Bishops divided over prospects of success in air war against ISIS

Just war criteria not met says Lord Harries, former Bishop of Oxford, as prospect of success are bleak

British jets have bombed ISIS-controlled oil fields in Syria. The airstrike followed debates in the House of Commons and House of Lords on a government bill authorizing the use of military force against the Islamist militant group.

In the debate held in the House of Lords, the Archbishop of Canterbury said the criteria for a “just war” against ISIS had been met, and backed the government’s plans. However two other bishops who spoke in the 2 Dec 2015 debate, the Rt. Rev. Christopher Cocksworth, Bishop of Coventry, and Lord Harries, the former Bishop of Oxford urged the defeat of the bill.

Following ten hours of debate, the Commons voted to approve an extension to the UK’s military operation against ISIS to Syria by 397 to 223. Air operations came within hours of the vote, with a strike against oil fields Prime Minister David Cameron said was funding ISIS attacks against Europe. “There are plenty more of these targets throughout eastern, northern Syria which we hope to be striking in the next few days and weeks,” Defense Secretary Michael Fallon said.

In the House of Lords debate, the Archbishop of Canterbury rose to speak after the former chief of the defense staff, Lord Dannatt, who urged support for the military action in Syria, but noted “the fight against Daesh is not just in the Middle East; it is within Europe and it is here in the United Kingdom. We had urged the Government to conduct an investigation into foreign funding and support of extremist and terrorist groups within the United Kingdom.”

The Most Rev. Justin Welby stated that to “my mind, the “just war” criteria have been met,” but noted the defeat of ISIS involved not only the force of arms but required a “global theological and ideological component, not just one in this country, to what we are doing.” Part of this strategy was the curtailing of Wahabist Islam “relentlessly pursued and promoted” by Saudi Arabia and Qatar. This “particular brand of Islamic theology has provided a source from which ISIL has drawn false legitimation,” he argued.

An hour later in the debate Lord Harries of Pentregarth rose and said the “Christian just war tradition [is]an essential tool for thinking about military action.”

He believed the “first three criteria” had been “easily met. Is there just cause? Yes: Daesh is an evil that must be stopped. Is there competent authority? Yes: the United Nations Security Council Resolution 2249 calls on states to take ‘all necessary’ means to overcome this threat to international peace. Is there just intention? Yes: to establish an ordered peace in territory now held by ruthless killers.”

However, the last three criteria had not been met as the government had not exhausted diplomatic initiatives to starve ISIS of weapons and funding. He also questioned whether “more good than evil” would flow from an air war against ISIS, and whether there was a “reasonable chance of success.”

“Daesh must, and will, be defeated, but that would be worse than useless if military action resulted in thousands more disaffected Muslims joining its ranks worldwide,” he argued, adding that there were no troops in Syria that could hold territory won from ISIS. “Until there are ground forces in place ready to take territory—this probably means some prior political understanding with the Russians over the future of the Syrian Government … I do not think that the criterion of a reasonable chance of success has been met.”

The Bishop of Coventry later in the evening voiced his concerns over the use of force. “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.”

He warned that allying Britain with Russia in the fight in Syria meant Britain being held responsible in the court of world Muslim public opinion for mistakes made by Russian forces. “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?”

The battle against ISIS was “fundamentally an ideological conflict,” Bishop Cocksworth argued, “We must be keenly aware that collateral damage takes ideological forms. Any western action will only reinforce Daesh’s apocalyptic narrative of western aggression.”

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