In the wake of the terrorist attacks against British citizens in Tunisia, the feeling in government is that something must be done. But what kind of response are we talking about?
Prime minister David Cameron has said that he wants to step up intervention in Syria but his hands are tied by a 2013 parliamentary vote. This restricts Britain’s bombing campaign against Islamic State to the borders of Iraq.
Now it seems British pilots have extended their activities and taken part in attacks in Syria while working with US forces. This suggests the government has already decided how to up the ante in its fight against Islamic terrorism.
Julian Lewis, the chairman of the UK parliament’s defence committee, has since taken issue with the government, accusing it of making up its Syria strategy “on the hoof” and warning that if Cameron wants MPs to support intervention, he needs to come up with something much more coherent to convince them.
With the government’s room for manoeuvre hemmed in by a sceptical parliament and a wafer thin majority, what do these developments say about British strategy? Is Julian Lewis right to argue that the government is making up strategy as it goes along?
‘Full spectrum’ response
What we know about the involvement of UK pilots in US bombing campaigns comes from a Freedom of Information request made by human rights organisation Reprieve. The government’s response was dated June 15 – 11 days before the attacks in Tunisia.
For some time now we’ve also known that Royal Navy and RAF pilots have been training with the US Navy in preparation for taking delivery of the new Queen Elizabeth class aircraft carriers.
Bearing in mind the date of the Tunisian attack and the ongoing training of British pilots, the escalation of British military activity over Syria was evidently not a direct response to the attacks in Tunisia.
These Syria operations did not demonstrate the British government’s strategic intent. They were more likely aimed at enabling British forces to collate operational and tactical information should a decision be taken to expand the fight against IS beyond Iraq.
But as Cameron faces increasing pressure to act on the threat posed by terrorism and Islamic State, linking the routine embedding of British personnel to a strategic narrative that suggests something is being done has its advantages. On the back foot since the 2013 vote, hawkish commentators have found it easy to criticise Cameron for his apparent lack of interest in foreign policy.
F-18 operations over Syria do therefore suggest that there is more substance to Cameron’s claim that the government will take a “full-spectrum response” to attacks in Tunisia. Any suggestion that airstrikes in Syria will result in a decline of terrorist activity in Tunisia, or anywhere else for that matter, is nonetheless open to considerable doubt.
Without a ground force, the UK’s ability to play a significant part in operations in Syria is severely limited. Instead British airstrikes have to be coordinated with the activities of allies and proxy armies. Considering the limited effectiveness of Western proxies, however, it seems unlikely that airstrikes alone will produce the sorts of battlefield results that might demonstrate the government is having an effect on Islamic State.
A more likely scenario is that airstrikes will engergise terrorist networks keen on attacking British targets. If this is to be stopped then sufficient counter-terrorist capability will need to be in place to deal with the resultant terror attacks.
If viewed generously, the government’s “full spectrum” response is about containment. The objective is to confine insecurity to the Middle East and manage the conflict through precision strikes and counter-terrorism activities. Viewed more cynically, British actions will cause more insecurity at home and abroad. Airstrikes won’t put an end to the turmoil in the Middle East and may encourage extremism at home. They certainly won’t protect Syrians.
Considering the relative decline of British military power, Lewis’ observations may well be right. Cameron’s “full spectrum” response is more rhetoric than strategy.