7:48 am - November 27th 2015
Whether Britain acts against ISIL in Syria isn’t about provoking them or if they pose a threat, but whether our actions will be effective and justified. Whatever we decide, we will get attacked by ISIS; it’s their aim and in their interests. The bigger question is whether we should join our international allies against a terror group that has already declared war on us.
If we have to engage with ISIS sooner or later, then we have to evaluate whether this is the right time and we have the right plan. I said earlier that Cameron hadn’t properly made the case, and want to continue evaluating that.
The people who made up their mind ages ago – whether for or against – are the ones I tend to ignore. It’s clear they aren’t interested in the details and are driven more by ideological than operational reasons.
Yesterday, Cameron set out his case for air-strikes against ISIL (over 36 pages) and then Jeremy Corbyn responded with seven questions. Some of those questions are quite important and I find it odd that some in the shadow cabinet have already made up their mind without see Cameron’s response.
Labour’s Dan Jarvis MP also set out five tests for Cameron in an article earlier, but no one has yet published a checklist to see if Cameron passed them.
Cameron’s arguments for action
1) There is now an agreement at the UN Security Council for action against ISIL. The major world powers aren’t divided. This wasn’t the case in the past during Iraq for example.
2) As part of a coalition, we would help other countries in their actions against ISIL too. By staying out we shirk our moral responsibility (more relevant now Germany as joins in).
3) ISIL recognises no borders between Iraq and Syria, so we cannot attack it without being operational in both countries.
4) There is a diplomatic coalition in place – the International Syria Support Group (US, EU, Russia, Iran, Saudi Arabia, Turkey and other Arab states) – but there can be no solution until ISIS is degraded, so Assad can also be transitioned out of power and elections can be held.
5) We cannot degrade ISIL’s main fundraising activity – selling oil – without disrupting its operations in Syria. That requires bombing them.
6) If ISIL is the only major alternative to Assad (as he says), then countries like Iran and Russia would rather have him. To get rid of Assad, ISIL has to go first.
7) There are around 70,000 ‘moderate’ Syrian rebels who could fill the vacuum if we degrade ISIL’s capabilities. [This claim seems highly doubtful. The US military has lately backed off making claims about ‘moderate’ non-ISIL rebels].
Cameron’s case against ISIL in Syria, is essentially more a moral one than an operational one. Since Paris, he points out, it looks odd for us to stay out even though ISIL has already declared war on us.
Arguments against action
1) The biggest problem we have against ISIL is that Arab countries, which have more to lose, are happy to sit on the sidelines. The Saudis are focusing on Yemen and Turkey on the Kurds. Even Jordan has scaled down its bombing after the initial burst of anger when its pilot was executed. Without Turkey closing off its borders or Saudi Arabia seriously challenging ISIL ideologically (yeah right), this is going to remain a stalemate for a long time. Perhaps for longer than a decade. Without their help on the ground, ISIL cannot be seriously pushed back in Syria or Iraq.
For this reason, Iraq is already in a stalemate. As the Guardian’s Ewan MacAskill said yesterday: “Pilots [in Iraq] frequently return to base without having fired missiles or dropped bombs, partly they say because of fear of hitting civilians but mainly because after a year there is little left to hit. So what can the UK add? Nothing much that is not already being done by the US, France and other allies.”
2) The only way to make gains against ISIL is through ground troops. But Arab states aren’t willing to do that yet. In Syria, Kurdish groups are likely to stay within their territory. This has forced Cameron to conjure up 70,000 non-ISIL Syrian troops who will apparently take our side. Who controls them? Are they interested in fighting ISIL or (as is more likely) Assad? None of these questions are really answered, so we can assume they aren’t a serious part of the plan.
3) We are essentially hoping that once ISIL is degraded, Russia and Iran can be persuaded to transition Assad out of power. It may work, it may not. What if he says no? We are back in a stalemate again.
4) It’s difficult to tell whether we will succeed in Syria going by our operations in Iraq because Cameron’s details of our success in Iraq runs into… one paragraph.
5) There’s not much of a plan for post-reconstruction settlement either, though I accept can’t play a huge role here.
So… should we or shouldn’t we?
I’ll be honest, both those against bombing ISIL in Syria and those for it are painting it into a bigger deal than it is. ISIL are already very clear about attacking us, and a slight increase in the bombing campaign will force ISIL to change tactics but won’t lose them much territory (without ground troops).
This makes the political considerations a bit more relevant. If Labour MPs vote against action in ISIL, constituents will say: ‘you’ve got a pacifist leader who doesn’t want to protect us if ISIL start shooting in the streets (shoot to kill) and then you vote against bombing them too! Doesn’t look like you care about our security‘.
Their job is to represent voters (who want action against ISIL), not members (who don’t) – and they have to deal with a leader who already looks weak on national security. Taking this into mind I suspect many Labour MPs will vote for action in Syria.
Put it another way. For Labour MPs, there is more upside to joining the international coalition against ISIL than downside. Cameron’s plan is too weak and wishy-washy to do much damage to Syrians or ISIL.
Sunny Hundal is editor of LC. Also: on Twitter, at Pickled Politics and Guardian CIF.
· Other posts by Sunny Hundal
Story Filed Under: a) Section ,Terrorism ,Westminster
Sorry, the comment form is closed at this time.
Reactions: Twitter, blogs
Sorry, the comment form is closed at this time.