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My latest column for Al Jazeera English is about the British decision to extend airstrikes into Syria. It was published under the headline ‘Dropping more bombs on ISIL will not save Syria’.

Last week, the British Parliament voted to extend airstrikes against so-called Islamic State into Syria. The debate over whether British bombers should operate in Syria has been ferocious. One side condemns their opponents as ‘warmongers’ with blood on their hands; the other side smears critics of airstrikes as ‘sympathizers with terrorism’, a phrase reportedly used by Prime Minister David Cameron at a meeting of Tory backbenchers last week.

What is striking, though, is that, for all the ferocity of the debate, the decision to extend the scope of airstrikes will not signal a big change. British bombers already target IS targets in Iraq. American, French and Russian aircraft already operate in Syria. Allowing eight more British planes to bomb a few miles away from where they do so now will not make a whole heap of difference.

Unlike, say, the 2003 vote to invade Iraq, last week’s vote will not start a new war. But nor will it help defeat IS.

Operation Inherent Resolve, the US-led air campaign against IS, began in August 2014. Since then American planes alone have flown nearly 60,000 sorties, launched more than 8,000 airstrikes and hit more than 16000 targets in Iraq and Syria. Yet IS remains little weakened. The number of active IS fighters is today estimated at around 20,000 – 30,000 – the same as in 2014. IS has lost some territory, notably to the Kurds, but it has also advanced in that time, capturing the Syrian city of Palmyra, for instance, and routing the Iraqi army in Ramida, just 80 miles from Baghdad. If the intense, year-long US campaign has had such little impact, why would we expect a handful new British sorties to make any difference?

The Syrian debate has been more about symbolism than about military strategy, and fuelled more by domestic politics than by the Syrian conflict. For advocates of the policy, extending airstrikes is a means of demonstrating solidarity with France in the wake of the Paris attacks and of cementing Britain’s place in the ‘grand coalition’ against IS.

It is, however, a hollow solidarity that requires Britain simply to take whatever action France requests. Bombing Syria is not only unlikely to destroy IS, but is unlikely, either, to prevent another Paris-like attack. The masterminds of the Paris carnage came, after all, not from Raqqa but from Brussels.

The Syria debate has become also a focus for the infighting in the Labour Party. The election this summer of veteran leftwinger Jeremy Corbyn as party leader reopened old wounds between left and right. Both sides have used Syria as a means of settling scores. Many Shadow Cabinet ministers threatened to resign unless Corbyn allowed them to oppose party policy and vote with the government. Corbyn supporters are campaigning to deselect MPs who voted to extend airstrikes. In this tumult, it sometimes seems to be forgotten that the civil war that matters is the one in Syria, not in the Labour Party.

The debate about Syria has been more like displacement activity, a means of avoiding discussing the much more difficult issue of how to defeat IS. There is widespread agreement, even by supporters of airstrikes, that a bombing campaign alone will not dislodge IS. What is required, everyone agrees, are ‘boots on the ground’. Yet, few seem to understand why this is important.

The most successful group in combating IS have been the Kurds. This is not just because they have well-organized, battle-hardened fighters. It is also because of the nature of the Kurdish struggle itself. The Kurds have developed a deep commitment to self-determination honed through well established social movements, a flourishing civil society, and coherent political aims. The Kurds are winning, at least in part, because they see the struggle as theirs, and no one else’s. What success the US bombing has achieved, it has done so largely in tandem with the Kurds.

The situation in Syria is very different. The conflict in Syria began as a series of pro-democracy protests which soon developed into an uprising against the brutal rule of President Bashar al-Assad. But the sheer ferocity of Assad’s response, together with the interventions of foreign powers – from Russia to Iran, from Saudi Arabia to America – have helped fragment the opposition, creating the space for IS to exploit.

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The current bombing campaign can only exacerbate the turmoil, further dislocating civil society, and making it still more difficult to create a powerful, Kurdish-style movement for self-determination and democratic change. It is striking how many ‘realist’ voices, including in Parliament last week, now urge Western powers to back Assad as the only reliable anti-IS force in the country – ignoring the fact that it was against Assad that the Syrian people first rose.

To see the incoherence of the British approach, consider the case of London teenager Silhan Özçelik. Earlier this year she travelled to Brussels in an attempt to join a Kurdish militia fighting IS in northern Syria. She was arrested by British police on her return from Brussels. And last month Özçelik was sentenced to 21 months imprisonment under the Terrorism Act. Why, one might ask, is it a moral imperative, as David Cameron insists it is, to fight IS by dropping munitions from the sky, but a criminal act to join those actually fighting IS on the ground? Perhaps nothing reveals the shallowness of the Western approach than the failure of the British authorities even to think about this question.


