British MPs voted 397 votes to 223 – a majority of 174 – and approved airstrikes against ISIS in Syria and hours later the RAF was in action. Ministers predict British involvement in the conflict for at least two years.
How strange that David Cameron should so quickly and randomly shift his military focus from the Damascus regime to the “medieval murderers” of ISIS in Raqqa – the group’s nerve centre or the “head of the snake” which needs to be “crushed”. But given the frequency and scale of the attacks mounted by the extremist group, it is not surprising that the slippery British prime minister is finding it quite easy to cash in on the short-term counter-terrorism/foreign policy windfall options available to him. Proceedings lacked the sobriety one would associate with a decision to bomb another country, a decision that will inevitably kill innocent civilians. MPs cheered the vote to expand the war initiative but the parties remained divided. With emotions running deep, the British Parliament exposed its crusader proclivities and MPs who dared to vote against Cameron’s will were labelled as a “bunch of terrorist sympathisers” the night before the vote. Four Tornados from RAF Akrotiri in Cyprus took part in the operation against ISIS near Omar oil fields soon after MPs voted to approve military action. Moreover, six Typhoons also arrived in Cyprus from Scotland.
The recent surge in terrorist attacks helped Cameron to obtain Parliament’s approval for the RAF to conduct air raids against ISIS in Syria. Here is a short list of some attacks. On 10 October, in Ankara more than a 100 people were killed at a peace rally by explosions. On 31 October, a bomb planted by the ISIS affiliated Sinai Province organisation brought down a Russian Metrojet over Sinai, Egypt killing all 224 passengers on board. On 4 November, also in Sinai, nine people were killed at a police club by Sinai Province. On 8 November, an Afghan group claiming loyalty to ISIS kidnapped two women, a nine-year-old girl and four men and beheaded them. On 12 November, twin suicide bombings in Beirut killed 43 people and on 13 November, 130 people were killed by ISIS attacks in Paris. Earlier in June, in Tunisia an ISIS controlled gunman killed 39 people – mostly British citizens – in a resort in Sousse.
As the recent American bombing of the MSF hospital in Kunduz shows, civilians are bound to die in British airstrikes in Raqqa just like medical workers and patients died in American airstrikes. Equally, American bombs have also caused civilian deaths in recent raids in Syria and Iraq. But on 2 December 2015, all this did not matter to the British Parliament, and at the end of the day’s endless speeches and arguments by more than a 100 members the foreign secretary Phillip Hammond applauded the shadow foreign secretary Hilary Benn, son of the late Tony Benn, for stabbing the Labour leader Jeremy Corbyn in the back by throwing his weight behind the government’s motion to attack ISIS in Syria.
Because of his inability to make some Labour MPs see eye-to-eye with him, Corbyn had told MPs to vote freely with their conscience rather than face a coup by trying to whip his MPs to vote in accordance with his wishes. Benn said that the jihadis hold British “democracy in contempt” and “we must now confront this evil.” Other prominent Labour MPs voting for the strikes included Harriet Harman, Alan Johnson, Margaret Beckett, Yvette Cooper, Chuka Umuna and Maria Eagle but the majority of the shadow cabinet and two-thirds of the parliamentary Labour party voted in line with their leader’s position. President Obama praised the decision in favour of RAF airstrikes against ISIS in Syria and called Britain one of America’s “most valued partners”. Notably, in America itself, ISIS inspired mass shootings perpetrated by Syed Rizwan Farook and Tashfeen Malik, a married couple killed in a shootout by US authorities, left 14 people dead on 2 December; Malik pledged allegiance to ISIS by posting on Facebook while conducting the massacre. But ultimately the clever jihadis of Raqqa will intermingle with innocent civilians and nothing Obama says or does will change that fact.
John McDonnell, the shadow chancellor, who only recently threw his signed copy of Chairman Mao’s little red book at chancellor George Osborne during the recent Spending Review, likened Benn’s speech to Blair’s impassioned oratory to justify the 2003 invasion of Iraq. Of course, like the false weapons of mass destruction (WMD) claim that fuelled the invasion of Iraq, at the heart of Cameron government’s claim is the dodgy figure that 70,000 Syrian rebels are available to act collaboratively with the UK on the ground.
