When considering whether Britain should join airstrikes against ISIS in Syria, listen to anyone except those people preaching certainties
Should Britain join the group of countries launching airstrikes against ISIS in Syria?
On balance, yes. But not in the hope or expectation of “keeping us safe from terror”, which is the justification currently being touted by the government. And only as part of a broader strategy, a serious international military campaign and a real commitment to the people of Syria, who are caught in the middle of a ghastly civil war and – in the case of those stranded in ISIS territory – subjugated by one of the most barbaric, theocratic death cults in the history of the world.
I don’t advocate the use of force lightly. This blog rarely ventures onto topics of foreign policy, and for good reason – I’m far from an expert, and unlike some others I am not willing to confidently parrot the opinions of other people out of partisan loyalty or ideological entrenchment.
Today I re-read “I Was Wrong” by Andrew Sullivan, my favourite writer and blogger – sadly now retired from daily blogging. Sullivan was one of the loudest drum-beaters for the second Iraq war, and made the gradual transition from neoconservative warmonger to fierce Bush critic as he realised the gravity of his error – America and Britain’s catastrophic mistake. “I Was Wrong” is a collection of Sullivan’s blog posts from 2001-2008, charting that awful realisation.
I wanted to re-read Sullivan because I wanted to be sure that supporting military action in Syria was in no way a fear or anger-based reaction to recent acts of terror, to the Paris attacks – or the fear of a similar attack in Britain. And it is not. After 9/11, many people were willing to blindly lash out, and were too quick to put their faith in leaders who they mistakenly trusted to identify the real threats and the correct targets. Sullivan himself bravely admitted that he fell prey to this tendency. But in the year 2015, the shock of Islamist terror striking Western cities is no longer what it once was. And we are all more cynical and jaded, both about what our leaders tell us, and what we are capable of accomplishing when we decide to intervene in another country. In short: this is not Iraq all over again.
Today, David Cameron made the case for British military action against ISIS in Syria. The Telegraph sums up David Cameron’s 7-point plan:
- Protect the UK at home by maintaining robust counter-terrorism capabilities
- Generate negotiations on a political settlement, while preserving the moderate opposition
- Help deliver a government in Syria that can credibly represent all of the Syrian people
- Degrade and ultimately defeat Isil, through Coalition military and wider action
- Continue leading role in humanitarian support and forestall further migratory flows towards Europe
- Support stabilisation already underway in Iraq and plan for post-conflict reconstruction in Syria
- Work in close partnership with allies across the Middle East to mitigate the impact of Isil and other violent extremist groups
There are valid and compelling arguments for military action against ISIS in Syria, but this seven point plan does a poor job of making the case.
Point 1 is immediately ludicrous. Yes, there is the possibility that Syrian refugees may find their way across the continent of Europe to our shores, where they then go on to commit a terrorist atrocity. But we should be far more concerned about that stubborn rump of alienated British Muslims who already live among us and carry our passports, but feel no connection with or fidelity to our country. The 7/7 bombings in London proved definitively that we are perfectly capable of incubating our own terrorists in this country, with no need to import them.
David Cameron’s claim that Syria airstrikes will “protect the UK at home” should be treated extremely sceptically, because there is no compelling evidence that destroying the current overseas rallying point for Islamist extremism will do anything to tamp the fires of extremism within our own borders.
Points 2 and 3 sound suspiciously like nation-building. And again, no matter how accurate the RAF’s Brimstone guided missiles may be, they are not nimble enough to bring sworn enemies to the negotiating table or forge the beginnings of a political settlement. Regrettably, Britain and America have a weak track record when it comes to nation-building. And we can hardly be said to have learned the full lessons of Iraq when the publication of the Chilcot Report is shamefully delayed so as to allow those who come in for criticism the opportunity to airbrush their mistakes and imperfections from the public record.
Points 6 and 7 have a moderate chance of success at best. But with the exception of Israel, it is by no means certain that Britain’s so-called allies in the Middle East remotely share our objectives. Some of them actively fund and give succour to the same extremists who threaten us. The War on Terror has driven the United Kingdom into the arms of that repressive, barbaric kingdom, Saudi Arabia – a medieval land where lashings, crucifixions and beheadings are still deployed against blasphemers, and where many a terrorist ideology has been incubated.
In an ideal world, Britain would have nothing to do with the whole benighted region, diplomatically, until they achieve democracy and freedom on their own – but since necessity forces us to suck up to Saudi Arabia and other such Utopias in exchange for morsels of intelligence about the very same terrorist plots that they tacitly support, we will likely continue to make more enemies than friends in the Middle East.
Only points 4 and 5 of Cameron’s list are realistically achievable. Yes, we can degrade and defeat ISIS as an organisation. If Britain, America, France and other powers are determined then we can rain down fire on enough ministries, military posts, safe houses and supply routes that ISIS lose the majority of their territory and cease to be a potent regional presence. Clearly ground troops will be required to do the work that drones and missiles cannot, but whether the 70,000 potential Free Syrian Army fighters will be of sufficient number or quality to do the job without outside reinforcement is uncertain.
