By Jeremy Salt
The parliamentary vote sending warplanes into action over Syria showed the British at their hyperbolic worst. Government lies – the 70,000 ‘moderate’ fighters – on one side were matched by the posturing of Hilary Benn on the other. Cheering and applause echoed around the chamber after every deluded statement, with the planes taking off from Cyprus almost the moment the vote was taken. Russia is already doing the heavy lifting against the Islamic State so the British contribution will be incidental. A few Tornados dropping a few bombs on a few oil fields is not going to make much difference but it will certainly play out well in the media at home.
Behind the rhetoric of taking on the Islamic State, there is a choice of more complex scenarios. One is that the warmongers in Washington have got what they want and Syria is where they are going to get it. Another is that the US will use its air power to maintain the stalemate on the ground, damaging rather than destroying the Islamic State and re-balancing whenever necessary in favor of the officially-supported takfiris, with the intention of bogging Russia down in another Afghanistan.
Especially after Ukraine, what the US cannot allow is another Russian victory in Syria. It would change the geopolitical balance in the Middle East and affect it around the world. Russia would be seen as strong and the US as weak: Putin as a man of his word and Obama as someone who vacillates, an impression already held in Washington. Perceptions are all important. For a power to remain powerful it must be seen as powerful and prepared to use its power: how far either Russia or the US would go in Syria to prove the point remains the unknown.
The US certainly wants to continue its double game. The Islamic State has to go but so does Assad – that is more or less the rubric of this logic-denying course of action. Clearly the surest way of dealing with the Islamic State is to build a common strategy with Russia, Syria, Iraq and Iran but of course the US is not going to do that.
For the past ten weeks Russian planes have been systematically destroying the Islamic State’s infrastructure. They have launched thousands of attacks, bombing command centers, arms depots and the hundreds of tankers used to transport contraband oil into Turkey. On the ground, ignored by the mainstream media, the Syrian army is taking more territory back from the Islamic State and other takfiri groups every day. It is now only a question of time before ground offensives are mounted against Idlib and Aleppo. This will still leave Raqqa but when these cities – Aleppo in particular – have been liberated the end will be in sight of the war launched against Syria five years ago. Russia will be seen across the region and around the world to have won, and the ‘west’ and its regional allies to have lost and this is what has to be prevented at almost cost, particularly by the US, Saudi Arabia and Turkey.
The dangers multiply day by day. Russian, American and French warships are standing off the Syrian coast. The air is filled with their warplanes and now British as well, complicating Russia’s successful air war. Turkey has stationed 50,000 troops on its border. A Russian plane has been shot down and its pilot murdered by armed Turkmen supported by the Turkish government. Russia has responded by stopping the import of Turkish agricultural produce and putting restrictions in the way of Turkish businesses. Turkey has retaliated by slowing the movement of Russian ships, commercial and military, through the Bosporus. Any attempt to stop them altogether would be a violation of the Treaty of Montreux, triggering off a global crisis, but who is to say that this might not happen.
In the latest bizarre twist Turkey has just sent troops into Iraq, ostensibly to train Iraqi troops near Mosul, the Islamic State’s capital in Iraq. It says it intends to establish a permanent base there. The given reason is to train peshmerga forces. No doubt there are other reasons but in international law, sending soldiers across the borders of another country without the consent of the government of that country is an act of war and the casus belli for a military response should they not be withdrawn. US, British and French aerial action over Syria falls into the same category. These countries are behaving as if other countries only have borders when they want to recognize them. It will take only one more rash move, one slip, one accidental bombing, one angry response and one incautious action to tip a very precarious situation over the edge. Cuba 1962 or the Balkans before the outbreak of the First World War might be useful parallels.
Britain is not wanted or needed in Syria. The arrogance and disrespect for international law and the sovereign rights of other governments are not untypical of British behavior in the past. Of course, Britain would not dare do this on its own. It is going into Syria on the coattails of the Americans, just as it did in Iraq and Libya, and it is American motives that count here and not British bluster.
What the record indicates is that while denouncing the Islamic State, the US has been using it, driving it away from its interests in Iraq and using it as a weapon against the Syrian government. Behind the propaganda and revulsion at the beheading even of its own citizens, the US seems to have seen the Islamic State as a vicious but useful tool.
Everything adds up to this conclusion:
- a) the failure of the US to do any serious damage to the Islamic State in a year of bombing
- b) its refusal to pull out the Islamic State’s financial roots by bombing the hundreds of oil tankers used to transport oil from Iraq and Syria to Turkey. It only started bombing when Russia did.
