The world’s new 'phoney war'?

The world’s new 'phoney war'?
Comment: The West has yet to wake up to the fact that it is at war, writes Bill Law.
5 min read
05 Oct, 2015
The West remains in denial as war rages on [Getty]

When Hitler's blitzkrieg conquered Poland in September 1939, France and Britain declared war on Germany and then did nothing for eight months in a wilful denial of reality that came to be called the Phoney War. 

Only when the Germans invaded Belgium, Holland and Luxembourg in April 1940 did they and the rest of world belatedly wake up to the enormous threat of Nazism.

We now face a similarly perverse and evil ideology built on hatred, fanatical myths of superiority and the wholesale hijacking of religious beliefs and symbolisms.  

"Remain and expand" is the dictum of Abu Bakr al-Baghdadi, and as the world's military powers dither over what to do, this self-proclaimed "caliph" - who shares with Hitler some clearly psychopathic tendencies - can be well satisfied with what he has already accomplished.

It is now well over a year since Mosul fell in northern Iraq.

Bold promises to retake it have vanished in a haze of military incompetence and political infighting. Ramadi, the capital of the vast Anbar province, remains in IS hands six months after it was overrun, as does most of the rest of Anbar province.

The equally bold claim that Ramadi would be "liberated within days" has fizzled into increasingly unlikely promises that a new offensive is just around the corner.

One of the few success stories, the retaking of Tikrit, the hometown of Saddam Hussein, was supposed to signal the beginning of the Mosul campaign.

But IS counterpunched very effectively by taking Ramadi, thus forcing an already beleaguered and poorly led Iraqi army to divide its resources - while at the same time desperately trying to hold on to the crucial oil refinery at Baiji, just 130 miles north of Baghdad on the road to Mosul.

     Syria became just that much more dangerous with President Putin's gambit to bomb the enemies of Assad while pretending to only attack IS

And the powder keg that is Syria became just that much more dangerous with President Putin's gambit to bomb the enemies of Assad while pretending to only attack IS. 

His cynical claim to be the only leader prepared to get tough with terrorism masks Russian intentions to protect their Mediterranean naval base at Tartous, and preserve their sphere of influence in what is left of Assad's Syria.

In Afghanistan, after sorting out a leadership squabble, the Taliban are on the march with a northern offensive and the seizure of Kunduz city, where claims that it has been freed are belied by continued fighting.

The Taliban already have a strong presence in much of the south of the country, and IS has gained a significant toehold in the province of Nangarhar, bordering Pakistan. 

In Yemen, an ill-conceived war against rebel Houthis has devastated the country and plunged Saudi Arabia into a military campaign with no end in sight. 

The only clear winners are Al Qaeda in the Arabian Peninsula (AQAP) which now, in a web of alliances with local tribes, controls much of southern Yemen - while IS is competing with AQAP and, according to some sources, now controls eight of the country's governorates.

The people of Yemen continue to pay a terrible price, with nearly 5,000 killed and more than 20,000 injured, much of the country's infrastructure destroyed and a growing fear of mass starvation for the country's 26 million people - as a Saudi-enforced blockade reduces food and medical supplies to a trickle.

The situation could scarcely be bleaker. Intense aerial bombardments, the heaviest the world has seen since the 2003 "Shock and Awe" campaign against Saddam Hussein's Baghdad, may have slowed IS offensives - but have come nowhere near meeting President Obama's declared aim of "degrading and destroying" the enemy.

Claims that 15,000 jihadists have been killed in the past year are difficult to confirm - but whether or not that figure is accurate, it is clear that new recruits have amply covered such losses.

Yet faced with evidence of the growing strength of various brands of jihadist insurgency, the world continues to dither - at war, but not at war, engaged in piecemeal efforts confronting the enemy but not engaged in any coherent and co-ordinated way.

The hundreds of thousands of refugees that are either in Europe or attempting to make their way to safety there - and the manner in which Europe has responded to their plight - are indicative of this huge failure to come to grips with the simple reality that we are at war.  

As with the military campaign, there is no overall policy, no strategy, no strong leadership to deal with the refugee issue. Rather, there are countries responding singularly and largely ineffectually with the largest migration of humans since the end of the Second World War.

     The evidence is there, in front of our eyes, a daily diet of images online and on our TV screens of desperate people

The evidence is there, in front of our eyes, a daily diet of images online and on our TV screens of desperate people: men, women and children, the very old and the very young staggering from one country to the next with only what they can carry.

But we remain stubbornly in denial mode. 

The UK will take 20,000 over five years. Canada and the United States even fewer. Angela Merkel has been forced to rethink her promise to take 800,000. Other European countries do not want to take any.

Meantime, the enemy continues to make gains. Uncertain about how to counter IS propaganda, or how to use our vast military superiority, we hesitate and argue.

We debate about whether we should bomb in both Syria and Iraq or about whether we should bomb at all. We create a vacuum with our hesitations, one that Vladimir Putin, behaving like a cocky gunslinger, is happy to exploit.

And, at the same time, we allow an ally to fight a war that is well on the road to creating a failed state in Yemen. Are we still not understanding that jihadist insurgencies thrive best in the incubus of failed states?

Ultimately, however, it is the refugee crisis that is the most powerful statement to date that the pretence of normality is no longer an option. 

Still we cling to that pretence. It is as if we are in our own version of the Phoney War. We just seem not to have realised it yet.

Isn't it time we did?

Bill Law is a former BBC Gulf analyst. Follow him on Twitter: @Billlaw49

Opinions expressed in this article remain those of the author and do not necessarily represent those of al-Araby al-Jadeed, its editorial board or staff.