HCDC INQUIRY – UK MILITARY OPERATIONS IN SYRIA AND IRAQ [EXTRACTS] – 26 May 2016

Deputy Chief of Defence Staff (Military Strategy and Operations), Lieutenant General Mark Carleton-Smith: There is a clear distinction between the coalition’s contribution in support of the Iraqi Government and what it is able to manage in Syria, because clearly in Iraq we are supporting the sovereign entity and a unitary military command against a reasonably clearly identifiable military threat. Those relative advantages do not pertain in Syria, where we are marginally engaged, from the air only, across a much less homogenous battlefield, where the identification of the multifaceted parties, agencies and militias is much more difficult to determine. Therefore, with respect to harnessing a significant ground component that might maximise the tactical advantage that coalition air might provide, that clearly proves that much more difficult.

[ … ]

Q393 Dr Julian Lewis: General, I would like to follow on from what you just said. Unlike in Iraq, in Syria we are, to use your words, marginally engaged from the air only and that this is partly because of the question of who are we supporting on the ground. One of our terms of reference is to ask whether air strikes alone will be effective in degrading and defeating Daesh. From the purely military perspective, will you give your opinion as to whether air strikes on their own could defeat Daesh or simply degrade them to some extent?

Lieutenant General Carleton-Smith: My view is that air strikes on their own will not defeat Daesh, but they will both degrade them and constrain their ability to continue to develop. Materially, they are already having an effect. Of course, our contribution over Syria isn’t exclusive to striking. We are also delivering substantial surveillance and reconnaissance, which are even more essential over Syria where it is far harder to make precise targeting decisions without having a footprint on the ground. There are a number of particular target sets. The first is the ability of the caliphate to command and control itself; the second is to tackle its finances and reduce its liquidity; and the final piece is to destroy some of its critical infrastructure. I think in all three respects air power plays a vital role, but it is insufficient without co-ordination on the ground to subsequently defeat.

Q394 Dr Lewis: Exactly. That is what I expected to hear. We are saying that, if this organisation is to be defeated, it must be defeated by the use of air power in close support of forces on the ground that we feel able to support. Can I run over some of the statistics – just to make sure I have got them right – that have been supplied in various tables?

In Iraq, taking the figures from the beginning of December because that is the point at which we began air strikes in Syria as well, my understanding is that there have been over 760 air strikes in Iraq against 1,349 targets. Over the same period, from the beginning of December when we began in Syria, there have been 43 air strikes against 103 targets in Syria. Is that not pretty much what we would expect when working closely in co-operation with active fighting forces on the ground in one theatre, Iraq, but that the same cannot be said of the other theatre, Syria?

Just to complete the set of statistics, my understanding is that our estimated number of enemy combatants killed –I appreciate it can only be an estimate – for that period from the beginning of December to the end of April in Iraq was 518, a sizeable number, but in Syria it was only 22 made up of zero in December, six in January, 16 in February, zero in March and zero in April. Would you comment on whether that is precisely what we would expect, given the different circumstances of having fighting forces on the ground in one theatre that we are closely supporting with air strikes, but not having the same helpful situation in Syria?

Secretary of State for Defence, Michael Fallon: Let me start by saying it is extremely misleading to look at statistics in that particular way. We are able only to estimate enemy killed in action and these are very crude estimates because we obviously do not have people on the ground and we can’t investigate every single attack. The aim of these missions is not to kill as many Daesh as possible, but to degrade them on occasions by tackling their leadership and in the end to try to undermine their will to fight by attacking their command and control, their infrastructure and so on. It is far too simplistic simply to measure a mission by the number of people killed. As you are implying, many of the missions are to gather intelligence rather than to inflict casualties.

The pre-planned missions are usually targeted at infrastructure. Of course we take very great care not to kill people and take care to avoid civilian casualties. Perhaps Lieutenant General Carleton-Smith might want to add to that.

Lieutenant General Carleton-Smith: I think your statistics accurately characterise the nature of the tactical campaign at the moment, which in the first instance is focused on a strategy of Iraq first. We are now in the game of the second year of building up the Iraqi security forces, and they are beginning offensive combat operations up both river lines: the Euphrates and the Tigris. Therefore, it is a logical extension that the weight of air effort will be close air support provision in order to ensure a tactical overmatch as they come up against the opposition in the river valley towns and cities.

