THE UK carried out its first air-strikes on Islamic State (Daesh) targets in Syria, hours after the House of Commons voted in favour of military action by a convincing margin of 174 votes. A separate amendment to block air strikes was defeated by 390 votes to 211.
The defence secretary, Michael Fallon, disclosed on Thursday morning that four tornados hit seven targets in Syrian oil fields in a bid to destroy IS resources. Speaking on BBC Radio 4, he said that the air-campaign had “dealt a real blow” to the militant group by cutting off its primary source of income. Mr Fallon also confirmed that two more tornados and six typhoons are being sent to RAF Akrotiri in Cyprus to join the attack.
The air-strikes came in the wake of a heated 11-hour debate in the Commons, led by the Prime Minister, David Cameron, which closed with an impassioned speech by the Shadow Foreign Secretary, Hillary Benn, in favour of military action, and which drew cheers from the benches. A total of 66 Labour MPs voted with the Government, against the advice of their party leader, Jeremy Corbyn.
Speaking in a parallel debate in the House of Lords on Wednesday, the Archbishop of Canterbury said that the criteria for a Just War had been met.
Archbishop Welby warned, however, that the Government must be careful not to “end up doing the right thing in such a wrong way that it becomes the wrong thing”, and he urged the Prime Minister to consider the context of IS ideology, and the consequences of military force.
“First, ISIL is but one head of the hydra: religiously motivated extremism is not restricted to one part of the world,” he said. “Secondly, our bombing action plays into the expectation of ISIL and other jihadist groups in the region, springing from their apocalyptic theology. . .
“By itself, one action will not work. If we act globally only against ISIL, and only in the way proposed so far, we will strengthen their resolve, increase their recruitment, and encourage their sympathisers. Without a far more comprehensive approach, we confirm their dreadful belief that what they are doing is the will of God. . . Military action is only one part of the answer.”
Archbishop Welby also said that there was “room and requirement for greater generosity” in welcoming refugees from the war-torn country, but that a “clear strategy” is also needed to prevent people having to flee and “seek sanctuary” in the first instance [full speeches, below].
The former Bishop of Oxford, the Rt Revd Lord Harries of Pentregarth, who also spoke during the debate, agreed with the Archbishop that there was just cause, authority, and intention for military action. “Daesh is an evil which must be stopped . . . to establish an ordered peace in territory now held by ruthless killers,” he said.
However, he said, not all the just-war criteria had been fulfilled. He questioned whether “other steps short of war” had been taken; and whether good would triumph or success be reached were “more problematic”, he said, and not conclusive enough to condone “premature” air-strikes.
The Bishop of Coventry, the Rt Revd Christopher Cocksworth, said that he, too, could not support the air-strikes. “We have heard it many times already that wars are not won from the air,” he said. “Yes, our operations in Iraq have had some success in stopping the spread of Daesh, but this has been thanks to close collaboration with the Iraqi government and armed forces. This will not be the case in Syria.”
He went on: “Military action has unintended consequences. It will cause collateral damage, both physical damage and, as the . . . Archbishop of Canterbury noted, ideological damage in the region and beyond.”
As the arguments raged before the vote, the Bishop of Bristol, the Rt Revd Mike Hill, warned in a video-blog that the Government must not “rush into anything that would make things worse” when there are still “unanswered questions” about the bombing campaign.
Mr Cameron spoke for an hour in the Commons on the case for military action. He said that they would “keep the British people safe”, and answer “the call from our allies”. Last week he offered the French President, François Hollande, the use of the UK’s RAF airbase on Cyprus from which to launch air-strikes in Syria (News, 27 November).
During the debate, Mr Cameron declined six times to apologise for calling opponents to a military campaign “terrorist sympathisers” — a comment which Mr Corbyn said would “demean” his office. The Labour leader argued that Mr Cameron’s case did not “stack up”, and would make the situation in Syria worse.
Meanwhile anti-war protesters gathered in Parliament Square holding banners emblazoned with the words “Don’t bomb Syria”, and chanting “Shame on you” as the motion was passed.
Reports from the BBC suggest that newspapers in the Syrian capital Damascus are already reflecting the anger of officials in the country over unwanted engagement from the West. “Britain didn’t ask permission from Syria’s government,” the state news agency SANA read. “Cameron told lies.”