Restoring lost pride because of the 2013 defeat on launching strikes on the Assad regime is key to Cameron’s rationale for having instigated the debate afresh. In making his oral case in the House of Commons, the prime minister made express references to a column written by Jordan’s crony king, Abdullah II, which nonsensically calls ISIS the Khwarej in Syria and Iraq. A western stooge, King Abdullah is quite worried that one-fifth of his country’s population is now from Syria. Despite having the most advanced American weapons, he urged the UK – “a close and historic friend, and a key ally” – to act immediately by deploying its “determined pilots” against terrorists who did not recognise any borders.
The 70,000 figure for Syrian rebel forces that Cameron trumpeted was mocked by Dr Julian Lewis; the Tory chairman of the House of Commons Defence Select Committee reminded everyone that in 2003, in relation to the case of Iraq, MPs had been mislead with dodgy dossiers and now they were being mislead with “bogus battalions”. Cameron’s dodgy claim vis-à-vis the numerical strength of fighters is likely to become his Achilles heel. Like Blair’s sexed up dossier and his mendacious WMD claim that has returned to haunt British democracy, Cameron’s big victory may eventually come to symbolise shame when innocent civilians are killed in British air raids. In any event, those who have managed to escape life in Raqqa are at pains to point out that airstrikes may hurt ISIS but will not destroy it.
Moreover, John Baron MP, a Tory who served in Northern Ireland, accused the government of not having an exit strategy. With so many air forces already operating in the area, he also said that there are insufficient targets for the UK to shoot at in Syria where the situation can be distinguished from Iraq – because there the RAF jets are supporting the Iraqi army’s ground forces. But most MPs thought that since the RAF is already active against ISIS in Iraq, it was not such a big step to extend that action into Syria.
Although pre-strike reportage of the British parliamentary debate on approving the airstrikes against ISIS was non-existent in Damascus, after the RAF struck targets in Raqqa, the Syrian information minister accused London of violating international law and invited Cameron to follow the example of president Putin whose tactics are aligned with the Syrian government. However, despite such complaints, the defiant Syrian dictator will be quite amised by the fact that he is now an ally of the west by default. Muzzling up any excitement about the Brits bombing ISIS, he appeared on international television and said that Russia’s intervention in his aid is turning the tables on his enemies. In an exclusive interview published in The Sunday Times on 6 December 2015, the Syrian president said that British airstrikes in his country are doomed to fail. He warned his opponents that unless there is a concerted effort to destroy ISIS on the ground, bombing will increase the risk of terrorist attacks by sleeper cells in Europe. As for the 70,000 figure bandied about by Cameron, the Syrian president said:
Let me be frank and blunt about this. This is a new episode in long series of David Cameron’s classical farce. Where are they? Where are the 70,000 moderates he is talking about? There is no 70,000. There is no 7,000.
Assad is clear that the airstrikes are illegal and counterproductive and will only exacerbate the “cancer of terrorism”. After the lone attack on the London tube on 5 December 2015 by 29-year-old Muhaydin Mire who stabbed a man shouting “this is for Syria”, the political knife also began to turn in the Tory party and on 7 December London’s mayor Boris Johnson (a heavy weight contender for party leadership after Cameron) argued in the Daily Telegraph that Let’s deal with the Devil: we should work with Vladimir Putin and Bashar al-Assad in Syria. Johnson has serious doubts about relying on that rebel forces; he thinks that the numbers “may be exaggerated” and he therefore argues that “let Assad destroy ISIL” because “we need someone to provide the boots on the ground”.
At least in the short-run, Johnson is with Putin and Assad. Johnson does not trust the former and wants the latter to cede power to democratic forces. But for now he advocates an alliance with Moscow and Damascus to provide a practical solution to end the suffering of those living under ISIS control. Indeed, conscious of the fact that justifying an alliance with a mass murdering regime that had resorted to using chemical weapons would sit uncomfortably with his party, Johnson cleverly explained the logic of his solution by observing that “we cannot suck and blow at once.” Entering into an alliance with the UK should be second nature to Assad whose elegant and beautiful wife Asma, who keeps a very high profile in Damascus despite the war, is a British citizen.
