Symbolic air-strike in Syria

Donald Trump has acted swiftly in response to Assad’s recent use of chemical weapons in Syria, by bombing the airfield from which the attacks had been launched.  A failure to respond would have appeared to condone a war crime.

His action was measured, and largely symbolic.  He had warned the Russians (and by extension the Syrians) of his intentions, which reduced the damage inflicted and reduced the risk of provoking Russia.  Russia’s subsequent protest is probably equally symbolic: not an overreaction and politically necessary.

There were both benefits and drawbacks to Trump’s strike. The benefits were twofold: the use of chemical weapons cannot be tolerated, so some punishment was appropriate, and it will probably deter Assad from repeating such attacks.

There were two obvious drawbacks: he bypassed the UN and he bypassed Congress.  He may have taken the view that this was unavoidable. The stalemate in the UN Security Council would have prevented any action from being taken against Assad, and a request to Congress would have delayed him at a moment when swiftness was called for (though he should still ask for retrospective approval).

Trump’s action will have done nothing to help the process of finding the solution to Syria’s problems, but won’t have harmed it either.  On balance, it seems to have been a sophisticated intervention, in circumstances where the ideal course of action (a meaningful response by the UN) was not possible.

Seen as a gesture against the use of chemical weapons, Trump’s action is probably better than doing nothing.  It is important, though, that America doesn’t broaden its involvement in Syria.  Its only agreed role there is the battle against ISIS.  Russia would feel obliged to escalate if Assad is further threatened and, as noted in a previous post, peace talks cannot begin meaningfully until order has been restored in Syria.

Syrian Peace Process

On 12 February, after talks in Munich, world powers agreed a “cessation of hostilities” in Syria to begin a week later.  Much subsequent commentary is dismissive, for example the Telegraph’s remark that “The “nationwide ceasefire” supposedly agreed for Syria belongs in a special category of futility”, and has pointed out that the Syrian situation is still a grave risk to world peace. Although the civil war in Syria started as a local uprising against Bashar al-Assad’s government, its subsequent trajectory has been much worsened by the involvement of external powers.  Western foreign policy has been misguided and many of the other participants in the conflict are pursuing their own interests in wider political struggles.  The hostility between Saudi Arabia and Iran is an example of a tension that could erupt to widen the war-zone.

Misguided Western Foreign Policy

The Syrian civil war has been partly fuelled by a Western foreign policy of intervening in the Middle East to encourage the spread of democracy, whilst having no regard for whether it is yet viable in the countries concerned.  The overthrow of Saddam Hussein in Iraq made way for sectarian strife and identity politics.  The overthrow of Colonel Gaddafi in Libya had the same effect.  Encouragement for those who wished to overthrow the regime of Bashar al-Assad in Syria would, if successful, have repeated the pattern.

The ‘Arab Spring’ uprisings seemed to be a clear expression of people’s wish for democracy in the Middle East.  Of course the population wanted democracy, because they thought it meant that they would have more say in how they were governed and that they would be able to overthrow the corrupt rulers who were looting their countries.  What they all failed to take into account, though, was that they couldn’t each have the government they wanted as they all have radically different ideas of what that might look like.  The fault lines within Islam, and between Islam, Christianity and Judaism, meant that the Middle East was a tinderbox even before the Western interventions in Iraq and Libya.  The flames of war are now well alight and Daesh (aka ISIS, ISIL or so-called Islamic State) has emerged as a new threat, as a global sponsor of terror as well as a fighting force in Iraq and Syria.

Combating Daesh in its global aspirations

Daesh preaches a warped variant of Islam as it tries to gain support for creating a caliphate across the whole of the Middle East, if not the whole world.  It is appropriate to use the name ‘Daesh’ for the organisation led by Abu Bakr al-Baghdadi because its other names imply that it is Islamic.  It has been roundly condemned by Muslim leaders.  We need to avoid feeding the perception that all Muslims are terrorists because that is exactly what Daesh is wanting.  Its acts of terrorism are designed as propaganda to create hostility towards all Muslims, because treating them all badly will cause some to be radicalised and join the jihad.  This strategy has been very successful in recruiting Western Muslims, as Islamophobia is now rife in the West (as exemplified by attacks against Muslims in Britain, Donald Trump’s popularity in America and the rise of the Front National in France).  Western military involvement in Syria also helps Daesh by enabling it to argue that the whole of Islam is under attack, thereby making it a religious duty to oppose the non-Muslim West.

