Why Parliament was right to support airstrikes against ISIL

– Sam Fry


A U.S. Air Force F-16 Fighting Falcon supporting Operation Inherent Resolve receives fuel from a KC-135 Stratotanker, Dec. 16, 2014. (U.S. Air Force photo/ Staff Sgt. Chelsea Browning)

Last Wednesday evening, the House of Commons voted 397 to 223 in favour of airstrikes on ISIL targets in Syria. It was a long and passionate debate, with strong feelings on both sides. The issue is immensely complex, with even many experts unsure on how the West should respond. Everyone agrees that the ethnic and cultural cleansing, beheadings and human trafficking are an affront to humanity and should be stopped; the question is what we should do about it. On balance, I believe that Parliament was right to support airstrikes.

Military interventions have a decidedly mixed track record; some have certainly been more successful than others. One could look to Sierra Leone, Kosovo or even World War II as examples of where intervention has succeeded, and there is much conventional wisdom that states the West should have intervened to stop the 1994 Rwandan genocide. On the other hand, the Iraq War is widely considered to be a total disaster and the intervention in Libya led to a yet another weak state and contributed to the migrant crisis over the Mediterranean. Many of the West’s interventions in the ‘third world’ during the Cold War were pretty destabalising. There is of course an awful lot that could be said about any one of these examples. Suffice to say, statements such as “history clearly shows us this” are almost always a gross oversimplication at best.

For me, the crucial issue to consider is the nation state. Political communities matter and so a stable nation state is the best way of organising a society. Political institutions are necessary to prevent anarchy and a state is needed to provide good quality infrastructure, health and education that is essential for a good standard of living. Ultimately, property rights and the rule of law – both enforced by the state – are a prerequisite for a dynamic economy. When states do not fulfil the basic conditions of a sovereign government – the so called ‘failed states’ – it creates an opportunity for terrorist groups to expand so it is in the UK’s interests to prevent failed states and promote stable nation states and good governance.

ISIL is not a state; it occupies an area in the failed states of Iraq and Syria so, rather than being a state, ISIL is a threat to nation states. This means that weakening ISIL is the correct thing to do in order to promote stability and act in the UK’s interests. I don’t like Bashar al-Assad. He has committed crimes against humanity, including gassing his own people, and his poor governance has led to the growth of ISIL. However ISIL must be the priority since force against Assad could weaken further what is already a very weak Syrian state, plus there is the complying factor of Russia’s support for Assad. Convincing Assad to step down peacefully should be a medium term objective to stabilise Syria and weakening the terrorist threat, but weakening ISIL should be the first step.

Airstrikes are an effective way of weakening ISIL. Airstrikes can take out key ISIL personnel and destroy strategically important sites, such as the oil fields that were attacked on Wednesday evening. Airstrikes have held back ISIL in Iraq so it is logical that they would be applied to ISIL in Syria. It is right that the RAF stand alongside the French and Americans in the UN-backed attempt to weaken ISIL.

Many have argued that airstrikes will inevitably kill innocent civilians. Clearly this is a major concern since, as well as being morally abhorrent, killing civilians would radicalise more people. However this concern can be met by the improvements in military technology. When some people think of airstrikes, images are often conjured up of the Blitz or of the napalming of Vietnam, which were essentially indiscriminate. This is unhelpful. Laser-guided bombs have improved substantially even compared with just a decade ago and are now extremely precise. The only problem is identifying which targets to hit. I believe this removes the main moral objection to airstrikes on ISIL.

In the long-term, you can’t bomb an ideology and so the airstrikes need to be seen as a means to an end, rather than an end in itself. In the long run, the key to defeating terrorism is good governance and, above all, sustained economic growth. It follows that if people have a decent standard of living and good job opportunities then they are less likely to be attracted to terrorism. The ultimate objective has to be creating stable Syrian and Iraqi states that can facilitate this economic growth. The airstrikes again ISIL are the start of this.

Sam Fry is a PhD student studying Politics and International Studies at the University of Warwick and an active Conservative.