Since 2011 a civil war has been raging in Syria, a country in the Middle East. Rebel groups are fighting against a dictatorship led by President Bashar Al-Assad. Islamist militant group Islamic State ("IS" for short. Islamic State also goes by ISIS, ISIL and Daesh. Complicated, right?! ) have taken over large areas in the country and have declared it a caliphate; a state ruled by Islamic Sharia law. Everything you need to know about Syria.
To date more than 200,000 people have been killed as a result of the conflict. Both the rebels and the government have been accused of war crimes. Western countries also believe the Syrian government is responsible for attacks using chemical weapons. Time to re-think going anywhere near Syria. Just don't.
TO AIRSTRIKE, OR NOT TO AIRSTRIKE?
In 2013, the UK government voted against any military action in Syria. This year it was discovered that UK pilots took part in US military raids in Syria. The Foreign Office says "the UK itself is not conducting air strikes in Syria". Instead we have an embed programme where UK personnel carry out missions for other countries. "When embedded, UK personnel are effectively operating as foreign troops." Good save, guys.
David Cameron has revealed that two British members of Islamic State were killed in a drone attack. Despite the vote against military action Cameron claims this attack was lawful as it was taken in "self-defence". The targets were allegedly planning an attack on UK soil.
Iraq (next door to Syria) also has a pretty big Islamic State problem. Unlike Syria (for the moment at least), the Iraqi government recently asked for our help; the UK obliged by sending airstrikes to attack IS targets.
Whether we should intervene in Syria isn't as simple as yes or no. What does military intervention even mean? Is it airstrikes like in Iraq or sending in British soldiers on the ground?
SHOULD THE UK TAKE MILITARY ACTION IN SYRIA? THESE ARE THE THINGS WE SHOULD BE QUESTIONING;
1. WHO WOULD WE SIDE WITH?
President Assad of Syria
President Assad; friend or foe?
Alexandra Buskie (Peace and Security Programmes Officer at the United Nations Association) thinks that in the event of military action, who we side with would depend on what the end goal was. She asks "are we "destroying ISIS" or protecting civilians? Protecting civilians from who? Are we OK fighting with [President] Assad, even though he has been barrel bombing his population?"
President Assad's dictatorship is linked to reports of human rights abuses; the many rebel groups have links with Islamist groups like Islamic State and Al Qaeda. John Baron, MP for Basildon and Billericay, wrote in the New Statesman that "arming the rebels would be foolish because it would increase the violence and it would be impossible to stop the weapons falling into the wrong hands."
So, are we fighting Islamic State? Are we entering Syria to end President Assad's dictatorship? Or are we entering to combat the uprising from the rebel groups?
Or is action in Syria being considered partly as a way to improve David Cameron's international reputation? Writing for Reuters News Agency, Kyle Maclellan describes how the Prime Minister has some work to do if he wants officials in other countries to respect him. Would it be cynical to question Cameron's motives?
2. CAN DIRECT MILITARY ACTION ACTUALLY STOP ISLAMIC STATE?
Islamic State in Syria
Islamic State; how to stop them?
David Cameron described Islamic State as "one of the biggest threats our world has faced." With more and more UK citizens leaving the country to join IS in Syria and Iraq the pressure is mounting on the UK government to intervene. Cameron has also said that tackling extremism "means dealing with the threat at source, whether that is ISIL in Syria and Iraq, or whether it is other extremist groups around the world."
Yeah, we get it Dave, but will military action solve this, and where is the source when so many youths are being radicalised over the internet?
Alexandra Buskie remarks "Islamic State have risen out of a political vacuum. Western military action will not fill this, only politics can. If we are serious about stopping Islamic State we will need a lot more than bombs (although military force will have its uses in a fuller strategy). We'd need to include global powers and states in the region in this discussion - UK, US, France, Russia, China, Iran, Saudi Arabia, Jordan, Lebanon, Turkey, Iraq, Syria, all the rebel groups."
Gilles de Kerchove, the European Union's Anti-terrorism chief also warned that airstrikes against Islamic State increase the risk of terrorist attacks in retaliation. One option that America favours, as described in the Washington Post, is hope that Assad and the rebels sort out their differences and take on Islamic State together. We definitely can't see that happening anytime soon.
3. WOULD MILITARY ACTION END THE USE OF CHEMICAL WEAPONS IN SYRIA?
Chemical Weapons training, Syria
Chemical Weapons; will military action stop this?
