We must hold back on military action against ISIS

Even in a world in which we see tragedy every day on the news, one where twenty four hour coverage of the many battles currently raging in different corners of the globe makes it easy to become numb to humanitarian disaster, the Paris attacks last week were shocking. Amongst the heartening displays of solidarity and defiance, people are angry, and rightly so. Those who committed the attacks displayed such a level of callous cruelty that it is completely understandable that many across Europe want revenge against patrons of the twisted ideology that leads people to carry out such horrific acts.

Now, however, is not the time to act on this anger. Emotions are running far too high for sensible decisions about foreign policy to be made. It is not heartless or unpatriotic to point this out, and of course we all want to see an end to ISIS, but the growing pressure on the British government to join the bombing campaign in Syria must be resisted. For now, anyway.

I would not rule out using military force against ISIS indefinitely, but we must save such decisions for a time in which we are able to act with a cool, rational head. It has somehow become the case that, in the aftermath of an event such as that on Friday evening, the default position among politicians, and indeed many members of the public, is that we should bomb something. Or someone. Because something must be done, and bombs are a decisive sign that something is indeed being done. But how often does this actually work?

The Times recently ran an editorial (£) bemoaning the fact that we didn’t intervene in Syria in 2013 to wipe out ISIS, conveniently forgetting/omitting that the vote in 2013 pertained to whether we should bomb the ‘other team’. Had we bowed to significant pressure at the time to wipe out Assad and his cronies, who knows how much of Syria ISIS would have captured? Recent history suggests that Western powers are completely out of their depth when attempting to form transitional governments following the deposition of a tyrant. The situation in Libya is a painfully clear example of this. Much of this may only be easy to say in hindsight, but the point is that now we have the hindsight, the best thing to do would be to use it.

If we do engage in a sustained bombing campaign, how many civilians would that kill? It is completely unrealistic to suggest that we could do so without significant unintended casualties. Worse still, how many of the survivors would be inspired by seeing the deaths of family and friends to join the war against us?

The immediate focus must be on helping those who have suffered from the attacks, as well as ensuring the security at major events is high enough to adequately minimise the risk of another similar event. Only when that has been done should we begin to discuss possible military action. And we should be very, very careful before concluding that this is the best option.

* David Gray is a musician, actor and writer based in Birmingham

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This entry was posted in Op-eds.


  • At last; a sensible article on the situation…

  • Eddie Sammon 19th Nov '15 - 10:44am

    This is a well written article. We of course must look out for Syrian civilians to a very high degree, but let’s not forget that Daesh are a threat to civilians too. We’ve seen what they have done to Yazidis, Shias, moderate Muslims, atheists and Christians, the executions that take place in their cities, the murderous plans they make there and train people to carry out, the attacks on other cities that they launch from them. The IEDs that they plant.

    We also have to look out for our own civilians and our allies too. A terrorist state on the edge of the mediterranean as dangerous as Daesh poses all kinds of threats.

    Only yesterday too, three Daesh followers in France asked a guy if he is Jewish and when he responded yes they stabbed him. It is evil we haven’t seen for a long time. They may have been French, but they are getting their inspiration from ISIS. We shouldn’t just accept this as some kind of new normal.


  • Spot on, Eddie. Even if you try to separate it into a heart/head argument, it’s difficult to know which way to go. In some ways, even as someone with pacifist leanings, my heart says intervention is the right thing to do, for the protection of the many groups you mentioned. But we’ve been down this road so many times before and it has never worked.

    Of course we can’t accept this as normal, but the assumption that a bombing campaign will make things any better (other than satisfying a desire for revenge) is a dangerous one, and it’s becoming increasingly widespread.

  • Eddie Sammon 19th Nov '15 - 11:29am

    I largely agree David Gray. The scary thing too is that the anger and fear they make you feel almost turns you into them. However as long as we never target civilians and show some humanity even to our enemies then we will never be them.

    Not to mention have a governing ideology based on violent oppression and doing things such as brutally executing people for being gay.

  • “Emotions are running far too high for sensible decisions about foreign policy to be made”

    I’m not sure that is the case. It would apply during the Paris attacks or for a couple of days after but not now the initial shock has passed.

    The problem is the lack of a coherent long term view. We can’t tell if diplomatic efforts have been in designing one as all the commentary from the politicians is for a short term action. At some point someone will have to upset the other countries in the region and accept that boarders will have to change and several of the neighbours will be very concerned.

    The factors stopping us thinking of what the right solution is not the emotion of the Paris attacks, it is the same ones that existed before that.

    Until we have the longer term strategy we shouldn’t escalate.

  • To me the main questions are , would joining the campaign improve the situation ether on the ground or at home. The evidence suggests the answer to both is not really. It didn’t work in Libya or anywhere else.

