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Britain Is on the Verge of Entering Into a Long War in Syria Based on Wishful Thinking and Poor Information
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Britain is on the verge of entering a conflict in Syria in which its political and military strategy is based on wishful thinking and poor information. British air strikes in Syria will be too few to make much difference to Isis, but are important because they signal Britain’s entry into what may be a long war.

In one crucial respect, David Cameron’s approach is similar to that which saw Britain fight two small but unsuccessful wars in Iraq and Afghanistan since 2003, in both cases without an effective local partner on the ground. Similarly in Syria, Britain will be at the mercy of events which are being shaped by the numerous other players in the conflict, all of whom have their own highly contradictory agendas.

Much of the debate around the feasibility of the British strategy has focused on Mr Cameron’s statement that we do indeed have a partner, of whose existence few were previously aware. He said that there are 70,000 “Syrian opposition fighters on the ground who do not belong to extremist groups”. The impression given is that there is a “third force” in Syria which will provide a powerful ally for the US, France and Britain.

This would be very convenient but, unfortunately, its existence is very debatable. “The notion that there are 70,000 moderate fighters is an attempt to show that you can fight Isis and [President Bashar al] Assad at the same time,” says Professor Joshua Landis, the director of the Centre for Middle East Studies at the University of Oklahoma and an expert on Syrian politics. But he is dismissive of the idea that such a potential army exists, though he says there might be 70,000 Syrians with a gun who are fighting for their local clan, tribe, warlord or village. “The problem is that they hate the village down the road just as much they hate Isis and Assad,” he said.

The armed opposition to President Assad is dominated by Isis, the al-Qaeda affiliate Jabhat al-Nusra and the ideologically similar Ahrar al-Sham. Some of the smaller groups, once estimated by the CIA to number 1,500, might be labelled as moderate, but only operate under license from the extreme jihadists. Aymenn al-Tamimi, a fellow at the Middle East Forum and an authority on the Syrian armed opposition, says that these groups commonly exaggerate their numbers, are very fragmented and have failed to unite, despite years of war.


He recalls that one group he met during a recent visit to Latakia province in north-west Syria claimed to have 2,000 fighters, but probably numbered only 500.

He warns that they pretend to the outside world that they are more moderate than they really are, speaking of “the equality of all Syrians before the law” when they are outside Syria or communicating with people who have never been to the country, but express “hatred for Shia and Allawites” on all other occasions.

Mr Tamimi says that the smaller armed groups, which sometimes have good weapons supplied by the Americans, had acted as auxiliaries to Nusra and Ahrar al-Sham when they captured Idlib City in fierce fighting with the Syrian army in May.

Even if such groups are not extreme Islamists, they do not have the strength to refuse to cooperate. This will make any ceasefire very difficult to arrange because such moderate fighters as there are who might be willing to accept a truce, are intermingled with powerful Nusra forces which will not do so.

Moreover, radical Islamic ideology has been gaining ground in all parts of the Syrian opposition. James Harkin, the author of Hunting Season about the kidnapping of foreigners in Syria and a frequent visitor to opposition-held areas, says that it is important to grasp that “none of these people [the armed opposition inside Syria] like us”.

They see the US, Britain and France as enemies. This includes the non-jihadists, whom the West hopes to enlist, who suspect they will be used as cannon fodder and then discarded.

The one group that has some claim to be non-sectarian, secular and a powerful fighting force is the Syrian Kurdish People’s Protection Units (YPG) who claim to number 50,000, but probably total half that. It has been the most effective anti-Isis ground force and, heavily supported by US air strikes, its territory now stretches across northern Syria between the Tigris and Euphrates.

It claims to be non-sectarian and that it does not persecute Sunni Arabs, but sectarian fear and hatred is today so deep in Syria – partly but not entirely because of the atrocities of Isis – that people flee the attack of every other sectarian or ethnic group different from themselves. The Sunni population in Raqqa, Isis’s Syrian capital, or in Mosul in Iraq, may dislike Isis, but they are even more terrified of the Kurds or the Shia militias.

Britain is entering a war against the self-declared “Islamic State”, probably the most dangerous and violent organisation in the world, but without a realistic policy to win that war. Mr Cameron stresses the limited nature of the engagement, but Britain will be fighting a state that is also a ferocious sect, does not negotiate and may well retaliate with some atrocity similar to Paris. This is not an argument for rejecting military action against Isis, but it is one for thinking very carefully what we are doing because the only exit strategy will be military victory.

