On Thursday, British planes were in action over Syria against the Islamic State of Iraq and the Levant (ISIL) only hours after the government won a vote in the House of Commons that sanctioned the action. While the military importance of this should not be overstated – numerically Britain’s contribution will be quite small and it is already conducting air operations against ISIL in Iraq – politically it was of real significance not least because a previous attempt in August 2013 had been defeated.
Although this time the government won the vote decisively, by 397 to 233, the debate both within Parliament and across the wider public was impassioned. Typically, however, many of the arguments against air strikes were based more on emotion rather than a reasoned understanding of the military campaign to date, the role of air strikes in the wider battle against ISIL or the realities of the refugee crisis.
As such, perhaps it was not surprising that the structural flaws within the Middle East – so skilfully exploited by ISIL – and which air strikes will do nothing to resolve, were not mentioned at all.
A central argument made by opponents of the air strikes is that bombing just does not work. It follows that the continued existence of ISIL after the extensive campaign to date is evidence of its failure. Yet this is to misinterpret its role.
Effectiveness of bombing
While bombing itself will never determine a campaign, it still has real military value. It stopped dead the advance of ISIL after they took Mosul and surged towards Baghdad in June 2014, and has been a significant factor in the military successes of the Iraqi and Kurdish security forces as they continue to regain territory from ISIL.
By extension, to oppose air strikes in Syria should lead one logically to oppose air strikes in Iraq given the de facto lack of border. Yet, few contend that the West should have stood by allowing even more of the Iraqi population to suffer the brutal cruelties of ISIL. As such there is no justification to leave Syrians to the same fate.
Few contend that the West should have stood by allowing even more of the Iraqi population to suffer the brutal cruelties of ISIL. As such there is no justification to leave Syrians to the same fate.
In fact, the effectiveness of the bombing also undermines the claim of its opponents that ISIL actually wants the West to bomb them thus radicalising a wider Muslim audience.
While ISIL will no doubt use any footage of air strikes, true or false, to portray it as the victim, that is still not the same as wanting your leadership cadres or military assets destroyed.
Similarly, the argument also demeaningly assumes that Muslim audiences around the world are somehow ignorant of ISIL’s behaviour or the fact that the vast majority of its victims are themselves Muslims.
It was also claimed that air strikes will lead to more refugees yet this again fails to recognise the realities of what is already happening. While many refugees are indeed fleeing the Syrian civil war, they are also fleeing ISIL. The flood of refugees from Mosul and its outlying regions to Kurdistan and Turkey were a direct result of ISIL’s territorial gains not its military defeat. As its territorial gains are rolled back, the refugees will be able to return.
This argument is also based on the false proposition that the air strikes target civilian areas whereas, in fact, the opposite is true. One of the reasons why the air strikes to date have not been as effective as they could have been is because of the very restrictive rules of engagement around targeting static targets such as buildings.
The vast majority of targets are mobile military assets far away from residential areas. Similarly, to claim that air strikes will cause unnecessary civilian casualties is to deliberately ignore the ongoing suffering that is already taking place.
Leaving Syria and the plight of its people aside, it was also argued that air strikes would leave the UK more vulnerable to terrorist attack. Indeed, some commentators even cited the attacks in Paris as evidence of this.
Yet, while there may be some colouration between active engagement in the Middle East and subsequent terrorist attacks, to use this as justification for appeasing ISIL is to surrender your political decision-making process to whoever threatens you most.
While those perpetrators of previous attacks in London or Paris may well have felt some form of grievance over Britain’s involvement in Iraq or Afghanistan, the justifications given in their recorded testimonies were incoherent at best. They were also individuals capable of true evil.
While supporting the destruction of ISIL does bring the risk of domestic terrorism, those that support its ideals should not be handed control of our political system. Rather, that its supporters are capable of such acts shows how essential it is to destroy them.
Ultimately, however, while air strikes do have real value, and the British government was right to call for their expansion into Syria, it is a short-term solution to a much deeper and intractable regional problems, ie, the acceptance of intolerant Islamist thinking, the continued ability of politicians to exploit the sectarian divides between Shia and Sunni communities, and the failure of secular governments to address their peoples’ needs.
ISIL’s true strength has been its ability to exploit these structural problems and operate in the vacuum left behind.
As such, while air strikes are central to the destruction of ISIL, ultimately they do little to address its root causes. The British government was right to take this step but it now has to make sure this is the start of a genuine reassessment of the region, its needs and the West’s role within it.
Crispian Cuss is a former British Army officer who has worked and lived in the Middle East. He currently acts as a defence and security consultant.
The views expressed in this article are the author’s own and do not necessarily reflect Al Jazeera’s editorial policy.