Bombing Syria: a myth, and four conditions to be satisfied before we bomb

Things which everyone knows but which ain’t so: that in 2013 the House of Commons voted against UK participation in the bombing of Syria in response to Assad’s alleged use of chemical weapons against the rebels. No, it didn’t, actually. Today’s Guardian publishes the following letter from me:

Mary Dejevsky is in extensive and starry company (including the prime minister) in her assertion that “Two years ago, parliament rejected a plan for air strikes on Syria”, but it’s still wrong (The well of trust is still poisoned by Iraq: a war on Isis will be a hard sell, 21 July).  In 2013, parliament simply rejected two rival sets of suggested criteria for a decision to take military action against Syria. Mr Cameron unaccountably (but fortunately) chose to misinterpret this as parliamentary rejection of any military action at all. What the government now proposes is completely different: UK participation in military action against parts of a sovereign state controlled by an armed insurrection against its government, not this time against the recognised government’s own forces as in 2013.
Parliamentary approval for what is now proposed should be strictly conditional on (1) legality – meaning either the explicit authority of the UN security council or a request for military support from President Assad, the former difficult and the latter distasteful; (2) explicit, attainable military and political objectives with a high chance of success; (3) specific measures to minimise civilian casualties; and (4) a plausible exit strategy. Unless all four conditions are satisfied, I hope parliament will this time reject not just the government’s suggested criteria for this war but the proposed military action itself.
Brian Barder
London [Guardian, 23 July 2015, ]

Actually the heading given by the Guardian to my letter (and one other) – “The Case for Rejecting air strikes on Syria” – is wrong, too. I’m not arguing that using military force against ISIS in Syria is necessarily wrong. I merely suggest the four minimum conditions that I hope parliament will lay down as needing to be satisfied before it allows any such military operation to go ahead. In the meantime parliament has not voted against this proposed intervention. But it hasn’t approved it, either.

(It has recently come to light that a number of RAF pilots on secondment to (or ’embedded in’, a curiously unfortunate term) other allied airforces such as the USAF have been taking part in air strikes against ISIS in Syria, with the UK Defence Secretary’s approval but in the absence of UK parliamentary authority for British participation in such operations. This raises several interesting issues, none of which I have attempted to address in my Guardian letter or in this post: but please see the Guardian letter immediately underneath mine at


6 Responses

  1. Yugo Kovach says:

    Dear Brian Barder,

    Saw your Guardian letter. For a somewhat different take, see my letter below.
    Yugo Kovach

    Letters to the Editor, Sunday Telegraph, Wednesday, 22 July 2015

    Christian Refugees – Collateral Damage (“UK is denying refuge to Christians fleeing Isil, say church leaders”, 19 July)

    Our indifference to Christians fleeing Isil is shameful. After all, it’s our so-called Middle East allies and, dare I say it, ourselves who are wreaking havoc in the region. Take the merciless attacks on Shiite worshippers by Sunni jihadis. It occurs with sickening regularity in Iraq and Pakistan. Now it’s happening in Saudi Arabia, Yemen and even Kuwait. Yet the west tolerates Saudi Arabia’s playing of the destructive sectarian card against ‘apostate’ Shiites. Riyadh even went so far as to facilitate the emergence of Isil in Syria and Iraq. Moreover, terrorists attacking westerners are invariably Sunni jihadis.
    The west aligned itself with the Saudis in seeking to overthrow Assad’s secular regime. To team up with the greater villain to do in the lesser one not only amounts to an own goal but has created a refugee crisis. Britain has, in effect, sided with Sunni jihadist insurgents in Syria and yet made it a criminal offence for British Muslims to join the insurgency. How confusing.
    In the meantime, the Saudis are bombing – not Isis – but Yemen’s Houthis. The west, needless to say, approves.
    Then there is Britain’s decision to establish a permanent military base in Bahrain, even though the Shiites, who comprise an absolute majority of its citizenry, are suppressed. The west has truly nailed its colours to the Sunni jihadist sectarian mast.

    Yugo Kovach
    Winterborne Houghton, Dorset

    [Note: I have transferred this comment, dated 23 July 2015 and posted on a now defunct post of 1997.  It is of great interest although not strictly germane to my post. — Brian]

  2. Oliver Miles says:

    Excellent letter. Don’t forget however that, in addition to the Commons vote in 2013, the Prime Minister told the House on 26 September 2014 “I have said that we will come back to the House if, for instance, we make the decision that we should take air action with others in Syria”.

    Reports about embedded British personnel working with the Americans on drones are if anything even more alarming – see for example the Pakistani press report at <; . On a simple view, the use of drones to kill people when there is no state of war is murder. There may be an argument to the contrary, but if so I have not seen it.

  3. Brian says:

    Oliver, thank you very much for this. The prime minister and other ministers, as well as commentators, have indeed referred several times to Mr Cameron’s promise to seek the approval of the house of commons before committing British units (although apparently not individual British servicemen or women) to air strikes against ISIS in Syria. This is of course consistent with the same promise that he gave during the debate in 2013 leading to the rejection by the Commons of both the government’s and the Labour Opposition’s lists of proposed criteria for a decision to intervene in Syria (neither of which, incidentally, included the need for approval by the UN Security Council, to Labour’s shame). Cameron made it clear during that debate, in a last-ditch attempt to get his criteria approved, that even if parliament voted in favour of them, that would not be taken as authority to go ahead and bomb Syria: there would be a further vote on whether or not to bomb before the operation could go ahead. This never happened because both lots of criteria were rejected and the prime minister took this (to Ed Miliband’s and other MPs’ astonishment) as a rejection of any military action against Syria, period.

