Cameron's political isolation on Syria grows

Labour, the Lib Dems, two-thirds of Tory MPs and, now, Boris Johnson are all opposed to arming the rebels. This is an argument Cameron cannot win.

William Hague made it clear on the Today programme this morning that he and David Cameron are determined not to rule out the option of arming the Syrian rebels. He challenged those who warn that the UK would have no way of preventing Sunni jihadists from seizing or buying the weapons by pointing out that there was "no evidence" that the non-lethal equipment supplied by the west had "fallen into the wrong hands" and cautioned against "falling into the trap of thinking that everybody on every side is an extremist". He also insisted that while the opposition had suffered "important setbacks", "this does not mean this conflict is over". 

"The debate about arms is about how to make sure a democratic, legitimate opposition is not exterminated," he said. The clear suggestion was that supplying the rebels with weapons could still tilt the balance in their favour, both against the extremists on the opposition side and against the Assad regime. 

But such is David Cameron's political isolation that it is increasingly imposible to see how the UK could take this step. Labour, the Liberal Democrats and around two-thirds of Tory MPs are all opposed to arming the rebels, and Boris Johnson uses his Telegraph column today to join them. He writes: "This is not the moment to send more arms. This is the moment for a total ceasefire, an end to the madness. It is time for the US, Russia, the EU, Turkey, Iran, Saudi and all the players to convene an intergovernmental conference to try to halt the carnage."

Last night on Twitter, Tory MPs Mark Reckless and Sarah Wollaston suggested that they knew of no Conservative backbenchers in favour of arming the rebels. After the adventurism of the neoconservatives, the Tories' realist tendency is reasserting itself. If Cameron is unable to even win this argument within his own party, it is hard to see him persuading anyone else of the case for action. 

David Cameron arrives to attend the Enniskillen G8 summit in Belfast. Photograph: Getty Images.

George Eaton is political editor of the New Statesman.

Photo: Getty Images
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Bomb Isil? That's exactly what they want

The government appears not to answer the nature of its enemy, warns Maria Norris.

As MPs are set to vote on further airstrikes in Syria, it is difficult to shake off the feeling that the government does not fully appreciate the complexity of the problem Isil poses. Just a cursory glance at its magazine, the pronouncements of its leaders and its ideology reveals that Isil is desperate for Western bombs to fall out of the sky. As Martin Chulov argues, Isil is fighting a war it believes was preordained since the early days of Islam. Isil’s obsession with the city of Dabiq, in Northern Syria, stems from a hadith which prophesises that the ‘Crusader’ army will land in the city as a precursor to a final battle where Islam will emerge victorious. Dabiq is also the name of its magazine, which starts every issue with the same quote: "The spark has been lit here in Iraq, and its heat will continue to intensify -- by Allah's permission -- until it burns the crusader armies in Dabiq". Isil wants a war with the West. If we don’t negotiate with terrorists, then we also should not give them what they want.

Further, bombs are indiscriminate and will inevitably lead to the suffering of those trapped in Isil territories. Isil is counting on this suffering to swell their ranks. Civilian suffering from airstrikes only underline the narrative that the West is at war with Islam, which plays directly into Isil’s hands. And despite misleading headlines and the genuine government concern with individuals fleeing to Syria, Isis is supremely unpopular. It is no wonder that its magazine is filled with glossy adds begging people to move to its territories.  You cannot be a state without people. Terrorist attacks such as Paris thus have a two-pronged purpose: they provoke the West to respond with its military, and they act as a recruitment drive. The fact that fake Syrian passports were found around the sites of the Paris attacks is no coincidence as Isil are both seeking to stem the flow of refugees from its territories and hoping to provoke an Islamophobic backlash. They hope that, as more Muslims feel alienated in the West, more will join them, not just as fighters, but as the doctors, nurses and teachers it desperately needs.

In addition to this, airstrikes overlook the fact that Isil is a result of what Fawaz Gerges calls a severe, organic institutional crisis in the Middle East. In a lecture at the London School of Economics earlier this year, Gerges pointed out the dysfunction created when a region that is incredibly resource rich also is also deeply undemocratic, riddled with corruption, food insecurity, unemployment and poverty. This forms an institutional vacuum that is filled by non-state actors as the population does not trust its political structures. Further, the civil war in Syria is also the site of the toxic soup of Middle Eastern state dysfunction. Iran supports Assad, Saudi Arabia and the Gulf countries, fund anti-Shia groups in Syria. Throw in the Kurdish conflict, Turkey’s ambiguous position and Russian bombs, it is difficult to see how airstrikes will solve anything.

Finally, it is crucial that Isil is seen as a direct result of the Iraq war. The American-led invasion destroyed the institutions, giving the Shia majority power almost overnight, creating deep dissatisfaction in the Sunni regions of Iraq. On top of this thousands of foreign fighters flooded Iraq to fight the invaders, attracting disenfranchised and angry Sunnis. The result is that since 2003, Iraq has been embroiled in a sectarian civil war.  It is in civil war, inherently connected to the Iraq War, that you find the roots of Isil. As even the Prime Minister concedes that ground troops are necessary, albeit it regional ground troops with its own set of problems, it is important to consider what further monster can arise from the ashes of another ill-thought out military intervention in the Middle East.
We have had decades of military intervention in the Middle East with disastrous consequences. Airstrikes represent business as usual, when what we actually need is a radically new approach. Who is funding Isil? Who is buying its oil? How to curb Isil’s recruitment drives? What can be done about the refugees? How to end the conflict in Syria? What happens to Assad? These are questions hopefully being addressed in talks recently held in Vienna with Russian, Ira, the USA, France, Syria’s neighbours and the Gulf states. Airstrikes do not answer any of these questions. What airstrikes do is give Isil exactly what it is asking for. Surely this is reason enough not to bomb Syria. 

Maria W. Norris is a PhD candidate and a teacher at the London School of Economics and Political Science. Her PhD is on the UK counter-terrorism strategy since 9/11 and its relationship with identity. She tweets as @MariaWNorris.