Saturday, 28 November 2015

Syrian air strikes, or the British call for gesture politics

If a group declares war on us, we have every right to take military action against it.

Only a convinced pacifist could think otherwise and, while I have considerable admiration for pacifists (and vegetarians), I can’t follow them in writing off all resort to military action (just like I can’t resist the occasional bacon roll). ISIS has certainly declared war on the West. Not just any war, but one of the most loathsome, directly aimed at civilians. It’s entirely legitimate for the Western powers to respond militarily to that threat. Well, as long as three conditions are met.
  1. There must be legal authority for the war, and broad consensus – which are pretty much the same thing, since both would come through the United Nations. 
  2. There must be parallel diplomatic activity to bring a satisfactory outcome that will end the fighting as quickly as possible.
  3. The military action must be effective, again to keep it short.
On the first two points, there has been a little tentative progress. The UN has backed action against ISIS, with no veto by Russia, which is now involved in the conflict. Discussions in Vienna may lead to some movement over the internal politics of Syria, though past experience gives little grounds for optimism.

It’s on the third point that there’s most to be done.

Firstly, effective military action means action to achieve specific, stated goals. In this context that’s action to defeat ISIS. Not to meet some politician’s hidden agenda.

Secondly, winning a war means taking and holding the territory of an enemy. Consequently, the only branch of the armed services that ultimately matters is the infantry. Air strikes not followed up by infantry achieve very little. The best example of that kind of warfare? The charge of the light brigade, where the cavalry played the role of air strikes today. They charged and took the Russian guns but, without infantry to hold the position afterwards, all the small number of survivors could do, was limp back.

The only place where air strikes against ISIS are being followed up is in Kurdish Iraq. Unsurprisingly, it’s the only place where any territory has recently been taken back from ISIS, at Sinjar. If Iraq had an army worthy of the name, it too could be supported by air power to achieve similar advances, but it doesn’t.

As for Syria, even David Cameron admits we need support on the ground. He accepts that we can’t provide it. Western populations have had enough of sending soldiers to the Middle East, and the Middle East has had far more than enough of seeing them there. Sending them in can make matters far worse, as the disaster of the Iraq invasion has shown: it led directly to the emergence of the very ISIS we’re now having to combat.

So Cameron is relying on the 70,000 so-called moderate rebels in Syria. But as the BBC’s security correspondent Frank Gardner has pointed out, those rebels aren’t that concerned with ISIS. Their aim is to fight the government of Assad in Damascus. Incredibly, they’re also split into 110 factions. Our new friends, the Russians, are also bombing them. Trying to work with the Russians is never easy, but trying to be friends with them and allies of the people they’re bombing would be a major undertaking. That leaves only one force in Syria that can be relied on to tackle ISIS, and hold the ground it recaptures from it: Assad’s own army.

We could, of course, support that army. It wouldn’t be the first time we’d stood with a regime we distinctly disliked in order to overcome a common foe: we supported Stalin against Hitler, for instance. Still, it would take some clever footwork by Cameron. Just two years ago, he was showing exactly the same earnest and sincere desire for air strikes on Syria as he is today – but on that occasion against Assad, rather than against his enemies in ISIS.

In fact, it’s an issue Cameron needs to confront. Why should we believe him now when he got it so badly wrong then?

All this leads to the unfortunate conclusion that there’s no prospect of viable ground forces we can support from the air against ISIS. Consequetly, airstrikes are unlikely to do any good. Indeed, the US has run 7600 against ISIS already, but that didn’t stop the Paris attacks.

US airstrike against ISIS
So why is Cameron so keen on extending the bombing campaign to Syria?

Well, destroying ISIS may be the only legitimate goal of such a campaign, but it’s by no means the only possible obective. In a telling argument for airstrikes in Syria, Cameron has loudly proclaimed that we can’t leave them to the US and France alone.

So there we have it. We’re talking gesture politics. Cameron and his supporters are worried that not taking part makes him, and Britain, look bad. He wants us to join the campaign so that any politician who lines up with him, can face the voters and say “we’re taking action.” The action’s ineffective? No matter, as long as it’s seen to be taken.

This isn’t unusual. It was certainly a major part of the motivation for invading Iraq, to be seen to be doing something, whatever its value, in response to 9/11. Britain’s involvement was down to Blair wanting to offer visible support to the US, or more specifically to Dubya.

The same is true of the plan to renew the British nuclear deterrent, Trident. It’s going to cost the earth – estimates rose recently from £25bn to £31bn – so it must be good. And not to have it would make Britain look weak. So we want to divert huge sums from conventional defence, that we need, to a colossal prestige project involving weapons it would be suicidal to use.

All gesture politics. The real question facing us in Britain today is whether we’re prepared to have more gestures. 

Specifically, how far will we stomach military decisions to help politicians feel better about themselves?


Lord Balor said...

Gesture Politics. The UK is already in Iraq, are they promising more planes. This kind of thing makes me disgusted with modern UK politicians.

David Beeson said...

The saddest aspect of it all is that US pilots are returning to base without having dropped their bombs or fired their missiles – they can't find targets. They've taken out the obvious targets, and ISIS are getting quite good at not offering them any new ones. So the British decision is purely symbolic. A "yes" vote does nothing more than let the government claim to be doing something, without having to do anything useful.