MP’s are expected to approve airstrikes against the Islamic State today. In an unexpected turn of events I find myself in agreement with Jeremy Corbyn. He is right, but for all the wrong reasons.
The domestic narrative has been driven by the media and Conservative party into a direct assault on Corbyn’s integrity and worth as a party leader. Unfortunately, the Middle East cannot be distilled down into soundbites and 3 minute Janet & John segments on the ten o’clock news. That approach pretty much created the conditions for ISIS to germinate and thrive in the first place. The general public have become more cynical and suspect about political intentions and smell a rat. At this point, airstrikes can in no way be described as having the support of a convincing majority of voters.
It’s obvious, except to the most clueless and sycophantic Members of Parliament, that additional strikes by the UK with the 5 or 6 strike aircraft that we can muster, (although in addition, 40% of UK airstrikes in Iraq are conducted by unmanned Reaper aircraft), will have little impact on an enemy that occupies territory larger than the United Kingdom.
There is no appetite in the Westminster ‘something must be done’ Brigade to committing ground forces and no long term framework, budget or plan exists for a nation rebuild should ISIS miraculously cease to exist. It seems ground fighting will be left to a shaky coalition of the Syrian Army, the Iraqi Army, the Iranian Army and the Kurds (who as it happens, are far from united themselves). It’s not even clear if we have the assets to extract any downed airmen from occupied territory, except from Cyprus 500km away, or is that something we leave to the Russians, Americans or French? Instead, we have been drawn into a less than compelling debate that rests on, ‘everyone else is bombing and we should join in.’ No we shouldn’t. The French have committed themselves yet hold a patchy record in their support of previous UK operations. The Russians have thrown their hat in the ring but for motives which are not wholly aligned with our own. In fact, they are not aligned at all as intrusions into Turkish airspace and Syrian radars locking onto Turkish fighter jets prove in a continuing policy of attempting to destabalise NATO. In fact, the Russians are ramping up their involvement with a new airbase opening in central Syria. The Americans will not commit in the force required to eradicate ISIS at this point in the presidential cycle. David Cameron surely knows all this so why the stampede to dust up the odd $1,000 rusty Toyota pick-up truck with £100,000 Hellfire missiles? Frankly, I can’t figure it out.
The absurdity of the airstrike concept becomes apparent when we look back at previous air campaigns. In fact, I can’t think of any that defeated an enemy without significant ground assets except perhaps the final defeat of Japan and no one is going to drop two nuclear warheads, although there would be many who would support such a move. Whilst we have accurate weapons they are only as good as the intelligence from which targets are selected. Looking at the ratio of missiles fired to missions flown in Northern Iraq against ISIS, that intelligence is probably not as complete as commanders would wish. Moreover, the Russians have deployed the S-400 air defence missile system in Syria so we mostly won’t be flying anywhere unless they agree. That’s right, a major international incident could be right down to a half trained Russian peasant pressing the button marked ,’Ogon’!’
Interestingly, while we have conducted 450+ missions in Northern Iraq, Turkey, which has 100 F 16’s, appears not to be striking ISIS at all. The Arab states meanwhile (Saudi, Qatar, Jordon and the UAE), who were initially active in Syria seemed to have stopped their missions some months ago. Am I alone in thinking the UK could get sucked in here and be left holding the can with Russia, (who is using the pretext of attacking ISIS to further its strategic regional goals), on the other side of the table?
