Quick, decisive action in Syria does not mean success in the long run

– Max Rodgers


Looking at the plethora of barbaric terrorist attacks committed by IS over the past two years, it is clear that they cannot be defeated without military means. The only concerns of IS are to convert as many to their cause as possible and to wage a campaign of terror to eradicate those who do not fall into line with their beliefs. As a result, this extreme fundamentalist approach means negotiation for a ceasefire with them is impossible, as they are not obligated to preserve internal interests as nation states are, nor do they wish to achieve a particular political objective, their only goal is chaos.

However, with that said, I am of the belief that the decision by various governments following the Paris attacks to commit to a bombing campaign against IS in Syria is the wrong one. The events in Paris showed us that now more than ever it is vital that all peoples who believe in the values of freedom, harmony and equality must stand against the vicious, deadly ideology of IS that proposes to extinguish all of these principles. Indeed, the renewed sense of purpose for action against IS following the attacks will no doubt be comforting to many who are concerned for their security in an age where terrorist attacks happen on an almost daily basis all over the world.

The problem with this renewed sense of purpose for action is that it has been applied to the wrong strategy, namely airstrikes by either unmanned drones or manned fighter jets over IS controlled northern Syria. In the past, airstrikes have had prior success in combating IS, notably through their usage by the RAF in Iraq with a 0% civilian casualty rate, but in this the crucial distinction must be made between the differing tactical theatres of Iraq and Syria. The majority of IS forces in Syria are embedded within the city of Raqqa, occupying civilian buildings to use the civilian population as human shields. This presents a distinctly tougher challenge for military forces combating IS as the chances for successful strikes against terrorists without incurring civilian casualties are incredibly lower than in Iraq. Of course, this is still possible, as the assassination of Jihadi John showed us, but with incredible intelligence resources and military calculations applied to targeting this one man for an airstrike, it is evident that to do this for an entire army of IS terrorists would prove incredibly difficult and taxing upon resources.

Of course, any path of action we take will be difficult and taxing upon resources, but I’d rather utilise this on a course of action that will have a greater chance of success against IS than sole reliance upon airstrikes. This includes ensuring Saudi Arabia and the Gulf States stop the millions of dollars of funding that flood into the Syrian oil market which is propping up IS in order to financially neuter them; it means ensuring there is a well thought out humanitarian plan for a post-conflict Syria with appropriate assistance from the UN and other bodies which doesn’t leave the Syrian people to fend for themselves in a post-IS world; it also means a plan to get around the problem of Assad and finally it also means military tactics that stand a far greater chance of breaking IS’s stronghold over northern Syria, which in my view means guerilla warfare and counterinsurgency tactics. With an enemy embedded in a dense urban area who operate as guerillas, the usage of such counterinsurgency tactics as those deployed by the US in Vietnam to great success between 1955 and Diem’s removal in 1963 would be far preferable as a strategy to defeat IS than airstrikes.

In summary, it is clear that the UK must stand with our allies in combating IS militarily as we have no other option but to engage them, given their fanatical desire for chaos and terror. The problem with the action taken by various governments since the Paris attacks is that airstrikes have been seen and argued for as a blanket solution to solve the problem of IS, and quite simply they will not provide such a solution. To paraphrase what David Davis said in the House of Commons debate last week, we should help France but we must do it properly and not just symbolically. Airstrikes have proven successful against IS in the past, but with the tactical and political situation in northern Syria, and whilst symbolise political support for France in the wake of the Paris attacks; they are not the best solution in the long run.

Rather, must take military action against IS via the means of intelligence agencies supporting moderate rebels fighting against IS alongside Special Forces troops and intelligence officers from coalition countries employing counterinsurgency tactics to eliminate IS terrorists from civilian areas; we must ensure humanitarian and aid plans are in place to support the Syrian people throughout this crisis and in a post IS world; we must ensure a strategy is in place to solve the problem of Assad, and a further one to ensure other nations in the Middle East cut their ties to the oil market which is currently allowing IS to fund their reign of terror.  I feel that it is with these solutions, encompassing plans to deal with both short and long term concerns, that would be far more effective in driving IS from Syria than the solution of airstrikes.

Max is an active member of UWCA and studies politics and international studies in his third year.