Another war for the British Army, and no closer to peace in Syria

I used to wait for my Mum to pick me up from primary school next to a British soldier deployed to Belfast as part of Operation Banner. The British Army have been continuously deployed on offensive duty ever since, and with the RAF currently bombing Syria, a new country can be added to the list of British overseas involvement during my lifetime (the others being Iraq, Bosnia and Herzegovina, Iraq again, the Federal Republic of Yugoslavia, Sierra Leone, Afghanistan and Iraq for a third time and fourth time).

The arguments for British involvement in the run-up to Parliamentary authorisation ranged across national security, our duties as an ally and the ability of British involvement to make a difference in the battle against IS/Daesh. I don’t want to quibble on details like the unique technical capabilities that the RAF possess, the number of IS-inspired attacks that have already been foiled or the number of moderate Syrians that may be able carry the fight on the ground, but I think the main issue that has not been resolved in this debate is the outcome that British military action aims to achieve.

The US and a range of its Western and Middle Eastern allies have been bombing Syria since September 2014. According to Airwars, these forces have launched nearly 3,000 airstrikes on Syria (and that is not including the contribution made by Russian bombers). This has clearly not had much effect in terms of defeating IS or ending the Syrian civil war. Adding some British bombs to the mix will hardly make the vital difference, and Cameron has today admitted that the campaign will not be over any time soon.

To argue against the extension of UK operations to Syria is not the same as saying outside military force can never achieve tangible effects in a conflict. The end of the war in Bosnia and Herzegovina (BiH) shows that airstrikes can indeed play in role in bringing peace: BUT only when they are part of a concerted diplomatic effort with a definitive idea about what peace would look like, which those doing the bombing are willing to back-up with ground troops to enforce the peace, and when the parties to the conflict are willing to accept a peace deal enforced by outsiders. Unfortunately, none of these conditions appear to exist in the Syrian case.

The maintenance of BiH as a single state, within its 1992 borders but divided into a Serb and a Muslim-Croat entity was (and remains) controversial, but it was a clear and enforceable vision about what a post-war BiH would look like. The US administration were willing to commit the troops needed to enforce such a deal and, as this would entail replacing the 40,000 UN peacekeepers with 60,00 NATO troops, it could not be portrayed as a foreign invasion. The US was willing to negotiate with Milosevic, Izetbegovic and Tudjman, despite the blood on their hands, and with the dynamics of the war shifting against the Serbs throughout 1995, Milosevic was willing to side-line the Bosnian Serb leadership and moderate his initial war aims.

The complexity of the situation in Syria, with so many different factions with competing war aims, supported by so many foreign governments with their own competing war aims, makes the likelihood of a bombing campaign prefiguring the kind of comprehensive peace deal signed at Dayton and ratified in Paris twenty years ago appear highly unlikely. The NATO airstrikes against the Serbs in 1995 lasted one month. The US has been bombing IS for 15 months. With the chances of airpower decisively shifting the balance or provide the impetus for a negotiated peace being so remote, the question we are left is this: what will this latest British overseas military involvement achieve, other than millions of pounds spent, infrastructure destroyed, lives lost, and a political solution to the Syrian war no closer?


Why Cameron wants to take part in airstrikes inside Syria

Over the summer David Cameron and other members of his Conservative government have talked-up the possibility of taking part in the bombing campaign against IS in Syria. UK forces have been operating against the group in Iraq on the invitation of the government there since September 2014, but the less than clear legal situation regarding Syria, combined withthe Commons defeat Cameron suffered in August 2013 over the issue of airstrikes against the Assad regime, has meant they have not yet been active on the other side of the Iraqi border (at least in an official capacity).

Noises from the government suggest that a fresh Commons vote on the authorisation of force against IS in Syria could be taken in September, after the Labour party has elected a new leader (as long as the veteran anti-war campaigner Jeremy Corbyn, who acted as a no teller for the vote authorising force in Iraq last year, doesn’t maintain his current momentum and pull off an unexpected victory).

In Iraq British forces have been responsible for around 5% of all attacks, with the vast majority undertaken by the United States. The same is true in Syria, meaning that the material contribution of UK forces there would likely be extremely limited.Why, then, does the Cameron government want to take part in the airstrikes in Syria?

This could be about the UK’s international prestige and desire to demonstrate commitment to the trans-Atlantic alliance, particularly in the light of concerns in the U.S. about the impact of defence spending cuts.

