Should the UK be involved in Syria? 8 important things to consider


This week MPs will vote over whether to take military action against the so-called Islamic State (ISIS) in Syria. David Cameron says voting against military action makes you a terrorist sympathiser. What’s going on in Syria and should we get involved?

ISIS Explained: Seven Suggested Ways To Combat ISIS


Part of the ISIS Explained series.

Part 1: What is ISIS?  //  Part 2: What does ISIS want?  //  Part 3: What makes ISIS powerful?

Part 4: 7 Suggested Ways to Fight ISIS  //  Part 5: ISIS Frequently Asked Questions Explained



A global coalition of 62 countries led by the United States is fighting the terrorist group so-called “Islamic State” (ISIS). Different countries contribute in different ways. What’s the best way to tackle terrorist groups?


Tell Me About Airstrikes

ISIS Fighting Terrorist Groups - Airstrike attack

Source: Wikipedia

The USA loves airstrikes. It has used them on 2,600 ISIS targets since 2014. Many countries including Australia, Canada, Saudi Arabia and France also got involved. The UK is bombing Islamic State in Iraq, but not in Syria. MPs voted against similar action in Syria in 2013. This was mainly because Iraq asked for our help – the Syrian government hasn’t.

A Parliament committee suggested focusing instead on bringing peace to the country. Sensible, no? Despite this David Cameron wants to extend airstrikes to Syria… but won’t risk losing a vote in Parliament.





Put Boots On The Ground?

Let’s face it, there’s only so much you can do from the air. A source within the Armed Forces told us that for every ISIS fighter taken out by airstrikes, another is recruited. Last year it was reported that Drone Strikes in Yemen were causing more people to join extremist groups. Their books are always full.

Fighting Terrorist Groups ISIS - A soldier from the 2nd Battalion in Iraq in 2003, armed with an L85A2

Source: Wikipedia

Air Chief Sir Michael Graydon says airstrikes aren’t enough to stop terrorist groups such as ISIS. We need to send in the army. This view is shared by Colonel Richard Kemp who calls the current US-led airstrikes “half-hearted”. Kemp believes the Special Forces should conduct raids to “kill and strike fear into the hearts of IS fighters.”

It’s unclear how many fighters ISIS has. The CIA estimated around 30,000 people. A senior Kurdish leader says the group has 200,000 fighters. It could be argued that a few SAS raids wouldn’t do much damage. The Iraq War cost the UK £8.4 billion, so sending across an army would be costly.  With the size of the British army shrinking to 83,000 by 2020 we’d probably need backup. Russia however, say they are prepared to send 150,000 troops into Syria so we might see a partnership in the making. 


Don’t Put Boots On The Ground?

The current situation in Syria is a mess. As well as ISIS the country is divided by a civil war between the government and rebel groups. Most countries agree that ISIS need to be abolished, but can’t agree on how Syria should be governed. The UK says Syria’s President Assad can’t stay in power due to his record on human rights. Russia on the other hand supports Assad partly because he buys Russian weapons. Sending soldiers into Syria without a long-term plan might not be the greatest idea and probably why there has been hesitation thus far. 

Something you might not know: wars can lead to the creation of terror groups. Foreign Policy Journal describes how ISIS “was born out of the Iraq war”; President Obama calls it an “unintended consequence”.

There are two main types of Muslim: Sunni and Shia. In Iraq, the Sunnis had been in charge since the 1920s. However when the US and the UK entered the country to take out Sunni dictator Saddam Hussein in 2003, they handed over power to a Shia government. The Sunnis who had mostly boycotted this process, were not happy.

ISIS began as a group called Jam’at al-Tawhid wal-Jihad. They were a collection of Sunni Muslim resistance fighters fighting in Iraq and Jordan. The group formed in 1999 and became a major force during the 2003 Iraq War. The group joined other Iraqi rebels fighting Western forces. Eventually they joined Islamist group Al-Qaeda and their fight against the West. In 2006 they and other Islamist groups created the Mujahideen Shura Council,  which later rebranded as ISIS.

