The decision to intervene in Syria and to more actively fight the so-called Islamic State was right. Something needs to happen now to prevent this barbaric regime from spreading its message and promoting its inhumane practices. Yet, airstrikes alone will not be the answer.
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By Soeren Keil
There has been a lot of debate in the United Kingdom and elsewhere in Europe about intensified military actions against so-called Islamic State as a result of the Paris terror attacks on 13 November 2015. The argument of the French President was clear: The attacks in Paris were motivated and supported by the Islamic State, hence a strong military reaction was needed to demonstrate that Western powers will not give in to terrorism.
Yet, the arguments in Germany and the UK, in the past France’s two most important allies in Europe (although for different reasons) were more nuanced, and in many respects the whole idea of a military reaction to the attacks that killed 130 people in Paris was more controversial. In Germany, military intervention is still a complex issue. Not only is Germany’s military in a permanent state of reform and its contribution rather limited, but in the wake of the refugee crisis Angela Merkel and her government also faced substantial internal criticism, for the first time since she came to power 10 years ago.
In the UK, there were those that said military reactions will not make a difference. Rather, so-called Islamic State needs to be defeated diplomatically and in coordination with Syria’s neighbouring countries. Others were worried about the possible risks for the UK, which have become apparent when in early December a man attacked numerous people at a London Underground station shouting “This is for Syria.” Others argued that UK participation will not make a difference, since the majority of airstrikes come from the US, and that any British participation would be symbolic more than anything.
The decision to go to war, to risk your own soldiers’ lives and to potentially escalate an already very messy conflict in Syria was very hard for the Cameron government. In addition to the general dangers connected with the participation in an armed conflict, Syria is worse for many reasons. For one, it is difficult to assess who is “worthy” of Western support in the country. Clearly so-called Islamic State are an enemy, but the Assad regime that used chemical weapons against its own people cannot be an ally either. Within other opposition forces, the Nusra Front has become more dominant, which is Al Qaida in Syria and therefore also no potential ally. Whatever is left of the Free Syrian Army and the moderates, who started the Syrian unrest, is dispersed and weakened. Even the Kurds, a traditional ally for Americans and British alike, have become problematic because of the renewed conflicts in Turkey. Secondly, Cameron was vary of another defeat in parliament. The UK House of Commons has voted on airstrikes in Syria before, but the then coalition government was unable to gain a majority and an unwise-opportunistic move by the Labour party ensured defeat for the government proposal. Cameron, now with a Conservative majority, wanted to avoid another defeat by all means. To do this, he needed the support of other parties, including at least some support from the Labour Party. Their leader Jeremy Corbyn was personally against any airstrikes, but was unable to unite his party and provide convincing arguments for those in the Labour Party that remember Tony Blair’s Chicago Speech and the need for Britain to play an active role in world politics.
Now what does stronger military engagement in Syria mean? Critics of any intervention have pointed out that increased airstrikes usually increase the suffering of the civilian population. In an age of precise strikes this argument is not fully true. While some casualties can be expected amongst the civilian population, Western powers nowadays have the military capability to reduce the risk for civilians and massively reduce the number of casualties. This is not to say that increased airstrikes will not lead to civilian suffering, but if the aim is to fight greater suffering i.e. the rule of the so-called Islamic State, it might just be worth it.
Others have pointed out that stronger engagement will result in the so-called Islamic State using more violent means against its enemies and it will also promote more terrorist attacks in the West. Both arguments are flawed, as the IS is already incredibly brutal (one only needs to be reminded about their treatment of the Yazidis that many describe as genocide). Furthermore, the so-called Islamic State is already involved in the planning and support of numerous terrorist attacks (most of them not in Western countries but in Africa and parts of Asia). To assume they would spare the West if we only stop caring about their rule in Syria and Iraq is flawed, because many terrorists, including recent attackers in the US and in London never had direct contact with the leadership of the so-called Islamic State, but use them as their inspiration for their murderous plans.
Finally, some have argued that dealing with the so-called Islamic State needs a diplomatic solution. This is true. We know that some countries, including Saudi Arabia and for a long time Turkey as well, have, if not directly supported IS, tolerated and accepted their rule as an alternative to growing Iranian influence in Syria and Iraq. While I believe that the so-called Islamic State can in fact be defeated militarily, a wider reconfiguration of the Middle East is needed to ensure stability, security and democratization. But this is incredibly difficult, as the above discussion on the conflicting parties in Syria demonstrates. Hence, this cannot be the only solution, while the so-called Islamic State keeps murdering people, killing journalists and destroying cultural monuments.
The decision to intervene in Syria and to more actively fight the so-called Islamic State was right. Something needs to happen now to prevent this barbaric regime from spreading its message and promoting its inhumane practices. Yet, airstrikes alone will not be the answer. While clearly the advances of the so-called Islamic State have stopped, they have not lost any substantial territory under their control and they have been able to fight of offences from the Kurds and Iraqi army forces (who are supported by Iranian special troops). It will be a question of time until we will run out of targets in Syria and Iraq. Then, we will need to discuss ground troops. This will be a difficult decision, and one that will only be accepted if the US will participate in troop deployment, which will only happen when a successor to Barak Obama agrees to it. Otherwise, we will be able to hurt the so-called Islamic State, but we will be unable to defeat it, and Syria and Iraq will remain shadows of states, in which different groups control different territories.
The other key variable in Syria and Iraq is the question of what happens when (rather than if) these conflicts are over. This is where the importance of state-building becomes visible. One of the major reasons for the failure of American state-building in Iraq was their inability to get the major groups to work together and cooperate in order to make the state function. Instead, Shias aimed for domination, Kurds just wanted to be autonomous/independent and Sunnis refused political cooperation and instead fought the American occupiers. We need to learn from this. State-Building is not a question of money (there was a lot in Iraq!), it is a question of commitment and of will. Commitment means that Syria and Iraq need to be re-built in order to serve all of their citizens, which will clearly mean some difficult compromises. Commitment also means that the West is prepared to stay in it for the long-run. We can learn from Germany and Japan that troop deployment for 10 or 15 years might not be enough, but that long-term engagement is needed.
Finally, commitment refers to the above-mentioned re-organisation of the Middle East. It is widely recognised that Iran and Saudi Arabia are the dominant and rival forces. One might want to add Israel to this equation. What is needed is a security architecture that, while not promoting friendship and alliances, at least promotes peace, as has emerged in South East Asia through ASEAN. The US and the European Union can provide a military and economic framework in which this security community could emerge. Yet, to deliver all of this, political will is required, both by the elites in Syria and Iraq, and by elites in the wider Middle East and in Western capitals. We have lost Iraq once, mainly because we were not prepared to be in it for the long-haul and because we never managed to promote the democracy we hoped Iraq would be. It is important that we do not make the same mistakes twice. Instead, we need to think today about what kind of Syria and what kind of Iraq we want in the future and which groups we want to include in a post-war settlement. Are we prepared to make the compromises needed? Are we willing to be in it for the long-haul? Are we capable of persuading people of the advantages of democracy and open political systems? These will be the questions that we need to answer, if we want to defeat the so-called Islamic State and other radical groups long-term.
Dr Soeren Keil is Reader in Politics and International Relations at Canterbury Christ Church University, where he teaches courses on conflict resolution and foreign policy analysis. He is the author, editor and co-editor of six book, and has written extensively about state-building and democratization in the Western Balkans. He can be contacted at firstname.lastname@example.org