[Originally published by Now Lebanon on 2/12/2015]
British MPs should consult Syrians, not dubious Western ideologues, on whether or not to bomb ISIS in their country.
In Ian McEwan’s novel Saturday, set in February 2003, the neurosurgeon Henry Perowne is discussing the day’s big event — the million-strong march in Hyde Park against the coming invasion of Iraq — with his “newly adult” daughter, who’s just returned, flushed with righteous vivacity, from the jubilant scene.
The liberal Henry doesn’t, in fact, support the war, but when his daughter asks, slightly too judgmentally, why he hadn’t joined the enlightened masses on the streets, a friendly argument breaks out that then turns into a less-friendly argument, eventually leading Henry to realize what it is that makes him uneasy about the demonstrators:
“Let me ask you a question. Why is it among those two million idealists today I didn’t see one banner, one fist or voice raised against Saddam?”
“He’s loathsome,” she says. “It’s a given.”
“No it’s not. It’s a forgotten. Why else are you all singing and dancing in the park?”
This has always struck me as an insight of the highest moral clarity, and it bears revisiting as the British parliament meets today to vote on extending Royal Air Force strikes against ISIS in Iraq (already approved by parliament last year) to include ISIS targets in neighboring Syria as well. Today, as in 2003, any serious consideration of whether or not to intervene must begin with the acknowledgment that both options are terrible. MPs voting against the motion put forth by David Cameron’s cabinet must understand that they are doing a favor to the rapists of children, the tyrannisers of Arab and Muslim civilians generally, and the butchers of British tourists, French concert-goers, and Egyptian Christians, just as MPs voting for the motion must concede that opposition leader Jeremy Corbyn is probably right to say “we are going to kill [innocent] people in their homes by our bombs.”
Both options entail further horror and misery for civilians. There will be blood on British MPs’ hands whether they vote for or against. Neither course should be taken, then, without the requisite degrees of discomfort and remorse — there can be no singing and dancing in the park. The people who must be morally distrusted right away, in other words, are those for whom the decision comes easily.
These include, on the (purported) left, the anti-war absolutists, who care not the slightest for the welfare of Syrian civilians, or even for their opinions. Perhaps best represented in Britain by the questionably-named Stop the War Coalition, they made this clear last month when they prevented Syrian activists from speaking at a panel discussion on intervention in Syria, heckling and then calling the police on a small group who turned up hoping to have a say on the fate of their own country. To call these groups ‘anti-war’ is in fact much too kind, for they have no problem with war in Syria per se as long as it can be used against Downing Street. They are the sort who would have told you (as indeed they might still) that the most dangerous man in Europe in 1939 was Winston Churchill.
A closely related faction are those who actively support war in Syria — who expend column inches and public speaking hours defending and advocating it — when it’s carried out by regimes Britain opposes. Of these there could be no better example than Patrick Cockburn, the journalist Corbyn invited to give Labour MPs a final pep talk before parliament opened this morning. When 10 weeks ago Russia began its own intervention in Syria — which has since killed a number of rebels and a higher number of civilians, but conspicuously few ISIS fighters — Cockburn penned an op-ed titled ‘Why We Should Welcome Russia’s Entry Into Syrian War.’ Moscow’s air strikes on rebel positions and residential homes “could have a positive impact,” Cockburn explained, even helping in “de-escalating the war.” Needless to say the prospect of Britain following Russia’s lead, however, is another matter entirely.
“Based on wishful thinking and poor information,” Cockburn said in his briefing Wednesday, Britain is stumbling into the unknown “without a realistic policy to win” against ISIS. What might a realistic policy involve? “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,” Cockburn wrote two weeks ago. He further applauded the “clear-sighted” remarks by former British Army head Gen. David Richards that Assad and even “Hezbollah and their Iranian backers” should be welcomed into the Coalition’s fold. In this, the ostensibly left-wing Cockburn is on common ground with such right-wingers as UKIP leader Nigel Farage and the Conservative chair of the Foreign Affairs Select Committee, MP Crispin Blunt, both of whom have opposed fighting ISIS without an accompanying entente cordiale with Damascus.
If these are some of the voices MPs would do well to ignore when voting Wednesday, where might they turn instead for valuable insight? A sensible starting place would surely be those Syrian civilians who stand to be most directly affected by the dispatch of Tornado GR4s to the skies above the caliphate.
‘Raqqa Is Being Slaughtered Silently’ (RBSS) is a group of extraordinary media activists working surreptitiously from inside ISIS’s Syrian capital to bring the reality of life under the jihadists to an outside world that would otherwise have no information beyond the meticulously-doctored propaganda released by the caliph’s media team themselves. Living under perennial threat of discovery and death (two of their colleagues in south Turkey were tracked down and beheaded by an ISIS agent in October), RBSS have the most to gain from an effective intervention against ISIS and, equally, the most to lose from a botched one. One of their members, going by the pseudonym Tim Ramadan, told me Wednesday he was prepared to take a bet on the former outcome.
“We’re for any decision to eradicate Daesh [ISIS] and Assad, and to protect civilians,” said Ramadan. “We have trust in the British government, from its stance alongside the Syrian revolution, that it will place the protection of civilians among its priorities.”
When I replied that others, such as the Syrian Observatory for Human Rights’ Rami Abdulrahman, object to strikes on the grounds that ISIS operates among the civilian population, making the killing of innocents inevitable, Ramadan disagreed.
“There are Daesh camps and warehouses and convoys that move in broad daylight, far from civilians. For example, France carried out almost 30 strikes in a single night that didn’t hit any civilian; all of them focused on Daesh targets. Britain, too, has the capability to do that.”
Which is not to say Ramadan’s opinion is universally shared. Other Syrian democracy activists on the ground, such as the Aleppo-based Zaina Erhaim, have come out against British strikes. The Syria Campaign, a group that works tirelessly to remind the world that Assad remains by a considerable margin the greatest killer of civilians in Syria, argues that “Bombing ISIS is not the answer” — a view shared by some leading Syrian analysts, including Hassan Hassan.
None of these people are pacifists or Corbynistas. What they typically object to is not the principle of intervention, but rather the prospect of a strategically stunted intervention that fails to account for Assad’s role in getting ISIS to where it is today.
“If I went to the UK parliament to make a speech, the first thing I would say is ask them to remove the cause, which is Assad, not the symptom which is ISIS,” an exiled Raqqa resident told the Guardian last week. “Hundreds of thousands of people died in the last few years, and no one came to bomb Damascus.”
That, of course, was in small part because of a British parliament decision against punishing Assad for murdering over 1,000 men, women and children with weapons of mass destruction (which, incidentally, he has “continued to use” as a matter of “routine,” according to delegates at this week’s Organisation for the Prohibition of Chemical Weapons annual meeting). Today MPs face another decision, and if the one they make turns out in the course of time to be the wrong one, they will at least be able to say they took it in good conscience if they listen — rather than close their ears — to the voices of what ought to be their Syrian allies.