Britain in Syria: a gift to ISIS


Britain in Syria: a gift to ISIS

Paul Rogers 3 December 2015 openDemocracy


The lower house of the British parliament voted late on 2 December to extend the country’s air war to Syria.  The United Kingdom will thus become the fourth western state to be involved along with France and Australia, though the United States remains the dominant force in the whole operation.  British aircraft will bring a little bit extra to the raids but the political significance of their deployment is much greater than the military one.  Now that Saudi Arabia, Jordan, Bahrain and the UAE have all stopped their own airstrikes on Syria, the anti-ISIS campaign has become almost entirely a western war.

Overall, this is an element largely missed by the western media.  But it will be used relentlessly by ISIS propagandists as they portray this as a “crusader war” against Islam.

That depiction includes Russia’s increasing role.  Until recently, Russian forces were operating airstrikes from a single airbase near Latakia on Syria’s Mediterranean coast, together with two smaller forward operating bases (FOBs) dependent partly on helicopter supply.  Russia is now in the process of a rapid expansion that will come close to doubling its involvement, including an enlarged airbase at Shayrat airport near Homs, and two more FOBs.

Moscow also seeks to ensure protection for its planes in light of Turkey’s destruction of one of its jets.  It has begun to install the long-range S-400 ground-launched anti-aircraft missile in Latakia, and there may well be deployments to Shayrat as well.  Most of this military activity is directed at supporting Bashar al-Assad’s regime, and its planes and helicopters hardly face any threat from what remains of the Syria airforce.  Thus the new missile placement must be seen as a signal to states such as Turkey and Israel not to threaten Russian forces.  The risk of miscalculation on all sides is a recipe for increased tension.

This is the complex and disorganised theatre of war that the UK is now moving into.  But it is also a war that is accelerating in other directions.  All the indications from Washington are that the administration is intent on expanding the air war in both Syria and Iraq.  Stars and Stripes, the newspaper of the United States military, says the US “will adjust its tactics and risk more civilian casualties when launching air strikes against high-value targets in Syria and Iraq as part of an effort to increase pressure on Islamic State militants.”  More civilians will be killed but, as the chair of the US joint chiefs of staff, General Joseph Dunford, put it so plainly this week:  “Our threshold for collateral damage increases with the value of the target”.

A clear element of “mission creep” is revealed by the fact that US special forces will operate in greater numbers and at higher levels both in Syria and Iraq, engaging particularly in search-and-destroy operations against ISIS leadership elements.  Almost certainly, this reflects the Pentagon’s determination that – in the absence of progress elsewhere – it is time to relearnthe lessons of the JSOC’s activities in Iraq a decade ago, when Task Force 145 took the war to Al-Qaida in Iraq (AQI).  The group was then directed by its Jordanian leader, Abu Musab al-Zarqawi.

This history is worth remembering, since so many of the paramilitary survivors of that bitter, brutal and largely unreported war have gone on to make up significant parts of the hard-core, middle-ranking ISIS paramilitaries that are ensuring the survival of the movement.

A growing network

There are two further developments to consider in a war that, it is often said, is going badly for ISIS.  The first is that ISIS in Syria, let alone Iraq, is proving far more robust and able to organise the towns and cities it now controls.  It is aided by an apparently unending supply of technocrats from the Iraqi Ba’athist era who are able to handle the details.

The ISIS-run areas are responsible for managing all routine matters such as water supplies, policing, sewage disposal, transport, schools, taxation, control of roads, street cleaning and commercial permits.  This is little reported in the west, yet though the ultimate rule may be brutal, routine living conditions can actually be safer in and around Raqqa than in chaotic and violent districts nearby that ISIS does not control.  So much so that there are actually some refugee flows into ISIS-controlled area since they are seen as safer than much of the rest of Syria.

The second, and again almost entirely missed, feature of ISIS behaviour is the considerable attention it is now paying to establishing a second proto-caliphate in the Libyan port city of Sirte.  There, it has a city and many miles of coast under its control, and is reported to be gaining access to oil resources as well.   A new United Nations report says that ISIS has moved 2,000-3,000 paramilitary fighters to join the existing ISIS-linked elements in Sirte.  This opens the possibility of direct links to the north across the Mediterranean towards Italy, and south across the Sahara towards countries in the Sahel such as Mali and Niger.

