On Airstrikes

by James Butler

6 December 2015

Crispin Blunt MP: Is that not an argument for not getting involved in the first place?

Lt Gen Sir Simon Mayall: Not for a country like ours, Chairman, surely.

– Oral evidence: UK Policy on Syria, Foreign Affairs Select Committee, 8 October 2015

On 2 December, the British parliament voted to extend anti-ISIS airstrikes to Syria as part of the US-led coalition operating in the region. Within hours of the vote, RAF fighters carried out strikes on oilfields in Omar in eastern Syria, in an ongoing effort to cut off one of ISIS’ chief sources of funding: black market oil production. The strikes were launched so quickly because British military forces are already active in the area, carrying out strikes in Iraq, and surveillance and reconnaissance missions in Syria. Further, British pilots embedded in allied military forces have been conducting strikes in Syria for the last two years, with government approval and despite parliamentary resolution against airstrikes in Syria in 2013. The vote, then, was less a fundamental change in British stance than an incremental shift towards full military engagement, yet it possessed serious symbolic weight as a sign of British commitment to what the defence secretary has already signalled will be a long and complex war.

Much comment has already passed on the Commons debate, which tottered between terminological irrelevance, domestic point-scoring, intoxicated praise of military hardware and nostalgic invocation of yesterday’s certainties: this reached its nadir with Hilary Benn’s vapid analogy between the International Brigades and the RAF’s Tornado bombers. Yet press infatuation with Benn’s speech – long on sentiment, short on analysis – and the divisions in the Labour party have left the prime minister’s thin and patchy case for war largely unscrutinised. The justifications for British intervention in Syria break down along three lines: that decapitating ISIS in Syria will reduce a real and active threat to British citizens; that air strikes will tip the balance of the war in Syria in the favour of ‘moderate’ anti-ISIS forces; that the destruction of ISIS is a prerequisite for a political settlement in Syria, and that airstrikes will hasten such a solution.

To these, a fourth may be added, which in the course of the commons debate sometimes seemed to override and replace them: the crimes of ISIS (the murder of gay men and minorities, rape, enslavement, torture) amount to an overwhelming moral case for intervention, and not to act is tantamount to complicity. In effect, these three justifications, each of which rests on questionable assumptions, were subordinated to the moral case against ISIS, such that one might get the impression the airstrikes are being pursued as a form of humanitarian intervention. Not so: the government’s legal case for action rests on doctrines of self-defence, bolstered by UN Security Council Resolution 2249, and it is careful not to found its claim on any exclusively humanitarian basis, because of its controversial status in international law. Yet the repeated denunciations of ISIS’s ‘evil death cult’ and recitations of its crimes leave a clear impression that ISIS represents both a unique moral evil, and (though it cannot be openly expressed) the UK’s action against the group, though justified by domestic security concerns, is primarily a humanitarian one.

Does this matter? As we can all agree that ISIS’s crimes are extensive and real, what does it matter if humanitarian intervention is justified by other legal pretexts? On the level of argument, this matters because the horrifying abuses are used to cover less credible sections of the case for strikes; the image of the ‘evil death cult’ presents ISIS as beyond either analysis or understanding. The problem is that the humanitarian case is used to answer criticism of the strategic and political wisdom of further military involvement in the Syrian war.

This takes the form of a series of somewhat forced conclusions: the humanitarian crisis is so severe that it requires immediate action, the action we can take is military in nature, therefore it is incumbent on parliament to authorise military action immediately. The urgency supersedes other questions which might be brought in at any other step of the argument: such as, is military action the only action we can take? Does it in fact work? Against whom is it actually taken? And will it alleviate the crisis or exacerbate it? Far from ‘doing nothing’, financial action and diplomatic pressure on ‘allies’ might be the better route out of this crisis. We’ll never know – it was scarcely mentioned.

At war with what exactly?

