Oh No, Not More Bombing in Syria?
Kevin P Clements
David Cameron the British Prime Minister has just made his appeal to the House of Commons for cross party support for British bombing in Syria. He claimed to have learned from the mistakes of Iraq but his statement was eerily reminiscent of all the old arguments for the Bush/Blair military interventions in Afghanistan,Iraq and Libya.
His primary rationale is that ISIS is a threat to the UK because the seven disrupted plots to the UK last year were all linked to ISIS or inspired by them. He then made the argument for being there because the US and France want the UK’s help and the RAF is able to carry out “dynamic targeting” with its Brimstone Missiles and RAPTOR pod.
All of this was meant to create a “moral case for action”. “If we cannot act now when France has been attacked, when would we act?”. Mmmm who needs a Brimstone missile? I thought that fire and brimstone were the preserve of the devil!!
He then went on to argue that even though there is a political process underway “we cannot wait for that to finish before degrading Isis”… and then somewhat tendentiously argued that “ every day we wait ISIS could grow stronger”.
He then argued that the UN security council resolution authorises military action-when a close reading of the text indicates that it does not.
To try and assuage critics who worry about the aftermath of more bombing he argued that “the government has a full strategy for tackling Isis, involving military and diplomatic action. Humanitarian support is a factor too” As he put it “ Aid to Syrians in refugee camps is helping to ensure they do not need to travel to Europe.”
Once again he is extremely vague about the specifics and is using the humanitarian argument to ensure that very few Syrians end up on Europe’s doors or worse the doors of the United Kingdom.
He keeps on saying that a diplomatic solution is the right one but then says “We cannot wait for that to happen” .
There is no acknowledgement that escalating the military action will make diplomacy more problematic.
Jeremy Corbyn posed 7 questions.
1) Will British action make a difference on the ground? Will it contribute to a war-winning strategy.
2) Can the conflict be won without troops on the ground? Would the Kurds take over, or other extremists?
3) Would there be mission creep? Can Cameron rule out troops on the ground?
4) Does the UN resolution give clear legal authorisation for action? And what is being done to cut off arms supplies to Isis? And would there be a greater risk of incidents like the shooting down of the Russian warplane this week?
5) How would this contribute to an end to the Syrian civil war?
6) What assessment has Cameron been given of the impact of air strikes on the chances of terrorist attacks in the UK? And what are the chance of civilian casualties from air strikes?7) Does Cameron accept air strikes could risk more unintended consequences?
None of these are knock out questions and Corbyn is clearly uncomfortable asking them.
Cameron answered these questions by stating that there were 70,000 moderate Syrian forces able to help and they will transform the politics on the ground! He claimed that Syria has no future as long as the caliphate exists and he was willing to accept the positive and negative consequences of his decision.
The Scottish National Party was more forthright than Corbyn , and , Angus Robertson, stated that unless there are clear answers to the SNP’s questions about political transition and who will secure the peace the SNP will not vote for air strikes.
Interestingly Julian Lewis, the Conservative chair of the Commons defence committee, says “Isis must be beaten militarily. But air strikes need to be launched alongside ground forces. In addition he said “the claim that there are 70,000 moderate Syrian opposition fighters is a revelation to him. (He’s implying it is not true.) The West has to choose between backing Assad and backing Isis, he says.
In response Cameron said that the 70,000 figure comes from the joint intelligence committee (JIC). It is an independent figure. and that his document was cleared by the JIC. This makes me wonder who is in control here!!
Another Conservative MP Peter Lilley Peter Lilley, said he needs Cameron to convince him that the Free Syrian Army exists, and that it is not just a “rag-bag group of tribal forces with no coherent force”. There are no moderates,”
So the debate continues. Here are my thoughts.
The reality is that bombing Syria will not prevent disgruntled political actors living in Europe from engaging in lone wolf or even coordinated violent politics as acts of revenge for what they perceive as unjustifiable attacks on their homeland by foreign forces. In other words it does not make Britain and British citizens more secure it might in fact make them more insecure. If this is true Cameron’s principle argument for deeper British military engagement fails.
The Prime Minister rests his strategic arguments on resistance from the Kurds and an assumed 70,000 moderate troops just waiting to join the fight. Turkey, the UK’s Nato ally in the region is more worried about the Kurds than they are about ISIS and have been bombing them whenever they can. All external powers claim to rely heavily on Kurdish resistance to both ISIS and Basher Assad but all are unwilling to give the Kurds a separate homeland which has to be a factor in any political outcome to this brutal conflict. In fact the Turkish government has been giving support to ISIS as long as they attack the Kurds. This is the weakest part of the Cameron argument. Apart from some vague intelligence assessment, we do not know that there are 70,000 combat capable troops in Syria that are able to seize territory and replace ISIS and Assad with a more congenial political regime . On the contrary if Iraq, Afghanistan and Libya are examples to go by the successor regimes might be worse than the ones that are being replaced. If the West chooses to rely on Kurdish resistance it has to be much more critical of Turkey than is currently the case.
The Guardian has published a devastating critique of Cameron’s position from former US General John Allen . Cameron argues that there is a credible military strategy to defeat Isil in Syria as well as Iraq. As Ewan MacAskill points out, however,
”If there is, no one has told the US. In private briefings and in public testimony to Congress, a long line of senior American officers have acknowledged frustration with the battle against Islamic State. General John Allen, who was in overall charge of the US campaign in Syria and Iraq, has quit after a year.A marine commander, Lieutenant General Robert Neller, offering his best assessment of how the war is going, described it as a “a stalemate”.The US-led coalition engaged in air attacks in Syria and Iraq had by the middle of last month conducted 7,600 attacks (4,900 in Iraq and 2,700 in Syria). Their main problem is finding targets to hit. Isis has long learned the danger of deploying in mass in the open.The pilots frequently return to base without firing missiles or dropping bombs, partly they say because of fear of hitting civilians but mainly because after a year there is little left to hit. So what can the UK add? Nothing much that is not already being done by the US, France and other allies.The bombing raids do serve a useful purpose in that Isis fighters cannot move around as easily as they once did. It makes them more cautious, having to watch the sky for a drone or fighter aircraft” .
But they are not incapacitated or defeated only more cautious.
Since the UN Resolution does not specifically authorise the use of military force against ISIS Cameron resorted to the argument of national self defence as the legitimation for the venture. This is a bit hard to argue when – apart from the two attacks on France – most European states have not been subject to direct or indirect attack from ISIS over the past 4 years.
The fact is bombing will not solve anything. It will complicate the diplomatic solution. There is nothing much left to bomb, air attacks will generate more direct and indirect suffering and more refugees, and, more importantly, it will generate more insecurity than security, which is the prime justification for British engagement in bombing. It is perpetuating a self defeating cycle of viciousness, violence and revenge.
This whole debate has little to do with resolving the Syrian crisis and everything to do with British desires to be seen as politically influential when its diplomatic influence has been diminishing since the shameful Blair years.
If the British parliament and people support UK bombing in Syria it will only serve to reinforce Britain’s diplomatic decline. It will also make it impossible for Britain to exert moral non violent leadership against all those , ISIS, the Saudis, the Gulf States, Russia , the US and France whose first option seems to be violence .
The world is desperate for some non violent and creative problem solving rather than the application of brute force. I hope the Commons will once again vote no to more bombing in Syria.