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Britain’s Syrian dilemma – to strike or not to strike?

November 27, 2015


If I was a member of the British Parliament I would reluctantly vote for military action against ISIS in Syria.

I chose my words carefully. We should not be confined to air strikes. If our contribution is to be meaningful, we need to keep our options open for other forms of military action, such as the use of ground troops. I’m not suggesting that the British Army is capable of driving ISIS out of Syria and Iraq on its own, or that we should send thousands of soldiers on to the battlefield. Only that ISIS rules out no options in its holy war, and neither should we, excepting only the use of weapons of mass destruction.

To require parliamentary approval for each minute step in the war against ISIS is a nonsense. Large scale action on the ground should of course only be launched with the consent of Parliament. And right now, such a venture would be unlikely to gain approval under any circumstances.

But our military should be free to react to changing circumstances by using different kinds of force, be that naval action, the use of special forces or whatever else is deemed necessary. It shouldn’t be beyond the wit of our generals, civil servants and politicians to devise a formula that stops short of a full ground war, yet gives our armed forces the power to vary their tactics according to the needs of the moment.

In Parliament yesterday, David Cameron set out the argument for air strikes in Syria. His main points were:

  1. Air strikes would help the chances of the international coalition
  2. Strikes would contribute to a transition plan for Syria
  3. The action would be legal
  4. Numerous countries in the region support air strikes
  5. There are 70,000 fighters ready to attack ISIS on the ground
  6. The military objective of the strikes is to stop the threat to the UK and to the existence of Iraq
  7. We would make a difference because our precision-guided missiles are more precise than anyone else’s

So do his arguments stand up?

It depends how we define the national interest. Certainly it’s in Britain’s best interests that the mix of diplomatic, military and political initiatives results in a peaceful Syria and the destruction of ISIS. And yes, the two do go hand in hand, because without the settlement there is always the danger that Son of ISIS will emerge and will continue to inspire terror attacks in the homelands of the coalition members, including our own.

Where the argument breaks down, however, is in the assumption that the diverse groups operating in Syria can be welded into a coherent whole that is not only capable of operating within an effective military command structure, but also are prepared to support whatever political settlements are put in place.

This is by no means guaranteed. We in Britain have the assurance of our Joint Intelligence Committee that there are 70,000 members of the Free Syrian Army ready to roll over ISIS with the help of coalition air support. But two questions arise. Does the FSA actually exist in any shape or form other than as an alliance of independent groups, many of which have less than “moderate” agendas? And second, would 70,000 be enough? To hold the ground maybe, but certainly not to roll ISIS back, if some military experts are to be believed.

Then there’s the argument that regional powers, including Turkey, Egypt, Saudi Arabia and Jordan support the strikes. All well and good, but each Arab state has its own agenda. Jordan is directly threatened by ISIS, and also houses hundreds of thousands of Syrian refugees. Saudi Arabia sees Iran as the primary bogeyman, and it’s hands are full in Yemen. Egypt is consumed by its internal political unrest, not to mention the ISIS-affiliated insurgency in Sinai.

Support is one thing, but direct action is another. Since ISIS’s burning of the Jordanian pilot, the coalition’s allies in the region seem highly squeamish about getting their hands dirty – Turkey being the obvious exception. Looking further down the line, if we assume that foreign boots on the ground would be needed to supplement the fabled 70,000, how likely is it that those boots would come from Egypt, Saudi Arabia and Jordan?

As for the assurance that the UK’s intervention is legal, apparently the advice Mr Cameron has received is based on Article 51 of the UN Charter. Now the legal eagles are far smarter than the rest of us, so surely we can trust the advice they have given to the Prime Minister, can’t we?

Well one would think so. But hang on. Let’s look at the actual source of the argument, Article 51:

“Nothing in the present Charter shall impair the inherent right of individual or collective self-defence if an armed attack occurs against a Member of the United Nations, until the Security Council has taken measures necessary to maintain international peace and security. Measures taken by Members in the exercise of this right of self-defence shall be immediately reported to the Security Council and shall not in any way affect the authority and responsibility of the Security Council under the present Charter to take at any time such action as it deems necessary in order to maintain or restore international peace and security.”

So has ISIS carried out an armed attack on the UK? Does the beheading of two UK citizens constitute such an attack? Does a thwarted conspiracy to attack qualify as an actual attack? Are such conspiracies the result of direct orders from the Islamic State? Does rhetoric encouraging sympathisers to attack us qualify as an actual attack? Er, not sure really.

