In 2012 the House of Commons voted down David Cameron’s attempt to bomb Assad’s forces in Syria. Fifty Conservative backbenchers either abstained or voted against the government in that defeat. They did not do so because they were pacifists. A disproportionate number of them were ex-military officers. The reason they voted against their government was because they were unprepared to authorise the use of lethal force without a clear aim and a properly thought out plan, with a decent chance of achieving that aim. They were unwilling to countenance the deaths of conscripts and civilians for merely symbolic purposes.
In all the calculations the government undertakes before it brings the decision on whether to bomb Syria before the House again, the least important is how many Labour and Tory rebels there will be. The really important decisions are about what we can achieve and how we can achieve it.
This calculation has a number of dimensions. Firstly there is the military one. It is a cliché of modern warfare that air power alone cannot win wars. The truth is worse than that. Air power is remarkably ineffective even at simply destroying targets, without allies on the ground to find those targets. So the Russian air bombardment progressed at two or three times the pace of the American one precisely because it had the Syrian Army to nominate targets for it, and as a result it had a serious military impact.
By contrast the 8,000 American sorties in the last year, against 16,000 targets, has been much less effective. Other than the Kurds it had no real reliable eyes on the ground. During that time the recruitment rate of IS doubled to 30,000 fighters from 100 countries, in part no doubt because IS used Western involvement as a casus belli and recruiting sergeant.
And that of course is the lethal logic behind the Paris, Beirut, Baghdad and Ankara attacks. IS hope that they will provoke more anger, more military action, and more recruitment for them. Emotional responses by Western governments suit their purpose. Our responsibility is not just to react to them in a way that continues their cycle of violence, but to out think them. We should not kid ourselves. The cost of intervention is likely to be more, not less, terrorism at home. If we out think them then that risk is justified.
We need to create a ground force in both Iraq and Syria that can defeat and destroy them on the ground (not just “degrade” them.). If, and only if, that is possible, then providing massive air support will achieve a real purpose. Previously the Iraqi Army collapsed because of a mixture of poor leadership, corruption and cowardice. It will need to be fixed, but in the short term it will need to be propped up by a regional coalition. Building that regional military force is probably the single most urgent action that needs to happen in the coming weeks.
In the North of Iraq and in Syria we will have to face the distasteful prospect of allying with the Syrian government forces. Nobody pretends that the Syrian regime is anything other than barbarous, any more than we pretended that our Soviet allies in the Second World War were nice people. But IS is the greater evil, and it is unrealistic to pretend that we can defeat them without the Syrian government, at least in the short term.
Which brings us to the political end game that we have to play for. Many in the West do not realise that IS had a precursor, Al Qaeda in Iraq (AQI), which was effectively destroyed by 2009. This military destruction was carried out by American and British Special Forces in a concentrated counter insurgency campaign under the leadership of General Stanley McChrystal. It was probably the most successful such campaign in modern times, but it left a political vacuum, in an environment under the Maliki government that left the Sunni communities feeling marginalised and oppressed. AQI was a vicious organisation, but IS is worse.
The lesson is clear. Military action alone, no matter how successful, is futile by itself. We must create a political settlement that does not create fertile ground for a new IS, once we have destroyed the old one. The political settlement in both Iraq and Syria must first and foremost protect the rights of every group, Sunni, Shia, Alawite, Kurd, Christian or whatever. This may involve a solution that could fall anywhere between strongly decentralised states and full partition. In achieving this the major states are going to have to face up to the ambitions of the regional players, from Saudi Arabia through to Iran, and make it plain that we will no longer tolerate their mischief making that has been such a driver in destabilising the region for so long. America and Russia are also going to have to realise that both of them have strategic interests in the area, and both will have to accept the other’s interests being protected, something that they have not done so far.
If we are willing to undertake this programme, and deliver on it, with an attention span greater than any of the Western States have managed so far, then military action is worthwhile. If not, then military action, particularly air offensive only action, will be as useful, and as comfortable, as poking a hornets nest with a stick. That would be playing into IS’s hands, and even if there were a Parliamentary majority for it, it would be an outcome we would live to regret.