Syria-related terrorism arrests in Dover

On Friday morning (3 April 2015) West Midlands Police reported some breaking news as follows:

Good, I suppose is the thing to say – police following up tip offs, chasing down the bad guys and generally protecting society. Doubly good because this is Syria-related and we’ve heard on the news about the sort of things going on over there and we definitely don’t want it over here.

But it’s important to remember they have only been arrested – not charged; and only on ‘suspicion’ – they have not been convicted of anything yet. So for all we know they could be normal folks like you and me. There but for the grace of God go I, etc.

This isn’t much to be going on with. Really, it could mean almost anything: from the rightful arrest of six terrorists primed with suicide vests on their way to Canterbury for Easter day; to the mistaken arrest of six archaeologists on their way home from an international conference on saving Syria’s heritage from the lunatics presently smashing it up.

So West Midlands Police helpfully tell us more:

‘Departure zone’ should tell us something. They were not on their way into the country; they were on their way out. So we can perhaps exclude the possibility they were about to do harm in Britain, unless they had designs on the ferry, which might in a way be termed British territory, unless the ferry companies are all French these days.

‘Departure’ and ‘Syria’ recalls the recent departures of schoolgirls to Syria to assume the romantic role of ‘Jihadi Bride.’ Except it’s not that romantic, when you think about it. They go there to marry Islamic State fighters and have children who will one day take the place of their fathers in the great fight for progressive Islamism in the Middle East – and perhaps North Africa, West Africa, East Africa, and anywhere else they want to extend the benevolent rule of their kind of Islam.

There’s another issue burning away with these schoolgirls. Their teddy-bear-clutching families are ever ready to tell the willing news outlets that they are distraught and have not the slightest clue how the idea got into the heads of their ‘straight A-grade’ daughters and it was almost certainly the fault of the police, MI5, British Foreign Policy, America, Israel, the usual culprits. But whatever the cause, it had absolutely nothing to do with them or Islam.

Except it did, kind of. When your dad’s caught on camera rocking it alongside noted moderate Adebolajo and plenty of other equally moderate brothers who just happened to have an accident with the matches at the same time as carrying US and Israeli flags and who burst into renditions of that well-known Eurovision hit “Allahu Akbar” for only the best of reasons, it is perhaps not all that surprising that, growing up in his household, you feel the pull of Jihadism a little more strongly than little Daisy Becket down the road.

But these were men and women. So a little different to schoolgirls heading East for a bit of baby-making time with the brothers.

There’s more from West Midlands Police:

The mention of Birmingham is not a surprise. Although you have to be careful how you phrase things because if you get the substance right but the detail wrong (admittedly in the most cack-handed way imaginable), and you are American, and you are an American who appears to be on the right of the political spectrum, the willing news outlets and other well-meaning folk will go into a frenzy of ‘You’re so ignorant,’ and ‘It’s nothing like that,’ and ‘Let me just take this opportunity to deflect from the matter at hand – namely the Charlie Hebdo murders.’

There probably won’t be much more reported on this case. Matters under investigation, for obvious reasons, are not usually splurged over the papers until the potential court case us underway and preferably post-verdict.

So what do we have?

At about 8am on Friday 3 April, five men and one woman were arrested in the departure zone of the port of Dover on suspicion of Syria-related terrorism offences. They are now being held in the West Midlands area and searches are taking place at various addresses in Birmingham. Four of the men, in their twenties, are actually from Birmingham; the other man and woman, also in their twenties, have no fixed abode. These arrests were part of an ongoing investigation.

That’s about it. Except that this incident, whether it leads to a court case or not, is part of a growing pattern. As the spaceman said to Houston: ‘We have a problem.’

If only we could use the quote in its original form: ‘Houston, we’ve had a problem.’

But this would be inaccurate, wouldn’t it? It is not a past tense matter. This sort of Islamist, Jihadist, Syrian kickback terrorism, whatever we want to call it, is not something we can claim lies behind us. Is it?


