As civil war rages on the ground and air in Syria, so too does it rage back home in the UK media. The debate about whether or not to join the US and France with their air strikes on Syria has morphed into a debate about whether it will be Jeremy Corbyn’s fault if we do go to war.
Once you’ve picked through the dry bones of that logic, let’s turn our attention to the real issue at stake – the sense of bombing Syria. Much has been written about the pros and cons, but there’s one con in particular that seems to be slipping by relatively unnoticed. The small con of Assad and his supporters.
I’ve just finished reading Cameron’s 36-page plan for military action. It sets out his reasons behind joining the ongoing air strikes against ISIS/ISIL targets in Syria.
There are few surprises. The danger ISIL poses to Britain and other countries around the world is clearly laid out as it has been by the media, but it doesn’t elucidate how airstrikes will diminish this threat, other than by decreasing numbers and cutting off supply routes.
Word is that ISIL has now moved their headquarters from Raqqa to Sirte in Libya, just 400 miles from Italy. If nothing else, this shows that the past year’s airstrikes have shown to be ineffective in combatting terrorist activity, attacks which are more often than not perpetrated by the countries’ own citizens, working as lone actors.
Cameron admits that the strikes in Iraq have been moderately effective – gaining 30% of Iraqi land once in possession of ISIL. He doesn’t state to what extent ISIL themselves have been subdued or diminished. It is not, presumably, the occupation of land that’s the aim. And if the number of ISIL terrorist attacks are anything to go by, it’s a strategy that is yet to reap the rewards.
The point made by Cameron is that it makes no sense to take action in Iraq if we cannot take action in neighbouring Syria where ISIL are headquartered. There’s merit in his thinking, but one starts to quickly picture an extremely devastating and unending game of ‘whack-a-mole’.
Leaving those arguments aside for one moment, it’s what is potentially around the corner that is of very grave concern for the people of Britain. Cameron makes it very clear that the intention is to use airstrikes to give those who oppose President al-Assad’s regime some breathing space to continue in their efforts to depose him. He states this several times. On page 8:
“Military action against ISIL will also relieve the pressure on the moderate opposition, whose survival is crucial for a successful transition to a more inclusive Syrian government.”
Assad is, make no mistake, a brutal despot who has slaughtered countless numbers of his own people in the bloody civil war, as Cameron rightly points out. He is also accused of supporting ISIL. If we want to be rid of him, and to many, that is a laudable aim, then Cameron must also make this very clearly known when he puts his case to MPs and the British people on Wednesday.
His document sets out not only a vague vision of how ISIL can be tackled, but an equally unformed plan of how Assad will be toppled. The issues of ISIL and Assad have not been be separated, and nor should they be treated as separate.
It was little over two years ago, that Cameron first went to the British public to ask for permission to support the US in doing just that. He was defeated in the House of Commons. Just one month later and President Obama put the air strikes on hold, agreeing to a Russian-led plan for Syria’s chemical-weapon stockpiles to be removed from the country.
It is broadly acknowledged that air strikes, no matter how sophisticated the technology, can only take you so far. But there is little appetite among the British public for using our own ground forces. Cameron doesn’t acknowledge this in his plan, but presents the next best option – using the force of opposition groups against Assad.
Arguably, allowing ill-equipped and disparate groups to do our work for us is both strategically and morally questionable. Added to that, Cameron’s estimation of how many ‘moderates’ can be used to fight ISIL and Assad at the same time is sketchy at best.
Here’s another reason why ground forces are problematic, according to a paper published by RUSI in October 2015:
“We would very likely to be drawn into a proxy war with Russia. Certainly, the dangers of getting drawn into a proxy war between Russian-backed forces of Assad – supported in other ways by Iran – and Western-backed opposition forces with ambiguous Turkish support have loomed larger over recent weeks. All these factors make it less likely that Western ground forces will be committed in this war; however, they also undermine the political status quo that the current, more limited level of operations is designed to support.”
Assad is backed, militarily and politically, by Russia and Iran. The author, Elizabeth Quintana, continues:
“Russia’s recent deployment of ground forces, aircraft and air-defence systems to Syria can be understood as an attempt to protect its own interests there, especially as the US increasingly attacks ISIS on its western flank – near Russia’s only permanent naval base in the Mediterranean at Tartus. The presence of these air-defence systems seemingly has little to do with ISIS, which has no air power to speak of, and so one might surmise that they are instead a deterrent to the US and its fellow coalition members should they entertain the idea of regime change in Syria.”
The Coalition is very much entertaining the idea of a regime change, that much is clear from Cameron’s document. If this doesn’t wave a red flag, I don’t know what will.
Given the failures and lessons of Iraq, and the lack of proven success with current air strikes campaigns against ISIL in Iraq, would it not be wise at this juncture to keep our name off the bombs that will inevitably lead to the brutal deaths of countless more Syrian civilians and perhaps even the destruction of unintended targets?
Would it not be prudent to continue working to cut off ISIL’s financial supplies, keep the fragile talks going with Coalition partners and others, including Russia and Iran, increase the humanitarian response, and step up efforts to bring down ISIL’s communications – all parts of the strategy Cameron has set out and that are ongoing?
If we are to back Cameron’s plan and go to war tomorrow, we must do it with our eyes wide open, in the full knowledge that this is not going to be a quick and easy campaign. It is not, as some might fantasise, a straightforward mission to wipe one terrorist group off the map with our sophisticated Tornado GR4s and MQ-9 Reapers.
Make no mistake. The Coalition’s strategy will lead to a long, hard campaign that could take us across very difficult and dangerous terrain, possibly into the path of Russia and Iran. Senior US military personnel estimate the strategy for the country could extend to up to 20 years. Does Cameron share those views? If so, he must come clean.
If we chose to support war, we must demand to know what we’re signing up for. Only then can we debate this with sense and reason. If, after that, we want to sign up to Cameron’s plan, then we must prepare ourselves for the inevitable consequences.
Further to the article:
In an interview aired today on Czech Television (Tuesday 1 December) President Assad reiterated that Russia’s entry into the war in Syria had altered the balance on the ground. He stated: “The Russian support or participation is going to be stronger. It is stronger anyway. There is no way back in that regard.”
His comments were directed to Turkey’s President Erdogan but served as a general reminder that Assad’s supporters are there to stay.