ISIS: Are airstrikes really the solution?


by Chris Hanley and James Downes

Following the recent attacks in Paris and the heightened security measures in Brussels and elsewhere across Europe, the question of intervention in Syria has finally reached the floor of the Commons for the second time under Cameron’s tenure, this time with a different outcome. In August 2013, Cameron put forward his case for intervention against the Assad government by joining the US-led airstrikes, but lost by a margin of 13 votes. With the circulation of evidence portraying the use of chemical weapons by the Syrian government against its own people, the thought of a bigger threat spawning from Syria in 2013 was far from everyone’s mind. 

A year passed and the world watched on as the biggest terrorist group the world has seen managed to rise from Al Qaeda’s ashes. Arguably too late, the UK eventually agreed to join the air assault in Iraq but there still was no legitimacy to take action in Syria. That was at least until now. Around 10pm on the 2nd December the House took the decision, by a margin of 174 votes, to take the fight against Islamic extremism across Iraq's northern border. 


In order to understand how we got in this mess it is worth taking a step back and looking at the wider picture of events of the past decade or so. Following the 9/11 attacks, several Western countries decided to follow the US in its campaign in Iraq which sought to oust a Sunni dictator in a country that fostered terrorists and supposedly harbored WMDs. This proved relatively easy to do but a lack of genuine political and military strategy for the country paved the way for a resurgence of a Shia government which was barely any better. 

Reversing the pre-2003 trend, the Sunni minority began to suffer from the same type of oppression and thus an uprising began. It was this uprising that drew support from various groups from outside the country to fight their cause, eventually culminating in the 2006 civil war. The US continued to fund the newly formed government, whilst countries like Saudi Arabia funded and supplied groups like the ISI. The country was more divided than ever and became a breeding ground for terrorists.
In 2010, the Arab Spring led to the collapse of several notable dictatorships across North Africa. Meanwhile in Syria, the Assad family were resilient and refused to relinquish power and it became clear that Bashar Al-Assad would use any means necessary to keep it that way. It was after this period when the ISI, soon to be ISIL or ISIS, started to gain significant ground and concentrate their resources in Syria. Their tactics were brutal with a clear cut strategy. Moreover, they continued to expand and wreak havoc in the region. Significantly lacking public support after enduring a decade of war in the news, western governments however were unable to legitimise a real effort to quash this stateless regime. Fast forward to November 2015, it became clear to everyone that the threat is real and not just a few thousands miles away, but on our doorstep. 

Future implications

Public opinion has now swung in favour of taking action in Syria but so far only airstrikes are being discussed. A ground war would be more complicated than ever, where coalition forces would have no ally and end up fighting ISIS forces among many other rebel groups, as well as a national army which will act on behalf of a President who condemns Western interference. When looking at the context of this phenomena, it is worth challenging the idea that intervention in itself will be a success at all. The past decade has proved otherwise. Reactionary intervention without sufficient strategy has only made everything much, much worse. Thus there are three key questions to be asked: Is there legitimacy to intervene? Is there a real strategy? And will airstrikes be sufficient? 

Is there legitimacy to intervene? 

Rationally speaking, there is little argument in saying that ISIS should not be stopped; something does need to happen. However, the nature of international relations has made this inherently difficult and the United Nations and its Security Council are at the heart of the discussion. Article 51 of the UN charter says the following: 

Nothing in the present Charter shall impair the inherent right of individual or collective self-defence if an armed attack occurs against a Member of the United Nations, until the Security Council has taken measures necessary to maintain international peace and security. Measures taken by Members in the exercise of this right of self-defence shall be immediately reported to the Security Council and shall not in any way affect the authority and responsibility of the Security Council under the present Charter to take at any time such action as it deems necessary in order to maintain or restore international peace and security. 

From this text, three core premises can be derived in relation to the legality of military intervention in another sovereign state: 

1) When there is authorisation from the UN Security Council
2) When intervention is consented by the recipient State
3) The right of a Member State to act in self-defence 

As previously mentioned, intervention so far has only materialised in the form of air strikes in Iraq. The reason why the US led coalition did not go further is because the Iraqi government (unsurprisingly) welcomed the West’s support; Syria (also unsurprisingly) did not. Thus, the second premise was fulfilled and intervention was deemed legal. A certain interpretation could have also led the campaign into Syria on the grounds of “collective self-defence”, whereby action in Syria could be justified since this is clearly a cross-national issue and Iraq is directly affected by the situation on its borders. 