Many experts believe the chaos in the aftermath of the Iraq War meant ISIS was able to grow stronger. The Guardian describes that though the name may have changed “the group’s grievances have been largely consistent. Central to them is the belief that the invasion destroyed a regional order, ousting a stalwart of Sunni rule, and inviting the rival Shia sect to take over.”

If wars create terror groups like ISIS, declaring war on those groups legitimizes them as a state. This, as Matthew Norman at the Independent writes, is exactly what ISIS wants.


Cut Off Supplies For Terrorist Groups

ISIS Fighting Terrorist Groups- The pumpjack oil well,  as this one located south of Midland, Texas

Source: Wikipedia

“A crucial way to help defeat ISIL is to cut off its funding, its supply of arms, and its trade,says Jeremy Corbyn, leader of the Labour party. He pressed David Cameron to clamp down on Britain’s allies which may be providing support to ISIS.
Maybe he has a point. It’s easier to fight an enemy with weakened supplies. It’s estimated ISIS could be making up to $3 million a day selling oil from captured oil fields. Saudi Arabia, Qatar and Turkey have all been accused of assisting ISIS. All three countries deny the charges, and considering as they are in the oil game themselves, chances are they see ISIS as a threat. Stopping people buying oil from ISIS would reduce their income and limit their operations. Trying to identify buyers is the hard part. The Green Party recently got into trouble for accusing an oil company of buying from Islamic State. Awkward.

One step further would be to crack down on all companies accused of War Profiteering. It is what it says on the tin, profiting from war. As we’ve seen above, violence and conflict provides a space for extremist groups to flourish. Though war profiteers don’t cause violence, they supply the resources and it is unfortunate that both the media and politicians might have their part to play in this process. Comedian Russell Brand believes we should question the information we receive from the media and politicians for exactly this reason. 

“The media just want to create stories and tacitly support the corporations that benefit from wars in foreign countries – because they are the corporations that benefit from those wars.”


Take the Fight Against Terrorist Groups Online

ISIS Fighting Terrorist Groups - Cyber Warriors flex digital muscle at 2014 Cyber Shield Exercise

Source: Wikipedia

We don’t mean trolling ISIS supporters on Twitter like Hacker group AnonymousChancellor George Osborne takes cyber warfare seriously; it is seen just as much as a threat as it is a weapon. He’s investing £2 billion in a new National Cyber Centre to target terrorist groups online.

“If our electricity supply, or our air traffic control, or our hospitals were successfully attacked online, the impact could be measured not just in terms of economic damage but of lives lost.”

Does this mean we could do the same in retaliation, or indeed that we should be worried? This year regulators in the US announced that certain hospital drug pumps could be hacked through the hospital network. This could be used to give an overdose to patients. Yet though ISIS may have a cyber army, its soldiers need lessons on internet security. One ISIS member gave away his location by posting selfies.


Use Former Extremists to De-Radicalise Potential Terrorists

Stopping young Brits from becoming radicalised would deny terror groups new recruits. It could also reduce the risk of attack from “home grown” British terrorists. The UK government funds Channel, a secretive de-radicalisation scheme which attempts to steer young people from radicalisation. Eight people a day were referred to Channel this summer.

Apart from salvaging potential radicals, there could be a use for them too. Charlie Winter from anti-extremism think tank Quilliam Foundation thinks former extremists can be useful in de-radicalising potential terrorists. Speaking to the IB Times he said that they know the ideology which will be taught to recruits and can offer counter arguments. Quilliam was set up by Maajid Nawaz, a former Islamist extremist. Another British former extremist has created a cartoon series designed to discourage young Muslims from joining extremist groups. That’s not to mention several times Muslims took action against Islamic Extremism.


So, what about talking to ISIS?