    On seconded (’embedded’!) UK personnel flying in American units to bomb or rocket ISIS in Syria, Michael Fallon, the Defence Secretary, admitted in the debate on Monday that he had personally authorised this use of our seconded airmen because “HMG approved” of the objectives of the air strikes against ISIS, although he also acknowledged that it was the right and responsibility of the seconded personnel’s own government — in this case HMG — to stipulate that they should not be used in specified operations of which their government disapproved. Thus the Wilson government had not permitted the Americans to use UK seconded personnel on active service in Vietnam. Mr Fallon was unable to explain how he squared his approval for UK seconded pilots to fly missions against ISIS in Syria with the government’s promise to seek parliamentary approval before embarking on military attacks on targets in Syria, although he seemed most indignant at the suggestion of inconsistency or concealment. There had been no secrecy about it, he said: it was for the Americans, not HMG, to make any public statements about their use of seconded personnel, and when information about it had been sought under our Freedom of Information legislation, the information had been duly released. This, it seems, was Mr Fallon’s idea of complete frankness and transparency. As the next letter in today’s Guardian after mine pointed out, Michael Meacher was the only MP speaking in the debate on Monday who called on the Defence Secretary to “consider his position” (parliamentary language for resign).

    I strongly agree with you about using drones to murder people without a shadow of due process. This must surely be in breach of the US Constitution and Bill of Rights. For Britain to act in the same way with our own drones, if we use them to kill people on the ground, would be even more reprehensible, since it’s in absolutely manifest breach of the European Convention on Human Rights and the UK Human Rights Act, as well as ignoring Britain’s abolition of capital punishment years ago. Do we use our drones only for spying and reconnaissance, or do we match the Americans in drone-murder of individuals and groups? I don’t know the answer to that and I suspect that it might be very difficult to get a clear answer from our government. It’s extraordinary that there isn’t more public anxiety and questioning about this obnoxious and objectionable practice. However, I suggest that this should be the subject of a separate discussion elsewhere in the bloogosphere or media. Pursuing it here would mean straying too far from the subject of my original post above.

  4. Paul Sharp says:

    Excellent letter, Brian.

    Condition Two would seem very difficult to demonstrate

    Conditions Two and Three might very well pull against each other

    Condition Four -assuming exit strategy in the case of an air campaign means specifying the developments which demonstrate success (or failure) of the action so we know when to stop (as opposed to how to get out), might be said to default to Condition Two

    It all rather leads to “don’t do it Prime Minister”, especially when coupled with the negligible military (as opposed to political) significance of any contribution the UK is in a position to make.


  5. Brian says:

    Thank you for that penetrating analysis of my four suggested conditions. I agree completely that they are extremely challenging and that it might even prove impossible — although I think not inherently impossible — to satisfy them all. But each one seems to me indispensable: to go ahead with any one of them unsatisfied would surely invite disaster. Perhaps a failure to satisfy all four simply means that the case for British participation in this exercise is hopelessly flawed and should be abandoned, as indeed you half suggest. And I agree too that Britain’s contribution is unlikely to be very substantial. All things considered, I wonder why Messrs Cameron and Fallon appear to be so keen to get the UK in on the act. I doubt very much whether there is much pressure on them from Washington to join in. More likely the UK Chiefs of Staff are pressing for us to enter the lists, to justify their budgets and their existence. (I seem to remember either Rumsfeld or Cheney saying publicly shortly before the invasion of Iraq that British participation was by no means essential to the operation’s success, if it was going to be so difficult politically and domestically. If only!)

    A slightly expanded version of my post is now available on LabourList — see if you’re interested.

  6. Charlie says:

    Surely the most important condition is that will bombing reduce the total numbers killed. Someone said that during  WW2, 10 million people per year were being killed and anything which stopped the war and hence the killing was justified.

    An Egyptian Army Officer once said ” Egypt is the only Arab country , the rest are tribes with flags. ” As the Bedu saying is ” I against my brother, my brother and I against our cousins”.  There is also the Wahabi Sunni/Shia conflict as well.

    I think we need to be much more honest about what makes a nation successful.  By intervening are we stopping peoples, nations and governments taking responsibilities for their mistakes?  Alfred the Great is Great because he made the Saxons responsible for defeating the Vikings.   If peace  loving peoples are not going to take the responsibility to train, fight  and defend their  life against cruel blood thirsty savages why should we help them?  In WW2,  in order to obtain arms from the USA, Churchill needed to prove to Roosevelt that the British Empire still had the ability to fight and defeat the Nazis, which was why the victory at El Alamein in 1942 was so important.

    As Gandhi said ” Yes we will make mistakes but they will be our mistakes “.

    In summary, two questions.

    1. Will our actions reduce the overall deaths?

    2. By intervening, are we taking responsibility away from adults for their mistakes?




    The nations which make up the British Isles have had national boundaries since about 500AD.   The concept of a nation a deciding upon the rules which will govern it sparts with Aethelbert in about 650 AD  adries  England has been As democracy only came to much of Europe post 1945 and 1990 and a nation  requires people to undertake acts of service  which is of benefit to people outside the tribe/clan/valley

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