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The questions everyone is asking about airstrikes in Syria


Tonight, the UK votes on whether to join the US, France and Russia in conducting airstrikes in Syria, with the aim of defeating ISIS.

What began as a civil war in 2011 has escalated into global conflict, searing through the Middle East to the streets of Paris, killing thousands of civilians in Syria, Iraq, Lebanon, Tunisia, Egypt, and France. The British Parliament has spent a whole day debating this single issue, and although some wonder whether this is enough time, the length and fierceness of the debate reflects the sheer number of questions that must be addressed before a decision can be made. 

It’s not only Parliament that is having a debate - across the country, and the world at large, the threat from ISIS and how to deal with it has been pushed to the forefront of our minds. How effective are airstrikes? What does success look like? Do we even know who the enemy is? These questions have begun to dominate conversations, as people  try to work out their own position on a decision that will affect personal, national and global security. 

In this atmosphere, I asked our team to share their biggest questions on ISIS, Syria, and the international response. What follows is an attempt to shed light on the nature of the conflict, and the central issues at stake in tonight’s decision.  

What is the point of launching airstrikes?

The immediate and ultimate aim of airstrikes is to defend national security by eliminating the threat posed by ISIS. Airstrikes would target ISIS strongholds, headquarters and economic resources in Syria in an attempt to weaken their position in the region, prevent them from taking more territory and stop them implementing terror attacks in Europe. 

what-is-isis-and-why-do-they-matter

How effective are airstrikes? 

The answer depends on their purpose. 

US airstrikes against ISIS began in September 2014 and have since caused moderate damage to the group. Targeted campaigns helped prevent ISIS from capturing key strategic points, such as Kobane on the Turkish border and Baghdad in Iraq, and have taken away up to 25% of ISIS-held territory. These losses are more than territorial blows, they damage ISIS propaganda which depends on projecting an image of invulnerability. The devastating attacks in Paris, Beirut and Baghdad followed a series of terrible PR moments for ISIS - the death of Jihadi John (the infamous British-born executioner) by a US drone, the loss of Sinjar  (a key city in northern Iraq), as well as the road linking its two strongholds, Mosul and Raqqa. 

But these attacks show that airstrikes cannot necessarily contain and defeat ISIS--which is, fundamentally, a vicious ideology that transcends borders. And any lasting stability in Syria will require co-operation with forces on the ground. Airstrikes depend on local intelligence to identify ISIS targets and minimize civilian casualties (which have been substantial), as well as troops to fill the vacuum left by an ISIS retreat. David Cameron argues that there are 70,000 ground troops available in the region to support airstrikes and regain territory, but the evidence for this has not stood up to scrutiny. Who will the UK and its allies agree to collaborate with on the ground?  The Syrian conflict is so deeply fragmented that although ISIS may be the common enemy of Western allies, potential allies on the ground are not easy to identify. 

Who, or what, are we fighting? 


The situation in Syria is very messy. There are at least 4 different sides fighting on the ground, and each side is supported by different foreign backers who do not see eye-to-eye on Syria, or the world’s future. This video perfectly captures the situation the UK is preparing to enter:

The strategy for peace in the region needs to include a political settlement. The end of ISIS will not necessarily lead to the end of the war in Syria, so there will be no quick exits. After all, ISIS was able to rise through the vacuum created by the civil war. 

And we’re not only fighting on the ground or from the skies. We’re also fighting an ideology that, barbaric as it seems, has managed to attract up to 30,000 recruits ready to fight, or die for its cause around the world. Although it is hard to imagine anything worse than ISIS right now, any outcome will need to assess the conditions in Syria and abroad that enabled such a destructive ideology to take hold, to ensure that an even more dangerous threat cannot emerge. 

Why are we only focusing on ISIS when Assad has killed many more civilians? 

This year, President Bashar Assad has killed more civilians than ISIS. According to the Syrian Network For Human Rights, Assad and his supporters killed 7,894 people while ISIS killed 1,131 in the first six months of this year This is not to downplay the threat posed by ISIS, or the scale of their destructive intentions, but it does point to the motives behind a decision to intervene on the part of the UK. 

A humanitarian crisis has been mounting in Syria for years--started by Assad's brutal political crackdown. According to the UN, over 220,000 Syrians have died since the outbreak of war in 2011. The attacks in Paris catalysed the UK’s decision to play a more active role in the conflict when Europeans ended up as victims. The concern now is, will airstrikes increase or lower the human cost of the war? 

syriachild.jpgImage: Ahmad Baroudi/Save the Children

Can airstrikes avoid the loss of civilian lives? 

In a word, no. Last week, a bomb launched near a school in Raaqa is reported to have killed 12 people, including 5 children.  And in May, more than 60 civilians died after a US airstrike targetted a district in Aleppo - half of these casualties were children. 

The ability to target ISIS is becoming increasingly difficult as the group becomes more able to disappear amongst civilian populations and continues to use their abhorrent tactic of human shields. Despite attempts to safeguard civilian lives, airstrikes will almost certainly increase the number of civilian casualties in the region, deepening an already wounded nation and fuelling the refugee crisis that many European nations are currently struggling, or refusing, to deal with.  

As the second biggest bilateral donor to the Syria crisis, the UK should be commended for its commitment to stabilising the region. It has already given over £1 billion to help vulnerable people in Syria and refugees in the region. However, further airstrikes will only intensify the need for humanitarian assistance in the region, and a coherent government strategy would need to ensure further military intervention does not jeopardise its own work in the region. 

My head is spinning after all this. There are no easy answers to any of the questions about the Syria crisis, and the complexity of the situation means the "right thing to do" is difficult to see. 

Bombs alone will not bring stability to the region, or solve the refugee crisis, or stamp out an apocalyptic ideology, or end the humanitarian crisis. Any intervention in Syria needs a coherent strategy that encompasses all the dimensions of the crisis, and must make long-term peace the priority.