Yesterday’s vote approving the PM’s desire to bandwagon with the UK’s US and French NATO allies in bombing IS targets in Syria will make little difference to the majority of Syrians. The British strikes against oil facilities that came in the immediate wake of the vote might make a small dent in IS’s finances. Given that most of IS’s oil is consumed by Syrians, it might also promise a colder and hungrier winter for those locals most immediately affected. A few more refugees might hit the road, and over the indefinite span of the UK’s bombing campaign a few more civilians might die. If the RAF’s Iraqi campaign figures are reproduced – only 25% of sorties result in strikes – these numbers might be kept mercifully small. Russia and Iran’s far greater commitment to their ally in Damascus will ensure that they will determine that the regime – responsible for over 80% of the Syrian war’s casualties – will remain in power. The UK’s contribution will not tip any balance that the US’s far greater commitment has spent more than a year unable to tip.
Syria’s Sunni majority might also wonder why the west is so obsessed by IS. It is Assad’s forces that do most of the damage, and there are other groups – AQ-affiliated Jabhat al-Nusra and Turkey and Qatar-backed Ahrar-al Sham come immediately to mind among the 450 or so groups that are engaged in the war – that are also jihadi in ideology, indulge in public beheadings, and are no friends of the west. Indeed, on the ground some of these groups are stronger than IS. The west’s Arab allies have long since turned their attention to their largely sectarian fight in Yemen. NATO Turkey’s anti-Kurdish strikes are literally hundreds of times more numerous than their attacks on IS, and its relationships with Syria’s jihadis are murky. The Syrian moderates remain hard to identify – hence the abandonment a few months back of Washington’s expensive programme to identify, train and arm them. Cameron has been fulsome in his praise of the Kurdish contribution to the struggle against IS, and most US efforts have been in support of them, but their Syrian leader is barred from entry into the US while the arming of Iraq’s peshmerga remains subject to Baghdad’s whim. In short, the politics of the Syrian war look like the very model of a quagmire.
And what might the British get out of it? The foreign secretary’s remark that as of now the British public can sleep more safely in their beds is tragically laughable. The French were already bombing IS before the recent Paris attacks – which is possibly an explanatory factor – and 9/11, the Madrid and London transport network bombings, and the Mumbai attacks were all committed before IS even existed, and typically involved locally-based perpetrators. There was a great deal of rhetorical flourish during yesterday’s debate that aimed itself at IS’s evil and ‘fascistic’ tendencies. Aside from the fact that such epithets could apply to many of Syria’s factions, sentiments of emotion and revenge are never a good guide to strategy or to politics. And if, off into some distant future, IS in Syria is ‘degraded’ – the most that can be expected given that mobile, disguised, hidden, unidentifiable and experienced irregular fighters with some modicum of both local and global support do not offer target-rich environments – what then? Should Raqqa – and Mosul – ever be liberated, rest assured they will pop up somewhere else, perhaps wearing a new and more fashionable label – in Libya, Yemen and Sinai already, surely in London and Paris, and who knows where else? One other marginal difference the British bombing campaign might make is to add just a bit to the anger, the disaffection, the scope for adventure and the general all-round chaos that offers jihadism its appeal and opportunity.
Image: Azaz residents pick up after aerial bombings. Bombed out buildings (2012). Courtesy of Wikimedia Commons.