If we’re going to oppose action in Syria, we should do so for the right reasons.

I joined the Liberal Democrats in 2002, like so many people politicised by the build up to an illegal and wholly unjustified war in Iraq.

That misguided military intervention has loomed large over every subsequent discourse on the Middle East and our engagement in it. It’s a particularly salient point of reference for us as Liberal Democrats, as those of us involved at the time will remember, opposing Iraq was not a popular position. We were called appeasers, and worse, by people who had swallowed whole the dodgy dossiers and their phantom 45-minute claims.

Almost everyone, except Blair himself, now acknowledges that the war was a huge and costly mistake, and in turn that the Liberal Democrats, led by Charles Kennedy, were right to oppose it. It was and still is a defining position for our party.

However, I fear that this one position, taken over thirteen years ago, has come to exert a disproportionate influence over our view of the world in 2015. I’ve read with interest the various pieces that have been written over the last few days regarding our potential intervention in Syria, and whether the Lib Dems should support it. There are strong arguments on both sides made by honest and principled people, however it is clear that some of the arguments made against military action don’t stand up to even the mildest scrutiny, and are based more on a sense that as Liberal Democrats we should be “against this sort of thing” rather than any understanding of how this situation may differ from the past.

The arguments I’ve seen against military action seem to fall, broadly, into three categories. Firstly that we shouldn’t get involved in the middle east as a matter of principle and that the only solutions are political, secondly that if we do so we’ll only make ourselves less safe, and finally there are those that argue that what is being proposed (airstrikes) simply won’t work and isn’t enough.

It’s the first of these arguments that I find so flimsy. It is surely a fundamental principle of Liberalism that all people are created and should be treated equally. On that basis, the suffering of a family in Raqqa should provoke the same reaction as the same events would in Paris or London. To stand back and say that we shouldn’t get involved because these events are happening in another country far away in a region we don’t understand is cultural relativism of the worst kind. The argument that we must seek a political solution is also indefensible when you consider who would actually be invited to the table. ISIL are a terrorist organisation, and every square inch of Iraq and Syria they occupy has been gained through terror, torture and unimaginable brutality. Granting them even a shred of legitimacy around a negotiating table would have profound and entirely negative consequences in the future.

Secondly, people have argued that any military intervention will only cause further radicalisation both here and abroad, and make us less safe. There is no doubt at all that ISIL, whose use of social media is both sophisticated and impressive, would use any engagement to further reinforce their twisted worldview and recruit more vulnerable people to their cause. That however is only one side of the argument, because as we know from recent events in Paris, they’re doing that recruitment anyway, and anyone who thinks that Paris was attacked rather than London because we’re only bombing ISIL in Iraq and not Syria is extremely naïve. Also, let us not forget that the worst terror atrocity of modern times, 9/11, happened before any of the recent military interventions that people so easily blame for the radicalisation of many young Muslims.

Just because ISIL would use any action we take as a recruitment tool doesn’t mean that if we don’t take that action they won’t be able to recruit. I agree with President Hollande, we are now at war, and we cannot simply choose not to be.

So that leaves us with the third argument, that the military action proposed simply won’t work. This is a position I have a lot of sympathy with. It is wrong to pretend that any sort of military action, especially bombing, wouldn’t cost the lives of many civilians on the ground. The reality that there are innocent people alive today who will die if we proceed with military action weighs very heavily on our judgement and means that the benefit from doing so must be significant. We all know that in the end only boots on the group will defeat ISIL and retake the territory they have stolen, but there is no prospect at all of NATO forces being deployed in that way. With that option off the table, the only realistic plan is to co-ordinate our air strikes with forces on the ground from both the Assad regime and the nebulous group of “rebels” who have been engaged in a bloody civil war against him for over four years in hope that together they somehow achieve our desired outcome. That doesn’t seem like a very viable plan to me, and for that reason, if I had a vote, I’d probably oppose the action that is being proposed. Instead I’d want to vote for a much larger, much more comprehensive engagement that would actually remove ISIL from the territory they have stolen once and for all.

As Liberals we should support effective military intervention where that will, overall, save lives and end tyranny.  It’s too easy for us as a party to adopt a default position of opposing any military intervention regardless of circumstance and to accuse those who have different view of being hawks, or neo-cons, or anything else. One of our guiding principles is that we make judgements based on the evidence we see and not what we already think. We should of course make sure we learn the lessons of the past but we should not be bound by them. We’re better than that.

