"The only right way to fight international terrorism...is to act preventively, to fight and destroy militants and terrorists on the territories that they already occupied, not wait for them to come to our house,” Russian President Vladimir Putin told a meeting in Moscow last Wednesday. The same day Russia’s air force in Syria carried out its first air strikes.
Putin’s talking points could have been a speech by George W. Bush. But unlike Bush, Putin has garnered support from many on the Left and Right in the West. British commentator Simon Jenkins, who mocked Bush’s war on terror as “licensing a new stupidity... translating into global disaster bringing death and misery to millions,” commended Putin on September 29 in The Guardian. In “Why the West should listen to Putin on Syria,” he argued that, “as everyone knows, the only way to stop the slaughter in Syria is for the US and its allies to work with President [Bashar] Assad – and stop worrying about what looks good.” Putin had brought “pride” and the West should work with him against the “serious menace from Muslim states to [Russia’s] south.”
The Stop the War Coalition in the UK wrote on September 18 that “bombing is immoral, stupid and never wins wars,” and then claimed “the only intervention likely to work in Syria just now is from Moscow.”
Russia’s restoration of “pride,” its “war on terror” and outspokenness against “Islamic terrorism” are admired by the same Western leftists who find Islamophobia in the word “terrorism” in their own press and object to bombing when it is carried out by the US or UK. We are being told that to “stop the slaughter” in Syria we must ally with the dictator who presided over the slaughter of 200,000 Syrians and helped make some five million Syrians into refugees.
Behind all of this re-alignment of the “war on terror” is the Islamic State (IS) bogeyman. Over 62 countries have joined a coalition since last year to “fight IS,” as we keep hearing. Every month brings more coalition partners. In July Turkey claimed it was joining the “ongoing cooperation against Daesh [IS].” On September 26 the British Parliament voted to allow air missions to be flown against the Islamists (the same parliament rejected David Cameron’s request for air strikes against Assad in 2013). At the same time Belgium and Denmark “joined the growing coalition, which includes France and Australia, along with Arab allies like Saudi Arabia and the United Arab Emirates.” Even Iran, which is already supporting Assad and Shi’ite militias in Syria and Iraq, has said it may help fight IS alongside the coalition.
If you want to have some fun go to an online portal that allows you to color-code a world map (I like mapchart.net). Click all the 62 or more countries now engaged in “fighting IS.” Eventually much of the world will look red.
The countries with the strongest militaries in the world, the highest GDPs and some of the largest populations are all allied against IS. Almost all of the countries who fought on both sides of World War II in Europe are allied against IS. Germany, Italy, Russia, France, the UK and US, all on the same side. These countries jointly possess the most hightech military equipment that has ever existed.
And what are they fighting? Islamic State is a terrifying organization – if you are an Iraqi or Syrian civilian, or a minority Yezidi or Christian, whose communities have been murdered en masse. But setting aside its propaganda, rape of women and murder of civilians, IS was estimated to only have 31,000 fighters at the height of its offensive in September of 2015. The number of people living under IS control in Syria is estimated at around two million, although some have fled. That includes people in the province of Aleppo, Hasakah, Raqqa and the areas around Deir as-Zor. Bolstered by 20,000 foreign volunteer fighters, IS can only draw on 200,000 men of fighting age for recruitment and logistics. In Iraq it has a few more resources. But it is stretched thin in both Iraq and Syria, fighting Shi’ite militias, Iran and the Kurds of the YPG in Syria and Peshmerga in Iraq. The Kurds alone field fighting forces that are larger than IS and have defeated IS in battle. So if the Kurds, by themselves, with truck-mounted .50 caliber guns and AK-47s can defeat IS, why can’t the 62-country “anti-IS coalition”? How is it possible that the countries who fought on both sides of WWII in Europe can’t defeat 40,000 men armed with mortars and riding around in Toyota trucks? IS doesn’t have an air force. It doesn’t have air defenses.
It doesn’t have tanks. It improvises armored vehicles by welding plates to civilian cars, and by capturing Humvees from the Iraqi army. With no way to service the captured equipment, much of it falls apart eventually. If you resurrected just one division of Patton’s Third Army from 1944, it could defeat IS. So why is IS still growing in power in Syria, still fighting? Because the 62-nation coalition and all its friends in Ankara and Moscow are not really fighting IS.
We live in an era of fabrications, bombastic statements, bureaucratic mumbo-jumbo and nonsense, where paying lip service to “fighting” is always preferable to actually fighting. One foreign volunteer who served with the Kurds actually fighting IS wrote on Facebook yesterday: “Surprise, surprise, ‘fighting terrorism’ is a good excuse to kill whoever you don’t like these days.”
His cynical comment is basically correct. When Turkey claimed it was going to “fight IS,” it actually launched a war against the Kurdish militant group PKK partly as a way to cement its popularity ahead of November elections.
Putin’s claim to be fighting IS was just a way to get a stamp of approval from the international community to go deep into Syria to support Assad and defeat the Syrian rebels. Its no surprise that after Russia launched its first air strikes it was reported that Putin would hold “urgent talks” with US “after Putin defies West, ‘targets US-backed rebels.’” Every nation has learned that “fighting IS” is a ticket to carry out other policy agendas. For Turkey it was a way to fight the Kurds. For Russia, a way to support Assad. For Iran a way to deepen its influence over Iraq and Syria. For some countries, it’s a way to get closer to the US, or to test out military equipment.
The US campaign against IS has been panned as exaggerating its results and accomplishing little. You can see that for yourself by reading between the lines of any of the Pentagon statements on US air strikes and “accomplishments.”
In September 2014 when the strikes were beginning, the claim was they targeted “manufacturing workshops and training camps.” In another strike consisting of F-22 Raptors, F-15s, F-16s, B-1 bombers and drones, the targets were IS “headquarters, training camps barracks and combat vehicles.” The Pentagon claimed, “Coalition partners participated in both the second and third waves, supporting with a range of combat capabilities that began with combat air patrols to actual strikes on targets.” One US ship fired Tomahawk missiles that hit an IS “finance center” in Raqqa. The target was “engaged.”
On June 5, 2015 the Pentagon claimed, “Our coalition air strikes are the most precise and disciplined in the history of aerial warfare.” Asked about how IS had captured Palmyra, the briefing general noted, “I didn’t say that they haven’t made tactical advances. I said they haven’t made strategic victories.”
The objective of the air strikes was “governance and arresting foreign fighter flows and crushing Daesh financing may be more important.”
Other briefings describe air strikes on IS motorcycles and “fighting positions,” which basically means millions of dollars spent to blow up sandbags. The concept is to defeat IS through jargon, not total war. Which is why IS is still advancing, as most of the world supposedly fights it. The one thing those “fighting IS” fear is that IS might actually be defeated, which would remove their excuse for involving themselves in the Syrian civil war.
Follow the author @Sfrantzman.