In Depth

UK air strikes on Islamic State in Syria: the case for and against

MPs expected to debate whether UK should take military action against Islamic State in Syria

MPs are due to debate the case for and against air strikes in Syria in the House of Commons tomorrow.

Prime Minister David Cameron has announced plans to hold a debate and vote on the issue in one day, with newspapers suggesting that bombs could hit IS targets in Raqqa by the end of the week.

The issue has divided MPs and members of the public, although Cameron is apparently confident that the motion will be approved. He has acknowledged that the decision to launch military action is "one of the most serious a prime minister can make", but warned that IS poses a "very direct threat" to the UK.

Thousands of people gathered outside Downing Street over the weekend to protest against the government's plans, with smaller protests taking place around the country. However, public polls have suggested that more people are in favour of military action than not.

A Daily Mirror/Survation poll of 1,026 people found that 48 per cent of Britons backed the air raids and 30 per cent opposed them, while the YouGov-Cambridge Symposium on Syria and the EU found that, out of 1,659 people, 59 per cent supported the air strikes and 20 per cent were opposed.

Here are just some of the arguments for and against:

Arguments for UK military action in Syria:

Striking IS at its root: Cameron says he wants to hit the "head of the snake" of IS in its heartland. "It is in Syria, in Raqqa, that Isil has its headquarters and it is from Raqqa that some of the main threats against this country are planned and orchestrated," he said.

Tackling the threat to the UK: Writing in the Daily Mail, Stephen Glover says Iraq and Afghanistan were ill-judged ventures, but IS presents a danger of "an entirely different order" because it "poses a direct threat to our way of life". The prime minister has said it is not possible to protect the people of Britain by simply "sitting back and wishing things were different".

Illogical to strike Iraq and not Syria: Many senior Conservatives, including Defence Secretary Michael Fallon, argue that it is illogical for Britain to be fighting IS in Iraq, but ignoring it in Syria – a border that is not recognised by the militants themselves. Also countering the argument that military action in Syria might provoke attacks on British soil, proponents say the UK has already made clear that it is an enemy of IS through its attacks in Iraq.

Securing Britain's status as a world power: The Times suggests it is "high time" a vote on military action in Syria was held because Britain's absence has been "noted" by its allies. The newspaper quotes a US commentator who claimed "the British are probably finished as a power of consequence". Britain has been on the sidelines for too long, says the Times. "This is a moment when symbolic solidarity is vital, when intention has to be clearly stated."

Arguments against UK military action in Syria:

Risk to innocent civilians: Labour leader Jeremy Corbyn has opposed further strikes, arguing that they would harm innocent Syrians and exacerbate the refugee crisis. The civil war, which has lasted nearly five years, has already killed more than 250,000 people, including children, and displaced more than 11 million people.

Questionable legality of air strikes: A UN Security Council resolution passed on 20 November determined that IS constituted an "unprecedented" threat to international peace and security, and called on member states to take "all necessary measures" to prevent and suppress its terrorist acts in Syria and Iraq.

Keir Starmer, Labour MP and former Director of Public Prosecutions, says the resolution does not, however, provide a standalone legal basis for the use of force.

Nevertheless, Starmer says that the UK and others will rely on "varying legal bases", such as the collective self-defence of Iraq. This, says Starmer, appears to be "sufficient" legal basis for the action Cameron proposes.

Lack of ground forces: Some critics, including Starmer, believe air strikes will not make any meaningful contribution to defeating IS without effective ground forces. Cameron has suggested that "around 70,000 Syrian opposition fighters on the ground who do not belong to extremist groups" will help retake the ground from IS.

But Starmer says this is "wholly unrealistic", as it is encompasses a "disparate number of groups with varying motivations and capabilities". On top of that, Starmer warns of the risk of getting drawn into a conflict with Russia, which has been supporting the Syrian government against various rebel groups.

Lack of credible strategy: Critics say they are yet to hear a convincing explanation of how UK military action will help bring peace to Syria. The past 14 years have taught us that military action abroad should only be undertaken in "pursuit of defined and attainable objectives", says Max Hastings in the Mail. "Merely to bomb IS seems a facile gesture." Hastings has misgivings about siding with Iran and Russia; says it is "impossible" to identify credible "good guys" among the factions fighting in Syria; and suggests that bombing tactics may not necessarily be effective against "primitive enemies who conceal themselves among civilians".

Fuelling more war and hatred: Corbyn has warned that war can often bring "yet more conflict, more mayhem and more loss" and feed the cycle of hatred. He wants to see more resources put into finding a workable political settlement to the Syrian conflict and an end to the funding and the supply of arms to IS. Hastings also warns against "fuelling the pernicious myth at the heart of Muslim extremist propaganda that the West is engaged in a crusade against Islam" and suggests that it is therefore "infinitely preferable for the peoples of the region to overcome IS themselves".

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