Should we bomb ISIS in Syria?

I hesitate to comment on this, as the issues are so complex that it seems impossible to offer any clear opinion. But discussion and reflection suggest that we cannot ignore the following points.

1. The British public do not support it

The Independent reports research by the Daily Mirror:

The survey conducted for the Daily Mirror by Survation showed 59 per cent of people believed sending warplanes to bomb key Isis targets in the war-torn country will increase the risk of terrorist attacks in the UK.

While 48 per cent of people said they backed air raids on the extremists, but 30 per cent want Britain to stay away and a further 21 per cent are undecided.

It is interesting to reflect why politicians are more ‘hawkish’ on this than the public in general. And it highlights that Jeremy Corbyn is right to ask why Labour MPs are not reflecting the views of the Labour Party membership. Is it because, like the Conservatives, they have become a political class increasingly out of touch with the electorate?

2. The Prime Minister’s reasons are unconvincing

You can read the PM’s briefing to the Foreign Affairs Select Committee for yourself. It does not look very convincing. My good friend Peter Head comments:

Well I’ve read the Prime Minister’s Memorandum to the Foreign Affairs Select Committee setting out the grounds for air-strikes against ISIL in Syria and I was not persuaded. The naive faith in “precision bombing”, the myth that 70,000 Syrian moderates will step up and take control, the appeal to Iraq as an exemplar of good practice, are bad enough; but the belief that air strikes can be regarded as legitimate acts of national self-defence and that they can defeat ISIL are not supported by evidence or argument. And at several points the main argument is “we don’t want to be left out of the gang” because that would damage our international esteem. Not good enough. I’m not voting for this.

3. Jeremy Corbyn asks some important questions

Corbyn’s letter to his MPs is fairly short and to the point. The core of it is that Cameron has not really answered the questions asked of him:

Our first priority must be the security of Britain and the safety of the British people. The issue now is whether what the Prime Minister is proposing strengthens, or undermines, our national security.

I do not believe that the Prime Minister today made a convincing case that extending UK bombing to Syria would meet that crucial test. Nor did it satisfactorily answer the questions raised by us and the Foreign Affairs Select Committee.

In particular, the Prime Minister did not set out a coherent strategy, coordinated through the United Nations, for the defeat of ISIS. Nor has he been able to explain what credible and acceptable ground forces could retake and hold territory freed from ISIS control by an intensified air campaign.

I think it is a great shame that BBC coverage has mostly focussed on what is happening in the Parliamentary Labour Party, and Corbyns’s leadership—rather than the questions of substance which need to be addressed.

Matthew Parris, writing in The Times (sadly behind the paywall) appears to agree.

Amazingly, Corbyn is right. The hawks just want to join a scrap with their mates and haven’t a clue what happens afterwards.

‘If not now, when?” asked the prime minister this week: a question that has surely preceded some of the silliest decisions in history. It could have been asked before Iraq. It could have been asked before Afghanistan or Libya, or Suez. It was probably asked before the Charge of the Light Brigade. There is no right time for an unwise decision.

CUw0iDMWcAAnar14. Many Syrians do not want it

I recently read a letter from Syrian community leaders in the UK urging that bombing should not be stepped up. (If you can locate it, please let me know.) It is not difficult to see why. Bombing destroys infrastructure, so that poverty and frustration increase, which in turn only functions as a breeding ground for further resentment and extremism. Civilian casualties are bound to result. And for many in Syria, ISIS has been welcomed because they received worse treatment at the hands of Assad.

The letter from the Stop the War coalition sets out the lessons from previous conflicts.

The current rush to bomb Syria following the terrible events in Paris risks a dangerous escalation which will inflame the war there and increase bitterness against the west. The US has been bombing Isis for a year and admits that Isis is as strong as ever and has continued recruiting.

The experience of the wars in Afghanistan, Iraq and Libya shows that western military interventions lead to large-scale casualties, devastating destruction and huge flows of refugees. Far from tackling terrorism, the last 14 years of war have seen massively increased jihadi terrorist organisations around the world.

Andrew Bacevich, a former US Colonel, highlights why bombing would be so counter-productive in the longer term.

 The threat posed by terrorism is merely symptomatic of larger underlying problems. Crush Isis, whether by bombing or employing boots on the ground, and those problems will still persist. A new Isis, under a different name but probably flying the same banner, will appear in its place, Much as Isis itself emerged from the ashes of Al Qaeda in Iraq.

5. Western money is funding ISIS

NATO member Turkey has been a long-term funder of both Al Qaeda and ISIS.

It might seem outrageous to suggest that a Nato member like Turkey would in any way support an organisation that murders western civilians in cold blood. That would be like a Nato member supporting al-Qaida. But in fact there is reason to believe that Erdo?an’s government does support the Syrian branch of al-Qaida (Jabhat al-Nusra) too, along with any number of other rebel groups that share its conservative Islamist ideology. The Institute for the Study of Human Rights at Columbia University has compiled a long list of evidence of Turkish support for Isis in Syria.

The son of Turkey’s President appears to be directly involved in this funding.

A much more effective way of defeating ISIS would be to persuade Turkey to allow Kurdish forces freedom to act.

