This has been a pretty intense week. After a ten and a half hour debate in the house of commons on Wednesday the UK government voted in favour of extending air strikes to Syria and contributing to a bombing coalition with the US and France in that country. After the decision was broadcast, a lot of people took to social media to voice their opinions. I have personally seen far more comments against the motion than I have for, but it would be wrong to say that public opinion is unanimously or extremely against the strikes. Public opinion is never unanimous, and not everyone takes to social media to voice their opinions. There are a lot of arguments on both sides, and both are right in parts and wrong in others.
The idea that military action should never be an option is frankly un-realistic, and some people seem to have bought into the hype surrounding this vote and decided that it means the UK will personally start dropping thousands and thousands of bombs on innocent people. This is an overstatement. The UK is contributing a small number of air crafts to an existing operation, and it has basically been admitted that our contribution is unlikely to make a significant difference, they are also meant to be targeting Daesh only and avoiding civilian areas. They are not trying to target civilians and they claim that the RAF has not killed a single civilian during the already existing operation in Iraq, in reality this is very hard to prove because of the sheer depth of destruction in this region and dubious sources, and we may never know for sure if this is true or not. We also do not know and may never know how many civilians are going to be effected or killed by extending the operations in Syria.
Syria is already being heavily bombed by different, overlapping forces and there doesn’t seem to be much proof that it is helping to end or even significantly hurt Daesh, but if there was a proper ground force and a realistic chance at a peace settlement it would be a helpful to weaken them, scatter them and help cut off their resources. As we do not have these things, I do not feel the bombing campaign is the best course of action, and I have not been convinced by any of the frankly half baked, rushed or non-relevant arguments by the MP’s or those who support this.
Some things came up in the debate, including Cameron’s assertion that bombing Syria will somehow make us safer in the UK and all the hype about Hilary Benn’s speech. There is also a very important issue no one seems to be thinking about, which is very worrying as it is extremely relevant to our security and the future of Syria.
I’m going to attempt to address these, but this is a very complex and multi-faceted issue and I’m not going to pretend to know what the best course of action should be. It does worry me that these points don’t seem to have been acknowledged adequately by parliament.
Firstly, the idea that bombing Syria will make us safer does not make sense to me. And the reason for this is simple. Although Daesh currently has its headquarters in Syria, the attacks that happened in Paris were carried out by those in Paris, not in Syria. The people who carried out the attacks may have been to Syria, they were in touch with people in Syria, but they were born in and residents of the EU. So although people who support Daesh and subscribe to their views are likely to be in touch with people in Syria, and as we know hundreds of people from our own country have travelled to, and worryingly back, from Syria, if attacks happen in this country they are very likely to be carried out by people already here, and therefore bombing Syria will not stop their ability to carry out attacks on our countries, and is likely to make ‘revenge attacks’ more likely, as well as potentially so called lone wolf attacks, by people inspired by but not directly connected to Daesh.
There is another reason as well. It is not just extremists who dislike our respective governments and the actions they have carried out in the past and continue to carry out now. There are thousands of people who hate the very notion of religious murder and the whole idea of Daesh who also hate our government and their previous actions in the Middle East. There are plenty of people who see the war in Iraq as nothing more than a cold, calculated war crime and believe that those who were involved are murderers. And there are also plenty of people who disagree strongly with the decision taken on Wednesday, because they believe it is to do with oil and our governments collective greed. These are non radicalised and often peaceful people who hold these views. These are not limited to extremists. The reason Daesh’s propaganda works is because some of it is based on truth. Not the idea that there is some apocalyptic crusade in which they are fighting, and not the idea that murdering innocent people is going to result in some heavenly reward. But we do have a complicated, long running and often nasty history not just with the middle east but with most places around the world. This is not because people in our countries are abnormally evil, but because human history is full of people doing horrific things to each other all over the world. There is no way to excuse the murders these people have carried out in Europe or abroad. These people have murdered thousands within Syria and continue to stone, torture and execute any dissenters or anyone who even vaguely strays from their vision of Islam and their strict rules on behaviour. They have also filled mass graves with all the people they decided not to rape. And they have and continue to carry out horrific attacks outside of Syria, including our neighbors in France. These actions can never be excused; as human action goes these are among the most evil it could be and I hope everyone reading this is under no delusion that this is the case. But that does not mean that our countries actions over the last twenty years were any less terrible, that innocent people have not died during these ‘liberation’ wars. The ‘west’ are at least partly responsible for the hell that Daesh was born out of. This is by no means the only factor, but it is a factor, and until we stop ignoring our past mistakes we cannot hope to beat this propaganda. There is also the fact that these people want to be martyred, and they want the west to commit atrocities because it furthers their cause.
This does not mean military action is not an option, but it does mean we have to be more careful when applying it and ensuring that it is part of a comprehensive plan, not just war for the sake of looking like we are doing something.
Secondly, Hilary Benn’s speech was really not all that. In terms of rhetorical devices and the art of public speaking, it wasn’t bad. He had a good use of tone, he applied several effective rhetorical devices and he had good presence. He would have done any debating club proud. But the actual words he said did not offer anything new to the debate, in fact in terms of addressing the issues at hand he failed on several accounts. He played it in such a way that everyone could agree with it without him actually having to say anything of note, and it worked very well for him. His analogy with ‘facism’ was effective because it invoked our feelings about Nazism, but it did not address the issue. This is not the same situation as it was during the second world war not least because warfare has changed a considerable amount. This is not fighting them on the grounds, seas and skies, and fighting a clear army with equal footing, this is dropping a few bombs a week from a great hight and adding slightly to the destruction of a country.
