With exquisite irony, thus spoke Mark Antony in Shakespeare’s Julius Caesar as he whipped up the rabble into a frenzy against the dictator’s assassins.
The phrase keeps coming to me as I watch members of his own party praise Jeremy Corbyn for his sincerity and integrity in his stand against air strikes on ISIS in Syria. Even more so when David Cameron does the same.
For different reasons of course. His own colleagues hoping to bury him, and Cameron hoping to keep the opposition divided and impotent for the longest possible time. As with Caesar, such tributes usually come after death. In the case of Corbyn, some would say that he’s joined the ranks of the politically undead.
Should he fail to bring his parliamentary party round to his point of view over Syria, no doubt there will be other opportunities to praise, then bury him. The Oldham by-election is just round the corner, for example.
One thing’s for sure. The would-be assassins in his own party will need to have nerves of steel. Will the disaffected right wing of the party risk the wrath of the all-powerful Len McClusky, leader of Unite, Labour’s biggest trade union backer? Are they prepared to risk targeted deselection campaigns by Corbyn’s supporters?
Depends on their principles, I suppose. Also there will be a number of them thinking that if they can get rid of him now, they will be in a better position to defend their back yards with a new leader in place and four years to prepare for the next election.
Otherwise, they might calculate, better to suffer a quick political death and have those years to prepare for a career outside Parliament than to soldier on through endless bickering, plotting and lip-buttoning.
One thing’s for sure, there will be blood on the Senate floor. Whose blood remains to be seen.
Or, to quote John Lennon:
There’s room at the top they are telling you still
But first you must learn how to smile as you kill
If you want to be like the folks on the hill
Working Class Hero. Copyright Lennon Music
If I was a member of the British Parliament I would reluctantly vote for military action against ISIS in Syria.
I chose my words carefully. We should not be confined to air strikes. If our contribution is to be meaningful, we need to keep our options open for other forms of military action, such as the use of ground troops. I’m not suggesting that the British Army is capable of driving ISIS out of Syria and Iraq on its own, or that we should send thousands of soldiers on to the battlefield. Only that ISIS rules out no options in its holy war, and neither should we, excepting only the use of weapons of mass destruction.
To require parliamentary approval for each minute step in the war against ISIS is a nonsense. Large scale action on the ground should of course only be launched with the consent of Parliament. And right now, such a venture would be unlikely to gain approval under any circumstances.
But our military should be free to react to changing circumstances by using different kinds of force, be that naval action, the use of special forces or whatever else is deemed necessary. It shouldn’t be beyond the wit of our generals, civil servants and politicians to devise a formula that stops short of a full ground war, yet gives our armed forces the power to vary their tactics according to the needs of the moment.
In Parliament yesterday, David Cameron set out the argument for air strikes in Syria. His main points were:
- Air strikes would help the chances of the international coalition
- Strikes would contribute to a transition plan for Syria
- The action would be legal
- Numerous countries in the region support air strikes
- There are 70,000 fighters ready to attack ISIS on the ground
- The military objective of the strikes is to stop the threat to the UK and to the existence of Iraq
- We would make a difference because our precision-guided missiles are more precise than anyone else’s
So do his arguments stand up?
It depends how we define the national interest. Certainly it’s in Britain’s best interests that the mix of diplomatic, military and political initiatives results in a peaceful Syria and the destruction of ISIS. And yes, the two do go hand in hand, because without the settlement there is always the danger that Son of ISIS will emerge and will continue to inspire terror attacks in the homelands of the coalition members, including our own.
Where the argument breaks down, however, is in the assumption that the diverse groups operating in Syria can be welded into a coherent whole that is not only capable of operating within an effective military command structure, but also are prepared to support whatever political settlements are put in place.
This is by no means guaranteed. We in Britain have the assurance of our Joint Intelligence Committee that there are 70,000 members of the Free Syrian Army ready to roll over ISIS with the help of coalition air support. But two questions arise. Does the FSA actually exist in any shape or form other than as an alliance of independent groups, many of which have less than “moderate” agendas? And second, would 70,000 be enough? To hold the ground maybe, but certainly not to roll ISIS back, if some military experts are to be believed.