The situation now is very different to a year ago. The Paris attacks sparked the adoption of Resolution 2249 by the UN Security Council: 

The Islamic State in Iraq and the Levant/Sham (ISIL/ISIS) constituted an “unprecedented” threat to international peace and security, [it calls] upon Member States with the requisite capacity to take “all necessary measures” to prevent and suppress its terrorist acts on territory under its control in Syria and Iraq. 

During the meeting, the French representative echoed Hollande’s view that the Da’esh had committed an act of war against France and added that France had obtained activation of the European Union’s mutual solidarity clause. 

There is without a doubt a clear legal basis to act, but it must be recognised that this resolution did not invoke Chapter VIII of the UN Charter, which specifically sanctions military action. Instead, the resolution appeared more as an appeal or a recommendation than anything else. This being said, it seems pointless debating the international legal framework when the US has been bombing ISIS in Syria since September 2014, and Russia since September 2015. 

Is there a real strategy? 

For David Cameron, the rationale for bombing ISIS in Syria is two-fold: ISIS presents a direct risk to the UK and it must act in solidarity with its ally, France. Conveniently, Cameron was quick to publicise the number of terrorist plots the British secret service foiled that year, prior to the Paris attacks. No country is willing to put troops on the ground and airstrikes keep the national casualty rate to a minimum. Little planning is needed and the public doesn’t need any more convincing: airstrikes provide the perfect balance between proactive action without committing British lives.
Turning back to the UN, Resolution 2249 asks Member States to “take all necessary measures to prevent and suppress terrorist acts committed specifically by ISIS and to eradicate the safe haven they have established over significant parts of Iraq and Syria”. Is blowing craters in the Middle East what the Security Council meant by “all necessary measures”? It seems unlikely. 

Last week, Cameron made his case for bombing Syria in the House of Commons and since, his case has begun to fall apart. The case for expanding the strikes lost momentum both in Parliament, and amongst a public that is slowly recovering from the emotional scenes in Paris earlier last month. Only one day was allocated to the debate – it was clear that Cameron was rushing to war while he still had the chance. 

Without a proper plan, the UK runs the risk of spreading the war even further and playing into the hands of ISIS. In 2003, the West rejoined the war in the Middle-East with an initial strategy of wiping out Saddam's regime but with little thought for what would happen after that. This time it seems, that strategy is lacking from the onset. 

Will airstrikes be sufficient? 

It is always worth remembering that politics is a short term game of 4-5 years. Decisive actions such as those in times of war will heavily impact the outcome at the ballot box – the War on Terror only serves as a reminder of how badly Labour were punished by Blair’s leadership in this regard. Airstrikes provide a short term solution in meeting the public outcry for action whilst limiting the commitment. 

Almost all experts agree that airstrikes are not a solution in themselves – action needs to be taken on the ground for real change to materialise. And by limiting action to this method, the UK runs the risk of sowing the seeds of the next generation of recruits. As Tony Benn once put it: 

“There is no moral difference between a stealth bomber and a suicide bomber. Both kill innocent people for political reasons.” 

Thousands of innocent people will die, which will play right into the hands of ISIS recruiters. Taking action such as this is “like hitting a fully mature dandelion with a golf club. We will participate in making sure the myth of why we are evil is sustained and we will assure yet another generation of recruits”. 

But are there many other options? Not a single nation has proved to be willing to volunteer troops to the cause, especially after over a decade of fighting a hopeless war, which left thousands of Western soldiers and innocent citizens dead. From this perspective it is clear that a diplomatic solution should be sought after: the vicious cycle of starting a war, creating chaos, putting the wrong people in charge and not trying to fix any of the things that started the war in the first place which in turn leads to more war, needs to end. 

Many believe that the best method is to support Sunni armed groups in their fight both against ISIS and the Syrian regime, but on the other hand this requires a great deal of local expertise, knowledge and commitment. Putting weapons in the hands of rebels hasn’t exactly worked out too well so far, but support can also come in the form of tactics and strategy. Others are now starting to consider engaging in talks with the Syrian government - a sort of settlement with the lesser of two evils. At least from the literature, there doesn’t seem to be many other ideas, or at least any that nations are willing to invest significant time and capital into. However, just because there are not plausible alternatives, it therefore does not justify the launching of an air campaign whose direction and claim cannot stand up to moral scrutiny.

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