* Austin Rathe is a party activist who was the Head of Member and Supporter Development at Liberal Democrats HQ in London until November 2015

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53 Comments

  • Reason three is also key for me. The RAF have been operating over Northern Iraq since 1990 more or less continuously. What we have to show for it is… ISIS. I want Farron to be far more critical and far more vocal. ISIS are indeed terrible, but bombing has achieved very little in the past and Cameron is not able to explain what has changed.

  • I agree that we need to not fall into the trap of opposing military action purely because it is in opposition to the government of the day, and should judge each instance on a case by case basis. However, I do feel that (at time of writing) the five tests which Tim Farron has laid out have not been met and so we should oppose giving a blank-cheque to air strikes.

    Also, there had been little/no real discussion on alternative military action that the UK can take in order to maximise our effectiveness and minimise civilian casualties. By deploying (more) Special Forces in the area we can be more effective directing the air strikes of our allies and in removing the ISIL leadership than just adding more planes to the bombing raids

  • Tsar Nicholas 30th Nov '15 - 9:34pm

    The reason for my opposition is simple. Getting rid of Assad has been the top priority for Cameron for many years. I do not now believe that the leopard has changed his spots. I still think that Assad is the real target.

    Following on from this is the question of the Russian presence in Syria. That presence is shoring up Assad. How will the Russians react if the Syrian Arab Army is attacked? I think the possibility of a wider clash with Russian forces exist.

    Finally, if we really want to destroy ISIS, why not put pressure on Erdogan to clamp down on arms supplies and the supply of money in exchange for oil. Erdogan is virtually out in the open now in what he is doing. Why is is so hard for people to grasp that he is the villain of the piece here?

  • Reason three is the critical one for me, and I’d vote against until that was dealt with.
    the U.S. and France have been bombing Syria for months – what makes us think that the tide wil turn against ISIL just because we join in? We were close to bombing Assad 2 years ago – now we’re being asked to approve action that will strengthen him. I can’t stomach that the right strategy here is to embolden him. It’s not good enough to say that a UN force on the ground is off the table. It’s all that will work – and voting for air strikes just allows the pretence that there’s another solution to fester.

  • Paul Reynolds 30th Nov '15 - 9:47pm

    Whilst I am against the UK joining the unlawful bombing of Syria, uninvited, I certainly DO support measures to defeat IS (in Iraq, KRG, Turkey, and Saudi) and to bring democracy and stability to Syria (and an end to the Assad regime). But not by bombing Raqqa or by supporting Turkey’s annexation of Turkmen Syria and a war with Russia, and certainly not on the basis of David Cameron’s utterly laughable justifications, such as the 70,000 ground forces already in situ. (If there are in situ why haven’t they beaten IS and Assad’s forces already). Risible ! I plead one last time for or MPs to do the work needed, don’t accept the JIC propaganda, and get properly briefed on the matter at hand. Don’t leave the anti-bombing argument to Corbyn and the far left. They will benefit from the mess that will follow ! Read what Tory David Davis MP has to say, for example.

    For my own views in detail, please read these three briefings, for example.

    http://www.huffingtonpost.co.uk/paul-reynolds/the-coming-syrian-regiona_b_8121946.html

    http://www.huffingtonpost.co.uk/paul-reynolds/syria-a-chance-to-learn-t_b_1772292.html (from 2012)

    https://www.libdemvoice.org/iraq-2-why-the-lib-dems-syria-conflict-position-in-parliament-is-militarily-and-politically-unwise-48412.html

    THANK YOU

  • Jonathan Brown 30th Nov '15 - 9:58pm

    A very good article Austin, and I agree with most of it. Your third point is why on balance I am against supporting proposals to bomb ISIS.

    Where I disagree is your suggestion is that “the only realistic plan is to co-ordinate our air strikes with forces on the ground from both the Assad regime and the nebulous group of “rebels” “. Put aside the moral objections to working with the regime for a moment; even if we were willing to do that I cannot see any way that the opposition could be persuaded to drop their demands that he leave. I cannot think of anything we could say that would convince them that they would survive the reprisals that the regime would unleash if it survives, short of deploying huge numbers of peacekeeping (actually ‘peace making’) troops. And as you say, there is no prospect of this happening.

