Sunday, December 06, 2015


I am bewildered.

The United Nations Security Council has authorised countries to take action to fight and defeat ISIS, or whatever you want to call them. The U.K. Parliament, after a long and intelligent debate, has voted to support this call by extending their current campaign in Iraq to bombing selected strategic targets in Syria, currently the oil fields that ISIS control that provide them with part of their finance. And the response?

People on social media are calling people like me, who, despite having some misgivings, made the close (and inexpert) call to support that decision, any number of things. Here are some examples - child killers, bloodthirsty warmongers, racists, scum, traitors, etc. They gather under the banner of 'not in our name' and other slogans to disassociate themselves from a decision to try and end a genocide. Their violent anger is directed at the West, Britain, Labour MPs, Hilary Benn, and, I suppose, me. Nice, well meaning people are full of hate and fury, which they are spitting at people like me for wanting to destroy an unambiguous evil, rather than aiming their anger at the evil itself. I find it distressing.

Why this vehemence, this overwhelming sense of self-righteousness? Why this certainty? I am full of anxieties about the wisdom of the strategy and the possibility of success. They seem to have no doubts at all as to its wickedness. Of course, they don't describe it as bombing the forces and facilities of ISIS in the parts of Syria they have occupied and used to mount a campaign of conquest and genocide. They talk about 'bombing Syria', an undifferentiated and innocent victim. It is a misrepresentation.

So what are the alternatives?

1. Non-intervention. Ignore it and let it the war take its bloody course. To me, it is immoral to stand aside if it is possible to intervene with a reasonable prospect of even limited success. The cost in human life will be immense.

2. Appeasement. Negotiate with ISIS. How? With whom? There's no chance. But more importantly, negotiation means offering concessions. What will we offer? Are we to offer undisputed control of limited territory? Pakistan tried this with the Taliban in Swat. It was a disaster.

3. Non-military intervention. Cutting off ISIS' funding is one of the main demands. Again the question is how? Or, more accurately, how in ways that are not being done already? And the supplementary is how possible will it be, given the complexity of international relations and dodgy deals, and the fact that most of their income comes from the territory they control? Why will attempting to unravel the illegal oil deals be more effective than bombing the refineries under their control to put them out of action? And how many more people will be murdered in the time it will take?

4. Containment. Put simply it means 'thus far and no more'. The problem is that this accepts the legitimacy of their conquest and abandons the populations of the areas they have siezed to their uncontested and brutal oppression.

5. Military intervention. The risks are obvious; any failure to protect Syrians from the brutality of Assad could undermine the whole venture, it could end up helping Assad. The necessary plans for a comprehensive post-war settlement are not apparent, an air war clearly won't defeat ISIS on its own, and the politics of the Syrian civil war are horrendous. But the other alternatives will let the killing carry on unimpeded at a time when it is possible for us to help and that help is wanted by the victims. There are national security issues, but they pale into insignificance compared to the need to rescue people from barbarity.

And so, despite the risks, military intervention seems to be the best way of saving lives, and probably the only way to defeat something so terrible. I support any attempt to liberate the innocent from an exceptionally cruel oppression. The only possible argument to oppose the decision is the one of the risk outweighing any possible benefits. But this is not what most of the anti-war activists are saying.

ISIS have an army that has occupied large tranches of two countries, it has ambitions to invade and expand into as much territory as it can. It is an imperialist force, trying to create a global empire. It wishes to destroy democracy. It harbours genocidal anti-Semitism. Its methods include the genocide of all religious minorities, the reintroduction of slavery, a systematic policy of mass rape, the killing of all they deem to be opponents, the public execution of prisoners of war by burning them alive in iron cages, the arbitrary beheading of foreigners, the killing of homosexual men by throwing them from the tops of tall buildings, stoning women to death for any sexual infringement of their repressive codes, the practice of wholesale torture, funding themselves through the extortion of their captive population, organising massacres of civilians in Beirut, Paris, Tunisia and elsewhere, killing Shi'ia Muslims as apostates, enforced misogyny, blowing up mosques and shrines, destroying ancient monuments and murdering their guardians, bringing back crucifixion as a form of public execution, and I have probably missed out many of their other atrocities as well.

I have one question to ask those angry and abusive opponents. If it is wrong to fight now, when will it ever be right to fight fascism?


borboski said...

I was thinking that the reporting on ISIS crimes sort of went away in the run up to the decision. The agenda was solely on i) civilian casualties (although we know these will be relatively low) and ii) chance of blowback (which is a total red herring).

I think ISIS are so bad, so unbelievably vile that perhaps it's hard to keep that stuff in the newspapers.

The goal is to degrade ISIS capability. A quick check of what ISIS have been up to lately includes taking 200 children, lying them on the ground and executing them one by one. Another example (less clear source) involves attaching explosives to a baby and detonating it. Uncovering mass graves of women too old to be sex slaves.

Bit grim I know but genuinely surprised me how trying to stop extending existing bombing into Syria became the social media campaign for 2015. And not campaigning for women's or children's rights in the region.

AndrewZ said...

