Why the Liberal Democrats are right to support air strikes in Syria

A European neighbour asks for help in response to an attack on it.* That in itself should make clear why if you are an internationalist or a pro-European, and all the more so if you are both, the proposal should be given serious consideration.

Of course, no neighbour has the power of writing a blank cheque, so serious consideration does not automatically mean support. For that, there are further hurdles to pass.

One is the question of whether this is a hasty move. Certainly phrases such as “rush to war” have been used, but I find them at best irrelevant and at worst callous. The desirability and extent of foreign military intervention in Syria, including from Britain, has been debated over for years and whilst the rise of ISIL changes the terms of that debate, even the post-ISIL debate has been long running. That has not been a rush. But why do I also say “at worst callous”? Because Syria is not a peaceful nation or even a troubled nation in statis. It is somewhere that is seeing horrific, large scale tragedies each and every day. If you think military intervention will make a positive difference then that daily horror, the deaths ticking up at such a rate than even in reading this post the body toll will most likely have risen, is a darn good reason to move as quickly as you can. And of course if you don’t think it will make a positive difference, then no speed is the right speed.

But bemoaning rush without acknowledging that the scale of the daily deaths necessities making judgements as quickly as possible is to turn a blind eye to what should be at the centre of the debate: the fate of Syrians.

That of course moves the point on to the question of whether military intervention will help. On its own, it is clearly not enough. But then that isn’t what Parliament has debated today – the motion sets out a package of measures of which the extension of airstrikes is only one part. Nor is it a choice between airstrikes and other measures such as tighter financial sanctions on ISIL and those who fund it. The latter is important, but it is no harder or slower to do if air strikes also happen.

Moreover, many of the downsides of military intervention that rightly cause careful pause for thought in other situations are already with us. ISIL already hates us. ISIL has already escalated the conflict to a global scale, killing British citizens amongst many others. A refugee crisis is already with us. The domestic government is already deeply unstable. Military conflict has already spilled over into neighbouring countries. Global superpowers have already been drawn in.

Air strikes, in conjunction with other action, including troops on the ground, have however proved to improve the situation in both Iraq and Syria. The support given to the Kurds, for example, has resulted in more territory being controlled by forces that treat the public vastly better than ISIL does. Bombing has not been a magic cure-all, but it has kept many civilians free from the deadly grip of ISIL.

Air strikes consistently work best when the enemy is one that has migrated from terror and insurgency to more conventional forms of warfare, trying to occupy large areas of territory – as has ISIL. The more conventional the conflict, the more such military intervention has helped, and countries such as Afghanistan which have switched back and forth between both types of conflict show the importance of that difference starkly.

Will air strikes result in some civilians being killed? Sadly, yes. But inaction can also cause death on a huge scale. Philosophers craft many fine debates about the differences between causing death by action and death by failure to act. In this case, however, those differences vanish in the face of the certainty that without change deaths will continue.

Lessons from conflicts as diverse as Kosovo, Rwanda and Darfur show that not acting for long periods of time can have dire consequences. The humanitarian option can require a military component – as was the final endgame in Rwanda where it was military action that put an end to genocide.

The question is will air strikes make a bad situation less bad? If so, then they are the right course to take, and given the role air strikes have already played in pushing back ISIS and in restricting its finances through disrupting its oil flows, the sensible judgement is that the balance of risk is far more heavily that inaction will be the wrong course than action.


* For those who obsess about calling the air strikes a Conservative / David Cameron plan, it is worth pointing out that is the Socialist leader of a European neighbour.

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