No matter how many times we try, we never learn: you can’t bomb an idea, but you can inadvertently help spread it. As the Syria war shows no signs of abating, Britain’s futile bombing campaign in Syria and Iraq shows no signs of abating… or making any difference at all. This rudderless military action ignores the reality that only a diplomatic solution can solve the Syria crisis. No plan to destroy ISIS can succeed without first agreeing the fate of Assad (and his position is surely untenable given the mass-slaughter he has overseen). In the meantime, military action against ISIS is futile because little real action can be taken and any potential success would create a power vacuum to be surely filled by someone worse anyway (remember the comparatively blissful days of good-old al-Qaeda?).
In the meantime, the coalition’s aerial bombing is a lazy, expensive approach to warfare. Responding to rightful criticism that past ineffective bombing campaigns such as US drone strikes in Afghanistan have resulted in high levels of civilian casualties, the focus appears to have shifted to taking out ISIS’ financial capabilities by destroying their ability to extract oil for sale on the black market. Stemming this income stream is certainly a sensible idea, although ISIS’s main source of income, punitive taxes on the people it subjugates, will ensure that this method cannot succeed in isolation.
The problem with this plan is that once again Britain is totally ignoring the reality of civilians on the ground who, especially in this time of brutal conflict, rely heavily on the oil from these wells to heat their homes, power their farming machinery and generally maintain their livelihood. As winter approaches, and an oil shortage bites, Western military intervention is unlikely to look very appealing to these people. But wealthy ISIS stepping in to lend a helping hand will be. ‘We are in this together’ will be the message from ISIS, ‘they attack your livelihood but we will ensure you don’t starve’. And thus, another ISIS convert is born. Likewise, destitution is only likely to increase civilians need to join ISIS as a paid fighter, bolstering their troops and exacerbating the conflict. In Syria, taking away winter fuel is a really easy way of aggravating the locals. Likewise, perceived government Islamophobia on the global stage, such as random acts of bombing, is a great way to alienate marginalised young men at home.
The international community has found this to their peril in their treatment of Hamas in Gaza, where Israel’s punitive blockade has plunged the entire population into destitution as a collective punishment. If Israel was expecting Gazans to blame Hamas for bringing this misery upon them, they have been sorely mistaken; popular support for the terrorist group has never been higher. Punish the people, while their ruler waxes lyrical about the injustice of it all, and it’s you that’s going to start looking like the bad guy. Support for Hamas has flourished as a result.
A much better way of preventing ISIS profiteering from fuel smuggling would be far better control of Turkey’s borders, to prevent petrol from crossing. This might be less dramatic and exciting than lobbing explosives, but it would prevent oil profiteering without plunging local people into humanitarian crisis, keeping the trade internal. Oil sold in Turkey is worth three times the local rate, meaning this cross-border trade is highly lucrative. Russia’s wild accusation that Turkey is profiting from an oil trade with ISIS provides an opportune moment to push for co-operation with Turkey on this issue, as they are sure to want to counter this politically-motivated allegation.
Western foreign military policy is a relic of a bygone era and a disaster zone of epic proportions. Our inability to understand complicated local political situations, and our politicians’ and the public’s propensity to knee-jerk reactions of violence, have repeatedly led to the collapse of ordered societies and bred worse violence and extremism than that we attempted to thwart. A properly organised, diplomatically agreed, multi-party boots on the ground campaign, followed by adequate post-conflict support, could have a lasting impact in Syria, but random acts of retributive violence and ill-considered bombing will only increase radicalisation and make the situation worse. Bombing oil supplies might cut off a limited amount of ISIS’ funding, but it will also destroy the livelihoods of already impoverished locals who will have nowhere to turn but straight to ISIS for support. We must rethink our entire foreign strategy if we are to defeat Islamic extremism, for our national, and international security. Radicalisation cannot be defeated by violence alone.