Notes From the Margins…

Save a Refugee – Bomb ’em all to Hell

  • September 09, 2015
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In less than a week, the British government has frantically changed its line on Europe’s refugee crisis like a twitchy gambler shuffling cards in the hope that the right one comes up.  First  David Cameron  rejected the notion that accepting more refugees was a ‘solution’ to the crisis, as if anybody had ever said it was.  Then, wrongfooted by an unlikely eruption of humanitarian fervour from the British tabloids, he agreed to take in a quota of 20,000 ‘vulnerable’ Syrian refugees over the next five years – though Syrian and other refugees already in Europe will not be allowed into the UK since that would only encourage others to follow them.

And now, with barely a pause for breath, Lord Snooty and His Pals are coolly plotting to transform the refugee crisis into a new casus belli in Syria and a justification for a new round of ‘humanitarian’ bombing against ISIS

That won’t be the end of it however, since Osborne warned  at the weekend that ‘  You have got to deal with the problem at source which is this evil Assad regime and the Isis terrorists.’ Yesterday the creepy neocon former defense secretary Liam Fox – a man who has never seen a war he didn’t like – was on Channel 4 News calling for the creation of a no fly zone to enforce safe havens in Syria that would protect ‘vulnerable people’ from ISIS.

When Fox talks about protecting vulnerable people one can only stifle a hysterical giggle – coupled with a certain feeling of nausea.   This is the man who supported the war in Afghanistan, the Iraq War, the Libyan War,  Israel’s Gaza wars, and favoured military action against Iran.

These wars not only failed to protect ‘vulnerable people’, they also killed a great deal of them, even as they generated refugees in their millions; 4 million in Iraq;  between 600,000 to 1 million  in Libya; nearly four million in Afghanistan.  Such outcomes ought to cast some doubt over the notion that bombing can serve a humanitarian purpose, but Fox is not the man to ask such questions.

He would like to use British air power to fight ISIS and establish these havens, but since ISIS doesn’t have an airforce then someone on the ground will have to ensure such protection.  Who?  Well naturally it can’t be our boys, since even Fox isn’t dumb enough to believe that British troops would be welcomed in Syria.

Instead he suggested that ‘Arab countries’ might do the job.  That would be some of the Gulf states which provided ISIS with its start-up funds?   Perhaps some members of the coalition who are currently doing such grand work in Yemen?  How about Turkey, not an Arab country, but one which has nevertheless done so much to facilitate ISIS and many of the jihadist groups fighting in Syria for reasons that have nothing to do with protecting ‘vulnerable people.’

Maybe the Kurds could do it, except that they aren’t strong enough, and anyway the Western states that praised their defense of Kobane last year are now in the throes of betraying them once again in order to keep Turkey on board the great anti-ISIS coalition.   Still why worry about the details?   After all, we never did before.  The main thing is to bomb, because bombing is always better than doing nothing, isn’t it?

The Sun  certainly thinks so, and yesterday  carried a picture of refugees arriving in Germany with the headline ‘ Blitz ’em to hell: Our Boys await order to destroy IS in Syria’ – a touching juxtaposition that speaks volumes about the limits to the Murdoch press’s humanitarian blip.

The Sun also assumes that a) bombing would protect ‘innocent civilians’ and b) that British air power could ‘destroy’ ISIS – something that months of bombing by the US-led coalition have failed to achieve.    Given the record of British military adventures over the last fifteen years, the government’s rush to bomb is alarming and almost mind-boggling for its cynicism and simplistic belief that if you just keep bombing someone, sooner or later it’ll all turn out right.

Osborne insists that ‘  You need a comprehensive plan for a more stable, peaceful Syria – a huge challenge of course, but we can’t just let that crisis fester.’  As Hugh Roberts argues in the LRB, Britain and its allies rejected the last political opportunity – admittedly slim – that might have helped demilitarize the Syrian conflict back in June 2012, when they scuppered Kofi Annan’s attempts to broker a political compromise at Geneva by insisting that Assad could not be part of it.

