Categories: Syria

Why Britain should not join American and French airstrikes against ISIS

The American President Barack Obama has announced he intends to “degrade, and ultimately destroy, ISIL”, including “a systematic campaign of airstrikes against these terrorists”. The French have now announced they will join the airstrikes too.

So far the British Government has not said whether or not it will join in.  But David Cameron is bound to come under such pressure now the French and Americans have decided to launch an air campaign, especially as leading backbenchers such as former Defence Secretary Dr Liam Fox have called for Britain to launch military action.

So is this a good idea?  Should Britain join in?

Does the threat merit Obama’s proposed response?

Firstly, and obviously, it is the responsibility of each sovereign state to provide security within its own borders.  So the responsibility of dealing with ISIS ultimately lies with the affected states in the Middle East.  In other words the threat must be particularly severe to merit Obama’s proposed response.

So, secondly, is the scale and nature of the threat from ISIS such that it will overwhelm the other states of the region?  The CIA reckons ISIS has between 20,000 and 31,000 fighters, armed with modern weapons captured from the Syrian resistance and the Iraqi Army.  This is not a large military force, particularly as it is not a professional one and thus probably has only a limited ability to use its weapons to full effect.  Though serious, ISIS is not a mortal threat to any state.  In terms of the nature of ISIS, no doubt they are evil and heinous as portrayed.  In that they are not unique.

Thirdly, how much of a threat is ISIS to us in the West?  The crucial part of Obama’s speech reads thus:

If left unchecked, these terrorists could pose a growing threat beyond that region – including to the United States. While we have not yet detected specific plotting against our homeland, ISIL leaders have threatened America and our allies. Our intelligence community believes that thousands of foreigners – including Europeans and some Americans – have joined them in Syria and Iraq. Trained and battle-hardened, these fighters could try to return to their home countries and carry out deadly attacks.

Here Obama sets up a straw man.  No one after all is suggesting they should be left “unchecked”; the question is rather how ISIS should be dealt with and who should do any necessary fighting.

Obama (who has the world’s best-funded intelligence services at his disposal) says there is no specific plotting.  Moreover, as he says, ISIS have foreign fighters from the West, but fortunately these terrorists are not in the West, but in Syria and Iraq.  If they try and return home, the intelligence services are already alive to this possibility and no doubt will respond robustly and appropriately.  So the threat is not grave.  Further, in every country in the West there are cells of Islamic militants plotting atrocities right now.  They are patently a much greater threat to us, and (obviously) no one is suggesting we should use airstrikes to deal with it.

What are the chances of success?

This is the part that really bothers me.  How effective are airstrikes likely to be?  Now if we knew ISIS had a particular town under siege, and it looked like a terrible atrocity might occur, clearly airstrikes could have a direct impact on that, rather as NATO’s initial airstrikes against Gaddafi prevented a likely massacre in Benghazi.  But a general campaign of airstrikes is obviously not going to eradicate ISIS.  Just as Israeli airstrikes cannot destroy Hamas, and US airstrikes over many years in Afghanistan, Iraq, Yemen and Somalia have not destroyed Al Qaeda.  Nor are the airstrikes going to kill every ISIS foreign fighter.  So it’s an illusion to think airstrikes will eradicate the threat.

This, of course, is a problem with a lot of military action: it can’t deliver the desired political outcome.  That’s not the only argument against military action – innocents always get killed.

As Emile Simpson (author of the interesting book War from the Ground Up) rightly says in the Financial Times, local actors and regional states must defeat ISIS, and this defeat will have to be largely political rather than military.

What are the dangers of military action?

There is one obvious danger to military action, which sadly is not getting the discussion it deserves.

If it follows that the defeat of ISIS must be largely political rather than military, then clearly Western airstrikes against ISIS are more likely than not to play into ISIS’s hands.  It can use the macho status it will gain (in the militant world) of being at the forefront of the struggle against the “Great Satan” of the West to recruit further followers (look at the way ISIS have used the beheadings of those poor journalists to express defiance).  Airstrikes may increase radicalisation in Muslim communities in the West, among those misguided enough to think that the West is waging war against Islam.

By taking military action we risk escalating the threat, while in the knowledge that our actions will likely have no or little impact on it.  On the other hand, if ISIS are defeated, politically and militarily, by those in the region, then that is a huge political victory against Islamic militancy.

We need to do something different that might work.

What should we do instead?

I would suggest, humbly, as someone with no expertise in these matters, that two courses of action might be more appropriate.

Firstly, any assistance to military operations against ISIS carried out by regional actors or states should be limited to the provision of the excellent intelligence information the West can gather.  Such information would obviously be extremely useful in helping regional actors plan campaigns and launch any necessary airstrikes of their own, and its provision can be kept secret.  The West should only even contemplate airstrikes in extremely limited circumstances, such as to prevent an imminent crime against humanity.

Secondly, it would make much more sense to engage with the threat on the political level, perhaps by Government’s getting beyond the headlines and undertaking detailed information gathering of what it really is like to live in the “Islamic State”, rather than a few occasional diatribes for the sake of the media.  Getting returned and repentant ISIS fighters to help seems an excellent idea.

For it is obvious that ISIS’s Achilles heel, and that which is likely to doom it in fairly short order as a political movement, is that living under an ISIS government will be horrendous.  It is a raging certainty that ISIS will not bring the Middle East security, justice, prosperity or anything else associated with living a decent life.  Communism has disappeared from the face of the earth (apart from in North Korea) because the awful reality of Stalin’s Russia, Mao’s China etc. became apparent to all.  In time Islamic fanaticism will go the same way for the same reason.  Ineffective military strikes merely help keep it alive.

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