The bellicosity of some of our politicians seems to have been somewhat tempered by the lessons of the ongoing slaughter in Iraq. Now even the messianic fantasist, Blair, concedes that the bloodbath enveloping the region may have something to do with the chaos wreaked by the post-9/11 and post-Arab Spring interventions. Just over two years ago, Cameron went to the Commons seeking approval for bombing Syria. He wasn’t planning on targeting IS/ISIS/ISIL/Da’esh, but rather their main opponents on the ground, Bashar al-Assad’s Syrian Arab Army. Due to Labour opposition, as well as his own unconvinced Tory rebels, he failed to get the necessary majority to send in the RAF’s bombers. It is rare indeed that we can utter the words: ‘Thank God for Ed Miliband.’ For the principal result of air strikes against the Syrian government would have surely been the advance of what many then politely called, ‘the rebels’, who we now know to be a less-than-enlightened ragtag of hundreds of armed factions and militias with a criss-cross of fluid alliances and rivalries, many inspired less by secularist liberal democracy, moderation and progress, and more by extreme variants of Salafist, radical jihadist Islamism, the most famous being the proto-state pseudo-Caliphate, IS. Of course, the PM now apparently sees fit to try and bomb Syria again, and is planning on taking the decision to Parliament for a second time, if only he could guarantee the vote’s easy passage. But this time our grand representatives will not be voting on bombing the Syrian government to bolster the rebels, but rather, bombing the rebels, which will, inevitably, bolster the government.
Western policy in the Middle East and North Africa can only be based on either madness or malice. In the aftermath of the attacks in Sinai, Beirut, Ankara and Paris, we rightly condemn the brutality of Da’esh’s especially barbaric brand of terrorism whilst sycophantically nurturing cosy business relationships with our allies in the Gulf States. It requires spectacular feats of moral gymnastics to justify the PM bowing down to his favoured despots and arranging billions in weapons, energy and prison contracts with the world’s premier sponsors of the fundamentalist movement. Sunni Saudi Arabia, engaged in a regional cold war with Shia Iran, openly supports the Syrian branch of al-Qaeda, Jabhat al-Nusra, both financially and militarily. Number one recipients of British arms, the Saudis, as well as oil-rich World Cup hosts, Qatar, have turned a blind eye to private donations from their citizens to Islamic State. Our friends in Turkey, NATO stalwarts, longtime enemies of the Assad regime, and, somewhat incongruously, also paymasters of Jabhat al-Nusra, give their tacit approval to ISIS advances on Kurdish territory in Rojava as they turn a blind eye to their porous southeastern border, scene of a steady flow of foreign fighters and lethal equipment into IS hands. Motivated by a desire to crush any semblance of Kurdish autonomy, they openly bomb PKK and YPG/J positions even as their Western allies laud those parties’ efforts in their struggle against the IS onslaught. No prizes for guessing which regional powers are facilitating exports from IS-held oil fields.
Designation of certain groups as belonging to a ‘moderate opposition’ seems totally arbitrary when these disparate militias affiliate themselves with Islamists and religious extremists of all stripes, increasingly becoming eclipsed by groups hostile to any kind of conception of Western liberties. The Free Syrian Army, purported by the West to be a body capable of moderate transitional governance, is allied with Islamic Front, a group which intends to impose sharia law across Syria and whose leader offers praise to Osama bin Laden and expressed his sympathy after the death of Taliban leader, Mullah Omar. The FSA’s democratic pretensions and claims of moral legitimacy are totally confuted by videos which have surfaced showing one of their commanders cutting out and eating the heart of an enemy soldier, cheered by a crowd of his own ‘moderate’ rebel fighters. Even the practical existence of the FSA is in doubt, it being a loosely-organised and ill-defined umbrella term for hundreds of anti-assad factions and sects, many with questionable tactics and loyalties. Some have posited that the organisation exists more in Western fantasy and in the coffeehouses of Istanbul than on the ground in Aleppo or Homs. Such is the incoherence of our current strategy that we chase a chimera of moderate forces in an attempt to assuage our guilt for creating a Frankenstein’s monster of fanatical jihadism.
