Last month the United Nations Security Council called upon “member States that have the capacity to do so, to take all necessary measures” to eradicate the safe haven that the group called Islamic State (IS) has established in parts of Iraq and Syria. The question that has preoccupied British politicians ever since is simply “How?” There was an attempt to build a consensus in the House of Commons when it debated the issue on Wednesday, but it fell short on that point.
The matter actually before the House was whether to authorise the RAF to extend its present bombing raids across the Iraqi border, to attack targets in areas no longer under Syrian government control. Given that a wide coalition of nations led by the United States is already engaged in such bombing missions, and given that the RAF’s actual contribution would add only a numerically small element to the existing international effort, the British preoccupation with this decision might seem excessive, or even obsessive. But the issues it raises demand much greater international attention than they have received so far.
It is universally agreed that bombing alone cannot bring about the “eradication” that the United Nations has called for. That requires ground troops. And this is where all possible Syrian strategies start to unravel. The Syrian civil war and parallel IS insurgency are in fact a series of conflicts, often with a strong tribal ethnic or tribal component. Some are rival jihadists to IS, with another agenda. The Prime Minister’s assertion that there were around 70,000 “moderate” fighters available was the weakest part of his argument, given the lack of clear evidence for it. Some of the fighters engaged in these conflicts are directly confronting IS, or Syrian Government forces, or both, with varying degrees of military competence. Judicious use of air power may help them in their immediate objectives. But it is very uncertain how many of these moderate forces there are, how well organised, how well disposed they may be towards each other or outside intervention, or whether they hold territory that IS might be forced to surrender. All these questions were just as unanswered after the Commons debate as before. And they are aimed at the whole international community to whom the Security Council addressed its Resolution 2249.
If forces already based in Syria or Iraq are insufficient or inadequate as troops on the ground for the fulfilment of the mission to crush IS, what then?
Ideally the role should be taken on by forces from the Middle East region, who would have the advantage of being Muslim (though whether Sunni or Shia would be an issue). They have shown little inclination to volunteer. The only troops certain to win a ground battle with IS are either from Russia or from Nato. The logic of Resolution 2249, therefore, is that the international community has to start assembling a force capable of carrying it out, from “member States that have the capacity to do so”. MPs are bound to regard the prospect of British troops being involved with grave disquiet. Even if they win, what then? But if IS is to be eliminated, what are the alternatives?
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