Back in July, we asked our readers whether or not the British bombing raids against ISIS in Iraq should be extended over the now non-existent Sykes-Picot border with Syria. Over three quarters of the Conservative Party member respondents said that they should: the figures were 78 per cent for and 15 per cent against. We published the results during early August.
In the middle of September, Jeremy Corbyn was elected Labour leader, and since then the likelihood of that party supporting such action has receded. At the end of that month, Vladimir Putin began Russia’s current military intervention in Syria. It is targeting not so much ISIS as some of Bashir Assad’s other opponents, such as the al-Nusra Front (Al Qaeda in the Levant) and the Army of Conquest. By and large, Iran is helping Assad to fight his ground war while Putin helps to fight his air war, though Russian troops are also active, as are Russian ships.
In the aftermath of the atrocities in Paris, French planes are once again being deployed against ISIS, and there are calls for British ones to join them. Some of those who favour military action in Syria against ISIS are liberal interventionists. Others believe, like the majority of those who responded to our poll, that it makes no sense to bomb ISIS in Iraq but to stop at the non-existent Syrian border. Others still are simply angry at the Paris horror, believe something must be done, and want to hit back – as was the case in the aftermath of 9/11. This last group is probably the largest.
Until or unless David Cameron believes that Conservative MPs will back such bombing, and that enough Labour MPs will peel off to join them, he is very unlikely to risk a Commons vote. The memory of his defeat over air strikes against Assad is still raw, and the Government he leads has a majority of only twelve. He cannot risk another defeat in the lobbies on foreign policy. The Foreign Affairs Select Committee recently published a report opposing bombing in Syria, and up to 30 Tory backbenchers are reported to be against it. Cabinet and Ministerial unity on the proposal has yet to be tested.
But should the Prime Minister press for bombing in the first place? My view, for what it is worth, is that what made sense during the summer doesn’t do so now. Then, it seemed pointless to halt British military action at a frontier that exists on a map only (even though any bombing would arguably be largely symbolic). Now, there is a risk of military entanglement with Russia. What would follow were a British plane to shoot down a Russian one, for example – or, even more pressingly, vice-versa? Are we really willing to be drawn into what is now a fully-fledged proxy war in Syria?
Some see any unwillingness to bomb ISIS in Syria as weakness in the face of the enemy, and say that if Europe’s refugee problem is to be solved it must be tackled at source – which means military intervention to restore order, perhaps with the establishment of “safe havens” as a first step. Others argue that Putin is risking a repetition of Russia’s Afghanistan experience – of which the bombing of the Russia plane in Sharm-el-Sheikh was an early sign – that we mustn’t repeat our own experience in Iraq, and that Europe’s migrant and refugee problem isn’t caused solely or even mainly by Syria’s war.
There are two policy lodestars to steer by, or should be. The first is not to be frightened off military action in Syria by claims that bombing ISIS there will cause shootings here. ISIS or people sympathetic to it are already planning terror in Britain. The second is to recognise that hitting ISIS targets in Syria and being drawn into its civil war (and, furthermore, into a proxy one with Russia) are not necessarily the same, but that the latter must be avoided – and that much, therefore, depends on context.
In July, that context favoured bombing ISIS in Syria; at the moment, it does not. That may change. What won’t is that the main threat to our security is here – among the minority of Britain’s Muslim population that supports violent Islamism. What we need most isn’t mechanical, but human. As we’ve said before, and as Cameron’s latest announcement recognises, we need a vast army of spies and informers.