In fact I’m not quite as certain of the Right Thing as my headline suggests; but if I’m going to nail my colours to the mast in advance of the UK’s parliament’s probable vote next week, I may as well be definite. It puts me with Jeremy Corbyn and against most of the UK pols. I don’t feel involved enough to go and protest2, though, as I did before the Iraq war. More than two years ago I wrote words that could be interpreted as support for military intervention. But that was more than two years ago; things have changed since. Most of what has changed has changed for the worse; the country is more broken; the chances of tilting the balance in favour of the Good Guys by bombing is pretty well gone.
The govt’s reasons for action are available. It is a long document; although page 11 onwards is “Response to Questions in the Foreign Affairs Committee report on “Enabling the House to reach a decision” ” and is effectively an appendix; but much of page 1 is blather, and page 2 begins That is why I believe that we should now take the decision to extend British airstrikes against ISIL [in Iraq] into Syria, so we deduce that there’s one key paragraph on page 1 to read. It is:
We need a comprehensive response which seeks to deal with the threat that ISIL poses to us directly, not just through the measures we are taking at home, but by dealing with ISIL on the ground in the territory that it controls. It is in Raqqa, Syria, that ISIL has its headquarters, and it is from Raqqa that some of the main threats against this country are planned and orchestrated. We must tackle ISIL in Syria, as we are doing in neighbouring Iraq, in order to deal with the threat that ISIL poses to the region and to our security here at home. We have to deny a safe haven for ISIL in Syria. The longer ISIL is allowed to grow in Syria, the greater the threat it will pose. It is wrong for the United Kingdom to sub-contract its security to other countries, and to expect the aircrews of other nations to carry the burdens and the risks of striking ISIL in Syria to stop terrorism here in Britain.
That contains a number of arguments not clearly separated; probably because they’re weaker when clearly and distinctly made.
1. Increase the UK’s security. Arguably a somewhat selfish attitude, but also part of the government’s core responsibility. But the applicability of this argument seems implausible to me; indeed, the reverse seems more likely to be true. The govt’s doc has a longer section on “The Threat from ISIL”, with stuff like We know that ISIL has deadly intent to strike us at home too. In the last 12 months, Britain’s police and Security Services have disrupted no fewer than 7 terrorist plots to attack the UK. All 7 plots were either linked to ISIL, or were inspired by ISIL’s propaganda. Whether you find that “undeniable” evidence of a threat to the UK is perhaps a matter of judgement; mine is that it doesn’t, and that I don’t trust the govt’s judgement5.
2. “It is wrong for the United Kingdom to sub-contract its security to other countries” is a two-part argument. The first is the “altruistic” quasi-moral part: we shouldn’t let other people do our fighting for us. And this is true, if we believe the fighting is a good idea; but it doesn’t help decide if said fighting is good. The contrary – we shouldn’t bother, since our military contribution is small and neither here-nor-there – isn’t very believable either; its along the same lines as those who argue that we shouldn’t trouble about our CO2 emissions, because on a global scale they are small. The second, implicit, part is that we shouldn’t undermine other’s efforts by hanging back. But again, that doesn’t help you decide of the efforts are good.
3. What we’re doing in Iraq argues that we should do the same in Syria. But there’s a key difference: in Iraq, we’re acting on behalf of and with the cooperation of an at least nominally friendly government. It seems to be that concentrating any military efforts there would be more fruitful1. The previous, notoriously sectarian and incompetent Iraq government, bears a large share of the responsibility for the rise of ISIS; if it hadn’t let so much of Iraq get taken over, ISIS wouldn’t have got its early boost (note: I’m willing to be corrected on the details of that). But we-the-West also bear our share, for propping up such a disastrous government. Having done my best to consider this carefully, it seems likely that the most useful route to removing ISIS begins by fixing Iraq’s government. That’s a long term process, liable to be tedious and difficult, and involve things like supporting and enhancing democracy. And in the short term, doing our little bit to help the US support the Iraqi’s astonishingly incompetent army. The govt says By inflicting brutal attacks against his own people, Assad has in fact acted as one of ISIL’s greatest recruiting sergeants. We therefore need a political transition in Syria to a government that the international community can work with against ISIL, as we already do with the Government of Iraq. However, I can’t see any signs of such a transition actually happening, so that crucial part of the govt’s strategy is broken.
4. “The longer ISIL is allowed to grow in Syria, the greater the threat it will pose”. This is almost believeable. It might be true; or it might not – since any concentration of ISIS is vulnerable to air attack, its hard for them to grow such concentrations.
Arguments against bombing include “the Iraq war was a disaster”. And indeed it was; and you can make a decent case that disaster has lead directly to this one, albeit with many other mistakes along the way. But that argument is something of a logical fallacy, in the way its usually presented; somewhat along the lines of “but you were all predicting an ice age in the 1970’s”. In another way, in that the same kind of people who made the same kind of mistakes will be in charge again, its not a fallacy.
The recent attacks on France are why the French are so hot and why we may get involved; effectively, something so close to home provides motivation. What prevents similar here? Mostly, I’d guess, the difficulty of getting hold of Kalashnikovs. We’re probably not short of nutters; but the nutters are (thankfully) short of guns. This strongly suggests to me that doing more to get rid of the guns would be a good idea. While we’re here, I’ll note that the total death toll on French roads in 2013 was 3250; not-at-all-to-anyone’s-surprise, this hasn’t provoked horror or outrage.
