The Long and Winding Road to Damascus

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by Petunia Winegum on December 1, 2015

On Wednesday, the Commons will debate and vote on whether the fearsome might of the RAF – all half-dozen available planes – will join the US and the French in dropping bombs on Syria in the optimistic hope that some of the severed limbs tossed up in the air will have been detached from the torsos of ISIS fighters. In the Second World War, the Germans were in Europe and North Africa, whilst the Japanese were occupying the Pacific, so bombing raids over their strongholds were pretty straightforward in terms of knowing where to drop ‘em. Despite their best efforts to establish a ‘state’, ISIS are not a nation; and whilst the heart of their operations is centred in the Middle East, they have clandestine cells across Europe, most of which consist of home-grown operatives, born and raised in the countries they unleash their bloodshed upon.

David Cameron is adamant this aspect of Islamic terrorism can be dealt with by greater monitoring of Britain’s online traffic, even though France has had the kind of cyber surveillance the PM wants over here for some time, and that didn’t do much good in preventing a couple of notable atrocities in Paris this year. The ghost of Iraq means he is reluctant to commit boots-on-the ground, though judging by the inadequate footwear the British Army has apparently provided in recent years, that’s probably not such a bad idea. Therefore, Cameron is convinced dipping our toes in the airstrike waters is Britain’s best option for flexing its military muscles, a sort of halfway-house form of war – not a potentially awkward actual invasion, but a kind of invasion-lite, albeit one that offers the prospect of a sizeable enough body-count for Cameron to claim victory.

Were the UK, along with the rest of Western Europe and the Americans, prepared to bury the hatchet with the Russians and launch a coordinated coalition to tackle ISIS on home soil, perhaps some degree of success could be achieved. The inclusion of troops from Arab League nations wouldn’t go amiss either and would certainly counteract the inevitable recruitment posters for ISIS that are bound to view any assault on their territory as another attempt by outsiders to impose alien values and democracy on the Muslim world. But the Arab League, as we all know, is about as effective as the UN when it comes to taking decisive action and getting the job done, the archetypal chocolate fireguard of Middle Eastern politics.

The Prime Minister believes there is upwards of 700 of what he calls ‘moderate’ native fighters in Syria who will welcome British bombs raining down on their country, though gory stories of how Syrian rebels have dispensed justice on their own people hardly equates with any known form of moderation. But, of course, Syrian rebels are opposed to Assad, and when a vote was held in the Commons concerning Syria last year, it was Assad’s forces we would have been bombing; now we’re siding with Assad to rid his nation of ISIS. Is this a backdoor route to forming an alliance with Vlad? Time will tell.

The official stance of the Labour leadership is against the bombing of Syria; but Mr Corbyn is not exactly Mr Chips when it comes to inspiring loyalty amongst his underlings. His Shadow Foreign Secretary Hilary Benn is in favour of the PM’s plan, so there is a stark difference of opinion on the Labour frontbench, let alone amongst ordinary party members, with 75% of those polled being in line with Jezza’s point of view. An apparently heated meeting of Labour MPs on Monday concluded with Corbyn opting to offer his honourable members the luxury of a free vote, dispensing with the iron fist of the whips.

The media have excitedly regarded this as further evidence of weak leadership and as a possible harbinger of an imminent coup by Blairites. However, there’s also an argument that a free vote is reflective of a wider indecision within the British public as to whether or not airstrikes on Syria will actually prevent a UK equivalent of recent events in Paris happening here and will lead to us all sleeping a little sounder in our beds. In this respect, Corbyn’s choice of a free vote, whether it was forced upon him or not, could be seen as a realistic response to an extremely tricky moral issue.

The anticipated number of Labour MPs in favour of Cameron’s airstrike recipe – around fifty – will probably help the Government secure a ‘yes’ vote on Wednesday, and the bloody consequences of such a vote will probably provide apprentice British Jihadists with an excuse for emulating their brethren across the Channel. Granted, any boots-on-the ground intervention would no doubt do likewise; but if the various parties with a vested interest in stamping out the threat of ISIS could get together and thrash out a long-term military strategy for Syria and its surrounding nations – one that includes a post-liberation solution – that would undoubtedly achieve more than airstrikes. The curse of the quick-fix is one that never looks beyond the short-term, and the manner, for example, in which America sponsored the post-war economic transformation of Japan is difficult to envisage happening in Syria or Iraq; mind you, this only happened to Japan after America had dropped a couple of atom bombs on it.

It’s also hard to imagine a wannabe empire-builder like Putin being content to withdraw from Syria once he’s got a foothold in there, so any military operation is doomed to end up as unsatisfactory from the point of view of the west. Lest we forget, when the Soviets played their crucial role in liberating Germany from the Nazis, it took almost half-a-century for them to let go. In short, there is no easy answer to this contemporary conundrum, but it’s hard to see what difference dropping British bombs on a country that already resembles Dresden on a bad day will really make other than adding to what is one hell of a mess.

© Petunia Winegum


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