The Daily Star
Friday,September 18 2015
By Michael Glackin
A recent biography of British Prime Minister David Cameron revealed that the United Kingdom’s top soldier complained that discussing Syria with Cameron and his government in 2012 was rather like talking to children.
In colorful language, Gen. Sir David Richards, who was chief of defense staff at the time, said Cameron lacked “the balls” to put “boots on the ground” in Syria. He added that if Cameron had listened to him back then, ISIS would have effectively been strangled at birth.
On one level you can’t blame Cameron for not taking the general’s advice. Richards is one of those tipped to be heavily criticized when, and if, the long-delayed report of the Chilcot inquiry into British involvement in the Iraq war is ever published. And let’s face it, the British military made plenty of mistakes in Iraq and Afghanistan.
But the general also has a point. While it’s impossible to say with any certainty that earlier intervention in Syria would have prevented the spread of ISIS, or the wider bloodbath of the last four years, standing on the sidelines has hardly proved a success.
Hundreds of thousands of Syrians have been killed by the regime of President Bashar Assad in the last four years, while thousands more have perished at the hands of ISIS. Its affiliates have terrorized Europe, and the entire Middle East, from Tunisia to Yemen, has been destabilized. Western European unity is creaking under the weight of the hundreds of thousands of refugees fleeing the turmoil and the human carnage.
Cameron’s “child-like” understanding of the Syrian crisis has been sorely tested in recent weeks as he faced intense scrutiny in the wake of the refugee crisis and following his announcement this month that a Royal Air Force drone had targeted and killed two British ISIS fighters near Raqqa in August. A third British extremist was killed in a U.S. airstrike at around the same time.
The U.K. has used killer drones in Afghanistan, a declared conflict zone. However, the attack in Syria was the first time it has deployed them in a country with which, and in which, the U.K. was not at war.
Cameron said the strikes were designed to foil terror attacks planned by the two men in the U.K. He insisted the action did not mark wider British involvement in coalition airstrikes against ISIS targets in Syria, a step that would require parliamentary approval. However, Cameron is poised to call a vote in Parliament within weeks in a bid to gain authorization to launch such airstrikes. He also warned last week that removing ISIS would require “not just spending money, not just aid, not just diplomacy, but will on occasion require hard military force.”
There is nothing really new in this. Cameron has been keen to expand British airstrikes to Syria for some time. Along with the killing of the two British ISIS fighters, Royal Air Force personnel have already taken part in bombing raids over the country while embedded with U.S. and Canadian forces.
This partly marks a belief within the intelligence services that terror attacks, such as the one that took place in Sousse in Tunisia in June in which 30 Britons were killed, are being planned in Raqqa – although the Tunisian shooting clearly owes more to Libyan instability than to events in Syria.
But the sudden step-up in rhetoric is also a knee-jerk reaction to the refugee crisis engulfing Western Europe. The British chancellor of the exchequer, George Osborne, Cameron’s effective deputy, said the only way to stop the flow of refugees was to end the Syrian conflict. Though his comment avoided the war in Iraq and the terrible state of Libya and Afghanistan, it was belated recognition that the Syrian civil war has reached a stalemate.
In a move to break the stalemate, and amid what is clearly a buildup of Russian troops in Syria, Cameron’s big idea is centered on the U.K.’s extending its military strikes against the “controlling brains” of ISIS, alongside a diplomatic push with Iran and Russia that would see Assad remain in power for a transitional period of six months while some form of national government can be formed to take power.
Whether Iran and Russia are ready to consign Assad to the dustbin of history remains questionable. Both are deeply suspicious that the West could use military action against ISIS as cover for removing Assad. Hence British Foreign Secretary Philip Hammond’s bizarre comment that RAF airstrikes in Syria would be prohibited from targeting areas where the civil war is raging.
The caveats are fast diluting an already watered-down strategy that looks as ill conceived as Cameron’s last failed attempt to get parliamentary approval for British airstrikes in Syria two years ago. That time Assad was the target, this time he looks set to be the beneficiary.
But the real question is whether the military action being considered against ISIS will have any practical impact. The largely token U.S.-led airstrikes against ISIS, supported by a handful of RAF Tornados and even smaller contingents from other Western and Arab nations, have contained some ISIS activities, but have had little real impact on its murderous acts.
ISIS may now control marginally less territory, but despite the airstrikes it has still been able to capture key cities, most notably Palmyra in Syria and Ramadi in Iraq. Dropping a few more bombs on ISIS in Syria is no substitute for a military strategy to eradicate its evil. To paraphrase General Richards, despite the tough talk, Cameron is still lacking in the cojones department.
Michael Glackin is former managing editor of Beirut based newspaper THE DAILY STAR. A version of this article appeared in the print edition of The Daily Star on September 18, 2015.