After the Vote
James Meek on the bombing of Syria
People mistrust originality, especially in politicians. The safe political performance is an enactment of the familiar. The political effort to extend British airstrikes against Islamic State from Iraq to Syria began in November when David Cameron set out his case to Parliament in relatively decorous terms. By 2 December, when Parliament voted in favour, an older, cruder performance had emerged.
One of the prime minister’s enactments back in November was the voice that accompanies TV adverts from large corporations with millions of customers, like high street banks or big energy firms: smooth, friendly, confident, reassuring, making simple, slogan-like promises that pierce the delicate middle ground between what might plausibly be real and what can only be aspiration. ‘Our pilots can strike the most difficult targets at rapid pace and with extraordinary precision, and provide vital battle-winning close air support to local forces on the ground.’ Imagine it with stirring orchestral music.
The other was the voice of a doctor, spelling out to a patient with a chronic and unpleasant – though not fatal – set of conditions how he is going to treat one of them. It isn’t clear that it’s going to work, or how it’s going to affect treatments for the other conditions. The combination of conviction, detail and sympathy in the doctor’s discourse obscures the fact that his focus on the immediate treatment is being offered as a substitute for acknowledging that the syndrome as a whole is incurable. ‘The initial objective is to damage Isil and reduce its capacity to do us harm. And I believe that this can, in time, lead to its eradication.’
Come 2 December, in the debate before the final vote, the new enactment was of a jingoistic newspaper editorial, trying to clothe in words, to intensify and to turn to purpose the inarticulate emotions of hate, rage and fear its readers feel towards some object they have not personally encountered. ‘These women-raping, Muslim-murdering, medieval monsters are hijacking the peaceful religion of Islam for their warped ends,’ Cameron said. This is ‘an organisation that enslaves Yazidis, throws gay people off buildings, beheads aid workers and forces children to marry before they are even ten years old.’
That these accusations are true, and that rage and fear towards IS are near universal responses isn’t the point. The debate was not supposed to be about trying to convince MPs, or the country, that IS is wicked, and should be shut down. It is, and it should be: all MPs agree. The debate, and the vote, was supposed to be about whether letting a handful of RAF bombers attack Syria as well as Iraq would help, hinder, or make no difference to the achievement of that goal. Yet listening to the speech of Hilary Benn, the pro-bombing Labour foreign affairs spokesman, was like hearing one of Churchill’s 1930s lonely-voice-warning-against-the-dangers-of-Hitler speeches, but made in 1941, by which time, it seems safe to assume, everyone really got Hitler. It was bizarre to hear Benn adding his voice to the many who criticised Cameron for branding those opposed to bombing Syria ‘terrorist sympathisers’, only for the Labour man to launch into a superfluous and detailed recap of the worst IS crimes. ‘All those who oppose air strikes are decent and honourable men,’ he was effectively saying, ‘even if, unlike myself, they prefer to do nothing while gay men are being thrown off buildings, and Yazidi women deemed too old for sex slavery are murdered and thrown into mass graves.’
Such are the voices of modern democracy: corporate power and knowledge reaching out to the individual citizen, offering to take responsibility, simplifying things. We, the individuals, can tell ourselves we want the doctor to tell us the truth, even if it’s that we shall be wheezy and disfigured for ever. We can tell ourselves we hate advertising, that we know the corporate voice is beholden to other, more powerful agents than us. We can tell ourselves that we hate hating. The reality is that we love a good hate. It’s easier than thinking. Few of us are averse to the basic trick of advertising, which is to offer a sweeter, ideal, nobler version of the world we know – a kind of live mythologising. Most of us prefer the doctor, even amid clear uncertainty, to make a reassuring proposal of action. ‘I’m going to prescribe a course of … ’ ‘The first thing we’re going to do is … ’
The difficulty occurs when in this poignant communion between hate marshals and haters, corporation and consumer, doctor and patient, leaders and electors (and here it’s reasonable to take MPs at face value as voters’ franchisees), a third party is present. A live third party: not a banking product, or an illness, or tax credits for Britons alone, or even the abstract notion of terrorism, but another country. The country is present, but doesn’t have a voice. British air attacks on Syria, before they are an attack on Islamic State, are an attack on Syria, a foreign country, whose citizens have no say in our affairs, and which has not attacked us, or our allies.
