Comment: Parliament must be clearer on its justifications for bombing IS in Syria

Not everyone will be convinced by the need to be a good ally to the US and France


On Tuesday Left Foot Forward published an excellent article by Mike Flynn arguing that the UK does not have the military capacity to make a difference to Islamic State in Syria. Flynn and others have pointed out that the UK’s involvement in Syria is primarily a symbolic one, necessary to show strength in the face of terror, and solidarity with a still-reeling France.

A ‘symbolic’ war is a bizarre idea. I am not convinced of the case for more bombing, but I think Conservative MP David Davis’ comment on Twitter that ‘if the UK is to stand alongside France we should do something with a chance of success, and not mere symbolism’ is interesting.

Those who believe that Cameron wants war for war’s sake could not be handed a better argument than the testimony of senior military and airforce spokespeople who believe the UK military is a shrinking power: that bombing Syria won’t make a serious contribution to eradicating (not just weakening parts of) IS. The US, France, Turkey, Jordan, Saudi Arabia, the Netherlands, Canada and Bahrain are already operating over Syria. The UK is sending eight planes.

There is still not a coherent, global (and it does need to be global because of related groups like Boko Haram and al-Shabaab) anti-IS strategy that answers the question of why bombing Raqqa will prevent the UK from a Paris-style attack, when we know that most of the Paris attackers were Europeans.

A senior US military officer welcomed the result of yesterday’s vote but for the reason that allies have ‘had some cold feet when it comes to Syria.’ It is worrying that so much time has been devoted to arguments that centre around Western countries, to using alliances with the US and France as justifications for an operation taking place in Syria.

Securing the UK’s status as a world power is not a good enough reason for military involvement in Syria; there are other, better arguments that could be made, such as the the bad logic of discriminating at this point between sides of a border which no longer exists. (Whether the UK should be bombing Iraq at all is a conversation which, curiously, is not being had. Today it was announced on Radio 4 ‘we are now at war’ as if the past year had not happened).

Nor is the UK’s self image a good enough reason (see Hilary Benn: ‘if we do not act, what message would that send?’)

Perhaps the only legitimate use of the self-satisfied (and largely misinformed) ‘what about Beirut’ argument that abounded after the Paris attacks is to question what kind of symbolism it is to bomb ‘out of solidarity’ with 130 Parisians but not with the thousands of Syrians killed by Islamic State (to say nothing of the Assad dead). If these airstrikes are designed to show solidarity with anyone it should be with Syrians and Kurds.

Even Hilary Benn’s powerful oratory about standing up against the ‘contempt’ in which IS holds the West begs the question: why then were we bombing this group in Iraq before they had carried out significant attacks on the West? Are the airstrikes primarily about Syria or the West?

As for the question of IS retaliation, it strikes me as even more provocative to bomb ‘symbolically’ than to bomb with real intent, or belief that it is possible, to make a difference.

People in the UK are afraid (as, I assume, are people living in ISIS strongholds) and symbolism isn’t enough. Bombing is not an easy thing to accept, and mistrust in politicians will only grow unless the UK parliament can present a coherent, unified argument about exactly why these airstrikes are happening, and exactly what they hope to achieve.

Ruby Stockham is a staff writer at Left Foot Forward

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