    If Assad and the people around him can be got rid of (by which I mean persuaded to go into exile rather than assassinated), I think a deal with the regime becomes a possibility. In fact, it probably becomes the most likely way in which the war can be brought to a close. But while most Syrians opposing him perceive him to be a graver threat to their safety than ISIS, the chances of engineering a reprochement between them and the regime are nil.

  • Robert Wootton 30th Nov '15 - 10:00pm

    Reason three is the critical one. Unless there is a plan for peace in Syria, as I said in my previous comment, there is no point in air strikes in Syria. Unless the British Government can establish a NATO wide coalition to win the peace through total war, with Russia as an ally. we should not escalate it further.

  • One thing is for sure, and that is that the Middle East is an unholy mess.

    What do we want to see there? A Liberal Democrat kind of society I suppose, with all that that implies.

    Who are our friends and allies in wanting to see this?

    There are countries who are our allies in defensive treaties against the Russians. There are countries to whom we sell enormous amounts of armaments. There are countries whose leaders play tennis and polo with our royals and political leaders. Whether they are in favour of establishing a liberal sociery all over the Middle East is another question. I somehow doubt it. So what would we be fighting for?

    If the answer is – as seems to be Mr Cameron´s case – to keep us safe at home, then surely the answer is to halt the cuts to the police service, and the “boots on the ground” armed forces (including security). Wasting money on renewing Trident and bombing settlements and infrastructure in the middle of the desert is not, I think, the answer.

    Meanwhile we have a host of competing forces, all of them unpleasant. Any military action against one, only strengthens the rest. For me, Mr Cameron has totally failed to make his case.

  • Surely the very premise of this article is worrying?

    If we’re going to SUPPORT airstrikes, we should be doing it for the right reasons, but surely supporting airstrikes is not the DEFAULT position?

  • @ Austin Rathe …… : “the suffering of a family in Raqqa should provoke the same reaction as the same events would in Paris or London. ”

    Yes, but…. you won’t improve that suffering by dropping bombs on them ..

    @ Austin Rathe …… “Almost everyone, except Blair himself, now acknowledges that the war was a huge and costly mistake, and in turn that the Liberal Democrats, led by Charles Kennedy, were right to oppose it. It was and still is a defining position for our party”.

    Those of us who joined the party well before 2002 (in my case 1960) were opposed to being bit players long before that. For example, we opposed getting involved in Vietnam in 1968 – and to Harold Wilson’s credit – he kept us out even though the Americans retaliated by causing a run on the pound.

    Austyin’s third point “It won’t work” – as presently constitued – hits the mark.

    A last historical point about getting into wars – in Sarajevo in 1914 a shot rang out which culminated in a reluctant Liberal Government headed by H.H. Asquith getting dragged into a world war..Result, nearly 900,000 British deaths and three million severely wounded…. indeed a universal holocaust for all sides by any standard. Last week a missile was fired that brought down a Russian jet – fired by a NATO ally. Observe and consider…………..

  • Toby Fenwick 30th Nov '15 - 10:50pm

    @PaulReynolds – airstrikes are legal. Don’t ask me, ask Keir Starmer (who is against airstrikes) http://gu.com/p/4ek25

  • There are probably very good arguments to be made both for and against taking military action against Da’esh — which, I imagine, everyone will agree is one of the most grotesquely evil parodies of a state since Pol Pot’s Cambodia — but there is no good argument for bombing just for the sake of bombing. If the UK is to be part of this, it must be in coördination with a group of allies who are wholly agreed on means and objectives; who are prepared to fight Da’esh, not merely to contain it but to destroy it; who will persist to the end and not bail out when things get rough; and who have a realistic plan for rebuilding Syria and creating a Near East in which terrorist organisations cannot take root.

    That would mean not just bombers but armies. That would mean occupation, possibly in concert with some partners with very soiled hands. It would mean a significant long-term investment. It would also mean casualties and exposing ourselves to desperate terror attacks (not that those might not come anyway).

    There is an argument to be made for all that. However, there is no argument to be made for dropping a few bombs just to be able to say “we did something” while letting Da’esh stay in power; or, perhaps, enabling Assad’s army to reoccupy eastern Syria only to melt away and let Da’esh return from its bases in Iraq the moment we were gone. This will just lead to more deaths, more terror, and in the UK being seen as both weak and uninterested in the welfare of the Syrian people. It will do nothing to solve the refugee problem; it will not solve the Da’esh problem; it will not solve the Assad problem. A partial solution, in this instance, is no solution at all. And yet working out a comprehensive solution is the one thing nobody seems willing to try.

