Thursday, December 03, 2015

Syria and the pessimistic imagination

With RAF airstrikes in Syria now under way, I'm one of those who would have rather preferred that Parliament hadn't voted in favour of this last night.  Of the reasons for taking this view I make no claims for originality.  Like others I think saying 'something must be done' with regards to ISIS is not good enough - there has to be a reasonable chance of success and, while I may easily be wrong, I don't think this military action meets that criterion.  The clich√© that no war can be won from the air doesn't really take proper account of how Japan was defeated in the Second World War but assuming everyone thinks the immolation of entire cities is unacceptable, it is indeed right to say we need 'boots on the ground'.  Given that a Western land-invasion is both out of the question and undesirable, these would have to be local region players.  Here I share the scepticism of many about Cameron's claim that there are 70,000 'moderate fighters' prepared to take on ISIS.  Unlike some, I don't claim to know for certain that they don't exist or that they aren't all that moderate - although I suspect both claims are largely true.  But what I do know is they aren't our fighters prepared to do our bidding and even if they were, this number of troops just is not enough to stabilise the country.

I am not a pacifist so if I thought this action would do anything to 'make us safer' or help stem the heart-breaking human stampede from the region, I would back it but at the moment I don't.  A number of people supporting this military action have said to me personally that 'things can't get any worse than this'.  This has to one of the most over-used phrases in the English language and relates to the title of this post.  What we have is a regional conflict with the Assad regime backed by Russia, Iran and Hezbollah on one side; Turkey, Saudi Arabia and Qatar backing the Sunni insurgents on the other.  On top of this we have the United States and France air power.  The Assad military - depleted though it undoubtedly is - is still the largest functioning military force in the country.  It cannot win the war but now it is backed by Russian air-power, it can't lose.  Without it, the only other force capable of winning is ISIS and its affiliates.  Among the many problems the American have is that they don't want either side to win but are not - thank goodness - willing to countenance a military confrontation with both sides.  It is this horrible situation that we have been drawn into and one would have thought the dangers of this escalating into something wider and very much worse should be obvious.

It is here I would really have to object to the question, "So, what's your plan?"  I haven't got one.  I'm a middle aged history teacher struggling even to remember the names of the various factions involved in this conflict.  I don't know how to sort out the Middle East but I'm not sure I'm prepared to accept that people who can't answer basic questions like, "Whose side are we supposed to be on?" know either.  Not having a 'plan' doesn't mean I'm obliged to accept any one on offer and here I am thinking we might need to consider the possibility that some of the pro-interventionists and the 'Stop the War' crew are twin sides of a wishful-thinking coin that says this is all about us.  For interventionists, it is about taking appropriate military action; for Corbyn groupies, it is about giving up our evil imperialistic ways and then people will live in harmony.  They seem polar opposites but both imagine it is in our power to do something to resolve this.  What if both are wrong?  What if the failure of the Arab Spring is like the failure of Europe's 1848 revolutions?  Starting dates in history are always arbitrary but what anti-imperialist nationalist then would have imagined that the following century would be mankind's most violent?  I don't mean to be apocalyptic - I have no idea if this is right - but it is surely at least possible that we are not near the end but at the beginning of a conflict that won't be resolved until everyone reading this is dead.  Even if we weren't now, it would be one that we would bound to be involved in one way or another eventually so it surely cannot be absurd to suggest that we might want to consider whether a deeper engagement is absolutely necessary now?


3 comments:

Phil said...

A Corbyn Groupie Writes: I'm under no illusions that Britain has any special power to make things better in the Middle East. I just wish we'd do things that might be geopolitically difficult but would have some chance of being effective against IS & not kill people - e.g. put pressure on Saudi Arabia and Turkey, as suggested in the Commons by David Davis - rather than going straight to a bombing campaign, which is likely to be the opposite in ever respedct.

Phil said...

As someone who, in the end, supported intervention I think all your points are valid and relevant. My reason for support came down to the actually very limited (in contrast to the debate about it which had a large pinch of narcissism from all sides as you rightly point out) nature of what was actually being proposed.

If we are engaged in airstrikes against ISIS in support of, and at the request of, our allies in Iraq I don't see that we should be respecting a border that our enemy doesn't. Obviously we should do everything we can to minimise civilian casualties, but unless we are going to stop bombing in Iraq, I don't see how it is logical to stop at the border.

As for it making it less / more safe in britain, again we are already engaged in fighting ISIS, why are they more likely to attack us if we extend it to Syria as opposed to sticking to Iraq? I don't necessarily think it will make us more safe, but nor do i thik it will make us less safe.

Maybe we should stop bombing ISIS altogether, but that is not being proposed, so in the end i think only doing half a job makes no sense.

Shuggy said...

The answer to the point that 'ISIS don't recognise the border between Iraq and Syria' is that this doesn't mean we shouldn't. The situation is similar in that there's a lack of a reliable ground force but the problem (one of them) in Syria is that the US, France and Britain don't want to have anything to do with Assad's forces. There's also the issue of Russian involvement being different.

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