Opinion: Should we bomb ISIS positions in Syria?


Thursday’s news reported Michael Fallon’s statement to the House of Commons raising the possibility of another Commons vote on bombing Syria. Friday’s zoomed in on the one minute of silence to honour the victims of the shooting in Tunisia.

Quite how bombing ISIS positions in Syria would prevent a gunman doing crazy things near the other end of the Mediterranean is not quite so clear. Announcing this just before a public marking of the deaths sounds like a plea for revenge.

Later on Thursday Radio 4 interviewed two Conservative MPs about the possibility of bombing Syria, one who voted for this and one who voted against in 2013 — overlooking the idea that the proposal now is to bomb the positions of ISIS, who oppose President Assad’s regime.

The grief and outrage associated with the deaths in Tunisia is real and understandable. But how many innocent people would be killed if we started bombing ISIS positions in Syria? If the link to ISIS is less than watertight, that will fuel a sense of injustice. There will be just as much grief at each person killed by British bombs, and no doubt as to who is responsible. The grief will be real, as will the desire for revenge, whether the people we kill are “innocent” or “combatants”.

Bombing ISIS positions in Syria might meet our need for vengeance, but will make us a target. In the words attributed to Gandhi: “An eye for an eye leaves the whole world blind”.

On top of this, the West has a record of intervening in the Middle East and getting the opposite of what it sought. We supported the Shah in Iran, and fuelled resentment leading to the Islamic Revolution. We supported the Taliban in Afghanistan after the Soviet invasion, and encouraged an extreme reading of “Jihad”, and now see them as an enemy. We supported Saddam Hussein when he was waging war on Iran, overlooking his treatment of his own people, and seemed to give him a green light to enter Kuwait, but then went to war when we thought he had gone too far. In doing that we sent forces to Saudi Arabia, and having western troops so close to the holy sites of Islam so offended a young Osama bin Laden that Al-Qaeda was born. We toppled the regimes in Iraq and Afghanistan, and found ourselves nursing dysfunctional states. We did the same in Libya and now struggle with the refugee problem that reflects part of the ensuing chaos.

That doesn’t make bombing ISIS positions in Syria sound wise.

Some of the consequences are horribly predictable.

People call ISIS “Islamic State”. Doesn’t that wrongly give the impression that all Muslims as ISIS supporters? It’s a great way to create extremists out of disaffected people in the UK who happen to be Muslim. If we call ISIS a “state” and bomb them as if they are a state, aren’t we turning them from an insurgency into a state, even though no part of the international community recognises them as such?

We’re in danger of a silly military adventure, driven by grief and a desire for vengeance, which further undermines the Muslim communities in the UK and aids ISIS recruitment.

Charles Kennedy was right to oppose the invasion of Iraq in 2003. Surely Liberal Democrats need to again need to counsel wisdom over ill-advised military adventure. We’re also in a great position to borrow from Gandhi’s wisdom and push for the degree of listening and reconciliation which seems a great way to de-escalate the middle east, and is radically different from the military solutions that keep not working.

* Mark Argent was the Liberal Democrat candidate in Huntingdon Constituency in 2019 and blogs at markargent.com/blog.

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  • David Cooper 6th Jul '15 - 12:54pm

    @People call ISIS “Islamic State”. Doesn’t that wrongly give the impression that all Muslims as ISIS supporters?

    It doesn’t give any wrong impression. It conveys the two incontrovertible facts that ISIS is Islamic, and controls a state. ISIS is a model of clarity.

  • billy boulton 6th Jul '15 - 1:02pm

    Great op. Agree 100%. Not much one can add to this really.

  • The problem for me is that we seem to be trying to fight ISIS at the same time are destabilising countries which leads to more ISIS. How randomly bombing bits of war torn rubble will alter this is beyond me. It’s not like this tactic has worked in Libya. Personally, I think this situation needs troops on the ground and a more honest approach. At moment we seem to be doing worse than nothing.

