Yesterday, my colleague Justin Ling published a column about why Justin Trudeau is wrong to maintain his commitment to ending Canada's anti-ISIS bombing campaign. In it he outlined all of the most common arguments for a Canadian—or Western—military campaign against ISIS.
Trudeau announced yesterday that his campaign promise to end Canadian participation in airstrikes remains firm, even as France and other countries embraced a more hardline approach to the group in the fallout of Friday's attacks in Paris. He's already received criticism from almost every mainstream media outlet in the country.
What these editorials and most of the people arguing that Trudeau should continue Canadian airstrikes in Iraq and Syria miss are several reasons to stop the bombing, some of them stemming from a more radical worldview, others firmly pragmatic.
First, the pragmatic.
We don't know what will come after ISIS
Pretty much everyone who isn't in ISIS agrees that the group is bad. But we can't go guns (or airplanes, as it were) blazing after every "bad" group on the planet, and we shouldn't. Iraq and Afghanistan are perfect examples of this. Ling brought up the 2003 invasion of Iraq in his column as well, and I want to address what he wrote:
Now, some are drawing comparisons to the 2003 invasion of Iraq, despite there being virtually no reasonable connection. The West isn't knocking-over some two-bit dictator to install a friendly democracy, it is offering air support for a democratically-elected government and local forces. This is not an invasion. It isn't a ground war. It is logistical air support.
It's true that the type of war being waged in Iraq and Syria right now is different, but it's not clear that the effects will be. Both Iraq and Syria are devastated by war, civil and otherwise, and if ISIS is routed from the area there are no strong governments to move in and restore order. The Iraqi government is a shambles and even without ISIS, Syria is embroiled in a bitter and ongoing civil war. The power vacuum left after Saddam Hussein's ouster and the subsequent decision to disband Iraq's military were huge factors in the creation of ISIS. As Raed Omari writes for al Arabiya:
Weapons are being pumped into the Iraqi Kurdish Peshmerga militias and Arab Sunnis and later maybe to the Free Syrian Army (FSA) who will carry out the ground operations against ISIS....
This effort will no doubt succeed in eliminating and weakening ISIS's abilities, but will not guarantee the restoration of Syria's and Iraq's security. More radical groups would emerge in the two countries and ISIS may itself merge into another already existing militia or another one in the making.
Afghanistan, battleground for the "good war" of the early 2000s, isn't faring much better. That country has been besieged by civil war and invasions almost nonstop for decades, but what did we accomplish there? The removal of the Taliban, but what else? The installation of a shaky government that can hardly do anything for its people, a return to sectarian and ethnic violence, and the Taliban is still fighting to regain power. Life is not better for people in Afghanistan, by and large.
We don't know what will happen if we destroy ISIS, but recent history and, frankly, logic show that the result of another Western war in the Middle East—and whether we send people, airplanes, or unmanned drones, if we are killing people we are bringing war to them—won't be harmony and peace. And then what? Another war to stop whatever group sprouts in ISIS' wake? And another after that? War forever, to keep cleaning up the messes we ourselves are making?
We are not just 'bombing ISIS'
The concept of "bombing ISIS" is a rather neat and tidy one, but it's not based in reality: wherever ISIS is, there are civilians. There are still people in Syria and Iraq who don't want to be a part of the fighting happening around them. And when we send soldiers to do air strikes on ISIS-controlled areas, we run the risk of killing some of those people.
In fact, we likely already have killed many of them.
An internal Pentagon document written by Peshmerga forces in Iraq (our allies in the war against ISIS) alleges that just one Canadian air strike killed as many as 27 Iraqi civilians. The Airwars project, which is run by journalists and monitors coalition airstrikes, has compiled evidence that airstrikes by the entire Western coalition have killed more than 450 civilians.
Following Friday's attacks in Paris, for which ISIS has claimed responsibility but about which very little is still actually known, French forces conducted airstrikes in Raqqa, Syria, where ISIS' headquarters are allegedly located. (French police also conducted 150 raids on residents, arresting dozens of people.) Discussing those airstrikes, international studies professor and author Vijay Prashad told Amy Goodman on Democracy Now! that the weekend's airstrikes took out the electricity grid and clinics, and reminded listeners that Raqqa still has a civilian population of more than 200,000.
Conducting airstrikes that kill civilians, wiping out wedding parties with drone strikes, and waging war on an abstract concept like "terror:" these all have lasting consequences. In many parts of the world, Western aggression isn't seen as a saving grace or a force for good. It is a tool of terror: planes rain death from the sky on teenagers and parties. People are kidnapped and placed in prison camps for years, likely tortured, without ever being accused of a crime. This is what American and Western efforts ostensibly to do good in the Middle East look like to people in the Middle East.
That is what people refer to when they say that Western intervention in the Middle East breeds extremism. And they're right: from Osama bin-Laden to people like Michael Zehaf-Bibeau, who operated with no direction from a larger organization, Western aggression and seemingly indiscriminate murder in areas of the world it has no business being in are key causes for attacks on the West. And the goals of those attacks are either to stop our aggression outright—a desperate plea from people who (perhaps rightly) think the only thing we listen to here is violence—or to incite us to further violence, ratcheting up the stakes and the carnage to create a final clash between them and us.
So yes, we need to stop 'bombing ISIS'
If we are actually the free and democratic society we claim to be, we should follow the example not of ISIS but of Norwegian Prime Minister Jens Stoltenberg, who said after Anders Breivik attacked and killed 76 people that "the Norwegian response to violence is more democracy, more openness and greater political participation."
If the rationale for bombing ISIS is to make people safe, our best bet is to bring refugees to safe countries and foster inclusion and civic harmony. ISIS feeds on division between Muslims and non-Muslims, especially in Western countries. That division pushes people toward the fringes of society, where they are isolated and can feel like radical groups are the only ones pushing for their best interests. Welcoming refugees with open arms is both a way to ensure their immediate safety and a step toward ending the "radicalization" of Muslims around the world.
If the rationale for bombing ISIS is to simply stop ISIS, bombing might have that effect but it won't stop people's discontent with Western aggression, it won't stop the civil war in Syria, and it won't change any of the problems that led to the creation of ISIS in the first place. If anything, it will exacerbate them.
It's hard to look at a situation like civil war or possible genocide and not do something. Anything. It's why individuals change their Facebook profile pictures after tragedies and it's why governments are quick to enter the fray. But the hard truth is that we don't know that intervening will make things better. There's no way to know that in most cases. What we do know is that by entering ISIS' war we will kill civilians, and we will make life harder for many more by taking out buildings, infrastructure, hospitals, and so on.
When faced with a choice between doing nothing and allowing something bad to happen or possibly good but definitely doing damage, the harder choice is to accept that there are some things we can't fix with Western military might or money. We can open our borders to the people fleeing destruction and chaos (everywhere in the world, not just Syria or the war du jour). We can foster a culture that truly accepts and includes people who don't look or act like "us." We can take a hard look at the past actions of Western regimes and how they've impacted other parts of the world, how we are complicit in the suffering of people who later lash out at us. It's not a perfect solution for the people living under or near ISIS' control, of course, but nothing is.
Those are things we can and should do. What we should not do, what does not have any promise of creating a lasting solution for anyone involved, is continue to bomb a part of the world so few of us take the time to even understand.
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