Some may think I’ve been uncharacteristically quiet about the recent decision in the UK to launch airstrikes in Syria against ISIL. My silence has something to do with the fact that America has been leading airstrikes in both Iraq and Syria against ISIL since at least July, so the fact that Britain has decided to lend its weight to this campaign doesn’t seem like huge news to me.
British bombing alone will not defeat ISIL. It might add something—a rather small amount, I think—to the weight of bombs that are falling. Paddy Ashdown
But my reticence also has a great deal to do with the tone of the debate now raging on social media and within political parties. Currently it seems to take a great deal of ‘toughness’ to express your opinion online, as you can be dismissed or attacked very easily by the short blasts of tweets and facebook comments. So in breaking my silence I felt that the space of a blog post might enable me to more fully explain my position.
So what do I think about military action in Syria?
First things first, I’ve never been a pacifist, and I’ve never thought my government should be. I do believe though that my government should only take military action when negotiation is impossible, when it is part of internationally agreed action, and when it is undertaken in the context of continuing efforts towards diplomatic solutions. In the case of taking military action against ISIL, I feel all these tests are met. I wish I could believe, that we could negotiate with ISIL, but I don’t think we have anything we could give them to get them to agree to stop killing us.
They hold us in contempt. They hold our values in contempt… They hold our democracy… in contempt. Hilary Benn
Some people found this description to be over-the-top, but from what I know about this subject, this is just a bald statement of the facts. ISIL don’t want to negotiate with us, they believe they are involved in another crusade against us – the infidels. They don’t want to negotiate with other Muslims either – they think that Muslims who do not believe in ISIL’s ‘theology’ are apostates and, accordingly, should be executed.
On the second test of internationally agreed action, again, the action in Syria passes. I disagreed with the Iraq war, in part because of the lack of a UN resolution. But I don’t think these air-strikes in Syria are the same, or that rehearsing the arguments against earlier wars is helpful right now. It is arguably the Iraq war that precipitated ISIL’s growing power, both in terms of creating a power vacuum and stoking (understandable) anger against the West. But I don’t believe that my disagreement with that war gives me the right to stick my head in the sand now, or say ‘well I wouldn’t start from here’. We are where we are, and I think it’s our duty to take part in any internationally agreed action and diplomacy that might help the situation now. Certainly, everyone now, including Russia, appears to be round the table. Again, I back Paddy Ashdown on this:
At last, in Vienna, we have a proposition for a widening coalition between Sunni and Shia with the involvement of the Russians. To back that, we have a UN Security Council resolution, which, by the way, does not just legitimise action but lays a duty upon us to take action. That is what the words say. So all the ingredients that I sought to make some sense of military action are now either in place or in progress. How could I not back that?
I ask myself the same question, and come to the conclusion that I must therefore agree in principle with the action being taken now.
A UK friend of mine recently commented: ‘I’ve looked at a map. I can see why this response is appropriate and I support it.’ I’ve also looked at a map. And for the past year I’ve been following reports of the fight against ISIL in the whole Levantine/Iraqui region by the Iraqi government, the Kurds, and forces in Syria. To me, it seems pointless to assist Iraqi forces to push ISIL into a neighbouring country and think that solves the problem. As Hilary Benn made clear, this border is not a real barrier for ISIL. To me it makes sense to attack ISIL in the region, whether that’s in Iraq or Syria – as long as there’s international support for this.
Other voices have called for alternatives to be pursued, such as cutting off ISIL’s funding. I’m sure people are working on this, but a practical way of doing this seems to be to bomb the oil fields and refineries that provide ISIL with its biggest income. Others have suggested that members of ISIL should be imprisoned. Again, the only practical way I can think of to imprison members of an attacking army is to subdue them militarily first…
Of course I have some concerns. But the possibility of increasing the chances of attacks in the UK and America is not one of them. I actually don’t think this can get much worse than it already is. As far as ISIL supporters are concerned we – as the West – have already attacked Iraq, bombed Syria, disrespected the prophet, supported Israel – the list goes on and on. I do think we need to do more to win hearts and minds; but I also think it’s possible that if ISIL were less effective and less well-funded, fewer people would want to join them.
My main concern – apart from the likelihood of more civilian deaths – is the lack of an exit plan. But I don’t believe we can really control this. Partly because war unleashes uncertainty, as Ashdown said, but also because any settlements would be made in coalition – with America and Russia. I would imagine it’s highly possible that Russia and America would agree that a priority in Syria was a peace settlement that kept Assad in charge, in order to focus forces on destroying ISIL and prevent another power vacuum. I’m not thrilled about this prospect; I don’t like the idea of supporting a particular side in another country’s civil war, or the idea of propping up a dictator. But, practically, if I believe in acting in international coalition, I ultimately have to accept the strategy that’s agreed on.
Please don’t hate me!
I’ve been very much saddened by the tone of disagreements between people who find themselves on opposite sides of this issue. Each side seems to think that if you don’t agree with them, then you must be, variously, a war-mongerer, brainwashed, naïve, or irresponsible. MPs like Hilary Benn have also been accused of being ‘excited’ by the current mood into war-mongering rhetoric. For some MPs this might be true. It’s also possible though that those who read about ISIL atrocities every day – those carried out, planned, threatened, and closely-averted – have just had enough of this barbaric group.
Matthew Norman suggested in the Independent that Tony Benn would not be spinning in his grave right now, because whatever his son did, he would be proud. But I think it’s also because Tony Benn would respect others’ views on these sorts of matters, because he would imagine that they had reached their conclusions by thinking deeply about the issues. At the very least he would give them the benefit of the doubt.
I don’t like disagreeing with people I like and respect: it’s painful to feel a gulf of understanding opening up between us. But I hope people give me the benefit of the doubt, and try to understand the beliefs and principles motivating my position. As I try to understand those motivating others.
It’s important to have oppositional voices. To have people who think and act individually against the dominant view of how things are and must be; to question that view; to moderate and to some extent restrain those in power. But I think the way to do this effectively is simply to state your argument, without personal attacks on others. I’ve tried very hard in this blog post to do just that. I’ve tried to avoid characterising other peoples’ opinions – inevitably this can sound patronising and is often used as a means of ridicule. I’ve also tried to avoid rhetorical questions, which again tend to communicate incredulity that anyone could be stupid enough not to agree you. It’s probably left my writing rather bloodless – but perhaps in the present circumstances that’s a good thing.
In the US the gulf of understanding, and lack of sympathy, between the Right and the Left is staggering. I’ve met only one person who ever changed their political affiliation, and I’ve seen potential friendships wither and die once the friends realized they were on opposite sides. Donald Trump’s success with the Right is viewed with horror by pretty much everyone I know in the US and UK. More worrying to me, though, is the Left’s complete incomprehension – if they can’t understand Trump’s appeal, then how can they counter it?
I don’t think we’re there yet in the UK. But if we stop trying to understand what motivates those who disagree with us, if we continue to surround ourselves only with people like us, and if we no longer have real debate, well – we could end up with our own Donald Trump.