  • The gunman trained in Libya. How did that situation occur? That’s right, your party was in a government that decided to bomb the country and then leave it to rot.

  • A Social Liberal 6th Jul '15 - 1:57pm

    From now on I will refer to the terrorist group as Daesh. Not because it has a significantly different meaning from IS/ISIS/ISIL (the full name is al-Dawla al-Islamiya fi Iraq wa al-Sham), nor even because Daesh members hate being referred to as Daesh but because, as I have been informed by Ian Black of the Guardian, “It’s certainly entered the ever-adaptive Arabic language big time: in the plural form – “daw’aish” – it means bigots who impose their views on others.”

    A Couple of points to the op, Al Qaeda was set up years before the First Gulf War, nor do I remember Saddam ever having the confidence of the UKs foreign office as a balance against Irans Ayetollah state. I would be interested in a reason for the op stating it was so.

  • ‘Doesn’t that wrongly give the impression that all Muslims as ISIS supporters?

    Islamic or Muslim terrorists would be more accurate.

  • I’m not using daesh. It doesn’t mean bigot. Its an acronym in a language where acronyms are unusual. It actually means exactly the same thing as ISIL but turns it into something closer to a word. The English equivalent would be calling ISIL isil. We are assured that this annoys them or whatever, but to me just looks like another way of pretending that this has nothing to do with religion when plainly it has everything to do with religion.

  • Using expensive weapons to blow up pick up cars appears a waste of money unless SF troops are sent it. As usual it comes down to politicians thinking something must be done but we cannot afford an expensive conflict and do not want to send sufficient troops into battle. So, affectation, not effect.

  • Jayne Mansfield 6th Jul '15 - 3:22pm

    I don’t for a minute think that a name makes people think that all Muslim’s are ISIS supporters. ( excepting those who already had an agenda of denigrating all Muslims).

    We are already a target, whatever we do, as indeed is Tunisia, and I am really rather proud of my fellow countrywomen and men, in that there is no real appetite for revenge. Indeed holidaymakers in Tunisia at the time of the beach massacre were offering their sympathy up for the Tunisian people who they described as ‘lovely people’.

    I have always felt annoyed when people speak of the ‘Muslim Community’, as though Muslims were a homogenous mass of like -minded people. The Muslims I know would be as much a target of ISIS sadism as I would be.

    As a previous poster has said, I too find nothing inappropriate about the name Islamic State. The sadistic nihilists are following what they believe to be a version of Islam and they have created a state by ignoring imposed borders. Some already refer to them as a death cult, ISIL and Daesh and it has not made them any less attractive to those who think that the rape, and slaughter of men, women and children can ever be justified.

    The constant refrain from some leaders that this behaviour has nothing to do with Islam cannot in my mind be sustained. I certainly don’t feel qualified to pontificate on whose strand of Islam is the true Islam. It is a battle within Islam and as far as I can see we are helpless bystanders.

    I do not want to see military action. I don’t want to be responsible for the violent deaths of men women and children who are already clinging to survival in the face of a terrible evil. I don’t want to be responsible for children cowering and clinging to their parents fearful that a bomb might be dropped on them. I don’t inhabit the same moral universe as ISIS supporters. ( Nor do my Muslim friends)

    If we have money for bombs, we clearly have money which can instead be spend on refugees whose plight is appalling. If our leaders feel that ‘something must be done’, let them do something for these people instead of arguing for meaningless name changes , or indulging in other distraction strategies that seem to help them overcome their own sense of helplessness.

  • Eddie Sammon 6th Jul '15 - 5:32pm

    I support an abstention on this, unless Assad requests for help, which would give us the right to cross his borders.

    I am not supporting a no vote like in 2013 because the target is different this time around. At least it should be.