It is not only in Syria that Britain lacks a powerful local partner. In Iraq, its ally will be the Iraqi government and army, neither of which has recovered from their defeats by Isis over the past two years. “Syria is a nightmare and Iraq is becoming a nightmare,” said the Iraqi political scientist and activist Ghassan al-Attiyah. If the present government of Haider al-Abadi falls it is likely to be replaced by one closer to the Iranian-backed Shia militias that are more numerous and better armed than the Iraqi army.


The US-led air campaign has already launched around 8,300 air strikes against Isis which have slowed up its advance, but without bringing it to its knees. Professor Landis says that the difficulty is that the three powers in Syria capable of winning the war are Isis, a Jabhat al-Nusra led alliance or Mr Assad but “the US doesn’t want any of these to win”. He cites three attempts by the US to create a moderate armed opposition which have humiliatingly failed and, on each occasion, extreme jihadists have captured quantities of modern American weapons.

The British Government has shared in a widespread but ill-founded belief over the past four years that the Assad government was about to collapse. But of the 22 million Syrian population, 4 million have fled abroad and are refugees, and about 12 million are in government-controlled areas. Though exhausted and after suffering heavy casualties, including 47,000 dead, the Syrian army is still the largest military force in the country. It now has the support of the Russian air force and is not going to lose the war, though it is not strong enough to win it.

This is the terrible conflict in which Britain is about to engage, but with only limited understanding of the dangers that lie ahead.

(Republished from The Independent by permission of author or representative)
• Category: Foreign Policy • Tags: ISIS, Syria 
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  1. Kiza says:

    Let us be concise about this, the UK just wants to get into the war (with a few soldiers and bombers). When a few soldiers get killed in a false flag, then it will send more soldiers and they will try to change the Syrian Government. Turkey is probably already prepared to do a false flag, just as it did Ghouta. Therefore, everything is well prepared, you just do not understand the preparations Cockburn.

    The goal is to create a proper military intervention which the people of Britain do not want.

  2. Randal says:

    The tragedy of this latest Blairite war is not really its hazard (as far as the British involvement is concerned it is likely to be minimal, even allowing for the inevitable expansion once the interventionists have their vote). It’s the sheer unnecessary-ness of it.

    Cameron and the Blairite interventionists (in the Labour, “Conservative” and LibDem parties and in the media) desperately, desperately need to overturn the glorious 2013 precedent, because it calls into question their political virility. But there is absolutely no need for Britain to get openly involved in the war in Syria. Half the world is already fighting against the Islamic State, and it only survives in the space created by the US sphere’s regime change attempt in Syria. As and when that attempt winds down, if not before, IS will be destroyed (though sunni jihadism will not), and in the meantime it is going nowhere. It’s the perfect opportunity for Britain to mind its own business and still see its own interests achieved at the expense of other states.

    But our political and media elites have other interests than those of the nation in mind.

    • Replies: @JEC
  3. Rehmat says:

    Britain lost its status of one of world’s top colonial power after WWII. It was forced to abandon its foreign colonies. As result, London decided to go under the protection of its former possession, United States of America. Since then, British government has become a political and economic vessel of the US, which indirectly is controlled by Israel.

    Since Syria has been an ‘Israel Project’ from day one, which is lately being shattered by Assad army with the help of Iran and Lebanese Hizbullah – all colonial powers are entering Syrian conflict to chalk-out their strategic interests.

    Obama is trying to save face as he did in Iraq three years ago after nine-year Nazism in that harmless country which the neocons perceived a threat to Israel in 1990s.

    On October 26, former US president Jimmy Carter penned an Op-Ed for The Jew York Times, entitled, A Plan to end the Syrian Crisis, in which he claimed that the US, Russia and United Nations cannot bring an end to the four-year-old bloodshed in Syria without the active participation of the Islamic Republic at the negotiations going on among the world powers and the supporters (Turkey, Saudi Arabia, Jordan, UAE, France, and UK) of anti-government terrorists. An advise, Israel and AIPAC hate to accept.

  4. A year or so ago I read an article on the War Nerd blog: “Who Won in Iraq: Anyone Who Stayed Out.” In a couple of years, Gary Brecher can just edit that article and replace Iraq with Syria.

    “When will they ever learn?
    Oh, when will they ever learn?”

  5. Max Payne says:

    Britain Is on the Verge of Entering Into a Long War in Syria Based on Wishful Thinking and Poor Information

    Whats new?

