Britain’s Prime Minister, David Cameron, has today briefed the House of Commons about his ‘comprehensive strategy’ to defeat Isil. This includes extending air strikes into Syria. Undoubtedly, the special precision strike capability of RAF Tornados will make a difference, but if we don’t address the multitude of complexities that come with attacking Isil we will repeat the mistakes of Iraq 2003.
What was missing then was a grand strategy, covering the political, military, security and humanitarian issues associated with ridding a country of a tyrannical regime and replacing it with something better. We need such a strategy now for Syria.
Come to terms with Assad:
Politically, we must enter into some uncomfortable alliances with Russia, Iran, and Assad – the latter being the most challenging. We must remember it is Isil threatening us in the UK and not Assad. However abhorrent the Syrian regime is, we are going to have to work with it for any chance of success.
It is clear to me from my work in Syria over the last three years that the majority of Syrians will not accept a “long term” future which includes Assad. With elections, as envisaged by the Vienna talks in 18 months’ time, the Syrian people will have the most likely opportunity to exercise their democratic right to get rid of him – but he must have clear and unambiguous direction from the international coalition until that time. Assad can then have his day in the International Criminal Court and answer for the atrocities, like the gassing of hundreds of women and children in Ghouta in 2013, conducted in his name.
Destroy Isil – with our own troops if necessary:
Militarily, air strikes alone will not defeat Isil, but if conducted in a co-ordinated and simultaneous fashion between, Russia, Nato and the Arab Coalition, they should prepare for Isil’s defeat on the ground in Syria and Iraq. Air power alone has never defeated an enemy and a combined arms approach ostensibly is needed. Ideally, the effective armies in the region, Iraqi and Syrian Kurds, Iraqi Army and Syrian Army must be, first, given the opportunity to do the heavy lifting on the ground to defeat Isil. I would include the Free Syrian Army, who I know well, and who – given the right advice by “loan service” officers and warrant officers, a role Britain is traditionally the master of, will be an effective additional force for most Syrians to the ground offensive.
However, if the region’s armies do not succeed in six months, then we must prepared to commit our own tanks and infantry to this battle along with the Russians, Americans and others, who I expect could roll up Isil in a matter of weeks. The planning for this eventuality needs to start forthwith in order that it can be ready in six months’ time if required. It is also crucial that we roll up all Isil affiliates and “clean skins” wherever they may be on the globe, and our uniquely capable global communications and intelligence networks should be in the van of this battle.
Crack down on the home front:
Securing the home soil against Paris-style attacks, albeit ongoing, must be enhanced. The intelligence services, police, and Special Forces are well positioned to interdict most threats to the UK, but the Paris attack showed a level of co-ordination hitherto beyond terror groups. The so-called “clean skins”, of which there are likely to be many in the UK, must be prised out at all costs.
It may well be that in order to defend our democracy we may have to suspend some civil liberties for some people for some of the time. The police would be stretched to handle a Paris-style attack, but it is reassuring that the PM has announced that 10,000 troops would be allocated to supporting this task.
These soldiers must be appropriately trained and briefed; rules of engagement (ROE) for soldiers on active service abroad, are I expect, very different from ROE in the UK, and I gauge that the police are likely to require this military firepower. However, unlike the French or Italians, we in Britain are probably collectively nervous with soldiers on the streets for an extended period, and it will be important for the politicians, collectively, to explain the necessity of such action.
Create safe zones for civilians:
A key mistake of the invasion of Iraq was not having a long term plan to sustain and develop the “new” Iraq. From my experience in Syria, I’ve seen that most of the country is razed to the ground, there is little electricity, food and water, and general infrastructure are in very bad repair. The humanitarian strategy must be focused on enabling those in Syria to stay, and encourage those who have fled to return.
This will require massive stocks of food, water, accommodation, and kit, to rebuild to be pre-positioned on the border, to be rolled in once some sort of acceptable peace is achieved. Before that happens, safe zones can immediately be established in North West and south Syria. In NW Syria I have been supporting medical charities UOSSM and Syria Relief, where we successfully run 32 hospitals and clinics.
Save for Assad’s barrel bombs, which presumably Russia can stop at a moment’s notice, this would be a relatively peaceful area which has no Isil or regime troops and is secured by the Free Syrian Army. This can form the “humanitarian bridgehead” back into Syria, to be expanded as Isil fall and the Vienna ceasefire is allowed to begin.
Counter Isil’s propaganda:
With utmost urgency, we need to counter the morbidly brilliant Isil psychological terror campaign in order to win back the hearts and minds of the Syrian people and all who oppose Isil. In my opinion we have failed thus far, or at best been ambivalent. This terror campaign has rendered some armies in the region barely effective and led to radicalisation across the globe. From a military perspective most Isil fighters are barely trained, poorly equipped and certainly no match for a British soldier for instance, but I’m sure this is not the general perception – this needs to change forthwith.