To bomb or not to bomb…

by George Hatjoullis

The debate on whether the UK should join the military forces bombing ISIL in Syria will be finalised today. The main beneficiaries of this issue seem to be the media that have had something to fill their screens and pages. The issue is far less profound than it might seem. Both parties seem to agree that the bombing alone will not make much difference to the situation which is why they have resorted to ‘baby killers’ and ‘terrorist sympathisers’ rhetoric.

The RAF is already flying bombing missions against ISIL in Iraq. If one is against joining the bombing of ISIL in Syria surely one should simultaneously argue for stopping the bombing of ISIL in Iraq. They have innocent civilians in Iraq as well. I have not heard this argued in the discussions. It is not even clear that the UK has the resources to expand its bombing missions. It may be that bombing in Syria will partly reduce bombing in Iraq. The request to bomb in Syria is thus in effect a request to bomb ISIL wherever it is found to be most effective. Put this way, and given that the UK is already bombing, it does not sound unreasonable.

Instead of phrasing it as I have suggested Cameron has resorted to calling anyone opposed to bombing a ‘terrorist sympathiser’ which is hardly helpful and clearly not the case. He should be making the case as I have suggested and noting that it is in part a request from France and others already engaged to shoulder some of the burden. It gives the UK a seat at the table on Syria which is diplomatically useful. This is at the end of the day the case for bombing in Syria.

Those opposed focus on the fact that it will not resolve the crisis. Obviously not but that is beside the point. The argument of the government is that it is part of a collective effort in the direction of solving the crisis. They also note collateral damage. The government response, that the UK is capable of ‘precision bombing’, just aggravates the debaters. Precision bombing is not precise bombing. There will still be some collateral damage. The reality is that bombing is already taking place, and by the UK in Iraq, and this will not change whether the UK joins in or not. The corollary is that the UK should be asking France, the USA et al to stop bombing altogether. I have not heard this suggested by Corbyn or anyone in his camp. It would be a futile suggestion. It is argued that bombing will not make us safer in London. It will not make us any less safe either. We are already in the line of fire. Finally, there is the question of legality of bombing. The UN has made a general declaration that ISIL should be fought by any means. Legality is not a real issue.

The stronger points made by the Corbyn camp have by and large been lost in the rhetoric and jingoism that always accompanies these debates. What grand plan is the bombing the next step towards? The government position is that there are 70k troops waiting to attack ISIL given proper air cover. Apparently the existing air cover is inadequate and an extra ten planes from the UK is what is required! This is clearly nonsensical. Moreover, there is not an army of 70k on the ground. There is the Syrian army and a rag bag of irregulars largely fighting against the Syrian army when not fighting each other.

The really powerful point is how is ISIL getting weapons and funding? The finger of suspicion points directly at our own ‘allies’; Turkey and Saudi Arabia. ISIL is a Sunni organisation and serves the purpose of these two ‘allies’ in countering the growth of Shia militias in the region. Turkey is clearly more concerned with the rise of the Kurdish forces, the most effective troops on the ground against ISIL so far, and with toppling Assad. Not a great ally in the fight against ISIL. The Shia militias fighting ISIL by and large support Assad. Russia is more concerned with supporting Assad, and thus attacking the Sunni so called ‘moderate’ forces attacking Assad, rather than exclusively ISIL. Exactly how would the UK fit into this mess? If I have any doubts about the wisdom of the UK expanding its bombing campaign against ISIL into Syria, it is because no one has offered me an answer to this thorny question. It also explains why the government has pitched its campaign at the ‘for terrorism’ or ‘against terrorism’ level. It is to obscure this question.

Corbyn has exhibited naivety in handling the issue. It is not an issue on which it is worth dividing the party. The UK joining the bombing campaign makes very little difference. He should have, in my humble opinion, given reluctant support and banged loudly on about these other unanswered questions. Instead he will lose the vote, divide the party and allow simplistic rhetoric to obscure the more important unanswered questions.