Most of his speech concerned the need to fight Daesh in general. No one was disputing that we needed to take action against them, the issue at hand was whether contributing air strikes, and a small number of air strikes at that, is the right approach to tackle them, not whether we should fight them at all. And he does address that where he says: “Look at how their military capacity and their freedom of movement has been put under pressure. Ask the Kurds about Sinjar and Kobane. Now of course air strikes alone will not defeat Daesh, but they make a difference because they are giving them a hard time and it is making it more difficult for them to expand their territory.”. I find that pretty weak, because whilst it may slow them down, it does not mean they cannot regain the territory fairly quickly without ground forces to stop them and as we have seen in the campaign that is already happening whilst they have been stopped in some areas, they have gained territory in others. Without an effective ground army to keep them from regaining this territory, bombing will at best have very limited success.
His mentioned the ‘ground troops’ that we are relying on to hold the territory being bombed “But I tell you what else we know: it’s whatever the number – 70,000, 40,000, 80,000 – the current size of the opposition forces mean the longer we leave taking action, the longer Daesh will have to decrease that number” is also not a strong statement, in fact it highlights how little we know about these troops we are relying on, especially as they are very likely to have their own agendas. Some of these fighters are fighting for democracy, and some for their right to their own country, and some are doing very well and establishing free societies within that country, but others are not. If we train and equip these people, it is quite likely if we are able to defeat Daesh someone else will easily be able to take their place. The PM has basically admitted that some, who knows how many, are from Al Qaeda, the people we spent the last ten+ years fighting. There are many interests at work here, and I think it is extremely naive to think we can unite them all and control them, especially if they are not sure what we are offering them at the end of all this. And his statement “We are part of a coalition of over 60 countries standing together shoulder to shoulder to oppose their ideology and their brutality.” is something I’m really not convinced about. I’ve tried to find a list of every country involved in this ‘coalition’, and so far I have found around 24 countries with varying levels of involvement, as well as an array of local forces within the region. If anyone has any information on the other 36 countries apparently involved please let me know, otherwise I fail to understand where this figure has come from.
It was not a bad speech, but I do not believe it, or he, deserves the hype. I do not feel he gave a convincing argument for whether the UK contributing to air strikes would make a significant positive contribution to this war. He did attempt address these points, although I do not believe he did so very well, but he spent far more rallying everyone up by making statements that are both easy to agree with and largely empty.
The third and perhaps most pressing point is that this war is far more complex then the MPs made out on Wednesday. It is not a case of a united country being invaded by Daesh that will go back to normal once they are removed. The civil war was not started because of Daesh, Daesh was just able to capitalize on it because of the chaos that was already happening. And the civil war will not stop with their removal. There are many differing and often un-compatible interests in Syria, and it is far more complex than it sounded during the debate. President Assad has most probably killed more Syrians than Daesh have, and many Syrian people have fought for years to remove him. So when and if we can defeat Daesh, there will be a few options, and none of them are ideal. Firstly, we could say that our sole aim was to defeat Daesh and now we will withdraw military action, in which case the chaos is likely to continue and a similar group will sooner or later have the opportunity to emerge, or that Assad will regain power (in which case see point three). We could go against Russia and say that we will continue to fight, and therefore fight Russia to remove Assad, which is likely to anger Iran and Russia and could potentially lead to World War Three. Wars have started for less. Or we could side with Russia and turn the country over to Assad, which is probably the most likely plan, which would be a betrayal of the Syrian people who have spent years in a hellish war. To say all of that was for nothing and that things would be set back to how they were before this all started is almost guaranteed to turn these people against us, and out of all the possible scenario’s the fact will remain that we will have proved to the world we only care about those who directly effect us and are perfectly happy to work with murderous dictators and turn a blind eye to their domestic policies as long as they are friendly to us. Some people are comparing this to Iraq, but it is not the same. It is not a case of us invading a country for no reason and removing a dictator with no end plan, many people in Syria have already risen up against Assad. We are not enforcing this from our comfortable plushy offices overseas, many people in Syria have fought for this for years.
There is no easy answer to this issue, all have the potential to be very messy and unpleasant, and I am not sure anyone really knows how to deal with it if and when it does come up. What I do know is that by rushing into an air strike on Syria we have thrown ourselves into a much bigger conflict than we would like to think about, and the assertion that it is hardly an issue because the borders are not recognized by Daesh is not the point. The point is that the situation in Syria is not the situation in Iraq, and now we have committed ourselves to something I am not convinced any of the MP’s really understand. I am not saying military action is the wrong approach, and at some point it would probably have been necessary. But I feel they should have spent far longer thinking about the immediate as well as the future consequences and thought up at least the beginnings of a solid plan before engaging these air strikes. The Vienna talks are intended to solve this issue, but I can’t see that happening any time soon, and until they do the situation remains uncertain with or without Daesh. This was not just extending the war. This was much more than that, and to say it is not is to lie to the public.