This is a controversial question. Should we try to negotiate with extremist groups? The British government’s official line is that it does not negotiate with terrorists. Negotiating legitimizes terror groups by acknowledging that their demands are real. However, it seems there are exceptions to the rule. In the 1980s then Prime Minister Margaret Thatcher stated she would not talk or negotiate with the Irish Republican Army, seeing them as terrorists. It was later revealed that she had taken part in negotiation with the group. However, the communication did not lead to a deal. More recently the G7 countries made a pledge in 2013 not to talk to terrorists. Could current problems be solved by just sitting down and having a chat with ISIS? Somehow we doubt it.


Fighting Terrorist Groups; is there really a solution?

Terrorism techniques are constantly evolving. It could be argued there is no solution. Governments and anti-extremism groups must constantly change tactics to keep up. Which approach do you think is best?

Take part: The Quilliam Foundation is looking for young people to create a short film to challenge extreme views.


NEXT: Still got questions? Check out Part 5: ISIS Frequently Asked Questions Answered.

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Everything you need to know about Syria from the news

Update: On Wednesday 2nd December 2015 British MPs voted in favour of using airstrikes on the so-called Islamic State (ISIS) in Syria.  This article was written before the vote and explored the situation in Syria.


What’s going on in Syria?

graffiti image of President Assad in Syria

Graffiti image of President Assad in Syria

Syria has been in the midst of a civil war since 2011. Since 2000, the country has been under the rule of a supposed dictator, President Bashar Al-Assad.

Protests over the imprisonment of a group of children in 2011 led to a rebel uprising. Now the Syrian government is fighting against thousands of rebel groups. Throw in an extremist Islamic group called Islamic State, and it’s easy to see why the UK government is advising people NOT to go to Syria.The rebel groups are fighting to change the way the country is governed for political reasons. The Islamic extremists want the country to be ruled under Islamic law.

The UK government voted against getting involved in Syria in 2013. Later it was revealed that UK pilots have been helping with American airstrikes. Recent attacks have unearthed the debate on whether the UK should enter Syria today.


OK, I think I want a little more detail – What’s Syria’s history?

Map of Syria in the Middle East

Where we talking?

Syria is a country in the Middle East in between Iraq and Turkey. Over the last century power struggles have rocketed.

Syria considers itself a republic. It has an elected President and a government. But in reality the country has been ruled as a dictatorship; where one individual has absolute power.

The current President Bashar Al-Assad took office in 2000 after the death of his father, who had ruled since the 1970s. Assad has been described as a dictator; removing anyone who stands up to him, and the evidence we have supports this. Human rights activists claim that his opponents are often tortured and killed. Social media websites and online chat rooms are also routinely blocked. 

The majority of Syrian Muslims belong to a branch of the Islam faith called Sunni Islam. President Assad is part of a separate group; the Alawites. This is part of a smaller branch of Islam; called Shia Islam. Most of Syria’s ruling class are Alawites. Why are we stating this? History has taught us that Middle Eastern religious differences often translate into political tensions.

Sunni and Shia Islam; what’s the difference?


Why was there a civil war?

In 2011 a group of children were arrested for writing anti-government messages on a wall. It was reported that they were also tortured. Peaceful protests called for the release of the children and for changes in the way the country was run.

Protesters called for democracy and an end to the oppressive regime led by Assad. Instead the Syrian authorities sent in the riot police, who opened fire and killed four people. Violent protests began throughout the country and rebel groups began organising and fighting back. To date more than 200,000 people have been killed as a result of the conflict. 


When did the USA and the UK get involved?

MOUNTAIN HOME AIR FORCE BASE, Idaho -- Two F-15E Strike Eagles perform a low-level training mission  over the Sawtooth Mountain Range. The Strike Eagles give the 366th Fighter Wing here sophisticated air-to-ground attack capabilities and air-to-air superiority. They can be equipped with both laser-guided weapons and air-to-air missiles, and use the low-altitude navigation and targeting infrared for night, or LANTIRN system, to find and destroy targets at night in all kinds of weather with  precision. (U.S. Air Force photo by Tech. Sgt. Debbie Hernandez) Syria

UK pilots have been assisting US airstrikes over Syria

In recent years Syria’s relationship with the West has gone sour. This is partly due to Syria’s military actions in parts of the Middle East and its poor human rights record. It didn’t help when in 2009 man-made Nuclear materials were discovered in Syria. The Islamic State are of course not the biggest fans of the West either. 

