The Case for War: British Airstrikes in Syria

Hilary Benn during the House of Commons Debate, credit: Huffpo

Two days ago, the British House of Commons voted (397 to 223) to extend Royal Air Force combat missions to the territory of Syria. Yesterday I awoke to a Newsfeed full of complaints, epetitions and overwhelming ill-informed hostility at worst, ambivalence at best, with regards to that motion. Yesterday I wrote a status, in bulletpoint form taking on some of the misinformation I had read, trying to dispel it. It blew up quite fast, generating heated discussion and sharing, and I quickly removed it. I did not feel that it had adequately cut through the nuance and ambiguity that is inseparable from this case. It is a complicated issue, multifaceted and naturally carries much emotion: the conflict spans the territory of two states, multiple external actors and numerous internal factions. It has displaced millions of people, killed hundreds of thousands more and involves highly strung political motives.

The Falsehoods

Those who stand against the extension of airstrikes have, to my mind, absolutely no leg to stand on. There is no argument which stands, no amount of pacifistic rhetoric which satisfies and no moral grandstanding which I cannot find contradictory and reprehensible.

Those who stand contrary to the strikes will launch into simplistic, powerful and convincing but baseless points against, that are frequently ill-researched, ill-founded and ideologically driven. One of the most common that is heard, is that this will be a repeat of the 2003 Iraq invasion, an ill-fated expedition of liberal interventionism that will de-stabilize the region, cause human rights abuses, needless civilian deaths and incur what Americans refer to as “blowback”, creating something worse in place of what we have removed, harking back to the almost decade-long insurgencies faced by Coalition troops in Iraq: Sadr City war, Mahdi Army and others.

This is not so. Firstly, it is impossible to imagine a force worse than ISIS taking their place. The Islamic State perpetrates some of the worst crimes against humanity seen in world since the Second World War. For what they lack in the industrial precision of the Soviet and Nazi regimes, they make up for in the unrestrained frenzy they unleash upon their ‘undesirables’. Coordinated genocides are, as I write and you read, being inflicted upon Shiites, Christians, Druze, Yazidis, among countless other groups. Entire regions in which minorities have lived for millennia are being purged in the face of the theocratic regime. Homosexuals are being executed, by being thrown off roofs, simply for daring to be themselves. The reintroduction of legalised slavery into the world is being witnessed. Yazidi women, being impressed into sexual servitude, with those too old for sale at the slave markets being executed. Those against, who state that something worse may come after ISIS are removed, must answer: what and who? What can be worse than what is already perpetrated in Syria and Iraq? They say that, as history has judged the Iraq war to be a terrible mistake, so too will engaging in Syria be a mistake. But history has also judged that non-intervention in the Rwandan genocide was also a mistake, leaving millions to their fate at the hands of butchers. History has judged that not stopping Leopold II’s mad reign in the Congo soon enough, was also a mistake. History has judged that intervention in Kosovo and Bosnia-Herzegovina was justified, that the situation for so many countless civilians, was improved from the West bombing. History will not be kind to those with the means, and the potential to stop such atrocities in Syria, who did not do so.

Royal Air Force Typhoons in Iraq. Photo Credit:

Another of the criticisms levelled against extension is that, by engaging in Syria we will simply kill civilians in collateral damage. What good will come of this?

This is based off of, unfortunately frequent, news regarding American and Russian airstrikes. The United States’ MO is to level areas with 1000lbs bombs, MIRVs and whatever else they have in their arsenal, all the same with the Russian Air Force. This assumes, falsely, that the RAF must be the same. However, not all air forces are created equally. Operation Shader, the British involvement in Iraq against ISIS has been ongoing for just over 1 year. With no confirmed civilian casualties. Over 300 combat strikes have been flown, killing ~350 ISIS combatants with no associated collateral damage. The reason why? The RAF utilise the Brimstone missile, a small anti-armour warhead capable of incredible accuracy with minimal blast radius. This means that the RAF can lock onto vehicles with confirmed ISIS passengers, engage, and kill them with civilian bystanders 10m away sustaining non-fatal injuries. Compare this to American airstrikes which will frequently cause mass collateral, due to either inaccuracy of their ordnance or a wide blast radius.

Then there are the political complaints, commonly arising from the Corbyn camp, that we are engaging in the conflict with no idea of a political settlement and peace at the end.

To this, the answer is: so? This is based off bizarre idea that States enter into conflicts with a concrete conception of what will come at the peace. This is not so. The United Kingdom did not declare war on the German Empire in 1914 with the details of the Treaty of Versailles already written in ink, nor did the UK declare war on Germany in 1939 with the idea of shearing Germany apart at the Oder-Neisse line settled in the minds of British leaders. There are general objectives at the beginning of a war (say… defeat or nullification of the Islamic State?), but the details of the peace are generally hammered out when the future path of the war is clear to those involved. For example, the Yalta Conference which decided the makeup of post-war Europe was only held in February 1945, after 6 years of fighting. Not only that, but the idea that there is no political settlement visible at current, is wrong. Both Russia and the United States are currently engaged in talks in Vienna, to decide the future fate of the country. For every day wasted, in not bringing to bear the full arsenal of the West and Russia against ISIS, more people die, more women are raped and more funds are funnelled into the organisations pockets. Furthermore, the other factions involved in the conflict (YPG, Peshmerga, SDF, SAA) will be whittled down by fighting with ISIS, such that when a resolution to the conflict comes about, they may be too weak to hold the country together, precipitating further conflict and more death.

