John Rees: UK bombing will increase the civilian death toll and the number of refugees, recruit to IS and strengthen Assad, and fuel the major powers’ arms race in the region. It is the very definition of a foreign policy disaster waiting to happen
David Cameron will soon call a vote in the Commons on whether or not to bomb Syria. He will be relying on the 'something must be done' argument, as previous prime ministers have when they wished to get a vote for war. This time the 'something' that must be done is to solve the refugee crisis. Cameron will argue that the Syrian conflict is so serious, and has lasted so long, that at least bombing might solve the problem, especially the problem of the growth of the Islamic State group.
Here are some reasons why this approach is as badly flawed now as it has ever been.
1It will kill innocents. There is no such thing as a bomb so smart that it always hits its target, even supposing the target is legitimately, legally and correctly identified. Some 20 civilians were killed in a US strike in Raqqa only last week. The US ‘has acknowledged that its rules to avoid civilian casualties are looser in Syria’ than elsewhere. As the current UK backed Saudi bombing of Yemen shows civilian casualties will be, as they are in every modern war, the majority of those killed. UK airstrikes maybe small in number as they are in Iraq, in which case they will be militarily ineffective and therefore pointless. If they are significant, they will kill civilians.
2It will increase the flow of refugees. More bombs means more destruction of houses, hospitals, schools and infrastructure and this in turn will mean more people fleeing Syria. Over the last year of US bombing the number of Syrian refugees has rocketed from about 2.7 million to over 4 million.
3Bombing is the best recruiter the IS could wish for because it entirely confirms their picture of the West as a lawless, colonial armed camp determined to wipe out Muslims. The IS recruited more than 6,000 new fighters in the first month of US bombing in Syria last September, according to the Syrian Observatory for Human Rights. Israel’s Haaretz newspaper reported: ‘A number of rebel commanders who oppose IS while continuing to fight the regime of Syrian president Bashar Assad have warned that the strikes are increasing local support for the jihadists’.
4It won't work. The US made over 1,600 bombing runs in less than year in Syria, with the covert and illegal participation of RAF personnel. During that time IS has massively advanced incorporating whole new swathes of Syria into its territory.
5It prolongs the war on both sides. In 2013 Cameron lost a vote to bomb Syria...but then he wanted to bomb Assad. That would have benefited the Islamic State. Now he wants to bomb the IS, but that is bound to help Assad. Indeed the current US bombing is done in covert agreement with the Assad regime because if it weren't the regime would use its formidable anti-aircraft systems and airforce to down US planes. This may even be what Cameron wants because they now fear an Assad collapse and an IS victory. But what this really proves is that bombing perpetuates the war by both boosting IS recruitment and strengthening the Syrian government.
6More Western bombing will mean more Russian support for Assad. The Russians are already increasing their support for Assad because they fear his defeat by the IS. But the US and the UK want to cut the Russians out of any peace plan so any UK bombing will mean another twist to the arms race in the Middle East.
The background: how did we get here?
The initial phase of rebellion against the authoritarian Assad government was part of the second wave of the Arab revolutions in March 2011. The first wave, in Tunisia in 2010 and Egypt in early 2011, took both the domestic elites and the major powers by surprise. Not so the second wave in Bahrain, Libya and Syria. The elites were more prepared to respond with deadly military force and the local reactionary states, especially Saudi Arabia and Qatar, and the major powers, were far quicker to intervene both directly and indirectly.
Assad’s attempt to crush the rebellion militarised the conflict on both sides very rapidly. This was a disaster for the rebellion as it transmuted into a civil war. Wars mean guns, and guns mean money. And money meant dependence on the local reactionary states and the imperial powers.
The US blocked a peace process that involved the Syrian regime in 2012, despite the Russian offer that Assad would be forced to step down. Instead they backed the so called 'moderate' Free Syrian Army (FSA) in an attempt to get regime change in Damascus.
This both distorted and ultimately destroyed the credibility of the FSA as a legitimate representative of the Syrian struggle and so created a vacuum which the Islamic State eventually came to dominate. The FSA has now practically ceased to exist. This process was massively assisted by the fact that, especially early on, the Gulf States and Turkey were unofficially willing to support the Islamic State against the Assad regime in an attempt to enhance their own influence in the region.
Now the Islamic State doesn't need this kind of support because its own internal revenues, not least from oil sales, are a more than effective form of finance. According to Michael Stephens, director of the Royal United Services Institute in Qatar: ‘IS exports about 9,000 barrels of oil per day at prices ranging from about $25-$45. Some of this goes to Kurdish middlemen up towards Turkey, some goes for domestic IS consumption and some goes to the Assad regime, which in turn sells weapons back to the group.’
On the ground the Assad regime now controls less than a fifth of Syrian territory, although this includes most cities in the west, and the Islamic State controls the majority of territory. Other Islamic fighting groups, like the al-Nusra front, control pockets of territory. The Kurds have been the most effective fighters confronting the IS, but their reach does not extend outside the Kurdish areas.
There are of course local committees and some on the left in Syria who continue to advance progressive politics but they are isolated and lack an effective national political presence. Some of the Syrian far left are of course opposed to western intervention as well as opposed to Assad. But the destruction of war, the direct and proxy intervention of the regional and major powers, the rise of a barbaric counter-revolutionary force in the shape of IS, the persistence of the Assad regime, the sheer scale of the refugee exodus has, for the foreseeable future, reduced progressive political options to the Kurdish struggle for survival and very little else.
What is absolutely clear is that Western bombing will not help any progressive cause in Syria. Even when it appeared that this might be the case, for instance in the US bombing of the IS around Kobani, the wider consequences have been disastrous. Support from the US and NATO has allowed the Turkish state to carry out a catastrophic war against the Kurds in Turkey and Syria...all in the name of the 'war on terror'. One report tells: ‘The Turkish side hopes to use the US need for Incirlik as an ace in the hole in its clashes with the Kurdistan Workers Party (PKK) and in an effort to thwart progress in northern Syria by the US-supported Kurdish nationalist Democratic Union Party’.
And the price the Turkish government paid for this green light was the agreement with the US that it could use the Incirlik airbase for attacks on Syria.
UK bombing can only increase the civilian death toll, inflate the number of refugees, recruit to IS while simultaneously strengthening Assad, fuel the major powers’ arms race in the region and embolden Turkey in its attacks on the Kurds. It is the very definition of another foreign policy disaster waiting to happen.
John Rees is a writer, broadcaster and activist, and is one of the organisers of the People’s Assembly. His books include ‘The Algebra of Revolution’, ‘Imperialism and Resistance’, ‘Timelines, A Political History of the Modern World’, ‘The People Demand, A Short History of the Arab Revolutions’ (with Joseph Daher), ‘A People’s History of London’ (with Lindsey German) and The Leveller Revolution. He is co-founder of the Stop the War Coalition.