Rory Stewart MP elected Chair of the Westminster Defence Select Committee

So, Viscount Haldane has not been appointed the new Chairman of the Defence Select Committee of the Westminster Parliament. This is not a surprise, since he has been dead since 1928. But he would have done a fine job, I’m sure, had the speaker or any other member of parliament chosen to exhume him.

As I mentioned here, Haldane created the British Expeditionary Force, without which Britain and France would have been defeated in 1914; he created the Territorial Force, configuring it for war, which provided invaluable reinforcement to the Regular Army with troops that were at the very least semi-trained; and he galvanised the Liberal government to think about defence at least as much as they thought about social change. He is rightly regarded as a great reforming Secretary of State for War, before the post was merged with that of the First Lord of the Admiralty to create the new Ministry of Defence.

The new Chair – as it seems we must now call Chairmen – of the Defence Select Committee is Rory Stewart, Conservative MP for Penrith and The Border. That is up north, by the way, if anyone was confusing the border with the Welsh border; Conservatives can be elected beyond the southern constituencies.

He strikes me as a good candidate, not least because he has spent some time in the Army, albeit years ago and on a Short Service Limited Commission with the Black Watch. But there’s nothing wrong with these so-called ‘gap year commissions’. In fact, they are extremely valuable. They are designed not so much to bring people into the Army, but to give them a sniff of military life with a view to taking understanding and good will into the civilian world where it is hoped (expected) they will assume positions of responsibility and influence. It’s about civil-military connection rather than military capability.

He’s also done his walking tour of Afghanistan, worked for the Foreign Office and written a few good books. Not necessarily a guarantee he will do well in the job, but it’s a good start and his words on the limits and complexities of intervention are welcome in a political culture that seems a little too binary for my liking.

But we shall see. He certainly represents the new generation of politician, and I can’t help thinking many of them are a notch above their predecessors.

Perhaps this is a particularly interesting time to take the Chair. James Arbuthnot’s tenure was concerned with operations in Afghanistan, Iraq, Libya and the possibility of the same in Syria. Syria is still a live issue, but it seems this recent bout of interventions is over for a while.

What he will – and must – concern himself with is how the British Army – and the Royal Navy and Royal Air Force – reconfigure themselves after the latest round of cuts. Army 2020 is fast approaching. He must make sure the politicians have not made a horrendous mistake in cutting regular troop numbers, and he must make sure plans to rely more on the Reserves – formerly Haldane’s Territorial Force, later the Territorial Army – are workable.

What is Syria to us?

What is Syria to us? We ask this question as we ask most questions concerning afflicted parts of the world. Whether famine in Africa, civil war in the Middle East or simple corruption in many more parts of the world than we like to acknowledge, we ask that question – what is it to us? – in the same way: Conflicted.

On the one hand we are utterly convinced that we, not just through past action but through present duplicity, are at the root of their problems. The Middle East, including Israel, Lebanon, Iraq and Syria, is in a state of perennial conflict because, a) we drew lines on the map in the wrong place, or, b) we support and supported the wrong people, whether Israelis, dictators of Islamists.

And on the other hand we seem equally convinced that we are essential to any solution. Apparently, if the news is to be believed, the answer to Syria’s present misfortune is for us and our allies to facilitate the arming of the rebels. Reports are already coming in that the USA and France have already started doing just this, through Saudi Arabia.

Previously we supported Assad. We figured that his regime was not perfect, on account of its authoritarian nature and support for terrorism, but that it was probably the best option. Culturally-divided and volatile countries like Syria, like most of the others in the region, need strong, authoritarian government to prevent fragmentation and civil war. But apparently this was wrong. Not that we were wrong to support him, but that we were supporting him for the wrong reason.