Then there’s the argument that regional powers, including Turkey, Egypt, Saudi Arabia and Jordan support the strikes. All well and good, but each Arab state has its own agenda. Jordan is directly threatened by ISIS, and also houses hundreds of thousands of Syrian refugees. Saudi Arabia sees Iran as the primary bogeyman, and it’s hands are full in Yemen. Egypt is consumed by its internal political unrest, not to mention the ISIS-affiliated insurgency in Sinai.
Support is one thing, but direct action is another. Since ISIS’s burning of the Jordanian pilot, the coalition’s allies in the region seem highly squeamish about getting their hands dirty – Turkey being the obvious exception. Looking further down the line, if we assume that foreign boots on the ground would be needed to supplement the fabled 70,000, how likely is it that those boots would come from Egypt, Saudi Arabia and Jordan?
As for the assurance that the UK’s intervention is legal, apparently the advice Mr Cameron has received is based on Article 51 of the UN Charter. Now the legal eagles are far smarter than the rest of us, so surely we can trust the advice they have given to the Prime Minister, can’t we?
Well one would think so. But hang on. Let’s look at the actual source of the argument, Article 51:
“Nothing in the present Charter shall impair the inherent right of individual or collective self-defence if an armed attack occurs against a Member of the United Nations, until the Security Council has taken measures necessary to maintain international peace and security. Measures taken by Members in the exercise of this right of self-defence shall be immediately reported to the Security Council and shall not in any way affect the authority and responsibility of the Security Council under the present Charter to take at any time such action as it deems necessary in order to maintain or restore international peace and security.”
So has ISIS carried out an armed attack on the UK? Does the beheading of two UK citizens constitute such an attack? Does a thwarted conspiracy to attack qualify as an actual attack? Are such conspiracies the result of direct orders from the Islamic State? Does rhetoric encouraging sympathisers to attack us qualify as an actual attack? Er, not sure really.
Another problem with Article 51 is that it was written in an era when states attacked other states. It’s certainly not designed to provide cover for asymmetric warfare, where the aggression is as likely to be home-grown as originating from abroad. It also doesn’t allow for cyber-attacks, which may not be “armed attacks” as defined in the Charter, but can be just as deadly. Clear as mud then.
As for the big picture, Peter Oborne, the respected former columnist comes up with a provocative article in Middle East Eye, entitled Cameron doesn’t know what he’s doing so he shouldn’t go to war.
One of Oborne’s arguments seems to be that Tony Blair successfully made the case for war in 2003, and he was wrong. Cameron is not good at foreign affairs, but has made an equally strong case this time. Ergo, Cameron’s wrong too. The Joint Intelligence Committee provided lousy data to Blair about Saddam’s weapons of mass destruction. Ergo, the estimates of the 70,000 in Syria champing at the bit must be wrong also. Not necessarily on both counts. Does he think that nobody in government is incapable of learning from the mistakes of the past?
He also questions the benefit of launching a couple of Tornadoes at a time into skies over Syria that are already crowded with the bombers of several nations queuing up to drop their munitions on ISIS. Fair point. Even if our munitions are superior, we do have the option sharing the technology with our allies without launching them ourselves.
And finally he says:
“There is one other point that most observers have overlooked. What about civilian casualties? The British prime minister claims that British bombing technology is more accurate than the Americans.
The United States claims that only half a dozen civilians have died since it launched its campaign of airstrikes against IS across Syria and Iraq 15 months ago. Airwars, which compile lists of civilian deaths, asserts that the true figure is at least 680 and possibly as high as 975.
There would be a dark irony if Britain (and France) killed innocent people in our quest to hurt IS. Cameron’s strategy, as set out today, is to bomb and hope for the best. We should not go ahead until we have a better idea of what we are doing.”
Frankly, I should have thought that his last point was stating the obvious. Of course there are casualties. Where there are bombs there will always be casualties. Over 300,000 have died already in Syria, but for once the vast majority have not perished by Western hands. We should be aware, though, that by joining the swarm of bombers, the UK, no matter that its Brimstone missiles can take out one person leaving the guy next to him unscathed, it will share the responsibility for the deeds of the whole coalition, not just those of the two Tornado pilots.
