By Shaykh Muhammad Nizami
This article published on nizami.co.uk seeks to explore the discussions being had on the decision to extend airstrikes against ISIL into Syrian territory and offer insight rather than rhetoric. I have thought about summarising it as brief bullet points, but for those who are actually sincere in wanting somewhat of a comprehensive understanding rather than partial facts with which to uselessly argue, it is only by reading the entire thing that can one be well informed – a comprehensive grasp of any matter cannot be attained by bullet points, it requires the effort of reading and analysis. Bullet points, whilst helpful, also allow those who posture the veneer of ‘knowing’ without actually providing them with much knowledge. I do not desire for my humble contributions to be used for those ends. Shaykh Muhammad.
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I have previously commented on Muslim populist sentiment. Unavoidable as it is, for that sentiment to shape the dominant narrative in any given situation is a great disservice to God and betrays the expectations He has placed on those bestowed with knowledge and insight. Thus with the recent parliamentary motion on airstrikes it is astonishing to see how many Muslim thinkers and scholars have adopted populist hype, the vast majority of which completely contradicts reality or remains inconsistent. Every text on the professional conduct of scholars and thinkers stresses that the masses be led with clear and nuanced formulations rather than a vernacular guided by the laity on what to say and how to say it. Yet most articulations have been awash with shortcomings, even something as simple as the failure to acknowledge the menace of ISIL and the need to defeat them; it is a basic oversight like this that allows for accusations of sympathy towards extremism. Infantile retorts that we care little for how we are perceived brings into question the purpose of the emotional sentiment we put up on social media, blogs and tabloid submissions; do we simply mean to rabble-rouse or is there an actual plan to discerningly raise valid points of concern?
There is certainly a case against extending airstrikes into Syria, one I will advance towards the end. However to present the case in the way that it has been, or denigrate all ministers with emotional rhetoric only serves to weaken our position, discredit the Muslim voice, and make us look inept at statesmanship. Nearly everything we have said is either conflation, misinformation, or contradicts previous stances Muslims have held, but ironically, we hate it when it is done to us. The emotionally charged rhetoric portrays Muslims not as the intelligent bunch they should be, but blabbering fools with an emotional gripe. And as usual, beyond the complaining, we don’t seem to offer viable suggestions for dismantling ISIL.
Is the UK bombing Syria?
In our wailing we posit all sorts, such as that Britain is now bombing Syria. In September 2014, Parliament voted to support offensive military action in Iraq – the recent motion was merely to have the same offensive operations extend into Syria. The way in which criticism has been framed by most Muslim commentators would have you think that the British government just declared war on the entire Syrian populace, that there will be the mass targeting and bombing of Sunni peoples, and that we are now at war with a sovereign country. However, the end of the approved motion read, “taking military action, specifically airstrikes, exclusively against ISIL in Syria.” The relevant point is that the UK has decided on a limited military offensive against a belligerent force in a territory where the UK remains uninvited by the regime. That was the essence of the vote; it has taken place somewhat over the legality of such military action (not an entirely new war), given that it is not at the request of the Assad regime, and is being conducted in the absence of a UN Security Council Resolution specifically authorising such action. It is simply about crossing the now theoretical border from Iraq into Syria in an attempt to continue the targeting of ISIL safe havens.
For all of the moral condemnation by those who adopt the vernacular of ‘our brothers and sisters’ in a bid to display their concern and rouse Muslim sentiment with expressions of Muslim unity, you would be forgiven for assuming they were aware that UK personnel have been carrying out Syrian bombings since 2013 by being embedded with allied nations. Furthermore, the first US-led airstrikes in Syria were assisted by aircraft from five Arab countries: Jordan, the United Arab Emirates, Bahrain and Saudi Arabia, with Qatar in a supporting role. Since then Turkey, Canada, France and Australia have joined the air campaign. Poignantly, the UK is actually late to the sortie, and for many politicians, embarrassingly so. However, no politician has argued that airstrikes alone will defeat ISIL. Even the Conservatives who tabled the motion were not that asinine. The parliamentary motion notes “that military action against ISIL is only one component of a broader strategy to bring peace and stability to Syria” and goes on to support the Vienna talks on a ceasefire and political settlement, underlines the importance of planning for post-conflict stabilisation and seeking to cut ISIL’s sources of finance, fighters and weapons.
