Thousands of bombs and grenades

27 January 2016

Thousands of bombs and grenades

Following the terrorist attacks in Paris the global great powers sent a new echelon of hyper-modern weapons systems to Syria. What will this achieve?

Russian missiles, the Royal Air Force, Luftwaffe, US Navy; as a child in the 1980s I built virtually the entire NATO and Warsaw Pact arsenal. In miniature, of course, from modelling kits, mostly to a scale of 1:72. In recent times the old days seem to have returned to life and I regularly see the planes and ships which back then sooner or later perished under the attentions of my mum's duster. But now they're for real.

The great powers of the Cold War are showing their muscles once again. Right after the Paris attacks they sent the cream of their conventional armed forces to Syria to bomb ISIS. What that meant in reality was additional fire-power in the region, because very many countries, including the Netherlands, have been conducting attacks on ISIS in Syria for some time already. Until the Black Friday of 13th November, only the United States, Saudi Arabia, Russia, Canada, Australia and France were active in Syria's skies. For the time being the Netherlands isn't joining in, though the government wants to. Now Germany and Britain have joined the queue, more or less out of solidarity with France. Meanwhile the US is strengthening its battle-fleet in the Mediterranean and Russia is doing the same with the marine squadrons in the Black Sea.

Experts set major question-marks against the effectiveness of the air-raids, as much in purely military terms as in a political sense. A few things to consider:

  • The question as to whether ISIS in Syria can be defeated by bombing at all is easy to answer: no. So what's also needed is a war on the ground. Yet then too success against terror is anything but assured, as we've seen in Iraq and Afghanistan.
  • 'Europe won't really become safer by dropping more bombs on Syria,' said SP Member of Parliament and international affairs expert Harry van Bommel recently. The gruesome logic that terrorism will simply be encouraged by stepping up military might was witnessed by the attacks in Paris, where ISIS unfortunately succeeded in bring the war to the heart of Europe. So the circle is complete: ISIS appears to have little to offer militarily against the west's military force and sends its fighters to Europe – or sends them back there – to perpetrate attacks, following which the call for vengeance from western governments leads to new, more intensive bombing, which the jihadists swear to avenge.
  • The fact that Russia has sent S400 ground-to-air missiles to the region indicates danger of a gigantic escalation. The Russians, friendly to the Assad regime, did this in response to the shooting down of their planes by Turkey. You don't need to be a weapons expert, however, to understand that S400s don't cut out in midair if fired at a plane that unfortunately turns out not to be Turkish. Early in October Russian and American fighter planes had a brush with each other above Syria. A 'small' side-note: the powers which in the wake of November 13th chucked a new echelon of planes, ships and other weaponry into the fray are all – leaving aside Germany – nuclear-armed states.
  • It's interesting – and grisly! - to look at who is facing up to whom and with what weaponry. Research from Amnesty International shows that ISIS arms come in large part from the countries now flexing their military muscle more visibly: the US, Germany and Russia. And what do you make of this? At the end of November the Russian Defence Ministry 'leaked' pictures of Russian bombers in the skies above Syria escorted by Iranian F14 fighter planes. This escort was apparently necessary because the Russians were flying very close to the Israeli (!) border. The F14 is, bizarrely enough, of American manufacture and was supplied to Iran in the 1970s, at a time when the Shah remained in power. But Iran has recently entered into an intensifying and deadly dangerous conflict with Saudi Arabia and noted that the latter used the MRCA Tornado aircraft. That is 'coincidentally' the same type of plane that the UK and Germany sent to Syria after 13th November. The MRCA Tornado is a British/German/Italian product.

And it isn't only the arms industry of the major powers which contributes to the clash of weapons in the Middle East. Last year, Peter Mertens, leader of the radical left Belgian Labour Party, wrote the following in an opinion piece: 'In the period 1998-2012 Belgium supplied more than two billion euros' worth of arms to Saudi Aravia alone, as is shown by an overview of European export licences. Saudi Arabia accounts for an average of one sixth of Belgian armaments and is after the US the country's biggest customer.'

To close, a couple of headlines from last year's Dutch press: 'Russia's arms industry surpasses western rivals'. (Volkskrant, 31 July 2015) and 'French arms industry experiences best ever year' (Elsevier, 4 July 2015).

Trade is trade, shall we say. But I can be forgiven: as a child I didn't understand anything about it.

Rob Janssen writes for SP monthly Tribune, where this piece first appeared, in the original Dutch, in January 2016.

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