Wednesday, 2 December 2015

Join the coalition bombing Syria by all means, but that is not the solution to Da’ish

By the time this article is posted, the Parliamentary debate will be nearly over and Britain is likely to moving to join its allies in bombing Da’ish in Syria (Da'ish, Da'esh, ISIL, ISIS, lets not quibble, they are murderous religious zealots. I call them Da'ish after taking advice from someone who claims to know)  The Twitter storm on this topic does not seem to have added much to the arguments on either side; most commentators are dug in on one side or the other as are using increasingly inflamed language.  My reason for writing this blog is not to hope to change anyone else’s mind, though I would hope that some might agree with my position, but to try to articulate my own views by setting them down in writing.

Rod Liddle in the Sunday times is usually good for a laugh and occasionally makes serious points.  Last Sunday he gave some pretty good, if presented tongue-in-cheek, reasons for not bombing Syria.  Here are his reasons:
- whenever we take military action in the Middle East we make things worse.
- our allies, the Free Syrian Army – does not exist as a viable military force
- our other allies out there are no better than ISIS
- ISIS is not a threat to Britain, but radical Islam is
- if we shoot down any Russian jets, this will escalate the war in directions we don’t want.
- it is a knee-jerk action, and not properly thought through.
- lots of innocent people will be killed.
He raises some pretty good points.  But as a satirist, unlike the government, he is not required to go on and provide any practical proposals on what to do. Still food for thought.

Principles will get you nowhere
 There are only two positions of principle:
1.   Pacifism – do not fight wars on the grounds that people (including innocent people) will be killed.
2.   Dogmatists (whether based on religion or politics) – both in favour and against war to achieve some “ideal” end. 
I say positions of principle, though of course in each case there will be ample arguments that can be put in contradiction to individual issues, but the point is that these people are not swayed by logic or by evidence and are, generally, irrationally held views and not open to debate.  Not that that stops them putting their own point of view in the strongest possible terms.  They can be distinguished from the vast majority of opinions in social media that are simply gut reactions, uninformed but nevertheless honest for that.

What is the ultimate aim?
The decision about what to do in Syria, or indeed in any other war, will most likely not be made as a matter of principle, but a matter of calculation of how best to achieve a desired end.  The first key question is is “WHAT IS THE DESIRED END”?  In this case I believe the ultimate aim should be to eliminate the threat that Da’ish pose to the United Kingdom and its allies.  Removing the threat to innocent civilians in Syria and Iraq, and indeed freeing them from the tyranny of Da’ish, is of course also a great objective, but unfortunately this can only be a happy subsidiary outcome; we cannot, neither should we, intervene to address any conflict, war and inhumanity everywhere in the world, even if Tim Farron was moved by meeting Syrian refugees to support the Government’s motion.          
The next question is how is this ultimate aim going to be achieved?  Given the nature of Da’ish, diplomatic and political activity will not be sufficient in itself. Unfortunately military action is the only way that a regime based on force and terrorising people on the ground, can be defeated.  The only position of principle that pacifists can take is that they “would rather die than be responsible for the death of someone else”, that they will not cause harm to others, even if that results in others having harm done to them.  This is surely where the pacifist view fails. 

What about Saudi Arabia’s RoleSaudi Arabia has been criticised both for not doing enough to counter Da’ish and indeed for allowing (private) funding of the terrorist quasi-state. On the first point, Saudi Arabia did participate in the bombing campaign in early days, but seems to have pulled back and is now leaving this work to its western “allies”(Washington Post 25.11.2015).   It seems that, having made a token effort for political reasons, it does not have the appetite to continue the fight.  On the second point, ("Saudi Funding of ISIS", Lori Boghardt, 23rd June 2014) – an article also quoted in the Washington Post article, it is clear that the Saudi Government does not directly fund Da’ish,but there is strong evidence that hundreds of millions of dollars of support comes from private sources in the Kingdom, usually routed via other countries such as Kuwait (which is not an anti-Da’ish coalition member, see below).  Given the corrupt plutocracy that runs Saudi Arabia, it seems inconceivable to me that those funds are not coming directly or otherwise from people connected with either the Government or the Saudi Royal Family.  In any event such large flows of funds cannot be too difficult to trace. 

And Kuwait?Kuwait declared war on Da’ish following the attack an a Shia mosque in June this year and has announced the purchase of billions of dollars of arms from France.  It had previously suffered a number of missile attacks following the beginning of the civil war against President Assad.    However at this time I have found no evidence that they are playing a material role in the current operations.  Unlike Bahrain, UAE, Qatar, Jordan and Saudi Arabia It is “pro coalition” but not a coalition member.

But ariel bombardment is proving beneficial today; it is containing Da’ish, supporting some military successes by rebel troops by removing suicide-attacks, tanks, artillery etc., and degrading the economic power of Da’ish, through disruption of the oil-smuggling operation (though not as much as we might thing.  See Raqqa News, 30th November 2015.  And while on this point, why are Turkey and Syria still buying oil and gas from Da’ish?).  Thousands of attacks have been undertaken by the USA, France, Qatar and other coalition air-forces.  The government (and others) have also said that the UK has unique competencies that mean the RAF will make a real contribution.  Nevertheless our 8 Tornados do seem a drop in the ocean compared what is there already.   So in reality, notwithstanding that we can make a (very) small difference, is it not really just a case that, as part of the coalition, we need to be acting alongside our allies?  If the Paris bombs had been in London, how would we react to a French or US vote not to support our response?