They did this because they were committed to a policy of ‘regime change’ that was driven by purely geopolitical calculations, even though it was often given a humanitarian rationale. This policy wanted more militarization not less, regardless of its impact on Syrian society. Recently-published Pentagon documents reveal that as early as August 2012, the US and its allies foresaw the establishment of a ‘Salafist Principality’ in Syria as a strategic instrument that they would be able to use to topple Assad.

At a time when Western states were publicly supporting the notion of a ‘moderate opposition’, US intelligence agencies privately recognized that the ‘major forces driving the insurgency in Syria’ consisted of ‘ the Salafist, the Muslim Brotherhood, and AQI [al-Qaeda in Iraq’ – as part of an opposition that was supported by ‘The West, Gulf countries and Turkey.’

It is nonsensical to imagine that these same countries can now protect civilians or bring about a ‘stable, peaceful Syria’ by bombing the ‘Salafist principality’ they helped create.   On the contrary, such ‘havens’ will inevitably exacerbate the fragmentation of Syria, and they will also be  used as bases to attack the regime – an option that was already being pursued in the first year of the conflict.

To point out this out does not mean that no one should do anything, or that external forces can be held entirely responsible for the catastrophe that has wrecked Syria.   Assad may not have seen himself as a tyrant when he inherited the family dynasty, but that is what he is,  like all the Arab rulers who were challenged during the ‘Arab Spring’, including those that have been trying to overthrow him.

Syria was a tyranny when the Syrian army colluded with Christian militias in the Lebanese Civil War; when Hafez Assad participated in Operation Desert Storm; when US intelligence flew terrorist suspects off to Syria to have their feet beaten by Syrian security services.

Such a regime has no more right to rule  than any of its counterparts,  and the staggering violence that it has unleashed against its own population is evidence of its political and moral bankruptcy.  Nevertheless, in the short-term at least, it is difficult to see how ISIS can be defeated without it, because Syria has become a country in which only bad choices are available.

The immediate priority in both Syria and Iraq must be to defeat the fascistic ISIS, both militarily and politically, and prevent the two states from the complete collapse that would pave the way for indefinite warlordism and jihadism.  But that ultimately, must be the task of Iraqis and Syrians themselves, and will be dependent on a degree of political will that has so far been absent.

The foreign  states that have done so much harm in Syria ought to commit themselves to that objective and use what powers they have to bring it about.

The question is whether they really want to, and it may be too late to do any of this.  The wars in Syria and Iraq may have to run their course, with all the devastation that involves, until there is very little left of either state in their present form.

That would be an absolute catastrophe, and it would generate a refugee crisis that will last for decades.   So we need to do anything we can to prevent it, but let’s not allow ourselves to be manipulated by the current outpouring of public solidarity and empathy with refugees into believing that bombing is a solution to the horrors that are currently unfolding.

And let’s not think that there is anything ‘humanitarian’ about rushing into a bombing campaign to save refugees in order to stop refugees from coming to Europe, because there really isn’t.

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  1. Daniel Margrain

    9th Sep 2015 - 3:48 pm

    On the whole, excellent analysis. I don’t think that Assad regime, though, can be compared to the regimes in Egypt and the Arab Gulf States’. Yes, Assad is a tyrant but unlike the tyrants within the other states’ where the Arab Spring took place, Assad does garner a great deal popular support within the Syria which has largely been under reported. As such, the initial violence in March 2011 that was the catalyst for the ensuing chaos in Syria, was nothing at all to do with the Arab Spring but was the result of external meddling intended to inflame sectarian divisions within the country. This has been documented by professor Chossudevsky who has cited Lebanese and Israeli sources.

