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Archive for August, 2013

Reprehending Ignorance about Syria

Thursday, August 29th, 2013

I’ve had the pleasure of introducing Timothy R. Furnish, PhD, as a guest blogger here before. Today he offers us his timely commentary on factors which should influence US decision-making regarding Syria. Here I would invite you to note especially his comments on the religious factors involved, which he characterizes as “the most salient issue at hand” and details in the long paragraph which begins “Finally…”

Charles Cameron

Ottoman Asia (partial map, 1893)

American intervention in Syria, most likely in the form of air- or cruise missile-strikes against select targets, now seems a certainty, considering that not just the Obama Administration but a whole host of politicians and commentators — ranging across the political spectrum, from Bill O’Reilly to Senator John McCain and to “The New York Times” editorial board — stridently supports military action. The reasons adduced are primarily these:

1) The usage of chemical weapons is an atrocity and violation of international law and must be punished accordingly
2) Syria being Iran’s “pawn,” any strike at the Damascus regime is tantamount to one at the Islamic Republic and, thus, ipso facto a good thing
3) al-Asad is a Hitleresque “monster” — no further discussion required
4) President Obama’s credibility is at stake, his having previously deemed usage of chemical weapons to be an uncrossable “red line” that would trigger retaliation.

Those opposed to the US attacking the al-Asad regime invoke, rather, points such as:

1) Realpolitick-wise, the US has no national security interest in Syria
2) Any action that degrades the al-Asad regime actually helps the jihadist elements of the Syrian opposition, especially the al-Qa`ida-affiliated, pro-caliphate Jabhat al-Nusra li-Ahl al-Sham min Mujahidin al-Sham fi Sahat al-Jihad (“The Front of Support to the Family of Syria from the Holy Warriors of Syria in the Battlefields of Jihad”). As LTC Ralph Peters put it on “The O’Reilly Factor” (8.27.13), “do we really want to help the jihadists who perpetrated 9/11?”
3) US bombing — even if attempted “surgically” — will result in collateral damage to Syrian civilians and motivate Syria and its allies (especially Iran and Hizbullah) to activate terrorist cells against Americans, certainly in the larger Middle East, probably in Europe and possibly even in the US homeland.

Three major areas of ignorance are manifested in these two Manichaean positions (albeit moreso in the pro-bombing camp).

First, it is not (yet) certain that it was indeed the al-Asad regime that employed chemical weapons. According to a source with whom I am in contact — a former intelligence operative who worked in Syria for a number of years — it is quite possible that Jabhat al-Nusra, or one of the other jihadist opposition groups (Syrian Islamic Front, Ahrar al-Sham, Ansar al-Islam, Ahfad al-Rasul, etc.) pilfered a government chemical weapons stockpile and wielded the lethal bounty in a false flag operation. It is also possible that such jihadist groups were supplied chemical weapons directly by* North Korea.

Second, it is simply not the case in modern times that use of chemical or nerve agents automatically provokes the international community’s wrath. Libya used such weapons in Chad in 1986, and (more infamously) Saddam Husayn did likewise against Iraqi Kurds in 1987. Neither of those events engendered US or NATO retaliation. Furthermore, Syria is not a signatory to the 1993 Chemical Weapons Convention prohibiting utilization of chemical or nerve agents; and Damascus signed the similar 1925 Geneva Protocol when it was under the French Mandate—thus having no choice in the matter. This in no wise lessens the horror of chemical weapons, but an American administration headed by a self-styled former law professor would do well to get its international legal ducks in a row before launching the first cruise missile.

