“Don’t do stupid stuff” was Barack Obama’s foreign policy advice. The British Government clearly wasn’t listening, writes Steve Beauchampe.
It is highly probable that in the coming days the House of Commons will vote decisively in favour of the UK extending air strikes against Islamic State into Syria. Within hours of the vote Prime Minister David Cameron will likely appear, standing behind his big lectern, solemnly informing the nation that military action has begun. And yet another futile British middle-eastern military gesture will be underway.
Cameron’s case for Britain joining air strikes against Syria is based on emotion and hubris, not rationale. We must go to war because France wants us to, because Cameron remains bitter and frustrated at losing the vote to bomb the sovereign government of Syria in 2013, because without bombing Britain might have a lesser voice in international talks to resolve the Syrian civil war, and because Cameron can’t quite play at being Churchill if we’re not a fully paid up member of the fight club.
Speaking in the Commons last week Cameron claimed that British air strikes would help pave the way for a coalition of around 70,000 ground troops, consisting of Kurds, Sunnis, tribal groups and militias opposed to Syrian President Bashar al-Assad to defeat Islamic State.
The Prime Minister, and the Tory hawks that bray support for his arguments, has either forgotten, or chooses to ignore, that this is precisely the strategy that failed so calamitously in Libya in 2011. Then Cameron assured us that ousting the Gadaffi regime from Benghazi and eastern Libya would result in pro-democracy groups taking power. It never happened; overrun by jihadi militias, Libya is now a failed state and home to a flourishing Islamic State franchise and those democracy campaigners that have not been killed or joined the exodus of refugees are either in hiding or lying very low indeed. As Albert Einstein said: “the definition of madness is doing the same thing over and over again and expecting a different result.”
Despite such a sage warning from history, and the repeated advice from respected military strategists that his plan is unlikely to work, the Prime Minister persists, blindly ignoring the fact that the supposed 70,000 troops he is relying on to do the fighting for him are drawn from around 100 different religious and tribal factions, often divided in their objectives, and in some instances already fighting each other. They include organisations which themselves are accused of committing atrocities and other human rights violations. And Cameron expects these disparate groups to put aside their differences and come to the aid of the west just as a $500m US programme to train and arm moderate opponents of Islamic State and Assad has been closed down after failing spectacularly.
Yet for all his blarney about the evils of Islamic State and their threat to Britain, the Prime Minister’s commitment to defeating the group is at best half-hearted. Cameron argued last week that Britain could not outsource it’s national security countries such as France and the United States, yet terrified of the consequences on public opinion and morale of British casualties, he is unwilling to deploy British troops to fight Islamic State, preferring instead to outsource the fighting, capture and deaths to others.
So Britain sends in unmanned drones and RAF fighter planes flying at a safe height out of reach of Islamic State, whilst expecting sometimes poorly trained, equipped and battle weary locals to undertake the combat, be captured, tortured and executed. This when the very existence of Islamic State is partially due to the calamitous mess created by Britain’s invasion of Iraq in 2003 (something Cameron fully supported and continues to defend) and our subsequent backing of Nouri al-Maliki’s fatally divisive Iraqi Presidency (2006-2014). How very colonial, how very imperialistic.
Further, David Cameron omits from his equation President Assad’s army and the considerable military support it receives from both Russia and Iran. Because if Islamic State is defeated in Syria then Assad’s forces will probably have proved pivotal and will expect to fill the subsequent power vacuum. What will the Prime Minister do then, as Assad’s forces retake Aleppo and Raqqa, buoyed by Russian air power?
Yet defeating Islamic State may be wishful thinking. Britain has been bombing them in Iraq for fifteen months during which time they’ve taken and held the country’s second largest city, Mosul, and relinquished precious little territory elsewhere in the country. Talk of relentless attacks on the group by successive governments, from Jordan, Japan and now France have proved to be largely bluster, and transferring some of Britain’s limited military capability from Iraq to Syria is unlikely make any discernible difference there. Islamic State’s leaders long ago developed strategies to limit the impact of missile strikes, not least on themselves,
Add to this the strong possibility that attacking Islamic State substantially increases the likelihood of radicalising a small core of British and European-based Muslims and fuelling support for a group that has proved itself immensely skilful at propaganda. With this comes an increased likelihood of a successful large-scale terror attack in the UK. Given that the Prime Minister’s argument for attacking Islamic State in Syria is to protect British citizens it is incongruous of him to dismiss the increased likelihood of an IS inspired United Kingdom terror attack as a result. Were he to be honest he’d say that the loss of innocent British lives is a sacrifice that he’s prepared to make for the greater good… and sorry if it’s you or yours.
Since Tony Blair signed Britain up to join what became the war on terror in 2001 the threat from Islamic extremism has increased enormously. The Middle East is now a considerably more dangerous place than it was, with several failed states and lawless regions, whilst the scale and regularity of planned terror attacks in Europe and the western world has risen exponentially. If we had listened less to Blair and Cameron, and more to Labour Leader Jeremy Corbyn and the wise heads of the SNP, things might not have got so bad,
When the bombing campaign against Islamic State began, the promise was of a grand coalition of Arab nations that would play a leading rôle. They soon melted away, perhaps knowing that it would not be long before the usual western allies would step in, allowing their collective ambivalence to Islamic State to continue. Canada has recently withdrawn from the coalition whilst savvier states such as Germany, Spain, China and India recognise the folly and the depressingly predictable pointlessness of constant military intervention in other region’s wars and so keep well away.
In contrast Britain’s Prime Minister and those politicians who so readily support him can be sure only that yet again they will be proved wrong, even though most will deny against all evidence that this is so.
Perhaps the greatest tragedy is that there are much more effective measures that Britain could take to combat the horrendous ideology and effectiveness of Islamic State. If a group of activist civilians working under the guise of Anonymous can quickly disrupt Islamic State’s internet and social media presence then one wonders just what our own national security services could achieve with their resources. Or what Britain could contribute if its fully used its expertise and leverage as a global financial centre to collaborate with others in tracing Islamic State funding and heavily sanctioning those who knowingly assist in its financing. Or most crucially the progress Britain could make by applying diplomatic pressure on those whose ambivalent attitude (or worse) towards Islamic State has helped keep the war going, countries such as Saudi Arabia, Qatar, Jordan and Turkey.
But then none of these measures would make for good newspaper headlines or compelling television. Much better to watch British warplanes blowing stuff to smithereens on the 10 o’clock news, sit back, puff your jowls out and feel Churchillian.