Ignoring Western bombing in the Middle East endangers us all
by Ian Sinclair
29 June 2017
The terrible consequences of the West’s air campaign in Iraq and Syria have dropped off the news agenda. No doubt the media would argue they have been preoccupied with the era-shaking general election and the Grenfell Tower disaster but the unpalatable truth is our so-called fiercely independent and critical fourth estate have rarely shown much concern with the human cost of Western military intervention in the Middle East.
For example, the Guardian did report United Nations (UN) war crimes investigators recently saying the US-backed assault on the Syrian city of Raqqa, the defacto capital of Islamic State (ISIS), had caused a “staggering loss of civilian life” – in a tiny article hidden on page 22 of the paper. According to the UN inquiry at least 300 civilians have died in recent weeks, with over 160,000 people fleeing the intensifying air campaign. The local activist group Raqqa is Being Slaughtered Silently stated the US-led coalition bombing has destroyed “almost every important building in Raqqa,” including schools and mosques. On top of this the New York Times reported local residents as saying the coalition were using munitions loaded with white phosphorus in eastern Raqqa (the use of white phosphorus in populated areas is prohibited under international law).
The coalition has also intensified its bombing campaign in Mosul, in an attempt to dislodge ISIS’s grip on the northern Iraqi city, including a March 2017 airstrike that is estimated to have killed around 200 civilians. In the same month the Washington Post noted “A sharp rise in the number of civilians reported killed in US-led airstrikes in Iraq and Syria is spreading panic” with families describing “cowering in basements for weeks as bombs rained down around them and the Islamic State battled from their rooftops.”
In total, the independent monitoring group Air Wars estimates a minimum of nearly 4,000 civilians have died in the 22,600 air strikes the coalition has carried out in Iraq and Syria since 2014.
As well as killing thousands, like with the US bombing of Afghanistan and Pakistan the airstrikes in Iraq and Syria likely increase support for those they are targeting. “Its strongest recruiting tactic is to present itself as the one true guardian of Islam under attack from ‘crusader’ forces”, Paul Rogers, Professor of Peace Studies at the University of Bradford, argues about ISIS. Rogers’ analysis is borne out by the fact many of those who carry out terrorist attacks in the West cite Western military action in the Middle East as a justification for their actions. For example, the Wall Street Journal noted that “In the series of phone calls with the negotiator during the Orlando massacre” in June 2016 the perpetrator Omar Mateen “railed against US airstrikes in Syria and Iraq, saying they were killing women and children”.
So if Western military action isn’t the answer, what is?
First, we should work to close the external funding channels to ISIS and other extremist groups – the topic of a UK Home Office inquiry that has apparently been shelved by the government because it points the finger at Saudi Arabia, the UK’s closest partner in the Middle East.
In addition, it is well known that some of the “extraordinary amount of arms” that ex-US Secretary of State John Kerry says US has helped to send into Syria have ended up in extremists’ hands. In 2015 the Guardian reported ISIS captured 2,300 US-made Humvee armoured vehicles and huge amounts of weapons when it overran Mosul.
More broadly, it is important to understand the conditions that give rise to groups like ISIS – the extreme violence, chaos and sectarianism created by conflict. “There undeniably would be no ISIS if we had not invaded Iraq,” David Kilcullen, a top counter-insurgency advisor to the US military, argued in 2016. A similar relationship applies to Libya circa 2011 and also Syria – in both countries the West helped to escalate and extend the conflict by sending in arms and blocking peace initiatives.
So one of the most effective things the West could do to reduce ISIS’s power is work to deescalate the conflicts. In Iraq the West should be pressuring the Iraqi government to implement a political settlement that is fully inclusive of the Sunni community that has been alienated and marginalised since 2003 – conditions ISIS has exploited. And if military action is required Dr David Wearing, a Lecturer at SOAS, University of London, argues it is essential the fighting is left “to local forces that have popular legitimacy in those areas” – not Western forces.
That there is a connection between Western bombs killing people in the Middle East and terrorist attacks killing people on Western streets is obvious to all but the most blinkered. Stopping the former, which is likely to reduce the latter, is the pressing task facing concerned citizens in the West.