The UK should not bomb Syria

In fact I'm not quite as certain of the Right Thing as my headline suggests; but if I'm going to nail my colours to the mast in advance of the UK's parliament's probable vote next week, I may as well be definite. It puts me with Jeremy Corbyn and against most of the UK pols. I don't feel involved enough to go and protest2, though, as I did before the Iraq war. More that two years ago I wrote words that could be interpreted as support for military intervention. But that was more than two years ago; things have changed since. Most of what has changed has changed for the worse; the country is more broken; the chances of tilting the balance in favour of the Good Guys by bombing is pretty well gone.

The govt's reasons for action are available. It is a long document; although page 11 onwards is "Response to Questions in the Foreign Affairs Committee report on “Enabling the House to reach a decision” " and is effectively an appendix; but much of page 1 is blather, and page 2 begins That is why I believe that we should now take the decision to extend British airstrikes against ISIL [in Iraq] into Syria, so we deduce that there's one key paragraph on page 1 to read. It is:

We need a comprehensive response which seeks to deal with the threat that ISIL poses to us directly, not just through the measures we are taking at home, but by dealing with ISIL on the ground in the territory that it controls. It is in Raqqa, Syria, that ISIL has its headquarters, and it is from Raqqa that some of the main threats against this country are planned and orchestrated. We must tackle ISIL in Syria, as we are doing in neighbouring Iraq, in order to deal with the threat that ISIL poses to the region and to our security here at home. We have to deny a safe haven for ISIL in Syria. The longer ISIL is allowed to grow in Syria, the greater the threat it will pose. It is wrong for the United Kingdom to sub-contract its security to other countries, and to expect the aircrews of other nations to carry the burdens and the risks of striking ISIL in Syria to stop terrorism here in Britain.

12310673_10153846982887859_3311188702826747669_n That contains a number of arguments not clearly separated; probably because they're weaker when clearly and distinctly made.

1. Increase the UK's security. Arguably a somewhat selfish attitude, but also part of the government's core responsibility. But the applicability of this argument seems implausible to me; indeed, the reverse seems more likely to be true. The govt's doc has a longer section on "The Threat from ISIL", with stuff like We know that ISIL has deadly intent to strike us at home too. In the last 12 months, Britain’s police and Security Services have disrupted no fewer than 7 terrorist plots to attack the UK. All 7 plots were either linked to ISIL, or were inspired by ISIL’s propaganda. Whether you find that "undeniable" evidence of a threat to the UK is perhaps a matter of judgement; mine is that it doesn't, and that I don't trust the govt's judgement5.

2. "It is wrong for the United Kingdom to sub-contract its security to other countries" is a two-part argument. The first is the "altruistic" quasi-moral part: we shouldn't let other people do our fighting for us. And this is true, if we believe the fighting is a good idea; but it doesn't help decide if said fighting is good. The contrary - we shouldn't bother, since our military contribution is small and neither here-nor-there - isn't very believable either; its along the same lines as those who argue that we shouldn't trouble about our CO2 emissions, because on a global scale they are small. The second, implicit, part is that we shouldn't undermine other's efforts by hanging back. But again, that doesn't help you decide of the efforts are good.

3. What we're doing in Iraq argues that we should do the same in Syria. But there's a key difference: in Iraq, we're acting on behalf of and with the cooperation of an at least nominally friendly government. It seems to be that concentrating any military efforts there would be more fruitful1. The previous, notoriously sectarian and incompetent Iraq government, bears a large share of the responsibility for the rise of ISIS; if it hadn't let so much of Iraq get taken over, ISIS wouldn't have got its early boost (note: I'm willing to be corrected on the details of that). But we-the-West also bear our share, for propping up such a disastrous government. Having done my best to consider this carefully, it seems likely that the most useful route to removing ISIS begins by fixing Iraq's government. That's a long term process, liable to be tedious and difficult, and involve things like supporting and enhancing democracy. And in the short term, doing our little bit to help the US support the Iraqi's astonishingly incompetent army. The govt says By inflicting brutal attacks against his own people, Assad has in fact acted as one of ISIL’s greatest recruiting sergeants. We therefore need a political transition in Syria to a government that the international community can work with against ISIL, as we already do with the Government of Iraq. However, I can't see any signs of such a transition actually happening, so that crucial part of the govt's strategy is broken.

