A few weeks ago the prospect of Britain bombing Islamic State in Syria seemed remote. At the beginning of November, the UK parliament’s foreign affairs committee (which has a Conservative majority) issued a report that was highly sceptical of the case for extending airstrikes against the terrorist group beyond Iraq into Syria.
With little chance of winning a vote on this issue, it seemed the British government was planning to drop its ambition to join the military campaign in Syria.
But the brutal attacks in Paris have changed all that. David Cameron now seems determined to join the US and France in bombing IS in Syria. In order to prepare the ground for a vote on this within weeks, he has taken the unusual step of appearing before parliament to offer a formal response to the report by the Foreign Affairs Committee.
Much of Cameron’s statement to parliament sought to emphasise how dangerous the situation is to the UK. At times, Cameron could be accused of overstating the case here. Whether, as he has claimed, IS truly represents an existential threat to Britain, is highly debatable. Few would, however, contest that IS wants to carry out attacks against British civilians. The question is whether the UK launching airstrikes against the group in Syria would do anything to lessen that threat.
One of the principal concerns about airstrikes has been that they won’t make a difference unless they form part of a wider military strategy. Cameron’s response is that UK airstrikes would play a vital role in taking on IS and that the wider strategy can be to support local fighters such as the Free Syrian Army.
Both are rather dubious suggestions. By the middle of October 2015 the US-led coalition had launched 2,700 airstrikes against IS in Syria. These have restricted the movements of the group to some extent, but have not seriously challenged its hold on territory or its operational capabilities. The idea that Britain’s contribution of a small number of planes to this effort would make a substantial difference seems highly unlikely.
As Cameron concedes, IS cannot be defeated without ground forces challenging the group directly. But with no appetite in the US, Britain or other countries to send ground troops to Syria, this is left to local forces. Cameron claims there are roughly 70,000 opposition fighters on the ground in Syria but these groups have not been able to defeat IS yet. It remains unclear how support from the British would make a difference.
Another point often raised is that any military strategy needs to be backed up by a political solution to the civil war in Syria in order to end the chaos that has allowed IS to prosper.
Again, Cameron sought to respond to this criticism directly by renewing Britain’s commitment to the continuing diplomatic efforts to find a political settlement in Syria. But he also argues that Britain cannot wait for a diplomatic solution in Syria before it confronts IS militarily.
He fails to acknowledge that engaging in military strikes against IS in Syria (against the wishes of the Assad regime) may in fact weaken Britain’s standing on the diplomatic front. As a belligerent in the conflict, Britain will no longer be able to present itself with any degree of impartiality when trying to win the support of the various parties to the conflict. That in turn could scupper the chances of a diplomatic solution.
A legal quandary
Without the consent of the Assad regime in Damascus, or the explicit authorisation for the use of force by the UN, there are serious doubts as to whether any military action by Britain in Syria would even be legal.
The British government has long argued that it does not need the consent of the Assad regime to launch strikes in Syria, on the basis that the regime in Damascus has effectively ceded sovereignty as a result of the atrocities committed on its own people.
This argument may have some strength if endorsed by the UN – and Cameron has sought to strengthen the legal case in his latest plan. The resolution adopted by the UN last week requiring all states to “take all necessary measures” to tackle IS is the most important addition in this respect. But whether this constitutes explicit authorisation for airstrikes on Syria is highly contentious.
Will it pass?
Even though many questions remain, it does look as though Cameron has done enough to convince the vast majority of MPs in his own party to back him in any vote on the issue. But the government only has a slim majority in parliament. The SNP will almost certainly vote against any military action. The question, then, is what position the Labour Party will take.
In response to Cameron’s statement, Labour leader Jeremy Corbyn again expressed deep scepticism at the prospect of Britain bombing Syria. Others in his party are more sympathetic though.
Corbyn has indicated that he still hopes to achieve a “collective view” within his senior team that would allow him to impose a party line on his MPs if the issue comes to a vote. The degree to which he is successful in achieving this over the coming weeks may well determine whether or not Cameron gets his way on military action in Syria.