Kamal Alam is a Fellow for Middle East Regional Defence and Security Issues at the The Institute for Statecraft and is an adviser to the British Army on Syrian Affairs.
More than two thousand years ago, as the Macedonian Army of Alexander the Great fought the Persians on the plains of Gaugamela, a seismic shift occurred in the region. For it was from Tyre in modern day Lebanon that Alexander first got word of the plains of Babylon where the battle for the future of the Middle East would be fought.
As Alexander reached out from the Mediterranean coast towards the heart of the Persian Empire, his seasoned generals Cleitus, Parmenian and Craterus cautioned him not to let his temper get the better of him. Above all Alexander remembered the words of his teacher, Aristotle, about the superiority of Persian strategy in the long drawn plains of Babylon.
For this great battle was fought between modern day Mosul and Irbil. As David Cameron lays out the strategy to engage in Iraq and Syria during his speech at the UN, and recalls Parliament, he too must heed the call of his Generals. General Lord David Richards, the former Chief of Defence Staff, was ignored both in his Syria and Libya warnings as to how Britain should engage with conflict. ‘Tread carefully’had been the message coming out of the uniformed Generals, who had seen the British Army bogged down in both Afghanistan and Iraq by depleted resources and a far greater lack of political will in Parliament to back the Army in its operations in Iraq and Afghanistan.
Britain’s humiliating retreat from Basra was mocked by our leading ally, the Americans. Furthermore it was a travesty to the great work of Generals such as Sir Barney White-Spunner and Sir Adrian Bradshaw and Jonathan Shaw. Furthermore a dozen or so Majors and Colonels who had held the delicate peace in Southern Iraq, can now be found and be heard as to why their on the ground assessments were ignored by those in Parliament and the Foreign Office.
During the campaign in Libya within a few hours each of other, General David Richards and Liam Fox were caught in public contradicting each other as to the actual objectives in the air campaign over Libya. As Chief of Defence Staff, General Richards was the principal military advisor to the Prime Minister; it should have been his prerogative to lay out strategy and command. Furthermore, General Richards, who was the hero of Sierra Leone and the first and only British General to command American troops in the theatre of war since World War II, had and still has a respect unparalled across not just the Arab World but the wider Muslim world from Egypt all the way to Pakistan and Brunei.
Richards had made it clear that Gaddafi was not a target and that regime change was not what he was directing the Armed Forces to do. Similarly before retirement last summer Richards made it clear that Cameron should lay off Syrian air strikes unless he was prepared to arm and put a 100,000 man force on the ground. There was no reason to do a piece meal effort. Similarly General Sir Richard Sheriff is of the view that air strikes in Iraq will lead to nothing without substantial boots on the ground.
General Jonathan Shaw, former Director of Special Forces, left the Army despite Cameron’s pleas not to retire prematurely. Shaw is rather a special forces hero and, similar to Sheriff and Richards, believes that in Syria, there is no need for air strikes on their own. It further complicated the muddle as there is no victor no vanquish situation. At the same time, the SAS should not be risked to take out a few irrelevant villages and oil fields.
As we see Iraq and Syria, grabbing the headlines we forget the utter chaos of Libya with 16 different Gaddafis overthrowing one brutal hardman. So as Cameron approaches another Parliament vote, he should be also reminded that those MPs who have worn the uniform and fought for their country all voted against the Syria incursion last year. To go to battle is for Parliament to decide but to ignore the morale and strategy of the Army would be a cardinal sin which must not be repeated.
In the next six months, the British Army loses two of its finest Arabists as a result of the disillusion caused by the wars in Iraq, Libya and Afghanistan. It is not the war that bothers any of the fine officers but rather a sense of betrayal of why they fought. An Army that is feted across the Arab and Muslim world for the Royal Military Academy Sandhurst, for the marching Foot Guards bands and galloping Life Guards, should not be made to stand idle without its intellectual and strategic input.
Alexander ultimately succumbed to his own vanity as he ignored General after General in his quest to revolutionise the Middle East and Hindu Kush. Whilst Cameron is no Alexander, his quest to bring change to a volatile region must not ignore men like Richards who forged close personal bonds with Arab leaders in the region as he put them in their boots. Even Assad understood Richards and his Generals had the strategy and command to calculate a realistic war. Cameron must not ignore the Army, which ultimately pays the highest sacrifice.