The Daesh-sponsored terrorist attacks need to be dealt with in the countries where they take place.  They reflect different social and political problems.

Combating the Daesh military presence in Iraq and Syria

The world’s most complicated involvement with Daesh is where it started, in Iraq and Syria (whose borders were arbitrarily established by the British and the French in 1916, under the Sykes-Picot agreement).  In that region Daesh has a constantly growing army that has shown itself to be capable of seizing and maintaining control over large swathes of territory.

Iran, Saudi Arabia, Turkey, the Syrian government, the Kurds, the West and Russia are all opposing Daesh in its home territory, but there are also conflicts between these actors.  It will not be possible to reach a peace agreement there until order has been restored.  Bashar al-Assad’s authority will probably be re-established with Russian support, at least temporarily, even though that is unpalatable to the Western governments and their allies – who are recklessly still trying to encourage the spread of democracy in the Middle East; Saudi Arabia, for example, has threatened to remove Assad by force.

Any visible Western military involvement in Iraq and Syria is likely to strengthen Daesh’s global aspirations by enabling it to depict the West as anti-Islam.  The Syrian government invited Russia to help it to restore order, but Western countries have no mandate to operate there and they are effectively helping Daesh propaganda by doing so.  Britain’s decision to bomb Syria was politically and legally unsound, described by James Meek as an attempt “to turn to purpose the inarticulate emotions of hate, rage and fear”.  Daesh must have been delighted with the result of the Parliamentary vote.

Although it would be possible to crush Daesh by using military force in Iraq and Syria, that alone would not bring peace (and Daesh would continue as a promoter of international terrorism).

A possible peace process

Peace negotiations in Syria would have to offer something tangible to the Sunni Muslim groups, who have genuine political grievances arising from their mistreatment by the Iraqi and Syrian governments.  The Russians have made it quite clear that the ceasefire that was proposed on 12 February will not become effective whilst there is any resistance to Bashar al-Assad, but those groups whom the Americans describe as ‘moderate’ opposition will not stop fighting merely to return to the pre-war situation.

Perhaps Assad’s opponents could be persuaded to have a cease-fire and negotiate if they were offered an enforceable process with clear parameters for reaching a new constitutional settlement for the region, possibly redrawing the borders (but it is much too soon to make specific proposals on what the outcome of the process might look like).  It would have to include all the participants, including neighbouring countries – and that has previously been recognised in earlier attempts to start peace negotiations; it is likely that Daesh would be refused a seat at the table, but it could be involved by proxy.  All the parties need to accept that the process almost certainly would include the restoration of Bashar al-Assad’s control, at least temporarily, and that it could not rule out giving him a continued role in at least part of the territory – because that decision is not for external powers to make; his future should be an outcome of the process, not a precondition for launching it.

Combating ISIS

French President Francois Hollande reportedly described the recent attacks in Paris as an “act of war” by the organisation calling itself Islamic State (ISIS) – which has claimed responsibility for the killing of at least 128 civilians.  But ISIS is not just an army that can be defeated militarily.  France and other Western countries are facing three distinct but connected problems of which ISIS forms a part: ISIS aims to establish a religious caliphate; it co-ordinates acts of terrorism in several countries; and it is active in Syria’s civil war.

ISIS (which is also known as ISIL, Islamic State or Daesh) has been described as being a descendant of Al Qaeda in Iraq.  Osama bin Laden claimed that Al Qaeda was engaged in a ‘just war’ and he also claimed religious legitimacy.  Both of these claims are rejected by authoritative figures in Islam and by most moderate Muslims; and in practice ISIS is predominantly fighting other Muslims.  Western political leaders are naturally encouraging moderate Muslims to preach against ISIS and reduce its allure.  Islamic leaders have to win the battle for Muslim hearts and minds.

