‘Cameron ready to bomb Syria’ announces the Telegraph on its front page today. As headlines go it’s not exactly a major revelation. The PM has been keen to intervene in Syria for over two years now and made it clear yesterday in his House of Common speech that sitting back and allowing others to carry out the dirty work, isn’t his style: “I’ve always said there is a strong case for us doing so. We should not let others carry the burden and the risks of protecting our country.”
At least you can’t accuse him of wanting to go it alone. Since September the US has been joined by Australia, Canada, France, Bahrain, Jordan, Qatar, Russia, Saudi Arabia, Turkey, and the UAE in launching airstrikes against Syrian Islamic State targets. France and Russia are understandably keen to hit Syrian ISIS strongholds right now, and you can’t help but wonder if it had been London rather than Paris that suffered such horrific acts of murder on Friday whether David Cameron would need to be making a case at all.
Let’s not beat around the bush when it comes to justifying attacking Islamic State. If ever there was a case for a just war this is it. But if you want evidence to back this up, rather than looking to politicians who have one ear constantly pressed against the loudspeaker of public opinion, it is far better to pay attention to those who have seen ISIS and their inhuman atrocities up close. Canon Andrew White, famously known as the ‘Vicar of Baghdad’ is one such individual. He has been involved in promoting reconciliation in the Middle East since 1998 firstly as Director of International Ministry at Coventry Cathedral’s International Centre for Reconciliation and then from 2005 as Anglican Chaplain to Iraq. Since then he has had over a thousand of his Baghdad church congregation killed mainly because of their Christian faith and he himself has been kidnapped and attacked. Yet he continued his work based in Iraq until Justin Welby ordered him to leave last year when Islamic State placed a $57 million bounty on his head. He has acted as a mediator in Israel, Palestine, Iraq and Nigeria sitting down to eat with rival religious leaders, terrorists, extremists and warlords. If anyone is able to give an honest assessment of the motivations of ISIS it is Canon White and this is it given in an interview to the Independent earlier this month:
They were coming for him and his people. Friends were being killed or fleeing for their lives. So Andrew White did what he always does when faced with an enemy. “I invited the leaders of Isis [Islamic State] for dinner. I am a great believer in that. I have asked some of the worst people ever to eat with me.”
“Isis said, ‘You can invite us to dinner, but we’ll chop your head off.’ So I didn’t invite them again!”
There used to be 1.5 million Christians in Iraq but now there are only 260,000, he says. Some are calling it genocide. Surely he no longer believes that negotiations with Isis could work? White stares at me from behind owlish spectacles. “Can I be honest? You are absolutely right. You can’t negotiate with them. I have never said that about another group of people. These are really so different, so extreme, so radical, so evil.”
So what is to be done? “We must try and continue to keep the door open. We have to show that there is a willingness to engage. There are good Sunni leaders; they are not all evil like Isis.”
But surely there is only one logical conclusion to be drawn? He sighs, and answers slowly. “You are asking me how we can deal radically with Isis. The only answer is to radically destroy them. I don’t think we can do it by dropping bombs. We have got to bring about real change. It is a terrible thing to say as a priest.
“You’re probably thinking, ‘So you’re telling me there should be war?’ Yes!”
I am shocked by his answer, because this is a man who has risked his life many times to bring peace.
“It really hurts. I have tried so hard. I will do anything to save life and bring about tranquillity, and here I am forced by death and destruction to say there should be war.”
Andrew White is wise and experienced enough to know that even as a Christian committed to acting as a peacemaker and Jesus’ teaching to love our enemies, when faced with an overwhelming tide of virulent hatred and evil, war is still a legitimate option.
We have already seen and endured far too much – 129 dead in Paris, 43 in Beirut and 224 flying over Sinai, plus untold others in Iraq and Syria, all within the space of two weeks. The hope of defeating and eradicating ISIS is a hope for a more secure and stable world that needs to be acted upon.
So what should the UK’s response be? Jeremy Corbyn’s refusal to give any situation where he would agree to lethal force being used may be based on principle, but as a leader in a real world with real terrorists and radical extremists killing real people, his reluctance to acknowledge the seriousness of the situation is neither helpful or welcome, nor is his decision to deny his MPs a free vote on air strikes in Syria.
David Cameron admitted only on Monday that airstrikes ‘won’t transform the situation’ in Syria. However the following day he was beginning to prepare the ground for another vote holding the view that there is a very logical argument that if our parliament has sanctioned bombing targets in Iraq then not to extend them across a border that IS does not recognise is inconsistent. He may be right but his inconsistencies of approach undermine his case. He first proposed bombing President Assad’s military, but now by changing the target, Assad will undoubtedly benefit. The UK is only delivering around 5 per cent of the bombing sorties in Iraq, so how much difference would similar levels of intervention in Syria really make? We have committed ourselves to surveillance and deployment of Special Forces, which are potentially far more beneficial than a handful of bombing raids. The whole situation is a quagmire, with a multitude of pitfalls and unsavoury outcomes.
We’ve made plenty of mistakes and displayed a lack of forethought in our previous involvement in Middle East conflicts and witnessed far greater subsequent instability realising too late that we can easily end up doing more long term damage than good. It’s therefore perfectly reasonable for the Foreign Affairs Committee to urge David Cameron not to press for a vote on Syria air strikes until a ‘coherent international strategy’ is in place.
War is always a tragedy, which is why it must never be regarded lightly. Islamic State does not deserve to exist another day on this planet, but this is as much a battle against spiritual powers of darkness as physical ones. Political diplomacy and military strength from the skies will not be sufficient to overcome them. Maybe UK planes bombing a few of their sites in Syria will do some good or maybe it will simply increase their motivation to hit us hard on our own patch. It cannot be considered immoral if our parliament is finally persuaded to vote in favour, but unless we have a bigger and better strategy to destroy IS, recent history has indicated that it will do little to achieve the results we hope for.