Another problem with Article 51 is that it was written in an era when states attacked other states. It’s certainly not designed to provide cover for asymmetric warfare, where the aggression is as likely to be home-grown as originating from abroad. It also doesn’t allow for cyber-attacks, which may not be “armed attacks” as defined in the Charter, but can be just as deadly. Clear as mud then.

As for the big picture, Peter Oborne, the respected former columnist comes up with a provocative article in Middle East Eye, entitled Cameron doesn’t know what he’s doing so he shouldn’t go to war.

One of Oborne’s arguments seems to be that Tony Blair successfully made the case for war in 2003, and he was wrong. Cameron is not good at foreign affairs, but has made an equally strong case this time. Ergo, Cameron’s wrong too. The Joint Intelligence Committee provided lousy data to Blair about Saddam’s weapons of mass destruction. Ergo, the estimates of the 70,000 in Syria champing at the bit must be wrong also. Not necessarily on both counts. Does he think that nobody in government is incapable of learning from the mistakes of the past?

He also questions the benefit of launching a couple of Tornadoes at a time into skies over Syria that are already crowded with the bombers of several nations queuing up to drop their munitions on ISIS. Fair point. Even if our munitions are superior, we do have the option sharing the technology with our allies without launching them ourselves.

And finally he says:

“There is one other point that most observers have overlooked. What about civilian casualties? The British prime minister claims that British bombing technology is more accurate than the Americans.

The United States claims that only half a dozen civilians have died since it launched its campaign of airstrikes against IS across Syria and Iraq 15 months ago. Airwars, which compile lists of civilian deaths, asserts that the true figure is at least 680 and possibly as high as 975.

There would be a dark irony if Britain (and France) killed innocent people in our quest to hurt IS. Cameron’s strategy, as set out today, is to bomb and hope for the best. We should not go ahead until we have a better idea of what we are doing.”

Frankly, I should have thought that his last point was stating the obvious. Of course there are casualties. Where there are bombs there will always be casualties. Over 300,000 have died already in Syria, but for once the vast majority have not perished by Western hands. We should be aware, though, that by joining the swarm of bombers, the UK, no matter that its Brimstone missiles can take out one person leaving the guy next to him unscathed, it will share the responsibility for the deeds of the whole coalition, not just those of the two Tornado pilots.

But have any of the coalition members yet come up with a better idea than to bomb and hope for the best? Not from where I’m sitting. So is it fair to accuse Cameron of not knowing what he’s doing? Sure. But no more and no less than any of the others.

The one observation of Oborne’s I do buy into is this: the main reason for joining the bombing campaign is that it would be a gesture of solidarity.

We can do little to affect the military outcome, but the least we can do is to avoid losing friends among those who are putting the lives of their soldiers and airmen on the line. Because who knows, we might need their help in the future.

That’s an argument anyway. It didn’t help us with our little adventure in Suez, but our American friends were pretty helpful during the Falklands War. But that was then and this is now. I doubt if Barack Obama would lift a finger to support us if it wasn’t in America’s interest to do so. In one sense we have a more special relationship with our old adversaries, the French, because we’re able to cover for each other’s deficiencies. With the French it’s not so much a coalition of the willing, more an entente of the cash-strapped.

I accept that most of the arguments for not getting involved have some validity. Syria is a rat’s nest. The interests of the leading actors are almost impossible to reconcile. The military outcome is uncertain. The legality of the strikes is a grey area.

But we are already involved. ISIS respects no boundaries between Iraq and Syria, and nor should we. No military action can ever guarantee the desired results. And there are no modern precedents for a struggle against a ruthless non-state entity like ISIS, therefore resolving this conflict is entirely new territory.

So for all the emotional reasons – that we are morally bound to try and put an end to the suffering in Syria and Iraq, and that it’s a matter of national self-interest that we show solidarity with our allies – I would vote yes to the strikes.

But let’s not kid ourselves. This is a game of trial and error. It’s dangerous. People will die, including, perhaps, our own, and perhaps in horrible ways.

We may not fully know what we’re doing, but neither do the Americans, the Russians, the French and the Turks. Is that a reason for us to do nothing? As long as we act with good intentions and with the best information to hand, I don’t think so.

From → Middle East, Politics, UK, USA

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