The media this week* is awash with questions about whether the UK should sanction airstrikes against Islamic State in Syria. The political pressure for Cameron to drop talk of further military intervention in Syria is building in both the Opposition and amongst his own backbenchers. To sit back and do nothing however, would be a huge mistake and risk Islamic State’s continuing spread. Before the UK acts, the government needs to think long and hard what its long term game plan is and realise it cannot act unilaterally.
It is becoming increasingly clear that Islamic State is too powerful to combat with air strikes alone. Islamic State is a strong, well-funded supranational body. To contribute more air strikes is a token effort. ISIS cannot be defeated without troops on the ground. Yet, Western governments are faced with significant public opposition to any possibility of another Iraq or Afghanistan. So far therefore, the West have allowed Arabs to fight their battles for them. The original support for the so called moderate opposition in Syria was misguided and short sighted. The piecemeal funding and equipment provided to Syrian rebel groups only exacerbated the conflict and now as Assad’s military position gets stronger once again, the moderate rebel forces are falling apart.
Therefore, if we talk of regime change then we must be willing to accept the consequences of a result which is unpalatable to Western sensibilities. By pushing for regime change in Syria, the West risks creating an even greater sectarian conflict. Bar the shining example of Tunisia, the recent history of regime change has been distinctly bloody. In Iraq, the inevitable took place as the decades long repressed Sunni minority voiced historic grievances and made the pluralistic Iraqi state unworkable. In Egypt, democracy prevailed in the wake of the Arab Spring yet the Egyptian people chose Morsi and the Muslim Brotherhood. The Muslim Brotherhood’s form of Islamist politics is deeply unnerving to anyone who believes in a secular, progressive state and the international community quietly sat back while General Sisi instituted his coup d’etat. The fact is the West needs Arab leaders that it can work with. The priority should not be enforced democracy or regime change. Right now in Syria, Islamic State should be removed not Assad.
In Syria, do we risk creating another Afghanistan? If the European Union and the US alienate Assad and the Syrian regime, then it paves the way for Russia to take the lead in Syrian foreign relations. Allowing Russia and Assad to become increasingly close could create a Russian client state in the Middle East. Such a client state existed in 1980s Afghanistan and the West found itself arming the future Taliban of the 1990s. Autocracy may be unpalatable to Western tastes but right now it is preferable to the brutality of Islamic State. We forget that Syria under Assad before the Arab Spring was a largely stable, secular and prosperous society. Therefore, it is unhelpful to hear that President François Hollande committing the prize of the French navy, the Charles de Gaulle, to further airstrikes on ISIS positions whilst at the same time reiterating that Assad would not be allowed to feature in Syria’s future. This proposition is simply not realistic. Assad’s regime can survive with Iranian and Russian backing. Furthermore, the Syrian officer corps have made it abundantly clear that they back the regime. The same mistakes were made in Iraq. The wholesale purge of Saddam Hussein’s military top brass was a major factor in Iraq’s current instability. The ineffectual military leadership was instrumental in explaining the rapid spread of Islamic State in Iraq. Moreover in Syria, any purge of the senior Alawite community which ruled pre-Arab Spring Syria would be highly dangerous and create the prospect of further sectarian violence against against the many ethnic minorities living in Syria whether that be Ismaili Shias or Yazidi Christians. The Syrian military is a powerful force, loyal to Assad, and cannot be side-lined. Western democracies, together with Russia and Iran, must be willing to work with the Syrian military to ensure a stable future for Syria.
So what form of intervention should take place? Fundamentally there must be an understanding that ISIS has spread beyond Iraq and Syria and has little respect for international frontiers. ISIS is a slippery foe which spreads its reign of terror in the real world and in the cyber world. The armed militants of Raqqa are deadly, heavily-armed militants and air strikes do damage their operations. Air strikes however are just a small part of a multi-faceted arsenal which must be utilised to remove the deadly threat ISIS pose to innocent civilians. The real focus of military operations should be on combating the cyber operations of ISIS which spreads its insidious message. Such bases of internet propaganda and recruitment are more likely to be based in unassuming apartment blocks than in ISIS strongholds in Syria.
Certainly there have been moves in the right direction internationally as nations such Britain, France and the US have been bolstering the Lebanese state. Last year British Special Forces acted swiftly to prevent ISIS massacres in the Lebanese borders, building 12 watchtowers to protect the Christian town of Ras Baalbek. It was at immediate threat from Islamic State militants and these actions prevented a potential massacre which as the British Ambassador at the time believed could have led to a catastrophic destabilisation of the Levantine nation. Islamic State’s targeting of ethnic groups would be damaging in the extreme in Lebanon. It is a perfect example of why ISIS needs to be combatted with more than just air strikes and the British government has quietly committed troops on the ground in Lebanon, Jordan and Iraq.
In the longer term, the international community needs to seriously scrutinise the money trail. Significant economic backing for ISIS has its origins in Saudi Arabia and Qatar and the international community needs to further pressure their respective governments to get their house in order and make real, tangible efforts to investigate those funding terror. Britain is a key strategic ally to Saudi Arabia and the Gulf States and has unparalleled historic links to the Arabian power brokers. If there is one area where Britain can take a unilateral lead to deal with the conflict, it would be in diplomatically ensuring full Saudi cooperation against Islamic State and to help track down those rogue economic backers of Islamic State ceaseless brutality.
*This article was written one week prior to the recent events in Paris (13/11/15). It was submitted to the paper on 6/11/15 and published on 18/11/15
Image: Fabio Rodrigues Pozzebom / ABr