The international community considered stepping in when it was reported that both the Syrian government and rebel groups were committing war crimes.

In 2013 bombs were dropped just outside of Damascus releasing deadly Sarin gas. Western countries blamed the Syrian government; and the government blamed the rebels. President Assad eventually agreed to the destruction of all chemical weapons belonging to the Syrian authorities, when the USA said “any more of that and we’ll come to sort this mess”.

Since then the United Nations security council has heard further reports of chemical attacks on rebel territories in the north. Given the West has their own battle with the so-called Islamic State or ISIS, the USA and other countries found enough reason to eventually get involved, and collectively have carried out over 1,600 airstrikes against Islamic State targets in Syria. The UK government voted against military action in Syria in 2013, however the UK government has some explaining to do; it’s been reported that UK pilots took part in airstrikes despite the vote against military action.

What we should question at this point: Is the West’s involvement to help the people of Syria or as a vendetta against ISIS?


And what has ISIS got to do with all this?

The self-proclaimed Islamic State (ISIS) took advantage of the chaos created by the civil war in order to work towards their goals. Fighters for IS want to create an Islamic state. They call it a caliphate. This is a universal state-run under Muslim Sharia Law; derived from teachings in the Qur’an – Islam’s holy book. Islamic State is led by Sunni Muslims.

Broadcasters refer to ISIS as the “so-called” or “self-styled” Islamic State to show that they do not recognise the Islamist group as a state. Politicians have also started calling them Daesh which the group finds offensive.

READ MORE: our five-part series “ISIS explained”

Islamic State declared the Caliphate in 2014. Since then they’ve been attacking high-profile targets and taking hostages. The US has just changed its policy on ransoms for hostages; allowing family members to pay to get their loved ones back. IS have also made Christianity punishable by death. Islamic State fighters control areas in northern Iraq and northern Syria. Having taken over oil and gas fields, their daily revenue is estimated at $3,000,000.


Who controls Syria now?

Current situation in Syria. Red: Syrian government. Grey: ISIS Green: Opposition groups. Yellow: Kurds  Source: Wikipedia (this image dated  30 November 2015)

Current situation in Syria. Red: Syrian government. Grey: ISIS Green: Opposition groups. Yellow: Kurds
Source: Wikipedia (this image dated 30 November 2015)

Bashar Al-Assad is still President, but Syrian authorities have lost control of large parts of the country. Territory boundaries change every day; intelligence from even a few weeks ago is largely useless.

Government forces control the West of the country. Rebel groups control the North. In the East a group of Kurdish fighters are also fighting against ISIS.

Islamic State is said to control 50% of Syria’s land, according to The Guardian. The group controls land through the middle of Syria with support networks throughout other areas. The rise of the Islamic group has also brought a religious aspect to what began as a political struggle.

The opposition against the Syrian authorities and President Assad is… a bit of a mess. It’s estimated that there are over 1,000 rebels groups in the country. Many different alliances have been formed. The four main coalitions are; the National Coalition for Syrian Revolutionary and Opposition Forces, the Syrian National Council (SNC), the National Coordination Committee (NCC) and the Kurdish Supreme Committee. So far they’ve been unable to agree on a strategy to combat Assad. Ever thought of working together, guys?

Four million people have left the country since the start of the conflict. These migrants have been travelling through countries like Libya, attempting to reach safety in Europe. That hasn’t stopped UK citizens travelling to the country and joining forces with Islamic State.


Syria learnings: It’s not all about the Islamic State

UK involvement should not be deliberated lightly. If we’re fighting ISIS in Syria should we be thinking more carefully about the consequences?


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