Aims and Consequences of Airstrikes

Patrick Cockburn

It was difficult at times to recall that the military intervention in Iraq being debated in the House of Commons involves sending six Tornadoes to bomb suspected Isis positions. It is very much a symbolic action from the British point of view. MPs seemed to be trying to grapple with the complexity of what is happening but not quite succeeding. Cameron and others made great play with the idea that military action is in support of a new, inclusive Iraqi government, when in fact it is as Shia-dominated as the old. Its most effective military strike force are Iranian-managed Shia militias but they, along with the Iraqi army, terrify the Sunni.

It is reasonable to bomb and give air cover to defend Kurds under attack by Isis, but giving air cover to the Iraqi army, Shia militias or peshmerga advancing into Sunni areas means joining one side in a sectarian civil war. Airstrikes are effective within very strict limits. Isis was a guerrilla organisation and easily reverts to guerrilla tactics, making it next to impossible to detect.

What was lacking in Cameron and Miliband’s speeches was any sense of the necessity of arranging ceasefires among the non-Isis forces in Syria. It is absurd to have a coalition against Isis that largely excludes those actually fighting Isis, such as the Syrian army, Iran, Hizbullah and the Syrian Kurds. Curious also that there was so little mention of Libya, where air intervention, supposedly used on humanitarian grounds, has led to a country torn apart by contending militias. Why did so few MPs even bring up Libya? Understandable why Cameron didn’t.


  • 28 September 2014 at 6:26am
    Neil Kitson says:
    Has any British politician ever apologized for the invasion of Iraq?

  • 29 September 2014 at 11:57am
    farthington says:
    Apologies are hardly appropriate because the invasion achieved its purpose.
    That is, the disintegration of the country. Ditto Libya. Ditto Syria.
    Albeit without success to date, the powers that be have been working on Lebanon for some time. Towards the same end.
    Cui bono?

    • 5 October 2014 at 5:54am
      bblacky says: @ farthington
      And who prithee is the one to benefit from all this violent Arab national disintegration? Name me a country beginning with "I" and I don't mean Iceland Indonesia Iran or Ireland.

      "Let's you and him fight."

  • 29 September 2014 at 6:21pm
    SixthPartWorld says:
    "It is absurd to have a coalition against Isis that largely excludes those actually fighting Isis, such as the Syrian army, Iran, Hizbullah and the Syrian Kurds."

    Salient point in discussion of this mini-intervention. Demonstrates the NATO consensus is to keep Syria in play. Obama apparently prefers the more circuitous path to uprooting global jihad in the Levant. Bombing ISIS is just the half-time intermission in the civil war. But at least he has managed to convey to Tayyip that he is serious about toning down the jihad, apparently outbidding Qatar for his allegiance and reigning in the rabid grey wolf. The fact that German anti-tank missiles have now made their way to capable YPG units is the one positive outcome so far of this re-boot.

  • 1 October 2014 at 2:47pm
    Timothy Rogers says:
    Interesting set of responses, the first illustrating an irrelevancy (apologies – a little late and of no practical value in dealing with the current situation regarding ISIS/ISIL), the second allegedly illustrating an allegedly sinister conspiracy swallowed whole by farthington. (To whom the question is addressed: why would the destruction of governments in the region – is that what he means? – be desirable? They will only be replaced by governments that are equally uncontrollable, because they have to deal with local problems in all kinds of weird ways in order survive, causing just as many problems for their Western sponsors as their predecessors.) His cui bono question is unmoored, since no one in the West has seemed to benefit from the collapse of Libya, Iraq, or Syria. At one time the leader-folks in the West were willing to accept these dictators (the increasingly bizarre Madame Gadaffi, Assad Senior and Junior (pinhead), Saddam the Terrible, etc.) but various pressures (real and imaginary) made them reverse directions – such is the nature of both life and politics, where yesterday’s ally/partner becomes today’s enemy. There’s no conspiracy here, just confusion (even about one’s own goals) and fear of mass-media criticism. There is certainly a humanitarian-intervention case to be made for destroying ISIS, even though the politics of arming its diverse foes are unclear – lots of potential for “blowback” and other forms of long-term failure, etc. farthington needs to grow up, but that seems unlikely, given the way he/she formulaically pounds the same old drum, again and again. Of course the US and UK leaders also need to gain some perspective about the unlikelihood of actually resolving the internecine problems of the Middle East, but sometimes, when the (political and mass-media) gun’s pointed at your own head, you’re likely to make a mistake or two in doing anything – and political leaders feel that they must do something rather than nothing, or else be tarred with the brushes of weakness or ineffectuality (Obama’s current situation in the USA political sinkhole). Let’s wait and see if the from-the-air targeting and military-training programs accomplish the objective of destroying ISIS (which, from any rationale perspective, should be destroyed as long as they feel it’s their valid prerogative to mass-murder people who refuse to tow the party-line). Hey farthington, life is sometimes short, nasty, and brutal, and it really doesn’t matter if you’re killed by your enemies or your friends. You and I have nothing at stake except an interest in how our own governments conduct themselves (both at home and abroad). To think that staking a strong pro- or anti-Western government position re. the ISIS crisis has any other meaning for the “folks on the ground” in Syria, Iraq, or Lebanon is a narcissistic fantasy. We supply the arms, they supply the malice (and the victims).

