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Opinion: Symbolism, action - but what plan?

Hallam Mark Kommentarbild App
Mark Hallam
December 3, 2015

"Not a choice between action and inaction, but a choice between inaction and distraction." That's how a Conservative Party dissenter summed up the vote on UK airstrikes over Syria; DW's Mark Hallam is inclined to agree.

Frankreich Francois Hollande & David Cameron
Image: Reuters/E. Gaillard

Some things in this world aren't even up for debate. For instance, our troubled planet would be a little brighter without the so-called "Islamic State," or ISIS, or ISIL, or Daesh - which became the preferred acronym during Wednesday's marathon session in the House of Commons.

Labour's shadow foreign minister, Hilary Benn, described IS militants as "fascists" in one of the day's stronger speeches supporting the government stance. "And what we know about fascists is that they need to be defeated," he said.

But while Benn led the case for the decisive Labour defectors who pushed the motion through, a different party's rebel put forward his views against the bombing.

Since US-led coalition airstrikes began in Iraq and Syria, more than a year ago, IS recruitment had doubled, said prominent Conservative backbencher David Davis. The strikes were pinning key IS fighters down, impeding their movements and killing some, Davis agreed, but they were failing in their stated aim: "to degrade and destroy IS."

Symbolism and action

It surely strains credulity that a handful of British fighter jets - already active over Iraq for more than a year - will have a major strategic impact on IS-held territory in Syria. The US, France, Turkey, Jordan, Saudi Arabia, the Netherlands, Canada (at least for now) and Bahrain are just some of the countries already operating in that airspace. And that's to say nothing of Russia's military involvement, or the Syrian air force's remaining units.

Frankreich Großbritannien Francois Hollande und David Cameron vor Bataclan
The Paris attacks have mobilized Europe and much of the world, but an anti-IS strategy remains elusiveImage: picture alliance/AP Photo/David_Cameron

Symbolism has driven this vote, as it has in Berlin's Bundestag. Quite rightly, Europe is determined to stand shoulder-to-shoulder with France after the Paris attacks of November 13.

Yet dangers accompany such desires for swift action, and symbolism can be a two-way street: a glut of western pledges to reinforce military action in the Middle East has the potential for severe abuse at the hands of IS recruiters and propagandists.

'As part of a broader strategy'

Prime Minister David Cameron repeatedly stressed, before and after the vote, that airstrikes were "one part of a broader strategy" against IS. Yet what is that grand plan, especially in the case of Syria? Can the West now work with President Bashar al-Assad in the short or medium term?

The current, ill-defined coalition accord with Moscow and Damascus - which one might crudely label "bomb and let bomb" - provides rather more firepower than it does structure. What about the Kurds in Iraq and Syria, the coalition's key allies on the ground thus far? How does their future fit into a broader strategy, and what might NATO-member Turkey have to say about any such plans?

Mark Hallam
Mark Hallam

The British public - though moved and outraged by the atrocities in Paris - remains skeptical on the country's 21st century military engagements. The Taliban is back on the offensive in Afghanistan, 14 years since the intervention. IS holds much of northern Iraq and is stretching into Libya, itself verging on failed state status. None of this provides much evidence of effective long-term strategy or planning. If anything, it warns against the dangers of power vacuums after rapid intervention.

Yet for all this, one common argument against the strikes should be rejected out of hand. It's naïve, even dangerous, to assert that Wednesday's result renders the UK a greater target for IS attacks. This misunderstands nihilism's nature.

British security forces say they have foiled seven terror plots in 2015 alone, and the idea of IS giving the UK a pass if it bombs Mosul, but not Raqqa, is risible. Britain was, and remains, a prime target for IS - because it's a broadly free, secular, democratic country. The same arguably applies for Germany, whatever the Bundestag votes.

Hilary Benn is right that IS are fundamentally fascists, who must be defeated. But when's the next mammoth debate - internationally, not in a single parliament - focusing on precisely how to achieve this, and on what might happen next?

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