Friday, December 04, 2015

Defeating ISIS

These days I seem to do most of my writing / thinking / arguing etc. on Quora. So for the record, here's what I'm saying about ISIS and the UK vote to join in airstrikes. (Question : "House of Commons in UK voted for action against ISIS/ISIL in Syria - Is this going to be another blunder like Iraq?)
It's utterly the wrong thing to do. And strategically somewhere between pointless and very counter-productive.

But it's not quite the same as the Iraq blunder. Iraq was an unforced war of choice against a non-beligerant nation for the purposes of socially re-engineering the middle-east : something we never had the ability to do and should have recognised from the start that we couldn't do.

In this case, the war has come to us. Or at least to France which is a pretty close ally. And IS explicitly say they WANT a war with us. (It's precisely because they want it that we shouldn't give it to them.) Nevertheless, IS is threatening us in a way that Iraq wasn't when we chose to involve ourselves in it. And we need some strategic response.

The basic problem in Syria is that the West wants to get rid of Assad. And two local powers - Russia and Iran - want to keep him. The West can't move fully against IS until that is resolved. We can't put boots on the ground in Syria without either a) Assad's permission, or b) explicitly going against Assad and therefore Russia and Iran.

This is why we're paralyzed. We all know that airstrikes can't actually beat ISIS ... airstrikes by themselves never beat anyone. We know that going in on the ground really would be a blunder, putting us into the quagmire where we try to hold territory and rebuild a state, under attack from all sides : the Assad government, more surreptitiously by Russia and Iran and their proxies, and by the remnant Sunnis who see themselves fighting for survival surrounded by hostile Shiites.

So, avoiding the quagmire, we have the second most amazingly idiotically bad strategy of all time ...

- We're going to bomb people from the air, with no hope of achieving any concrete victory.

- Some people we bomb will be ISIS fighters but many will be innocent civilians.

- Most of whom never wanted ISIS there in the first place; don't support ISIS, and only collaborate with it out of fear.

- We're going to teach those civilian Syrian Sunnis that we nevertheless consider that their lives are expendable in our loooooong war of attrition against ISIS.

- That's mainly about us "being seen" to do something.

- We'll act all shocked and outraged if some of the next generation of young Sunnis growing up in the area start to think of themselves as on ISIS's side and the West as their enemies. How perfidious can they be, considering we were only trying to help them?

- We will wait for a "miracle". That is, for some other local faction, who are nice and good people. That we'd be proud to associate ourselves with. And very friendly with us. And courageous enough to fight against both ISIS on the ground AND to march on and take over from Assad. And when that faction arises, won't our air-support be wonderfully useful to them?

That's it. That's the current strategy. Keep bombing people, and killing mostly civilians, until the miracle group turn up and do the dirty work for us.

Yeah, I think that sounds utterly fucked too.

So here's what we should be doing.

Phone up Assad, Russia and Iran. Tell them that our priorities have changed. That we aren't interested in deposing Assad at this time ... or any time in the near future. Tell him we'd like to co-operate against the common enemy. That we're willing to use our air-power to support his ground-troops against that enemy. In return we want a deal where he promises not to use chemical weapons (he won't need them with the all bombs we can provide him). And that he accepts some NATO troops / UN Peacekeepers on the ground in the retaken areas, as a guarantee that there isn't too much retribution against the Sunni population. Also we'll ask that he cuts a reasonably lenient deal with the other non ISIS, non Al Qaeda rebel factions that rose up against him.

Do the deal. Get the ISIS region back under Syrian government control. Then do a similar deal with the Iraqi government.

Maybe if we're really lucky we can get some kind of semi-autonomous Sunni area protected from Shiites, where we can work with local leaders. We don't want to make the mistake of abandoning Sunnis to vengeful Shiites, which is one of the processes that led to ISIS in the first place.

Does that sound like we've allied ourselves with an evil monster and sold out our other anti-Assad friends in Syria? Are we bad people when we do this?

