It seems a real shame to me that looking at the newspaper headlines this morning, there was so much focus on the “civil war” in the Labour party. There is no civil war, not yet. There is a media narrative that was constructed in the hours after Jeremy Corbyn won that this civil war would happen. What amazes me is the complicity of some Labour MPs for grabbing this narrative and feeding it. John Spellar MP and Simon Danczuk MP certainly spring to mind – but that is only because they are dim enough to be used by other members of the Parliamentary Labour Party.
Our media, and our political parties really should be focussed instead on the civil wars taking place in Syria and Iraq. After all, they are about to debate and vote on sending British aircraft armed with British missiles to attack Daesh (I use Daesh in place of IS, ISIS or ISIL throughout) targets in Syria. This is an extension of the bombing runs that we are already taking part in in Iraq – at the request of their government who, for better or for worse, we are allied to.
This is an unenviable task. The potential risks from either taking part or not taking part are huge. One of the true measures of leadership (whether in politics, business or life) is being able to take a decision based on imperfect information. I certainly don’t know what the answer is. It is almost impossible, in my opinion, to come up with a definite answer – i.e. one that you can promise is definitely the right thing to do. Of course, you wouldn’t think that looking at social media. I think it is probably worth trying to frame the questions that we think our politicians should ask themselves when coming to a decision. By the way, these are not questions that should be limited to Labour politicians – every MP of every hue should be challenging themselves in this. If they get it wrong history will not judge them kindly.
So how do you decide on which course of action to take? My very humble opinion is that you need to ask yourself these two questions:
1. Do I believe that extending bombing against Daesh will degrade their ability to cause harm and suffering BEYOND the level of harm and suffering our bombing will cause AND beyond the level of risk (known and unknown) to our interests that this cause of action will create?
2. Do I believe that bombing Daesh is the best course of action to achieve this when compared against the other possible courses of action that we can take to reduce their effectiveness?
Now, I am sure that other people would come up with different questions – and I absolutely accept that my questions are coloured by my own background and political persuasion. I am more than happy to have that debate, although our MPs are being forced into having this conversation in an unseemly rush so we may never have time.
So asking the questions is really only the start of the process. Answering them is a much more difficult one. I do not believe that we have concrete answers to many of the parts of that question, and we can only base our decisions on what we know – whilst taking into account the possible risks of those bits of information we don’t know.
Will bombing Daesh degrade their ability to cause harm and suffering?
This is really a military answer. However, what harm and suffering do we hope to reduce? Is it the harm they are causing to the people of Syria? If that was our aim surely we would be bombing the forces of President Assad – after all he has caused much more harm and suffering to his own people. Is it that it will reduce their ability to cause harm and suffering to the UK and our interests? I think unfortunately we haven’t yet seen the evidence of this. How will dropping bombs on Raqqa reduce the risk of harm to the UK? We have been targeted numerous times we are told, and our security services have managed to stop seven attempts this year. But there has been no offer of evidence that these attacks were planned by IS in Syria. Clearly, we can not be privy to all available information in this area. But when even the Conservative Chair of the Defence Select Committee is not convinced, I see no reason for the rest of us to be convinced.
Will it be beyond the level of harm and suffering caused by our bombing?
Apparently, we have the smartest munitions in the world. Our Brimstone missiles are so amazing they can fly into a HQ building, put bomb-proof blankets on any civilians there and THEN detonate killing only people marked as DAESH members based on DNA profiling performed by the missile. True story.
There will be civilians deaths from our bombs. Of that there is no doubt. Anybody who does not believe this is ignoring all technical and historical evidence. Just a few short weeks ago the US military blew up a clinic being run by Medicins Sans Frontieres on Afghanistan. We can not rule out civilians being murdered by our bombs. It is that simple. So, given we can’t say that this will reduce the chance of British casualties, this “sum” is very much imbalanced in the other direction. Every man, woman and child murdered by our bombs will be a black mark against our country. Oddly though there COULD be an argument that using British pilots and British munitions would mean France, Germany, US and other partners fly fewer sorties and drop fewer bombs. Perversely from this argument, our involvement could lead to fewer civilian deaths overall – it will simply be that some of them will come from British bombs instead of other countries.
What level of risk will our bombing create / mitigate?
This is really the hardest thing to grasp for many people. We are much more prepared to deal in certainties. However, the key risks that are being mentioned are: That by bombing we will increase the likelihood of a terrorist attack and radicalisation; secondly that if we fail to bomb we will lose our place in terms of world standing.
Firstly, I do not see any evidence that individual actions will increase the likelihood of an attack on the UK. Young people who are radicalised become that way because of a complex mix of factors – social, educational, family, quasi-religious etc. Individual actions that we take will not change that. The issues come from not challenging the underlying core of what allows a bredding ground for radicalisation. We must remember that the biggest terrorist attack in the UK in the name of Islam came from people born and raised in the UK. Similarly with the Paris attacks. There particularly ideology might have been shaped by others, but the process of making them susceptible to radicalisation started way before that. I am therefore not convinced by this being an actual risk.
For the second risk, I find this a truly amazing argument. Whether it comes from the fact there is a UN mandate, or the fact that France has requested our support under a little known clause of the EU contribution, or our membership of NATO. There are a myriad of counter-examples. It is an incredibly spurious invented risk. China are a member of the security council, and have suffered their citizens being kidnapped and murdered by Daesh too. They are taking no part. When we attacked Iraq during the second gulf war, France played no part. It is a tired, and quite frankly irrational train of logic.
So I think on the basis of those points taken in total, then there is no real case for bombing Syria. I think even those of us who have wavered and thought long and hard about this, when you consider the evidence that has been made available to us, AND then compare it to the evidence put before the Defence Select Committee, if even their chair is going to defy the Conservative whip and vote against this, we must reach the conclusion that bombing Syria is the wrong action to take. On that basis, we need to answer the second question – what action should we be taking?
Well, there are a variety of areas that need to be really looked into. First of all, we need to degrade the capabilities of Daesh – this would require removing their funding (from interests in Turkey and Saudi Arabia), removing their access to arms, limiting their infrastructure, limiting their ability to carry out attacks in the UK. Whilst bombing may degrade their infrastructure, it does not impact the other 3. Quite simply, we need much stronger international controls on money flow and on arms exports. We also need a political settlement involving everyone including, as a novelty, Syria. In terms of removing the radicalisation of people in the UK, this requires funding for social housing and a range of other problems – many of which are being cut by the Conservative government. One of the key things that also reduce their ability to perform terrorist acts in this country and the police and security services. Thankfully the Tories have been forced into a U-turn on police cuts and have announced greater resources for security services. We would be much better using the £200k cost of each Brimstone missile being poured into those efforts.