There is a cogent, military-realist argument against David Cameron’s stated plan for bombing Syria.
It has been made by senior military figures in the US and in Britain. It is made by the Tory chairman of the House of Commons Select Committee on Defence Julian Lewis
It goes like this. If we want to destroy the “Islamic State” in Syria (and in Iraq, for that matter) then bombing will not achieve it. For it requires displacing with a new authority the warlord mini-regime ISIS has been able to set up in areas where state authority has collapsed.
That can happen only by taking and controlling territory on the ground. And that requires ground troops.
Cameron’s “70,000 moderate” troops are a fiction of “45 minutes” proportions. The only ground troops that do exist in Syria with potentially the capacity to displace ISIS, occupy the territory it has taken and provide the armed apparatus for a different administration are the Syrian army.
So – say the generals and the parliamentarian whose job means he is in a permanent conversation with the top brass – war is a dirty business and often requires strange alliances.
If we want to stop ISIS we will need to create an anti-ISIS alliance which includes the only serious military forces on the ground in Syria which can remove ISIS: the Syrian army, the Iranian Revolutionary Guard and the Lebanese Hezbollah. And the grand bombing coalition called for by French president Hollande will have to be aligned with that ground force alliance in securing the anti-ISIS objectives.
Cameron’s plan, however, is not to create such an alliance. Instead, it is to bomb with no realisable aim, but with the incompatible stated purposes of getting rid of ISIS, getting rid of the apparatus which commands the Syrian army and deposing the ally of the Russian component of Hollande’s “grand air coalition”.
Such a policy is a total mess. For that reason, we cannot support Cameron’s war plan. That is, in essence, the argument of a section of the US, British and Nato “defence establishment”. It reveals a tactical division among them.
It is a division arising from the conflicting and stubborn realities of the Syrian civil war and the consequences of the US’s defeat for its grand imperial plan for Iraq and for the wider Middle East.
The military-realist argument has great logical force against Cameron’s dodgy dossier, whose political reasoning is as fantastical as the non-existent 70,000 troops who are meant to be vaguely under the sway of Nato.
Not from within the military establishment, but from the standpoint of opposing it, the anti-war movement has also exposed the incoherence of Cameron’s argument for Britain adding its bombs to the rain of explosives dropping on people across Syria from all quarters.
Figures on the anti-war left in Britain have cogently pointed out that if the aim were to destroy ISIS, then the logical military policy for the British government to pursue would be very different (two contributions here and here).
These arguments expose the mendacity of Cameron’s war plan. But the reason for their logical force is that Cameron’s plan has nothing to do with “defeating ISIS”.
That is the central truth which we need to fix in our minds in order to build the most effective anti-war movement.
Andrew Murray, the chair of the Stop the War Coalition, put it very well in a column in the Morning Star on Saturday
If there is an underlying rationale for the latest drive for war, it is the desire of the British government and military to be seen as a major power player in the region.
Since Syria is already taking daily delivery of bombs from Russia, the US, Turkey and France — ostensibly directed against Isis — it strains credulity to imagine that British intervention will add anything consequential.
In fact, it can only increase the dangers of a great-power clash over Syrian skies, something dramatically highlighted by the Turkish shooting down of a Russian fighter this week.
This move was most likely prompted by Turkish fears that their own client anti-Assad groups were taking a beating from Russian air power.
In turn, this reveals that for all the anti-Isis rhetoric of the last two years — reaching an understandable crescendo after the Paris atrocities — none of the major powers actually have the destruction of the self-styled “caliphate” as their priority.
Cameron’s war plan is dishonest in its claim to be able to beat ISIS. But the deeper dishonesty is the fiction that his war is about anything other than securing Britain’s place in the global imperialist pecking order. In the immediacy, that means a seat near the head of the table in the thieves’ kitchen of Great and Lesser powers to be convened in Vienna to decide the fate of the people of Syria.
It is, in fact, extremely unlikely to come up in the short term with anything like the Taif or Dayton Agreements which produced some kind of demilitarisation and strained political settlement in the cases of the Lebanese and Bosnian wars respectively.
