Syria: how Britain’s moral crusade inflames Islamists

British officials describe Assad as evil yet are shocked when Brits go to fight him.

Brendan O'Neill

Brendan O'Neill
chief political writer

Topics Politics

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There’s something faintly surreal about today’s conviction of a British-Asian man for going to fight with rebel groups against the Assad regime in Syria. The British government over the past three years has pursued a moral crusade against Assad, describing his government as ‘evil’ and providing funding and materials to the rebel groups waging war against him; yet when a British citizen effectively takes this moral crusade at face value and takes up arms against Assad, he’s charged with terrorism. When does inciting war against Assad cross the line from being supposedly good foreign policy to being terrorism? When Cameron and Co. say so?

Mashudur Choudhury from Portsmouth was one of five Brits who last October travelled to Syria to train and eventually fight with al-Qaeda-inspired rebel groups, including the Islamic State of Iraq and Syria (ISIS), one of the most extreme organisations. The other four men are still there. Choudhury returned at the end of October last year and was promptly arrested at Gatwick airport and charged with conduct in preparation of terrorist acts. At his trial, it was revealed that he had suggested that the British men who went to Syria should set up their own fighting unit – called the al-Britani Brigade of Bangladeshi Bad Boys – and that he had described the opportunity to learn sniper and battlefield skills as ‘sick’ (as in good). Now this seeming fantasist, who is thought to have returned from Syria because he was made scared by the realities on the ground, has become the first Brit charged with terror offences in relation to Syria.

What mixed messages British officialdom is sending. It condemns Choudhury and yet it has spent the years since 2011, when the rebellion against Assad started, telling anyone who would listen that Assad’s regime has, in William Hague’s words, ‘lost legitimacy’ and, in David Cameron’s words, is ‘evil’. Britain also helped to hand-pick the Syrian National Council and effectively gave this collection of disaffected Syrian military men, oligarchs and academics its blessing to wage war on illegitimate Assad. The British government also pumped millions of pounds into rebel fighter groups in 2012 and 2013, providing them with ‘non-lethal’ but still war-useful materials such as radio equipment and satellite devices. Meanwhile, vast swathes of the British media, especially those iPad imperialists who love nothing more than agitating for action against evils overseas, expressed constant ‘revulsion’ against Assad and said ‘it is important to add weight to our moral impulse’ – that is, to use military might to show just how morally disturbed we are by Assad’s evil. How, precisely, is Choudhury’s trek to Syria any different to this desire to ‘add weight to one’s moral impulse’? He was doing just that, adding weight to his moralism, yet he’s criminalised for it while our leaders and the iPad imperialists were cheered for their militarisation of their childish moral outlooks.

All this meddling by Britain, alongside other Western nations, in the falling-apart of Syria had the all-too-predictable effect of making the situation on the ground worse, upping the ante between the rebels and Assad by internationalising the conflict, and turning what was essentially a civil war over power into a cosmological battle between ‘good’ rebels (though we now know lots of them weren’t that good) and ‘evil’ Assad. And it seems to have had another effect, too – it seems to have encouraged some Islamist-minded Brits to do their part in this very British crusade against an evil regime by travelling to Syria and using guns and bombs against Assad’s men. At Choudhury’s trial, the prosecution made much of the Skype calls and text messages through which Choudhury and the others were supposedly radicalised by Islamists, but actually it could just as easily have been the mainstream media and political crusade against Assad as the latest tinpot dictator to be turned into a new Hitler that encouraged these young British men to venture to Syria and do the ‘good’ thing.

The lesson some are taking from the Choudhury trial is that Islamic radicalisation remains a terrible scourge in modern Britain. Here’s a better lesson to learn, and which should really have been learnt during the Afghan-Soviet War in the 1980s (when Britain and others supported Mujahideen forces) or during the Bosnian War in the 1990s (when Islamist fighters once again cribbed off the West’s transformation of a complex civil war into a simple fight between good Muslims and demonic Serbs): when you moralise foreign conflicts, and make a massive, showy crusade out of your opposition to one particular side, you’re inevitably going to encourage some people to accept your challenge and take up the cudgels against ‘evil’. Choudhury and the others are best seen, not as unwitting dupes of Islamist radicals, but as the informal armed wing of the British elite’s own super-reductive moralisation of the Syrian conflict.

Brendan O’Neill is editor of spiked.

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Topics Politics


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