Bombing for Peace

Published 1 st December 2015 by Daniel Kirkpatrick

Syrian Intervention

As I write, the UK Parliament is likely to vote in favour of extending aerial bombing to Syria, yet the political debate seems to simply trot out the same political arguments. Therefore, I have decided to write a list of pros (the official justification) and cons (the academic and political arguments against) for military intervention; whether aerial bombing would actually improve the situation or not.


The human cost

David Cameron in his parliamentary debate on Syria stated: " I think extending our activities into Syria is likely to reduce civilian casualties rather than increase them." [1] To date, estimates argue that "250,124 Syrians have been killed and an estimated two million injured out of a population of 22 million" [2], and academic estimates have suggested that such a war will likely continue until 2023 [3] meaning that if the war continues at its current rate around another 500,000 more Syrians will be killed and 4,000,000 injured. This is a crude estimate, but portrays the extensive human costs at stake. The question remains however: 'Would aerial bombing really reduce the number of civilian casualties?' I will come back to this question.

The security cost

ISIL are allegedly one of the greatest security threats to the UK and western Europe: "[T]here is a clear and present danger to the United Kingdom from ISIL...planning attacks against our country today." [4] "[W]hy now?...[B]ecause of the grave danger that ISIL poses to our security....It is...clear that ISIL’s campaign against the UK and our allies has reached the level of an “armed attack”" [5]. David Cameron has argued that military intervention would undermine and target ISIL's capacity to launch any further international attacks thereby protecting the UK from international terrorism. It is argued that aerial bombing would help claw back some of the territorial gains ISIL has made in Syria taking away one of their most lucrative forms of financing - taxation or extortion depending on the persepective.

The political cost

The continuing war in Syria has significant knock-on effects geopolitically; whilst we may not join the war others will and may to devastating effect (such as the potential fallout from Turkey shooting down a Russian fighter jet). Indeed, Syria will likely define international diplomacy for the coming years as states trade arms, support humanitarian efforts, seek to build regional alliances, gain access to resources, back the various sides. Arguably being militarily involved gives the UK a greater bargaining position when it comes to other diplomatic measures. In the words of David Cameron: "These are our closest allies [France and the USA], and they want our help", and later referring to the UK as "America’s oldest friend, partner and ally to help out in this vital work" [6]. Not intervening risks undermining the UK's geopolitical alliances and potentially limits its ability to influence any outcomes.

You may think from this above list that I am behind intervention; I am not. Whilst these are important arguments, I believe they fundamentally fail to address important counterarguments.


The human cost

Just as the cost of not intervening is high, intervening militarily will have a clear human cost. The current proposal is to allow an aerial bombing campaign, and although technology has advanced considerably [7], it still will cause numerous civilian casualties [8]. Research looking at Afghanistan has shown that even if aerial bombing doesn't have high casualties, the destruction to property leads to an increase in insurgent attacks [9].

And the question remains - who are we bombing? Two years ago it would have been Assad [10], yet now it is ISIL. The fluid nature of such a complex war is that we don't actually know the repercussions of such an intervention, thereby making any justification for it dubious. Indeed, there is important evidence arguing that peace settlements are most stable when one side wins the war and therefore we should 'let them fight it out' [11]. Instead, by supporting the Free Syrian Army and Kurdish militias we will be propping up one of the weaker sides - the one in opposition to Russian airstrikes and Assad - thereby prolonging the violence undermining claims that military intervention will bring an expedited end to the war.

The security cost

Yes ISIL are clearly a priority threat to national security, but will bombing Syria really contain them? There is strong evidence to suggest that when military attacks have civilian casualties this will often strengthen recruitment for the organizations you are trying to eliminate [12]. In fact, was the Paris attacks not engineered to cause terror, to encourage western retaliation, for this very purpose? [13] It is no secret that the Paris attacks were part of a rational military strategy, extending their 'war' to the streets of the so-called aggressor western nations, those same nations bombing them in Syria.

Too much language has sought to de-humanise ISIS rather than engage with who they are and what political objectives they are really seeking [14]. It is not simply Islamic fundamentalism raging across the middle east, it is a complex coalition consisting of the humiliated and oppressed, alongside the opportunistic and ideological. Military intervention therefore would serve this narrative of oppression, create more civilian victims of western militarism and lead to a fertile recruiting ground for ISIL.

The political cost

The Iraq and Afghanistan wars have left a dark legacy over UK foreign policy, meaning any intervention now would only be granted if it was low-risk, widely supported and relatively brief. Yet the complexity of the Syrian conflict makes each of these conditions highly problematic. The risk is high for all the above reasons, but also because of the heightened tensions between the Western bloc and Russia over Ukraine. By providing air support to the same actors who Russia are bombing does not seem credible as a long-term solution.

The necessary level of support will be difficult to secure in the region as Saudi Arabia, Egypt, Jordan, Israel, Iran, Russia, Turkey - to name but a few - all have vying and many incompatible interests at stake. Citing support for the USA and France seems simplistic beyond reason when surely it should be these regional states who we should be most concerned with.

