to step in when our “duty to protect” kicks in and to lead the intervened state towards liberal democracy with local characteristics. I think it’s a testament to how awful things in Syria are that nobody is honestly suggesting we know what we would do next. Like a dog chasing a car nobody knows what to do once we’ve got one.

I’ve always kinda thought that Blair, Bush and their fellow travellers didn’t have a plan but hoped things would kinda work out. I think a lot of them are genuinely bummed it didn’t work out. Not Blair though, he seems to have dropped the commitment to Liberal Democracy altogether. Behold:

Tony Blair: “The events that led to the Egyptian army’s removal of President Mohamed Morsi confronted the military with a simple choice: intervention or chaos. Seventeen million people on the streets are not the same as an election. But it as an awesome manifestation of power.”

“I am a strong supporter of democracy. But democratic government doesn’t on its own mean effective government. Today efficacy is the challenge.”

Support for “efficacy” now trumps “democracy.” On a basic level I agree with Tony, that many people protesting matters and should be listened to (ahem), but what matters more in the developing world is bedding in democratic institutions. If the ??? ever meant anything it was the difficult bargaining and institutional development that has now stalled or regressed in Egypt.

So what are we left with now that Liberal Democracy has been ditched as an end goal and that we will not support any “messiness” following the intervention? That plan for Syria in full:

  1. Western intervention