Syria airstrikes: Has the West learned nothing after its 9/11 response?
By David Wearing
(CNN)Britain’s Prime Minister David Cameron is determined to deal with the threat from international terrorists. Or so he keeps saying. The problem is that Cameron’s proposed air strikes in Syria are likely to escalate the threat, while his government’s policies elsewhere in the Middle East are also providing nourishment to “Islamic State” (ISIS) and al Qaeda.
Just as his predecessor Tony Blair ignored intelligencewarning that invading Iraq would increase the likelihood of terrorist attacks, Cameron is playing fast and loose with the safety of the British public, and the wider world.
The plan for bombing “Islamic State” in Syria that Cameron laid before the British Parliament last week started to unravel almost immediately. In response to the crucial question of what ground forces British air strikes would be supporting, Cameron pointed to a total of70,000 non-extremist Syrian fighters, a number that simply defies all logic. A U.S. initiative to stand up even a 15,000 strong “moderate” force to confront ISIS recently collapsed in failure, having put less than a half a dozen troops onto the battlefield.
One of the central facts of the Syrian civil war is that the original democratic opposition forces have been eclipsed by ISIS, the Syrian branch of al Qaeda, and other religious fundamentalist factions. The suggestion that 70,000 genuinely non-extremist, Sunni Arab troops exist, let alone that they are willing and able to reclaim ISIS-held territory, is reminiscent of how the Blair government misrepresented intelligence to justify invading Iraq twelve years ago.
In reality, a serious anti-ISIS ground force cannot be put together until a broader de-escalation of the civil war is achieved and a national political process set in motion. Progress in this regard has barely begun. Until a few weeks ago, the key external players in the conflict had never sat round the same negotiating table (and their Syrian counterparts have still yet to join them). This is largely because the U.K., U.S. and their regional allies connived to exclude Iran from negotiations, despite it being no less vital an ally of the Bashar al-Assad regime than Russia.
Belatedly including Iran at least now gives diplomacy a chance, but the optimistic joint framework announced just a fortnight ago does not, as yet, add up to a political context conducive to successful military action. It needs time to bear fruit.
To judge the current prospects of Cameron’s plan for Syria, look to Iraq, where ISIS was originally born in the chaos of the Anglo-American occupation. Since the U.K. joined air strikes there a year ago, progress has been limited, to put it gently.
ISIS won a huge strategic victory in May this year when it seized the regional capital of Ramadi, while U.S. intelligence analysts are now in virtual open revolt against their superiors’ attempts to paint a rosy picture of the situation. The reason for the failure? The absence of any substantive political process addressing the alienation of Sunni Arabs from the central government, and consequently of Sunni Arab ground troops capable of reclaiming significant territory.
For Cameron to propose action that increases the probability of ISIS killing civilians on the streets of Britain is one thing. But to do so without an honest, credible strategy that stands a chance of defeating the group is something else altogether. Meanwhile his government’s approach to the wider region is also fuelling the terrorist threat, not countering it.
Britain’s closest alliance in the Middle East is with another group of violent religious extremists, the Saudi royal family, which has supported fundamentalist Syrian groupswho in turn have been colluding with al Qaeda. Yet there has been no discernible effort by London to use its leverage over Riyadh to push the latter to de-escalate in Syria, or to act more responsibly elsewhere in the region. Indeed, Britain is providing active, material support for the Saudis’ brutal ongoing war in Yemen, a campaign which — like al-Assad’s repression in Syria – has helped create ahumanitarian catastrophe, and opened up yet another anarchic space for international jihadis to fill.
It is the same story in Egypt. There Britain supports a regime that came to power in a military coup in 2013 and subsequently waged a campaign of state terrorism against its opponents which, predictably, gave a massive boost to jihadis in the country and opened the door to ISIS.
Egypt’s new ISIS branch is the prime suspect in the recent bombing of a Russian airliner flying out of Sharm el-Sheikh, a resort visited by hundreds of thousands of British tourists each year. Yet President Abdel Fattah el-Sisi, the coup leader who helped plunge his country into the abyss, was warmly welcomed to Downing Street a few weeks ago, and British arms sales to his regime are now on the increase. The implications for the safety of British holidaymakers, not to mention that of ordinary Egyptians, are alarming.
Cameron’s government has been looking for a way into the Syrian conflict for some time, likely motivated above all by the need to restore Britain’s military credibility after the failures of Iraq, Afghanistan and Libya. But a new intervention will play directly into the narrative used by ISIS to lure the Western recruits most likely to carry out attacks in Britain. And London’s continued support for authoritarian regimes merely enables the killings, abuses and misrule which allow extremist groups to flourish.
The first responsibility of any government is to keep its people safe, but judged by his acts and omissions, David Cameron seems to have conflicting priorities. So a new chapter in Britain’s 14-year-old “war on terror” begins, and by now, we all know the probable outcome.