Over the past three weeks, it has emerged that British special forces are now in direct combat roles in Libya and Syria. Ostensibly there to fight ISIS, the real goal is to prevent the Syrian and Libyan armies defeating ISIS by themselves.
The Normandy landings, launched 72 years ago last week, saw the opening of a second front against the Nazis in Europe by the US and the UK after years of procrastination. Despite the Soviet Union signing a ‘mutual assistance’ agreement with Britain in 1941, and the Anglo-Soviet alliance in 1942, for years very little was done by the US or Britain to actually fight the Nazi menace. In a joint communique issued in 1942, they agreed to open a second front in Europe that same year, an agreement they broke and then postponed repeatedly, leaving the Soviets to fight the strongest industrial power in Western Europe alone for three years – at an eventual cost of 27 million lives.
The US and Britain, it seemed, were following what international relations theorist John Mearsheimer has termed a ‘bait and bleed’ policy, allowing Germany and the Soviet Union to “bleed each other white” whilst they themselves stood on the sidelines.
“If we see Germany winning, we ought to help Russia,” declared US Senator (and later President) Harry Truman in June 1941, “and if Russia is winning we ought to help Germany, and in that way let them kill as many as possible.”
The British Minister for Aircraft Production Colonel Moore-Brabazon echoed his views the following month, telling a lunch party of government officials that the best outcome on the Eastern front would have been the mutual exhaustion of Germany and the USSR in order that Britain could then move in to dominate Europe. He was eventually forced to resign following uproar from a public determined to see their government do more to help the embattled Soviets.
In the end, it was not until well after the Nazis’ fortunes had been decisively reversed at Stalingrad that the long promised ‘second front’ actually materialized. Indeed, by this point the outcome of the war had effectively already been determined. D-Day, then, was waged not to defeat the Nazis but to ensure the Soviet Union – who had borne almost all of the sacrifice – would not reap the fruits of victory.
“Certain circles, both in the United States and Britain, feared that should the Red Army defeat Germany single-handed, the Soviet Union would have enormous influence on the post-war development of and social progress in the European countries. The Allies could not allow that to happen. This is why they considered the opening of a second front in Europe not so much a military action but as a political measure aimed at preventing the progressive political forces from coming to power in European countries,” wrote Admiral Kharlamov, head of the Soviet Military Mission in Britain during the Second World War.
Documents declassified in 1998 revealed that Churchill had even ordered the drawing up of a plan that would see British and US troops push on beyond Berlin alongside a rearmed German army in a nuclear war against the Soviets.
History is now repeating itself, this time as farce. From 2014 until September 2015, ISIS appeared to sweep all before them, achieving hugely symbolic victories in Iraq’s Mosul and Fallujah, Syria’s Raqqa and Palmyra, and Libya’s Derna and Sirte. At the same time, under Saudi and Turkish tutelage, Al-Qaeda’s ‘Al-Nusra Front’ was making gains in Syria, and the Ansar Sharia faction in Libya took Benghazi, paving the way for a major ISIS infiltration.
The West did little to help. In Syria, the Syrian Arab Army (SAA) had been left to fight such groups not only bereft of support from the West, but facing a West apparently determined to destroy them. Similarly, the Libyan National Army – representing the elected Libyan parliament – was hamstrung by an arms embargo scrupulously observed in relation to them, but regularly violated by the West’s gulf allies when it came to the ‘Libya Dawn’ sectarian militias they were fighting. And even the supposedly closest US allies in the Iraqi army, the elite ‘Golden Division’, had trouble getting effective US support when they needed it.
Despite this, starting with last September’s Russian intervention in Syria, the tide has begun to turn against ISIS and Al Qaeda, paving the way for a string of victories by the Syrian Arab Army and the Libyan National Army in particular, and pointing, potentially, towards the full restoration of governmental authority in both countries.
In Libya, the key moment was in February 2016, when the Libyan National Army finally regained control of Benghazi from ISIS and Ansar Sharia after 18 months of intense fighting. Both the ISIS presence in Benghazi and the city’s liberation were predictably downplayed in Western media, despite the city’s fate having been apparently so important to British and US leaders back in 2011. On May 3, the Libyan National Army began its march West from Benghazi towards ISIS’ last Libyan holdout in Sirte.
In February, too, a massive Syrian Arab Army offensive towards Aleppo began to make serious gains, taking territory from Al Qaeda, ISIS and Ahrar Al-Sham. On February 3, the supply route to Aleppo was severed, breaking a rebel siege of two government-held towns south of Azaz. Mass surrenders to the SAA followed. Then, exactly one month later, the world-historic city of Palmyra was liberated from ISIS by Syrian government forces backed with Russian air support. In what was presumably an attempt to appear relevant, the US had also launched two token airstrikes on the city, illustrating that the US “want to destroy ISIS – but not that much,” said journalist Robert Fisk.
Today the original ISIS stronghold and capital of its self-declared caliphate, is itself under threat. The Times reported earlier this week that a massively re-moralised Syrian army, is “storming towards the ISIS stronghold of Raqqa” and that “the Syrian regime’s elite Desert Hawks unit, backed by the Russian airstrikes, crossed the southern border of Raqqa province at the weekend – the first time that any of Assad’s forces have set foot there since being driven out by ISIS nearly two years ago.” They have been making swift advances.
Throughout 2016, then, the national armed forces of Libya and Syria, representing the elected governments of both countries, have been on a roll; and the days of ISIS and their sectarian bedfellows may well be numbered. So it is interesting that it is precisely at this moment – not when ISIS were making gains, but now that they are facing defeat – that British troops have deigned to openly enter the fray.
The same edition of the Times that reported that the SAA were “storming towards… Raqqa” also carried, as its front page story, the news that “British special forces are on the frontline in Syria defending a rebel unit”, noting that “the operation marks the first evidence of the troops’ direct involvement in the war-torn country rather than just training rebels in Jordan.”
And the same newspaper had reported the previous week that British special forces undertook their first known combat mission in Libya on May 12, in support of the ‘Libya Dawn’ faction of the Libyan civil war. Libya Dawn is an umbrella group of mainly Misrata-based militias that emerged following the elections of June 2014 under Qatari patronage to fight against the newly elected secular parliament, and its armed forces, the Libyan National Army (LNA). The Times tacitly acknowledged that, up until now, the LNA has been fighting ISIS alone, noting that “Misrata had largely ignored the metastasis of ISIS in Sirte, 170 miles away, since the first terrorist cells embedded themselves there in 2013”. Now, however, alongside the British ‘boots on the ground’ that Cameron vowed would never step foot in Libya, they have suddenly found themselves the ‘chosen force’ to liberate the country.
As in 1945, having sat back whilst a vicious and genocidal group laid waste to thousands upon thousands of soldiers fighting alone against them, the Cameron regime now wants to deny those armies the fruits of their heroic sacrifices. Cameron would rather see Raqqa and Sirte liberated by ragtag militias with little to unite them other than their sectarianism, than to see the authority of the elected governments restored. With British troops now in combat roles alongside the insurgents in Syria, however, this raises the prospect of a direct confrontation with Russian forces. Just like Churchill in 1945, it appears he is quite prepared to risk this. Back then, saner heads prevailed. The question is – where are those heads now?