Cameron’s case for Syria strikes falls short

In the absence of an adequate political and diplomatic strategy, bombing in Syria may do more harm than good

In the coming days, the UK parliament may be asked to approve Britain joining the military coalition conducting airstrikes against ISIS in Syria.

The Prime Minister, making his case in a parliamentary debate and memorandum to the Foreign Affairs Select Committee, was wise to display a degree of humility and caution. He acknowledged that any military action would need to be matched in the political diplomatic arena and recognised the complexity of this conflict. Cameron warned us that there have been seven ISIS linked or inspired plots in the UK in the last 12 months, noting that we are already a target for this group and have been confronting ISIS militarily in Iraq for over a year. He was correct to recommit the UK to the extensive humanitarian assistance being provided to Syrians. The Prime Minister detailed the U.K.'s specific military added value – from Brimstone missiles to Raptor pods – arguing that not only would this make a qualitative difference, but that they needed to be deployed now even in the absence of political progress. Which is precisely where the Prime Minister's argument begins to unravel.

The Prime Minister has yet to make the case for how he will advance political progress. He is also yet to prove he is willing to make the hard calls including with our allies in the region, that will be necessary to advance diplomacy and without which the much-needed Allied local ground forces will not materialise (more on Cameron’s 70,000 moderate fighters to follow).

Without clear and compelling guidance on these questions, the proposed military action is on balance likely to play into the hands of ISIS’ narrative and to do more harm than good. Without a realistic and effective accompanying political-diplomatic strategy, British bombings and the inevitable civilian casualties will make us more of a target for terrorism. It will exacerbate tensions and suspicions among the Sunni population, given both our non-bombing of regime targets and our unwillingness to welcome refugees, and will strengthen the recruitment storyline of extremists.

We may end this week knowing more about the Conservative government's determination to resurrect the UK's image as a projector of hard power and about divisions within the Labour party, but we are unlikely to have moved any closer to a smart strategy for either ISIS or Syria. MPs from all parties should continue to ask the hard questions and be demanding better answers.

One of the Prime Minister’s most disputed claims was of there being 70,000 local fighters on the ground allied to our fight against ISIS and able to follow up coalition airstrikes given the commitment to there being no British boots on the ground. Both the number of fighters cited and applying the label moderate to them is a best case scenario. But an even deeper flaw in the Prime Minister’s argument is that the overwhelming majority of whatever fighters do exist will not move against ISIS as long as the broader Syrian conflict is still being fought. The Kurdish forces have limited geographical reach and ambition, while the Sunni forces mentioned by Cameron in the north and the south will be too busy both targeting regime held areas and defending themselves from regime counteroffensives to focus on ISIS.

This same divided attention holds true for external backers of the opposition for whom, in practice at least, countering the regime is a greater priority than ISIS. And it is a mirror image on the other side, where the Assad government and its backers notably in Tehran and Moscow are preoccupied with regime consolidation, only a part of which means targeting ISIS.

As my colleague Julien Barnes-Dacey and I have argued in a new ECFR report Syrian Diplomacy Renewed: From Vienna to Raqqa, de-escalating the broader war in Syria is a prerequisite for any effective campaign to counter ISIS and other violent extremists. While the war continues, too many of the actors needed for the struggle against ISIS are distracted at best, and often appear to have more pressing priorities. The Prime Minister has accepted that “there will be no end to the chaos in which ISIL [ISIS] thrives for as long as the conflict in Syria endures.” He writes to the Foreign Affairs Select Committee that “I have always been clear that defeating ISIL… requires action on two fronts: military and political” and commits to “putting Britain's full diplomatic weight behind the Vienna process” – but he is asking Parliament to approve military action with no political plan in sight.

Given the shoddiness and temerity of Britain's political leadership to date on Syria it is too much of a leap of faith to expect an improvement while the Prime Minister is still refusing to spell out what he has in mind in the diplomatic political arena. Success in that will require choices just as hard as the call to arms.

Cameron talks about intensifying engagement with Russia and Iran but repeats the “Assad must go” mantra which any realistic political process will initially have to deftly circumvent. Ideas for how this might be achieved, which we and others have suggested, such as devolving power both horizontally and vertically – from the president to a government and parliament, and from Damascus to the regions – are nowhere to be found in Cameron’s extensive talking points.

The Prime Minister talks about working with our regional allies but fails to even hint at the need to nudge those allies (notably Turkey and certain Gulf states including Saudi Arabia) towards compromise. Implying that there is no clear blue sky between our positions when in reality we will need to be softening them up to reach a pragmatic breakthrough rather than stiffening their maximalist resolve.

Of course it is not fair to expect the Prime Minister to put every detail of a diplomatic strategy into the public domain when to be effective it will require a degree of delicate backroom arm-twisting, including with these prickly allies.

However, one should expect some signposting of a way forward, of which there is none, and at least a more honest accounting of the situation we find ourselves in. It does not bode well when the Prime Minister’s written account in the memorandum and verbal presentation to Parliament skirt around and even misrepresent some of the inconvenient realities of the Syria dynamic, suggesting that we are already dodging the hard calls that will be necessary for progress. In describing, for instance, the Kurdish success in retaking Sinjar in Iraq, Cameron ignores the role played by the PKK and likewise fails to mention that it is the PKK’s Syrian affiliate, the YPG, that is leading the Kurdish struggle there. These omissions are presumably to placate our Turkish ally, as too is the reference only to the Assad regime as purchasers in ISIS oil trading.

If the Prime Minister cannot be honest to Parliament about our disagreements with Turkey can we really expect the necessary diplomatic push in bilateral talks? Cameron does not even hint at a need to question the role certain Gulf states are playing. Al Qaeda and its Syrian affiliate Jabhat al-Nusra are also curiously absent from Cameron’s discussion of the opposition fighting forces in the north and the coalitions formed with so-called moderate allies.

We are offered nothing on whether we should cooperate more or less with Russia in Syria, on whether we should be supplying more or less armaments to the fighting opposition or on what Britain's position is regarding the political transition and horizon sketched by the international Syria support group in Vienna. And that is before one even begins to address the deeper causes and roots of Al Qaeda, ISIS or whatever the next incarnation will look like.

Quite simply Britain needs to be told what the Prime Minister's strategy is for Syria and until we know that we cannot effectively judge his strategy for ISIS.

The European Council on Foreign Relations does not take collective positions. ECFR publications only represent the views of their individual authors.


President, US/Middle East Project

Subscribe to our weekly newsletter

We will store your email address and gather analytics on how you interact with our mailings. You can unsubscribe or opt-out at any time. Find out more in our privacy notice.