December 10th, 2015

Dr Guy Baily, NHA nominating officer and executive committee member, gives a personal view on Syria

No More ‘Shock and Awe’
04/12/2015 NHAspace    2 Comments

NHA policies, when not directly about the provision of health care, are almost always rooted in the wider social determinants of health. There is no doubt that all types of warfare have catastrophic effects on public health. The bar, for military interventions to be acceptable, must always be a very high one. In my view it has not been reached for the Syrian bombing campaign. The recent history of Western military interventions is of a series of calamities. The reasons why they are so liable to go wrong have been well rehearsed and it should be possible to learn from them. I suggest that before becoming violently embroiled in other people’s countries, a few conditions have to be met:

1) There must be a humanitarian crisis which cannot be resolved by other means. There are plenty of humanitarian crises about but force is not often the obvious solution.

2) There must be a clear and realistic political and diplomatic strategy that has a probability of returning the recipients of our bombs to stable government. In Syria there is a complete absence of such a strategy.  The local fighters are fully engaged with fighting Assad in their own backyards, while being bombed by the Russians, and have little interest in wandering off into the Eastern desert to take on ISIS. Many of them are radical Sunnis closely allied to Al Qaeda, who we recently invaded two countries to attack.  Where these forces have achieved local power they have shown more interest in feuding than in tolerating other groups or religious minorities. The Kurds, who are well organised and have a coherent government, are very sensibly not interested in trying to control large areas inhabited exclusively by Arabs. Who is going to govern Raqqa after it has been flattened? This needs serious diplomatic peace-brokering.

3) The use of military power must clearly and directly enable the political strategy. As there is no credible political strategy in Syria, this is going to be a hard one to fulfil. Air power can be an effective tool when used in close support of a well organised ground force, such as the Kurdish Peshmerga in Iraq, but otherwise what can be achieved by bombing is limited and the collateral damage to people and infrastructure is huge.  Conflicts can ultimately only be resolved by winning over hearts and minds.  Killing all the bad people – presumably so only good people are left – appears to be the infantile level of military reasoning we have sunk to.  Similarly ‘fighting Islamic fascism’ has a fine rhetorical ring to it but in reality, bombing is more likely to boost recruitment to Islamic fascism than destroy the idea. Their ideology actually requires that we attack them, they desperately need it. And remember it was the excesses of the Iraq campaign that gave rise to IS in the first place.

4) The use of military violence should be the absolute minimum required for number 3. No more ‘shock and awe’.
The argument of self-defence is entirely bogus. Dropping bombs on Syria is not an effective means to prevent attacks on London and is more likely to be counterproductive. Too often, a bombing campaign fulfils an atavistic urge to lash out at the bad guys without any further real strategy. The problem in Syria is not a lack of sufficient high explosives.  Nor is it a lack of different players with different agendas getting involved.  Britain could be so much more useful as a non-belligerent broker between all the competing interests that must be reconciled to bring about the diplomatic deal that ultimately will have to emerge. And we could use the money otherwise spent on those fantastically pricey smart bombs to support the refugees.  But that would not allow David Cameron to feel like one of the cool kids when Western leaders meet.