But have any of the coalition members yet come up with a better idea than to bomb and hope for the best? Not from where I’m sitting. So is it fair to accuse Cameron of not knowing what he’s doing? Sure. But no more and no less than any of the others.
The one observation of Oborne’s I do buy into is this: the main reason for joining the bombing campaign is that it would be a gesture of solidarity.
We can do little to affect the military outcome, but the least we can do is to avoid losing friends among those who are putting the lives of their soldiers and airmen on the line. Because who knows, we might need their help in the future.
That’s an argument anyway. It didn’t help us with our little adventure in Suez, but our American friends were pretty helpful during the Falklands War. But that was then and this is now. I doubt if Barack Obama would lift a finger to support us if it wasn’t in America’s interest to do so. In one sense we have a more special relationship with our old adversaries, the French, because we’re able to cover for each other’s deficiencies. With the French it’s not so much a coalition of the willing, more an entente of the cash-strapped.
I accept that most of the arguments for not getting involved have some validity. Syria is a rat’s nest. The interests of the leading actors are almost impossible to reconcile. The military outcome is uncertain. The legality of the strikes is a grey area.
But we are already involved. ISIS respects no boundaries between Iraq and Syria, and nor should we. No military action can ever guarantee the desired results. And there are no modern precedents for a struggle against a ruthless non-state entity like ISIS, therefore resolving this conflict is entirely new territory.
So for all the emotional reasons – that we are morally bound to try and put an end to the suffering in Syria and Iraq, and that it’s a matter of national self-interest that we show solidarity with our allies – I would vote yes to the strikes.
But let’s not kid ourselves. This is a game of trial and error. It’s dangerous. People will die, including, perhaps, our own, and perhaps in horrible ways.
We may not fully know what we’re doing, but neither do the Americans, the Russians, the French and the Turks. Is that a reason for us to do nothing? As long as we act with good intentions and with the best information to hand, I don’t think so.
I have few words to say about Paris beyond what has already been said, except that it is one of my favourite cities, and that France is a country I love deeply.
Many commentators far smarter than me have written enough wise and moving words about the dead and the wounded, and about the perpetrators and their motivation.
But if there’s just one though I keep coming back to whenever I read about the tragedy in Syria, Iraq, Beirut and Paris, it’s this: at what stage do past events cease to be opportunities to find culprits and turn into history? At what stage do we move from blaming to understanding?
After the last guilty man or woman dies, would be one answer. Which is why we continue to pursue Nazi war criminals, arrest a soldier on suspicion of murder committed in Northern Ireland thirty years ago and agitate for those who got us into the Iraq war in 2003 to go on trial for war crimes. Which is also why some of the relatives of Mohammed Emwazi’s victims would rather he had lived to face trial for the crimes of which he was accused.
To an extent the line is artificial. Blame is the brother of hatred, and hatred runs deep. Christians still blame Jews for the death of Jesus. Shiites still rail at the Caliph Yazid ibn Muawiya for the killing of Imam Hussain. And in Northern Ireland, more than three hundred years after the Battle of the Boyne, King Billy is still a symbol of oppression among the Catholic minority of the Six Counties. Crusades and a hundred other events etched into the memories of those who live around the battlegrounds continue to feed ancestral grudges today.
As for the origins of ISIS, you will find far more people who take to Twitter and point the finger of blame at a list of states and individuals than those who say enough – that was then, this is now; we have to deal with the present and the future rather than endlessly ruminate on the causes.
Worse still is the tendency to draw lessons from dubious historical parallels. Because of the adverse consequences of our invasions of Iraq and Afghanistan, some of us say that we shouldn’t be contemplating action on the ground against ISIS. Just as those who urged us not to resist Hitler’s empire-building did so because they didn’t wish to see a repeat of World War I.
Those who most energetically point the finger often seem to be the ones reluctant to propose a way forward. For many Western voices it seems to be enough to use blame to confirm a world view. It’s all the fault of American or British imperialism, globalisation, capitalism, the banks, the super-rich, the military-industrial complex, Microsoft, Google, Amazon, Monsanto and so on. And in the Middle East, the same people who blame America for all their ills, are the one who happily chat on their IPhones, drive their Ford pick-ups and watch Hollywood movies. Far easier to blame than take responsibility.
