Into the Valley of Death

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Anti-war protesters block the road during a demonstration outside the Houses of Parliament in London. REUTERS/Peter Nicholls

100 years after Sykes-Picot, Britain and France return to Syria

BY Michael Stephens

AFTER weeks of hand-wringing and heated debate, the United Kingdom has now joined the coalition in extended military actions in Syria. So far the impact has been fairly limited. U.K. bombs have only fallen on isolated Daesh-controlled oil fields in eastern Syria. But make no mistake, London has also committed to using its military resources in a way that will see it supporting the bombing of towns and cities under Daesh control.

The lead up to the vote was less concerned with the intricacies of Syrian politics, and Daesh’s place within those intricacies, and more about expunging previous scars of British military action in Iraq in 2003 and Libya in 2011. Neither war led to stable political outcomes in those countries, leaving the U.K. questioning its role in the world as a force for good, and its historically active stance in international affairs. Historians will look back at these debates and realize that they are the product of a country still struggling to come to terms with the end of an empire, having “not yet found a role” to use, the oft-quoted phrase of former U.S. Secretary of State Dean Acheson in 1962.

But for now at least, the U.K. still maintains an interventionist stance. In the end the vote passed with a sizeable enough majority (397 for—223 against) that left British Prime Minister David Cameron feeling considerably more assured in his position, and the justness of his actions. In truth, Cameron had been convinced of the need to strike Daesh targets in Syria months before he went to the House of Commons. But in the lead up to an election, which he was unsure of winning, and still smarting from a lost vote over authorizing force against the regime of Bashar Al Assad in 2013, the prime minister exercised a high degree of caution. The calculation of course was political, and not strategic. Emboldened by a strong election victory, and given the impetus to act following the horrendous Daesh-inspired attacks in Paris, the previously barren ground for advocating military action in Syria, had become decidedly more fertile.

The U.K.’s Military Value to the Coalition
Now that the U.K. has committed to action in Syria, it is important to outline what it will be doing in the coming months, if not years, against Daesh, and how it will fit into a larger coalition of countries that are currently operating above Syrian skies.
Of course the United States could have conducted operations in Iraq and Syria against Daesh all by itself. Washington hardly needs the support of other nations to take on a relatively weak quasi-state army with no ability to protect its own airspace. Indeed, Syria’s airspace is already pretty crowded, and so there is a larger question as to whether adding a handful of U.K. aircraft really makes much of a difference. But pure military utility is not the fundamental building block of coalitions. Much of what the U.K. has sought to do is provide political signalling, both to the United States, but also importantly, to its Arab allies in the Gulf, that it is doing more to tackle the problem of Daesh. The insinuation here is that those Gulf countries, currently distracted with their own air campaign in Yemen, should be doing more against Daesh too.

Measuring the value of the British contribution to the coalition is complicated. Established British military understanding is that the U.K. should aim to provide about 10 percent of the total military effort of the United States at a level that is technically and logistically comparable. In the Iraq theater, the British have been operating at a little under that target. U.K. aircraft have contributed to about 8 percent of the total number of airstrikes conducted by the coalition, with the vast majority of course being conducted by the United States. Nevertheless, the relative lack of coalition airstrikes in support of the Peshmerga and Iraqi security forces have been a cause of deep frustration in recent months. Both the Kurdistan regional government, and the Iraqi government, have expressed disappointment that more strikes were not forthcoming, leading to some Baghdad politicians to question whether Britain was really only in the war for show.

But the U.K. has disproportionately used its capabilities in other areas, particularly in Intelligence, Surveillance and Reconnaissance (ISR). U.K. drones have already been flying over Syria for many months before the decision to bomb was taken. According to Cameron, British MQ-9 Reaper Drones have provided as much as 30 percent of the airborne ISR up to this point. The immensely important role the U.K. has played in targeting Daesh positions, particularly on behalf of the Syrian Kurds (whose YPG units operate as part of a larger umbrella coalition known as the Syrian Democratic Forces), is a fact that the British public debate about military action in Syria has largely overlooked.

Much has been made of the addition of the Brimstone missile into the Syrian conflict, which the U.K. often uses as a precision air-to-ground weapon for moving targets. Its high degree of precision allows for smaller payloads on the warhead, thereby lessening the chances of civilian casualties and collateral damage. But this is at best a minor advantage in the battlefield, given the relatively limited role that U.K. aircraft will play in airstrikes.

Far more useful, however, is the addition of the Tornado GR.4 and its highly capable RAPTOR pod, which allows multi spectral, high resolution reconnaissance and target identification over a wide area. The addition of RAPTOR would significantly enhance the coalition’s ISR capabilities in Syria, and help to guide forces on the ground, specifically by the Syrian Democratic Forces, in their fight against Daesh in the coming months. So there are some tangible benefits the U.K. can bring to the field in Syria, as has been the case in Iraq. Although the presence of Britain in the coalition will be markedly quieter than the U.S. or France, the U.K.’s contribution will not be and has not been insignificant.