  • Tony Dawson 6th Jul '15 - 5:45pm

    David Cameron should be dragged to the bar of the House of Commons and be asked: “Having previously asked the House for permission to bomb Assad, since you are now advocating that we should bomb Assad’s most successful enemy, how long will it be before you come asking us for permission to bomb Assad again?” 🙁

  • John Tilley 6th Jul '15 - 7:58pm

    Quite right, Mark, — UK forces bombing and destroying things and killing people in Syria will not prevent a gunman doing crazy things in Tunisia.

    Calm thinking and a sensible, long-term approach are what are needed. This might include stopping our government sucking up to the tyrants in Saudi who are the inspiration for and the funders of the Daesh.

    Bthat is not going to happen whilst Prince Charles makes regular visits to his friends in the Saudi Roual Family, whilst Tony Bair takes multi-million pound payments from the Saudis, whilst the UK arms industry supplies the Saudis with weaponry and whist the UK Governent pretends not to notice the Saudi treatment of women and the frequent and regular beheadings carried out by the Saudi government.

    Cameron and co will happily bomb Syria because they hope it will distract attention from the real cause of the problem.

  • This may be a dumb question, but who is buying the oil that is being produced in the areas controlled by IS, the income from which is apparently essential to their survival?

  • Jayne Mansfield 7th Jul '15 - 7:41am

    @ tonyhill,
    There are reports from respectable sources,(available on the internet), that give surprising answers to your question. It seems that the bottom line is price, the oil has been sold cheaply to maintain ISIS income.

  • John Tilley 7th Jul '15 - 8:18am

    Jayne Mansfield and Tony Hill

    Channel 4 has carried stories that a major customer for this oil has been the Assad regime.

    Meanwhile, BBC Radio 4 this morning reports that The Great Peace Envoy Tony Blair has recommended “troops on the ground in Syria”. What is it in his interpretation of the word “Peace” that I am missing?

  • 10 years on from the 7/7 London bombings and we have learned nothing…..

    Bombing in the ME merely creates more ‘martyrs’ and more home grown terrorists….Since Iraq, and on through Libya, the world has become less safe for Western citizens at home and abroad…..The opponents of Saddam and Gaddafi were portrayed, in the west, as the ‘good guys’; where are they now? After the removal of Gaddafi, Cameron visited Libya on two occasions to promise, “All the help that is needed to create a stable state”??????? Thankfully, Tory (and, sadly, LibDem) efforts to try and remove Assad failed…

    More effort (money) needs to be put into countering radicalisation at home not in creating more problems abroad…

    There is no point in pretending that we can prevent ‘Tunisia Type’ attacks abroad….IMO the ‘minute’s silence’ and promise of ‘memorials’ are a cynical attempt to manipulate public opinion into supporting an escalation of armed intervention abroad; the same intervention that has made things worse rather than better….

  • Richard Underhill 7th Jul '15 - 9:29am

    It is, of course, correct to say that our surveillance aircraft and bombers are turning back at a frontier which ISIS does not respect and which does not deter other combatants, but we would have little military effect. We may be under political pressure from other combatants, such as the USA and maybe others.

    The UK and France were given the task of keeping the peace under a League of Nations mandate after the defeat of the Ottoman Empire. Bombing was the chosen option then, although the accuracy of the equipment was less then and so was the firepower.

    The USA and its allies used bombing in the Vietnam war, which they did not win.

    We should debate whether we would be sowing Dragons’ Teeth, as should others.

  • John Tilley 7th Jul '15 - 10:15am

    “….IMO the ‘minute’s silence’ and promise of ‘memorials’ are a cynical attempt to manipulate public opinion…”

    Expats, you are correct. It would seem that we are now doomed to a weekly performance of the ‘minute’s silence’ ritual for whatever excuse an “emergency meeting of COBRA” can come up with next.

    It cheapens and undermines the traditional November silence intended to remember the millions of dead (on all sides) in all wars .

    The building of a “permanent memorial” to a few dozen people who were unlucky enough to be on the wrong holiday at the wrong time is entirely inappropriate, but I expect Conservative spin-doctors are patting themselves on the back for such a great pulic relations wheeze.

