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Tuesday, September 23, 2014 

It's that time again.

The interventionists have at last got their war in Syria.  It's not the war they wanted, the feel-good bombing the fuck out of anything that looked vaguely like belonging to the Syrian military in revenge for the gassing of children war, rather a not quite as feel-good but still pleasing bombing the fuck out of anything that looks vaguely like being an Islamic State stronghold war, but a war's a war.  It means the same old white guys in uniform presenting a salivating media with grainy black and white images of death from above, completely different from the pristine high definition snuff propaganda offered up by IS.  It means the ever willing servant of the United States, Her Majesty's Government, rushing to pledge the use of its own US-bought ordnance in the battle against the forces of evil, this completely new and unprecedented threat from the marauding, advancing, terrifying IS.  This is not just a battle for Britain, it is the battle of Britain: forget that mere skirmish with the Hun, when a true coalition of the willing fought in the skies against the Luftwaffe; this is the real deal.

Just to underline how completely insane the indirect intervention in Syria before now has been, also hit at the same time as IS was the al-Nusra Front, only the US has renamed them the Khorosan group for the duration.  According to the US they were in the final stages of preparation for an attack on the West, perhaps with those fabled iPhone bombs we heard about a few months back.  Al-Nusra is of course al-Qaida's affiliate proper in Syria, albeit one almost certainly funded indirectly if not directly by the same Gulf states now allied with the US.  One wonders if a strike on al-Nusra was a Saudi condition of getting their own jets dirty, intended as a message to Qatar, the Saudis having stepped back from supporting jihadists at the start of the year in favour of plain old Islamists, having realised its clients were getting out of control.

Such are the rivalries at work in the patched together US coalition.  Kudos must go to the Saudis and Qataris, whom having played a major role in fomenting the sectarian civil war are now bombing those they eulogised as their Sunni, Wahhabi brothers.  Luckily for them such contortions are easier to explain when they also control their media.  Our media by contrast is completely free and unafraid to ask the difficult questions, hence why they didn't inquire about civilian casualties given the opportunity.  Difficult as it is to comprehend, far more lies have been told about Syria than ever were about Iraq.  Back then we didn't have any equivalent to the Graun insisting there had been an unofficial truce between the Assad regime and IS, deals between the two over oil aside.  Whole sections meanwhile fell into believing there really was something equivalent to a Free Syrian Army on the ground, rather than an extremely loosely tied alliance of self-starting battalions, the vast majority Islamist if not jihadist.  There never was and never has been a "moderate" armed opposition, with even those the US is now supposedly training in what it all but admits is little more than a PR exercise fighting alongside the likes of al-Nusra.

Not that you can necessarily blame those on the frontline when reporting on conflict gets ever more dangerous.  It isn't just that the rebels and the Syrian government both care little for the lives of journalists, although they do, it's that media organisations don't want to pay the vast sums that go hand in hand with in-depth foreign reporting, and so the local guides who play such an important role in keeping correspondents safe walk away.  James Foley and Stephen Sotloff paid a price in blood as a result.  Quite what IS hopes to achieve with the videos featuring John Cantlie isn't clear when the message he's being forced to deliver is so one note, but it is undeniable he and the other British and American hostages have been abandoned to their fate.  The refusal to pay ransoms is certainly a morally righteous position, but combined as it is with the media blackout on their captivity it means their only real chance of escaping death is a special forces raid.  You have to hope the news that IS put Alan Henning before a Sharia court which cleared of him being a spy means they could still act with mercy towards someone who only wanted to help the Syrian people, yet when you start throwing cruise missiles around with gay abandon it's hard not to fear the worst.

Striking al-Nusra at the same time as IS also lays bare how the whole non-strategy takes its cue from the Libya campaign.  Once the UN resolution was passed, NATO's interpretation was it allowed them to do whatever the hell took their fancy.  With it as yet uncertain whether the UN will be involved beyond the passing of a resolution skirting the issue, not least as Russia will veto anything that looks remotely like 1973 again, there's not even the figleaf of legality being maintained.  While there's probably more contact between the Assad government and the Americans going on than is being admitted, there's not even the pretence that should IS be "degraded" the focus won't then switch towards finishing the job.  Why else would the "moderate" Gulf states as the BBC hilariously referred to them earlier join in unless they've received assurances that Assad won't in the long run gain from the destruction of IS?

This said, IS won't crumble under the weight of air power alone.  As Juan Cole writes, shock and awe has never worked, and won't this time.  The Islamic State survived in Iraq for years without anything near to the safe havens it's established over the past 12 months, and should it have to abandon Raqqa or anywhere else it will just be a return to what it's known before.  If the intention was to go all out against IS, rather than merely contain them, the kind of truce between Assad and the "moderate" rebels proposed by Patrick Cockburn would be high on the agenda.  It's not as IS is far too useful, as proved by the non-role of Israel.  A jihadist organisation that makes Hamas look like the girl guides rampages across Syria, getting ever nearer to the one true democracy in the region™, and how does it respond?  By, err, shooting down a Syrian jet.

What then is the aim of all this?  Just as we came within spitting distance last year of attacking Syria thanks to Obama's "red lines", so now the main reason why the US has acted is down to domestic pressure to do something, anything.  As soon as the president "misspoke" by saying he didn't have a strategy it doomed him into having to find one.  Thankfully for him, most commentators haven't noticed the new strategy is just the old one with knobs on, easily distracted as they are by explosions and the usual war porn.  Islamic State must return to its old ways of blowing up markets filled with Iraqis rather than cutting off the heads of Westerners is the mission in short.  Chase them back into the desert and away from minorities while still dropping the odd Hellfire missile, and everyone will be happy.  It's "worked" in Yemen.  This doesn't solve anything whatsoever you'll note, and at some point the Saudis and Qataris are going to return to their old ways, especially if this empowers Assad as it undoubtedly will, but we'll worry about that once it happens.

Any British politician with more than a modicum of sense would take one look at this mess and run a mile.  Appearances must though be kept up.  The bloody French have involved themselves for whatever reason, probably down to Hollande trying desperately to distract from the country's economic woes, and Labour, ever the hypocrites, made a lot out of those remarks from Robert Gates about our military capability not keeping up with theirs.  The Atlanticist headbangers on the backbenches love a good turkey shoot, so any worries that getting involved will increase rather than decrease the potential for a terrorist attack must be put to one side.  America expects, you know.  We might hedge our bets, attacking only Iraq rather than Syria lest this trouble Labour unduly, but make no mistake, the war party is going to be in full swing again.  Besides, we can't possibly make things even worse, can we?

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