The great lie of British militarism – recharged by Tony Blair and the war on terror – is that in some way it is deployed to serve some disinterested moral goal or on occasion to achieve, albeit not with our methods, an immediate objective which the left and progressive people share. Be that reducing terrorist violence or the establishment of popular democracy in a country like Libya.
There were a few voices on the left at the time of the Libya bombing who argued that what was centrally wrong with Nato’s action was that it did not really serve to bring about the purported aim of a progressive government. Instead, it went “too far” and helped reactionary jihadi forces to establish warlord mini-states (which is essentially what ISIS is).
They put forward an alternative military plan for the Nato bombing, one which would be – in their minds – restricted to the objectives which they, not Nato, had set. In that case it was the objective of overthrowing the Gadaffi regime, but replacing it with something better rather than the hellish chaos, which is in fact what happened, and which the anti-war movement predicted would happen.
As some of us pointed out at the time, that argument was misplaced:
It is not for the West to do more; it is for them to stop doing what they are doing.
This isn’t a semantic game. The movement that emerged in Tunis and Cairo shows the potential for a new agency in the Arab region – a radical force that is independent of elites, big and small, Western and domestic.
Sidi Bouzid and Tahrir Square restored Arabs themselves as the agents of progress in their region after the catastrophe of the neocon experiment with Iraq and all that went before. The West wants to reinsert itself, forcibly if necessary, as the principal actor, the arbiter of progress for the natives.
It might be objected that it is an uphill struggle for popular Arab movements to force a retreat in Western policy, and to frustrate their and the regional rulers’ interests. That’s true.
But it is far more preferable, and infinitely more realistic, than lobbying for the imperial powers to become something which they cannot be: a force for progress, if only they could be persuaded to resolve their supposed mixed motives and conflicted thinking in the right way.
The two fundamental truths of then remain so today. First, as Andrew Murray puts it: “A lasting peace can only rest on self-determination and come through the agency of the Syrian and Iraqi peoples, of all nationalities and beliefs, themselves.”
Of course, that is immensely difficult. The Syrian and Iraqi people are fractured by civil war. But that is the consequence of Great Power intervention. No tweaking of that intervention will have any other outcome.
That’s because of the second truth: that is what imperialism does. That’s why there is all the difference in the world between deploying arguments which reveal the hypocrisies and lies of our rulers, and, as I put it four years ago in the context of Libya: “Lobbying for the imperial powers to become something which they cannot be: a force for progress…”
There is a third truth, now more apparent now than four years ago. “War is the continuation of politics by other means,” as the famous aphorism of the German military theorist Clausewitz puts it.
The politics that Cameron’s putative war is a continuation of is not just the geo-strategic clash in the Middle East. It is the politics of the domestic political and social struggle in Britain. And it is the politics or trying to roll back the insurgent popular democracy represented by Jeremy Corbyn’s victory against the British establishment (and its Labour lieutenants) over the summer.
Cameron began in earnest trying to overcome the bitter strategic defeat of losing the 2013 vote for bombing Syria (then explicitly and singularly to force regime change) not after the Paris atrocities, but three months before they happened.
It was his response to the refugee crisis over the summer. He shut the door on the refugees, likened them to a “swarm” of insects and sought to divert the groundswell of popular sympathy for people fleeing war into support for Britain renewing its “war on terror” in the Middle East.
The Paris atrocities and ISIS are incidental to what Cameron wants to achieve. We should not do him the favour of falling for his lie that this is about terrorism, just as two years ago it was not about Assad or the use of chemical weapons either.
It is about British militarism, its party (the Tories), the projection of armed power for economic advantage abroad, and the strengthening of state and government power against the working class and labour movement at home.
It is about imperialism. It would, of course, be absurd to insist that everyone who opposes this war has to agree with that analysis. The Stop the War Coalition’s strength is that it is a coalition.
I believe that the anti-imperialist understanding of the radical left component of it, however, is helpful both to providing the framework for a wider coalition and also to the labour movement as a whole grasping this moment of political crisis at home.
For it was the great contribution of the radical left a century ago to recognise this: imperialist war is not only something to be opposed, it is also something which intensifies political crises at home. And seizing those crises to defeat our own governments is the single biggest thing we can do to contribute to progress and peace everywhere.