14/12: Aleppo, humanitarian visas, & time for some game theory

I'm trying to get in the habit of blogging more regularly again. It's been a long time though - since 2012, basically - and I'm facing the problem that I now have a much higher standard for how sensible an opinion has to be before I'm willing to publish it. So I'm going to try doing a daily post about a few different things, not pretending to have a really well-developed take on any of them. (Daily once my holiday's over, anyway.)

I am a big disbeliever in writing things that have been written better (or even only as well) somewhere else before, just for the sake of it being me who wrote them. So this'll try to stick to stuff that you (typical reader of my blog; I know what you're like) wouldn't read if you didn't read it here.
Short today - here goes...


Aleppo is captured: Syrian government forces and allies have almost completed their capture of eastern Aleppo, which has been held by rebel forces for several years. The capture is extraordinarily brutal; there are reports of summary executions, humanitarian (including medical) aid hasn't been able to reach the city, and things are unlikely to get better as the regime reasserts itself and starts making reprisals against rebels and people aligned with them.

This is a horrifying tragedy which is rightly occupying a lot of the world's attention. But there's also a lot of bullshit flying around. One egregious part of that is the way the most unreconstructed segment of the hard British left is denying the brutality of the siege and capture, apparently out of strange solidarity with Russia. More pervasive, though, is the aggressive posturing about the UK Parliament's vote in 2013 not to participate in air strikes against the Assad regime.

I don't call this posturing lightly. I'm sure people see themselves as making a serious point about the UK's moral failings and the lessons we should draw for the future. Nonetheless: it is posturing, because it doesn't make sense as anything else. The 2013 vote happened because the US was planning air strikes against Assad, and the UK needed to decide whether to join them. But the US strikes never occurred, because President Obama and John Kerry decided to support a Russia-mediated diplomatic response instead. The only realistic take on this situation is that the UK would not have ended up launching any air strikes, even if the result in Parliament had been the reverse.

More importantly, the strikes being proposed at the time weren't intended to help overthrow the Assad regime, or even to worsen its military position. They were planned only in response to a chemical weapons attack, to damage the Syrian army's capacity to launch such attacks and discourage it from doing so. Even if both the US and the UK had conducted the military operations proposed in 2013, it would not have made a difference to the progress of the war. That's the sole reasonable assessment given the actions that were actually being discussed, and it's what even those proposing them said at the time.

The Syrian war is a hideous humanitarian catastrophe. It's natural to wish that Western governments had done something that could have helped avert it. But it's very difficult to make an argument that there was such a course of action available. And it's outright ludicrous to suggest that there was some single moment where there was a clear right thing to do on the table and we reprehensibly failed to do it. It's not possible to think seriously about this conflict and reach that conclusion. Hence, posturing, with the motivated goal of concluding that Ed Miliband has blood on his hands or that Stop The War is stupid, or whatever you like.

Since I read more about migration than you... I haven't seen this covered except in the Express, where it had a "losing control of borders" spin, so I may have some details wrong. The European Court of Justice will hear a case concerning whether the Belgian government must consider applications for humanitarian visas lodged from outside the country by people with no existing links to Belgium. A Syrian family applied for humanitarian visas - which are temporary, not granting full refugee status - at the Belgian embassy in Lebanon. Belgium, obviously, does not want to consider these applications. But if they have to, that would be a positive step in many respects: allowing asylum seekers to make claims without travelling to the country they're applying to is the number one way of reducing their likelihood of making life-threatening journeys. (Number one not because it's most effective at reducing them, but because it's one of the few ways which is both somewhat effect and clearly morally acceptable.)

Since I spend more time on Twitter than you... there are lots of jokes about game theory flying around this week, which are totally mysterious if you didn't encounter the original, this Tweet:

What follows is 120 (!) tweets in a thread, in which Eric Garland (some sort of strategy analyst) gives a potted history of the last twenty years, in which everybody who did anything that he didn't like is - whether through nefariousness, naivety or just coincidence - an agent of Russian interests, and then concludes with a weird peroration about what true patriotism means. There is never any game theory.

The jokes are not very sophisticated. Their premise is that the guy appears not to be very smart and the tweets are really bad, so it's funny to reproduce variations of them. And there are so, so many variations.

Should read: Andrew Leigh on the importance of trade unions. Short, simple, and probably nothing you haven't heard before in some form or another, but good to be reminded of.