John Baron is a member of the Foreign Affairs Select Committee, and MP for Basildon and Billericay.
In the wake of the terrible atrocities in Paris, from which we are all still reeling, the Government has once again raised the prospect of extending RAF air strikes to Syria, and it is clear that a Commons vote is in the offing. However, the Government first of all needs to be clear what it intends to achieve by this policy.
From the Prime Minister’s recent statements about protecting national security, this may suggest the Government is more focused on counter-terrorism, seeking Parliamentary approval to employ RAF aircraft and drones to carry out targeted strikes against Daesh terrorists like Mohammed Emwazi, Reyaad Khan and Ruhul Amin. In this scenario, the Government would step back from the wider Syrian conflict and focus on protecting Britain.
However, if, as seems more likely, Government policy is to destroy Daesh, then the West requires a fresh approach. Instead of just applying more air power, we will require a ‘grand strategy’ – all agree that air strikes alone will not defeat this organisation. Only ground forces, capable of taking and holding territory, will be able to defeat Daesh and other jihadist groups.
Such a grand strategy should bring together the largest possible coalition of international forces – diplomatic and military. This should include regional powers – including Iran – as well as Russia, which already has a considerable military footprint in Syria, and which has also suffered a terrorist outrage at Daesh’s hands.
Working with the Russians and Iranians may mean acquiescing to Assad remaining in power, at least in the short term. This is deeply distasteful to many in the West but, though the Government clings to the mantra that ‘Assad must go’, he does not pose a threat to our security, whereas Daesh clearly does. We all share the same dangerous enemy, and the Government should be prepared accordingly to modify its policy to reflect this reality.
Western air power combined with local ground forces, possibly from neighbouring countries, coupled with a fresh diplomatic impetus, could have a real chance of destroying Daesh. Moscow and Tehran’s deep connexions with the Damascus Government stand the best chance of ensuring political stability in Syria by finding some sort of settlement acceptable to all parties. It is positive that the recent Vienna talks seem to suggest that there is finally some movement on the diplomatic front. This can not come soon enough.
However, any new strategy must not be limited to military force. We must work to disrupt Daesh’s business and financial links, and counteract the organisation’s prominence on social media. It must also encompass support of the vast refugee camps. These are helping to house the 11 million Syrians displaced by the fighting, and many are bursting at the seams.
Greater pressure should be applied to those countries which, unlike Britain, are not pulling their weight in this regard and who have not honoured their donation pledges in full – the UNHCR claims it currently has a $795 million funding gap in its Syrian operation. It is in everyone’s interests for this gap to be plugged.
After five years of conflict, the international community owes it to Syria to do all it can to end the violence. However, we must be careful to learn the lessons of our past military interventions in the region, and ensure we have a proper strategy to achieve our goals. The Syrian people deserve nothing less.