Thursday 3 December 2015 – RAF bombing Islamic State targets in Syria hours after the Commons vote in favour of doing so

In this blog entry I will use the term Islamic State (IS). I understand that the Government now wants us to use the term Daesh – a derogatory Arabic term for the extremist group. They suggest that using the term Islamic State confirms credibility on them – that they are neither Islamic or a State. Listening to the debate in the Commons yesterday I couldn’t help but feel revulsion at the acquiesence to Cameron’s request shown by many Labour MPs who all of a sudden were using the term Daesh. I am also appalled by the Government’s attempts to bully the BBC into using Daesh with the underlying suggestion that they are supporting IS or being unpatriotic by not using it. Like the BBC I don’t think most people in the UK are familiar with this term yet so I’ll continue to use Islamic State.  I am an adult and capable of understanding what IS is and what it represents, as are most people in Britain. We don’t need politicians patronising us by telling us what we should say or think.

Islamic State calls itself al-dawlah al-islamiyah or Islamic State of Iraq and the Levant (ISIL). Muslim history referred to forms of government based on Islamic law (shari’a) as Islamic states and numerous governments over the centuries have used the term Islamic as part of their name.  Many such early governments bare little resemblance to modern Islamic states which have political institutions, elections, parliaments and justice systems with judicial review. The interpretation IS have made of Islam and shari’a today is taking them back to what they perceive as the earlier ideals of a caliphate rooted in Islamic law. Most of the modern world, including countries in the Muslim world, are rightly appalled by this and see it as a retreat back to the Dark Ages – to use a Western term. Ironically, our Dark Ages were not necessarily so for many Islamic civilisations. The rise of the Islamic State is also doing great harm to Muslims around the world and will risk what progress – if limited – some Islamic states are making.

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The words of the Defence Secretary this morning confirmed that Britain has joined other countries involved in military action against Islamic State  targets in Syria: “I can confirm that four British Tornados were in action attacking oil fields in eastern Syria.”

The strikes by the Royal Air Force (RAF) jets, which left RAF Lossiemouth in Scotland (and which will be based at RAF Akrotiri in Cyprus), were described as “successful”. They targeted the IS-controlled  Omar oil fields. The sale of oil from the fields has given IS much needed income and contributes, with other sources of income they have in their seized territories, to propping up their continuing control of those territories.  The importance of oil to IS has been reduced over the last year due to the decrease in the value of  a barrel of oil and more recently by the bombing of the oil fields by the United States and others.

The participation of British jets in this morning’s attack only happened because MPs supported air strikes in a Commons vote yesterday. MPs voted 397 in favour to 223 opposed after a 10-hour heated debate. Sixty-six Labour MPs (29% of their MPs and including 11 members of the Shadow Cabinet) took advantage of the Party leader Jeremy Corbyn backing-down and allowing his MPs a free vote after the debate. All but two of the Scottish National Party’s 56 Westminster MPs voted against extending the strikes into Syria.

Prime Minister David Cameron outraged many by calling many of those opposed to the bombing of Syria as “terrorist sympathisers.” Despite many MPs demanding an apology from the PM during the debate for his outrageous comment, he refused to do so. Cameron only managed a pitiful expression that those voting against intervention in Syria were doing so with “honour.” I doubt that many believed him.  Jeremy Corbyn even offered Cameron the chance to intercede during his speech in opposition to the vote in order to offer an apology. Cameron remained firmly in his seat.  Cameron knew exactly what he was saying and used the term “terrorist symapthisers” as a way of whipping up both public support and MP support for the vote and to make a crude and personal attack on Corbyn – especially distasteful when the Commons are debating such an important issue.

Jeremy Corbyn (pictured below) has been crticised for his past willingness to talk to groups such as Hamas. He did this because he knew, like Cameron does but won’t say, that talking to “terrorists” and working towards a political solution is the only way to reach a lasting settlement.  Military action does not defeat terrorism. It may make politicians look tough and strong on terror, but at best it can only produce temporary relief from terror. If anything, military action against terror only generates more terror and terrorists who are radicalised by the military action.  We have seen this over and over again: in Northern Ireland, Afghanistan, Iraq, Libya, and now in Syria.

