Britain Is Fighting ISIS and for Relevance

Analysis | The true battle during Wednesday night's parliamentary vote on airstrikes in Syria was for the soul of the left, which is tearing itself apart on an issue that Britain has zero influence over.

Anshel Pfeffer
Anshel Pfeffer
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British Prime Minister David Cameron speaking during the parliamentary debate on whether to launch airstrikes against ISIS in Syria, December 2, 2015.
British Prime Minister David Cameron during the parliamentary debate on whether to launch airstrikes against ISIS in Syria, December 2, 2015.Credit: AP
Anshel Pfeffer
Anshel Pfeffer

The British parliament’s vote on Wednesday night to expand Royal Air Force strikes against Islamic State to also include Syria will have little effect on the ground. Russia, the United States and France are already carrying out extensive bombing missions of ISIS’ strongholds in the northern Syrian city of Raqqa. Britain is preparing to double its current complement of eight fighter bombers operating over Iraq, but the overall contribution to the joint air campaign will be little more than negligible.

Neither will the inclusion of Syria into the RAF’s operational theater likely affect the eagerness of ISIS to carry out terror attacks on British soil. According to U.K. security services, the organization has already made seven attempts to launch attacks in Britain this year. But despite the minor strategic and geopolitical importance of the vote – which, constitutionally, Prime Minister David Cameron didn’t even need to hold – it was preceded by a nearly 11-hour debate in which more than 100 MPs took part and demonstrated that while it is no longer a military power, Britain still rules in parliamentarian terms.

Wednesday’s debate in the House of Commons was fascinating, raising many relevant questions of how the West is confronting ISIS – and largely failing. Ultimately, though, its main implication is for Britain. Even if parliament had voted against striking Islamic State in Syria, it probably wouldn’t have changed the number of bombs being dropped on the jihadists by other nations’ aircraft.

The government’s motion passed 397 to 223, enabling Cameron to exorcise the haunting memory of one of his first term’s worst moments: in August 2013, he narrowly lost a vote on striking targets of President Bashar Assad’s regime in response to the Syrian army’s use of chemical weapons against civilians in a Damascus suburb. If that vote was a result of the trauma still felt in Britain over its participation in the disastrous Iraq war, Wednesday’s victory for the Conservative party was a sign that Britain would like to exert itself once again on the world stage. Or at least some Brits would – the most recent opinion poll showed 48 percent in favor of bombing in Syria, 31 percent against and 21 percent undecided.

Islamic State and Syria seem almost like a distraction from the more pressing issues on Britain’s agenda: The Conservatives’ plans to restructure – if not totally do away with – the welfare state built after World War II; a divisive referendum to be held next year on Britain’s membership of the European Union; and an increasingly restive atmosphere in Scotland, which many believe will eventually lead to the breakup of the United Kingdom.

Profound impact

The terror attacks in Paris, just across the English Channel, seem to have had a profound impact on Britain as well, shaking it out of a period of inward-looking parochialism. There were already signs of a change in approach before Paris. New military spending plans revealed last week (but in preparation for months) indicate a small expansion – mainly for the air force, intelligence and special forces – after decades of cuts. This is, partly, a result of the renewed confrontation between the West and Russia, as well as the resurgence of militant jihadism. It is still too early to say Britain is on its way to regaining a central international role – it may be too late, even if it wants to – but the vote indicates a desire to be relevant once more.

But the debate also disclosed some home truths. In its early stages, some MPs, and Cameron himself, wasted time on empty discussions of whether ISIS should be referred to as “Daesh” or “Islamic State” – as if using a name the Islamists dislike is a palpable hit. It highlights just how powerless Britain, and the entire West, is in struggling with their self-imposed limitations.

But the struggle that was most prominent throughout the debate, and the days leading up to it, was the one for the very soul of the British left. Labour had been in power for 13 years until 2010, and has spent the past five and a half years as the main opposition party. But it arrived at the debate in the bizarre situation where its leader, Jeremy Corbyn, opened his party’s side of the discussion sternly abjuring military action, and Hilary Benn, his shadow foreign secretary, ending its contribution 10 hours later with a rousing tribute to the internationalist ethos and historical duty of British socialists to fight fascism.

U.K. Labour Party leader Jeremy Corbyn (left) and Shadow Foreign Secretary Hilary Benn during happier times, September 2015. The two reflected the schism within the party during the Syria debate.Credit: AP

In what is already being hailed as one of the greatest parliamentary speeches made in living memory, Benn articulated an ideology diametrically opposed to that of his radical-leftist party leader, who seemed to be physically shrinking on the front bench behind him. “What we know about fascists is that they need to be defeated,” he said, likening the fight against ISIS to the Spanish Civil War in which the grandparents of today’s Labour members volunteered in during the late 1930s. Benn was one of 66 Labour MPs who defied Corbyn and his hard-line supporters, thousands of whom were demonstrating outside parliament, threatening to end the political careers of Labour MPs daring to vote in favor of bombing. But together with 11 abstainers, over a third of the party’s representatives effectively voted against the leader, confirming that Labour is irrevocably split. This will have profound implications for British politics and could likely ensure another decade, at least, of Conservative government – but that means little outside Britain.

Foreign Secretary Philip Hammond encapsulated the mood before the vote, providing a sober and dour return to reality after Benn’s rhetorical heights. Hammond admitted that, to defeat ISIS, “There will ultimately need to be a ground assault on Raqqa.” But as for who will be providing those ground forces, he was much less clear. It certainly won’t be Britain, or any other Western nation. Just as in the United States, where the acceptance of a small number of Syrian refugees has, weirdly, become a toxic issue in its chaotic early election season, in Britain a historical political party is tearing itself apart over a military campaign in which it has literally no real influence.

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