A Lack of Clarity in the Military Mission
Even though U.K. aircraft can offer much to operations, deep concern has been expressed by a number of MPs and opponents of British strikes in Syria as to the lack of a clearly identifiable strategy by those making the case for military action. Cameron’s arguments outlining how victory might be achieved against Daesh and what that might look like were certainly weak, made worse by his insinuation—and also that of Foreign Secretary Phillip Hammond—that a military defeat of Daesh would make Britons safer in their own country. In this instance the prime minister’s own lack of understanding of what Daesh is, and how it came to be were laid bare for all to see.

His argument didn’t only lay the ground for unrealistic expectations of what could be achieved by military action, but it also linked two fundamentally different components of solving the Daesh conundrum together under one roof. Britain’s internal security measures, designed to counter extremist activity, and target potential security threats do pay heed to the ongoing messaging emanating from Daesh territory. The role of Daesh propaganda in radicalizing British citizens is a severe threat to the nation’s national security and well understood. However, bombing Daesh in Raqqa and tearing down their black flag from rooftops of Mosul and Deir Ezzor does not stop this threat.

Daesh has a military component that can be degraded and partially solved by airstrikes, as has been proven in Kobani, Tikrit and Sinjar (although the lion’s share of defeating Daesh still lies with local forces on the ground). But Daesh, like its progenitor Al Qaeda also exists in the realm of ideas, its value structures are everywhere and nowhere at the same time. Destroying the easily identifiable structures of a Daesh quasi-state entity is an important part of undoing its mythical qualities, of being a successful ideological enterprise with tangible benefits for all those who join it. But the ideology still exists, its root attractions are still alive and well.

Daesh inspired atrocities in Egypt, Lebanon, Turkey and France are shocking. But even a cursory glance at all those incidents point to far deeper lying social cleavages and frustrations that Daesh did nothing in and of itself to create. It merely exploited those deep social cleavages for its own violent ends, feeding simple solutions to those seeking to influence decades-long social issues; such as the Turkish-Kurdish struggle, or the disaffection and alienation of Egyptians in Sinai, or the age old sectarian problems between Lebanon’s myriad of ethnic and religious communities. Not to mention the shattered polities of Iraq and Syria, where deep disaffection and social trauma is now ingrained into the populations of these countries. There is no solution that any British aircraft can provide to these problems, nor anybody else’s aircraft for that matter.

Here the limitations of a military strategy need to be made more clear. A military defeat of Daesh could be a relatively swift affair, and although Daesh fighters have clearly adapted their military strategy so as to avoid airstrikes, they are now no longer on the offensive and have taken to digging in to hold their gains. As their resources become ever more strained, their supply lines cut, Daesh fighters will struggle to ward off advancing forces on the ground. The moment of military victory, when it eventually comes, will be significant and a positive sign that the scourge of the military threat is over.

But Daesh will remain, in pockets across the region, capitalizing on instability wherever it can and inspiring people across the globe to flock to its cause. This will not be victory, and the threat of Daesh may persist for decades, the threat of terrorist attacks inspired by its ideology will likewise persist. Here Cameron should have been clearer that planes over Syria could never provide that answer.

Moving from the Military to the Political Solutions
The prime minister also outlined a political track in Syria that would exist alongside airstrikes against Daesh, which was a redoubling of efforts alongside international partners to push forward with the much vaunted Vienna process, the now official successor to the moribund Geneva process. Here British influence is at best a side show, since Russia’s dramatic entrance into the conflict the real games have been playing far above London’s heads. Images of Russian President Vladimir Putin and U.S. President Barack Obama meeting at the sidelines of the G20 leave no doubt as to which two countries may be able to bring their respective partners in the region—namely Iran and Saudi Arabia, and their proxy military groups—toward a compromise in Syria.

Being militarily involved in Syria does buy the U.K. a seat at the big table, but the British must understand that their influence is confined to tweaking at the edges, cajoling partners behind the scenes, and adding weight towards a diplomatic solution. This is not to say that London has no influence, but again, understanding how that influence is used, and where it can be best placed is the key to making the most of Britain’s diplomatic energies. Solutions are still far away of course and there will be a long way to go before either Syria, or Iraq, see a return to any stability, that is if these two countries still exist at all in future.

The U.K. is now deeply engaged in the fight against Daesh across two states, and will be engaged at home for some time. But the government now needs to make clear what can, and cannot, be achieved by military assets. The U.K. is a country in which scars of previous interventions run deep. Unlike France, unburdened with the guilt of a war in Iraq, and shocked by two severe attacks in less than a year, Britain’s public is far less certain about going back into the region. There is no quick fix to the problem of Daesh, either in the region, or at home. Now that he has succeeded in his rush to include Britain more actively in Syria, it is incumbent upon the prime minister to make this abundantly clear.

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