Air Strikes in Syria: Salvation or Slaughter?


By Sharvani Kim Jeya Putra

 The United States began air strikes without congressional authorisation or the backing of a UN resolution in a renewed war being waged in the Middle East. No evidence was submitted as to whether an imminent threat currently exists in America. However, a Justice Department Memo states that the United States is not required to have “clear evidence that a specific attack on U.S. persons and interests will take place in the immediate future” for there to be an immediate threat, creating a rather dubious precedent as to when the United States can justifiably intervene in other countries’ affairs.


Much of this seems eerily similar to their launching of a pre-emptive war in Iraq in 2003, with the same rhetoric of national interest, drone strikes and oppressed populations longing for democracy being witnessed. Perhaps counter-terrorist measures that only seem to worsen matters are symptoms of a larger flawed foreign policy. Regardless, the United States’ participation is a symbolic gesture in the West’s commitment to answering threats to international peace and security, which seem to entitle world powers to intervene with any force necessary.

Arguably, ISIS presents a threat all over the world, with their videos calling for more people to join their cause and carry out attacks on their own. Air strikes have helped in containing ISIS and stopping their expansion. US airstrikes near a Shia Turkoman town cleared the way for militiamen and Iraqi troops to rescue 12,000 residents from jihadis who had besieged them for more than two months and denied them water and electricity. In certain circumstances, foreign military aid can be of great help to Syrians in need.

However, power alone cannot possibly defeat ISIS. Involvement in military attacks on ISIS could be prolonged, with no definite end in sight. The unanswered question remains as to what the US intends to do should the air strikes not be successful, a growing possibility with ISIS largely holding the same territory they did at the start of the US bombings. Neither do air strikes solve Syria’s internal struggles, which caused a destabilisation in its sociopolitical climate, providing fertile ground for groups like ISIS to emerge in the first place. Any strategy that does not address the proxy power struggle war between the Saudis and the Sunni is incomplete. Syria is not merely a battleground for the US to clash against terrorist groups, but also a political battle between neighbours.

The US has not yet detailed their intended means of withdrawing from the afflicted country. A mishandling of political affairs may lead to the bolstering of Assad’s regime, which means continued oppression for the people of Syria and regional instability to continue. Additionally, wiping out members of ISIS means taking out enemies of the Assad Regime, which presents the world with another brutal alternative: eliminating the terrorist group at the expense of letting the Procrustean Assad regime fill the vacuum left by the war against ISIS, a regime which has already caused the death of nearly 200,000 Syrians. The war against terror will not succeed if a broader approach is not taken and there are no efforts to undermine Assad’s regime with a strategy that also appeals to the local communities, many of whom do not look favourably upon the current strategy of US intervention.

Due to their large numbers, overseas support, radical nature and religious cause, it is highly unlikely that ISIS will surrender with a continued offensive from the US. The cause can still rally supporters regardless of the success in drones destroying bases. Continued aggression on the part of the West could lead to more recruitment, with the members of ISIS who perish in attacks made into religious martyrs. In addition, wealthy Gulf individuals from places such as Saudi Arabia and Turkey continue to fund ISIS, allowing them to expand even more rapidly and spread their ideology. Until those lines of financial supply are cut off, ISIS cannot be defeated in the long term.

The best case scenario would be for the air strikes to successfully contain ISIS, the Free Syrian Army to take control of the rebel-held area and reach an agreement with President Assad and a new democratic government to form. This, imaginably, remains a highly idealistic scenario.

However, a lack of intervention means that the world allows inhuman barbarity to go unchallenged, for grotesque slaughter and ethnic cleansing akin to butchery to continue unimpeded and with impunity. Drone strikes may be capable of aiding in the liberation of captured innocents, degrading the capabilities of ISIS and slowing or even halting their advance into new territory. The US cannot adopt an isolationist posture either, as the consequences are grave for civilians facing genocide and brutality if there is no foreign intervention.

The US seems to be confronted with the ethical issue as to whether civilian life is a justifiable expense in stopping the depredation of ISIS. It is always easier to justify drone strikes killing innocents when destruction is referred to as “collateral damage”, which is a subtle linguistic means of alienating the prospect of ruining families, homes and the lives of innocents. The US has repeatedly claimed very few civilians have been killed by drones, but an Amnesty International report estimated the number of civilian casualties to be 900 in Pakistan alone. The inexact number of deaths can only evince that “collateral damage” is inevitable and widespread. In military slang, drone operators call their targets “bug splats”, “since viewing the body through a grainy video image gives the sense of an insect being crushed”. In Pakistan, a young boy, Zubair, grieved over the loss of his grandmother in a drone strike. In his testimony, he said that he now prefers “cloudy days when the drones don’t fly. When the sky brightens and becomes blue, the drones return and so does the fear. Children don’t play so often now, and have stopped going to school. Education isn’t possible as long as the drones circle overhead.” The murder of and terror inflicted upon children and their loved ones cannot be excused or justified under the guise of liberating the masses. It remains inexcusable in the ethics of war to discount the value of innocent life.

As President Eisenhower said in his Military-Industrial Complex Speech in 1961,  “we must guard against the acquisition of unwarranted influence, whether sought or unsought, by the military industrial complex.” It cannot be overstated that for several individuals in the US, engaging in this war is a money generating enterprise, with many able to make large profits supplying armies overseas with arms and military equipment. From some perspectives, continuing to wage a perpetual war in different parts of the globe is a way to continue earning substantial revenue.

The Islamic State has, as illustrated in President Obama’s recent speech, shocked “the conscience of the world” and justifiably, foreign intervention is required. However, the strategy and endgame of air strikes on Syria remains unclear and the consequences are doubtful. In times such as these, international effort to think of a unilateral solution to the problem and the provision of humanitarian aid is of the utmost importance. As citizens of a democracy who have the privilege of peace, we must not forget, perhaps especially in trying times, that our ethics in war separates us from those that inflict terror upon the innocent.

In the closing words of Eisenhower’s speech, “We pray that peoples of all faiths, all races, all nations, may have their great human needs satisfied; that those now denied opportunity shall come to enjoy it to the full; that all who yearn for freedom may experience its spiritual blessings; that those who have freedom will understand, also, its heavy responsibilities; that all who are insensitive to the needs of others will learn charity; that the scourges of poverty, disease and ignorance will be made to disappear from the earth, and that, in the goodness of time, all peoples will come to live together in a peace guaranteed by the binding force of mutual respect and love.”


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