On Wednesday, British MP’s voted overwhelmingly in favour of Prime Minister David Cameron’s proposal to extend airstrikes into Syria. Labour leader Jeremy Corbyn vehemently opposed the proposal, claiming that the PM had failed to answer crucial questions on issues such as military strategy and British security. Examining these questions leads one to believe that Cameron’s proposals for military action, in Corbyn’s words, “simply do not stack up“.
On the military strategy front, since September 2014, the US has been leading a coalition of states in a sustained aerial campaign against the group. As of 6 October this year, the US and its allies had conducted 57,843 sorties in support of operations in Iraq and Syria. Despite the airstrikes, Daesh has still managed to advance; for example, in May it seized Syria’s ancient city of Palmyra just days after capturing Anbar’s provincial capital Ramadi, which is only an hour away from Baghdad. It is difficult to understand what the UK can add to this already failing strategy.
Even if the airstrikes did lead to Daesh losing ground, Cameron is relying on “moderate” Syrian rebel groups such as the Kurdish forces and the Free Syrian Army being in a position to take back Daesh-held territory. Unfortunately the Syrian opposition fighters he is referring to are splintered into hundreds of factions, geographically spread out and lacking the necessary capabilities to carry out Cameron’s vision. There are at least 100-120 rebel groups in Syria, with various aims, each differing in size from thousands to just 100-200 members, with no unifying central command. They are dotted all over Syria and have no continuity across the country. There is also the question of how moderate are these moderates? This multi-faceted conflict have led to “moderate” rebels joining hands with groups with more “extreme” views.
If Daesh continues to advance despite the airstrikes and the ground forces Cameron is relying on are too fracture, we cannot be sure there will not be “mission creep”. For the US, this may have already begun- for the first time since U.S. airstrikes against the Islamic State began some 16 months ago, the US is openly sending in ground combat troops. Defense Secretary Ash Carter told the House Armed Services Committee Tuesday that the Pentagon would send a “specialized expeditionary targeting force” of elite troops to Iraq with freedom to operate inside Syria as well. This must be read as recognition that, as former chief of the defence staff General Lord Dave Richards has said; “Air power alone will not win a campaign like this.”
The Syria conflict is now a proxy war between regional and global super-powers- for example, Iran and Russia are propping up Assad, and Russia’s airstrikes in support of the embattled leader have, at times, targeted the US backed “moderates” who, as a result, are being pushed to make alliances with more extremist groups. Therefor unified international action, not just on the military front, is crucial to bringing an end to the Syria conflict and engagement through the United Nations can build the political capital and legitimacy necessary to create it. More useful than joining the airstrike campaign would the UK working with regional partners to target the criminal networks that Daesh uses to sell goods or otherwise generate revenue; disrupt Daesh oil extraction, transport, and refining operations and prevent exchanges with buyers in foreign markets such as Iran and Turkey, for example. This would also lead to far less civilian casualties.
One of the biggest motivations for bombing Syria was Cameron’s insistence that it is necessary to protect Britain. However, interventions in the Middle East have arguably laid the groundwork for the emergence of Daesh- Britain was heavily involved in Operation Desert storm in 1991 during which more bombs were dropped on Iraq than were used throughout World War Two. This was followed by the US-UK imposed UN sanctions regime- in 1999, UN figures projected that more than 1.7 million Iraqi civilians had died as a result of the sanctions that had forced them to a diet of “semi-starvation”. In 2003, as part of another US-led coalition, Britain invaded Iraq. The invasion and protracted conflict that followed bred secretariat hate, something that most Iraqis say was not an issue before. In fact, Daesh was most likely formed in a notorious US run prison in operation during the Iraq War.
Baroness Eliza Manningham-Buller, the head of MI5 at the time, was asked “to what extent did the conflict in Iraq exacerbate the overall threat that your service and your fellow services were having to deal with from international terrorism?” . She replied: “Substantially”, and went on to say that there was hard evidence for this, for instance “numerical evidence of the number of plots”. In the case of Daesh, the UK taking part in airstrikes will work in their favour in terms of attracting new recruits. Like in Iraq, this will lead to a greater risk to Britain.
Cameron’s rallying speech to the House of Commons may have won over 397 MP’s but he failed to properly address concerns on key issues such as military strategy , the absence of credible ground forces, the lack of a diplomatic plan for the ending of the Syria crisis, the civilian casualties, the terrorism threat and the refugee crisis. It seems that, like Corbyn has said, Cameron approach is “bomb first, talk later”.
The views expressed in this article belong to the author and do not necessarily reflect the editorial policy of Middle East Monitor.