The new resolve on the part of the British government to proceed with strikes in Syria comes in the wake of the terrorist attacks in Paris, and President Hollande’s declaration that France is at war with ISIS terrorists. Though this does not sound odd to British ears, which have had years to become familiar with repeated declarations of war on terror from Washington and London alike, it is a somewhat unusual move for a French state which has historically avoided designating terrorist conflicts as ‘wars’, believing it a propaganda victory for the other side. Remembering some of the derision that greeted Bush’s war on terror allows us to see one of the major slippages in Cameron’s argument: it moves between treating ISIS as a conventional state-like enemy and as the latest, territorial form of a larger, less easily categorised enemy; one primarily defined by ideology, engaged in asymmetric warfare, as much a set of ideas and political-theological responses as an infrastructure. The rationale for bombing in Syria runs along the former lines, that it strikes at the terrorist centre and weakens its various tendrils throughout the world: thus to bomb Raqqa secures the safety of London.

This holds true only if we can treat ISIS like a conventional state, with an ‘external operations unit’ – as Alan Johnson MP put it in his speech – directing its agents’ activities abroad, and training them during visits. Yet when the prime minister speaks of the seven plots foiled by the intelligence services in Britain since last year, or of the attacks in Tunisia, or in Paris, he uses vague words like ‘inspired’ or ‘linked’ to describe the relationship between ISIS and the attackers. This is because, though travel to and from Syria and direct contact with ISIS did distinguish some among them, the common factor was that they were almost all homegrown. That Raqqa exists as a destination and a training centre for would-be terrorists is beyond doubt; so have various locations in Sudan, Somalia, Pakistan and Afghanistan in the past. What it is not is the source of those attacks, nor their chief cause, nor does flattening it reduce their likelihood. Given recent attacks come over a year into coalition strikes in Syria, including Raqqa, it is clear no such mechanical causal relationship exists.

Moreover, as I have argued previously to focus on terrorism as ‘inspired’ by ISIS serves to cloud the political antagonisms that nurture Islamist jihadi politics, and the insufficiency of a ‘counter-radicalisation’ framework for dealing with them. Again, listening to what those who travel to join ISIS or similar organisations say about their motives, and studying their backgrounds, suggests that domestic xenophobia, surveillance, foreign policy and military action abroad are key motivators. Against hamfisted dissuasion techniques, like the American Think Again Turn Away campaign – which aims to tell potential ISIS fighters that the group likes beheading, a fact one assumes is by now relatively common knowledge – Scott Atran and Nafees Hamid cite the words of one young American woman trying to fly to Syria: “Well, what about the barrel bombings that kill thousands? Maybe if the beheading helps to stop that.” It is the ability of groups like ISIS to articulate personal experiences of racism, frustration and alienation, along with anger at regular military atrocities, into a framework of universal war between the West and Muslims, which accounts for much of its attraction. The pedlars of cultural war, of immiscible alien cultures, of ‘enemy within’ narratives about Muslim communities, do much to strengthen ISIS’s claim.

The standard techniques, legal mechanisms and strategic options governing Western military power are geared to war between states, and have limited use when applied to less conventional entities like ISIS. In part, Cameron’s wavering, flickering and contradictory definition of ISIS – one moment a geopolitical terrorist stronghold, the next a spectral, decentralised network, the next a thin and ramshackle kleptocratic organisation ripe for disruption – comes from attempting to fit together different military and intelligence definitions, linking domestic terror plots with the self-proclaimed Caliphate. The link is needed in part because it is the justification for the strikes: security at home requires action abroad. The prime minister knows that very little evidence can be adduced in defence of this position, and much against it – not least the preponderance of evidence that bombing campaigns are disastrous for civilian populations in target areas. Yet the combination of military inertia, Atlantic imperative and an unwillingness to tackle the real political antagonisms at work in terrorism (from the legacy of the war on terror through to ‘culturalised racism’ and the failures of state-led multiculturalism) render it the de facto position.

Our friends, the ‘moderates’.