The reality is that a large section of the left is not anti-fascist or even anti-imperialist. It is simply anti-Western. They believe that the West is the root of all evil and the cause of all the world’s problems. Therefore they automatically oppose anything that Western nations do, and they automatically support anybody who is against the West (including actual fascists and imperialists). There is literally no atrocity that the Islamic State could ever commit that would shake their conviction that the West is always the real villain.

No doubt there were always people like that on the left. But the collapse of socialism as a mass movement means that the swivel-eyed ideological zealots are no longer a small minority outnumbered by moderates and ordinary working people looking for practical improvements to their lives. They now form a large percentage of what’s left of the left, after the more mainstream elements have given up or been driven out. But social media has allowed them to form online echo chambers in which they only speak to like-minded people and re-assure each other that everyone else is always wrong. This encourages them to take more and more extreme positions as they compete to prove their ideological purity to the group.

In their eyes, any support for the actions of the evil West automatically makes you evil too. So you just have to accept that you can’t reason with them, only fight them. But if they are now the largest and most committed bloc within the left then you won’t win that fight, and the only future for the left in Britain will be to shrivel into a weird mad cult that is despised by the rest of society.

Keith said...

May be the "left" just are not naive enough to believe the USA and UK will bring democracy or human rights to the Middle east with their allies like Saudi Arabia? How likely is that when their friends base their state on barbarism? Oil and arms sales drive the policy of the west or had you not noticed? Bombing syria to combat "Terrorism" is a leg pull, must be april the first.

The Plump said...

Keith. First this is about defeating ISIS rather than democracy and human rights in general.

Oil and arms sales drive the policy of the west - even if I conceded the point, if you were a Yazidi or any other of the multitude of victims facing extermination under ISIS, would you give a toss what their motivation was as long as you were rescued? Would you be rather grateful that you had something that they wanted so that they would intervene to save you, rather than being left to die because they had no self-interest to "drive" them to intervene?

Bombing syria to combat "Terrorism" - no, this is about bombing ISIS to combat ISIS. This strikes me as logical enough. It is a limited operation against a specific target.

Now, a question to you. Your view seems to be that the west is irredeemably cynical and can do no good. So, what practical and achievable policy to deal with ISIS would you propose instead?

Keith said...

Perhaps people in a foreign country with a culture far removed from our own should deal with their own problems? Why do you think you or I have the right to decide these questions? The American President or UK Prime minister are not elected by any one in the middle east and have no moral or legal mandate to rule over it. To suppose so is imperialism.

The USA says it will not send its own troops to control Syria but use proxies to do so if it can. The only proxies it can use are dictatorships with barbaric Governments and like minded allies. Who will rule Syria if Assad falls? People like the King of Saudi Arabia who plan to murder Abdullah al-Zaher a teenage boy for public protest. These are the people with the guns and they will decide what to do. The track record of the west in pressurising their allies to be more moderate is abysmal and why should we suppose that will change from past practice?

As Assad is backed by Russia and Iran as part of their power politics it seems very unlikely Assad will fall, if he does those powers will make Syria ungovernable for decades as they think their interests require it. Russia has Nuclear weapons and a large conventional Army and Iran fanatical revolutionary guards to export. The danger of confrontation between the French, UK, and US backed side and the Iranian and Russian side make bombing syria a very dangerous game indeed. How ever much sympathy people have for the suffering of ordinary people in this region the realities of politics are what matters and a few bombs from the UK are not going to change it.

Isis grab headlines but the Oppressive regimes the west is allied with and whom it must depend on practice injustice every day with our connivance. That is something to be ashamed of in my view, and we should get real about it. Needless to say Terrorism can happen any where if people wish to engage in it and no one has found a way to stop it. Huge numbers of Americans die each year from gun violence, far more than from Terrorism but the American authorities do nothing about it. The Federal and state Governments in the US should sort out the problems of their dysfunctional society rather than engage in the "white mans burden". They are responsible for policy in their own country and would do more good if they accepted their responsibilities for the welfare of their own citizens.

The Plump said...

So, basically, your answer to my question is 'nothing'.

I take it that your argument about mandates does not apply to the air strikes on ISIS in Iraq, which were requested by the elected Iraqi government and have been praised by the Kurdish forces fighting ISIS as being decisive in allowing them to win back Kobane. The Kurds have also asked for the air strikes to be extended to Syria to help them.

"people in a foreign country with a culture far removed from our own should deal with their own problems?"

First, if you used that description of Syrians to any of the Syrian communities around Manchester you might be accused of, well, Orientalism at best. And, as hundreds of thousands of refugees flood out of Syria, and as the corpses of British tourists and Parisian pleasure seekers attest, the conflict is scarcely confined to Syria itself.

Secondly, there are some standard tropes ('what buttery', elision, and arguments of hypocrisy) that have never impressed me, but the main thing is that I find your argument to be a mix of leftist and populist conservative isolationism and non-intervention, something that has been around since the WPA in the late 19th century at least. It is based on two things, a mistrust of your own side and an assessment of the balance of risk.

The first of these is commonly expressed two ways. a) The malign intentions of any intervening power or b) the limits of the competence of any such power to produce a good result. I think that the latter is a very much stronger argument.

The second on the balance of risks always needs to consider the risks of inaction too (the Second World War being a prime example - Manchuria, Abyssinia,the Rhineland, etc.). This is a very good article that is worth considering.