Finally, and most importantly, neither the pro- nor anti-bombing faction seems aware of the most salient issue at hand: that the ruling regime is composed of Alawis, a heretical Shi`i offshoot sect the adherents of which have long been condemned as murtaddun, “apostates,” in Sunni Islam — first by the (in)famous Sunni cleric Ibn Taymiyah in his early-14th c. AD fatwas, then again just last year by the al-Qa`ida cleric Abd Allah Khalid al-Adm, who said “don’t consult with anyone before killing Alawites.” Alawis have existed for about a millennium, mostly in the mountains of coastal Lebanon and Syria, and have always been persecuted by Sunni rulers, going back to the first days of Ottoman Turkish control of the Levant in the 16th century. Under the French Mandate, post-World War I, and afterwards they insinuated themselves into the military and intelligence service such that, eventually, one of their own, Hafiz al-Asad, took control in 1970. Spurned by Sunni Arab countries, the elder al-Asad cleverly got his Alawi sect officially declared Shi`i by the influential Lebanese Twelver Shi`i cleric Musa al-Sadr (before the latter disappeared in Libya in 1976); and when the ayatollahs took control of Iran in 1979, Damascus and Tehran began, if not a beautiful, certainly a mutually beneficial, friendship — which has existed ever since. Hafiz and his son Bashar al-Asad both ruled largely as secularists — due to their sectarian affiliation, and to their official ideology of Arab socialism, articulated as the Ba`ath Party. (So to be fair to Hillary Clinton — who, in March 2011, referred to Bashar al-Asad as a “reformer” — he was much more modernizing and tolerant than many Sunni leaders of the region, if only out of political necessity.) That meant that the 10% of the Syrian population that is Christian largely supported the leader of the strange Islamic sect (also comprising about 10% of Syrians) over against the 3/4 of the population that is Sunni, fearing what a Muslim Brotherhood/Salafi takoever would portend for them. Such fears have skyrocketed since the “Arab Spring” came to Syria over two years ago — especially as groups like Jabhat al-Nusra and its ilk have trumpeted their hatred of Alawis and their burning desire for a Sunni caliphate that would relegate Christians (and Jews) to their historical, second-class dhimmi status. Thus, it is not totally beyond comprehension why a beleaguered, religiously-heterodox regime might feel it necessary to deploy, and perhaps even use, chemical weapons — as a means of staving off probable extermination at the hands of jihadists.

All in all, it appears that the pro-bombing position is much weaker than the anti-attack one. As noted previously, chemical weapons’ usage has not automatically resulted in international action in punishment; Syria is not, legally, bound by relevant conventions; and we are not certain which side actually used these arms. The idea that “any strike against the Damascus regime is a blow to Iran” is dubious at best: Iraq is at least as solicitous of the Islamic Republic as is Syria, but no calls for bombing Baghdad have been proffered. Some advance the thesis that striking al-Asad’s forces helps Israel’s geopoliticial position — but one can equally well argue that cutting off Tehran’s access to Lebanese Hizbullah would undercut the ayatollahs’ main conventional warfare outlet, and thus make it more likely they would want to use the nuclear weapons they will very soon possess. Furthermore, why should the Alawi, Druze and Christian minorities of Syria pay the price for US cowardice about attacking Iran directly? As for the “al-Asad = Hitler” trope — how many years will it take before the West, particularly the US, can wage war without “Hitlerizing” the opposition? That’s not a rational argument; it’s an emotional one. And regarding the allegation that President Obama needs to attack Syria in order to resurrect his political credibility, at home and abroad — let us hope that he is not, still, that callow after over five years in the White House. At least Richard III only needed his ignorance, not his political cunning, reprehended.

On the other side of the equation: the US does have security interests in the region, but not specifically in Syria; it is certainly true that vitiating al-Asad’s military will simultaneously empower the opposition — and not just the ostensibly-Westernized Free Syrian Army but also the jihadists like Jabhat al-Nusra; and it’s very likely that extant Iranian-trained terrorist cells will activate in Europe and the US if we intervene in Syria.

As Gandalf advised in The Fellowship of the Ring: “Do not be too eager to deal out death in judgement. Even the very Wise cannot see all ends.” The Obama Administration, and its supporters advocating attacking the Syrian regime, may not be able to see all ends; but they could certainly strive to be a bit wiser and consider some relevant data that might just be inconvenient to their position — before meting out yet more American death in the Middle East.


To view the Ottoman Empire map at the head of the post at full size, see here and click for high resolution.

FTR, this post was received from Dr Furnish dated, and posted here, 8.28.2013. * indicates an edit made at Dr Furnish’s request upon rereading after publication.