Although it is an emotive issue, it must be addressed sensibly. Civilian deaths cannot be viewed in abstract terms but alongside the notion that striking ISIL will be better for Syrian civilians. It is surprising that many cannot see why parliamentarians who voted for the motion, and who believe that ISIL is a threat to the UK, would put the interests of British civilians above those of Syrians (where they do) – it is the duty of politicians in any country to put the security of their citizens before others. The despicable use of human shields is a major concern, but the government seems to have taken their responsibilities seriously, appropriately avoiding unnecessary loss to civilian life such as targeting civilian structures and centres even if ISIL happen to be hiding there. The contribution of material and expert assistance to the ongoing effort against ISIL, along with reports that the RAF have gone after oil fields and infrastructure targets bolsters the position. Such compliance with international law along with a sincere commitment to avoid the loss of civilian lives is something that Russia has had fewer qualms about in their conduct during hostilities. With the Prime Minister pointing out the niche capabilities of the RAF, some have said that bombs cannot be precise at 35,000 feet. Such an opinion would require insight into developments around weapons technology, something that most commentators seriously lack.
For all of the criticism from Muslim commentators, it is certainly strange that no one seems concerned with the civilians that might have already suffered from the British campaign of airstrikes against ISIL in Iraq, or the ongoing aerial campaign by allies (of whom Muslim states make up a significant number) in Syria. Embarrassingly, it was only in 2013 that many British Muslims were supporting airstrikes against the Assad regime – what might have happened to Syrian civilians in that situation? Even for the commentators who opposed those strikes, civilian losses failed to make their list of major concerns.
The claim that it will instigate attacks by ISIL is countered by the declaration that British intelligence services have already foiled seven terror attacks in the past year – the argument that airstrikes will cause atrocities is not entirely accurate. Many of the MPs who voted in favour of the motion reasoned that ISIL needed to be struck in Raqqa, the capital from where the attacks were inspired or planned. For this cohort of politicians, the strikes are a reaction to ISIL attacks already perpetuated on British soil, not an attempt to preempt them. In any case, the idea that specifically attacking ISIL will breed legitimategrievances amongst homegrown terrorists is incendiary and foolish – the policies of anystate cannot, and should not, be shaped to placate extremists, and many will regard positing a grievance towards targeting ISIL as legitimate indicative of sympathy with extremism.
Democracy and agendas
Some Muslims have billed the approval of the motion as a failure of democracy, yet whether they would have preferred the decision to be made dictatorially by one person I am not sure. Conversely other Muslims have argued that democracy had been suspended, which might be the case depending on the curious definition of democracy they have devised. In their ignorance, they see the approval as the product of one man, the Prime Minister, whilst bizarrely acknowledging that there was a vote where the large majority of MPs, specifically 397, voted for the motion. One man did not decide anything; he did not have the power to do so. Purely from a point of political theory, this was a demonstration of democracy at its best, not least as it followed ten hours of intense debate with Labour MPs allowed a free vote so as to follow their conscience.
There is no doubt that the government has an agenda, they must do – it’s their job. Strategically, Syria is very important, not only due to its oil reserves but more crucially, geopolitically. It could serve as a strategic ally in the turbulent region and keep the Gulf States content ensuring trade and natural resources, leaving Iran isolated and weakening Russian influence (the fear of which has resulted in military support for Assad). Western and Arab powers have already been supporting rebel groups, both secular and religiously inspired. So even if it were true that Western and Arab nations will attempt to covertly extend the campaign to engaging Assad’s forces, given that Assad is now supported by a Russian aerial campaign against all rebel groups, Britain must either choose a side or withhold support and inevitably lose credibility and influence on the international stage.
Is the debate over?
Now as compelling as these arguments seem, they are not faultless, and there are numerous factors that call them into question. It is by stressing these factors that those who oppose the extension of airstrikes can offer an intelligent critique.
Having been engaged in airstrikes against ISIL in Iraq for some time, and with very limited success, it is simply irrational to continue the same unsuccessful strategy in Syria. Furthermore, with Western and Arab allies having been engaged in Syrian airstrikes since 2013, and the situation largely the same, how are eight British planes going to drastically alter the current offensive; and are we to believe that our capabilities are beyond those of the US?