  2. Brian S

    11th Sep 2015 - 2:35 pm

    I’m glad to see you acknowledge the real character of the Asad regime although you don’t draw any kind of balance sheet of the extent of its responsibiity for the destruction of the country. If you did it would be hard to sustain the claim that “it is difficult to see how ISIS can be defeated without it”.Everyone acknowledges that there needs to be a political dimension to the campaign against Daesh in Iraq, in order to prevent them gaining support among the Sunni community; but somehow you seem to think that you can side with the main opressive force in Syria with no political consequences. Think again.
    Moreover the Asad regime is of little value as a military ally. It deliberately ignored he rise of ISIS after its creation because it preferred to leave them alone while they were attacking opposition groups and once it woke up to the implications of this strategy it was too late to do anything about it. The first contribution of the regime to the fight against ISIS was to bomb a bakery queue in Raqqa last year. Don’t your strictures against bombing apply to Asad as well? Since that episode the regime has not proved able to win a single battle against ISIS. The only people who have demonstrated the capacity for defeating ISIS has been the armed opposition – who came close to driving ISIS out of Syria by the summer of 2014 (if you don’t bleieve me check Patrick Cockburn’s book); and of course the Kurdish YPG (in alliance with the Free Syrian Army).What’s the point of siding with a tyrant who is a loser to boot?
    On a different matter altogether : where have you got this bizarre statistic of between “600,000 to 1 million” deaths as a result of intervention in Libya? Even your colleague Seamus Milne has only ever claimed 30, 000.

    • Matt

      11th Sep 2015 - 3:11 pm

      First of all, my piece doesn’t say 600,000 to 1 million ‘deaths’ – it says refugees. Yes, my strictures against bombing do apply to Assad as well. But as things stand, I see can’t see how ISIS can be defeated unless all the foreign powers that have played a role in fomenting this conflict use their efforts to promote a political solution that necessarily requires holding the Syrian state together in some form. In the short term that might mean that ‘Assad’ and the substantial section of the Syrian population that still supports him may have to be a part of it. I haven’t read Cockburn’s book, though I like and respect his work, so I don’t know if he argued that ISIS were close to defeat last summer. Of course there were some places where ISIS/Daesh was driven back But the general picture was one of a devastating advance through a wrecked country. A much better option would be a broad-based revolutionary movement with secular and democratic aspirations that removes Assad, fights ISIS and establishes a new democratic and non-sectarian polity in Syria. But where is that movement, apart from the YPG? The Free Syrian Army certainly isn’t it, to my mind, though it might ally itself with the YPG on some occasions. And as for the rest of the ‘armed opposition’ – much of it is as vicious and tyrannical as the regime it is fighting, even though it has less firepower. So no, I am not calling for barrel bombs. I am saying that the political consensus necessary to defeat ISIS is impossible in Syria if the Syrian state collapses. As for ISIS – Assad may have ignored it, but as the released Pentagon documents make clear, the Western states and its regional allies that sought to militarize the armed rebellion in Syria knew that something like this might happen – and welcomed the prospect. That said, you are right to point out the contradictions in my position. I am aware of them too, and I don’t have any blueprint for a positive outcome in Syria – I only see a succession of bad choices, and I remain opposed to using a refugee crisis as a pretext for a British bombing campaign which has no coherent strategy, little chance of success, and will only make a terrible situation even worse.

