Bombing Islamic State, but refusing Europe’s refugees: the UK prefers weaponry to refuge

“Bomb Islamic State targets. Bomb Assad regime targets. Bomb some more. Er, that’s it.” This is how Private Eye satirises what the magazine sees as a lack of coherence to an emerging UK government policy over bombing targets in Syria. 

After the PM’s revelation that a UK-operated drone recently killed two British nationals (and a third person) in Syria, there’s undoubtedly a new push from the government to revisit the notion of “taking on” Islamic State from the air in the region. This is apparently going to mean returning to Parliament to get its approval for bombing Raqqa and elsewhere - though the Commons was not, of course, consulted in advance over the Syrian drone strike.

So, bombing Islamic State fighters in Syria from 30 or 40,000 feet. How wise is this? Well, to listen to Michael Fallon, you might think it’s already been an effective policy in Iraq, where the UK’s been taking part in US-led “Coalition” activities along these lines for over a year. Last week the Defence Secretary claimed that in the last year UK airstrikes had killed 330 ISIS fighters, a strikingly large figure which he however said was “highly approximate, not least given the absence of UK ground troops in a position to observe the effects of strike activity.”

Hmm. So it was 330 but at the same time this was only an approximation. Moreover, asked whether there’d been any civilian casualties, Mr Fallon basically said no, there hadn’t. The government “did not believe there have been any civilian casualties as a result of UK strike activity”. Three hundred and thirty people “taken out” from the air, all correctly identified, no-one else killed, a perfect outcome.

Er, maybe. But recall that Fallon was only talking about this at all because the Green MP Caroline Lucas asked a parliamentary question over it. And the 330 figure was a governmental approximation because of the absence of UK ground troops in a position to observe the effects of strike activity. Right. At the risk of sounding confused, we don’t have ground observers to establish exact ISIS kill numbers, but we can say that the figure for civilian casualties is exactly … zero. 

Sorry to nit-pick here, but in what way is this supposed to be convincing? As Amnesty’s Oliver Sprague has said, rather than these bland pseudo-reassurances, perhaps the Defence Secretary ought to be providing Parliament and the British public with proper information about the nature of these strikes, including how people were targeted and how he’s arrived at his claim of there being no civilian casualties. 

And, until this kind of proper information is forthcoming and properly debated, I think we’re right to be extremely sceptical about whether any extended bombing campaign in Syria would ever be conducted without enormous risks to an already horribly beleaguered civilian population. Simon Jenkins recently drew attention to the political “delusion” that bombing is the way to deal with thorny situations like Syria, and it certainly feels like we’ve been here before (think Kosovo, Afghanistan and Iraq). 

No, there’s a horrible bombardement déjà vu feeling about this. As with those arms hawkers and procurers at DSEi and their love of shiny new weapons delivery systems, you sometimes get the impression that ministers have half convinced themselves that drones and other hi-tech weapons are the way to produce “clean” strikes that cut through the horrible mess of the Middle East. Why worry about the complexity of Islamic State - the motivations of its fighters, its ideology and organisation, how it interacts with other groups in the region - when you need to be seen to be “doing something”? Look at a screen, select a target, press a button. It’s a bit like the six-year-olds delighted by virtual reality worlds

With the UK already shamelessly taking an unconstructive, go-it-alone approach over the European refugee crisis (repeating a mantra about only helping those “in the region”), you really do wonder how wrong the UK can get things. 

If the UK’s airstrikes on Syrian targets lead to civilian deaths, panic and further refugees, who will be expected to look after those new refugees? Not Britain, presumably.

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