Another war for the British Army, and no closer to peace in Syria

I used to wait for my Mum to pick me up from primary school next to a British soldier deployed to Belfast as part of Operation Banner. The British Army have been continuously deployed on offensive duty ever since, and with the RAF currently bombing Syria, a new country can be added to the list of British overseas involvement during my lifetime (the others being Iraq, Bosnia and Herzegovina, Iraq again, the Federal Republic of Yugoslavia, Sierra Leone, Afghanistan and Iraq for a third time and fourth time).

The arguments for British involvement in the run-up to Parliamentary authorisation ranged across national security, our duties as an ally and the ability of British involvement to make a difference in the battle against IS/Daesh. I don’t want to quibble on details like the unique technical capabilities that the RAF possess, the number of IS-inspired attacks that have already been foiled or the number of moderate Syrians that may be able carry the fight on the ground, but I think the main issue that has not been resolved in this debate is the outcome that British military action aims to achieve.

The US and a range of its Western and Middle Eastern allies have been bombing Syria since September 2014. According to Airwars, these forces have launched nearly 3,000 airstrikes on Syria (and that is not including the contribution made by Russian bombers). This has clearly not had much effect in terms of defeating IS or ending the Syrian civil war. Adding some British bombs to the mix will hardly make the vital difference, and Cameron has today admitted that the campaign will not be over any time soon.

To argue against the extension of UK operations to Syria is not the same as saying outside military force can never achieve tangible effects in a conflict. The end of the war in Bosnia and Herzegovina (BiH) shows that airstrikes can indeed play in role in bringing peace: BUT only when they are part of a concerted diplomatic effort with a definitive idea about what peace would look like, which those doing the bombing are willing to back-up with ground troops to enforce the peace, and when the parties to the conflict are willing to accept a peace deal enforced by outsiders. Unfortunately, none of these conditions appear to exist in the Syrian case.

The maintenance of BiH as a single state, within its 1992 borders but divided into a Serb and a Muslim-Croat entity was (and remains) controversial, but it was a clear and enforceable vision about what a post-war BiH would look like. The US administration were willing to commit the troops needed to enforce such a deal and, as this would entail replacing the 40,000 UN peacekeepers with 60,00 NATO troops, it could not be portrayed as a foreign invasion. The US was willing to negotiate with Milosevic, Izetbegovic and Tudjman, despite the blood on their hands, and with the dynamics of the war shifting against the Serbs throughout 1995, Milosevic was willing to side-line the Bosnian Serb leadership and moderate his initial war aims.

The complexity of the situation in Syria, with so many different factions with competing war aims, supported by so many foreign governments with their own competing war aims, makes the likelihood of a bombing campaign prefiguring the kind of comprehensive peace deal signed at Dayton and ratified in Paris twenty years ago appear highly unlikely. The NATO airstrikes against the Serbs in 1995 lasted one month. The US has been bombing IS for 15 months. With the chances of airpower decisively shifting the balance or provide the impetus for a negotiated peace being so remote, the question we are left is this: what will this latest British overseas military involvement achieve, other than millions of pounds spent, infrastructure destroyed, lives lost, and a political solution to the Syrian war no closer?


Where is the government strategy to prevent violence against women?

Last Monday a clause of the Counter-Terrorism and Security Act (2015) came into effect, placing the Prevent Duty Guidance for seven sectors of the public services on a statutory footing. Local authorities, schools, further education, higher education, the health sector, prisons and probation have joined the police in having a legal duty to safeguard persons from radicalisation, be it through challenging the narratives of radical preachers and political ideologues who argue that violence is acceptable, or through tackling exposure to beheading videos or other violent images online that normalises such barbaric behaviour.

The government hope this legislation will stem the flow of British citizens to Syria, and hlep prevent the kind of home-grown terror attacks witnessed recently in Paris and Copenhagen. At least 700 Britons are thought to have travelled to Syria to join IS in the last few years, but fortunately there has not been a violent incident on the British mainland since the murder of Lee Rigby in May 2013.

As well as this legislation, the government is currently engaged in a public and media campaign to change the terms of the debate on radicalisation, with David Cameron urging people to be ‘intolerant of intolerance’ and calling on communities to do more to tackle the extreme ideologies that allow violent ones to emerge (as I discussed in my last blog post).

Even if you don’t agree with the methods (and as someone working in education I have a lot of concerns about the co-option of teaching and support staff into an anti-radicalisation agenda through apparently ‘pre-criminal’ safeguarding), the rationale behind this policy is clear to see. No one wants to continue reading stories about teenage girls leaving their families to join the brutally-murderous IS, and no one wants to see death and destruction on the streets of Britain.

However, there are other ideas and violent images that are prevalent in our society, creating a framework within which violence on a massive scale is perpetrated against Britons. Children are often exposed to violent material online at a young age, and the environment in schools, workplaces and the media all work together to reinforce these messages and make the violence permissible.

I am, of course, talking about violence against women. The web is awash with violent pornography which many children are regularly viewing, sexism is rife in schools and the workplace, sections of the media are imbued with a misogynistic relish, and a pervasive climate of derision and disrespect has been tracked by projects like Everyday Sexism.

The violence this leads to is both extensive in scale and extreme in its consequences. A survey conducted by the European Union Agency for Fundamental Rights in 2014 reported that a third of all women had experienced physical or sexual violence since the age of 15, while 694 women were murdered in the UK between 2011 and 2014, nearly half of them by a current or former partner. Such figures dwarf the violence committed in the name of radicalism, whether inspired by an interpretation of Islam or a far right ideology (both of which are targeted in the Prevent strategy).

Prevention is part of the government policy regarding violence against women, but at times it seems like it is an after-thought, secondary to the main drive to increase the rate of prosecution after such violence has been committed, or taken seriously only as part of the attempt to protect the most vulnerable people in society from abuse and exploitation. These are of course welcome measures and necessary goals, but action to prevent the ubiquitous violence against women should be central to our politics, not an after-thought.