- c) its refusal to bomb the Islamic State convoys of armed pickup trucks as they streamed across the desert from Raqqa to Mosul last year. It is not even arguable that the US could not see them coming or could not see them later moving against Ramadi and then Palmyra across the same desert terrain. It can see everything happening on the ground in this region. Once in Mosul the takfiris simply helped themselves to everything the US had in its arsenal. This was an especially bizarre episode. The commanders of the Iraqi guardians of these weapons just ran away, we are told. Was this simply the US government’s chosen method of arming the Islamic State, by allowing it to help itself, behind the expressions of consternation and surprise?
- e) the document released by the US Defence Intelligence Agency showing that already in 2012 the US was looking forward to the establishment of a salafist principality in eastern Syria to maintain pressure on the government in Damascus.
- f) the refusal of the US to stop US-made weapons flowing into Syria from Saudi Arabia and Qatar, in violation of US arms export end-user regulations. Even if, doubtfully, these arms were not intended for the Islamic State, there was no way of preventing them ending up in its hands.
- g) the refusal of the US over a period of years to compel the Turkish government to close its borders to the movement of takfiris across its territory into Syria and to stop the flow of contraband oil back into Turkey. Only now is it demanding that Turkey seal its border.
- i) the central role in the takfiri alliance of Jabhat al Nusra, an organization which has been classified as terrorist by both the UN and the US government but is backed by its allies and thus covertly by the US itself.
More elements can be added to this short list, which has to be read in the general context of the arms and takfiris flowing into Syria from all directions at the behest of outside governments, setting the scene for the destruction of the authority of the Syrian government over large parts of the country and ultimately the rise of the Islamic State. The governments now dropping bombs on the Islamic State were its midwives.
Of all countries the people of the Middle East would never want to see in their back yard again, Britain, closely followed by France, would have to top the list. Look at the record over the past 150 years of just the major wars, invasions and occupations:
- Aden 1839 – seized and maintained as a British base until the 1960s, when Colin ‘Mad Mitch’ Mitchell and the kilted killers of the Argyll and Sutherland Highlanders slaughtered Arab nationalist resistance fighters in the streets of Crater during the last phase of the occupation.
- Egypt 1882 – Alexandria, pulverized by the most modern naval weaponry of the day before the landing of the British army to restore the order it had just destroyed. The Egyptian army was smashed and the country occupied, its independence nominal until the revolution of 1952.
- Omdurman 1898 – 12,000 Sudanese warriors butchered by Maxim guns on the battlefield before lunchtime, thousands more left to die of their wounds, to crawl away or be dragged off by wild animals. The grand finale was the artillery shelling and destruction of Khartoum.
- Palestine 1917 – the Balfour Declaration and then the occupation of Palestine. The crushing of the rebellion of 1936-39, the first intifada, with thousands of Palestinians being killed by occupation forces, others being executed and the general population subjected to collective punishment and whatever cruelties the British thought necessary to crush them. Without British protection the Zionists never would have got a foot through the door in Palestine.
- Iraq 1918 and onwards – the occupation, ground and air attacks against the Kurds in the north and all Muslims further south. All the tools of the imperial killing trade were used to shut down the Iraqi national movement and even when the country was given its ‘independence’ Britain dominated from behind the scenes through a puppet regent and pliable politicians just as it did in Egypt.
- Turkey 1919 – The British government sets up a Greek invasion of the western Aegean coast which develops into what Arnold Toynbee describes as a ‘war of extermination’ of the Turks. The principal architect of this new round of blood-letting is the British Prime Minister, David Lloyd-George, the Tony Blair of his day. When the Greeks are finally driven back to the sea Lloyd George seeks commonwealth support for a war against the Turks. Failing to get it he retires and goes home to write his memoirs. Hundreds of thousands die before the war ends in the ‘population exchange’ of 1923, one of the early great tragedies of the 20th
- Iran 1953 – the overthrow of the Iranian government instigated by British and US intelligence services.
- Egypt 1956 – the ‘tripartite aggression’ of Britain, France and the Zionist colony in Palestine.
- Iraq 1991 and 2003 – Britain is back again, following the US into war in 1991 after the invasion of Kuwait and playing the leading role with the US in compelling the UN to maintain a decade of genocidal sanctions before following the US into war again in 2003. Hundreds of thousands of children alone die as a result. The second war creates the greatest wave of refugees since Palestine (the numbers now surpassed by Syria). Iraq is destroyed as a unitary country.
- Libya 2011 – thousands of civilians killed during seven months of bombing by American, French and British warplanes. Qadhafi murdered and his country turned into a base for Al Qaida and the Islamic State, which now controls Qadhafi’s model city, Sirte, facing Italy across the water.
- Syria 2011-2015 – British collusion in an attack orchestrated through armed gangs, following the failure to secure UNSC backing for an air war through the establishment of a ‘no fly’ zone. Now Britain has its air war, based on the same formula of lies and deceit (Cameron’s ‘anti Assad’ army of ’70,000 moderates) that Bush and Blair used to take Britain into Iraq.
