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Why Britain hasnt Followed the US into Syria

It seems like a generation ago now, but it was only in late August 2013 that Britain’s House of Commons narrowly rejected launching airstrikes on Bashar al-Assad’s Syria in response to his military’s use of chemical weapons. While the U.S. and France noted their resolve to continue to push for military action in the wake of the vote, it is undeniable that this event had a significant impact in halting the rush to war. With accusations of a war-weary Parliament and fear for what the UK’s refusal to intervene would do to the Anglo-American “Special Relationship,” the vote has been the most high-profile and public foreign policy blow of David Cameron’s premiership.

There is no straightforward reason behind why MPs rejected the measure. Certainly, a degree of war-weariness was palpable in the context of Iraq and the imminent (and rather ignominious) withdrawal from Afghanistan. Parallels to Iraq were all too clear when the Government was attempting to press for action before a group of UN weapons inspectors reported their findings on the chemical attack; the idea that the British Military would become involved in another Middle East quagmire with no clear exit strategy was a bit too much for many MPs to stomach. In addition, the Syrian rebel groups Western powers supported were a large question mark; it was uncertain as to what they were about and, if supplied with weapons, would they go on to lose them to extremist groups, such as the al-Nusra Front? There was simply too much uncertainty surrounding an intervention – its legality, its exit strategy and its “allies” in Syria.

The Commons defeat two years ago has haunted Cameron’s foreign policy, with there being a distinct unwillingness for his Government’s to stick its neck out unless Parliamentary support is guaranteed. But the situation in Syria has changed dramatically over the past two years, as the self-styled Islamic State has overrun much of Syria and neighbouring Iraq, and inspired and aided in terrorist attacks around the Middle East and wider world.

While in 2013 the justification to intervene was primarily the responsibility to protect Syrian citizens from a dictator – and topple the regime in the process – in 2015 the justification also involves restoring stability to the Middle East and ensuring the wider world’s security from terrorist attacks. Despite this, Cameron’s Government has been constrained by the Commons defeat to only strike ISIS in Iraq (unless RAF pilots are embedded in allied air forces striking Syria). But, in a veritable Gulf of Tonkin moment – the killing of dozens British holidaymakers in Tunisia by a man with connections to ISIS – Cameron has been handed an opportunity to expand the RAF’s mandate to strike ISIS in Syria. It only took a few days before feelers to that effect were put out by the Defence Secretary, Michael Fallon. With the opposition Labour Party in the middle of a leadership election, a repeat Commons vote is likely to be on hold until at least mid-September when a new leader is officially elected. Despite this uncertainty, it is expected that Labour will support the Government (unless the Party lurches to the left and elects Jeremy Corbyn – a prominent member of the Stop the War Coalition – as leader).

Despite the lack of a comprehensive solution to Syria’s problems, bombing when in doubt and having nothing else to do is not a viable solution. It may be enough to win the war, but it definitely will not be enough to win the lasting peace.

From what has been said, it would appear fairly reasonable to pass such a motion and bomb Syria – ISIS pose a more substantial threat to the region and national security than Assad did and Britain’s allies are already doing so. The only reason the RAF is not over Syria already is the legacy of the 2013 vote, before ISIS was even on the scene. But this is working under the assumption that bombing an entity into submission will bring about peace. To take a step back, bombing ISIS in Syria would appear to make no strategic sense; it will not resolve the conflict satisfactorily or the overt justification for the proposed intervention.

The Strategic Deficit

The doubts surrounding bombing Syria in 2013 are actually more acute today (on the whole). The issues surrounding the legality of bombing Syria have now largely been resolved. Coalition aircraft only strike ISIS forces and while Assad may preach Syria’s sovereignty, he is in desperate need of any sort of aid when fighting ISIS, the al-Nusra Front, moderate rebel groups and the Kurds. Despite this, the moderate Syrian opposition is in a much weaker position today than it was in 2013, primarily due to the advance of ISIS. The increasingly assertive Saudis are even said to be more willing to back the al-Nusra Front and other extremists instead of the moderate rebels to ensure the pro-Iranian and Shiite Assad does not regain control of Syria. While Turkey’s commitment to aid the rebels may yield some results, this is yet to be seen. If they were to succeed in taking control of Syria, there are a plethora of groups over as many fault lines to contend for power. The only question is whether the international coalition leaves these various factions to fight for power immediately, as in Libya, or wait nearly a decade, as in Iraq.

