Obama is the fourth successive US president to order air strikes on Iraq. Photo: Getty
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US air strikes on Isis add fuel to extremist ideologies

The US risks amplifying the message that IS and similar groups have been trying to spread for years.

President Obama has become the fourth successive US president to order air strikes on Iraq and the first to launch them on Syria. It is a remarkable submission to history for a president whose candidacy in 2008 was largely defined by his opposition to America’s recent past.

The Obama administration would argue that the current mission is different from previous campaigns, primarily because of the manner in which the US now projects its military power abroad. Boots have been replaced with drones and ever more mechanisation. Such an approach evidently assuages public concerns over sacrificing more western lives for seemingly elusive stability in the Middle East.

Yet this is true only to an extent. The marked increase in drone strikes in Pakistan and Yemen under Obama has destroyed much of al-Qaeda’s core leadership. While drones can eliminate leaders, however, they cannot dismantle terrorist networks. The unpicking of al-Qaeda’s global network, as demonstrated by the killing of Osama Bin Laden, was the result of conventional military deployment.

In this context, it is hard to imagine how Islamic State (IS, formerly known as Isis) will be defeated with air strikes alone. The group controls swathes of land, has an army of tens of thousands and possesses highly sophisticated weapons. Were aerial bombardment enough to crush IS, Syria’s Bashar al-Assad would have put an end to the rebellion long ago.

For now, Obama has limited himself to ordering air strikes while ruling out a more vigorous military response. The perils of such an approach are many. There is the danger of mission creep – but there also broader issues that have been poorly understood.

The US risks amplifying the message that IS and similar groups have been trying to spread for years. When the uprising in Syria first began, thousands of civilians were abandoned to Assad’s regime. He tortured and slaughtered them with impunity and practised the worst form of dog-whistle politics.

Many Syrians called for intervention to tip the balance. Instead, as law and order broke down and instability increasingly took hold, jihadists moved in to fill the power vacuum. The west, they told Syrians, doesn’t care about the deaths of Sunni Muslims. This was a repeat of the Bosnia narrative, which peddled the view that European governments were indifferent to the plight of Balkan Muslims.

Many Sunni Muslims in Syria have similarly questioned the west’s concern over the fate of minorities in their country. What about the majority, they ask? They were abandoned to the regime and Obama was stirred into action only in defence of the Yazidis.

Although the US president has stopped short of saying so explicitly, we are left to understand that Assad is the lesser of two evils. So it is that discreet diplomatic channels have been reopened to the Assad regime. That much is clear from a statement issued by Lieutenant General William Mayville, a Pentagon spokesman, who confirmed that Syrian air defence systems were “passive” during US raids on IS targets in Syria.

We have been here before. Months before the 2011 uprising, Vogue showered encomium on the Syrian first lady, Asma al-Assad, describing her as “a rose in the desert”. The American academic David W Lesch similarly described Bashar al-Assad as “the new lion of Damascus”. The authoritarian bargain that the Syrian president offered seemed to enchant western observers. Asma al-Assad launched civic empowerment projects for children, the Four Seasons opened new hotels in Damascus and laws were passed allowing for casinos. Yet, behind the scenes, it was business as usual. President Assad continued to crush all dissent, while providing a vital air route for Iranian intelligence to supply Hezbollah.

Those clambering to support Assad should remember just how much blood of our troops he is responsible for. In the last Iraq war, Syria provided the primary thoroughfare for foreign jihadists wanting to fight western coalition forces. Syrian intelligence not only turned a blind eye to the fighters passing through the country but also actively supported their efforts, releasing a number of senior jihadists from prison.

Obama’s initial inaction helped to create the conditions in which the jihadists could flourish. Now, he has reacted with hasty half-heartedness and delivered the worst of both worlds. This confrontation with IS will almost certainly extend beyond the end of Obama’s presidency in 2017, after which he will be able to repent at leisure. 

Shiraz Maher is a contributing writer for the New Statesman and a senior research fellow at King’s College London’s International Centre for the Study of Radicalisation.

This article first appeared in the 24 September 2014 issue of the New Statesman, The cult of Boris

Photo: Getty Images
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Meet the remarkable British woman imprisoned for fighting against Isis

The treatment of Silhan Özçelik shows how confused British policy towards the Middle East has become. 

