LONDON — (Analysis) Four Tornado jets departed from Akrotiri, the Royal Air Force base in Cyprus, early Thursday morning, carrying Brimstone missiles and Paveway IV guided bombs. Just a few hours after gaining approval from Parliament, the first British offensive in Syria struck six targets in Daesh-controlled oil fields in eastern Syria.
On Wednesday evening, after a 10-hour debate in the House of Commons, British MPs voted 397-223 in favor of Britain joining France, the United States, Russia and others in bombing targets in Raqqa, the de-facto stronghold of Daesh (the Arabic acronym for the group also known as the Islamic State, IS, ISIS or ISIL), and other areas in Syria under the group’s control.
British Prime Minister David Cameron expressed a “firm conviction” of “imperative” military action, especially in wake of the Paris attacks, and controversially labelled those who opposed the move as “a bunch of terrorist sympathizers.” Labour leader Jeremy Corbyn expressed his emphatic opposition to the move, as well as skepticism that airstrikes could have a positive impact on Syria’s bitter four-year conflict.
The move is a victory for Cameron, who was unable to win the Commons vote in 2013 for military action against Syrian President Bashar Assad’s government. U.S. President Barack Obama applauded Britain’s decision to join the airstrikes, referring to Churchill’s tired phrase of the “special relationship” which is “rooted in our shared values and mutual commitment to global peace, prosperity, and security.”
The memory of Libya and the Iraq War hung over the House of Commons as they fiercely debated what Julian Lewis, the chair of the defense select committee, claimed was a case to rival Tony Blair’s “dodgy dossier” presented before the disastrous 2003 invasion of Iraq.
Opening the debate, Cameron admitted that his case for airstrikes was “complex,” but stated that the crux of the question was whether to go after “the terrorists in their heartlands, from where they are plotting to kill British people” or “sit back and wait for them to attack us.”
Cameron continued, attempting to regain confidence in the joint intelligence committee-sourced statistic that there are an existing 70,000 non-extremist fighters, albeit rather dispersed and fragmented ones, who will take on Daesh.
The prime minister said:
“Alongside the 70,000, there are some 20,000 Kurdish fighters with whom we can also work. I am not arguing – this is a crucial point – that all of the 70,000 are somehow ideal partners. However, some left the Syrian army because of Assad’s brutality, and clearly they can play a role in the future of Syria.”
A further “25,000 Islamist troops” would not form part of the coalition, he added.
Corbyn retaliated by scorning the credibility of the notion that there are so many supporters on the ground. “In fact, it’s quite clear there are no such forces,” he said. “Last week, the prime minister suggested that a combination of Kurdish militias, the Free Syrian Army would be able to fill the gap.”
“He even claimed a 70,000-strong force of moderate FSA fighters were ready to coordinate action against Isil with the Western air campaign. That claim has not remotely stood up to scrutiny.”
Corbyn, who has characterized Cameron’s approach as “bomb first, talk later,” posed the question to the chamber: “Is [Cameron] able to explain how British bombing in Syria will contribute to a negotiated political settlement to the civil war?”
“In my view only a negotiated political and diplomatic endeavor to bring about an end to the civil war in Syria will bring some hope to the millions who have lost their homes, who are refugees, who are camped out across Europe. I do not believe that the motion proposed by the prime minister achieves that.”
He added: “Do we send in bombers, not totally aware of what the consequences will be?”
A futile move
Jonathan Powell, the chief of staff to Tony Blair until 2007, cited events in Kosovo 16 years ago in which bombing did not force the army withdraw. Surmising that airstrikes alone will not be enough to defeat Daesh, he argued that there need to be “boots on the ground.”
Even if international intervention does manage to physically diminish Daesh’s presence in the region, many have pointed out that it is unlikely to kill the idea behind the radical group. The fact remains that there is political support for Daesh, and it isn’t possible to eradicate their basis of support through bombs.
Writing for Middle East Eye on Tuesday, David Hearst warned:
“You cannot bomb IS out of existence. Al-Qaeda may have held parts of Afghanistan and Pakistan in 2003, and IS may occupy a space the size of Britain now, but neither are a territorial concept. … They can’t be cornered because they don’t behave like the army of a nation state. … On the contrary, bombing helps IS spread.”
If anything, a bombing campaign will only boost Daesh’s recruitment appeal. Hence, politicians such as Corbyn are emphasizing the necessity of both a political and diplomatic strategy to at least accompany the airstrikes — a strategy that Cameron seems unable to clearly point to.
‘Bombing … is based on a misconception of the current situation’
Experts spoke to MintPress News about the decision, and expressed their concerns over the future of the region.
Hugh Pope, director of communications and outreach for the International Crisis Group, an independent, nonprofit NGO focused on preventing and resolving deadly conflict, said:
“It’s pretty unlikely that bombing IS in Syria will help end the war or reduce the flow of refugees to Europe. The idea of bombing is popular among many Western politicians, but is based on a misconception of the current situation.”
“The fact is that even if airstrikes give Western-backed rebels an occasional tactical advantage against the jihadists, these are quickly counterbalanced by the IS propaganda gains,” he explained.
“Most Syrians, in fact, see Western airstrikes against IS as helping the Syrian regime, while the West does nothing against the government side, which is responsible for most of the civilian casualties in this war.”
Chris Doyle, director of the Council for Arab-British Understanding, expressed his cynicism over the vote.
“Much of the debate [in the House of Commons] was petty point scoring which does not reflect well on Parliament,” he said. “Whatever Britain does, ISIS in Syria will be bombed on Thursday, Friday and for many months in the future, with or without the RAF. Britain’s involvement will not make any difference to defeating ISIS nor resolving the Syria conflict.”
“How can the diplomatic track achieve its stated goals of getting to a transition?” he continued. “This is where the debate should focus. How can a ceasefire in Syria be achieved but also be made durable? Who will monitor this? The post-conflict reconstruction must also be planned for, including how refugees can return.”
Dr. Tawfik Chamaa, a representative of the Union of the Syrian Medical Relief Organisations, based in Geneva, also expressed his concerns, especially regarding the impact of increased military intervention on humanitarian efforts.
“Airstrikes are not a solution,” he stated emphatically, adding:
“From the humanitarian point of view, collateral casualties on civilians and humanitarians are huge. The intensification of airstrikes will certainly jeopardize humanitarian efforts to stabilize population, pushing the exodus [of refugees] into a historical nightmare for all European and Mediterranean countries.”
The West’s track record has proven that military intervention simply tends to fuel the fires of extremism. Any attempts to eradicate Daesh — who many have argued were born from al-Qaida and in protest of the West’s mismanagement of Iraq — through a military campaign which will inevitably cause civilian casualties. Rather than addressing the root cause of the disease, it is merely addressing one of many symptoms. Thus it seems that we have another tragic case of history repeating itself, and past precedent indicates that the pursuit of airstrikes in Syria is likely to become yet another failed military campaign in the Middle East.
Megan Hanna is an independent journalist, currently based in the Occupied Palestinian Territories. Follow her on Twitter: @Megan_Hanna_