Is there a “Plan B” in Barack Obama’s brain? Or in David Cameron’s, for that matter? I mean, we’re vaguely told that air strikes against the ferocious “Islamic State” may go on for “a long time”. But how long is “long”? Are we just going to go on killing Arabs and bombing and bombing and bombing until, well, until we go on bombing? What happens if our Kurdish and non-existent “moderate” Syrian fighters – described by Vice-President Joe Biden last week as largely “shopkeepers” – don’t overthrow the monstrous “Islamic State”? Then I suppose we are going to bomb and bomb and bomb again. As a Lebanese colleague of mine asked in an article last week, what is Obama going to do next? Has he thought of that?
After Alan Henning’s beheading, the gorge rises at the thought of even discussing such things. But distance sometimes creates distorting mirrors, none so more than when it involves the distance between the Middle East and Washington, London, Paris and, I suppose, Canberra. In Beirut, I’ve been surveying the Arab television and press – and it’s interesting to see the gulf that divides what the Arabs see and hear, and what the West sees and hears. The gruesome detail is essential here to understand how Arabs have already grown used to jihadi barbarity. They have seen full video clips of the execution of Iraqis – if shot in the back of the head, they have come to realise, a victim’s blood pours from the front of his face – and they have seen video clips of Syrian soldiers not only beheaded but their heads then barbecued and carried through villages on sticks.
Understandably, Alan Henning’s murder didn’t get much coverage in the Middle East, although television did show his murder video – which Western television did not. But it didn’t make many front pages. Mostly the fighting between jihadis and Kurds at Ein al-Arab (Kobane) and the festival for the Muslim Eid – and the Haj in Saudi Arabia – dominated news coverage. In general, the Arab world was as uninterested in Henning’s murder as we have been, for example, in the car bomb that killed 50 Syrian children in Homs last week. Had they been British children, of course…
But I’m struck by friends who’ve asked me why we are really carrying out air strikes when we won’t put soldiers on the ground. They have noted how the families of American hostages – fruitlessly seeking mercy for their loved ones – keep repeating that they cannot make Obama do what they want him to do. Yet, don’t we claim that our democratic governments can be influenced by individuals, that they do what we want?
And watching David Cameron on my Beirut television last week, I asked myself why it was really necessary for the RAF to bomb the “Islamic State”. He knows very well that our four – or is it two? – clapped-out Tornadoes are not going to make the slightest difference to any assault on jihadi forces. Indeed, he was prepared to delay RAF strikes until the Scottish referendum was over. If so, why did he not defer them altogether to save British lives?
But it was obvious at the Tory party conference that Cameron’s greatest threat came not from a man in Mosul called Abu-Bakr al-Baghdadi, but from a man in Bromley called Nigel Farage. Thus he waffled on about how Britain would “hunt down and bring to justice” Henning’s killers and do “everything we can to defeat this organisation in the region and at home”, using “all the assets we have to find these [remaining] hostages”. By “all the assets”, he must mean ground troops – because the RAF is already being used – and this we are not, I think, going to do. “British troops held hostage by Islamic State” is not a headline he wants to read. Thus I fear we are going to do nothing except bomb. And bomb. And bomb. Farage can’t beat that.
Like all Western leaders faced with a crisis in the Middle East, Cameron does not want to deal with it – or explore why it happened. He wants to know how to respond to it politically or, preferably, militarily. Our refusal to broadcast the “Islamic State” beheading videos is understandable – absolutely in the case of the actual murders – but by preventing Brits from actually seeing these horrors, the Government avoids having to respond to the public’s reaction: either a call for more air strikes or to demand their annulment.
This secrecy means the hostages do not exist in our imagination; they only emerge from the mist into the horrible desert sunlight when that grisly video arrives. In the region itself, hostages become public property at once, relatives giving interviews and demanding action from their governments. As I write, the families of 21 captured Lebanese soldiers faced with beheading are blocking the main Damascus- Beirut highway. A Qatari envoy has arrived to help (presumably with lots of cash).
Perhaps we need to reframe our understanding of the “Islamic State”. British Muslim leaders have said, quite rightly, that Muslims show mercy, and that the “Islamic State” is a perversion of Islam. I suspect and fear that they are wrong. Not because Islam is not merciful, but because the “Islamic State” has nothing at all to do with Islam. It is more a cult of nihilism. Their fighters have been brutalised – remember that they have endured, many of them, Saddam’s cruelty, our sanctions, Western invasion and occupation and air strikes under Saddam and now air strikes again. These people just don’t believe in justice any more. They have erased it from their minds.
If we had not supported so many brutal men in the Middle East, would things have turned out differently? Probably. If we had supported justice – I hesitate to suggest putting a certain man on trial for war crimes – would there have been a different reaction in the Middle East? In the Syrian war, they say that 200,000 have died; in Gaza more than 2,000. But in Iraq, we suspect half a million died. And whose fault was that?
The “Islamic State” are the real or spiritual children of all this. Now we face an exclusive form of nihilism, a cult as merciless as it is morbid. And we bomb and we bomb and we bomb. And then?
Robert Fisk writes for the Independent, where this column originally appeared.