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Thursday, November 26, 2015 

Everything repeats. Everything changes. Everything stays the same.

The problem when it comes to writing about the government's case for war against Islamic State in Syria is it's difficult to get properly angry about or diametrically oppose something that will in truth, be so marginal if the Commons votes for it.  All the government is asking for when it comes down to it is to be able to chuck a few more bombs into a country that is already awash with weapons, explosives, death, hunger, the whole four horsemen bit.  Technically, that ought to make it absolutely enraging; why on earth make a bad situation potentially even worse?

Except support it or not, Syria will get worse before, or rather if it gets better.  From as soon as the rebellion turned almost fully Islamist/jihadist, our plan has been for the two sides to fight down to the very last Syrian.  We obviously didn't imagine it would get so bad that hundreds of thousands of Syrians would come to the realisation there was nothing left for them in the Middle East at all and so make the perilous journey to Europe, but in actuality it hasn't altered our thinking all that much.

Indeed, if we're to believe David Cameron's response to the Foreign Affairs committee report (which its chair, Crispin Blunt, has pretty much disowned in any case) then we are still clinging to the especially fetching fantasy that "moderates" will eventually win the day.  Yep, according to Dave and the security services, there are around 70,000 moderates on the ground who we can work with, and they'll be the ones taking back territory from Islamic State in conjunction with our main allies, the Kurds/Syrian Defence Forces.

All but needless to say, there are a few fairly major flaws in this argument.  First, that there really are 70,000 moderates among the rebels.  Cameron has provided absolutely no breakdown of who these revolutionaries are, nor of where they are currently based.  The response talks airily of how moderate rebels have defended territory north of Aleppo, and also how in southern Syria moderates have kept out both IS and the al-Qaida affiliate the al-Nusra Front.  Raqqa, Islamic State's capital of its self-declared caliphate, is over 200km from Aleppo itself, just to begin with.  No one seems to have any real idea of where this 70,000 figure comes from, but the best guess is it's probably the near entirety of the non al-Nusra rebels, as the FCO has been talking about previously.  It likely includes groups such as Ahrar al-Sham, whom with the very best gloss put on them are nationalist Islamists who want an Islamic state rather than democracy.  They routinely in any case ally with the outright jihadists; Ahrar al-Sham is part of the Army of Conquest, aka Jaish al-Fatah, which until very recently included al-Nusra (if they truly have exited the coalition, that is).

This strategy, such as it is, is predicated on two things that have not happened yet.  That the Vienna talks will succeed in negotiating a ceasefire between Assad and these "moderate" rebels; and that these rebels will then turn their attention entirely to IS.  Even if Vienna does somehow lead to a ceasefire, why on earth would these moderates leave territory they've captured undefended to go and fight a group they share far more with than they do Assad?  The answer is they won't, and the best that can be hoped for is that ceasefire, which will instead allow Assad's forces to turn their guns wholly on IS.

For this is the strategy, again such as it is, that lies beneath the rhetoric.  Cameron gave the game away when asked by Tim Farron about safe zones.  Safe zones you have to enforce, he replied, and that could lead to ground forces becoming involved.  If we had fundamental trust in these 70,000 moderates, a fraction of them could clearly do the job, and we could probably come to a deal with the Russians as to where these safe zones would be.  Fact is that we don't trust them as far as we can throw them, so the idea's a non-starter.  Not that we trust the Syrian Arab Army either, but they can be relied upon to follow orders.


The truth is for all the clowning, hyperbole and bluster against the Russians, the attack on the Metrojet plane and then Paris has concentrated minds.  We can't be seen to be helping Assad, but now the Russians have intervened they can do that for us.  The fighting currently going on in the west of Syria seems to be the SAA trying its best to carve out as much territory as it can for itself, helped by Russian airstrikes before the Vienna talks somehow manage to reach the goal of a ceasefire.  The Russians will then keep overwatch to make sure the rebels don't try and take back territory the SAA might have vacated in the west to concentrate on IS in the east.  


