After much controversy, Britain is now bombing ISIL targets in Syria. But the intensity of the debates surrounding the decision to bomb is unlikely to be rewarded by any immediate commensurate outcomes on the ground. Britain’s decision to bomb Syria is largely therefore of symbolic importance. That doesn’t mean, however, that the bombing campaign itself is pointless.
There are a number of reasons why the immediate outcomes of Britain’s involvement are unlikely to be dramatic. First, the security outcomes of the bombing are likely to be limited. Prominent in Prime Minister David Cameron’s justifications for bombing was the need to keep Britain safe from ISIL terrorist attacks. But this link is specious. The main terrorist threat to Britain comes from home-grown extremists. Where there are links to ISIL, they are links, such as through the internet, that aren’t amenable to solutions consisting of brimstone missiles. Second, another justification given for bombing is the need to degrade ISIL’s military infrastructure: to roll it back as a necessary preparation for a political solution. But whether the UK did or did not bomb ISIL in Syria is largely irrelevant to this outcome. The military capabilities that Britain will add to the bombing campaign already underway are very limited – another eight aircraft, bringing us to sixteen in total. This is dwarfed by the efforts of the US. Third, the extent to which bombing Syria will enhance Britain’s political influence is questionable. Much larger UK military contributions to the campaigns in Afghanistan and Iraq from 2001 and 2003 did not give Britain any strong ability to shape strategy towards the campaign or to influence the US. The most significant tangible impact of the furore surrounding the bombing issue actually is in terms of domestic politics and the difficulties that debates over British involvement will cause for the Labour Party.
But if Britain’s contribution to the bombing is likely to make little difference this does not mean that the bombing campaign itself is purposeless. Bombing makes sense because it is a tool that works, at least for certain specific, limited purposes. Many have argued that bombing in Syria is pointless unless it is attached to a broader strategy. Intuitively, this seems to make a great deal of sense. If our experiences in Iraq and Afghanistan should have taught us anything, it is that military power absent a clear sense of the political objectives to be pursued and a broader concept of ways to achieve them is likely to mire us in an unproductive conflict. But as I have indicated in a previous blog, in a sense we often expect too much from strategy. Strategy now seems to have a talismanic quality – we assume that once we develop a strategy, everything will be well, and that military action, including bombing, can be nested in a broader scheme of action that will draw the bloody conflict in Syria to a close.
The problem is, however, that not any strategy will do. Strategy is the art of the possible – it is perfectly possible to craft coherent, plausible plans for Syria without articulating a strategy that actually will work on the ground. As it is, the structure of the debate in relation to bombing seems to be that (a) bombing should be contingent on having ground forces ready to act in tandem, and that (b) military action on land and in the air needs to be conducted within the framework of an internationally agreed political framework. The problem is that if we had to wait for this to fall into place, we would do nothing and ISIL would continue to expand geographically.
Airpower cannot provide a political solution to the crisis in Syria, but it can and has helped to decided some important things in Syria and Iraq. In concert with existing land forces, it has helped to decide that ISIL couldn’t take Baghdad; it has helped to decide that ISIL has been rolled back in important areas; it has helped to
decide to that many people who would otherwise be subjected to ISIL’s murderous regime have not been so. These are not insignificant achievements.
The problem with waiting for land forces and a political solution is three fold. First, the likely land forces, drawn from various militias on the ground, are likely to be problematic to use. If our experiences in Iraq and Afghanistan should have taught us anything it is that co-opting local warlords can be a doubled-edged sword. These are groups with their own agendas and they cannot be relied upon. Second, we may still wait quite some time for a political settlement given the number of actors with interests in the outcomes in Syria, and their competing objectives. The Russians, for example, may well be willing to support an international political solution – but they are likely to want to wait until their military support has put Assad in a better bargaining position.
Third, and most important, there is an additional step that hasn’t generally be focused upon. Even if ISIL can be defeated by the motley prospective collection of ground forces and even if a political solution is framed that all anti-ISIL factions can sign up to, that settlement has to be made to work on the ground. ISIL emerged in Iraq and Syria because the existing states were weak. There is nothing at the moment that gives much real hope that even if ISIL were defeated in overt combat that, short of bloody repression, either the Syrian or Iraqi states would be able to reconcile ISIL’s support base to the existing Syrian or Iraqi governments. To put this another way – the ISIL proto-state is for many in the region a stronger state in terms of its legitimacy than the alternatives that we might favour.
So if we had to wait before we use airpower for a fully developed strategy that guarantees success, then we will not use air power at all. But absent this overarching strategy, airpower can still achieve limited, but important objectives. It can help prevent the further expansion of the ISIL state; and it can help ensure the survival of anti-ISIL actors on the ground. These are still worthwhile objectives and they support, rather than impede, the search for a wider solution. If Britain believes that these are worthwhile objectives, then it is right that we should also be involved in the campaign. We just shouldn’t be naive enough to expect that our involvement will be decisive.
Image: A U.S. Air Force Boeing KC-135R refuels a Royal Air Force Tornado GR4 over Iraq, February 2007, via wikimedia commons.