1.Bombing does not add up to a Policy.
The Conservative proposal for bombing ISIS is being presented as policy. It is an attempt to damage ISIS and cause it to contract from the area it is fighting in throughout Iraq and Syria. In part it is a retaliation following the Paris atrocities to support the actions of the United States, Russia and France in attacking ISIS in a range of cities and towns where other people also live and will die. The vote in the Commons this week if it is successful adds more bombing attacks and creates more destruction and killing over a large area with towns and cities in which ISIS terrorists are operating. The question is whether these attacks will move the area towards peace or whether they are part of a longer term failure. This essay suggests the latter. Perhaps even, the bulk of the responsibility for this tragedy lies with us, with the western (and Russian) militarisation of the area through arms sales and actual conflict.
2. Some reasons why the United Kingdom also bombing ISIS is wrong.
There are a number of reasons immediately why this bombing might be mistaken. First, it will be indiscriminate. It will involve attacking cities like Al Raqqah, an historic and pleasant city of over 200,000 people, destroying much of it. Most of the inhabitants have nothing to do with ISIS and bombing has already resulted in deaths, destruction and traumatisation of these people. We talk about “precision” bombing, but the request for terrorists to move over to the left and ordinary citizens to move over to the right while we bomb the terrorists probably will not work.
Second, the French motive of revenge for the Paris slaughter and to obliterate ISIS is wrong. When you set out to obliterate a people or group, they have nothing to lose and their commitment to attack becomes even more barbaric. Already we are deeply involved in the traumas and barbarism of this area, and this bombing is making it worse. The motive should not be to obliterate an enemy, but to defeat it and restore it in whatever way is most appropriate. France, whom we love, should recover from its trauma and the response should be refocused.
Third, bombing is destroying the region, as it has already destroyed the great central Syrian cities. We are talking perhaps five to ten years of GDP destruction leaving a generation trying to recover. That destruction is wrong. Every destruction makes the situation worse. People lose their homes, livelihoods, food, water and means of raising a family. They become refugees. The policy of bombing pursued by Assad has produced millions of refugees. We say we cannot cope with more refugees. Then, we must not create them.
Fourth, bombing does not necessarily, or even usually, defeat enemies. It did not in Vietnam, the biggest bombing programme the world has ever seen. The United States lost. North Vietnam won. It did not in Iraq. Bush said “Mission Accomplished” but it was not, and we are now withdrawn, largely defeated in Iraq. It succeeded in Libya, getting rid of Gaddafi, but now we have to live with the “success” there we really did not have.
Fifth, the bombing response as a way of addressing western terrorism is tendentious. How does bombing there stop terrorism here? Many people have pointed out: it recruits terrorists who want to do to us what we have done to them. We have to address terrorism in the West, via its routes to the West and also in its sources in ISIS and other groups. Bombing may not be the best way of doing this.
Sixth, bombing is being justified in terms of pulling our weight in relation to the United States and France. Pulling our weight, as we did in Iraq with George W. Bush, when it is wrong, is silly.
We need to pull back and assess much more fully what is going on with these two failed states involving perhaps six million refugees and get beyond the playground stuff where he punched me and so I’m going to punch him.
3. Peace throughout the Middle East is good and is the aim.
First, we need to see where we are going. The aim is peace, without war, weapons and conflict in Iraq and Syria and the surrounding countries with non-violent, law-abiding government. Achieving real peace in the area, if things go well, will take five years, with another five years of recovery. This aim is not an option. It is the only way in which millions of people can live good and stable lives. At present the aim is not peace. It is attacking ISIS as though that will automatically produce peace. It is the same as attacking Al Qaida to bring about peace, a similar failed policy. Rather, conflict produced ISIS. Shooting and bombing create terrorism, and so we need to strategically refocus onto peace and at least a substantial curtailment of conflict. War does not usually bring peace; it brings more war. Peace involves understanding enemies, not threatening or seeking to exterminate, rebuilding, requiring non-violence, and looking to justice.
4. Weapons are destroying the Middle East.
There is an overarching explanation of these wars in the Middle East. From the 1970s the West and the USSR/Russia have piled arms into the Middle East, militarising those countries. Thatcher and Reagan were especially responsible. “Arms for oil” was the slogan during these years. The West wanted oil and by passing on expensive arms, they could easily afford it. Bribery was normal in these deals. The Al-Yamamah deal with Saudi Arabia involved both the UK Government and BAe Systems in both bribery and payment by oil. For forty years the West has been arming the Middle East intensively. The United States, Britain and France armed Saudi Arabia. The USSR, then the United States and the states of Europe sent a vast stockpile of arms into Iraq. The United States mainly armed Israel. The United States, Britain and others armed Egypt. The United States armed the Shah in Iran, continued supplying Iran during the Iran-Contra period, and then the USSR took over, as the West concentrated on Iraq. The United States and the CIA armed and trained the rebels in Afghanistan fighting the USSR in the 1980s and 1990s, helping spawn Al Qaida. Britain, the States, the French, Germans and others sold weapons to the Gulf States. Italy and Britain supplied weapons to Gaddafi. The USSR and then Russia have been the suppliers for Assad in Syria. The sales have registered $10bn many years and in 2015 are about $18bn. As a result the Middle East is the most heavily armed area on the planet, ignoring the United States, with large number of troops and weapons and hundreds of thousands of troops and mercenaries trained in fighting. That is what they do. That is their job. The arms companies have militarised the whole area for profit.
