Here we are again. There has been a terrible, brutal, repulsive terrorist attack on the streets of Paris and so the cry goes up 'something must be done'.
David Cameron wants something to be done: he wants us to bomb ISIL in Syria. Because most MPs and, rather importantly, the influential Foreign Affairs Committee don't think this is a good idea, he has set out his reasons in a substantial dossier. He published this document and then presented it to parliament yesterday.
It's a very odd document. For something that is supposed to be explaining with precision and detail the UK's comprehensive strategy to deal with ISIL, it's full of bluster, assertion and repetition. It begins with a long blurb talking about the dangers we face (not contested) and insisting we must take military action (highly contested).
But the bulk of the document is taken up with Cameron's answers to seven questions posed by the Foreign Affairs Committee. I'm going to summarise the questions and the answers and offer some sceptical responses to each:
1. How would UK airstrikes help?
It just would.
Genuinely, this is his argument. He doesn't explain how it would help, he just says there's lots happening and it's working in Iraq.
2. How would it help Syria?
It would help the moderates fighting ISIL.
This is very dodgy. First, he displays very dubious confidence in the coherence, effectiveness and numbers of the so-called moderate fighters in Syria. He says there are '70,000 Syrian opposition fighters on the ground who do not belong to extremist groups' (p. 19). Does this sound to anyone else like a figure plucked out of the air? The situation in Syria is very complex; I don't have much confidence in the quality of our intelligence in subtle and nuanced situations where the affiliations are shifting and many-layered. There's a long history of the West making catastrophic errors of judgment in situations like this (cf. Afghanistan).
3. But we don't have a UN resolution.
(a) UN Security Council Resolution 2249 calls on Member States to take 'all necessary measures' to defeat ISIS.
(b) We have a right to self-defence.
(c) The well-established principle of the 'collective self-defence of Iraq' permitted Western militaries to attack ISIL there. It's the same principle here.
It's the same problem in all cases. What Cameron glosses over is that this would involve violating Syrian airspace; we'd effectively be invading. The 'collective self-defence of Iraq' arose after the Iraq government invited western powers in to help it combat ISIL. Assad has not invited us. So the UN Resolution is certainly encouraging but it's common sense that it's not a blank cheque. The defence of Iraq or of ourselves does not permit endless incursions. Supposing France got wind of some ISIL sympathisers in Oldham planning to bomb the Paris Metro, the UN resolution would not give them authority to conduct airstrikes on Oldham.
The right to self-defence is important, of course. But I'm not persuaded of the claim that this will make us safer. It may put us in much greater danger. Now, in fact, I'm not sure that the risk to us of 'blowback' is a knockdown argument. Sometimes, you have to do the right thing even if it's at a cost to yourself. But (a) it's not clear this is the right thing and (b) actually Cameron has made our safety a key part of his argument, so this bad argument becomes operative. I'm not impressed by his suggestion, made in the House of Commons, that, according to the head of MI5 Britain is 'already in the top tier of countries that ISIL is targeting'. I'd like to see how these 'tiers' work, because we may be in the Premiership, but air strikes might risk making us league champions.
Here's another thing. I worked on a show a few years ago; it was a big, collaborative event and during one workshop one of the companies producing the show came to see how far we'd got. We tried to explain the project but it seemed terribly confused. Sensing this, we all got into this verbal loop of insisting that the idea was very clear. I think of this when I read Cameron insisting 'there is a clear legal basis for military action' (p. 15), 'the collective self-defence of Iraq provides a clear legal basis...' (p. 16), 'It is clear that ISIL's campaign ... has reached the level of an "armed attack" such that force may lawfully be used...' (p. 17). Because if you really do have legal advice that this is clearly lawful, publish it.
4. Does UK military action have agreement of the regional players?
Oh sure. Definitely. Trust me on this.
Yep, that's pretty much what he says. He answers the question 'yes', without actually saying yes. It all sounds very Gentleman's Club. 'Oh absolutely, Turkey is a very sound chap, we can rely on him'. Again, it would be very good to have chapter and verse on the diplomatic discussions and the assurances we've received. Because these things are very nuanced. I can well believe that Jordan would like to see Syria stabilised and ISIS defeated, but do they actually want the UK to do the defeating? That seems to me much less probable. If he's really confident about support, why does he just say 'Saudi Arabia, Turkey, Iraq, Iran and Russia are all members of the International Syria Support Group and are engaging in the political strategy to end to Syrian conflict' (p. 18) as if that's any kind of answer to the question of whether they would support UK air strikes on ISIL.
5. What about ground forces?
There are 70,000 moderate Syrian fighters who can do all that. It's working really well in Iraq and there's plenty of evidence that it will work in Syria.