  • Andrew McCaig 30th Nov '15 - 11:15pm

    Austin,

    Thanks for clearly articulating reason 3, which is quite sufficient reason to oppose extending our air campaign from Iraq to Syria.
    I would add that every foreign airforce added to the Syrian skies increases the risk of friendly fire incidents or “accidents” involving Russia or Turkey (who seem to be rather trigger happy, even if they are supposedly allies…). I am sure that any sensible overall strategist would try and avoid multiple airforces being in the same skies at the same time by confining spheres of operation (eg we attack Iraqi targets, and France attacks Syrian targets)

  • James sheerin 30th Nov '15 - 11:18pm

    This is almost enough to make me leave the Lib Dems. We should never join a war where we don’t know who our enemies and friends are, what our objectives are and how we can achieve them. Cameron can’t answer any of these questions. If our party can’t come up with a clearer analysis than what’s written here then we’re condemned to continuing as an irrelevance in UK politics.

  • Eddie Sammon 30th Nov '15 - 11:34pm

    I agree Austin. I understand pacifism if based on religious or sincerely held-belief, but a lot seems to be “don’t intervene” because apparently non-intervention is somehow good in itself. It’s not good.

    I think we are at war, but a more accurate slogan than “Britain goes to war” is “Britain intervenes in Syria war”. IS are conducting a war on their own people – so is Assad and al-Qaeda would do it if given the chance.

    I back precision airstrikes, the White House and Hollande want parliament to support Cameron too. Obviously this alone doesn’t mean we should, but my point is that there are experts and very well informed people who are for and against extending airstrikes against IS to Syria. At times I feel the experts getting the most attention are the ones against.

  • Eddie Sammon 30th Nov '15 - 11:57pm

    PS, after this vote we need another one ASAP sanctioning Assad and Putin. No fly zones should be on the table. I just didn’t want to delay striking IS until we had them.

    I think Cameron could win a vote against Assad this time. There is so much anger out there against him and it will be seen as the UK sticking up for the local civilians. It could be the best thing we’ve done in years to boost our relations with the Middle East.

    I’ll listen to what the experts say on it, but I think there will be a lot of support for careful action against Assad. Need to do some more diplomatic work on it too. Russia is the big obstacle here. There is no such obstacle with IS.

  • Personally, I think it’s just not in Britain’s interests to stay involved. None of plans for the ME look realistic and quite frankly even if you get rid of ISIL what you’re left with is an ungovernable mess of local factions. You can say, well we should not judge the present plans on the failures of the past, but you only have to look at what has happened after what were in military terms successful operations in Libya and Iraq to see where this is going. As it stands Syria is going to be reduced coastal country with permanent Russian air bases and the rest of it is going to be like Libya. We and the American and no one else is really going rebuild infra structure and destroyed towns, the refugees aren’t going to want to live in the rubble and the pretence that it will all slot into place if we negotiate is pie in the sky. It’s basically already a lost cause. To me the bombing looks like face saving, it makes it seem like we are doing something with a minimum risk of upsetting the public and can be dragged out for decades or until we quietly remove journalists and relegate it to the occasional Newsnight or Channel 4 special report just like Libya, Iraq and Afghanistan. It isn’t just the bombing that’s pointless, it’s the incoherent political strategy and wishful thinking. Actually the military bit is most successful part of the equation in that pushing ISIL back into Libya would be fairly easy, but we pushed the Taliban back fairly quickly and they came back just as quickly.
    My objection is on the grounds that that sooner or later we have to admit to the failure of our ME escapades and stop interfering because we are very bad at it.

  • Dave Orbison 1st Dec '15 - 12:22am

    Austin “As a Liberal we should support effective military action where that will, overall save leaves and end tyranny “. Indeed who could possibly vote against action that would have such results? But this is the whole point of the debate. Those against are not motivated by pacifism as the goading Press or Tories + would have you believe but out of sincere doubts that such action could possibly accomplish these goals. They have not worked before, why should they now? This is exactly why Isis want. We should put pressure on the Saudis and Turkey to throttle ISIS by attacking the logistics needed to ensure ISIS can function. Not as dramatic as dropping bombs but nevertheless a critical military manoeuvre as in N Africa and Battle of Bulge in WWII

  • James Sheerin
    “a clearer analysis ”
    Yes indeed. One by Arabic speakers who know the region.
    But this isn’t about the rights and wrongs of the Middle East,
    more about the humiliation of a man at the Dispatch Box a couple of years ago.
    The British are not particularly liked in many parts of the world and especially
    in the Middle East.

