THERE is a cartoon doing the rounds which sums up the situation in Syria better than I ever can. Obama and Hollande look on in dismay at “the anti-IS coalition”, presented as the ultimate Mexican standoff. Russia, Iran, Turkey, Saudi Arabia, Israel, the Kurdish militias, Hezbollah, and the Sunni Islamists all hold each other at gunpoint. The Free Syrian Army prepares to blow out its own brains.

The simple truth about the Syrian civil war (perhaps we do better to call it the Syrian-Iraqi civil war) is that it is a God-awful mess. And yet, without some insight into how to end this mess, it is hard to contemplate any clear path to bringing an end to Islamic State (IS), or Isis.

Every option is bad, and yet all have something to be said for it. Focus on backing the secularist, leftist Kurdish militias? But even secularist, moderate Syrian Arabs treat the advance of these groups with deep disquiet, fearing ethnic cleansing if they do. Focus on the other Syrian opposition groups? But the only really effective ones are “national jihadists” whose ideology is just a few shades more moderate than that of IS. In any case, these are the groups favoured by Saudi Arabia and Turkey. Be resigned to Assad staying in power? But the Assad regime has consistently been much more interested in fighting opposition groups than IS.

What do air strikes add to this? Despite IS’s consistent rhetoric of world conquest and cosmic war, the reality is it didn’t attack us until we attacked it. Moreover, there is reason to believe Nato air strikes have killed substantial numbers of civilians.

But it’s also significant that, despite months of aerial bombardment, IS seems to have decided to hold off from straightforward retaliation in kind, resorting instead to beheading citizens of enemy states and using more indirect, deniable approaches such as violent incitement. The fact that Isis is now clearly trying to provoke retaliation from Western countries must mean the status quo is no longer working for it.

So should UK aircraft be bombing Syria? In a way, it’s a non-issue. UK aircraft are already bombing IS in Iraq, and for IS, the border between Iraq and Syria is meaningless. Expanding the mission probably doesn’t mean Syria will wind up any more bombed than it already is. The real underlying question is whether Nato should be bombing IS-controlled areas at all. But even that is probably too simplistic. There are specific instances where even fairly robust non-interventionists may have wobbled over the past year or so – Nato bombing helped keep IS out of Kobane. But in these Kurdish areas there was at least a partner to work with on the ground. The question is whether there is a wider strategy that would justify bombing inside IS territory.

At present, if there is a Western strategy of any kind, it is to fight a war of containment and attrition. Attrition means grinding down. And what we’re talking about being ground down are the bodies and the hopes of ordinary Syrian and Iraqi people. Even when it doesn’t directly kill them, bombing IS makes these people’s lives much worse without meaningfully weakening the organisation’s grip. If you’ve read this opinion piece and come out of it confused and dismayed, then I’ve succeeded. How should Parliament vote? First do no harm seems to be as good a motto as any. But we need also to end the shrillness of debate about Syria. Until we admit we simply don’t know what to do, there is no hope of a coherent response.

Gilbert Ramsay is a lecturer at the Handa Centre for the Study of Terrorism and Political Violence at St Andrew’s University

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