To hope for a brief campaign however, is the most problematic. Even if fighting were to be resolved, mass post-conflict reconstruction would take years. Furthermore, with a war ongoing in Iraq, thousands of refugees, IDPs, and arms, multiple militias, and economic devastation, the recipe for a resurgent conflict seems all too possible.

Syrian Intervention
Such a dire overview may seem too cynical, but I believe this to be a fair assessment; one which paints a bleak but realistic picture. Yet I don't believe that there are only negative options available. The problem with current debates is that military intervention is being presented as the only game in town.

Western military options will not resolve the war, protect our security or advance our political interests, but neither will non-engagement. Instead we need to begin a comprehensive political solution which should encompass a number of possible steps: long-term peacebuilding; dialogue with all actors; redefined integration strategy for refugees; and high level diplomacy.

Long-term peacebuilding and dialogue go hand-in-hand. Talking to terrorists is a highly controversial, especially ones engaged in beheadings and war crimes, but past experience has shown that often it is the most effective way of resolving a complex communal civil war [15]. Yet dialogue and negotiating are not the same thing, neither does dialogue mean that you are legitimizing or supporting the deplorable acts being committed. However, dialogue with armed groups is crucial in identifying what potential political options could be pursued. Furthermore, at the local level engaging in dialogue is crucial to ensure that local populations are engaged in the process, not passive recipients. One peacebuilding NGO concluded a report on Syria suggesting that "The most significant channels remain kinship, local and social relations. Civil society activists have also developed influential relationships with armed groups" [16]. Such interaction with these communities requires a very different strategy to military intervention, to one which looks to long-term social change. The reason for such an approach lie in the fact that armed groups primarily consist of a collection of local actors who engage for political objectives defined by their locality - local rivalries, grievances and personal hatreds are often more important than abstract political ideologies like Islamic extremism [17]. Addressing such local issues hence requires transcending the militaristic framework to a localised one grounded in long-term peacebuilding.

I have discussed the importance of addressing the issue of refugees in my earlier post so will not expand on this, leaving the final point of high-level diplomacy. Now although the UK is clearly very active in such diplomacy the focus seems totally contradictory and self-defeating; for on the one hand it is seeking dialogue with Russia and Saudi Arabia, yet on the other allying with those Russia is bombing and the Saudis are financing. Of course there are many factors at play here, but such a contradictory stance cannot be realistic considered a long-term strategy. Instead, reaching a situation where there is a cessation of violence requires a diplomatic solution which doesn't revert back to Cold War us and them thinking.

If military intervention could make the situation better I would be fully behind it, but all the evidence I can find points in the other direction. We need to shift the discourse surrounding Syria away from militaristic responses to language which sees peacebuilding and diplomacy as more effective long-term strategies.

[1] David Cameron, HOC, 26 November 2015, col 1496.

[2] Patrick Cockburn, "Too Weak, Too Strong: Patrick Cockburn on the state of the Syrian war", London Review of Books, 37(21):3-6.

[3] Max Fisher, "Political sciences says Syria's civil war will probably last at least another decade", The Washington Post, 23 October 2013.

[4] David Cameron, HOC, 25 November 2015, cols 1355.

[5] David Cameron, HOC, 26 November 2015, cols 1490,1491.

[6] David Cameron, HOC, 26 November 2015, cols 1489, 1497.

[7] David Cameron referred to the RAF's advanced Brimstone precision missile system which would " strike accurately, with minimal collateral damage". See David Cameron, HOC, 26 November 2015, cols 1489.

[8] Kocher et al.(2011). "Aerial Bombing and Counterinsurgency in the Vietnam War", American Journal of Political Science,55(2):201-218.

[9] James Lyall, (2014). "Bombing to Lose? Airpower and the Dynamics of Violence in Counterinsurgency Wars".

[10] See HOC debate 29 August 2013.

[11] Edward N. Luttwak, "Give War A Chance", Foreign Affairs, 1 July 1997.

[12] See for example Lafree et al (2009), "The Impact of British Counter-Terrorist Strategies on Political Violence In Northern Ireland: Comparing Deterrence and Backlash Models", Criminology, 47(1):17-45.

[13] See for example Adam Shatz, "Magical thinking about ISIS", LRB, 37(23):11-14.

[14] See Richard Jackson, "Confessions of a terrorist sympathiser", November 27th 2015.

[15] To cite but a few examples consider South Africa, Northern Ireland, Columbia, and Uganda. For more read Conciliation Resources Accord "Local Engagement with Armed Groups In The Midst of Violence".

[16] Wisam Elhamoui and Sinan al-Hawat, "Syria: Civilian interaction with armed groups in the Syrian Conflict", In "Local Engagement with Armed Groups In The Midst of Violence", Conciliation Resources, Accord, Insight 2, pp34.

[17] Stathis Kalyvas, "The Ontology of "Political Violence": Action and Identity in Civil Wars", Perspectives on Politics, 1(3):475-494.