Wednesday, December 02, 2015

Why does Cameron want to bomb Syria?

Parliament has voted for war, with a sizeable majority for the government's side, with an estimated 67 Labour MPs rebelling against the leadership.  At least part of this is a result of the weakness of the parliamentary opposition to war.  While Labour's right-wingers partially wanted to use the war to shaft Corbyn (particular dishonour goes to Hillary Benn, who shamelessly invoked the International Brigades), the opposition leader and his allies were ideologically weak and made a crucial political mis-step in allowing a free vote.  It's galling to think that Miliband was actually far more effectual, causing the Tories a major crisis at the time, than Corbyn has been, and it indicates something about the strategic dilemmas posed by trying to rehabilitate the left from within a parliamentary context.  Nonetheless, we're about to go to war, on Cameron's terms.  Why?

Of course, the UK is already bombing Syria, as it is bombing Iraq.  And this fact is itself part of Cameron's case for war.  As he explained, "it is working in Iraq" and so it will probably work in Syria.  So what is his mission?  To "degrade ISIL and reduce the threat they pose".

Please note the incredibly obvious evacuation of meaning in this appeal.  'Degrade' and 'reduce' Daesh?  One is reminded of the rationale given for Clinton's bombing of Iraq in 1998, viz. that it would 'degrade and diminish' Saddam Hussein's weapons of mass destruction and his ability to threaten his neighbours.  Even if Hussein had still been in possession of such weapons, this rhetoric was meaningless.  You can arguably 'degrade' just by breaking a window.  You can arguably 'diminish' just by decapitating a passing teenager.  These are not precise objectives.

On the subject of Iraq, is it in fact, "working" there?  I don't think we should be under any illusion that the superior firepower of the US and its allies, tied to ground forces, can militarily defeat Daesh. And the evidence is that  Daesh has lost territory and important supply routes, its footprint is shrinking.  Most of these losses in Iraq have not come about through bombing, but rather through the exertions of the Iraqi Army and Kurdish peshmerga.  (This is why there is so much emphasis on Cameron's claim that there are 70,000 fighters in Syria ready to support and coordinate with a bombing campaign.)  Yet, as in all such wars, the dominant axis on which these matters are settled is political rather than military.  And in that light, we have to think about why such gains as are made often seem to melt away astonishingly quickly.

One reason given by the military leadership is what Major General Tim Cross calls the low "moral cohesion" of the Iraqi army.  That is to say, even in scenarios where they have outnumbered their Daesh rivals, they have withdrawn from combat rather than being willing to bear losses.  US Defence Secretary Ashton Carter likewise blames a lack of "will to fight" on the Iraqi side.  This is why the US is escalating its involvement on the ground by deploying "special expeditionary forces".  Clearly, this says volumes about the nature of the regime deploying such troops and its ability to summon loyalty, but more fundamentally I suspect that such apparent lack of valour derives from a simple calculus: what will we do once we have taken the territory?

After all, the Sunni triangle was lost to the Iraqi army for a reason: because the government of Iraq has no legitimacy there, having expended all of it in waves of sectarian repression and persistent, structural exclusion.  Nouri al-Maliki, under US tutelage, consolidated a sectarian power base in the south of Iraq, while systematically moving to repress and marginalise non-sectarian Sunni opponents.  Mass protests in Sunni areas produced no change in policy, and in fact protest was met by torture and executions carried out by Shia death squads.  Maliki was elected on a platform nominally committed to opposing sectarianism and the fragmentation of Iraq, but evidently saw no compelling reason to reverse the patterns established since 2003.  So, even if the Iraqi army was able to recapture Ramadi, there is no good reason to think they would be able to keep it.  It would be something, at least, if there was a sincere Iraqi nationalism aimed at preserving the unity and integrity of the state, but that doesn't even appear to be the official doctrine in Baghdad.  And it doesn't strike one as obvious that their soldiers should think of dying just so that Maliki and his patrimonial allies can hang on to another piece of territory. It is for this reason that the fragility of the Iraqi Army is often contrasted with the relative discipline and cohesion of Daesh (who are, to be clear, a motley assortment of ultra-reactionary Islamists, secular Ba'athists, and jihadi tourists).

