Friday, 11 December 2015

Cameron adopts gesture politics in Syria

The Daily Star
Friday, December 11 2015
By Michael Glackin

Within hours of the British parliament voting to expand its bombing mission against ISIS to include Syria, British security forces flew into action. Protection for the queen and other members of the royal family was immediately stepped up. Travel in royal cars, such as the vintage $500,000 Rolls Royce favored by Prince Charles, will be strictly curtailed and royals will have to use more anonymous vehicles, such as armored Range Rovers instead.

So much for Prime Minister David Cameron’s assertion that expanding the United Kingdom’s largely token airstrikes will make the country “safer” from terrorist attacks.

If only that was the sole false assertion Cameron made in his successful appeal to parliament last week. Speaking to me a few days after the vote, Walid Saffour, the president of the U.K.-based Syrian Human Rights Committee, said the decision would “attract further elements to join ISIS and expose London’s streets to further threats.”

The two other things that happened hours after parliament gave the green light was that British Tornado jets took off from a Royal Air Force base in Akrotiri, Cyprus, and dropped seven Paveway IV laser-guided bombs on the ISIS-controlled oil fields in eastern Syria that Cameron said had funded attacks on the West. At the same time, six Typhoon jets and two Tornados deployed from the U.K. to Akrotiri, joining the eight Tornados already there that have been attacking ISIS targets in Iraq for the last year and a half.

Broadly speaking, Cameron’s rationale behind extending the U.K.’s token airstrikes is thus: First, the laudable point that it’s wrong to turn a deaf ear to the U.K.’s closest allies, the United States and France, which have requested British help. Second, the RAF was already bombing ISIS in Iraq and stopping at a border the enemy on the ground doesn’t recognize was clearly ludicrous. Lastly, ISIS is a barbaric death cult that threatens innocent people in all corners of the world.

No one would argue with that. However, the reality is that the addition of a handful of aircraft to the U.K.’s current paltry contribution will make no practical difference. Parliament’s Foreign Affairs Committee has said only 5 percent of the anti-ISIS missions flown in Iraq are carried out by British aircraft. The British bombing of Syria is a meaningless gesture, a fig leaf to cover for a lack of leadership in the West to tackle either ISIS or the murderous rule of Syrian President Bashar Assad.

Cameron is common among modern leaders who believe politics is the art of being seen to do something, rather than facing up to tough decisions and actually doing something. Sir Gerald Kaufman, the U.K.’s longest serving parliamentarian, who voted in favor of the invasion of Iraq in 2003 but voted against extending airstrikes into Syria last week, summed up Cameron’s hypocrisy when he said: “I am not going to be a party to killing innocent civilians for what will simply be a gesture. I’m not interested in gesture politics.”

To defeat ISIS will require “boots on the ground,” but the West wants no part of that battle. Cameron insists the boots are already there in the shape of 70,000 “moderate Sunni forces” – a figure that does not include Kurdish fighters. However, this, as anyone with even a cursory knowledge of the conflict knows, is nonsense.

There are an estimated 100 or more opposition groups fighting within Syria, each pursuing its own agenda. Indeed if Cameron truly believed in this “moderate” force it is surprising that he has consistently rejected their pleas to be supplied with heavy weapons.

Cameron’s duplicity was best summed up by Julian Lewis, chairman of Parliament’s defense committee, who said that after former Prime Minister Tony Blair’s “dodgy dossiers” about weapons of mass destruction which led the U.K. into the Iraq war, we now have Cameron’s “bogus battalions.” It emerged at the weekend that military officials had warned Cameron against citing the 70,000 figure, but, not for the first time, gesture won out over substance.

But in the wake of the attacks in Paris and Tunisia one policy is emerging. It is increasingly clear an accommodation will be made with the Baath Party to impose order in Syria. Saffour believes London and Washington are now “waiting for the right moment to rehabilitate the regime, with or without Bashar.”

As if Syrians had not paid a high enough for this conflict already.

Cameron insists ISIS is a threat to Western “values and way of life” but is only prepared to do the bare minimum to combat its poisonous ideology.

The U.K. is set to spend more than $200 billion over the next 20 years on a nuclear “deterrent” it will never use, yet cannot summon up the money or will to defeat ISIS in its heartland.

Almost two years of bombing has achieved remarkably little. ISIS still controls vast swaths of Iraq and Syria and its affiliates appear able to launch attacks against the West at will. Air power can contain ISIS, but it cannot take or hold territory. Yes, Kurds in northern Iraq have successfully captured territory after bombing, but ground troops in other areas have been much less effective.

Western boots on the ground, if possible under the aegis of the United Nations and alongside Arab troops, still remains the best potential solution to eradicating the murderous nihilism of ISIS.

It is a solution fraught with difficulties. But what we have stood by and watched take place in Syria over the last four and a half years demands a meaningful response, one capable of resolving the problem. Something more than gesture politics.

Michael Glackin is former managing editor of Beirut based newspaper THE DAILY STAR. A version of this article was published in the newspaper edition on page 7, December 11 2015.

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