RAF Tornado, deployed in Afghanistan. Copyright, Defence Photos.
It's barely been two years since parliament last considered military intervention in Syria. Last time MPs narrowly voted against taking part in a bombing campaign that would have aided many of the groups we now know as Isis. However, with the Prime Minister and his cabinet having nailed their colours firmly to the interventionist mast, and with the Labour Party firmly divided, it is more likely than not that there will be another vote in the days ahead.
Air strikes would be nothing new, the US, France, and more recently Russia, have been bombing Syria for months. The rhetoric may be about freedom for Syrians, but the air strikes have fuelled the ongoing civil war and exacerbated the humanitarian catastrophe unfolding on the ground. According to the UK based Syrian Observatory for Human Rights (SOHR), the first month of Russian air strikes killed more civilians than Isis fighters, including 97 children. There is a lack of reliable news from the front line, but over recent days there have been reports of Western bombs destroying homes and schools.
Not only has the bombing killed civilians and destroyed vital infrastructure, it has also failed on its own terms, creating a stalemate situation. Despite all of the bombs, Pentagon officials have concluded Isis is just as strong as it was a year ago. "We've seen no meaningful degradation in their numbers," one defence official told Associated Press this summer. They went on to estimate that there are currently 20,000 to 30,000 Isis fighters, exactly the same as when the strikes first began a year prior.
This point is supported by former US general Mike Flynn, who played a leading role in the wars in Afghanistan and Iraq. In an interview with Al-Jazeera he explained "The more weapons we give, the more bombs we drop, that just... fuels the conflict." Those arguing in favour of bombing Syria are yet to explain why UK bombs will achieve something French, US and Russian ones haven't already.
Among the few to benefit from the growth of war and extremism are the arms companies. War and terror drive the arms industry. This is why the outgoing BAE chief executive tastelessly described the Isis threat as a "call to arms." Similarly, the most recent annual report for arms company Chemring stated that it is "well-positioned to benefit from any sustained increase in demand as a result of the conflict in the Middle East". It is no coincidence that the immediate aftermath of the terrible attacks in Paris saw a spike in arms company stock prices.
The conflict hasn't stopped countries like the US and the UK from flooding the region with arms. The last UK government sold millions of pounds worth of weapons into war zones such as Iraq (£40million) and Libya (£15million), as well as continuing to arm the oppressive Gulf monarchies such as Saudi Arabia (£4billion) and Bahrain (£35million). At present two thirds of UK arms sales go to the Middle East, and with the Gulf states increasing their military budgets and the Ministry of Defence increasing its participation in arms promotion this looks unlikely to change.
What is the impact of these arms sales? On one hand they provide military and political support to some of the worst dictatorships in the world. On the other, they fuel war and very often have unintended consequences. It is well documented that one of the reasons Isis is so well-armed is because it has captured and obtained large quantities of Western weapons (including 2,300 US armoured vehicles). There can be never be any such thing as arms control in a war zone.
Considering the disastrous consequences of military intervention in the Middle East over the last 15 years it is clear that more bombs are not the answer.
George Bush may have declared victory only three months into the 2003 invasion of Iraq, but the killing has continued unabated. This was one of the key factors which has led to the rise of groups like Isis, a point conceded by President Obama, who told Vice News: "Isis is a direct outgrowth of Al Qaeda in Iraq that grew out of our invasion." What makes the bombs that are falling on Syria any different from the ones that helped to create Isis?
If we look to Libya, the 2011 bombing campaign has left large parts of the country unstable and ungovernable. Executions and vigilante violence arecommonplace in a country which even the Foreign Minister has said risks becoming a "new sanctuary" for terrorists. At the time, world leaders stressed the importance of state building, but government figures show that the UK has spent 13 times as much on bombing the country as it has on reconstruction.
There is no question that the situation in Syria is desperate, but there are no shortage of fighter jets flying overhead, and no reason to think it will be improved by even more bombs and destruction. Those that are responsible for atrocities and human rights abuses deserve to feel the full force of international law. But indiscriminate air strikes into densely populated areas are not the way to do that. History shows that they will only extend the carnage by creating even more instability and breeding further conflict.
As Paul Rogers of the Oxford Research Group has pointed out, Isis wants the West to intervene in Syria. It's a core part of its narrative and strategy. Research from SOHR found that Isis recruited more than 6000 new fighters in the first month of US bombing in Syria last September, and has only grown since then. The human cost is more apparent than ever, with the tragic refugee crisis in the Mediterranean drawing attention to the millions fleeing the same kind of terror that has been unleashed on the streets of Paris and Beirut. Over the last year the number of Syrian refugees has shot up from around 2.7million to over four million.
The Prime Minister insists that lessons have been learnt from Iraq and Libya, but the government's Strategic Defence and Security Review, published last week, saw £12billion of extra military spending and suggested little in the way of change. With the humanitarian situation getting worse, and with the death toll rising, the need for aid, regional political solutions and a new approach to foreign policy could not be starker.
Andrew Smith is a spokesperson for Campaign Against Arms Trade (CAAT). You can follow CAAT at @CAATuk.