In short, ISIS may be under serious pressure, but it shows no signs of facing defeat in Syria and Iraq and is actually expanding in Libya.  The UK parliament’s decision to join the bombing of ISIS in Syria may have considerable political meaning in Britain, but in the wider scheme of things it is not much more than a sideshow.

A new front

Even so, it is likely to become progressively more controversial within the UK, an element that may well be highlighted by the nature of the very first attacks carried out within hours of the end of the parliamentary debate.  Four RAF Tornados flew from Akrotiri in Cyprus and attacked six targets in an oilfield in eastern Syria with Paveway IV bombs, an attack that was intended to damage ISIS oil production.

Yet it is highly unlikely that the people actually operating that oilfield would have been dedicated ISIS paramilitaries and far more likely that they would have been ordinary workers.  Two days ago the Pentagon announced that US warplanes had destroyed over a hundred oil tankers, but who was driving them?  Most likely they were ordinary contract drivers for transport companies, albeit under ISIS control.

In short, trying to destroy ISIS from the air will inevitably mean many civilian casualties, but the UK, French, US and other governments will hardly want to focus on that: as General Tommy Franks of the US army said early in the Iraq war, “we don’t do body counts”.

No indeed, “we” don’t, but “they” do.  Indeed it is certain that ISIS propagandists will already be at work publicising the backgrounds of people who got killed by the RAF attacks, probably with photos of their families and plenty of other personal details.  That is the nature of the war that the House of Commons has approved.


This article is published under a Creative Commons Attribution-NonCommercial 4.0 International licence. If you have any queries about republishing please contact us.

“Humanitarian” and “War” are Contradictions in terms


Oxymoron of the day- “Humanitarian war in Syria”

Also Published on Common Dreams

By  Digby  (progressive political blogger Heather Parton) from the blog Hullabaloo.

I would argue that when I see 400 children subjected to gas, over 1,400 innocent civilians dying senselessly . . . the moral thing to do is not to stand by and do nothing.” — President Obama earlier today

That’s very compelling. This article in Jacobin Magazine by Greg Shupak explains why humanitarian war is a contradiction in terms:


(Image: NYT/Brian Stauffer)

Liberal interventionists thought they had this one. Their doctrine had seemingly triumphed in Libya. Not only were the usual suspects, the Christopher Hitchenses, the Bernard-Henri Levys, peddling the notion that NATO could be a global constabulary for the enforcement of human rights, but more careful commentators like Juan Cole and Gilbert Achcar had also backed Western intervention. If NATO’s war in Libya has now lost some of its initial luster, it is primarily because the murder of US Ambassador to Libya Christopher Stevens and three other Americans brought worldwide attention to the nature of the forces the war unleashed and to the chaotic state in which Libyans now find themselves.

But the shine was, from the start, an illusion, as Maximilian Forte proves in his important new book, Slouching Towards Sirte: NATO’s War on Libya and Africa. Forte thoroughly chronicles NATO’s bombing of Libya and the crimes against humanity for which NATO is responsible. The author takes us on a tour of Sirte after it had been subject to intense NATO bombardment by chronicling journalists’ impressions of the city in October 2011. Reporters observed, “Nothing could survive in here for very long,” that the city was “reduced to rubble, a ghost town filled with the stench of death and where bodies litter the streets,” that it was a place “almost without an intact building,” whose infrastructure “simply ceased to exist,” and resembled “Ypres in 1915, or Grozny in 1995,” or postwar “Leningrad, Gaza or Beirut.”

