Wednesday 2 December 2015

Here's a prediction.

The hacks of SW1 will get all excited about the new wave of airstrikes. Private clinical polling will tell the PM that support will collapse soon as the public has caught up with what has just been done in their name. Consequently the scale of the missions will be drawn down quite soon.

What we'll then see after the first wave of raids is a dispersal of ISIS forces, very well disguised from satellites and recon flights. The choice targets will be much harder to find and hit. Public scrutiny will be extremely close so the subsequent operations will be so risk averse that the abort rate will be over 60%. From the air, they won't be able to tell ISIS fighters from civilians.

We will waste quite a lot of airframe hours with sorties landing with no munitions launched. What we will then see is a massive inflation of operational costs as spares have to be fabricated from new. At this point the RAF will be telling the MoD that if they want to avoid a capability gap then they will have to reduce the mission times. Using up all the Tonka spares leaves us with nothing until Eurofighter weapons delivery systems are working. 2017 maybe?

Then the Americans will get snotty that they have to budge their scheduling around to slot the Brits in to add no capability they don't have already, and privately they will be taking the piss out of us while the French won't give a flying fig.

We will step out of the way and instead do loiter missions comprising of sixty minute slots where we may get to pop off a brimstone missile or two if we get some half decent intelligence from the ground. Pretty soon, everyone will have forgotten we are over there, the media will be bored of reporting it and then we'll just phase out strike missions, unless there is a terrorist attack on European soil in which case they will keep up the charade.

Eager to climb down, the government will invent a particular objective and then miraculously claim it has met that objective, saying that it can do more with intelligence assets for the coalition, launching surveillance sorties from aircraft we leased from America. What we should have done in the first place.

We'll be able to say we stood up with France to "defeat ISIS" when in reality all we've done is dispersed them until the next window of opportunity for a surge. Far from actually winning the peace, they'll form the rump of a new body along the lines of Hezbollah, so even if Assad wins the day his authority won't extend to territory where the airspace is controlled by the west.

Because there will be no satisfactory reckoning, there will instead be a low grade civil war that rages for decades much like Lebanon with daily suicide bombings and political assassinations.

We probably won't end up killing many civilians because our operations will be largely ineffectual, and when there are no observers on the ground, who's counting anyway?

I'm not sure about the exact details but we can say that it will be a risible show of force that will demonstrate privately to our allies that we are a waste of space, and most participants will call the whole damn thing a farce. The politicians though will walk away self-satisfied that they have done the right thing, and will applaud themselves for their strength and unity. Medals will be handed out by the dozen to bemused aircrew.

Meanwhile the public will be none the wiser because nobody in the media has the military literacy to understand what is going on and hacks will take MoD press releases as gospel. Meanwhile, us "ranting bloggers" will be nose deep in NATO reports and procurement orders showing the media up for the worthless hacks they are.

What nobody will clock is that the really evil bastards who did the really bad things will vanish without a trace and will never be held accountable for what they did.

Does that sound about right? Place your bets now.

Let's call these airstrikes what they are. Virtue signalling.

We're going to see a lot of comparisons with the existing air operation, the one about to start and the one of Libya. None of which are directly comparable.

Libya is unique in that there was an immediate humanitarian concern that could be reasonably affected by air power in a short time and there was every advantage in ensuring warplanes, SAMs and other ordinance was knocked out of action lest they end up put to use elsewhere.

Eventually though, regime forces soon learned how to evade airstrikes by blending in. After which, there was a high rate of aborted missions. The whole effort went off track as military stalemate was achieved. People then started asking "now what?" which was answered by removing Gaddafi. You can argue the toss as to whether that was a good idea. On balance I think it probably was (with a boatload of caveats) but there is no real endgame in Syria.

Firstly I don't see how we would identify ISIS forces unless they are directly engaged in hostilities, and if we can then it won't be for long as they adapt and blend in. We can disperse them and operate long enough so that it can't reform as an effective fighting force, in which case it will go dormant or move to the next most vulnerable spot (possibly Lebanon). What then?

There is also every possibility elements of it will merge with the rebels we are supposedly supporting. We won't have any idea who we are engaging with by that point. The downside of scattering ISIS is it very much removes the opportunity for the Syrian tribes to rise up and slaughter them so in a lot of ways, we are offering ISIS an exit strategy to a surge that cannot succeed anyway.

More to the point, we can't do anything useful like we did in Libya by getting rid of all the heavy ordinance in the region, because it's all under Russian protection and we don't have complete air superiority in the region. We'll be asking Russia for flyover permissions.

The moral posturing over this is seriously stupid and if you look on Twitter right now, the politicians and hacks are applauding the likes of Hilary Benn for a florid and rousing speech with absolutely no grounding in the very dangerous realities of what we are about to undertake.

