Bishop of Coventry’s speech in Lords opposing Syria strike

“Military action has unintended consequences,” Bishop Cocksworth told the House of Lords, and airstrikes may make the situation worse.

Hansard: 2 Dec 2015 Columns 1149-50

The Lord Bishop of Coventry: My Lords, coming from Coventry, a city bound in solidarity of suffering with bombed cities in Europe, I am kept in daily remembrance of the costs of military action, especially to civilians. Against such costs, the benefits must be clear and the chances of success especially high. We all agree that the evil of Daesh needs to be stopped, but will extending strikes from Iraq into Syria do it?

We have heard much about the arbitrary nature of the Sykes-Picot border. However, during last year’s debate on intervention in Iraq, the Government recognised that the factors increasing the chances of success on one side of this border did not apply to the other. To my eye, untrained as I admit it is, they still do not.

We have heard it many times already that wars are not won from the air. Yes, our operations in Iraq have had some success in stopping the spread of Daesh, but this has been thanks to close collaboration with the Iraqi Government and armed forces. This will not be the case in Syria.

No one doubts that the best partner would be an inclusive Syrian Government and army, honouring a ceasefire with moderate groups and able to participate in long-term reconstruction and reconciliation. Such a political process would be wishful thinking without the plan and timetable from Vienna that would make it a reality. However, the Vienna process is at an early stage and has not yet been given a chance to bear the fruit of the transitional Government, which the Leader of the House referred to at the beginning of the debate. Without waiting for its results, are we not at risk of being perceived as the unwitting allies of the Assad regime?

Military action has unintended consequences. It will cause collateral damage, both physical damage and, as the most reverend Primate the Archbishop of Canterbury noted, ideological damage in the region and beyond. I do not doubt the military skill and highest standards of our RAF pilots and equipment, but there is no such thing as a perfectly surgical strike from the air and we will be implicated by the less precise bombing of other forces, Russian included. Do we not risk handing Daesh a further propaganda victory in the form of civilian casualties? Furthermore, in what is fundamentally an ideological conflict, we must be keenly aware that collateral damage takes ideological forms. Any western action will only reinforce Daesh’s apocalyptic narrative of western aggression.

How will UK air strikes be viewed by the millions of Sunni Muslims, regionally and in Britain itself? Daesh prospers because it champions the perceived grievances of Sunni Arabs against other groups in Syria and Iraq. How will the Government seek to address these grievances legitimately and counter Daesh’s narrative so that tactical victories in Syria do not come at the cost of fuelling its perverted cause?

I began with reference to the chances of success, which must be high to offset the virtual certainty of collateral damage from military action. Along with the noble and right reverend Lord, Lord Harries of Pentregarth, I do not believe that the necessarily high threshold for this prospect of success has been met. Yet if we are to intervene, as seems probable, our attention must turn to minimising the collateral damage —in the widest sense—that will result as the battles rage. Therefore, I conclude by asking the Minister how the Government’s review of progress will ensure that the success of action is measured not only in victories against Daesh’s military capacity, but also by the political settlement and peace that will ensure that its poisonous ideology, contrary to its own strategy, will not endure and expand.

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