Attacking Islamic State vs protecting civilians in Syria?

A man holds a baby saved from under rubble, who survived what activists say was an airstrike by forces loyal to Syrian President © Reuters/Hosam Katan

A man holds a baby saved from under rubble, who survived what activists say was an airstrike by forces loyal to Syrian President © Reuters/Hosam Katan

With the start of US-led air strikes on Islamic State targets in Syria this week, and Parliament due to vote today on British military action in neighbouring Iraq, attention is once again focused on the conflict which has cost so many lives since 2011.

When G8 leaders met in Fermanagh last year, they committed themselves to helping to bring peace to Syria.

The soaring death toll in the sixteen months since, at the hands of Syrian state military, opposition forces and groups such as Islamic State, shows how hollow those words have proved.

Yet, despite the 190,000-plus deaths in Syria, it was ISIS taunting of Obama through sickening videos depicting the beheading of US citizens, which finally prompted the President to launch air attacks.

But will attacks from the sky and arming opposition groups on the ground help end the agony in Syria or just add to the misery already endured by its people?

Tragically, nobody can answer that question – not Obama, not Cameron, nor the leaders of the Gulf States backing military action.

But world leaders need to demonstrate not just that they are against Islamic State, but that they are on the side of civilians.

This means they must use their power to ensure that international law is respected and that attacks on civilians end. Such laws apply now to the US military, just as much as Syrian forces and non-state armed groups.

It also means no indiscriminate or poorly targeted attacks which could leave civilians – in that most horrible of euphemisms – as ‘collateral damage’.

In Syria, civilians living in regions now under ISIS control could obviously be at risk.

Being on the side of civilians also means ensuring that arms from the US, UK or elsewhere do not end up in the hands of those government or rebel forces who will use the weapons to attack the ISIS today, and to commit serious human rights abuses tomorrow.

And with increased attacks on regions controlled by Islamic State, it would be prudent to expect (and plan for) hundreds of thousands more refugees to follow the hundreds of thousands who have already fled. 1.4 million Syrians have already become refugees in neighbouring Lebanon. By contrast, the UK has taken a grand total of 75 people so far.

While there may be no end in sight to the conflict, lives can be saved now by Obama, Cameron and other world leaders demonstrating clear will to ensure international law is upheld and civilians are protected from a war which is not of their making. That is the only path to lasting peace and justice in a region which needs it more than most.

A version of this article appears in today’s Belfast Telegraph.

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  • Zig70

    It would take more guts to stand back than look like the big man by bombing foreign countries. We all know it’s a no brainer because it’s a vote winner. In the previous attacks on Iraq more harm was done than good. More civilians were killed than by Saddam who hung for it. Maybe we should hang Blair and Bush first?

  • barnshee

    Well I sort of like the precedent IF it means that the next time Israel attacks the Palestinians the UK and USA bomb Israel ——I mean fairs fair

  • Tacapall

    Since when has the British or the Americans cared about civilian life when engaging in modern day colonialism in the Middle East and Africa. Maybe if we concentrated minds on who actually created ISIS and the majority of these roaming Muslim armies, who financed, armed them and who trained them, we would find the clues leading us right to the same two governments, Britain and America and their allies, who only last year, although for different reasons, wanted to bomb and invade Syria on the pretense they had chemical weapons and that they used them against civilians. We hear so much about the barbaric beheadings carried out by these so called Muslim extremists they are designed to cause outrage and disgust, to lull us all into a sense of despair where we sit back and allow western governments and their allies, these war mongers, free reign to wipe out all traces of human ownership to the resource rich land that their paymasters want. We hear no calls for invading and bombing Saudi Arabia, a muslim country where beheadings are carried out on a regular basis by the state, a country known for its lack of democracy and human rights where Princes can have people arrested and charged with casting an evil spell on them FFS.

    You can fool some people some of the time but you cant fool all the people all of the time.

