For those who argue that domestic security is enhanced by military action abroad, their argument falls at the first hurdle. Can they point to one example where this assertion is actually true? In contrast, the modern history of Britain is littered by examples where the opposite is the case.
The best case is Northern Ireland. Between 1969, when British troops first went into the province to the signing of the Northern Ireland Peace Agreement in 1996, Britain was subjected to a ferocious IRA bombing campaign in direct response to Britain’s military activities. As that action increased so did the IRA bombing campaign. That campaign ended with the signing of the Peace Agreement. Britain’s attempt at destroying the IRA ‘terror bases’ in the province to ‘keep Britain safe’ was both disastrous and ineffectual. And a lie! The British military campaign was about putting down an insurgency in the province and maintaining British rule; the safety of British citizens in the mainland was never much of a priority. It certainly didn’t extend to the safety of Irish citizens in Dublin given the British security forces role in a bombing campaign in that city.
The IRA bombing campaign in mainland Britain was extensive and at times spectacular. It included an attempt to blow up the British Government in a hotel at the Tory party annual conference and the destruction of Canary Wharf and was at a level far in excess of anything produced by Islamic extremists. The British people only became safe from IRA terrorism when the root cause of that terrorism in Northern Ireland ended.
The principle claim for taking part in the bombing campaign against ISIS in Syria is that it will make Britain safe. The basis of this assertion is ludicrous. An ISIS sponsored terrorist attack in Britain will be organised and carried out by people in Britain; not from some bunker in an isolated part of Syria. Bombing that bunker would have no effect on what takes place in Britain in much the same way as bombing caves in the Bora Bora mountains in Afghanistan had any relevance to terror campaigns in Europe.
This brings us to ISIS. ISIS is two distinct things. The first is a military force operating mostly in Iraq and to a much lesser extent in Syria. It emerged in direct response to the collapse of Iraq following the western invasion and the partial collapse of Syria. Its declared ultimate aim is to re-establish a medieval Caliphate although this essentially utopian; if utopian is the right word. It’s a bit like the Scottish Socialist Party arguing that its ultimate aim is the establishment of world socialism; true, but not likely to happen anytime soon.
In reality, ISIS is driven by much more immediate political and religious conflicts in the region and its primary enemies are other Islamic movements. In Iraq, the main conflict is between an unstable alliance of ISIS and disaffected Sunni elements from the former Iraqi army against the Bagdad government supported by Shia militias. The second is that ISIS is a franchise which any individual or group can claim allegiance to even if there is no formal connection. This latter point explodes the argument that Islamic terrorist groups can be stopped by attacking their command centre in the Middle East. These groups, operating in Europe, have no command centres.
In fact, western attacks in the Middle East inflame Islamic fundamentalist groups in Europe making terrorist attacks more likely. Before the Western attack on Iraq, how many Islamic terrorist attacks took place in Britain?
We should also recognise the existence of a terrible double standard. Two weeks before the Paris attack a terrorist bomb planted by ISIS in Beirut killed scores of people; almost all of them Muslim. The attack barely registered in the western media allowing many to draw the conclusion that western lives are far more important than others – again something likely to inflame the thinking of a terrorist group.
All of this opens up a much wider debate around exactly what is terrorism. This isn’t an abstract discussion but rather about the need to challenge some of the narrative which has been developed. The United Nations have a definition of terrorism. An act of terrorism is a ‘military style assault on a defenceless civilian population for political ends’. The Paris attack would certainly qualify under this definition; but what else? The reality is that 99% of all acts of terrorism are carried out by governments. Was not Israeli bombing of Gaza a massive act of terrorism? How many governments currently carrying out there new ‘war on terror’ has themselves committed terrorist acts. This is particularly true of the United States; the biggest exporter of terrorism in the world.
The only solution to the crisis in Syria is a political settlement – a negotiated ceasefire which protects the integrity of the Syrian state. Part of that solution is the removal of Assad and his entourage. However, a word of caution is necessary. Syria is government by the Baathist Party which is rooted in the institutions of the Syrian state. If the Baathist Party is overthrown the likely outcome will be the complete collapse of what is left of Syria with further appalling consequences for the Syrian people and wider region. The impact of this in neighbouring Turkey, Jordan and Iraq is beyond imagination. Most likely to emerge from the debris are groups like ISIS, hence, the need for a negotiated political solution.
The more Britain is involved in military attacks in the Middle East, the more Britain becomes a target. Each attack acts like a recruiting sergeant for domestic Islamic terror groups. While the British security forces can probably prevent most of these threats, it can never be 100% successful; and therefore it will fail. All that is required is that one attack be successful for the group to make its point. What’s more the cost of alienating the Muslim community in Britain through mass surveillance, stigmatisation and the inevitable miscarriage of justice only acts to recruit the next generation.
Of course, the argument that Britain needs to bomb Syria to protect people in Britain is, and always has been, dishonest. The government has been under American pressure to bomb Syria for months. What Britain has been lacking is an excuse; something to tell the British people to justify it. It is a hard sell in a country made cynical by the British involvement in Iraq and with good reason. In that case, the British Government agreed a deal with the US administration to invade Iraq. It did so, not because Saddam Hussein was a brutal dictator; the west has a long history of supporting brutal dictators as it once enthusiastically supported Saddam Hussein.
The object was to install a weak, dependent, pro-western government in Baghdad and gain strategic control over the Iraqi oilfields. What was lacking was an excuse that could be used to sell the invasion to the electorate. In America, the excuse was terrorism; a constant stream of misinformation linking the Iraqi regime to international terrorism – a claim with absolutely no foundation. Yet it proved very successful with one opinion poll on the eve of the invasion showing a majority of American citizens believing that Saddam Hussein was responsible for the 9/11 attacks. In Britain, it was weapons of mass destruction capable of reaching British forces in Cyprus in 45 minutes – another deliberate lie. So making Britain safe by bombing ISIS in Syria falls into the same category.
The way to make Britain safe is not to become a target in the first place. The way to stop young Muslims being radicalised is to take away the main reason for that radicalisation. The way to help integration is to stop portraying Muslims as a kind of enemy within. The way to stop ISIS is for the British Government to actively engage in a peace process in Syria. Do these things and the safety of the British people will be secured.
Bill Bonnar is the National Secretary of the SSP and a member of the SLR EB