Mevlüt Çavuşoğlu, John Kerry, Adel al-Jubeir and Sergei Lavrov in Vienna. Credit: CTV

The Philosophy

This whole position against extension of airstrikes is an exposition of a philosophy, held by many, some of whom now sit in the elite of British politics. A philosophy of cloaked appeasement. A philosophy of prostration. A philosophy of defeat. It states that we should wash our hands of foreign conflicts, that we have no place to intervene, that perhaps that by us not bombing the situation will improve. This was epitomised by the comments of one MP in the debate, stating that the LGBT community in Syria might deteriorate if we commence bombing. How could the situation for LGBT individuals living under ISIS deteriorate any further? Would this MP have the nerve to tell one of those gay men, about to be thrown off a roof, that their situation is better by not committing military action against the ‘State’ which oppresses and murders them?

This philosophy would have us abandon our allies. France, who the British State has stood by through two world wars, has been attacked in it’s very capital twice this year, not striking targets of military or political significance, but civilian targets, morally innocent civilians. This very ally, has called for aid from all it’s allies to strike back at those murderous aggressors. These would have us abandon some of our closest international friends for the sake of short-term feeling of well-being. That for the sake of satiating their pacifistic inclinations they would allow a fascistic theocratic regime to survive, and millions to suffer under it’s yoke.

This philosophy states that it would be better if the British government stay out of the conflict and allow those involved in the civil war itself to resolve it themselves, but the war had been ongoing for over 4 years at that point with no end in sight before Russian involvement began post-haste in late August. It states that regional actors should resolve the conflict, but who will? The U.S. Department of Defence has stated that Saudi Arabia have not flown a combat mission in 3 months, Jordan in 4 months and United Arab Emirates in 9 months? No one in the region is willing or able to stop this conflagration.

This philosophy even demonstrates it’s internal contradictions. For the Iraq war, which they rail against so hard, they point the finger toward the lack of a United Nations Security Council resolution justifying the invasion. Yet when the UNSC does exactly that in the present, with regard to ISIS, the position does not change. It is ideologically rigid.

United Nations Security Council, New York. Credit: Council on Foreign Relations.

Finally a further contradiction is in the rhetoric toward refugees: In the recent crisis, many of the voices calling for sympathy and to allow Syrian refugees asylum in European countries are also those calling for no airstrikes. For the refugees, they state that there is a moral case for European countries to aid them, that they flee from war-torn areas in search of a safe haven, thus the welcoming left arm of the State must be extended to protect them. Yet these same people would deny extending the protection of the State, and the moral justification for those who cannot escape the tyranny of ISIS? They extend the left arm of peace, but simultaneously deny the right arm of military to protect as well? Surely if Syrians are deserving of security from barbarity, then it is all Syrians, not merely those lucky or wealthy enough to escape to Greece that are deserving of such safety?


In this conflict, there are those who rely on us. By ‘us’, I refer not just to the British State, but the West and Russia as a whole. It is a reprehensible position, for those who have the means, and potential to alleviate suffering not to do so. It is the equivalent to stumbling upon a brutal assault which could turn fatal, while possessing the means to stop it, and not doing so. That passerby would rightly be judged, as too will we. There are millions trapped in a hell, which has raged around them for 4 years. Kurdish Peshmerga stand ready to advance, if they have but the military backup in the form of air support to aid them. They rely upon ‘us’. Countless minorities and Sunni Arabs who do not stand by the ideology of ISIS rely on us.

Kurdish YPG T-72 in action.

While it is foolish to say that merely by airstrikes in Syria, can the problem of global Jihadism be defeated and that is not what I am saying. But it is an aspect of it’s defeat, and it does not preclude other methods being used alongside. Yes: funding from illicit oil trades does need to be cut off. Yes: funding for extremist mosques in the West needs to be identified. Yes: Western Europe does need to sort out it’s integration problems. But none of these things can be taken independently. They are part of a whole. Simply by stopping ISIS’ oil smuggling funding, does not mean that global Jihadism will fade away, it also requires military action against ISIS. By cutting out extremist mosques in the West, it will not stop global Jihadism, as extremists come from many countries and regions: Chechnya, Tajikistan, Arab Gulf States and more. But all these things, used in combination will work destroy the support networks and physical presence of Jihadism.

To stand against British airstrikes is to shirk from a responsibility and condemn millions of human beings to suffer years more of brutality and deprivation in Syria. It is to abandon one of Britain’s closest allies who has specifically called for aid. It is flaunt the call of the United Nations. It is to turn away from the world in which we find ourselves placed. It is wrong.