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During the debate, the Shadow Foreign Secretary Hilary Benn was applauded by both Conservative and Labour MPs when he defended strikes on Syria. He said: “All of our thoughts today are with the brave men and women of the Royal Air Force and we pray for their safe return.” It would be interesting to have seen what his father, Tony Benn, would have made of his son’s pro-war speech had he been alive to hear it. An anti-war speech by Tony Benn in the Commons in 1992 has been spreading on the internet in the days leading up to yesterday’s vote.

The Islamic State is a truly horrendous force of evil in the world and needs to be tackled. But it needs to be attacked in ways more subtle than just bombing from the air with bombs, missiles and drones. Such blunt tools  cannot and will not defeat IS on their own. We need to be concentrating on degrading IS in other ways.

Islamic State’s use of the internet to fund their terror, radicalise people around the world, and spread their propaganda should be a major target. If we spent as much money as we did sending just four Tornados into Syria today on cyber attacks on IS then their foundations of support would be deeply undermined.  If we targeted the banks and individuals around the world who are facilitating IS economically then we could damage their economic capabilities.  If we imposed sanctions on countries who are buying IS oil then their control of the oil fields in eastern Syria – as well as attacking the oil supply routes as some of the strikes are doing – would reduce their importance or significance to IS.

If all these were done in a united fashion, backed by the United Nations, then the case for bombing IS targets in Syria may be more tolerable as people and politicians could believe and see that, as part of concerted action in  other areas, such bombing may have a real chance of making a difference.  Michael Fallon is claiming today that today’s attacks are a “very real blow on the oil and revenue on which Daesh depends.”

That may be the case but attacking oil fields alone will not strangle IS out of existence. Furthermore, as the United States has come to accept, such attacks are threatening not only civilian lives of people working in or near the oil fields, but is also compromising the economic stability of the area if IS are eventually driven out. Destroying an oil field is a permanent loss to the area not just a loss to IS.  Recent attacks by the US in Syria have been aimed, to some extent, at reducing the long-term loss to country should it ever rid itself of IS or, indeed, President Assad.

This brings up the dilemma facing the world – President Assad and whether we can hope to get rid of his dictatorship and defeat IS at the same time. IS is a common enemy and this is making a lot of people opposed to both Assad and IS very uneasy.  The West supports the opposition in Syria who have been waging a five-year civil war against Assad’s regime. That civil war has allowed IS to take advantage (as they’ve done in unstable countries and regions in Iraq and elsewhere) and take control of large areas of the country, especially in the east where they have entered the country from Iraq. Assad has lost control of huge swathes of his country but the opposition have not been able to defeat him.

Russia is now complicating the issue. It has always supported the Assad regime and recently, under the charade of attacking IS, it has been bombing the opposition to Assad in eastern Syria.  It does this despite claiming it’s attacking IS targets. Yet Russia perhaps offers us hope that IS can be defeated. Today Russia has called for a Grand Alliance against IS, in the way it joined with Western allies to defeat Hitler. Russia may also be hoping to find a way back in from the cold after the country’s annexation of the Crimea, as well as trying to avoid Assad falling which would reduce its interests in the Middle East.

Yet it is difficult to trust Putin. He may genuinely wish to destroy IS but his motive may be more to prop up his ally Assad than to defeat IS for the common good of the world. The dilemma is whether the US and other Western countries are forced to work with Russia and probably therefore to accept that Assad may remain in Syria if we are to defeat IS with Russian co-operation. The lesser of two evils so to speak.

Russia’s bombing of Syria highlights a somewhat hypocritical view from Cameron, reflected in a  two month old quote from the PM posted on Facebook yesterday evening after the Commons vote by Fake Democracy – a “Left leaning political page. National and Geopolitical news & opinion from mainstream and independent news sources.” In the quote Cameron said that Russia’s bombings in Syria will “lead to further radicalisation and increased terrorism.” He was perhaps referring to their attacks on the opposition forces to Assad, but he was right as anyone who has said such of Britain bombing IS in Syria would be right. Cameron has conveniently forgotten what he said of Russia and believes, somehow, that Britain bombing Syria won’t increase radicalisation or terrorism. Such diametrically opposed beliefs – if they are beliefs and not just political expediency (need to attack Putin – need to win my vote) are extremely concerning in a Prime Minister.

