The politics and problems of bombing Syria

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Yesterday evening, after a spirited 10 hour debate on all sides of the house, parliament voted in favour of joining in a coordinated bombing campaign in Syria. News is now rolling in that the first British air strikes in the region have begun to take place. Many opposition members chose to defy their leader and the opposition closed the debate with this fine example of oratory by Hilary Benn. Irrespective of whether one agrees with him or not, it was an incredible speech. The below picture tells its own story:

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The Good

Almost everybody agrees that ISIS/ISIL/IS/Daesh necessitate some form of action. Almost everybody agrees that passively sitting back and doing nothing is not an option. It was good to see members on all sides of the house recognise this point.

It was also good to see the majority expressly consider the gravity of the decision taken. Nobody, after watching that debate, could conceivably believe that parliament were merely going to war. The vast majority on all sides appeared to recognise the significance of the decision they were taking. There would be very few who were not concerned by the ramifications of a bombing campaign nor who were seriously perturbed by the onward march of ISIS/ISIL/IS/Daesh.

The Bad

In the end, the house voted in favour of bombing Syria by a significant margin. Significant numbers of Labour MPs rebelled against their party leader, 66 voted with the government.

Jeremy Corbyn failed to make a credible case for averting the proposed bombing campaign. It was left to the likes of Alex Salmond, of the SNP, to lay out the credible alternatives to air strikes in an effective way. Though Corbyn was correct on the issue (in my view), his case was not compelling and his speech was not convincing.

To add insult to injury, Hilary Benn closed the debate for the opposition with an masterful piece of oratory. Leaving aside the rights and wrongs of his position, the speech was not aimed at those who have already decided how they will vote. In truth, his speech was targeted toward those who had yet to decide. It was reported that as many as 15 wavering Labour MPs were convinced to vote with the government as a result of his contribution.

The Ugly

It was nothing short of shameful for David Cameron to refer to those who did not back the bombing of Syria as “terrorist sympathisers”. The below video shows the 12 times Mr Cameron was asked (and refused) to apologise for the unnecessary slur.

I have never been a fan of the forced apology. There seems to be no benefit to anybody in making someone insincerely apologise when they don’t mean it. So it was no great loss that David Cameron failed – 12 times no less – to apologise for his comments. The problem lies in the fact that this was not a slip of the tongue, or an unfortunate turn of phrase, but something he really believes. It is not credible to suggest everybody who rejects a bombing campaign in Syria is an ISIS/ISIL/IS/Daesh sympathiser. It is a slur which is unfounded, unfair and unkind.

The threats from anti-war campaigners and Labour activists against rebellious MPs are no less insalubrious. Threatening to deselect MPs, who were given a free vote on the issue, is not appropriate. Regardless of your agreement with their decision, it is not reasonable to threaten deselection every time an MP votes against your conscience in a free conscience vote. However much we may or may not like the current Labour leader, if there is one thing he has no right to be upset about – based upon his own career as a backbencher – it is rebellious party members.

Conclusions

Whilst I do not think Jeremy Corbyn gave a compelling speech, it seems equally true that David Cameron failed to make a credible case for bombing Syria. Many of the concerns raised were simply not addressed. It seems we have fallen for the old political syllogism: We must do something. This is something. We must, therefore, do this.

Much of the argument in favour of bombing Syria seemed to come in relation to the attacks in Paris. A particularly emotive spin was placed on this question by asking ‘what if that happened in London? Would we expect the French (and others) to come to our aid?’ The question is, of course, an entirely false one. For a start, why bombing Syria now would have any affect on an attack that has already happened in Paris by those who were from Belgium is beyond me. Similarly, if the Paris attack had happened somewhere in the UK, I’m not sure why bombing Syria would make us feel any better about it?

Paris attacks aside, it has not been made clear how bombing Syria would keep us safe from further terror threats. Is it likely that dropping bombs in Syria would have stopped any of the terrorist atrocities committed in the last 10 years in the UK? It seems highly doubtful. Are there any potential terror threats that dropping bombs on Syria is likely to defuse? I struggle to see them.

Equally, we must ask not just whether bombing campaigns in general would be effective, but would our particular involvement be of any value? John McCain seemed nonplussed about it all. His view was that UK involvement might be a nice token gesture but, frankly, wouldn’t make all that big a difference (see here). If sending our air force would be of limited to no value, why bother sending it at all?

Our interventions in Iraq and Afghanistan tell us that dropping bombs makes minimal difference to those we are trying to stop. In both cases, it was only troops on the ground that made any difference at all (the impact of which can be debated). Many innocent Syrians will be caught up in the destruction of a bombing campaign and it is likely to yield little fruit in the way of stopping ISIS/ISIL/IS/Daesh. Beyond this, the West are relying on existing troops on the ground. The Kurds cannot possibly fight everyone, everywhere on their own and many of the “rebel forces” we are seeking to support simply are not (a) credible fighting forces, (b) people we would under any other circumstance consider supporting and (c) may well turn out to be the enemies of tomorrow (whom we will have armed). The plan seems considerably shaky at best.

There are a wide range of possible alternatives. For a start, we ought to be focusing on cutting off the ISIS/ISIL/IS/Daesh supply chain. Much of their income is coming by extortion and taxation within the controlled territories. As they continue killing, those sources of income will deplete and become null and void. They know they cannot rely on such income forever. Funds are rolling in from other Salafist-sympathisers and there are ways to cut off the flow of income and support to this group.

If the case can credibly be made, I am not necessarily against deploying troops on the ground. As it stands, I struggle to see that achieving much but there is room for a case to be made. Certainly, troops on the ground would be preferable to an indiscriminate bombing campaign. However, I would like to see further and faster isolation of ISIS/ISIL/IS/Daesh funds and supplies first, before we begin talking about military interventions and air strikes. We must exhaust all peaceful means of stopping this wicked group before we decide that war is our only option.

Whilst I cannot credibly be considered an out and out pacifist, I do believe there are times when war is unfortunately necessary, I have a very high threshold indeed for when such circumstances exist. I cannot see that the threshold has yet been met. I cannot see that we exhausted all other avenues available. I particularly struggle to see the benefits of a bombing campaign given the history of air strikes elsewhere. I cannot see air strikes making any great impact on circumstances in Syria. I especially cannot see UK air strikes making one jot of difference.

If Hilary Benn stole the show during the 10 hour debate, I would like to remind us of the comments by Benn Snr:

Tony Benn’s 1992 speech on Iraq is as relevant today as it was then.

I am truly saddened by the vote to bomb, I do not think it will be of value, it will not make any great difference to ISIS/ISIL/IS/Daesh and it will lead to the death of many innocent Syrian people.

God have mercy on us.

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