By comparison, in Syria the object is to disrupt command and control and to interdict and disrupt lines of communication. That speaks to a target array that is principally infrastructure based. Of course, once you have destroyed the infrastructure you do not need to revisit it nearly as frequently as you do on the tactical battlefield in support of ground troops.

Q395 Dr Lewis: Well, that is precisely what I expected to hear and I am sorry that the Secretary of State thinks I am trying to extrapolate too much from the numbers of people killed – I only added that as an afterthought. The point I am trying to put to you, Secretary of State, is that in Iraq we are having something like 15 times as many air strikes as we are in Syria. I do not think that is open to dispute. The questioning has already brought out the fact that whereas many of the air strikes are in the close support of ground forces fighting in one country, they are not in the other. Indeed, in Syria they are targeted largely at infrastructure.

If you cannot tell me today, will you write to let me know how many of the 43 air strikes that have been carried out in Syria in December, January, February, March and April – a  five-month period – were in support of forces fighting on the ground? If there were some in support of forces fighting on the ground, how many of those were in support of Kurdish forces or other what you call “moderate” forces fighting on the ground in Syria? Have any of our air strikes in Syria been in close support of non-Kurdish fighters fighting on the ground in Syria?

Michael Fallon: Yes, they have. Most recently, in the last few days, we have had the RAF engaged up north of Aleppo in the fighting that is taking place along the Mar’a line. I think we probably could get you that kind of information but I do not have it immediately to hand. I simply add the rider that we are part of a coalition and the selection of whose aircraft is part of each particular mission is decided on a coalition basis, but we will do our best to get you that information.

Lieutenant General Carleton-Smith: May I amplify the sense that in coalition targeting there is much less of a distinction made between Syria and Iraq, because the plan is to tackle Daesh across its length and breadth? It is clearly important to pressure it in its rear areas, which in this respect is a geography associated with Syria. While the battlefield geometry and the weight of coalition effort in support of Iraqi security forces might suggest that we are not necessarily doing as much as we might in Syria, in fact we are pressuring the entire Daesh network in those areas where it is deemed most vulnerable.

Q396 Dr Lewis: I don’t know whether the Secretary of State is able to tell us which forces, other than Kurds, the air strikes in the region north of Aleppo were in support of. The question in my mind is about the much-vaunted figure of 70,000 moderate fighters. If there were 70,000 moderate fighters when we began air strikes in Syria to support them, one would have expected that a considerable number of our air strikes would be in support of such forces fighting on the ground in Syria, and that doesn’t seem to have happened.

Michael Fallon: Well, you haven’t seen the figures yet. We will provide you with the figures.

Q397 Dr Lewis: Considering that there were only 43 raids in all against 103 targets over five months, and that a large proportion of them, as we have heard today, were against infrastructure, there cannot have been many. I have seen the figures.

Michael Fallon: You are simply referring to the RAF strikes. The coalition has been involved in this campaign. There have been strikes by a series of aircraft every night. We will get you the figures. A significant proportion even of the RAF strikes have been to support the Syrian democratic forces. You say that the figure of 70,000 is “much-vaunted”, but we continue to confirm that figure. All our intelligence suggests that there is still of that order of people fighting the Syrian regime. They have been fighting them now for more than five years, which itself is testimony to the size of the opposition.

Q398 Dr Lewis: We will come back later to the composition of that opposition and to what extent it is or is not Islamist. In relation to Raqqa, which has been described as our Prime Minister as the head of the snake, the Syrian Defence Force has been built up largely by the Americans, but my understanding is that that force, which is going to launch an assault hopefully to defeat Daesh in Raqqa, is predominantly made up of the Kurdish YPG forces. About 80% of it, I believe, is made up of the Kurds. My question is this. Supposing the Kurds and a limited number of non-Kurdish Syrian forces succeed in taking control of Raqqa, to whom will we then hand over control? I can’t imagine that the Kurdish forces would be willing or able to remain in control of Raqqa indefinitely, so under whose Government would Raqqa then proceed to be? Who would supply the occupying forces?

Michael Fallon: Well, you have made a number of assumptions there, and I would question at least some of them. There would certainly be a strong Arab component, alongside the Kurdish elements, to the forces that will eventually assemble and, I hope, encircle Raqqa. That is clearly going to be a long campaign, and we are some way off that at the moment. We already see both Kurdish and Arab elements who have been under pressure from the regime taking on Daesh in the north-west and now in the north-east of Syria. Perhaps General Carleton-Smith can add to that.

