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We must ask: what does ‘defeating Isis’ mean?

Contrary to the impression given by some sections of the UK media, everybody in the Labour Party wants to prevent Isis, or any other extremists, from harming UK citizens. So, is an increase in Western bombing in the Middle East,...


Contrary to the impression given by some sections of the UK media, everybody in the Labour Party wants to prevent Isis, or any other extremists, from harming UK citizens. So, is an increase in Western bombing in the Middle East, with Syria the current focus of attention, going to help the cause we all agree on?

About a year before the anti-Assad demonstrations began in Syria, I was invited to set up an English Language School in Aleppo. Syria, I was reminded, was a stable, culturally pluralistic society, where Christians and Muslims went about their daily business without religious interference from the state. I did not take up the offer. Now the government that had presided over a moderately secular state has dropped bombs on its citizens, militias are fighting militias, tribal loyalties and kinship are to the fore, and I wonder whether my contacts are still alive.

Western policy has vacillated on Syria – the only consistent theme has been that the West must ‘do something’, and this always involves the use of air power. Now we must ask ourselves: what do politicians mean when they say “defeating Isis”? Thousands of Western bombs have been dropped on Isis targets in Syria. If those bombs flattened every building, every 4×4, every machine gun in Isis held territory, would this constitute a defeat? Would we be safer?

Currently, the answer is no. Unless there were a functioning army and, just as importantly, a functioning bureaucracy to control the territory taken back from the Islamic State. Iraq should have taught us this. Prior to the invasion in 2003, I invited some local Kurdish and Shia Iraqis living in the UK to speak to our local Labour party. They told us that the West should help topple Saddam Hussein, but they made it clear that the Iraqi Baath party and the Iraqi army should be left in place. They were incredulous when, post invasion, the Americans dismantled the Iraqi state during the process of ‘De-Baathification’, something Naomi Klein has written brilliantly on.

What are the chances of bombing in Syria creating the conditions for a non-Isis, functioning state? The situation is chaotic: the Turks are bombing the Kurds, the only force on the ground taking the fight to Isis. The West has encouraged a Syrian militia that show no signs of being able to function as a national army, let alone a cohesive government, to attack Assad. Some have attacked each other. How are more bombs going to solve these tribal and religious rivalries?

Then there is the euphemistically termed ‘collateral damage’. Bombing, however well targeted, kills civilians. To the people on the ground, that means your mother, your baby son, your grandfather, getting incinerated from on high by a superior technology controlled by people you will never meet.

Even when bombing destroys an Isis commander or even a control centre, there will be “collateral damage”. We assume that the locals are a homogeneous citizenry horrified by an evil oppressor. This was our assumption in Iraq. Yet an oppressor needs a support base. Are we confident that bombing diminishes this base? Or is it the recruiting sergeant for future terrorists? This is human nature: violence and humiliation breads loss of face, which breeds resentment and, in a small minority of people, the desire for revenge. This should be obvious, yet our foreign policy seems to ignore it.

Such observations are disappointingly sparse in the media at present. Many voices seem keen to question the patriotism and resolve of those who oppose the quick fix soundbites, be it “shoot to kill” or “standing firm against terror”.

Unless there is a long term strategy, and plan forged by participants from within the Middle East rather than outside it, there is no evidence that more bombs will do anything. By declaring we are at war with Isis, we elevate their status, we empower them, we give them dignity and the chance for martyrdom.

That is why maybe next week, next month, next year or in a decade’s time, long after the politicians who ordered the bombing have gone, the threat of terror will remain. In short, raining bombs on Syria fertilises the ground for anti-western extremism.

The knee jerk reaction that we must do something to show solidarity with France following the atrocities in Paris is as natural as it is wrong-headed. It is also an easy retreat for politicians who, worried about being seen to be impotent, indulge in that age old game: “patriotism is the last refuge of the scoundrel”, as they say.

And there are other options: to fight Isis we need to close down its sources of arms and money; we need to spend more on intelligence. Above all we need to foster political cohesion on the ground in Syria. Bombing the Middle East is madness. It just creates failed states, and extremists fill the vacuum. The Labour shadow cabinet should understand this.


Steve Laughton

Steve Laughton is an economist and a member of Bournemouth Labour Party, where he has served as its Treasurer, Political Education Officer and Delegate to its Regional Board in the South West of England.

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