I always pride myself on having an opinion on just about everything and anything, but for once I really am sitting – albeit uncomfortably – firmly on the fence. My conscience and the Union Jack waving patriot inside of me has always instinctively agreed that we should be contributing to the fight against IS in Syria (as well as in Iraq – for those overnight Facebook pacifists who forget we have actually been bombing Syria’s next door neighbour for the last 14 months). I suspect that a lot of people, me included, find themselves nodding along submissively to the news at Ten when David Cameron goes on about air strikes, but when questioned about my reasoning says something along the lines of ‘because we just should’.
However the logic of the arguments spouted by David Davis and, of all people Caroline Lucas, do resonate with my pragmatic side. It’s true that the RAF’s campaign is unlikely to be revelatory and achieve anything of unique significance. What can Britain contribute to the coalition’s campaign that the US and Russia haven’t already, aside from a pat on the back and a nice cup of tea? If the most militarily advanced nations in the world can’t dismantle IS’ phoney caliphate then how can we expect too? And even in the unlikely event that we were successful in destroying IS bases and the resources they depend on in Iraq and Syria, how will air strikes stop a young Muslim in London, or Berlin, or Paris deciding to launch a lone wolf attack under the banner of Jihadism and Islamic State? Though bombing ISIS alone may not be the most effective way of irradiating the threat they pose and their vicious ideology, it is by far the most viable of the options available to us, and despite all of the argument’s failings and the ambiguity over our exit strategy, I believe parliament were right to vote for action. Sorry Jez.
It’s a frustratingly ironic reality that despite ISIS proposing a far more direct and legitimate threat to us than Saddam Hussain’s regime in 2003, Milosevoc’s in 1999, and the government of Sierra Leone in 2000, the option of putting ‘boots on the ground’ in Syria is not even on the table due to the legacy of Tony Blair and his trigger happy SPADs. TB’s sushi-eating sofa cabinet single handedly alienated all public support for military action by abusing our country’s admirable willingness to use force to protect our freedoms. It seems absurd in retrospect that we could muster up enough support to deploy ground troops in order to protect Iraqi oil fields and search for non-existent weapons of mass destruction, yet fail to do so when our citizens are being publicly beheaded and irretrievably radicalised. When you consider the (admittedly simplified) fact that World War One was triggered by the death of a single Austrian Duke you’d be right to wonder why on earth we aren’t waging war against ISIS, let alone hesitating over launching air strikes.
But even sending in ground troops wouldn’t guarantee us any military success. In fact it may even be a more preferable option for ISIS. Islamic State are unique in the sense that they have the money and the man power to defend themselves in a conventional battle, but what they lack is the resources and technology to rival an air attack. We have a huge military and strategic superiority over ISIS in terms of aircrafts, and it therefore seems logical to utilise that advantage.
In addition to this drawback, sending in troops to Syria also potentially has huge propaganda value for ISIS in terms of recruitment, especially in the event of unintended civilian casualties – though it is important to remember that over the course of the last 14 months, there have been no reported civilian deaths resulting from RAF air strikes in Iraq (emphasis on the world reported, before I’m swiped by conspiracy theorists). The presence of western soldiers in the Middle East could personalise the battle for sympathetic Syrians in the same way that the vile beheadings of David Haines and Alan Henning personalised the terror threat for Britons. Unfortunately the old ‘for every 1 Muslim killed, 10 more Muslims are radicalised’ mantra definitely rings true here. So while the air strike strategy is deeply flawed and arguably a bad idea, the alternative, sending in troops, is a really, really bad idea.
The final option available to us, and the one favoured by the Green Party and the blissfully ignorant, is engaging in some sort of peace process with ISIS and the other anti-Assad rebel groups in Syria (Cameron’s phantom 70,000). No offence to any Catholics, but the event of that happening – let alone succeeding – is about about as likely as the Pope entering Eurovision, or better yet the Chilcot report being released tomorrow. Not only is the notion absurd, it’s already proven to be politically impossible domestically. The knee-jerk, Daily Express style narrative of the whole Syria debate instantly makes anyone who objects to air strikes, let alone talks to IS, a ‘terrorist sympathiser’. As much as I begrudgingly support the outcome of Thursday’s vote, objecting to air strikes on humanitarian or strategic grounds does not in anyway mean that you have the slightest feeling of empathy with fascist murderers. That black and white view of military action is almost laughably jingoistic, and very very George Bush-y.
So basically I’m unashamed to say that I support air strikes for no good reason other than out of fear of what it would signal if we decided not to. The fact that our current air campaign stops at the Iraqi/Syrian border has always seemed a tad nuts to me, considering Islamic State refuse to recognise let alone respect the border themselves. If the air strikes are to achieve anything – which they may not – they should focus on destroying IS’ 2 billion dollars worth of assets and the numerous oil fields they depend on financially. We may not be able to rebuke their ideology and stop the causes of radicalisation through air power but we can help ensure that the militants don’t have a bottomless bit of money with which to transmit their message (or to summarise: hit them where it really hurts and starve them of WiFi).
Our country’s history plainly shows that the long term consequences of doing nothing in the face of fascism are far more significant than the short term comforts of retreating into isolation. So while air strikes may seem like an overly expensive, dangerous and risky gesture of solidarity for France and the other innocents who have died at the hands of ISIS, as I’ve attempted to show, there is no real alternative. As the risk to civilians and our armed forces is comparatively minimal, the strategy is at least worth a try.