Unwinnable War Two
It’s war time again. Earlier this month the Commons Foreign Affairs Select Committee (FAC) noted that legal opinion is at best divided on the legality of whacking Islamic State without Chapter VII support, but last Friday the UN passed resolution 2249 enjoining member states to take ‘all necessary measures’ – UN-speak for military action – against IS. David Cameron will probably seek and get Commons approval for war next week, a move that’s already had the spin-off benefit of splitting Labour’s Corbynites and hawks.
As Obama said the other day, France is the United States’ oldest ally. Meanwhile we British, too, stand shoulder-to-shoulder with our oldest enemy, hailed this week by Cameron as ‘friends and allies’. In the Orwellian perma-war, memory is slavery and amnesia emancipation. Signifier-flotation rules. Yesterday’s cheese-eating surrender monkeys
emerge as a bastion of civilisation against the ragheads du jour. Notoriously, back in 2003 when Chirac was sensibly blocking Bush and Blair’s pursuit of a Security Council mandate for the idiocy in Iraq, the US Congress diner rebranded French fries and toast as ‘freedom fries’ and ‘freedom toast’, which others copied (regrettably I haven’t traced a use of ‘freedom letters’). But now a higher trump has blown, as it did a hundred years ago when Gaul and Saxon, with the tsar, united to carve up Ottoman domains including Syria and Iraq. Now these two dog-eared ex-imperia, both pawing at the top table with their nukes and permanent UN Security Council membership, are again burying their old contention.
For Britain, that means extending the bombing of IS from Iraq to targets in Syria. But, since the war’s aim is to annihilate IS, and nobody thinks that that can be achieved by air strikes alone, the prospective means falls short of its end: just war doctrine says, for what it’s worth, that wars should be started only with reasonable prospects of success. The RAF has enough bomb-power to kill a lot of civilians but not enough to ‘eradicate’ IS. Cameron’s point-by-point response to the FAC proposes to plug the means-end gap with boots on the ground – filled not by British troops but local irregulars, whose main asset is their dispensability to Western public opinion.
This ragged corps, wished into cohesion as al-Jaysh as-Suri al-Hurr or the ‘Free Syrian Army’ (FSA), and boosted to 70,000 by the Joint Intelligence Committee, seems to be thought of as a white-hatted cadre of bien pensant cannon fodder to be deployed at will against the bad guys – principally IS, but presumably also al-Qaeda’s Syrian affiliate Jabhat al-Nusra, which has won a steady stream of recruits from the FSA. A US training initiative aimed at turning 5000 local fighters (‘moderates’) into hipster stormtroopers produced fewer than 100 graduates, many of the rest being tainted with ‘radicalism’. How these auxiliaries will be deployed in the field under a unified command and intelligence structure, so as to work in tactical concert with allied forces, is left blank.
Still, the political strategy almost makes the military one look as if it lacks stupidity. It calls for making allies of regional unfriends like Assad, Putin and maybe Iran, to whom the reassertion of Sunni power in Mesopotamia is anathema. It also calls for the reconciliation of unfriends of unfriends such as Erdoğan with Putin, a quixotic project even before the Turks shot down a Russian jet; Erdoğan has winked at IS activity on and within his borders, both to pander to Islamists in Turkey and as a counterweight to Kurdish separatism. Local stakeholders include Islamic Front, which seeks a non-democratic Islamic theocracy with the backing of our Saudi friends. Jaysh al-Mujahideen, insofar as it still exists, opposes not only IS but the Turks’ counter-insurgency against the Kurds.
Out of this it’s expected that a political solution will crystallise, in which Assad will play a key role while also standing down for a post-incumbency career in The Hague. The International Syria Support Group, lauded by Cameron in his answer to the FAC, foresees political negotiations before the end of this year, leading to free elections in eighteen months. Somehow this will hobble homegrown Western jihadism, too, and notwithstanding IS affiliate activity in Yemen, Nigeria, Egypt and elsewhere. Costs, human and other, can balloon ad libitum.
This is not realism, but surrealism. It can be made sense of only expressively. After Paris, civilisation demands futile acts of symbolic violence. Raqqa contains upwards of 300,000 civilians. Doubtless some of them back IS, or would do if allowed to grow up, and anyway are guilty by proximity if not association. The odd ‘precision’ missile may go astray, and splatter a school or hospital together with its inhabitants as in Kunduz. Quibbling that the project of bombing Syria back to civilisation – so successful in Iraq and Libya – rests on no coherent political or military strategy, is as welcome in Washington, Whitehall and the Quai d’Orsay as a cactus in a condom. As Talleyrand said of the Bourbons, western policy-makers have learned nothing; unlike the Bourbons, though, they’ve also remembered nothing.