If we prioritise the political analysis over the military analysis, it becomes easier to understand how this has happened, how Daesh has been able to significantly increase its global recruitment in the context of the bombing campaign, and how it might continue to metastasise globally even if it is deprived of its present territorial resources.  This should be borne in mind each time Cameron or a pro-war MP says that the question is whether we fight them here or over there: the answer is that you'll be doing the former more on account of the latter.  It also puts the question of 'civilian deaths' in its correct context.  This is not only a humanitarian issue - and we should be wary of allowing it to be reduced to such, as the ruling class often proves fairly adept at neutralising and manipulating humanitarian sentiment which isn't appropriately politicised.  The murder of large numbers of residents of large population centres by aerial bombardment is, in this context, in this world, precisely what is most likely to galvanise support for Daesh.  And it is clear that in Iraq at least, they do enjoy some support.

But Cameron argues that the bombing of Daesh in Raqqa is part of a wider, sophisticated strategy in which, through political pressure and international dialogue, a "new government" will be brought to power in Syria.  Leaving aside, for the second, all arguments about the merits of such a policy, the idea that bombing Daesh-controlled population centres in Syria is an essential aspect of relieving Assad of power is absurd.  Even if the stated goal of 'degrading' and 'reducing' ISIS suddenly acquired some sort of urgent precision, even if Daesh started to concede territory rather than consolidating their dominion, it is not obvious what effect this would have on the balance of power between Assad and the Syrian opposition, or upon the diplomacy. It is quite possible that Assad would be the major beneficiary by using his superior military clout to take the vacated territory.  Notably, this is exactly what has happened as Assad, backed by Russian military clout, took towns near Homs from Daesh - they began to use that territorial gain to escalate the offensive against the opposition in Homs.  That leads us to another aspect of the war, which is precisely the Russian intervention on behalf of Assad.  There is thus far no sign that this will abate.  Indeed, if a new bombing campaign begins and the stakes are raised, it is likely that Russia will intensify its bombing of opposition-held territories.  Indeed, there are already claims - denied by the Kremlin - that Russia has despatched ground troops.

So given that there is no apparent commitment to entering into military combat either with Assad or with his Russian backers - and I think that is a good thing - it is not obvious what kind of military yield is expected.  There is unlikely to be any kind of convincing breakthrough that will validate the campaign any time soon, and it seems that before long the question of ground troops will be posed.

We are still, then, left with the question we began with.  The explicit rationales offered for the bombing campaign plainly make no sense, and the government's propaganda looks incredibly shaky around it. It seems to me that there is a logic to the bombing, but it has far less to do with Syria than it does with: i. the calculus of consolidating the Conservative leadership in parliament, reversing the setback in 2013, and weakening the opposition (which, mission accomplished); ii. the domestic politics of putting any potential anti-austerity alliance centre on the Corbyn-led Labour Party on the back-foot; and iii. the geopolitics of augmenting the global prestige of an imperialist military.  This can be done in a low-cost way (the estimated tens of millions of pounds cost being insignificant in government spending terms), and in an era when the government has been significantly cutting the military budget.  It is also easy to effect, as the bombers will simply be diverted from their existing missions in Iraq as of tomorrow.

It is not that imperialist states would not have good reason to want to destroy Daesh.  Of course they do.  They don't appreciate massacres in their major cities, and the US doesn't feel like ceding a big chunk of Iraq, which they expended a lot of blood and treasure to get control over, to the jihadis.  It is just that the bombing campaign is peripheral to that objective.  The problem is political.  The reason Daesh could take control in parts of Iraq is because of the pathologies of a sectarian state.  The reason it has ground in parts of Syria is because of a civil war in which Assad, backed by Russian imperialism, is massacring the opposition.  Neither problem is amenable to this bombing campaign.