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The questions MPs need to ask before voting on bombing in Syria

2015 December 1
tags: ,
by Paul Vallely

There are a number of questions MPs need to ask before they vote on whether to bomb Islamic terrorists inside Syria – and they should be refracted through Just War theory which, imperfect though it is in an age of terrorism, is still our best guide for ethical thinking here.

A number of criteria are clearly fulfilled. ‘Just cause’ and ‘right intention’ are evident. So is ‘competent authority’ after last week’s UN Security Council resolution calling on member states to take “all necessary measures” against ISIS in both Syria and Iraq – though what is necessary is not universally agreed. But is this ‘last resort’? And what of ‘proportionality’ and ‘probability of success’?

It is through that lens that MPs should look when they ask whether the prime minister has fulfilled the requirement of the Foreign Affairs Select Committee – whose Conservative majority said bombing in Syria should not be approved without a persuasive case that air strikes are part of a “coherent international strategy” to defeat ISIS and end Syria’s civil war.  Any benefits of air strikes in Syria would be outweighed by the risks of “legal ambiguity, political chaos on the ground, military irrelevance, and diplomatic costs”, the committee said.

So the first question is: What material difference will it make if the UK joins the US, France and Russia in bombing?  The PM’s insistence that it is “standing by our allies” is dubious in Just War terms. We might call it the Blair Defence. MPs should be convinced of a clear military advantage.

Next, may bombing be counter-productive? It could act as a further recruiting sergeant for ISIS whose internal literature makes clear it wants to provoke a battle against all “the forces of Rome” – that is the entire Christian heritage world from the US through Europe to orthodox Russia. It sees an apocalyptic battle with “Crusader forces” on ISIS territory as part of a divine plan.

War has changed.  In traditional warfare the aim was to smash the opponent’s army; now it is to break the will of the opponent. Terrorism is a tool for that. But so is provoking disproportionate responses which result in civilian casualties which will make the broader Sunni population – among which ISIS hides – see the West as a bigger threat than ISIS. We should have learned that from drone bombings of wedding parties and children’s hospitals in Afghanistan.  But technology makes an imprecise hitting back too easy, without endangering the lives of our own troops.

What will replace ISIS on the ground if it is militarily obliterated? There are not two sides in the Syrian civil war but at least four, each with international backers. Assad is backed by Russia and by Shia Iran. ISIS and other salafis groups are unofficially backed by Saudi Arabia and Qatar. The Syrian Free Army is backed by the US.  Then there are the Turks who are using the cover of fighting Isis to bomb the Kurdish even as they fight ISIS.

The story of Iraq and Libya is that when a bad regime is removed something worse can rush into the vacuum. Is there a coherent strategy to avoid that?

Finally, by bombing Syria, the UK will lose some of its diplomatic independence, and sacrifice leverage in the current round of  international diplomacy in Vienna. Is the military gain worth the diplomatic loss where, in the end, there can be no military solution only a political one? A coherent realpolitik transition for Syria must be negotiated internationally.

The Paris massacre may provoke us to the conviction that “something must be done”.  But MPS need to think very carefully about what that something should be.


from The Church Times


4 Responses
  1. David Jackson permalink
    November 27, 2015

    Excellent application of the just war theory helps chrystalise my unease into a more coherent reason to reject the Cameron call to arms. We must not bomb – the way to peace lies elsewhere.

  2. Sheelagh Pickles permalink
    November 28, 2015

    Thank you for a cool reasoned argument – how can we get it across to the decision makers?

  3. December 2, 2015

    I’ve always found Just War theory rather suspect. I suppose you could argue that those who are straining at the leash to bomb Raqqa have a “just cause” and “right intention”; but so, in theory, did the men in Jesus’ day who wanted to stone to death the woman caught in adultery. Even if bombing *were* “the right thing to do” (to use the PM’s favourite phrase), we know that, as Eliot said, “the greatest treason is to do the right thing for the wrong reason.”

    But no doubt Eliot – not to mention Jesus – would now be dismissed as a “terrorist sympathiser” and a “non-violent extremist”…

  4. Phil Greenham permalink
    December 3, 2015

    What a coherent article in an area of such complexity that cerebral thinking looses way to emotive response, or biased incomplete arguments dominating. Thank you. Such a shame our political elected body hasn’t rehearsed the full debate.

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