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.