Sabre-rattling by British armchair generals over Syria plays into the hands of jihadists

Boris Johnson has said he won’t rule out further military action – without specifying exactly what that might be

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The Independent Online

Around this time three years ago, Abdurahman al-Shibli was describing in a village near al-Bab how a missile tore into his farmhouse early one morning while he was out tending his flock of sheep. He showed the little cemetery near the wreckage of his home where five members of his family who died in the attack were buried. One grave was no more than four feet long; it was of Hania, a three-year-old granddaughter.

The air strike in Aleppo province had been carried out by one of Bashar al-Assad’s warplanes. It should not have been flying; the US was supposed to have begun military action after regime forces crossed Barack Obama’s “red line” with a Sarin gas attack on Ghouta, claiming 1,400 lives.

Abdulrahman, a man in his 70s, and the neighbours who gathered around him, did not know the details of the US President’s plan, or David Cameron’s repeated threats of dire consequences for Assad if he dared to use chemical weapons, or the pledge by French Foreign Minister Laurent Fabius that use of weapons of mass destruction would lead to a “massive and lightning fast” response.

But they had heard of what had happened at Ghouta and also accounts – vague and garbled – of the West’s promise to stop the regime’s bombing; why, they asked, was nothing being done. What had happened, of course, was that Mr Cameron could not get the Commons vote for military action; the French were willing to go ahead but trepiditious; and there was deep unease in Washington. President Obama, in these circumstances, was quick to accept a Russian proposal not to send in warplanes in return for the Assad regime giving up its chemical stockpiles.

Two days after meeting Abdurrahman I was at a farmhouse outside the nearby town of Mara listening to Yusuf Husseini, a 26-year-old rebel fighter, raging against betrayal by the “liars and hypocrites” of the West. America and Europe have made an enemy of the Syrian people with their broken promises, he shouted, to nods of agreement from his comrades.

President Obama’s decision not to carry out air strikes at the time may, or may not, have been the right one. But to many in the Syrian opposition, it was yet another example of the West letting them down, a sense of bitter disillusionment which led some of them to embrace the emerging extremist jihadist groups. Yusuf and at least two of his friends joined Jabhat al-Nusra, an al-Qaeda affiliate calling themselves Jabhat Fateh Al-Sham, a little later. Some of the others went into the ranks of Isis, then in the process of establishing its presence in northern Syria.

What happened in al-Ghouta was not the first time that these fighters had felt let down in this way. I had first met Yusuf while covering the battle for Aleppo the previous year, when he gave up his job working in a grain store to take up a gun against the regime. The West had encouraged the people to rise up. “Assad must go” was the cry of Mr Cameron and Nicolas Sarkozy, then the French president.

The rebels, the overwhelming majority of them not extremists, could well have taken Aleppo, Syria’s largest city and commercial centre at the time. But no help was forthcoming from the West. The regime received help from the Iranians and the Russians; al-Nusr, Isis and other Salafists from elements in Saudi Arabia and Qatar. Aleppo settled into a bloody stalemate.

There are now, once again, cries for the establishment of a “no-fly zone” in London in response to the bombing of Aleppo by regime and Russian warplanes. Andrew Mitchell, who had to resign as international development secretary after claims he called a policeman a “pleb”, is one of the loudest proponents of this. The RAF and other Western air forces must be prepared to shoot down Russian planes if necessary, he has demanded.

Boris Johnson has declared that the UK should consider further military action in Syria without specifying what it is going to be, while the Prime Minister, Theresa May, has said the Government has no plans for intervention by force. The Foreign Secretary must be aware that the British military, denuded by cuts carried out by the Cameron government would be incapable of doing anything significant by itself. Western action, in this context, would need American leadership, and that seems unlikely to take place.

Hillary Clinton has talked about the possibility of establishing a “no-fly zone”, but it is one thing saying so when campaigning; another when one is actually in the White House and has to sign the order to embark on a highly risky and open-ended venture, especially so when the military commanders are opposed to it.

Drone footage of Aleppo

General Joseph Dunford, the chairman of the US Joint Chiefs of Staff, told Congress this month  that “for us to control all of the air space in Syria would require us to go to war against Syria and Russia, that’s a pretty fundamental decision…” This would mean Russian air defences would have to be destroyed with strikes on surface-to-air missile sites and aircraft on the ground. Russian warships in the Mediterranean will also have to be neutralised if one is to give total protection to allied planes. Is Washington really going to embark on this while also campaigning against Isis and being unable to carry out the planned drawdown in Afghanistan thanks to a resurgent Taliban?

Turkey has been repeatedly calling for the establishment of a “no-fly zone” in an area across its border in Syria, a plan which faced repeated forceful rejection from Mr Obama.

There is, however, little talk of a “no-fly zone” in Ankara now, with Turkey busy carrying out its own air strikes, against the Kurds and Isis, in Syria. After the bitter confrontation following the shooting down of the Russian jet last November, Vladimir Putin and Recep Tayyep Erdogan are forming their own plans on Syria with regular talks, such as the ones held in Istanbul earlier this week, and the Turks certainly will not want to be involved in a conflict with Russia.

The fact remains that sabre-rattling by armchair generals in the West, sabre-rattling followed by failure to deliver on the ground, fuels anti-Western anger and helps extremist jihadists with their recruitment. It is also the case that Mr Putin has gauged this extent of Western appetite for action and this has been a major factor in him deciding to step in to help President Assad.

At the Syria-Turkish border last week I met Syrian rebels and opposition activists musing whether the latest round of promises of help coming from Europe would actually lead to anything practical which will have real impact on the ground. The more experienced among them urged against raising expectations, pointing out what happened on previous occasions, but some of the younger ones could not help be hopeful. They are likely to be disappointed.

There are, however, talks on Syria due to be held in Lausanne at the weekend with the US, Russia, Turkey, Saudi Arabia and possibly Qatar taking part. Britain and other European states have not been asked to participate. But they should do so. Any chance of lessening the dreadful death and destruction will come from negotiations in Lausanne, not noises in London.