John Baron is a member of the Foreign Affairs Select Committee, and MP for Basildon and Billericay.
The Chief of the Defence Staff’s recent comment about our unwillingness to sanction military interventions further indicates there will be a vote on intervention in Syria when Parliament resumes. That Daesh is winning the conflict cannot be denied. But what is needed is not just the deployment of more force, but fresh thinking as to the West’s approach to this near five-year conflict. Having proposed military intervention on both sides, the West now needs to focus its efforts in forging a regional alliance to combat the greater threat – even if this means dropping our opposition to Bashar al-Assad in order to achieve this goal. Otherwise, we risk displaying the same strategic deficit we exhibited in our foreign policy mistakes in Iraq, Afghanistan and Libya.
Having initially wanted to support the rebels, and then intervene against Assad, we need to decide which is the key objective. If it is to defeat Daesh, then we should do our best to bring together a coalition of regional forces whose objective is to do just that. This should include the Russians and the Iranians, as well as Syria’s other neighbours – even if this means acquiescing in allowing Assad to remain in power in the short-term.
Without this strategic step-change in our approach, the UK’s involvement in air strikes would achieve very little, and could be counter-productive. Setting aside what meaningful operational contribution a small number of RAF aircraft will make to existing air operations, there is the difficult issue of who would fill the vacuum in Syria were Daesh to be defeated. It has been a feature of this conflict that extremist groups have lurked in the shadows before morphing into a bigger threat. A more lasting strategy is required, particularly as it is widely accepted that air strikes alone will not destroy Daesh.
There needs to be a fresh reappraisal of what we in the West really want, leading to a ‘Grand Strategy’ as to how we will achieve this. Though the Government still clings to its mantra that ‘Assad must go’, most agree that he does not pose a threat to our security, whereas the opposite is true of Daesh. As distasteful as it may be to some, Assad and ourselves share the same dangerous enemy – and Government policy should change to reflect this reality.
We need to work alongside and make common cause with Daesh’s opponents. This will entail cooperating more closely with the Iranians and the Russians, who have much to fear from Daesh themselves. The Russians have shown readiness to deploy ground forces to Syria, and it is no secret that the Iranians have been involved militarily almost from the outset. Without more cooperation, the West risks leaving the initiate to these key players.
Combined action with other neighbouring countries, coupled with Russian and Iranian heft backed up by Western air strikes, and a renewed ground offensive in Iraq in cooperation with the Kurds, would have a real chance of crippling Daesh. Moscow and Tehran’s deep diplomatic and political connexions with the Damascus Government stand a decent chance of ensuring political stability in Syria by finding some sort of settlement acceptable to all parties.
In addition to this new strategy, there is very much more which should and can be done on other important fronts.
First of all, it is clear that the organisation has a keen business sense and is able to finance itself handsomely by selling oil and by receiving donations, many of which originate from Middle Eastern countries whose governments are enemies of Daesh. Yet there seems to have been slow progress in cracking down on these financial flows and disrupting the business links which sustain the organisation. This must change, and greater international cooperation will facilitate this.
Secondly, Daesh has also shown itself to be a prodigious and adept user of social media, which it has effectively employed to recruit adherents to its murderous ideology, some of whom have carried out terrorist acts in the West. Yet efforts to curb this do not seem to have cut off the flow of Daesh social media output. Given many of the internet services are based in the West, there must surely be more scope for this.
Meanwhile, we must properly support the refugee camps in Syria and neighbouring countries which are housing the estimated 11 milliom people who have been displaced by the long civil war. Many of these camps are operating far above capacity and basic services are under severe strain as some donor countries fall short of their pledges – the UNHCR claims it currently has a $795 million funding gap in its Syrian operation. Deteriorating conditions in the camps form part of the reason why so many Syrians have recently decided to make the dangerous journey to Europe.
The British Government has a good record in this field, and is second only to the United States in the amount of money – over £1 billion – it is donating to the cause. This is worth remembering when some European partners, who are substantially less generous in this regard, accuse Britain of not pulling her weight in coping with the recent influx of refugees.
Western Governments must now ditch their current piecemeal approach and embark upon a wider and imaginative ‘Grand Strategy’ of working with unconventional partners to destroy Daesh. Assad does not pose a threat to our security, and is desperately seeking to destroy Daesh. Calling for his removal only splinters the efforts against the organisation. Unless this new strategy is put in place, Daesh will continue to make ground in Syria, whilst the Russians and Iranians play a much more dominant role. The West’s current strategy is clearly failing. It’s time for hard choices.