Air strikes against Isis are a necessary step

There are big and obvious risks in embarking on military action against Islamic State. But to hold off was not an option

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Sensible, considered arguments; sober assessment of the risks; a mood of quiet, calm determination. The Commons debated air strikes in Iraq today, and it was representative democracy at its best. In contrast to the last time the House was invited to express its view on military action in Iraq – before the ill-starred and illegal adventure launched in 2003 – every effort was made to consider all the consequences of armed intervention, including on civilians. Lessons have indeed been learned.

In truth, the vote was a foregone conclusion; there would scarcely have been much point in recalling Parliament if the motion were destined to be lost. The “usual channels” that operate across party lines have been exceptionally busy, and to good effect.

But the alliance now being assembled to fight Isis goes way beyond Britain, again so unlike 2003. The Prime Minister’s address earlier this week to the UN General Assembly was more than a routine honorific; it was part of a strategy of international coalition-building. Everyone knows that the campaign against Isis is doomed if it is another Anglo-American exercise, either in reality or perception. Like the successful first Gulf War in 1991, any intervention in the region has to have as broad a base in the Arab world, and beyond, as possible. This time round, the Gulf states are signed up, but more support from Turkey and Iran, as well as from Arab states, will be needed.

This will be even more the case if air strikes against Iraq are extended to Syria. Here, as is apparent, the situation is even more fraught. For now, public opinion and sentiment in the Commons are against an extension. And yet, logically, morally and militarily, all the same arguments apply as they do in Iraq. The politics are radically different: a murderous regime in Damascus which we have no wish to support, and which will therefore not formally request air strikes, and thus potentially deprive any action of a legal basis.


Still, that may be all to the good for now. Public opinion is cautious, and some practical improvement in the lives of the Iraqi people and regional stability need to be demonstrated before action can be widened. As the Defence Secretary admitted to the House, this will be a campaign of years rather than months. Indeed, in a way the extremists may never be defeated, in the sense that it is impossible to “defeat” or “degrade” an ideology as such, and one with a ready, though small and unrepresentative, supply of adherents.

It is in the nature of this struggle that the action that needs to be taken will be incremental, judged each time on its merits, and with public opinion and international law underpinning it at each stage. Isis is not Saddam; as an unconventional enemy even more ruthless than Saddam it won’t be defeated by massed armies of tanks and troops. In due course there may be a case for “boots on the ground”, but that is not the case yet. Besides, it is politically impossible, not least because of the failure of 2003.

Innocent people will die as a result of the vote in the House of Commons. Yet Isis makes sure that innocent civilians are murdered every day, often enough as an act of genocide. There are no pain-free answers to the threat of Isis, and no guarantee of success. Air strikes may make matters worse, as the critics argue, but the balance of probability is that they will do some good. And so the long haul begins.