Forte describes numerous NATO operations which, he argues, rose to the level of war crimes. For example, he discusses a NATO strike on a farming compound in the town of Majer on 8 August 2011. A Human Rights Watch investigation concluded that NATO fired on the compound twice, the second time killing 34 civilians who had come to look for survivors —a tactic familiar to those who follow US drone strikes in Pakistan and Yemen—and found no evidence that the target had been used for military purposes. In its examination of five sites where NATO caused civilian casualties, the UN Human Rights Council (UNHRC) found that at four of those sites NATO’s characterization of the targets as “‘command and control nodes’ or ‘troop staging areas’ was not reflected in evidence at the scene and witness testimony.” In view of these and other killings of civilians by NATO, Palestinian lawyer Raji Sourani remarks that the Independent Civil Society Mission to Libya of which he was a part has “reason to think that there were some war crimes perpetrated” by NATO. Through this method, Forte shows the fundamental contradiction of humanitarian wars: they kill people to ensure that people are not killed.

If people want to make a moral argument for military intervention they have to reckon with this in some way. And as far as I can tell the only way to do that is to say you hope you don’t kill quite as many people as the “bad guys” would have killed if you didn’t intervene. That’s not good enough.

Moreover, you have to reckon with the obvious fact that these humanitarian wars are almost always underwritten by people with other motives that are not quite so high-minded, something which the president actually gets to when he talks about “credibility” although he ties it into the humanitarian case in a way that isn’t quite honest. The “credibility”on the line is far more about US machismo than it is about the need to enforce norms about chemical weapons. Obviously. 

All of this adds up to humanitarian war not being a particularly moral decisions except in a rather preening sense of self-regard and presumed nobility on the part of those who need to believe they alone have both the power and the will to “help”. It’s horrible to feel impotent in the face of violence so it’s a natural impulse to feel that someone must step in and stop it. But modern warfare is so powerfully violent (and our attention span so short) that it is almost inevitable that military force will, at best, end up solving nothing. In fact, it almost always makes thing worse.

I do have to ask people, well, if in fact you are outraged by the slaughter of innocent people, well, what are you doing about it?” — President Obama earlier today

If we really want to help the Syrian people perhaps we should spend the billions we plan to spend for military action on helping the refugees. After all, whether we bomb Syria or not, it looks as though they aren’t going to be going home any time soon. If we want to “do something” there is definitely something to do besides hurl explosives.

Obviously, I used this analysis of Libya to make a larger point in the context of Syria. But you should read the whole article (and presumably, the book, which I’ve just ordered)for the specific analysis of the Libyan intervention and why our intervention may end up being instrumental in creating a whole new environment for ongoing “interventions” in Africa. It’s the sort of insight that can’t help but make you cynical about the whole operation — after all, military powers need battlefields on which to fight. And they’re always looking for new ones.

This work is licensed under a Creative Commons Attribution-Share Alike 3.0 License

Noam Chomsky at the Massachusetts Institute of Technology (MIT) 12.07.12


Noam Chomsky on Austerity in Europe and United States (12/7/12)

“The Republicans are not really a political party anymore.”

Noam Chomsky on the USA, Syria, Russia and Libya (12/7/12)

Noam Chomsky at the Massachusetts Institute of Technology (MIT) 12.07.12.

“The History of Imperialism as far back as you want to go.”

Libya: into economic tyranny

Libya: into economic tyranny

by Dr Tristan Learoyd

Western Neoliberals have a problem. Libya has dispatched with its tyrant and its new government doesn’t want to play ball. The Libyans are being defiant, they don’t want foreign loans and they have the means to make their nation a success.

The IMF and World Bank have indebted the globe through their loan conditions of privatisation, slashed public spending, fiscal control and free trade. They have decimated economies from Indonesia to Nicaragua with their loans, conditions and dogma. Why would the Libyans want to take on IMF relations of that kind when it has high quality crude in abundant supply, a per capita GDP that resembles Eastern Europe, and minimal national debt? [1,2] Thus, the Libyans have been stating they do not need loans from the West: “we don’t need loans”, defiant former Libyan central bank governor Farhat Bengdara told the World shortly after the Rebels captured central Tripoli. [3]

But write off the Neoliberals at your peril, as post-conflict/post-disaster confusion is the realm of the Neoliberal. How he thrives on it: from hurricanes to tsunamis, peaceful succession to war, if there’s the green glimmer of a dollar note the neoliberal will come to town. [4]

Libya’s frozen assets

There are two huge domestic problems that face Libya: one, it has startling inequality with pre-war employment of 30% in a unvaried economy, history suggests it will need central planning from a social government with a domestic plan to solve such problems; and two, the country’s infrastructure will require significant investment following the civil war. [1] Oil exportation will be required to raise the revenues to build such infrastructure, but the problem is that the oil industry will also require post-war investment.

