As UK warplanes bombard ISIS positions, the aim is to place greater pressure on the terrorist organisation and limit their capabilities within Syria and abroad. With the UK joining the US, Russia, France, Turkey, Saudi Arabia, Qatar, Iran, Iraq, Australia and others in the fight against ISIS, how has it changed the dynamics in Syria?
Here we assess what UK air strikes could possibly achieve:
The main aim is to defeat ISIS who are believed to control whole swathes of territory in Syria with their capital being Al-Raqqa. By bombing ISIS positions, the UK hopes to increase the pressure on the group and limit their ability to expand. Indeed rumours are already spreading that ISIS are seeking to create safe havens in Iraq in response to the incessant air strikes.
However, in reality, news reports on the ground paint a different picture. According to reports from Syria, ISIS appear to have been driven out of the cities and appear to be dominant in the countryside areas where they are spread out, essentially nullifying much of the impact of air strikes. ISIS also do not operate as a regular army but rather as a guerrilla force, attacking in small numbers easily dispersible at the time of an impending air strike.
Many will point to the Russian air strikes as being effective in assisting the Syrian army. However this is not because Russia is bombing ISIS. Rather it is because Russia is bombing the Free Syria Army and other opposition groups to ensure the survival of the Assad regime. Here Russia has a clear aim in its air strikes and a wider range of targets so as to inflict maximum damage as opposed to the UK and the US.
So on the ISIS front, it is unlikely that the UK will make much, if any, difference at all on this front.
The Prime Minister stated that the UK position on Assad is that he must go, the same position that the US, Turkey and Saudi Arabia hold. It is argued that UK air strikes will work in tandem with the political process. However Russia is opposed to the UK stance on Assad and its air strikes on Syrian opposition groups are aimed at ensuring that the UK aim of removing Assad is not realised. The differences in aims has even resulted in a Russian jet being shot down by the Turks, believed to be in retaliation to Russia’s bombing of Turkomen areas and other allies of Turkey in Syria.
However, the divisions go further than that. Turkey is currently engaged in a war against the Kurds. These Kurds however, are backed and armed by the US who see them as key allies on the ground in the fight against ISIS. Turkey has requested a buffer zone to prevent these armed Kurds from potentially establishing their own state. The US has refused resulting in tensions between the two states.
To add further to the already complex dynamics within Syria, Masoud Barzani, leader of Iraqi Kurdistan, is in Saudi Arabia with discussions believed to be centred around providing support for the Kurds in exchange for influence as the Kingdom seeks to ensure it has a major say in the future of Syria.
The sum of these differences, and they are not the only differences, is that there is no agreement as to who are the ‘opposition’. The moderate opposition according to the US, Turkey and the UK, are being bombed by Russia. But the UK, US, Turkey AND Russia, are all allies and conducting air strikes against ISIS. We haven’t even mentioned Iran yet and its military advisers conducting Assad’s campaign against the opposition and ISIS.
Given the UK’s limited influence on Turkey and Saudi Arabia, let alone the US and Russia, it is unlikely that the UK will have much impact on the dynamics surrounding the political solution.
Much has been said of bombing ISIS oil trails and bringing banks to account that allow the flow of money to ISIS. However, the fact that ISIS oil is being bought speaks volumes as to the situation on the ground. Reports have suggested it is not only states that are buying the oil which is rumoured to be ‘laundered’ through Kurdish oil. It has even been suggested that Syrians have been buying the oil, including the Syrian government as it struggles to ensure the provision of electricity, fuel and other basic essentials for civilians to survive. Furthermore, ISIS has taken over an area that possesses a large amount of oil and on which many of the neighbouring states have depended on in the past. It is unlikely therefore that trade for this necessity would suddenly cease, no matter how bad ISIS are. Such are the realities of politics, economics, and war.
And given the number of interests in the region surrounding oil, the UK are unlikely to impact these dynamics both politically and militarily.
Hillary Benn MP, when delivering what was dubbed by some as ‘one of the most extraordinary speeches of modern times’, stressed that the UK should not abandon its French ally and that the perception that inaction would give to ‘our allies’ was a compelling reason to get involved. However, the statement appears skewed and implies that the two key allies of the UK, the US and France, are united in how to tackle the Syria issue.
The reality is, they are not. And France has been seeking for some time to shrug off the US as an ‘instructor’ and has sought to pursue an independent foreign policy. This was evident during the negotiations over the Iran Deal, where the French were accused of ‘posturing’ and almost scuppered the deal at the last moment, but for significant US pressure.
On Syria, whilst the US are against the role Russia is currently playing, France has been seeking closer ties in a bid to present an alternative plan to that of the US and take a leading role in bringing about a solution in a former French colony.
It is unclear to what extent the UK will stand with France in Syria. Will it do so to the extent of extending a hand to Russia as Hollande attempted to do as recently as the climate change summit in Paris last week? Or will it remain in the US camp and oppose Russia’s ‘unhelpful’ interference? These are all serious questions if any coherent international effort is to be made to end the crisis.
The failure to address these issues and these questions demonstrates a rather awkward reality; that the UK is conducting a ‘token gesture’ for its allies so as not to be accused of doing nothing. The UK is responding to a French President desperately trying to outdo Obama by creating a broad alliance that includes Russia. But the UK is not alone in giving a token gesture. The Germans, under pressure by Hollande, are also sending troops to the region, even though these troops have orders not to engage in combat.
However, whereas the Germans will not be responsible for any civilian deaths, UK airstrikes most certainly will. And although the civilian casualties will be significantly less than those caused by Russian air strikes, one must ask if token gestures at the expense of any innocent life are truly signs of solidarity, or a worrying disregard of the realities of the situation.