In Defence of Liberty

Driven by data; ridden with liberty.

On Airstrikes in Syria


MPs debated whether to extend the current campaign against ISIS in Iraq, into Syria. (Edited: Getty Images)

MPs voted 397 to 223 to approve the motion against ISIS (or ISIL) in Syria, based upon the United Nations Security Council Resolution 2249 [1]. The motion notes that member states are urged to take “all necessary measures” to prevent terrorist attacks by ISIS, and to “eradicate the safe haven they have established over significant parts of Iraq and Syria”. Whilst welcoming “the Government’s continued determination of cut ISIL’s sources of finance, fighters and weapons”, the motion then supports “taking military action, specifically airstrikes, exclusively against ISIL in Syria”.


This was the motion before the House of Commons. (Source: The Guardian)

The impetus behind supporting airstrikes is clear: our allies have been attacked by ISIS, with attacks against Britain also being planned; and the UN resolution calls for “all necessary measures”. The House overwhelmingly supported — 524 votes to 43 — airstrikes against ISIS in Iraq [2], after a request for assistance by the Iraqi government, beginning Operation Shader against ISIS. By its very nature, ISIS (Islamic State in Iraq and Syria) has sought to dissolve the border between Iraq and Syria. From the perspective of military tactics, the motion meant a choice between attacking ISIS solely in Iraq or treating the two countries as one.

The campaign against ISIS is not one wholly, or even mostly, of military action, but also seeks to coagulate the inward flows of money, weapons and fighters. The military degradation of its installations and controlled areas is a single, but important, part of this conflict. Humanitarian efforts continue. The Vienna talks seeking a political settlement in a democratic Syria are ongoing [3].


There are two main interventions in Syria: one led by the United States and one led by Russia. (Source: BBC)


The arguments against this motion are primarily concerned about a lack of strategy concerning the defeat of ISIS, and of civilian casualties. It is undoubtedly the case that, even among civil wars, the situation in Syria is complex [4]. Nevertheless, Operation Shader has made a substantial contribution in Iraq, killing an estimated 330 ISIS combatants and reducing their territory [5]. There have been no reports of civilian casaulties from Operation Shader. Whilst it is worrying that the broad coalition of nations have not yet permanently diminished ISIS in either Iraq or Syria, that does not mean there is no urgency in this conflict.

There have been several persistent errors in this debate. During a discussion on social media, I was earnestly informed that, by backing the government motion, I was supporting and cheering on “the slaughter of thousands of innocents in Syria”. Estimates of the civilian death toll from the American-led coalition in Syria lie between 364 and 498 [6]. ISIS have been estimated to have killed over 1,500 civilians [7]. The estimated deaths of ISIS combatants are above 3,200 [8]. The difference is surely intent, as the American-led coalition does not intend to kill Syrian civilians.

Moreover, the lack of counterfactual considerations implies rejection of the government motion is more about moral absolution than utilitarianism. Non-intervention is not neutral. ISIS does kill innocent people, with a particular fetish for hunting Yazidis [9] and murdering supporters of the Free Syria Army, so the base rate of civilian death is not zero. Indeed, a primary reason for militarily engaging ISIS is about protecting civilian life. Even the most accurate and righteous conflict may be imperfect, and so the death of innocent civilians overshadows every war.


We did not have the option to “stop the war” either: the choice placed before parliament was to either launch airstrikes against ISIS only in Iraq, or across both Iraq and Syria, against an enemy that has already killed British citizens and seeks to do so again. We are not “bombing Syria”, or are “at war with Syria”: we are engaged in a conflict with a military force that has proclaimed a statelet inside the coalesced borders of Iraq and Syria.

(Video: Sky News)

It is a matter for each citizen whether they find the government’s case for airstrikes against ISIS in Syria to be convincing. Despite misgivings, I am supportive of joining this military action now, but would want our parliamentarians to heavily scrutinise the government on the efficacy of those campaigns in both Iraq and Syria.

It is a difficult decision, and so the tempestuous language, such as calling people “terrorists” and “murderers” and “child-killers” and “terrorist sympathisers”, lowers the debate and besmirches honourable cases for and against this government motion.


[1] Parliament UK, 2015. MPs approve motion on ISIL in Syria. Available from: [Accessed: 5th December 2015]

[2] BBC, 2014. MPs support UK air strikes against IS in Iraq. Available from: [Accessed: 5th December 2015]

[3] EU External Action, 2015. Statement of the International Syria Support Group. Available from: [Accessed: 5th December 2015]

[4] BBC, 2015. Syria: The Story of the conflict. Available from: [Accessed: 5th December 2015]

[5] MacAskill, E., 2015. About 330 ISIS members killed in RAF airstrikes in past year — MOD. MSN. Available from: [Accessed: 5th December 2015]

[6] Airwars, 2015. Civilian and ‘friendly fire’ casualties. Available from: [Accessed: 5th December 2015]

[7] SOHR, 2015. IS executes 2618 since declaration of its alleged “Caliphate” including 464 in one month. Available from: [Accessed: 5th December 2015]

[8] SOHR, 2015. About 3700 people killed over 13 months since the beginning of US-led coalition airstrikes on Syria. Available from: [Accessed: 5th December 2015]

[9] Jalabi, R., 2014. Who are the Yazaidis and why is Isis hunting them? The Guardian. Available from: [Accessed: 5th December 2015]



This entry was posted on December 5, 2015 by in National Politics and tagged , .
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