Jeremy Corbyn, the recently-elected leader of the Labour party, has never been kindly disposed towards America, its actions and motives during his political career. He is saying that we should try and achieve peace in what’s left of Syria before turning our attention on ISIS. That’s all very well, but with fifty factions vying for influence, with the international players that have a stake in the future of Syria all looking for different outcomes, a settlement will, to put it mildly, require a miraculous alignment of interests. Until that miracle comes to pass, how will Corbyn’s position resonate with the voters if ISIS manages to mount a Paris-style attack in the UK?
For what it’s worth, I agree with those who say that in the short term boots on the ground will be required to eliminate ISIS. In terms of capability the most effective boots would most likely be Western. But if the result is further casualties and further bitterness against the West, the destruction of Baghdadi’s gang will ultimately be futile. One insurgency will simply be replaced by another. And “victory” in Syria and Iraq will not make the radicalised citizens of France, Britain and Belgium go away. They will switch their allegiance to the next group.
So what’s the solution? There are plenty of opinions, but the problem is that nobody really knows, because the recipe of circumstances and interests that produced ISIS can’t easily be mapped onto similar events from the past. In this case, experience is no guide to the future. And this is also why those who try to deconstruct the situation are far more comfortable finding scapegoats than coming up with a coherent way forward.
For sure, defeating ISIS in Syria, Iraq and other areas where their tentacles are spreading would buy time to create some form of lasting settlement in the region, just as the suppression of Al-Qaeda in Iraq during the Anbar Awakening provided an opportunity for Iraq to organise itself into a non-sectarian state – something that it lamentably failed to do under Nouri al-Maliki.
It would also deprive its followers in the West of a focal point for their efforts. The terror threat would not go away, but groups operating in Western countries would have to become relatively autonomous. Whether that would make them easier to track down is debatable, but if Iraq and Syria no longer served as a training ground for jihadis, the effectiveness of the home-grown groups would probably decline.
In terms of tactics, it’s pretty obvious to this observer with no military training that bombs can certainly degrade. But recent experience shows that they can’t, as Barack Obama suggested, destroy ISIS. And if a coalition of Middle Eastern forces can’t be assembled to provide the boots on the ground that can take the territory without further exacerbating sectarian divides (and that’s a big ask, hence the widespread opinion among Arab commentators that only “moderate” Sunnis can defeat the Sunni extremists), then increased use of special forces might tip the balance.
It’s almost impossible to function as a “state” – which ISIS aspires to do – if you have no control of your airspace, if your leaders are continually in hiding from the bombs and drones. Even more difficult if your institutions can be targeted at will and without notice by helicopters disgorging highly-trained special forces. Just as ISIS thrives at home and abroad on surprise attacks, the same tactics used against it would surely have a telling effect. These days Western opinion tends to be less squeamish about special forces rather than the use of conventional ground troops. The big question is whether there are sufficient intelligence sources on the ground to ensure that the raiders hit the right targets without causing mass casualties among the innocents. The killing of Mohammed Emwazi suggests that those sources do exist. In sufficient numbers? That remains to be seen.
The British prime minister David Cameron tells us that the UK government plans to recruit a large number of additional security services operatives. I suppose the announcement is designed to make us all feel a little safer. But in reality the effect of hiring a couple of thousand extra staff will make little difference for at least a couple of years. After all, these people need to be recruited and then trained.
Of equal significance – again in the longer term – are the government’s plans to invest a further £1.9 billion in cybersecurity, and a similar amount to be spent on equipping the British special forces. Although Cameron announced that the SAS will have a role in defending the country against Paris-style attacks, the money will surely enhance their ability to operate abroad.
Whether or not special forces play an increasing part in the conflict, in the absence of a political solution that leads to an effective military response to ISIS, the benighted lands of Syria and Iraq will continue to be the stage for trial and error on all sides.
Back at home, we in the UK, France, Belgium and all other countries potentially under attack will need to treasure our common values, societies, institutions and way of life, and reflect on what life would be like without them rather than focus only on their imperfections. And if we can’t help those amongst us who hate them to change their minds, then the consequences will be unpredictable, and probably dire.
I for one don’t want to live in an Islamic State under the black flag. But neither do I want to live in a police state. Ultimately, we have to make sure that we don’t have to choose between the two.