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Bishops express concern at extension of UK’s anti-Daesh airstrikes

Posted on: December 3, 2015 12:09 PM
The Bishop of Coventry, the Rt Revd Dr Christopher Cocksworth, speaks in a House of Lords debate about Britain's military response to Daesh targets in Syria

[ACNS, by Gavin Drake] 75 years after Coventry Cathedral was destroyed in an aerial bombing campaign that blitzed the city around it; the Bishop of Coventry has warned against the “unintended consequences” of both physical and ideological collateral damage. The Rt Revd Dr Christopher Cocksworth made his comments in the House of Lords – the upper house of the UK’s Parliament – during a debate over whether or not Britain should expand its anti-Daesh campaign in Iraq to also include targets in Syrian territory. The Archbishop of Canterbury, Justin Welby, spoke in the debate earlier.

The debate in the House of Lords did not include a vote on whether or not to extend the UK’s military action. The debate was being mirrored in the lower House of Commons where a government motion to approve an extension to the UK’s military operation was approved by 397 votes to 223 – a majority of 174.

“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,” the Bishop of Coventry said. “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?”

He continued: “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 [the international peace talks in] 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. . . 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 . . . 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.”

The bishop did not believe, he said, that the “necessarily high threshold for . . . success” required under the Just War criteria had 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.” He said that the government, in measuring the success of the military campaign, should not only consider “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.”

Five Church of England bishops have a seat in the House of Lords by right of their see: Canterbury, York, London, Durham and Winchester. A further 21 bishops also have seats in order of their length of service, with a temporary provision to allow newly appointed women bishops to overtake male diocesan bishops in the queue.

The former Bishop of Oxford, the Rt Revd Richard Harries, now Lord Harries of Pentregarth, a crossbench (independent) member of the House of Lords, also spoke in the debate.

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The former Bishop of Oxford, Lord Harries of Pentregarth, speaks in a House of Lords debate about British military action against Daesh targets in Syria

He made mention of the Just War criteria and said that, in his view, the first three had been met but not the final three.

“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.

“It is when we come to the last three of the six criteria that the issue becomes much more problematical. Have all other steps short of war been taken? No: there are clearly other actions that we should be tackling as a matter of urgency. One is working with Turkey to close the Turkey/Syria border to foreign fighters, who have in recent years made their way much too easily across it. The other is stopping the flow of arms to Daesh. Much stronger pressure must surely be put on those countries that are currently facilitating this.

“The next two criteria are very closely intertwined and are crucial in the present debate. . . Namely, more good than evil must flow from the military action, and there must be a reasonable chance of success.

“We need to think very seriously about what we mean by ‘success’ in this context. It has two aspects, both crucial. One is the worldwide battle for hearts and minds. We must never forget that the aim of these terrorists is to alienate young Muslim minds from the values of the countries in which they live and to win them over to their extreme form of religion.”

He continued: “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. This could happen if bombing resulted in major civilian casualties. The problem now is that Daesh forces are clever enough to no longer present obvious military targets. They can and do very easily melt into the civilian population – a population that would be the main sufferers in any bombing campaign.

“The second aspect of success means winning and holding Daesh territory and establishing stable government upon it. For this . . . ground forces are needed. But Syrian experts tell us that the Free Syrian Army, even if it numbered 70,000, is mainly in the south, with its fighters unwilling to fight outside their own provinces.

As we know, they are very divided amongst themselves. Until there are ground forces in place ready to take territory . . . I do not think that the criterion of a reasonable chance of success has been met.”

In the House of Commons, the Conservative MP for Meriden, Caroline Spelman, acts as an intermediary between Parliament and the Church of England as a member of the Church Commissioners.

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The Second Church Estates Commissioner, Caroline Spelman, acts as a conduit between the House of Commons and the Church of England

She told MPs that there was “an important religious dimension” to the debate, adding: “This is not a war against Islam. Religious extremism is global and the key to solving this is the determination of people of faith to overcome it, not just in Syria, but right around the world.

“The Church is well placed to help, as the conflict is both theological and ideological. By reaching out to other people of faith and showing common cause in tackling extremism, we can demonstrate to a fearful secular world that faith leaders hold one of the keys to finding a solution. Where religion is being hijacked for political ends, we should say so.

“The Anglican Communion offers a worldwide network of churches to deploy in the joint global endeavour to stamp out extremism. Together, the integration of hard and soft power is likely to produce a better outcome.”

She urged the Foreign Secretary to consider a “prominent theological and ideological strategy . . . alongside any potential military humanitarian intervention,” adding: “unless we understand our enemy and those we choose as our allies in the region, we are unlikely to properly understand the conflict.”

Mrs Spelman also raised the plight of refugees fleeing the conflict, saying that “the Church can . . . play an important practical role in offering hospitality, accommodation, support and friendship to refugees, whatever their religious tradition, and advocacy for those who are being persecuted because of their faith.

“Hospitality is seen as a spiritual gift by the Church and explains why this country, with its Judeo-Christian roots, has a long tradition of providing safe haven to successive waves of migrants. . .

“We should also recognise that international development aid agencies, many of which are Christian in origin, would emphasise that it is better to help refugees in their own region, so that once it is safe they can more easily return and rebuild their country. My local imam, who is from Syria and has family still there, is very anxious about the safety of civilians and the need to avoid a power vacuum.”

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A British military fighter jet takes off from RAF Marham in Norfolk on Thursday morning to deploy in the Middle East after the House of Commons agreed to extend Britain's anti-Daesh operations in Iraq to also include targets in Syria. Photo: BBC

Within an hour of the vote in the House of Commons, four RAF Tornado GR4 fighter jets took off from RAF Akrotiri, a British military base on Cyprus, to take part in air strikes against targets at the Omar oilfield in eastern Syria. “The Omar oilfield is one of the largest and most important to Daesh’s financial operations, and represents over 10 per cent of their potential income from oil,” a Ministry of Defence spokesman said. “Carefully selected elements of the oilfield infrastructure were targeted, ensuring the strikes will have a significant impact on Daesh’s ability to extract the oil to fund their terrorism.”

Further military aircraft left the UK on Thursday to deployments at military basis in the region.