The rationale offered by the government is that intervention against ISIS in Syria will tip the balance of the civil war in favour of ‘moderate’ forces which have, it is claimed, 70,000 fighters ready to take up the fight against ISIS and Assad’s regime. This figure, which comes without much explanation from the Joint Intelligence Committee, looks likely to be Cameron’s equivalent to Blair’s ‘dodgy dossier’: on close inspection it begins to fall apart. The prime minister’s repeated invocation of this figure leads to conclusions about the Syrian civil war which simply do not add up. The implicit suggestion is that, between Assad and ISIS there are a more-or-less homogeneous body of forces ready to capture ISIS-held territory and, eventually, become key players in a peace settlement and transition away from the Assad regime. Yet this schematic view of the conflict omits key parts of the picture, and is largely an exercise in wishful thinking. It omits the many thousands of fighters organised by jihadist organisations like Ahrar al-Shams, and as many as half of the 70,000 can be classified as ‘radical islamists’. It is an unpalatable truth that there may be no organisations or forces in Syria which meet all the desired criteria of either Western centrists or indeed left-wingers. Where ‘moderate’ groups have been backed by the US or other powers, it has typically led either to their deaths or using that backing for criminality; that is, when those groups are engaged in Syria at all. As the journalist James Harkin told the Foreign Affairs Select Committee “The secular or moderate groups that we support are still ensconced in hotels in Istanbul, having nice lunches three or four years later. These people are largely meaningless to any political settlement, and that really should not be the question we are asking.”

That action against ISIS has been largely lifted out of the context of the Syrian civil war is a remarkable feat on the part of pro-war voices. It is salutary to recall some of the numbers: over 7m people internally displaced, a quarter of all refugees worldwide are Syrian, over a quarter of a million people have been killed in the course of the conflict. As Jeremy Corbyn suggested in the course of the debate, regime forces are responsible for the majority of these deaths; no lasting solution in Syria will be found without Assad’s departure. Yet Syria has also become a theatre for global and regional conflicts: between the US and Russia, as is often remarked, but also between Iran and Saudi Arabia, an internal Sunni conflict between Saudi Arabia and Qatar, and one between Turkey and Kurdish forces. Of these, it is the latter that is the most volatile and unpredictable, but each interest sponsors and encourages particular factions in the war. Even this sketch is somewhat attenuated: a fuller history of the civil war in Syria would account for the activities of the ‘deep state’, which the French diplomat Jean-Pierre Filiu holds accountable for much of the early manoeuvring of the regime around ISIS, using it to shore up its weak position. The multiple (sometimes conflicting) interests of the US in the region are also worth noting, along with its enduring anxiety about a possible recrudescent pan-Arabism founded, this time, on a fundamentalist Islam.

It is the complexity of this war that led the Select Committee to treat the government’s push for airstrikes as a “distraction from the much bigger and more important task of finding a resolution to the conflict in Syria,” for which no credible strategy seemed apparent. This perspective has proved inconvenient for the British government. While not feeling the need to exculpate the Kurdish forces from serious accusations of ethnic cleansing – which they have denied many times – or the dangers of strategic alliance with the US, it is inarguable that international proscription of PKK-related organisations and indulgence of brutal Turkish repression of Kurds hobbles any serious attempt to recapture ISIS’s Syrian territory.

In its own right, the political experiment in Rojava ought to command the Western left’s interest and support. Any settlement in Syria will have to address the claims of Kurds not just in its borders, but in Turkey as well: since 1984, over 40,000 Kurds have been killed by the Turkish state, and the trajectory of the ruling AKP under Erdoğan towards a more authoritarian Turkish nationalism promises little resolution. Turkey’s positioning towards the US, and as a buffer zone for the EU, has boosted its expectations that it will be able to continue its repressive policy towards its Kurdish citizens without much interference.

Civilians: dead and fled.

An apparently major argument for the deployment of British bombers in Syria is the precision Brimstone missile system, which will, it is claimed, minimise civilian casualties – the absence of civilian casualties in engagements in Iraq have been touted by the government as a major justification for action. Yet this absence is hard to credit; the government may be unaware of civilian categories simply because neither the Ministry of Defence nor the US Central Command keep a record of civilian casualties. However, one of the best groups tracking the number of civilian deaths in the strikes, Airwars, offers a conservative figure of up to 977 civilian deaths from airstrikes up to December of this year – very few of which are acknowledged, let alone investigated, by coalition forces. Where Brimstone missiles have been most effective in Iraq, they have been combined with accurate on-the-ground intelligence. Such intelligence simply does not exist in Raqqa, and the ability of coalition forces to bomb hospitals or schools even where those co-ordinates have been given in advance ought to give Brimstone’s advocates serious pause.

