Syria: to bomb or not to bomb?

Later this week prime minister David Cameron will set out a new British strategy for Syria which is expected to include airstrikes on Syrian territory. Although Britain, as a member of the anti-ISIS coalition, is currently bombing in Iraq it is prevented from bombing in Syria because of a parliamentary decision in 2013.

Cameron wants to reverse that and extend the bombing to Syria but is reluctant to put it to a vote in parliament unless he can be sure of winning. He is no doubt hoping that the recent jihadist attacks in France and elsewhere will sway MPs to support him – though playing on people's fears rarely leads to rational decision-making.

The issue here is specifically about British bombing in Syria. It is not about using military force against ISIS (which is already happening) and it is not about British military involvement in Syria (which, again, is already happening). A recent report by the House of Commons Foreign Affairs Committee explained:

"While the US and some other coalition partners have conducted airstrikes against ISIL targets in Syria since September 2014, the UK has restricted its participation in coalition airstrikes to Iraq, though it flies surveillance and intelligence missions in Syria to contribute to the Coalition’s campaign there. 

"The UK has, however, conducted a single airstrike in Syria in August 2015 against a British national that it considered a 'direct threat' to the UK. British pilots embedded with US and Canadian forces appear to have also flown missions in Syria."

So the main question in relation to Cameron's new strategy is a narrow one: what would be the purpose or benefits of bombing in Syria, and what are the risks?

Since the Islamic State straddles the border of Iraq and Syria there is an apparent illogicality in bombing it on the Iraq side but not the Syrian side. In the words of the British foreign secretary, Philip Hammond:

"There is a military incoherence to carrying out a campaign of air strikes against an enemy on the ground in Iraq whose supply lines originate in the neighbouring country, but being unable to attack those supply lines and control centres in the neighbouring country. There may well be political arguments about that ... but, from a military point of view, it is incoherent. It is a single theatre of conflict, and the supply lines run from al-Raqqa, in Syria, into Iraq, where they sustain the ISIL/Daesh forces that are attacking Iraqi forces."

Hammond has also complained that British drones "now have to fly over Syria unarmed looking for situations, which they then relay back to call in other allies to carry out strikes. That is not the most efficient way to carry out operations". And, as the Foreign Affairs Committee noted:

"Military expert witnesses confirmed that the extension to Syria of the British mandate to conduct airstrikes would be welcomed by our allies in the coalition. It would provide greater flexibility for coalition commanders as well as the use of another base in Cyprus."

Aside from questions of military convenience and efficiency, though, treating Iraq and Syria differently is not as illogical as it might seem. The legal basis for military action against ISIS is more complicated in Syria than in Iraq, where it is being carried out at the request of the Iraqi government. There has been no similar invitation from the Assad regime. The Foreign Affairs Committee commented in its report:

"International law allows the use of force in three circumstances: invitation, UN Security Council authorisation, and self-defence. Humanitarian intervention, as was used by the Government to justify intervention in Kosovo in 1999, is emerging as a fourth justification but is not yet fully established."

Added to these legal uncertainties is the risk that British airstrikes (which would almost certainly result in civilian casualties) could actually help ISIS by providing a rallying point for further radicalisation.

Also, of course, the international politics around the Syrian conflict is much more complicated than it is in Iraq – which is one good reason for treading warily. It's difficult to avoid the suspicion that in seeking to bomb Syria Cameron is primarily concerned with sending a signal to Russia and containing Putin's ambitions.

But what might British bombing in Syria achieve in terms of fighting ISIS? The Foreign Affairs Committee was very sceptical and in the conclusions of its report, it said:

"We believe that there should be no extension of British military action into Syria unless there is a coherent international strategy that has a realistic chance of defeating ISIL and of ending the civil war in Syria. In the absence of such a strategy, taking action to meet the desire to do something is still incoherent.

"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."

In a more recent report, Prof Malcolm Chalmers, research director at the Royal United Services Institute, makes a case for limited British airstrikes in Syria though his support for them is rather tepid:

"Ultimately, the fate of both Iraq and Syria will be determined by political dynamics within these two states and by the policies adopted by powerful neighbouring states. But coalition air strikes already contribute to protecting Kurdish-majority areas in northern Syria and ensuring that ISIS has no safe haven from which to support its operations in Iraq. If MPs accept that coalition allies are right to use force for these purposes, it is hard to justify a refusal in principle to authorise UK participation in future comparable operations."

But he goes on to warn:

"In the absence of a wider political settlement in Syria, the UK’s military campaign may need to be sustained over a period of several years. In these circumstances, it is possible – perhaps even likely – that the operation could end without achieving a decisive strategic effect."

To justify continuing military action in Syria, he says, there needs to be "a convincing case that the benefits ... at least for now, clearly exceed the costs of such action". 

He also argues that airstrikes directly targeting ISIS are of limited usefulness because "the use of irregular forces and activated urban sleeper cells in offensive operations [by ISIS] cannot easily be combated from the air". If ISIS is to be dislodged from the main urban centres it now controls, he says, "there will need to be credible Arab ground forces prepared to fight block by block through these centres. The failure to find such forces remains a central weakness in the anti-ISIS campaign."

Chalmers does see some benefit in using airstrikes to protect elements fighting ISIS on the ground. The American air campaign to protect the Kurdish enclave of Kobane "has achieved clear results from both a humanitarian and operational viewpoint," he says, adding: "If US forces had been subject to the same constraints as those placed on the [British] RAF, they would have had to leave the Syrian Kurds to the tender mercies of ISIS." 

However, he also points out that in Syria the "safe areas" concept is increasingly problematic:

"As in Libya, the provision of air protection for any part of Syria would inevitably have the effect of providing a military advantage to whichever armed groups were operating from this area. It could therefore only be effective if accompanied by measures to ensure that more moderate groups could hold these areas against opposition from ISIS or other more radical factions ...

"Whatever the merits of the safe-area concept in the past, its disadvantages have been heightened by Russia’s recent deployment of air forces to Syria. As a result, a no-fly zone in the north or west of the country would have to be applied against the Russian aircraft who are currently engaged in bombing precisely those areas that such a zone would have been designed to protect."

Chalmers ends with a cautionary note about keeping British intervention to a modest level: "It will be important to ensure that it does not over-commit resources to a protracted military campaign whose strategic objectives it has little ability to influence." He concludes, rather ambivalently, that "as long as the involvement of UK forces in Iraq – and, separately, Syria – continues to do some good, it should be continued."

Which of course leaves open the question of how to determine whether it is doing any good or not.
Posted by Brian Whitaker
Monday, 23 November 2015