      • Brian S

        14th Sep 2015 - 4:15 pm

        Fine – I accept your clarification (but your syntax was a bit ambiguous). Cockburn describes ISIS as “withdrawing from half of the territory it held in Syria in the face of an anti-ISIS rebel offensivein the first half of 2014″(p.159). And that is probably an underestimate. The “devastating advance” you refer to was through Iraq, not Syria – at it was on the basis of their gains in Iraq that ISIS was able to return to Syria. I agree that our first preference – “an effective democratic opposition” is not on the horizon; but I profoundly disagree that the necessary second best (or perhaps more accurately, least worst) is the regime. I think you are being mesmerised by Asad’s better taste in suits. Clearly much of the armed opposition can be fairly nasty – but whatever form of killing you choose as a benchmark: snipers, use of artillery against civilian populations, executions in detention – Asad beats even the worst of the opposition by about 10:1. And it was not foreign states who “militarised” the conflict but Asad (with a little help from his brother Maher) with a decision to launch a military offensive with heavy weapons in Homs in 2012. As for the US DIA report I don’t know if you have actually read it but if so you know that it didn’t “welcome” the emergence of the Islamic State of Iraq (the forerunner of ISIS) but warned that it had “dire consequences” and represented a grave danger”. I suggest you reread para 8D. (They even considered the advance of the FSA on the border a “dangerous and serious threat”)
        I don’t have a blueprint either – but if you think a bombing campaign will boost ISIS just imagine what signing up with Asad will do for them.

        • Matt

          27th Sep 2015 - 4:10 pm

          Brian, it isn’t simply a ‘clarification’. Your interpretation of what I said was due to your over-rapid and slanted reading of my piece, not my ‘syntax.’ No I am not mesmerised by Assad or his taste in suits. I simply did not/do not want to see Syria destroyed as a state and a society, and I have never seen any convincing evidence of an opposition that could have prevented that, and which did not offer the prospect of another kind of tyranny/sectarian massacre/warlordism. I don’t mean that such forces don’t exist in Syria – simply that they are marginalized by Salafist/takfiri groups and a Free Syrian Army heavily dependent on regional powers pursuing their own utterly malign interests. Of course the Syrian gov forces and their paramilitary allies have killed more civilians, partly because of the weapons at their disposal and also because of the tactics they use. But the ‘armed opposition’ has also killed a lot of people and would kill a lot more if it could – and I’m not only referring to ISIS. In short I see Syria as a civil war with no good options – except to find ways of bringing the armed conflict to an end and moving it onto the political plane. There was a chance of that in 2012 at Geneva, which was sabotaged largely because Western states and their allies insisted on regime change at all costs. Now they’re beginning to change their minds, because they weren’t able to bring Assad down and get the regime they wanted – assuming they even knew what it was.

          Regarding your other points a) Yes, the Syrian government’s brutal response to the protests in Deraa and other cities certainly contributed to the militarisation of the conflict. But so did the determination of the West and its regional allies to turn the civil unrest in Syria into a regime change model, using tactics that go all the way back to the Afghan ‘muj’ and the Contras eg. through shipping weapons to the ‘armed opposition’ in Syria from Libya in the autumn of 2011. Why do you think they did this? Because they wanted to see a democratic revolution in Syria? Because they believed in human rights? Really?

          As for b) where in my piece do I say that the DIA report ‘welcomed’ the emergence of the Islamic State of Iraq? What I say is this: ‘the US and its allies foresaw the establishment of a ‘Salafist Principality’ in Syria as a strategic instrument that they would be able to use to topple Assad.’


          Of course it warns of potential ‘dire consequences’ and a ‘grave danger’ in Iraq (not Syria) if this took place – but only as one of various possible future scenarios. At no point in the document is there anything to suggest that the ‘supporting powers’ heeded this warning.

          On the contrary, I think it’s logical to argue that they continued to regard this possibility as a strategic asset that they could use to bring Assad down, with the same stunning indifference to the consequences that we have seen in Iraq, Afghanistan and Libya.

  3. Guano

    14th Sep 2015 - 4:39 pm

    In the last 14 years the UK has participated in regime-change in Afghanistan, Iraq and Libya. The result has been the creation of weak or failed states in each case. Weak or failed states are unable to provide security to their citizens, are unable to provide basic services to their citizens and are unable to provide security or a regulatory framework to the private sector. People leave because it is unsafe or because there are no services or because it is no longer possible to make a living. Criminals and mafia groups and terrorists move into the vacuum. So, in the name of a “war on terror” an enabling environment for terrorists has been created in many parts of the Middle East.

