The UK House of Commons on Wednesday authorized the extension of air strikes on ISIS targets into Syria, with the MP vote count standing at 397 to 223. Six Typhoon and two Tornado jets of the Royal Air Force have already joined the U.S.-led coalition conducting military operations in Syria against the radical group. On Thursday morning, there were reports of British airstrikes in Eastern Syrian against oil installations controlled by ISIS.
This was the second time in the last two years that the House of Commons has considered British air strikes in Syria. In the first vote in the summer of 2013, it was the regime of Bashar al-Assad and not ISIS that was the potential target of the military intervention. Back then, when clear proof emerged that the Assad regime had been using chemical weapons multiple times against civilians, the Obama administration revealed it was considering taking military action to punish Assad for crossing the red line set by the U.S. president. Willing to back the U.S.-led airstrikes, the British government held a parliamentary motion on August 29 that David Cameron lost by 285 to 272.
The parallel between the current intervention against ISIS in Iraq and Syria and the Iraq intervention in 2003 is a poor and deceiving one.Manuel Almeida
The British Prime Minister may have felt he wasted some political capital on the matter when the Obama administration eventually abandoned the plan to conduct air strikes, following the Assad regime’s acceptance of a Russian proposition to place the Syrian regime’s chemical weapons under international control and to be dismantled.
But today, due to the growing threat of ISIS on a global scale and the worsening refugee crisis, the war in Syria and its effects feel far closer to Europe than they did two years ago. In particular, the brutal terrorist attacks in Paris last month resonated powerfully in Britain, where the security services have reportedly already foiled several attacks by ISIS.
Providing a key impulse for the British government’s decision was the French and U.S. governments’ call for British support for the ongoing military campaign against ISIS in Syria. Equally important is U.N. resolution 2249, passed last month, which classified ISIS as an “unprecedented threat” and called upon member states to take all the necessary measures to confront the radical group.
A divisive legacy
During the 10 hours’ Commons debate on Wednesday, pacifist and isolationist views were raised by some MPs in both the ruling Conservative Party and opposition, despite the attempts to mask those positions of principle with the difficult questions military intervention inevitably generates.
Among the key concerns expressed by MPs was how to avoid civilian casualties given the presence of ISIS forces among the civilian population in Raqqa and other places in Syria, and whether the airstrikes would be followed by the deployment of British troops on the ground.
Backing those and other concerns was the report of the Commons Foreign Affairs Select Committee, prepared earlier this month, which questioned the government’s ISIS-first strategy. “We consider that the focus on the extension of airstrikes against ISIL in Syria is a distraction from the much bigger and more important task of finding a resolution to the conflict in Syria and thereby removing one of the main facilitators of ISIL’s rise”, was one of the conclusions of the report.
But it was the legacy of British involvement in recent interventions in the region that overshadowed the debate, as one of the MPs noted. First among those remains the significant British participation in the disastrous U.S.-led intervention in Iraq which overthrew Saddam Hussein in 2003. The UK’s leading role during NATO’s intervention in Libya in 2011 against the forces of Muammar Qaddafi, which precipitated the current scenario of various factions and militias vying for power and resources, was also recalled.
The ruinous invasion of Iraq, instrumental in the rise of ISIS, provides some valuable lessons of key mistakes not be repeated in Syria. Pushing for a political transition in Syria while keeping state institutions intact, instead of opting for another de-Baathification process that ruined the already small chances of a managed transition in Iraq, is an obvious example.
What is the strategy?
Ultimately, the parallel between the current intervention against ISIS in Iraq and Syria and the Iraq intervention in 2003 is a poor and deceiving one. In contrast to the invasion of Iraq, the legal case for the intervention is clear and the fight this time is against a global threat. Plus, the humanitarian grounds for the intervention are strong and next door in Iraq the involvement of British forces is helping Iraqi forces to produce tangible if slow results in the fight against ISIS.
The truly difficult questions arise when it comes to the strategy of which the air strikes should be a small part. During the Commons debate, opposition leader Jeremy Corbyn raised numerous objections to the intervention, many of which were predictable and added little of substance to the debate. But Corbyn and other MPs were right when asking who is going to take up the fight against ISIS on the ground in Syria.
Doubts continue to loom over what Cameron has described as 70,000 Free Syrian Army moderate troops able to fight ISIS deep inside its own territory. Also the Kurds, another ISIS adversary on the ground in Syria, have given ISIS a hard time in the north but will not go deep into ISIS-held territory to eradicate the group.
Increasingly, the need for the deployment of some kind of ground forces or special forces in eastern Syria is becoming apparent.
On the political front, the Russian intervention in support of the Syrian regime has at least provided a window of opportunity for all parties involved to negotiate a settlement, which culminated in a concrete calendar for the transition agreed in Vienna earlier this month. Yet depending on the unpredictability of Vladimir Putin could well become the Achilles heel of the U.S.-led coalition’s strategy. At the moment, however, there is no better plan.
Manuel Almeida is a writer, researcher and consultant on the Middle East. He holds a PhD in International Relations from the London of Economics and Political Science and was an editor at Asharq Al-Awsat newspaper. He can be reached on @_ManuelAlmeida on Twitter.