  6. tbraton says:

    Poster Kiza posted the other day a message dealing with the UN resolution of November 20 condemning the ISIS attack on Paris and authorizing attacks on ISIS in Syria. I had missed that, but on checking it out determined that it is hedged with enough qualifications to complicate life for the U.S., Turkey and all their allies. Specifically, the resolution labels ISIS and Al Qaeda as “terrorists” and states in paragraph 5:

    “5. Calls upon Member States that have the capacity to do so to take all necessary measures, in compliance with international law, in particular with the United Nations Charter, as well as international human rights, refugee and humanitarian law, on the territory under the control of ISIL also known as Da’esh, in Syria and Iraq, to redouble and coordinate their efforts to prevent and suppress terrorist acts committed specifically by ISIL also known as Da’esh as well as ANF, and all other individuals, groups, undertakings, and entities associated with Al-Qaida, and other terrorist groups, as designated by the United Nations Security Council, and as may further be agreed by the International Syria Support Group (ISSG) and endorsed by the UN Security Council, pursuant to the statement of the International Syria Support Group (ISSG) of 14 November, and to eradicate the safe haven they have established over significant parts of Iraq and Syria; (Emphasis added.)

    I think the limitation in paragraph 5 above to ISIL, ANF, “all other individuals, groups, undertakings, and entities associated with Al Qaeda,” and other terrorist groups puts a severe crimp in any plans the U.S. and Turkey may have to use the rebels as a means to overthrow Assad. Plus the hedge that “all necessary measures” must be in compliance with international law, specifically the U.N. Charter, gives enough protection to Russia and Syria against a repeat of what happened in Libya. At least that is my take after a quick perusal of the November 20 resolution. Credit to Kiza for calling this to our attention.

    • Replies: @Kiza
  7. JEC says:

    “Other interests”. Whatever you have in mind is surely compounded with vanity and folly.

    • Replies: @Randal
  8. Anonymous • Disclaimer says:

    It is obvious that US = ISIS. Is it that difficult to understand? There are many evidence for this fact. The embedded ‘journalists’ must stop fooling the public.

    Obama Supports the Islamic State: Proof U.S. Government “Wanted ISIS To Emerge In Syria”

    In a CBS Report, Ben Swann exposes secret DOD documents that prove the U.S. wanted ISIS to emerge in Syria.”

    What is significant in this report is that US mainstream TV acknowledges, with documentary evidence that the US government is supporting Al Qaeda affiliated rebels with a view to destabilizing Syria as a sovereign country.
    What is also acknowledged by these secret Pentagon documents is that the so-called ISIS caliphate was in fact a US project from the very outset. It was named a “Salafist Principality” (aka Caliphate), which in essence is a play of words. Salafism and Wahhabism are overlapping ideologies.

    What is implied by this Pentagon statement is that the unspoken objective from the very outset was to destroy a secular government and replace it by an Islamic State.

    The Islamic State based in Northern Syria continues to be supported by the US and its allies, it has special forces within its ranks, which are in permanent liaison with US-NATO.


  9. Kiza says:

    Sorry, I also wrote something else in the post about the resolution: the West always uses lawyers to interpret-away.

    Do you recall how the Blair’s Government stated when they bombed Yugoslavia in 1999, without any UN resolution, that they had government’s lawyers examining every sortie (yes, I know lol) and signing off that it was legal? Thus, the British invented a new type of pilot, a lawyer copilot who replaced the navigator. This copilot, with a marker pen in hand, was signing off on every bomb dropped on the civilians by the British: legal, legal, legal. This was to counter those domestic opponents complaining about the bombing without a UN resolution, an obviously totally illegal act and war crime. They just paid some crooked lawyers and it became legal, voilà. Ditto Iraq later.

    If they can bomb without a UN resolution, imagine what they can interpret away with a resolution which mentions a military intervention. Sky is the limit. Simply, they just need to pacify the domestic opposition, otherwise they will never answer for their war crimes.

    In the same post, I also quoted the UN resolution on Libya, which they interpreted as a permission for government change in Libya.

    I am not saying that they would not aim their bombs at Assad and Syrian civilians without Resolution #2249, I am just saying that it is better to have the situation clean – no resolution. Russia and China accepted this resolution because of the “safeguards” that you mention. But, this was before the Turks shot-down Russian plane, whilst Russia was still naively trying to create a coalition with the Sponsors of Terrorism, just because these sponsors were screaming and braying against ISIS.

