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Syria: Where reason is crushed in the rush to war

The downing of a Russian jet by Turkey is but one result of the stupidity of intervention in Syria. Britain could not pick a worse time to enter

The First World War started over less. Jets from Turkey, a member of NATO, shot down a Sukhoi 24 fighter from Russia, a state with around 7,700 nuclear warheads, over Turkey’s border with Syria.

The circumstances and location of the shooting are, of course, in dispute. The Turks say it was over their air space, that they warned the Russian pilot 10 times in five minutes, and that they downed the plane "under rules of engagement".

The Russians say their plane was in Syrian air space and the country's president, Vladimir Putin, called its destruction "a stab in the back from the accomplices of terror" - meaning Turkey.

Needless to say, this did not come out of the blue. The territory where the Su-24 and its two pilots came down was in a border area controlled by Turkmens who are fighting for the overthrow of the Russian-backed Bashar al-Assad. Only last Friday the Turkish government summoned the Russian ambassador Andrey Karlov to protest at the "intense" Russian bombing of Turkmen villages close to the border.

The Turkish Prime Minister, Ahmet Davutoglu, issued a detailed statement warning that the continued bombing of Turkmen villages could have serious consequences. He said: "Nobody can legitimise attacks targeting our Turkmen, Arab and Kurdish siblings there via claiming to have been fighting against terror."

Thousands of Turkmen have fled the bombing, and Turkey has been pressing for a meeting of the UN Security Council to protect the minority. 

The insanity of intervention

This is only the latest chapter of insanity that is now foreign intervention in Syria. The club of interveners grows by the week. Last week it was France seeking revenge for the attacks on Paris. This week parliament in Britain may overturn its well-rehearsed objections to a bombing campaign in Syria.

What’s going on in Syria is collective, multilateral madness. The Russian, Iranians and Hezbollah are fighting all opposition forces to shore up Assad. Shia fighters in Iraq are welcoming the Russian bombing campaign, having been bombed, they claimed, by the US near Ramadi. The US are providing air cover and special forces units on the ground to back the advance of Peshmerga and Syrian Kurdish groups, but they will not advance further than their own territory.

The $500mn US “train and equip” programme collapsed after many of their Syrian fighters called Division 30 were captured by Jabhat al Nusra, al-Qaeda’s affiliate in Syria.

The Jordanians have withdrawn support for the Free Syrian Army (FSA) brigades including the Southern Front group, which launched a series of offensives in June on the Syrian government’s positions in Daraa. The Military Operations Centre (MOC) in Amman said the attacks were chaotic and ineffective, but says it reached an agreement with Russia not to bomb the Southern Front.

Turkey is fighting the PKK-aligned PYD in northern Syria, while joining Saudi Arabia in backing Jaish al-Fatah, "the Army of Conquest", which includes in its command structure Jabhat al-Nusra.

What a perfect time for Britain to join the throng. Defying all evidence on the ground, David Cameron claimed in Paris on Monday that "the world was coming together" in its fight against the Islamic State. It was his firm conviction that the UK should join the airstrikes in Syria, and even before a vote in parliament, he revealed that Britain had offered France the use of the RAF base in Akrotiri in Cyprus.

Like Putin whose support for dictatorship in the Middle East is unwavering, Francois Hollande has made France a fully paid-up member of neo-conservative interventionism. He is talking and behaving exactly as George W Bush did in the aftermath of the 9/11 bombings. In fact Hollande is the new Bush. He is even going as far as establishing a French version of the US Patriot Act.

Before even the facts and the numbers of those who planned the raids in Paris on 13 November are known, the French Prime Minister Manuel Valls said on France Inter: "We must fight against Islamism which is a pathology of Islam."

French fighters could be searching for a wide range of targets in Syria since Islamists - Salafi or Muslim Brotherhood - constitute the biggest single electoral bloc in most Arab countries. A Washington Institute poll found support for the Brotherhood running at about 30 per cent in the very Gulf states which have been doing their utmost to suppress it - the Emirates, Kuwait and Saudi Arabia. 

A new cycle of madness

In the aftermath of the Paris attacks, the bitter memory of 14 years of catastrophically misjudged warfare in the Middle East have been jettisoned: the body counts; the civilian casualties from NATO airstrikes; the resurgence of the Sunni-Shia divide; the fracturing of Iraq, Syria, Libya and Yemen; the interventions that Bush and Blair could start but never manage to finish; the inability to build a new state in the ruins of the old.

When Bush declared his "war on terror", the foreign (mainly Arab) militants fighting alongside the Taliban in Afghanistan numbered 800. A young Jordanian from al-Zarqaa called Ahmad Fadhil al-Khalayleh had just 80 followers at a camp in Herat. In time he became known as Abu Musab al-Zarqawi and - like the Americans - moved his war to Iraq.

In 2015, and eight years after his death, there are between 20,000-30,000 fighters following Zarqawi's Takfiri sect in Iraq and Syria. Their reach on social media is much wider.

Stanley McChrystal, the one time US counter-insurgency star in Afghanistan who infamously boasted that he could “unpack democracy from the back of a Chinook”, claimed that IS reaches a daily audience of 100 million on social media.

The voices of reason are being drowned out in the call to arms. A sensible and well researched report by the Foreign Affairs Committee arguing why bombing Syria would be a disaster is being ignored, while its chairman Crispin Blunt has sadly switched sides in the debate.

It said there should be no extension of British military action into Syria unless there was a coherent international strategy that has a realistic chance of defeating ISIS and of ending the civil war in Syria: ”In the absence of such a strategy, taking action to meet the desire to do something is still incoherent."

It considered that the focus on the extension of air strikes against IS in Syria was "a distraction from the much bigger and more important task of finding a resolution to the conflict in Syria and thereby removing one of the main facilitators of ISIS’s rise.

“We are not persuaded that talks involving all parties would be any more of an incentive for people to join ISIS than allowing the continuation of the chaos and conflict." These conclusions are more valid after the Paris attack than they were before it.

Jeremy Corbyn, Labour’s leader who is pilloried and disparaged every working day, has been the subject of opprobrium - not least from his own party - for saying the obvious. Namely that Britain must not be "drawn into a response that feeds a cycle of violence and hate" following the Paris attacks.

Corbyn said: "The dreadful Paris attacks make the case for a far more urgent effort to reach a negotiated settlement of the civil war in Syria and the end to the threat from Isis. It is the conflict in Syria and the consequences of the Iraq war which have created the conditions for Isis to thrive and spread its murderous rule," he added.

“For the past 14 years, Britain has been at the centre of a succession of disastrous wars that have brought devastation to large parts of the wider Middle East. They have increased, not diminished, the threats to our own national security in the process."

No one is listening to him. History, recent history, tells us the West's response to terrorist attacks in New York, Madrid, Casablanca, London, and now Paris have a been an endlessly self-repeating disaster, spreading the flames, collapsing states, supporting dictators whose only mission in life is self-preservation, crushing any form of democratic expression, making war on moderates and extremists alike, and enlarging the ISIS fan club.  

And the news is, we are just about to relive the whole cycle of the last 14 years - anger, revenge, mindless air strikes, civilian deaths and ultimately defeat and withdrawal all over again. Corbyn was right on Iraq in 2003 and he is right on Syria now.

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: Vladimir Putin and Francois Hollande discuss their military efforts in Syria (AFP)

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