Lieutenant General Carleton-Smith: The military contribution of the Syrian democratic forces has suggested thus far that they represent the single most capable manoeuvre force with an exclusive focus on fighting Daesh. Wider opposition elements find themselves in a multiple dimensional fight against regime-backed foreign militia and other elements within the opposition itself. It represents, in some respects, the most capable and homogenous organisation with a tactical ambition, in the first instance, to secure its traditional northern Syrian Kurdish cantons.

Q399 Dr Lewis: So what we have got here is a force that hopes to take control of Raqqa – the headquarters of Daesh – and about three quarters of them are made up of Kurds. They will not be welcome there indefinitely, even if they are successful in taking control of Raqqa. So the problem that arises, as it so often does in these circumstances, is what we do after the initial military success, in terms of creating political stability. The problem we have in Syria, as you know, is that, apart from the Kurds, you have Assad on the one side and a variety of fighting organisations on the other side, the majority of which are Islamist. So who would we hand over control of that city to in the long term? I am still not clear.

Michael Fallon: In the long term –

Dr Lewis: Or even in the medium term.

Michael Fallon: In the medium or long term, we want to see Raqqa return to a legitimate authority in Syria. You say that there are all these different factions that have been doing the fighting. They have been, but they are now starting to do the talking – they are now meeting as part of the forum that we have started slowly to convene – to work Syria towards a new political settlement that is genuinely representative of all opinion in Syria, that does not contain Assad and that can start building the institutions that Syria will need, not least its own moderate Syrian forces.

Q400 Dr Lewis: Before I hand over to my colleague Richard, may I remind you of a written answer you gave in October last year, Secretary of State? You were asked

“which moderate, non-Islamist groups with credible ground forces, other than Kurds, are fighting Daesh in Syria.”

Your response was,

“There are a number of moderate opposition forces focused on fighting the Assad regime. Many are also fighting ISIL in areas of strategic importance, for example north of Aleppo” –

as you said again today. You added:

“The vast majority of these opposition groups are Islamist.”

Similarly, in his evidence to the Liaison Committee on 12 January, the Prime Minister said in referring to the 70,000 moderates:

“I repeat, though, that, yes, some of the opposition forces are Islamist. Some of them are relatively hard-line Islamist and some are what we would describe as more secular democrats”.

That seemed to me to be something of a deconstruction of the idea that there are 70,000 moderate forces in support of which we are waging a military campaign in Syria.

Michael Fallon: Well, I think you are alone in continuing, even now, to cast doubt on this figure of 70,000, which we continue to confirm. It would be very odd for a battle to have been fought against the Syrian regime for five years, if there wasn’t a substantial number of opposition fighters.

Q401 Dr Lewis: Sorry, Secretary of State, but no-one doubts that there are a lot of opposition fighters. The question is whether they are moderate or whether they are Islamists. The Prime Minister himself admitted that a significant number of the people he had been talking about are “relatively hard-line Islamist”. We have had testimony from several witnesses who make it quite clear that the overwhelming majority of opposition forces – opposition people with guns – are Islamist, which is exactly what you said in October in response to the written question.

Michael Fallon: Let me come on to answer that, but first of all I am glad that you are not resiling any more from the figure of 70,000 –

Dr Lewis: I am resiling from it.

Michael Fallon: Because we did hear some rather loose talk of “bogus battalions”.

Q402 Dr Lewis: I am sorry, Secretary of State, but I am resiling from it, because I am saying that the 70,000 so-called moderates are in fact in large part Islamist. That is why what have been called “bogus battalions” are bogus battalions of moderates. There are battalions of Islamists. The question is whether there are 70,000 moderates. The Prime Minister seems to have admitted, and you seem to have admitted, that these forces are overwhelmingly Islamist.

Michael Fallon: The test – since that answer in October we have now had to apply it, because we have had to consider who are the right people to engage in the talks for a political settlement – for all these groups is whether they are prepared to live within a plural political settlement that can in the end be democratic and take Syria towards elections. That is one of the tests that is applied and that I think should be applied. Perhaps Dominic would like to say a word about the nature of these Islamists.

Director of Operational Policy, Ministry of Defence, Dominic Wilson: We are clear that, within the 70,000, there is a rump of non-extremist opposition, which we could imagine buying into a broader political settlement in Syria. That is not to say that all of them are exactly the same. There is a range of them, but essentially they are what we view as non-extremist.