The question of Syria’s voice in whether or not it gets to be bombed is important. There can be an assumption among the anti-intervention crowd that Syria’s voice, or Iraq’s voice, or Afghanistan’s, or Libya’s, will always be ‘Don’t!’ But a country’s voice is, of course, many voices, and it’s solipsistic for the British left to take it for granted that the entire collective voice of Syria will oppose the RAF joining other foreign aircraft in a certain amount of partial warfare in their country. Britain’s anti-interventionists – I am one of them – shouldn’t be deluded into thinking there’s something virtuous about the stance.
Demonstrating that Britain is not a tool of neoliberal neoimperialists and wanting to keep foreign blood off Britain’s figurative hands is fine, but it is to Britain’s advantage, not Syria’s. If Britain’s warplanes leave Syria alone, and nothing else changes, the savagery will continue: the cruel fanatics of IS, the other somewhat less gothic jihadi groups, the ruthless Bashar al-Assad and his Russian allies, the Kurds and the disparate local anti-Assad guerrillas will continue to slaughter one another, and the millions of Syrians just trying to keep going will suffer, or flee. Refusing to wade into a fight between a bunch of strangers is sensible, and may be to their benefit in the long term, but it is closer to selfishness than kindness.
The weakest element of Jeremy Corbyn’s argument against bombing (by not enacting any precursor, but simply being himself and saying what he thinks, Corbyn is taking the dangerous step of believing the voters, who say this is what they want) was that British bombing wouldn’t make a difference since the many countries bombing already, predominantly the US, are running out of targets. The only case against RAF involvement in air attacks on Syria that makes sense is a case against all Western bombing, or a case against Western bombing except in support of ground troops. If you allow that Western bombing of Syria – in the absence of a peace deal in the Syrian civil war – might have any place in an anti-IS strategy, all the arguments about Britain standing aloof while others do the dirty work come into play.
Is the air campaign against IS working? Could it? Putting some of Cameron’s pronouncements since November under the microscope, there are inconsistencies in his definitions of IS that go beyond the squabbling about what right-minded people should call it – IS, Isis, Isil, Daesh, or ‘evil death cult’. ‘In the last 12 months,’ Cameron says,
our police and security services have disrupted no fewer than seven terrorist plots to attack the UK, every one of which was either linked to Isil or inspired by their propaganda, so I am in no doubt that it is in our national interest for action to be taken to stop them – and stopping them means taking action in Syria, because it is Raqqa that is their headquarters … For as long as Isil can peddle the myth of a so-called caliphate in Iraq and Syria, it will be a rallying call for Islamist extremists all around the world, and that makes us less safe.
So what is IS? Is it a proto-state, with infrastructure that can be attacked and formal command chains that can be severed from the air? Phrases like ‘stopping them means taking action in Syria’, ‘Raqqa … is their headquarters’ and ‘communications hubs’ (in a list of potential targets) suggests that the prime minister wants us to agree that it is. Or is it a nebulous, diffuse set of compadres, ideas and websites, easily moved around the world? Like the Tunisian beach killings, the seven disrupted plots – for which we have to take Cameron’s word – were not ‘masterminded by’ IS, ‘ordered by’ IS or ‘organised by’ IS. They are ‘linked to Isil or inspired by their propaganda’. Cameron’s contempt for IS’s ‘so-called caliphate’ suggests he wants us to agree with him that there is no geopolitical substance to the outfit. In which case what is the point of bombing Raqqa again?
The justification for Western interventions in Afghanistan and Iraq was, ultimately, counter-terror in the wake of 9/11. It is easy to forget how dubious a pretext the US and Britain would have had for invading Iraq even if that country had possessed weapons of mass destruction – the unsubstantiated fear that the relatively secular, resolutely statist dictator Saddam Hussein would randomly launch a terror attack on the West. Sequence is important here. It was only once those interventions were well underway, not before, that the London attacks of 7 July 2005 took place.
