Complex reality:Tunisians protest against terrorist attack at Bardo museum, March 2015. Demotix/Chedly Ben Ibrahim. All rights reserved.
The abhorrent Paris attacks have reduced political and public debate on the ongoing conflict in Syria to one of ‘to bomb or not to bomb’ ISIS. And those who are against Syria airstrikes are accused of being “terrorist sympathisers”.
In itself, the decision to bomb ISIS in Syria in response to these attacks would be rash and reckless, driven by the belief that only a military intervention can satisfy the public’s need for action from its Government. Shocked by the terrible tragedies, people have an understandable sense that ‘Something must be done’. And so we turn too easily, too quickly to the question of military action, as if that were the only option, the only way to do something.
Can we really defeat what the Prime Minister defined as an “evil death cult” with more airstrikes? ISIS-held territory is not populated only by radicalised, blood-thirsty jihadists. They are there, certainly, but they are also in Paris, Brussels and London. ISIS-held territory is populated, for the most part, by ordinary civilians. ISIS-held territory is populated, for the most part, by ordinary civilians.
Airstrikes on ISIS-held territory 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’ 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 feed into the ISIS propaganda machine, both in Syria, and in our own societies. Add to all these risks the fact that we don’t know what comes next to fill the space left by ISIS if we do succeed.
Instead, we must recognise and accept 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.
Airstrikes and their bloody aftermath will feed into the ISIS propaganda machine, both in Syria, and in our own societies.
Instead of military action in a vacuum, we need a long-term strategy that considers why ISIS has support in the first place, both in Iraq and Syria, and 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 different again from the reasons an illiterate labourer from the suburbs of Tunis decides to fight.
Intervening on a complex reality
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, we can instead search out other actions and in particular those local solutions which will be key in the fight against ISIS.
This groundwork is already under way. Whilst parliaments have been busy deliberating on the pros and cons of military responses, local civil society groups, governments and community leaders have been hard at work on the front line. Organisations like International Alert, together with local counterparts, have been working to understand and address the factors that result in young people’s vulnerability to recruitment by extremist groups so that we can form appropriate responses. We now know that the sense of belonging and purpose and power offered by these groups has caused young Tunisians to travel to Syria in their thousands.
For example: 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 the sense of disillusionment and resentment this fostered has made these suburbs a breeding ground for violent extremist groups to recruit support, 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.
Of course it is hard to judge how to respond to the terrible situation in Syria, and no-one can claim to have all the answers. But too often we are presented with a choice: to bomb or not to bomb as if there was no other action available.
Surely the only 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 certainly take time, but further bombing is unlikely to change that, and instead will surely make things worse.