“All this” said John Fitzgerald Kennedy “will not be finished in the first hundred days. Nor will it be finished in the first thousand days, nor in the life of this administration, nor even in our lifetime on this planet. But let us begin”.
I have chosen the above words which comprise part of a speech given by the late US President as long ago as 1961 to act as a timely reminder that we should never cease the attempt to build peace, stability and harmony in the world no matter how bad the situation looks. Diplomacy may no longer be able to provide all the answers that it once did and may no longer always be appropriate but that doesn’t mean it shouldn’t be tried. As we look into the year ahead we know that achieving peace and stability is not only the most constant and important of all the various challenges we face but also one that history constantly reminds us can never come of itself. This requires leadership and statesmanship on the part of those that we charge to be responsible for government. Somehow we must redouble our efforts and we must stand up to the rising tide of conflict that faces us.
With the war against ISIL continuing in Syria, Iraq and elsewhere and as, with renewed vigour it seems, the Taliban are once again attempting to destroy what little peace Afghanistan has known over the past thirty years we are once again reminded that the world is far from being at peace with itself. Neither can or do we ignore growing evidence of Russian aggression and yet it seems that we have little idea how to counter it.
Russia remains a serious concern but so too in terms of maintaining future peace and stability in the Far-East does China. While China’s growing territorial ambitions may appear to be based on requiring wider control of the oceans that surround it the strategy adopted by the regime should be of equal concern to all peace loving nations. America does get the message on this but do we here in the UK? I doubt that we do but I continue to believe that we ignore such threats at our peril. Thankfully we and our allies are awake to the increasing terrorist threat and of those of cyber-attack and we are working closely together to fight this wherever we can. Perhaps never has there been a greater requirement in the current generation for more vigilance on the part of all of us. Indeed, never has there been a greater requirement for resilience.
I fear that there may be worse to come this year just as I do that in what we are in part responsible for leaving behind as a result of the Arab spring may yet have the potential to make more dismal reading for us in the year ahead. We know, although we dare not say it, that various powder kegs still have the potential to blow amongst countries that were part of the so-called Arab spring revolt and that as a direct result have arguably been left in a less well-off place as a result. I refer to Libya as being one but I might just as well add in Egypt and others for which attempts at establishing democracy have failed mainly because all have failed to realise that democracy cannot be implanted.
Conflicts in various parts of the world abound and while diplomacy is the only non-military way that we know of addressing conflict and conflict avoidance we also know that it will not always provide all the answers. Sun Tzu’s words many generations ago that “when envoys are sent with compliments in their mouths, it is a sign that the enemy wishes for a truce” was undoubtedly true in past generations but I am not sure it is as appropriate response to the wars of today.
I apologise for starting the year on a depressing note but reality must sometimes be faced. We would all do as well to recognise that the past two decades, indeed much of the past century has known little peace and stability on the global stage. We can live in hope all that we like that 2016 might provide evidence of change and that diplomacy might produce real and visible effect in current conflicts that it can play a larger part in future conflict avoidance.
As to continuing wars we have not got off to a very good start in 2016. Despite hopes, following the Vienna accord late last year that appeared to bring all sides and many differing into accord that would allow for talks planned for later this month aimed at finding a permanent solutions that might bring about the end of the five-year long civil war in Syria we have little choice but to accept that the prospect of these talks now being damaging by worsening relations between two of the most important participants involved – Saudi Arabia and Iran – have lessened the potential for success.
It is hard at this stage to judge whether the more hard-line actions of the Saudi administration that have led to the stage of diplomatic deadlock established over the weekend and that follow the execution of cleric Sheikh Nimr al-Nimr that has so incensed Iran, the storming and ultimate closure of the Saudi embassy in Tehran and subsequent dismissal of all Iranian diplomats in Saudi Arabia will lead to a more substantial worsening of relations between these two important Middle East players. We may hope not but while relations have long been poor and worsened in recent years by Iran’s backing of the Shiite (Houthi) rebels that the situation will stabilise over the coming months. Whilst I would not expect Iran to take specific aggressive action against Saudi Arabia directly it may well chose to increase the level of financial and other support that it has long been providing to Houthi based rebel forces.
