by Susannah O’Sullivan
Who most deserves our help today Mr. Cameron? Perhaps it is the migrants knocking at our door in Calais, desperate for a break after a long and arduous trip across Europe. No, they can have more police dogs. In Cameron’s eyes the problem there this summer was a confluence of events that led to many seizing the opportunity to escape squalid camps and cross into the UK, not the existence of destitute people a stone’s throw away from our country. They’ve been there for years (see Reinisch 2015), but Cameron and the political class continue to turn a blind eye until they try and enter the UK ‘illegally’, in the process disrupting, horror upon horror, British holidaymakers. Clearly those camped at Calais are not those we are trying to help with our bombs.
Perhaps these bombs are for the Syrian refugees who we have seen making the terrible journey into Europe, fleeing the bloody Scylla and Charybdis of Assad and IS, and running the gauntlet of traffickers, police brutality, internment camps and racism in a Europe that cares so much we wield our fences with pride. Except that history shows that aerial bombing tend to create more refugees, fleeing now our violence as well as their violence (see Whitman 2012 on Kosovo). According to the UNHCR there are now over 7 million internally displaced people within Syria, and over 4 million refugees from the conflict in total, mainly in Lebanon, Jordan and Turkey. That is many millions of people who are already in desperate need, for whom it is probably too late to be helped by our bombs, if this is the intention. As a highly developed country perhaps we should extend greater assistance, refuge and hospitality to these victims of the conflict. Cameron’s plan to increase our refugee intake specifically from Syria to 20,000 over the next five years only looks like a generous change in policy because the previous resettlement programme offered by the UK government was so woefully, pitifully inadequate. The numbers accepted from Syria to date barely made it over 200 (on top of usual asylum intake). To remind you, that is from a total of over 4 million. The headline figure of 20,000 does represent an increase in our hospitality from a low base. However, to put that in context, Lebanon is currently hosting over 1 million refugees from neighbouring Syria, or about a quarter of their total population. 20,000 over five years barely makes a dent in this figure. It would appear that Mr Cameron and his bombs are not so concerned about refugees from the Syrian conflict.
Who are these bombs really for then? For the victims of the Paris terror attacks on 13th November? Perhaps their memory will be served best by contributing our bombs, so loving and yet ruthless and so precise to only kill IS terrorists and not ordinary people already living under IS occupation. A rejoinder to Islamic State and a reminder that recalcitrant terrorist groups will be bombed into submission by mighty Europe, confident of our values, our justice and our righteousness. So confident are we that it will avenge their memory that we will bomb all others who violently disagree, until they change their minds.
What evidence is there that bombing makes us safer from terrorism? History would indicate that aerial bombardment of terrorist or militant groups rarely leads to a victory. More than 20 years after the Taliban emerged from mujahedeen groups (who themselves emerged in resistance to foreign occupation of Afghanistan by the Soviets in the 1980s), parts of Afghanistan remain under threat of Taliban attacks. Successive bombing, occupation, imprisonment and counter-insurgency have not appeared to help. If the Taliban does recede into the memories of a long and terrible conflict there, newer and even more brutal enemies appear to be taking hold. Long since headline news, Afghanistan now appears far enough way to not constitute a threat to European security, and our interest will fizzle out in the slow death of hopes for a democratic future. Like in Afghanistan, the war in Iraq showed us that intervention and occupation tend to solve some problems while at the same time bringing new more intractable difficulties that resemble our darkest nightmares. The occupation failed to eradicate Al-Qaida in Iraq. Although Al-Qaida were not in Iraq when the war started. Anyway, they certainly were by the time it came to an official end in 2010. Who even cares? In the intervention game, memories are exceedingly short. Never mind, at least Saddam Hussein and Colonel Gaddafi are gone… Move on to the latest enemy.
What comes next then, Mr. Cameron? Where will our bombing lead us in Syria? Time and again history has shown that no light will emerge from the destruction of characters that we create as unique evil. Our post-Cold War adventures have been full of bogeymen, representing the newest incantation of the devil personified. African warlords and crackpot dictators have been felled by the mighty in a crude pantomime of interventionary justice, but the problem is that if you insist on seeing the world in such dichotomous terms, there will always be a new evil to replace the last. This way of thinking has led us further into deals with lesser devils in the quest to destroy the true bad men. This time a shaky relationship of convenience with President Bashar al Assad, butcher of Damascus the younger, will apparently destroy the enemy du jour, Islamic State.
The question of who we are helping and how has not been addressed by Mr Cameron. Even if we do help the situation on the ground evolve in a favourable way, then what next? What will happen afterwards with the implicit alliances we enter into when we commit violence to an ongoing conflict? What will Syria look like without an Islamic State and what will be our role in contributing to a peaceful resolution?
Who is Mr Cameron helping then, with these bombs over Syria? Like all humanitarian action, or in this case a commitment of crude violence from a distance in the guise of a humanitarian action, this is about ourselves. As Gregory (2006: 5) notes, the imaginative geographies of intervention work not only “by categorizing enemies in particular ways and legitimizing military actions against ‘them’– but also to produce the public itself: ‘us’.” These bombs are about you, Mr Cameron, and they’re about me, and about us. In the construction of national identity, and the performance of heroic humanitarianism, we’re all implicated. We’re used as a rhetorical device in which all manner of counter-terrorism actions are justified with reference to national security, and, by implication, the preservation of our lives. This bombing of Syria is no different – we bomb them and we save ourselves in the process. At the same time as helping some vague others, as long as they stay far, far away from our borders and don’t even think about getting to Europe.
Gregory (2006: 1) quotes Gertrude Bell on the inhumanity of aerial bombing: “It’s an amazingly relentless and terrible thing, war from the air.” This was in reference to the UK’s bombing of Iraq in the 1924. Ninety-nine years later and we’re still bombing Iraq in an intervention that slipped through Parliament last summer to little fanfare. And what has it achieved, our century of intervention in the Middle East? How many deaths from the air before we accept that our bombs aren’t the caring silver bullets they are spoken as? As Abboud points out this week, the intervention debate is a self-reinforcing distraction that makes us feel like we’re doing something while all the time reading off the same tired script we’ve relied on for a century. He argues that “there is such an obsession with the Islamic State of Iraq and the Levant [ISIL] and an irrational fear of Syrian refugees in the West that encourages us to ignore the very real suffering of Syrians who have to live while spectacular and exceptional violence surrounds them.” In amongst the bluster about Labour party discipline, hand-wringing over the threat brought by Syrian refugees and agonising about the seeming inevitability of making a pact with Russia and Assad, the views, voices and interests of Syrians continue to be ignored. If our leaders insist on coopting our identity through perilous and expensive violence then its time to reject their false resolve and embrace an outspoken and self-critical pacifism.
Gregory, D. (2006) ‘”In another timezone, the bombs fall unsafely…” Targets, civilians and late modern war’, The Arab World Geographer, 9(2): 88-111.
Reinisch, J. (2015) ‘”Forever Temporary”: Migrants in Calais, Then and Now’, The Political Quarterly, 86(4): 515-522.
Susannah O’Sullivan is a Lecturer in International Relations at The University of Chester