What challenges does Cameron’s war drive face?

The government wants to bomb Syria. We need to understand the problems Cameron faces making that happen so as to oppose the push to war, argues Colin Wilson.


Cameron wants to bomb Syria, but he faces problems doing so. The major problem in parliamentary terms is a report about British bombing of Syria produced by the House of Commons Foreign Affairs Committee less than a month ago. The report was authored by a majority of Tory MPs, as well as Labour MPs like Anne Clwyd and Mike Gapes who were pro-war in 2003 – people who have no problems with war, but want to go to war only if it is in the interests of Britain’s rulers. Their report noted a “powerful sense that something must be done” to oppose ISIS in Syria. As we learned in September, Britain is already using drones in Syria. But the report also noted five areas of concern before Britain committed to further military involvement:

  1. Involvement may be illegal
    The committee notes that Britain suffered “reputational damage” after it went to war in 2003 with a dubious legal mandate.
  2. Airstrikes will be ineffective
    Adding UK airstrikes to American ones in Syria will have only a “marginal effect” without “reliable allies on the ground” who can “move in and take areas which had been attacked”.
  3. The political situation in Syria is complex
    The committee found that the situation in Syria involved “thousands of fighting forces in various coalitions and umbrella organisations, with unclear aspirations and shifting alliances. The complex nature of the situation makes it hard to guess the consequences of tackling just ISIL, or to predict what group would take their territory if they were defeated.”
  4. Many other countries are involved
    These include the US, Russia, Iran, Turkey, Saudia Arabia and Qatar: international involvement complicates things even further.
  5. Airstrikes may undermine diplomacy
    Diplomacy and military action should reinforce each other. There is the risk that bombing may make a diplomatic solution harder to achieve.

The committee then sets out seven issues that need to be resolved before parliament approves bombing. Many of these focus on the eventual outcome: will bombing help defeat ISIS? Which ground forces will hold and administer territory captured from IS? How would it contribute to a longer term “transition plan” for Syria?

All this shows that the British ruling class doesn’t want a repeat of the wars in Afghanistan and Iraq. It’s now clear that Britain went to war on the basis of lies. That might have been forgotten if the war had been a success, but it wasn’t. All this means they can’t use the justification of “humanitarian intervention” to justify military adventures. And that gets in the way of the foreign policy Britain had adopted for many decades, to act as a junior partner to America. As the report puts it, “the extension of airstrikes would help the UK to be seen as a ‘good ally’ to the US and its partners in the region (or rather, remove the current diplomatic embarrassment of it appearing not to being fully committed to the coalition plan).”

The attacks in Paris and Mali have enormously increased the feeling that “something must be done” about ISIS. The government’s response is to try and find a way past the many issues that stop them bombing Syria. Many Labour MPs, just as committed as Blair was to British military interventions, feel the same way. The best possible outcome from their point of view is to turn the clock back to before Afghanistan and Iraq by making “humanitarian intervention” credible again. It’s for this reason that we’re seeing, from forces including both Tory and Labour MPs, a series of attacks on Jeremy Corbyn and Stop the War Coalition. The last thing the pro-war forces want is anti-war protests and meetings, making opposition to war clear and reminding people that the context for the development of ISIS was created by the invasion of Iraq.

Cameron is committed to responding by the end of this week to Foreign Affairs Committee’s report. Some previously sceptical MPs – such as Crispin Blunt, Tory chair of the committee – have fallen into line. Blunt stated on Friday that “the circumstances have completely changed” in the last month, though it’s hard to see how. Many of the questions his committee raised in their report remain unanswered, and it’s hard to see what convincing response Cameron can give. For examples, what ground forces exist that can hold areas, and provide necessities such as food, once air attacks have defeated ISIS? And what is the final plan for Syria? After all, the vast majority of people who have died in Syria in since 2011 – over 200,000 – of them have died at the hands of the Assad regime. But there is no sign of Russia abandoning Assad, its only client in the region. While Russia claims to be attacking ISIS, many feel that its real agenda is to defend Assad. Human rights observers say that its air strikes have killed over 400 civilians since they began in September, including almost 100 children.

We need continue raising all these difficult questions as Cameron attempts to make the case for war. As the warmongers try to erase what so many people learned after Iraq – that humanitarian intervention is a lie – we need to do everything we can to support the anti-war movement.

Finally, we need to stand in solidarity with migrants. We have already seen Muslims scapegoated by the Home Office’s Prevent strategy. Now that the government feels the need to act, while knowing how many issues stand in their way in Syria, they may “do something” by attacking migrants – often people fleeing just the kind of horrible attack that took place in Paris. Racism and war won’t stop such attacks – they will only escalate the decades-long cycle of violence that has brought us where we are today.


