By Larisa Brown and Jason Groves

Daily Mail Online – 21 September 2016

Britain may have to abandon its opposition to Bashar Al-Assad if it wants to defeat Islamic State, MPs will warn today. In a critical report, the Commons Defence Committee questions the UK’s strategy, saying bombing campaigns in Syria and Iraq cannot defeat the terror group.

MPs, who heard evidence that the war against IS could take more than 50 years, call for the battle against the jihadists to be extended to Afghanistan, Libya, Nigeria and other fragile states in Africa. They warn that the gains being made in the military campaign risk being undermined by a lack of progress on the political side. And they suggest Britain will have to drop its insistence that Assad must go as the price of any peace deal.

David Cameron refused to countenance any talks that would allow him to stay on as Syrian president, arguing that a dictator who has butchered tens of thousands of his own people could not be part of any new future for the country. But today’s report suggests beating IS should be the priority. 

It says if the West

‘finds itself reduced to a binary choice between an Assad-style dictatorship or a revolutionary Islamist alternative, there will need to be a hard-headed evaluation of which of the unpalatable prospects poses the lesser threat to our national interests’.

Today’s report also warns that military co-operation with Russia may be ‘the only way’ to defeat IS. MPs were told that IS appeared to be ‘putting down roots’ in Afghanistan, were training Libyan extremists as they spread along the North African coast and were strengthening ties with Boko Haram in Nigeria. Defence Secretary Michael Fallon also told the inquiry it was worrying IS – known by the Arabic name Daesh – had grown rapidly in northern Libya.

Published two years after Britain joined the air war against IS in the Middle East, the report says:

‘The rapid increase in Daesh-affiliated groups should be a cause for grave concern. The danger posed by the majority of these Daesh-affiliated groups may be minimal at present but the evidence presented to us suggests that, if unchecked, they could form yet another front in the battle against international Islamist terrorism.’

The study warns that the current military strategy in Iraq and Syria

‘relies on the removal of territory from Daesh in order to eliminate it. That is a necessary, but not sufficient, strategy’. 

It adds:

‘Our counter-Daesh strategy should be as effective in Nigeria, Afghanistan, or Libya as it is in Iraq and Syria. There needs to be a grand strategic discussion about the threat posed by Daesh and how we can defeat it.’

Dr Julian Lewis, the committee’s Tory chairman, stated:

‘Whilst substantial progress in eliminating Daesh is clearly being achieved in Iraq, the situation in Syria is far more complex. Assuming Daesh is squeezed out of both countries, we have to focus too on what happens next - both in other countries to which Daesh may migrate, and in Syria especially where there is no shortage of other Islamist groups, just as dangerous, which are planning to take control.’

Figures reveal the UK’s war against IS in Iraq and Syria cost around £250 million between August 2014 and March 2016 – at least five times the amount spent on political stabilisation. Since December 2015, there have been 550 airstrikes by the UK in Iraq and 65 in Syria. The inquiry found only a minority of the latter appeared to be in support of opposition forces on the ground.

Charles Lister, a senior fellow at the Middle East Institute, told the inquiry the war against IS could take decades unless the West got its strategy right now. 

‘There certainly is a recognition – although this is whispered – that this is going to be a generational struggle,’

he said. 

‘It absolutely is – it will probably be longer than 50 years, but it might not only be against Isis.’

A Government spokesman said:

'The UK is at the forefront of efforts to defeat Daesh in Iraq and Syria. We have conducted over 1,000 airstrikes, which is second only to the US in both countries, and have helped train more than 25,000 Iraqi forces. As a result, Daesh is losing territory in Iraq and Syria.

'Daesh can’t be defeated by military means alone, which is why our strategy tackles its finances, propaganda, flow of foreign fighters and evolving terrorist threat. We’re supporting the Iraqi government to deliver stabilisation, reconciliation and reform, and are working with international partners and the UN towards a political settlement in Syria.'