The brutal slaying of 130 people in Paris on 13 November 2015 was used to justify the stepping up of British imperialism’s involvement in the living hell that is Syria. Even as the massacre was taking place the faction of the ruling class in Britain that for some years has wanted to escalate military action against Islamic State was calling for the overturning of the 2013 parliamentary vote against the extension of British involvement in this campaign from Iraq to Syria. This cold-blooded manipulation of the revulsion at the Paris slaughter was whipped up into an almost hysterical campaign which culminated in Labour’s Hilary Benn’s speech comparing the fight against the “fascists” of IS to the Second World War. The subsequent vote to bomb IS in Syria was presented as Britain once again taking up its rightful place in the world as a moral force.
In reality, British imperialism’s increased military role in Syria will only pour more oil onto the barbaric fire of militarism, sectarianism and banditry that is consuming Syria and Iraq and threatening the whole region.
This decision also does not however resolve the deep divisions within the British bourgeoisie over the best policy to pursue in order to defend the national interest. Only weeks before the vote was taken the House of Commons’ Foreign Affairs Committee issued a report that contained the following warning: “we believe that there should be no extension of British military action into Syria unless there is a coherent international strategy that has a realistic chance of defeating ISIL and of ending the civil war in Syria. In the absence of such a strategy, taking action to meet the desire to do something is still incoherent....We consider that the focus on the extension of airstrikes against ISIL in Syria is a distraction from the much bigger and more important task of finding a resolution to the conflict in Syria and thereby removing one of the main facilitators of ISIL’s rise.”(‘The extension of offensive British operations in Syria’, 29 October 2015)
There may have been some pretence of pursuing such a strategy at meetings of world and regional leaders following the Paris killings, but the reality is that the war in Syria is a cauldron of tensions between the different imperialist powers: “The fact that there are few reliable counterparts on the ground is a reflection of the extraordinary complexity of the situation on the ground in Syria. Our witnesses described a chaotic and complicated political and military scene. After over four years of civil war, there are 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....The situation in Syria is complicated still further by the multiple international actors involved on the ground, to the extent that many observers now consider the civil war a proxy war as much as an internal conflict. These include Russia and Iran (on the Assad side), Turkey, Saudi Arabia, and Qatar, and the US (on the sides of various different parts of the opposition), creating what one witness called a ‘multi-layered conflict’. The much more substantial Russian intervention on the side of the Assad regime that started at the end of September 2015 has complicated even further any proposed action in Syria by the UK”(op cit). Clearly the committee was not going to include Britain itself as part of this multi-layered conflict, but it was already deeply involved, whether through direct military action against IS across the non-existent border with Iraq, or through less direct support (money, weapons, military advice, etc) to rebel forces inside Syria itself. The faction that opposed direct military involvement in Syria presented itself as a force for humanitarian concern, but their actual concern was that such involvement would not serve the national interest, and would undermine the British bourgeoisie’s ability to act as a mediator and to use its diplomatic power. This was summed up by the Foreign Affairs committee’s report: “Several of our witnesses suggested that by participating in military action against ISIL in Syria, the UK would actually compromise its diplomatic capability and its capacity to put pressure on its national and international partners to create a route to a solution to the inter-related problems of ISIL and the Syrian civil war”.
This division within the British ruling class over such a fundamental question as the national interest is an expression of the dilemma that it has been confronted with since the end of the Cold War: how to best pursue the national interest in the absence of clearly defined blocs? There is a general agreement on the need to maintain its independence through playing its special relationship with the US against its relations with European states. The problem has been how to do this. Just how problematic is clearly expressed by the present situation in Syria.
Syria’s descent into chaos cannot be separated from the hardly less messy situation in Iraq, which has been a poisonous thorn in the side of British imperialism ever since the invasion of 2003. Britain’s involvement in the Iraq debacle was a profound blow for the British ruling class. The loyal following of US policy towards Iraq and Afghanistan failed to secure British imperialism’s international position either though its military power or its diplomatic ability to play the US and the EU at the same time. Its pretense to moral authority in bringing about a ‘democratic transformation’ of these countries was exposed as a fraud. Finally, it was reduced to scurrying away, with its tail between its legs, from the chaos it had helped to create. The Cameron government has tried to overcome the trauma of the Blair years, but as the 2013 vote showed, an important part of the ruling class was not willing to risk another ‘foreign adventure’, particularly one in the chaos of Syria. This has, as we said at the time, left British imperialism looking weak, unable to overcome its own divisions. The recent vote does take steps toward overcoming this division, at least publicly, but the ruling class is still faced with the question of how its involvement will play out.
There is already cynicism about the role of the British military, which has only, to date, carried out 11 bombing raids since the vote, as well as a real fear of mission creep as British special forces are deployed to support and train rebel forces. The so-called ‘moderate’ forces supported by Britain are in reality fundamentalist warlords and gangsters, as the above report admits.
As for boasting about precision bombing and how concern for civilians is so important to Britain ... 6 of the missions flown have been against oil plants that are manned by workers. Oil workers, and oil truck drivers (over 100 oil trucks were destroyed by the US in two days) are clearly not considered civilians by the British ruling class. But in any case as General Tommy Franks of the US army said early in the Iraq war, “we don’t do body counts”; and any reports of civilian deaths from within IS held areas will be brushed aside as accidents or IS propaganda.
British involvement in other wars
The problems faced by British imperialism in Syria are only part of the growing imperialist chaos in the Middle East and North Africa.
There is the continuing sore of the collapse of Libya into a series of warring regions, cities and even neighbourhoods, including areas controlled by IS, following the ‘liberation’ of Libya by the British and French in 2011. The sight of the British ambassador fleeing Tripoli before advancing rebel factions was hardly a good advertisement for British imperialism as potential backing for any army or clan trying to seize state control.
The involvement of British imperialism in the war waged by a coalition of Saudi Arabia, Gulf States and Pakistan in Yemen against the Iran-backed Houthi rebels is another difficulty. This proxy war between two regional powers, a war also taking place in Syria, threatens to spiral out of control as their struggle to control Yemen becomes increasingly intractable. Saudi imperialism is particularly concerned about the agreement between Iran and the US over nuclear weapons, and also the role of Iran in Syria (where Saudi Arabia was initially one of the main backers of IS and other Islamist warlords). Britain is supplying weapons and military advisors to the anti-Houthi coalition and has direct links with the military of all these countries, many of whose officer corps received training in Britain. The Saudis’ recent public execution of 47 Shia Muslims has further sharpened regional tensions. It highlighted the hollow nature of British imperialism’s claim to be fighting extremism whilst at the same time arming and making very nice profits from the Saudi state which is the main promoter of Wahabism, the ideological foundations of IS and jihadism.
The implication of British imperialism in the growing fragmentation of the Middle East has deep historical roots. It was the dividing up of the old Ottoman Empire between British and French imperialism, following World War I, that set up the artificial system of states that make up the Middle East (see the other article on the Middle East in this issue). Britain also has a history of promoting fundamentalism in order to maintain its rule and role in the region. The emergence of the Saudis as the rulers of present day Saudi Arabia, along with their fundamentalist ideology, was promoted by the British as well as the Americans. Western support for fundamentalist regimes and groups in the period of the Cold War included, to cite only two examples, the Islamic Brotherhood in Egypt against Nasser, and the promotion and arming of jihadist groups in Afghanistan and beyond to fight the Russians in Afghanistan. Thus today British imperialism is faced by the challenge of trying to assert itself in the growing chaos of the Middle East, a chaos it has done much to cause.