However, Syrian activists point out that a Paris attack happens everyday in Syria and that together with its Russian allies the Damascus regime has been killing 150 people every day whereas despite extreme atrocities ISIS is only responsible for a mere five per cent of the civilian casualties. Syrian activists are concerned that the long parliamentary debate on ISIS has made Assad into a hero; for them, his departure is central to their battered country getting on the road to recovery.
As noted before, peace talks held in Vienna on 30 October and 14 November 2015 by the so-called International Syria Support Group (ISSG) include everyone but the Syrians. Neither the Damascus regime nor the Syrian opposition were invited to participate in the talks conducted by influential foreign ministers. However, the initiative aims ambitiously to achieve a ceasefire in six months’ time and free and fair democratic elections after 18 months.
In sanctioning military action, the British argue that they must come to their allies’ aid with precision guided brimstone missiles and Tornado GR4 and Typhoon FGR4 Eurofighter jets because such military capabilities are not available to the US, France and Arab countries in the coalition. In fact, the truth of the matter is that Saudi Arabia does have brimstone missiles but has opted to deploy them against Yemen’s Iranian backed Shia Houthi rebels rather than the fanatics of ISIS. It will cost the UK £35,000 per hour to fly sorties over Syria. Each brimstone air-to-ground missile costs £80,000 and each Paveway IV bomb costs £35,000. Other sophisticated weaponry such as the Hellfire missiles carried by MQ-9 Reaper drones cost £70,000 each.
By comparison, when ISIS captured the Iraqi second city of Mosul in 2014, it seized millions of dollars worth of weapons including American made Abrams tanks, MK-19 grenade launchers and small arms such as M16 rifles. They have also captured field weapons such as Russian made M-46 130mm guns from the Syrian army. But to buy ammunition for these weapons the jihadis run a complex economic network using third party agents who do their bidding for them in Syria, Turkey and Iraq.
Kurdish fighters intercepting ISIS frequencies on the Iraq-Syria border report that militants use codes such as “kebab” (or heavy machine guns) and “salad” (or AK47 bullets) when they order ammunition.
Trusted ISIS dealers are provided stamped ISIS security passes after being cleared by the organisation’s two intelligence/security branches. Russian weapons are preferred to western products and deals are arranged using text messaging services such as WhatsApp. Since dealers are paid commissions of 20 per cent, even those who hate ISIS participate in the lucrative trade for the sake of profit. Transactions of oil and munitions are conducted using hard cash and despite the overall negative picture of the Russian initiative painted by the most of the western media, the BBC’s Frank Gardner credits Russian jets with attacking ISIS oil convoys in Syria.
Writing on the alternatives to airstrikes, Jason Burke has busted some myths about ISIS and points out it makes most of its money by taxation and not through ransom, antiquities and oil. He also claims that radicalisation through recruiters is rare and the vast majority of cases involve friends or family. Burke explores numerous options, which he argues have not been discussed properly as alternatives to bombing, such as killing “caliph” Abu Bakr al-Baghdadi, cutting off territory rather than cash, countering propaganda, giving more money to the spooks, strengthening local governments, integrating migrant communities better, boosting employment and planning to withstanding any further attacks by jihadis.
As seen by the example of the three Deghayes brothers from Brighton, whose uncle Omar Deghayes was held captive in Guantánamo where a guard gouged out one of his eyes, there is probably some truth in what Burke is saying. The three brothers, whose parents are originally from Libya and insist that their children set out to fight a brutal dictator, went to join Jabhat al-Nusra and two of them were killed in combat. Speaking of Jabhat al-Nusra, a prisoner exchange has occurred between the al-Qaida affiliated group and the Lebanese authorities. In a deal engineered by Qatar, the extremists released 16 Lebanese army soldiers in a hostage swap involving the release, by the Lebanese government, of Abu Bakr al-Baghdadi’s ex-wife, one Saja al-Dulaimi. She has a brother working for Nusra, was divorced from al-Baghdadi six to seven years ago and expressed a wish to remain in Lebanon until she could obtain legal documentation. As the prisoner swap demonstrates, the jihadis of Nusra and ISIS are on the same side. Equally, Syrian rebels, whose beef is with Assad, are unlikely to pick a fight with the jihadis.
