Dropping more bombs on ISIL will not save Syria

The Syria debate has also become a focus for the infighting in UK’s Labour party.

The Syrian debate has been more about symbolism than about military strategy, and fuelled more by domestic politics than by the Syrian conflict, writes Malik [Reuters]

Last week, the British Parliament voted to extend air strikes against the so-called Islamic State of Iraq and the Levant (ISIL) into Syria. The debate over whether British bombers should operate in Syria has been ferocious.

One side condemns their opponents as “warmongers” with blood on their hands; the other side smears critics of air strikes as “sympathisers with terrorism”, a phrase reportedly used by Prime Minister David Cameron at a meeting of Tory backbenchers last week.

What is striking, though, is that, for all the ferocity of the debate, the decision to extend the scope of air strikes will not signal a big change. British bombers already aim at ISIL targets in Iraq. American, French and Russian aircraft already operate in Syria. Allowing eight more British planes to bomb a few kilometres away from where they do so now will not make a whole heap of difference.

Inside Story – Are more air strikes exactly what ISIL wants?

Limited success

Unlike, say, the 2003 vote to invade Iraq, last week’s vote will not start a new war, but nor will it help defeat ISIL.

Operation Inherent Resolve, the US-led air campaign against ISIL, began in August 2014.

Since then US planes alone have flown nearly 60,000 sorties, launched more than 8,000 air strikes and hit more than 16,000 targets in Iraq and Syria.

Yet, ISIL remains only a little weakened. The number of its active fighters today is estimated at around 20,000 – 30,000 – the same as in 2014.

ISIL has lost some territory, notably to the Kurds, but it has also advanced in that time, capturing the Syrian city of Palmyra, for instance, and routing the Iraqi army in Ramadi, just 110km from Baghdad.

The most successful group in combating ISIL have been the Kurds. This is not just because they have well-organised, battle-hardened fighters. It is also because of the nature of the Kurdish struggle itself.


If the intense, year-long US campaign has had such little impact, why would we expect a handful of new British sorties to make any difference?

The Syrian debate has been more about symbolism than about military strategy, and fuelled more by domestic politics than by the Syrian conflict.

For advocates of the policy, extending air strikes is a means of demonstrating solidarity with France in the wake of the Paris attacks and of cementing Britain’s place in the “grand coalition” against ISIL.

It is, however, a hollow solidarity that requires Britain simply to take whatever action France requests. Bombing Syria is not only unlikely to destroy ISIL, but is unlikely, either, to prevent another Paris-like attack. The masterminds of the Paris carnage came, after all, not from Raqqa but from Brussels.

The Syria debate has also become a focus for the infighting in the Labour party. The election this summer of veteran left-winger Jeremy Corbyn as party leader reopened old wounds between left and right.

Both sides have used Syria as a means of settling scores. Many Labour Shadow Cabinet ministers threatened to resign unless Corbyn allowed them to oppose party policy and vote with the government.

Corbyn supporters are campaigning to deselect MPs who voted to extend air strikes. In this tumult, it sometimes seems to be forgotten that the civil war that matters is the one in Syria, not in the Labour party.

‘Boots on the ground’

The debate about Syria has been more like displacement activity, a means of avoiding discussing the much more difficult issue of how to defeat ISIL. There is a widespread agreement – even by supporters of air strikes – that a bombing campaign alone will not dislodge ISIL. What is required, everyone agrees, are “boots on the ground”. Yet, few seem to understand why this is important.

The most successful group in combating ISIL have been the Kurds. This is not just because they have well-organised, battle-hardened fighters. It is also because of the nature of the Kurdish struggle itself.

OPINION: Why Britain was right to vote Yes

The Kurds have developed a deep commitment to self-determination honed through well-established social movements, a flourishing civil society, and coherent political aims.

The Kurds are winning – at least in part – because they see the struggle as theirs, and no one else’s. What success the US bombing has achieved, it has done so largely in tandem with the Kurds.

The situation in Syria is very different. The conflict in Syria began as a series of pro-democracy protests which soon developed into an uprising against the brutal rule of President Bashar al-Assad. But the sheer ferocity of Assad’s response, together with the interventions of foreign powers, have helped fragment the opposition, creating the space for ISIL to exploit.

OPINION: 7/7 Survivor: Why we should not bomb Syria

The current bombing campaign can only exacerbate the turmoil, further dislocating civil society, and making it still more difficult to create a powerful, Kurdish-style movement for self-determination and democratic change.


It is striking how many “realist” voices, including in the British parliament last week, now urge Western powers to back Assad as the only reliable anti-ISIL force in the country – ignoring the fact that it was against Assad that the Syrian people first rose.

To see the incoherence of the British approach, consider the case of London teenager Silhan Ozcelik. Earlier this year she travelled to Brussels in an attempt to join a Kurdish militia fighting ISIL in northern Syria.

She was arrested by British police on her return from Brussels. And last month Ozcelik was sentenced to 21 months imprisonment under the Terrorism Act.

Why, one might ask, is it a moral imperative – as Cameron insists it is – to fight ISIL by dropping munitions from the sky, but a criminal act to join those actually fighting ISIL on the ground?

Perhaps nothing reveals the shallowness of the Western approach more than the failure of the British authorities even to think about this question.

Kenan Malik is a London-based writer, lecturer and broadcaster. His latest book is The Quest for a Moral Compass: A Global History of Ethics. Previous books include: From Fatwa to Jihad, shortlisted for the 2010 George Orwell Prize. He writes at Pandaemonium: www.kenanmalik.wordress.com.

The views expressed in this article are the author’s own and do not necessarily reflect Al Jazeera’s editorial policy.


A fighter jet in the background landing as a transport aircraft is seen on the ground at the RAF Akrotiri, a British air base near the coastal city of Limassol, Cyprus [AP]

Many of the arguments against air strikes were based on emotion rather than an understanding of the military campaign.

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Published On 6 Dec 2015
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