  • 2 October 2014 at 12:12am
    SixthPartWorld says:
    Certainly some people have benefitted, from the ruins of Libya and Syria at least, though this is not even the previous poster's point - regime-change is always a hedged bet - even though it clearly has not gone to NATO script in Libya or Syria it was assumed that weakening Russo/Perso friendly regimes was worth the effort and that there would be more booty than there has proven to be.

    You've royally missed the point: ISIS exists at the nexus of various interests - Qatari and Saudi aspirations i.e. paramilitary proxies throughout the Middle East in contradistinction to Hezbollah, mixed with Turkish opportunism and general sympathy with the MB project, Israel looking to deal as many cheap blows to Iran as possible, and the US looking to blow the wind one way or another and step in when things get out of hand, as now they clearly have.

    What I really take issue with is that you've flippantly replied to two prior commenters on this post and seemingly ignored my original comment, perhaps because it was too on point.

  • 2 October 2014 at 5:17pm
    Timothy Rogers says:
    Rather than missing 0.16’s point, I think his latest remarks amplify and strengthen my point. I.e., when you introduce an idea such as a nexus of both competing and intertwining interests of regional players (Qatar, Saudi Arabia, Iran, Hezbollah), all you do is (1) confirm the old observation that nations have no permanent allies or enemies, but permanent interests, and the criteria for satisfying those interests are always shifting, and (2) the UK, the US, and the rest of the West that has interests in the region (oil, arms sales, etc.) are actually incapable of bringing about a chain of events that will bypass disasters and failure (in other words, we’re doomed to fail, due to incompetence plus lack of real control over the regional players – the US never learned this in Vietnam, though it should have).

    As to flippancy, now that I’m, into my eighth decade of life, I’ve either earned the right to it, or, if not, don’t care if others find it offensive. Go ahead, laddie-boy, "take issue with it". As to the original “point”, its implications seem as muddy as the reasoning accompanying them. Let’s see, if we recruit Assad into the anti-ISIS coalition, we reverse several years of rhetoric and (some) action, without justifying exactly why is he is preferable to ISIS (he probably is, in the sense that Stalin was preferable to Hitler, for everyone except his fellow citizens) – in either case bad things are in store for many people in Syria. Bring in the Syrian Kurds – a non-starter, unless everyone has an acceptable agreement in mind that will unite Iraqi, Syrian, and Turkish Kurds into a new Kurdistan; this is not in the cards, especially those held by the Turks. Once again, we cannot control all of these players in a way that leads to an acceptable solution (the best being Assad gone, ISIS totally defeated, and everyone agreeing to tolerate the neighbors, cults, sects, and nationalities that they despise and to peacefully negotiate their differences through a series of compromises – this is the ultimate opium dream).

  • 3 October 2014 at 11:14pm
    SixthPartWorld says:
    I was only kidding quibbling with your flippancy. Sorry if you couldn't glean that. Reversing years of rhetoric is a daft excuse for not efficiently halting an imminent Kurdish genocide. To even try to phrase the question of whether Bashar is preferable to anarchic jihadi head-chopping is even dafter.

    Apparently we have very different prerogatives as to what "an acceptable solution" is. You're wrong about the Syrian Kurds. Tayyip has been bullied into accepting their political existence. The PKK no longer poses any existential threat to Turkey. Tayyip has flipped back and forth on almost every foreign policy position since Libya. For all his bluster he is bought very easily. Turkey has overplayed its hand and now has to toe whatever line Washington chooses.

