As the UK prepares for a parliamentary vote on airstrikes in Syria, we argue for a focus on local solutions, rather than military ones.
The decision to bomb ISIS in Syria in response to the Paris attacks would be a knee-jerk reaction to a problem that is much closer to home – most of the attackers were French or Belgian – and one driven by emotion, not logic. Shocked by terrible tragedies on their doorstep, people in Europe have a sense that ‘something must be done’. And so we turn too easily to the question of military action, as if that were the only option.
It is wrong and dangerous to think that an “evil death cult” with near global reach can be defeated by airstrikes. If Sun Tzu’s the Art of War teaches us that knowing your enemy is key to success, do we know who ISIS are? Whom it is that we would be bombing? ISIS-held territory is not populated solely by radicalised, blood-thirsty jihadists. They are there, certainly, but they are also in Paris, Brussels and London. Those in ISIS-held territory are the same people who were in Saddam-held territory, or in Assad-held territory, or in territory held by the Free Syrian Army. ISIS-held territory is populated, for the most part, by ordinary civilians whose survival is dependent on getting on with whoever wields power at that particular time.
And for their part, the survival of the power holders is also dependent on ‘getting on’ with the populations they govern. Jabat Al Nusra, the Al-Qaeda affiliate, are an important provider of relief aid in the areas of Syria they hold. ISIS have well reported, horrific measures for controlling and policing their territory, but they also control education and provide basic services, including aid.
Airstrikes on ISIS-held territory, from thousands of feet up, without the capacity to inform perceptions on the ground are dangerous and will backfire. Airstrikes will further traumatise an already broken population. Seeing family members and friends killed by a faceless enemy, to whom ISIS are free to give whichever ‘face’ suits them, will no doubt result in more foot soldiers in ISIS’s battle against the west.
Airstrikes will create more refugees, pressing into fragile neighbouring states in a region that already cannot cope. And airstrikes and their bloody aftermath will generate fodder for the ISIS propaganda machine, both in Syria, and in our own societies. All these risks in addition to the fact that we don’t know what comes next to fill the space left by Isis if we do succeed.
Instead, we need to come to terms with the hard reality that there is no quick fix to the ISIS problem, there is no one solution, and that bombing is not the only option. Instead of military action in a vacuum, we need a long-term strategy, one that recognises and addresses the reasons why ISIS has support in the first place, both in Iraq and Syria, and at home in our own back yard.
These reasons will not be the same everywhere: a young Syrian man who has lost everything through war will join up for different reasons to a young British woman who travels to Syria in the name of jihad, and from the reasons an illiterate labourer from the suburbs of Tunis decides to fight.
The Prime Minister states that complexity should not be an excuse for non-intervention. True. But complexity is not an excuse, it is reality - and because of this complexity, local solutions will be key in the fight against ISIS, not international military ones.
Over three thousand Tunisians are estimated to have travelled to Syria to fight alongside Islamist militants. Through our work in Tunisia we now know that young people in the poor suburbs of Tunis who participated in the Arab Spring because they believed in the possibility of a better life, today feel cheated by the political elites and ignored by the state. We know that this sense of disillusionment and resentment amongst young Tunisians has made them easy targets for violent extremist groups, and that the sense of belonging and purpose and power offered by these groups has caused young Tunisians to travel to Syria in their thousands.
Too often we are presented with a false choice: to bomb or not to bomb. Surely the way for the UK to approach this is patiently to continue working with international, regional and local partners to provide adequate humanitarian help to all those in need, reduce incentives and opportunities for new fighters to join ISIS, and develop a viable long-term, incremental strategy to restore stability and – eventually – peace to Syria?
This will take time, for sure, but further bombing is unlikely to change that, and may well make things worse. It’s not the macho solution, but it is the most effective one.
A version of this comment was originally published in The Independent on 27 November 2015 under the headline 'Syrian air strikes mean civilians seeing their family killed by a faceless enemy - leaving ISIS free to choose a face for us'.
Find out more about International Alert in Syria.
For media enquiries, please contact: [email protected]