The Daily Star
Friday, July 10 2015.
By Michael Glackin
Insanity doesn’t just run through politics, it positively gallops. How else do you explain theBritish government’s reaction to the massacre of its citizens in Tunisia last month?
Seifeddine Rezgui, an ISIS gunman trained in Libya, slaughtered 38 innocent tourists, including 30 British nationals, on the beach in Sousse. What was the government’s response? To “consider” extending its pitifully token contribution to the U.S.-led airstrikes against ISIS targets and allow British aircraft to bomb the terror group’s strongholds in Syria. It has been bombing targets in Iraq since September.
This is the sum total of British Prime Minister David Cameron’s promised “full spectrum” of responses to the Tunisian atrocity. And even this pitiful response will require a parliamentary vote, so British airstrikes against ISIS in Syria are unlikely to commence until the autumn at the earliest. It is an expedient political response that is utterly meaningless.
The United Kingdom currently has eight Tornado jets taking part in the bombing campaign on ISIS targets in Iraq. At best, extending British operations to Syria will add but a mere handful to that number. It is a token addition to an already risible effort to smash ISIS.
Don’t just take my word for it. Crispin Blunt, chairman of parliament’s Foreign Affairs Committee, said last week that only 5 percent of the anti-ISIS missions flown in the region were carried out by British aircraft. Other experts insist the figure is less than 4 percent. Blunt added that extending British strikes into Syria would make “no practical difference” to the air campaign against ISIS.
The reality is that the government’s lame response to the attack in Tunisia is part of a wider political picture. Cameron is mindful of criticism, particularly from Washington, that the U.K. is a fast-fading power that is no longer willing to pull its military weight in international affairs. During last month’s G-7summit in Germany, U.S. President Barack Obama privately pressed Cameron for guarantees he would maintain British defense spending above the NATO benchmark of 2 percent of GDP. Cameron has steadfastly refused to commit to this.
The government believes expanding the U.K.’s abysmal contribution to the anti-ISIS airstrikes in Syria will allay some of the criticism. It also provides yet another fig leaf to cover the reality that there is no overall plan for defeating ISIS, whether in London or in Washington.
Ironically, British Foreign Secretary Philip Hammond inadvertently indicated what the government, and indeed the West, needs to do in response to the killings in Tunisia when he said the spread of ISIS into the “ungoverned territory” of Libya had helped sow the seeds for the atrocity in Sousse.
Tunisia’s interior minister, Rafik Chelli, confirmed Rezgui visited Libya in January, traveling and training with the group of terrorists who carried out the attack on the Bardo Museum in Tunis earlier this year in which 20 people were killed. Rezgui made a further visit to Libya in March, just before the Bardo murders.
You don’t have to be a critic of the rudderless foreign policies of Cameron and Obama to appreciate that the West’s “intervention lite” in Libya has come back to haunt it. The “ungovernable territory” is a direct consequence of the West’s failure to follow up its role in the ousting of Col. Moammar Gadhafi. Its conspicuous absence in post-Gadhafi Libya created the vacuum that allowed terror and lawlessness to prosper, enabling people like Rezgui to hone their deadly craft.
What Cameron should be outlining now is how he intends to address his government’s failings in Libya and what economic and security support the U.K., France, the U.S. and the Gulf nations can now provide to those struggling amid the chaos to establish democracy.
Second, the targeting of Tunisia was not an accident. Two years ago a suicide bomber thought to be linked to the same ISIS cell as Rezgui’s died at the Sousse resort after his bomb exploded prematurely.
Because Tunisia is the one nation in the region to emerge from the Arab spring with a democracy, the terrorist attack was as much about crushing all that the country has achieved in recent years as it was about killing Westerners.
Tunisia’s tourism industry accounts for around 15 percent of the country’s GDP. The Tunisian government has warned of losses totaling $500 million as Western tour companies cancelled booked trips in the wake of the attack. Such losses could have a fatal impact on an important economic sector, one that has helped underpin Tunisia’s shift to democracy.
Cameron should lead the way in getting a firm commitment from other Western powers to back Tunisia with investment and make up the shortfall it will face from those canceled holidays. However, while soft power initiatives can help in the long term, the time has also come for the West to admit its current operations against ISIS have been a failure.
Since the U.S.-led bombing campaign started last year ISIS has lost some ground, primarily in Tikrit, around Mount Sinjar, and along the Syrian border with Turkey. But it has gained elsewhere, most notably winning control of Ramadi and the area around the historic city of Palmyra.
Meanwhile, on the same day as the massacre in Tunisia, groups linked to ISIS bombed a Shiite mosque in Kuwait killing 27, and last week fought a bloody battle with the Egyptian army in the northern Sinai peninsula. Against this backdrop the West must give proper consideration to expanding its role beyond increasingly fruitless airstrikes.
Too much of the heavy lifting against ISIS has been left to a demoralized Iraqi army and (largely Iranian-controlled) Shiite militias. The time has come when the West must take a decision to face and resist terrorism with the “full spectrum” of its military means, and that must mean “boots on the ground.”
It really is a sign of insanity to keep doing the same thing and expect a different result. ISIS needs to be tackled at its source.
Michael Glackin is former managing editor of Beirut newspaper THE DAILY STAR. A version of this article appeared in the print edition of The Daily Star on July 10,2015.