Thursday 10 December 2015

On UK airstrikes in Syria

I'm trying to understand what the UK bombing campaign in Syria is meant to achieve.

The brave lads of the RAF are off to drop explosives on a faraway desert, largely inhabited by people of the Muslim faith. It worked beautifully on Iraq (1998), Afghanistan (2001-present), Iraq again (2003-present), and Libya (2011), all of which are now models of peace, prosperity and democracy. Is the idea to achieve the same brilliant results once more?

An RAF Tornado, loaded with democracy ordnance. 

Sarcasm aside, I'll concede that not all interventions are alike. I'll extend the government a degree of fairness it may not deserve, and try to consider this bombing on its own merits.

There is no doubt the self-styled Islamic State (IS) is a serious problem. It is contributing to a massive refugee crisis in Europe; destabilising governments in Iraq, Lebanon and elsewhere; and inspiring terrorism in the West.

Moreover, IS are among the most grotesque killers, vandals, torturers, and rapists on the face of the planet. Hilary Benn, the Shadow Foreign Secretary, gave a stirring speech in Parliament about the need to stand up to fascists.

When our grandparents battled fascists in 1939-45, the UK conscripted an army millions strong; devoted its entire industrial resources to the fight; rationed food and consumer goods; and sacrificed some 450,000 British lives. Is the fight against IS important enough to do that? Benn doesn't think so, and neither does anyone else of consequence. I would be more cautious about analogies with past struggles against fascism.

The House of Commons chamber.
If we bomb IS, it's easy to say they had it coming, but that is not sufficient. We need to rationally consider our desired outcomes; how likely bombing is to achieve them; and what the negative consequences may be.

The potential downsides are all too clear. This may be yet another bombing campaign which destroys much and achieves little. Yes, it is likely to kill some bad people; or in the bloodless language of the military profession, to "degrade the capabilities" of IS.

Bombing will also kill noncombatants and damage civilian infrastructure. There will be dead children. There will be bereaved parents, husbands, wives, sons, daughters, brothers, sisters and cousins. IS is nothing if not skilled in propaganda; it will encourage feelings of hatred, vengefulness, and solidarity against an external enemy, which is to say against us. We may be willing to accept those consequences, but we must acknowledge they exist.

On the Today programme last week, the Foreign Secretary, Philip Hammond, said one of the objectives of bombing was to stop IS from plotting acts of terror. I really don't see how that is meant to work. IS could provide inspiration and material help to would-be terrorists; but we have to ask if the likely impact of airstrikes on terrorism is worth the cost.

Acts of terror can be plotted in a bedroom in a terraced house in Leeds, as in the 7/7 bombings of London. I note that the RAF did not conduct airstrikes on Leeds afterwards. More recently, the Paris attacks needed a few Kalashnikovs, some young men who knew how to use them, and a murderous hatred of ordinary Western citizens. Will bombing Syria eliminate those things? I think not.

We are already bombing IS in Iraq; but in that instance, our objectives are clear. The internationally recognised Iraqi government requested our help to suppress a rebel group on its territory. It's not a very stable or efficient government, but we at least know it exists, and roughly how it can define victory.

Some commentators have made the argument that IS don't care about the border between Iraq and Syria, so why should we? This has uncomfortable echoes of the Vietnam War, when the USA bombed neutral Laos and Cambodia. International borders may be arbitrary, but that does not make them unimportant. The difference between a village in Iraq, and a very similar village five miles away in Syria, is that keeping order in the latter is not the Iraqi government's responsibility.

In Syria, what the hell are we trying to accomplish? What sort of conclusion do our leaders envision? When the dust settles, what do they want Syria to look like? Who will be in charge?

We could ask about an endgame, but this is not chess.
It is more like poker, being played blindfolded and with human lives as chips.

The Assad regime is still the internationally recognised government of Syria, it's fighting IS, and it's protected by Russia, so we aren't going to war with it. We don't like it very much either, given its propensity for massacring its own people. (In 2013, David Cameron tried and failed to get parliamentary authorisation for airstrikes against the Assad regime.)

A great deal of hope is being hung on a "third force" of non-Assad, non-IS combatants, the 70,000 fighters cited by Cameron in the Parliamentary debate. The problems here are legion: They are divided into mutually hostile factions; most are busier fighting Assad than IS, because they have every reason to see the former as more of a threat; many are gangsters and religious fanatics little better than IS; they have nothing resembling a unified leadership.

So far as I understand the UK government's strategy, it wants a peace process between the Assad regime and its non-IS opponents. The desired conclusion is:

  • The Assad regime and its multiple non-IS enemies declare a ceasefire. They unite to crush the threat of IS, with the help of allied air power.
  • Assad and his most bloody-handed lieutenants are deposed, leave for exile in Russia or elsewhere, or perhaps make a very solemn promise not to slaughter so many of their fellow citizens.
  • The civil war in Syria comes to an end. A power-sharing government is established, which delivers peace and stability. Reconstruction begins, and prosperity and democracy appear on the distant horizon.
How bombing IS will help bring this about is murky at best. Apparently the idea is that a united front of the UK, France, USA and Russia will persuade the Syrian combatants to open negotiations. The RAF bombing runs are not just a means of killing IS fighters and destroying their facilities, but a signal that the UK and its allies mean business.

Given our recent experience of wars in the greater Middle East, it all sounds hopelessly optimistic. British airstrikes are now underway, and I hope it works out for the best; but after all the other botched interventions, I seriously doubt it.

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