It may have failed in Afghanistan in 2001, Iraq in 2003 and Lybia in 2011 and we may be proposing to attack the opposite side in Syria than we were in 2013, but this time, military intervention is morally necessary, strategically sound and guaranteed to succeed
Syria is not Iraq, ISIS is not a river in Egypt
As a commentator in a right-wing broadsheet, I was full-throated in my support of the Iraq War as a just and necessary intervention against a brutal dictator who was murdering his own people by the thousands while posing an imminent threat to our country, our values and our way of life.
And although that intervention was an unmitigated disaster, I believe I made the correct decision based on the government line at the time. After all, it isn’t my job to examine the claims made by politicians or use my critical faculties to help my readers gain a balanced and informed view of the situation, and anyway, nobody could have known back then that an invasion fuelled by the messianic zeal of Bush and Blair, underpinned by doctored intelligence and reliant on the optimistic belief that people we had spent over a decade bombing would welcome us as liberators would end so badly.
The strategic situation in Syria today is very different. This time we are not proposing to use boots on the ground to take out a tyrannical strongman. Instead we are proposing to join an existing bombing campaign with the aim of taking out the most brutal of the groups that we helped to create to fight a tyrannical strongman and so clear the way for his more moderate opponents to sufficiently weaken his position so that he is forced to negotiate a transition from power.
Moreover, our involvement will be marginal compared to the thousands of sorties already flown. But if anything this makes our intervention even more necessary. Although small, our forces will weigh the balance, just as 70 years ago the brave Spitfire pilots of the Battle of Britain weighed the balance in our fight against an enemy almost as powerful and ruthless as ISIS is today.
Not only that, but where Iraq was an ill-conceived imperial adventure with no overarching plan, David Cameron has promised us that this time any intervention will be part of a comprehensive strategy. This firm commitment to a comprehensive strategy should reassure even the most sceptical that there is a strategy in place and that it is comprehensive.
It is certainly having an effect on Labour MPs who are clamouring for the free vote that will allow them to support an intervention and put the ghost of the Iraq war to bed once and for all. In so doing, they have once again exposed Jeremy Corbyn’s extreme ideological commitment to unworkable and idealistic solutions. Of course we’d all like to settle wars by peaceful means, but anyone who has studied history knows this is never achievable: the Congress of Vienna created the conditions that led to the outbreak of the Great War, The Treaty of Versailles led directly to the outbreak of World War Two and the Yalta Conference created the Cold War.
Ready to deploy in 45 minutes
The comprehensive strategy is underpinned by the fact that there is a highly trained, well-equipped and battle proven anti-Assad faction on the ground. The Free Syrian Army is a cohesive, disciplined force that displays an impressive combination of ethics and military effectiveness. The government’s latest intelligence, which we have no reason to doubt, indicates that there are 70,000 fighters ready to deploy within 45 minutes of the UK joining the conflict.
This is why those who compare the situation to Libya in 2011 are just as misguided as those who compare it to Iraq. Libya was a classic example of how airpower can be an effective and low-risk way to remove a dictator and sow the seeds of democracy and freedom. The fact that the Libyan people could not take advantage of the opportunity given to them by the brave fighter pilots of the West is a sad indictment of their backwardness and tribalism, not a critique of either the principle of intervention or its execution.
Unlike the Libyans, the Free Syrians are educated, liberal and secular with an open and sophisticated culture that has been struggling to break free of the chains of oppression for decades. We need to support them just as we supported the democratically elected government of Abdel Al-Fatah Sisi in its struggle against the longstanding military dictatorship of Mohammed Morsi; just as we supported the tolerant and freedom loving Ali Abdullah Saleh in Yemen against Iranian backed Islamic State fighters; just as we supported our staunch friend and ally the former president of Iraq in his 7 year war of liberation against the fanatical Ayatollahs.
Moreover, with our staunch allies Turkey, Saudi Arabia and gulf states like the UAE and Qatar funnelling support to anti-Assad factions in the region, we can be sure that we will be part of a coordinated response on behalf of the entire international community.
the Twin Towers Charlie Hebdo the Alamo the black hole of Calcutta The Paris Attacks
By rehashing all these old anti-war arguments, we are playing into the terrorists’ hands. We must never forget that less than two weeks ago, Paris, the City of Light, was targeted by ISIS in a brutal series of attacks that left 139 people dead.
The terrorists may claim that Paris was targeted partly because it is “a capital of prostitution and vice” and partly because France has been at the forefront of fighting ISIS, not just in Syria but also in North Africa and Mali, but we should know better by now than to fall into this trap.
There is always an excuse to justify the latest atrocity. Muhammed Siddiqe Khan, the leader of the 7/7 bombers claimed that it was Britain’s re-election of the Labour government that invaded Iraq that prompted those attacks and in 2003, Osama Bin Laden wrote a letter to the American people in which he itemised hundreds of years of purely imagined grievances to justify his campaign of violence and fear. Radical Islamists may talk of Baghram and Guantanamo, extraordinary rendition and Abu Graib, but it is worth remembering that all of these came into being after 9/11, so how could they possibly have caused or fuelled the violence in the first place?
And before that, there was always an invasion here, a repression there and a line in the sand over there to give fuel to the Islamist narrative of a perfidious West always seeking to humiliate and subjugate Muslims or to outsource that humiliation and subjugation to brutal client regimes that suppress freedom but prop themselves up by supporting reductionist, violent and ahistoric versions of Islam while the West turns a blind eye for the sake of oil revenue.
Let us be absolutely clear. There is no way in which any Western nation has done anything to inflame the situation in the Middle East and even if they had, there is no link between such actions and the violent hatred of the Jihadis. They hate us simply because we exist, because we are free. Any attempt to attribute causality to the situation not only plays into the terrorists’ hands, it disrespects the victims of the Paris attacks, not to mention the hundreds of thousands who have been killed across the Muslim world in our long and selfless fight to bring the lights of reason and freedom to those benighted lands.
The West’s Burden
There are two clear sides to the debate – should we bomb ISIS now or should we have been bombing Assad for the last two years – but in the end, it boils down to this: We have a moral duty to act and failure to do so is an abdication of our responsibilities as an enlightened liberal democracy. As a free people, it is our burden to defend the freedom of others to their last breath.
There is a chance that intervention will make the UK a higher priority target for ISIS, but that higher risk is the price we must pay to keep our citizens safe, just as increased surveillance and police powers are the price we pay to protect our liberty. Our past interventions have not in any way fuelled radicalisation, extremism or terrorism but they have been co-opted by Jihadists into a narrative that does.
In order to break that narrative we need to show that we have the strength and commitment to see through to the end the job started in Iraq in 2003 and to show that we stand by our humanitarian values. Throughout a thousand years of history, we have never failed to be there when the French were on the field of battle and we will not start now. Nor can we abandon the people of Syria who are even now crossing the Meditarranean desperately trying to escape war, brutality and aerial bombardment only to find that the gates of Europe are closed.
ISIS has grown because we did not have the courage to halt its advance. It has preyed on the fear of intervention that we have had since Iraq. But this is the Island of Henry V, of Nelson and Wellington, Churchill and Boy George, it will not be cowed by terrorists or forever shackled to past mistakes. If we are to deserve our seat at the top table, if we are to be able to still look ourselves in the eye and call Britain “Great” then we need to act.
It doesn’t even matter who we end up bombing in the end, Assad and his death squads; ISIS; the Al-Qaeda affiliated brigades of the so-called Free Syrian Army, they are all as bad as each other. The critical thing is, we sure as hell have got to bomb something, otherwise how will they know we’re right?
(This article was first published about once every three months over the last 15 years)