Syria apart, the worsening situation in Yemen cannot be ignored. With relations between Iran and Saudi Arabia now reached the lowest ebb in a generation the potential for the instability in Yemen to worsen should matter to all of us because this damaged and poverty stricken nation is also home to AQAP, regarded as the most dangerous branch of al-Qaeda. Any raising of tensions in Yemen following the latest Iran/Saudi Arabia spat is almost bound to have implications on the West and of course, will also play into the hands of ISIL.
Sunni and Shia sects may have been in dispute for centuries but they have managed to co-exist. For the record, of the estimated total of 1.57 million Muslims it is estimated that around 300 million live in countries where Islam is not the majority religion and within a global population estimated in 2009 to be 6.8 billion Muslims are estimated to account for 23%. Members of the Sunni community account for an estimated 88% of all Muslims and members of the Shia community the rest with most of the latter living in Iran, Pakistan, India and Iraq.
Syria, RAF and BBC
Finally a few words in relation to a worrying BBC web report on Saturday that if I was reading it correctly attempted to challenge whether, just a month after the House of Commons vote on our engaging with our allies in bombing targets in Syria, that UK bombs and our involvement in the campaign against ISIL in Syria, is making any difference.
I quote directly from the BBC report written by its defence correspondent Jonathan Beale:
“On the same night that parliament gave its approval RAF Tornados launched their first air strikes on the Omar oil fields. Newly despatched Typhoon jets joined in the attacks two nights later, followed by a third set of strikes on the same oil fields on 6 December.
And then? It appears hardly anything. There has only been one other British air strike in Syria – an unmanned Reaper drone firing a Hellfire missile at an IS checkpoint near Raqqa on Christmas Day.
Despite the vote, the focus of British military action has continued to be on Iraq. The RAF’s much lauded brimstone missile has not yet even been fired over Syria. The prime minister’s claim that the RAF would make a “meaningful difference” there has yet to be borne out.
So far more than 90% of the air strikes inside Syria have been conducted by the US. It is of course still early days. But given the limited number of UK air strikes it begs the questions: why was the government so keen to expand the air strikes to Syria, and why the agonising over a vote that appears to have changed relatively little?”
I find the whole report disagreeable. For a start the BBC ignores or is perhaps unaware that the timing of the actual decision for the RAF to engage in bombing ISIL targets in Syria all but coincided (one week later) with the long planned three month deployment change at RAF Akrotiri – on this occasion from that of 1X Squadron which had been there from mid-September to that of 31 Squadron which will be there until mid-March this year.
It can and I believe must from a logistics and operational requirement basis be reasonably assumed that a change of Squadron takes several days to implement and also that this period being also one that covers a Christian religious festival, that we would see activities somewhat minimised.
The situation in Syria is, as the Prime Minister said himself, complex and while the part that we play in Syria bombing campaign is made even more complex by the presence, on an agreed basis, by Russian bombing that the UK has continued to actively engage as part of the allied force cannot be questioned.
That the US Air Force has clearly been dropping more bombs and engaging in a greater number of missile based attacks on ISIL targets and its people is hardly that surprising. The UK is not leading the allied forces engaged against ISIL it is following and working with them to hit agreed targets. While the UK engagement in the Syria bombing campaign may be rather less than that of the US Air Force and maybe even those of France matters far less than recognising what we are continued to conduct a campaign in Iraq and also, the underlying message that our presence and intention sends to ISIL forces. The UK military in the form of Royal Air Force Tornado GR4 and Typhoon capability that is bombing agreed targets combined with whatever involvement that is also in place by our special forces undoubtedly adds up to making a meaningful difference supporting our allies. To suggest otherwise is little more than an insult to those of our armed forces who are currently deployed.
It is to me a great shame that the principle state owned broadcaster in the UK, the BBC, appears to be seeking to take issue with a broad decision taken in the House of Commons and that authorised the UK military to conduct missions in Syria as well as those in Iraq. It is not in my view for the BBC to criticise our military or indeed, how the mission should be done.
CHW (4th January 2016)
Howard Wheeldon FRAeS
Tel: 07710 779785