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

23rd November 2015 By ,   0 Comments


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?

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 weighed up the pros and cons of military action.


What’s going on in Syria?

Map of Syria in the Middle East

Where we talking?

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 the so-called Islamic State (ISIS) has taken over large areas in the country and declared it a caliphate; a state ruled by Islamic Sharia law. SoR explained 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.



In 2013, the UK government voted “no” to taking military action against the Syrian government. Despite this 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, “effectively operating as foreign troops”, carry out missions for other countries. Good save, guys.

David Cameron revealed that a drone attack killed two British members of Islamic State. 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 ISIS targets.


Should the UK take military action in Syria? These are the things we should be questioning;


Who are we fighting against?

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?”

MPs will vote on whether to attack ISIS, but the question of who should control Syria is still unanswered.

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 believes 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.”

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?


Can military action actually stop Islamic State?

Islamic State in Syria

Islamic State; how to stop them?

David Cameron calls Islamic State “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 also says 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? Gilles de Kerchove, the European Union’s Anti-terrorism chief warned that airstrikes against Islamic State increase the risk of terrorist attacks in retaliation.


Alexandra Buskie points out that Islamic State have risen out of a political vacuum in Syria.

“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.”

One option that America favours, outlined in the Washington Post, is hope that Assad and the rebels sort out their differences and take on Islamic State together. We can’t see that happening anytime soon.


Will it 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.

However, if we want to end the use of chemical weapons would going into Syria be the only option? Ezra Klein 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.


Would military action help 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. Nearly four million of those have left Syria altogether. A lot of these migrants 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?

Asked about the humanitarian crisis a Foreign Office spokesperson said the government is providing more than £46 million this year to support the Syrian rebel groups which “represent moderate and inclusive values”. This money helps save lives by providing services such as search and rescue equipment and training, power generators, communications, support and training to civil administrations.”

Some argue that as a developed country with a permanent seat on the United Nations Security Council, the UK has a responsibility to step in to protect the millions of civilians who are at risk.

The 2005 United Nations World Summit declared that the UK and 193 other UN member states have a “Responsibility to Protect” (AKA “R2P”). This means facing up to countries that are no longer holding themselves accountable for the welfare of their people. R2P means that:

  1. “The State carries the primary responsibility for protecting populations from genocide, war crimes, crimes against humanity and ethnic cleansing, and their incitement;
  2. The international community has a responsibility to encourage and assist States in fulfilling this responsibility;
  3. 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?”


Who is responsible?

The West’s failure to control the crisis makes us partly responsible for the current situation, says 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.”


Would military action in Syria be legal?

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.

Right now; the United Nations Security Council approved a resolution to “take all necessary measures, in compliance with international law” to combat ISIS only. However, the section of the UN charter allowing military action to restore peace was not passed. With most things, this is a matter of interpretation. After recent terror attacks carried out by ISIS in Paris, the French government said the UN resolution allows action in self-defense and has increased bombing raids. So, whilst not exactly a green light this is one step further towards Britain taking action.


If the UK wanted to take action against Islamic State?

Legally, to take military action against Islamic State in Syria we need the consent 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 ISIS, 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.


If the UK wanted to take action against President Assad’s government?

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.” For those who don’t speak legal this means “don’t invade the country”.

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

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. 

Instead the UK could try arguing a legitimate exception called “Humanitarian Intervention”. This is taking action 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. Today, many still question whether this was morally acceptable.

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.


What would this mean for the rest of the area?

Russian President Vladimir Putin meets Syria President Assad

Russia and Syria; best pals

Two permanent members of the UN Security Council previously blocked suggestions for military action. China believes that military intervention will just make things worse – especially with chemical weapons in play. Russia remains a big pal to Syria and is still opposed to options which don’t involve Assad. This is because Russia has a key naval base in the port of Tartous in Syria.  Syria also buys a lot of Russian weapons. However, Russian 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.

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. Conflict in Syria “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.


Can we learn from Iraq and Afghanistan?

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). 

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.

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 could worsen the situation. Introducing the RUSI report General Sir David Richards warns 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.”


Syria explained; is war the only solution?

Most people are agreed that ISIS should go, but does this mean the UK should intervene in Syria? Where do we stand on President Assad’s regime? Are airstrikes the best way to combat Islamic State?

Read more: 7 Suggested Ways to Combat ISIS

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  1. Russell Jones says:
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    My heart bleeds for these poor imigrants I cannot imagine the fear these people must be feeling. Im just lost for words. They have got nothing.

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