The value of military intervention
A massive military intervention such as the invasion of Iraq could be successful in removing Da’ish, but without an effective political follow-up, as we saw in Iraq, it will not eliminate this multi-headed hydra.  It will merely reappear in elsewhere in another form.  Furthermore I doubt that any of the players locally would be supportive of such an action by western powers.  And given the Iran/Saudi Arabia politico/religious divide, it is doubtful that a regional coalition could be formed that could achieve the same end.  The only options available would therefore seem to be to work through established local armies, perhaps with material and practical support from those aforementioned regional powers. 

Whether there are 70,000 soldiers available on the ground, as the Prime Minister says, I doubt.  Ignore those fighting the Syrian government in the western provinces and the north; they won’t want to fight in the eastern provinces.  Ignore too those only interested in the material support they gain from being positive towards the coalition; given half a chance many will revert to their sectarian nature and may even join with the fundamentalist Al-Queda factions to continue fighting against the forces of moderation (Spectator, 27th November 2015)  In reality we might be dealing with 10-15,000 Sunni that the opponents of bombing (@YasminQureshiMP in the chamber today) suggest, plus the Kurds who are not considered favourably in Sunni and Shia areas after some pretty appalling war crimes of their own.  These would be insufficient, even with a groundswell of local support, to take and to hold significant swathes of Da’ish territory, let alone the Raqqa and other cities.

Join the coalition bombing Syria, but other actions are more important
So yes I am in favour of the UK taking a full part in the coalition action in Syria.  But to be clear, air attacks alone are not going to achieve our objectives.  Ground troops are needed as well, but not ours.  And neither will military action on the ground ever be enough to eliminate the threat of Da’ish.  Political and diplomatic actions is also required to deliver a coalition in Syria that includes both Assad (supported by Russia) as well as any opposition that is prepared to participate in an inclusive political process.  Inclusion of Assad is difficult for western coalition partners to swallow, though we have supported many intolerable regimes around the world to achieve our foreign policy objectives.  More difficult is to get most, or any, of the 70+ opposition forces to sit with Assad.  At least some of them however will surely come round because they know that ultimately they will not defeat Assed now that Russia has joined him, and they are also more likely now that both Iran and Saudi Arabia are working together on a political settlement.

Military action and Middle-eastern political  solutions are not the only requirement.  It is necessary to be “tough on terrorism and touch of the causes of terrorism” (to slightly misquote a former Prime Minister).  Those causes fall into three categories:
1.  Enforced poverty and disenfranchisement of failed and absolutist politics throughout the region.  We must speak up and challenge our so-called allies in the region who deny their own populations freedom of politics and thought and discriminate against minorities and women.  Why do we not stand up to Saudi Arabia, Turkey or Bahrain (to name just a few) to get away with it?
2.   Tackling racial and religious discrimination against  minorities in western societies.  Quite apart from the injustice in its own right, continuation will inevitably lead to a (small) number of people moving towards an extremist position?  
3.  Tackling discrimination, ignorance and intolerance within minority communities.  As well as external factors helping individuals move towards extremism, there is enough authoritarianism and intolerance of diversity amongst many minority ethnic communities in the UK to alienate young people.

Taking action on item 1 requires principled political and diplomatic stands abroad, even if others may choose to benefit by taking a different line.  Taking action on items 2 and 3 is more difficult.  Government can legislate and the courts and police can take action, but real change starts with education of children and influencing people throughout their lives; it takes a generation or more.  But we should not shy away from this; the levels of gender and racial discrimination, though still existing today, is immensely less than in my childhood when racist thoughts and language were used on a daily basis in public and private as quite “normal”.  Notwithstanding that he was then a figure of fun, it is inconceivable now that the character of Alf Garnett would be allowed on TV at all, let alone before the watershed.

To tackle item 3 there also needs to be another change and one that is probably most difficult for liberal white middle-class males like me.  Liberal values, in part that have lead to the inclusiveness in much of British society that is the corollary of addressing discrimination.  It has also resulted in a level of “moral relativism” that has allowed the continuation of practices in some minority communities that are either illegal or morally unacceptable to the majority of British citizens.  By majority I am not saying to “white” or “christian”, but inevitably the core of what is termed “British” values do stem from our political and social past so it is idle to claim that they have not been a major influence.  What we should no longer tolerate is “cultural” behaviour which conflicts with the broad values of Britain today in the 21st century. 

As individuals we need to speak up about forced marriage, FGM, gender discrimination.  We should challenge extreme and illiberal practices wherever we see them including religious practices and intolerance, voodoo cults, violent and invasive exorcism that are imposed on non-consenting adults. Let us be clear that  just as religious people should be able in most cases to excuse themselves from doing something that is against their “faith”, so religion or culture should not be an acceptable excuse for imposing personal preferences on others.  If the majority are cowed by accusations of “racism” and “discrimination” from speaking up then how much more difficult will it be for those in the minority communities who feel trapped, from speaking their minds?  Rather straying off the topic of bombing Syria, but it just goes to show how complicated the whole issue is!

Tim O’Brien

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