THE BLOG

The Case for British Military Action in Iraq and Syria

09/11/2015 11:29 GMT | Updated 08/11/2016 10:12 GMT

The use of British military and soft power for the common good of humanity suffered setbacks this week. In practice, the argument concerns whether eight RAF jets deployed over Iraq should extend offensive operations against Daesh into Syria, and strengthen the international coalition. In principle, the legitimacy in Britain of liberal intervention is at stake in the continuing, often irrational and bitter fallout from the unpopularity of the invasion of Iraq in 2003.

The government still supports the military logic of extending operations across the non-existent border between Iraq and Syria but Labour MPs who reject their Leader Jeremy Corbyn's opposition may be matched by Conservative rebels. The government's slim majority means the vote is too close to call and will not be risked for now.

Governments once exclusively determined foreign and security policies but nowadays 650 MPs are expected to be security and foreign policy experts. The former Middle East Minister Alistair Burt rightly argued after MPs rejected British military action in Syria in 2013 that '...just occasionally politicians need space and time to take unpopular action that they believe in the long run is in their nation's interest' but remain ultimately accountable to the public.

But the decision about Syrian intervention is now in the hands of MPs. The Foreign Affairs Committee (FAC) this week produced a short report to assist debate. It acknowledges that extending operations is welcomed in the region and defeating Daesh (Isil) is a key British interest. But it opposes extension 'unless there is a coherent international strategy that has a realistic chance of defeating ISIL and of ending the civil war in Syria,' and that focusing on extending airstrikes distracts from that.

The report cites several risks. They are doubts about the legal basis, having reliable allies to assist with targeting and taking captured territory, and that extraordinary complexity on the ground makes it hard to guess the consequences of tackling just Daesh, especially given external intervention by Russia and Iran (for Assad), and Turkey, Saudi Arabia, and Qatar, and the US (for various different opposition groups). Ministers and supportive MPs must answer such points as far as it is possible before undertaking action.

Another reason is odder, however. The FAC approvingly quotes witnesses suggesting that British military action in Syria would compromise its diplomatic capacity to pressurise national and international partners to create a route to a solution. But military action normally wins a place at the peace table, as Russia will in negotiations one day on the end-game in Syria.

The FAC's fears, however, will be shared and not least by Corbyn, who not only opposes military action in Syria but also said this week of current action in Iraq that 'I am not sure how successful [it] has been because most of the action now appears to be moving into Syria, so I think we have to look again at that."

This beggars belief. Airstrikes certainly prevented Daesh from moving further into Kurdistan last year, and have helped reverse and contain it. Corbyn's comments reflect a great confusion in British politics with many convinced that Western action rather than Assad or Daesh are the core problem.

Furthermore, the anti-war movement that Corbyn helped build refuses to listen to those in the Middle East who favour Western intervention. MPs and others visiting the Kurdistan Region will undoubtedly discuss the dangers of Daesh and possible responses with Kurdish leaders. In the meantime, the KRG High Representative in the UK, Karwan Jamal Tahir, has made it clear that he supports British airstrikes in Syria.

Kurdish views on the current crises are invaluable in increasing the intellectual firepower of liberal interventionists who understand that airpower is a vital ingredient in defeating Daesh, and who may later have to argue that Western ground troops are part of the solution.

A far less insular and more informed debate will also help the government make a stronger case for airstrikes and recognising that Daesh is a direct threat to the UK, illustrated this week by 20,000 Brits being marooned in Egypt after the likely Daesh bomb on a Russian airliner.

Yes, sceptical MPs and public opinion need convincing that airstrikes are necessary and useful. There is a grave danger that complexity will be used to make the perfect the enemy of the good: we cannot do everything so we do little or nothing.

Britain should help defend Kurds in Iraq and Syria, for instance, and undermine Daesh ahead of a comprehensive solution in Syria, whose nightmare has persisted for four years and may well continue. Britain should not hide its head in the sand by failing to play a fuller part in defeating the menace of Daesh, and bolstering the Kurdistan Region.