Q403 Dr Lewis: Let me close and then I will give Richard, who takes a different view from me, ample time to develop a thesis as well. Dr Frederick Kagan gave evidence to us in America. He said:

“virtually all the opposition is Islamist, one way or another, at this point”.

I hope we can reach some convergence on this, but he went to say:

“We make a distinction between those”

– referring to Salafi jihadists –

“and political Islamist groups tied to the Muslim Brotherhood … the likeliest source of acceptable allies that we could work with.”

We have had similar evidence from other experts. It appears to be fairly well conceded that the heavy majority of the opposition fighters, as said in your own written answer, are Islamists. It is just a question of distinguishing between those Islamists who are regarded apparently as beyond the pale, quite rightly, such as Salafists and jihadists and so forth, and other Islamists who might be more closely affiliated to organisations such as the Muslim Brotherhood. That seems to be what we are getting from the experts. Do you concur with that? Are you basically saying that the so-called moderates are what you would call moderate Islamists, such as the Muslim Brotherhood?

Michael Fallon: We can argue for a long time about these precise definitions of what is a moderate Muslim, what is an Islamist and what is somebody beyond the pale or whatever. The political process that is now getting underway does enable us to start to ask these various groups to make their choice, whether they are prepared to work with us for a political settlement and to be part, eventually, of a democratic process. To my mind that should in the end be the test as to whether they can live under some form of secular and plural settlement.

Q404 Dr Lewis: As long as their assurances can be believed, of course.

Michael Fallon: We are trying to bring peace to this country. What is really important is to get the civil war stopped, to get people to focus on the danger of Daesh and get them defeated, and give Syria a future in which its own people can have confidence, rather than being driven to making a very dangerous crossing to Europe.

Q405 Richard Benyon: In an attempt to bring peace to this Committee, I ask you to comment on this. The figure of 70,000 as a percentage of the pre-civil war population of Syria is about 0.5%. I would be surprised if there were not that number of relatively secular individuals who, given the right incentives, will be prepared to co-ordinate their activities in fighting Daesh or the regime. The key point I would like to ask you about is this. What are we talking about here? We are not talking about little green men on one side and civilians on the other, in a binary situation. Our activities in Iraq and Syria can be in support of a structured force of some sort, or they could be to alleviate the pressure on two individuals with AK47s protecting their village.

I think the Committee would benefit from a clear understanding about what we are dealing with here because this is a fluid, multifaceted conflict, with individuals protecting their house, village, valley, their faith in some cases and sometimes a concept wider than that. I hope you might be able to bring to our Report a clear understanding about what friendly forces exist out there, accepting that there are gradations of moderation. Goodness me – there are gradations of moderation in the Conservative party, so I am sure there are in Syrian politics. It would be helpful to have a greater understanding of that.

Michael Fallon: I will ask Dominic to comment in a moment. Just to start, I think that the Committee ought to ask itself, given the might of the Syrian forces and the Syrian war machine, how they have been defied for more than five years now, since March 2011, if there were not a least 70,000 people taking them on. I do hope the Committee will reflect on how that civil war has been maintained for so long.

Q406 Dr Lewis: That is not in dispute. The question is whether they are moderates or Islamists.

Michael Fallon: They are fighting the regime. Dominic, do you want to have a go at that?

Dominic Wilson: On the question of moderates or Islamists, it comes down to non-extremists who we believe we can work with, and who we believe will be committed to an enduring political settlement in Syria when it comes. I do not have the details of the makeup in front of me, but they are made up of various groups with various different levels of military capability. I think that is the question you are getting at. Some are more organised than others. I do not know whether Mark knows any more. We could possibly write to you on that.

Lieutenant General Carleton-Smith: I would say that your characterisation sounds broadly accurate. At this stage in a very brutal and bloody struggle, a degree of pragmatism characterises the approach of a kaleidoscope of multifaceted organisations that are fighting for their lives, their freedom and their families. Therefore, in the local tactical circumstances in which so many of these individuals and small pockets of organisations find themselves, all sorts of compromises and marriages of necessity are made to survive. Whether they are more or less extreme, I would expect that they all demonstrate a kaleidoscope of loyalties, interests and objectives, some of which converge and some of which are distinct.

