The right way to carry out airstrikes

I have stated this on several occasions and I will repeat it here: I am not an expert on the use of military force.  Hell, I’m not even slightly knowledgeable about all things military  So I write this blog carefully and hope I do not sound completely out of my depth by the end.

Airstrikes against IS and other terrorist groups fighting in Syria and Iraq are a hot topic and have been for some time. In Canada there is a debate over whether the new Liberal government of Justin Trudeau should honour its campaign pledge and end the Canadian CF-18 combat mission in the Levant and focus on training and logistics.  Russia has also joined the fray in support of its client, Syrian President Assad, but its targets seem to be more those groups we see as possible allies rather than IS.  And the US, which has assumed the lion’s share of the action to date, is seeing a discussion unfold on the efficiency of the bombing so far and whether it should be expanded to include areas where civilian casualties are bound to increase (see story here).

I have read repeatedly that airstrikes alone will not defeat IS but also that the last few months have seen major gains in pushing the extremist group back and forcing it to cede territory.  I have also learned that airstrikes can be amazingly accurate through the combination of technology and spotters on the ground.  And I also know that Canadian, American and other pilots do their utmost to prevent civilian casualties and prefer to return to base with their payloads intact rather than risk the lives of innocents.  This is all good, so why would we ruin it?

If the voices screaming for more airstrikes and damn the consequences of “collateral damage” (I really, really hate that callous term) are heeded then we will see more incidents where men, women and children that have nothing to do with IS are killed.  At that point we are no better than the terrorists.  Yes, mistakes will be made and blameless lives will be lost but we must do everything in our power to prevent them.  To adopt Republican presidential candidate Ted Cruz’s suggestion to “carpet bomb” IS to see if “glass glows in the dark”, aside from showing Mr. Cruz’ shallow knowledge about war, would constitute a crime against humanity.  I.e. what the terrorists do.

There are at least three reasons not to bomb indiscriminately:

  • we claim to hold the moral high ground – let us not fritter it away
  • the Russians and Syrians bomb wherever they want – do we really want to emulate these two states?
  • IS is simply not that big a threat and we don’t need to abandon our principles to deal with it.  The terrorist group is on the defensive and continuing what we are doing, plus adding local ground troops, will finish them off.  Let’s not create more martyrs than necessary as the blood of the dead nourishes the next generation of terrorists.

There is so much on so many levels that needs to be done to defeat terrorist groups.  We need to do it right to avoid making it worse down the road.



By Phil Gurski

Phil Gurski is the President and CEO of Borealis Threat and Risk Consulting Ltd. Phil is a 32-year veteran of CSE and CSIS and the author of six books on terrorism.

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