Last week, a British court sentenced a woman to prison for attempting to join fighters in the Middle East. Silhan Özçelik, an 18-year-old from Highbury, London was sentenced to 21 months for her part in “preparing terrorist acts” under the Terrorism Act 2006. The judge called her a “stupid, feckless and deeply dishonest young woman”.  What all of this misses out is the most extraordinary fact: that Özçelik was not convicted for going to fight for the Islamic State, but for the Kurdistan Workers’ Party – better known as the PKK, one of the only effective and consistent opponents of Isis since the war began.

Volunteering to fight in foreign wars – so long as they are long ago enough – is a celebrated tradition in Britain. In the late 1930s, while the Spanish Republic battled on against a fascist coup led by General Franco, tens of thousands of volunteers from all over the world went to fight for the International Brigades, including 2,500 from the UK. They included future celebrities such as writer George Orwell and actor James Robertson Justice, and commemorative plaques and memorials can now be seen all over the country

Like the International Brigade volunteers, Özçelik allegedly volunteered to fight for an embattled state facing military defeat at the hands of a far-right insurgency. The combat units she might have joined have been the subject of moving portraits in the Guardian and even praise on Fox News. The PKK is a secular socialist organisation, with a streak of libertarianism and its own feminist movements. But because of its military opposition to the often brutal Turkish treatment of the Kurds, the western powers list the PKK as a terrorist organisation; and would-be heroes like Silhan Özçelik are detained as criminals by the British state.

On one level, what Özçelik’s conviction represents is a change in how the state relates to ordinary citizens who fight. In 1936, the rise of fascism was something on our doorstep, which was opposed most fervently not by official western governments but by ordinary folk, dangerous far left subversives and free spirited writers who sailed to Spain – often in spite of their own governments. In today’s wars in the Middle East, the state is absolutely determined to maintain its monopoly on the right to sanction violence.

What Orwell and other volunteers understood was that while western governments might promote values like liberty and deplore the rise of tyranny, they were also duplicitous and unreliable when it came to prioritising the defeat of fascism over the narrow interests of nation and profit. Then as now, western governments were  deeply uneasy about the idea of ordinary people taking up arms and intervening in global affairs, or deciding – by force – who governs them. If the Terrorism Act 2006 had applied in 1936, Orwell would surely have been arrested at Dover and sent to prison.

More pressingly for the current situation, the persecution of the PKK should make you think twice about the motivations and outcomes for military intervention in Syria. Cameron is on a march to war, and, following the Paris attacks, much of the political establishment is now lining up to support him.

At the same time, our court system is imprisoning and persecuting young women who try to take up arms against Isis. It is doing so at the behest not of our own national security, which has never been threatened by the PKK, but that of Turkey. Turkey’s military is actively targeting Kurdish forces, and has recently stepped up these attacks. There is a wealth of evidence, not least its behaviour during the recent siege of Kobane, to suggest that Turkey – Britain’s only formal NATO ally in the region – is tacitly collaborating with Isis in an attempt to defeat both Assad and the Kurds.

As the government rushes to war in Syria, much of the media attention will focus on Jeremy Corbyn’s awkward task of holding his anti-war line while persuading his party and Shadow Cabinet not to split over the issue. Others will focus, rightly, on the complexity of the situation in the region and the question of who western air-strikes are really there to support: is it Assad, the murderous dictator whose regime has itself been linked to the rise of Isis; Turkey, which is seemingly focussed entirely on defeating Assad and the Kurds; or the soup of organisations – including the Al-Qaeda franchise in Syria – which constitute the anti-regime rebels?

But Özçelik’s conviction should also raise a more fundamental concern: that the contradictions and complications that we are so used to associating with the Middle East lie at the heart of British and western policy as well. If the British state persecutes, rather than supports, the few secular and progressive organisations in the region who are fighting Isis, whose interests is it really serving? And if we don’t trust those interests, how much trust can we really place in it to act on our behalf in Syria?

You can sign a petition calling for Silhan Özçelik’s release here, and a petition calling for the decriminalisation of the PKK here.