How could Isis be eliminated? In the region, everyone knows. All it would really take would be to unleash the largely Kurdish forces of the YPG (Democratic Union party) in Syria, and PKK (Kurdistan Workers’ party) guerillas in Iraq and Turkey. These are, currently, the main forces actually fighting Isis on the ground. They have proved extraordinarily militarily effective and oppose every aspect of Isis’s reactionary ideology.

But of course support for ISIS also substantially comes from Saudi Arabia—whose money in turn comes from Western countries buying its oil—along with Kuwait and Qatar, all of whom have received significant support from the UK Government. In fact, the growth of ISIS might well have been a long-term strategic goal of the Saudis.

6. Western arms manufacturers are fuelling a new arms race in the region.

There has been a massive escalation of arms sales to the region, with Britain leading the way, along with the US, Canada and France. In response, Russia has also stepped up its sales.

Given the unprecedented levels of weapon sales by the west (including the US, Canada and the UK) to the mainly Sunni Gulf states, Vladimir Putin’s decision last week to allow the controversial delivery of S-300 anti-aircraft missiles to Iran – voluntarily blocked by Russia since 2010 – seems likely to accelerate the proliferation.

That will see agreed arms sales to the top five purchasers in the region – Saudi Arabia, the United Arab Emirates, Algeria, Egypt and Iraq – surge this year to more than $18bn, up from $12bn last year.

This adds to the trade in illicit arms left over from conflict in the Balkans—and the US weapons supplied to the Iraqi army that have been captured by ISIS.

7. The Christian tradition of pacifism

There are many important theological issues raised by all this. What are the ethics of supporting a war which benefits one’s own economy by selling arms? Where is the integrity in supporting regimes who are in flagrant breach of human rights? Where is the integrity in working with countries which are clearly supporting terrorist organisations which are threatening our national security? How can politicians make responsible decisions when looking hawkish consistently boosts one’s poll ratings?

Underneath it all is the strong Christian tradition of rejection of war as a way of resolving conflict. I found it challenging to be preaching on Daniel 7 this morning. Most scholars believe that though Daniel is written about events in the sixth century BCE, it was written for a crisis in the second century—the desecration of the Jewish Temple by Antiochus IV Epiphanes in 167 BCE. An alternative account can be found in the account of Judas Maccabeus and his brothers. They opposed Antiochus by force—but their books did not find their way into the canon of scripture. Instead, we have Daniel, whose message is to wait for God’s deliverance rather than resist by force.

This doesn’t offer an easy solution—but there seem to me to be enough important questions that need a good answer before we go to war again.


This article first appeared on Ian Paul's blog, Psephizo, and we are grateful for permission to publish here on Fulcrum.

4 thoughts on “Should we bomb ISIS in Syria?”

  1. As I said after the horse has bolted, IS are everywhere in cell groups, which is why community has to be ‘re established and fast.we also need to pay attention to those in our country living in fear for their families, it is not their fault.

    Arms do need bringing under control, we have armed people to protect themselves they have used it to attack, when people say you cannot go into another country and tell them what to do, well you can if that country undermines the safety of your own and others.

    Arms and Oil trades need to be separate ie one must not depend on the provision of the other, as most of our oil industry is owned by Arab states, it might also be a wise thing to remember that the Saudi King is grieving after the loss of his son, it will play a part in how he responds.

    Dealing with the relationships between father and sons is how these things started and where they remain, so it’s not a bad idea to know what their differences or fears are that makes a son take part in or fund terrorism, because that is happening between fathers and sons in this country.

  2. The hesitation on commenting on this is understandable, but I am not sure that the argument of waiting for God’s deliverance or resisting by force are the only biblical choices. Unlike those in biblical times we have the benefit of hindsight and speeded up communication. So now we have the ability and facility to prevent, but prevention relies on unity within the long standing institutions and cooperation between peace making and peace preserving nations. We are in a situation where the horse has already bolted ie we are reacting rather than creating or working with. So the Christian response is to protect the vulnerable with clear instruction on what to do in danger, address the fears of the families of how to manage practically financially and provision wise and therefore lesson the anxiety of our neighbours which frees up those who are stronger to concentrate on preventing a local attack. There is a very practical issue which needs to be addressed ie there are many communities in our own country who cannot even get a pint of milk without travelling 2 miles due to the closure of local shops .A lot of local churches are closed due to crime and this applies to schools and other community building and more importantly community supporting facilities. So something needs to be put in place to build the local communities. So that they do not implode due to not knowing who is or is not safe within that community.When debating what we do about war, that can’t be done without information as to where to go if under attack unlike previous world wars there are no air raid shelters. But even where there might be you can’t publicise that can you?

    • I agree with you about the false dichotomy…but of course I am not proposing that.

      I think there is a lot that can be done to address the issues that I mention—and I don’t see much sign of that happening.

  3. Probably not yet. Not much matters until ground forces are both surrounding the IS so that it cannot finance its operations by looting new places, and also taking away the IS’s territory to discredit its caliphate in the eyes of jihadis. For now, the ground forces best able to do these things are distracted by the war to depose Assad. And anyway, if the IS’s subject population still view it as less evil than Damascus or Baghdad, then they will fight their own liberators. So two hard choices come first– how will the Syrian war be ended so that ground forces can move against the IS?; how will the Sunni now ruled by the IS be assured of its safety from Damascus and Baghdad after the West moves on? It is possible that only significant changes to old alliances and older maps will be required to dislodge the IS.

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