[ … ]

Q427 Ruth Smeeth: I’d like to move temporarily away from Daesh for a second, because they are not the only threat we face on the ground in Syria. We have heard significant evidence about the threat posed by Jabhat al-Nusra. Some of that evidence suggests that in the longer term the threat to coalition forces will come from them rather than Daesh. What preparations are being put in place, not least because we know they are currently attacking the allies we are supporting in the Free Syrian Army? What additional support are we providing?

Lieutenant General Carleton-Smith: The Nusra Front is one of the very most extreme, hard-line Salafi jihadi groups. It emerged in Syria in 2011 as an adjunct to Daesh, which was then very Iraq-centric. It is probably the strongest AQ franchise globally. It has its stronghold in Idlib province. It is certainly a spoiler in the political process in Syria and might represent a Petri dish that becomes a threat to UK national security. It has refused to sign the cessation of hostilities agreement, but it’s probably not an homogeneous group at the moment.

A significant proportion are Syrian-focused, and they provide a wider wrapping to those much more specifically AQ-aligned elements that might harbour ambitions to use Syria as a springboard for international terrorist attack planning. The ratios between the Syrian elements and the external-facing elements probably vary region to region. There is potentially a small element of British foreign fighters associated with it; the specifics remain unclear. The strategy is to continue to deny it the political and operational space, including the communication platforms that it has used in the past, and to encourage the wider coalition allies not to regard it as a tool that can be used and manipulated in Syria, but to recognise it as a wider and enduring common threat.

We are not specifically targeting the al-Nusra front at the moment, although if we were to determine that there was a specific, direct and imminent threat to UK national security, we would legally be able to do so.

Q428 Dr Lewis: I will just follow up on that. As Ruth said, we heard some quite strong testimony to the fact that, in the longer term, al-Nusra could be the worse threat. Tim Marshall, for example, said Jabhat al-Nusra is

“much deeper inside the opposition movement”

than Daesh, and

“it is a longer term threat to Syria than ISIS.”

Anthony Loyd said that

“Jabhat will be a far longer-term entity in Syria,”

when agreeing with what Tim Marshall said. Is the danger we face that, while ISIS has been unusual in seizing and holding territory, thus making it more visible, once the campaign succeeds in taking that territory back, we will face a longer term, more typical international terrorist threat, without the advantage of being able to see what is happening? A lot will depend on the nature of the Government in Syria as to whether this major al-Qaeda affiliate in Syria is allowed to form a new springboard for worldwide terrorism?

Lieutenant General Carleton-Smith: There is a real danger that it will remain an abscess in the system.

Q429 Dr Lewis: Nothing more than that?

Lieutenant General Carleton-Smith: Well, I think much more than that is to speculate as to what the endgame really looks like. When one gets to a scenario where there is an enduring and enforceable ceasefire that sets the conditions for a political conversation and transition, the assumption is that a political framework, supported by a security apparatus – including with the international community’s contribution – is afforded sufficient resilience and capacity to be able to target that specific threat, which would only survive if it was left with the space to do so.

Q430 Dr Lewis: You can see what is at the back of my mind, which is, if we end up with the successful removal of Daesh/ISIL, but with an Islamist Government in place, that Government – even a moderate Islamist Government, such as a Muslim Brotherhood-oriented one – would be ill-equipped to contain a lasting threat from effectively al-Qaeda in Syria. We know what al-Qaeda can do when it has a base.

Lieutenant General Carleton-Smith: Yes, but we also know what the international community is able to do with respect to neutering the AQ senior leadership threat in northern Waziristan, so I don’t necessarily think the scenario is potentially quite as dramatic and insoluble as you might infer.

Dr Lewis: That is very clear and encouraging. Thank you.

[ … ]

Q433 Richard Benyon: Strategically, on the ground, it must be a very confusing aspect. We spoke with the team that are targeting in Syria, and I know that there are discussions to match areas of activity to ensure, for a start, that there are no accidents. But it must be very confusing when a country like Russia, with its power, moves in and starts operating across the piece with relatively little co-operation with the coalition.

Michael Fallon: There are more than discussions – there are arrangements in place to deconflict the airspace to ensure that there are sufficient gaps between aircraft and so on – but there is not co-operation or co-ordination of targeting. We are very clear about that. Russia is not part of the coalition effort.

Q434 Dr Lewis: Should we be pleased or sorry that the Syrian Government, with Russian and other outside help, have regained Palmyra from Daesh?

