UK votes to join airstrikes in Iraq – but at what cost?

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September 28, 2014 by Paul Goldsmith

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So the vote on whether to join in the air strikes on Islamic State (ISIL) was carried out on Friday and was passed easily, given the three main political party leaders were agreed that it should be done. Two Labour shadow ministers resigned, one to abstain and one to vote against, and there was a Lib Dem minister who resigned to vote against too. But those had little effect, as there were more than 500 votes for. However, in a spirited debate, some arguments were raised and issued explored that are worth looking at again.

The motion itself was extremely restricted. It was to simply join in the air strikes that were already happening, led by the US, over Iraqi land. It did not include any “boots on the ground” and specifically excluded joining in any operations that involved Syria. There had been a vote on involvement in Syria last August that Parliament voted against, so that could not be easily overturned, but also there is a difference between the two, as the democratically elected government of Iraq had specifically invited NATO forces to help them, whereas President Assad is not a democratically elected Head of State, and also not someone we might be best advised to be directly aiding. This leads to the obvious defensive strategy for ISIL to withdraw to the Syrian lands that they control, out of our reach. It seems to be agreed that we would need UN Security Council agreement to go into Syria and Russia’s involvement on that means it isn’t going to happen.

Which leads to the next problem. How does this all end? The operation is difficult enough anyway, given that this isn’t a well organised army with bases and control centres that we can aim at. They move around a lot and, as I just said, can withdraw to Syria to “hide” if they wished. The issue of “hiding” will also become relevant in Iraq. As I have said before, an obvious tactic for a group of people like ISIL, who put little value on human lives, will be to slink into densely populated civilian locations, meaning that a successful airstrike will have innocent civilian casualties. Once that happens, their propaganda machine will go into overdrive, and, despite the token involvement of some Arab countries, it will be positioned as Western Christian bombs killing innocent Muslims, and that’s the recruitment to terrorism work done. George Galloway, in a typically robust performance, suggested that for ISIL to have achieved what they have, there must have been some compliance from the Sunni civilian population, and we need to be careful about punishing them for their choices. When do the airstrikes stop? When all ISIL are dead? How many civilians will be dead with them? We can target our intervention better if we get boots on the ground, but that isn’t happening.

The key question raised by David Cameron in Parliament was – do we have any alternative? The establishment of a State on near the Mediterranean, near to Turkey, which aspires to join the EU, which would operate on the he values that ISIL operates on, could cause great danger to all the countries that neighbour it. They have a stated aim of converting people to their brand of Islam, and they are prepared to use extreme violence to achieve that. If we do nothing now, we might pay seriously later. Galloway pointed out that given we are in the UK, we should be pushing the neighbouring countries at most risk to take responsibility themselves (he means Turkey, Saudi Arabia etc) before we do. He also said that we should be doing more to train and arm the Iraqi and Kurdish armies so they can respond more effectively. But the problem with this is that most of the weapons ISIL have they got from retreating Iraqi soldiers, and there is a general feeling in the West that they are not yet capable of successfully defending themselves.

As I suspected, some usual suspects have already predicted that these air strikes will be used as a pretext for acts of terrorism in the UK. That is possibly right. But that forgets that lots of things can be used as the pretexts for acts of terrorism in the UK, and really what we need to be concentrating on even more is how to combat the spreading of the ideology that leads to ISIL being expanded by so many young British men, and gets it into their heads that acts of terrorism are justified. That is a hard job, but we should never give up.

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