Yes. And yes.

So here's the question. How serious are we? How badly do we want to kill ISIS? Are we (and our politicians) willing to pay the price?
To which Rupert Baines replied :
And the other thing people seem to ignore: we have been bombing ISIS for 14 months in Iraq

Have we been bombing civilians there?

If so, odd that their government is ok with it

If not, why would we do so in Syria?

No, we have been bombing oil fields, military bases and combat positions
And my further (lengthy) reply
I'm not ignoring that. I'm aware we're bombing a bit of Iraq ... at the invitation of the Iraqi government. And with the hope that Iraqi ground-troops will eventually move back into the IS region and re-establish the government's control there. As far as I know, we are NOT bombing a bit of Syria at the invitation of the Syrian government. We are not co-ordinating with Syrian ground-troops. We don't particularly want them to re-establish control over the region. Indeed, we have an ill-disguised hope that Assad is still going to fall to some other rebel faction.

I know people seem to think that international law and boundaries are basically ignorable. Last decade our leaders promoted the idea that our expedience trumps such niceties. So we undermined the entire system.

But THAT is one of the big problematic legacies we're struggling with now ... do we want to re-establish the rule of law? Or it a free-for-all where might-makes-right? We can't have it both ways. We can't ignore international law whenever we like, and then convincingly claim that our wider actions are aimed at, and justified by, establishing such law and stability. Even if the British conveniently blind ourselves to the hypocrisy, the rest of the world notices.

ISIS define themselves against the system that we built and that we are ostensibly defending. If we now casually ignore our own system, then we just make ISIS's argument for them.

Everyone sort of admits that when we fight ISIS, we're "fighting an idea". And the priority when fighting an idea is to have a BETTER idea to offer in its place. But that's exactly what we don't have. Instead we're reiterating the mistake of Iraq : we break stuff, but don't know how to put it back together again. And then we're surprised when what emerges to fill the vacuum isn't to our taste. We hate all their ideas ... Islamic rules for creating a stable society through extreme religious obedience and harsh punishment; but we have no ideas that work better for them in their place.

We allegedly love the idea of autonomous nation-states. But draw and ignore boundaries for our colonial and post-colonial convenience. We allegedly love democracy, but support the Egyptian army overthrowing an elected Muslim Brotherhood. We love free-markets and competition, but Iraq was a feeding trough of well connected corporations sucking up the redevelopment budget.

I'm not saying this to make an argument that Islamic attacks on the West are justified because of our hypocrisy. Don't accuse me of that. I AM saying that the hypocrisy reveals the weakness of the ideas we're offering them. They are superficial facades which even we don't respect or believe in, deep down. But without having something better to offer, how do we "win" against the idea of the Caliphate?

And without a strategy for winning, you have nothing but tactics, designed to maintain some kind of stand-off.

When the attack comes in England, it will almost certainly be executed by British born or resident ISIS sympathizers. It's likely not to be directed from the ISIS region but be planned here too. And largely financed locally or from a very diffuse global network of funders. How exactly do tactical strikes on oil-fields in the ISIS regions prevent, or degrade ISIS's capacities to execute, such an attack?

Airstrikes attacking the military and even economy of the Islamic State are a perfectly valid tactic ... IF you are supporting a ground invasion to seize control of the territory and hand it over to a legitimate authority. That's fine.

But don't try to fool yourself, or anyone else, that airstrikes against ISIS territory are at all useful in preventing the next "terrorist atrocity" in London. There's no possible way that an airstrike in Syria is going to do that. There are no fat causal pipes that can be cut. Just diffuse memes floating across the internet and individuals circulating through the international air-transport system.

It's stupid to imagine that airstrikes in Syria will protect us. And that's what's totally terrifying, the ignorant level of political discourse. People who are meant to be responsible enough to run the country engaging in magical thinking about what military action can and can't do.

Airstrikes in Syria are ONLY useful in support of a ground-invasion. WHERE IS THE GROUND INVASION?