Into the Syrian maelstrom: causes and effects

“All the devouring and insatiate Monsters imagined since imagination could record itself, are fused in the one realisation, Guillotine. And yet there is not in France with its rich variety of soil and climate, a blade, a leaf a root, a sprig, a peppercorn which will grow to maturity in conditions more certain than those which have produced this horror. Crush humanity out of shape, once more, under similar hammers and it will twist itself into the same tortured forms. Sow the same seed of rapacious licence and oppression over again, and it will surely yield the same fruit according to its kind.”

Charles Dickens,  A Tale of Two Cities – writing about the use of the Guillotine in Paris after the 1789 revolution.

“Thereafter… the void was open and into that void there strode a maniac of ferocious genius, the repository and expression of the virulent hatreds that have ever corroded the human breast – Corporal Hitler”

Winston Churchill, The Gathering Storm

“We enter Syria in some force tomorrow morning in order to prevent further German penetration…De Gaulle is issuing a proclamation to the Arabs offering in the name of France complete independence…”

Winston Churchill to US President Franklin D Roosevelt, June 7 1941

“The country is beginning to say that he [Churchill] fights debates like a war and the war like a debate”

Aneuran Bevan, House of Commons, July 2 1942

“We should bomb Syria say 60 per cent of Britons”

Daily Mail headline November 19, 2015

“Oh no we shouldn’t”

Sir Max Hastings, Daily Mail November 19, 2015

Sir Max went on to argue that: “If there is one lesson we should have learned from the past 14 years it is that we should undertake military action abroad only in pursuit of defined and attainable objectives,” an eminently sensible approach and one to be recommended to those whose views will decide the matter one way or the other.

“Oh yes we should”

Stephen Glover, Daily Mail November 19

David Cameron has been anxious for some time that the United Kingdom should join the fray in Syria and Jeremy Corbyn has done a sidestep by indicating the possibility of allowing a free vote on the Labour benches. Doesn’t he have enough problems without jumping in at the deep end on this one? At the time of writing, the indications are that the yes to bombing campaign is gathering momentum, that Her Majesty’s Government will secure a majority to authorise bombing and that the attacks will start immediately following parliamentary approval.

We should reflect on the recent dramatic events that have catapulted the issue to the top of the political agendas of many countries, including the most powerful ones.

The first was the bringing down of the Russian aeroplane in the Sinai peninsular, now judged to have been caused by a bomb placed on the plane at Sharma-el- Sheik. The second was the mass shootings carried out by terrorists in Paris. Then a Russian jet was brought down by a Turkish strike because it was alleged (by Turkey) that it had trespassed into Turkish air space from Syria,

These events, taken together, have focused political minds on how best to tackle the problems posed by the so-called Islamic State in Syria and elsewhere. One of the responses under discussion is to step up the bombing of suspected IS strongholds: France, for understandable reasons, is already very fully engaged with this strategy.

Any air strikes have to take care to hit the IS targets and to avoid inflicting any damage on the forces of President Assad, on the Kurdish forces, and on the forces of the various groups that comprise the Syrian “opposition” groups – an objective that may be easier to state than to achieve. The events of yesterday vividly illustrated the confusion that prevails throughout Syria and the risks inherent in joining in the fray.

There are arguments in favour of a wait and see approach. These include the very real responsibility of the British Government back in 2003 when the United Kingdom joined the United States in the invasion of Iraq with no mandate from the United States to do so.

I would not suggest a delay in the launching of air strikes on the scale adopted by Sir John Chilcot in compiling his report. Sir John has added a whole new dimension to the word torpid in carrying out his remit. An added cause for suspicion is that the Chilcot report, when published, may, just may, take a dim view of the “send a gunboat” approach enthusiastically by Tony Blair and Alastair Campbell back in 2003,

The view of Sir Max Hastings that HMG should undertake air strikes only in pursuit of defined and attainable objectives is irrefutable and unfortunately the speed and unpredictability of events make the complex of political and military judgements very tricky.

Certainly the minimum requirement to press ahead with air strikes would be to meet the criteria laid down by Sir Max.

A second point in favour of a wait and see approach would be to make a realistic appraisal of the likely consequences of British strikes on Muslim opinion in the UK.

Recent surveys of this opinion indicate that 5 per cent of UK Muslims have a “lot of sympathy with young Muslims who leave the UK to join fighters in Syria.” Five per cent may be a small – indeed it is, a small minority – but it could translate into substantial numbers of would be UK based IS terrorists in the event of UK strikes. IS is clearly prepared to adopt barbaric methods to support its aims, but its propaganda techniques are firmly grounded in the most up to date IT.

