Isis and its demented ambitions can only be uprooted by forces with recognised legitimacy. Unrepentant colonial powers do not fit the bill, writes Andrew Murray
Britain is once more on the brink of war. David Cameron has launched his long-expected push to secure support for bombing Syria, setting out the case publicly on Thursday.
His present rationalisation for war — the need to confront Islamic State (Isis), which controls considerable territory across Syria and Iraq — is the exact reverse of his case for bombing that country two years ago.
Then it was a matter of taking on the government of Bashar al-Assad — whose army constitutes the main opposition on the ground to Isis in the region, other than Kurdish forces.
Had the House of Commons backed his proposal then — its blocking stands to Ed Miliband’s credit — Isis today would only be stronger. It is only one sign of many of utter incoherence in the formulation of British policy.
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.
Hitherto, the priority for the US government has been regime change in Damascus, removing the Assad government with little thought as to what sort of regime might succeed it and how a sectarian bloodbath might be averted.
Its attacks on Isis, while having had some impact, have been carefully calibrated not to prejudice that overarching aim.
The Russian priority is more or less the reverse — defeating the various armed groups challenging Assad, of which Isis is only one. And the Turkish state — riddled with Isis allies in any case — is focused on stopping the spread of Kurdish authority in Syria and Iraq alike.
Cameron’s planned intervention is not only purposeless and dangerous. It would also of course be illegal. The United Nations resolution does not cover this point.
Of all the above mentioned powers, only Russia is intervening at the request of the recognised Syrian government.
That is not on its own a decisive consideration. The same would apply to the present British bombing in Iraq, requested by the Baghdad government. And Stop the War has made clear its opposition to all foreign military intervention in the Middle East, including Vladimir Putin’s.
Nevertheless, a further lawless war would only add to Britain’s reputation as a power operating entirely outside international norms of conduct.
It is clear that no amount of bombing is going to dislodge Isis from much of the territory it holds. That can only be ultimately be done by ground forces deployed by states and peoples within the region.
The brutal depredations of Isis must surely have alienated most Syrians and Iraqis unfortunate enough to live under its control.
However, the idea that Arabs will welcome liberation brought by imperialist bombers, or Russian jets engaged in what the Patriarch of the Russian Orthodox Church unhelpfully described as a “holy war,” is a folly refuted by history at every turn.
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.
That is one of the central lessons of the last 14 years of war. No country attacked under the rubric of the “war on terror” — Afghanistan, Iraq and Libya — can be described today as at peace, or anything near it.
These imperial interventions have sparked unending conflict at a cost of millions of lives. Each war has merely prepared the ground for the next.
The current Western-backed Saudi aggression against Yemen will lead to no better outcomes, merely adding another shattered state to the panorama of ruins across the region. This is a “liberation” no-one needs and no-one is asking for.
Isis and its demented ambitions can only be uprooted — from such hearts and minds as it holds, as well as territorially — by forces, political as well as military, with recognised legitimacy. Unrepentant colonial powers do not fit the bill.
Cameron’s plan addresses exactly none of these issues. Worse than that, it cuts across the first steps towards a resolution of the disastrous conflict in Syria, the talks which have begun in Vienna.
Those talks inevitably involve all those international parties which have interested themselves in the Syrian question, including Iran and Saudi Arabia as well as the intervening powers from outside the region.
So be it — there will be no peace without addressing the interests of those actors, that much is clear. But any political solution, including who should or should not be in the Syrian government, must ultimately be a matter for the Syrians alone through some democratic procedure.
Adding British bombers to those already engaged will do nothing to assist the Vienna talks, particularly as British diplomacy has long been associated with setting anti-Assad preconditions for any peace process, a calamitous position which has helped prolong the conflict by years.
If events — mainly the Russian intervention as well as the horror in Paris — are forcing a grudging reorientation away from such preconditions, then joining, uninvited, the bombing party will not assist such limited progress as has been made.
Instead, it can only add to civilian casualties and maximise the number of refugees fleeing their homeland amidst misery and suffering.
Despite all this, Cameron’s war pitch has apparently found some converts among Labour MPs. A few are doubtless addicted warmongers of the Blair school, determined to impose universal neoliberalism at the point of a bayonet.
Others are seeking any opportunity to undermine the leadership of Jeremy Corbyn — these are not mutually exclusive positions of course. Some may merely be confused as to the realities in Syria and are clinging, post-Paris, to the idea that “something must be done,” however counterproductive it is likely to prove in practice.
They should recall that Labour is only just recovering from the trauma of its support for George Bush’s Iraq war. A further illegal intervention in the Middle East risks a repeat.
All Labour MPs should join the SNP and others, including some sceptical Tories, in voting to keep Britain out of the Syrian conflict.
And they should go further and take the steps really needed to help bring peace to the region and undermine the basis of support for depraved movements like Isis — stop supporting the aggressive and reactionary Saudi regime, halt all Western interventions in the Middle East and force Israel to concede justice for the Palestinian people.
The alternative is to acquiesce in an ever-widening war embroiling one power after another in clashes which will only end in a major war surpassing in scope and intensity even those conflicts which have already scarred this century.
Andrew Murray is chair of the Stop the War Coalition and a contributor to 21centurymanifesto