There is no disaster in the Arab and Muslim world, it seems, for which the west’s answer is not to drop bombs on it. As the refugee crisis in Europe has driven home the horror of Syria’s civil war, that has been exactly the response of the leaders of Britain and France. David Cameron has long been pressing for a new vote in parliament to authorise a British bombing campaign against Islamic State in Syria.
David Cameron says 'hard military force' needed to tackle Assad and Isis
Now he has been joined by the former archbishop of Canterbury and a gung-ho Murdoch press, while George Osborne has signalled he also wants attacks on the “evil Assad regime” to deal with the refugee exodus “at source”. The French president, François Hollande, has announced he too wants to extend air attacks from Iraq to Syria, using the terrorist threat at home to justify the escalation.
On both sides of the Atlantic, neoconservatives and liberal interventionists are back in full cry with demands for no-fly zones and troops on the ground. The Sun has even badged its coverage “For Aylan” – after the drowned three-year-old whose image dramatised the suffering of Syrian refugees – while demanding an intensification of the war and denouncing Labour’s leadership candidates as “cowards” for refusing to sign up for immediate attacks.
So keen has the British prime minister been to get on with bombing Syria, he revealed British drones had already incinerated two British Isis members in the city of Raqqa last month. Cameron pleaded self-defence on the grounds that one of the jihadis had been plotting to carry out “imminent” terror attacks in Britain. Since the events targeted for these alleged attacks had already taken place by the time the man was killed, the claim was clearly nonsense. But Britain has now followed the US and Israel down the road of lawless extra-judicial killings that has become a hallmark of the 14-year-old “war on terror”.
In the case of the US, it’s a road that has already led to thousands of deaths, including those of many civilians, as dodgy intelligence and “signature strikes” have killed and maimed huge numbers of innocents along with targeted fighters. From Pakistan to Yemen, US drone attacks have been a major recruiter for al-Qaida and the Taliban.
After a dozen years of drone attacks, the Taliban is again rampant in Afghanistan and al-Qaida is thriving in Yemen. Britain’s drone attack also made a mockery of the decision by parliament in August 2013 to oppose military action in Syria – in that case targeted at the Damascus government rather than at the rebels fighting it.
But then, British pilots have also been taking part in US bombing raids on Syria. So evidently the democratic niceties didn’t count for a lot. Nor do the legal ones, since there is no legitimate basis for attacks on Syrian territory without authorisation from Damascus or the (nonexistent) threat of imminent attack.
Most bizarre is the insistence that the west hasn’t actually intervened in Syria
In any case, the US-led bombing campaign against Isis in Iraq and Syria clearly isn’t working. Thousands of Isis fighters have reportedly been killed, along with hundreds of civilians. But a year after the raids began, the terror group has actually expanded the territory it controls.
Without troops on the ground, air attacks cannot win a war. In the case of Syria, the only forces available are the Syrian army or radical Islamist rebel militias, from the al-Qaida-linked Nusra Front to the Gulf regime-backed Islamist Jaish al-Fatah. So which do the western governments have in mind? Their own sponsored rebel groups are entirely marginal.
As we know from Iraq and Afghanistan, the alternative of western troops would lead to a full-scale anti-occupation war. After one disastrous western military intervention in the Arab and Muslim world after another, it’s mind-boggling that demands for yet more bombing keep on coming. You only have to consider the failed-state maelstrom that is post-Nato intervention Libya – the other main transit route for refugees into Europe – to see what it means in practice. But the problem, hawks insist, is that there wasn’t enough intervention: Nato “walked away” from Libya, and if only the US and its allies had invaded Syria in 2011 or bombed in 2013, the war would have been over by Christmas.
In reality, the death toll in Syria – where defences are much stronger than they were in Iraq – would certainly have been far greater. The same goes for any attempt to enforce no-fly zones or safe havens now. But most bizarre is the insistence that the west hasn’t actually intervened in Syria.
In fact, the US, Britain, France and their regional allies have intervened continuously, funding, training and arming rebel forces – well aware, as recent US leaked intelligence documents underline, that they were dominated by extreme sectarian groups. The result today is de facto partition, with the government in control of less than half the country but the majority of the population, including large numbers of refugees from rebel-held areas.
If Cameron had won the vote in parliament two years ago, the main beneficiary in Syria would very probably have been Isis. Next month, he plans to try again, hoping to trade on revulsion at the terror group’s vicious sectarian violence. Ministers know British bombing won’t defeat Isis or add anything of significance to the US campaign. Instead it will be an exercise in cynical political posturing, aimed at splitting Labour, and reclaiming the mantle of chief imperial subaltern in the US-led war without end across the Middle East. If MPs do authorise bombing in Syria, they will be voting to intensify the war and the refugee crisis.
The only way to wind down the conflict is through a negotiated settlement involving all the regional powers. Syria has long been a proxy war, pitting the Assad regime’s Russian and Iranian backers against the Gulf dictatorships, Turkey and the western powers that stand behind the myriad rebel groups. Talks between the main players have picked up in recent months, aimed at such a deal.
But the pressure is always to use the battlefield to increase leverage at the negotiating table. Isis thrives on war and sectarian conflict across the region. It will be marginalised and eventually defeated when that conflict is brought to an end. That will need pressure from the west on its Gulf clients, not a new bombing campaign. It’s true the refugee crisis can be solved only in Syria – but it will be by peacemaking, not more western war.