Something must be done : thoughts from an Englishman
The United Kingdom has begun airstrikes on ISIS positions in Syria, following a tense vote in the Parliament which eventually approved the attacks. Public support for military action had been strong throughout 2015, with 59% of the population in favour of the Royal Air Force carrying out strikes on ISIS in Syria. Spectacular terrorist attacks such as those in Tunisia, Sinaia and Paris, along with a succession of propaganda videos depicting the murder of UK nationals, have made ISIS the most hated enemy of the person on the street. Everything about the organization – its ruthless and barbaric killing of prisoners, extreme application of Islamic law, glorification of violence, abuse of women and annihilation of religious minorities and other sects is in direct conflict with the worldview of almost everyone in my country.
There’s also a sense of fear. Fear that it could be our concerts or cafés or demonstrations or football matches that take the next hit. Nobody in the UK was afraid of Al Qaeda; nobody in London lost sleep over the Taliban. If anything, many people saw military campaigns against them as futile, costly and unwarranted. The war in Afghanistan particularly frustrated the public, as young men came home in body bags from fighting an enemy that had little bearing on our own security. These groups seemed far off and remote. When terror did strike, it was assumed to be an exception, not a new norm. 7/7 set the security services reeling and shocked us all. However, the assumption in the aftermath was that life would return to normal and with time, it did.
After Paris, the dynamic has changed. The desire to see ISIS destroyed is more urgent. The tired rhetoric of ‘’Something must be done’’ is no longer an empty thought in our minds. Closing our eyes or turning away is not seen as a legitimate response.
Something must be done. What that ‘something’ should be is not clear, not even to people who understand the magnitude of the threat ISIS represents. Scrambling the bombers’ communication channels and raining high explosives onto battlefields in Syria and Iraq is certainly a step. But it’s the kind of step which led to anarchy in Libya after the UK’s most recent military project within NATO. Then, too, the perception was that something had to be done, yet little thought was given to the processes that might later need doing. Crippling the government forces and sweeping the rebels to victory felt like a dream come true for policy makers, but soon turned into a nightmare as warring factions began to tear the country apart, creating a paradise for Islamic militant groups, separated from Europe only by the blue of the Mediterranean sea.
Proposals for a similar air campaign, which would have lead to regime change and ultimately plunged Syria into even deeper chaos, were defeated in Parliament only two years ago. A growing discomfort about the effectiveness of such action lead a majority of MPs to cautiously vote no to bombing in support of rebel groups.
But since then, the fractured revolution in Syria has descended into a desperate civil war with no clean parties left on the field. Something should have been done, yet diplomatic and political solutions were left untried. The threat of force was the only tool many countries were willing to use and once it had been decided against, the civilians of Syria were left to their fate.
In this writer’s opinion, the ‘something’ that must be done must be new, must be courageous and must not follow the same patterns of bombing or military occupation that have been so counterproductive in the past.
What Syria really needs right now is stability. The countries supporting President Assad, primarily Russia and Iran, must come to the table with the United States and Turkey and create a roadmap for the transition from Assad to another leader within the next few years. This done, the remaining moderate rebels must be brought inside to push ISIS and other extremist groups out of Syrian territory.
Furthermore, the major regional powers must demonstrate their commitment to regional stability by committing their military forces to removing ISIS. British or American soldiers deployed in the Middle East are subject to accusations of Western meddling and crusader attitudes. If the ground and air offensive against ISIS was carried out in the most part by the U.A.E., Saudi Arabia or Qatar, then the situation would be fundamentally different.
Turkey, a major ally of the West, must be taken to task over its lenient border controls, explicit support for Turkmen militia in Syria and implicit support for Jabhat Al Nusra, not to mention its continuous attacks on Kurdish YPG and YPJ militia who are a crucial part of the effort against ISIS. It is unacceptable for a NATO state to use its forces in ways directly counterproductive to what little wider strategy there is to stabilize the Middle East and defeat IS.
These are my thoughts, as an Englishman. There’s an old saying that if you do what you have always done, you will get what you always got. Maybe it is time for politicians, generals and diplomats to try a new approach to problem solving, one based on fearless negotiation and deliberate pressuring of regional powers, rather than the blunt instruments of bombing and boots on the ground.