4. "The longer ISIL is allowed to grow in Syria, the greater the threat it will pose". This is almost believeable. It might be true; or it might not - since any concentration of ISIS is vulnerable to air attack, its hard for them to grow such concentrations.

20151128_wwd000 Arguments against bombing include "the Iraq war was a disaster". And indeed it was; and you can make a decent case that disaster has lead directly to this one, albeit with many other mistakes along the way. But that argument is something of a logical fallacy, in the way its usually presented; somewhat along the lines of "but you were all predicting an ice age in the 1970's". In another way, in that the same kind of people who made the same kind of mistakes will be in charge again, its not a fallacy.

The recent attacks on France are why the French are so hot and why we may get involved; effectively, something so close to home provides motivation. What prevents similar here? Mostly, I'd guess, the difficulty of getting hold of Kalashnikovs. We're probably not short of nutters; but the nutters are (thankfully) short of guns. This strongly suggests to me that doing more to get rid of the guns would be a good idea. While we're here, I'll note that the total death toll on French roads in 2013 was 3250; not-at-all-to-anyone's-surprise, this hasn't provoked horror or outrage.

Another argument against bombing might be the cost, if only I knew what it was. This piece says that 7 months in Libya (which I supported) cost ~$380 million; perhaps for the purposes of discussion I could guess that Syria would cost the UK £500 million a year. That's not large enough to be a convincing argument against (but for comparison, we say we've donated £1.1 billion "providing assistance to ease the suffering of the Syrian people"). But I argue that the bomb money would be better spent on helping Syrian refugees in Turkey, and similar matters; not just in terms of bread-not-bombs being better for the world, but in terms of security.

12314117_10153163271956791_4705394141151366652_n Another item is that govt's, and the press, and the public, can only focus on a few things at once, with enough pressure to get things done. Pushing so hard on bomb-Syria means other things can't be pushed.

Not having Russia in Syria deliberately targetting non-ISIS opponents of Assad would help a lot3; but I can't see any way to avoid their presence; Russia as elsewhere is just being malignant.

I don't like the govt's degrade and ultimately defeat ISIL, including through Coalition military and wider action because I'm suspicious of the "degrade". It is such a vague term; used by the US too; it amounts to "well, yes, we blew some things up and killed some bad guys but really we don't have much of a plan beyond that".

What would you do, then?

The obvious question, which I've partially answered above: help in Iraq, and provide aid. Another element, which I've referred to before, would be to end our obsession with border lines drawn on maps many years ago; and to support a Kurdish state.

Another possible question is "what would the people inside Syria like us to do?" I find I have no idea at all what the answer is4.


1. The govt comes close to conceding this point. In answer to v) Which ground forces will take, hold, and administer territories captured from ISIL in Syria. they reply The model that is starting to work in Iraq involves Coalition air support enabling Iraqis – from both the Iraqi Security Forces and the Kurdish Peshmerga – to take back, hold and administer territory regained from ISIL. This is more difficult in Syria, because Assad’s forces are still fighting directly against the moderate opposition and there is no prospect of intervention by an external ground force. Any large-scale external force, even of Arab or other Muslim troops, could risk inflaming the conflict further, rather than contributing to a political settlement.

Update: 2016/01/03: and there's more. As the Beeb reports, we've actually done hardly any strikes on Syria. It hardly seems to have been worth all the angst. And why not? Apart from the lack of targets, Auntie says In Iraq air strikes are making a difference, largely because there is an army to work with on the ground. And so on.

2. However, I will sign the petition, even though I disagree with some of the wording, since I like the headline.

3. The Economist tells me that "Turkey is hindering the campaign against IS. It is more interested in striking Kurds inside Syria and removing Mr Assad than it is in crushing the jihadists. Moreover, it has failed to stop the flow of IS’s oil out of Syria and the flow of money and recruits back in", so the Russian's aren't unique; Turkey's failure to reach an agreement with the Kurds is a major regional problem.