  • Jag

    What a bunch of a-holes our neighbours in Britain can be, times like this serve to reinforce our sense of neutrality.

    So, the US attacks IS which is fighting the Assad regime/government, thereby facilitating the Assad regime/govt in concentrating its efforts in attacking those who hoped the Arab Spring would stretch eastwards as far as their little hellhole. The enemy of my enemy is my friend? Nice friends, the Assad regime/government!

    Dave describes IS as “pyschopaths” – no, Lenny Murphy was a psychopath, IS is creating a caliphate, a functioning society which to my mind is a hellhole, but that’s not my business. But if “psychopath” is the term needed to convince the Brit public to sacrifice its wealth and young men (Dave says there won’t be combat troops but the sneaky beakies are already famous on the ground in N Iraq, IS has SA-7 and stinger, there will be UK aircraft lost and casualties in any extended engagement), then “pyschopaths” they must be. After all, they behead people. If anything, that just tells you IS is ultra-logical – remember Lt Aldo in Inglorious Basterds “We will be cruel to the Germans,
    and through our cruelty, they will
    know who we are. They will find the
    evidence of our cruelty, in the
    disembowed, dismembered, and
    disfigured bodies of their brothers
    we leave behind us. And the German
    will not be able to help themselves
    from imagining the cruelty their
    brothers endured at our hands, and
    our boot heels, and the edge of our
    And the Germans, will be sickened by us.
    And the Germans, will talk about us.
    And the Germans, will fear us.
    And when the Germans close their eyes
    at night, and their sub conscious
    tortures them for the evil they’ve done,
    it will be with thoughts of us,
    that it tortures them with. ” Isn’t IS just doing the same sort of thing with its iconic beheading videos?

    And why didn’t the UK intervene in Mugabe’s little hellhole – oh yeah, niggers rarely count in the calculations of the West, even if they are former subjects who are still in the Commonwealth.

    Nonsensical and illogical, could our local media just ignore them and their “tactical airstrikes” against “terrorists” and the obligatory final video moments of air-to-ground missiles as they wreck their destruction (and God forbid we’d show the aftermath on the ground with the decapitated mush that used to be a 6-month old baby’s head).

  • Michael Henry

    Where is this money problems that we hear about- not enough for hospitals-not enough for roads- not enough for the Assembly despite of Tory promises made before the Scottish referendum of more powers not less-but all of a sudden millions -( billions )-can be found to blow the shIte out of Civilians-

    I seen American and British spokespeople getting jealous when the Israelis were bombing the Palestinian people a few weeks ago- if they can do it and get away with it then so can we so the Yanks and Brits thought- it’s their turn to be Statesmen in the media whilst their bombers kill family’s on the ground-

    ISIS will be safe- ISIS will grow stronger- But pity about the innocents as Uncle Sam and the RAF try to wipe them out-

  • Gopher

    Pretty much disingenuous piece suspending geo political reality as well as belief. If one wants to have a serious critique about the present situation in “Theatre” (Isis conveniently (or stupidly) allowed American air support already being used in Iraq to transcend borders by murdering US citizens, circumventing a whole host of geo-political problems of which the author neglects to inform us to turn “sovereign” into a neat military “Theatre” of operations uncomplicating things ) one would start with why in the name of God are we paying the intelligence services when a group of bandits can overrun half of one of the most important oil producing states in the world without any forewarning. The second thing I would look at is the wasted expense training, arming troops and paying troops that throw down their weapons and melt at the first sign of combat thus handing their modern weapons to ISIS reminiscent to Hicks Pasha’s disaster in the Sudan in the 19th century

    If I may stay analogous with the 19th century I would suggest that airpower here is the Maxim gun of of the 21st century but what one really needs are the Clive’s, Lawrence’s or even a messianic Gordon’s to galvanize the disparate forces on the ground against ISIS
    Where our “Gordon” comes from in today’s global world is immatériel but in the absence of regular army boots on the ground he needs to be found.