It is attractive to disaffected Muslims to believe that they are fighting against Western oppression in the name of their religion.  Terrorism has long been part of the Islamist strategy, intended to provoke the West into sending troops to the Middle East so that other Muslims could then be persuaded to join the struggle in what would be seen as a holy war.  The Paris attacks are the latest in a long line of provocations dating back to before 9/11 – and the latter was successful in its aim of provoking George W Bush into declaring a ‘war on terror’ and sending troops to Afghanistan and Iraq.

The provocations are also helping right-wing political parties in Europe.  It has been reported that Geert Wilders, leader of the Dutch Party for Freedom, has experienced a surge of support as a result of the combination of the immigrant crisis and the acts of terrorism.  Anti-Muslim feeling benefits Europe’s far right as much as it benefits the ISIS strategy.  Ultimately the revulsion of most people will be the safety valve that prevents either ISIS or Europe’s far right from gaining permanent power.

ISIS is fighting alongside other groups in Syria and Iraq which also espouse Sunni Islam but which don’t necessarily share its vision of a caliphate.  The ISIS army in Syria can be fought with conventional weapons, including ‘boots on the ground’, but Western military assistance – even in the form of airstrikes – helps to feed the ISIS narrative of Islam as a whole being threatened by the West.  Russia has been invited to help the Syrian government to restore order and that seems to be the most viable strategy for resolving what should be seen as a local military conflict.  It is not yet clear what the solution might look like; changing the government in Syria, and even redrawing regional borders, might be negotiated once peace has been restored.

The French response to the Paris attacks of 13 November 2015 has taken the form of increased airstrikes in Syria.  That may be politically popular because it looks like doing something, but Francois Hollande would be wiser to attend to France’s own problem: the need to coexist peacefully with its own Muslim population. David Cameron is now reported as wanting to make the same mistake: to obtain Parliamentary approval for airstrikes in Syria, even though that is exactly what ISIS wants.  Doubtless the airstrikes would inflict some military damage on ISIS in Syria, but they would also provide powerful propaganda to help it recruit more followers in the wider jihad against Western liberal democracies.

Time for realism in Syria

William Hague’s thoughtful article in Tuesday’s Telegraph (13 Oct 2015) is based on the mistaken assumption that a Western military intervention in Syria could be helpful.  When you have a hammer it is tempting to treat every problem as a nail, but when you meet a screw it is better to use a screwdriver – which is slower, and involves many twists and turns, but ultimately leads to a secure solution.  Whereas military interventions have sometimes worked in the past, in this case they are a dangerous delusion. The narrative of a holy war to protect Islam against a Western attack is used by the so-called “Islamic State” (also known as IS, ISIS or ISIL) to recruit more followers.  Air-strikes alone will not defeat it but past conflicts have illustrated how the locals will tend to join in any struggle against foreign ‘boots on the ground’ – even if that means making alliances with groups they would otherwise disagree with.  Now is the time to develop a better strategy.

Freedom and democracy are desirable goals, but survival of the civilian population is the highest priority.  The West should remember that the Christians in Syria are fighting alongside Assad, not against him, because they understand the overriding need for stability.

The Syrian government has killed many of its people.  War crimes have been committed, and not only by the government, but those responsible cannot be held to account until security has been restored.

Russia is self-interested but nonetheless wears the fig-leaf of having been invited by the Syrian government to operate in its country to help to restore law and order.

William Hague’s suggestion of “assistance from the West to the more responsible opposition groups” and his proposal for “the UK to join the military effort against Isil in Syria” would merely prolong the war and more people would die as a result.  There are grave risks of escalation in proxy wars, not just between different factions of Islam but between Saudi Arabia and Iran as regional powers and even between America and Russia.  Now is the time for realism.  Since Russia’s escalation of its support for Assad it is now next to impossible for freedom and democracy in Syria to be established by the use of force against the government.