There is no doubt that these weapons have caused wars. Saddam’s weapons allowed him to attack Iran and the Kurds. The United States prevented the massacre of the Kurds being discussed properly in the United Nations because they were supplying the weapons. The Iraq-Iran War started because Iraq was flush with weapons, and countries of the west gloried in selling arms to both sides. The Iraq War which began with the invasion of Kuwait was directly caused by arms. Saddam’s purchase of weapons caused him acute budget problems. His creditors, especially the French were asking him for payment, and he concocted a story that Kuwait owed him $10bn and when the Kuwait Government would not pay the full amount, he invaded with weapons he had purchased from the West. If they had supplied the arms, they could hardly object if he used them. The Second Iraq War was an illegal invasion especially pushed by the arms companies around the Pentagon, because they saw a lucrative war there. We have seen the Arab Spring crushed in Syria, armed by Russia, also in the Gulf States and Saudi Arabia armed by the West, in Libya, armed especially by the Italians and British, and in Syria armed by Russia. Militarised states have opposed democracy and trusted in arms. Indeed, typical of this situation was the occasion when David Cameron was in Egypt selling arms to the military with a load of arms companies when the Arab Spring broke out. He was caught with his trousers down. Suddenly the Prime Minister was converted to “democracy” and made a speech supporting the Arab Spring. The Foreign Office scrabbled around trying to get companies which were not arms dealers to join Cameron’s entourage. Since then orders, including military helicopters have resumed, subject to a condition that they will not be used for internal repression. We talk democracy, but facilitate military dictators. Thus, it is because these countries have been armed that they have been susceptible to war. The weapons are either used directly by the West and Russia, or are supplied by them. They have devastated vast areas and made all the wars worse. Weapons are destroying the Middle East.
Weapons also continue war because they kill and traumatize people. They can leave them with PTSD, uncontrollable anger, the desire for revenge, an implacable understanding that the invaders must be removed and a sense that their lives have been destroyed by the aggressor. The measure of our failure to understand is the fact that we have rightly been appalled by perhaps ten thousand deaths from Al Qaida and ISIS terrorism in the states and Europe, while the countries of Afghanistan, Iraq, Iran, Syria and elsewhere have suffered perhaps two million deaths. If we multiply our feelings and trauma by two hundred, we have some measure of the suffering of the Middle East. So both Al Qaida and ISIS have not suddenly popped up from no-where intent on evil, but have been formed in evil by a long running, largely western policy of arms and terrorism accepted by many Arab states.
5. The West, Russia and NATO are therefore hypocritical in ignoring the cause of the problem to which they have contributed and seeking to solve it through more arms.
The conclusion above cannot be in serious doubt. It is clearly the case. Why do we not, then, acknowledge it and try to address it? After all these failures the West is still continuing with its old ways. It armed Saddam, used arms in Iraq to sort out Saddam, declared “Mission Accomplished”, and then poured in more arms, to arm ISIS. The policy makes the problem worse, as it did on all these other occasions. The West and Russia continue with this policy, because in each of these countries the military-industrial complexes are in charge, dominate policy, and control the media to make us scared and gun(g)-ho. Always the problem is Them, Islam, Terrorists, the Other and never us. We can see the Kalashnikov in their eye, but never the bomber in our own. Whether it the United States, or the UK, or France, or Italy or Russia in all these countries the arms companies, a part of the military, and the military-industrial establishment who make profits out of wars predispose the politicians to military “solutions”, when they are no solutions at all, but continue to inflame the situation. All of these states say they are trying to bring about peace, but they have vested military interests which are for war. Usually, the soldiers know the real cost of fighting and they are not the problem. It is the arms companies, the militarists behind desks, and those who are paid for promoting the military. They promote arms and conflict as the solution, because there is money in it for them, and they sit close to power. So, hypocritically, we are the problem, but we blame them, aided in Britain by a mindless often acquiescent media which loves scares, and the political-military establishment just hopes the Iraq Inquiry will disappear in endless long grass.