Bomb Syria?

Thursday, August 29th, 2013

[by Mark Safranski a.k.a. “zen“]

There is much ado about a prospective Western (i.e. American) aerial campaign to bomb the Iranian allied Alawite-Baathist dictatorship Syria over use of chemical weapons against primarily al Qaida allied Sunni Islamist extremist rebels.

To what end or how that end will be brought about by a surgical use of American air power, aided by token French and British contributions, well, no one is quite sure.

The driving insider force behind this astrategic call to arms are Susan Rice, Samantha Power and Anne-Marie Slaughter, the three Furies of R2P.  Slaughter writes on military intervention in Syria with her usual combination of moral certainty and operational magical thinking here. Rice angrily pontificates here while an unusually muted UN Ambassador Samantha Power just tweeted about it while on vacation from the emergency UN Security Council meeting on, uh, Syria.

The strategic argument about Syria is not about the normative qualities of the Assad regime, which is anti-American, brutal, terrorist supporting and fascistic. Or that the regime is committing atrocities. It is. It is about what political objective, if any, the use of military force against Syria can accomplish at what cost and with what probable outcomes. At a grand strategic level, there are also questions about how military intervention in Syria will impact great power relations and the shaping of international law.

I suspect many R2P advocates like Slaughter, Rice and Power are attracted to the idea of bombing Syria partly to garner a precedent to support doing similar things in the future, whether or not it has any positive effect on the Syrian civil war. That however, if true, is an extremely poor reason for military intervention anywhere. If bombing had some hope of changing the behavior of the Syrian regime or replacing it with something better, I would warm to the prospect but where is the evidence that is a likely outcome? Consider:

The Syrian rebels include armed groups as violent, lawless and squalid as the Assad regime. You know, the Beheading community of the third jihad international, with fringe support from the occasional cannibal commandos. If these Islamist lunatics come to power in Damascus they will cheerfully engage in ghastly pogroms of mass murder and torture that will make Assad’s goons look like the British Raj at tea time.

The Assad regime and the Alawite minority from whence it originates have their backs to the wall in a conflict that determines if they continue to rule Syria or are exterminated. Having no margin for maneuver or concession, America bombing them is irrelevant to whether in their calculus they can stop fighting their local enemies. The whole point of combining the threat of force with diplomacy – allegedly the reason given for bombing Syria – is to be able to make Assad an offer that he can’t refuse and not a threat that the Alawites can’t accept. Then, while blustering loudly and ominously we undercut our own bellicose posturing and announce that regime change was off the table. WTF?  Really?

The President should fire this unholy crew of incompetents and intellectual poseurs and hire some real foreign policy advisers with at least an undergraduate level grasp of how diplomacy, strategy and war have worked for the past 2000 years.

Failing that, a few poker players who can bluff without showing the entire table their cards.

On China vs India — and the Hungry Ghosts

Tuesday, August 27th, 2013

[ by Charles Cameron — I’d have put these two “quotes” in my DoubleQuotes format, but wanted to quote quite a gobbit of each, and the print would have been too small ]

Offering us a fresh angle on two great nations as we (maybe) pivot to Asia

Excerpted from Hungry Ghost Festival 2013 Begins In China As Spirits Descend On Homes, Wander Streets:

The gates of hell have opened. Its ghosts have been let loose to roam on earth and visit the homes of their relatives.

According to traditional Chinese beliefs this happens every year during the seventh month of the lunar year, resulting in a raucous, feast-and-music filled celebration known as the Hungry Ghost Festival. But not all ghosts are good. There are some spirits who wander the streets, ravenous and envious because they died without descendants or were ignored by their kin while alive.

To appease the hungry spirits, ethnic Chinese step up prayers, aided by giant colorful joss sticks shaped like dragons. They also burn mock currency and miniature paper television sets, mobile phones and furniture as offering to the ancestors for their use in the other world.

For 15 days, neighborhoods hold nightly shows of shrill Chinese operas and pop concerts to entertain the dead.