William Hague rightly makes the point that ‘safe havens’ are an unrealistic option, partly because Russia would veto their authorisation by the UN and partly because they are difficult to defend by force unless they are reinforced by troops who are prepared to put their lives at risk – unlike the position in Srebrenica in 1995.

The refugee crisis has made the world aware of the scale of the Syrian problem, but only people who have enough money are reaching Europe.  The refugee camps in neighbouring countries are the only sanctuary for those who are less wealthy.  People cannot return home until there is a credible ceasefire.  William Hague makes a very sound point that these refugee camps are receiving insufficient aid.

A ceasefire has to be negotiated between all the combatants.  The American strategy seems to be to eliminate both ISIS and the Assad government, so that neither would be invited to peace talks, but this is totally unrealistic.  ISIS is thriving in the power vacuum of Syrian instability and is still gaining adherents.  The Assad government has Russian support and is unlikely to be overthrown in the short term.

For the West, working with the Russians in the UN Security Council would be a better plan.  Support for international law would give the West some dignity in a difficult situation.  Although this gives Putin a diplomatic coup, it might also leave him with the ensuing problem of developing a viable peace plan – which would mean finding some way of dealing with ISIS.

Hopes for a UN relaunch in Syria

Yesterday President Obama made a speech to the UN in which he endorsed the aims of the organisation and offered his support to it as the best hope for achieving a more stable world order.  Then President Putin made his speech, also supporting the UN.  If they put these words into practice the Security Council can function as it should, in contrast to its failures in recent decades.

Their speeches also indicated that they disagreed with each other on a number of fundamental issues.  Whilst President Obama admitted the error made in invading Iraq in 2003, he still advanced the notions that democracy is the only form of government and that the UN should intervene in the affairs of countries where governments behave badly towards their people.  But President Putin endorsed the position taken by both Russia and China that what happens within a country is not the business of the UN.

The Syrian situation is an immediate test of whether the fine speeches made by Presidents Putin and Obama can lead to the practical resolution of a complex problem.  Both Britain and America have argued that Syria’s President Assad should be overthrown because he has killed so many of his people.  Russia, though, has acted to support Assad’s regime as the “legitimate” government of Syria and is working with it to combat the so-called “Islamic State” (also known as IS, ISIS or ISIL).  Although Russia’s behaviour in Ukraine is open to criticism, and President Putin’s behaviour as Russia’s leader has not been in the best interests of its people, the West should work with him in Syria.  Replacement of the Syrian leadership is probably desirable, but that will have to wait until the region has been re-stabilised.

It is doubtful whether solving Syria’s internal problems is really within the scope of the UN, though the International Criminal Court might play a role at a later date.  In the meantime, a peaceful political solution will necessitate compromises by Assad to respond to concerns of the Sunni majority, or the war will continue without foreseeable end; the UN can and should play a role in facilitating peace talks.

Such an approach in Syria offers a chance of resolving its crisis and would be an important step forward in establishing international law.  Although the West passionately believes in democracy, it is not a panacea.  A country’s lack of democracy is not a valid reason for interfering in its affairs.  Wars can be avoided if countries comply with international law and if the only interference in the affairs of other countries is with the UN’s permission, to enforce that law.

Being provoked into intervention

Lord Richards, a former chief of Britain’s defence staff, is reported as opining that “David Cameron lacked the “balls” to take the military action in Syria that could have prevented the rise of Islamic State” (IS or ISIS).   This suggests a breath-taking arrogance, lack of vision and irresponsibility.  Evidently some ex-military men, like some politicians, love to appear strong and regard wisdom as a sign of weakness.

ISIS would also love to see Western ‘boots on the ground’ again in Iraq, knowing that they would eventually have to go home again demoralised; by continuing to provoke outrage in the West, ISIS is successfully mobilising Western public opinion to support just such an intervention.

