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Lessons unlearned in Syria

December 3, 2015 at 9:48 am

Nafeez Ahmed, PhD, is an investigative journalist, international security scholar and best-selling author who tracks what he calls the ‘crisis of civilization’. He is a winner of the Project Censored Award for Outstanding Investigative Journalism for his Guardian reporting on the intersection of global ecological, energy and economic crises with regional geopolitics and conflicts. He is the author of A User’s Guide to the Crisis of Civilization: And How to Save It, and , ZERO POINT, which is set in a near future following a Fourth Iraq War. Follow Ahmed on Facebook and Twitter.


“What the world needs to know is that we live under Daesh control on the ground, and constant air strikes from the sky. We are trapped.”- Syrian citizen in Raqqa

Britain is going to war. Which is not entirely new, because Britain has continuously been at war since 9/11, in Iraq, Syria, Afghanistan, Pakistan, Yemen, Somalia and Libya – and that’s just where UK forces have been active directly, excluding where Britain has dispatched support to allied regimes through arms and aid, as part of the ‘war on terror.’

But after the House of Commons vote overwhelmingly in favour of airstrikes, Britain – already part of the US-led coalition against the Daesh – will formally conduct airstrikes against the terror group.

What will the consequences of this escalation be?

The first major question is whether airstrikes have any meaningful prospect of success in terms of Prime Minister David Cameron’s stated aim of “crushing” Daesh. The Foreign Affairs Select Committee answered this question when it concluded that bombing would have only a “marginal effect” on Daesh:

“We consider that the focus on the extension of airstrikes against Daesh in Syria is 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 Daesh rise. We were not persuaded by the Government’s attempts to treat Daesh in Syria and the broader Syrian civil war as separate issues.”

There are other obvious reasons for this.

Our terror

Last year, about a month after airstrikes had begun, a senior US Army official who had served in Iraq told me that they would not work: “It was almost 100% certain that airstrikes alone could never ‘defeat’ Daesh. The absolute automatic, certain reaction Daesh would take has been taken: they changed the way they operate, move, and where they live. They are now more deeply embedded in the civilian infrastructure so that continued striking is going to build up more and more civilian casualties.”

It is widely assumed that the US military has dramatically tightened up its rules of engagement to avoid civilian casualties.

This is false.

On the morning of 23rd September 2014, a Tomahawk missile hit the village of Kafr Daryan in Syria’s Idlib province, killing a dozen civilians, including women and children. A spokesperson for the White House’s National Security Council, Caitlin Hayden, confirmed that the so-called imperative to ensure the ‘near certainty’ of no civilian casualties in drone strikes did not apply to US military operations against Daesh.

“The ‘near certainty’ standard was intended to apply only when we take direct action ‘outside areas of active hostilities,’ as we noted at the time,” Hayden said. “That description – outside areas of active hostilities – simply does not fit what we are seeing on the ground in Iraq and Syria right now.”

We now know thanks to US military whistleblowers and former drone operators that the US Air Force has deliberately targeted civilians in drone strikes, in which 90% of victims are unidentified innocents. Children have been blown to pieces because they are viewed as “fun-size terrorists.” And drone strikes around the world have killed a grand total of 4,700 people by one estimate – more than died on 9/11.

In August, a study by the nonprofit journalism project Airwars found conservatively that coalition airstrikes against Daesh had killed at least hundreds of civilians, and likely over one thousand, in the first year of military operations. That is far more civilian casualties than Daesh has managed to inflict on Western targets.

The true-scale of the Syrian civilian death toll from coalition airstrikes is, however, impossible to know in these circumstances. All available figures, based on disparate reports, are likely to be underestimates.

US strikes have “killed so many people,” said Abdulla Sallom, a Syrian living in the northern city of Kafranbel in Idlib. “But for us – the people – it doesn’t mean much. We want them to stop striking.”

According to a Syrian surgeon working out of a field hospital in Idlib, A Syrian surgeon in a field hospital in Idlib, he often treats civilian victims from coalition airstrikes: “We had little trust in the US government to begin with, and this trust is weakening… It’s not possible they didn’t notice they are killing civilians until now.”

Another Syrian activist, lawyer Yasir Alsyed who lives near the Turkey-Syria border, confirmed that Syrian activists, doctors, and civilians have been repeatedly telling US officials that innocent civilians are being routinely killed in US-led strikes.

In Iraq and Syria, the destruction of civilian life at the hands of the anti-Daesh coalition has occurred, as predicted, because Daesh militants have adapted by seeking to conceal themselves and blend in with civilian populations. As airstrikes have intensified, the more Daesh has sought to merge into that population – in turn intensifying civilian casualties, and rendering the strikes increasingly in effective.

Adding Britain to this mix of rank impotence is hardly going to defeat Daesh. If anything, it will strengthen Daesh.

Recruiting sergeant

We know this because it has already happened. In his speech at the Center for Strategic and International Studies in mid-November, Obama’s CIA director John Brennan admitted that Daesh had experienced meteoric growth, despite military action to degrade and contain the group.