4. Bagehot, in an article suggesting "Britain’s left must reject the anti-West reactionaries at the heart of its movement", says “There’s a big Syrian group,” murmurs one. “But they’re not anti,” continues another, disgusted: “They were lobbying for Britain to bomb Assad". That's not quite an answer, because those are Syrians not in Syria; but its informative.

5. It looks like I was right to not trust the govt; they appear to have been simply lying; see


Syria air strikes: Britain is only dipping a toe in this war on Isis. Some good stuff, and also

Political action by Britain is, in any case, constrained by the US, which does not want Isis, President Bashar al-Assad or the forces headed by the al-Qaeda affiliate, the al-Nusra Front, to win the Syrian civil war decisively. Washington is trying to pretend that there is a moderate Syrian constituency opposed to these three parties capable of taking power in Damascus. David Cameron similarly expresses belief that not only does such a moderate force exist, but that it numbers 70,000 fighters, many of them members of the Free Syrian Army, an institution that was always an umbrella group and largely disintegrated two years ago.

This is important because if true (as it seems to me) then all the bombing is doing is prolonging a balance of war; possibly to our advantage, but not clearly to the advantage of those bombed.

What the Kurds think

For us Kurds, Western intervention is a lifeline says Karwan Jamal Tahir, Kurdistan Regional Government High Representtive to the UK (found via Benn's speech to the Hoc; which was poor, even though he's been attacked by nutters for making it). There's an Iraqi Kurdistan but its an autonomous region not a state, no matter how much they and I would like it to be one. Anyway, what KJT says is worth reading, but the most relevant part is:

Most of Daesh’s territory is in Syria, which should be considered with Iraq as a single theatre. British airstrikes, already taking place in Iraq, would carefully target Daesh fighters, trucks and supplies in Syria. This is welcome, and no doubt our allies will do their utmost to avoid civilian casualties. But sooner or later, more will be needed: it will take ground troops to defeat Daesh. We know many British people are wary but we have to say, as your allies, that some British troops could be vital.

Strangely enough, Benn didn't choose to quote that last bit, even though that para - rather than the one he did use - is the one that explicitly calls for UK air strikes.


* Timmy suggests their finance may not be as obscure as some might believe.
* The Kraus will send some stuff but not bomb anyone
* Defence secretary spends entire debate doodling explosions
* Sir John Chilcot urged to get a head start on Syria inquiry
* RAF bomb raids in Syria dismissed as 'non-event', Torygraph early 2016: "Since MPs voted for war over Syria RAF Tornados and Typhoons have mounted only three strike missions".
* UK Govt response to petition
* The Dutch Join In 2016/01/29.

More like this

For once we agree. And I too was at the London demo prior to the illegal invasion of Iraq.

What surprised me was that no-one in the house demanded that the Chilcot report be published and digested before any wote is taken. There again, the Tories want the bombing, and Labour would rather skirt past the Chilcot report.

Also notable from the debate was that Caroline lucas, representing a million of so Greens, got her say, while Douglas Carswell, representing four million voters, was denied a chance to speak.

Democracy is important, not that you'd think so by looking at the behaviour of Cameron or the Blairite rump of the shadow cabinet.

By Rog Tallbloke (not verified) on 28 Nov 2015 #permalink

"Why, of course the people don't want war...But, after all, it is the leaders of the country who determine the policy, and it is always a simple matter to drag the people along, whether it is a democracy, or a fascist dictatorship, or a parliament, or a communist dictatorship...Voice or no voice, the people can always be brought to do the bidding of the leaders. That is easy. All you have to do is to tell them they are being attacked, and denounce the pacifists for lack of patriotism and exposing the country to danger."
Hermann Goering at the Nuremberg Trials after WWII

