Garvan Walshe was National and International Security Policy Adviser to the Conservative Party until 2008.
The attention and energy expended on yesterday’s vote defy rational analysis. Its practical effect, to allow British warplanes to attack ISIS on both sides of the Iraq-Syria border, will be minimal. It redistributes the coalition’s airpower. In so far as more planes are being sent, they could just as easily have been sent to conduct operations in Iraq. Things are now tidier, since all combatants on both sides will now ignore the border, but is the West closer to a sensible Syria policy?
Paris, certainly, will be reassured that Britain has been less abject than last time. This will strengthen Hollande’s position, because France too has its Corbynistes, for whom force is legitimate only if it is directed against Western powers. But if we limit ourselves to air strikes we will have made a terrible error of strategy. Unlike Al Qaeda, ISIS is not, principally, a terrorist organisation. Their aim for now is to rule Sunni Muslims, the reconquista is for later.
In Syria, Assad and ISIS fight in symbiosis. The regime’s indiscriminate bombardment prevents rebels from setting up adequate government to replace it. Meanwhile, ISIS only needs to show that ultra-strict Islamic law, however extreme, is less awful than living under the barrel-bombs, shelling, and raids by Assad’s militias that people trapped in the areas held by the other rebel groups have to endure.
The Paris attacks made an “Assad first” strategy unviable. To stand a chance of beating Marine Le Pen, and therefore keeping French democracy secure, François Hollande had to show he was tough enough to fight ISIS. But an ISIS-first strategy that treats them as a terrorist organisation hosted in an “ungoverned space” is doomed. Unrecognised though they may be, they rule like a state, tax like a state, and fight like a state, and harrying them from the air is not sufficient.
The 70,000 men to which David Cameron averred are fully occupied protecting their communities. Unless Assad and Russia can be persuaded to stop their indiscriminate bombardment, and thus rebel-held areas can be given the respite they need to organise governance, nobody will be available to take the fight to ISIS. Though some proposals along these lines are circulating at the margin of the Vienna talks there is as yet little reason to think they will be adopted.
Last week, the Prime Minister ruled out imposing such a “no-bombing zone” on Assad as involving too great a military effort. But unless the imposition of one is threatened, or special forces operating anti-aircraft missiles are inserted into rebel-held territory, it is unlikely to be accepted in negotiations by Assad and Russia.
This raises again the central failure of counter-terrorist interventions since 9/11: whether it was in the conflict between the operation to catch Osama Bin Laden, and the mission to reconstruct Afghanistan; or the debates over whether to continue counter-insurgency and state-building in Iraq, or withdraw to concentrate on counter-terrorism; or, indeed to operate mainly using drones in the Afghanistan-Pakistan border. It is possible to conduct a narrow, counter-terrorist strategy, focused on assassinating individuals and forcing them to take shelter underground. It is relatively economical and safeguards the lives of Western military personnel. But it fails to address the “centre of gravity” of Islamist extremist ideology: that a strictly Islamic system of government gives people less awful government than the alternatives.
To Syrians, Western engagement now appears focused on protecting ourselves alone, quite possibly at their expense. The lesson appears simple: kill 240,000 in Syria, and get away with it; kill 140 in France and you’re in trouble. If it is to succeed, our policy needs to beat ISIS at their own game – governance – and demonstrate that life in a pluralist, Western-aligned, Middle Eastern country is safer, more prosperous and more dignified than the alternatives.
We have to offer Syrians more than humanitarian aid and the receiving end of counter-terrorist operations. Otherwise we will find ourselves holding another vote, after some other atrocity, to authorise war against some other organisation in some other Muslim majority country.
Yesterday’s vote may have moved Britain out of the abject isolationism into which she slumped after Iraq. But it won’t be enough unless accompanied by major and visible steps, taken as part of an international effort, to protect Syrian civilians from their main butcher, Bashar al-Assad.