Whether this eventually leads to the partitioning of Syria or the creation of autonomous zones, with a Sunni enclave in the west, an Alawite/Druze/Christian enclave including Damascus and extending to Raqqa, with a Kurdish enclave in the north or not remains to be seen.  Alternatively, the Kurds could probably take Raqqa themselves if given sufficient backing and time, but they've made it pretty clear that whatever territory they take they're keeping, and why shouldn't they?  The Turks are already pissed off enough as it is with their advances, so that seems off the table.

In short, the only strategy we have is not the one being presented by the government, and the one we do have is reliant on an almost unimaginable ceasefire between two sides prepared to fight each other to the death.

The rest of Cameron's case isn't much stronger.  The difference our military can make in Syria amounts to the Brimstone missile, a camera that can see the goosebumps on a terrorist's neck from 150 miles away, and that the Americans and French think we'll be helpful.  The French defence minister has set out his case for why they desperately need us by their side, and it's all reasonable enough until you get to the part about how we achieved so much together protecting innocent civilians in Libya and you realise it's time to stop reading.  The Brimstone missile is apparently more accurate than other similar guided high explosives, only as Brendan O'Hara unhelpfully pointed out the Saudis have them too.  Sadly they're too busy taking part in the other proxy war in the region in Yemen to start bombing Syria again, so clearly the coalition needs our supply.

Only as Ewen MacAskill points out, the Americans and others have already fired so many Hellfires in Syria that they're running out of targets as it is.  Jeremy Corbyn's first question, as to whether or not joining in would increase the threat from IS brought the response that the threat could not be any more severe.  Cameron and the intelligence agencies may be right, but they're asking us to accept as coincidence that both Russia and France were targeted within weeks of their specifically targeting IS in Syria.  Of the 7 plots claimed to have been foiled so far this year linked to IS, 2 of those were the ones "exposed" in the media that resulted in no arrests and no explosives or weapons being found.  


Potential threats should not of course stop us from acting, but politicians should be honest with the public if the threat will be increased, especially when the action will hardly be integral to the wider cause.  Solidarity, helping our allies is not enough of a justification when there is no real plan, when there is no exit strategy beyond Islamic State being degraded and defeated at some point, when we have no idea of what Syria will look like after both IS and Assad have gone, other than there won't be a Swiss-style democracy and we won't make the mistakes of either Iraq or Libya in the aftermath.  The state will not be dismantled we are told, and yet how likely is that when all involved have a completely different image of how Syria will look once or rather if and when the fighting ends?

Cameron himself was at something near his best today.  He was respectful, didn't resort to cheap point scoring and kept any references to evil death cults to a minimum.  He didn't want to overstate the case he said, and yet he couldn't at times help himself.  He repeated the argument that we shouldn't be leaving our security in the hands of our allies, and yet that was the exact same case made by Michael Fallon the week before the Paris attacks.  Our security will either be improved, unaffected or damaged by our involvement.  It can't be all three.  


Nor is it reasonable as the prime minister put it to suggest he will only bring a vote when he is certain to win as doing otherwise would risk a propaganda coup for Islamic State.  This is exactly how the Tories behaved after losing the previous Syria vote, denouncing Labour and Miliband for giving succour to Assad.  Nor is it anything close to accurate to claim, as Cameron did, that "doing nothing is a counsel of despair".  We will not be doing nothing if parliament declines to authorise strikes in Syria.  This idea we have been doing nothing is utterly bogus; we have been doing everything other than nothing, and will go on doing so.  Our "doing nothing" is part of why we are here now.

As Jeremy Corbyn has written tonight to Labour MPs, in a letter I can't disagree with a word of, a convincing case is yet to be made.  There is a basis of sorts to the government's arguments, but it falls down first and foremost because it isn't honest or open enough about the reality on the ground in Syria.  If there is anything worth getting properly angry about, it's what's led us to this point, as while the government and Cameron tell lies about how big of an impact our involvement could have, I can't gather the enthusiasm to do much other than sigh.  We've been here before.  We'll be here again.  If there now is an IS attack in this country, it won't be anything to do with our bombing, but down solely to the wickedness of an evil death cult.  Everything repeats.  Everything changes.

And yet it stays the same.

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