Cockburn on Isis: Worth reading

November 22, 2015

In Blog News

War with Isis: Britain must learn from past mistakes before joining the civil war in Syria

In Basra and Helmand province the outcome for Britain was humiliation limited only by the size of the forces engaged
Isis fighters at the Tabqa airbase in Raqqa province after capturing it from the Syrian government in 2014 AP

Isis fighters at the Tabqa airbase in Raqqa province after capturing it from the Syrian government in 2014 AP

Britain is moving towards taking part in the war in Syria without much idea of what is happening in that complicated and very dangerous country.

This is in keeping with the careless spirit in which Britain became involved in small wars in and around Basra in Iraq after 2003 and in Helmand province in Afghanistan after 2006. In both cases, the outcome was humiliating failure limited only by the small size of the forces engaged. What were designed as attempts to prove to the Americans that Britain was an important military ally managed to achieve just the opposite result.

Britain is capable of deploying only a few aircraft over Syria, but military intervention there may still have a significant effect on life in Britain. The reason is that Isis always responds to any attack on itself by targeting civilians in the country or community it holds responsible. When the victims were Iraqi Shia, who were blown to pieces in their thousands as they stood in market places or bus queues or went on pilgrimages, the world paid little attention, but events in Paris this month differ little from what has happened in Iraq since 2003.

What is different today is that since the “Islamic State” was declared after Isis captured Mosul in 2014, this form of systematic urban terrorism has been backed by the resources of a monstrous but well-organised state. When the Syrian Kurds inflicted a series of defeats on Isis earlier this year, the group retaliated by sending upwards of 100 of its fighters on a suicide mission to the city of Kobani, where they slaughtered some 220 Kurdish men, women and children.

In July, in the Shia town of Khan Bani Saad in Diyala province, north-east of Baghdad, Isis exploded a lorry packed with explosives in a street where people were celebrating the end of Ramadan, killing 115 of them. This was almost the same number as died in Paris on 13 November, but the event was scarcely reported outside Iraq.

Urban terrorism carried out by suicide squads distantly directed from the self-styled caliphate has only got going outside Iraq and Syria over the past year. Some of the attacks are just the same as before, such as that by two suicide bombers who killed 102 people attending a demonstration for peace in Ankara on 10 October. What is ominous about this most recent wave of mass killings abroad is their frequency – Ankara, Sinai, Beirut, Baghdad and Paris.

Second, there is a trend towards greater sophistication in planning, such as the bomb smuggled aboard a Russian plane at Sharm el-Sheikh that killed 224 passengers and crew on 31 October. The multiple attacks in Paris also showed careful organisation in terms of getting together and equipping, without alerting the authorities, a large group of like-minded Isis supporters willing to die.

Conviction that British air strikes will almost inevitably lead to retaliatory action by Isis against British civilians should not determine British policy. But it should compel careful thought about what is the aim of British actions and how best it should be achieved. Yet, serious though the consequences of intervention may be for Britain, the approach of the British Government remains curiously amateur and ill-informed, its understanding of the situation in Syria and Iraq distorted by propaganda and wishful thinking. This is very much what happened previously, with disastrous consequences in Iraq and Afghanistan.

Air strikes are only really decisive on the battlefield when conducted with a well-organised military partner on the ground. In Syria, the largest single military force is the Syrian army, yet the US has avoided carrying out air strikes against Isis while it is fighting the army. Washington feared that if it did so, it would be accused of keeping President Bashar al-Assad in power – so when Isis columns attacked Palmyra in eastern Syria in May, they could do so without being subjected to US air attack. Unsurprisingly, Isis captured Palmyra, ritually murdered surviving Syrian soldiers, and advanced to within a few miles of the M5, the main Syrian north-south road.

Syrian army soldiers in Damascus,

US and British officials have in the past justified this policy of keeping the Syrian armed forces at arm’s length, by claiming that the army is not fighting Isis, though this is untrue. In August 2014, Isis fought and defeated the Syrian army in the east of the country, overrunning bases, such as Tabqa military airbase in Raqqa province where at least 345 Isis fighters and 170 Syrian army soldiers were killed in ferocious fighting before Tabqa fell with 160 Syrian soldiers captured and later executed.