  1. Also on John’s point about the opposition taking up arms; this wasn’t a decision made by the opposition’s leading bodies, there was no coordination over this. It was an organic process as working-class neighbourhoods and towns formed local militias to protect their people and protests from attacks by the shabiha and the army. As more soldiers defected rather than continue to shoot and kill civilians, these local self-defence groups became larger and began to take offensive action against army check points and bases. Again, there was little if any national coordination here, and it was all, and still is, incredibly fragmented. This is what gives the armed struggle in Syria its confusing character to those who haven’t been observing it.

  2. Its not a matter of “feeling” that Russia is defending Assad, its the truth that shouldn’t be equivocated on in this way. Its also the truth that all the imperialist powers are collaborating over Syria to try and kill what remains of the revolution. The Vienna “peace” plan should be the major focus for the lest. Unfortunately its Stop the War and Jeremy Corbyn’s position to support the imperialist lead peace talks, so they don’t find themselves in opposition to imperialism, but on the same path as it, although for ostensibly different reasons. This is the “difficult question” that needs to be asked, how is the anti-war movement going to respond to the carving up of Syria, when its leading organisations and proponents support the process?

  3. It’s interesting that Steve quotes Burke. The “evil” that Burke was talking about was, of course, democracy, of which there is no hint in Steve’s post.

    The crisis for Assad in Syria began as demonstrations against the Ba’ath regime in the wake of the successful overthrow of dictatorships elsewhere in the Arab world. Assad responded with military force, and the opposition – incorrectly as many of us argued at the time – shifted to military activity, forming the Free Syria Army. The civil war got more complicated from there, as other organisations intervened, including what had initially been Al-Quaeda in Iraq. This latter organisation had initially begun as an anti-Shiite group in Iraq in the wake of the US and British invasion but had since extended its ambitions. Once it was able to extend its operations into Syria it declared itself to be the Islamic State, referred to by the US Government as ISIL and by the British as ISIS.

    The prominence of ISIS/ISIL should not blind us to the fact that the original revolutionaries in Syria are alive and well and fighting, as are various other organisations worthy of our support, such as the Turkey-based Kurdish PKK – branded “terrorist” by western governments – who have had some success in keeping Islamic State out of Kurdish areas.

    The attitude of the West to these other organisations is exemplified by the conviction just this last week of a woman who was travelling to join the PKK to fight ISIS. The West certainly does not want a revolutionary regime in either Syria or Kurdistan, any more than they will let Islamic State upset the arrangements they have previously made in the region.

    The current situation in Syria and Iraq stems from the the interventions of the West in the region, from 1916 onwards. It will not be helped by further intervention. Indeed, they can only make things worse.

  4. This is what Syrian activists who have risked their lives opposing ISIS in their home town of Raqqa have to say about the bombing of their city: ““Daily life is twenty-four-seven warplanes over your head,” another member said. “People now feel more afraid about the idea that all over the world they want to bomb this small city. People are afraid. The city of Kubani is completely destroyed. The people of Raqqa don’t want that. We love our city. The West says, ‘Let’s get the people out and bomb ISIS.’ They can’t.”” http://www.newyorker.com/news/news-desk/telling-the-truth-about-isis-and-raqqa

  5. Readers of this article may be interested to read about the Wahhabi threat and how Isis/Isil has been funded. You may then wonder why the richest country in the region does next to nothing to combat Isil but instead chooses to bomb Yemen. The same country refuses to help the refugees of the Syrian War. Sanctioning a country whose oil you need presents its own problems. Therein lies the heart of this problem. But instead it has become our problem, for the Gulf is happy for it to be so.
    As for negotiating/ diplomacy with the so called Islamic State…well good look with that one! I can almost see that piece of paper being waved…
    Nobody in their right minds wants another war after Tony B Liar’s machinations led us into the illegal Iraq War.
    But I believe this time it IS different.
    This article says, ” though it’s hard to see how” things have changed. Really? Seriously?
    I see any proposed intervention as supporting France as we would expect of them had London been bombed.
    Doing nothing isn’t an option.
    “All that is needed for evil to triumph is that good men do nothing. All that is needed for the triumph of evil is for enough good men to do nothing” Edmund Burke.
    ISIL are evil and cannot be countenanced. This time is different unless you are happy to see the cities of the world in lockdown as often as not and worse. I know who has my support. And no one is being gung ho about it like last time. Hopefully lessons have been learnt. Cameron won’t want to go down in history as a War Criminal like Tony B LIAR.


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