The largest fault in the debate however, is an incomplete appreciation of the enemy which is not a good basis on which to make decisions. ISIS is not a rag tag bunch of psychopaths racing around the desert high on religious fervour. They have funds, they hold territory which is divided into provinces, they have received an unprecedented inflow of Jihadists from around the world and have a bureaucracy that is divided into civil and military arms. Many are well educated and among their number they have experienced military commanders. They think on a long term basis and strictly adhere to the precepts embedded in Islam by the Prophet Muhammad and pursue a return to 7th Century law and justice. It is wrong to describe ISIS as ‘un Islamic.’ It is very Islamic and therein lies the problem. We attempt to rationalise something that we don’t understand by calling them monstrous murderers or by using other descriptions that fit our terms of reference. In their eyes, medieval treatment of their enemy is the norm. The West has continually underestimated the ISIS threat on an intellectual level which is serious because their doctrine marks all of us, including 200m Shia Muslims and any other Muslim who drinks or sells alcohol, wears Western clothes, votes in an election and so on, who are not one of them, for death. The caliphate has provided the structure for a rebirth of Sharia but in its most fundamental interpretation. Caliphate propaganda also alludes to the belief that there will be only 12 legitimate caliphs with Baghdad being the eighth and that the armies of Rome will mass to meet the armies of Islam in northern Syria; and that Islam’s final showdown with an anti-Messiah will occur in Jerusalem after a period of renewed Islamic conquest. They believe they have an obligation to terrorise to draw us into such an apocolyptic showdown. In that context, slowly degrading ISIS from the air may be the least worst option but that’s not something we have heard from the Prime Minister. Notwithstanding that, you can’t bomb ideas and you can’t bomb beliefs.
My view in summary then, stop reflex responses to single incidents and work to create a political framework to commit sufficient international force by ground and air to eradicate ISIS and have sufficient long term funding to rebuild the nation’s infrastructure to sustain it independently. In short, get right everything we got wrong in Iraq.
In this letter to a constituent, Labour MP Andy Slaughter nails it. It is encouraging to read an MP openly articulating his reasoning prior to the vote but somewhat depressing listening to others who are too stupid, docile or misguided to think for themselves.
Dear Ms xxxxx,
Thank you for your email regarding airstrikes by UK forces in Syria.
After much reflection and research, and after listening to the views of many people, including constituents, fellow MPs and the Government, I have decided that I cannot support British military action in Syria at present, and tomorrow I will vote against the motion in the House of Commons that sanctions it.
It is my view that the eradication of Daesh from Syria, Iraq and around the world is a necessary process and one in which the UK should be engaged, including through effective military action.
While I am not currently persuaded that it would be lawful for the Royal Air Force to bomb Syria, I agree that this is arguable and it is not the principal reason for my opposing the proposed military action.
There are three tests that I do not believe the Government have passed, and that the Prime Minister failed to satisfy in his statement to the Commons last week.
First, there is no tactical plan for taking control of the area of Syria currently occupied by Daesh should bombing be successful in dislodging them, (which itself is questionable, given that bombing of that area by 11 other countries has continued for over 15 months). There are not competent, relevant or motivated ground troops who are sufficient to the task at present.
Secondly, there is no functioning international alliance that can turn short-term military gains into a programme for the peaceful governance of Syria. The Vienna talks are a start to such a process, but at present the aims of Turkey, Russia, Iran and the NATO countries are so disparate as to be chaotic.
Thirdly, the permanent defeat of Daesh in Syria requires the end of conflict, which is what allows it to thrive. Any short-term retrenchment will likely benefit the Assad regime, which is itself responsible for seven times as many civilian deaths as Daesh this year. That may mean a shift in the balance of forces, but it will bring us no nearer to resolution.
I want Britain to engage in: a concerted diplomatic effort to wean Russia and Iran away from their support for Assad, and Turkey and Saudi Arabia from giving comfort, if not actual support, to Islamist extremist groups; a peace process that allows non-extremist opposition to talk to the acceptable parts of the Syrian Arab Army and Kurdish forces; and a concerted attempt to cut off the funds and arms sustaining Daesh.
That is a very difficult, perhaps impossible, agenda, but to engage in bombing missions on the basis of ‘something must be done”, or even on the basis of solidarity, without clear objectives does not show sound judgment.
There are other arguments for and against intervention: that our contribution would be small, especially given the lack of military targets without the risk of civilian casualties; that we should support allies, whether they be the Iraqi or French Governments; and that we remain at risk from Daesh attacks on the UK, whether we take further military action against them or not.
However, the three points set out above are my red lines. I will, of course, review my decision in the light of changing events, but given the UK’s poor record of intervention in the Middle East over the past decade, I think that further military incursion should be approved only if a high burden of proof can be established.
Thank you again for taking the time to share your thoughts with me on this most important of issues. I set out my views on Syria and on the current situation in Palestine and the Gulf in a debate on the Middle East in Parliament yesterday, which you can read here.
Labour MP for Hammersmith