These are only the high points of a shocking record and remember, we are only talking about the Middle East and not other regions which have experienced British mayhem.
Sixty members of the Labor Party ratted on Corbyn. After listening to Hilary Benn, the shadow foreign secretary, the Scottish nationalist leader, Alex Salmond, said Benn’s socialist father Tony would be turning in his grave. Benn’s speech moved the Tories and their Blairite lookalikes on the opposition benches to tears and applause. It was a great speech, said the Tory Foreign Secretary, Philip Hammond.
In fact it was indeed a great speech, a fine example of hypocrisy, self-righteousness, ignorance and self-delusion. Said Mr Benn: ‘We never have and we never should walk by on the other side of the road. We are faced by fascists and what we know about fascists is that they need to be defeated.’ True, Mr Benn, but your country has a poor record when it comes to standing up to fascists.
In the 1930s, the British government only stood up to Hitler and Mussolini when there was no other option. The ruling class, the aristocrats, the elites in business and the press, rather liked Hitler because he hated communism as much as they did. The dictators were going to smash bolshevism in western Europe and that was fine by them. This was the ‘devil’s decade’. There was no question of the democracies standing up to the fascists and ‘walking on the right side’ until they had no other option. They looked on when the Nazis murdered the Austrian Chancellor, Engelbert Dolfuss, and they looked on when Germany sent troops into the Rhineland. When Mussolini invaded Ethiopia, poison-gassing its people, Britain and France responded with the Hoare-Laval pact, which would have given half Ethiopia to Mussolini. Britain made empty calls for collective security in Africa while ignoring the desperate need for it in Europe. Knowing that the fascists were pouring arms into Spain, in violation of a non-intervention agreement they had signed, Britain maintained an embargo on the sale of arms to both sides. When the republican government finally collapsed, Britain recognized Franco immediately.
The internationalism to which Mr Benn refers was not of the British government but of the individual socialists who went off to fight the fascists. The government tried to stop them and then conspired with the French right to bring down the French socialist government of Leon Blum because he wanted to end the farce of non-intervention. In the far east, after Japan invaded China in 1937, Britain recognized its conquest of Chinese territory: at home, arms factories made weapons for both sides. When Hitler annexed Austria in 1938 the British government protested but did nothing more. It was so anxious to stay on Hitler’s right side that it finally sold out Czechoslovakia, and only when it was totally unavoidable did it declare war.
So please, Mr Benn, spare us the talk of standing up to the fascists and always walking on the right side. Fascism is a specific ideology, belonging to Italy in the 1930s but, never mind, we get your meaning. You are talking about brutal, repressive governments that should never be supported and indeed opposed as a matter of moral principle. Was supporting the Shah’s Iran and selling anything he was prepared to buy ‘walking on the right side’? Is selling multiple billions of pounds worth of weapons to the government of Saudi Arabia ‘walking on the right side’? Was selling war material to Saddam Hussein’s Iraq ‘walking on the right side’? Was imposing a decade of sanctions on the Iraqi people ‘walking on the right side’? Was supporting General Pinochet and other dictators ‘walking on the right side’? Is standing alongside some of the most reactionary governments in the world in their campaign against the Syrian government ‘walking on the right side?’
Those who have opposed the attack on Syria from the start don’t need lectures now from those who have supported it. Mr Benn talks about the killing of the Yazidis and the atrocities of the Islamic state but not the industrial-scale killing by armed gangs supported directly or indirectly by the US, Britain, France and their Middle Eastern partners in war. The murder of Shaikh Buti in his mosque and the massacre of Damascus students in their university cafeteria, only two of the thousands of atrocities committed by these groups, attracted not one word of condemnation from the government now going to war in Syria in the name of protecting civilians. Only when the politicians thought they could blame the Syrian government did they have anything to say.
Syria itself is now a pawn in a much greater global game which involves the attempt by the US to encircle China and Russia. We are back to containment and a cold war that could suddenly turn hot. In recent moves of this greater game the US was outfoxed by Putin in Ukraine and now is being outsmarted in Syria. Another Russian triumph cannot be allowed, perhaps even at the risk of triggering off a global war. As the US does not necessarily control all the actions of some of its allies it could find itself being sucked into one whether it likes it or not.
The British people yet again are being led into a military conflict which could go in any direction and even on the government’s reckoning will involve an air campaign lasting three years. It is to be hoped they will spit this lot out at the earliest opportunity. When the underlying realities emerge from behind the fog of war and the miasma of parliamentary excitement and chicanery, Mr Benn might regret the day he made this speech.
– Jeremy Salt taught at the University of Melbourne, at Bosporus University in Istanbul and Bilkent University in Ankara for many years, specializing in the modern history of the Middle East. Among his recent publications is his 2008 book, The Unmaking of the Middle East. A History of Western Disorder in Arab Lands(University of California Press). He contributed this article to PalestineChronicle.com.