John Baron is the Member of Parliament for Basildon and Billericay. A former soldier and member of the Foreign Affairs Committee, he resigned from the shadow frontbench to vote against the Iraq War, opposed intervention in Afghanistan, and was the only Conservative MP to vote against the Libyan intervention.
The ease with which fighters of the self-proclaimed Islamic State (IS) were able to rampage across Northern Iraq took many by surprise. The West has floundered in its response – President Obama’s recent admission of there being no strategy highlighted the dilemma. Whilst the assurance of ‘no boots on the ground’ is welcome, there is growing talk of the West striking at IS in Syria. This could be a high-risk strategy.
Number 10’s cautious response to date has been the right policy. Many of those who urge military intervention in both Iraq and Syria today supported going to war in Iraq in 2003 on a false premise; the disastrous morphing of the Afghan mission into one of nation-building; and the intervention in Libya, which is turning into a basket-case. Inadvertently, they would also have sided last year with the very same rebels in Syria that we are now combating in Iraq today. If such a shambles were not true, it would be difficult to make up.
Why the errors in judgement? In contrast to the more pluralist approach to foreign policy-making in the US, the process here is more concentrated – having been the preserve of the Foreign Secretary, his mandarins and the No 10 machine. It is therefore particularly incumbent on the component parts to be firing on all cylinders. But the FCO, which was once pre-eminent in its understanding of the Middle East, is not what it was.
The closing of the language school (now reversed); the promotion of skills favoured by management consultants at the expense of more ‘traditional’ skills, such as knowledge of a particular area or peoples; and fewer of our junior diplomats being posted abroad are just some of the reasons which have led to a dilution of skills. Reduced funding has often been the problem. This would be largely academic if it were not for the fact that, once again, the Government is toying with a course of action in which it underestimates the risks.
The starting point must always be clarity of objective. If the purpose of our military intervention is to eradicate IS, then the Pentagon is right to conclude that this requires intervention in Syria. But if the objective is to drive IS out of Northern Iraq, then intervening in Syria becomes unnecessary. The international community must decide.
Iraq is the more straightforward. Given our misguided invasion of 2003, we have a certain responsibility towards the people. Britain has rightly been at the forefront of efforts to bring humanitarian relief to both Yazidis and Kurds. We must continue to do this.
However, if Parliament agrees to military action in Iraq, we should be mindful of any ‘mission creep’. We must learn from our errors in Afghanistan. Any British action against IS must be at the invitation of the Iraqi Government, and be clearly defined.
We must also recognise that, whilst US air strikes have checked IS’ advance for the time being, they will not achieve victory alone. We are not dealing with a disparate group of terrorists living in caves, but a well-organised and well-equipped guerrilla army. A significant step-up in the air campaign would also risk larger civilian casualties.
Troops on the ground are needed, but these must be local forces. The symbolism of the West alone driving this Caliphate out of Iraq would be extremely negative. And here the elephant in the room is the Iraqi Army. It numbers over 250,000, and is well equipped. If properly organised and led, it should have no difficulty in driving out an IS force numbering perhaps 10,000.
Meanwhile, should the Iraqi Army need bolstering, surely regional powers could assume greater responsibility for their common security? Some would have to be dissuaded from actively financing or supporting IS and their ilk, but others – such as the well-equipped and trained Saudi forces – could play a more direct role.
There are signs that this may already be happening. Reliable reports are surfacing that the UAE and Egypt recently conducted joint air strikes against militants in the Libyan capital. Whilst potentially worrying – neither the UN nor the Libyans were consulted and consequently this probably constituted an unwarranted use of force – it does at least demonstrate a growing awareness in regional capitals of the threat posed by IS. Properly applied and constrained, this could be a major force for good and to everyone’s benefit.
We must also recognise that the longer-term solution has to be political. Soldiers only buy time. The sectarian politics pursued by the previous Iraqi Prime Minister must become a thing of the past.
However, the West needs to recognise the grave risks of conducting air strikes against IS in Syria. Without the approval of the Assad Government, we would be on uncertain legal ground. Meanwhile, Syria’s Russian-built air defences are more robust than most, and have shot down Turkish aircraft in the past. The downing of a British jet could lead us down a dangerous path and would certainly risk mission creep.
Even if IS were defeated, few have compelling answers for who would take their place. A new group would move to fill the vacuum, and there is no guarantee IS’ replacement would be any more palatable. The morphing of extremist groups from one to another has been a notable feature of the Syrian civil war. The standing of al-Nusra, previously solely linked to al-Qaeda, is one example. Other extremist groups lurk in the shadows. By contrast, the Iraqi Government is poised to regain control of Northern Iraq.
If the West were to, in effect, assist the return of Assad’s rule over IS territory, this would represent a complete U-turn on everything London, Washington and other Western capitals had hoped to achieve in the wake of the Arab Spring. For many, that is a sobering thought, and would make for bitter irony.
As ever, there are no easy answers. Every policy has its downsides, but there is an art in balancing what is desired with what is possible. Helping local forces drive IS out of Northern Iraq is justifiable, clearly defined and achievable. Defeating IS inside Syria is not nearly so clear-cut – which is why the West would be well advised not to go there. Our recent misguided interventions in the region surely suggest caution.