This pattern is still making things worse. So, Britain, the United States, Italy, the Netherlands and other Western countries are arming Turkey and they have ignored the fact that probably Turkey is buying ISIS oil and weapons supply lines come from Turkey. Turkey is an ISIS ally fighting against the enemy Assad. When Turkey brings down a Russian jet in what is obviously an unnecessary, if not illegal act, the west purrs saying Turkey has a right to defend its airspace. Second, the United States through the CIA brought arms from the conflict in Libya round to the rebels in Syria which are probably now in the hands of ISIS. Great move, CIA. Third, a large quantity of weapons distributed from United States’ arms companies through the Government to the Iraq Army was easily captured by ISIS and now gives them much of their fighting power. Further, the United States had directly helped to create ISIS. Three quarters of ISIS leaders were in Abu Graib prison where Muslims were repeatedly humiliated and tortured by US guards. They were then moved to Camp Bucca, a vast sectioned prison compound where they mutually radicalised one another. ISIS was formed within US prison camps. This is a pig’s ear of policy.
There is so much posturing and hiding of the military agendas of the participants that the debate about policy is unreal and pre-committed to action which will make the whole area worse. This posturing makes it impossible to address the situation honestly, and it makes much of the uninformed public unaware of the real causes of the catastrophe in the Middle East, namely western arms.
6. We need Western and Russian repentance of this militarising role and repudiation of its arms sales and colonial interference to protect its interests.
The main cause of the problem in the Middle East needs to be identified and understood on all sides. It is western and Russian arms. If we do not say what the problem is, how can we address it? It is a matter of basic honesty which neither the United States, United Kingdom, Russian or French Governments has been prepared to acknowledge. “Western arms?” they say, with their heads on the desert sand, “What western arms?” We therefore wait on the west, and Russia, owning up to the problem. No less than the biblical word, “repentance” is enough. We have been to blame for much of this mess. We allowed profit to dominate good principles of justice. We talked democracy, but sold arms to military dictators. We attacked others illegally and then protested when they attacked us. We talk peace as false prophets, because we are experts in high tech war. Of course, hypocrites do not easily repent. They are too much inside their own system, but in a democracy we call for an acknowledgement of this fundamental error. It is the precondition to a coherent response.
More than this, the weapons influx is polarising the Sunni-Shi’ite divide. Basically, Russia has become the arms supplier for the Shi’ites in Iran and the Assad Regime in Syria, while the West plies Iraq, Saudi Arabia, the Gulf States, Turkey, Egypt and other countries with its weapons. Since the terrorists are largely Sunni, it is not surprising that they get their hands on a lot of western weapons through Turkey, Saudi Arabia and other routes. Yet this polarisation is really dangerous, and part of what we do not understand about the present conflict and the effect of our occupation of Iraq. Unless Russia ceases to have Assad as a client ally and the West does the same with those it arms, the conflicts and tensions of these areas will not diminish.
Thus we see that ISIS was caused, as Al Qaida was caused by the activities of the CIA in Afghanistan and the investment of several billion dollars in training and equipping terrorists. ISIS then becomes a symptom of the problem with our present policy. In other words we need to pursue exactly the opposite policy from that proposed by the present Conservative Government. The publishing of the Chilcot Report on the Iraq War will bring a lot of these issues into the public domain anyway by showing our illegal responsibility for the 2003 War and the consequences which followed from it. Then, we can begin to work through policies which are free from this hypocrisy and are really geared to constructing peace on a multilateral basis. Of course, it will not necessarily happen easily because millions are now destitute and trillions of dollars of economic damage have taken place. More directly, hate does not quickly subside. But if this truth is acknowledged it will allow all sides to work for peace and away from bombing, weapons and destruction. The West must acknowledge its role in militarizing the Middle East and publicly repent this history; it must drop its present self-righteousness. Repentance involves some sense of recompense and the willingness to put things right, and it also opens the terms of the solutions to this vast tragedy by a renewed humility.
7. We must understand our enemies.
Rowan Williams has made the important further point that we must understand our enemies. The temptation for annihilation must go. We see that our enemies have suffered perhaps two hundred times the deaths, injuries and destruction that we have suffered in the West. Their wives, husbands, children, parents, friends, colleagues have died in hundreds of thousands, just as ours have died in their thousands, and there are people in Al Qaida, ISIS, Syria, Iraq who are traumatised and steely angry through war. That is what war does. That is what bombing does. That is what our engagement as allies of Saddam and other military dictators has done. Our enemies are suffering from PTSD as our soldiers are. We have taught them that the only lesson is to hit back. They talk the same language, using Islam, while we talk of pre-emptive strikes and taking people out through drones. People need to recover from wars and one of the undercover truths of the twentieth century was that millions of armed forces were recovering from Shell Shock and PTSD for decades after two World Wars, Vietnam and other wars, and tens of millions more civilians were in trauma. The arms companies say war is all about winning, when most of the combatants know they have lost. So many in Syria, Iraq and even in ISIS are victims and need to be understood. They have suffered, indirectly, or even directly, at our hands.