  1. Fayyaz

    As the situation stands now, it is not only impossible to dislodge Assad and defeat IS at the same time, but may not be prudent either because it will leave big vacuum that may be filled again by an other monstrous terrorist organization like IS. At present IS is the major monster and many may agree, including Russia and Iran, to join the coalition to defeat IS. After this it will easy to focus on Syria and Assad. After all we have many repressive and ruthless rulers like Assad in Middle East, why it is so crucial to focus on only Assad and ignore even more ruthless other dictators like of Saudi Arabia and Bahrain.

  2. I disagree with your views on whether Britain decision and efforts on “bombing Syria” are not going to have a significant impact. May I remind you Syria is approx 185,180 sq Km, Britian are bombing strategic locations and not the whole country . As a matter of fact the term to use is “combining efforts” (and not “bombing Syria”) to fight ISIS and the arteries that allow it to function. Do you really think sitting back and watching the show would add any value vs taking a combined action to support removing the threat they pose and joining forces towards eradicating terrorism that they represent? What happened in Paris / California and other parts of the world could happen here in the UK too. It’s only a matter of time. Britian are acting on these threats, they have not gone in blindly following the requests of France! Britain’s MOD set presidence to managing warfares with strategy and intellegence, they target locations knowing well enough after years of ground work. They are using precision laser-guided Brimstone missiles to reduce casualties. Only attacking The hubs that allow Isis to thrive. Let’s not simply speak a generic language and broadly paint brush without getting your facts right. Two evils presented themselves to the west (ISIS attacks & we attack ISIS) both with risks, no action posed a higher risk that the UK are not ready to take. Collateral damage is inevitable and such is the nature of war. This is not right nor do I support the killings of innocent people but it’s the consequences we have to face.

    • “There is widespread agreement, even by supporters of airstrikes, that a bombing campaign alone will not dislodge IS. What is required, everyone agrees, are ‘boots on the ground’. Yet, few seem to understand why this is important.”

      • Hmmmm Jonrode in your view what would “boots on the ground” achieve? Britian actions are trying cripple ISIS’s infrastructure, which would be hard to do when on ground. To be honest with you my bigger fears are the empty headed leaders and their followers (The trump likes) that play off their verbal garbage to gain on poll count vs value airtime to constructively send out a positive message to encourage tolerance and peace. They stoop as low as the terrorists they are trying to fight.

        At least David Cameron leads with fundamental values for its nations citizens, our democratic system protects fundamental human rights, encourages, exercises individual liberty & freedom and mutual respect. Terrorism does not have a race, religion or colour. So, really this article should direct its efforts on asking why are many of the Americans thought process as bad as ISIS / terrorists.

        • Boots on the ground is the only way to actually take back the region and restore stability. These troops should be non-Western – this is for local players to solve (yes I understand the absurdity of asking someone else to clean up our mess). We should support in other ways. There are a slew of articles and opinions that echo what this article has said.

          Some argue that we should stop airstrikes all together. I think we should cut back and be very selective and use them only in coordination with movements on the ground.


  3. Peter Tatchell

    Excellent piece, as usual Kenan. Can you email me a draft tweet with a link to the article and I will tweet. Keep up the great writing that you do. Solidarity! Peter

  4. Adrian

    I hava a got a problem. I keep on reading what we should not do, but I do not read much about what we should actually do and immediately. Everyone will agree that we need to do something urgently about the social inequality at home, but that does not help one bit the people in Syria and Iraq (and elsewhere in the Arab world) that suffer on a daily basis.

  5. I agree with Adrian.
    How well did boots on the ground work in Iraq? Afghanistan?

    Is it necessary to reestablish colonial governments because the Ay-rabs and Persian Horde cannot rule themselves?

    Are we going to invade with ground troops Saudi Arabia and Pakistan (the real funding source and ideological training ground for Sunni extremism)? Why not?

    For that matter, what about a ground assault of UN Peacekeeping Troops on Langley? The CIA helped create many of the current monsters over the past thirty years. Maybe the White House needs to be occupied?

  6. Fijay

    Well …..I personally feel it is ALL insane ….think this blogg is the most intelligent media out there ….in the end ….sadly after much further devastation and division …folks will either pull out due to financial cost of scale of devastation …leaving one HELL of a mess and some kind of reconciliation/peace talks will have to be had ….war is war ….surely there are more intelligent ways of solving disagreements in the 21st century ….hmmmm but maybe not …too much ‘power/ control’ at steak I guess
    Maybe like the recent international Climate Change Summit ….there needs to be a similar ‘Peace Summit’ …..hmmmm maybe led by the UN …
    Things seem to be shifting rapidly to a Global level …re climate …re resources ….re ideologies …re communication/ technology ….and maybe ‘we’ and those in ‘power’ through wealth or status need to need to shift our thinking and actions along with it
    But …then again …who the hell am I to say …just a single mum living in a post industrial town in the north of England ….but I guess as much right to an ‘opinion’ as anyone else

  7. Fijay

    Maybe the UN needs to be invested in and taken SERIOUSLY as the ‘lead’ power in the world …..ok ….I need to make tea now

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