All this high talk of "they hate us for our values" and "defeating fascism" is unmitigated crap. It's an opportunist surge which is nothing new under the sun in the middle east and most tribes lending their support to it see it as a vehicle for either seizing the spoils of war or doing a houseclean of the old order. Some with just cause. The threat that it does pose to us is managed by surveillance, not airstrikes.

Effectively ISIS is the new Al Qaeda style media demon to distract us - and what a pitiful public memory we have that we haven't learned any of the lessons. That the commons could vote it through on the basis of virtue signalling shows that our politics is now broken beyond repair, and our culture so twisted that representative democracy just cannot be trusted as a decision making mechanism anymore.

That the media is now pouring over the debate video looking to see how it affects the power divide in the Labour party and how many times Cameron was asked to apologise rather than examining the ramifications of a decision to go to war ought to be seriously alarming. This is very much bread and circuses. Just how SW1 parochial can you get? We're actually going to war in a very tight spot were Russia is also fighting. And nobody in our media thinks that's apparently a bad idea? No - better write a piece on how "brilliant" Hilary Benn's speech was. Pathetic. Sickening.

Bombing Syria won't end well.

Airstrikes are very much a vanity project in this and in most other instances. We have decided that something must be done, and have decided that air power is the means by which it will be done, without deciding what that something is or what the effects are, or even if the means can achieve it.

That does not sound like a reasoned proposition to me. It sounds childish. It's a kneejerk response to Paris to satisfy the egos of blowhards who think sending out bombers is the answer to every geopolitical crisis.

It has had some effect in Iraq against ISIS where we have had a reasonable idea of what's going on on the ground, a knowledge of which territory we are defending and the likely deterrents. But Libya proved that you can't really stage a sustained campaign without having good, trustworthy ground intelligence.

As the enemy works out the rules of engagement are, they find ways around them and ways to hide which means increasingly missions are aborted in fear of collateral damage. We then revert to face saving by going after targets of lower priority that are not engaged in immediate hostilities. We end up fighting round the edges, wasting a lot of money and a lot of time while burning up our credibility.

The enemy is not some brigade on a map with static allegiances. It's tribal, it's fluid, and allegiances can turn on a sixpence. One wrong bomb in the wrong place can change political alliances. We have little in the way of trustworthy ground intelligence to know which way things are going. We do have informants, but they are not always telling the truth and have agendas of their own. It's much the same as a political leak to the opposing party in order to attack factions on your own side. It's risky business.

If you believe that ISIS is some kind of unified force that can be neatly bombed until it vanishes then you have been playing too many computer games. The middle east is not Command And Conquer.

I am not opposed in principle to intervention, but this isn't a planned operation, nor is it in any real sense dedicated to a lasting strategic outcome. Saying suck it and see, let's start bombing and see what happens is foolish. To devise a route to success you first have to define what that success looks like - otherwise you're pouring petrol on the bonfire.

We are talking about contested air space with multiple agendas over ground we have already diplomatically conceded, with Turkey playing it's own games which are not yet apparent. There is no good reason to trust Turkey.

I do not believe that Britain's presence adds value to the operation in that we offer little capability that is not already oversupplied. As far as the Americans are concerned, they would probably view British air operations as battlefield clutter and a nuisance.

I also think this notion of "standing with our allies" by joining in is bovine. Just because the global elites are agreed that something must be done does not mean there is unified agreement of what that something is, and it not does it mean they have a mandate.

Where the power dynamic lends itself to bovine conformity it demonstrates that our political establishment is incapable of making a legitimate representative decision in this regard and only public deliberation can really produce a valid verdict.

Strategically it seems pointless, militarily it doesn't seem feasible, the objectives are vague with unknowable consequences in a situation where it really is up to Syrians. Even if we did quash one tribal surge we would just make room for another - and if, as ISIS was, it found itself militarily disadvantaged, it would resort to the same savage tactics employing any of the same tools against ISIS collaborators and allied tribes.

There are no good guys to pick in this, and in the end, Russia has decided Assad is staying in place. That is probably how it will end, and we are going to do absolutely nothing to challenge Putin in Syria for that regional influence.

What it does mean is that the risk of a "friendly" fire incident is increased and while nobody gives a shit that Turkey shot down a Russian mig, this gets hairy when British aircraft are accidentally shot down by Russian air defences.

I see plenty of potential for souring already deteriorating relationships while handing huge diplomatic leverage to Russia. What I don't see is a coherent plan to bring peace to the region or anything that enhances our security, or is even in the national interest. Taking home a souvenir t-shirt saying that we stood we France while we made yet another mess seems unnecessary for continued good relations with France.

The bottom line is that we have no track record in succeeding in these such endeavours. Applying our kind of intervention to what is already an unimaginable mess should make our further tinkering unthinkable. It will have more to do with the power positioning within our own dismal tribes than bringing about any lasting settlement to Syria. That should never be the basis for military action and the fact that it is says a lot about how degraded our politics is now. I think we need a little regime change of our own here at home.