Our culpability for the rise of extremist fundamentalism lies less in direct or indirect support for those movements or even in a century or more of meddling and oppression in the Middle East, leading to a upsurge in anti-Western, Islamic revivalism, but more in the fact that our interventions have created the circumstances in which those ideas and movements can prosper. Any kind of self-flagellation or apologism for acts of terror should be opposed. The ‘repression breeds resistance’ model is flawed. It is not good enough to say; ‘West terrorises Middle East, Middle East reacts with terrorism’, as if ISIS’s model was a rational response to imperialist blunders. But we have created the ideal environment for their growth;power vacuums, breakdowns in government authority, smouldering sectarian tensions, selective support for favoured autocracies engaged in geopolitical posturing and a foreign policy that panders to their narrative of a clash of civilizations – and enter stage left all the Wahhabist radicals the world can muster like flies around shit.
When Colonel Gaddafi was removed from power in 2011, many on the left heralded his capture and execution by Western-backed rebels as a stark warning to authoritarian dictators around the world that none were safe from the power of mass uprisings and grassroots revolution. What has since unfolded is a bloodbath that rivals anything conjured up by Gaddafi’s security services in the years of his rule. The country is enmeshed in sectarian civil war, with two rival ‘governments’ competing for territory along with Tuareg separatists, jihadist rebels and, of course, the so-called Islamic State. Any semblance of security or order has been lost in the violent rush by warlords, fanatics and foreign fighters to fill the void left by Gaddafi’s overthrow. Libya has been transformed from a comparatively rich, stable, developed country with a relatively cohesive infrastructure and public services into a failed state at the mercy of bands of armed groups intent on filling a power vacuum with their own brand of religiously-inspired thuggery. Iraq has fared no better since our benevolent invasion. The north of the country is under IS control and its border with Syria non-existent after Islamic State declared an end to Sykes-Picot. Kurdish peshmerga defend their autonomous enclave against the IS militants but the Iraqi army, evidently well-trained by US-led coalition forces, fled the takfiri advance, leaving behind their kindly-donated US weaponry in June last year. Sunni-Shia tensions were inflamed by the sectarian government of al-Maliki, and Iraqi Shia militias have now been formed to counter the IS offensive. In Afghanistan, Taliban insurgency and the establishment of a branch of IS cause the US to slow its withdrawal and re-define the thousands of troops in place there as being posted ‘in a purely advisory capacity.’
Across the region, chaos reigns. Mini-despots and groupuscules jostle for power. Three interventions. Three failed states. Two invasions based on the pretext of destroying international terrorism at its root which have led to a resurgence in international terrorism in a newer, more dangerous guise. One intervention that has solidified the position of a jihadist opposition against a renowned tyrannical strongman whose bloodied corpse was paraded through the streets of Sirte. Is this the fate we wish on Syria or on Assad? How can we simultaneously bomb ISIS targets in Syria and Iraq, work towards toppling the Syrian government and hold on to the lie that some other anti-Assad grouping exists that can effectively take the reigns of power across the whole territory and manage a secure state?
Without full-scale troop invasion it will be difficult to beat IS with airstrikes alone. Our problem is that their biggest adversaries on the ground are our oldest enemies, with whom cooperation is anathema; Hezbollah, Russia, the Syrian Arab Army and leftist Kurdish guerrillas. If we plan to just bomb and hope for the best, as Cameron seems to be proposing, it will fail. There needs to be a plan. There needs to be rapprochement between erstwhile rivals to stop the situation escalating further. A workable agreement between all the combatants in this proxy war. Aimless macho posturing and geopolitical machinations will not work. The Gulf States need to be brought into line, as does Turkey. IS’s supply lines and trade links with these states need to be disrupted. And even with those who we find distasteful, the regime of the Iranian Ayatollahs or Vladimir Putin, it is difficult to conceive of a lasting peace and the defeat of IS without their cooperation. Dismantling the Syrian Ba’athist state over night will be akin to our dismantling of the Ba’athist state in Iraq and it will have much the same consequences. This is far from an endorsement of Assad, but in the wake of the collapse of the region into anarchy and bloodletting, we need to consider what is the least bad option.