The Die Is Cast: The Case For Syrian Air Strikes... And Against


So we have crossed the Rubicon. The House of Commons has voted in favour of air strikes against Daesh in Syria by a margin of 174. Labour leader Jeremy Corbyn cast his vote against but - after an impassioned speech from Hilary Benn - 66 Labour colleagues voted for military action. Bombing has already started.

Those who supported military action will have weighed the moral issues with care before they voted. It is insulting - and sententious - to believe anyone would do otherwise or vote for petty political reasons. This is not about David Cameron, still less Corbyn.

Once more we are at war but before the vote we were also at war: Britain has been conducting air strikes against Daesh targets in Iraq since September 2014. The vote has simply extended those strikes to Syria where allies, and Russia, are already conducting military strikes. Britain’s participation may have a limited impact beyond precision capability but it will lend credibility to action. It is not about imperial delusions of grandeur, but the UK as a responsible, humanitarian, internationalist force.

There is no cause for rejoicing in war. Both sides must remember that, although we address these issues in stark and absolute terms, no-one holds right entirely. Moreover, there are pragmatic arguments in favour and against widening air strikes. The government motion was worded tightly to allay these concerns.

The Iraq War has cast a terrible shadow over British foreign policy. Its legacy has mainly been malign: the unintended political vacuum gave Daesh an opportunity to thrive; it has also narrowed our public discourse. 2015 is not 2003: UN resolution 2249 has given greater legal cover to Western action, there is broad public and international support. The chaotic humanitarian situation in Syria means that lack of action will result in continued loss of life. Pacifism in the face of such horror is not morally superior.


If this is not a repeat of our action against Saddam Hussein; comparisons with our fight against al-Qaida are not appropriate either. Daesh has a political, and economic, presence which al-Qaida never managed. The history of economic sanctions has not always been a happy one; also the idea that we can defeat Daesh intellectually needs some thought. Yes, we must do that but a physical, if not legal, entity cannot be defeated by argument alone. Ending regional injustice is part of a long-term solution. But none of these will stop Daesh brutalising those under its rule, nor stop their ability to murder, to raise revenue and to plan acts of terror such as we witnessed in Paris.

Meanwhile, those who have been in favour of an extension must remember that by conducting these air strikes we are giving Daesh what they want. Proponents may feel they have jus ad bellum on their side, but they must have jus in bello as well. The language we speak is important but also how we take action. So far there have yet to be any civilian casualties in UK strikes on Iraq. Creating safe havens for refugees will allow many to escape the violence, making sure that Daesh's victims do not become victims of a wider Western-led war. There can be no justice in war if our action is not proportional and merely vengeance.

No case for war is ever comprehensive but inaction and denial have driven this situation. Innocents have been slaughtered - and a humanitarian crisis unfolded before our eyes - as we have allowed Daesh to succeed. The international community has recognised the situation as unprecedented. War should be a last resort: here it is - there is no prospect of negotiation. Their territorial existence, even if we do not recognise it, gives them legitimacy. Only a military response will tackle Daesh at its roots, save lives and deny them their medieval caliphate.

Once more we are a nation divided. Alongside war's inevitable tragedy - a word sadly in overuse at the moment - this is a terrible thing. None of us know what will happen. It is too easy to speak of 'right' and 'wrong' but act we must.

Graham Kirby


It is sickening to find myself in the same camp as the Daily Mail, but given that the last time that happened it was over justice for the murdered schoolboy Stephen Lawrence, it is a case of needs must.

This time the issue is the UK’s involvement with air strikes on Syria.

In the wake of the atrocities in Paris on 13 November and the recent outrages in Istanbul, Beirut and Mali, there is widespread consensus that Daesh must be destroyed.

Britain is clearly under direct threat as was made clear by the murder of 40 tourists in Tunisia earlier this year and by the successful recruitment of British Muslims to quit the UK to join the fight for the Islamic caliphate. Daesh have taken the fight to us and we need to respond.

The tricky bit is how. The terrorists have taken control of a large chunk of Syria and are in control of the important cities of Raqqa and Mosul. The solution proposed by David Cameron in the House of Commons was that Britain should add the RAF to the air forces that have already been engaged in Syria for a year.

The immediate concern this raises is why after 14 months of air strikes by the US and several Gulf Arab air forces would the addition of a few British planes be very different?

The strikes have succeeded in disrupting the terrorists’ activities but as Paris and the downing of the Russian aeroplane showed they are still able to commit major operations.

Much has been rightly made of the RAF’s Brimstone missile and its pinpoint accuracy in being able to hit even moving targets. However many people are jaded after talk of accurate weaponry in the Iraq conflict that turned out to be not quite as billed.

This leads directly on to a major concern which is the danger that Britain will be involved in an intensified air campaign that will lead to civilian casualties.

In a city such as Raqqa where some 200,000 civilians live alongside a few thousand Daesh fighters those risks are very high as the fighters can either choose to use civilians as human shields or to hide in underground tunnels as they did in Sinjar. Such personal tragedies can only act as a recruitment sergeant for Daesh.

In order to eradicate the terrorists ground troops will be needed. However there is an understandable reluctance to commit British soldiers that is shared with other Western governments.

Even assuming that the air strikes succeed in removing or at least dispersing the Daesh forces, then it is not clear who will step in to take their place

Any such coalition would be seen as a “crusade” and is undoubtedly what Daesh are hoping will happen as Jürgen Todenhöfer, the German author who spent 10 days embedded with Daesh, has pointed out.

While the correct solution is for a regional coalition of forces to lead the attack, the idea that there are 70,000 Syrian forces ready and waiting to lead an offensive seems fanciful. The country is riven between factions of Shias loyal to the regime of Bashar al Assad and Sunni and Kurdish militia who have spent much time and lost as many lives fighting Assad as they have done Daesh.

Even assuming that the air strikes succeed in removing or at least dispersing the Daesh forces, then it is not clear who will step in to take their place. The clear divide between the UK, US and France on the one hand and Russia and Iran on the other over the role that Assad might play is evidence that the 18-month transition plan currently on the table is virtually meaningless.

While some of Mr Cameron’s critics are pacifists, many more agree with him that it is morally unacceptable to leave the defence of our realm up to the US and France and that the UN resolution does give authority for military action.

These concerns - over the UK’s role, preventing civilian casualties, the make-up of the ground force, and the post-Daesh plan - could have been addressed before the Commons debate.

But now that the vote - and the die - are cast, no time must be lost in filling in those gaps in a comprehensive strategy to defeat Daesh.

Phil Thornton

Read our second debate - Bombs and hubris: The Case Against Syrian Air Strikes... And For

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