  • Helen Tedcastle 19th Nov '15 - 12:55pm

    Good article. More western bombing of Da’esh will simply end up killing more civilians and bring them a propaganda war. I would like to see political leaders of Arab and non-Arab Muslim countries take the initiative to take back the territory and to show the extremists and their supporters that they do not represent Islam.

  • We were told that one of the UK’s drones over Syria identified one of the targets the French bombed on Monday. What is the difference beween that and an RAF plane ding the actual bombing as well. We are in alliance and under NATO and the Lisbon Tereaty arrangments we should do all we can to aid and assist by whatever means.
    War has been declared. are the these arguments more about semantics, after all ISIL needs destroying NOW.

  • Theakes,
    No these arguments are not about semantics. They’re about blundering into another military intervention with a very poor record of success over the last 14 years which will kill yet more people, in the middle east , put British lives at greater risk of reprisal attacks and add virtually nothing to an already extensive air campaign by bigger military powers. To be blunt. I think our entire involvement has been utterly useless and it’s time to stop using our military as knee jerk response in the region. If you look at Libya. Afghanistan and Iraq you can see where this is heading. Our efforts have been wasted too many times on ill-formed strategy and on too many disparate allies we can’t really trust to achieve worse than nothing.

  • Helen Tedcastle 19th Nov '15 - 2:09pm

    Correction to my comment at 12:55pm. It should read, ‘ More western bombing of Da’esh will simply end up killing more civilians and bring them a propaganda victory. ‘

  • Well said, David Gray. Time for some calm common sense. It’s very easy to get into a war…. but horribly difficult to get out of it.

  • Sun Tzu famously wrote “know your enemy” yet this most basic of elements is largely missing from the debate. Daesh may be a barbaric death cult but they are also clever with a clear strategy even if most in the West haven’t bothered to think about that.

    The most convincing analysis I have found of their strategy is by Dr Nafeez Ahmed’s. He says they want to destroy what Daesh call the ‘Grey Zone’, the places where people of all faiths and none remain unified on the principles of common humanity.

    He writes, “ ISIS recognizes that it has only marginal support amongst Muslims around the world. The only way it can accelerate recruitment and strengthen its territorial ambitions is twofold: firstly, demonstrating to Islamist jihadist networks that there is now only one credible terror game in town capable of pulling off spectacular terrorist attacks in the heart of the west, and two, by deteriorating conditions of life for Muslims all over the world to draw them into joining or supporting ISIS.

    Both these goals depend on two constructs: the ‘crusader’ civilisation of the ‘kuffar’ (disbelievers) pitted against the authentic ‘Islamic’ utopia of ISIS.”


    So, if you want to advance Daesh’s evil plan bomb them: civilians will die and their leaders will rejoice. If you want to oppose Daesh, lean against unwarranted scapegoating of Muslims in this country, support good police work and the due process of law, oppose the Neocon warmongers and remember the legacy of clear thinking left by Charles Kennedy.

  • Daesh’s strategy is clear if repulsive, America’s is merely repulsive. As someone summarised the current state of play:

    “Just trying to keep my scorecard straight. Let’s see. The Americans are using a Turkish airbase to bomb ISIS and protect our allies the Kurds.

    The Turks are bombing our allies the Kurds while we are using their airbase. The Americans are supplying human shields for terrorist in Syria who are being bombed by the Russians.

    On the Iraqi side, American air power is being used to protect and support the new Iranian puppet regime in Iraq installed by the Americans after the gulf war. The Mahdi army that we fought in Sadr City are now advanced element of the Iraqi army we are protecting.

    Officers of “the world’s leading state sponsor of terrorism” the Iranians are standing next to Iraqi officers who are standing next to American officers all cooperating to kill ISIS soldiers who have been receiving weapons from Americans through American proxies we consider” moderate rebels”.

    Meanwhile, our “enemies” the Iranians are supporting Houthi rebels in Yemen while our “allies” the people who destroyed the trade centres have involved the U.S. in yet another unauthorized war by aggressively attacking the Houthis who were helping the U. S. fight Al Queda in Yemen before.

    In the meanwhile “moderate rebels” are undoubtedly being furnished weapons capable of bringing down Russian war planes. So while Russia is bombing ISIS, we are encouraging our proxies to shoot down their planes.

    Will someone tell me whose side we are on today?”

    That last point is spot on. In true 1984 style Cameron was desperate to bomb Assad until Parliament stopped him; now he is equally keen to bomb the other side. Perhaps we should just stop dancing to the US’s tune and keep out of other people’s civil wars.