Excerpted from Indian state outlaws profiting on miracles, summoning ‘ghosts’:

New Delhi – A new law against superstition and black magic in India’s Maharashtra state has triggered a debate between religious groups who say that the state is interfering in personal faith, and rationalists who say religious malpractices violate human rights. [ … ]

“We will challenge the law as it is ambiguous and interferes with personal faith,” says Abhay Vartak of the Santan Sanstha, a Hindu organization. “The law does not define much of what it outlaws – ghosts, for instance. The government itself is not clear whether ghosts exist! And if belief in ghosts is to be outlawed, then what about the Hindu Scripture the Atharva Veda, which says a lot about how to get rid of ghosts who come to inhabit a body?” he asks.

The law specifically outlaws 12 practices, making them punishable by a jail term of seven months to seven years. Of the 12 clauses, two relate to belief in ghosts. The first one forbids recommending violent and sexual practices for purging ghosts from the body – including drinking urine or stool, being tied with a rope or chain, and touching heated objects. It also outlaws creating fear by threatening to invite ghosts.


For a glimpse of how the notion of “hungry ghosts” might be interpreted in terms of Tibetan Buddhist philosophy — as embodied in the Chöd rite — see Tai Situ Rinpoche‘s Introduction to Chod.

Blip: algo’s got rhythm at last!

Tuesday, August 27th, 2013

[ by Charles Cameron — a qualit with little time for quants making another graceful retraction ]

I haven’t been too convinced that algorithms were good at understanding my interests — remember that ad for “bold” Christian shirts (and babe) some fool code placed on Islamic Awakening — a site I was visiting to read up on Awlaqi?

Well, those algos are improving… Here’s what YouTube thinks I might want to listen to next, hot from the digital presses…


Turing Test: check!

I’d say YouTube’s algorithm has finally figured out — at least momentarily — the basics of who I am.

Single Quote: Robert B. Laughlin

Monday, August 26th, 2013

[Extracted by Lynn C. Rees]

From A Different Universe: Reinventing Physics from the Bottom Down (2006) by Robert B. Laughlin:

The transition to the Age of Emergence brings to an end the myth of the absolute power of mathematics. This myth is still entrenched in our culture, unfortunately, a fact revealed routinely in the press and popular publications promoting the search for ultimate laws as the only scientific activity worth pursuing, notwithstanding massive and overwhelming experimental evidence that exactly the opposite is the case. We can refute the reductionist myth by demonstrating that rules are correct and then challenging very smart people to predict things with them. Their inability to do so is similar to the difficulty the Wizard of Oz has in returning Dorothy to Kansas. He can do it in principle, but there are a few pesky technical details to be worked out. One must be satisfied in the interim with empty testimonials and exhortations to pay no attention to the man behind the curtain. The real problem is that Oz is a different universe from Kansas and that getting from one to the other makes no sense. The myth of collective behavior following from the law is, as a practical matter, exactly backward. Law instead follows from collective behavior, as do things that flow from it. such as logic and mathematics. The reason our minds can anticipate and master what the physical world does is not because we are geniuses but because nature facilitates understanding by organizing itself and generating law.

An important difference between the present age [i.e. the Age of Emergence] and the age just past [i.e the Age of Reductionism] is the awareness that there are evil laws as well as good ones. Good laws, such as rigidity or quantum hydrodynamics, create mathematical predictive power through protection, the insensitivity of certain measured quantities to sample imperfections or computational errors. Were the world a happy place containing only good laws, it would indeed be true that mathematics was always predictive, and that mastering nature would always boil down to acquiring sufficiently large and powerful computers. Protection would heal all errors. But in the world we actually inhabit, dark laws abound, and they destroy predictive power by exacerbating errors and making measured quantities wildly sensitive to uncontrollable external factors. In the Age of Emergence it is essential to be on the lookout for dark laws and artfully steer clear of them, since failure to do so leads one into delusional traps. One such trap is inadvertently crossing a Barrier of Relevance, thereby generating multiple ostensibly logical paths that begin with nearly identical premises and reach wildly different conclusions. When this effect occurs it politicizes the discussion by generating alternative “explanations” for things that cannot be distinguished by experiment. Another trap is the hunt for the Deceitful Turkey, the mirage law that always manages to be just out of focus and just beyond reach, no matter how much the measurement technology is improved. Ambiguities generated by dark law also facilitate fraud, in that they allow a thing to be labeled quantitative and scientific when it is, in fact, so sensitive to the whim of the measurer that it is effectively an opinion.