"Politics is not money and power games. Politics is about the improvement of people's lives. It is about lessening human suffering and it is about -- and what a time to say this -- advancing the cause of justice and peace in the world. That is what politics is all about. "(January 1990)
Paul Wellstone (1944 - 2002)

"Even when pressed by the demands of inner truth, men do not easily assume the task of opposing their government's policy, especially in time of war. Nor does the human spirit move without great difficulty against all the apathy of conformist thought within one's own bosom and in the surrounding world."
-- Martin Luther King Jr, Beyond Vietnam, April 1967

"All I know is that my happiness is built on the misery of others, so that I eat because others go hungry, that I am clothed when other people go almost naked through the frozen cities in winter; and that fact poisons me, disturbs my serenity, makes me write propaganda when I would rather play..."
-- John Reed

If the UK is similar to the USA, then there is little that separates conservatives from liberals when it comes to party politics and foreign policy.

By Kevin ONeill (not verified) on 28 Nov 2015 #permalink

There are no moderate groups in Syria.

By Eli Rabett (not verified) on 28 Nov 2015 #permalink

The Daesh are thugs.

By David B. Benson (not verified) on 28 Nov 2015 #permalink

Russia is dropping dumb bombs from helos to target the rebels. They have the precision guided munitions but don't want to deploy and pay for them. Us Yanks have no problem using expensive weapons systems to outdo the Russians. Even when the Russians have an obvious tactical advantage. Whatever helps Lockheeds stock.

By Chase Stoudt (not verified) on 28 Nov 2015 #permalink



By NIck Barnes (not verified) on 29 Nov 2015 #permalink

The UK, US and Russian governments never seem to learn that blundering into a foreign country and using excessive military force just doesn't work in the long run. Come on guys and gals! Use some subtlety! The people in these countries will end up doing what they want to do with their countries regardless of how you want it to turn out. Far better to assist on the QT whoever is fighting the bad guys than broadcasting to the world what your actions are going to be. If subtlety means taking out IS's main people by whatever subterfuge/means available, both at home and abroad then just do it! We don't need you to tell us about it, if there are no more terrorist incidents like the one in Paris then we'll just assume that you're winning the fight. OK, its not very PC, but then neither is the enemy that you're up against!

By Lou sipher (not verified) on 29 Nov 2015 #permalink

What to do? Go after their financiers, of course.

Wonder why western governments seem so reluctant to do this.

AFAIK the UK government started dropping bombs on the locals in this part of the world during the 1920 Iraqi revolt - perhaps they just can't break the habit.

I think the case for bombing in Iraq is worse than in Syria. Iraq has a semi-functional government that's not doing its job of reaching out to Sunnis. Bombing ISIS in Iraq just helps the government avoid doing the hard work of compromise.

In Syria there are Sunnis that stand up to ISIS. Whether we want to associate with them is another question. I'm not sure the answer is no. Maybe a safe zone on the northwest border, assuming Turkey helps (possible because the Kurds aren't there) could give a clan-based coalition a chance to show whether they're as bad as ISIS and Assad.

So less bombing and a safe zone, and see if that works. Maybe. I'm not brimming with confidence in this, but have less confidence in every other proposal.

By Brian Schmidt (not verified) on 29 Nov 2015 #permalink

Another element, which I’ve referred to before, would be to end our obsession with border lines drawn on maps many years ago; and to support a Kurdish state.

This in particular seems to be an excellent idea.

As to the general thrust of the argumetns, I would also add that when you're unsure of the right course of action, I would always prefer to err on the side of fewer explosions. Blowing stuff up can improve some situations, but generally speaking, the odds are not good.

[erring on the side of fewer bombs makes sense -W]

"Also notable from the debate was that Caroline lucas, representing a million of so Greens, got her say, while Douglas Carswell, representing four million voters, was denied a chance to speak."

UKIP and the Green Party have an equal number of MPs. Maybe they flipped a coin and Lucas won. I hope you also believe the Tories should have had the majority of speakers followed by the SNP, that being the logic of your pro-UKIP gripe.

Like the embedded list graphic of how to defeat Daesh. Been saying pretty much the same for ages, but apparently it makes me a Daesh apologist according to some.

