Monday, 23 November 2015

The Blind Consensus of the Bomb

Until just last week escalating the bombing campaign in Syria was more or less out of the question for the British government. The reasons for this are manifold, but the key deciders were -and perhaps are still - military experts and Conservative sceptics. Not exactly renowned for their dovishness, well informed Tory grandees were putting a critical brake on the Prime Minister's ambitions. The Conservative Chair of the Defence Committee and the former British Ambassador to Syria warned this month against an "extremely dangerous" escalation of bombing in Syria sought by the Prime Minister. The complexity of the situation was creating a global political inertia around Syria. The Russian question, the question of Assad, the trajectory of the US's own intervention - all made an all-out intensification less doable. For much of the British - and probably much of the European - political establishment, the pieces simply weren't in the right place.

Among the many dreadful consequences of Paris may be a sharpening of political and military opinion on ISIS, at the immediate expense of the old stalemate. Russia has declared a rather instrumental and cynical solidarity with France against ISIS, shoving aside differences over Assad. Putin has made no break with Assad, however, and inevitably the differences that once brought about inertia will do precisely the opposite once the involvement of the West deepens. If France and then Britain continue to escalate strikes against ISIS, there may be some weakening and disorganisation of immediate targets. But the reckoning over Syria will come and it is not likely that the bombs will help.

The problem is not simply ISIS but the much more intractable one of the state vacuum between Syria and Iraq in which ISIS has thrived. In their own way this is what the more cautious elements of the British and European civil and military establishments were warning about until last week. Hollande and Cameron's stiffened resolve will now dispense with that caution.

This is likely to end badly because when Hollande declares "Nous sommes dans la guerre" other solutions become invisible or unmentionable. Hiding international and regional differences over Syria behind a storm of bombs will only buy so much time. Meanwhile, Da'esh will blame those western bombs for the loss of innocent Sunni Muslim life around the world, and especially within the caliphate. There can be no better recruitment propaganda for ISIS than images of kids killed by French bombs. And once the chaos reemerges, once the consensus of the bomb inevitably breaks down, ISIS will be there to cash in.

The only way to undermine ISIS is to attack their claim to represent Sunni Muslims in a stretch of land which is encircled by real and perceived enemies - Iraqi Shia militiamen, Alawite Assad loyalists, Kurdish revolutionaries or further afield the western powers and the menace of Russia. The ideology of western militarism offers neither the people of the Middle East not alienated European Muslims a feasible alternative to violence. As one ex-Jabhat al Nusra, now ISIS fighter told Patrick Cockburn: 

"‘At first we dreamed of having a revolution and gaining our liberty,’ he said, ‘but unfortunately the popular movement was not well organised and was manipulated by neighbouring countries such as the Gulf states, so revolution turned into jihad.’ He says that to fight back against the regime the rebels had no choice but to turn to a religious movement that appealed to the conservative people of eastern Syria. Another motive was revenge: for ‘the oppression and injustice of the regime over the last forty years that weighed down our souls’."

Revolution becomes Jihad - behind every fascism is a failed revolution. ISIS is a monster born of violence and hopelessness. The key to understanding it is not religious fanaticism but a globalised, very modern form of political reaction. ISIS is now undoubtedly the predominant fanatical political force in the area, with a taste for violent spectacle that endears it to the age of the smartphone. It has international appeal for alienated youth at the same time as it capitalises on local chaos. Indeed the more dangerous daily life in Syria and Iraq becomes, the more entrenched loyalty to ISIS will become.

The only way out of this trap is to apply pressure on all regional and international players to reach a peace deal. Turkey must accept Kurdish revolutionary advances, yet the Kurds alone can hardly solve the conflict nor reassure nervous devout Sunnis. The West and Russia should attempt to develop a civil coalition that would include Alawites and Sunnis and other groups. Could this result in the continued existence of the murderous Assad regime? This is a possibility, though in the long term of course Assad must go - through democratic change. But if representatives of all groups opposed to ISIS and willing to seek a settlement can be brought together in a ceasefire, progress may be possible. That might sound unlikely, but it is no more than what Sir David Richards, former chief of defence staff, recommends.

Muslims, often Sunnis, are by far the major victims of Da'esh's peculiar form of radicalism. If rumours are to be believed, ISIS have always benefited from some measure of support from various Sunni-led states. Meanwhile, Shia states and the likes of Iran and Hizbollah clearly view the Assad regime as an indispensable ally. A possible peace will require a careful balancing act, uniting and corralling all players into recognising the threat ISIS poses not only to Europe and to the Middle East, but to the very Sunni people they claim to represent. Bombing Raqqa and ending yet more innocent lives, along with those of perhaps a few fighters, will clearly not bring that distant peace any closer.