If Isis is really going to be destroyed, it is difficult to see how the US and UK can avoid having some degree of co-operation with the Syrian army. Exhausted and battle-weary earlier in the year after losing battles at Palmyra and in Idlib province in the north, its morale has recovered now that it has Russian air cover. The shock of the Paris massacre has made such co-operation much more palatable and, for the moment, has muted the revival of Cold War rivalries.

The former chief of defence staff Sir David Richards made the point this week when he pointed out that British policy in Syria is somehow to fight Isis and the Assad government at the same time in a two-front war. He said: “The real issue is can you use the one army [in Syria] that is reasonably competent, which is President Assad’s army?”

He recommends ceasefires in other parts of Syria, enabling “Assad’s army and Hezbollah and their Iranian backers and others to turn their attention to Isis”.

Soldiers are often more clear-sighted than politicians about who has real power on the ground and who is only pretending to have power. General Richards said there would have to be an agreement with Moscow because “Russia is, whether we like it or not, a leading part of this”. The same is true of Iran which has been orchestrating armed opposition to Isis in both Syria and Iraq, but which is denounced by the US, Britain, France and Sunni states as an unwelcome interloper in Syrian and Iraqi affairs. But in Iraq, the largest and most committed combat force resisting Isis are the Shia paramilitaries who are partly under Iranian influence. Hitherto, the US and Britain have not given them air support when fighting Isis and have instead tried to revive the Iraqi army which has never recovered from its defeats in northern Iraq in 2014.




Patrick Cockburn: The West has been in denial over how to tackle the threat of Islamic State

The massacre in Paris has exposed the bankruptcy of Western policy towards the so-called Islamic State and the war in Syria and Iraq. This has long had an Alice-in-Wonderland feel to it, with Western leaders claiming they “believed six impossible things before breakfast”.


These impossible things included the belief that it would be possible to contain and even destroy IS, while at the same time getting rid of President Bashar al-Assad and his regime in Damascus. The US, Britain, France and their allies have refused to admit that the fall of Assad would create a power vacuum that would be inevitably be filled by Islamic fundamentalists from IS or al Qaeda clones such as Jabhat al-Nusra and Ahrar al-Sham.

What this strategy has meant on the ground is that when IS attacked the Syrian army in Palmyra in May the US air force did not bomb its fighters because Washington did not want to be accused by Saudi Arabia, Turkey and the Gulf monarchies of helping Assad.

The result was a victory for IS as it seized Palmyra, beheaded captured Syrian soldiers and advanced westwards close to the crucial north-south highway linking Damascus to the northern cities.

Western leaders have said they do not have to choose between IS and Assad, because there is a moderate opposition prepared to fight both.

The mythical nature of this claim was revealed earlier this year when a US general admitted that it had just four such “moderate” fighters in Syria after spending $500 million on training them. Others had either defected to Jadhat al-Nusra or been murdered by it.

Saudi Arabia, Qatar and Turkey have since tried to re-brand these al Qaeda-type groups as being preferable enemies to IS, though this may be difficult to argue in future given al-Nusra’s enthusiastic endorsement of the slaughter in Paris.

The only way to defeat IS is to create a coalition of those who are demonstrably fighting it. There is a myth that Russia and the Syrian army are not doing so but Syrian soldiers supported by Russian air strikes won a significant victory over IS last week by breaking its siege of Kweiris military air base east of Aleppo, where 2,000 Syrian soldiers had been under attack by IS for months.

If the Russians had really only been launching air strikes against Syrian moderates and not against IS, it is unlikely that IS would have gone to such trouble to place a bomb on a Russian plane leaving Sharm el-Sheikh that killed 224 passengers.

Air strikes require a partner on the ground to identify targets to be effective. The US air campaign over the past year has only had real success when conducted in close co-ordination with Kurdish forces in Syria and Iraq. Western “boots on the ground”, in the words of that terrible cliché, are not necessary or desirable but local military partners are a necessity.

Such a partnership should include Russia, Iran, the Syrian army, the Syrian and Iraqi Kurds, Hezbollah, the Iraqi army and the Shia militias in Iraq. A military coalition rather than a diplomatic one is required if we are to end the butchery we have just seen in Paris, Beirut, Sinai, Ankara and Baghdad.