On not bombing Syria

British pilots are revealed to have been engaged in attacks on Islamic State in Syria. The government plans to make this role explicit and direct. What will be the consequences?

Paul Rogers author pic
Paul Rogers
16 July 2015

* The killing of tourists in Tunisia on 26 June 2015 by an Islamic State-linked unit was aimed directly at Britain, with thirty of the thirty-eight people killed from the UK. In response, the government will decide, perhaps in days, whether to extend its involvement in the United States-led air war to include Syria (see "Islamic State vs Britain", 2 July 2015). 

* Caution should be exercised and the decision should be taken in the context of the current status of Islamic State (IS) and its intentions.

* Islamic State (IS) was announced as a caliphate by Abu Bakr al-Baghdadi in Mosul a year ago after the movement had taken over much of north-west Iraq. The US-led air war against IS started in August and later extended to Syria. As of mid-June it had involved 15,600 air sorties hitting over 7,000 targets and killing around 1,000 IS supporters each month - 10,000 in total to date.

* The UK contributes Tornado strike aircraft flying out of RAF Akrotiri in Cyprus and Reaper armed drones deployed from Kuwait but operated from RAF Waddington in Lincolnshire. This force has killed over 240 IS supporters to date. There is evidence suggesting that the majority of the attacks have been undertaken by the armed drones.

* While IS may have been constrained by the persistent air war it has not been defeated and has even extended its control of territory in Iraq and Syria though losing some towns. It now has affiliates in Afghanistan, Egypt, Yemen, Russia (the Caucasus) and especially Libya, is getting up to 1,000 foreign supporters joining it each month and is hugely adept at proselytising its cause, not least through new social media.

* Its strength lies in a unique combination of extreme religiosity, highly skilled paramilitary fighters and technocrats. Core paramilitary elements are drawn from Iraqis who fought elite western special forces in the 2004-08 dirty war in Iraq. Many technocrats are former Iraqi Ba’athists, and territories occupied by IS are run efficiently, effectively and brutally (see "Islamic State: why so resilient?", 9 July 2015).

* It is highly doubtful that IS can be defeated by air power and a full-scale ground war would increase support for it while leading to further chaos across the region.

* Islamic State wants war – its core message is to present itself as the guardian of Islam under crusader attack.  It is a pernicious message but one which strikes a chord with some. The air war is thus presented as part of a long term western assault on Islam including attacks and/or occupations in Afghanistan, Iraq, Libya, Somalia, Yemen, Pakistan, Mali and elsewhere. Islamic State wants war and the Sousse attack should be seen as an incitement to the UK to extend its role in the war. There may be more provocations. 

* Greater UK involvement, not least in extending the bombing to Syria, will be seen as an aid to attracting more recruits to the cause from Britain.

* There are no easy alternatives but three approaches are relevant:

- The humanitarian disaster unfolding across the region will lead to much further anger and radicalisation in addition to the manifest suffering of so many. Britain has made an important contribution to responding to this but there is scope for hugely increasing its role, not least through an underfunded United Nations system. This is probably its most important role in the current crisis and should be promoted with vigour.

- Britain’s valuable diplomatic resources and experience in the region should be used far more to improve dialogue between Saudi Arabia, Iran and Turkey, involve Russia more (not least because of its own considerable domestic problems with extreme Islamist groups), work more intensely to enhance stability in Libya and discourage the Abdel Fattah el-Sisi government in Cairo from excessive suppression of dissent which will otherwise increase extreme reactions and aid IS. All of this will help constrain IS.

- Every means should be used to encourage the Haider al-Abadi government in Baghdad (and Hassan Rouhani in Tehran) to reach out more to the Sunni minority in Iraq - a key to undermining IS. Post-nuclear deal improvements in western relations with Tehran may well help.

The most difficult challenge for the British government is to recognise that extending the war to Syria will be counterproductive and not in the interests of the UK or the region. This is not an easy message for the government, given the British culture of involvement in so many international conflicts, not least in the Middle East in recent years.


This column is based on a briefing given to an all-party meeting at the House of Commons this week hosted by Clive Lewis MP. A more detailed version is available here

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