THE BLOG

Air Strikes, Hypocrisy and the Money Trail

23/09/2014 16:16 BST | Updated 23/11/2014 10:59 GMT

The chilling image of 'Jihadi John', the man in the Syrian Desert with a black scarf wrapped around his face, a glistening knife and a south London accent sent shock waves through Western capitals. Coupled with the prospect of a military and political collapse in neighbouring Iraq politicians from both sides of the Atlantic were unanimous: 'We must do something!'

But what should we do?

This morning we woke up to reports of the first air strikes against positions of the self-proclaimed Islamic State of Iraq and Levant (ISIL) in northeast Syria around the group's stronghold of Raqqa. The aim was to degrade ISIL's military power and stop its advance. The air strikes, supported by a coalition of Sunni Arab states, were in effect carried out over a sovereign country, Syria, without UN authorisation. But leaders like David Cameron have already unilaterally decided that the Assad government has lost its legitimacy 'because of its use of chemical weapons against its own citizens'.

The fact Syria's military ally Russia, who earlier this month warned that such strikes would be a violation of international law, has not condemned them outright, and the Syrians have said that their UN representative was informed about them, suggests that it was somewhat a coordinated affair despite US protestations to the contrary. Russia will remain silent for as long as the US does not bomb Syrian government positions.

The official reason why the West decided not to support, at least not openly, the government of President Assad against ISIL was 'it's violent suppression of the pro-democracy movement, which started as part of the Arab Spring.'

The electorate in the Western democracies might be confused by our governments' selective criteria. On the one hand, we tolerate repressive regimes in our allies like Saudi Arabia, Jordan and the Gulf Kingdoms, or even Egypt, where there is no meaningful opposition. On the other, Obama and Cameron have decided that they don't like Assad's treatment of the Syrian opposition.

We are grown up enough to understand if we are told that Assad has to be removed because that would degrade Putin's military power. At a stroke, that will get rid of Russia's only naval base in the Mediterranean set up under a deal with Bashar's father, Hafez, in 1971.

Getting rid of Assad will also diminish Iran's influence in the region. Iran has been supportive of Assad because the Alawite sect, from which he and most of the Syrian leadership descend, follows Shia Islam and thus forms a natural alliance with Iran in the Muslim world. Hezbollah, Iran's protege in the region, has been instrumental in reversing the tide against Assad in the earlier stages of the civil war in Syria.

With taking part in the air strikes Saudi Arabia is keen to get in on the act before the West enlists the help of its archenemy Iran in the fight against ISIL. That will be an anathema for the Saudis who fear that Iran will emerge stronger from the current crisis, like it did after the West's unfortunate Iraq adventure in 2003.

The question I would like to ask is why it seems easier to launch air strikes and even put boots on the ground than starve ISIL of money? Saudi Arabia and Qatar, who willingly took part in the airstrikes this morning albeit in unknown capacity, have been the prime funders of ISIL. Although not officially, the allegations are that they have allowed wealthy private individuals, so called 'Angel Investors' to channel money into ISIL's coffers.

There's another source of income, too. If the current going rate for hostage ransom is $5m per head, the Turkish government must have given ISIL at least a quarter of a billion dollars, if some reports are to be believed, for the recent release of their hostages. Why can't we, with all our sophisticated eves-dropping technology and computer whizzkiddery, follow the money trail and seize it?

Why can't we find those who bankroll ISIL, punish them and put them out of business? You can do that under most countries' anti-terror laws.

The Financial Times reported that a sanction-busting network created in the 1990s to sell Saddam Hussein's oil avoiding the embargo at the time has been revived in order to sell oil on behalf of ISIL from the captured oilfields and refineries. The allegations are that elements in Turkey and Iraqi Kurdistan knowingly facilitate this illegal trade, which is worth up to $5m a day. In a bizarre twist, it appears that Iraqi Kurds are putting money in ISIL's coffers while their forces are fighting the group on the ground. Why can't we invest a fraction of what we spent on air strikes to dismantle these mechanisms?

And finally, air strikes alone won't defeat ISIL. The organisation is clearly goading the West into direct confrontation. Once we get the first pictures of Muslim women and children killed by US missiles, no matter how isolated these incidents would be, that would up the ante in ISIL's propaganda war. This is when allies like Saudi Arabia and Qatar will get cold feet.