Less than two weeks ago the British Parliament voted in overwhelming numbers to support the Government in tasking the British military with joining the international coalition to aid the Iraqis in their fight against the terror group ISIS. The vote was secured by a wide margin through an agreement between the Prime Minister and the Leader of the Opposition that any extension of the operation from Iraq into neighbouring Syria (where many of the ISIS fighters are) would be subject to a new debate and vote in Parliament.
This condition, which appears to be a reasonable and measured way of preventing mission creep, is in fact a deathblow to the chances of defeating ISIS and incoherent legally. Far from having mitigated a potential overreaction by the Government, Ed Miliband has ensured that the bombings are futile and the legal grounds by which the British military is acting are muddled.
The plan, as stated by the new coalition, is for Western allies and Arab states to provide air cover for local forces on the ground to defeat ISIS. The ground forces are made up of the Iraqi National Army, the Peshmerga (the Kurdish security forces), and the acceptable Syrian rebels (predominantly the Free Syrian Army). That is the same Iraqi military described as ‘not fit for purpose’ by US Government experts, the Peshmerga who are concurrently seizing territory for a future independent Kurdistan and uninterested in fighting beyond those borders, and a Free Syrian Army who have been repeatedly dismissed by President Obama as a bunch of amateurs. Considering the obvious weaknesses of the proposed ground troops for the operation, many observers have with good reason questioned the likelihood of the strategy being successful.
The reality is the Iraqi Army is a shambles, undermined by sectarian promotions and unwilling to fight other than to defend the Shia heartland, where most of the senior officers are drawn from. Despite years of training and equipment paid for by the 2003 Coalition members, British and American troops have been called in again to offer training on dealing with ISIS, as well as help identify targets for the air support to attack.
The Peshmerga and their relative discipline and skill represent the little good news one can find in the ground forces, but after decades of oppression and persecution at the hands of their fellow Iraqis, and having established a semi-autonomous region with improved governance and security, many Kurds now see an independent Kurdistan as their true goal. The fight against ISIS represents a mere stepping stone to realising their vision.
Moderate Syrian opposition forces have been decimated - thanks in large part to the refusal of the West to adequately equip and train them over the past three years. Although many brave Syrians continue to bring the fight to Assad without finding justification in extremist Sunni ideology, the process of training the FSA into a capable fighting force is likely to be long and cumbersome.
Some have looked to other countries in the region to provide the ground troops. Jordan, Turkey and even Iran have all been mentioned as potential contributors. For different reasons none of these countries are likely to provide anything like what is needed.
Despite having a positive image in the West (thanks largely to tourist visits to Petra and a Royal Family who are as Western as the region gets), Jordan remains an authoritarian country more concerned with suppressing internal dissent than intervening in the affairs of her neighbours. Lacking a sufficient population or large enough military, Jordan will only be able to play a supporting role.
The Turkish Parliament has over the past few days moved to support the Government in playing some role in the fight against ISIS, but the country has a difficult history with the Kurds and has been failing to crack down on extremism for years. Turkey remains the key transit point for weapons, oil, and jihadists moving in and out of Iraq and Syria.
Iranian involvement would likely be the most disastrous. Already playing an active military role in Syria supporting the Assad regime, if Iranian troops play a significant role in battling ISIS it will only reinforce the idea that this is a Sunni-Shia conflict and alienate those Sunnis who the West hopes to peel away from the ISIS fold. Relying on the Iranians would also further complicate the ability of the West to put pressure on the Islamic Republic to abandon her nuclear program.
On the face of it the plan to use Western airpower and local land forces is clearly unrealistic. The only land forces capable of delivering sustained defeats to ISIS and rolling back their territorial ambitions are NATO troops. Every time a ground force is rejected on the basis of the 2003 Invasion Syndrome, all that happens is that the future intervention which will be necessary is made that much harder. The hangover has now lasted 11 years, it is time for the West to get out of bed and stop feeling sorry for itself.
Of course a land contingent to this intervention would still be hamstrung by the ridiculous constraint of being limited to acting only in Iraq and not Syria. Most importantly, this requirement for Labour Party support renders the British parliamentary resolution legally incoherent.
If British military action against ISIS is being justified as helping the Iraqis to assert their right to self-defense, then there is no reason why attacking ISIS forces in Syria would fall out of that purview assuming they were involved in the conflict. In other words it cannot be that Iraq is prohibited from asserting a right to self-defense against ISIS forces simply because they might be stationed across the border and firing rockets into Iraq from Syria. Following the logic of the parliamentary resolution, Britain is entitled to join Iraq in her self-defense and thus would be legally justified in hitting hostile targets across the border. All the Miliband addition has guaranteed, therefore, is a more complicated environment for British military personnel to operate under.
That the British Parliament has at last decided to acknowledge that Syria and Iraq are in a state of collapse is clearly positive. Unfortunately, the strategy they have now endorsed lacks the ability to succeed due to limited ground support, and makes legally incoherent distinctions that undermine the ability of the military to act decisively. If Britain is to be a part of this fight, it should do so properly.
By Philip A. Gardner