But quibbling about technical accuracy misses a larger strategic question of whether external military intervention of this kind can ever really achieve its ends, especially in separating out extremist leaders from civilian populations of towns in which they live: the US drone strikes in Pakistan post-2007 offer a decidedly sombre picture, serving to solidify popular fear and anger against the intervening power, with civilian deaths serving to bolster the position of extremists even when they are hated by the civilian population. Little argument has been made that Raqqa would prove different. But civilian non-combatants do not only die in conflict: they are also displaced, or flee as refugees. Current estimates suggest at least 3m more refugees are likely to flee to Europe from Syria in the next year. They are met by policy that wants to place them in camps outside of Europe, leave them to die at its borders, or offer a strictly limited and temporary resettlement. The fake Syrian passports found on the Paris attackers have been used as a pretext for hardening sentiment against refugees, despite much commentary warning that such a response is valued by ISIS as a sign of sharpening contradictions and the disappearance of the ‘grey zone’ of cohabitation. Despite the inevitable and progressing degradation of infrastructure and shattering of civil society in Syria, the government’s refugee plan, as expressed in the course of debate, amounts to little more than ‘send them back as soon as possible’.

What can we do?

Watching what seems like an inevitable slide to war – the Commons debate being window-dressing for a fait accompli – it has been easy to feel the absence of a strong and coherent anti-war left. Each side can call on Syrian voices to argue its case: precisely because of the complexity of the civil war, and the number of foreign interests involved, it is hard to see any solution. We may hold to old nostrums: that wars of this kind should be opposed as exercises in slaughter by ruling classes; that wars are carried out in the interests of Raytheon, BAE Systems, and national influence – far more than in the virtues by which they are sometimes justified. Before entangling ourselves with foreign wars, it is said, we should deal with our own government’s many abuses and those of its allies. All of these are true, yet can sound hollow: they are not sufficient answers to the situation in Syria. The argument for humanitarian intervention possesses such force among so many people not because they are deceived, but because the crisis is so severe that it might seem to justify it. We may argue that military intervention by a US-led coalition will further destabilise the region, but that is a second-order response, true enough in its assessment of intervention, but lacking a powerful alternative to it in answer to the question: well what would you do?

There might be no such clear answer; non-intervention, far from being an option of moral and political clarity, may simply be the least worst of possibilities. Though one might dissent from their wider pessimism, the editors of radical quarterly Salvage are, I think, correct when they suggest that “political combat by those who offer a better vision, of emancipation” is the only real solution to the problem, and that such an alternative is as much lacking in the West as elsewhere. Surveillance and emergency laws are as much a part of the political problem as foreign policy. It is precisely the absence of such ‘political combat’ or any vision of emancipation with purchase beyond the very left fringes of society that has been most keenly felt during this march to war.

It is typical to end articles such as this with a series of calls to action or strategic prescriptions. These, especially in this case, can only ever be partial. Recognising that there are a number of companies that profit directly from war, we should consider taking action against their offices, installations and factories; political action against MPs close to the arms trade and who voted for airstrikes would also be useful. Yet part of this must also be a recognition that an argument needs to be made about the function and danger of intervention in public forums, in our political organisations, and in our everyday lives. Though the vote has passed, the pattern of historic military interventions has been one of mission creep: given the defence secretary is already prophesying a lengthy war, and William Hague is lobbying for ground deployment, resisting any attempt to take this vote as authorising any action beyond its specific legal scope is essential.

Above all, there is an urgent need for Britain to take its duty to refugees seriously: not only expanding the number taken, but resisting attempts to confine them to camps – the ‘prisons of the stateless’ – or to offer them only temporary refuge. This is action that requires cross-Europe coordination and the opening of routes of safe passage out of Syria. The immediate political focus of such efforts will be the forthcoming London donors’ conference in which we must insist that our governments do not only throw money at the problem, but provide routes to resettlement and full political rights for refugees. Additionally, pressure to rescind the domestic proscription of Kurdish groups and quash the convictions of those supporting them is absolutely necessary. These do not exhaust the scope for domestic action by any means – they are the bare minimum.

Photo: Matthew Bruch/DVids Hub/Flickr

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