Ben Gurion and the Altalena: a Lesson for the FSA

Here is another impassioned piece from NOW Lebanon reporter and Syrian revolution enthusiast, Michael Weiss. Weiss is one of the many commentators in some way apologizing for the prominence of Jihadist organisations among Syria’s rebels.

The argument is the following. The real responsibility for why Jihadists such as Jabhat al-Nusra are ever-growing in popularity in Syria lies in the West’s apathy. What else are the rebels to do? Where else can they get weapons? It’s really not Syrians’ own fault that they come to fight for the same banner that brought down the Twin Towers and killed thousands of American soldiers in Iraq– it’s the West’s fault for not preventing these innocent souls from joining the dark side. (Given this point of view, it’s no surprise that much outrage ensued when it was reported that US intelligence officers want the FSA to confront Al-Nusra before receiving military aid).

But this argument is horrible. It’s clearly true that Jihadism is now the primary obstacle for the Syrian revolution in its pursuit of Western aid and subsequent success. But it’s not the West not giving weapons that has lead to Jihadism; it’s the Jihadism that is stopping the West from providing weapons. It’s not the West’s fault that the Syrian rebels have been unable to a) form a unified command or provisional government, or b) stay away from fundamentalist murderers such as Al Qaeda, who are not only evil but an absolute PR nightmare. Right now the Syrian rebels’ are not just fighting Assad; they are also actively antagonizing the one superpower that could deliver them an easy victory.

Which brings me to Ben Gurion. The Zionist project was not without its inner strife. Rivaling the social-democratic Haganah (and its elite unit Palmach) were the right-wing outfits of Lehi and Irgun (the latter led by Menachem Begin). Their conflict ultimately resulted in what is known as the Altalena Affair of 1948.  After Ben Gurion declared statehood in 1948, he integrated both Haganah and the right-wing militias into Israel’s national army, the IDF. However, while Israel was under an arms-embargo during the War of Independence, Begin’s Irgun sought to continue smuggling arms for operations of its own units (particularly in Jerusalem). The conflict came to ahead when Ben Gurion ordered the IDF to destroy the loaded Irgun arms ship the Altalena, in which operation more than a 30 Irgun fighters were killed. (This was a costly operation at the time; Israel relied heavily on Irgun operations in Jerusalem, and indeed ended up losing the Old City in a traumatic battle).

To be sure, the Altalena is exceedingly small peanuts compared to any possible situation faced by the FSA. But the point remains this. As FSA leader Salam Idriss must realize, the Syrian rebellion’s fatal weakness from the start was its flirtation with Islamic radicalism. Every time the Syrian rebels drop a hint that Syria’s post-Assad future might be Jihadist chaos, their victory moves that much further towards the horizon, just as it moves Obama into the arms of Putin. So as a true leader for his people Idriss must follow in Ben Gurion’s footsteps, and clearly indicate that there should be a single genuine Syrian revolutionary force, and that it’s unwavering aim is a democratic and liberal Free Syria.


5 thoughts on “Ben Gurion and the Altalena: a Lesson for the FSA

  1. A Western strategy of trying to decide who the good guys are and intervening to help them is unlikely to work. The Syrian conflict is becoming an increasinly ethnic\religious one. Such a war does not have good guys or bad guys. It has rival families slaughtering each other out of fear and greed.

  2. Also, it’s a little bit unfair to say that “right now the Syrian rebels’ are not just fighting Assad; they are also actively antagonizing the one superpower that could deliver them an easy victory”, since

    1) the rebel front is terribly fragmented
    2) it is therefore hard to believe that they could decide on any such diplomatic strategy
    3) it is even less likely that, were they to decide on such a strategy, they would be able to pursue it and leave the Jabhat out of the war

    The Ben Gurion comparison, in other words, does not fit the case since BG was in a position to make them fall in line, having roughly 5 to 6 times as many soldiers under his command.

    Moreover, the circumstances here are quite different in other respects:

    1) The attack took place during the first truce, meaning did not have his hands full, having to fight a vastly superior enemy at the same time
    2) BG’s concern was internal, not external. He was concerned with rivals to his own position at home, not with how his effort would look outside of Israel. This is witnessed by the fact that the weapons actually came from Israel’s western allies, not from some party whose involvement would jeopardize its standing with the powers that were delivering them their victory.

  3. I knew that this one would stir up some (justified) controversy. And I agree that Idriss is not right now in a position to doing anything similar to what Ben Gurion did (as well as Syria being pretty much intractable).

    What I do want to insist, though, is that it’s the rebels’ own responsibility to, you know, generally abstain from joining murderous horrifying ideologies, but in particular to precisely *get* a unified command, and with that command effectively manage their project and its PR. If it’s the West’s responsibility (as alleged) to help Syrians get their ‘freedom’ and ‘democracy’, is not the least thing the rebels can do to a) clearly profess a univocal desire for said freedom and democracy, and b) make sure the West’s assistance doesn’t come back to bite them? In general it’s sort of inconceivable to me that two years into this the Syrian revolution is still a fragmented shambles.A typical case I thought was the stepping down of that Khatib man. Why is the leader of Syria’s national revolutionary project stepping down after a year or so? What sort of commitment is this? In that regard, the reference to Ben Gurion was intended thus: clearly the Zionist project would never have succeeded without its relative unity of purpose and committed leadership over several decades. If the Syrian Sunnis can’t get past their internal differences, or summon the effective leadership, to at least organize their state before turning on one another, they’re just not meeting the minimal conditions for an effective national project.Of course much of this comes down to deeper problems within Syrian and Arab societies generally; problems with the role of religion, proper organization (rather than chaotic gathering), etc. But that only reaffirms the point that, at least in so far as it aspires to Western aid, the command of Syria’s revolution should focus on these issues foremost, at least as far as PR.

    Finally one detail I also want to dissent from is that the Altalena Affair didn’t relate to PR. First it was actually not the West supplying weapons to Israel at that point; it was the Soviet Union through the Czech Republic. But also, the Yishuv establishment was always keenly aware of the need for the proper appearance of statehood etc., even if the reality wasn’t there yet. So one of the motivations certainly was to establish the State of Israel’s monopoly on the use of force, as such meeting int’l standards for legitimate statehood. Also, as you’re right to point out (and as I just discovered), the affair happened during the cease-fire period, and apparently there was a worry that the arms shipment could be seen as breaking this agreement.

  4. (Though, certainly you’re right to point out that Ben Gurion did not have nearly as clear as a PR imperative in securing int’l support as the FSA does in not associating with Al Qaeda. But that would seem to make the case for the latter policy only stronger).

  5. Pingback: Rebel Commander “Eats Heart”, Provides Best Possible Argument against Intervention |

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