Photo: picnic with Syrian Army, 1977 (I am long dark hair, right. Judith beside me.)
Spoiler: if you are looking for a blog that slags off Labour Party comrades, you are going to be disappointed. (Likewise, if you are looking for moralising sanctimony, there is plenty of that to found elsewhere on social media too.)
In an earlier blog, I gave an account of my retrospective view of the Iraq War all those years ago. In short, my conclusion is that the invasion was a qualified success, and the occupation an avoidable catastrophe. These still remain contentious conclusions, but what is clear is that the current situation regarding Syria is very different from that was the case in Iraq in 2003 (or 1990-91.)
The first difference is that there is no proposal, anywhere as of today (30th November 2015) to bomb Syria, if that means attacking either the government and state institutions, armed forces or civilian population of that country. The proposal is to bomb ISIS-ISIL-Daesh, which is an insurgent force which is located in both Syria and Iraq. ISIS itself is an enemy of Syria and its people.
The second difference is that there is a war going on already both in the wider region and specifically against ISIS. In the next door country, divided from Syria only by the line on the map drawn across the desert by Mr Sykes and M. Picot, the UK is already assisting with airstrikes against ISIS: the same enemy, the same units, the same individuals, possibly. In Syria, there is already a civil war raging in which one of the combatant parties is ISIS; in addition, outside forces in the shape of France, Russia and the US are already engaged in that struggle as well as the Syrian national armed forces.
The third difference is that can be no apologists for ISIS as there were (albeit dubiously) for Saddam Hussein and his Baathist regime. Even those who insisted that Saddam’s dictatorship was justified on the grounds of internal stability of Iraq, or as a post-cold war secular buffer in an increasingly unstable region of burgeoning theocracies cannot defend the pure horror of works and beliefs of ISIS. (If anyone is in doubt, again, the internet will help: try googling “life under ISIS” or “ISIS atrocities pictures” to get a full measure of the evil of which they capable – but you will need a strong stomach. Put simply: if you do not agree that ISIS should be the subjected of lethal armed force, it is unlikely that you can believe that lethal force should ever be used.)
The fourth difference is that while Iraq offered no immediate and present threat to the UK, ISIS has shown that it is intending attacks on this country, has attempted such attacks and has recently succeeded in mounting a similar attack in Paris.
The fifth difference is nature of the coalition against ISIS and its mandate. The current coalition includes Russia (with the consent of the Assad regime in Damascus) and France (operating under NATO treaty and United Nations cover). This is very different from the unilateral coalition of the USA and UK which invaded Iraq under – at best – dubious legal authority in 2003.
The sixth difference is the contribution which UK and our armed forces can make in the coalition. The UK is the sole owner of high precision Brimstone missiles (other than Saudi, whose presence probably would not be useful). In Libya 98% of RAF Paveways and Brimstones landed on target (based on the RAF’s own evidence to the Defence Committee). Of the remaining 2%, three quarters landed within five metres of their targets and were thus classed as inaccurate strikes. To deploy these against selected ISIS infrastructure and personnel would be much less likely to cause widespread so-called collateral damage than the current alternative of strikes by earlier generation French missiles and – even worse – saturation bombing by the Russians. In this case, there is a rational argument which says that UK involvement in bombing could save Syrian lives: in neighbouring Iraq, in 1,300+ RAF missions resulted in 330 ISIL killed by UK airstrikes, with zero civilian casualties and ISIS losing 30% of its territory. This should be compared to the outcome of Russian bombing, which includes the use of cluster munitions.
In Russia, state-controlled media show the Syria campaign in sanitised terms in a sort of modern digital TV version of the Stalinist war films which have their own dedicated channel there. In France, public outrage means that M Hollande’s actions are likely to go unquestioned by a population understandably itching for retribution. In this context, the UK could stand as a reasoned voice regulated by sceptical public opinion while it argues for proportionate action and the restriction of targets. If we are not in the coalition, we will have no chance of doing so.
My own view is unequivocally that ISIS is the most evil force to emerge since the fall of Nazi Germany, in its perverse doctrine of religious purity and the utter brutality it exercises both against its enemies and those who are forced to live under its rule. Its treatment of minorities such as the Yazidis is genocide pure and simple; its abuse of women and girls is barbarism beyond belief.
I would forget the misleading idea that not to intervene will “stop the war” – the war is ongoing and will continue no matter how the British House of Commons votes.
I would dismiss the hashtag #DontBombSyria – because no-one is proposing that: the hashtag should be #DontBombISIS.
I would dismiss the argument that “bombing alone will not solve the problem of ISIS” – no –one is proposing that either. Airstrikes would be part of a co-ordinated wider military strategy and of a political and diplomatic process for Syria and the rest of the region. Again, the UK can play a role in these only if we are part of the coalition against ISIS.
I would reject the notion that Syria is another Iraq. Above all, I believe that like the Nazis, ISIS must be annihilated. I also believe that UK can and should play a number of useful roles in that process.