This is the question of the moment and members of the Opposition have been asked to listen to what their constituents think. This is my view. In essence I think we should bomb Syria. However, only if we are prepared to be engaged in a long and bloody ground war to militarily defeat ISIL. And only if we are prepared to put in the social, political and economic effort that will be required to subsequently eradicate the conditions that created it.
Why should we bomb ISIL?
ISIL certainly take barbarity and cruelty to new heights and this should clearly influence our view of them. However if we adopt the principle that we go to war with those that murder and torture their own, or other states, citizens we are going to be involved in a lot of wars.
An argument put forward in favour of the invasion of Iraq was that Saddam Hussein was an evil man. Whilst I agreed with the premise I did not think it was sufficient reason for going to war then, and, despicable though they are, I don’t think it is sufficient reason for going to war with ISIL now.
There is however a fundamental difference between Iraq under Saddam Hussein and ISIL. The former was a vicious, regional bully, the latter want to establish dominion over the world and have an apocalyptic religious view that underpins this. They believe the End of Time is nigh and that they are engaged in a world historic struggle with the Antichrist (broadly the West but specifically the US).
A central strategy to achieve their goal is terrorist attacks which they believe (with good reason) will incite the West to enter a prophesised battle which will result in the destruction of the army of “Rome” (the West) in the town of Dabiq.
These are people al-Qaeda cut all ties with because of their “notorious intransigence”. They are not the type to make a reasoned judgement about whether they can win, they are going to kill people until they establish a global Caliphate or until they are dead.
Britain is in their sites, not just in the long term of the Global Caliphate, but here and now. They will continue to encourage and sustain terrorist attacks in the UK and other Western countries until we engage, which ultimately we will.
Will bombing secure victory?
No. All the military advice seems to be you cannot win a war from the air. The Prime Minister (PM) has intelligence there are 70k troops on the ground already, mainly of the Free Syrian Army but including others and there are Kurdish armed groups to support the effort.
Lets assume the intelligence that there are 70k+ troops is correct, and has not been sexed up in any way, there remains the question of how effective they are. Is there a unified command structure, do they have similar or even commensurate aims?
I suspect there may be some wishful thinking around all this but lets assume that everyone genuinely believes there are sufficient and capable resources on the ground already. That is fine as a starting point however what is “plan B” if this proves to be wrong. There are wildly differing estimates of the number of ISIL troops on the Ground in Iraq and Syria ranging from 20/35k to 100k+.
Even if it is the lowest number one has to keep in mind the single-minded purpose of ISIS underpinned by religious certainty. Certainty, which means death is glorious martyrdom and guaranteed entry to paradise. Even if all of them do not buy into the whole picture they have demonstrated a ferocious fighting capability.
The PM must answer the question what happens if the existing ground forces are not sufficient? What military advice has he had about what happens in a scenario where ISIL gain or maintain their position on the ground despite the move to bomb Syria. We have been using our super smart missiles in Iraq for some time now and it is not clear we are winning that side of the border.
I would be surprised if the Military have not thought through a scenario where the current boots on the ground do no prove up to the job and what alternative strategy they might need to adopt. If they have not I think they are at best remiss.
If we enter this conflict we must accept that there is a real risk that we will have to commit ground troops. I personally think that we have to prepare for that contingency because I think it is almost certain to happen. To be clear I don’t think that changes the decision about whether we bomb Syria however I think it is misleading to even suggest that this is going to be anything other than a very drawn out and expensive war.
What is the plan for after the war.
Let us assume we get to the point where we have militarily defeated ISIL where will we be? Answer, in a mess. When the fighting stops the job of peace making begins. The coalition is a pretty explosive cocktail but when you add in Russia and Iran then even the most optimistic diplomat may throw in the towel. How do you start to build a peace when Russia the US and Turkey have all got different ideas about who the enemy are now.
The question of Syria’s future, more specifically that of Assad remains a fiercely contested issue. Getting agreement about Assad will be a miracle. Agreement on what replaces him will be even harder amongst a range of groupings including forces within Syria, regional and global powers.
The PM’s statement about the post war reconstruction of the area seemed to amount to £1bn commitment of funding and a lot of optimism about talks with regional players, groups within Syria and some parties that we would prefer not to deal with in an ideal world.
What we cannot do is what we seem to have done in previous engagements. Establish some kind of a standoff/ceasefire with a limited amount of shooting, provide for free ish / fair ish elections and then get the hell out as fast as we can. However sick we are after a long and bloody ground campaign we need to remain in the region and we need to participate in the physical, social and most of all economic reconstruction of the area.
This will be immensely difficult as we will have to do it in partnership with local people, and it is very unlikely that those “local people’ will be a homogenous group with a unified picture of what needs to be done and what the priorities are. Some may argue this is impossible and they may be right. However, if we do what we have done in previous wars in the middle east we will only be going home for R&R whilst the regions decends into another crisis.
There seems to be a view that holding elections creates a democracy. Nothing could be further from the truth. Elections are the result of democracies not the cause. Independent judiciaries, a free press, an independent civil society, trade unions, distributed power, a sense of community are key building block that must be firmly established if the out come of an arithmetic process is to have credibility and acceptance.
There needs to be a Marshall Plan for the region which supports economic growth and this needs to be established early and rapidly. Military defeat of ISIL will only be a temporary success if the causes of radicalisation are not addressed. This means working with people in the region to secure a reasonable standard of living and the prospect for that to be improved through sustainable economic growth. This will cost the West a lot of money. However, wars in the region have cost Trillions of dollars in recent years.
We may have to invest as much into the peace as we did into the war. If that helps to stabilise the region it would be a price worth paying.
The picture I have painted may be grim and depressing. It will certainly contrast with the “grave but optimistic” picture painted by the PM. Time will tell which one is right.
It may be asked, given how tough it will be and how uncertain the outcome is it not better to stay away. The region is spiralling out of control and will continue to do so whether we withdraw or not. Its conflicts will spill over into neighbouring regions, Turkey is on the front line at the moment as is Greece. The refugee crisis will get worse and worse.
Bombing Syria is bad. Not bombing is bad. The balance of the decision is fine. Those that are against war however need to be certain that there is a diplomatic route forward. ISIL’s actions, their ideology and their belief in religious certainty make me think they are proof against rational debate. It is only a matter of time before we are forced to engage with them.