  • Glenn, we are hardly blundering into a war. This is fast becoming a different scenario to the ones you have quoted.
    The need to get Syria straight and ISIL quickly and firmly disposed of seems to be bringing NATO and the Russians on a joint or at least an agreed course, and that is really positive.. As I said yesterday I marched against the Iraq war and was sickened by what we were doing at the time. This is to my mind a different set of circumstances. My father was a real Socialist in the 30’s but his peaceful and humanitarians ideals did not stop him opposing appeasement, which meant he thought Hitler should have been halted at the time of his march into the Rhineland, by force if necessary. Just because we made grave errors in the past, and we did, does not mean we have to abstain from doing what may not be an error this time. It is a matter of judgement, not emotion. As an alliance we are at War. In the face of that reality can we pussyfoot around. These may be hard questions to face but face them this party must, and it has to be seen by the public as acting responsibly and in defence of its citizens. I suspect we may be more idealistic than the average member of the public and as a party may well have to accommodate that reality.

  • Eddie Sammon 19th Nov '15 - 10:38pm

    According to the Independent the UN security council might all declare war on ISIS. It might glorify them a bit, but they’ll be feeling a lot less glory by the end of it.

    It’s either local forces defeat them, international ones do or both, but one way or the other they will be defeated. UK should back the UN if a resolution can be found. I think this is the path that the centre-left wants too.

  • Jonathan Brown 20th Nov '15 - 12:28am

    “Had we bowed to significant pressure at the time to wipe out Assad and his cronies, who knows how much of Syria ISIS would have captured?”

    The answer is probably very little. The anti-Assad opposition was on a roll at the time. The Western-backed ‘Southern Front’ was capturing territory around and into Damascus, and the more Islamist and yes, jihadist influenced opposition groups in the north were successfully holding out against both the regime and ISIS.

    The massed gas attacks on opposition controlled suburbs in 2013, and the total failure of the world to hold Assad to account greatly undermined the more moderate opposition forces. Iran and Hezbollah ramped up direct military support to the regime, and drove back opposition forces while turning a blind eye to ISIS’ expansion. Indeed, the regime’s purchases of oil from ISIS helped finance the organisation’s growth.


    Today, Russia concentrates its bombing on the opposition – the people who actually have a track record of fighting – and defeating ISIS.

  • Are there any “moderates” as we understand the term, in Syria?

  • Katerina Porter 20th Nov '15 - 9:38am

    What we should have done early on is to have had a no fly zone, as we did to protect the Kurds in Iraq before 2003. This would have protected the population from Assad bombing and not forced so many to flee.

  • Moving carefully and with diplomacy to the fore matters.
    The initial response from Parisians was right. Less sure about their Government.
    The history of reconstructions after a strong leader has gone, from Tito onwards has not been good..
    I am not sure whether we would be better giving some recognition to the borders people originally wanted rather than our straight lines. But I do think we should think it through very carefully.

  • Jonathan Brown – I think that the assumption that, had we helped wipe out Assad, ISIS would have captured “very little” of Syria is, at best, highly debateable.

    Remember that the US’s overwhelming preoccupation has always been to get rid of Assad, irrespective of the cost to the Syrian people – but why? It’s not dislike of dictators (except when politically convenient) since the US has a long track record of supporting dictators when it suits. The test appears to be that they’re “on our side” (which in practice means corporate America). The “Axis of Evil” are all countries that oppose US hegemony including Assad’s Syria. Another reason that’s often suggested is that the Israelis want to turn Syria into a bunch of perpetually warring weak micro-states run by gangsters and warlords to protect its northern flank (historically where most invasions have come from since biblical times) although the evidence for this is weaker AFAIK.

    So, whatever the US motivation, this builds towards a picture of any number of local gangster/warlord types who co-operate with whoever is strongest locally/will give them most guns etc. plus two rival religiously motivated groups, ISIS and Al Qaeda. As far as the religious groups go, it’s a distinction with very little difference. The organisations are rivals but everything suggests that their boundaries are porous for individuals and weapons. Meanwhile the US has totally failed to find any “moderate” groups with any cohesion; they are essentially a figment of western wishful-thinking which it suited the western media to big up.

    That extends to reporting of the “massed gas attacks” routinely attributed by our media to Assad despite the lack of firm proof. But he had every reason NOT to use gas since he knew it was US “red line” while the rebels were oppositely incentivised to stage a false flag operation. What we do know for sure is that Islamist groups HAVE repeatedly used chemical weapons.


    Of course, Assad (with Russia’s support) has been concentrating efforts in western Syria not the east where ISIS dominates because the military situation for Assad was desperate in the west when Russia intervened. There is ZERO chance they will ignore ISIS longer term since they regard Alawites and Iranians as apostates to be murdered at the first opportunity.

  • Jonathan Brown 20th Nov '15 - 9:00pm

    @Gordon – yes, speculative history is always debatable but the fact remains that ISIS has prospered when the other oppositions forces have been weak; ISIS was weak in 2013; most Syrians hate ISIS and everything they stand for. There is no particular reason to think that ISIS would have grown had they not had space to grow in to.