  • Jayne Mansfield 7th Jul '15 - 10:20am

    I think we should be asking ourself why ISIS are using the media to disseminate ever more brutal images of their sadistic blood lust. Is it to goad us into military action which will inevitably lead to ‘boots on the ground’? I am fearful that the Tories are about to play into their hand, supported by Labour.

    The current conflict is a regional conflict. It is a Muslim against Muslim conflict. By intervening militarily, it seems to me that we are facilitating the move from a regional to an international conflict by opening us up the charge that we are are embarking up on yet another ‘crusade’. This of course would play into the victim narrative. Clever manipulation by ISIS and its supporters!

    I do not believe that one can beat an ideology militarily and I do not understand how we are helping peace loving Muslims ( the vast majority in my experience) by denying that there is an ideological battle taking place within their religion, and therefore leaving them unsupported.

    There are many things that we could do, and stopping their funding stream is one, but it would require a little less hypocrisy from those who provide funding .

    Tony Blair should pipe down. He went to Oxford but seems incapable of learning from his mistakes.

  • Jayne Mansfield 7th Jul ’15 – 10:20am…………….I think we should be asking ourself why ISIS are using the media to disseminate ever more brutal images of their sadistic blood lust. Is it to goad us into military action which will inevitably lead to ‘boots on the ground’? I am fearful that the Tories are about to play into their hand, supported by Labour……..

    It was Tory rebels and Labour that stopped us getting involved in Syria….

    In 2013…… 33 Lib Dems voted for the government’s motion; 9 voted against; one abstained and 14 did not vote…..
    Not a convincing show, on way or the other.

  • Jayne,
    ISIS are not using sadistic propaganda to goad. They are using it to recruit and because they believe it’s what god wants. They know that there is a certain percentage of the population who agree with them. Just like Nazis will watch horrific images from WWII and the Fascism was right. Personally, I vacillate on the wisdom of boots on the ground, but usually conclude that it would be the most effective solution to the immediate threat of ISIS expansion b because the forces currently tasked with removing them are demoralised, underfunded and understandably just want some peace. These are not rich countries with a massively advanced arsenal of weaponry that can protect their troops from miles away. They are armies that are exposed to conflict in to an extent that ours are not. The encounters tend to end in relatively high casualties. Put it this way, Iraq had one of the largest armies in the world, tanks, aircraft and other fairly advanced tactical weapons. It was no match at all for Western troops. IISIS have one or two tanks, some machine guns, AK47s, rocket launchers and flat bed trucks. Nothing that would trouble a largish force for more than a month or two. The hard part would not be driving ISIS back. It would be where too and what next’ The main arguments against involvement is that we would end up having to keep a presence on the ground for years, the public are fed up with it and we may face home-grown fanatics, but we already are facing that.

  • I think Jayne is right. Helping the refugees is what we should be doing not bombing ISIS and creating martyrs and more terrorists.

  • Neil Sandison 7th Jul '15 - 2:38pm

    High level bombing only destroys assets you can see .remember Vietnam .I hate to say it but I think the only way we will control this type of insurgency is by black operations and drones like the Americans deployed in Afghanistan.
    We also should be treating the refugees from these conflicts with greater dignity .They have the potential of being counter insurgents who will fight for the return of their own country from ISIL.

  • Jayne Mansfield 7th Jul '15 - 4:38pm

    I understand what you are saying. I used to come on here to argue against involvement in Libya, and I was enormously grateful to the Labour Party and those members of the Conservative Party who stopped us getting involved in Syria.

    I mentioned that I am worried about the message that I am starting to hear from the Conservatives and Labour because they have the voting power to carry the vote for military involvement.

    Glen, I agree that we must take responsibility for the destabilisation of Iraq etc., but we did not break Syria.

    If I saw someone about to perpetrate one of the horrendous acts of violence on a human being that we cannot avoid when we buy a newspaper, I would like to think that I would act jump in there, arms and legs flailing to stop the person being harmed. I don’t think I would think about what comes next.

