If David Cameron is wise, he will recognise that extending airstrikes from Iraq to Syria would be not only pointless, but dangerous.
By Peter Ford and Julian Lewis
Guardian Online – 21 October 2015
One of us is a member of the Labour Party and the other is a Conservative. We have our differences, but both agree that bombing Syria under present circumstances would be a high-risk and pointless endeavour which should be rejected by the House of Commons, if the Prime Minister unwisely seeks to put it to the vote.
Bombing ‘Islamic State’ (Isis) is certainly not wrong in principle. Britain is already doing that in Iraq at that country’s request. The question is, why extend this to Syria? The government has utterly failed to come up with any convincing rationale, merely saying that we cannot leave it to the Americans to carry the burden.
Yet, our effort in Iraq is only about 5% of total bombing missions. With the best will in the world, extending this scale of effort to Syria would make little difference. If we feel duty-bound to take on a bigger share of the burden, why not take up more of it in Iraq? It is not as if bombing there had been spectacularly successful and additional efforts in Iraq were unnecessary.
The truth is that, historically, aerial bombardment usually fails to be decisive unless it supports credible ground forces. In Syria, apart from Kurds in limited areas, there are no credible, non-Islamist ground forces other than President Assad’s.
Extending our efforts to Syria would be of marginal utility at best. This is partly because the UK government has set itself against coordination with the Syrian army or the Russians, which hobbles our military from the outset. The government is in denial that intervention in Syria means deciding which is the lesser of two evils, Assad or the Islamists, and acting accordingly. If the government is not prepared to face up to this hard reality – a reality that does not apply in Iraq – then we should stay out of Syria completely.
The main reason for holding back on Syria, however, is not that it would be futile but that it would be extremely dangerous. Can we be sure that the Prime Minister would not seek opportunities to extend the bombing to the Syrian army as well as Isis? After all, we are constantly told that Parliament was wrong to prevent the bombing of the Syrian army in 2013, and that it still remains essential to remove Assad.
The government does not accept that its preferred “moderate” forces are a fantasy and that a jihadi victory would be the only outcome if Assad were overthrown – with all the biblical-scale horrors which would flow from that for the Christians, Alawites, Shia and other minorities, as well as secular Sunnis. The Russians are criticised for concentrating their fire on the non-Isis rebels, even though this category includes groups like the powerful al-Nusra Front, an affiliate of al-Qaeda. With the removal of Assad, groups like this would be like vultures at a feast. No serious analyst argues that the handful of “moderates” would be a match for the jihadis.
It is claimed that the Russians are holding back on bombing Isis in order for this terror group to prosper. But the Russians seem to be focusing on al-Nusra and other jihadis because these are the groups most engaged with the Syrian army in its heartland. Isis is active mainly in the east and north-east, which the undermanned Syrian army has more or less abandoned.
There is a serious danger of deliberate mission creep. Before action began in Libya in 2011, MPs were assured that bombing operations would be limited to creating a no-fly zone to protect the citizens of Benghazi. As soon as the vote went through, operations began in order to overthrow Muammar Gaddafi, with the result that Libya is now a playground for Islamist radicals – including Isis. It is only too easy to imagine this technique being applied to Syria – for example, to police “safe havens” – almost certainly leading to dogfights with Syrian military aircraft and thence to open warfare with the Assad regime.
This would result in enormous risks for the RAF, flying in the same skies as Russian aircraft whose mission is to ensure the victory of the Syrian army. It is not at all reassuring to hear “reliable, high-level sources” telling us that RAF pilots have latitude to attack Russian aircraft when they feel threatened. What about possible misunderstandings, accidents or even deliberate “false-flag” operations designed precisely to engineer such an incident? Has all this been properly thought through? We see no sign that it has.
If the gains from the proposed intervention were likely to be considerable – for example, if we were asked to support credible, local, non-Islamist ground forces – or if we were acting in this way because it was forced on us, some risk would be worth taking. But that is definitely not the case now. Our intervention would have only a minimal effect even under the most optimistic scenarios.
In short, the arguments against bombing are compelling. If the Prime Minister is wise, he will use the Russian intervention as a reason not to proceed, rather than risking a second defeat on an issue of war and peace in Parliament or, at best, a pyrrhic victory.
• Peter Ford was ambassador to Syria 2003-06. Julian Lewis MP is chairman of the Defence Committee, but is writing here in a personal capacity.