Putin in Russia claims that his country attacking IS in Syria is the only one with any legitimacy to do so as they were directly requested to intervene by President Assad and help them with the growing problem of Islamic State in the east of Syria. Assad has not requested any such help from elsewhere.  Damascus this morning repeated its claim used against the US, French and others, when it said that: “Britain didn’t ask permission from Syria’s government” before launching attacks on Syria.  Damascaus and Russia continue to say that the Western countries need to co-oridnate with the Syrian Government’s forces in the fight against IS. This is a huge hurdle facing us before we can hope to defeat IS. The West has spent the last few years supporting the opposition to Assad’s forces and turning against them to support Assad – even if to defeat IS – is going to be beyond the pale for many.

The forces opposing Assad – who also oppose IS – will feel bitterly let down if we end up supporting Assad (directly or indirectly) and will fuel the already existing question as to why we weren’t willing to support them militarily to defeat Assad. Yet according to the BBC’s chief international correspondent, Lyse Doucet,  “Many Syrians exhausted by war want, most of all, to believe Britain’s promise that it’s stepping up the fight to ‘win the peace’ – as hard as that is.”  They may be disappointed. A bombing campaign alone is not going to “win the peace” and may ultimately lead to the reinforcement of Assad and therefore the weakening of his opposition and the continued suffering of those living under Assad. It will also do nothing to stem the flow of Syrian refugees fleeing the horrors of their country.

Cameron rightly says that our allies have been asking for our involvement in Syria. We have been involved in attacks on IS in Iraq for sometime but the Commons voted against extending those attacks into Syria two years ago. That was a personal humiliation for Cameron, a triumph for Parliamentary democracy and a welcome and rare victory for the will of the majority of Britons. The Prime Minister was determined to win the vote this time around.  After some outrageous language and desparaging of those opposed to him, and after exaggerated claims that Britian’s involvement in Syria will make a significant difference, he did win the vote by a majority of 174.

We now join the US, France, Australia and Denmark in attacking IS in Syria as well as continuing to do so in Iraq. Cameron said he was glad for the “strong support” from Parliament and said he believed the move would be supported in the Muslim world. The French Foreign Minister  Laurent Fabius welcomed the UK’s decison: “A fortnight after the 13 November [Paris] attacks, this is a concrete demonstration of solidarity with our country.”

Cameron has been playing up the international call for support from the UK, shamelessly using the Paris attacks and the threat of such attacks on Britain as a rallying call for his rush to war. Reminds me of Bush and Blair after 9/11 and  before the invasion of Iraq. Saddam Hussein neither had anything to do with 9/11 or had any weapons of mass destruction – but, boy, did the claims scare people. Not for the first or last time politicians are using fear to get their own way. With sober reflection I would think that most people in 2015 would be reluctant to attack Syria, as they were in 2013. Generate enough fear and you can get people to agree to or accept anything (can’t remember who said that, I’m paraphrasing).

What I do remember, and which came to mind this week, is a quote by John F Kennedy when he said that (again paraphrasing) a country afraid to let its citizens judge the truth without being lied to is a country that is afraid of its own people. Cameron, in the run-up to the vote has not only been spreading fear, but he has been telling us – falsehoods I think was the word Kennedy used. That is a politician’s word – he has been lying to us about the extent of the threat we face as individuals from IS, about the significance British air strikes will have overall, and the blatant one – that we can significantly degrade IS from the air .

Now that Cameron has his war, the Government admits that the war against IS will take “some time” – perhaps four years – and will require persistence and will not be achieved by air strikes alone. No shit, Sherlock!  He continued that he thought the decison was “good for the country.”  Cameron deployed the often-used distraction when engaging on military action: the patriotic angle – “our thoughts should be with them [RAF pilots] and their families as they commence this important work.” Also used by Hilary Benn, I find such calls from politicians particularly obscene and cynical. It is THEY who are sending the pilots into a war zone to achieve something that is unachievable on their own. It is  THEY who are sending them to risk their lives for THEIR own misguided beliefs and to prop up THEIR political image.

