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Cameron’s Syrian Strategy

The Cameron government is continuing to sideline itself from mainstream public opinion, which is strongly in favour of ethical investment in green technologies and divestment from firms involved in human rights abuses. It announced earlier this month that a further £12 billion would be invested in defence through cuts to the police, business grants and welfare. Part of this investment will be in 24 of Lockheed Martin’s F-35 Joint Strike Fighter. The total cost of these new jets is approximately $1.45 trillion. Perhaps an argument (admittedly a grossly ideological one) could be made in favour of this investment if the jet proved successful, reaching new frontiers of technological advancement. Yet the F-35 currently cannot even fire its own 25mm cannon until 2019 as a result of software issues. Tom Cahill from U.S. Uncut describes the investment as ‘the epitome of Pentagon waste and cronyism’, with the US having already spent over $400 billion on the jet, supporting the private profits of Lockheed Martin. Even more perverse is the fact that the cost of the useless F-35 is equivalent to providing free tuition for higher education for every student in the US until 2039. But Cameron’s priorities are clear: private profit for state-backed arms firms trumps all potential public good.

The recent spending increase moved the defence budget to a projected £178bn from 2015-2025, some of which will be spent on nine Boeing maritime surveillance aircraft to rival what the Financial Times called, with intense Second Cold War hysteria, ‘a potential Russian submarine threat’. Pluto Press’s 2016 volume The Secure and the Dispossessed edited by Nick Buxton and Ben Hayes counters this kind of machismo ‘defence’ mindset by pointing to numerous cases where the military and private arms firms are having a major, devastating effect on climate change, both in terms of stirring class and economic divisions and also in the way they fuel global conflicts which ensure public money and innovation is directed away from green issues.

With the passage in October 2015 of UN resolution 2249, ‘unequivocally’ condemning Isis, Cameron’s defence and interventionist priorities are becoming much more acceptable in the Commons, despite impressive opposition from Corbyn. When Cameron announced his grand strategy for Syrian intervention on November 26th, he failed to make explicit how exactly UK bombing raids would be more effective than the existing French and US strikes. This was a particularly urgent point to address considering Airwars’s estimate in August that over 450 civilians (including over 100 children) had been killed in US-led airstrikes in Iraq and Syria. Airwars pointed to a ‘worrying gulf between public and coalition positions’, as a number of large-scale Stop the War Coalition demonstrations in the UK throughout the summer and winter months received overwhelming public sympathy in the face of the establishment’s martial antagonism. Even Mike Flynn, a prominent US general, has claimed that ‘drone strikes have created more terrorists than they have killed’.

Even more remarkable was Cameron’s claim to have a legal case for legitimising foreign strikes against Syria. While he briefly seemed to acknowledge that last week’s UN resolution did not have Chapter 7 status (ensuring that it cannot be used in favour of foreign strikes), Cameron invoked a self-defence argument, despite the fact that self-defence can only be used against an imminent or actual threat from a foreign state, not terror group. Cameron simultaneously argued to be putting a ceasefire and intervention on the table, even though airstrikes will stymy ceasefire negotiations, not encourage them. The prime minister also failed to respond to questions about the likely effects to national security military intervention in Syria will have, no doubt forgetting that Britain’s intervention in Iraq dramatically escalated the threat of terror attacks.

The Guardian’s response to Cameron’s strategy was to mildly object to prolonged (not short-term) intervention, and to define serious objection to military involvement simply as political ‘point-scoring’, rather than a genuine objection to the prime minister’s faux humanitarianism. Owen Jones made a few of his typically bland comments about how bombing Syria would be really unfair and mean while objecting to no specifics, Mary Dejevsky gave Cameron credit for proposing ‘a wider strategy’ post-intervention, while Martin Woollacott claimed that the aim of foreign military engagement was ‘worthwhile and the motivation eminently understandable’. Rafael Behr soberly discussed the ‘complex and potentially open-ended’ nature of the conflict, before suggesting committed military engagement since it’s ‘obvious’ that ‘the UK can contribute more than goodwill in the fight’.

Not discussed by either Cameron or the bulk of the liberal media was the possibility of arming the highly successful Kurdish army in their struggle to reclaim land of theirs lost to Isis. The arms trade, as usual, also went unmentioned, despite UK sales to the Gulf dictatorships like Saudi Arabia fuelling the export of Wahhabism. There was no mention that business with the Saudis will contribute to human rights abuses or the exporting to extremist ideologies (according to David Gardiner at the Financial Times, ‘Saudi Arabia not only exports oil, but tanker-loads of quasi-totalitarian religious dogma and pipelines of jihadi volunteers’). Instead, the Cameron government claims that trade will help Saudi Arabia overcome the problems brought about by its rapidly growing population, expected to increase to 29 million in 2020 from 28 million in 2015.

Forcing Russia to end its rampant airstrikes against Syrian civilians, perhaps via some form of Magnitsky Act, is also a viable, peaceful alternative to drone strikes, as is pressuring Turkey to prevent its borders being used to supply arms to Isis. Labour’s new economic strategy, ethically investing in science, technology and green industries, will also serve to politically demonise the arms trade, as will Corbyn’s anti-interventionist, anti-imperialist foreign policy, which places heavy emphasis on engagement, dialogue and negotiation via the UN in an attempt to the remove of rogue state which Britain quickly garnered during the Iraq War. None of these options are particularly extreme or unreasonable, and all of them could be brought to the centre of parliamentary discussion – if the public pressure arrives to place them there.

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Elliot Murphy teaches in the Division of Psychology and Language Sciences at University College, London.

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