Should we bomb ISIS in Syria?

12313743_1202542979774315_6614929007876887791_nI hesitate to comment on this, as the issues are so complex that it seems impossible to offer any clear opinion. But discussion and reflection suggest that we cannot ignore the following points.

1. The British public do not support it

The Independent reports research by the Daily Mirror:

The survey conducted for the Daily Mirror by Survation showed 59 per cent of people believed sending warplanes to bomb key Isis targets in the war-torn country will increase the risk of terrorist attacks in the UK.

While 48 per cent of people said they backed air raids on the extremists, but 30 per cent want Britain to stay away and a further 21 per cent are undecided.

It is interesting to reflect why politicians are more ‘hawkish’ on this than the public in general. And it highlights that Jeremy Corbyn is right to ask why Labour MPs are not reflecting the views of the Labour Party membership. Is it because, like the Conservatives, they have become a political class increasingly out of touch with the electorate?

2. The Prime Minister’s reasons are unconvincing

You can read the PM’s briefing to the Foreign Affairs Select Committee for yourself. It does not look very convincing. My good friend Peter Head comments:

Well I’ve read the Prime Minister’s Memorandum to the Foreign Affairs Select Committee setting out the grounds for air-strikes against ISIL in Syria and I was not persuaded. The naive faith in “precision bombing”, the myth that 70,000 Syrian moderates will step up and take control, the appeal to Iraq as an exemplar of good practice, are bad enough; but the belief that air strikes can be regarded as legitimate acts of national self-defence and that they can defeat ISIL are not supported by evidence or argument. And at several points the main argument is “we don’t want to be left out of the gang” because that would damage our international esteem. Not good enough. I’m not voting for this.

3. Jeremy Corbyn asks some important questions

Corbyn’s letter to his MPs is fairly short and to the point. The core of it is that Cameron has not really answered the questions asked of him:

Our first priority must be the security of Britain and the safety of the British people. The issue now is whether what the Prime Minister is proposing strengthens, or undermines, our national security.

I do not believe that the Prime Minister today made a convincing case that extending UK bombing to Syria would meet that crucial test. Nor did it satisfactorily answer the questions raised by us and the Foreign Affairs Select Committee.

In particular, the Prime Minister did not set out a coherent strategy, coordinated through the United Nations, for the defeat of ISIS. Nor has he been able to explain what credible and acceptable ground forces could retake and hold territory freed from ISIS control by an intensified air campaign.

I think it is a great shame that BBC coverage has mostly focussed on what is happening in the Parliamentary Labour Party, and Corbyns’s leadership—rather than the questions of substance which need to be addressed.

Matthew Parris, writing in The Times (sadly behind the paywall) appears to agree.

Amazingly, Corbyn is right. The hawks just want to join a scrap with their mates and haven’t a clue what happens afterwards.

‘If not now, when?” asked the prime minister this week: a question that has surely preceded some of the silliest decisions in history. It could have been asked before Iraq. It could have been asked before Afghanistan or Libya, or Suez. It was probably asked before the Charge of the Light Brigade. There is no right time for an unwise decision.

CUw0iDMWcAAnar14. Many Syrians do not want it

I recently read a letter from Syrian community leaders in the UK urging that bombing should not be stepped up. (If you can locate it, please let me know.) It is not difficult to see why. Bombing destroys infrastructure, so that poverty and frustration increase, which in turn only functions as a breeding ground for further resentment and extremism. Civilian casualties are bound to result. And for many in Syria, ISIS has been welcomed because they received worse treatment at the hands of Assad.

The letter from the Stop the War coalition sets out the lessons from previous conflicts.

The current rush to bomb Syria following the terrible events in Paris risks a dangerous escalation which will inflame the war there and increase bitterness against the west. The US has been bombing Isis for a year and admits that Isis is as strong as ever and has continued recruiting.

The experience of the wars in Afghanistan, Iraq and Libya shows that western military interventions lead to large-scale casualties, devastating destruction and huge flows of refugees. Far from tackling terrorism, the last 14 years of war have seen massively increased jihadi terrorist organisations around the world.