    • Replies: @tbraton
  10. Kiza says:

    Have you heard that US is just now adding Patriot missile batteries and additional fighter jets onto Turkey-Syria border, ready to fight ISIS? Ooops, ISIS does not have an airforce, it always used the Turkey’s and the Israel’s. Then the only jets the US could be shooting down are Russian.

    Not to be outdone, the UK, fresh from a completely illegal approval to bomb Syria by its Parliament (of criminals), has promised to send fighter jets too, not only the bomber jets.

    It looks like the plan for a military intervention by the Coalition of the Sponsors of Terrorism is finally coming together, as I have always been saying: using “war on ISIS” as cover for an attack on the Syrian Government.

    After shooting down a few more Russian jets it is gonna get hot, really hot. The AGW crooks will finally get their hockey stick curve, maybe just a little too steep and a little too tall – a couple of million degrees Celsius within a day.

  11. tbraton says:

    “I am not saying that they would not aim their bombs at Assad and Syrian civilians without Resolution #2249, I am just saying that it is better to have the situation clean – no resolution. Russia and China accepted this resolution because of the “safeguards” that you mention. But, this was before the Turks shot-down Russian plane, whilst Russia was still naively trying to create a coalition with the Sponsors of Terrorism, just because these sponsors were screaming and braying against ISIS.”

    While I did not allude to your doubts about the UN resolution, I did post a link to your original message, so anyone reading it would have been aware. I was concentrating on the safeguards contained in that resolution and offering my interpretation why it poses more problems for the U.S. and its merry band of “allies” than for Syria and Russia. You are right to be skeptical, but I think you exaggerate the risks. You ignore one major difference between Serbia and Syria: the presence of Russian planes at the request of the legitimate government of Syria and the presence of S-400s, neither of which were in Serbia. The resolution poses problems for the U.S. and Turkey since it clearly recognizes ISIS, Al Qaeda and any entity working together with Al Qaeda as terrorist threats (which is exactly what Syria has been maintaining since 2011). Erdogan was so desperate to salvage the family’s profitable oil business that Turkey was pressing for a resolution recognizing ISIS as a state in order to legitimize its oil purchases from ISIS. Sorry about that, Erdogan. Since there seems to be a dire shortage of “moderate terrorists” in Syria, I am not sure the U.S. and its allies have much to work with. And by conditioning any further action on UN resolutions, the Libya problem is avoided. So the only thing left is the nightmare scenario you suggest: the Brits and the U.S. “going rogue” and attacking Assad and the Russians. If the West is so far gone in their thinking, then there is no hope. We might as well get down to exchanging ICBMs. I think the combination of Russian success and the Paris attacks made the U.S. realize the game had changed and that explains why this UN resolution was passed. The fact that the U.S. is following Russia’s lead and attacking the oil transports after refusing to do so for the past year and a half is an acknowledgement that the rules of the game have changed and the U.S.’s phony war against ISIS is no longer sufficient. Keep in mind that Russia does not need the authority of the UN resolution to attack the terrorists threatening Assad since Russia is operating with Syrian permission. All the UN resolution does is authorize other countries to attack ISIS, Al Qaeda and the parties working with them, which is exactly what Assad has been seeking all along. I think your misgivings are not entirely justified and that you are exaggerating the risks to Assad and the Russians from this resolution.

    • Replies: @Kiza
  12. Kiza says:

    In general, I agree with every word you typed. But, it is not only about this resolution and I have my doubts about the wisdom of the Russian involvement in Syria.

    Firstly, it is not only US and UK which are now in Syria, then also France, Germany, plus Turkey, Israel, Saudis etc. Russia is alone with Syrians only on its side.

    Secondly, I do believe that they will try a long-drawn out war of exhaustion which could remain under the threshold of a nuclear confrontation. Imagine for example a constant harassment of the Russians, waiting for a small Russian loss of focus to pounce and shoot-down another Russian plane or to regularly send rockets and/or mortars into Tartus, etc. Harassment of Russian ships near Syrian coast by submarines and so on. I repeat – a war of exhaustion.

    Thirdly, the Russians in Syria are well equipped, as you described, but they are also somewhat “stuck” in there because, for example, the Turks could deny them supplies through Bosphorus (after a false-flag and forget about the “International Law” and the treaties – the Turks control the narrow passage militarily, they can do whatever they like). The alternative supply route through Baltics is again controlled by NATO.