The correct reason to support him was because of his pretty wife. She was born and bred in London, and epitomised progressive Britain. She was female, of foreign heritage and above all she was a non-burqua-wearing-female-emancipation-campaigning Muslim. And we all know that this is the sort of person best placed to keep the peace in that part of the world.

So, we are simultaneously the problem and the solution. Not only did we support the evil dictator, but we supported him for the wrong reason. Progressive values are far more important than peace and stability, aren’t they? Yes, let’s go with that. And so we must make amends for our past error and support the progressive rebel forces. In their ranks are to be found the democrats and the female-emancipationists.

It is certainly true that in that much contorted term, Arab-Spring, there are people and groups who want nothing more than to see more freedom, liberty, democracy and toleration in their countries, Syria included. But we also know that it is not as simple as good-guys versus bad-guys. Jihadists, terrorists and Islamic reactionaries have jumped on the back of the uprising, and they, it can be safely said, do not want what the democrats want. Some of their methods are as equally horrific as those used by government forces.

If internal volatility and competing aspirations were not enough, there are wider strategic considerations. Assad is not operating alone. He is backed by Iran and Hezbollah, both trying to shore up the position of Shia in the region. And lined up on the other side are the Sunnis. The reason Saudi Arabia is reportedly supplying arms to the rebels is not because they have a burning desire for Western-style democracy and liberty, but because they are Sunnis and they want to undermine the power of Iran and Shia in the region.

In short, it’s a mess. And it’s a mess not because of us, but because of the intractable cultural and political divisions of the region. We did not create the conflict and we cannot end it. At best we can help the UN to contain the situation and push for an end to the fighting; at worst, we can make the situation even more volatile and dangerous by meddling in the mistaken belief that the situation is all about us and that it is we who can manipulate a solution. But it seems to me that arming the good rebels, keeping those arms out of the hands of the bad rebels, is not going to help end the war.

Is intervention in Syria really an option? If so, what prospect success?

If you remember when Gorbachev called time on the Soviet Union, you might also remember thinking a new era of peace and harmony was just beginning. Not only were we not going to have nuclear bombs dropped on our heads, but we were also not going to have to spend so much of our money on armies. In other words, a reduction in the threat would enable a reduction in defence spending, otherwise known as the peace dividend. Do you remember?

I wouldn’t blame you if you didn’t. Our record since then hasn’t been that great. There’s been the Gulf, Bosnia, Kosovo, Sierra Leone, Macedonia, Afghanistan and Iraq; and more recently Libya and Mali. Our proclivity for war – or its various manifestations: conflict, intervention, counter-insurgency, anti-terror, humanitarian assistance, international justice and more – far from abating, seems as strong as ever.

As it turned out, only half of the peace-dividend bargain was true: governments found ways to reduce defence spending. The other half, the idea that the threat of conflict had also reduced, was not true. And we – by that I mean the West – seem as ready as ever to opt for the military solution.

And now Syria. The rhetoric is hotting up, albeit gradually. It really should not surprise us if we ended up intervening in some way there, too – notwithstanding the very real likelihood that clandestine activity is already well underway. France, citing the use of chemical weapons, has called for international action, though it’s not entirely clear what that should be; Israel has already bombed a convoy thought to be carrying surface-to-air missiles; the USA has mentioned something about red lines; and the FCO has welcomed the lifting of the EU arms embargo on the Syrian opposition.

The point here, however, is not to argue we should never intervene. Rather, it’s to question the manner of our intervention. Those examples I listed above all had their justifications, most of them extremely good: Saddam Hussein’s invasion of Kuwait was unacceptable; the humanitarian descent in the Former Yugoslavia was real; the UN was on the verge of defeat in Sierra Leone, or had it already been routed, I can’t quite remember; terrorists really were prepping themselves for Jihad in Afghanistan; and weapons of mass destruction in… Well, that’s a little more complex!

