Fallujah, 2007. Flickr/ Arlo Ringsmuth. Some rights reserved.The British Prime Minister presented his case in parliament today (26 November, 2015) for launching attacks against ISIS/ISIL/Daesh/Islamic State in Syria. Two years ago, a similar request was unexpectedly defeated in the House of Commons and David Cameron has said he will not put it to a vote again unless he is ‘confident of enough votes to win’.
The 36-page memorandum which outlines the Prime Minister’s case for war starts by acknowledging that the decision to use force is “not to be taken lightly” and is “one of the most significant decisions that any government takes”. Many pages are then devoted to the threat posed by ISIL and the need to defeat it. Yet nowhere does it explain how dropping more bombs on them will lessen or eliminate this threat. In fact, Cameron himself freely admits in the conclusion of the memorandum that “air strikes alone cannot defeat ISIL”. In purely military terms, the only way to uproot ISIL from its strongholds in Syria is by chasing them out with ground forces, and David Cameron knows that very well.
This is where the miraculous 70,000 “fighters who do not belong to extremist groups” comes into the picture. Many Syrian analysts have expressed surprise and even astonishment at this number, since most assume the ‘moderate’ military opposition to Assad is much smaller as well as divided against itself and largely ineffectual except in a few small areas currently under their control.
Among the 70,000 are presumably the Kurdish fighters, who are not only fighting Assad and ISIL but also Turkey, one of our allies currently crowding the skies over Syria with their military aircraft. Also within that number are presumably the Turkmen fighters, who are not only fighting Assad and ISIL but also those same Kurdish fighters - and, as we saw just a couple of days ago, the Russians, another of our allies dropping bombs on Syria. In other words, ISIL is not likely to be pushed out of Raqqa or anywhere else in Syria until there is a political settlement in Syria which allows a national Syrian army (comprising Sunni Arabs) to retake control of areas like Raqqa from ISIL.
Also among this range of armed groups are clearly some who have not only been fighting each other but also selling weapons and/or buying oil from ISIL. It is well known that many of the groups opposing Assad and previously being armed by the US and other outside parties have ended up joining forces with ISIL, adding significantly to ISIL’s growing inventory of US-made weapons.
But the most crucial point about defeating ISIL is made right at the end of the dossier itself, even though it is flatly contradicted by Cameron’s opening statement. The dossier ends by asserting that, “only moderate Sunni Arabs can retake traditionally Sunni Arab areas such as Raqqa” and “without transition [to a post-Assad government] it will continue to be difficult to generate a Sunni force able to fight ISIL and hold ground in Eastern Syria”.
In other words, ISIL is not likely to be pushed out of Raqqa or anywhere else in Syria until there is a political settlement in Syria which allows a national Syrian army (comprising Sunni Arabs) to retake control of areas like Raqqa from ISIL. That is the conclusion of the dossier itself, and yet at the beginning, Cameron starts out by saying we cannot wait for a political settlement, we must take action now, because “we do not have the luxury of being able to wait until the Syrian conflict is resolved before tackling ISIL”.
This is nonsensical. The reality is that we do not have the luxury of rushing into attacking ISIL now when we know it cannot be defeated militarily unless and until there is a political solution to the Syrian conflict.
The Prime Minister claims that in addition to bombing, he will put his “full diplomatic weight” behind the Vienna talks aimed at reaching a political solution to the Syrian conflict. But he fails to explain how more bombing will contribute to ensuring that those talks are successful.
Indeed, as we have already seen with the shooting down of a Russian fighter jet by Turkey, the more parties that are engaged in bombing Syria, the more difficult a political solution could become.
Either we, as the UK and other parties to the ‘coalition’, can stop arming and funding the Syrian opposition so that Assad can deal with ISIL or we can help hammer out a peace agreement between Assad and the Syrian opposition so that they can deal with ISIL together.
Russia is opposed to ISIL but it has also made no secret of the fact that it is flying over Syria at the request of the Assad regime with the aim of strengthening the Assad regime vis-à-vis all the military forces arrayed against it. Since in the northwest that includes Turkmen forces who are directly supported by Turkey, that puts Russia and Turkey on a collision course with each other. Turkey, meanwhile, is fighting its own internal war against the Kurdish fighters and is therefore certainly not assisting those same fighters across the border in Syria. Russia is also undoubtedly attacking other forces in Syria which the Prime Minister is currently counting as being among the 70,000 ‘moderates’ upon whom he is pinning all his hopes.
However brutal and repressive Bashar al-Assad may be, he is currently the leader of a sovereign state which is still recognised as legitimate by most other countries in the world. And despite a civil war that has been raging for over four years, the opposition groups supported by a range of other Middle Eastern countries as well as by the USA have singularly failed to dislodge him. While David Cameron calls Assad “one of ISIL’s greatest recruiting sergeants”, the indisputable fact is that ISIL stepped into the vacuum created by the civil war itself.
It is an open secret that the USA, mainly through the CIA, has been funding, arming and supporting the Syrian opposition from the outset. Undeterred by the disastrous results of ‘regime change’ in Iraq and Libya, the US, UK and other western powers have been determined to see regime change in Syria and have been trying for four years to help that along by supporting the Free Syrian Army and other military groups trying to oust Assad.
David Cameron insists that, unlike in 2013, British military involvement in Syria now would be solely aimed at ISIL and not at the Assad regime. In fact he says that the aim of British involvement is to “enable a ceasefire to be established between the regime and the opposition”.
But herein lies the whole paradox of the Syrian situation. The only military force on the ground capable of beating back ISIL and re-gaining control of Raqqa and other territory lost to ISIL are the armed forces of the government of Syria. Either we, as the UK and other parties to the ‘coalition’, can stop arming and funding the Syrian opposition so that Assad can deal with ISIL or we can help hammer out a peace agreement between Assad and the Syrian opposition so that they can deal with ISIL together. Ironically, adding to the mayhem that is over Syria right now with more bombers targeting ISIL is more likely to result in the military victory of Assad over the more ‘moderate’ opposition forces rather than the reverse.
The Prime Minister says several times in his dossier that we must “learn the lessons from previous conflicts”, and yet the only lesson that he mentions is the need to plan better for the aftermath. The real lesson of the Iraq War appears to have been overlooked: bombing, invading and occupying other countries is not a twenty-first century way to win friends and influence people. It is more likely to create more enemies and more recruits for extremist groups like ISIL.
The Prime Minister’s dossier claims that Britain’s current military efforts against ISIL in Iraq have “suppressed their ability to conduct external attacks”. If that is the case, then how does he explain the recent murders in Paris and Beirut, not to mention the many other terrorist attacks that he himself lists.
Bombing Syria and Iraq has increased terrorist activities around the world and increased the numbers of people joining ISIL rather than the reverse. Why would more of the same be expected to achieve anything different?