    Watching the violence at arms length means that one can control one’s instincts to involve oneself in the violence and take time to think through consequences of one’s actions. There is nothing about our interventions in the recent past that makes me think that we will not make a bad situation worse by military intervention.

    I feel physically sick when I see what is happening to our fellow human beings, but I have reached a different view to you, about what can be done to improve the situation. I wish that I had the certainty to believe that my view was the correct one, but every atrocity leads to further introspection, soul searching and re-evaluation of my position, and at the moment, this remains my sincerely held view.

  • An Eygptian army officer once said ” Egypt is the only arab country, all the rest are tribes with flags”. This may be an exaggeration but is there sufficient determination to go beyond religious, racial and tribal differences and govern fairly for all inhabitants of a country? Where an arab country is sunni and the borders follow tribal allegiances , then it may work. Is it time to consider that Iraq and Syria contain too many groupings to work as countries unless there is a strong dictator running them?

  • sally haynes-preece 7th Jul '15 - 7:19pm

    If we are going to try to act against IS, it makes no sense to ignore a border they regard as irrelevant..

  • @ Sally Haynes-Preece. “If we are going to try to act against IS, it makes no sense to ignore a border they regard as irrelevent”

    Perhaps you intended to say “If we are going to try to act against IS, it makes no sense to respect a border they regard as irrelevant”.

    Is this a general statement of the form “If we are going to try to act against IS, it makes no sense to respect [A] they regard as irrelevant” as in “If we are going to try to act against IS, it makes no sense to not to target civilians as they target civilians”?

    Or does it just apply to borders? During the confrontation with the IRA were you in favour of Britain bombing members of the IRA seeking shelter in the Republic? The IRA too was no respecter of borders?

    Does it make sense to confront IS by mimicking their actions? Should our actions be guided by our moral principles? Should we abide by international law when confronting IS or just do what we like?

  • Richard Underhill 7th Jul '15 - 9:22pm


    Check out the Bedouin in the Sinai peninsula.

  • It is all a dreadfully sorry mess isn’t it.
    I’ve been led to understand that for many Muslims, not just the extremists but probably not the majority see “Muslim” countries as holy ground at least to the extent of seeing non-Muslim armies on it.
    If so, only Muslim countries should be providing “boots on the ground”, which is likely the only thing that can bring a great semblance of peace in which a real peaceful solution might have a chance.
    Given the Sunni / Shia split in Islam its a cross border religious civil war with layers of politics and revenge and extremism on top.
    Somewhere in all of this perhaps there will be a time to redraw borders, but ones that work, that make real sense – I am always dubious when I see boundaries that are straight lines!
    There will likely always be extremists, vigilance will always be necessary, but it is impossible to protect all of the people all of the time. Sadly, like in so many areas, politicians and others need to start a grown up discussion with the electorate. I thought politics was described as the “art of the possible” lets be honest about what is impossible or unaffordable or might actually cost more in taxes.

    We should not bomb Syria for the many reasons already put forward already.
    This is a time to really protect the innocent, providing them with good, decent, perhaps temporary, conditions, great education, etc etc etc either here or abroad.
    Is there even a possibility of establishing some safe havens within places like Libya and others where people can start to rebuild their lives, places/beacons of hope. Even if we have to defend them until the areas around them return to a state of peacefulness.
    Its a time to be really generous and really show we care for people, to rebuild trust with the people of the middle east (and elsewhere) to give these “nations” time to come to their senses, find their own solutions.
    It is my belief that by doing so Muslims who might have been persuaded to join extremist groups or commit extremist acts , may be persuaded from doing so.

  • Tomas Howard-Jones 8th Jul '15 - 12:29am

    Rest assured at least that the catastrophic situation in Syria and growth of “Islamic State” would undoubtedly have been far, far worse, if the British parliament had voted to bomb Syrian government positions in September 2013 and the US, French & British, Turks & Saudis had gone ahead. Thank goodness for the rebel Tory & rebel LibDem MPs who abstained or teamed up with Ed Milliband and most Labour MPs to defeat the motion, and stop an even more dire outcome!

