Britain’s security dilemma: to bomb or not to bomb?

My latest column for the Middle East Monitor

Britain’s security dilemma: to bomb or not to bomb?

30 November 2015

The issue of whether Britain should join the multitude of nations already bombing Syria is one of the most important questions facing parliament for some time. Prime Minister David Cameron made the case for bombing last week and hopes to have convinced MPs of all parties to back him.

The argument is that Daesh is a major security threat to Britain and if proof is needed then the recent Paris atrocities should provide it. Cameron insisted that there is almost an obligation on Britain to support allies already bombing the group in Syria, including France. 

The Royal Air Force is already bombing Daesh in Iraq, of course, and the territory under its control includes swathes of both Iraq and Syria; the group does not recognise the international border between the two UN member states.

Britain wants President Bashar Al-Assad to step down and believes that the Syrian army is responsible for over 200,000 deaths since the uprising — now a civil war with international involvement — started in 2011. However, Cameron is clear that the air strikes he proposes would only target Daesh and not the Assad regime. He is also adamant that he will not put British Army boots on the ground.

The issue is in danger of splitting the already troubled Labour Party. Leader Jeremy Corbyn has a long-standing history of opposing war. The record shows that he was right to oppose the Iraq invasion and war which brought devastation to the country and a rise in terrorism, with groups like Al-Qaeda flourishing.

Now we have a plethora of armed groups, a “Free Syrian Army” and many states bombing Daesh in Iraq or Syria, or both. And then there is Russia, a recent entry onto the scene under the pretence of attacking Daesh but, according to other states involved in Syria, actually attacking anti-Assad groups.

The world faces a hugely complicated situation requiring both a diplomatic and military plan. In addition, if we have learnt anything at all from the disaster in Iraq, then a post-war plan is a must if the same mistakes are not to be repeated.

Will RAF air strikes make us safer in Britain? 

I think not, and it is illogical that the government’s answer to this question is “Yes”, not least because it is now very apparent that the Paris atrocities were planned in Europe and not in Syria or Iraq. The answer for me lies in better intelligence gathering. There is a need for greater emphasis on national intelligence gathering and stronger transnational coordination, particularly in Europe.

Britain enjoys far stricter border controls which the Schengen Area countries lack. As such, the chances of terrorist cells entering the UK from Europe are more unlikely. It is also much more difficult — as far as I am aware — for anyone to purchase clandestine weapons in Britain than it is in the rest of the EU.

We are told that the British security services have successfully foiled a number of terrorist attacks this year. My conclusion, therefore, is that air strikes on their own are futile in reducing the risk of terrorist attacks against Britain, but greater and coordinated intelligence can be much more effective.

Should Britain do nothing in Syria? 

I believe that Britain and all the other states involved in Syria need a plan and suggest that it needs to have the following elements:

  • Establish no fly zones and safe havens inside Syria to stem the tide of refugees leaving the country.
  • Curb sources of funding and arms for Daesh and continue to degrade its ability to sell oil.
  • Work with Turkey to stem the tide of fighters wanting to join the group from outside Syria.
  • Accept that the Syrian regime is there to stay and engage with it, bringing it back into the fold of the international community (see below).
  • Broker a ceasefire between the Syrian regime and the opposition groups as it requires the focus of both to defeat Daesh.
  • Support the Iraqi army and the Kurdish forces.
  • Build a coalition against Daesh to include all of the states currently engaged in Syria, but with the Syrian army and opposition groups playing a central role.
  • Use this improved situation to develop a long-term political solution for Syria. This will include a reconciliation process.
  • Begin the process of an accelerated reconstruction of Syria working with the Syrian government.

I accept that, for many, bringing the Syrian regime back into the fold is a step too far, especially with regards to Bashar Al-Assad, but it is in my view the only entity that could eradicate Daesh on the ground. It does, however, need to shift the focus of its army to fighting the group after having established a ceasefire with the opposition.

The time for war crimes trials can come once Syria and Iraq are stabilised. Until then, the destruction of Daesh as an entity on the ground and as an ideology is of paramount importance.

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