The launch of air-strikes so soon after the vote pre-empted any criticism from church leaders, charities and pacifists. On Thursday morning, the Methodist Church issued a “call for peace”. The president and vice-president of the Methodist Conference, the Revd Steve Wild and Dr Jill Barber, stated: “Every death is tragic, and we grieve for those who have been killed and those who will die as an escalation of military action as a result of the continuing conflict.”
Lords’ speeches in full:
The Archbishop of Canterbury: My Lords, I add to the welcomes given to the noble Lord, Lord Hague of Richmond, and note his perfect timing in bringing his immeasurable wisdom and experience to our debates. I look forward very much to his contribution.
To my mind, the just-war criteria have been met. However, while they are necessary, they are not by themselves sufficient in action of this kind, where we can end up doing the right thing in such a wrong way that it becomes the wrong thing. To my mind, there are three components that currently need more emphasis and are to some extent missing. In this role, through visiting all 38 provinces of the Anglican communion, through the constant contacts that we have with Muslim and Christian leaders in the region, as recently as three weeks ago in a conference at Lambeth Palace, I am constantly reminded that this is a global issue to which we are applying local solutions.
First, ISIL is but one head of the hydra; religiously motivated extremism is not restricted to one part of the world. Secondly, our bombing action plays into the expectation of ISIL and other jihadist groups in the region, springing from their apocalyptic theology. The totality of our actions must subvert that false narrative, because by itself one action will not work. If we act globally only against ISIL, and only in the way proposed so far, we will strengthen their resolve, increase their recruitment and encourage their sympathisers. Without a far more comprehensive approach, we confirm their dreadful belief that what they are doing is the will of God.
Thirdly, it is as essential to defeat the narratives of ISIL and other extremists. The Prime Minister’s strategy and the Minister’s speech rightly recognise that military action is only one part of the answer. There must be a global theological and ideological component, not just one in this country, to what we are doing. It must be one that is relentlessly pursued and promoted and it must include challenging Saudi Arabia and Qatar, whose promotion of a particular brand of Islamic theology has provided a source from which ISIL has drawn false legitimation. It must also show clear support for global mainstream Muslim and other religious leaders.
Lastly, there is room and requirement for greater generosity in our nation’s hospitality to refugees, but hospitality must be accompanied by a clear strategy that reduces the need for others to seek sanctuary, which was mentioned in the Minister’s remarks and is welcome, and enables those who have fled to return. Communities that have lived there for 2,000 years should not simply be emptied from that region. The additional military force that we are bringing to this quasi-policing operation, which is already active over Syria, symbolically — and to some extent significantly — adds to what is happening there. Far more than that, it enables us to act where our resources and expertise are world-leading in the creation of post-conflict peace and nation building. Only a holistic, theological and global policy will achieve our aims.
The Lord Harries of Pentregarth: My Lords, I have always found the Christian just war tradition an essential tool for thinking about military action. There is nothing esoteric about it. It is simply a way of ordering one’s thoughts in relation to a well-established set of criteria.
In relation to the proposed bombing in Syria, the first three criteria are easily met. Is there just cause? Yes: Daesh is an evil that must be stopped. Is there competent authority? Yes: the United Nations Security Council Resolution 2249 calls on states to take “all necessary” means to overcome this threat to international peace. Is there just intention? Yes: to establish an ordered peace in territory now held by ruthless killers.
It is when we come to the last three of the six criteria that the issue becomes much more problematical. Have all other steps short of war been taken? No: there are clearly other actions that we should be tackling as a matter of urgency. One is working with Turkey to close the Turkey/Syria border to foreign fighters, who have in recent years made their way much too easily across it. The other is stopping the flow of arms to Daesh. Much stronger pressure must surely be put on those countries that are currently facilitating this.
The next two criteria are very closely intertwined and are crucial in the present debate in particular, as noble Lords have made clear. Namely, more good than evil must flow from the military action, and there must be a reasonable chance of success. We need to think very seriously about what we mean by “success” in this context. It has two aspects, both crucial. One is the worldwide battle for hearts and minds. We must never forget that the aim of these terrorists is to alienate young Muslim minds from the values of the countries in which they live and to win them over to their extreme form of religion.