Michael Fallon: [Long pause] I don’t think I am pleased or sorry about anything that happens in Syria. Do you want to add to that?

Lieutenant General Carleton-Smith: If it means that what remains of the historic site of Palmyra is preserved, that is probably a net benefit. I think the strategic advantage for Palmyra and Tadmur for Daesh would be control of the associated gas fields, and it is important that that does not fall into their hands.

Q435 Dr Lewis: So there can be some circumstances in which, in a choice between the lesser of two evils – in this case, Palmyra was either going to remain under Daesh control or be seized by the Syrian Government and their Russian backers – it might be a net benefit for the Syrian Government to make some progress.

Lieutenant General Carleton-Smith: Well, I am pretty certain it is a net benefit to those people who continue to survive in Palmyra today.

Q436 Dr Lewis: Thank you for that. A second question arises from this; I think I know the answer already. Do you accept, Secretary of State, that it is perfectly possible to stand up strongly against Russia where our interests clash in one theatre, such as central Europe and eastern Europe, while for hard-headed tactical reasons finding ways in which we can cooperate with Russia, given that that is sometimes the only alternative to the continuing control of territory by Daesh terrorists?

Michael Fallon: Broadly, I do accept that, and not just for hard-headed reasons; for humanitarian reasons. It is within the gift of Russia now to bring this indiscriminate killing and shelling to an end, to use its influence constructively and to respect the ceasefire that we thought we had organised back in February. It is within Russia’s gift to do that and we will continue to encourage them to do that, while taking – perhaps the hard-headedness is on the other side – the hard-headed approach to what they have been doing in Europe.

Q437 Dr Lewis: You mentioned the ceasefire there. The ceasefire, of course, did not apply to Daesh; everyone was allowed to go on fighting Daesh. That means that with the Syrian Government forces under less pressure from opposition fighters other than Daesh, the Syrian Government with their Russian backers have been able to go on the offensive rather more than they did in the past against Daesh.

Colonel Steve Warren, the US Department of Defence spokesman, said on 20 April that

“when the Russians first came in, they claimed that they wanted to fight ISIL, and in reality, only a small fraction of their strikes were against ISIL. About 80 percent of their strikes were against the opposition. Since the cessation of hostilities was declared, we have seen that shift … At one point … in the last …week or so, the Russians we estimated – really more than 70 percent of their strikes were against ISIL.”

Does that not suggest that if there could be some form of hard-headed – I use the term again – cooperation with Russia, it would be easier to get rid of the ISIL menace, rather than trying to have a situation where we want ISIL to lose and the Syrian Government forces to lose as well?

Michael Fallon: That sounds superficially attractive, but it would leave the moderate forces at the mercy of the regime. We have seen the indiscriminate nature of the regime’s attacks on them, not respecting the laws of war, in which thousands of civilians have been killed. Perhaps General Carleton-Smith will give you a better military answer.

Lieutenant General Carleton-Smith: Well, I suspect that where they have reapportioned their assets from attacking the opposition to Daesh, it is where they have been confronting competition for the strategic natural resource of the country and where the regime and Russia’s own strategic interests have been threatened by Daesh, not as a net contributor to the wider international effort to defeat Daesh.

Q438 Dr Lewis: Once again we come back to the question of what sort of regime will be left at the end of all this. Perhaps it is for another occasion to revisit the question of how moderate the “moderate forces” are, but this seems to be the key point: whether we end up with either a brutal dictatorship once again or an Islamist regime, which might be unhelpful in the global war against terrorist movements.

Michael Fallon: I am not sure that the choice ought to be as stark as that. That is why we are working in the International Syrian Support Group to bring about a better alternative. Syria has had elections before; Iraq has had elections; Afghanistan has had elections. There is no reason why we could not lead Syria, in the fullness of time, after this appalling war, towards a settlement where it has the kind of plural democratic Government that Iraq has.

Q439 Dr Lewis: And you think Russia might be willing to allow Assad to be replaced then?

Michael Fallon: I would hope so. There have been some signs towards that.

[ … ]

Michael Fallon: … I think we have learned that when you are dealing with insurgency and terrorism, in the end it has to be done by local forces. Simply putting Western boots or British boots on the ground is not the total answer, as we have learned fairly painfully in successive wars in Afghanistan. But let’s have a better military reply to these questions.

