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Splashback: Why bombing IS will spread it

Bombing will spread, not destroy, the Islamic State group. Every British MP who votes in favour of war should be held accountable for that result

Jeremy Corbyn’s decision to allow Labour MPs a free vote has all but guaranteed David Cameron a parliamentary majority to bomb Syria, before a word of the debate on Wednesday has been uttered.

A debate which should have centred on the Syrian conflict was instead determined by an even older, and no less intractable one: whose will should prevail inside the Labour party, that of its parliamentary party, or of its membership?

Britain will soon be at war with Syria, but the Labour Party is already at war with itself.

Not only did Corbyn back down in the face of the threat of resignations from his own shadow cabinet to allow a free vote, but he had to retreat, too, on a planned statement saying the Labour Party opposed air strikes.

In trying to appease the parliamentary party, Corbyn threw away the only card he has, the support of the majority of Labour members. As a result, he is now left unable to lead either.

A debate which starts with the party leader opposing air strikes and ends with his shadow foreign secretary supporting them is, to say the least, complex to follow. It’s hard to imagine either side recovering from their wounds.

Much of which detracts from the decision parliament is about to make. No, it's not a rerun of Iraq 2003. Twelve years have passed. Four states - Syria, Iraq, Yemen and Libya - have since shattered into small pieces. Borders have vanished. Rival regional powers in Turkey, Russia, Iran, Saudi Arabia are pursuing conflicting aims on the battlefield. Old regional alliances, such as between Turkey and Russia, are being torn up. 

Bombing Syria in 2015 is arguably more serious than invading Iraq in 2003. More is at stake this time round.  

The reality of the 'Islamic State'

It's time to dispel a few myths. You cannot bomb IS out of existence. Al-Qaeda may have held parts of Afghanistan and Pakistan in 2003, and IS may occupy a space the size of Britain now, but neither are a territorial concept.

Raqqa is not North Waziristan. There are reportedly no training camps for foreign fighters there. Ask the Americans who, after conducting 7,600 attacks on IS in Iraq and Syria, are running out of targets to hit. Drones make movement for IS units more difficult, but do not stop them from seizing Ramadi in Iraq and Palmyra in Syria. IS lives and sleeps among the civilian population it preys upon. If Putin drops bombs containing white phosphorus on IS, that lethal rain falls on everyone.

Their voice should be heard, too. "Today, Raqqa is a dark nightmare. IS strives in every way to starve the civilian population, and it is succeeding. There is barely any electricity. Water has not been sanitised since IS took over. The city’s centre resembles a ghost town. Only the houses that have been forcibly taken over by members of IS receive services," said one refugee.

He likened the Russian attacks to a "blind man striking out to everywhere but where IS are". The French attacks were "reactionary, random". His message to Britain? "My countrymen have been slaughtered and displaced on the back of foreign countries settling scores with each other. I do not support any kind of intervention that does not reinstate stability and bring us back to our country, in addition to getting rid of Assad and IS.”

If RAF bombs fall on IS, they fall, too, on the terrified, starved civilians of Raqqa itself. If Raqqa and Mosul fell tomorrow, IS would not need to move to Sirte in Libya, or Sinai, or Egypt proper, or Tunisia or Jordan. They are already there. As the New York Times has reported, Iraqi officers of IS have recently arrived in Sirte, which is rapidly becoming their "back up" capital. That is just 400 miles south of Sicily.

They can’t be cornered because they don’t behave like the army of a nation state. They can dematerialise and rematerialise just as quickly in the territory which has just been liberated, as the Shia militias in Iraq have found to their cost.

On the contrary, bombing helps IS spread. In physical terms IS is not a solid metal, but a liquid one. Its mercurial poison can only spread if its containment is shattered. If the ousting of the Iranian prime minister Mohammad Mosaddegh in 1953 created the concept of blowback in the CIA, the bombing of IS will lead to variation on the same theme: splashback. 

Bombing is their recruitment, marketing, and franchise-seeking operation, all in one. It tells the leaderless majority Sunni population, across the Levant, Arabia and North Africa that they have in essence a binary choice: Oppression under dictatorship, or protection under their flag. Month by month, IS is growing into the role of Defender of the Faith.