In reality, a clear international consensus needs to be reached at the UN and be fully implemented for stability to return to Syria, Iraq and the wider Middle East. While it may sound defeatist, this will not be reached due to various competing geopolitical interests and the desire to avoid intervention becoming a norm. Despite the lack of a comprehensive solution to Syria’s problems, bombing when in doubt and having nothing else to do is not a viable solution. It may be enough to win the war, but it definitely will not be enough to win the lasting peace. At least there is an Iraqi government in place to establish control when ISIS is defeated in Iraq (so long as it resolves its sectarian issues). In contrast, the people of Syria would be starting from scratch with a highly uncertain amount of international assistance. If the self-interest of nations in the conflict so far is anything to go by, international support would be minimal.

The reason why ISIS is a legitimate threat to British national security is twofold. First, the territory it controls can be used as a safe haven for planning terrorist attacks; second, its existence and prominence inspires and cultivates home-grown terrorists. In addition to the doubts surrounding the bombing of ISIS in Syria, neither of these issues would be resolved in the process.

One of the reasons behind the British Government calling for airstrikes on Syria is because it is suspected that the Tunisia beach attack was planned and coordinated from ISIS-controlled areas of Syria. Even if this is the case, one look at the simplicity of the attack highlights how it could be planned and executed anywhere – there were no specialist explosives or weaponry, there was no intricate set of demands and there was little originality. A man went onto a tourist beach, opened fire with a Kalashnikov rifle and left. It was a striking example of hit-and-run urban terrorism which has become all too familiar in recent years with the 2008 Mumbai attacks and the Charlie Hebdo shootings earlier this year. Whereas security forces are used to facing a long (stationary) standoff with terrorists, the game has changed. Simply killing as many indiscriminate targets as possible is the end goal of these shootings, not securing demands through a complex hostage-taking.

More than just unleashing terrorists on the world, with ISIS having such a high profile in the media and many foreign Muslims coming to Iraq and Syria to fight for them (including hundreds of Brits), the group has the potential to inspire Muslims in distant lands to commit terrorist attacks. But, again, simply bombing ISIS in Syria does not resolve the issue. The root of the matter is that there are disaffected young Muslims in Western states who have not been effectively integrated into society. It is known that ISIS do not look to recruit foreign Muslims with strong religious backgrounds as they cannot be moulded easily; instead, recruiters go after young, disenfranchised and vaguely religious Muslims who see ISIS as an escape from a world they do not understand. Attacking ISIS for this reason would be attacking a symptom of successive British governments’ failure to integrate young Muslims into British society.

Why Intervene?

In Syria, the UK has no horse in the race. The opposition is too weak and, like the international community, divided. Intervention will not lead to a lasting peace in Syria and the region, protect Syrian civilians or resolve the threat ISIS pose to national security. The only reason for the UK to intervene in Syria is to sure up the “Special Relationship” and prove that Britain will not shy away from a fight, reversing the damage done from the 2013 vote.

For many, while they may not say so in public, this will be enough, and why not? Fewer than 5% of coalition airstrikes in Iraq are made by the RAF’s ageing Tornado fleet, so expanding the mission to Syria would only be a token gesture of solidarity with little impact. It could also open up British bases in Cyprus to be used by other coalition partners (but Turkey recently allowing the U.S. to use some of its bases has largely resolved the issue of U.S. planes having to fly from outrageous distances to strike ISIS in Syria). It would mean Britain could do its part in this aspect of the war against ISIS, even if it does not win the peace and Syria’s chaos simply morphs into a new shape.

Bearing all of this in mind, here is something to consider. About fifty years ago, Prime Minister Harold Wilson refused to let British troops get entangled in the jungles of Vietnam, much to President Johnson’s anger and dismay. While the “Special Relationship” took a hit, British interests ultimately were not in a far off war with no clear exit strategy. In hindsight, Wilson wisely ensured that Britain avoided the South-East Asian quagmire and Britain’s relationship with the U.S. certainly rebounded. Later this year, British law-makers are likely to decide whether or not to intervene in Syria. Although it is tempting to blindly follow an ally into war, let us hope that they think carefully of where Britain’s interests truly lie in this conflict.

[Photo: Flickr CC: UK Ministry of Defence]

[Two fully armed RAF Tornados from RAF Marham transit the Mediterranean Sea en route to Libya as part of the UKs Operation Ellamy to enforce the UN no-fly zone in March 2011.]

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