'STRATEGY VACUUM'

Fighting both sides in the Syrian Civil War makes little military sense,
writes Julian Lewis

The House Magazine – 2 October 2015

As Parliament prepares for the Conference Recess, rumours are rife of another vote on RAF airstrikes in Syria. Unlike the 2013 proposal to attack the Assad regime, the target this time would be Assad’s – and our – deadly enemies in Daesh (who call themselves ‘Islamic State’). Intervening against one side in a civil war is risky, but intervening against both sides simultaneously is probably unique. The nearest precedent may well be the 1956 Suez Crisis, when we purported to be fighting to separate both sides. It did not work out well.

What follows is my own, personal analysis. The Defence Committee is not a monolith and its members (including the chairman) are fully at liberty to debate the issues of the day. Only when we sign up to a Committee Report must we stand by its agreed conclusions. Where the Middle East is concerned, this is just as well – as there is huge variation in proposed solutions even if most of us agree on the nature of the problems.

In the run-up to the Iraq war, those of us supporting military action were motivated by the hope that removing a dictator would help democracy emerge. What actually emerged were the centuries-old hatreds between separate strands of the Muslim religion. Those advocating the values of democracy and tolerance barely got a look-in. The choices on offer in countries so divided resolve themselves into three: dominance by Sunni, dominance by Shia or dominance of both by authoritarian dictators or external forces.

There is huge reluctance to accept this harsh reality. The uprisings of 2011 were immediately typecast as Arab versions of the Prague Spring, despite our bitter experience in Iraq. For the most part, they were uprisings against authoritarian dictatorships which had held religious extremism in check – often by means of great brutality. Thus, with the downfall of Gaddafi, Libya descended into warring factions and, with the downfall of Mubarak, the Muslim Brotherhood set Egypt on the path to Islamisation.

It should have been obvious by autumn 2013 that bringing down Assad would, yet again, play into the hands of Al-Qaeda and its imitators. There was no guarantee that his chemical weapons could be prevented from falling into the hands of such fanatical groups. After Parliament sensibly rejected military action and the United States followed suit, a deal was struck which removed most of this deadly arsenal from the country, though occasional allegations of use by one side or the other still surface.

The history of the last decade ought to have taught us that the best we can expect is a choice between greater or lesser evils. Either one side or the other is going to win in Syria, or a third force will have to enter the country and be willing to stay indefinitely. That third option, if chosen, should preferably be carried out by regional Muslim countries which are not themselves dominated by one religious faction or the other.

In times gone by, Turkey – a NATO ally – would have been the prime candidate to lead such a regional coalition. Sadly, its move away from secular government, coupled with its long record of clashes with the Kurds, means that it has other priorities with regard to Syria. Nevertheless, recent acts of terror against the Turks by Daesh may mean that they, too, are waking up to the threat which it poses.

Other possible contributors to the land forces needed to resolve the Syrian civil war might be the Jordanians and even the Egyptians, albeit that Egypt’s new military rulers have yet to gain international acceptance. Lined up behind President Assad are the Iranians and, behind them, the Russians who show not the slightest sign of being prepared to abandon him. Aligned with the West are the Saudis who remain at daggers drawn with the Iranians.

So where does Defence fit into all this, from the UK’s point of view? The Prime Minister has rightly identified Daesh as a serious threat to our interests. This makes more sense than trying to oust Assad regardless of the danger of an Islamist takeover were he to fall. But unless an Assad victory in the civil war is accepted by the West, only one other option will remain: the intervention of outside forces to overrun Daesh-controlled territory.

Eliminating Daesh requires an integrated military strategy based on viable ground forces. Without such forces, airstrikes cannot be decisive. Adding RAF sorties to those already undertaken in Syria by the United States would simply be symbolic – a gesture as impermanent as a sandcastle in the desert.

[This article was published under the title: 'A Warning from History' in the Conservative Conference edition of the magazine.]