  • Joe,
    a very interesting response. But do you not think it’s possible that Britain is an irrelevemc to the outcome. Any action we take is going to be minimal anyway. You have the Russian air force, the American air force, the French airforce, the Syrian Air Force and in put from a few other nation. We have 12 aircraft and the argument is really that they should drop a few bombs in Syria now and again. It’s hardly a game changer, The argument isn’t really between hawks and doves. It’s really between people who look at what’s happened over the las t 15 years and see failure after failure, failed states, Al Qaeda still operating, the Taliban still in place and say “no more of this nonsense, it hasn’t worked and isn’t ever going to work” and those who say ” but this time it’s different, this mixture of regime change and the war on terror will end better”.
    I’m against further involvement because it has a proven track record of failure, Britain’s involvement is negligible and it probably will end exactly the way it has in Libya, Iraq and Afghanistan. In other words it’s just a pointless gesture with no viable endgame, plus nothing we can do isn’t already being done, The main counter argument I can see is that the gesture is important for nebulas political reasons that have little to do with the outcome in Syria.

  • David Raw
    “we opposed getting involved in Vietnam in 1968 ”
    The British Army did help build the runways at the American bases in NE Thailand.
    In Laos today the bomb craters are clearly visible from air.
    The people in Laos DON’T say, “The Americans are a wonderful people, they bombed us for our
    own good.”Thank God Britain didn’t get involved. Bombing didn’t give the Americans victory.

  • Glenn
    Long term outcomes?
    New states-
    Western Syria plus Lebanon, a greater Lebanon.
    Eastern Syria, Jordan, parts of Northern Iraq, a new Sunni kingdom.
    Unions have occurred before in the Middle East, notable the short lived UAR.

  • Manfrang.
    I see your point, but this isn’t the out come in Libya, Iraq or Afghanistan. I suspect that what we will end up with is various warlords squabbling over rubble, a reduced Syria an extended Iran and an unrecognised Kurdish homeland permanently threatened by Turkey. And this new Sunni Kingdom, well actually the Syrian army is mostly Sunni with a sizable Christian element anyway. Although I think part of the problem is that some Western thinkers accidently supporting ethnic and sectarian cleansing because they assume the ME is owned by Islam and can’t have a more secular solution that is allowed to develop naturally. My view is that we’ve blundered into support for sectarian thugs because we have a romantic view of oppressed freedom fighters. Lets be honest here IS expanded because we got rid of the power structures that held fragile societies together. This meant that when they went into areas and slaughtered what they saw as apostate Shiites and none Muslims there were lots of locals that agreed with them. Under the current logic a Sunni kingdom would most resemble Saudi Arabia and would do pretty much what ISIL are doing anyway which the CIA were postulating a few years back, Me I think Britain should steer clear and not be involved in nation building because we tried and failed What other nations do is up to them, maybe they will do a better job, maybe they won’t. I wish them luck, but they really don’t need our input either way because we are plainly really not very good at it and have limited resources to draw on so would contribute very little that isn’t already being done. I suppose we could send one of our state of the art empty aircraft carriers or some TA advisers from our reduced military, but what’s the point?

  • Glenn,
    Thirty years ago the Middle East was much more secular than it is today. The concept of a nation state in the Middle is not as strong as it is in western Europe. There were pan-Arab movements in the past. The borders in that area are colonial ones and it may be time they are reshaped BUT this would be done by the agreement of those in that region not by outsiders.

  • Bombing is being proposed in a pathetic attempt to maintain U K’s position as a world power, to be seen to be doing something, and of course siding with the good old USA, It will not make even the slightest difference. We will never play any real part in solving the problems of that region until the U K (amongst others) recognises and admits that we are part of the problem. I do not doubt that the opinions expressed in this post are sincerely held, but they do not reflect that unpalatable reality. There is one guaranteed outcome of UK bombing Syria. More civilian deaths, further devastation of infrastructure and further propaganda for extremist groups. Beyond that it is gesture politics of the worst possible kind.

