The question of how and whether to bomb Syria continues to dominate headlines around the world. For much of the Western political establishment, it is seen as a necessary and urgent measure to fight terrorism domestically and internationally.
In the face of such triumphant rhetoric, are growing concerns about civilian casualties and the actual long term effectiveness of these strikes. Among the chief worries, in this respect, is the support for “moderate” Islamic forces to fight ISIS aided by Western air strikes. The fear is that this will be another tragic instance of where our valiant friends today become our sworn enemy tomorrow.
However, there may be an even greater “moderate” threat at home. Centrist politicians – many who claim to be progressives – are framing such militarism as a “sensible” and “pragmatic” reaction. These discourses risk making Western extremism appear not only restrained but in fact “moderate.”
The Threat of “Moderate” Allies Abroad
Western leaders claim that the bombing of Syria will provide important air support for “moderate Islamic” groups fighting ISIS on the ground. British Prime Minister David Cameron proclaimed that
“Although the situation on the ground is complex, our assessment is that there are around 70,000 Syrian opposition fighters on the ground who do not belong to extremist groups.”
These official claims are being increasingly disputed. According to one expert on the region
“In reality, they will not dedicate all their forces to fighting Isil [Islamic State]. They will not suddenly overnight become British tools to fight Isil as long as they are still having to fight Assad.”
There are also growing questions of what makes a group “moderate” rather than “extremist”. One person’s “moderate rebel” is another’s “violent fundamentalist extremist”. The widely criticized bombing of “safe zones” by Russians near Turkey is a case in point:
“Western leaders complained that the Russians bombed Western-backed "moderate rebels" opposed to Assad. But AP implies that in this case "moderate rebels" being bombed by Russia are Turkish-backed "Islamic militants" fighting U.S.-backed Kurdish forces for control of the Syria-Turkey border.”
More fundamentally, this appears to be a worrisome case of a tragic history repeating itself. Just as new bombs over Syria are falling, new evidence has emerged directly holding the West responsible for the creation of ISIS in the first place. Quoting directly from newly declassified US Defense Intelligence Agency documents
“the salafist [sic], the muslim brotherhood, and aqi (al qaeda) are the major forces driving the insurgency in Syria…if the situation unravels there is the possibility of establishing a declared or undeclared salafist principality in eastern syria(hasaka and der zor), and this is exactly what the supporting powers to the opposition want, in order to isolate the Syrian regime…”
These warning from the past reveal the present threat of our “moderate” allies abroad for the future.
The Rise of the Centrist Hawks at Home
Yet the threat from so-called “moderates” is not just foreign born. It is perhaps even more acute at home. It is expected that those on the Right would promote an aggressive military solution to “defeating terrorism.” It is more worrisome that those who call themselves “centrists” and indeed “progressives” continue to do so as well.
Leaders in many left of center parties are supporting these air strikes as a “sensible” anti-terrorist response in the wake of the recent Paris attacks. They brush aside issues of civilian casualties by reinforcing the “myth” that such bombing is “precise”. This despite the fact that as the New York Times recently observed “drone strikes reveal uncomfortable truth: US is often unsure about who will die.”
They also proclaim that is our moral duty to take such military actions as part of the national and global fight against terrorism. “Moderate” Labour MP Hillary Benn and shadow foreign secretary has gone against Party leader Jeremy Corbyn by supporting Cameron’s proposal to have Britain to join in the bombing of Syria, stating “There is a clear threat to our citizens and our nation.”
These sentiments echo the disastrous hawkishness of centrists and leftists in the not to distant past. The Iraqi invasion – which helped create this current crisis and led by conservative estimates to half a million deaths – was legitimized by moderate US Democrats and “new” Labour politicians in Britain. They helped convince the public that the imperial fantasies of US neo-conservatives where crucial to international security and prosperity. Those in opposition were at best hopelessly “naïve” or even worse “dangerous radicals.”
History has proven these moderates utterly and fatally wrong. In the words of former U.S. special forces chief Mike Flynn
"We were too dumb. We didn't understand who we had there at that moment.
[....] First we went to Afghanistan, where al-Qaida was based. Then we went into Iraq. Instead of asking ourselves why the phenomenon of terror occurred, we were looking for locations. This is a major lesson we must learn in order not to make the same mistakes again."
Yet this “huge error” of the past has done little to stop the rise of the centrist hawks today.
Beware the Moderate Extremist
The real danger of moderates is that they threaten to overshadow alternative voices showing why bombing Syria is neither sensible nor moral. Calling Cameron’s case for bombing, and the campaign overall, as “empty” scholars have recently note that
“There is no historical reason for thinking that deeper military engagement – especially deeper aerial bombing – will end any more happily than any Western intervention since the first Gulf War in 1991. These interventions have arguably made bad situations worse. They have not degraded the capacity of regimes or militias in the Middle East to wage war on citizens and neighbours nor generated better regimes than those they toppled and replaced.”
By contrast, both conservatives and their centrist allies paint anyone who opposes Western militarism as little better than “terrorist sympathizers.” They use their public position as “pragmatists” to make these extremist policies seem similarly “pragmatic” and “sane.” It is a political “middle ground” that reinforces the “cycle of violence” and puts non-extremists across the world at risk.
It is time to reclaim what and who is seen as “moderate.” Is it those who advocate imprecise bombing, civilian death and short term military solutions that reinforce the very power imbalances that gave birth and nurtures this terrorism? Or is it those who seek out hard won but sustainable peaceful solutions associated with deeper goals of economic and social justice? We must beware the moderate extremists.