Unfortunately, for the West, Libya doesn’t have to turn to the World Bank or IMF to find the money to kick-start its oil exports (if there is any money left in either institution), as the country has £168bn of its own stashed in foreign banks. However, the problem Libyan’s have is that those assets were frozen when the civil war started, and assets worth at least £90bn of the £168bn are located in European banks and in US and European government bonds. The Rebels will have to form an interim government which is considered reliable before such funds are released. [3]

Stuart Levey, a former US Treasury undersecretary, describes Libya’s predicament: having the assets remain frozen could be used “as a point of leverage for the US and its allies to ensure that they have a legitimate government they can trust in Libya they can give this money to”. [3]

Of course ‘legitimate government’ to the US and its allies means a government that opens up its markets to foreign investment – in other words to multinationals – eliminates tariffs and enters into a cycle of bargain-bonanza cheap state sell-offs in oligarch wallet-swelling cycles of privatisation. Therein lies Libya’s dilemma, the foreign firms want in and the assets are frozen by their respective governments.

It is no surprise that British businesses are lining themselves up for a slice of the action in post-war Libya with firms such as BP, Weir Construction and G4S private security ready for entry. [5]

Professor Paul Sullivan of the National Defence University in Washington states that “Libya may have the toughest transition of all of them in north Africa… there really seems to be almost no understanding among many there about how to transition to a vibrant economy and democracy. Platitudes and hopes are not policies that can be implemented.” [3]

One can only presume that the other Arab Spring nations will have a ‘smoother transition’ because they don’t have oil reserves, and will just have to take foreign loans with conditions attached and then be dictated to by the West. It is likely that the ‘transition’ referred to above means the kind of “shock therapy” economics of privatisation and austerity unleashed with such devastating results on the Southern Cone in the 1970s and 1980s and on the European Eastern Block and Russia in the 1990s.

What constitutes a ‘vibrant economy and democracy’ in the eyes of the West is likely to mean ‘laissez faire’ economics combined with a heavily subdued political democracy; such as in Western Europe and the US, where we vote for a personality who will have little control over the economics of the country – if elected – in a largely futile and meaningless process known as a general election.

Into economic tyranny

This is the faceless economic tyranny of neoliberalism. Neoliberalism pretends to be “laissez faire” but in fact there is more “do” than “leave” in neoliberalism. The legal constructs of contract and property rights required to enable “laissez faire” are immense, and coercion by corporates in and outside of the complex legal framework makes neoliberalism the mirror of its results, a barbaric undemocratic economic doctrine often on a par with those employed by tyrannical leaders – such as Moammar Gaddafi. [6,7]

Since the overthrow of Allende’s Chilean Government in 1973, new regimes have to have their economics nailed-on to defeat the neoliberal agenda and its Western cheerleaders, and thus deal effectively with their own domestic economy and inequities. If the Rebels don’t want to go the way of the many emerging nations before them, and want the nation they have fought – and are still dying – for, they need to work out an economic plan, and fast. At least there is hope for the Libyan people in reports that the damage to their oil fields has been less than expected. [8]

[1] Accessed 28/08/11

[2] Accessed 28/08/11

[3] Accessed 28/08/11

[4] Examples of neoliberalism involvement in the aftermath of disaster/confusion, for example: Hurricane Katrina, the 2005 Tsunami, Chile’s 1973 Coup and Poland’s 1990 failed succession from communism to social democracy.

[5] Accessed 28/08/11

[6] The immense legal constructs that enable “laissez faire’ dogma was examined in depth in the aftermath of the last Great crash by, amongst others, John Hale.

[7] The inequality of neoliberal nations can be seen in both Injustice by Dorling (2009) and The Spirit Level, by Wilkinson and Pickett (2010).

[8] Accessed 28/08/11