At first, Daesh started out with “maybe 700-or-so adherents left” during the US occupation of Iraq, said Brennan. “And then it grew quite a bit in the last several years, when it split then from al-Qaeda in Syria, and set up its own organisation.”

Last year, the CIA estimated that Daesh had between 20,000 and 31,000 fighters. The latest figures suggest Daesh has increased its recruits to some 80,000 fighters at least – more than double what it had a year ago.

This is a colossal increase. It means that in the aftermath of the Iraq War, the sectarian repression of the US-backed Shi’ite regime in Iraq, the escalation of Bashar al-Assad’s crimes against his own people in Syria, the number of Daesh fighters had increased by between 2,700 and 4,400%.

Since then, under Obama’s airwar, Daesh has grown by between 260 and 400%.

Does that sound like successful ‘containment’? Does it come anywhere close to ‘decapitation’ or even ‘degradation’?

The failure of the war on Daesh so far to come anywhere near defeating Daesh is part of a broader pattern in the ‘war on terror’, which has seen a direct empirical correlation between the escalation of Western military interventions and the outbreak of terrorist atrocities.

Since 9/11, after spending well over $5 trillion on fighting the ‘war on terror’, US State Department data shows that terror attacks have skyrocketed by 6,500 percent, while the number of casualties from terror attacks has increased by 4,500 percent.

Journalist Paul Gottinger, who analysed the data, noted that spikes in these figures coincided with military intervention: “…. from 2007 to 2011 almost half of all the world’s terror took place in Iraq or Afghanistan – two countries being occupied by the US at the time.” And in 2014, he found, “74 percent of all terror-related casualties occurred in Iraq, Nigeria, Afghanistan, Pakistan, or Syria. Of these five, only Nigeria did not experience either US air strikes or a military occupation in that year.”

The ‘war on terror’ has not, in other words, resulted in any sort of success at all. It has systematically inflamed the very phenomenon it purports to be countering.

This means that David Cameron’s win in the House of Commons will inevitably be a short-lived one.

A hollow victory

The airstrikes that Britain is now undertaking in Syria will have largely the same impact as the US-led airstrikes so far. They will spur Daesh to adapt, and will lend credence to Daesh’ grand narrative about fighting an apocalyptic civilisational Armageddon against the united ‘crusader’ states of the kuffar (disbelievers).

This narrative – pointing at the joint forces of the US, Britain, France and Russia, among others – will act as a lucrative recruiting sergeant to draw even greater numbers of local and foreign fighters into Daesh’ ranks.

Cameron’s airwar will not see Daesh’ numbers dwindle, but will trigger their inexorable expansion.

The airwar will inevitably result in civilian casualties, and as it intensifies, the Islamic State’s guerrilla-style response of melding into the wider population will extend the number of innocents blown apart by American, British and French bombs.

This will inflame local grievances and drive them further into the arms of Islamist militants, including Daesh.

The acceleration of the airwar will also, far from driving a wedge between the disparate rebel groups, encourage them to work together. Daesh’ claim to be simultaneously combating the apostate regime of Assad and the foreign imperialism in Muslim lands of Western states will have more appeal, prompting more coordination between Daesh, Islamist militants like Ahrar al-Sham, and al-Qaeda affiliated rebels, while radicalising the more secular remnants of the Free Syrian Army.

Just as the Soviet war in Afghanistan in the 1980s drove disparate mujahideen groups into a unified front, Cameron’s decision to drag Britain into the Syrian quagmire will increasingly drive the competing rebel factions into a united front against both Assad and the coalition. The Afghan resistance, it should be noted, played no small role in accelerating the collapse of the USSR. And the blowback from the foreign policy decisions of that era is still with us today.

The inevitable failure of the airwar will necessitate mission creep. As things get worse, it will soon be recognised that the airwar was never enough. Calls for ground troops will become more frequent, more shrill, and more urgent, as the failure of the war becomes more obvious.

Terrorist sympathising

Cameron’s answer to the question of a ground force is Syria’s anti-Assad rebels, who he suggested would provide the power projection needed to take-out Deash strongholds on the ground in tandem with airstrikes.

But in his parliamentary address, Cameron conceded that among the 70,000 fabled ‘moderate’ fighters in Syria, many were not “ideal partners.” Some, he said, “do have views that we don’t agree with.”

He also insisted that the 70,000 “excludes those in extremist groups like al-Nusra”, al-Qaeda’s official arm in Syria.

Cameron is lying.

According to Chatham House fellow Hassan Hassan, co-author of Daesh: Army of Terror, ‘moderate’ rebels have increasingly coordinated with al-Nusra in anti-Assad operations: “Most of the gains the opposition has made against the Assad government have been made alongside al-Nusra. It should not be surprising.” He added that the FSA “do not exclusively control any area. Al-Nusra is operating in almost all FSA areas.”

