First off, we are treating the entire Syrian situation as if it were an eschatological war between good and evil (ISIS being evil, us being good, and Assad something to be dealt with later). This insane view that ISIS is the be-all-and-end-all in enemies that the West faces is literally moronic – it is the same thinking that led to such poor strategy in Libya, Iraq and Afghanistan. In Libya, we supported an opposition because they were good and Gaddafi was evil – we only found out afterwards, once they had split and started killing each other, some even becoming an overseas presence of ISIS, that the situation was not as simple as all that. In Iraq, we destroyed Baathism and sought to eradicate all traces of it from the country because, of course, it and all of its adherents were evil – we only found out afterwards, when the entire Iraqi state collapsed into ethnic chaos and we ended up fighting against people we had just liberated, that the situation was not as simple as that. In Afghanistan, we liberated the country from the Taliban because it was pure evil, only to find ourselves fighting more Taliban than we had started with (mainly drug interests and tribal militias who had had no previous ostensible links to the original Taliban) – we found out after dropping copious daisy cutters on any ‘evil’ person who showed themselves, for the first time in a fateful decade, that the situation was not as simple as that. Yet even now, four years after the publication of E. L. James’ seminal book Fifty Shades of Grey [joke], we still have not got it. Now we are being told by our political classes that the situation is as simple as that – ISIS are the ultimate form of evil and that only good can come of bombing them.
So, then, if not black and white, what is the situation? The situation is that we are about to launch ourselves headfirst at one of the participants in a multi-party civil war. Roughly speaking, ISIS hold the east of the country (and a third of Iraq), Assad holds the west and various rebel groups hold pockets around the country, most significantly in the north around Aleppo and the Kurdish region.
Now, what does each party want? ISIS’s aims are fairly straight forward – attack everyone, more or less, to gain territory. However, underlying their clear-cut aims is a ruthless pragmatism – they will not attack who they can sell oil to and will deal with the most unlikely allies to pursue their aims, which means that they do not militarily attack surrounding states such as Turkey or Israel and tend to focus on weaker rebel groups, barely attacking Assad at all (with whom they have a lucrative oil trade). Assad’s aims are slightly counter-intuitive. Backed by Iranians and Russians, Assad is seeking not only to defeat the rebels but ensure the indefinite security of his own regime thereafter. This means that he is focussing almost exclusively onattacking the non-ISIS rebels. By leaving ISIS in place, he gives the West the black and white choice, the only thing that we understand – Assad or ISIS. Clearly, in that situation, we would be forced to root for Assad against ISIS. A map of Russia’s airstrikes clearly shows this (above) – they symbolically attack Raqqa as a token, directing the bulk of their strikes at the other rebels. Moreover, Assad’s regime is content to buy ISIS’s oil, giving the insurgency more funding. Meanwhile, the Kurds want to strengthen their ethnic autonomy, and the various other rebel groups have varying aims – all involving the overthrow of both Assad and ISIS. Hence, there are three major players on the ground, with many more contributing in some form or other.
The foreign situation is almost as complex. Russian/Iranian involvement has caused other Middle Eastern countries to intervene on opposing sides. Because Iran has brought Hezbollah fighters in the region, the most unlikely alliance imaginable has been formed around the Golan Heights – there is evidence that Israel is providing some assistance (feasibly airstrikes) to local ISIS fighters in order to bury as many Hezbollah fighters as possible. Similarly, there is a plethora of evidence to suggest that Turkey is providing assistance and some air support to ISIS and various northern rebels in order to bury as many Kurds as possible (as well as potentially buying some of ISIS’s oil, preventing the west assisting the Kurds directly as a fellow NATO ally and seeking to safeguard rebel groups of ethnic Turkmen origin). Further involvement is seen coming from the Gulf States, funding and arming ‘moderate’(jihadi) rebel groups when not directly helping ISIS. This is to counter the growing influence of Iran in the region, and because many in the Gulf States sympathise with the radical Salafi doctrines that ISIS follows (not necessarily their governments). From a Saudi Arabian point of view, the Syrian Civil War is one proxy war in a region of proxy wars – see Yemen. Against this backdrop, the West (France, USA and several others) are bombing ISIS, partly as a response to terror attacks and partly as a perceived overhang of responsibility from the Iraq War for the atrocities being committed. This is the scenario that our elected representatives are being asked to, and probably will, vote for.