Saddam Hussein was ‘defeated’ in a few months, but that action led to an enormous subsequent loss of life and an increase in regional instability – including the rise of ISIS.  Doubtless the Syrian government could also have been toppled by military means, but the fallout afterwards could have been even worse.  Both Russia and Iran were supporting the Syrian regime, so there was enormous potential for matters to escalate out of control.

As Simon Jenkins observed, in this week’s Spectator, “the drumbeat for sending troops back to Iraq has begun…  It’s taking pride of place in the American election” and, based on his track-record, Cameron would want to appear equally ‘strong’.

On both sides of the Atlantic, politicians are being encouraged to demonstrate their virility by taking the country to war, without the agreement of the United Nations – but is it courageous or merely irresponsible to sacrifice the lives of one’s country’s troops and countless civilians (whilst one’s own life is not at risk)?

Sadly, politicians have often been unable to resist the temptation to look big for a few months so the ISIS strategy is likely to work.  As Simon Jenkins said: “Here we go again”.

The Iran deal is the safest option

Today’s Iran deal, which is designed to prevent Iran from developing nuclear weapons in exchange for a lifting of sanctions, is the safest way forward for the Middle East – and for Israel in particular, despite opposition to it by some American conservatives and by the Israeli government.

Opponents of a peace deal with Iran should be prepared to say what alternative they would prefer.  One article, on the Conservative News and Views website, advises a pre-emptive strike – which would be an act of war.  Previous such strikes, against Iraq and against Libya, have destabilised the Middle East and have fanned the flames of tribal conflict; they have led to the formation of ISIS and have helped it to recruit young people from all over the world to a fight in a jihad against what they see as an existential threat to Sunni Islam.

Right now does not seem to be a good time to attack Iran, while it is helping to fight ISIS.  A strike would constitute an attack on Shia Islam. Peace in this case is a difficult path to pursue, and inspections of Iran’s nuclear facilities are clearly very important, but the alternatives are worse.  If either America or Israel chooses to make a pre-emptive strike against Iran it would be very easy for Hezbollah to recruit more support in attacking Israel – which is a closer target than America.  And it doesn’t make sense for America and Israel to be attacking both Sunnis and Shias at the same time.  A peace process, even one as precarious as the Iran deal, is a safer choice.

Joining the so-called ‘Islamic State’ (IS or ISIS)

This week’s New Statesman has published an article by Mehdi Hasan, entitled How Islamic is the Islamic State?  He argues that religion is not what persuades people to join IS and that IS cannot be truly Islamic because prominent and authoritative figures in the religion have explicitly condemned the group.  He points out that those who conflate IS and Islam are helping the former.

Not all Islamic authorities agree.  As noted by Douglas Murray, in an article entitled ‘Religion of peace’ is not a harmless platitude, which was published in The Spectator on 17 January, “Last month, al-Azhar University in Cairo declared that although Isis members are terrorists they cannot be described as heretics.”  Murray states that Islam “is by no means only a religion of peace.  I say this not because I hate Islam, nor do I have any special animus against Muslims, but simply because this is the verifiable truth based on the texts.”  He doesn’t say that Islam is a violent religion overall, but he points out that there are undeniably violent elements in its tradition.  Some Muslims are violent, many more are not; they can choose whether to live peacefully with their neighbours or to support the violent elements in their religion and its adherents (4.4.4).

It seems that young people from the West are joining IS in reaction against Western violence towards Muslims – the invasion of Iraq came after a long tradition of Western colonial dominance, and the abuses at Abu Ghraib and Guantánamo Bay have often been cited.  Many might also feel resentment against the society in which they grew up, perhaps feeling that they were treated as second-class citizens or perhaps experiencing hostility from non-Muslims in a rising tide of Islamophobia.  By joining IS these young jihadis are helping to escalate the conflict in the Middle East towards the group’s aim of generating a global confrontation between Muslims and everybody else.

