There are three sectors of the conflict with Isis – the war zones of Syria-Iraq, the regional states which provide most of the backing for the wars and where most refugees are based, and western Europe where refugees now aim to come and whose cities Isis is attacking.
There are also three levels of the conflict. The armed conflict is now spreading from the war zones to Europe. The civilian experience of harm is massive in Syria-Iraq, the refugee camps and the Mediterranean, and now shocking in Europe as hundreds are massacred. Finally, in the political-media conflict, Isis uses mass death for propaganda purposes while western governments try to produce responses that will satisfy their populations, amid saturation coverage and moral panic.
We cannot ignore how the intersecting wars in Syria and Iraq involve local armed actors as well as Isis: the Syrian, Iraqi and (covertly) Iranian states, other Syrian armed groups, Iraqi Shi’ite militia and Hezbollah, and Kurdish forces. Wider international interventions are not mainly anti-Isis, but support local actors: the Iraqis and the Kurds against Isis and the Syrian regime (the west), and Bashar al-Assad against the armed opposition including Isis (Russia).
Interventions are driven as much (if not more) by political-media strategies for domestic audiences. Hence David Cameron’s UK government prioritised the drone assassination of Mohammed Emwazi, following Barack Obama’s example with the killing of Osama bin Laden. Even The Guardian allowed the ‘Jihadi John’ story to swamp the simultaneous Kurdish breakthrough in cutting the road between Raqqa and Mosul, Isis’ two main cities.
Both stories were, of course, eclipsed by Paris. Many hype the latest massacres as a turning point in the conflict. They certainly represent a significant turn in Isis strategy. Paris was the first western capital to be hit since London in 2005, and now it has happened twice in a year. It follows the downing of the Russian airliner and massacres in Ankara and Beirut, which have not had the same western political impact.
The French bombing of Raqqa will do little to stop future attacks, but it helps François Hollande look like he is rising to the occasion. Sadly, his declaration of ‘war’ has unmistakeable echoes of George W Bush’s after 9/11, which set the scene for the fateful invasion of 2003, to which the birth of Isis can be traced.
Clearly Isis needs to be stopped. Intervention that actually helps manifestly more humane forces can be justified. The problem is that Iraqi and even Kurdish forces have been implicated in atrocities – there are reports of Sunni homes burnt as the Kurds liberated Sinjar – while Assad is causing far greater suffering than Isis.
Western bombing itself causes civilian casualties, as the US killing of patients and staff in a Médicins sans Frontières hospital in Afghanistan reminded us. Such ‘accidental’ massacres are a systemic part of the contemporary western way of war, based on ‘risk transfer’ which protects military personnel (in their bombers and drone command centres) at the expense of civilians.
Some western missions successfully avoid civilian death, as France seems to have done so far in Raqqa. However their de-facto Russian allies – French and Russian navies are now cooperating – are less careful, having apparently caused serious casualties in Raqqa and bombed hospitals in other opposition-controlled areas.
No ‘clean’ war is on offer, whether by western bombing or from local allies on the ground. British Labour leader Jeremy Corbyn is right, therefore, to be cautious about military action. However that caution needs to be set in terms of an active response to Isis atrocities, which he has not achieved.
A progressive response needs to focus on the level of civilian harm in all sectors and on all forms of harm. We need a comprehensive strategy to prevent and alleviate civilian harm.
Airstrikes may have a role in supporting Kurdish and other anti-Isis fighters, but they do not offer a direct answer to the threat to civilians in European cities. The answer is less dramatic than explosions in Raqqa: better intelligence and policing and joining them up within and across European states.
In Europe, moreover, the largest number of much more helpless victims of Isis and Assad are those arriving to seek sanctuary. The left should shame governments of wealthy countries like Britain which refuse to take their share of those who arrive in our continent. As the French former captive of Isis, Nicholas Hénin, has pointed out, nothing will upset Isis and undermine the credibility of their recruitment as much as effective compassion for their Muslim victims.
We must also, however, address the situation of refugees still in the Middle East. We must make their situation more tolerable (as Cameron claims to be doing – but we could do more). But we must also providing safe routes to asylum in Europe – our international duty and the only genuine alternative to drownings, much as governments which fear the UK Independence party or the Front National will try to avoid it.
Finally, we must address the situation of civilians in the war zones. We should explore the scope to create and defend generally safe areas, in conjunction with Kurdish and other non-Isis oppositionists, although it is not clear where this could be done. We should increase international attention to their plight and continually emphasise that leaders of the Syrian regime, Isis and other forces need to face charges of genocide, crimes against humanity and war crimes in the International Criminal Court. Since even the worst political settlement would probably be less awful for civilians than the present war, we must seek such a settlement. In that context, but not militarily, western governments do need to work with Russia.
If Paris is to be a turning-point, let it be one in which we finally come to terms with the situation which not only Assad, Russia and Iran, but also western allies Saudi Arabia, Qatar and Israel have helped to create – and indeed the west itself with ill-conceived policies in the Middle East over many decades. At the political level, let us respond by prioritising civilian wellbeing all round –this, rather than any domestic political posturing, must be the sole motivation behindmeasures that are genuinely needed to support the overthrow of Isis in Syria-Iraq.