Another argument against bombing might be the cost, if only I knew what it was. This piece says that 7 months in Libya (which I supported) cost ~$380 million; perhaps for the purposes of discussion I could guess that Syria would cost the UK £500 million a year. That’s not large enough to be a convincing argument against (but for comparison, we say we’ve donated £1.1 billion “providing assistance to ease the suffering of the Syrian people”). But I argue that the bomb money would be better spent on helping Syrian refugees in Turkey, and similar matters; not just in terms of bread-not-bombs being better for the world, but in terms of security.
Another item is that govt’s, and the press, and the public, can only focus on a few things at once, with enough pressure to get things done. Pushing so hard on bomb-Syria means other things can’t be pushed.
Not having Russia in Syria deliberately targetting non-ISIS opponents of Assad would help a lot3; but I can’t see any way to avoid their presence; Russia as elsewhere is just being malignant.
I don’t like the govt’s degrade and ultimately defeat ISIL, including through Coalition military and wider action because I’m suspicious of the “degrade”. It is such a vague term; used by the US too; it amounts to “well, yes, we blew some things up and killed some bad guys but really we don’t have much of a plan beyond that”.
What would you do, then?
The obvious question, which I’ve partially answered above: help in Iraq, and provide aid. Another element, which I’ve referred to before, would be to end our obsession with border lines drawn on maps many years ago; and to support a Kurdish state.
Another possible question is “what would the people inside Syria like us to do?” I find I have no idea at all what the answer is4.
1. The govt comes close to conceding this point. In answer to v) Which ground forces will take, hold, and administer territories captured from ISIL in Syria. they reply The model that is starting to work in Iraq involves Coalition air support enabling Iraqis – from both the Iraqi Security Forces and the Kurdish Peshmerga – to take back, hold and administer territory regained from ISIL. This is more difficult in Syria, because Assad’s forces are still fighting directly against the moderate opposition and there is no prospect of intervention by an external ground force. Any large-scale external force, even of Arab or other Muslim troops, could risk inflaming the conflict further, rather than contributing to a political settlement.
Update: 2016/01/03: and there’s more. As the Beeb reports, we’ve actually done hardly any strikes on Syria. It hardly seems to have been worth all the angst. And why not? Apart from the lack of targets, Auntie says In Iraq air strikes are making a difference, largely because there is an army to work with on the ground. And so on.
2. However, I will sign the petition, even though I disagree with some of the wording, since I like the headline.
3. The Economist tells me that “Turkey is hindering the campaign against IS. It is more interested in striking Kurds inside Syria and removing Mr Assad than it is in crushing the jihadists. Moreover, it has failed to stop the flow of IS’s oil out of Syria and the flow of money and recruits back in”, so the Russian’s aren’t unique; Turkey’s failure to reach an agreement with the Kurds is a major regional problem.
4. Bagehot, in an article suggesting “Britain’s left must reject the anti-West reactionaries at the heart of its movement”, says “There’s a big Syrian group,” murmurs one. “But they’re not anti,” continues another, disgusted: “They were lobbying for Britain to bomb Assad”. That’s not quite an answer, because those are Syrians not in Syria; but its informative.
5. It looks like I was right to not trust the govt; they appear to have been simply lying; see http://www.independent.co.uk/news/uk/politics/syria-air-strikes-senior-mps-back-alex-salmond-in-disputing-david-camerons-claim-that-seven-uk-a6764491.html
Syria air strikes: Britain is only dipping a toe in this war on Isis. Some good stuff, and also
Political action by Britain is, in any case, constrained by the US, which does not want Isis, President Bashar al-Assad or the forces headed by the al-Qaeda affiliate, the al-Nusra Front, to win the Syrian civil war decisively. Washington is trying to pretend that there is a moderate Syrian constituency opposed to these three parties capable of taking power in Damascus. David Cameron similarly expresses belief that not only does such a moderate force exist, but that it numbers 70,000 fighters, many of them members of the Free Syrian Army, an institution that was always an umbrella group and largely disintegrated two years ago.
This is important because if true (as it seems to me) then all the bombing is doing is prolonging a balance of war; possibly to our advantage, but not clearly to the advantage of those bombed.
What the Kurds think
For us Kurds, Western intervention is a lifeline says Karwan Jamal Tahir, Kurdistan Regional Government High Representtive to the UK (found via Benn’s speech to the Hoc; which was poor, even though he’s been attacked by nutters for making it). There’s an Iraqi Kurdistan but its an autonomous region not a state, no matter how much they and I would like it to be one. Anyway, what KJT says is worth reading, but the most relevant part is:
Most of Daesh’s territory is in Syria, which should be considered with Iraq as a single theatre. British airstrikes, already taking place in Iraq, would carefully target Daesh fighters, trucks and supplies in Syria. This is welcome, and no doubt our allies will do their utmost to avoid civilian casualties. But sooner or later, more will be needed: it will take ground troops to defeat Daesh. We know many British people are wary but we have to say, as your allies, that some British troops could be vital.
Strangely enough, Benn didn’t choose to quote that last bit, even though that para – rather than the one he did use – is the one that explicitly calls for UK air strikes.
* Timmy suggests their finance may not be as obscure as some might believe.
* The Krauts will send some stuff but not bomb anyone
* Defence secretary spends entire debate doodling explosions
* Sir John Chilcot urged to get a head start on Syria inquiry
* RAF bomb raids in Syria dismissed as ‘non-event’, Torygraph early 2016: “Since MPs voted for war over Syria RAF Tornados and Typhoons have mounted only three strike missions”.
* UK Govt response to petition
* The Dutch Join In 2016/01/29.