It doesn’t make sense for Cameron to argue that air attacks on Raqqa will help prevent IS attacks on London, when the recent attacks in Paris happened 14 months into an intensive series of air raids on and around IS-held areas, led by the world’s leading military power, which has spared no airborne military resources or technology to try to wipe IS from the earth. Russia’s recent experience, losing a passenger jet to an explosive device soon after it began bombing Syria, seems to confirm the intuitive assumption that bombing is more likely to provoke terrorism than to thwart it.
We have been here before, with al-Qaida and then with the Taliban: Western governments have mistaken a super-decentralised network, somewhere between a franchise and an ethos, for an agency with a postal address. The attacks in Paris certainly had IS links – some of the attackers had been to Syria or tried to get there – but most, if not all, were French or Belgian, who sought out IS because they had been radicalised at home, and who did most of their killing with Kalashnikovs from the former Yugoslavia.
It is useful for an IS aspirant to have a Raqqa to go to for training, for battle experience, for validation by a set of jihadi peers. But for a mobile terrorist franchise like IS or al-Qaida, Raqqa is a concept, not a place. Once Osama bin Laden’s Raqqa was in Sudan. Then it was in southern Afghanistan. It could be in Pakistan, in Somalia, in Yemen, in northern Nigeria, in the Russian Caucasus, or all these places at once.
In his promotion of RAF strikes on Syria Cameron has made much of the superiority of the Brimstone missile, which ‘even the Americans don’t have’. It is, by all accounts, a very clever missile, which hits exactly what it’s told to hit, and would never kill a civilian, unless it hit a civilian the firer thought was a combatant. It is described as a ‘fire and forget’ weapon (as opposed, presumably, to a weapon that you fire and are haunted by for the rest of your life). The reason the Americans don’t have it, it should be said, is not because the British and the other European countries that make it won’t sell it to them, but because the Americans don’t think they need it.
When you begin reading about the Brimstone missile, you notice that one of the things its fans tend to mention is how well it performed in Libya in 2011. Earlier this year, an IS affiliate took over part of Libya: Sirte, a Mediterranean city less than four hundred miles from Malta and the south coast of Sicily and close to large oilfields. It was Gaddafi’s home town. The Wall Street Journal reported recently that IS had been encouraging would-be European recruits to head for Sirte rather than Syria or Iraq. The Journal tells of strict sharia law in the city, hospitals abandoned after failed attempts at gender segregation of staff, and public crucifixions. IS emerged as a force in Libya after Western air attacks, including by the RAF, tipped the balance in the uprising against the Gaddafi regime. The sequence is clear: RAF bombing, then IS franchise. Not the other way round.
Critics of Western intervention in Afghanistan, Iraq and Libya lament the deaths of civilians, the eruption of previously contained sectarian or tribal conflicts, and the provocation of terrorist attacks on the interveners’ home countries. Less talked about is a fourth unpleasant consequence – more interventions. For all the concern at the spread of Salafist ideology around the world, there is surprisingly little concern at the spread of interventionist ideology – the creed that country A is entitled to take military action against, or within, country B, without the consent of the government of country B (if it has one) or any evidence that it poses a threat to country A.
Such overt interventions – that is, not through proxies – happened many times between the United Nations being set up and the end of the Cold War. Britain and France intervened in Egypt, the USSR intervened in Hungary, Czechoslovakia and Afghanistan, the US intervened in Grenada. But the pivotal intervention was Iraq. What we are beginning to see is how the US and Britain’s invasion of that country not only seemed to other countries to legitimise their own interventions, but has inspired a set of newly prosperous countries to acquire and use the interveners’ tools. Since 2003, we have seen Russian military intervention in Georgia and Ukraine; we have seen Saudi intervention in Yemen, with airstrikes galore. In August last year, the United Arab Emirates seemed to surprise the United States by using the fancy fighters and airborne refuelling aircraft it had bought from Western countries to fly thousands of miles and, with Egypt’s help, bomb Libya. As Cameron was mustering support for his Syria bombing vote, China announced it was setting up its first overseas military base, in Djibouti, close to the American base that flies drones to Somalia and Yemen.
