And so it came to pass, that on 2 December 2015, the House of Commons voted to increase the United Kingdom’s air strikes against IS, in order to further contribute towards the ongoing Syrian Civil War. With 397 MPs voting in support of the air strikes to the 232 who opposed the motion, and an apparent majority of the public opposing the motion, many of us are understandably disappointed.
Nevertheless, in light of the vote, many reactions tried to simplify the decisions made on Wednesday and compress them into a simple black and white moral scenario, with those who voted in favour of air strikes being seen by many as ‘bloodthirsty’ warmongers. This is wrong, and we need to examine the reasons as to why the House of Commons did what they did.
It is almost impossible to deny that Iraq was the British Government’s largest failure of foreign policy in decades. The impact it has had on how the general public perceives both the United Kingdom and its premiers has been devastating. Its legacy will forever stain the Blair government and has provoked extreme groups to take action in the Middle East. Nevertheless, we should avoid the concept that Iraq and Afghanistan were the only interventions that mattered.
Military action has worked in the past. The bombing runs in Kosovo between 1998 and 1999, led by NATO, saw the war reach an end far earlier than if no action had been taken, whilst also ensuring that the humanitarian atrocities which were being committed were put to an end. The same can be applied to interventions in Bosnia between 1994 and 1995, and in Sierra Leone in 2000. These operations were largely successful acts of international interventionism, which saw a satisfactory end to the hostilities within the respective nations. These engagements centred on air strikes supporting local military groups to put an end to genocide-focused terror.
Additionally, air strikes have worked before in Syria. Last year, IS forces were driven out of Kurdish territory through a joint initiative between Kurdish forces and US-led aircraft. The collaboration meant that IS’ expansion was effectively halted. These are the interventions many MPs are using to make their decisions with. Iraq and Afghanistan are not the only countries the UK has intervened with in the last twenty years. To say that these events in history do not matter because they are not Middle Eastern countries would be a senseless rejection, because they demonstrate the fact that military intervention within a region can yield positive results against those participating in genocidal actions. Just because these events are not as famous does not mean that they are as important to the debate.
Tim Farron is not evil, nor is Ben Bradshaw, and neither is Hilary Benn. They reached their respective conclusions based upon the evidence that they had been presented with, and by considering both sides. They did not vote for money, or for glory. Nor did they vote because of their unconcern for the innocent civilians in Syria. They voted because they see it as the most effective way of fighting a group driven by fundamental evil, and ending the atrocities that are currently being committed.
They did not vote for money, or for glory
They believe that they are defending the same people who have seen their fathers killed, their mothers and sisters sold as sex slaves, their grandparents flung into a mass grave, and their brothers forced to fight for IS, as the people who are standing against air strikes. They are just as disgusted as we are by the actions of IS, and they are also committed to ending the violence. They are not authorising action for a monetary gain, or for personal glory.
Alongside this, the notion that not bombing Syria represents a bloodless alternative is a fallacy, and the idea that those opposing intervention are moral examples should be rejected. Not bombing Syria would still lead to the loss of innocent lives. Innocents killed by IS advances in areas that could have been protected by aerial assaults would be still directly related to the decisions made by Westminster. Furthermore, let’s say that, hypothetically, the air strikes greatly shorten the war, or prevent a conflict from taking place had there been no air strikes. Surely, using the same pattern of morality, we can construct the argument that not taking action has been a direct cause of the deaths of innocents?
Nevertheless, the problems with this course of action are numerous. This war is unlike any we have fought before. The enemy in this instance feeds off of terror. They are organised, but they are not urbanised. Bombing runs will inevitably lead to increased radicalisation against the West, whilst allowing IS to proclaim justification for its international actions towards its converted.
The deaths of innocents will be pinned to the United Kingdom, and thus it will grant our enemies the chance to enforce the idea that we are the villains of this piece. As such, the possibility of attacks on British soil will be increased, and will make us no less secure. In addition to this, we need to look at what it stands for. The argument in favour of military intervention argues for the notion that joining in will aid our international image, and show that we care about our neighbours. However, the governing Liberal Party of Canada has announced their intention to remove themselves from all military roles in Syria to further contribute towards the humanitarian aid sector. A noticeable factor in this is that their international reputation has not been tarnished. In other words, if we have a country that is willing to withdraw and not lose its scale on the international stage, surely Britain can do the same?
Likewise, there is no plan. The reason behind why intervention in Kosovo, Sierra Leone and Bosnia worked was because NATO entered with a plan, knowing which groups they would support. In this conflict, we have no idea. Whilst the Kurds and pro-Democracy Syrian Rebels are likely to be our constant allies, they might not be enough. The lack of an exit strategy, and the failure to explicitly state what we intend to do, aside from bomb strategic locations, means that an aerial assault might, in the end, simply be a symbolic gesture that contributes little.
an aerial assault might, in the end, simply be a symbolic gesture that contributes little
So in light of all of this, should our MPs have ordered the bombing of Syria? Personally, I do not think that the decision that they made was the correct one. Do I think that the MPs who voted in favour are evil and should be deselected? Of course not. They did what they thought was right, just as much as many of us feel that our position to oppose air strikes is the correct one. It is understandable that many people are disgusted, but if we decide that we are justified in adopting a ‘holier than thou’ attitude, we nullify our credibility.
If we want to defeat IS, we need to show those fighting them that they will have our support. We need to ensure that they know that IS’ way of life is wrong, and that we can help them to rebuild. Simultaneously, we should realise that, to win the hearts and minds of the Syrian populace, we have to demonstrate kindness on our own soil, and we can do this by opening our borders to the refugees arriving from Syria.
We must not allow for the generation the idea that movement will simply be a transition from terror to squalor. We must be, and we can be, better than this.
But, we must not fall afoul of self-righteousness.