Lieutenant General Carleton-Smith: I thought that was very clear, Secretary of State. You have spoken about whether we have the endurance for it. If we think we need to have a sustained commitment, there is clearly something about wider and better informed strategic communications publicly, as to the purpose and degree of commitment that the nation should expect and whether it is prepared to match that commitment with the resource and the political stomach, as you termed it, to see this thing through.

From the military perspective, we have learnt that a campaign is of finite duration, even if the problem endures, and there is therefore a limit to political tolerance for that duration. We need to use the time that we do have to best effect. I think we might reflect that on Afghanistan, we spent a near decade organising our inputs rather than being very clear about what our outputs are and ruthlessly focusing on those.

We also determined that to get to the root of the problem, we had insufficient boots on the ground and, therefore, that the key metric was mass, but then discovered that mass was subordinate to legitimacy. If there were reservations locally about one’s very presence, one was not necessarily a net contributor. We deduced from that that we needed an indigenous proxy – a legitimate element – with which to engage. It is easier in the countries where that exists, and it is that much more difficult in countries where one has to create it.

Dominic Wilson: The only thing I would add brings us back to where we started – or almost where we started – about the whole-of-Government approach to these problems. Certainly in the 20 years that I have been dealing with them – 20 years ago they felt like very military problems for Ministries of Defence to deal with. It is so different from that now, partly – as the Secretary of State said – because of the National Security Council construct, but partly because of the way that the machine works underneath that. They are truly inter-agency problems and we approach them in exactly that way. That is a necessary lesson that we have learnt over the years.

Q442 Dr Lewis: In evidence to the Committee, General, your former colleague, Jonathan Shaw, used a rather striking phrase. He said that successive British Governments could be criticised for intervening in countries and regions that they did not understand and trying to achieve what he called

“cultural change on a management consultant timeline”.

What I take that to mean is that, in many cases, countries can be at a stage of development that might even be 100, or several hundred, years away from the point of being able to make democratic institutions work. Do you all feel that we have sufficiently understood that? Because if we haven’t, we perhaps ought to think what politics in this country would have been like 500 years ago and how well it would have worked – when we were burning people at the stake for heresy – if someone had tried to impose 20th-century democratic institutions upon us. Have we absorbed that lesson sufficiently in the case of countries like Syria, for example?

Michael Fallon: I think – others may want to contribute – you are right to remind us that a degree of humility is needed in these things. When I travel abroad and meet other Governments, I am always quick – when they talk about the mother of democracy and all that – to remind them that it is still less than 100 years in which women have voted in this country. We have not been this perfect democracy – it is only relatively recently. I am struck, too, by the change that took place in West Germany and Japan after the Second World War. It was a collective effort by the West, and largely by the United States, of years and, as I said earlier, of billions of dollars and a very large standing force. It was a colossal effort over, as Mr Mercer said, several electoral cycles. A weight of effort was required, so General Jonathan may be on to something there. Now, who would like to improve on that?

Dominic Wilson: I don’t think I can improve on that, really. If Jonathan’s point essentially is that these things take time, that has to be absolutely right.

Lieutenant General Carleton-Smith: I think General Shaw occasionally goes further than your quote and says, actually, that it is the wrong political soil and we tried to bureaucratise and politicise tribal societies. I think that is probably unduly pessimistic, but it depends on the frame of duration.

[ … ]

Q447 Ruth Smeeth: … At some point, please God, hostilities will end in Syria and we envisage a peacekeeping force of some kind at that point. Have we started thinking about and planning for a British contribution to such a force? I am assuming that, given all our commitments to getting thus far, we would be prepared to contribute if it is going to work. Will our boots on the ground have a positive or negative impact?

Michael Fallon: That is the key criterion. It will be for the new Government of Syria to make it clear exactly what security assistance they require. The new Government in Libya is very clear that they do not want foreign troops on the ground. They see that as undermining their authority right from the beginning. Obviously, we can offer training, material assistance and that kind of thing, but we are not deploying troops there. I think it would depend on the demand from the Syrian Government. We have a strong record of assisting and peacekeeping. As you know, more recently, we have sent peacekeepers to Somalia and South Sudan in addition to our peacekeeping in places like Cyprus and so on.

Dr Lewis: Thank you very much. It only remains for me to say this has been an excellent session. We have covered a huge amount of ground and it has been particularly impressive testimony, so thank you, Mr Wilson, thank you, Secretary of State, thank you, General Carleton-Smith.

[For the full transcript of this Defence Committee session, click here.]