Much of the response to the Paris attacks – French and international – has been uplifting: the spirit of resistance, the solidarity, the stated determination not to change “our” way of life. But one aspect of the reaction in Britain has been quite the opposite: the rush by sectional interest groups – armed forces, police, politicians – to press their own advantage.
They variously want to influence the strategic defence and security review, out tomorrow, the chancellor’s autumn statement on Wednesday, or the potentialparliamentary vote on airstrikes in Syria.
On the last of these we’ve heard an ever louder drumbeat for action, with newspaper headlines this weekend declaring “Britain prepares for ‘war’”, and “We can beat jihadis in 14 days”. Public opinion has apparently shifted in favour of a bombing campaign. And the latest UN security council resolution, calling for efforts to prevent and suppress terrorist attacks to be “redoubled”, using “all necessary measures”, also helps. While it does not legalise military action against Islamic State in Syria, it could open the way for another resolution that would.
Meanwhile, Jeremy Corbyn’s political mis-steps over the past 10 days have allowed his views to be dismissed as flaky and irresponsible – even where he is right, as in his warnings about kneejerk responses to terrorist attacks and, indeed, in his Armistice Day strictures about the requirement for the top brass to stay out of politics.
The Paris attacks were horrific – as was the bomb planted on the Russian plane that crashed in Sinai and the recent attacks in Turkey, Lebanon and Mali. But none of these atrocities, separately or together, alter the balance of the arguments against UK intervention in Syria.
The rationale remains the same as it was two years ago, when MPs rejected British participation in a new war; and the same as it was barely two weeks ago, when the foreign affairs select committee published its report opposing military intervention in Syria. In some ways the arguments are even more compelling now. It should not be cowardice to suggest that these include the greater risk of attacks at home.
There are enough countries already launching airstrikes – to the point where they risk acting at cross-purposes and endangering each other. What special extra element can the RAF add, other than trying to demonstrate Britain’s military prowess (to the UK itself, but primarily perhaps to the Americans)?
Even if the forces of Isis are attacked even more intensively from the air, the military consensus appears to be that they cannot be defeated without ground troops. Will western forces, in the end, be able to resist the calls for such an escalation? And what would the longer-term effect be anyway? The appeal of Isis lies not only in its military power, but in religion and ideology. That appeal will not be countered by western arms; it is more likely to be bolstered.
After more than two years, the central purpose of military intervention in Syria has still not been clarified. Everyone now insists they are fighting Isis, but the US, Jordan and others intervened at the start in support of those opposing President Assad. Turkey eventually joined in, and chose primarily to attack Kurdish PKK forces. Russia’s airstrikes have been intended to boost Assad as much as to push back Isis. Where will any UK airstrikes fit in? Whose war will we actually be fighting?
If the Paris attacks change anything, it should be to give an impetus to the multilateral talks recently convened in Vienna. The same UN resolution that called for new efforts to combat terrorist attacks also stressed the need for a political solution. This is where the UK should be directing its efforts, not trying to exploit a charged atmosphere to muster support for an intervention that will put even more lives, here and in the Middle East, at risk.