After months of uncertainty, David Cameron has offered his most detailed case yet for the UK to extend airstrikes from Iraq to Syria. He stands a good chance of exorcising the ghosts of August 2013. But how robust are his arguments?
This morning Prime Minister David Cameron wrote to the House of Commons Foreign Affairs Committee, in response to their earlier report, making the government’s most detailed case thus far for extending the UK’s military operations from Iraq to Syria. Cameron followed up by taking questions from the House of Commons in the afternoon, where he faced a variety of supportive and critical responses from across the political spectrum.
Domestic and international conditions have favoured Cameron’s push over the previous month. The 13 November Paris attacks claimed by Daesh have heightened the British public’s sense of threat (67 per cent now support an extension of British air strikes) and a UN Security Council Resolution on 20 November pointed to narrowing gaps between Russia and the West over the issue. The Labour Party’s serious internal divisions over Syria and its collective failure to articulate a substantive critique of the government have also benefited the prime minister.
Cameron’s letter to the committee is lengthy, rigorous, and measured. It is not a dodgy dossier and there is little sign of sexed-up intelligence, though some will question particular figures such as the estimate of 70,000 non-extremist Syrian rebels. Three areas of the prime minister’s letter are worth probing in more detail.
Territory and Threat
First is the focus on territory. Cameron argues that ‘it is from Raqqa that some of the main threats against this country are planned and orchestrated’, adding that Daesh ‘has a dedicated external operations structure in Syria, which is planning mass casualty attacks around the world’. This implies the UK has evidence of a higher degree of centralised plotting than would be evident from the most prominent Daesh-linked attacks seen thus far.
But if it is instead the case that Daesh’s regional fronts (wilayats or provinces) – from Tunisia to Pakistan – and its individual recruits in Europe operate more autonomously, then loosening its grip in Raqqa might have a quite limited effect on the threat to London. In practice, denying the group its territory may have a larger effect on its prestige and therefore long-term recruitment than on short-term plotting.
Political and Military Strategy: Transition and Ground Forces
Second, the fundamental relationship between military strategy, ground forces and political transition is not fully resolved. On the one hand, the letter acknowledges, clearly, that Assad is a fundamental part of the problem, and that ‘without transition, it will continue to be difficult to generate a Sunni force able to fight [Daesh] and hold ground in Eastern Syria’. This is an important and necessary retort to those in Europe who increasingly but fallaciously frame Syria as a dichotomous choice between Assad and Daesh. However, Cameron’s strategy is in tension with his own premise, and this tension becomes clear in the discussion of the ground forces that most acknowledge are necessary to exploit UK and wider coalition air strikes.
‘The Kurds and other [more] moderate armed groups have shown themselves capable of both taking territory … and holding and administering it’, says the letter, but the successes of the Syrian Kurds have come in largely Kurdish territory; they will struggle, politically and militarily, if they push much further south into Arab-majority areas. As for more moderate rebels, Cameron proposes a medium-term ceasefire with the regime, ‘which would create the conditions to allow both sides to focus their military efforts’, each side administering the ground they take. But Syrian rebels simply will not accept a ceasefire that allows the regime to expand its territory without any guarantee of Assad’s eventual departure. Cameron may be unable to give full details of covert British support for rebel groups, but the failures of the Pentagon-backed plan earlier this year suggests that even inducements of arms and money can be insufficient to reorient rebel priorities as drastically as the UK would wish.
Cameron’s strategy places most of its eggs in the diplomatic basket woven in Vienna on 30 October. The Vienna process was indeed important, bringing Saudi Arabia and Iran (amongst others) around the table for the first time. But the letter is perhaps overly optimistic. Russia is ‘beginning to … end its attacks on [more] moderate Syrian forces and instead coordinate its military efforts with the Coalition against [Daesh]’, writes Cameron. But Turkey’s downing of a Russian fighter jet on 25 November has already resulted in a tide of Russian strikes against Turkish-backed Turkmen rebels in areas far from Daesh territory. The fallout from that crisis may yet undo some of the good work done in recent weeks in nudging Russia towards focusing on Daesh. Meanwhile, Iranian diplomats at Vienna redoubled their support for Assad while thousands of Iranian troops support Russian-backed ground offensives. So what is the back-up plan if there is no transition and, as Cameron himself suggests, no Sunni force therefore coalesces?
Third, the letter emphasises the good work that British air strikes have done in Iraq, pointing to the liberation of Sinjar in early November. This is a fair assessment. It is easy to write off Iraq as a futile, sectarian mess. But although progress is slow and there have been setbacks in places like Ramadi, Iraqi Security Forces have shown signs of improvement.
The problem is that neither Cameron nor Defence Secretary Michael Fallon has explained whether or how British air strikes in Syria might dilute current efforts in Iraq. Will combat aircraft and spy planes be diverted from Iraqi operations, or will the British deployments in the region be supplemented? When David Cameron was asked about this in the House of Commons, he suggested the UK would seek to continue its effort in Iraq – but pointedly did not commit to maintaining the current levels of activity.
Syria presents an exceptionally difficult problem, combining one of the broadest proxy wars in recent history with an exceptionally sophisticated insurgent group. If Daesh can be dislodged from Raqqa, this could impact its international plotting and it would certainly damage the group’s prestige. But if the present Syrian regime filled the vacuum, the underlying conditions for Sunni-dominated insurgency in eastern Syria would remain. Yet more moderate opposition forces would face an unprecedented challenge in driving Daesh out of a large urban area like Raqqa, and governing it in the face of persistent challenges thereafter, even with years of on-going Western support from the air. This may well be a preferable outcome – in humanitarian and counter-terrorism terms – to leaving swathes of land in the hands of Daesh, but is it a sustainable approach?
The key that could unlock this dilemma – a political transition and a unified government and army – is portrayed as being closer today than a year or two ago, but it would be premature to place too much faith in the Vienna process at this early stage, welcome as that diplomacy is. Finally, there are also broader principles at stake. As the Conservative Party MP Tom Tugendhat has argued, British grand strategy has always depended on strong, reciprocal alliances: solidarity with France is a legitimate factor, though it must be weighed against the Syria-specific challenges outlined here. MPs reading Cameron’s confident case for war should keep these uncertainties in mind as they approach the most consequential parliamentary vote on foreign affairs in over two years.
Shashank Joshi is a Senior Research Fellow at RUSI.