There is a lesson to be learnt here from the liberation struggles in the 1960s against colonial powers. The guerrilla forces at that time knew that they could not win great battles, but their aim was to stay in existence long enough and be enough of a threat until the political battle had been won. That success depended on keeping the population for whom they were fighting on their side. Daesh must, and will, be defeated, but that would be worse than useless if military action resulted in thousands more disaffected Muslims joining its ranks worldwide. This could happen if bombing resulted in major civilian casualties. The problem now is that Daesh forces are clever enough to no longer present obvious military targets. They can and do very easily melt into the civilian population—a population that would be the main sufferers in any bombing campaign.
The second aspect of success means winning and holding Daesh territory and establishing stable government upon it. For this, as so many noble Lords have emphasised, ground forces are needed. But Syrian experts tell us that the Free Syrian Army, even if it numbered 70,000, is mainly in the south, with its fighters unwilling to fight outside their own provinces. As we know, they are very divided amongst themselves. Until there are ground forces in place ready to take territory—this probably means some prior political understanding with the Russians over the future of the Syrian Government, as the noble Lord, Lord Hague, so rightly stressed—I do not think that the criterion of a reasonable chance of success has been met. As the Prime Minister wrote, in response to the Foreign Affairs Select Committee,
“Without transition, it will … be difficult to generate a Sunni force able to fight ISIL and hold ground in Eastern Syria”.
The Government are committed to a political and diplomatic process, which, of course, the whole House wholeheartedly supports. However, it is only the beginning of a process. It is premature to say that it is far enough advanced to have a reasonable chance of success on the ground, without which air strikes alone would be premature and could alienate the very people whom we want to hold to our side.
The Lord Bishop of Coventry: My Lords, coming from Coventry, a city bound in solidarity of suffering with bombed cities in Europe, I am kept in daily remembrance of the costs of military action, especially to civilians. Against such costs, the benefits must be clear and the chances of success especially high. We all agree that the evil of Daesh needs to be stopped, but will extending strikes from Iraq into Syria do it?
We have heard much about the arbitrary nature of the Sykes-Picot border. However, during last year’s debate on intervention in Iraq, the Government recognised that the factors increasing the chances of success on one side of this border did not apply to the other. To my eye, untrained as I admit it is, they still do not.
We have heard it many times already that wars are not won from the air. Yes, our operations in Iraq have had some success in stopping the spread of Daesh, but this has been thanks to close collaboration with the Iraqi Government and armed forces. This will not be the case in Syria.
No one doubts that the best partner would be an inclusive Syrian Government and army, honouring a ceasefire with moderate groups and able to participate in long-term reconstruction and reconciliation. Such a political process would be wishful thinking without the plan and timetable from Vienna that would make it a reality. However, the Vienna process is at an early stage and has not yet been given a chance to bear the fruit of the transitional Government, which the Leader of the House referred to at the beginning of the debate. Without waiting for its results, are we not at risk of being perceived as the unwitting allies of the Assad regime?
Military action has unintended consequences. It will cause collateral damage, both physical damage and, as the most reverend Primate the Archbishop of Canterbury noted, ideological damage in the region and beyond. I do not doubt the military skill and highest standards of our RAF pilots and equipment, but there is no such thing as a perfectly surgical strike from the air and we will be implicated by the less precise bombing of other forces, Russian included. Do we not risk handing Daesh a further propaganda victory in the form of civilian casualties? Furthermore, in what is fundamentally an ideological conflict, we must be keenly aware that collateral damage takes ideological forms. Any western action will only reinforce Daesh’s apocalyptic narrative of western aggression.
How will UK air strikes be viewed by the millions of Sunni Muslims, regionally and in Britain itself? Daesh prospers because it champions the perceived grievances of Sunni Arabs against other groups in Syria and Iraq. How will the Government seek to address these grievances legitimately and counter Daesh’s narrative so that tactical victories in Syria do not come at the cost of fuelling its perverted cause?
I began with reference to the chances of success, which must be high to offset the virtual certainty of collateral damage from military action. Along with the noble and right reverend Lord, Lord Harries of Pentregarth, I do not believe that the necessarily high threshold for this prospect of success has been met. Yet if we are to intervene, as seems probable, our attention must turn to minimising the collateral damage — in the widest sense — that will result as the battles rage. Therefore, I conclude by asking the Minister how the Government’s review of progress will ensure that the success of action is measured not only in victories against Daesh’s military capacity, but also by the political settlement and peace that will ensure that its poisonous ideology, contrary to its own strategy, will not endure and expand.