The mess just keeps getting messier by the day. The Saudi meeting was supposed to bring everyone together, but when I saw who was invited I saw the same old faces. All sides are determined to stay the course. There is escalation with more foreign countries who have less and less leverage on the opposition.
Hassan Hassan is clear in his book that Assad is responsible for buttressing ISIS and may not be a compatible ally in fighting the group. The dictator is said to have emptied Sednaya prison (outside Damascus) of the most dangerous Islamists and apparently also released three top ISIS commanders in a strategic move. Similar arguments are also mounted in relation to Damascus (and not Ankara) being involved in the oil trade with the jihadis and being the biggest beneficiary of oil related activity.
Of course, the Americans, who have failed so miserably in the region and have abdicated their foreign policy in the Middle East, are extremely keen not to be outdone. US defence secretary Ashton Carter has announced a “specialised expeditionary targeting force” that will attack ISIS by working with the Iraqis and the Kurds. Carter also pressed Turkey to seal up its border with Syria. President Obama warned during the climate change conference in Paris that by continuing to uproot American interests, the Kremlin was risking an Afghanistan-style quagmire in Syria. He asserted that Assad should not fantasise about winning the war with Putin’s help because Washington would ensure otherwise. Although he privately met with Turkey’s president to press him on calming tensions between Ankara and Moscow, the overconfident American president said:
I think Mr Putin understands that, with Afghanistan fresh in the memory, for him to simply get bogged down in an inconclusive and paralysing civil conflicts is not the outcome he’s looking for.
In England, Cameron has done well to divide British society where Muslims are attacked for being terrorist sympathisers; women wearing the hijab already being attacked for being “ISIS bit****”. For arguing that British strikes will kill civilians Labour leader Jeremy Corbyn was labelled a terrorist sympathiser by Cameron, later on the reckless prime minister refused to apologise for having been so undignified. Scottish nationalists denounced Cameron’s irresponsible and disgraceful behaviour. In reality, with his plans to “scrap” the Human Rights Act 1998, Cameron, who has been accused of indulging in indescribable profanities with a pig’s head and whose party is riddled by very serious allegations of bullying young party workers, is just trying to cash in on the opportunity provided by bombing ISIS in Syria to erase the bitter defeat in 2013 when his MPs rebelled en masse against his plan to bomb Assad.
There is no certainty as regards why British participation in bombing ISIS in Raqqa may be advantageous. Indeed, apart from potential civilian deaths, nothing else is certain. Therefore, in the present environment we can only say:
Qadam Barhao Jeremy Corbyn, Hum Tumharay Saath Hain. Mazdoor Tumharay Saath Hain. Kissan Tumharay Saath Hain …
In addition to the attacks headlined at the outset, other attacks during the past few months also include the 18 September raid by the Taliban on an air force base near Peshawar that killed 29 people; an al-Shabaab attack in Somalia on 1 November killed 15 people; attacks by Boko Haram’s suicide bombers in Kano, Nigeria on 18 November killed 49 people. On 21 November, Boko Haram also attacked a Shia procession in Kano killing 21 people. A video also surfaced on 2 December with a Russian Chechen FSB “agent” being beheaded by ISIS.
In other developments, Russian officials have ratcheted up their rhetoric against Turkish president Erdogan because of the downing of the Su-24 bomber on 24 November. Russia claims that Erdogan and his family are involved in criminal business/dealings with ISIS and deputy defence minister Anatoly Antonov attacked the Turkish president for being a dictator, a liar and a thief. In retaliation in the war of words, Ankara has responded by saying that Moscow did not have the right to slander the president and has accused Russia of lying about bombing ISIS targets.
Furthermore, NATO has angered the Kremlin by inviting the tiny republic of Montenegro (population 620,000, formerly Yugoslavia) to join its ranks. Secretary of state John Kerry called the invitation, the first enlargement in six years, the reaffirmation of NATO’s “open door policy” aimed at creating a Europe “that is whole, free and at peace.” Jens Stoltenberg, the secretary general of NATO, has said that the invitation is “not directed against Russia” but in response Moscow warned of unspecified consequences for bringing a “hostile alliance” closer to its borders.
Please note that the views articulated in blog posts are merely the views of the blog editor and are not in any way, shape or form representative of the views of the PIIA and/or its members.