Chemical weapons are a big no-no. Most countries agree not to use chemical weapons in warfare. However these rules are still quite new, historically speaking, so stopping Syria using chemical weapons again would be an important step for the international community.
"The use of internationally banned chemical weapons of mass destruction by the Assad regime cannot be allowed to pass without the most robust international response." - Mike Gapes, MP Ilford South, writing in the New Statesman.
If we want to end the use of chemical weapons would going into Syria be the only option? Ezra Klein (writing in the Washington Post) isn't entirely convinced. He points out that when Iraq used chemical weapons in 1988 it didn't lead to other countries copying them.
Using weapons as an excuse didn't go down well when the UK geared up for the Iraq War in 2003. The UK parliament was told entering Iraq was necessary to search for Weapons of Mass Destruction. Later it was claimed that the report given to MPs may have been "sexed up" to justify military action. Things got even worse when the American and the UK army were accused of using a form of chemical munition against the people of Iraq. It's claimed they used white phosphorus as smoke screens to mask movement as well as in bombs, missiles and artillery. It is strictly prohibited in areas that may affect civilians. If this is true then both countries were guilty of using a similar sort of chemical weapon they were sent into Iraq to find. If that isn't irony we don't know what is. This documentary explores the use of these weapons more:
Could intervening in Syria because of chemical weapons be a similar mistake?
4. IS MILITARY ACTION THE BEST WAY TO END THE SYRIAN HUMANITARIAN CRISIS?
Syrian refugee child in a camp
Many of the displaced Syrian refugees are children. According to the European Commission the crisis in Syria "triggered the world's largest humanitarian crisis since World War II". Around 12 million people are estimated to have been displaced by the hostilities. And nearly four million of those have left Syria altogether. A lot of these migrants, along with people travelling from Libya, are risking their lives trying to cross the Mediterranean to get to safety. It's hard to get away from immigration in UK news and politics, but isn't it interesting to explore the migration story from the alternate perspective?
As a developed country with a permanent seat on theUnited Nations Security Council, does the UK have a responsibility to step in to protect the millions of civilians who are at risk? According to the United Nations they do;
As stipulated in the Outcome Document of the 2005United Nations World Summit, the UK along with 193 other member states belonging to the UN have a "Responsibility to Protect" (AKA "RtoP/ "R2P"). This means acting against states that are no longer holding themselves accountable for the welfare of their people. Intervention under R2P is justified when:
"The State carries the primary responsibility for protecting populations from genocide, war crimes, crimes against humanity and ethnic cleansing, and their incitement;
The international community has a responsibility to encourage and assist States in fulfilling this responsibility; the international community has a responsibility to use appropriate diplomatic, humanitarian and other means to protect populations from these crimes. If a State is manifestly failing to protect its populations, the international community must be prepared to take collective action to protect populations, in accordance with the Charter of the United Nations."
The R2P declaration is a viable argument that could be used to support a military intervention into Syria. But according to Alexandra Buskie "we need to be clear on our aim - is it to protect civilians on the ground, or is it to force one side's hand into a political compromise or defeat?". She expanded that "discussion, compromise, use of leverage, deals, threats, persuasion - with states in the entire region is necessary in order to solve this."
The Foreign Office seems to agree that politics and diplomacy will help to solve the crisis;
"We are providing more than £46 million this year to support the moderate opposition, including the National Coalition who represent moderate and inclusive values; they remain at the heart of the Syrian opposition. This is support that helps save lives and provides services to the Syrian population - search and rescue equipment and training, power generators, communications, support and training to civil administrations."
5. WHO IS RESPONSIBLE?
Prince Turki Al-Faisal at the 2011 World Economic Forum
The West is to blame, according to Turki Al-Faisal
The West's failure to control the crisis makes us partly responsible for the current situation, according to Prince Turki al-Faisal. The Saudi Arabian royal claimed that if the West had armed the rebel groups in Syria (as Saudi Arabia advised in 2012) then there would be "no need to use our air force now."
When asked for a response to these comments a Foreign Office spokesperson said; "Our goal remains a political settlement to the crisis. Syria desperately needs a transition to a government which can represent all Syrians.
We remain firm on the issue of Assad. He is a radicalising figure and cannot play a role in the future of Syria. He cannot lead the inclusive government which is needed to unite Syrians against terrorism and extremism."
Sounds like the UK government thinks arming the rebels won't help the situation.
