Image from Russian Ministry of Defence shows Russian planes bombing alleged IS targets in Syria

The current state of affairs as regards the Middle East — that bizarrely anachronistic term for south-west Asia — resembles the return and rejigging of a classic Broadway musical. All the old tunes are there to whistle along to, but there are a few new numbers as well to keep the punters interested. If you’ve seen it too often, though, it’s hard not to feel that the orchestra is now vamping until something, anything happens.

The servants of endless warfare eager to launch a series of strikes against Islamic State (the resolution to call it Daesh, and thus not grant it recognition as a state, appears to have been the one survival of Tony Abbott’s foreign policy. Recognition of it as a state is coming instead by bombing the shit out of it). That is a completely rational act, whether moral or not. There is also a determination to smash the terrorist apparatus of IS. That, too, is a rational act, and certainly a moral one.

The irrational and magical thinking comes from the idea that the second aim will be achieved by enacting the first. That would seem highly unlikely. Bombing IS may scatter militants to a degree so they no longer have something resembling a state, but the group is not going to be deprived of territory and bases in the back blocks of Syria and the west of Iraq. Not unless the West poured in a quarter-million troops. And we are not going to pour in even a quarter of a quarter of that number.

The borders will remain porous. There will still be traffic between IS bases and the world. You can fly from Istanbul to Iskenderun in the south on one of 10 flights a day, make contact with the IS rep in that city, take a cab to the border, and walk across the border with a packed lunch and a bottle of water. The border is open, and the Turks are happy to keep IS in business, to prevent the Kurds from consolidating their autonomous zone on the Syria/Turkey border.

The insistence that we are going to get really serious about IS now, and our resolve is clear, etc, is such a tired reprise that I can’t believe people are even writing new articles. Why don’t they paste the same ones in from a decade ago? Why do they think they will be convincing for more than a few weeks? We have had a substantial number of troops on the ground in Afghanistan for 15 years, and the Taliban is now the strongest it’s been since the post-9/11 bombing of the country.

In five years, maybe in two, the Taliban will either be in coalition government in Kabul, or marching on Kabul in the final act of taking back its country; just as its members’ US-supported, US-trained, US-armed grandparents did from the Soviets in the 1980s, and their parents did from various puppet regimes in the 1990s. Bombing IS and scattering it will simply start that process going in Syria/Iraq.

The sudden “resolve” to really deal with IS now and bomb its oilfields, etc, etc, raises the same question as “fast-acting headache relief” does — why isn’t it all fast-acting? If you thought this would decimate IS, and that was your goal, why weren’t you doing it earlier? What have we been doing for the last nine months? Were we going after these jerks or weren’t we? And the answer is: of course we weren’t. There was no determination by anyone in the West to seriously attack IS  — simply to keep it contained to a degree, to support the Syrian Kurds (but not too much, because that would offend the Turks), point them at Assad, in order to stop the Russians’ ally recovering their position in Syria, and point them eastwards a little to keep the Shiite militias occupied in Iraq.

Now it seems such perfidious pseudo-colonial policies can no longer be enforced or supported, so we are switching to a heavy bombing strategy. We are not bombing IS of course, or not only IS, but also the civilians it is currently holding as its citizens. Its regime there is being presented as some sort of ongoing depredation, a continuing slow genocide. But all reports suggest that it isn’t — having used extreme and highly aestheticised brutality to attain territory, including rape and sexual slavery/abduction, it now appears to be running a state enforcing a fundamentalist sharia law, using the death penalty pretty frequently. In that, it’s simply a more ad-hoc version of Saudi Arabia, a territory handed over to a single clan/family, initially employing brutal war tactics (though nothing like IS) and now running a stable country with a fundamentalist sharia law, and a frequent use of the death penalty.

Given that Assad has killed 200,000 people, and that most of the refugees streaming into Europe are fleeing Assad-controlled areas, it’s quite possible that people in IS-held areas are safer than they are elsewhere. Certainly in Iraq, the support IS enjoys is because many people are terrified of the Iranian-backed Shiite militias, which are being given free rein — just as during the 2006-07 “surge”, Sunni militias were given free rein, and became the IS.

