To Bomb or Not to Bomb: British Dilemma Reflects West’s Confused Approach to ISIS

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Demonstrators listen to speakers at a rally against taking military action against Islamic State in Syria, held outside Downing Street in London, November 28, 2015.
Demonstrators listen to speakers at a rally against taking military action against Islamic State in Syria, held outside Downing Street in London, November 28, 2015. Credit: Reuters

Thursday’s debate in British parliament over whether the Royal Air Force should carry out strikes on ISIS in Syria demonstrates all the contradictions and failures of the West’s fight against the Islamic State. Prime Minister David Cameron has been arguing for months now that Britain, which is already bombing ISIS targets in Iraq, should also be operating in Syria. However, he is finding it difficult to convince parliament that he can make a difference in the battle against the jihadists and that by broadening the front, Britain can better protect its population from terror attacks. Cameron took almost three hours to make his case to parliament, backing up his arguments with a 36-page memo and answering questions by over 100 parliament members.

Cameron’s main fear is being defeated in a vote on the issue, recreating a low point in his premiership two years ago when parliament voted against authorizing bombing targets of the Assad regime, in response to its use of chemical weapons against civilians. Now he is asking for authorization to hit ISIS, ostensibly Assad’s bitter enemies. The numbers indicate that this time he will probably win the vote, but the arguments in favor of attacking, especially its efficacy, remain murky. It isn’t even clear why Cameron should need a parliamentary vote. But the greater the ambivalence regarding the necessity for military action, the more leaders seem to desire political consensus.

Since the attacks in Paris two weeks ago, the United States, Russia and France, have all increased the frequency of their attacks on ISIS, particularly targets the northern Syria city of Raqqa, where many of the headquarters and offices of the Islamic State are situated. France has launched ten-plane missions, with fighter jets taking off from the United Arab Emirates. It also has the aircraft carrier Charles De Gaulle, with additional fighters operating from its deck, stationed in the eastern Mediterranean. Russia has continued to reinforce its air contingent in Latakia and also attacked Raqqa with strategic bombers that have taken off from bases in Russia and with cruise missiles. The United States has expanded its range of targets to also include tankers transporting the oil fuelling the ISIS economy. On Wednesday the Obama administration for the first time accused the Assad regime of buying oil from ISIS, a fact that has been widely known for over a year. It’s not at all clear how Britain, which can deploy only a limited number of aircraft beyond those already attacking ISIS targets in Iraq, can help boost the flagging campaign against ISIS.

The questions Cameron was asked in parliament underlined these contradictions. He was challenged repeatedly over his military and diplomatic plans beyond just air strikes. Cameron has consistently promised that British soldiers will not be deployed to Syria. Instead he claimed that there are 70,000 relatively “moderate” rebel fighters capable of taking over territory from which ISIS will retreat – a figure he said is based on British intelligence assessments, but sounds excessively optimistic. He also insisted that the elderly Tornado bombers being used by the RAF carry unique surveillance systems and guided missiles, adding to the anti-ISIS coalition capabilities that apparently “even the Americans” lack and that Britain will allocate a billion pounds to the rebuilding of Syria after the war. He just can’t chart the way Syria will reach that yearned-for peace, even after Britain joins the battle. Perhaps Cameron’s most convincing argument was that following the Paris attacks, Britain must stand by it ally, France.

Just like his colleagues Barack Obama and Francois Hollande, Cameron lacks any real strategy. How to defeat ISIS, which for more than a year has been withstanding daily poundings from the air? How will just expanding these attacks render ISIS incapable of launching more terror attacks in Europe, including Britain? Is it possible to take on ISIS without strengthening Assad? Cameron insisted that Britain continues to oppose Assad remaining in power in Damascus. But on the very day that French President Hollande was visiting Assad’s main patron, Russian President Vladimir Putin, to coordinate the fighting against ISIS, that assurance sounded rather hollow.

Cameron is also using the possible Syrian attacks for diplomatic and especially domestic political interests. He wants to prove both to British citizens and other countries that the United Kingdom is still a military force to be reckoned with and has influence in the Middle East with and that he is a central ally of France and the United States. Meanwhile, he is upping the pressure on the main opposition party, Labour, forcing his rivals to either endorse his plans or be portrayed as “soft” on terror. Most of the pressure is focused on Labour’s new leader, the radical-left activist Jeremy Corbyn, who has opposed every military action of Britain in the past and was even chairman of the anti-Western Stop The War group. Corbyn was swept to the leadership by a massive majority of party members and supporters two months ago, but most of Labour’s MPs and members of its shadow cabinet are much closer to the political center.

Despite his radical image, Corbyn’s arguments against expanding the attacks to Syria are in themselves quite sensible. In a letter he sent on Thursday to Labour MPs (even though the majority of the shadow cabinet defied him by supporting attacks in Syria), Corbyn wrote that Cameron “has been unable to explain the contribution of additional U.K. bombing to a comprehensive negotiated political settlement of the Syrian civil war, or its likely impact on the threat of terrorist attacks in the U.K.” His problem is that due to his radical positions and lack of collegiality and leadership, none of the arguments he makes sound credible to most of MPs from his party. The shadow ministers have no qualms about voicing their opposing opinions to their leader. Yet shadow Foreign Secretary Hilary Benn actually said that Cameron had made “compelling” arguments in favor of strikes. It has yet to be decided whether Labor MPs will be allowed to vote according to their own consciences, but in any case, a split in the party seems all but inevitable. All this plays into Cameron’s hands, despite his cluelessness on Syria.

Public opinion and lack of political consensus continues to tie the hands of Western governments. ISIS won’t be decisively defeated until significant ground forces confront it in its Syrian and Iraqi strongholds, in places like Raqqa. No country is currently prepared to deploy such forces due to the “boots on the ground” anathema lingering from the last decade’s wars in Iraq and Afghanistan. The expansion of British air strikes in Syria, better coordination and cooperation between the West and Russia, more forceful U.S. action against the Islamic State’s sources of funding are all moves that will damage the movement, but won’t prevent it from continuing to hold large areas in lawless regions of Syria and Iraq and using them as launching pads for terror attacks in the West. And that will remain the case no matter how the British parliament votes next week.

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