In the long term, heavily armed, interventionist-minded states rubbing up against one another are a greater danger than scattered bands of intolerant dreamers performing sporadic acts of terror. In the short term, strong states are the answer to IS. Not states that demonstrate their strength by bombing Syria, but states that demonstrate their strength by guiding their clients within Syria towards a suspension of fighting as a prelude to peace. In the case of the Iranians and the Russians, the clients are Assad and his cronies and the Alawites and Christians of the coast. In the case of the Americans, they are the Kurds. In the case of Saudi Arabia, Qatar, Jordan and Turkey, as well as the US, which also plays this angle, the clients are scores of Sunni Syrian rebel groups which are too busy fighting Assad to turn their attention to the IS co-religionists in their rear. It’s a mess – not necessarily a hopeless one.[*] But until the Saudis and the Turks can agree a way to get their Sunni clients (many sponsored privately) to declare a ceasefire with Assad and his allies, organise themselves politically and launch a concerted assault on IS, whatever caliphate exists need not fear the combined destructive effect of foreign air power and local ground troops.
The strangest aspect of Cameron’s pitch was that he clearly knows all this. He stresses the limits to air power, but his case is riddled with contradictions. He argues, simultaneously, that IS can’t be defeated without a political settlement; that a political settlement is on the way; and that Britain can’t wait for a political settlement before it starts military action. He argues, simultaneously, that what Syrian Sunnis most want is for Assad to fall; that Sunni support for Britain’s position is essential; and that toppling Assad is a lesser priority for Britain than attacking IS. He argues, simultaneously, that ‘destroying Isil helps the moderate forces’ [sic] and that the destruction of IS can’t be brought about without moderate forces – an army, he maintains, made up of 70,000 opposition fighters ‘who do not belong to extremist groups’.
Cameron’s claim that an army of 70,000 moderate Syrian rebels is available to turn its attention from Assad to IS was startling. Soon after the prime minister’s statement, Charles Lister, a conflict analyst at the Doha branch of the Brookings Institution think tank who specialises in the Syrian civil war, put up a guest post on the Spectator’s website, headed ‘Yes, there are 70,000 moderate opposition fighters in Syria.’ Cameron’s estimate, Lister said, came from the Joint Intelligence Committee, but it chimed with his own work. He put the figure higher, at 75,000, spread out across more than a hundred different factions, many of them already vetted by the CIA and reckoned non-Islamist enough to be given US weaponry (including the TOW anti-tank missile, the weapon whose effectiveness partly triggered Assad’s plea for Russian support). But Lister pointed out that, besides them, there were another 27,500 fighters in two ‘supergroups’, Jaish al-Islam and Ahrar al-Sham, which were anti-Assad, anti-IS, unacceptably Islamist to the Americans, and too powerful to be left out of peace talks.
Still, it sounded quite positive for Cameron. Until I contacted Lister. It turned out he wanted to step back from the use of the word ‘moderate’, preferring ‘mainstream’ – ‘mainstream’ in local Syrian terms, in other words, which could, from the point of view of Notting Hill, be very Islamically conservative indeed. Western rebel-counters, he said, required only two things of a mainstream rebel – that they be anti-IS, and that they had a role in a peace settlement. Which leaves a lot of room for enthusiasts of beheadings and Salafist mischief overseas; and which explains the Joint Intelligence Committee’s coyness about the breakdown of the prime minister’s 70,000 figure. One MP, Louise Haigh, interpreted a briefing from Mark Lyall Grant, the cabinet’s national security adviser, as government acceptance that 30,000 of the 70,000 were radical Islamists. Others at the briefing disputed her take, but the government has yet to offer a clear account of who the 70,000 are.
It got worse. ‘Almost none of these groups will be dropping their fight against the Assad regime any time soon,’ Lister said.
Fighting Assad, Iran and now Russia is their foremost priority. Isis comes second … This makes some of the PM’s claims highly questionable within existing dynamics. It is only the socially rooted, largely Sunni mainstream opposition that has the true potential to defeat Isis in Syria. But they will not realise that potential with the Assad regime in power. That’s where the British ‘Isis first strategy’ falls apart.