8. The Middle East needs disarming.
This conclusion will then be seen as obvious, but unreal. It is obvious and real. We see barrel bombs murdering the defenceless. Sophisticated bombers strafe areas. Guns blaze. Terrorists arm. People are held in capitivity. Cities lie devastated through war. It is obvious that weapons and wars do not work. Indeed, wars permanently fuelled by weapons (and the arms trade is doing lots of business in the Middle East just now) it is like putting out a fire with petrol. The Middle East needs disarming. War and weapons are idealistic. They do not work.
Yet, the reason why we do not think of disarmament is because the military-industrial establishments are so in charge. Of course, they will pump more arms into the area. The arms companies will have a bonanza. Of course, it will carry on. It is the way the world is. David Cameron will roll out the red carpet at Number Ten to a Middle East Dictator to sell more arms. Of course, he will. We will accept the selling of weapons whatever damage it does. But this policy does not even work for us. It is costing the United States, Russia, Saudi Arabia, France, Iraq, Iran, Syria a vast amount in costs, conflict, confronting terrorism and military expenditure. Saying that arms work is silly. Selling arms is a failed policy, even for us, and it has devastated the Middle East. Every regime which goes for arms becomes an electoral liability; it trusts in arms rather than the people. Of course, in the United States the arms manufacturers have established the principle that everyone is safer with a couple of guns under their pillow, but we all know that is rot, and “They Would Say That” because they make money. Similarly, the arms companies and their lackeys bleat on, promoting the weapons of death and destruction. But, arming the Middle East has been a disaster, and realistically the whole area needs disarming.
Immediately, that means the arms/military establishment that pushes arms, including Fallon and Cameron, the Arms Salesman for the nation, need defeating. Corbyn is correct in opposing the bombing and it is valuable that he is Labour leader now. The old New Labour MPs, stuck in the militarism of the Blair years, need to come to their senses and vote against bombing Syria. We have to admit how wrong we have been. Then the construction of peace can start. It needs a direction which will both address and defeat the present agendas of ISIS and Assad and other militarised groups. It will probably need troops on the ground to disarm and pacify areas as a joint Middle Eastern project. Soldiers are often good peacemakers and peacekeepers, providing the arms companies do not pump more arms into the areas. A real initiative depends on the United States, Russia, the UK, France, China and others agreeing not to make and sell arms and in clearing out those which already exist. It also requires that Iran, Saudi Arabia, the Gulf States and others are seen as co-partners in this regional peace initiative. First we acknowledge the problem and the solution then becomes possible.
9. Syria, and perhaps Iraq, should become United Nations’ Protectorates.
Restoring justice is a matter of making judgments which are true and acceptable for a lot of people. There is one decision which is at the fulcrum of the present problems in the Middle East, though there are many other subsidiary issues. At present we are proposing to bomb ISIS and support the Assad regime. This is an exact reversal of the policy which Cameron was advocating two years back. Then we were to bomb Assad because of his atrocities. That earlier focus is correct, though the method was wrong. Assad has destroyed the lives and homes of millions of people who are now dead, or refugees, or living in appalling conditions. He and his regime have brought about a failed state, and are the main problem in the area. His militarised government needs replacing by a new government which can restore justice and peace to the area. At present, that cannot be done without a change of policy by the Russian Federation. Russia, like the West, supports its client in buying arms, and that is the main reason why it has supported Assad. Of course, that is not an adequate reason for supporting an unjust tyrannical regime. Yet, without a change of Western policy, it would be hypocritical to ask Russia to change what it is doing, but with a real western volte face Russia might be prepared to allow that regime to end. The suggestion here is that in the context of a general agreement to end arms trading in the Middle East and protect the whole area of Syria against conquest, the Assad regime be asked to step down and be replaced by a five year United Nation’s Protectorate Government drawn from leaders in other nations aiming to restore peace, order and reconstruction. At the end of five years of repair Syria might be in a place to elect its own government in a new Arab Spring.
Of course, this would require a new level of trust, co-operation, and protection of human rights in the area. It is a change of paradigm – for peace and disarmament and against conflict and arms. It would still be a question of how ISIS would behave, once its enemy Assad had been removed, and whether the Caliphate Agenda continued. It is slightly reassuring that the United States did so much to generate the formation of ISIS. If it did not move towards a more peaceful way, starved of arms and money it could atrophy. There is no point in planning how Syria can be properly protected, until we have acknowledged how deeply we are wrong. Those who take the sword, perish by the sword.