    As for the collateral damage, to facilitate D Day in the second world war the French Railway Network had to be bombed out of existence which involved area bombing (the airforce’s called it “precision”, euphemisms where popular back then too) of Marshalling yards which were situated in towns and cities You can wiki how many French civilians died. When one talks of figures of 190,000 dead in Syria a Hellfire going astray whilst a tragedy should not overshadow the bigger picture. War as Sherman pointed out is Hell but he was even more succinct about journalists trying to make coin out of dead bodies

    “If I had my choice I would kill every reporter in the world but I am sure we would be getting reports from hell before breakfast.”

  • npbinni

    Indeed, fair is fair. However, Palestinians always attack first, so it’s self defence!

  • npbinni

    Obama made the biggest strategic mistake in the Middle East of the past 10 years by prematurely abandoning Iraq. What a shame there has to be another war to try to return to the stable conditions in Iraq that Bush left in 2008.

  • Michael Henry

    ” by prematurely abandoning Iraq “-

    That’s a good one- everyone else knows that the American and British troops got their butts kicked out of Iraq- And now they are going to bomb the Civilian people from thousands of feet safely up in a act of revenge-

  • barnshee

    “Palestinians always attack first, so it’s self defence!”

    er no

    I think you will find the Israelis are the source of the problem

  • Reader

    …our sense of neutrality.

    1) Zimbabwe isn’t in the Commonwealth, as of 2003.
    2) *You* are the one defining Assad as a friend to the US and UK using the ‘enemy of my enemy’ rule – and no other evidence.
    3) I take it that your philosophy is neutral, you have no enemies at all, and no-one expects you ever to go into dangerous places and do anything. Certainly if Assad and ISIS carve up Syria between them you would still do absolutely nothing and call on everyone else to emulate your example.

  • Reader

    We hear no calls for invading and bombing Saudi Arabia…
    At yet it, too is a resource rich land, as you put it. Sparsely populated too. Have you any *actual* theories about what is going on? Because your cynicism is tripping over its own bootlaces.

  • Tacapall

    Reader my cynicism is much easier to comprehend than your belief that Britain and America is bringing death and destruction to all those middle east countries because they’re worried about democracy and human rights. Now if you have anything to say on the actual subject then lets hear it I cant be annoyed with back seat drivers.

  • streetlegal

    It isn’t possible to defeat the Mujahideen. Ask General Gordon.

  • Gopher

    Israel’s position in this crisis is an interesting one, they seem to believe that ISIS is diverting attention away from Iran. The downing of a Syrian government museum piece (Vietnam era Mig 21) over the Golan suggests that Israel arnt too worried about ISIS, infact seem reasonably happy that they were tying down Iran, Hezbollah and Syria. But as Clausewitz reminds us “No plan survives the first contact” and those loose canons ISIS have diverted The US Government attention much to Israels chagrin. “ISIL is a five-year problem,” Israel’s strategic affairs minister stated “A nuclear Iran is a 50-year problem,” he continued, “with far greater impact.”

    I suspect there will be more twists and turns, If I was Assad I would dismantle my air defence network I would not want an “accident” happening to any US planes over Syria.

  • ifriqiyah

    Amnesty has consistently opposed UN calls for an arms embargo re: Syria, a situation homologous to AIUK’s policy on prostitution, a case of pimps being at the policy table and the victims somewhere else.

  • ifriqiyah

    In Syria, the will of the IS is practiced by affiliates. It is a war of dark alliances. Islamic State has always shared bases with other groups e.g. children’s hospital in Aleppo’s Qadi Askar. IS disarm subordinate groups of heavy weapons, the lightly armed fighters operate as a militia. The SyrAF prefers not to enthusiastically erase antique architecture e.g. to attack IS in Raqqa involves targeting Armenian and Christian infrastructure. Islamic State are not so easy to find in numbers, they converge for operations. I doubt western air forces will do much better than the SyrAF, I suppose it is safer for NATO closer to Turkey.