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Britain in Syria: a gift to ISIS

The impact of London's vote for airstrikes in Syria will be magnified by ISIS's media war.

Flickr/Defence Images. Some rights reserved. Flickr/Defence Images. Some rights reserved.The lower house of the British parliament voted late on 2 December to extend the country's air war to Syria. The United Kingdom will thus become the fourth western state to be involved along with France and Australia, though the United States remains the dominant force in the whole operation. British aircraft will bring a little bit extra to the raids but the political significance of their deployment is much greater than the military one. Now that Saudi Arabia, Jordan, Bahrain and the UAE have all stopped their own airstrikes on Syria, the anti-ISIS campaign has become almost entirely a western war.

Overall, this is an element largely missed by the western media. But it will be used relentlessly by ISIS propagandists as they portray this as a “crusader war” against Islam.

That depiction includes Russia’s increasing role. Until recently, Russian forces were operating airstrikes from a single airbase near Latakia on Syria's Mediterranean coast, together with two smaller forward operating bases (FOBs) dependent partly on helicopter supply. Russia is now in the process of a rapid expansion that will come close to doubling its involvement, including an enlarged airbase at Shayrat airport near Homs, and two more FOBs. 

Moscow also seeks to ensure protection for its planes in light of Turkey's destruction of one of its jets. It has begun to install the long-range S-400 ground-launched anti-aircraft missile in Latakia, and there may well be deployments to Shayrat as well. Most of this military activity is directed at supporting Bashar al-Assad's regime, and its planes and helicopters hardly face any threat from what remains of the Syria airforce. Thus the new missile placement must be seen as a signal to states such as Turkey and Israel not to threaten Russian forces. The risk of miscalculation on all sides is a recipe for increased tension.

This is the complex and disorganised theatre of war that the UK is now moving into. But it is also a war that is accelerating in other directions. All the indications from Washington are that the administration is intent on expanding the air war in both Syria and Iraq. Stars and Stripes, the newspaper of the United States military, says the US “will adjust its tactics and risk more civilian casualties when launching air strikes against high-value targets in Syria and Iraq as part of an effort to increase pressure on Islamic State militants.” More civilians will be killed but, as the chair of the US joint chiefs of staff, General Joseph Dunford, put it so plainly this week:  “Our threshold for collateral damage increases with the value of the target”.

A clear element of “mission creep” is revealed by the fact that US special forces will operate in greater numbers and at higher levels both in Syria and Iraq, engaging particularly in search-and-destroy operations against ISIS leadership elements. Almost certainly, this reflects the Pentagon's determination that – in the absence of progress elsewhere – it is time to relearn the lessons of the JSOC's activities in Iraq a decade ago, when Task Force 145 took the war to Al-Qaida in Iraq (AQI). The group was then directed by its Jordanian leader, Abu Musab al-Zarqawi.

This history is worth remembering, since so many of the paramilitary survivors of that bitter, brutal and largely unreported war have gone on to make up significant parts of the hard-core, middle-ranking ISIS paramilitaries that are ensuring the survival of the movement.

A growing network

There are two further developments to consider in a war that, it is often said, is going badly for ISIS. The first is that ISIS in Syria, let alone Iraq, is proving far more robust and able to organise the towns and cities it now controls. It is aided by an apparently unending supply of technocrats from the Iraqi Ba’athist era who are able to handle the details.

The ISIS-run areas are responsible for managing all routine matters such as water supplies, policing, sewage disposal, transport, schools, taxation, control of roads, street cleaning and commercial permits.  This is little reported in the west, yet though the ultimate rule may be brutal, routine living conditions can actually be safer in and around Raqqa than in chaotic and violent districts nearby that ISIS does not control. So much so that there are actually some refugee flows into ISIS-controlled area since they are seen as safer than much of the rest of Syria.

The second, and again almost entirely missed, feature of ISIS behaviour is the considerable attention it is now paying to establishing a second proto-caliphate in the Libyan port city of Sirte. There, it has a city and many miles of coast under its control, and is reported to be gaining access to oil resources as well.  A new United Nations report says that ISIS has moved 2,000-3,000 paramilitary fighters to join the existing ISIS-linked elements in Sirte. This opens the possibility of direct links to the north across the Mediterranean towards Italy, and south across the Sahara towards countries in the Sahel such as Mali and Niger. 

In short, ISIS may be under serious pressure, but it shows no signs of facing defeat in Syria and Iraq and is actually expanding in Libya. The UK parliament’s decision to join the bombing of ISIS in Syria may have considerable political meaning in Britain, but in the wider scheme of things it is not much more than a sideshow.

A new front

Even so, it is likely to become progressively more controversial within the UK, an element that may well be highlighted by the nature of the very first attacks carried out within hours of the end of the parliamentary debate. Four RAF Tornados flew from Akrotiri in Cyprus and attacked six targets in an oilfield in eastern Syria with Paveway IV bombs, an attack that was intended to damage ISIS oil production.

Yet it is highly unlikely that the people actually operating that oilfield would have been dedicated ISIS paramilitaries and far more likely that they would have been ordinary workers. Two days ago the Pentagon announced that US warplanes had destroyed over a hundred oil tankers, but who was driving them? Most likely they were ordinary contract drivers for transport companies, albeit under ISIS control.

In short, trying to destroy ISIS from the air will inevitably mean many civilian casualties, but the UK, French, US and other governments will hardly want to focus on that: as General Tommy Franks of the US army said early in the Iraq war, “we don’t do body counts”. 

No indeed, “we” don’t, but “they” do. Indeed it is certain that ISIS propagandists will already be at work publicising the backgrounds of people who got killed by the RAF attacks, probably with photos of their families and plenty of other personal details. That is the nature of the war that the House of Commons has approved.

About the author

Paul Rogers is professor in the department of peace studies at Bradford University, northern England. He is openDemocracy's international security adviser, and has been writing a weekly column on global security since 28 September 2001; he also writes a monthly briefing for the Oxford Research Group. His latest book is Irregular War: ISIS and the New Threat from the Margins (IB Tauris, 2016), which follows Why We’re Losing the War on Terror (Polity, 2007), and Losing Control: Global Security in the 21st Century (Pluto Press, 3rd edition, 2010). He is on Twitter at: @ProfPRogers

A lecture by Paul Rogers, delivered to the Food Systems Academy in late 2014, provides an overview of the analysis that underpins his openDemocracy column. The lecture - "The crucial century, 1945-2045: transforming food systems in a global context" - focuses on the central place of food systems in human security worldwide. Paul argues that food is the pivot of humanity's next great transition. It can be accessed here


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