Andrew Bacevich, a former US Colonel, highlights why bombing would be so counter-productive in the longer term.

 The threat posed by terrorism is merely symptomatic of larger underlying problems. Crush Isis, whether by bombing or employing boots on the ground, and those problems will still persist. A new Isis, under a different name but probably flying the same banner, will appear in its place, Much as Isis itself emerged from the ashes of Al Qaeda in Iraq.

5. Western money is funding ISIS

NATO member Turkey has been a long-term funder of both Al Qaeda and ISIS.

It might seem outrageous to suggest that a Nato member like Turkey would in any way support an organisation that murders western civilians in cold blood. That would be like a Nato member supporting al-Qaida. But in fact there is reason to believe that Erdo?an’s government does support the Syrian branch of al-Qaida (Jabhat al-Nusra) too, along with any number of other rebel groups that share its conservative Islamist ideology. The Institute for the Study of Human Rights at Columbia University has compiled a long list of evidence of Turkish support for Isis in Syria.

The son of Turkey’s President appears to be directly involved in this funding.

A much more effective way of defeating ISIS would be to persuade Turkey to allow Kurdish forces freedom to act.

How could Isis be eliminated? In the region, everyone knows. All it would really take would be to unleash the largely Kurdish forces of the YPG (Democratic Union party) in Syria, and PKK (Kurdistan Workers’ party) guerillas in Iraq and Turkey. These are, currently, the main forces actually fighting Isis on the ground. They have proved extraordinarily militarily effective and oppose every aspect of Isis’s reactionary ideology.

But of course support for ISIS also substantially comes from Saudi Arabia—whose money in turn comes from Western countries buying its oil—along with Kuwait and Qatar, all of whom have received significant support from the UK Government. In fact, the growth of ISIS might well have been a long-term strategic goal of the Saudis.

6. Western arms manufacturers are fuelling a new arms race in the region.

There has been a massive escalation of arms sales to the region, with Britain leading the way, along with the US, Canada and France. In response, Russia has also stepped up its sales.

Given the unprecedented levels of weapon sales by the west (including the US, Canada and the UK) to the mainly Sunni Gulf states, Vladimir Putin’s decision last week to allow the controversial delivery of S-300 anti-aircraft missiles to Iran – voluntarily blocked by Russia since 2010 – seems likely to accelerate the proliferation.

That will see agreed arms sales to the top five purchasers in the region – Saudi Arabia, the United Arab Emirates, Algeria, Egypt and Iraq – surge this year to more than $18bn, up from $12bn last year.

This adds to the trade in illicit arms left over from conflict in the Balkans—and the US weapons supplied to the Iraqi army that have been captured by ISIS.

7. The Christian tradition of pacifism

There are many important theological issues raised by all this. What are the ethics of supporting a war which benefits one’s own economy by selling arms? Where is the integrity in supporting regimes who are in flagrant breach of human rights? Where is the integrity in working with countries which are clearly supporting terrorist organisations which are threatening our national security? How can politicians make responsible decisions when looking hawkish consistently boosts one’s poll ratings?

Underneath it all is the strong Christian tradition of rejection of war as a way of resolving conflict. I found it challenging to be preaching on Daniel 7 this morning. Most scholars believe that though Daniel is written about events in the sixth century BCE, it was written for a crisis in the second century—the desecration of the Jewish Temple by Antiochus IV Epiphanes in 167 BCE. An alternative account can be found in the account of Judas Maccabeus and his brothers. They opposed Antiochus by force—but their books did not find their way into the canon of scripture. Instead, we have Daniel, whose message is to wait for God’s deliverance rather than resist by force.

This doesn’t offer an easy solution—but there seem to me to be enough important questions that need a good answer before we go to war again.

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26 thoughts on “Should we bomb ISIS in Syria?”

