On the surface, British prime minister David Cameron can feel confident after Wednesday’s parliamentary vote on airstrikes in Syria, with 397 MPs in favor and 223 against. This represents a reversal of his first parliamentary attempt on the issue in 2013, which was defeated.
This time, all but seven of the 320 MPs from Cameron’s governing Conservative Party backed him, as did almost one-third of those from Labour – the Official Opposition and the second-largest party in Parliament. Six of the opposition Liberal Democrats’ eight MPs also voted in favour.
Labour leader Jeremy Corbyn granted his MPs a free vote. This was portrayed by some as respect for democratic will, but in reality was more about averting an internal rebellion and threatened resignations had he insisted that they line up behind him.
Despite protests and heated debate, British public opinion largely supports extending airstrikes against the self-proclaimed Islamic State (ISIS) to Syria (the UK has been bombing the group in Iraq since September 2014). A YouGov poll last week showed public support outnumbering opposition by a factor of three to one (59 percent and 20 percent, respectively).
It is important to note also that opposition to airstrikes does not constitute a cohesive camp. It is divided between those who see Syrian president Bashar al-Assad as part of the problem, and those who view him as part of the solution (the latter cheer on airstrikes by his ally Russia). This fundamental divide has so far proved unbridgeable.
However, any jubilation by Cameron over the parliamentary vote will be misplaced, certainly beyond the short term. He is about to extend an air campaign that, despite the fact that it’s been ongoing for more than one year and has recently been joined by an increasing number of countries, has proven ineffective in degrading ISIS. The logic seems to be: if dropping bombs has not worked, drop more.
The folly of this approach does not seem to matter, particularly amid the sense of urgency brought on by the Paris attacks, and fears of similar attacks in neighboring Britain and elsewhere in Europe. It is about being seen to be doing something, regardless of its efficacy.
Airstrikes are visual, with footage of warplanes taking off and landing, and of bombs being dropped and exploding. This provides attention-grabbing imagery for the media and its consumers, as well as a sense of safety and purpose, no matter how illusory. Such campaigns are inevitably accompanied by calls to “support our troops,” limiting the scope for continued opposition by waving the banner of patriotism.
Military action will be ineffective without tackling the ideology behind ISIS, and resolving the legitimate grievances that it manipulates for recruitment purposes. American officials have acknowledged that ISIS has been largely able to replace dead fighters with new recruits.
Challenging its ideology might be crucial, but it is not as simple or visual as dropping bombs. As such, it is not deemed as “sexy” in terms of news coverage, and cannot be readily paraded by politicians to a concerned public that demands overt action and quick results.
However, even U.S. Secretary of State John Kerry – whose country leads the coalition air campaign – said the day after the British parliamentary vote that airstrikes alone are insufficient to defeat ISIS.
Some attribute their inefficacy to the absence of boots on the ground. Besides the false assumption that there is a purely military solution to the problem of ISIS, this ignores the fact that there are already boots on the ground, from myriad sources. The problem is, between them and the various air forces flying overhead, there are multilayered suspicions, antagonisms and open conflict.
The idea of a large enough, unified, domestic ground force to complement the air campaign is fantasy, as is the idea of countries sending sufficient numbers of troops to such a complex war zone. Those foreign forces already on the ground – Sunni jihadists, Shiite militias (including Lebanon’s Hezbollah), as well as Iranian, Russian, American and Israeli troops, among others – are bitterly opposed by the various warring parties.
Even Iraq’s prime minister, a U.S. ally, this week described the deployment of foreign troops to his country as an “act of aggression,” following Washington’s expressed intention to send around 100 more special forces personnel there.
More airstrikes will mean more civilian deaths, injury and suffering, breeding the very resentment that sustains groups such as ISIS. Some will justify this as an unavoidable price worth paying, but this is easily done from a comfortable distance – Syrians and Iraqis can die so Europeans feel safer.
This thinking is fundamentally flawed. Apart from the Paris attacks, ISIS has relied on “lone-wolf” sympathisers outside the Middle East and North Africa – mainly citizens or residents of the countries in which they carried out the attacks. Bombing Syria and Iraq does not prevent this – on the contrary, its likelihood could be increased.
There are also attempts to deny or minimize the extent of civilian casualties, accompanied by the usual claims about precision weaponry. London claims that more than a year of British bombing in Iraq has caused no casualties, and that it aims for the same in Syria.
“To date, the international coalition has only conceded two ‘likely’ fatality events,” according to the organisation Airwars, which tracks and archives the air campaign against ISIS in Iraq and Syria. “The first was an event in Syria in early November 2014. The second event, which took place in Hatra in Iraq, was publicly conceded eight months after the event in November 2015.”
According to a conservative assessment by Airwars, up to December 1 coalition airstrikes caused 332–498 civilian deaths in Iraq and 364–498 in Syria, though there are reports of up to 2,104 civilian fatalities in total. Cameron is dreaming if he thinks the British air force has not, and will not, contribute to the death toll.
Additionally, last month the Syrian Network for Human Rights – an independent organization that investigates and documents human rights abuses by all sides in the Syrian conflict – said Russian airstrikes in Syria, launched on September 30, had killed at least 526 civilians, including 137 children.
Then there is the fundamental problem that focusing only on ISIS rather than also on the Syrian government tackles the effect rather than the cause of the conflict. This blinkered strategy has angered and alienated Syrian rebels fighting on both fronts, including those whom Western powers seek as a complementary ground force to their air power.
Arguing that the government’s fate is being dealt with via negotiations ignores the bankruptcy of the entire “peace process,” from Geneva to Vienna. Assad’s fate is still undecided, and his government refuses to even discuss a transition of power, which is supposed to form the basis of negotiations.
“We are not at all talking about what is called a transitional period,” Syrian deputy foreign minister Faisal Mekdad said just days after the first round of talks in Vienna. “There is no alternative to the leadership of … Assad.”
Cameron is committing further to a strategy that has already proven flawed on many levels. He may currently have parliamentary and public backing amid a frenzy of fear and jingoism, but this will give way to tough questions for which he lacks convincing answers.
The views expressed in this article belong to the author and do not necessarily reflect the editorial policy of Syria Deeply.
Top image: Protesters react outside the Houses of Parliament, in London, on Wednesday, Dec. 2, 2015 after UK lawmakers voted 397–223 to launch airstrikes against the Islamic State group in Syria. (AP Photo/Tim Ireland)