  • David Murray 1st Dec '15 - 8:48am

    Austin says, “As Liberals we should support effective military intervention where that will, overall, save lives and end tyranny.” There is no evidence that suggests that bombing ISIL in Raqqa or elsewhere will achieve that aim. The FSA is composed of a number of different factions which want to defeat al-Assad. The Russians are supporting al-Assad and are bombing the FSA (and possibly ISIL too). Turkey is attacking the Kurds who are the only ones fighting in their own territory against ISIL. Two years ago, we would have supported the ‘freedom fighters’ against al-Assad, some of whom have joined ISIL.
    We should be taking action against those states (‘allies’ or NATO members or whatever) that are supplying ISIL with money for oil, arms, ammunition and military vehicles that ISIL haven’t already captured from areas abandoned by other forces on the ground. For Cameron to suggest that there is an army of 70,000 waiting to take action against ISIL as soon as we support them with a bombing campaign is as unbelievable as it is unreal. Any contribution we make now to the ‘war’ in Syria would be a pointless political gesture, with no benefit militarily, politically or practically. As Lib Dems (and I joined the Liberal Party in 1966) we should oppose airstrikes until we have some clear strategy. Tim’s 5 conditions have clearly not been met, and I hope the rump of our parliamentary party will vote against tomorrow.

  • Jenny Barnes 1st Dec '15 - 8:54am

    People seem to be very exercised about getting rid of Assad. possibly because they subscribe to the great man theory of history. It’s pretty clear that if Assad went, someone else from the Alawite elite would take over, and the situation would remain the same. See Egypt, Mubarak, El-Sisi.

  • John Barrett 1st Dec '15 - 9:11am

    Or is Wednesday really just all about destroying the Labour party?

  • ……I note that it now appears that ISIS has a headquarters…..”David Cameron will stage a Commons vote on Wednesday on whether to extend UK airstrikes against Islamic State targets to Syria, meaning that RAF crews could be bombing the Isis headquarters in Raqqa by the end of the week”…

    This makes it appear that ISIS has a ‘war-room’ with its top leadership sat around a table planning dastardly deeds and that removing them will end the war… Perhaps I’m a cynic but I see this as more ‘ISIS can be defeated by precision bombing’ propaganda….
    ISIS is not a snake with a single head; it’s more like the ‘Lernaean Hydra’……. We don’t even have a definite policy for dealing with it in Syria; after Syria, what?…..The only long term solution is strong, even if unpalatable, internal governments… I don’t believe that bombing/not bombing will make any difference to the terrorists desire to attack our way of life but I do believe that bombing will result in more ‘home-grown’ radicals and more 7/7 type threats…

  • Duncan Greenland 1st Dec '15 - 9:29am

    Am coming to this discussion a little late, but very much support Austin ‘ s analysis – and the further analysis contributed by Paul Reynolds.

  • @ John Barrett – as so often – is right.

    It smacks of Cameron going for the jugular in the split parliamentary Labour Party – no doubt egged on by Osborne who is known for using fiscal issues for party gain….. And is it cynical if there is a deal cooking with Hollande over the EU referendum ?

    And what mention was there of the Syrian adventure (??) in the Financial statement – George must have funds down the mythical sofa.

  • A very helpful article. There are so many reasons against air strikes. And no certainty that the current plan offers an effective solution.

  • Jayne Mansfield 1st Dec '15 - 10:08am

    @ Paul Reynolds,
    Does it matter whether the Liberal Democrat MP’s vote for or against the extended bombing. It seems that now Labour has a free vote and the Conservatives have been whipped, David Cameron can be confident of victory? He has been working towards this outcome for some time.

    Until now, American bombers have been returning back to base without dropping their bombs in IRaq approximately 75% of cases because President Obama does not want civilian casualties. Russia is less ‘squeamish’ about civilian casualties, and already Turkey if accusing the Russians of ethnic cleansing of the Turkoman.

    We now have Blair Mark 2 bestriding the international stage. Is there any point in continuing the argument?

