Following the Prime Minister’s announcement that two British citizens were recently killed by the RAF in Syria, many have raised important questions about what is a national security issue of the utmost importance. However, some have also asked whether political considerations also underpinned the Cameron’s statement. Was Monday’s news as much about ‘softening up’ the public to British air strikes in Syria as it was about anything else? Professor Michael Clark of RUSI, for instance, has asked whether we are seeing a ‘Downing Street high risk strategy’ to ‘create a momentum to action [in Syria] that might be unstoppable’.
Some Tory MPs have already started linking Parliament’s 2013 decision not to sanction air strikes in Syria and the current refugee crisis, blaming the decision for the recent heart-breaking images that have moved us all. “Those pictures [of] Aylan Kurdhi, drowning on the beaches of Turkey, I think those are the consequences of inaction. We need to get serious about sorting out Syria”, claimed ultra-loyalist Nadhim Zahawi MP on Tuesday.
Ministers make no secret of the fact that they want to revisit this vote, which has also been suggested will become one of a series of ‘tests’ that the newly elected Labour leader will be set by the Government.
Serious foreign policy and security decisions should never be used to score party political points at home.
No concrete plan for air strikes in Syria has yet been put on the table by Government, and it is of course right that those proposals are fully considered if and when they are raised. However, it is equally important that any serious proposal deals exclusively with the facts, underpinned by the military advice received by ministers, which should be published. Any debate around intervention in Syria must be based on a wholesale understanding of the central strategic questions.
It is right to ask why the UK distinguishes between Iraq and Syria when it is clear that Isil do not, an argument that I sympathise with. However, the idea that UK intervention in Syria will provide a silver bullet warrants scrutiny. Most importantly, it must be explained how bombing targets Isil targets in Syria will actually contribute to their defeat.
The nature of the enemy, which does not congregate in large formations and is deeply embedded within civilian populations, means it is extremely challenging to find targets. In Iraq, the RAF has inflicted just four per cent of the total damage on Isil, whilst in Syria the Canadian Air Force averaged just one attack each month following parliamentary approval.
Additionally, even if coalition intelligence was able to locate a sufficient number of targets, there are questions about the RAF’s ability to upscale its operations in the region. UK Service Personnel have undertaken their role in Iraq with professionalism and courage. However, the number of fast jets at our disposal is few, and the replacement Typhoon aircraft will still be waiting to be fitted with the Brimstone missile system even after the retirement of the No II Tornado Squadron. The forthcoming Strategic Defence and Security Review must answer these operational questions, but we should be realistic about what the RAF can achieve in the Levant.
Even then, regardless of the number of successful air strikes the only conceivable way to defeat Isil is through ground operations, something which the west has correctly refused to countenance. Bombing raids may peg back their advances, but will be unable to destroy them.
Even if we were able to defeat Isil, who would replace them? Other jihadist groups—like the al-Nusra front—have not gone away and would no doubt step into any vacuum created by any Isil collapse. In Iraq, whilst it is right to stem the jihadi advance, with former Ba’athists still running huge chunks of the north and with an Iraqi army in disarray, any sustainable solution can only come through a political settlement that binds together Shia, Sunni and Kurd alike.
There is no quick fix for such a complex set of problems. Sectarian rifts and geopolitical forces that have been developing over generations are not resolved by—if we were to match the Canadian contribution—one successful sortie a month.
Instead, it requires a joined-up diplomatic, humanitarian and—where appropriate—military response underpinned by real leadership on the global stage. Without this, any proposal for UK military action in Syria not only run the risk of being seen as tokenistic, but may also make an already desperate situation even worse.
The situation in the Middle East has produced three great crises: firstly, we have a security crisis whereby jihadists control sizeable portions of a strategically sensitive region; secondly, we have a humanitarian crisis in which the people of Syria are caught between the brutality of Isil and Assad; and as a result, thirdly we have the greatest refugee crisis since 1945, which necessitates a response far more significant than that offered by the Prime Minister so far.
These three crises are of course interlinked and stem directly from one another, but that does not mean they should be conflated. A broad political solution which involves Russia and Iran (as unpalatable as that may be), alongside Turkey and other key regional players must be at the centre of this strategy.
Air strikes in Syria without a proper strategy underpinning them is no panacea.