But the radicalised Muslims who flocked to the ISIS banner will not awaken as if from a trance the moment that David Cameron and François Hollande land on the flight deck of the Charles de Gaulle to declare “mission accomplished”. They will not suddenly see the light and re-embrace Western enlightenment values. They will simply cast around for the next group to join. And be assured, another group will come to fill the vacuum – just as ISIS is eclipsing Al Qaeda, and Al Qaeda eclipsed its jihadist predecessors.
None of these flaws in David Cameron’s 7-point plan for successful action in Syria are reason enough to reject military action. But they do show that bombing alone will not be enough – while the West may not have the appetite to pour in the blood, effort and money required to finish the job.
So when it comes to weighing the decision about whether to bomb Syria, beware of anyone offering cast-iron certainty on either side of the argument – be it Momentum and Stop the War on the left, or David Cameron and the hawks on the right.
For the truth – once the ideological blinkers and two-dimensional worldviews are stripped away – is that this decision is an impossibly close call, and one in which the absence of counterfactuals means that we will likely never know for certain whether we were right to intervene or not.
All that we can say for certain is that it is not the binary question of Yes/No which will make a success or failure of Western policy in Syria. What matters is not the decision about whether to bomb or not to bomb, but rather how the military action unfolds if it is authorised, what our tactics are, and how it fits into a broader plan to defeat the Islamist threat.
The military question itself is relatively straightforward in all of this. If we really wanted to defeat ISIS specifically as an organisation and wannabe state, the Western powers and their allies – working closely with the Free Syrian Army and others – are physically more than capable of doing so, if we put our minds to it.
But that does nothing to solve the broader jihadist threat. Where once we feared groups like Islamic Jihad, now we fear Al Qaeda and ISIS. And tomorrow, when ISIS is gone, we will tremble at the thought of some other bronze age group based in another unstable country, wreaking chaos with twenty-first century technology. The recent history of our efforts to defeat Islamist extremism can best be described as Terrorist Whack-a-Mole. You hit one organisation and another pops its head up somewhere else.
So don’t support bombing ISIS in Syria because it will help to keep us safe from terror attacks, because it won’t. In the short to medium term it will make no difference at all. A bomb next month in Leicester Square will not condemn the decision any more than another year without a major terrorist attack on British soil will vindicate the decision to begin striking ISIS in Syria. And beware opportunists who suggest otherwise.
The only real criteria which should be met in order to support military action in Syria are:
- Reasonable cause to hope that such action will materially defeat ISIS
- Fewer civilians expected to be killed or radicalised as a result of such action than would be the case without further intervention
- Confidence that the vacuum left by ISIS will not be filled with something even worse
Above all, this must be an humanitarian mission. In order to get public buy-in it will almost inevitably be couched in the language of “keeping us safe” in Britain – or fighting them over there so that we don’t have to fight them on the streets of London, as Matthew Hancock said this evening on Question Time (perhaps unwittingly channelling President Bush). But this is an unrealistic promise, one which sets the target for success so high that it will inevitably be missed. Even total victory in Syria will not end the Islamist threat, which is just as potent within Europe’s borders as it is in the Middle East. And we can hardly bomb Brussels or the slums around Paris.
A humanitarian mission is something achievable – if we work very, very hard, we can probably get ourselves to a place where we can say with some confidence that fewer people were killed, maimed or brainwashed than would have been the case had we done nothing. That’s likely to be as good as it gets – but those are the messy realities of our world.
That may not be enough for some, who either oppose military action because it is not the magic bullet for ending Islamist extremism or support it believing that it will. Both viewpoints allow perfection to become the enemy of the good – or the tolerable. There is no perfect solution on the table.
The anti-war Left need to drag themselves out of the shadow of Iraq and remember that Britain has a proud history of previous military and humanitarian interventions around the world which were right and justified and successful. And they must realise that there can be no negotiation with ISIS, and no realistic diplomatic solution in Syria until a military victory is won.
The terrorism-thumping Right need to appreciate that decimating ISIS militarily will in itself do nothing to defeat the ideology behind it – and in fact, any military action may exacerbate that aspect of the problem. Therefore, Britain should not take another step toward further armed involvement in Syria until something resembling a long-term plan is agreed between all of the major powers currently intervening in the region.
And both sides must remember that this is not Iraq all over again. The “something must be done” brigade are not leading us down an obviously wrong path as they did after 9/11 – we know precisely what is currently happening in Syria, and we are in no danger of precipitating a bloody Iraq-style civil war through our actions, because one is already bubbling along quite nicely without us.
Lastly, both sides should remember the best traditions of Britain as a force for good in the world. We remain one of the great economic and military powers of the world, with unique capabilities that we could bring to bear against ISIS. The mistake of Iraq must not allow us to abrogate our responsibility to project our power in defence of liberty and freedom where there is a compelling case to do so.
It’s time Britain got up off the mat after Iraq, and started fulfilling our responsibilities to the world once again.
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