  • 5 October 2014 at 3:42pm
    Timothy Rogers says:
    Here’s the problem (just one among many). Turkish politicians see Kurdish autonomy, however defined, as a step in a direction they fear and hate, affiliation with other Kurds in the region in an attempt to establish Kurdistan as an independent nation (an “existential threat” to Turkey’s current boundaries). “Toeing the Washington line” is always a bit misleading, since much of this is merely lip service and doesn’t alter the fact that D.C. is far away, and all our (Turkish, Iranian, Iraqi, Lebanese, etc.) problems are close by, so we’ll deal with them as we see fit.

    On an acceptable solution, that’s easy – use military force to carry out rescue missions (such as the one that got the Yazidis off the mountain or operations that prevent whole towns from being massacred if they refuse to “convert”) and to destroy as much of ISIS as possible. As to regional partners who go along with this, remember, they’re only in it for the short haul and that their reciprocal animosities will prevent an ideal “regional solution” from taking place, and no one in the West has the competence or power to force such a solution. Getting involved in a three-way civil war within Syria in a manner that aims at an ideal solution for that country is a no-win policy for all outside parties, who can only chip away at immediate crises, but who have no long-term solutions open to them because they don’t live in the neighborhood.

  • 6 October 2014 at 5:00am
    SixthPartWorld says:
    Turkey is less and less able to dictate to other countries how to treat their Kurds. And it is currently in no position to tell Washington what is off-limits vis-a-vis Syrian Kurds. Tayyip's desperate attempts to equate PKK "terrorism" and ISIS butchery are actually evidence of his having come to this realization and panicking like the spoilt asset that he is. His toeing the Washington line absolutely has been demonstrated - Turkish warplanes were seen hovering over Kobani shooting at ISIS mounted positions. And what's more the influx of PKK crossing into Rojava through Turkey confirm the flip and the new fealty. There is nothing misleading about these new realities. Of course things change quickly on the ground and Tayyip should be expected to double-cross Kurds at the soonest opportunity - it has already been reported his pilots have taken some potshots at YPG positions "in confusion" - but this is the most he can get away with for the time being. Demirtas is doing his damndest to keep him honest.

    Turkey is undeniably in a weaker position to play the spoiler as per Kurdish ambitions than it has ever been before. That does not mean Hakan Fidan and dim Davutoglu won't try to do just that. But Tayyip is much more vulnerable than western observers seem to imagine. Until last week Washington was likely weighing whether or not to keep Turkey's economy afloat. Obama and Biden have a dreadful relationship with Tayyip and his poodle Davutoglu - lately is based mostly on threats and open intimidation. Washington got its way on Libya which Tayyip was dead-set against letting NATO bomb to bits. He became a born-again Qaddafi-hater faster than you can say 'great man made river.' Not to mention the AKP has basically been elected as to be the party that will negotiate a settlement of the Kurdish issue in Turkey, so everything is in play - even Ocalan's release.

    But part of Turkey's diminished standing should also be attributed to the humiliation of their proxy, Barzani, when the YPG saved the Yezidis of Sinjar (Americans hogged the humanitarian limelight) and diverted the ISIS from Irbil despite Barzani sealing them off so ISIS could destroy them. Barzani showed how useless he and cowardly he was and now is begging to pose in photos with YPG units. For many this signals a shift of the balance of power within the Kurdish movement. Salih Muslim, Bayik and Karayilan, in different capacities now seem to act more or less untethered from Ocalan, and certainly command increased respect for unifying Kurds. After all, they save Barzani's blushes and they remain on the front lines, fighting to retain very hard-won enfranchisement. All three men repeatedly stress that they are striving for Kurdish autonomy as a means to greater democratization as end in and of itself, within each country with a Kurdish minority. They have disavowed independence as counterproductive, unequivocally, repeatedly. Avoiding dialogue with them is becoming increasingly untenable. Germany is now providing arms to the YPG and does not give a damn about Tayyip's griping.

    "Far away" and "close by" mean very little in this conflict. PKK operates out of Europe, Tayyip's operation is headquarterd in Qatar. ISIS is Chechen Euro-dominated. Intelligence agencies are omnipresent. Best to reconcile yourself to this.

