Syria: Lessons we haven’t learnt

Illustration: Steve Bell

Tonight’s vote regarding British military intervention in Syria, specifically air strikes aimed to weaken the extremist Jihadist militant group who I’m no longer sure what to call, is not a decision that will be taken lightly. As of yet I’ve given little thought as to what I should call the group, but for all intents and purposes, I will refer to them as Daesh, an abbreviation of the literal Arabic translation of The Islamic State of Iraq and the Levant (ISIL). Although this is a direct translation, apparently the name deeply offends the group due to its similarity with the word ‘daas’ which means ‘to trample down’ or ‘crush’, and such a war of words is one I am willing to participate in. I deeply doubt that the decision by Members of Parliament will be made light heartedly given the passion of debates currently on-going within the House of Commons, but I fear the reasoning behind many of their decisions will be simply symbolic, ineffective and ill-informed.

Firstly, I’d like to challenge the idea that we are categorically morally obligated to help our allies. Just because France has requested our help, does not mean we are in any way required to grant this request, especially if we do not agree with the action they wish for us to take. Gerald Kaufman (MP for Manchester Gorton) aptly called this ‘gesture politics’, and I agree that political decisions should not be made on such symbolic grounds. Dame Margret Beckett (MP for Derby South) earlier asked the House of Commons how they would feel if France refused the United Kingdom’s plea for help; but in my view, politics shouldn’t be based on feelings either. The idea that we should fight side by side with our allies is the outdated idea of national alliances that created the First World War and resulted in an unthinkable number of unnecessary deaths. This reason alone is not sufficient as a reason for British military intervention in Syria.

But of course some may argue that the decision to bomb Syria does not rely solely on gestures and feelings; rather, some have claimed that it is a strategically sound decision. I do not know enough about military strategy, nor do I understand the Prime Minister’s strategy precisely, but a worrying number of MPs are claiming that the proposal lacks strategy and is not sufficiently comprehensive to be effective. No one is claiming to be certain of the positive effects that military intervention will have, but here’s what I think the negative effects might be. Firstly, a large number of civilian casualties is undoubtedly guaranteed. The only way such ‘collateral damage’ would be justified, is if there is a significant level of certainty of the significantly positive results this will have. According to International Law, these positive results are only required to benefit the UK, whilst the only requirement on the UK regarding collateral damage, is that it is to be minimised.

Ultimately, I’m not convinced that the effects of bombing Syria will in fact be effective or beneficial for anyone aside from Daesh. As Caroline Lucas (MP for Brighton Pavilion) astutely reminded us today, ISIL Daesh claims to be the ‘true guardian of Islam under attack from the crusader West’, and therefore, Western military intervention will only reinforce this claim, and ultimately increase support, and probably recruitment, for the militant group. France had actually been bombing Daesh for over a year before the Paris attacks occurred, and whilst I’m not sure whether this was a given reason why the attacks took place, I can certainly believe that this is a justification for many supporters or sympathisers of the group. So I believe that military intervention will actually be harmful to the UK by making London, and perhaps other major British cities, the next target for extremist jihadist attacks. Surely there is something to be learnt from this recent series of events.

Or perhaps we should look slightly further back in history to assess the potential effectiveness of our actions. As mentioned above, it seems some have not learnt from the lessons of the alliances in the First World War. But it seems we have not considered the more recent examples of Western intervention and the effects it has had in Iran, Afghanistan, Iraq, and most recently Libya. These are all examples of failed Western intervention that brutally resulted in a rise of religious extremism in every case. Meanwhile, examples of successful Western intervention, or suggestions of what will be done differently this time, are lacking. Whilst I still believe we should learn from these examples, I will admit that this is not exactly the same scenario as any previous case. In this case, there has been a terrorist attack on our ally’s soil, which has been claimed by the militant group in the Middle East. But these attacks were carried out by French and Belgian nationals who were born and grew up in Western Europe, so perhaps we’d be better off looking within, rather than attacking the group that supported, facilitated and symbolically claimed these attacks.

The question now of course is: what could we do instead? Well, if we’re so adamant that we should cut off these European extremists at the source, perhaps we should do the same to their source. Why aren’t we looking at who is funding and arming Daesh? Why don’t we turn attention to our ‘allies’ who are fighting against Daesh’s strongest opponents? Saudi Arabia, for instance, shares a similar ideology to the very militant group we are proposing to attack and are known to support similar militant groups in the region – and yet we are amicable partners in trade. What’s interesting, is that Britain and the US originally granted power to the extremist ‘Wahabi’ movement that controls Saudi Arabia, in return for a deal on oil. Unsurprisingly, this decision has come back to haunt these Western powers, and has only been exacerbated by further intervention. Rather than spending all the money that airstrikes in Syria would require, we could be spending this money on diplomatic efforts, aid for the victims, and resettlement programs for refugees from the war-torn region. In an era of relentless public spending cuts, it is highly hypocritical to propose such an ineffective spending of money, which could be spent domestically on Health, Education and Police, all of which are in need of this investment that is being offered so readily to the proposed military effort.

It seems that we have not learnt from our past. We are still using the ancient rhetoric of national alliances used in WWI. We are still convinced that Western intervention can be successful despite so many historical catastrophes that have been created by it. We are still proposing military intervention with no exit strategy or realistic idea of what our desired result would be. And we are deluded in thinking that such intervention will weaken our enemies and make the United Kingdom safer. Ultimately, we need to dispose of the misleading and misguided narrative of good versus evil. The world is not made of wholly good and wholly bad people or institutions. In the case of Syria, we are faced with bad and worse.


Leave a Reply

Fill in your details below or click an icon to log in: Logo

You are commenting using your account. Log Out /  Change )

Google+ photo

You are commenting using your Google+ account. Log Out /  Change )

Twitter picture

You are commenting using your Twitter account. Log Out /  Change )

Facebook photo

You are commenting using your Facebook account. Log Out /  Change )


Connecting to %s