British Air Strikes Against ISIS Will Only Add to Human Suffering in Syria
Dr Neil Quilliam
Acting Head, Middle East and North Africa Programme
Britain has waited too long to act in Syria. It no longer has any credibility in the region.
UK Prime Minister David Cameron has made it clear that he would authorize military action to neutralize Islamist extremist groups in Syria, if they posed a specific threat to British people.
It followed comments he made in the US at the weekend that the UK is committed to destroying Islamic State of Iraq and Syria (ISIS) and, with Parliament’s consent, would extend military air strikes against the organization from Iraq and into Syria.
It is entirely logical that coalition air strikes against ISIS should extend beyond Iraq and into Syria. It serves little purpose to stop at the border – or lack of it – and simply allow the organization to establish a strong and enduring foothold in Syria. The idea that ISIS can be pushed into Iraq and contained in Syria – and that its fight against the Assad regime will eventually lead to their mutual destruction – is pure fantasy.
To date, the military campaign against ISIS has focused primarily on Iraq and has been at least supported by a political process, wherein the international community has backed the Baghdad government in its bid to recover the ground that the extremist group has come to occupy. Operations in Syria, on the other hand, appear less strategic and lack any political process whatsoever. If Western powers wish to permanently dislodge ISIS, they need to conduct a comprehensive military campaign in both Iraq and Syria; it will require more than a few thousand trained and equipped Syrians to take on ISIS. A successful military campaign would need to be accompanied by a robust political process supported by regional powers, including Syrians. However, such a process does not currently exist and there is little sign of one emerging.
Without such a strategy, the UK government’s emerging plan to deploy six UK fighter aircraft to strike against ISIS targets in Syria would offer little more than moral support for the coalition and nothing in material terms for Syrians living under ISIS and Assad. It would neither be a game-changer in the fight against ISIS nor help David Cameron to fulfil his pledge. In fact, there are three reasons why extending air strikes without a political and military strategy would do more harm than good.
No material advantage
First, it would reinforce the view commonly held among Syrians that despite significant humanitarian support, the UK government simply prioritizes the fight against ISIS over the lives of Syrians. As such, UK air strikes would likely further alienate the many Syrians that continue to see the Assad regime as the primary enemy. More than 140,000 people have died in the conflict so far, mostly at the hands of a regime that has used chemical weapons and barrel bombs against its own civilians. ISIS, by comparison, has killed several thousand. The Syrian opposition placed great faith in Western intervention following the regime’s crossing of redlines and use of chemical weapons. The failure of the US and its allies to follow through on its pledge, however justified, was seen as a categorical betrayal by most Syrians and, in many cases, construed as a move to shore up the Assad regime. Extending air strikes would therefore risk undermining any shred of credibility the UK may still have.
Second, a decision by the UK parliament to now endorse military operations would send a clear message that the UK is happy to intervene against ISIS when its citizens are killed on a beach in Tunisia, but unwilling to do so when chemical weapons are used against Syrians. Whether or not this is true, it would be an easy narrative for the regime and extremist groups to peddle and would serve to not only undermine those opposition groups cooperating with Western nations, but also persuade many more Syrians that their interests are better served by radical Islamist groups opposed to the Assad regime, including the Al-Qaeda-linked Nusra Front and Ahrar al-Sham, among others.
Lastly, an unintended consequence of extending air strikes, which set back ISIS, rather than destroy it, might be the emboldening of two distinct Syrian opposition groups at the expense of wider Syrian interests: Syrian Kurds and Nusra Front. There can be little doubt that Syrian Kurds, represented by the Democratic Union Party, which is aligned to the Turkey-based Kurdish Workers’ Party, have benefited to date from coalition air strikes which have provided air support to Kurdish military operations. These have allowed the party to enhance its reputation amongst the wider Kurdish community by 'valiantly' resisting and pushing back ISIS forces, securing further territory and fortifying its self-declared autonomous region of Rojava (Western Kurdistan).
This remains a major issue of contention for non-Kurdish Syrians. The Kurds’ success will not only present a long-term challenge to the Syrian opposition, which remains intent on securing the future territorial integrity of Syria, but also the neighbouring states, most notably Turkey. Perceived direct UK military support for Syrian Kurds, therefore, would carry with it significant political and moral responsibility towards the future of Syria and its allies in the region. Similarly, should Islamist groups who are currently engaged in fighting against ISIS benefit directly from UK air strikes, then the government should be prepared for the consequences of strengthening opposition groups aligned with Al-Qaeda. It may be a case of 'be careful what you wish for'.
It is difficult to see any material advantage to the UK conducting air strikes against ISIS in Syria. They will not destroy or dislodge the Islamist organization – that requires a more comprehensive strategy. They will not advance a political solution to the Syria crisis – only further add to the complexities on the ground. More importantly, they will undermine any remaining faith that Syrians have placed in the international community. In fact, they may turn even more Syrians towards extremist groups, including ISIS. In all likelihood, UK air strikes will only add to human suffering and diminish the already-feeble hopes of Syrians for a political solution.