So Cameron’s strategy is to work with rebel forces who already systematically intersect with al-Qaeda affiliated Islamist militants, to defeat Daesh, all the while escalating an airwar that is likely to increase the probability that Daesh and al-Qaeda will coordinate to topple Assad and expel foreign interference.

The upshot is that British military operations in Syria will now empower one set of terrorists to defeat another.

This is nothing new, though. Direct British support for al-Qaeda in Syria, contrary to Cameron’s duplicity, was confirmed in a UK terrorism trial earlier this year.

In June, British courts sought to try Swedish national Bherlin Gildo on the charge of attending a terrorist training camp in Syria, receiving weapons training and possessing information onto extremists.

In pre-trial hearings, prosecuting lawyer for the Crown, Riel Karmy-Jones, told the court that from 2012 to 2013, Gildo had worked with al-Nusra Front, the “proscribed group considered to be al-Qaeda in Syria,” many of whose followers went on to join IS.

The trial collapsed when Gildo’s defence team pointed out the embarrassing fact that he had joined an anti-Assad group – al-Nusra – which had received British government support, some of which went through a CIA-MI6 al-Qaeda-facilitated arms “rat-line” from Libya to Syria.

Fearful of the prospect of Britain’s dirty covert operations in the region being aired through an embarrassing court process, and of MI6 officials being forced to testify, the Crown withdrew its case. Thus, a Swedish al-Qaeda fighter in Syria was, thanks to Cameron’s own dubious strategy of support to Islamist extremist rebels, allowed to walk free.

Deja vu

The end-result is that, as Cameron’s current war effort fails, the clarion call for a ground invasion will become increasingly seductive. Rather than recognising the folly of the entire sorry approach, we will see the usual unthinking reactionary jingoism.

Of course, the irony is that Daesh is a product of exactly what is being proposed. The airwar, invasion and occupation of Iraq paved the way for the rise of al-Qaeda in the country – a country where al-Qaeda previously had no presence whatsoever – eventually spawning Daesh.

We have been there, done that. We did shock and awe, and then we did boots on the ground. Now we’re still fighting in Iraq, and what began as an anti-occupation Sunni insurgency has metastasised into a fully-fledged terrorist quasi-state with global ambitions.

“What do you do next? Stop bombing? Bomb more?” said the American Iraq War veteran. “What more targets do you engage? Which additional targets will you engage? Or will you bring in Western ground troops to fight? That has been tried and conclusively failed.”

A ground invasion aiming to police a political transition in Syria would make the Iraq insurgency of the Bush era look like a veritable cake-walk. We would not just be fighting Daesh. We would be fighting the entire corpus of rebel groups who, whatever their commitment to vanquishing Assad, would be equally intolerable of a foreign imperial presence promising to benignly massage Syria into a pro-Western peace-loving democracy.

We appear to have learnt nothing from France’s terrible experiences. When France joined forces with the US-led coalition last year, it did so on the grounds of protecting France and Europe from attacks by Dash.

France’s frontal role in the war only amplified Daesh’ determination to strike Paris, leading to the Charlie Hebdo attack and the 13/11 Paris massacre.

Cameron’s claim that we are going to war to keep Britain safe is, in this context, absurd. Britain’s formal entry into the war means that targeting Britain is now a far higher priority for Daesh than previously.

As Cameron’s failing and self-defeating strategy unfolds in Syria, escalating Daesh recruitment, intensifying local grievances, proliferating Daesh militancy in other regions, efforts by Daesh to terrorise Britons on British soil will ramp up.

Of course, the increasing frequency of ensuing terror plots – which will probably result in an Daesh terrorist attack in Britain – will not lead to soul-searching about the absurd evidence-devoid strategy that led to this degradation of national security. Instead, as always, it will serve as yet another excuse for more of the same.

High emotions and self-righteous rhetoric will abound, paving the way for the consolidation of the surveillance state, the expansion of draconian anti-terror powers, and the demonisation of critics of government policies. Terror at home will trigger more calls to ‘do something’, and Britain will find itself buried in an even deeper level of perpetual war in the Middle East than it is in today.

Recognising that the failure of the Cameron non-strategy is a foregone conclusion does not imply a call to ‘do nothing’. Refusing to face the fact that our current course of action opens up a pathway to a counterproductive cycle of violence, will not change that fact. It merely prevents us from being able to at least begin scoping out alternative ways of addressing the Dash cancer.

Part of this means accepting where we have failed, so that we can stop continuously failing in the same way.

In the words of the US soldier, who still serves in the Army but in a separate theatre: “Neither the US or UK have been willing to even consider, much less admit, that a good chunk of the causality for this current mess originated with our actions in 2003 and ever since. In effect, the very bad policy and military actions we’ve taken in the past decade to help inflame this region – through considerable kinetic action and the funneling in of huge amounts of weapons and ammunition – will be deepened and expanded… So long as we don’t concede our actions have contributed greatly to this instability (not all, but a significant portion), we will be doomed to deepening the situation.”

The views expressed in this article belong to the author and do not necessarily reflect the editorial policy of Middle East Monitor.