The entire offensive has been billed as one to severely disrupt ISIL. Beyond the emotive pleas made by MPs for airstrikes, couched in moral imperatives and rhetoric lacking substance, there are important facts for consideration. For the most compelling, Muslims need look no further than the interventions made by some of the 223 MPs voting against the motion. As highlighted by Julian Lewis, the Conservative chairman of the Commons Defence Committee, the airstrikes would be “ineffective and potentially dangerous” without ground troops – the highly unlikely prospect of 40,000 to 50,000 ground troops with air cover would be needed to take back Raqqa. This was echoed by Labour’s Keir Starmer, formerly Director of Public Prosecutions: “In my view, airstrikes without an effective ground force are unlikely to make any meaningful contribution to defeating Isis…But the prime minister’s reliance on what he calls ‘around 70,000 Syrian opposition fighters on the ground who do not belong to extremist groups’ to retake the ground from Isis is wholly unrealistic.” Similarly, John Baron, a Conservative member of the Commons Foreign Affairs Committee stated, “Just as in previous ill-advised western interventions, a strong pattern emerges: time and again the executive make a convincing case, often with supporting intelligence sources, and time and again they turn out to be wrong” A prime example is David Cameron’s moderate Syrian forces numbering 70,000.
If airstrikes are meant to be as effective as they are claimed to be, why has Michael Fallon, the Defence Secretary, warned that the mission to destroy ISIL could take three years? And how is it that the government has still yet to produce a plausible and comprehensive post-ISIL plan that will ensure Syria does not turn into another Iraq or Libya? The motion merely noted that military action against ISIL is only one component of a broader strategy, welcomed the renewed impetus behind the Vienna talks, and underlined the importance of planning for post-conflict stabilisation and reconstruction in Syria. Beyond the extremely wishy-washy phrasing, what is the actual plan? The defeat of ISIL will prove meaningless if there are no credible actors to step into the ensuing vacuum.
A symbolic gesture or longer-term strategy?
As Labour’s Yasmin Qureshi pointed out, the strikes are merely a “symbolic gesture to show we are in the international community, that we are siding with France.” The hollow rhetoric of airstrikes has been used as a distraction from this point, epitomised by the Foreign Secretary, Phillip Hammond, who said, “Britain is safer tonight after this decision.” How exactly was Britain safer that night from ISIL, or was it merely after one strike on an ISIL controlled oilfield? Germany has more recently committed Tornado reconnaissance jets and up to 1,200 military personnel but will not join coalition airstrikes. Being a part of the international community does not necessitate strikes; a reckless strategy that wastes money and resources, threatens innocent lives and provokes grievances, when the government can simply continue with the support it has already been offering. As the case of Germany demonstrates, that support is still very much needed.
In addition to all of this, the Conservative peer William Hague intimated what seems to be the preferred longer-term strategy, although the cabinet had been careful not to provoke opposition to the motion. He wrote in the Telegraph that “it would be a mistake for Britain or other western nations to rule out some of our own forces operating there” and in brazenly exposing the designs of some in the Conservative party, he referred to the “immutable” nature of the Sykes-Picot agreement considering a repeat of their actions, and with “support for their (Iraq and Syria) partition create a subdivided Syria.” Much of the continued turmoil in the Middle East has been due to the actions of his Conservative predecessors; carving out the Middle East (and Africa) led to polities that lacked the shared identity required for a stable and cohesive society. It is for the people of a region to decide how they wish to live and with whom, foreign intervention and colonial meddling has led to a century of instability and human suffering.
If it is suffering we wish to prevent, both in Syria and at home, along with opposing Assad we must overcome ISIL. The insights of academics, security specialists and government advisors suggest that an effective method to preventing attacks on British soil might be to invest in disrupting ISIL activities online – its principal means of recruitment and planning attacks – rather than drop Paveway bombs each at the cost of around £22,000. Offering opportunities to the disaffected and addressing social inequalities would help bolster a sense of belonging and social cohesion, all of which drastically impair the capabilities of ISIL. Yet, rather than commit to something of actual utility to British citizens, the productivity of British society, and the security of the British people, the government has resorted to symbolic gestures with designs to impose their will on the ambitions of foreign peoples once again.
How we present ourselves
To end I would like to point out that nearly all of the Muslims I have spoken to, who have been particularly vocal on the matter, have acknowledged that they lack the full details of the affair – this somewhat lengthy article in no way represents a full treatment of the issue. Ignorance is not a station from which we should sermonise, Allah has commanded: “And do not follow that of which you have little knowledge…” (Quran 17:36) Of course, we do require leadership and guidance, but as a fundamental rule it must be well informed.
Sh Muhammad Nizami was born and raised in London. He has undertaken classical Islamic study in Egypt and Saudi Arabia and holds degrees in Christian theology and English Literature, Islamic law and legal theory, and politics and international relations from a number of institutions including the University of London (LSE) and Al Azhar University in Cairo. He is an advisor to a number of western Islamic organisations, acts as a visiting scholar to a number of institutions, and serves as the director of the British non-partisan think tank, Averroes.