Jeremy Corbyn is Right: The UK Should Not Bomb Syria

by Benjamin Studebaker

British Prime Minister David Cameron wants the UK to join the American bombing campaign in Syria. He has called those who disagree with him “terrorist sympathizers“. Jeremy Corbyn, the leader of the opposition, recently wrote an op-ed for The Guardian detailing his reasons for opposing the air campaign. Corbyn’s case is well-argued and supported by the evidence.

Corbyn’s key argument is that bombing campaigns are not useful unless there are ground forces ready to step in and secure territory once the bombs stop falling:

Crucially, he [Cameron] has failed to convince almost anyone that, even if British participation in the current air campaign were to tip the balance, there are credible ground forces able to take back Isil-held territory.

This claim is well-supported by military strategists. Bombs are a useful way to drive the enemy out of a given territory, but if friendly ground troops are not available to move into that territory once the bombs stop falling, the enemy can simply wait and then retake that same stretch of territory. How many friendly ground troops are needed? Estimates vary quite widely. Former CIA Deputy Director Michael Morrell claims that 100,000 allied ground troops are required:

Unless the coalition is willing to put more ground troops into Iraq, and possibly into Syria, there is very little we can do to respond. I think it would take 100,000 [troops to destroy ISIS] and that will simply does not exist here and it doesn’t exist in the other coalition countries.

Others put the figure even higher–Colonel Jack Jacobs thinks it would take “several hundreds of thousands” and a multi-decade commitment:

Cameron claims that there are 70,000 moderate Syrian ground troops. This is not enough even on Morrell’s more conservative estimate. But beyond that, the 70,000 moderate Syrian troops are already engaged in a civil conflict with the Assad regime. Assad’s forces are located to the south and west of the rebels, while IS is located to the east:

So for the rebels to fight IS, they would have to essentially abandon the front between themselves and Assad, allowing Assad to move in. It is unrealistic to expect the rebels to fight a war on two fronts and they understandably are not going to do this. They will continue to try to hold the line against Assad in the southwest rather than cede the territory they hold to the regime in a bid to fight IS. Assad, for his part, cannot afford to divert his troops either, lest the rebels take advantage. If a Syrian army is going to take and hold this territory, there needs to be a secure and stable Syrian government. This requires a diplomatic resolution to the conflict between Assad and the rebels. Once there is a unified Syrian state, that state could, perhaps with some outside help, retake the lands seized by IS. That outside help could come from the west, but it could also or instead potentially come from neighboring regional powers like Iran, Turkey, or Egypt. Regional powers should be included in the negotiations between Assad and the rebels to ensure that the resolution creates a regime that at least some of Syria’s neighbors would be prepared to support against IS. This new government should also be constituted in a way that ensures that ordinary Syrians will be economically enriched, that they will have the kind of life opportunities and economic resources necessary to inoculate them against the pull of fanatical terrorist organizations.

If we instead just bomb Syria without a political solution, we would waste a lot of money and kill a lot of bystanders without achieving any strategic aims. The worst outcome is a situation like Libya, in which our bombs leave a power vacuum that no one faction is strong enough to fill. In Libya, this resulted in abject chaos that has proven so terrible that IS has even managed to set up shop just a few hundred miles from Sicily:

The red territory is held by the Libyan government that is internationally recognized. Green territory is held by the Muslim Brotherhood and other Islamist groups. Blue areas are controlled by local forces, and yellow areas are controlled by the Tuaregs. And in black? That’s IS. Without a sustainable government, western bombs only clear the way for new and more terrible civil wars, and civil wars create havens for terrorist organizations.

If we send our own ground troops to install a government of our choosing, we would spend even more money and we would prevent the Syrians and the regional players from creating a sustainable political solution of their own. It needs to be recognized that when we help a faction seize power when that faction does not have the underlying political, military, and economic power to take and hold power on its own, we risk creating a situation in which that faction cannot maintain its power without constant international support. The faction becomes dependent not on the support of its own people, but on foreign governments. Because the regime does not require as much support from its own people, it is free to be corrupt and incompetent, knowing that foreigners will continue to support it anyway. All of this alienates the local population, which grows to hate the government and the west for supporting it. The ruling faction responds with increased repression and violence, and this disrespect for human rights alienates foreign supporters and increases the population’s hostility. As soon as foreign support wavers for any reason, the ruling faction is beset by rebellions and civil wars, and the instability that results creates safe havens for groups like IS. When this happens, we are often told by our leaders that we must intervene again, or that we must continue intervening to defeat the hostile local forces. This is an old story that we’ve seen many times before in many parts of the world, ranging from South Vietnam to Iran under the Shah to contemporary Iraq and Afghanistan. Immense amounts of money are spent, only to leave these countries with governments that are repulsive and morally disgusting when at long last the western public tires of throwing good money after bad.

Cameron would have us believe that with a few bombs here and there, the moderate rebels can take over the country. They can’t, and even if I’m wrong and they do, they will splinter in the same way that the anti-Gaddafi rebels in Libya splintered, with Islamists facing off against secularists. The chaos will only continue to create space for IS and for groups like them. Corbyn is right to demand a diplomatic solution to the Syrian question that includes regional players and creates a stable regime that will deliver economic opportunity and enjoy broad national support.

When Cameron responds to these nuanced arguments about how to create a just government in Syria with the slanderous accusation that all those who disagree with him are “terrorist sympathizers”, he illustrates just how bankrupt his line of argument is. Britain needs to have an open national dialogue about how to deal with the Syrian crisis in a constructive way. By accusing his political opponents of being traitors, Cameron shuts down that debate and encourages the British public to blindly support a stupid and ill-informed policy that at best wastes money and kills innocents and at worst also contributes to political instability in the region and creates more safe havens for terrorist groups.

If you’re American, French, or Russian and you’re reading this, the same line of criticism applies to what we’re already doing. We need a stable government in Syria to take control over the territory IS currently holds. Without this, we are wasting money, killing people, and achieving nothing of lasting value.

Throughout the world, the public is upset over the Paris terrorist attack and it wants to see action. But unless our response is constructive and helps create stable governments and economic opportunities in the region, we are just adding to the violence and death, to the waste and cruelty. That is precisely what IS wants–the western nations engaged in an unending and fruitless war, so they can continue to use that war and the instability and misery it creates to recruit new young people to their cause. Many countries have already taken the bait to varying degrees, but Britain has a chance still to stay out of the bombing campaign in Syria. It should do so.