Does anybody remember this classic Kenny Everett character?
'Round 'em all up, put 'em in a field, and bomb the bastards!'
Well, what struck me today as I was musing over the whole situation of the possible parliamentary vote for air strikes in Syria was that, despite its obvious silliness, it's actually probably a more coherent and effective military strategy than what is being proposed in the real world for dealing with a vile terrorist group. That is something that we should all find deeply worrying. At least following this character's plan we would know exactly where the people we are trying to bomb are, and that no innocent bystanders are going to get killed in the process.
To lay it out, this is what the current suggested 'strategy' seems to depend on in order to make it work to defeat both ISIS and their terrorist threat:
1. We have intelligence that is in all cases 100% accurate and tells us exactly where ISIS are hiding.
2. Nobody else at all happens to be in the vicinity at the time when we are dropping bombs.
3. We never miss with a single weapon, and everyone is closely and perfectly targeted.
4. All of the relevant people involved in promoting violence and terrorism are dealt with very quickly, before they can move around or order any more attacks.
5. None of the other people allied to them who are already in various parts of the world, potentially armed and ready to strike, decide to just go for it once their orders have stopped coming for what will be a pretty obvious reason to them.
6. In the case of something going wrong in 1 & 2 and some 'collateral damage' to innocent people, nobody else gets at all annoyed with the 'Western powers' once again dropping bombs 'indiscriminately' and killing their innocent fellows to such an extent that they can be persuaded to join the forces opposing those powers.
7. A mysterious force will somehow unite the many small 'moderate' groups in the region who don't seem to agree on much and don't seem to work together, organise them into a coherent army of occupation and peacekeeping with a single effective command structure, and they will then flood in to the vacuum left to take up the entire slack, effectively police the whole region and rid it of any remnants of the defeated forces, and solve the whole internal conflict (while Assad, to whom they are also opposed, quietly leaves them alone to do it, of course).
That seems to me to be an awful lot of 'ifs and buts'.
It just doesn't make any sense to me as a way to pursue the goals in question. I'm no 'pacifist' in the sense of always opposing all military operations - I fully understand that sometimes it is, unfortunately, necessary. This, though, seems to me to be going about things in entirely the wrong way - there's no realistic way it will work, no realistic prospect of it helping much even if it does work, and no realistic way in which it will do anything other than make the problem even worse if it fails to work 100% for every bomb dropped (which we can pretty much guarantee it always will).
So why are we going down this particular kind of road at all? We know from bitter experience that this kind of thing doesn't solve these kind of problems, and there's no real evidence that it's going to be significantly different this time around. Indeed, it would, I think, be quite foolish to suggest that the current strategy of bombing ISIL in Iraq failed to prevent attacks in Paris purely on the grounds that ISIL forces in the Middle East were able to nip over the border and be 'safe'. Where's the sense in trying it?
I seems to me that the main reason we are talking about 'air strikes' (which apparently sounds so much better than 'bombing' and hoping we know exactly who we hit every single time) is the fear of 'risk' in putting any forces into the region that might actually be able to do something about the dominance of ISIL over its territory of current control. You can bomb from the air without significant risk to personnel (especially if you include drones), but the same is obviously not true of 'boots on the ground'. That and the obvious issue of public opinion when it comes to putting the lives of our soldiers in danger - I'm no simplistic pacifist, but even more so I'm certainly no warmonger, and I'm in no rush to want for that to happen.
However, though I rarely agree with Ken Livingstone, and he obviously made some points extremely badly on Question Time last week, his suggestion that the only way to really start to get to grips with the issue is a truly multinational (not 'Western') UN force of some kind on the ground is certainly not without merit. Now I really hate to say it, but he's probably basically right on that (he's far from the only one saying such things, of course, in various political parties, but he did say it quite prominently in public, which is why I've included him as an example) - I can see no realistic alternative that will actually stand a realistic chance of doing some significant good. Of course, that is a road that is itself fraught with many kinds of difficulty (Assad being one of them, obviously), but if we are going to get involved in trying to do something to help the situation it is the kind of solution that we are going to have to look towards in some way.
We seem to be caught up in a post-attack, knee-jerk fit of 'we must do something' at the moment, and that is a very, very dangerous thing. We need to think about this very, very carefully, and take a logical and evidence based approach to everything we do. The current 'something' that is proposed is not going to work - it really shouldn't be an option for consideration at all as it stands. It's a 'hit it and hope' solution - while that might be quite useful in a moment of frustration during a pub pool game, it's really no way to plan or conduct military action.
So what is our realistic set of options at this time? Well, the primary question has to be whether we actually give in to the 'do something' brigade at all at this point. We will almost certainly do more harm than good by doing the wrong thing, and the lessons of previous campaigns have demonstrated quite clearly that this proposed air strike solution is very much the wrong thing. We have to decide whether we get directly involved in Syria at all at this point, or whether we stand up to terrorism by showing that we aren't afraid, won't change our lifestyle, and aren't going to be battered into starting exactly the kind of war that the terrorists want to improve their recruitment and bring about the ultimate global battle between cultures and religions. That's one option, and alongside it obviously goes measures like dealing with the finance and arms sales to that organisation, and so on, as well as stepping up the 'hearts and minds' kind of campaigning around the world to rob the terrorists of their support and recruitment opportunities.
The other option, and as much as I dislike it I accept that it might eventually come to this, is to properly get involved militarily in a way that really will begin to deal with the issues of ISIL on the ground in Syria. That's not going to be air strikes, though, that is going to be carefully building an international coalition from all over the world, including the Middle East, including Russia, and via the UN. That is going to be boots on the ground (with air support, of course). That's going to be a major, united world action against a group that is unacceptable to everyone, and in order to really achieve it in a morally viable way (which we have to do for it to succeed - we have to be building something better for the people, or the same thing will just happen again) it also includes properly addressing some of the other Human Rights issues going on in the region. We can't simply turn a blind eye and follow the 'my enemy's enemy is my friend' approach, partly because that is part of what has created such a well armed and well organised force in the first place.
So there we have it - two potentially viable and effective solutions to pursue, of which the current proposal is neither. Both can actually be pursued simultaneously, of course, and they also have common measures outside of any possible military action itself that will be required for ultimate success. They are plans that could work - plans that could help. The question really has to be which one it is now the right time for, and since the latter will obviously take time to build into a reality I personally think the answer should be pretty obvious - take option one, while exploring and building gradually towards option two in case it ultimately becomes the only viable solution.
What we have to do in order to try to improve the situation, or at least not make it a whole lot worse, is to avoid the third option - the current proposal of vaguely 'bombing the bastards' just to be seen to be 'doing something', and doing it at minimal risk to ourselves and our people, regardless of what the probable (or even possible) eventual outcome of it might be. In what is proposed currently, there's no real plan. There's no real strategy. there's nothing in there that's going to help. there's nothing even that's going to stop it from making things worse. I hope that every MP, on all sides of the House, will take a measured and considered approach to any parliamentary vote on the subject, and vote for an option that doesn't make things worse just for the sake of being seen to be 'doing something'.