The Daily Star
Tuesday, October 7, 2014
By Michael Glackin
Western intelligence agencies are apparently “closing the net” on the masked ISIS executioner known as “Jihadi John.” In early September it emerged that they have known his identity for some time, and believe that the killer with a London accent who was filmed apparently beheading U.S. journalists James Foley and Steven Sotloff, and British aid workers David Haines and Alan Henning, comes from a South London suburb.
The continuing focus in the United Kingdom on “Jihadi John,” whom Prime Minister David Cameron has vowed to “hunt down” and “bring to justice,” says a lot about where the British are in this fight. Call me a cynic, but identified or not, it’s unlikely that Jihadi John will ever be caught or face justice.
But even if he were caught, tried and imprisoned, or killed in the current American-led aerial bombardment or by one of the American or British special service units known to be operating in Syria and Iraq, what difference will it make?
The problem is ISIS, not one psychopath who glories in his barbaric exploits before the camera. ISIS has been dishing out this sort of barbarity across Syria and Iraq for some time now while Cameron, President Barack Obama and others have stood by and watched. Cameron’s tough words on ISIS, terrorism, and Syrian President Bashar Assad have all been heard before. They have yet to be matched by meaningful action.
One shouldn’t read too much into last week’s overwhelming vote in Parliament to join the airstrikes against ISIS. The lure of “intervention lite,” where military action is restricted to pressing buttons from ships or airplanes, is attractive to British politicians who have to account to war-weary voters in what will be a fiercely contested general election in May.
It is true that support for British airstrikes in Iraq, which began Saturday with a sortie over northern Iraq by Tornado jets, is high following the gruesome beheadings of the Western hostages. This wasn’t the case when Cameron failed to gain support for Syrian intervention last year. But the British have become cautious, if not reluctant, warriors, and parliament’s approval for a desperately limited military action reflects this.
Cameron was left humiliated last year when Parliament rejected his bid to launch airstrikes against Syria. This time around he ensured the backing of the opposition Labour Party before putting the vote to parliament. This is why the British fight with ISIS will be restricted to Iraq; any action in Syria must be put to a further vote before Parliament. This condition was imposed on the prime minister by Labour leader Ed Miliband, who will only support action in Syria if it is approved by the U.N. Security Council – extremely unlikely because of Russia’s and China’s veto.
Cameron did reserve the right to deploy the air force in Syria for “humanitarian” purposes without first consulting parliament. But in reality he wouldn’t dare. Not even a British drone can fly over Syria without parliamentary approval. Parliament also secured a commitment that the United Kingdom, in common with other Western nations, will not “put boots on the ground.”
Cameron talked about a “comprehensive strategy” to defeat ISIS, but what we are left with after the parliamentary bargaining is frankly incomprehensible. The principal argument put forward for British intervention is that ISIS poses a threat to national security. The prospect of large numbers of British jihadists returning home, versed in the latest terror techniques, clearly threatens the safety of the British people. Yet the ISIS stronghold remains in Syria, in Raqqa, where Jihadi John is mercilessly decapitating hostages. Surely it is more logical then to bomb Syria, where the bulk of British fighters are thought to be based.
Even more bizarre is the British failure, along with the rest of the Western countries, to deploy ground troops. It betrays a strict limit to the West’s appetite to face ISIS. The ridiculousness of this strategy is further compounded by the fact that there are currently no reliable forces on the ground in either Syria or Iraq.
Plans to strengthen the Free Syrian Army with weaponry to battle ISIS are unconvincing. The FSA is in disarray and needs arms the West still won’t supply. Those that have proved more capable of fighting ISIS, Hezbollah and the Syrian Army, are also fighting the FSA. Even allowing for the thaw in Western-Iranian relations to deal with ISIS is unlikely, to say the least, that the West can do business with either, particularly if it wants to retain Arab support for airstrikes that it worked so hard to create.
In Iraq, many Iraqi Sunnis remain unconvinced about Prime Minister Haider al-Abadi’s more inclusive government in Baghdad. The Kurdish peshmerga will only fight for their territory. And for all the U.S. and British training, and despite its overwhelming superiority in numbers, the Iraqi Army, as recent events have proved, is less than effective on the battlefield.
The descent of Libya into chaos has shown that dropping bombs from great heights without following up properly on the ground creates more problems than it resolves. The mantra “no boots on the ground” leaves the West completely unable to influence events. Already reports are emerging that ISIS is moving to other areas, and there is anger about civilian deaths.
While containing the expansion of ISIS is important, it is not the same as eradicating it. An organization that has annexed great swaths of Iraq and Syria, despite being outnumbered, is unlikely to be bombed out of existence.
Against this backdrop the identity of “Jihadi John” and his fate is irrelevant. ISIS has hundreds if not thousands of “Jihadi Johns” who have committed the same barbaric deeds in villages, town squares and other places away from the public glare. That so much attention should be on him betrays a worrying truth. Strip away the rhetoric and you are left with the inescapable conclusion that the West simply doesn’t have much stomach for this fight.
Michael Glackin is former managing editor of Beirut based newspaper THE DAILY STAR. A version of this article appeared in the print edition of The Daily Star on October 07, 2014, on page 7.