As published in the Observer:
Should parliament endorse UK air strikes in Syria?
David Cameron made a characteristically fluent case on Thursday. But he did not actually answer the two critical questions that must precede any decision by Britain to initiate hostilities within Syria: namely, what is the political end game and what is the military plan to achieve it?
The first is incredibly difficult but not impossible. We need to drag all the interested parties around a table and hammer out a mutually acceptable solution.
If we are still a long way from a consensus, it is because most of the main players seem more intent on destabilising their enemies than stabilising their friends.
Saudi Arabia and the Gulf states have a history of enabling financial support for any jihadi group that attacked the Shia – including Isis. Turkey has facilitated the sale of up to a billion dollars of Isis oil, has held open the border for jihadi groups and their intelligence agency has supplied arms to jihadis in Syria.
We need to bang our supposed allies’ heads together and stop this nonsense. It can be done. The Arab nations are waking up to the dangers of their own activities, with the sacking of some of their pro-Isis ministers. Similarly, the Russians need to grip the Iranians.
And we have to stop obsessing about Assad. His regime is vicious, but so is nearly every active player in this conflict. The British government’s line smacks of a retrospective wish to justify its abortive 2013 attempt to bomb him. But the Syrian government still controls most of the cities and is the only plausible guarantor of the safety of all the non-Sunni communities threatened by a jihadi victory. The wisest course is to start negotiations on the future of Syria and Iraq without any preconditions.
The second unanswered question is even harder. What is the military plan? Since we cannot win with air alone, this reduces to “where will we find a pro-western army?”
David Cameron asserted that the “Free Syrian Army” commanded 70,000 troops. What this probably refers to is a disparate range of up to 1,500 different tribes and villages, in possibly 40 loose associations. Many of these operate under the control of Isis or the two essentially al-Qaida affiliates. Only the Kurds are in truth independent of the jihadis.
So this 70,000 is probably a phantom army. Which means that the military force will have to be a regional one, which in turn depends on the Vienna process reaching some form of mutually acceptable conclusion between all the regional powers. In this, Britain could have a very real role, which we should not miss in the heat of the moment. And it is at a time when the Russians are signalling in numerous ways that they are willing to play a real constructive role.
And that is part of the risk of the obsession with British bombing.
Despite the brave words of the prime minister, we will add very little to the military impact. Besides, military actions by themselves are not enough. The best lesson here is the spectacularly successful military action that we and the Americans carried out when we completely wiped out al-Qaida in Iraq. We simply created the vacuum that was then filled by Isis, because we did not fix the politics first.
Furthermore, despite the government’s assertions, our involvement will increase the short-term risk of terrorist attacks in Britain. As the attack on the Russian airliner showed, military actions can crystallise immediate terrorist responses. That is not a reason for inaction, but we should be honest with the British people about the consequences of what we do.
The reason for hesitation here is even more important. The Paris atrocity may just have created a strategic opportunity that will allow Isis to be completely eradicated. That will be in the first case a political initiative, the building of a grand alliance that creates both the plan and the military instrument to bring a stable future to this tortured part of the Middle East. Once that is done, then we should put our shoulder to the wheel, with every bit of military muscle we can muster.
But now? If we focus our efforts on providing a marginal military input in Syria, we will no doubt feel better about ourselves. Perhaps David Cameron will feel that he has put us back in the front rank of the alliance. It might provide some good short-term headlines. But we will have wasted what might be the best opportunity for 10 years to bring a real solution to the tragedy that is Syria and Iraq today.