Which is doubly ironic, because at its core IS is not exclusively a group of religious zealots. That’s the other myth. Takfiri Islam does not account for their obvious military expertise, their resilience to air strikes, their ability to move rapidly from one theatre to another. The Koran gives them no understanding of asymmetric warfare. That comes from extended contact with war itself.

Having myself witnessed how Chechen fighters defended Grozny from advancing columns of Russian conscripts in 1994, ensnaring columns of troops in 360 degree fire, moving quickly in tunnels between one firing point and another, between prepared stockpiles of arms and ammunition, I can quite imagine the reluctance of the "ghost soldiers" of the Iraqi army to retake Mosul.

Born in the modern age of brutality

IS military resilience comes from its immediate military past. In Iraq, these are Baathist officers, who are employing the same techniques of mass terror like flooding, as they did in Saddam’s army.

IS does not come from the Khawarij rebellions against the Umayyad and Abbasid Caliphate in the Seventh Century. It is a modern phenomenon. It comes from the age of drones, of legal impunity, of suicide bombs, of collective retribution, of instant global communication. In short, the modern age of brutality.

This brutality is licensed. It is nurtured by carefully worded disinformation. When Tony Blair took Britain to war in 2003, the Joint Intelligence Committee (JIC) was never able to prove its claim that Saddam could deploy a weapon of mass destruction within 45 minutes of an order. In answer to a key question from Sir Richard Ottaway, Blair admitted he did not know that claim contained in the dossier of September 2002 only applied to a battlefield weapon.

The JIC has been similarly struck dumb when challenged to substantiate David Cameron’s claim that there are 70,000 fighters “who do not belong to extremist groups” on the ground ready to retake Raqqa. If this figure does not include the 50,000 troops of the PKK-aligned Kurdish YPG, it has to include Salafist-jihadist elements. It cannot exclude the largest rebel force fighting Assad which is the Ahrar al-Sham, who are also part of the Islamic Front coalition. These are the very forces that Putin is trying to bomb.

Cameron’s main argument is that if there is a war on, Britain must be there fighting it. It’s another version of the top table argument. If Britain does not show up as player - even in disasters like Afghanistan and Iraq - Britain fears it will not be taken seriously again.

However, the reality is that Syria is not one war. It is three conflicts rolled into one.

The first is a civil war fought for and by foreign powers. Russia, Iran and Hezbollah is fighting for Assad’s survival. Their primary enemy is the rebel opposition, not IS. They are supported by the Arab dictatorships, Egypt, Jordan and the UAE. Turkey, Saudi Arabia and Qatar are arming the rebel opposition, dominated by Islamists, whose primary enemy is Assad, and whose secondary enemy is IS. The US and Western powers have veered between one position and the other.

The second conflict in this proxy war is a regional one. Who is going to prevail ? Will it be Turkey, Iran, or Saudi Arabia? Only in third place comes the war IS is fighting.

The key to unravelling all of these simultaneously is to do to IS what the US did to al-Qaeda in Iraq. In talks both with Sunni tribal leaders and the Iraqi resistance, Jaish al-Islam (The Islamic Army), who were Salafi and nationalist, the Americans created what became known as the Sahwa (Awakening movement). The price of turning one element of the forces fighting the US against another was the promise of political and military inclusion in a government of national unity in Baghdad. The US ally Nouri al-Maliki tore that up during his time as Prime Minister, leading to the creation of IS.

The price now of a sahwa in Syria will be higher, but at the very least it will be the promise to get rid of the man who has caused at least 200,000 civilian deaths - Bashar al-Assad. This is now a much harder task. The only effect the Russian bombing campaign will have is to prolong the war. As a result of the Russian intervention, the Islamist rebels are getting access to a high grade of weaponry, which was denied to them by the US. They are getting the ability to shoot down helicopters and aircraft.

It is into this quagmire that Britain is now treading, spreading IS all over the place in the process. Every MP who votes in favour of this war should be held accountable for the deaths that follow, in Syria, in the Middle East, and surely again in Europe too.

David Hearst is editor-in-chief of Middle East Eye. He was chief foreign leader writer of The Guardian, former Associate Foreign Editor, European Editor, Moscow Bureau Chief, European Correspondent, and Ireland Correspondent. He joined The Guardian from The Scotsman, where he was education correspondent.

The views expressed in this article belong to the author and do not necessarily reflect the editorial policy of Middle East Eye.

Photo: Protesters outside the UK's Houses of Parliament on 1 December, 2015 (AFP)

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