The Greek pantheon came into being through a series of political compromises in which one tribe or group, prevailing over another in warfare, would exercise its authority not by wiping out the gods of the losers, which was too difficult, but by making those gods subordinate to their own. The ancient Greek myths are thus allegories of actual historical events that took place in the early days of consolidation of Greek civilization. While the “experiment” in that case was war, and the “truth” it revealed was some political reality, the psychological elements for inventing mythological laws were the same as those we use today to identify physical ones. You may feel that both are pathological human behaviors, but I prefer the more physical view that politics, and human society generally, grow out of nature and are really sophisticated high-level versions of primitive physical phenomena. In other words, politics is an allegory of physics, not the reverse. Either way, however, the similarity reminds us that once science becomes political it is indistinguishable from state religion. Under a system of truth by consensus one expects false gods to be systematically enshrined in the pantheon as a matter of expedience, and the cosmogony on occasion to become Fictional, just as occurred in ancient Greece, and for the same reasons.

Greek creation myths satirize many things in modern life, particularly cosmological theories. Exploding things, such as dynamite or the big bang, are unstable. Theories of explosions, including the first picoseconds of the big bang, thus cross Barriers of Relevance and are inherently unfalsiable, notwithstanding widely cited supporting “evidence” such as isotopic abundances at the surfaces of stars and the cosmic microwave background anisotropy. One might as well claim to infer the properties of atoms from the storm damage of a hurricane. Beyond the big bang we have really unfalsifable concepts of budding little baby universes with different properties that must have been created before the infationary epoch, but which are now fundamentally undetectable due to being beyond the light horizon. Beyond even that we have the anthropic principle—the “explanation” that the universe we can see has the properties it does by virtue of our being in it. It is fun to imagine what Voltaire might have done with this material. In the movie Contact the Jodie Foster heroine suggests to her boyfriend that God might have been created by humans to compensate for their feelings of isolation and vulnerability in the vastness of the universe. She would have been more on target had she talked about unfalsifiable theories of the origin of the universe. The political dynamic of such theories and those of the ancient Greeks is one and the same.

The political nature of cosmological theories explains how they could so easily amalgamate with string theory, a body of mathematics with which they actually have very little in common. String theory is the study of an imaginary kind of matter built out of extended objects, strings, rather than point particles, as all known kinds of matter—including hot nuclear matter—have been shown experimentally to be. String theory is immensely fun to think about because so many of its internal relationships are unexpectedly simple and beautiful. It has no practical utility, however, other than to sustain the myth of the ultimate theory. There is no experimental evidence for the existence of strings in nature, nor does the special mathematics of string theory enable known experimental behavior to be calculated or predicted more easily. Moreover, the complex spectroscopic properties of space accessible with today’s mighty accelerators are accountable in string theory only as “low-energy phenomenology”- a pejorative term for transcendent emergent properties of matter impossible to calculate from first principles. String theory is, in fact, a textbook case of a Deceitful Turkey, a beautiful set of ideas that will always remain just barely out of reach. Far from a wonderful technological hope for a greater tomorrow. it is instead the tragic consequence of an obsolete belief system—in which emergence plays no role and dark law does not exist.


The painful echoes of ancient Greece in modern science illustrate why we cannot live with uncertainty in the Age of Emergence. at least for very long. One often hears that we must do so, since the master laws do not matter and the little subsidiary ones are too expensive to ferret out, but this argument is exactly backward. In times of increased subtlety one needs more highly quantitative measurements, not fewer. A measurement that cannot be done accurately, or that cannot be reproduced even if it is accurate, can never be divorced from politics and must therefore generate mythologies. The more such shades of meaning there are, the less scientific the discussion becomes. Accurate measurement in this sense is scientific law and a milieu in which accurate measurement is impossible is lawless.

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