Western bombs will not defeat IS: Only a wider peace deal can draw its poison

If British MPs authorize military action in Syria, they are voting to escalate both the war and the refugee crisis

By Seumas Milne  /  The Guardian

Mon, Sep 14, 2015 - Page 9

There is no disaster in the Arab and Muslim world, it seems, for which the West’s answer is not to drop bombs on it. As the refugee crisis in Europe has driven home the horror of Syria’s civil war, that has been exactly the response of the leaders of the UK and France. British Prime Minister David Cameron has long been pressing for a new vote in parliament to authorize a UK bombing campaign against the Islamic State (IS) in Syria.

Now he has been joined by former archbishop of Canterbury George Carey and a gung-ho Murdoch press, while British Chancellor of the Exchequer George Osborne has signaled he also wants attacks on the “evil regime” of Syrian President Bashar al-Assad to deal with the refugee exodus “at source.” French President Fracois Hollande has announced he also wants to extend air attacks from Iraq to Syria, using the terrorist threat at home to justify the escalation.

On both sides of the Atlantic, neoconservatives and liberal interventionists are back in full cry with demands for no-fly zones and troops on the ground. The Sun has even badged its coverage “For Aylan” — after the drowned three-year-old whose image dramatized the suffering of Syrian refugees — while demanding an intensification of the war and denouncing Labour’s leadership candidates as “cowards” for refusing to sign up for immediate attacks.

So keen has the British prime minister been to get on with bombing Syria, he revealed British drones had already incinerated two British IS members in the city of Raqqa last month. Cameron pleaded self-defense on the grounds that one of the militants had been plotting to carry out “imminent” terror attacks in the UK. Since the events targeted for these alleged attacks had already taken place by the time the man was killed, the claim was clearly nonsense, but the UK has now followed the US and Israel down the road of lawless extra-judicial killings that has become a hallmark of the 14-year-old “war on terror.”

In the case of the US, it is a road that has already led to thousands of deaths, including those of many civilians, as dodgy intelligence and “signature strikes” have killed and maimed huge numbers of innocents along with targeted fighters. From Pakistan to Yemen, US drone attacks have been a major recruiter for al-Qaeda and the Taliban.

After a dozen years of drone attacks, the Taliban is again rampant in Afghanistan and al-Qaeda is thriving in Yemen. The UK’s drone attack also made a mockery of the decision by the UK parliament in August 2013 to oppose military action in Syria — in that case targeted at the Damascus government rather than at the rebels fighting it.

However, British pilots have also been taking part in US bombing raids on Syria. So evidently, the democratic niceties did not count for a lot. Nor do the legal ones, since there is no legitimate basis for attacks on Syrian territory without authorization from Damascus or the (nonexistent) threat of imminent attack.

Most bizarre is the insistence that the west has not actually intervened in Syria

In any case, the US-led bombing campaign against IS in Iraq and Syria clearly is not working. Thousands of IS fighters have reportedly been killed, along with hundreds of civilians, but a year after the raids began, the terror group has actually expanded the territory it controls.

Without troops on the ground, air attacks cannot win a war. In the case of Syria, the only forces available are the Syrian army or radical Islamist rebel militias, from the al-Qaeda-linked al-Nusra Front to the Gulf regime-backed Islamist Jaish al-Fatah.

So which do the Western governments have in mind? Their own sponsored rebel groups are entirely marginal.

As Iraq and Afghanistan have demonstrated, the alternative of Western troops would lead to a full-scale anti-occupation war. After one disastrous Western military intervention in the Arab and Muslim world after another, it is mind-boggling that demands for yet more bombing keep on coming. You only have to consider the failed-state maelstrom that is post-NATO intervention Libya — the other main transit route for refugees into Europe — to see what it means in practice, but the problem, hawks insist, is that there was not enough intervention: NATO “walked away” from Libya and if only the US and its allies had invaded Syria in 2011 or bombed in 2013, the war would have been over by Christmas.

In reality, the death toll in Syria — where defenses are much stronger than they were in Iraq — would certainly have been far greater. The same goes for any attempt to enforce no-fly zones or safe havens now, but most bizarre is the insistence that the West has not actually intervened in Syria.

In fact, the US, the UK, France and their regional allies have intervened continuously, funding, training and arming rebel forces — well aware, as recent US leaked intelligence documents underline, that they were dominated by extreme sectarian groups. The result today is de facto partition, with the government in control of less than half the country, but the majority of the population, including large numbers of refugees from rebel-held areas.

If Cameron had won the vote in the British parliament two years ago, the main beneficiary in Syria would very probably have been IS. Next month, he plans to try again, hoping to trade on revulsion at the terror group’s vicious sectarian violence. Ministers know UK bombing will not defeat IS or add anything of significance to the US campaign. Instead it would be an exercise in cynical political posturing aimed at splitting Labour and reclaiming the mantle of chief imperial subaltern in the US-led war without end across the Middle East. If MPs do authorize bombing in Syria, they would be voting to intensify the war and the refugee crisis.

The only way to wind down the conflict is through a negotiated settlement involving all the regional powers. Syria has long been a proxy war, pitting the al-Assad regime’s Russian and Iranian backers against the Gulf dictatorships, Turkey and the Western powers that stand behind the myriad rebel groups. Talks between the main players have picked up in recent months, aimed at such a deal.

However, the pressure is always to use the battlefield to increase leverage at the negotiating table. IS thrives on war and sectarian conflict across the region. It will be marginalized and eventually defeated when that conflict is brought to an end. That needs pressure from the West on its Gulf clients, not a new bombing campaign. It is true the refugee crisis can be solved only in Syria — but through peacemaking, not more Western war.