My point about the complexity of the situation is that it simply raises too many unknowns and too much uncertainty to allow us to have a concrete plan of military action, and too many interests are at stake to make our sought after outcome likely (many actively backing ISIS). Moreover, there is no clear Western interest in this mess – obviously, peace would be nice, but that is all but totally unachievable in the face of all of the other actors who for various reasons are determined that the other side cannot win the war. We cannot do as that sage of war and scourge of evil, Donald Trump, says, and ‘bomb the shit outta them, and then take their oil.’ If we wanted to make our voice heard in this clamour, we would need a lot more than a few bombs.
Quickly, two misconceptions about ISIS. Firstly, they are not exceptionally bloodthirsty and dreadful by Middle Eastern standards. Bear in mind that Assad has killed many, many more people than ISIS has. In the first half of 2015, Assad’s forces and militias killed 7,894 people while ISIS amassed a paltry 1,131 murders according to the Syrian Network for Human Rights. Not only this, but regime loyalists have committed almost every type of atrocity that ISIS has committed (and then some – Syrian airpower allows them to barrel-bomb, which ISIS cannot do for all their intentions). Assad’s fighters have crucified people, massacred innocents, beheaded people, used chemical weapons, burned people, etc. – the list goes on. What they have not done is produce glossy propaganda videos detailing all of the gruesome atrocities, including the murder of Western journalists, as ISIS does frequently in order to attract like-minded followers from foreign countries. ISIS propaganda, backed up by the pro-Assad Russian alternative media which dominates sections of the internet, has skewed Western thinking to categorise ISIS as in a league of its own, the most uniquely evil thing that humanity has produced in the 21st century, comparable to the Nazis. This is abjectly wrong – ISIS were not even the first to produce glossy propaganda videos of journalists and enemies being tortured and brutally murdered. Just look at the stuff which comes out of Narco-ridden Mexico - not if you're sqeamish. ISIS were far from the first people to dress up in balaclavas and shout at a camera while about to commit some foul atrocity. In fact, the cynic inside of me thinks that ISIS may have copied the Narcos in their execution videos (incidentally, the Narcos have definitely killed more Westerners than ISIS ever will through drug trafficking and gang-crime - why are we not planning to bomb them?). Barbaric ISIS may be, but not exceptionally barbaric.
Secondly, ISIS are not that much of an existential threat to Britain. In the wake of the Paris attacks, a feeling of hysteria has gripped the West, with the Daily Mail comments section repeatedly comparing ISIS to the threat that we faced in our finest hour in 1940, against Nazi Germany (and also mistakenly praising Mr. Putin’s actions in Syria). However, even if ISIS could reproduce Paris in London (I personally think that the security services have the threat more than covered, but I don’t want to go into that here), there is literally no chance that it would spell the end of Western civilisation. One hundred and thirty deaths is a terrible and senseless crime, but it does not weaken the West one single bit. Therefore, in between these two points, there is no point our dealing with ISIS militarily beyond what we are doing because they simply do not merit our attention to such a degree – indeed, by giving them such attention, we fuel ISIS and make such attacks more likely not less because the threats originate far more in our own countries than Syria.
Finally, I just want to make a point about the efficacy of Western airstrikes. Google ‘highway of death’ (or just look at the above image) and you will see what US airstrikes can do - the death toll was anything between 200 and 10,000 for a two day bombing campaign, according to wikipedia. The slaughter and destruction rained down on retreating Iraqi forces in the 1st Gulf War stands in clear contrast to our own military capabilities in this day and age. What we are really talking about when we say that we want airstrikes on Syria is six decrepit, ageing Tornados. Even if we did have the power (as the USA does), the evidence suggests that ISIS have adapted to airstrikes too much for it to be useful. The President of the USA blocks 75% of strikes in Syria for fear of collateral damage – this means that even with a full airforce, we could only attack 25% of ISIS targets identified. This will not even come close to defeating them – it can only be a mere inconvenience. Launching our battered jets at ISIS is not a game changer. We cannot provide a significant enough deployment of force to merit any change in the ground situation at all. That, ladies and gentlemen, is poking a hornet’s nest with a tooth-pick (at £100,000 a pop) – it will make potential jihadis here in the UK more likely to plan attacks without making any material difference to the state of the Syrian Civil War whatsoever, and that is why we must not vote to bomb Syria. Much more powerful air forces have been bombing Syria for a year now without defeating ISIS – why should our paltry contribution be the one that counts?