  1. Whatever the politicians say I sense that they are (1) sick of doing practically nothing (2) concerned that Daesh do not think they can bomb Paris or down airplanes with impunity.
    But the case against bombing is strong, as you outline.
    Nevertheless something must be done.
    I wonder if the politicians, alongside (1) and (2) above are in despair about (3) doing anything to change Turkey’s mind about supporting Daesh and opposing Kurdistan?

    • No doubt you’re right there, but (1) is no excuse for just lashing out in a way that causes death and may be entirely counterproductive, and (2) if strategists truly think that killing a few Daesh will deter them, they have truly understood nothing about IS’s brand of Wahhabism. (3) would make much more sense, but good luck…

  2. No war, with the exception of the war against Japan which involved the use of nuclear weapons, has ever been won by airpower alone. the best that air strikes can hope to achieve is to weaken the infrastructure of ISIS but they alone will not destroy it. To smash ISIS you have to have troops on the ground in a root and branch operation that systematically exterminates them. There is no political will for this so why it might make western governments feel they are doing something, air strikes will not achieve very much unless matched by effective ground operations coupled with coordinated economic activity that cuts off their source of funding and support.

      • It was the dropping to two atomic bombs from the air that forced Japan to surrender so it could can be argued that this was probably the only instance where aerial bombing conclusively brought the war to an end.

          • Yes , – the Americans fought a ground war in the Pacific -but it was the dropping of two atomic bombs from the air that forced Japan decisively to capitulate. Otherwise America would have had to invade the Japanese home islands and the war would have continued for much longer. So I think the war in Japan was won and brought to a close finally by the use of air power.

            Not that I am suggesting we use air launched tactical nuclear weapons in Syria…

  3. There a several strong points in your post, Ian – thank you.
    I would like to add one concern of my own: Unlike Michael Fallon, I don’t think that Hollande’s request for UK support is a good argument in favour of air strikes on Syria. I think that Hollande’s action after the Paris attacks, understandable though it was, was not a considered decision, but rather the reaction of an embattled and vengeful man. I hope that our MPs will make a considered decision and that they will not feel pressurised to go along with Hollande’s request for support.

  4. Daesh must be attacked: it’s the only viable option.

    ISIS are a genocidal endtime cult. Since by their twisted doctrine, any recognition of other governments apostatizes you, they can’t be reasoned with, and their power hinges on their holding territory: there’s no Caliph without a Caliphate.

    The only options are to surrender to them, or to destroy them.

    That being so, not bombing ISIS only extends their rule, leading to more deaths, and life worse than death for those subject to their tyranny. Inaction is worse than action, which has always been the fundamental and unanswerable flaw of pacifism.

    • The question is not whether or not Daesh needs to be combated and, ultimately, eliminated as a force and an ideology. We’re all agreed on that. The only interesting question is whether or not more bombing gets us any closer to that goal.

      Whether or not “inaction is worse than action” depends on the action. We were told that Saddam needed to be deposed via military means for our safety. We were told that al-Qaeda needed to be blown up, See where it all got us. I’m reminded of what Jesus said: “When [the unclean spirit] comes, it finds the house empty, swept, and put in order. Then it goes and brings with it seven other spirits more evil than itself, and they enter and dwell there, and the last state of that person is worse than the first.”

      It is the height of folly to once again wade into a war without a positive, realistic, hope-giving vision of what is going to replace the forces you’re trying to bomb into oblivion.

      • Each situation must be taken on its merits. This wannabe Caliphate ain’t Iraq, and Abu Bakr al-Baghdadi ain’t Saddam. Ba’athists, however brutal, can be negotiated with; Daesh can’t.

        Airstrikes have proved effective in Kosovo, militarily in Iraq, and air support is allowing Peshmerga forces to retake territory captured by ISIS. Airstrikes degrade Daesh’s military capability, and to continue to degrade it, they must continue.

  5. I have signed a petition to the Uk government: ‘No air strikes on Syria’ ( on Twitter) – 34,897 signatures so far, and the numbers of signatures are increasing by the minute. Vox populi!