Or we could look to domestic politics for an explanation, perhaps seeing the driving force coming from the Defence Secretary Michael Fallon and his desire to protect his department from further deep cuts in the Autumn Spending Review (as noted by Ewen MacAskill).

I think a more convincing explanation comes from the inter-sections between the domestic and the international, from the points at which the international feeds into the domestic and vice versa. This autumn, around the time that a vote on military action in Syria might take place, the government will be publishing a new Counter-Extremism Strategy, which it hopes will provide a framework to combat the growth of violent ideologies within the UK. The timing may be a coincidence, but the two policies are intimately connected.

When speaking about the principles that will inform the Counter-Extremism Strategy last month, Cameron began by describing the ‘threat we face’ in Islamist extremism as ‘an ideology’ that at its furthest end ‘seeks to destroy nation-states to invent its own barbaric realm’. He is clearly here talking about the physical control that IS has gained over areas of Syria and Iraq, and the brutal regime they have enforced there.

But Cameron also focuses on the prevalence of ‘certain intolerant ideas’ within the UK,‘which create a climate in which extremists can flourish’, ideas ‘which are hostile to basic liberal values such as democracy, freedom and sexual equality’. He is concerned about the prevalence of these ideas in British schools, British prisons, British communities, and the steady stream of young Britons being convinced by these ideas and travelling to join IS in Syria.

These ideas and their physical manifestation in Syria and Iraq are therefore seen as part of a continuum of extremism, representing the ‘struggle of our generation’ that is providing an ‘existential threat’ to the West. The response, according to Cameron, must involve using ‘our strongest weapon: our own liberal values’.

In his speech last month Cameron said that ‘We can’t expect [British Muslims] to see the power and liberating force of our values if we don’t stand up for them when they come under attack’. In this context he was talking about young Muslim women and female genital mutilation, but the same is true for the attack on ‘our values’ in Tunisia, in Libya, in Syria and in Iraq.

It is in the light of these statements that the desire to join the fight in Syria makes sense. It is not just a question of showing British strength and ability to project power, or a policy informed by parochial domestic concerns. Rather, it is something made necessary by the constitution of British identity as tied up with ‘liberal values’, with ‘British values’ that are fundamentally opposed to the extremist ideology.

Perhaps the most interesting thing I have been able to discover about ‘British values’ is that they were first defined within a definition of extremism. The 2011 Prevent strategy defined extremism as ‘vocal or active opposition to fundamental British values, including democracy, the rule of law, individual liberty and mutual respect and tolerance of different faiths and beliefs’, as well as ‘calls for the death of members of our armed forces, whether in this country or overseas’. This definition-within-a-definition has since been extracted and repeated outside the context of extremism.



And it is still the definition in use by the government. Last month, for instance, Cameron stated:

We are all British. We respect democracy and the rule of law. We believe in freedom of speech, freedom of the press, freedom of worship, equal rights regardless of race, sex, sexuality or faith.

We believe in respecting different faiths but also expecting those faiths to support the British way of life. These are British values… underpinned by distinct British institutions. Our freedom comes from our Parliamentary democracy. The rule of law exists because of our independent judiciary. This is the home that we are building together.

Participation in the ‘full spectrum’ of responses against extremism, targeting IS in Syria as well as in Iraq, is essential to maintaining the strength of these ‘British values’. The UK may be only capable of providing a tiny proportion of airpower in Syria, but even the most minimal contribution would provide the necessary supplement to the desire to combat extremism at home through a muscular defence of liberal British values.

But as Jacques Derrida has shown, there are two meanings to the word ‘supplement’. It can be something extra, something additional – in this case, the airstrikes in Syria being in addition to airstrikes in Iraq,in addition to the struggle against extremism at home.

But to supplement can also mean to supplant, to replace. The urge to take part in airstrikes in Syria, the spectacular display of power against a clearly-definable (if difficult to target and defeat) enemy can come to replace the harder, messier and more elusive challenge of combating extremism at home.

But the real lesson to take from Derrida is that the very necessity of a supplement reveals the inherent emptiness of the concept that requires supplementation – in this case the very notion of a definable and defendable ‘British values’. And if the concept of ‘British values’ requires violent action abroad to fulfil its meaning, is it really something worth defending?

Cameron’s Blame Game

Last Friday David Cameron gave a speech at the Global Security Forum in Bratislava that was widely reported as a warning to British Muslims to do more to combat radicalisation. This provoked the predictable support and opposition from different sections of the media, but nothing I’ve read so far highlights the inherent contradictions in what Cameron said.

