The UK debate over air strikes reveals the strategic void at the heart of Westminster
The Commons debate on whether the existing British air strikes against Islamic State in Iraq should be extended to Syria revealed the strategic black hole at the heart of Westminster. Despite the stirring calls to arms from both David Cameron and Labour’s potential leader Hilary Benn, this was less a debate about Syria and more of a litmus test for the principle of intervention. It was also clear that Labour can no longer make a meaningful contribution to debate about national security with a leader whose ideological commitment to pacifism allows no circumstances in which force would ever be used. The result is that the only formal opposition to government policy is binary — intervention or no intervention. The effect on national security should not be underestimated. The lamentable lack of strategic content in almost 12 hours of debate made clear that despite the outcome, the practice, if not the principle, of military intervention is in poor health on both sides of the House.
It is hard to imagine an intervention with a stronger moral and strategic mandate — a UN resolution and a request for assistance after an attack on a Nato ally. Nonetheless, political will must be matched by a commitment to a strategy that has a strong chance of succeeding. Yet militarily the plan under debate will not prove to be decisive. At best the extension of air strikes represents the correction of a logical deficit in the UK’s contribution to the fight against IS. We are in practice at war with a pseudo-state that requires conventional land forces to defeat. Western politicians still do not seem to have grasped that unlike al-Qaeda, whose aim was the removal of infidels from the region, IS seeks control of territory with no borders because all must be enfolded into the caliphate. Clearly, special forces and air power alone won’t decisively change the facts on the ground.
The cliché of military strategy is that generals always “fight the last war”. In the case of the UK and indeed the US it would be a significant improvement if political leaders allowed their generals to respond to the lessons of the 2003 Iraq campaign. Absent from the Commons debate were answers to how IS will ultimately be defeated, territory cleared and stability provided for reconstruction and political settlement. Instead, the Syria debate gave us the clearest indication yet that the 2015 Strategic Defence and Security Review (SDSR), announced in the preceding weeks, will commit the UK to exactly the type of intervention that failed in Libya. Politically it seems that the only palatable option is based on providing air support to local militias, without a commitment to providing troops for military and stability operations.
The observation that campaigns without a controllable ground component have unexpected outcomes both militarily and politically is hardly surprising. The 70,000 “moderate” fighters in Syria that Cameron touted are geographically diverse and militarily uneven, while the CIA’s claim that 45,000 are committed to democracy remains unprovable.
Despite a laudable commitment to the Nato target of spending 2 per cent of GDP on defence, the SDSR was disproportionately skewed towards plugging the gaps created by the 2010 defence review and towards the expensive, unproven F-35 fighter jet. The direction of travel towards reliance on air power is unmistakable.
Through several years of Western prevarication IS has become an entrenched force in Iraq and Syria. While its cross-border territorial gains can be reversed, doing so would require a degree of commitment that does not yet exist among Nato members. Most politicians within the Nato member states seem to accept that IS cannot be defeated without a comprehensive ground strategy, yet the reluctance to deploy Nato troops has become a shibboleth, especially within the UK.
The door is still open to a meaningful commitment from the Western allies in co-operation with local forces. Meaningful means paving the way for Nato ground forces, stability operations and diplomatic assistance, which were so tragically denied to Iraq after the surge. The decision to commit air power without ground forces makes the intervention a political rather than a pragmatic exercise.