    I think that we owe it to the people of the Middle East to help recreate a system of states with working institutions that provide security and basic services. The problem is that the only likely instrument to do that is the UK government and its allies, who I cannot trust to carry this out. They haven’t acknowledged that there is a risk with regime change that the end result will be a failed state rather than a legitimate and functioning new state. They haven’t acknowledge that trying to change regimes in Libya and Iraq is the main reason for the present chaos in the region. (In fact Blair and Cameron have said openly that they think that they aren’t responsible for the present situation.) There is little acknowledgement that a long-term strategy is needed that goes well beyond military intervention. So how could I trust the UK government to stabilise the region if it doesn’t recognise the sources of instability.

    And then the UK government wants to change the regime in Syria, with no details of how this can be done, and how a new regime will be created and what are the risks. Perhaps it will be fourth time lucky for regime-change?

    • Brian S

      16th Sep 2015 - 2:13 pm

      Guano :You raise legitimate points, and I agree that there are real problems here with no simple answers.But I would make a few points:
      1. its necessary to distinguish between Iraq and Afghansitan, on the one hand (interventions which I actively opposed) and Libya and Syria. The former, for anyone with eyes to see, were pure exercises in power projection by the US with the UK hanging on to its coatails). The consequences of a western military force taking charge of the country were only too easy to predict. But in the latter case there was a genuine popular movement on the ground in revolt against an autocratic regime, and the form of intervention (air support in the former case and some supply of weaponry – actually fairly minimal – in the latter) did not give the intervening power anything like the same degree of control. Doubtless the western powers had their own motivations and agendas but did not have the same capacity to impose them. Let’s remember that Libya experienced several months of flourishing popular mobilisation and democratic activity before it slid into its present fractious state. Would things really have been so rosy if the Gaddafi clan had been left in power (or more precisely allowed to crush the uprising and resume power)? As for Syria – in the early days of the revolution it might not have been so difficult to sketch out a positive scenario for political change. Today it is much harder – but what good scenario can arise from the continuing domination of a mass-murdering clan whose regime must at least be characterised a “semi-fascist”(the only debate here is over the “semi” prefix). Its not a question of hoping for luck but of supporting those individuals and forces who are still trying to build something in the tradition of 2011 – civic activists still within the country, many in exile who have chosen to stay as close as they can to Syria in order to asssist in its current travails, those who have gone further afield but are still committed to the country. There’s nothing certain in this world – the question is, where do you want to place your bet (or perhaps your hopes).

  4. Guano

    17th Sep 2015 - 11:56 am

    “But in the latter case [Libya, Syria] there was a genuine popular movement on the ground in revolt against an autocratic regime, and the form of intervention did not give the intervening power anything like the same degree of control.”

    In the case of Libya, Cameron and Hague chose not to get involved on the ground. They claimed that it was one of the lessons of the invasion of Iraq that there should be an intervention without boots on the ground. (It is unknown where they got this lesson from.) So they had very little control over events and I don’t think that a government can say that it is accepting its “responsibility to protect” civilians in another country unless it does have quite a lot of control over events. It may be possible to protect one set of civilians by overthrowing a ruler who is likely to attack them; but then how do you protect further sets of civilians who subsequently come under attack from other forces and how do you protect civilians from the effects of the breakdown of the state? Actually being in direct control by invasion is problematic, but trying to protect people from offshore is even more problematic.

    Syria. Indeed, the western powers have a very low degree of control over what is happening. The western powers have little control over their allies, such as the Saudis and Turkey, let alone their enemies. Can they please stop pretending that they can engineer a smooth transition to a stable, legitimate regime in Syria?

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About Me

I’m a writer, campaigner and journalist.  My latest book is The Savage Frontier: The Pyrenees in History and the Imagination (New Press/Hurst, 2018).  The Infernal Machine is where I write on politics, history, cinema and other things that interest me.

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