I was deeply disheartened by yesterday’s Commons vote. I genuinely believe that the  majority of the public do not back air strikes in Syria – as they did not in 2013 when Cameron last attempted to bomb Syria. I do not believe that any good is going to come from bombing IS in Syria or anywhere else.  As we saw in recent revelations that IS had built complex tunnels under the IS-controlled Syrian city of Raqqa, IS fighters are capable of evading the bombing from the skies above them. No such protection is available for the civilians who are stranded in the areas.  The IS fighters also mix with civilian populations or simply move to other areas to avoid strikes. The activist group Syria is being Slaughtered Silently has stated the obvious fact, which is generally overlooked when one’s Prime Minister wants his war, when it said that the strikes “make the people suffer more.”

They posted nine reasons on Twitter why bombing doesn’t work and won’t even contribute to defeating Islamic State: [all tweets 3 December 2015 @Raqqa_SL, shown verbatum, grammar and spellling, sic]

1 – we are against the #UK strikes on #Raqqa UK will not make any change in The situation #Syria #ISIL

2 – if #UK want to help people then they should Accepts Syrian Refugees in there country and not close their border #Syria #ISIS #ISIL

3 – just bombing #ISIS in #Raqqa from the sky will not Defeat #ISIS but it will make people Suffer more #Syria #ISIL

4 – #ISIS will use #UK strikes to Recruit new people in the west and new fighters and maybe they will do Terrorist attacks #Syria #ISIL

5 – the Strange thing is all the world want to fight #ISIS but not even 1 country Dare to fight #IS on the ground #Syria

6 – which makes #ISIS propaganda more stronger to recruit new people and make them look like they are on the right side and the good people

7 – using some groups not from the area by some countries for the Liberation of #Raqqa is a big mistake that #ISIS use it to make people join

8 – them and it make a sensitivity between the people of the area that could lead to another kind of war in the end #Syria #ISIS #ISIL #Raqqa

9 – In the end no body will liberate #Raqqa Except the people of #Raqqa #Syria #ISIS #ISIL

A statement from the Government today claimed that the advanced sensors on the British tornados determined that there were no civilians present in the proximity of the Omar oil fields before the attacks were launched. I’m not a military expert but how is this possible? I’m sure the sensors can detect individual people but how do they discern they are not targets? This also ignores the people inside buildings. They may be considered legimiate targets by the military and Government simply because they are working in an IS-controlled oil field. Those people, however, are probably civilians who may not be members of IS or even support IS. They may have been threatened or forced to work in the oil field when IS took control. Do they deserve to die at our hands because they didn’t want to die at the hands of IS if they defied them? Would you defy them knowing they’d shoot you or behead you if you did? I very much doubt many would. I wouldn’t if I was in their situation. They are collateral damage – a wildly euphemistic military term for unavoidable civilian deaths.

The claims of bombing accuracy also brought to mind the incredible cockpit videos that were released in the early days of the Iraq war in March 2003. They seemingly showed guided missiles slamming into targets – going through a door, or hitting a vehicle on a bridge. They gave the impression of deadly accuracy – which is exactly what their release was meant to do. In reality, accuracy was impressive but like the attacks in Syria they are not infallible.

By bombing Syria we are making decisions that drastically affect the lives of people in Syria and will kill many innocents. As the activist group cited above suggested, the solution to the horrific situation in Syria (both in relation to Assad and the Islamic State) can only be solved in the long-term by themselves. If we intervene without knowing, asking – or even caring – what the people of Syria facing the terror of war from the skies think or want is a recipe for disaster. It won’t solve their problems, or ours. It will likely make them worse and will antagonise a whole new bunch of people who up to now have been looking to the West for help.  Remember, many people in Afghanistan and Iraq welcomed us as saviours in 2002 and  2003. How did that work out?
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LINKS:

How British MPs voted (BBC) – same link as cited in blog entry

The different names of Islamic State (BBC) – same link as cited in blog entry

Sryia air strikes – what you need to know (BBC)

Why Syria vote means Labour’s problems are about to get worse (BBC)

Hilary Benn vs. Tony Benn (BBC)

Will the UK’s involvement actually make any difference? (The Independent)

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