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On Thursday 3 July, the Defence Secretary Michael Fallon addressed a half-empty House of Commons on the subject of the UK’s response to the Daesh-linked Tunisia attacks of 26 June. He had earlier complained about the ‘illogicality’ of the UK bombing Daesh in Iraq but not Syria, a constraint resulting from the government’s defeat in a vote in August 2013. He hinted, though guardedly, that he might ask this Parliament to sanction what its predecessor would not: allowing British aircraft to join their coalition allies, the United States and Arab nations, across the border.
Daesh, though linked only tenuously to the Tunisia massacre thus far, has indeed gained territory in Syria since the aerial campaign began. It has exploited its territorial depth to move men and equipment seamlessly between the two countries, and in May captured the last remaining crossing point. However, Fallon’s impulse to expand the war should be tempered with a sense of strategy. Britain risks diluting its forces, thereby weakening itself in Iraq while adding little to what remains a modest coalition campaign in Syria.
The first question is what Britain would bring to the Syrian air war that its allies presently lack. According to data compiled by airwars.org, Britain is the second most active military power in the coalition, having conducted nearly twice as many airstrikes as France. Equally important has been its role in gathering intelligence for targeting. These efforts have freed up American aircraft for Syria. British special forces are certainly active in northern and western Iraq, collecting intelligence to make strikes more accurate and effective over time.
Unless the UK is willing to deploy many more forces into the region, diverting scarce British assets to Syria could needlessly dilute its presence in Iraq. Britain could double the number of deployed Tornado aircraft from 8 to 16, but this would severely strain the RAF. Moreover, the difficulty in Iraq has been finding targets rather than the aircraft to bomb them. A diversion of surveillance platforms could make this even harder.
What are the UK’s Aims in Syria?
Assuming that the UK would augment rather than dilute its forces, what would be the aim of expanding the mission to include Syria? At present, the coalition’s efforts there amount to a largely ad hoc and reactive defence of Kurdish territory in the north and pinpricks elsewhere. When Daesh advanced into the ancient city of Palmyra in May, American and Arab aircraft stayed away. A serious offensive against Daesh’s headquarters in Raqqa is a long way off. Fallon may have one of three aims in mind: (1) punitive or retaliatory strikes to impose a cost on Daesh closer to their core territory; (2) reinforcement the US-led containment of Daesh in Syria; (3) roll back Daesh gains by escalating airstrikes.
The first would have limited deterrent impact, given the nature of regional terrorist attacks, and very little impact on Daesh’s control of territory, though is understandable in political terms. The second raises the questions addressed above. The third requires elaboration as to who in Syria would exploit additional airstrikes.
Wanted: Syrian Ground Forces
The United States has adopted an ‘Iraq-first’ strategy. Ever since the war began, there have been more strikes in Iraq than in Syria every month apart from October last year and this January. In June, the ratio was around 1:2, and it was even more lopsided in May. Why? One reason is that airstrikes, particularly in built-up areas, are of limited use without competent ground forces to follow up. In Iraq, the Iraqi Security Forces (ISF), tribal militias, and Kurdish peshmerga were supposed to have played this role. In practice, only the Kurds have been up to the task, along with some Shia militias supported by Iran. After the Iraqi city of Ramadi fell to Isil in May, US Defence Secretary Ashton Carter made the remarkable – though slightly unfair – claim that Iraqi forces ‘showed no will to fight’. US strategy is now in trouble: a centrepiece assault on Mosul, the city that fell to Daesh’s blitzkrieg last summer, has been postponed.
The challenge in Syria is even harder. While Syrian Kurds have proven militarily effective and able to coordinate with the US, their advances in the north have two limits: first, Turkish opposition and, second, resistance from Arab and minority communities to the south. While cooperation between Kurdish militias and non-Kurdish mainstream (i.e. non-jihadist) Syrian rebels has been spurred by the rise of Daesh, this has its limits. Meanwhile, the Pentagon’s $500 million programme to train Syrian rebels is in disarray. Fewer than 100 rebels are currently enrolled, making a mockery of 3,000-5,000 per year target. The CIA’s parallel covert programme is unlikely to be much more successful in producing moderate rebel manpower.
The defence secretary faces a simple choice. If he wishes merely to reinforce US-led strikes in Syria, this could satisfy the political impulse to ‘do something’ in response to a national tragedy, albeit at the potential risk of weakening British efforts in Iraq itself. However, Syria does not want for bombs. What it lacks are suitable ground forces who could drive out and destroy Daesh under the coalition’s military umbrella. A more aggressive approach is possible. It would require American leadership, abandonment of the Iraq-first policy, sweeping changes in the programme to train and equip Syrian rebels, and more direct air support in their battles. It would, eventually but inevitably, bring rebels into greater contact with the Assad regime. Such an approach seems unlikely, of course, to survive the required Parliamentary test at home.