A leading American commentator at a meeting in London joked not entirely without foundation that if British forces joined those bombing ISIS that would be significant reducing the American share from 93% of all strikes to about 92%. Harsh perhaps but given that 12 other countries have been bombing Syria over the last four years (including lest we forget Syria itself), one has to wonder whether a few Royal Air Force planes will be a game changer in the fight against ISIS.
Yes, for the fourth time since 2010, the British Parliament is faced with a possible vote on intervention in the Middle East. For many, this is far from an easy decision. The British government is keen to get Parliamentary approval for expanding its anti-ISIS bombing in Iraq to Syria joining the French who started on September 27.
The vote is far from guaranteed. David Cameron, the Prime Minister, arguably had his credibility damaged when he lost a vote on intervention in 2013 after the chemical weapons attacks in Syria had killed some 1400 Syrians. On that occasion he was defeated because of 30 rebels from his own Conservative party and a Labour party that refused to back him. Cameron has made it clear that he will not seek approval unless he is assured he will win. Two defeats would be unthinkable.
The new Labour leader Jeremy Corbyn is staunchly anti-war. He may or may not permit his Labour MPs a free vote. Labour party members voted only in September to support military action only if there was U.N. Security Council authorization, a position Even if not many are inclined to vote in favor. With this in mind, over 50 MPs have had briefings from the Defense Secretary on the military plans. Party whips estimate they need around 35 Labour MPs to vote in favor to offset the probably rebels on the Conservative side.
Many on the Labour side are torn. Broadly speaking they are hugely concerned at the situation in Syria and the expansion of ISIS. Doing nothing is not appealing but they also question just what exactly is the purpose of yet more bombing from on high. Others are nervous about backing another failed military action.
A huge Achilles heel
In sign of significant internal party debate, it appears the Labour leadership could contemplate supporting action without a U.N. Security Council Resolution. Given three Security Council members are significantly engaged in military action for very differing reasons, getting a resolution is currently a non-starter and therefore a hollow position to demand it.
The British debate is a perfect encapsulation of the paucity of the international debate on SyriaChris Doyle
The government has a huge Achilles heel. The proposed military action requires an all-embracing political strategy, a clear definition of success. There is none. Philip Hammond, the Foreign Secretary, felt all too comfortable at the U.N. in stating that Britain will bomb ISIS in Iraq “for as long as it takes.” It is not clear what “it” means nor would it be in Syria.
In private, ministers and officials know perfectly well that merely asking for an aerial intervention looks weak. Where are the ground forces that British planes would be supporting? There is the accusation that they will become merely another air arm of the Assad regime taking out ISIS as Russian forces take out other Syrian opposition forces in the West. Moreover, given ISIS has not buckled after over 7,000 airstrikes so far by the anti-ISIS coalition, it is clear the group has adapted effectively to bombardment.
Another significant grouping in Parliament wants action to end the barrel bombing of Syrian cities either by a No-Fly-Zone or a No-Bomb-Zone. The latter is brought about by prohibiting bombing in declared areas and enforced by deterrent bombing from the sea. Any violation of the zone would bring about shelling of runways. The advantage over the No-Fly-Zone proposal is that it does not require substantive bombing and inevitable destruction to knock out the Syrian anti-air defense system. The aim is to address the biggest killer in this pitiless Syrian conflict – the indiscriminate use of barrel bombs.
Yet skeptics argue, how this can be introduced without Russian consent or an American President willing to stare down his Russian counterpart?
The harsh reality is that nobody has a strategy in Britain or internationally to resolve the crisis in Syria upon which groups like ISIS actually depend. The level of debate frequently plummets to the depths of just opting for Assad or ISIS, analogous to the choice of siding with Stalin or Hitler. Putin’s argument of supporting the Syrian regime to be the foot soldiers against the extremist group has its supporters. But just as toppling Assad does not end the conflict, nor will crushing ISIS.
Still failing Syria
Only an overall new political deal for Syria can work. Only when the international, regional and local actors can unite behind such a deal is there any chance of pulling the country out of the hellhole it now occupies. One of the few advantages of Putin’s high risk gamble in Syria is that the Assad regime is directly dependent on Russian support allowing the Russian President to call the shots perhaps for the first time. But even Putin, who cannot afford a protracted intervention, will need an exit and a political deal is the only key to it. Wise political actors will help him to find it.
Arguably the biggest threat to both the regime and ISIS is an end of conflict. ISIS thrives on the conflict whilst the regime does not have to answer tough questions as long as the fighting continues. With no conflict, local support for ISIS will evaporate. Regime loyalist circles can do little with the leadership when under threat but ultimately they all know Assad and co have failed them and Syria.
The British debate is a perfect encapsulation of the paucity of the international debate on Syria. It is good versus evil, black and white approach, more concerned with posturing and positioning that grappling with the complexities at hand.
International actors are divided between those invested in the war and those who simply have no clue how to end it. Britain is for now in the latter camp. Joining the fight against ISIS in Syria may have the appearance of toughness but all the reality of acute weakness.
Whether Britain bombs ISIS or not, it will still be failing Syria. The bombs may all hit their targets but the aim will not be met.
Chris Doyle is the director of CAABU (the London-based Council for Arab-British Understanding). He has worked with the Council since 1993 after graduating with a first class honors degree in Arabic and Islamic Studies at Exeter University. As the lead spokesperson for Caabu and as an acknowledged expert on the region, Chris is a frequent commentator on TV and Radio, having given over 148 interviews on the Arab world in in 2012 alone. He gives numerous talks around the country on issues such as the Arab Spring, Libya, Syria, Palestine, Iraq, Islamophobia and the Arabs in Britain. He has had numerous articles and letters published in the British and international media. He has travelled to nearly every country in the Middle East. He has organized and accompanied numerous British Parliamentary delegations to Arab countries. Most recently he took Parliamentary delegations to the West Bank in April, November, December 2013 and January 2014 including with former British Foreign Secretary Jack Straw.