First, see my comment on point 1: 70k sounds like a made-up number and masks the incoherence and discontinuities of the groups. Second, is it working well in Iraq? The dossier gets a lot less confident when you look at the actual wording. '[we] are having an effect', '[we are having] some success' (p. 11), the model is 'starting to work' (p. 18). It is true that the Kurdish Peshmerga and the Iraq Security Forces have had some strategic victories but they've also had some considerable losses. And they are much more organised and coherent than the varied Syrian opposition forces. Third, Cameron trumpets some successes by the Kurdish fighters in the Northern Syria in defending supply lines and territory, but these victories are tentative and it is a very slender basis for a military strategy. Because even if ISIL were destroyed, without a ground force to fill the vacuum, we really will make things worse, both in terms of Syria's future and in terms of European security. Finally, this policy is even condemned by Cameron in his own dossier: on page 1, he urges UK involvement in the Coalition with the words 'it is wrong for the UK to sub-contract its security to other countries'. Isn't this precisely sub-contracting our military strategy to these ground forces?
And also, aren't these ground forces the very fighters that Russia is targeting? Have we actually talked to Russia about this strategy? No, obviously, or you'd have said it under 4.
6. What are our war aims?
We want to degrade and defeat ISIL.
Okay, that's not an answer is it. What does 'degrade and defeat' mean? Because 'degrade' is way way way too vague. You knock a tin hat off an ISIL fighter's head and you've degraded their fighting capacity, but surely that's not good enough. So Cameron is more specific: 'so that it no longer presents a significant terrorist threat to the UK' (p. 22). Blimey. This seems both too broad and too narrow. It's too broad because if ISIL were kicked out of Syria and Iraq, those fighters aren't going to disappear; they'll just go somewhere else. And if you say, 'ah but technically ISIL is tied to that territory - the Caliphate depends on them having territory - so if we do remove them from Syria, we do technically destroy ISIL as a terrorist threat', then your argument is too narrow, because you're treating ISIL like they are a site-specific artwork not a loose coalition of angrily disaffected violent terrorists. 7/7 didn't require an ISIL headquarters in Raqqa; it's not yet at all clear that the France attacks depended on the Caliphate. ISIS's territorial ambitions are important but they are hardly the main thing here.
should say, apart from the military stuff, there's plenty that's really good in this section. It talks about 'squeezing ISIL’s finances; cutting off its flow of foreign fighters; challenging its poisonous ideology; providing humanitarian assistance to those in need; and working for a settlement to the Syria conflict and greater political inclusion in Iraq’ (p. 22). This is all really excellent and backed up elsewhere in the document with precise references and it only throws into sharp relief the haziness and vagueness of the military plans - even though the latter are supposedly the a 'key' part of the strategy.
7. What do we bring?
Lots of stuff. The Brimstone Missile, which everyone wants but only we have; the RAPTOR surveillance system which is really excellent.
Well, maybe. It does seem to be true that the Brimstone is a really great guided missile and that RAPTOR is as good as it gets. But before every war, we are always given this stuff about 'precision guided' 'surgical strikes', that the technology is so good now that it can pick out an enemy and leave the people around him standing - until we blow up a hospital or a civilian bunker and then suddenly it seems that these missiles went off-target or that the maps are out of date or the target was misidentified. And ISIL aren't just sitting in an evil bunker; this is a town with non-combatants, with civilians in it. If the air strikes go ahead, will civilians be killed as collateral in a wider war? Because that's ISIL's justification for the attacks on Paris.
Second, this presumes that air strikes are effective. Nothing yet has shown that they are. The Coalition have been throwing tonnes of ordnance into Syria for over a year. To what effect? Because, after all, what war has ever been won by air strikes? When the Germans blitzed London in the Second World War, did it do anything to help them win? If anything the reverse. And let's remember that this is exactly what ISIL want. They are a millenarian cult and they long to do battle with the crusader on their territory. You think attacking them in Syria is going to deflate them? It's going to bloody inspire them.
Of course, the temptation to respond militarily is strong: how dare they attack us? How dare this bunch of religious fanatics attack us at the heart of our culture? Yes, we think, let us rain a terrible vengeance on them. It makes us feel good to swagger about with guns and bombs (like those people at the top of the page - look at how they swagger). So yeah, let's show no mercy. Let's bomb the fuckers.
Unless doing so would do no good whatever.
Because does something have to be done? It seems peculiar even to ask the question, but does it? I mean, yes, there's plenty of stuff in the dossier that's good: choke off the oil trades, restrict the financing, get better at combatting ISIL's communications, support the Vienna processes, continue offering foreign aid to the region. We should share intelligence between nations, make sure the intelligence we are gathering is being processed as effectively as possible, we should continue to be vigilant. All of this is being done and should continue to be done.
But must something military be done? What if there is nothing militarily useful that will help? David Cameron's dossier is very unpersuasive; he hasn't made the case (I don't know what dossier Tom Watson has read). That old reflex, that empty desire to do something, anything, this is the soil in which bad ideas flourish. Let's take a moment and look at the evidence. There is no good case for air strikes on Syria. Not because ISIL don't deserve to be destroyed but because our strategy won't achieve that.
Something must be done. Sure it must. Let's reaffirm our confidence in our way of life, our secular freedom, our taste for life and love and free thinking, our determination not to let these things be destroyed and not to tear them up too casually ourselves.