Anyway, by my crude reckoning, less than fifty percent of those interventions proved a long-term success. Not a very good return. The Gulf War was only the first episode in the longer-running Saddam show. What future problems might have been avoided if we had removed him from power in 1991, as was justified by his unprovoked invasion of a sovereign state? There’s something for the counter-factual historians to consider. Afghanistan is still unresolved after more than a decade, and we really don’t know what will happen when we leave. And the so-called Arab Spring is not really my idea of spring.

Most people understand the imperfection of military intervention: that results cannot be guaranteed, and that military activity is a messy business. Indeed, these facts, proven time and time again throughout history, bring to mind one of the key conditions we use for justifying military intervention: that ‘there must be serious prospect of success.’

Well, that’s obvious, you say. But it’s worth asking what this actually means and why this condition is thought to be so important in Just War doctrine. Full deconstruction of the point probably deserves a thesis of its own, but the gist is this: war always causes suffering, so if you must go to war then make sure you know what success looks like and how you are going to get there; anything else leads to protracted conflict, which in turn leads to more suffering.

States entering into war must therefore make every preparation for success. Which means not stinting on either the capability of the force being deployed or the determination with which operations are conducted. The Gulf War is an exemplar of proper preparation. General Schwatzkopf pushed the ‘overwhelming force’ approach, having learnt the lesson from Vietnam. American involvement in South East Asia was too incremental; not enough decisive action. The planners did not really know what success looked like, and they certainly did not know how to get there. The result we all know.

At first, General Schwartzkopf was criticised for being over-cautious, profligate with military force (money) and perhaps too aggressive. But he was vindicated. The war was decisive and it was short, the ground campaign lasting only four days. Suffering was loaded mostly onto the aggressor, and the innocent were spared as much as possible.

Where criticism is, however, justified is in what followed. After the Gulf War we immediately entered a new conflict centred on containment, no-fly zones, sanctions and a massive US military footprint in the region. There was justification behind this new engagement, but there was no clear understanding of what success looked like. The spectacle was not unlike a lumbering giant poking a massive wasps nest with a stick. Conditions were perfect for those naturally hostile to the West to portray foreign forces in the Middle East as imperialist aggressors. Although Islamist hostility existed before, and would have existed had western troops not been in the Middle East, their presence, with no end in sight, made it much easier for extremists to whip up hatred.

Overwhelming force does, of course, sound unsophisticated to some ears – mainly ears that will be nowhere near the action. But war is a binary business: life and death, victory and defeat. The more time spent in between these two states, the more suffering there will be. That is the reason why prospect of success is so important: it reduces the likelihood of a long, drawn-out conflict, thus minimising long, drawn-out suffering.

And what is happening in Syria? At first, analysts thought the conflict could last weeks or perhaps months. But we are now about two years in, and the suffering has become long and drawn out, and neither is there much indication that the end is in sight. UN figures indicate 80,000 deaths so far, and over a million refugees displaced from Syria; and many more internally displaced within the country.  Conflict with no serious prospect of success is every bit as terrible as short and sharp conflict, and in many respects far worse. The refugee crisis and the storing up of generational grievances will scar the region for decades to come.

Any intervention we might make in the crisis, other than genuine humanitarian aid, must be set against an identifiable measure of success. Doing something because, well, we’ve got to do something, is not really good enough. Prolonging a civil war, no matter how brutal it might be, with half-hearted intervention merely prolongs the suffering.

This is one of the many dilemmas politicians are facing over Syria. It’s not easy. In fact, it’s almost impossible, which goes a long way to explain why many people do not want to start arming the opposition. The fear is not just that weapons might end up in the hands of Islamists, but that the conflict will simply be prolonged. But grappling with such dilemmas is why we have politicians.

Perhaps, all things considered, the thing to do here is to follow the old maxim: that sometimes the best course of action is to take no action at all. If not, and we decide to intervene, then the implication is clear: to achieve success, we must pick a side and prosecute the war with everything we have so as to achieve success. The only question remaining is: which side to pick.