Labour should support UK bombing of Da’esh (ISIS) in Syria to help hold the line while an interim political settlement is negotiated
After much soul-searching and wobbling, I have come to the conclusion that Britain ought to heed the call in UN Security Council resolution 2249 on countries with the capacity to do so to make every effort to eradicate Da’esh (ISIS) terrorism from the territory it occupies in both Iraq and Syria by every necessary means, including force (I paraphrase, but without distorting). In arriving at this difficult conclusion I was influenced by irritation at the many dubious assertions in his weekly Guardian column by the usually reliable Revd. Canon Giles Fraser (full disclosure: although not a churchgoer or believer, I used to know Giles Fraser slightly when he was vicar of St Mary’s, Putney, and I like and respect him).
So I submitted the following (slightly edited) letter for publication in the Guardian:
Giles Fraser’s piece on Syria (You won’t win a war against Isis if you don’t know what the peace looks like, Comment, 27 November) is sadly below his usual standard. His claim that “demonstrably things are no better” after world war 2 and what he calls ‘the war on terror’, is demonstrably false: without the first we would probably still be living under a murderous fascist dictatorship, and without the second there would by now have been tens of thousands more killed, injured and bereaved by terrorist attacks in our own towns and cities than the minuscule numbers who have actually suffered from them, compared with the number of terrorist attacks planned and foiled. He says we have no vision of what peace might look like, ignoring the Vienna peace process actively promoting an interim settlement between the Assad régime and the main opposition groups. His comparison of Iraq 2003 with Da’esh (ISIS) in Syria and Iraq now is feeble: Iraq was not then occupied by an Islamist régime deliberately carrying out terrorist attacks on western cities or even threatening to do so.
Giles Fraser asks us not to “call this a war and dignify Isis with the honorific status of being an enemy army”, having a moment ago called it a war, and apparently unaware that Daesh is indeed a heavily armed enemy army that occupies and governs wide areas of Iraq and Syria, one which can’t possibly be defeated otherwise than by military force. And he asserts that “We wouldn’t bomb the suburbs of Brussels to eliminate the Isis cells stationed there”: oh yes, we would, if Belgium had been occupied by an enemy terrorist organisation and couldn’t be liberated in any other way (ask the widows and widowers of Caen).
The fact is that Da’esh-occupied territory has been substantially reduced by military action on the ground by Syrian government and opposition and other forces supported by western and now Russian air power: and that if the western coalition, already including the UK, suddenly stopped bombing Da’esh in Iraq and (without us) in Syria, Da’esh would rapidly expand again and might well end up controlling Baghdad and Damascus. That would require incomparably more costly military international action (in terms of blood and treasure) to eradicate it than if the western coalition and Russia continue to prevent Da’esh expansion by supporting the ground troops at war with it, pending an interim peace deal between the main Syrian groups and the formation of a multinational force in blue berets that can “prevent and suppress terrorist acts committed specifically by ISIL also known as Da’esh [in Iraq and Syria]” plus “Al-Qaida, and other terrorist groups [,…and] eradicate the safe haven they have established over significant parts of Iraq and Syria” – in the words of UN Security Council resolution 2249 of 20 November, adopted unanimously.
Opponents such as Canon Fraser of bombing Da’esh to hold it at bay until there are sufficient forces available to defeat it completely have yet to suggest a credible alternative programme of action; and as long as we continue to play our part in bombing Da’esh in Iraq, there seems no ethical, legal or practical problem about extending our action to Syria. To refrain from bombing Da’esh for fear of provoking terrorist reprisals in London or other British cities would be to surrender abjectly to terrorist blackmail, and is anyway unlikely to succeed: 9/11, the worst attack on the west so far, took place before the western interventions in Afghanistan, Iraq or Libya, and can hardly be represented as retaliation for them.
A much shorter version of this letter (abbreviated by myself at the Guardian’s request) is published in the Guardian’s website as the fourth letter in http://www.theguardian.com/world/2015/nov/27/readers-view-airstrikes-over-syria-will-do-more-harm-than-good (it of course contradicts the Guardian’s heading) and it’s the last letter in today’s print edition, where it takes a contrary view to those expressed in all the others.
In short, I believe that supporting local ground forces by participating in the bombing of Da’esha in both Syria and Iraq, as now authorised and encouraged by unanimous decision of the Security Council, serves a useful and essential purpose in minimising the territory under Da’esh control and preventing its expansion while an interim political settlement is worked out under UN auspices and a multinational ground force is assembled to root out this vicious gang. In fact I don’t see any realistic alternative to doing so. The situation is radically different from those that prompted the Afghanistan, Iraq and Libyan interventions. Since it’s the right and necessary thing to do, we should not be deterred by Da’esh threats of retaliation against our own towns and cities – such attacks are likely to be attempted anyway, and we should never submit to blackmail. But I acknowledge that some of the counter-arguments are tenable and I respect those who take the opposite view.