Friday, 27 November 2015

Syria: Why I am a reluctant bomber

In the interests of taste and decency, let us look away from the gruesome spectacle of the civil war that has engulfed the Labour party and concentrate instead on the far more serious conflict in Syria. So here are some questions that you might like to ask yourself (with my answers) before you decide whether you agree with David Cameron that the UK should now join the international military action against IS in Syria.

1. Is IS a direct threat to the UK? My answer: Yes. What happened in Paris two weeks ago could happen here tomorrow. Several hundred British citizens are believed to have gone to Syria to join IS; according to Mr Cameron, about half of them have returned. The PM also says that over the past 12 months, police and security services have disrupted seven terrorist plots "either linked to ISIL, or inspired by ISIL's propaganda".

2. So won't joining the military action against IS make the UK even more of a target and increase the threat to British citizens? My answer: No. The UK is already a prime target.

3. Will it make the UK safer? My answer: Possibly, if it discourages young Muslims from travelling to Syria to join IS, and if it forces the group's leaders to scatter, making it more difficult for them to coordinate attacks. Cutting their supply lines and hitting the oil facilities they have captured could have an effect. It could also have little or no effect.

4. Is IS a threat to the region and therefore an indirect threat to the rest of the world? My answer: Yes. In the words of UN security council resolution 2249, passed unanimously a week ago: "The Islamic State in Iraq and the Levant constitutes a global and unprecedented threat to international peace and security." The resolution called on all UN member states "to use all necessary measures to prevent and suppress terrorist acts committed specifically by ISIL and to eradicate the safe haven they have established over significant parts of Iraq and Syria."

5. Can IS be defeated militarily? My answer: No. As experience in Afghanistan has amply demonstrated, defeating a terrorist group by military means is an impossibility. The US-led air campaign against IS in Syria has already conducted more than 2,500 attacks, with relatively little to show for it. Mr Cameron acknowledged as much in his 36-page response to the House of Commons Foreign Affairs select committee: "The objective of our counter-ISIL campaign is to degrade ISIL’s capabilities so that it no longer presents a significant … threat." Note the operative word: "degrade", rather than "defeat" or "destroy".

6. So at what point would any UK military action cease? My answer: That's a very good question. The implication in Mr Cameron's statement is that a campaign of air attacks would lead to an accelerated political process in which "moderate" opposition groups would be strengthened and President Bashar al-Assad would be encouraged to step down as part of a transition to a more democratic Syria. That seems a huge leap of faith.

7. Isn't there a real risk that the UK would do more harm than good by joining the military campaign? My answer: I doubt it. UK involvement is unlikely to be a game-changer, despite the prime minister's claim that the UK has "world-leading military capabilities to contribute, which many other countries do not possess."

8.  What is the strongest reason for UK joining the military action? My answer: It would demonstrate that we remain part of a global community that has come together in a way not seen since the international action against Saddam Hussein following the Iraqi invasion of Kuwait in 1990. A coalition that includes the US, Russia, France, Jordan, Saudi Arabia and Turkey cannot easily be dismissed as simply a rerun of the US-led coalition against Saddam in 2003. And to ignore a direct appeal from France, our closest European neighbour, would inevitably be seen as turning our backs on a neighbour in need.

9. What is the strongest reason against the UK joining? My answer: I recognise that our experience in Afghanistan, Iraq and Libya, where we bombed the bad guys only to find that more bad guys emerged from the rubble, is not exactly encouraging. On the other hand, military interventions in Bosnia, Kosovo and Sierra Leone did have positive outcomes.

10. Why should we believe anything that Cameron says, given that it's presumably based on extensive briefings from the security services, who were so catastrophically wrong about Iraq in 2003? My answer: because this time, unlike when the debate was about whether Saddam was developing weapons of mass destruction, no one is arguing that IS is not a real threat or doesn't really exist. The only debate is over how best to confront the threat.

So how would I vote if I were an MP? I'd vote Yes -- but with a very heavy heart.


Unknown said...

Speaking of our ally and arms customer Saudi Arabia, they will behead 55 people today. After all it is Black Friday.

Dan said...

Given that there already is an ongoing bombing campaign against ISIS in Syria, and that UK involvement "is unlikely to be a game-changer" - most of these points are surely irrelevant? ISIS will be defeated (or not) with or without us and, if you're right, won't care if we joined in or not when it comes to picking targets.

This is a diplomatic question, not a military one: do we want to be part of the gang or not? Should we stand shoulder-to-shoulder with our allies and risk our share of the fallout, or keep our hands clean and risk their enmity.

I would suggest that rather than throw our handful of Tornados into the mix, we might actually be more useful trying to bring about a diplomatic solution. An easier thing to do when you are not actively killing some of the protagonists.

Anonymous said...


Robbo said...

I agree wholeheartedly with Dan. It is highly unlikely anything we do militarily will make the slightest difference, except to inflict still more death and injury to innocent and unfortunate folks on the ground. Our precision bombing has proven to be anything but precise, time and time again. Remember the hospital the US bombed just a few weeks ago. Hard luck on those killed there.
No wonder so many in and with links to the Middle East detest us.
In Iraq and in Syria, the coalition has dropped hundreds of tons of bombs already and these have made no difference whatever.
Frankly, I doubt all the rhetoric about Brits in Syria or here and I certainly question the prime minister's assertionabout tens of thousands of fighters there ready to fight IS.
We've learnt the hard way to take everything our senior politicians, military and intelligence people say with a very large dose of salt. The whole Iraq war was predicated on a giant lie; we've trashed Libya and Afghanistan and right now Egypt has a government every bit as bad as what went before under Mubarak, so much for western intervention.
If we really want to help we should be putting all our efforts into stopping the sale of oil from IS - nearly all of which is going out through Turkey. We should be pressuring that country to stop these sales; it us supposed to be our ally! If it won't, then sanctions should be applied.
We should be stopping funding from Saudi Arabia and other Gulf States going to IS. Why does our government say nothing about this?
Churchill summed it up - jaw jaw, not war war. It still applies today.

David Brown said...

So your basic argument is that spending billions we can't spare will do little if anything to change the situation. The only reason for doing it is that we are too weak to stand up for what we believe in.

Anonymous said...

.....with so much aged ammunition occupying heaps of space and pilots itching for risk-free warfare practice .....