    If the Syrian army under Assad had been bombed, ISIS would likely now be in control of most of Damascus and cities in Syria, not ‘moderate FSA units’, with much greater massacres.Unfortunately for ISIS, the west stepped from the brink into falling for their trap.

    In early 2014, weeks after it became clear that the West wasn’t going to bomb the Assad govt and destabilise the whole of Syria into mayhem, large parts of the “FSA” territory coalesced into ISIS as if from nowhere. It was ISIS’s smaller ‘plan B’, as both Plan A & B are about their mythic rise designed to replicate the 7th century Bedouin force that swept the Byzantine and Persian empires aside. The ISIS Plan A couldn’t proceed without Western “assistance” to give them mass chaos and probable genocide of millions of Syrians otherwise under Assad’s protection.

    A lot of the slick media operators that fed Western media outlets stories of wicked Assad government forces from 2011-13- Guess what! dried up…while within months, slick media operations appeared with media-sensation ISIS.

    It’s astonishing to hear the continuing mendacity of articulate but ignorant media & political chatterati (I’m talking Anne McElvoy, for one!) who spin the lie that ISIS only appeared and became successful because we didn’t bomb Assad and let the “FSA” win quickly. It’s a contemptibly self-justifying piece of fantasy worthy of Tony Blair (who naturally also spins this line).

    The closest thing to good guys on the ground are:
    – The Kurdish party (allied to the Turkish PKK, prescribed a Terrorist organisation by the EU &US),
    – Hezbollah (ditto) and
    – The Assad government.
    Why? They are the only forces of any note on the ground in Syria who will uphold secular society within an overall islamic society, as per the existing Syrian constitution, and a society that upholds a nation of a mix of different local religions and ethnicities.

  • Tomas Howard-Jones 8th Jul '15 - 12:48am

    John Tilley is right- the motivations and understanding of Islamic State ultimately are the same intellectual stable as that from the Saudi- Wahabist grip on Islam. IS is a state of mind and won’t be destroyed by bombs, but from forthright, simple challenge from within Islam that exposes real doctrinal inconsistencies to deter radicals from joining them.

    But our monarchy with Prince Charles, Tony Blair, Arms sales and large parts of the Conservative party are in particular are entwined with the House of Saud, who are currently bombing the Yemen to stop the rise of groups who don’t share their doctrine.
    Our government and the EU meekly protests about the liberal Saudi blogger, who is sentenced for “apostasy” by setting up a liberal discussion forum where anonymous contributors criticized religious scholars and offered commentaries on religious opinions in the kingdom. The sentence is effectively to be flogged to death over a year of gradual hospitalisation that is tantamount to a gradual, sadistic execution worthy of ISIS.

    His website would have been pretty much accepted in Assad’s Syria before 2011, at worst facing closedown if the Syrian authorities felt it might create public disorder!

  • Jayne Mansfield 8th Jul '15 - 10:19am

    @ Tomas Howard- Jones,
    I couldn’t agree more.

    Thank you for reminding people of the plight of liberal blogger Raif Badawi.

    I am afraid that when I see the double standards of certain American Presidents, British politicians and royalty towards Saudi Arabia, I am reminded of the Groucho Marx comment, ‘ Those are my principles, and if you don’t like them, I have others’.

  • Richard Underhill 29th Oct '15 - 8:45pm

    In an article in the Daily Telegraph the Saudi ambassador to the UK complained about the cancellation of a prison contract, apologised for his own performance and said, among other things, that Saudi Arabia had taken in 2.5 million Syrian refugees. He gave no further details.

    as we are told constantly by the press the skies over Syria are congested, why add to that
    we are doing our part, we are bombing Isis in Iraq, we still haven’t sorted that mess out.
    do we really want to see a British pilot being killed and mutilated like the poor Russian pilot.

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