Several commentators have called upon Muslim leaders to persuade their followers to take a peaceful path.  It is equally important that Western leaders do everything possible to reduce Islamophobia and to avoid the appearance of attacking Islam.  Media channels can help by choosing their language carefully.  Islamophobia helps IS to grow by provoking Muslims to join its cause.

What drives ISIS?

In an article entitled Iraq Illusions, published in The New York Review of Books, Jessica Mathews describes the Islamic State of Iraq and al-Sham (ISIS) as “only one of an almost uncountable mélange of Sunni militant groups” which form a “Sunni insurgency that has risen up against the government of Nouri al-Maliki”.  This narrative explains why ISIS encountered relatively little resistance as it swept across the Sunni Muslim heartlands of eastern Syria and western Iraq, but it does not explain why foreign Muslims are eager to join it.

Karen Armstrong, in the introduction to her book The Battle for God, describes a phenomenon which explains the ISIS success in recruiting Muslims from outside the Middle East.  She argues that “fundamentalisms” all follow a certain pattern:

“they are embattled forms of spirituality, which have emerged as a response to a perceived crisis.  They are engaged in a conflict with enemies whose secularist policies and beliefs seem inimical to religion itself.  Fundamentalists do not regard this battle as a conventional political struggle, but experience it as a cosmic war between the forces of good and evil.

….  They fight back and attempt to resacralize an increasingly skeptical world.”

The ideal of ‘purification’, and doing what God wants them to do, is a potent motivation for foreign fighters to join the struggle against the West – and several thousand have done so.  This echoes Osama bin Laden’s 1996 declaration of jihad, which referred to the need to defend Islam against “the oppressive Crusader campaign led by America”.  The ISIS atrocities are seen by the perpetrators as being justified by a holy cause – and, as noted in this website’s previous post on this subject, the ISIS leadership is seeking publicity to lure the West into another unwinnable war in the region.

A jihad against the West is altogether different from a local political struggle.  If Jessica Mathews is right about the local political motivation for Sunni groups, then this is the language which should be used in talking about how to prevent ISIS from further ethnic cleansing.  It should not be seen as an American-led project.  America has been asked for help, and is giving it, but Western leaders should take care to avoid any language which suggests that this is their war.  It is a local war, with local participants, being carried out with Western assistance.

There is also the problem of labelling all Muslims as if they were the same.  Muslim leaders have distanced themselves from ISIS’s actions, describing them as un-Islamic.  ISIS is making a grab for power, using terror tactics and ethnic cleansing to achieve its aims.  This must not be seen as a religious war (which would help ISIS to recruit yet more people to its cause) but as a local territorial conflict which will ultimately need a political solution that overcomes some of the genuine problems experienced by Sunni Muslims.

Western leaders need to be very careful in the language they use to describe their intervention.  This is a local war about political power, and the West’s role is to help to restore calm.  ISIS wants escalation to an international holy war, and the West needs to be more careful in its language if it doesn’t want to get sucked in deeper.

Resisting Islamic Extremism

Prospect magazine has just published a thought-provoking article entitled Do not give Isis what it wants, drawing attention to the dangers of the West being drawn into another war.  Experience (7.4.1.4) indicates that an invasion, which would constitute what Rupert Smith referred to as “a war among the people”, is unwinnable.  The article’s author suggests a viable alternative response by providing limited military assistance to the Kurdish Peshmerga militia, for example by using drones.

Although the Islamic State may want to lure the West into putting boots on the ground in Iraq or Syria, it is very unlikely that this would happen – but there is a wider danger of the Islamic State’s atrocities creating a popular backlash within Western countries.  If people start to persecute their Muslim neighbours, the Islamic extremists will get exactly what they want: the radicalisation of peaceful Muslims, leading to sectarian violence in Western cities.

A fatwa has been issued by leading UK imams, prohibiting Muslims from joining the Islamic State.  This is a very welcome example of moral leadership.  What is now needed is for the rest of society to support them by keeping calm.  The news media can play a part, by making it quite clear that the problem is not Islam as a whole but a group of Islamic extremists who are trying to provoke radicalisation.