Aerial bombing against Isis is counterproductive

Damascus, Syria (openDemocracy) – The United States and Russia have decided long ago that Isis should be fought through air strikes. The United Kingdom has followed, and France, especially after the Paris carnage, is also going along. But bombing from the air is not only ineffective; it is also counter-productive, especially against a non-territorial entity such as Isis. The few politicians in Europe that are resisting the pull of air strikes, such as Jeremy Corbyn and Matteo Renzi, appear intimidated even in stressing this very simple reality. They should instead be strongly supported with activism and intellectual arguments.

Selling the idea that air bombing will make western countries safer – as Francois Hollande and David Cameron currently do – is simply a lie.Northern powers should have learnt that aerial bombing is not precise enough to target criminals. None of the perpetrators of the Paris massacre would have been hit by aerial bombing carried out in Syria or in the other territories controlled by Isis. Western powers should have learnt this lesson long ago: air strikes do not manage to eliminate actual or potential terrorists or suicide bombers. Neither the suicide attackers of 9/11 nor their principals would have been reached by aerial bombing. United States intelligence knows these limits very well. When they wanted to kill Osama bin Laden, the most valuable target, they did not use air bombing but a sophisticated land operation. The March 2004 Madrid and the London July 2005 attackers were next door terrorists: they were not trained overseas but inside the country and any preventive action of war would have been totally ineffective. Selling the idea that air strikes will make western countries safer – as Francois Hollande and David Cameron currently do – is simply a lie.

But bombing is also counter-productive. Rather than demoralizing terrorist groups such as Isis or Al Qaeda, it might increase their recruitment. More individuals may volunteer to take any action able of damaging ‘the West’. Aerial bombing is, in fact, the typical demonstration of the military and technological supremacy of the North on the rest. Those who bomb undertake minimal risks, especially when they target factions and groups that do not have airplanes or flak. It is an act of violence exercised against enemies that could not react at the same level. On the ground this generates a sense of impotence which starts a perverse reaction. Neutral individuals may perceive it as indiscriminate acts of aggression and their resentment may lead to all sorts of retaliatory actions. It is impossible to penetrate the sick mentality of the terrorists (and often suicide bombers) of New York, Washington, Madrid, London or Paris, just to cite the major western cities that have been targeted. But I would not be surprised if the criminals will declare that they considered their actions a form of retaliation for the real and supposed damages inflicted on the communities they belong to.

There is also much to say about the accuracy of aerial bombing. In spite of the incredible precision that they have reached over the last two decades, aerial bombing continues to generate a huge number of collateral victims. The tragic bombing against the hospital of “Doctors without borders” in Kunduz of October 3 2015 is just one of the several cases. President Barack Obama claimed that it was a mistake, but certainly it is a deliberate US policy to use drones to carry out extra-judiciary executions of terrorists, which often involve heavy and unacceptable “collateral damages”.

Terrorist organizations such as Isis and Al Qaeda are sooner or later gratified by confrontation through aerial bombing. Hopefully, the bombing damages their infrastructure, but this damage is more than compensated for by the fact that these organizations are taken on a par by territorial states even if they do not really control a territory as their opponents do. By receiving strikes on locations that they temporarily control (sometimes for a week or a month only, on other occasion for a several months, but very seldom for longer periods), Isis manages to gain credibility for the story that there is a war of the West against Islam, and through this argument they have so far managed to increase worldwide recruitment.

It is rightly pointed out how ridiculous the current situation is in the skies over Syria. While there is a wide coalition willing to use military superiority to bomb the disputed territory, there is total disagreement on what should be bombed. In a few days, we have seen Russian air-planes striking the Syrian US trained insurgents, while Turkish air-planes have repeatedly attacked Kurdish Communist Party stations. American, French and British forces regularly bomb Isis as well as governmental forces in Syria. It would be common sense that this peculiar coalition of the willing agrees at least on what the shared targets are before their planes take off. But not even this rudimentary precautionary principle has been used. In the end, there is no evidence that the massive killing of Isis insurgents by air strikes has managed to reduce its military capacity.

Why then is there such strong support to confront Isis and other terrorist organizations through aerial bombing? It seems quite obvious that the reason is internal: when attacked, western democracies feel obliged to demonstrate to their shocked public opinion that they can retaliate, even when the source of the attack is uncertain. In the perverse logic of the territorial state, it is better to retaliate against the wrong target than no retaliation at all. These governments need to convince their public opinion that they have muscle when they are seriously wounded. Whether this exercise in military strength is actually connected to the damage they have received is irrelevant.

The question that arises is this: what should be done to confront terrorist attacks such as the Paris one? There are many much more useful responses than air strikes.

First, governments should persuade their public opinion that there is no religious war or clash of civilization under way. There are criminals that need to be brought to justice. The more individuals that are convinced of this, the less likely it is that terrorist organizations will be able to recruit fighters and insurgents. The Italian relatives of Paris victim Valeria Solesin have bravely organized her funeral in Venice with the participation of people who are Catholic, Muslim and Jewish. Actions like this contribute to peacebuilding and are much more effective than throwing around bombs blindly.

Second, use police investigations to identify the criminals, their accomplices and their principals. Spanish judiciary and police have successfully managed to identify the culprits of the May 2004 Madrid train bombing. Trailing them in front of the victims and their relatives has been the best way to demonstrate the nature of these criminals to a wider public. The French judiciary and police are already achieving effective results during these days.

Third, actions aimed at destroying the infrastructures of terrorists in their homeland are more effective if carried out on the ground rather than through occasional air strikes. Great powers alone cannot do much unless they work closely with local factions that could effectively control the territory. Western powers and local groups should still go the long way to prospect a peaceful settlement involving the parties active in the civil war and to create a coalition government. On the basis of a preventive collaborative plan, the United States, Russia and Europe could support more actively the various local groups contending territory and authority with Isis.

This would imply, for example, i) arms trade control, ii) the opening of business corridors in order to subtract economic resources from smugglers, para-military and other criminal organizations, and iii) cooperation between the local self-defence units and external peace-keepers.

 A right side view of a B-1 bomber aircraft flying over the base range during testing and evaluation. Image Source: DOD image taken by Staff Sgt. Bill Thompson via

A right side view of a B-1 bomber aircraft flying over the base range during testing and evaluation.
Image Source: DOD image taken by Staff Sgt. Bill Thompson via

After the Paris attack, everybody agreed that actions against Isis in Syria and elsewhere should be better coordinated. So far, the effect of coordination has been that Turkey has downed a Russian warplane that had just bombed the Syrian Turcomen. Western politicians have not learnt much from the Paris bombing, as well as from previous terrorist attacks. Today they are eager to act, but without learning that their actions could lead to yet more considerable disaster.

In the perverse logic of the territorial state, it is better to retaliate against the wrong target than no retaliation at all.

This report prepared by DANIELE ARCHIBUGI  for openDemocracy.