  • The question of British involvement in the Syrian Wars is complicated by side issues which divert us from the basic processes going on in the Middle East. These issues principally divide into two. First, Britain’s relationship with other countries made up of three groups: European partners, U.S.A. and Russia. There are clearly differences in motives and interests between these entities and even within Europe. Secondly, local politics where there are several concurrent themes: the prime minister’s personal standing (ego), Tory vs. Labour and Labour vs. Labour. One gets the impression that the latter has for some become the major issue and the Syrian question is being used as a weapon in an internal fight. This is a pity and discredits The House of Commons. Let us leave these issues aside but accept that they are likely to majorly influence the outcome.
    We should remember the history of the Middle East, even going back to Old Testament times may be relevant but considering recent times. The Arabs are historically tribal and collectively indecisive. They have suffered from serial occupations most recently by the Ottoman Empire and since the First World War essentially a colonial existence with imposed artificial borders. They have, perhaps with good reason a distrust of Western Countries who want to intervene in their affairs. There is a long history of ‘liberating armies’ that turn out to be a new occupation who never actually deliver the promised freedom. Underlying this is a religious battle between Islam, Judaism and Christianity. The West’s intervention in Middle Eastern affairs is likely to be regarded by the inhabitants at best with suspicion and at worst, hostility.

  • Personally, I am not sure whether the main issue for our government is assisting in the resolution of the Syrian civil war or a fight with ISIL, though clearly there is some overlap. The difficulty in coming to a consensus may be due to the fact that the two may require different responses. For example, Russia is more interested in supporting Asad and France’s current aim, it would appear, is to punish ISIL. It is dangerous to proceed to action until the objectives and motivations can be clearly stated.
    Because parliament is being pushed by Mr Cameron to make a decision tomorrow on bombing, I think that on the basis that such bombing
    • will result in collateral civilian causalities (as evil as those killed in Paris, for example)
    • will be a strategically a minor contribution to what is being delivered currently (and throwing stones because the crowd is doing so doesn’t make it right)
    • will not do much to weaken ISIL (it has been rightly stated above that a major ground operation will be required to do that)
    • being a violent action against ISIL only justifies, in their eyes, further terrorist actions against westerners,
    (bombing) must be regarded as unsupportable at this time.

  • Richard Underhill 1st Dec '15 - 11:07am

    Robert Wootton 30th Nov ’15 – 10:00pm This is not an appropriate task for the North Atlantic Treaty Organisation. Canada is still a mmeber of NATO but opted out of this fight since their general election. Turkey is in, but there are many kinds of complications. France has not invoked NATO’s criterion that an attack on one member state is an attack on all. Several countries which are members of the EU are not members of NATO are included in the United Nations. Invoking NATO makes hackles rise in Russia. Some other member states of NATO may lack suitable equipment to participate, starting, perhaps, with Iceland, whose defence budget is usuallly below 2% of GDP.

  • Dave Orbison 1st Dec '15 - 11:46am

    Joe I do not agree that our contribution will be significant. How do you come to that conclusion? It is % of total planes committed to this operation, mt of explosives dropped, number of sorties? We cannot possibly conclude it would be significant. As we have virtually no information as to what is happening on the ground in ‘new reports’ the so-called gains are speculation. Ever since the days of the Vietnam War we have been fed hopelessly optimistic assessments aimed at boosting support for military interventions all over the world. However, whatever our differing views on those two points the fact remains that if we bomb Syria then:
    a) innocent people will be killed
    b) ISIS will use this as a recruitment vehicle
    c) there is not one serious military assessment that has concluded that air strikes alone will destroy ISIS and its regional and global capacity for terror will be eliminated.

    If we are going to ‘do something’ the ‘something’ should make strategic sense. What is being proffered by Cameron makes no sense whatsoever.

  • Ray Cobbett 1st Dec '15 - 11:54am

    Generals and politicians insist on treating ISIS as a conventional military entity with HQs, communication hubs, ammunition dumps and barracks and other obvious bombing targets. Its reported that in Raqqa and Mosul they are firmly embedded with ordinary civilian families who have no choice but to endure their presence or be executed . British bombs are no less lethal to women and kids than Assad’s, Russian, French Turkish and others raining down every day This like Iraq has been conflated with an awful lot of banner waving and so far the debate has mostly been about the Labour Party than the Syrian people. I’m old enough to remember living through the London Blitz and vivdly recall running for cover.

  • James Sells 1st Dec '15 - 12:04pm

    I sometimes struggle with how people oversimplify in this type of article: “because as we know from recent events in Paris, they’re doing that recruitment anyway” is basically saying “because they have some members bombing won’t increase those numbers”. There is no logic or thought to that sentence, you’re just saying something that sounds vaguely correct in principle to dismiss a major argument against bombings. Very Poor.

    If you genuinely believe it won’t increase their support then find a way of backing that up.

