‘Don’t bomb Syria’ proclaim the banners of protesters against the UK government’s plans to join the international coalition taking military action in that country. But those very words show either how confused the opposition is or, more probably, how much they want to confuse the issue. They should read ‘Don’t bomb Islamic State’ (or Isil/Da’esh/Isis). That would clarify the issue – but it doesn’t make it much easier to decide whether bombing is the right thing to do.
No-one, surely, can disagree that IS is the deadliest terrorist enemy this country, and much of the world, has faced, or that its monstrosities fully merit its description as a death cult. It also seems indisputable that there is no political or diplomatic solution that would persuade it to give up terrorism. It has declared war on much of the non-Muslim and Muslim world, so waging war to kill its leaders and adherents seems fully justified, not just by the various United Nations resolutions on the issue but on the basic doctrine of self-defence.
And yet, I still harbour doubts. They fall into three main questions. First, will bombing destroy IS? Second, will IS’s destruction lead to a peaceful Syria that is no longer a terrorist base? And third, can we be assured that military action will not spark other conflicts, of which a conflagration pitting Sunni and Shiite Muslims against each other is the greatest risk?
The UK, along with other coalition countries, clearly possesses the military hardware to deal crippling blows to IS in Syria. Much has been made of the RAF’s Brimstone missile, said to be the world’s most accurate and able to hit small targets such as moving cars and motorbikes while least likely to kill innocent bystanders.
RAF Tornado crews are experienced in its use in Iraq and therefore highly likely to be effective – certainly more so than Russian bombers which, alarmingly, have been pictured dropping racks of bombs in a manner horribly reminiscent of indiscriminate Second World War bombing.
But knowing that the RAF can bring greater precision and an additional edge to current attacks on IS doesn’t lead to a conclusion that this will defeat IS. Its people have built miles of tunnels enabling its killers both to hide from bombs and to move about apparently ruined and deserted towns and cities.
Clearly, ground troops are needed. The UK government estimates that among the moderate Syrian groups opposed to president Bashar al-Assad there are about 70,000 troops. They include Free Syrian Army soldiers who have proven they are capable of repulsing and pushing back IS forces in the Aleppo region. But there is an awful lesson from the Iraq War – specifically Fallujah – which suggests that international air power and local soldiery may not be enough. In this city of (originally) about 300,000 people, US forces fought in April 2003 to defeat Saddam Hussein’s forces, in April 2004 to defeat Iraqi insurgents, and again in November 2004 with Iraqi troops to deal with an al-Qaeda insurgency.
Three big battles using air and ground force power inside 18 months. Was that the end? No, because by January last year, Fallujah was said to be at least an IS hotbed, perhaps even under the group’s control.
Some lessons have been learned – mainly that occupations and actions by western troops can be temporarily militarily successful but their continued presence is a provocation liable to cause further insurgencies. Hence David Cameron’s insistence on Syrian ground forces only. The hope, and it can only be that, is that IS’s behaviour towards all local moderate Muslims has so appalled them that there would be no support for them to return. It can only be a hope, for IS has surely also learned lessons from Fallujah.
My second question is even more problematic. Mr Cameron says that Iraq has taught that de-Baathification, ie destruction of all Saddam Hussein’s government power structures and sacking all the people involved including dismantling the Iraqi army, was a mistake.
But that’s not just because some of Saddam’s people founded IS. It is also because local power structures must continue to maintain civil society. This means that Mr Assad and his supporters have to retain some power, if only in the areas of Syria remaining loyal to him. Removing him and his supporters would simply create a vacuum which would most likely be filled by inter-tribal/ethnic/religious strife.
This, however, is not what the 70,000 Syrian soldiery assaulting IS want. If they do manage to defeat IS, will they be content with that? Can they be persuaded to accept whatever political plan for a federalised Syria, in which Mr Assad’s writ runs not much further than Damascus, is being worked on by the coalition partners?
Do we also trust president Vladimir Putin of Russia to stick with such a plan, or president Recep Tayyip Erdogan of Turkey to support autonomy for the Kurdish regions of Syria? Again, it seems dubious.
Conflict that might be caused by these external intrusions into the domestic arrangements of a post-IS Syria pale in comparison to the potential rupturing of the underlying Sunni v Shia fault line running through Syria all the way back to the rumbling power rivalry of Saudi Arabia and Iran.
Shiite Iran is as strongly pro-Assad as Sunni Saudi Arabia is anti-Assad. While Iran is as self-interested as Britain is in wanting to eradicate Sunni-based IS, it may also see Syria as a potential battleground for diminishing Saudi Arabian power and consolidating a growing Russia-Iran-Iraq alliance and power nexus. Can we be sure an intensified battle against IS won’t ignite a volcanic Sunni-Shiite conflict?
There are no clear answers to any of these three questions. But Britain sitting pat with our current half-in, half-out status, doesn’t seem an option either. We are already severely threatened by IS, which we are bombing in Iraq, and extending the action to Syria is unlikely to make that threat any graver.
Bombing could, however, by beheading IS and showing its apocalyptic ideology to be the far-fetched nonsense it is, reduce that threat. For that reason only, I think that Britain joining in the bombing is the best of a very bad choice. But Mr Cameron needs to have fully thought-out strategies for dealing with all the ways this could go wrong.