Bombing Syria may hit some targets, but many innocents will perish
As soon as news broke of the Tunisian hotel massacre in June, many in Britain felt that the holidaymakers had been hit by Isil in an attack planned from its headquarters in Raqqa.
The lead attacker had planned the murders on his laptop, which he had flung into the sea. It was recovered, his attack notes discovered and the identity of accomplices established.
But there was no link to Syria – the atrocity had been planned entirely from Libya. So military action would have to wait.
When your enemy doesn’t have a fixed location, he’s harder to hit – as the Americans have found out. For almost 18 months they have been bombing Isil’s suspected positions in Raqqa, and have so far killed an estimated 20,000 people. Each day, the city reverberates to the sound of allied attacks: the US has been joined by Jordan, Saudi Arabia, Australia, Turkey and Bahrain – who have together dropped more than 2,800 bombs on Syria.
During the time these operations have been under way, Isil has gone global with attacks, not just in Tunisia, but in Beirut, Ankara, Yemen and, most recently, Paris. It’s the paradox of terrorism: militarily, the jihadists are no match for the West, but all of this bombing has, so far, resulted in stalemate.
David Cameron didn’t talk much about this yesterday. Indeed, listening to him address MPs, it all sounded rather simple – as if the enemy was lying unmolested, thumbing its nose at West and daring the RAF to go and visit.
“Every day we fail to act,” he said, “is a day where Isil can grow stronger.”
But every day, the US spends about £7 million on an Isil campaign – which has had depressingly little effect. If the RAF joins, western forces may make 55 air strikes a week, rather than 50. If Britain becomes the 13th member of the Syria coalition it will be welcome. But, militarily, the effect will be marginal.
There is a great temptation for a politician, when making the case for war, to simplify or exaggerate. And, in so doing, ruin their case.
For example, the Prime Minister revealed to MPs that there was an army of 70,000 moderate Syrian rebels ready to move against Isil. He then suggested a straightforward plan: that Raqqa is bombed, the Islamic State routed by western-armed rebels and then a political settlement is reached with a new government in Damascus that unites Syrians.
It’s a wonderful ambition, but one that seems even more optimistic than his plan for stable government in Libya. Those 70,000 rebels, for example, don’t exist as a coherent force; half of them are in the north, half in the south, and all fighting a multidimensional civil war.
The Americans have recently had to abandon their plan to raise a rebel army, after finding that many are far more interested in fighting the Assad regime (or each other). Arming Syrian rebels is a very dangerous business, because you never know who they’ll fight.
“This is one of the sad realities,” says Ash Carter, the US Defence Secretary. “They’re harder to find than you would like.”
Bombing alone won’t work because Isil has been digging in, banning Syrians from leaving Raqqa and, in effect, using its 200,000 citizens as human shields.
The jihadists abandoned their military compounds long ago and are based in the familiar residential neighbourhoods which, they know, makes them virtually bombproof: every drone strike needs to be calculated to have minimal civilian casualties.
The bombing is proceeding at a relatively slow pace not because the Americans lack reinforcements. It’s because it’s hard to find targets whose destruction won’t kill ordinary Syrians
Nor is Barack Obama in a rush to move. François Hollande’s take – that France will embark on a “pitiless” war – finds no echo in the White House. After Paris, Obama’s message was caution – to overreact, he said, would play into Isil’s hands.
“They’re a bunch of killers with good social media,” he said recently. To treat them as an existential threat would “buy into their fantasy that they’re doing something important.”
(© Daily Telegraph London)