Will air strikes in Syria really make 60 million Britons more of a target for Isis?

David Cameron says he believes bombing Syria is the best option to make the UK more secure in the long term. Is he right?

Adam Withnall
Wednesday 02 December 2015 12:56
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A Royal Air Force Tornado GR4, a jet that has been used to conduct air strikes against Isis
A Royal Air Force Tornado GR4, a jet that has been used to conduct air strikes against Isis

Britain is about to decide whether or not to start bombing Isis in Syria, as part of a long-term plan to degrade Isis and work towards peace in the country’s entrenched civil war.

For many in Britain, however, the real question at the heart of Wednesday’s debate in the Commons was whether or not carrying out new air strikes against Isis will make it more of a target for terror attacks at home.

When he set out his proposal for action in Syria last week, David Cameron said the UK “cannot afford” to sit back and allow Isis a “safe haven” in Syria, from which to organise attacks on the people of Britain.

He said he had “searched his conscience”, and concluded that taking the risk of making Britain more of a target for Isis was outweighed by the boost to domestic security of degrading the group’s own homelands.

Britain is already a ‘top tier’ target

Speaking to The Independent, the security analyst and Middle East expert Charlie Winter said it was “naïve” of the Prime Minister to think that air strikes will “dramatically change the landscape” – either in Britain or Syria.

We asked people why they don’t want to bomb Syria - this is what they said

“We are already very near the top of Isis’s list of targets it would attack if it could,” he said. “That won’t dramatically change if we start bombing them in Syria.”

Isis is “not as discerning in choosing its targets as people like to think”, Mr Winter said. “After the attacks last month, everyone was asking ‘Why Paris?’. Well, it was Paris because the opportunity was there. There have been countless other attempts in Britain and elsewhere.”

Mr Winter said he was not necessarily against air strikes on the basis that “it is silly to intervene just in Iraq and not Syria” and could “buy Britain a card at the coalition’s top table if and when intervention does step up”.

“But if we are going to go ahead, we shouldn’t make it seem like it will have profound impact,” he said. “That’s simply not the case.”

Air strikes may have unforeseen circumstances

Dr Andreas Krieg, from King’s College’s Department of Defence Studies, agrees with Mr Winter that air strikes on their own “have been widely unsuccessful in eroding the capability of Isis”.

David Cameron leaves 10 Downing Street ahead of the debate and vote in the House of Commons on joining the bombing campaign against Isis in Syria

But he says the Russian plane bombing and Paris attacks do show that “air strikes make countries more vulnerable as Isis has extended its focus to punish states that take action against it”.

Rather than a greater chance Isis will send fighters to carry out terror attacks in Britain, this manifests itself as a boost to the militants’ “them vs us” propaganda.

“Air strikes and their consequences are being exploited by jihadists as acts of aggression by non-Muslim states against Muslim civilians,” he said.

“They are used as a means to attract new followers locally in European countries – people willing to move against their own governments in pursuit of an illusion of salvation.”

If air strikes are carried out, Dr Krieg says, they must be married with the development of a new, trusted organisation on the ground in Syria made up of locals, as well as British investment in counter-radicalisation at home, intelligence, and a more liberal approach to Muslim refugees.

Don’t confuse the terror threat with all-out ‘war’

Bombing raids on Isis in Syria will not itself materially increase the risk of terror attacks carried out by the group in Britain, the experts say.

But it will raise the chances of a home-grown bombing if the UK allows Isis to use its own air strikes against it in the form of propaganda.

“No, we are not ‘at war’,” writes Robert Fisk in this newspaper. “Isis can massacre our innocents, but it is not invading us. What Isis intends to do is to persuade us to destroy ourselves.

“Isis must have been outraged by the thousands of fine Europeans who welcomed with love the million Muslim refugees who reached Germany. So now it wishes to turn us against the refugees.

“To achieve this, it must implicate hundreds of thousands of innocent Muslim refugees in its atrocities. It wishes to strike at the heart of the European ideal by liquidating the very foundation of the union: by persuading us to tear up the Schengen agreement and to close our frontiers.

“And we are doing exactly that. Are we, in some auto-panic, actually working for Isis?”

But also don’t expect the threat to go away soon

In the long run, the only way to combat the domestic threat of Isis is to reduce its grip on Syria and Iraq and work towards a peaceful solution in the region.

But if David Cameron thinks air strikes are worth the risk of escalating the war of rhetoric between Britain and Isis in order to beat the enemy in six to 12 months’ time, he may be mistaken.

On the question of time frame, some experts believe it will be two years before there is a force in Syria strong enough to make meaningful gains against Isis as part of an international coalition.

And Dr Krieg says “the West has wasted nearly five years to fix a problem that could have been jointly solved with regional and local allies within months in early 2012”. “Now the next decade will be dedicated to fighting the idea of Isis,” he said.

In the end, it is dangerous to ‘dabble’ in war

Patrick Cockburn, The Independent’s Middle East editor, briefed Labour MPs at Jeremy Corbyn’s invitation at 10am on Wednesday, just before the debate in the Commons got under way.

Writing in this newspaper, he says the case for air strikes in Syria is based on “wishful thinking and poor information”.

He suggests the threat in Britain may not change – but attacks could make Isis all the more determined to make “British people the target of retaliation, with tourists being the easiest victims as they were in Tunisia”.

“It could be argued that British air strikes in Iraq, and potentially in Syria, will be limited in scope and therefore the impact on Britain will be small,” he said.

“But it is always dangerous to dabble in war – and that is just what Britain did in Iraq, Afghanistan and Libya – because the response of the other side is unpredictable and may be disproportionate.”

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