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Questions to weigh before bombing

27 November 2015

Just-war theory can guide MPs in these decisions, says Paul Vallely

THERE are a number of questions that MPs need to ask before they vote on whether to bomb Islamist terrorists inside Syria — and they should be refracted through just-war theory, which, imperfect though it is in an age of terrorism, is still our best guide for ethical thinking here.

A number of criteria are clearly fulfilled. “Just cause” and “right intention” are evident. So is “competent authority”, after last week’s UN Security Council resolution calling on member states to take “all necessary measures” against Islamic State (IS) in both Syria and Iraq — although what is necessary is not universally agreed. But is this “last resort”? And what of “proportionality” and “probability of success”?

It is through this lens that MPs should look when they ask whether the Prime Minister has fulfilled the requirement of the Foreign Affairs Select Committee — whose Conservative majority said that bombing in Syria should not be approved without a persuasive case that air strikes are part of a “coherent international strategy” to defeat IS and end the civil war in Syria. Any benefits of air strikes in Syria would be outweighed by the risks of “legal ambiguity, political chaos on the ground, military irrelevance, and diplomatic costs”, the committee said.

So, the first question is: what material difference will it make if the UK joins the United States, France, and Russia in bombing? The PM’s insistence that it is “standing by our allies” is dubious in just-war terms. We might call it the Blair Defence. MPs should be convinced of a clear military advantage.

Next, might bombing be counter-productive? It could act as a further recruiting sergeant for IS, whose internal literature makes clear that it wants to provoke a battle against all “the forces of Rome” — that is, the entire Christian-heritage world from the US through Europe to Orthodox Russia. It sees an apocalyptic battle with “Crusader forces” on IS territory as part of a divine plan.

War has changed. In traditional warfare, the aim was to smash the opponent’s army; now, it is to break the will of the opponent. Terrorism is a tool for that; but so is provoking disproportionate responses which result in civilian casualties that will make the broader Sunni population — among which IS hides — see the West as a bigger threat than IS. We should have learned that from drone bombings of wedding parties and children’s hospitals in Afghanistan. But technology makes an imprecise hitting back too easy, without endangering the lives of our own troops.

What will replace IS on the ground if it is militarily obliterated? There are not two sides in the Syrian civil war, but at least four, each with international backers. President Assad is backed by Russia and by Shia Iran. IS and other Salafist groups are unofficially backed by Saudi Arabia and Qatar. The Syrian Free Army is backed by the United States. Then there are the Turks, who are using the cover of fighting IS to bomb the Kurds, even as they fight IS.

The story of Iraq and Libya is that when a bad regime is removed, something worse can rush into the vacuum. Is there a coherent strategy to avoid that?

Finally, by bombing Syria, the UK will lose some of its diplomatic independence, and sacrifice leverage in the current round of international diplomacy in Vienna. Is the military gain worth the diplomatic loss where, in the end, there can be no military solution, only a political one? A coherent realpolitik transition for Syria must be negotiated internationally.

The Paris massacre may provoke us to the conviction that “Something must be done.” But MPs need to think very carefully about what that something should be.


Paul Vallely is Visiting Professor in Public Ethics at the University of Chester.


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