6. WOULD MILITARY ACTION IN SYRIA BE LEGAL... OR EVEN A GOOD IDEA?
When it comes to whether legal or not, it all gets very confusing. Perhaps it's not just about what's legal; but about what's legitimate.
If the UK wanted to take action against Islamic State?
Legally, to take military action against Islamic State in Syria we need with the consent or invitation of the Syrian Government. Or, as in the case of the recent airstrikes performed in Syria by a groups countries led by the US, we should let them know that it's about to happen. These airstrikes do not have the direct permission of Syria, but as more than 60 countries, led by America are involved in the coalition against IS, they could be argued as legitimate. If it was just the USA going in on their own, it's likely the international reaction would be very different.
GEN Wesley Clark, Supreme Allied Commander of Europe, meets with members of the 510th Fighter Squadron and the 555th Fighter Squadron who are deployed to Aviano Air Base, Italy, on May 9, 1999, in support of NATO Operation Allied Force.
1999; NATO bombed Kosovo to stop the killing of civilians
If the UK wanted to take action against President Assad's government?
President Assad is unlikely to invite the UK in to take on his government. So, to legally enter Syria to remove the Assad regime, the UK would need the permission of the United Nations Security Council. For now Syria is represented at the UN by Assad so that could be quite awkward. The UN Charter Article 2(4) states "All members shall refrain in their international relations from the threat or use of force against the territorial integrity or political independence of any state."
Or for those who don't speak legal; "Don't invade the country".
And if we don't get permission?
For both these options the UK could try arguing a legitimate exception called "Humanitarian Intervention". This means going in without permission in order to save civilians. In 1999 NATO bombed Kosovo to end the mass killing of thousands of citizens. They did this without permission of the UN, and this was later ruled illegal, but legitimate because of NATO's good intentions. However, for many the question still stands today over whether this was morally right.
We're not legal experts, and as you can see it's all fairly inconsistent. These are just a few of the many different options the UK could take. The terms by which we judge actions as legal or legitimate change all the time. It would seem there are no winners in the case of military action as international lawyers will argue about what is legal long after the event.
7. WHAT WOULD THIS MEAN FOR THE REST OF THE AREA?
Russia and Syria; good friends
Two permanent members of the UN Security Council are blocking military action. Russia is a big pal to Syria and is opposed to options which don't involve Assad. This is because it has a key naval base in the port of Tartous in Syria. It's also been claimed that Syria buys a lot of Russian weapons. However, Russia's opposition to military action is also about sending a clear message to the West: you don't get to decide how other countries are run.
China believes that military intervention will just make things worse - especially with chemical weapons in play. Without support from China and Russia support the Council is unlikely to approve military action. Don't go annoying China; their new military base would make a Bond villain very jealous.
As we've left Assad to do his own thing for years do we really have a leg to stand on if we suddenly want to intervene? Seems like it might be too little, too late.
The Middle East is a fragile place right now; military action could also lead to violence in other countries. "Syria is not Libya, it will not implode, it will explode beyond its borders" says Kofi Annan, former UN secretary-general. Intervening on either side could spark wars in countries like Iran, Iraq, Turkey and Saudi Arabia. With the UK and other countries just having sorted a "no-nuclear-bombs-please" deal with Iran, should we risk further conflict? Some might say violence breeds more violence, and it's becoming generational too.
8. CAN WE LEARN FROM IRAQ AND AFGHANISTAN?
UK Budget; Can we afford to go to war?
Whether the UK should have intervened in Iraq and Afghanistan is a divisive issue to say the least. One thing we do know is it was expensive. The total cost for the UK's involvement in Iraq and Afghanistan was £30 billion, according to the Royal United Services Institute (RUSI). Not the sort of money you want to be throwing away.
With the UK still running a budget deficit (spending more than we earn through taxes) perhaps this isn't the best time to blow the budget on... blowing things up. However until it's certain whether the UK will take action it's impossible to calculate the true cost of sending troops abroad.
Syria's quite a large country; how are we going to sustain a campaign fighting on several fronts? If we are going up against the Syrian government AND Islamic State we would need quite a lot of soldiers on the ground. Even if we manage that, how many years would we have to occupy the country to ensure its stability? Just rushing in, blowing stuff up, and getting out as quickly as possible might make things a whole lot worse.
Introducing the RUSI report on military policy General Sir David Richards warned that although war is expensive we shouldn't allow past failures to stop us from using military force in the future. "History is clear. There will sometimes be no alternative to standing up for oneself, for one's friends or for what is right."
We turn to you, what do you believe, what action should we take?
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