Yesterday, Wednesday the 2nd of December, the United Kingdom formally approved plans to strike Daesh/ISIS targets in Syria. The vote in the House of Commons was a resounding majority in favour of action, with over 60 defections from the Labour party, led by Hillary Benn, whose speech is being touted as one of the great speeches of the House of Commons itself.
Yet the vote has re-awakened in the UK the debate about the nation’s role in foreign wars, and specifically whether we should be militarily involved in the Middle East at all.
It is important at times like this to reflect on why the UK public is so strongly resistant to military engagement abroad. The legacy of the 2003 decision to invade Iraq and the memory of significant casualties from the war in Afghanistan, have taught the British general public to be cynical of politicians when they talk of the necessity for action. But while a certain dose of cynicism is necessary to tamper the effects of jingoistic tendencies, there is also the risk that excessive cynicism paralyzes necessary action.
The war against ISIS is a war which, as of today, cannot be won in its present form. To defeat ISIS requires a broad, internationally accepted strategy for how to resolve the conflict in Syria. This is not only lacking, but further; the goodwill to achieve this end is deteriorating. Yet it is also always important to reflect that inaction and inactivity is a policy response to events, and that inaction carries consequences with it as well.
Many in the British public appear to be unaware that the British military have been engaged in attacks against ISIS in Iraq for many months, as a result of a public request by the Iraqi government for military assistance to fight ISIS. Moreover the attacks against ISIS have UN Security Council approval and have involved a large group of major parties, not normally known for mutual cooperation.
When the British public see Daesh, they see Al Qaeda. This is a problem because it is not true. The constituent audiences and values have many similarities, but they are separate political movements with separate desired outcomes. Again I emphasise, these are political movement’s not religious ones. The actions of ISIS are to engage those from the global Muslim population who feel disenfranchised and disposed, and to channel that frustration towards political aims. Those who therefore feel that airstrikes are the key source of recruitment, or perhaps simply a major source of recruitment, miss the point entirely. The campaign to persuade young Muslims from committing acts of violence cannot be won without addressing much more pressing, underlying societal issues. Airstrikes or no, these individuals will use violence against those they perceive to be the source of their frustrations and that will continue to be the US, the western world and their allies.
But while airstrikes may not win wars, they can certainly play significant roles within them. We must not forget that ISIS advances against Baghdad and into Kurdish controlled Iraq were only halted due to western military airstrikes. Had these not occurred, millions more people would be living under the savagery of the ISIS state.
The choice of the word state is intentional. ISIS defines itself and its being through the control of territory and through its ability to perform civic, state-like, functions. If ISIS are not able to control or administer their territory they lose their Raison D’etre and their Modus Vivendi. Here then is where airstrikes are essential. Crippling communications between ISIS administered territories and preventing their mobilisation of military units, which may be necessary to launch large, coordinated offences, are concrete measures which airstrikes can achieve.
While airstrikes are often tarnished by the US legacy in Pakistan, Yemen, Somalia and the legacy of Libya after the allied airstrikes, we must not forget that each situation is different and that there are times where military force has played decisive roles. If we consider Britain’s involvement in Sierra Leone, which was essential to defeating the RUF, or the French military action in northern Mali which prevented the country being split into two. We could also reflect on whether the war in the Balkans would have ended when it did, without the pressure exerted on Serbian forces due to NATO airstrikes.
So to the last line of defence for those opposing airstrikes, civilian casualties. Yes they will happen and yes we will be blamed for them. This is an unavoidable fact of war and a fact which ISIS no doubt wishes to fully exploit. However it is also an unavoidable reality that the longer ISIS as an entity survives and controls territory, greater numbers of civilians will be tortured, raped and murdered. Our unwillingness to risk civilian casualties does not prevent this fact. Furthermore, the simple matter that emergency food aid and medical supplies cannot reach ISIS controlled territories is already causing civilian casualties and human suffering. Our inaction has therefore already cost others their lives and their dignity.
The UK has made a decision and now we must come to terms with it. Our actions may seem small, but they serve a purpose. The real challenge now is for our society to reflect within itself why joining ISIS and providing support for the entity is so attractive for many of our fellow citizens and others across the world. Our failure to reflect on this discontentment and anger is the great failing of our current political leadership. We must ensure it does not continue.