What price for David Cameron’s plans to bomb Syria?

Operation Inherent Resolve

Royal Air Force Voyager KC2 refuels two RAF Tornado GR4, March 4, 2015, over Iraq. The RAF aircraft provide combat air support for the coalition against Da’esh. (U.S. Air Force photo by Staff Sgt. Perry Aston/RELEASED)

On Thursday 26th November, David Cameron set out his arguments in favour of extending RAF air strikes to Syria. The primary reasons for this extension were the defence of British citizens and the need to stand with our allies in the wake of the Paris attacks.

However, bombing already-bombed cities and supply routes will not defeat Islamic State or make British citizens safer. Similarly, killing more Syrians is not meaningful support for France. Rather Britain should invest its energies in working towards a new strategy in the so-called War on Terror. Afghanistan, Iraq and Libya are surely testament to the fact that the current strategy of military intervention has not worked.

A decision to “not bomb” Syria does not mean we are ‘sub-contracting our defence to our allies’. It should symbolise that we are actively seeking new paradigms with which to protect ourselves, our allies, and the innocent people all-too-often caught up in terrorist attacks.

Islamic State is suffering from military setbacks. However, without a new paradigm, military intervention will not bring lasting peace and has little value besides symbolic support for Britain’s (Western) allies.

A Bombing Campaign Won’t Work

In the first instance, extending air strikes into Syria will not ‘work’. Mr Cameron made clear that his objective to is to ‘degrade ISIL and to disrupt the threat it poses to UK’. These are two distinct aims, and military intervention in Syria would achieve neither.

Islamic State militants in Iraq have withstood British and Coalition bombing for over a year. They have been curiously resilient. Part of the reason for this seems to be that Islamic State fighters have dug a network of tunnels underneath their strongholds. These tunnels protect fighters from bombing raids, and yet are not open to civilians. There is a real risk of collateral damage for limited military gain.

Of course, Mr Cameron accepts that airstrikes alone are not enough to defeat Islamic State, and his plan rests on the presence of so-called ‘moderate’ ground forces. In Mr Cameron’s view, there are 70,000 Free Syrian Army fighters still ready to pounce on any weakness shown by IS. Let us be clear. There is no independent Free Syrian Army; the former UK Ambassador to Syria has labelled the plan ‘laughable’. There is no ‘moderate’ force on the ground, so we must ask, where will the ground troops required come from? The Kurds, remarkably successful in defending their own land, have shown no signs that they are prepared to go on the offensive outside of their own lands and are themselves divided by political rivalries. Assad’s forces remain a significant military adversary to Islamic State, yet Britain should resist covert alliances with the embattled premier. Such hypocrisy would undermine Britain’s place in the world far more than taking the time to consider the effect of bombing Syria.

There is No Plan for the Future of Syria in the Current Proposals

On a related note, Mr Cameron has not advanced a suitable plan for the future of Syria. Rather, he vaguely asserted that he would work with the ‘international community’ – a community with significantly different objectives for the outcome of the Syrian war – to rebuild the country.

Cameron has hinted that the Kurds have an important role to play in the future of Syria. Alarmingly, this suggests that Britain understands this conflict in ethnic and sectarian terms – much as we did in Iraq in 2003. In the absence of a detailed outline of his idea of a post-conflict Syria, we might therefore assume that Cameron would work towards giving the Kurds significant autonomy (a move sure to impact Turkey). Syria under this model could see a similar ‘federal’ model to that already in place (and failing) in Iraq.

If Britain engage in bombing runs against Islamic State Mr Cameron must then fully accept a key role in the future of Syria. Our allies in Iraq (much of the Shi’i dominated government) and tribal leaders from Afghanistan have complained that Britain left these countries when it was no longer politically convenient for Britain to stay. In a recent talk at Chatham House, the former Qatari Prime Minister raised similar concerns regarding a US withdrawal. The reconstruction of Syria is the challenge of this generation, and it needs a generation’s commitment.

Of course, Britain has a role to play in this reconstruction. As it stands though, there is no coherent plan for what this role would be, what the level of our long-term involvement would be, and what a post-Assad Syria would look like. The tactic of ‘bomb first, ask questions later’ has led to disaster to Afghanistan, Iraq and, most pertinently, Libya. Let us consider these examples before we rush to bomb more Middle Eastern countries.

Protecting British Citizens

It should be clear then, that on a practical note the ‘plan’ for going to war in Syria is worryingly incomplete. More to the point, the inevitable link between the Paris attacks and the renewed vigour for war (let us not forget that MPs voted against intervention in Syria in 2013) is dangerous. The mistake in linking them together too closely primarily lies in a misunderstanding of transnational terror.

Islamic State should be conceptualised as a network. Recent research has shown that 75% of its members were recruited by friends. As a transnational network with constantly evolving power structures, it is far too flexible to be ‘degraded’ by simply bombing Syrian cities.  Islamic State members are independent actors who have varying levels of connection to a central power structure. With the little we know about the hierarchy of power in Islamic State, we can accurately conclude that bombing high value targets in Syria would not stop a home-made bomb being smuggled onto a Russian airliner, or a group of brothers targeting a European capital.

Indeed, it is worth remembering that Europeans carried out the attacks in Paris. In making ‘Britain safer’ we have to be alert to the fact that it would be a British terrorist who would attack London.

What this means, then, is that we need to look closer to home to ‘make Britain safer’. There are two avenues here. The first is simple; the as-yet-undisclosed amount of money being spent to bomb people safe underground could be better spent on improving cyber-security (the fact that the British Security Minister thanked Anonymous for taking down Islamic State Twitter accounts, despite this action being labelled as counter-productive by intelligence analysts is worrying) and protecting police forces from budget cuts. Indeed, the fact that the Foreign Office has seen significant cuts in the past few years and has frozen hiring except through the Fast Stream suggests that the government is not concerned with improving our relationships with the Arab world. Rather, the primary aim is bomb hostile forces. Such a limited conception of Britain’s relationship with the Middle East not only risks accusations of Orientalism (in which we see only a threatening ‘other’ in the Middle East to be subjugated) but also reveals our inability to develop longer-term plans for the future.

The second point is that Cameron’s narrative that ‘ISIL targets our young people’ completely absolves Britain, and the others, of any role in the evolution of Islamist terrorism. While it is not helpful to simply assert that “Britain brought this upon herself”, in responding to Paris the Prime Minister would do well to examine Britain’s violent relationship with the Middle East in the last century. Indeed, to borrow some lessons from conflict resolution, a key first step in developing new paradigms for negotiation and understanding is self-examination. To develop new ways of combatting terrorist narratives, we need to properly examine our own role in the evolution of the narrative. Acknowledging the mistakes our past is the crucial first step in re-building and improving our relationships not only with Arab leaders but also with the Arab street, and engaging the Arab street is the key to sustainable peace. Importantly, this self-evaluation undermines, rather than feeds into, IS’s narrative of a ‘war on Islam’.

Britain certainly needs to stand by our allies, both in the West and the Middle East. However, Mr Cameron has not made a convincing case that bombing is a successful way to secure peace and keep Britain safe, in either the short or the long-term. The self-examination proposed here is of course not a fully-fledged plan of action. What it could represent is the acceptance that what we have tried since 2001 has not worked and has been counter-productive. Discovering and implementing that alternative is how we help France, secure Britain, and develop sustainable peace. Ultimately, Mr Cameron’s war-cry that not bombing Syria is equivalent to “doing nothing” should be inverted. Bombing Syria will do nothing to support Britain’s own goals, our allies, or the Middle East.

Not bombing does not constitute inaction. It is a demand for something better from the Prime Minister.

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