So, just how many of the uncommitted Muslims might be prepared to join the ranks of IS, should the UK launch strikes on Syria?

A third point to consider is the likely outcome of the current massive build-up of migrants from Syria and neighbouring countries into Europe. The enthusiasm of some EU leaders for large-scale admissions of a few months ago has cooled and it has been replaced by strategically placed substantial installations of barbed wire patrolled by well-equipped guards. The significant uncertainty posed by the current situation should be resolved by those in a position to so, and pending that resolution, nothing should be done to exacerbate the situation.

A fourth point to consider is that the arrival of Russia on the scene has, if anything, confused rather than clarified the picture. Vladimir Putin had been recently been excoriated for his alleged support of the rebels in the east of the Ukraine and initially his forays against IS was viewed more with suspicion than gratitude. The shooting down of the Russian jet was said to have been ordered by the Turkish authorities because the jet had trespassed into Turkish air space and had ignored repeated requests to leave. The Russians denied any trespass. Who is right? And what is the margin of error in a case like this. involving as it does high-speed jets in crowded air space?

Some commentators have cautiously welcomed the Russian intervention, but here, as elsewhere, every development seems to raise more questions than answers.

A fifth and crucial point is the role of President Bashar al-Assad. His contribution to the present crisis is clear because of his well-documented widespread and ruthless oppression of any internal opposition to his regime. Some of the main players are proposing that he be required to stand down as part of any political settlement.

President Assad is sure wary of an outcome of this kind bearing in mind the fate of other losing leaders in the Arab Spring changes. The last days of the presidents of Iraq, Egypt and Libya were not such as to appeal to other Arab leaders still in power.

I am not in any way arguing that air strikes, either alone or in combination with other military measures, should be ruled out. I am saying that these measures will continue to be available at any time and that other political actions should be tried before joining the fight, and that it is not easy to combine the role of participant with peace maker.

Much of the reporting and especially the opinion columns have and continues to focus on war aims but sadly they seem to limit their thinking to how best to destroy the IS as an effective force. What follows on from the destruction appears to be the setting up of a Western-style democracy with all the electoral apparatus required to achieve this – or so the thinking seems to go.

This might well be the outcome but then again it might not. Winston Churchill noted how the void in German politics had been filled by Hitler. Can we really be confident that the void that followed on from the destruction of IS would be an improvement? Or are we once again, as was said of Stanley Baldwin by Lord Birkenhead, “about to take a leap in the dark”.

Not all will share the confidence of David Cameron that the implementation of his desired policy would yield a happy ending.

Let us consider just one possible option: that Putin, furious at his two recent reverses and being rather closer to the action than many in the Western alliance, might decide to commit ground troops with a view to securing bargaining rights over the territory now controlled by IS together with ensuring that the position of his selected ally, Assad, was strengthened.

Indeed, some senior military managers from the Western alliance have helpfully spelt out the numbers of military personnel and requisite hardware required to achieve this outcome.

One final consideration. Israel must be watching the current situation in Syria with some trepidation. Unlike most of the Western allies, Israel shares a border with Syria (and with other volatile Arab countries) and, just further to complicate and confuse matters, the current political relationship between Israel and the US is not notably cordial. And Israel, unlike Iraq does have weapons of considerable potential for mass destruction which are presumably available at 45 minutes (or possibly less) notice.

In these complex circumstances, and against the background of the scope for confusion, uncertainty and conflicting objectives, surely it is sensible to opt, not so much for an wait and see policy, and certainly not a Bulldog Drummond “take that” approach, but rather a clear policy based on a tireless search for a negotiated settlement within the framework of the United Nations.

Syria has been bombed for some time without British involvement. Are the problems raised by the bombing of IS by France, the US and Russia?

How effective will be the organisation of the international bombing especially, given the fact that it will be not be easy to determine where the IS controlled territory ends and the locations of civilians caught up in the conflict begin?

The Prime Minister  stated that he would not arrange for a parliamentary vote on the bombing issue until he was sure that he will win it.

Is he sure that the outcome of the bombing campaign and especially of its political outcome will be equally successful? After all, we could not launch another Chilcot enquiry until the first one has been published and digested.

This article was first published in Tribune on December 4, 2015

Image courtesy of BBC


Author: holdenforth

50 years in management - mostly as a sharp-end man. Occasional contributor to Tribune.

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