Our writers argue the cases both for and against military intervention in Syria as a response to the recent terror attacks in Paris.
The strategic use of ground troops must be considered as an option if we are to achieve stability
The Paris attacks on 13th November, in which 130 people were killed, represent the deadliest terror assault carried out by an Islamic terrorist group in the West for over a decade. It was later confirmed that Isis, the theological quasi-state, had claimed responsibility for the attacks, garnering the combined disgust of every government on the planet. David Cameron, Vladimir Putin, Barak Obama and François Hollande for once all seem to be in agreement about the need to end Isis once and for all; Cameron has even stated that he would be willing to negotiate with Putin over Bashar Al-Assad, the embatled Syrian president, remaining in power, exemplifying this determination to tackle Isis.
However, there remains a glaring gap in the strategic response of Western governments: the outright refusal to employ ground troops in the Middle East. A dangerous precedent has been set in recent times, in which indiscriminate intervention from the air is acceptable, whilst the strategic use of ground troops to minimise collateral damage is not. Nonetheless, this uncomfortable truth must be an option on the table if we truly wish to reach a point of stability in the Middle East, to eradicate Isis, and to prevent these kinds of attacks from happening in Paris, New York or Beirut ever again.
The West is held back from achieving a meaningful long-term strategic solution in the Middle East by the memory of Iraq, and the deadly mistakes that were made there. The Iraq war created a power vacuum in which Isis could grow, and an environment in which its abhorrent and warped manifestation of Islamic theocracy could flourish. Nevertheless, it would be a naive misconception to think that contemporary Western intervention is the source of all the current problems, or that the Middle East was a byword for stability prior to it. In short, the Western powers and their populations need to move on from the fallout of the Iraq war, and understand that inaction has just as many consequences as action in these circumstances.
The root problem of Iraq and Syria can be traced back to the arbitrary border that slices through Mesopotamia. Isis territory corresponds, with unnerving accuracy, to where the majority of Syrian and Iraqi Sunni Muslim populations reside. Sunni Isis has gained traction as a violent response to the Shia-dominated governments of Syria and Iraq. Simply bombing them will not destroy them outright, and nor will it destroy their ideology; it will only serve to act as a propaganda tool.
Our response to the Paris attacks could provide an unprecedented opportunity to give the oppressed peoples of the Middle East a clean break and a fresh start, and to make amends for our horrendous misjudgements in Iraq. By deploying ground troops, we can send a message to our supposed allies in Turkey and Saudi Arabia that it is not okay to complicity allow Isis supply lines to exist. We can show that it is not okay to oppress and deny the Kurdish people their rightful claims to a state, when they are doing their utmost to fight the medieval methods of governance Isis is employing. By using ground troops, we can show the Middle Eastern populations that we will stand by them in their quest for human rights, the rule of law and permanent stability. Equally, in using ground troops to pacify and change what remains of Iraq and Syria, we can create the beginnings of long-term peace, helping to stop the flow of refugees coming to the EU, and give its stretched institutions some breathing space to deal with the humanitarian catastrophe which is unfolding. In doing so, we would undermine the credibility of Eurosceptic parties intent on using the migrant crisis to divide our multi-cultural society, and ultimately break the EU apart. It’s been said many times that Isis want jihad, they want war, they want to become martyrs; whilst this is, to some extent, true, they also want to destroy Western civilisation from the inside, and the collapse of the European Union would provide the first stepping stone towards this aspiration.
The choice is clear. We must act now, in tandem with Russia and the United NationSecurity Council. The time has come to end Isis.
We need to break the cycle of military retaliation
In the wake of the atrocities committed across Paris, the internet erupted, bombarding newsfeeds across the world with minute-by-minute coverage, impassioned commentary and hopeless condolences. Inevitably, a sizeable percentage of the responses took the form of calls for retaliation. This is understandable; given the brutality of the attacks, why shouldn’t the perpetrators and their commanders be made to face the combined force of our vastly superior Western militaries? Wouldn’t inaction be akin to letting the extremists responsible off the hook? Indeed, far too many innocent people have lost their lives for total inaction to be an option. That said, we must tread very carefully when choosing our course, and not allow ourselves to be guided by our hearts rather than our heads. We are dealing with an incredibly violent group, active in one of the most volatile regions on the planet. This is no time for an emotional response.
Perhaps most frustratingly for those who counsel caution, we are not operating beyond the limits of human experience. Far from it, this isn’t even the first time this century that we’ve found ourselves faced with such a dilemma; consequently, we have a perfect illustration of the perils of bigger army diplomacy in the form of the 2003 invasion of Iraq. Though the coalition succeeded in ending the despotic reign of Saddam Hussein and the Ba’athists, the transition from dictatorship to ‘democracy’ was anything but smooth. Iraq’s long suppressed Shi’ite majority were free to invert the religious situation, and embarked on their own programme of repression against the newly vulnerable Sunni minority, a move which inflamed religious hated and culminated in the 2006 civil war.
Iraq was in a state of utter discord. Ordinary citizens were denied basic securities; skirmishes between militant Islamic sects, government forces and Western troops ensured bloodshed became an everyday occurrence, and most crucially, the structural issues that had plagued the nation prior to the invasion had not been addressed. This chaos proved to be a magnet for extremists who wished to join on the conflict on the side of the Sunnis, including the small but ruthless organisation that later become Isis. In post-war Iraq, this group found a haven. Desperate though the situation was for swathes of the Iraqi population, the unrest transformed the beleaguered state into the perfect training ground for prospective Isis combatants; disillusioned young men and women, many of whom had lost everything to the conflict, could be moulded into battle-hardened fanatics. This only became possibly after the invading Western forces had instigated the collapse of social order.
However, even without this shamefully recent example of military action both causing and perpetuating the very problems it set out to combat, the case against intervention would remain strong. If one looks at the rhetoric being employed by Isis, it is clear their distorted interpretation of Islam and callous disregard for human life are not the only reason for the deaths of so many innocents. They make constant reference to the sinful ‘crusader states’ of the Western world, in an attempt to incite sympathies to holy war; the attacks in Paris were a calculated provocation designed to elicit an aggressive response, and to hit back using military force will only reinforce this narrative.
Furthermore, though enemy fatalities may appear to represent progress, we must remember that the reality is not so simple. When conducting a retaliatory strike of any kind, civilian losses are inevitable; tragic though the continued erosion of the local population would be, we must try to avoid this outcome for more than the sake of preserving lives. Yet again, all this would do is strengthen and vindicate the Isis chieftains. Is it not a sure-fire way of converting potential recruits, to allow their families, friends and homes to become casualties of war, and to write off the destruction as ‘collateral damage’?
There is no straightforward course of action in this situation. Political solutions, such as helping local rulers to create a stable environment, or encouraging cooperation between Middle Eastern states, will likely prove to be the way forward; though these approaches will be difficult to put into practice, a lack of satisfactory short-term fixes is not a reason to charge into the fray and inflame an already delicate situation. As history has proven time and again, war breeds chaos, which in turns breeds further war. Though the political and moral pressure to do otherwise is immense, this cycle must be broken.