Cameron’s speech is directed not just at the issue of radicalisation in the UK, but three ‘extraordinary challenges’ facing Europe, in the shape if ISIL (as he calls them), Russia and migration. He begins by stating that Europe can meet these challenges as long as ‘we stand up’ for the ‘values that have made European nations strong and successful’, values which he lists as ‘democracy, freedom of speech, free enterprise, equality of opportunity, [and] human rights’. The danger, in Cameron’s eyes, come not only from those who pose a direct threat to these values, but from those who do not fully accept this constructed identity, those who would say something different.

In terms of ISIL, this threat to European identity takes the form of young people abandoning their homes to travel to Syria and Iraq. This process, he argues, in the most widely-reported sections of the speech, begins in an environment where such views are normalised by those who ‘hold some of [ISIL’s] views [but] don’t go as far as advocating violence’, from those ‘who do buy into some of these prejudices giving the extreme Islamist narrative weight and telling fellow Muslims, “you are part of this”.

According to Cameron, this ‘paves the way for young people to turn simmering prejudice into murderous intent’, with the reinforcement of ideas coming from something ‘that is quietly condoned online, or perhaps even in parts of your local community’.

Let’s pause at this point. I don’t think it would be an over exaggeration to suggest that Cameron is placing part of the blame for young people turning to ISIL on the failure of the Muslim community in the UK to challenge extreme narratives, and that he is urging the Muslim community to take more responsibility for this. Regardless of whether you agree or disagree with this point, I think you can accept that Cameron is seeking to apportion some blame on those who could have acted differently in order to prevent young Europeans travelling to Syria and Iraq to join the brutal and murderous IS movement.

As Cameron moves on with the speech, he quickly contradicts this position, by affirming that ‘radicalisation starts with the individual’. Trying to deflect blame by pointing the finger at ‘agencies or authorities’ is wrong, in his view, and indeed ‘dangerous’. So when he talks about the Muslim community in the UK, there is responsibility beyond individual agency: but when he talks about the state’s role, it is ‘wrong’ and ‘dangerous’ to say anything else than ‘the individual is solely to blame’.

Let’s pause again: it seems that Cameron is able to separate state governance from the role of the community in moulding individual action. While communities can be held at least partially responsible, governance structures should not. We can encourage and help the ‘police and intelligence agencies to stop people travelling to Syria’, but that does not mean we can blame them for the fact that people want to go in the first place. Communities can be responsible, but state agencies cannot. Communities shape individuals and can therefore be the root source of threats, but state agencies do not and cannot.

As he brings the speech to its conclusion, Cameron contradicts himself again. He affirms that the security threats emanating from Eastern Europe and the Middle East ‘often have one thing in common: a failure of governance in other countries’. By this point his short-sightedness and double-think is reaching astonishing levels:

It is the failure of governance in African states that leads many to want to leave. It is in part the failure of Libyan governance which has allowed the traffickers to profit from human misery. It was the failure of Ukrainian governance in the years before 2014 which led to discontent and instability. It’s the failure of governance in the Middle East which has left a vacuum within which ISIL can proliferate.

The first blind-spot in Cameron’s analysis is the role that the UK and its allies have played in contributing to any poor governance that exists in these areas, be it through the structural adjustment policies of the IMF and World Bank in sub-Saharan Africa, the role of these same institutions in Ukraine’s post-socialist transition straight into a four-year recession, or the violent interventions in Iraq and Libya which destroyed lives and infrastructure.

The second, and perhaps more damning for Cameron’s vision of the world, is the fact that he is able and willing to blame other governments for their failure, without accepting any responsibility for his own government’s failures. In his world the ‘blame game’ involves blaming local communities in the UK and the failures of foreign governance for Europe’s problems, while not accepting that any responsibility rests with his own government.

Cameron’s platitudes about building a ‘national identity’ that ‘young people in our country feel truly part of’ is not enough. If he is so keen to ensure people take responsibility for their actions then he should take responsibility for his own: for the demands he makes on Muslims to pledge their loyalty to an undefined idea of ‘British values’, that could indeed not be defined in anything but an exclusionary manner; and for the essentialised notions of a ‘Muslim community’ his government propagates, requiring surveillance and securitisation.

While he continues to apply the contradictory logic expressed in this speech, Cameron will be unable to recognise that the failure to engage with the Muslim community is a failure, and that speeches like these only serve to contribute to that failure. That is perhaps the most damning indictment of all.