Will air strikes in Syria work?

The idea that the UK can make a meaningful difference by expanding air strikes is far-fetched

Director, Middle East and North Africa programme

The UK government is, it seems, preparing to revisit the question of initiating a bombing campaign in Syria, hoping that a new parliamentary majority and the proposed targeting of ISIS rather than the Assad regime will make it an easier sell than in 2013, when it lost a vote to launch attacks against the Syrian regime following its use of chemical weapons.

The pitch, coming in the aftermath of the attack in Tunisia which killed 30 UK citizens, as well as other recent attacks in Kuwait and Saudi Arabia, is premised on the incoherence of solely focusing on ISIS targets in Iraq while the group holds adjoining territory in Syria in which it can continue to train, supply and regroup in response to attacks in Iraq.

While there is logic to the need to address both the Iraq and Syria fronts simultaneously – it is clear that there will be no solution to the ISIS problem until it is pushed back in both countries – the idea that the UK can make a meaningful difference by expanding air strikes is far-fetched.

The idea that the UK can make a meaningful difference by expanding air strikes is far-fetched

Not only is the UK’s military contribution to the wider anti-ISIS campaign extremely limited – estimated at less than 5% of total strikes – but it is increasingly clear that air strikes alone do not offer a viable path forward for defeating ISIS, and that in Syria in particular there is neither an accompanying plan nor real partners on the ground with whom the UK can work.

In Iraq, the anti-ISIS campaign has been based on the hope that the government of Haider al-Abadi will institute sufficient central government reform to draw Sunni support away from ISIS, while offering air support and training to Iraqi army and militias to fight ISIS on the ground. This approach is already stuttering, with political reform moving at a snail’s pace and Shia-dominated militias at times exacerbating sectarian tensions. But there nonetheless remains the outline of a broader plan in Iraq.

In Syria, by contrast, air strikes do not fit into any broader strategy. Here the US-dominated anti-ISIS campaign has focused on combatting ISIS in almost complete isolation from the broader civil conflict that has fuelled the group’s rise over the last four years. There continues to be little prospect of a political opening that would peel Sunni support away from ISIS, and local fighters (Kurds aside) remain focused on fighting Assad rather than ISIS.

Initiating air strikes in Syria may meet the urge to be seen to be doing more … but will add little of value in terms of fighting the group

Clearly this does not leave the anti-ISIS coalition in an easy position, particularly given its understandable reluctance to engage in deeper military intervention aimed at forcing Assad from power. But the response of focusing on a solely military anti-ISIS campaign in Syria ignores the core dynamics underlying the group’s rise and strength – and at times has the counter-productive impact of fuelling further Syrian anger towards the West, and thereby sympathy for ISIS, by giving the impression of any lack of concern for the wider conflict and the longstanding suffering of the Syrian people.

The UK Prime Minster David Cameron has talked about a full-spectrum response to what he perceives as an existential threat posed by ISIS. Initiating air strikes in Syria may meet the urge to be seen to be doing more – and may please the US government which has lost nearly all of its coalition partners in Syria – but will add little of value in terms of fighting the group. It is right and appropriate that the UK wants to step up, but a meaningful response will necessitate a far more honest conversation about what is needed rather than a knee-jerk embrace of wider air strikes.

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

Author

Director, Middle East and North Africa programme