  • 7 October 2014 at 1:35am
    Timothy Rogers says:
    Again you make my point. Multiple military or paramilitary organizations (let’s avoid “terrorists”, for the simple reason that terror is a tactic/strategy, but not an end goal or “movement”) on the ground, with members from several nations and headquarters abroad (a not very important point, though it’s tough to do “administrative” or organizational work in a combat zone – not enough WiFi, among other things; recruitment abroad is a separate problem that has to be tackled by the individual host countries of the recruited). Each of these well-armed Mid-Eastern regional players can be supported or punished by national governments, but at present none of them can be controlled by their sponsors or foes (thus the dim prospects of US/UK/Western systematic solutions they favor). “Far away” should not be understood literally, but figuratively – the US cannot effect its desired outcome because it is philosophically, and realistically (i.e., through practical stick-and-carrot politics) too distant from both the physical and mental zones of ISIS and the many small groups who are aiming for very particular goals. Regional allies may temporarily loan some of their services to the West in its attempt to diminish or extinguish ISIS, as members of a “coalition of the willing” (expecting a reward, one might add), but they too have their own game plans that do not conform with those of their Western allies (and trading partners).

    Part of the “winning the cold war” intoxication/illusion was the idea that without a formidable nation-state enemy the immense and technically sophisticated military power of the US could be projected anywhere, anytime, and arrive at a quick solution of some “problem” that allegedly impinged on US security interests (which were redefined as global). It just ain’t so. There is also a lack of experience, linguistic & cultural competence, and political and diplomatic sophistication that goes along with this. From a military point of view the US has won all the battles since (and including) Vietnam, while politically losing all the wars (not getting the desired outcome touted when entering them). This should tell our leaders something -- Obama knows it, but lets the US get too involved for domestic political reasons. (I don’t count Grenada and Panama as “wars”, though they certainly appeared to be to the locals there; undertaken on truly flimsy pretexts they achieved their goals – kick out their unsavory bums, install ours -- which you would expect when a nation of a quarter of a billion assaults a foe of hundreds of armed men – if that - in the one instance, and a few thousand in the other).

    Even with air power alone the US is capable of devastating ISIS so that their area of control shrinks, but it cannot eliminate ISIS as a political force. That depends on Syrians, Turks, Kurds, Iraqis, and Iranians, none of who seem in agreement about anything else important. Shrewd and competent politics (and money) might enable them to dry up the region’s sea of recruits, but the ideological attraction of the Caliphate (or something like it under another name) remains to be reactivated by the disgruntled and the fanatical. And that has several psychological components that won’t go away either: (1) extreme religious literalism; (2) “we’re not like you and never wish to be” -- the notion of removing all outside political and cultural influences as alien and disgusting; (3) it’s time for revenge (“we’ll show them”), and probably some others. The real inequities of the nations/societies where such movements flourish have to be taken into account too, so there is always a motivation to try sweeping change (and its usually delusory promises) that can be harnessed and directed by ambitious political actors.

  • 7 October 2014 at 2:41am
    SixthPartWorld says:
    You haven't grasped my point about the US-Turkish alliance so I will reify. ISIS has arisen for some very specific reasons in addition to the common ones that draw people to international jihad in this our unipolar world. ISIS has flourished in the anarchy that NATO and the gulf monarchs brought about. The group would be irrelevant were it not for the full financial and logistical support from Erdogan's MİT. Turkey is its umbilical cord. Thus there have always been pressure points available to US policymakers once they recognize their frankenstein, though they've proven clumsy and confused in finding them. As per long-term policing strategies in the Middle East, sure the US has little use for PKK-affiliates but that is not the point. The US has in fact previously armed the PKK through Talabani in the second gulf war for its counter-Iranian ends and to punish Turkey for declining to serve as launchpad for Iraqi invasion. That the US so far has chosen not to take comparable measures with the PYD when it is more impelled to is what I am lamenting as both a strategic misstep and a blunder that will lead to the preventable genocide of Kurds. If there is anything worth objecting to in your soliloquy it is that you're unwilling to consider trans-national ISIS as first and foremost a Turkey problem. Okay and also the fact that you seem inclined to view bloody sectarianism as somehow natural to middle eastern climes, obfuscating how things get cooked up by imperial powers.

  • 7 October 2014 at 2:03pm
    rupert moloch says:
    Aerial bombing is brutally efficient at destroying civil infrastructure or producing indiscriminate civilian casualties, but mostly worthless in combating sectarian insurgencies. I can't personally see any good outcome from the present US policy.

    In the absence of any meaningful coordination with the Kurdish forces at Kobane its impossible to see that the US & its subalterns can even provide effective ground support against the ISIL forces. In this respect I have to agree with SixthPartWorld; ISIL looks much like a Turkish proxy (& I expect them to politely stop at the Turkish border).

    Is this whole quagmire the echo of the last centuries several Balkan Wars - a long delayed resolution of arbitrary borders in the wake of the retreating Ottoman Empire? Tho' now complicated by a renascent sense of national mission at Ankara?

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