In an analysis in October, Jennifer Cafarella and Genevieve Casagrande of another US think tank, the Institute for the Study of War, were more pessimistic still. They tracked the way Russian intervention in Syria had obliged many Syrian rebels – they listed 228 separate factions – to cut deals or make alliances with the Syrian al-Qaida affiliate, Jabhat al-Nusra. Their report described al-Nusra as ‘one of the most capable groups on the battlefield’, and characterised Ahrar al-Sham as its ally. ‘I am not arguing … that all of the 70,000 are somehow ideal partners,’ Cameron said before the vote. Indeed.
It was good to hear Corbyn remind Parliament of the terrible cost of the Syrian civil war as a whole – 250,000 dead, 11 million homeless, four million refugees – and reassuring to hear acceptance from a man with supporters who back the Assad-Russian-Iranian alliance that ‘many more have been killed by the Assad regime than by Isil itself.’ One of the worst things about the Syrian crisis – as in Iraq – is that all policy roads seem to end with a choice between different styles of brutality and authoritarianism. Would you rather have the intolerance of Tehran, or Hezbollah, or Putin, or Assad, or IS, or Riyadh? Cameron dropped a hint as to the way things are going to go when he said, ‘We wanted Assad to go instantly and [the Russians] wanted him to stay, potentially for ever. That gap has narrowed, and I think that it will narrow further as the vital talks in Vienna get under way.’
In other words, the US and Europe are moving towards acceptance of a transition period with Assad remaining in power. But any hint of an anti-IS concord between the Assad regime, the Russians and Iranians and the West is likely to drive more Sunnis towards radical Islamists, whether that is IS or the al-Nusra front, and put Turkey and the struggling Saudi kingdom in a difficult position. If things look bad now, they will look worse in twelve months time if the RAF is seen as part of a Shia-Western war against the Sunni of Syria and Iraq.
Cameron’s original case for war came as a response to a report by the Commons Foreign Affairs Select Committee. After hearing a series of witnesses, including a number of Syrians, the committee, made up of six Conservative, four Labour and one Scottish Nationalist MP, was unequivocal: we should not bomb. By the time the vote came round, some had changed their minds. One who had not was the Tory John Baron, a decorated former army officer with a record of opposing British intervention in Iraq, Helmand and Libya (although not in Afghanistan in 2001). ‘Even if we believed the 70,000 figure, even if we believed they were all moderates, what the strategy does not address is this: once these moderates have somehow been told miraculously to swing round, stop fighting Assad and take on Daesh, what is stopping them splintering into a hundred or even a thousand militias, as we saw in Libya?’ he asked. ‘We are struggling to defeat Daesh in Iraq, and that is with 800,000 or 900,000 – estimates vary – security forces on our payroll.’ Baron felt the need to lay out his CV during his speech to prove his non-pacifist credentials. In the 1980s, he was a platoon commander in Northern Ireland, a conflict in which, despite heavy casualties among service people and civilians, the British government didn’t carry out air strikes.
Of course they didn’t! But why ‘of course’? Something was somehow obvious in Ulster that is not obvious in Syria. What is it? In 2009, two former US officers who served in Iraq and Afghanistan, David Kilcullen and Andrew Exum, wrote an op-ed for the New York Times on the folly of America’s drone war against al-Qaida. It makes interesting reading in the context of the Syria vote. ‘Governments typically make several mistakes when attempting to separate violent extremists from populations in which they hide,’ they wrote.
First, they often overestimate the degree to which a population harbouring an armed actor can influence that actor’s behaviour. People don’t tolerate extremists in their midst because they like them, but rather because the extremists intimidate them. Breaking the power of extremists means removing their power to intimidate – something that strikes cannot do. Imagine, for example, that burglars move into a neighbourhood. If the police were to start blowing up people’s houses from the air, would this convince homeowners to rise up against the burglars? Wouldn’t it be more likely to turn the whole population against the police? And if their neighbours wanted to turn the burglars in, how would they do that, exactly? Yet this is the same basic logic underlying the drone war.
[*] The newly formed International Syria Support Group, bringing together the Arab League, China, Egypt, the EU, France, Germany, Iran, Iraq, Italy, Jordan, Lebanon, Oman, Qatar, Russia, Saudi Arabia, Turkey, the UAE, the UK, the UN and the US, has agreed to work for a ceasefire between the Syrian government and the opposition.