But we are no longer concerned with the welfare of those ruled by the IS, given the argument that bombing them might help reduce the risk of terror in the West. To complete such bombing, the powers that be are in the process of turning this into a race/religious war, licensing an indifference to Muslim civilian deaths. The Daily Telegraph‘s cover depicting Australia’s Grand Mufti as an “unwise” monkey (for allegedly not condemning the Paris attacks) was an example of the simple and unadorned racism being marshalled to legitimise such attacks. David Penberthy’s comment in his Advertiser column — “Bombing Raqqa back to the Stone Age won’t take long. It is already there.” (as if the force occupying it defines its whole identity) — is in the same genre. It’s “exterminate the brutes” time, reliant on the fact that people are so angry in Europe, they will once again support bombing — a policy they’d turned away from after the Iraq debacle. There is not one iota of geopolitical strategy involved in this — it is simply the political caste/class looking busy, so that the public, in their fear and uncertainty, doesn’t turn on them.

Generals always fight the last war. Generals in the age of the War on Terror fight the war where it last used to be, in Iraq, when it had moved to Syria, and now in Syria when it is moving to north Africa. As your correspondent noted last week, only a few days before a hotel was taken hostage in Mali, with 10 dead — though the Sydney Opera House is yet to be lit up in Malian colours — the idea seems to be that IS needs to have some sort of huge state to be operative; they don’t. They don’t need any at all, but they could quite easily get along with some autonomous zones in north Africa, in what is an effectively stateless area around southern Libya, northern Mali and Niger, the borderlands of western Sahara, and so on.

The group may have already established such, or some group like them. Even more than al-Qaeda — with whom we appear to be on the brink of going into alliance — IS appears to be a franchise determined to bring evil into the world. Like Gloria Jean’s. First we’ll know of it is they’ll burst into the news with a mass killing tomorrow or next week.

The idea that bombing IS’ state will somehow reduce the number of terrorists appears to be based on the conception that 1) there’s a fixed number of terrorists; and 2) they’re all coming and going from IS’ state. Yet at the same time as it is implicitly professed that there is a fixed number of terrorists, we are also applying all sorts of “deradicalisation” programs suggesting we believe terrorists can be made out of angry but inactive people, and that we should try to stop that. At the same time, the best way to turn angry people into people who feel that they must act would appear to be to bomb large numbers of civilians with whom they have cultural and religious ties. Still, I presume they know what they’re doing, and there are just a few bugs to be worked out.

The idea that IS can be bombed out of business is a pretty fascinating case of wilful delusion, and there’s a lot in it. There’s a self-congratulatory notion of the Enlightenment values we are advancing — these values apparently being that you kill large numbers of civilians with bombs rather than smaller numbers with swords and film it. The notion has become a literal imperialism, a total re-run of the latter part of the 19th century, and the hunting down of the Mahdi and the taking of Khartoum. And as likely to go as well as that did. The core and crucial and wilful misunderstanding of IS seems to revolve around the notion of the caliphate as if it were some sort of mediaeval empire that was being restored. The caliphate is simply the idea that Muslims should be united in a single political entity — like a sort of, I dunno, United States or United Kingdom of Muslims — and not subject to the geopolitical divisions laid down by the colonial powers in the mid-20th century. That’s one reason why an associated movement may meet with great success in north Africa — because those boundaries are about the most arbitrary in the world. The caliphate, in that sense, is a more modern idea than the states they have inherited, even if the content of it wouldn’t be.

So, yes, we are getting the same old tunes. And people keep humming along. But one wonders what happens this time, when it all goes wrong again. How many times do people have to be suckered in before they become angry beyond description at 15 years of lies and folly, presented as the expression of enlightened and modern values? How long, in a country like Belgium, France, the Netherlands, before the notion of mass repression of Muslim populations becomes a general and widespread proposition? But what can be done, there or here? The numbers are now too great for simple racial persecution, as practised on the Roma people, for example. Muslims have sufficient numbers to push back.

Here as well. Hence the endless articles about rethinking multiculturalism — as if mass immigration did not make a population multicultural de facto. The greatest Australian multiculturalist in that respect was John Howard, under whose watch from 1996 to 2007 we crossed the threshold and ended up with a population that is now close to 30% overseas-born, and nearing 50% with one or both parents born overseas. That is an extraordinary figure to reach, and all the while it was done, Howard would make his annual statement or op-ed piece saying we should rethink multiculturalism, while doing nothing of the kind (and never being held to account by his right-wing lapdogs). Still, he got away with it brilliantly. But then, as the photos from this weekend’s rally showed, the anti-multiculturalists aren’t the sharpest tools in the shed.

Still, one will watch with interest, well, what happens next in Western cities first and foremost. But also what the establishment right does next. They are out of ideas, excuses, suggestions, and this, I suspect, is their last outing. When it ends up exactly the same as everything else has ended up in the last 15 years, they may find that the folks in the cheap seats are tired of being sold the same old song, and would like some forthright words about that with the management.

Peter Fray

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Peter Fray
Editor-in-chief of Crikey