Sunday, 29 November 2015


Next week there will be a vote on whether or not the UK bombs Daesh in Syria - the vote will probably give David Cameron more than a few sleepless nights. The PM’s real problem is not the real possibility of Daesh atrocities on the streets of Britain along the lines of the appalling atrocities that took place recently in Bamako, Paris and Beirut.

There are deeper or perhaps shallower unspoken motivations, after the Labour (a case of miscalculation rather than design) and Conservative parties failed to get a mandate to bomb Syria (the then Assad controlled bits of it at least) in Westminster last time - Cameron found himself dangerously adrift from US interests and cozy photo opportunities on the White House lawn. If Mr C makes of mess of the forthcoming vote and fails to secure a mandate then he will move from being a partially useful US ally to being a downright liability, at least as far as the White House is concerned. 

Short-term political gain aside the appalling carnage in Lebanon, France and Mali is one grim aspect of an ongoing humanitarian catastrophe has been building for the last two decades. Where we are just now in the Middle East is the result of the end of the Cold War, a whole series of largely failed 'Western' generational interventions, the result of the failure of the Arab Spring and the weakening of the grip of some grim dictators.

If twenty years plus of war and bombing ended up producing Pol Pot and the Khmer Rouge, we should be entirely unsurprised that the chaos unleashed in Iraq since 1991 had ended up producing Daesh (IS).  Despite occasional weasel-like verbose rhetoric to the contrary - the Brit and American elite probably quietly prefer working with their chosen tyrant(s) they know or in the case of the Brit elite literally went to school with some of them (although these days the despots spawn probably go to school in and around Washington DC) rather than dangerously unpredictable democracies who may end up delivering unpalatable electoral results (at least as far as the West is concerned). 

In relation to the current crisis David Cameron's indecision (he is a natural follower than a leader) is as irrelevant to solving the refugee problem, as is the UK's input in the Middle East. Historically Britain was an imperial power in the region, but, now in reality is a bit player, having squandered any real influence through its self-interested support for despotic regimes. When it comes to intervention, humanitarian or otherwise it can be said that you get what you put in. The UK spent around £326 million pounds bombing Libya (to get rid of Gaddafi) and around £25 million pounds on reconstruction - the end result of which is that the Libyan state ceased to exist.

An arc of instability stretches from North West Africa, through the Middle East and on through Pakistan, Afghanistan to the western fringes of the People's Republic of China. Some of this instability has been fed by local wars, local repressive dictatorships (historically supported by various sides in the Cold War) and a whole series of unresolved on-going political problems - some of which, but certainly not all relates to the failure to peacefully resolve the Israeli/Palestinian conflict.

A significant measure of responsibility lies with the West and it's history of inept irresponsible intervention and self serving foreign policy, some of which dates back to self interested decisions made during the First World War as the Ottoman Empire was dismembered by interested parties up until the emergence of the Turkish Republic in 1923. Refuge wise we have been here before, at the end of the First World War, waves of refugees from Armenia, Greece and what was about to become the Soviet Union fled to find safety and security. At least in the 1920’s the League of Nations managed to create an internationally recognised system of identity / travel documents, known as Nansen certificates for refuges.

A measure of responsibility also lies with the Arab states themselves, initially largely creations of the Imperial powers (Britain and France) - the Arab governments have almost entirely failed to integrate refuges from 1948 into society and choose to leave them to rot in refugee camps on the fringes of society. Repressive Arab governments of various persuasions conveniently raised the issue of the Palestinians and Israel to periodically distract their own oppressed citizens. Quite understandably the current refugees from Syria have no desire to find themselves in the same situation as the Palestinians.

Lebanon, Turkey and Jordan have all taken in large numbers of refuges - but it’s time for the Gulf States to fork out some cash to pay for significant no strings attached humanitarian aid in Turkey and Lebanon each of whom have taken in over two million refuges. The Turks are playing their own game, largely allowing the two way transit of people and oil into Turkey and out of the Daesh controlled fragments of Syria and Iraq - something that NATO is probably well aware of – and trying to lump the Kurds in with Daesh. Trying to recreate a unified Syria and a unified Iraq will have to involve a serious commitment of aid and probably ground troops for many years - after the costly failures in Iraq and costly partial successes in Afghanistan - this is probably not an option that can easily be sold to most of the electorates in the West. 

The case for air strikes in Syria remains as yet un-made - there are still too many unanswered questions - as vile as Daesh is (these are the people who brought back enslavement, beheadings, and other appalling atrocities) the case for war has not been made. The PM's claim that there are 70,000 moderate Syrian fighters on the ground ready to fight Daesh is dubious at best – a doubt shared by the Chairman of the House of Commons Defence Committee, amongst others. Simply dropping bombs from the air will not lead to the defeat of Daesh. Nor will it secure peace for the people of Syria and Iraq or bring stability to the wider region. What is needed is a UN agreed plan for a process of reconciliation and reconstruction something that can be quantified, measured and delivered.

All governments must redouble their efforts to secure a comprehensive peace deal for Syria and the wider region. World leaders cannot afford to repeat the mistakes of past Western military interventions in the Middle East and we need renewed commitments to support and aid civilians who are suffering as a result of the war, and real pressure on Saudi Arabia and others who are financing Daesh.

Above all there must be practical support for those currently defending themselves on the ground from Daesh such as the Kurdish Peshmerga fighters, and a commitment from Turkey to cease attacks upon the Kurds in Syria, Iraq and Turkey. At present UK military action as currently proposed risks further escalation in Syria and runs the risk of making our own communities at home less secure and simply plays into the Daesh narrative.

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