Wednesday 2 December 2015

Damned if you do, damned if you don't: Bombing Islamic State in Syria

In February 2003 I was one of around a million people who marched through London to protest against the US-led invasion of Iraq. It was a bitterly cold day but the streets were packed with a huge cross section of British society all united in trying to persuade Tony Blair not to attack Iraq. Of course we know what happened and the terrible consequences of that war. Yet even to those of us who opposed military action in 2003, I think that the extent of the subsequent bloodletting that followed in Iraq would have surprised us had someone from the future told us what would happen.

Royal Air Force Tornado
Crown Copyright under Creative Commons Licence
Photographer: Corporal Mike Jones
The recent history of Iraq reminds me of one of Jesus’ parables in which he told this story: 

'When an evil spirit comes out of a man, it goes through arid places seeking rest and does not find it. Then it says, ‘I will return to the house I left.’ When it arrives, it finds the house unoccupied, swept clean and put in order. Then it goes and takes with it seven other spirits more wicked than itself, and they go in and live there. And the final condition of the man is worse than the first.’ (Matthew 12:43-45)

To me this chilling parable speaks to us of what happened in Iraq. There is no doubt that Saddam Hussein was a brutal dictator, but because of the vacuum left behind after he was deposed and because of the failures of the American and British Government in building the peace, a new and more terrifying evil has entered Iraq. What Islamic State have done in Iraq and in Syria is both more brutal and arguably more evil than the authoritarian Ba'athist regimes they replaced. The trouble with wars is that they are unpredictable and can have far reaching and unforeseen consequences.

So far the question about British involvement in bombing Syria seems an open and shut case. Learn the lessons of Iraq and abandon military interventionism. Yet, sadly life is rarely that straight forward.

For while there are huge and often unknowable consequences to intervening militarily in a crisis, there are also consequences to inaction or being slow to act. The world failed to act to stop the genocides in Rwanda and Bosnia during the 1990s and, as a result, thousands of innocent men, women and children were slaughtered while the United Nations and Western nations largely stood at the sidelines.

The sad truth about the appalling mess that the world finds itself in is that there are no longer any good choices to make. All options on the table are likely to end in death and destruction - usually for innocent Syrians and Iraqis. 

Bombing Islamic State targets in Syria - as we are already doing in Iraq - is more than likely to cause the deaths of innocent civilians and reinforce the narrative of a crusading West which then draws young Muslim men and women to join the so-called Caliphate. David Cameron and all those who choose to go to war should be very clear that their decision will result in the deaths of the innocent. 

Yet, inaction will also have consequences. In summer 2014 the world failed to act and allowed Islamic State to commit genocide against the Yazidi people in Iraq, ethnically cleanse Iraq and Syria of thousands of Christians, Yazidis, Shia and other minorities, to rape and enslave women and to carry out the systematic and brutal murders of civilians. It is unlikely IS can be stopped without some kind of military intervention. Jeremy Corbyn and all those who choose not to go to war should also be very clear that their decision will result in the deaths of innocent civilians.

Either way blood will be on all of our hands. We are damned if we do, and damned if we don’t. There are no longer any easy choices to make over dealing with Islamic State. Whatever Britain and the rest of the world chooses to do with have dangerous consequences, but perhaps we can try and settle for the least worse option.

So whatever happens over Syria and Iraq, whether MPs vote to extend airstrikes over Syria or not, none of us should wash our hands and walk on by on the other side. This crisis may get worse before it gets better, but what the world needs to do is to put aside our differences, learn the lessons of peace building in Iraq, and make lasting peace a reality for the people of Syria and Iraq - by whatever means necessary.

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