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Having British troops in Syria proves that the lessons of Iraq have not been learnt

File photo of a British Royal Marine during a training excercise
File photo of a British Royal Marine during a training exercise

Was anyone surprised by the latest revelation in the Times that British Special Forces are operating in Syria? I think not. Since David Cameron successfully made the case for military intervention in Syria – having already failed once – many half-expected British troops to join in on the ground, even though the prime minister gave his assurance that this would not be the case.

The latest evidence of deepening involvement by British troops is a familiar pattern, in more ways than one. It’s certainly an example of mission creep similar to that of the US, which has increased the number of its forces in Syria; President Obama sent an extra 250 Special Forces soldiers a month ago. Yet again, Britain seems to be following America’s lead on this, despite the massive unpopularity of such a policy and Cameron’s assurance about no involvement.

Worryingly, these revelations echo the false intelligence that marched Britain into the worst foreign policy disaster in its long history: the invasion of Iraq. Like the dodgy dossier of 2003 and fabricated claims that Saddam Hussain could use weapons of mass destruction within 45 minutes, Cameron’s case for military intervention also shows the familiar overstretching of facts. Would he have succeeded in securing the backing of the House of Commons last November for air strikes if he was more candid about the nature of British involvement? Probably not.

The mistrust between politicians and the public began with Iraq; it’s a legacy of the Tony Blair era. In the lead up to the Iraq invasion and war, the policy adopted by George W Bush and Blair did not follow intelligence; instead, intelligence was misused to support a pre-determined neoconservative agenda. Their overwhelming desire to topple Saddam and remake the Middle-East meant that all other considerations, including the upholding of international law, were treated as secondary, even an encumbrance. Bush, Blair and their neocon cabal were criminally negligent of the aftermath in both Iraq and Afghanistan.

I am not suggesting that people expect their political leaders to be able see into the future, nor am I and other critics of western military intervention underestimating the complexities of these decisions. Surely, though, the decision to go to war has to be a last resort, one that is taken on the basis of sound intelligence, not ideology; it certainly should not be driven by an impulse to join a political and personal friend, even when they are wrong, or to commit to a policy just because we have the means and ability to do so. I doubt if anyone can point convincingly to a single western military intervention of the past decade and say that it was a last resort and its impact, on balance, has been far more positive than negative.

The revelation in the Times undermines the assertion that lessons have been learnt from Iraq. Cameron made bold claims, gave reassurances and promised a clear plan, but where is it? Like Blair, he also framed British involvement as a moral calling: “It was morally unacceptable to leave the US, France and others to carry the burden,” he told the Commons. Claiming a moral calling while having no realistic plan is typical overzealous behaviour. Cameron did present a plan to degrade and destroy Daesh, end the civil war and work towards a transition of power away from Bashar Al-Assad, but it seems to be based on overestimating Britain’s influence and underestimating the problem.

I share the feelings of many that Cameron’s case for bombing Syria was more political grandstanding than comprehensive strategy. During the marathon debate he made a number of contentious claims that now appear to be highly misleading. For example, the prime minister extolled the capabilities of Britain’s “unique” Brimstone missile; it was a key factor in Cameron’s argument. The missiles are among “some of the most accurate weapons known to man,” he said, and noted that the US does not possess this invaluable asset for fighting Daesh. This is a shameful exaggeration. According to the Independent, the smart-missile cited as a major reason for Britain joining the bombing campaign in Syria has killed precisely zero Daesh militants.

We’ve yet to see evidence of the “comprehensive strategy” Cameron spoke about so passionately. Those who have been proven to be right on Iraq and nearly every other British foreign policy misadventure in recent years are unconvinced. The Labour Party’s leader of the opposition, Jeremy Corbyn, argued against military intervention, citing the absence of a “coherent strategy, coordinated through the United Nations, for the defeat of ISIS [Daesh].” What we have are faltering peace talks and a temporary consensus between Moscow and Washington that Daesh must be “degraded and ultimately destroyed” before Assad’s fate is decided.

On the key issue of ground troops Cameron has been floundering; some would say misleading, intentionally. The promise of 70,000 “moderate Sunni forces” to carry out the ground assault was the trump card he used to secure a parliamentary majority in favour of intervention. This wildly optimistic figure, along with his assurance not to deploy British troops, convinced many MPs to vote in the government’s favour. Scepticism over this number was also the reason why many decided to vote against military intervention. Corbyn led the criticism, stating that the prime minister “had not been able to explain what credible and acceptable ground forces could retake and hold territory freed from ISIS control by an intensified air campaign.”

According to Cameron, the intelligence about 70,000 came from the “highest level” which, the Guardian explained, is Britain’s joint intelligence committee that coordinates information from all the relevant agencies. It was infamously responsible for the bogus claim in the run-up to the Iraq war that Saddam Hussein could hit a British base with missiles within 45 minutes. The reality is that even if there are 70,000 anti-Assad forces, their first priority is to depose Assad and protect themselves from Russian and Syrian bombs. There’s no evidence to suggest that they are willing to switch priorities and join a coalition with Britain, America, Russia and Assad to fight Daesh, especially as Putin and Assad have killed far more anti-Assad “Sunni moderate forces” than actual militants by failing to differentiate between the two groups.

Western military intervention in the region is sold to the public regularly as the best of all the bad options, in spite of it being the cause of many of the Middle East’s problems in the first place. Britain and America have not “overlearned” the lessons of Iraq as both countries are still militarily involved and continue to justify military intervention on the basis of questionable intelligence while misleading their citizens. There are no easy solution to the crisis in Syria, but seeking one by making the same mistakes as were made in Iraq can only lead to things getting much, much worse.

The views expressed in this article belong to the author and do not necessarily reflect the editorial policy of Middle East Monitor.

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