Bethan Jenkins outlines some of the issues that parties will need to consider ahead of any discussion of air strikes against ‘Islamic State’.
What is the primary purpose of a weapon? What is it that we hope to achieve by using them? They’ve been involved in everything from Leylandii disputes to the nuclear destruction of whole cities, but their reason for being has driven their development from bone clubs to Predator drones.
Quite simply, they are there to put down the opponent before he (or she) does the same). They are there to help us get our retaliation in first. That is the reason that today’s multi-million-pound weapons deliver their payloads unseen and unannounced.
Therefore, when there is talk of deploying troops with weapons, we have to ask – who is the enemy, and where are they?
It seems a simplistic consideration. But it is hugely important that we ask such fundamental questions about their use because what violent jihadism has brought us over the past 15 years is a new kind of warfare – a warfare which threw the rulebook away and in which we cannot, using any measure of the meaning, claim to have triumphed.
A lot of our political leaders are this week getting ready to forget Sun Tzu and the wealth of strategy and tactics that have informed the winning of wars down the centuries. Because even though the UN resolution passed on Friday cleared the way for action, it did not invoke Chapter VII of the UN Charter, which allows military action in order to restore peace and security.
What should now follow is dialogue between the Prime Minister and other parties. This gives a prime opportunity for parties such as Plaid Cymru to ask the difficult questions we should always be asking before soldiers are committed to putting their lives on the line. Not only should we be asking questions such as whether David Cameron should push for that stronger resolution, we shouldn’t we be cowed into accepting what the Government is proposing, simply because the political climate – and the media – are behind it.
Even on the face of it, the proposition seems quite absurd: following a series of horrific attacks in Paris by men who were mostly French or Belgian nationals, the governments of the West are preparing to bomb the Middle East.
The connection is, of course, Daesh – Islamic State, which later said it was responsible for the attacks. Investigators are still trying to ascertain whether this was indeed the case (Islamist organisations have a long history of claiming outrages – sometimes dozens for any single incident), yet Francois Hollande, David Cameron and others have decided that it is to Syria where we must look for blame.
This is justified with talk of “cutting off the snake’s head”. But the creature that Daesh most closely resembles is mythical: the Lernaean Hydra. According to Heriod’s account, this many-headed creature couldn’t be defeated by Heracles’ orthodox approach to combat. Each time he lopped off one head, another two would grow in its place. In the end, he had to go outside of the rules to find a way to overcome – so far outside that ultimately it was not counted as one of Heracles 10 Labours.
Heracles first gathered what information he could about the Hydra, then engaged, assessed, withdrew and returned with a new and, ultimately, successful approach. You don’t see that happening with our governments. Aerial bombing without the use of ground forces has its roots in the Vietnam War. Its attractions to politicians in office are clear, allowing as it does for them to look tough while minimising the risk of bodybags on our side, to the point where it is not really a consideration.
But where’s the evidence that this strategy has helped defeat our enemies? Or, if it worked in the past, why would it work with Daesh? And how would it defeat those jihadists who – like Paris, like the 7/7 bombings – were born in the country that they have attacked? One feature that links those two attacks with the Madrid bombings in 2004 is that the participants were all aggrieved by Western involvement in the Middle East. Would further bombing of the Middle East dissuade those men and women?
These are questions that need to form part of the national debate in the run-up to any decision. Just how fit-for-purpose are our plans? When you consider that it won’t take violent Islamists off the internet and it won’t stop UK and other Western-born Muslims from seeking them out and becoming radicalised online, that answer has to be no. This will not solve this problem. More importantly, it won’t prevent a further attack.
In that light, bombing Syria becomes the populist’s response. There are plenty of people on social media who say the response should be “nuke ‘em”. But nuke who? And where? Brussels?
The idea that we’ll just get lucky and take out the one person without whom Daesh would throw down their Kalashnikovs and go home is myth. As Peter Hitchens – not a man I frequently quote – pointed out last week: “There is no mastermind sitting in a cage issuing orders. That is James Bond fantasy.”
Anyone who wants to carry out an Islamic State-inspired attack – or al-Qaeda-inspired before it – doesn’t need to undertake a trip to Syria. They don’t need to meet with Abu Bakr al-Baghdadi. They don’t need a secret radio under their bed, dead letter boxes, or Jason Bourne’s access to false passports. It takes one or two radicalised young men, a kitchen knife, a mobile phone with a YouTube app and a restaurant or bar full of unsuspecting customers.
In the few days since the Paris attacks, the French government has claimed it is already rolling back Islamic State. On the other side, there are reports of hundreds of civilians dying in these bombing raids. To be honest, I doubt all sides. There’s too many people and organisations with too many vested interests reliant upon our belief and support. Like Heracles, Hollande should withdraw, assess and adjust where necessary. He should share his findings with those he wants to join him, including the UK, before we take any vote on military action.
The real enemy here is not Islamic State. That is just the latest incarnation of an idea we have been trying to deal with for close to two decades. The problem with ideas is that they have no weapon to destroy, and no body to kill. Once we realise that – and once we also realise that the so-called ‘War on Terror’ is a battle against a concept – then it follows that we have to look to other, non-military solutions, such as improving education and opportunity in the Middle East, and combatting exclusion here in the UK.
No one would believe this is straightforward, but I’d be prepared to bet that it would cost less than the price of the ordnance that we are considering dropping on the heads of some of the most wretched people on Earth. And, given the complexity of the Middle East, and our current involvement even in Syria, where we are now in cahoots with the Assad (whose troops’ ferocity matches that of Daesh), who really believes there is an easy answer?