Britain in Syria: a gift to ISIS

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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.

 

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Sickening hypocrisy exposed by the death of a child..

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“We’ll Drop Bombs On You To Help You, But We Won’t Give You An Escape Route”

by Martin Odoni   First posted 3rd September 2015

There are numerous aspects of the varied British reactions to the Syrian Refugee Crisis deserving of castigation, from the latest example of UK Independence Party foaming-mouth stupidity and intolerance, blaming the death-by-drowning of a child on the parents (how easily people of a right-leaning disposition find a case for saying that when people are in terrible trouble, it must be their own fault), to Philip Davies crassly labelling compassion for the victims of the war as being ‘trendy‘, to George Osborne rather redundantly pointing out that, in a sense, the forces of Islamic State of Iraq and Levant are what caused the death of Aylan Kurdi (great point, Gideon!  So obviously we should insist ISIL take in the refugees while we launch rockets at al-Qaryatayn.  Right?  Is that what Gideon is saying?  Actually, I really have no idea what he is saying).

The truth is, though, that plenty of others up and down the country have offered their thoughts on this ignorant mixture of excuses for sitting-on-hands, and there is little I can say that will not already have been said.

Instead, I want to focus more narrowly on the words of our ‘wannabe-Tony-Blair-clone‘ Prime Minister, David Cameron, and put them into a wider context of his conduct in office.  Yesterday, Cameron said that he did not want Britain to take in any more Syrian refugees.  Now his stance has softened somewhat since then, in a way that suggests rather maddeningly that he is simply following the crowd, and one that has been worded somewhat ambiguously; the declaration “we will fulfil our moral responsibilities” is hardly specific.

My concern here is that Cameron’s stance on Syria seems disturbingly volatile at times, and what is most disturbing is perhaps which proposed action in Syria most piques his enthusiasm; it always seems to be violence, rather than rescue, that he finds appealing.  I hope he does not imagine the people of this country are so stupid that they might forget that almost exactly two years ago, he took a motion to Parliament requesting military action against the regime of Bashar al-Assad.  His enthusiasm for war as he spoke in that debate seemed almost fervent.  By contrast, this week he has argued that taking in refugees is not a solution to the crisis, and that only stabilising and bringing peace to Syria and the wider region can offer that.

This is both a strawman argument – no one is suggesting that taking in refugees is a solution to the crisis as a whole, it is just a way of keeping Syrian people alive until such a solution can be found – and the diametric opposite of his stance two years ago; unless you genuinely believe that you can bomb a country into peace and stability, that is.  His enthusiasm for a military ‘solution’ was such that, despite being voted down in the House of Commons, he ended up secretly authorising it anyway (a corrupt move that has seriously jeopardised Parliament’s credibility and should have made his position untenable).  But this week, his reluctance to get involved in the actual ‘rescuing-the-Syrian-people’ part of rescuing Syrian people smacks of the mindset of a casual thrill-seeker i.e. he only wants action that causes lots of exciting bright flashes of light and loud banging noises.

Admittedly, the target two years ago was the Assad regime, whereas this time the ‘enemy’, to use a simplistic shorthand, would be ISIL.  But does that really make a difference?  Either way, Cameron needed to see a picture of a dead child in order to grasp the true horror of what is happening to the fleeing Syrians, and so to find the same enthusiasm for mercy as he had previously shown for malevolence.

Rather than saving some people, he would like to kill others. It does not look like he has the right priorities.

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On a related note: –

Last night, I decided to put several photos of the tragic Aylan Kurdi up on social media.  This was not a decision I made lightly, because I knew the proliferation of the picture, which had already gone viral across Twitter and Facebook, was bound to have an intrusive, even voyeuristic, overtone at a time of grief. 

But in the end, despite having little taste for doing so, I went ahead, because I felt that there was a point that simply had to be driven home to a lot of very selfish people in Britain, and only by having the pictures as widely available as possible can that point get across; –

Quite simply, the refugee crisis on the Mediterranean has become a humanitarian disaster in its own right, rather than just an offshoot of the Syrian Civil War, and yet wide numbers of people around the UK are still buying into the preposterous ‘they’re-lazy-foreigners-here-to-live-off-our-Welfare-State’ narrative (as though people would ship their families hundreds of miles in cramped, top-heavy fishing boats just to get about a hundred pounds per fortnight).  The greedy, self-satisfied people who cling to this ridiculous view – arrived at largely by projecting their own sociopathic tendencies onto the rest of the human race – need to understand precisely the terrible risks the refugees are having to take, and the scale of the horror they are trying to escape from in doing so.  The photos of little Aylan, one of twelve victims to drown off the coast of Turkey when their boat sank, are perhaps the only evidence strong enough to break through this stubborn thick-headedness.  While I – and I am sure most others who have shared the pictures – would not wish to exploit the death of a young child, the widened awareness of the crisis could equally be seen as a way of sifting some good from what happened to him.  Given the photos appear to have swayed Cameron’s attitude somewhat, their proliferation does appear to have had a positive effect.