Should the UK take action against ISIL in Syria?
Our Members of Parliament face a difficult decision. They will be asked to approve the extension of the UK’s military action against ISIL to Syria. This will mean the UK would be a fully functioning member of the military coalition against ISIL, where at the moment it only operates in Iraq. The terrorist atrocities in Paris, Beirut, Egypt, and elsewhere, together with the refugee crisis, have refocused attention on the war waging in Syria.
What should MPs decide? What should we make of the Number 10 briefing? Can the Just War tradition help? The government itself still has work to do.
The Number 10 briefing
The Prime Minister, David Cameron, has produced a 37-page dossier outlining the case for taking military action. For such an important issue, it could be a better written document.
Nevertheless, it outlines why the Prime Minister believes the UK should now take military action in Syria. He points to the threat posed by ISIL to the UK, with seven potential attacks in the UK recently prevented, which were in some way linked to ISIL or its ideology, which leaves open the question of how many were directly linked to ISIL in Syria. Nevertheless, it should be noted that these threats have existed before UK action taken in Syria.
Cameron suggests a political solution is possible, implying that military action would not take place in a vacuum but be part of a wider strategy. Supporting this is his report that moderate anti-Assad forces number around 70,000 and would therefore be able to occupy ISIL held territory with the support of airstrikes. However it is not clear where this number comes from, nor whether there are 70,000 armed people in coherent groups under a centralised command, or whether they are widely dispersed. Cameron also highlights the civilian organisation in areas under moderate rebel control, suggesting that support for the moderates should lead to stability. He also notes the Vienna conference towards making peace and a planned London conference in February. The recent UN Security Council resolution is highlighted. What is not noted is any outline of government legal advice.
Given other nations are already taking action in Syria, the question arises about what the UK could add to the effort. This is a reasonable question. The answer from the PM’s document is that the UK has a responsibility to act with its partners, which is a strong argument especially given our permanent membership of the UN Security Council (though that doesn’t absolve us from considering the moral case for action).
What is not addressed is why current forces in action over Syria have failed to hit ISIL hard enough to prevent further atrocities and to enable other forces to prevail over them. It is difficult to assess what exactly has been missing from coalition strategy so far and what UK involvement will add. Ministers ought to fill in the gaps on this.
The Prime Minister does highlight unique weaponry that the UK can provide. The Brimstone missile is claimed to be highly accurate and not available to other forces. In addition, Tornado aircraft can use sophisticated surveillance pods to aid attacks – they are already using these in Iraq.
The document from the Prime Minister goes some way to addressing MPs’ concerns but in some way it is not quite enough. In any event, Just War tradition should be considered.
Just War tradition
The application of the principles I outlined last year for Christians on the Left has not changed particularly. It is important to note that under the tradition, all the principles must be upheld.
War is evil. The first point to recognise in any consideration of military force is that while it may be a necessary evil, it is evil. The taking of life and injuring others is a tragic consequence of human failure to put it mildly. Putting members of our armed forces at risk is also risking life. It is never a step to be taken lightly.
War can only be fought by a legitimate authority, in this case a government and especially acting under UN authority. In the current circumstances, the UK is certainly a legitimate authority.
The cause must be just. The offence must be actual or imminent, not simply possible. The offence must be intentional, important, objective and verifiable, and unilateral. It could be an act of aggression, or a threat or injustice (carefully defined). It could be committed against a third nation. It could also be moral guilt requiring punishment. Action against ISIL qualifies under these criteria, even without a threat against the UK. The atrocities carried out against people in Syria and Iraq count against it and it should be noted that its respect for the sanctity of life is extremely low indeed. Civilian life is not protected – the opposite applies.
The intention behind action must be right. This means the common good must be upheld (restoring peace) and the motivation must be right too (for example, love for victims of aggression and avoiding vengeance).
War must be the last resort and be conducted according to international law. The enemy must be able to sue for peace. Given the actions of ISIL it does appear that military action is a last resort, but it must be part of a wider effort to restore peace. Of note is that peace negotiations do not include ISIL (which would be impossible at present). Nevertheless, should the situation change (which is difficult to imagine at the moment given ISIL’s ideology), surrender must be an option provided to the enemy.
The war (or military action) must be winnable and cause less harm than it prevents. This is an important point. We are not required to know the future with certainty – if so, we would never engage in any military action because we cannot know the future. However, we need to have reasonable confidence that military aims can be achieved and that, compared to taking no action, less harm will take place. This criterion should not be used as a get-out clause for people not wanting to take action: it applies once we have decided that action is justified on other criteria and it requires us to think hard and plan carefully beforehand before being justified in taking action. If we are not convinced that we can prevent more harm taking place, we need to think again. In the case of ISIL, there have been some successes against it, with the support of air strikes. The organisation has caused great harm and seems intent on continuing to do so.
Means used must be proportional to the threat and the immunity of the innocent must be respected. Every effort must be taken to avoid harming the innocent, even to the extent of withholding particular actions eg an air strike. Weapons used must be chosen with this principle in mind. The more precise the weapons, the better.
The dignity of humankind must be respected. Can alternative strategies be found, which match the urgency of the situation? Can people be brought to justice? In taking military action, do we uphold or undermine the dignity of humankind in this case? It does seem clear that if ISIL was given free reign, the dignity of humankind would be undermined. Military action must reverse this and not add to that undermining.
There is often no clear answer in these matters and each person must examine his or her conscience carefully. In the case before us, taking action against ISIL, if one believes that action in Iraq is justified it seems hard to argue that it is not justified in Syria. However, these principles should be revisited again now. On balance, taking no action seems an abdication of responsibility.
Yet there still needs to be more information about the nature of the action that will be taken and the strategy of which it is a part. The government should be pushed hard on this because it is giving the impression it is making up strategy on the hoof, much as with Libya. Neither should we forget the lessons we learnt from the Iraq War. My personal view is that if it can provide credible answers on this issue over the next few days, military action (if taken in line with Just War principles) would be justified.