    That doesn’t mean that the coalition of rebel groups fighting Assad would have stayed together. It is possible that their alliances could have broken down and we’d have seen a Libya-like situation. But the main reasons for rebel weakness has been the aerial bombing destroying civilian infrastructure and forcing millions of Syrians to flee, thereby hugely weakening civil society in the parts of Syria that are free from regime rule, and the way that ISIS has been allowed to flourish, and has been funded by money paid to it for oil by the regime: http://www.ft.com/cms/s/0/92f4e036-6b69-11e5-aca9-d87542bf8673.html#axzz3rzFcnhqB

  • Jonathan Brown 20th Nov '15 - 9:02pm

    As for the gas attack conspiracy theory, it’s amazing how the regime apologia gets around:

    There were many reasons why the regime would have wanted to gas the suburbs of Damascus, despite the presence of the weapons inspectors:
    – They’d done it before (although not killed so many people in one go)
    – They wanted to send a message to the population that they can get away with anything
    – They were terrified of steady advances made by the moderate opposition forces in and around Damascus.

    In contrast, there are many reasons why the rebels would not have done it:
    – They were winning
    – People don’t tend to gass their local communities, and most of the opposition forces are pretty local affairs
    – They didn’t have the technical ability to carry out this attack
    – When groups like ISIS (who might well gas civilian populations) carried out horrific crimes, they take the credit for them. Always. So why wouldn’t they claim they’d done it this time?
    – Why would they repeatedly gas their own people – and why would they still be gassing their own people today, over and over again, instead of using it against regime forces?

    Furthermore, if the aim really was to be a ‘false flag’ attack designed to lure in Western intervention:
    – Why didn’t they do another one in the weeks that followed to show that Assad wasn’t really cooperating with the disarmament initiative?
    – Why were the most extreme opposition groups such as Nusra Front publically demanding that the US stay out?

  • Jonathan Brown. Are you not using the same argument as that used for Libya? The LibDems supported the bombing to overthrow Gaddafi. That turned out well. Total and utter catastrophe with Daesh now having a firm foothold. Everyone has a conspiracy of silence over their actions that facilitated this.

  • Eddie Sammon 20th Nov '15 - 11:38pm

    UN security council resolution passed unanimously for the eradication of Daesh. We need to fall in line. I will be doing so anyway.

  • Jonathan Brown 21st Nov '15 - 12:07am

    The UN security council also called for an end to barrel bombing almost two years ago. ISIS will only be defeated militarily, but who’s going to supply the boots that will be needed on the ground?

  • Eddie Sammon 21st Nov '15 - 12:22am

    Jonathan Brown, Obama’s containment strategy is at least better than what we are doing, which is letting France become the military leader of Europe and in some cases the diplomatic one too.

    I would prefer to Assad name a date for departure ASAP, but if we all wait for our perfect plans then we’ll end up not acting at all. Regards.

  • Theakes.
    I agree it’s a matter of judgement not emotion. But base judgement on evidence and the evidence is that bombing campaigns on large land masses and on an enemy that can move or has a fluid make up do not work. Also in the case on the War on terror that stratergy has been confused and based on convenience more than anything else. Most of the 9/11 plotters were Saudi but it was more convenient to knock out Iraq etc. Most of the Paris killers appear to have been European nationals and less centrally planned by ISIL than it appears. Until recently we were told such attacks were the work of Al Qaeda now it’s ISIL next time it will be some other group. This is because the threat is ideas not one or another group. My view is that Britain involvement will achieve nothing that the far bigger involvement of Russia and the US will or won’t achieve and that therefor there is no point in joining in on another Middle Eastern escapade with a proven record of failure,. “It might work this time” is the mantra of people who refuse give up on a bad idea or a gambler throwing good money after bad.

  • Jonathan Brown – I would be very careful about relying on the opinions of a lone blogger, namely ‘bellingcat’, particularly when he so casually dismisses the opinion of Seymour Hersch, one of the world’s foremost investigative journalists with vast expertise in military matters.

    Even the New York Times, hardly a radical mouthpiece, had to quietly retract its earlier reporting of supposedly slam-dunk evidence of regime culpability for the gas attack that nearly brought the US into the war. The fog of war is indeed very foggy.


    Meanwhile, some rebels most definitely do have both the technical capability and willingness to use gas as my earlier link demonstrates. Sure, terrorist groups commonly claim responsibility for their attacks since, if the intention is to cause terror, that’s the logical thing to do. But what if terror isn’t the primary objective in a particular case, if it’s to involve the Americans? Wouldn’t they still behave logically and blame it on someone else? That doesn’t prove they did, only that I think it has to be considered as a possibility.

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