I know that the British media and political class have had a lot of important things to think and talk about recently, and far be it from me to distract from the seriousness of the debate that has been taking place about our latest headlong leap into the Middle Eastern unknown. Nevertheless, there are certain alarming events which I feel might just be worthy a nanosecond of our attention – just a smidgen and then we can move on, because I know that our politicians and journalists are men and women of real gravitas who don’t like to waste their time on trivia.
The first thing I wanted to mention is the curious fact that yesterday Saudi Arabia announced the formation of a 34-member ‘Islamic anti-terrorism’ coalition to fight Islamic State. You in the back, stop laughing now. Of course some cynics might think that a country that last year declared all atheists to be terrorists might not be the best state to be leading a coalition against Daesh.
It is true that Saudi Arabia has been mercilessly pulverising Yemen day after day in its war against Houthi rebels, regardless of the fact that its onslaught is pushing one of the poorest countries in the world towards the brink of total collapse – and all this with weaponry supplied by Britain, France and the United States.
But then we ought to remember that Saudi Arabia is the current president of the UN human rights council, thanks to a little support by the UK government, so I think you at the back should really stop that giggling and show a little respect.
Because today the Telegraph revealed that this coalition may send special forces into Syria in order to fight ISIS, with the approval of the British government. According to the Telegraph:
‘British military sources told the Telegraph that while the UK would not provide boots on the ground, they were on standby to provide air support and ” command and control”. But any Gulf or other forces would clearly add to or take the place of the 70,000 “moderate rebels” whom David Cameron, the Prime Minister, wants to be the “boots on the ground” to displace Isil in Syria but who say they already have their hands full fighting the Assad regime.’
And equally significant:
‘The Saudis and their Sunni Muslim allies would also be intent on preventing any vacuum being filled by the Bashar al-Assad regime, or its Shia Iranian allies, against whom the Gulf is facing off across the region.’
So in other words Saudis and their allies – some of whom have been instrumental in financing and supporting Daesh and other Salafi groups in a variety of ways, are now proposing to attack IS, and provide ground troops in Raqqa and other areas that have been bombed by the coalition..
This surely explains why Saudi Arabia staged a conference of Syrian rebels – from which Syrian Kurds were naturally excluded – in Riyadh only last week in yet another attempt to forge the Syrian opposition into a unified front. The Saudis are clearly intent on escalating the war no matter what the cost to Syrians or anyone else, and they aren’t alone in this. Because now the British government is proposing to provide air support and ‘command and control’ to a military offensive in Syria that will almost certainly pit the Saudi ‘anti-terrorism’ coalition – and the current bombing coalition that includes the United States, Britain, and France against Assad, Russia, and Iran.
A regional peacekeeping force in Syria that might safeguard a ceasefire and a political settlement is one thing, but there is nothing to suggest that Riyadh’s ‘Islamic antiterrorism coalition’ has any such intentions. It is a Sunni coalition, not an ‘Islamic’ one – a carnival of reaction lumbering towards what even the Telegraph recognizes may ignite an all-out Shia/Sunni sectarian war – and our government appears to be disposed to go along with it and seems to regard it as a positive development.
So now we know where those 70,000 fighters came from, though none of this was mentioned when Cameron first made that claim. Instead the Tory government, with the assistance of Hilary Benn and his conscience-stricken MPs, convinced themselves and the public that they were just planning a little recreational bombing, something to help us get our mojo back.
I don’t wish to be melodramatic or upset anyone, but this is how world wars start. This is how entire regions as well as countries become battlegrounds. But all these possibilities were almost entirely absent from the ‘mature’ debate that so many journalists congratulated our parliamentarians upon.
Instead we talked about Stop the War, and whether Jeremy Corbyn should go to their Xmas dinner, and what two bloggers did or didn’t say.
And now we are sleepwalking towards what threatens to become a global conflagration, and we don’t seem to be talking about it at all.