Attacking Islamic State vs protecting civilians in Syria?

A man holds a baby saved from under rubble, who survived what activists say was an airstrike by forces loyal to Syrian President © Reuters/Hosam Katan

With the start of US-led air strikes on Islamic State targets in Syria this week, and Parliament due to vote today on British military action in neighbouring Iraq, attention is once again focused on the conflict which has cost so many lives since 2011.

When G8 leaders met in Fermanagh last year, they committed themselves to helping to bring peace to Syria.

The soaring death toll in the sixteen months since, at the hands of Syrian state military, opposition forces and groups such as Islamic State, show how hollow those words have proved.

Yet, despite the 190,000-plus deaths in Syria, it was ISIS taunting of Obama through sickening videos depicting the beheading of US citizens, which finally prompted the President to launch air attacks.

But will attacks from the sky and arming opposition groups on the ground help end the agony in Syria or just add to the misery already endured by its people?

Tragically, nobody can answer that question – not Obama, not Cameron, nor the leaders of the Gulf States backing military action.

But world leaders need to demonstrate not just that they are against Islamic State, but that they are on the side of civilians.

This means they must use their power to ensure that international law is respected and that attacks on civilians end. Such laws apply now to the US military, just as much as Syrian forces and non-state armed groups.

It also means no indiscriminate or poorly targeted attacks which could leave civilians – in that most horrible of euphemisms – as ‘collateral damage’.

In Syria, civilians living in regions now under ISIS control could obviously be at risk.

Being on the side of civilians also means ensuring that arms from the US, UK or elsewhere do not end up in the hands of those government or rebel forces who will use the weapons to attack the ISIS today, and to commit serious human rights abuses tomorrow.

And with increased attacks on regions controlled by Islamic State, it would be prudent to expect (and plan for) hundreds of thousands more refugees to follow the hundreds of thousands who have already fled. 1.4 million Syrians have already become refugees in neighbouring Lebanon. By contrast, the UK has taken a grand total of 75 people so far.

While there may be no end in sight to the conflict, lives can be saved now by Obama, Cameron and other world leaders demonstrating clear will to ensure international law is upheld and civilians are protected from a war which is not of their making. That is the only path to lasting peace and justice in a region which needs it more than most.

A version of this article appears in today’s Belfast Telegraph (not yet online).