Have you seen Adam Curtis's 'Bitter Lake', by the way? Even Peter Hitchens thought it was genius and required viewing for those wanting to understand why we're in this mess.

I'm sure it can be found elsewhere for non-UK viewers.

[That would be a popular televisual entertainment; I don't do those, except for Wolf Hall -W]

Hardly "entertainment", and if you haven't seen 'All Watched Over by Machines of Loving Grace' you're missing out, especially for the clicking going on your head when Ayn Rand and her accolytes are dissected.

I'm always a sucker for a Brautigan reference. Where do I find ‘All Watched Over by Machines of Loving Grace’?

By Raymond Arritt (not verified) on 30 Nov 2015 #permalink

That's bizarre, the comment box seems to be stripping out the vimeo_dot_com from the address given above.

[It is weird. I tried explicitly "<a href"'ing it, that just made it worse. Even inside <pre> it still gets stripped. Someone at Sb hates vimeo, it seems -W]

By Quiet Waters (not verified) on 01 Dec 2015 #permalink

By inflicting brutal attacks against his own people, Assad has in fact acted as one of ISIL’s greatest recruiting sergeants.

That is an argument of the UK government? In a piece arguing to do basically the same as Assad? Interesting.

[One of the frustrating aspects of the pols arguments is that they all take place in the realm of rhetoric, and aren't susceptible to logic -W]

By Victor Venema … (not verified) on 02 Dec 2015 #permalink

After that vote, it's time to admit that civilisation is doomed.

Gav wrote
"What to do? Go after their financiers, of course.

Wonder why western governments seem so reluctant to do this."

The strikes targeted the Omar oil fields in eastern Syria, which is under IS control, and were "successful", Defence Secretary Michael Fallon said.

Well that appears to be one way to go after the finances.

If only they could target the Daesh tax collectors who seem to be providing a fair chunk of their revenue these days.

[Have you been reading Timmy? -W]

But all those countries who have been bombing Daesh have been bombing their oilfields already. Strangely enough, we need to join the fray because Daesh are still an imminent threat. Go figure. And I see the 'war' has now been declared to be a two year junket (although it was three years according to Fallon this morning), including regime change now. So that means Russia backs Assad and we want to get rid of Assad. This is going to go so well.

"I thought Hilary's oratory was great. It reminded me of Tony Blair's speech taking us into the Iraq War and I'm always anxious that the greatest oratories can lead us to the greatest mistakes as well." -- John McDonnell, on BBC Radio 4's Today.

[Oratory is a fine thing but it is, pretty well by defn, non-logical appeal to the emotions. Not the sort of thing you should be praising pols for -W]

If you think McDonnell's praising Benn ;)

"It reminded me of Tony Blair’s speech taking us into the Iraq War ..."

Firstly, as somebody who marched in 2003, I am under no illusions about how far we can trust the "information" provided by the UK government, although it is difficult to imagine anybody else in elected office being as deceptive as Tony Blair and his gang of liars were.

Secondly, it goes against all the rules of (competent) warfare to get involved in any conflict without either goals or strategy. Unfortunately, nobody wants to talk about goals or strategy, because devising a coherent response to Syria would involve having to properly analyse modern civilised society's relationship with Islam in general, and in particular our continuing and perverse tolerance for the existence of profoundly morally illegitimate nations such as Saudi Arabia and Israel in the area.

Having said that - let's be clear - nobody is arming up aircraft and telling the pilot: "OK, now go and drop bombs on Syria".

Nobody is "bombing Syria". Air strikes are launched against defined targets.

If air raids are launched that have a precise goal that promotes a moral purpose, then we should be involved.
A good example of this are the air strikes that were used to support the Kurds' successful defence against the genocide on offer to them by ISIS.
Without air support, a very large number of people would have been murdered by ISIS in large scale atrocities. Our air strikes helped avert some of that, which is a good thing, more airstrikes aimed at achieving a similar end would be a very good thing.…

By Craig Thomas (not verified) on 06 Dec 2015 #permalink