    And so on. Let me summarize: a low intensity, constant pressure, long drawn-out harassment, below the threshold for a nuclear war, aimed at financial, psychological and military exhaustion of the Russians in Syria. To a significant extent, the US and its allies are already waging this kind of war through the current economic sanctions and military harassment on the order with the Baltics and Poland. They keep opening up new fronts on Russia and there could be even more. What about a possible new front in Moldova? Or in the Stans? Or re-opening of the front in Ukraine and all other fronts at the same time, combined with pressure inside Russia through government change NGOs (yes, Russia just kicked out Soros, but there are many others).

    I hope you get my point – there will be no peace and no war, then something in-between, till one of the sides collapses economically. We could place bets.

  13. tbraton says:

    Kiza, I must disagree with your suggestion that Turkey would attempt to close the Bosphorus to Russian ships.

    According to Wikipedia:

    “Following World War I, the 1920 Treaty of Sèvres demilitarized the strait and made it an international territory under the control of the League of Nations.
    This was amended under the 1923 Treaty of Lausanne, which restored the straits to Turkish territory—but allowed all foreign warships and commercial shipping to traverse the straits freely. Turkey eventually rejected the terms of that treaty, and subsequently Turkey remilitarized the straits area. The reversion was formalized under the Montreux Convention Regarding the Regime of the Turkish Straits of July 20, 1936. That convention, which is still in force, treats the straits as an international shipping lane save that Turkey retains the right to restrict the naval traffic of non-Black Sea states.”

    I don’t think even Erdogan would dare close the straits to the Russians, who are after all part of a Black Sea state. Were he be so foolish to do so, Russia would treat it as an act of war and threaten to drop nuclear weapons on Ankara, and I don’t think any NATO countries would want to stand behind their NATO treaty obligations to rush to the defense of a rogue country that was openly provoking Russia by openly defying its international treaty obligations. And that includes the U.S., which is making a big fuss over China’s attempt to limit the right to use international waters in the South China Sea.

    Besides, the Russians do have an alternative to the Bosphorus and the Baltic Sea. As I recall, they flew in those rather sizable S-400s in their large cargo planes. It might be more expensive than transport by ship, but it does constitute an alternative. Knowing that, I doubt very much that Erdogan would be so silly as to provoke war with Russia by closing the Bosphorus.

    • Replies: @Kiza
  14. Kiza says:

    With due respect, tbraton, this is a lot of wishful thinking combined with little understanding of the Turkish character.

    BTW, who do you think allowed the Turks to re-militarize Bosphorus? Bosphorus was under international control (League of Nations) for all of three years. It was the same Turkish allies as now.

    Dropping a nuclear bomb on Turkey – what an extremely bad idea, not because the Turks do not deserve it, then because they are too close to other Christian Orthodox countries and Russia. Plus NATO would then attack Russia, law or no law.

    I always get surprised how many people believe in this fantasy construct called International Law. This may be because the countries which talk the most about this fantasm are the ones who disregard it the most. The true international law is the law of the jungle, the law of the rapists, murderers and thieves. They do whatever they want – now that is The Law.

    • Replies: @tbraton
  15. tbraton says:

    Well, Putin and the Russians appear to be more subtle, so they would quietly pass the word to Erdogan that, if he were to close the straits to Russian shipping, Russia would regard it as an act of war and retaliate by dropping a nuclear weapon on Turkey. Do you honestly think that Erdogan is that reckless that he would risk nuclear annihilation by closing the straits to Russia in defiance of an international treaty after having received such a threat from the Russians? Do you honestly think the European member nations of NATO would rally to Turkey’s side under those circumstances? I don’t think the Europeans are that crazy. I also recall polls taken during the past year showing that most West European citizens did not believe in the NATO commitment to rally to the defense of East European member countries in the event of Russian hostilities. If they feel that way about their East European NATO allies, can you imagine how they feel about their Turkish Muslim NATO allies? I am old enough to remember the Cuban Missile Crisis of 1962. As I recall, General De Gaulle stood up in public for his American ally, but he quietly passed the word to the Kremlin that France had nothing to do with the crisis, trying to distance France from the U.S. in order to avoid the possibility of Soviet warheads dropping on Paris.

  16. Randal says:

    compounded with vanity and folly

    Of course. There’s no need to set up a false opposition between conspiracy and cockup – there’s more than room enough for both, in the catastrophic ongoing car crash that has been British foreign policy for the last couple of decades.

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