  • Manfrang.
    might I suggest the Pan Arab movement was mostly aligned with Russia and thirty years ago we and America were not destabilising states in the ME by few backing an assortment religious sectarian groups to exercise regime change.
    A few year back, I was hearing the advocates of this kind of policy lauding the Arab Spring. It’s been a destructive and dismal failure . I simply think Britain should no longer be part of more dismal and counter productive failure.

    Joe.
    the reason America has a reduced presence in this conflict is that there is nothing to hit. Their sorties regularly come back without having engaged in any kind of action. It’s not for want of airpower. It’s because their are few viable targets. Our involvement is an empty gesture at best and at worst actively helped to create the failed states IS spring from.

  • Dave Orbison 1st Dec '15 - 12:59pm

    Joe, following the Paris attack the BBC or Sky interviewed ‘an expert in strategic terrorism studies’. He said the purpose of the Paris was to cause division in the West. to promote attacks on Muslims and refuges and perhaps, counter intuitively, to enmesh the West still further in the Middle East though military action. He conceded that ‘wishing to be bombed’ may seem odd but that it was nevertheless exactly what they wanted. I have no idea as to his credentials but I have to say it makes sense and it is exactly what we have seen over the years. With respect although you think the ‘recruiting sergeant’ is less, that is just your guess. If wrong then we can only make things worse – if right that still does not deal with the inevitable innocent casualties that will occur and the fact that the air strikes simply are ineffective in dealing with such a mobile enemy based in diffuse sections of Syria. It is a strategy that is almost certainly futile and one which is extremely high risk.

  • Jayne Mansfield 1st Dec '15 - 1:26pm

    @ Glen,
    May I just disagree with you on a point. The reason why the 75% of American bombers have returned to base without discharging their bombs is because they cannot bomb ISIS without killing innocents, something that Obama wants to avoid. There is plenty of information about this in the American press which is available on the internet.

    Does anyone really believe that the self -styled soldiers of ISIS will not hide behind the skirts of women or next to the hospital beds of children? Indeed, does anyone think that they will abide by the rules of war?

  • Joe,
    I don’t thimk yhe recruiting sergeant argument was ever that strong. I think tat when America backed the Taliban to oust Russia in Afghanistan the assumption was that it would end once Russia withdrew. Then in the first Gulf War those same religious groups began to see Western troops in the homeland of mecca as an unclean presence or even as a crusade so they decided to attack America. We and the Americans then decide it was a good enough excuse to topple Sadam Husain because we had been imposing sanction for about a decade. This simply unleashed deep sectarian forces. And ever since we keep picking the wrong sides.. We are still doing it now. The Shiite form of Islam is it’s reformation which is why they are seen by some traditionalists as apostates and the more secular nations were allied with Russia who we still view as our enemy to an extent. The number of home-grown Jihadists is tiny and probably not that different in character from the kinds of people who still think Fascism is a good idea even after WWII, maybe they actually do what they do because they actively like the atrocities just like Nazis sit around in their underpants gloating over footage of the Holocaust and Blitzkrieg.

  • Jayne,
    I agree up to a point. but the reality is Syria is vast and ISIL move around a lot, plus they don’t really have that much ordinance. We are not talking about a nation with a central government or military installations we’re talking about a highly mobile force with mostly small arms at their disposal. Either way they’re not going to change tactics just because the RAF joins in so the bottom line is there isn’t much that’s hittable that hasn’t already been hit probably multiple times,

  • Garth Shephard 1st Dec '15 - 3:56pm

    Austin Rathe writes, “if I had a vote, I’d probably oppose the action that is being proposed. Instead I’d want to vote for a much larger, much more comprehensive engagement that would actually remove ISIL from the territory they have stolen once and for all.”
    I would vote for that too. But waiting for all the pieces to fall into place is not an effective policy. Showing solidarity in the only agreed action provides a route to something stronger and more coherent.

  • Jo Christie-Smith 1st Dec '15 - 8:31pm

    I agree with Joe and Garth.

    Inaction and a lack of desire to stand in Solidarity with our allies is not a benign or neutral action; it could give both Assad and Daesh a very strong message.

    I’m also very worried about leaving it up to Russia to create ‘the peace’.

    I also from a constitutional law perspective am really concerned that the Royal Prerogative no lingers seems to exist on this matter, which makes our ability to act quickly and decisively very difficult.

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