  6. I’m a bit surprised that you state so confidently that the Books of the Maccabees are not in the Canon of Scripture, when they were in the Greek Septuagint. Of course, it depends on which Bible you use! Only an evangelical Anglican could make such a bold claim; when these books are included in both Eastern Orthodox Bibles and RC Bibles (and the RSV Common Bible). The fact that the Protestant Reformers rejected the so-called Apocryphal books, does not mean that they correct to do so … One of the things that I’ve never really understood was that the Reformers largely rejected these books because they were rejected by the 1st Century Jewish Rabbis, the same men who had rejected Christ Himself!

    • At the risk of going off topic and I would love to see this discussed as a separate thread, on what grounds do we assert the protestant canon as being ‘scriptual’?

  7. I’ve had some time to reflect on this and I believe that, although a bombing campaign might well check the progress of ISIS in Syria, it will be woefully inadequate in reducing the incidence of jihadist attacks. Even if the objective is simply to satisfy the public need for retaliation, the sense of Western triumph will be short-lived.

    Airstrikes may well have halted the prospect of further massacre in the Balkans and forced peace negotiations, but as James said, ‘each situation must be taken on its merits.’

    If ISIS is a cult, the assassination of Al-Baghdadi will not dim its Caliphate ambitions. Theological inconsistency may disaffect their more discerning followers, but, as with the evolution of Branch Davidian, ISIS will simply develop far more bizarre ‘rules’ of interpretation in support of its theological pretensions.

    The jihadist fantasy appears to hold a similar sway over Muslim youth as the Thug Life fantasy did for black youth. Envy over a lack of political and economic ascendancy appears to be at the heart of its appeal. As a result, the more affluent youth are especially prone to the charge of selling out to mainstream values, being encouraged to abandon them to join in escalating belligerence against the West.

    The key strategic difference in this situation is that terrorist activity operates over a far more distributed network with ‘middle managers’ having greater self-reliance than is the case for conventional hostilities. Over-reliance on bombing Syria to rout ISIS would be like expecting to cure metastasised cancer by removing the radiation source that produces it.

    Every terrorist atrocity that’s occurred in our metropolitan centres has been orchestrated by these ‘middle managers’ who are skilled in procuring weapons and in organising logistics, training and fake IDs for recruits, etc.

    I think airstrikes will be authorised, but we really need to focus on crushing the ISIS crime connections of ‘middle managers’, whereby they fund ID forgery and illegal weapons purchases, instead of just patiently hoping they’ll lead to higher value targets before they strike.

    Launching Storm Shadow cruise missiles towards Syria at £0.75 million a pop will do nothing to eliminate those who provided the resources and militants that were deployed in Paris to such lethal effect.

  8. Thank you for another very stimulating article. Its extremely difficult and I am glad I am not an MP. I think if I had to vote I would have probably voted against but I would not have found that an easy decision. You mention the Christian tradition of pacifism-what about the tradition of ‘just war theory’. I don’t agree that the tests for that have necessarily been met (hence not being in favour) but it is another way of analysing the situation.

    • Ian, if you aare reading this it might be worth starting a separate discussion on the just war/pacifist positions from a theological view point.

      i.e.’ Is is ever right to fight’ ? – for christians that is?

  9. The problem with simply bombing ISIS is that it cannot achieve a decisive military result without an effective ground force available to exploit the airstrikes. ISIS is effectively light infantry. That’s the worst possible target for precision strikes from a fighter jet. Infantry simply disperses when threatened by air. This plan is therefore simply an exercise in “doing that which is politically feasible.” It is not a militarily credible strategy, and it will not achieve its objectives.

    I notice in passing that the imperatives of pacifism are never – and I never never – applied to the police. No one ever says “We don’t need a police force. Let’s just wait on God to deliver us.” Why would that be?

  10. Therefore the only possible defence against the subversion of the West by Islam, is surrender? Because to attack ISIL in Syria by bombing only is unwise. Unwise because it’s supporters are amongst us and deny complicity. Here is the threat. Their presence in ever increasing numbers is the threat and promise. And our liberties are theirs because
    our governments and leaders are paralysed by many fears.
    That is what ordinary people think. Are they wrong?


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