On Thursday morning Britain woke to a new and sombre reality following the UK Parliament’s decision to allow its air force to join the USA, France and others in conducting airstrikes in Syria – our fourth war in 13 years and with the catastrophe of the last three still raging strong. As if to underline the gravity and impact of the decision, the first bombs fell overnight, just hours after the vote. Everything was lined up, but for the mucky business of deciding who should fire the starter pistol.
As I listened to some of the debate emanating from the bastion of democracy that is Britain’s House of Commons, I couldn’t help but feel despair at the distinct lack of, well, debate. Time after time those MPs in favour of airstrikes stood and passionately made the case for taking action against ISIS, or Daesh, based on the brutality, the violence, the threat that they pose. They were debating a point upon which there is unanimous agreement, heavily focusing on why we should take action, and less on the actual point of disagreement: how we should take action.
This appears to ‘misunderstand’ (let’s be kind) the arguments of those who oppose airstrikes, attributing their words to a lack of awareness at the severity of the threat – most acutely summed up when the Prime Minister offensively appealed to his MPs not to vote with “a bunch of terrorist sympathisers”.
This simplistic and deflecting line of argument failed to do justice to the gravity of the situation, by effectively ignoring the nuanced arguments against airstrikes. It failed, for example, to make the military case for airstrikes by glossing over the fact that Daesh is not a traditional army, with military or organisational targets which can be bombed; it is a militia which intentionally does not congregate as a traditional military organisation. And it failed to answer why any such targets, even if they did exist, have not been bombed and destroyed by the US and friends already.
On the much contested issue of ground troops – it failed to evidence the existence of a coordinated army to support us on the ground, simply pointing to the rather ambitiously named Free Syrian ‘Army’. The Government’s official figure that this consists of 70,000 people was flung around the debating chamber, but didn’t hold up to much scrutiny, and had a ring of Blair’s ‘dodgy dossier’.
It has become curiously unacceptable to ‘rely on our allies to defend us, when we are unwilling to defend ourselves’ while it is wholly acceptable for us to rely on an unknown entity to provide ground support to our air assault, even when we are unable to agree who they are or how many they number. Drop bombs and hope for the best: is this what our military strategy boils down to? I suppose if we need to coordinate our military activity with the Free Syrian Army then we can always write a message in a bottle and hurl it into the Mediterranean.
But if the argument that ‘we must act’ fails to outline the military case for airstrikes, then it certainly fails to provide the historical basis also. From Afghanistan, to Iraq, to Libya the UK’s recent record of military engagement is nothing short of catastrophic. Not only have we failed to improve the situation in these countries, we have made them significantly worse. Indeed our own actions in Iraq facilitated the creation of Daesh in the first place. The capacity of 397 MPs to ignore this history – coupled with their convenient ignorance to the fact that airstrikes have been raining down on Syria for months without effect – is truly remarkable.
One frequently peddled argument of the pro-strikes camp was that France had requested the UK’s involvement, and we should show our support (well, I suppose they did ask nicely, so…). I wonder if ‘we must act’ will one day be more than a synonym for flexing our military muscles and standing in some kind of warped solidarity with our allies regardless of the consequences.
Leaving aside the horrible double standards of a Government which has for years failed to act on the supply of weapons and revenue to Daesh via its own allies, this reality leads us to the tragic conclusion what blood will be shed without any hope of success, and every chance of making things worse. The case for the UK dropping bombs on Syria is as mad as the case for the UK dropping bombs on London or Paris, simply because we have evidence of terrorists locations.
In this context, I’m not sure whether to be more bitter at the thought of Union Jack encrusted death parcels raining from the Syrian skies – or at the fact that our MPs wasted the opportunity to show real leadership, to take real action, and to show real solidarity with France.
For now, I’ll just abstain.