Tuesday, 24 November 2015

It's urgent to get stuck into the Syrian War. Or should we think a little first?

It’s fascinating to watch all the noise that’s been generated over whether or not Britain should take part in air strikes against ISIS in Syria. It’s as though this was becoming an acid test of one’s commitment to democratic rights and rejection of terrorism. Back the bombing of Syria or give up any hope to be taken seriously as an opponent of ISIS, that sort of thing.

No one seems to want to stop and think whether adding Britain’s really rather limited punch to what’s already going on would actually make any serious difference. After all, the US, France and some reluctant, on-off allies from the Arab world have been bombing ISIS for months. As the Paris attacks showed, that’s not really degraded its capacity to act, has it?

It’s not surprising that it’s been so ineffective. Take the French effort after the Paris attack: they flew sorties across the weekend after and announced, with pride, that they’d killed 31 militants. Since estimates range up to 200,000 in ISIS, at 31 dead ever two days, it was going to take a terribly long time to reduce its force seriously that way.

In fact, the only serious reverses to ISIS have been in places like Sinjar, where Kurdish forces have retaken the city from ISIS. Air strikes were vital to that victory, but they couldn’t achieve it alone. It took Kurdish ground forces. 

What’s true in Sinjar is true in Raqqa too. Air strikes will cause inconvenience, and will kill innocents (written off as “collateral damage”) but they will not drive ISIS from their unofficial capital.

No one’s calling for British, French or US forces entering ISIS territory on the ground. Rightly. After all, we put forces on the ground into Iraq, and look how that worked out: our actions directly contributed to the rise of ISIS. The last thing we should do now is to try that again. Far better to back local forces to recapture what is, after all, their land.

I say that though I know that even local forces don’t always do the job we want: there have been accusations of ethnic hostility directed against Sunnis in Sinjar since the Kurds took the city.

In any case, the problem is that in Iraq only the Kurds seem to be capable of putting effective forces in the field. The Shia dominated government is unable to build an army able to take on ISIS. As for the Sunni opposition, rather too many of them seem to have decided that their poor treatment by the government can only be met by backing ISIS.

As for Syria, who on earth can we put our trust in? Who can play the role that the Kurds have played in Iraq? That role may be limited, but in Syria, gripped by a three-way civil war, no one can play it at all.

Which brings us back to the question of the air strikes. Because even in the air, the situation is as confused as on the ground.

We have the US and France with occasional allies bombing ISIS positions. We have Russians claiming to bomb ISIS position but, apparently, focusing more of their action on other, non-ISIS opponents of President Assad – indeed on the anti-Assad forces that the US, France and Britain support. 

To the North lies Turkey, ally of the US, France and Britain, in NATO. But it has Kurdish opponents within its own territory – Kurdistan extends into Iraq, Syria and Turkey. So our ally Turkey has little time for the only force that is making progress against ISIS in Iraq. If the enemy of Turkey’s enemy is Turkey’s friend, one has to wonder how they really feel about ISIS.

And that takes us to the latest development, the downing of a Russian fighter on the Turkish-Syrian border. A long way, incidentally, from the nearest ISIS positions. At first Turkey claimed the strike, on the grounds that the plane had entered its airspace. But later Turkoman rebels in Syria claimed they’d brought down the plane.

Russian jet brought down probably by Turkey.
Adding to the sense of chaos
So we have Russia running bombing strikes against ISIS nowhere near ISIS positions, and we have Turkey, or possibly Syrian rebels aligned with Turkey, bringing down one of the planes.

Confused? Yes, it’s a frighteningly confusing situation. Multiple actors with different agendas, including unavowable objectives kept hidden from their allies, and sometimes running directly contrary to the war aims of those allies.

But in Britain the debate has been boiled down to just one question: when are we going to join the US and France in bombing ISIS in Syria?

Isn’t it time that we started asking a few more questions? Perhaps more sophisticated ones? And maybe do a little thinking about the complexities of the situation before we leap into action?

Especially since such action isn’t likely to do a lot of good, and could create further dangerous incidents, like the downing of the Russian jet.

PS, on a lighter note

If it was the Turks that brought down the Russian plane, it does occur to me that they might have limited themselves to issuing warnings and following up with a stiff diplomatic note afterwards. That would at least have avoided the risk of precipitating a major international incident.

All that reminds me of a story told me by my Genevan uncle-in-law. 

During WW2, British bombers attacking Italian targets would apparently take a shortcut through Swiss airspace. The Swiss were neutral, but flying around took too long and consumed too much fuel.

Every time they did it, Swiss anti-aircraft crews would radio the RAF planes.

“You’re overflying Swiss territory, you’re overflying Swiss territory.”

The RAF crews would radio back.

“We know, we know.”

The Swiss gunners would open fire and the RAF would radio them again.

“You’re firing too far to the left, you’re firing too far to the left.”

“We know, we know,” would reply the Swiss.

No comments: