Richard Dannatt: Open minds needed to beat barbarity

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I BELIEVE we all recognise that today we are somewhere that we would rather not be, but the situation that has presented itself in Iraq and Syria since June as a result of the barbaric atrocities and ambitions of the so-called “Islamic State” or ISIL fighters leaves no option but to take some action.

After the bruising experience of the vote in August 2013, albeit on a related but totally different premise, I believe the Prime Minister has done the right thing in carefully building support for his proposed course of action, including securing proper legal cover and that invitation to act from the Iraqi Government. Moreover, the UK will be joining a coalition that includes many Arab, Muslim and Gulf states, and that is absolutely right.

However, we have come to this moment very late and the vote authorising action is just the beginning of something; it is definitely not the end. The Secretary of State for Defence’s comments that this matter could take years are realistic and right. But it is an issue not just of timescale but of intent, determination and open-mindedness.

A few weeks ago, the President of the United States said that the US did not have a strategy, which, in the face of the ISIL onslaught, was a worrying omission. But a strategy has now emerged, at least in part owing to the energy of the King of Jordan, whose country sits absolutely in the eye of this storm.

Any strategy involves first the identification of the grand strategic objective: in this case, removal of the threat posed by ISIL and its ambitions.

This removal will entail not just the containment or neutralisation of ISIL but almost certainly its destruction – perhaps not its complete physical destruction but its destruction in the minds of those who would otherwise have chosen to support its objectives; and they may be in Iraq, Syria, Lebanon or in London.

With a clearly identified strategic objective, we have to be open-minded about how to achieve it. It may be that joining an air campaign above Iraq will be enough. It may be that providing some support and training for the Iraqi government and the Peshmerga will be enough. But if it is not enough, our schemes of manoeuvre to achieve our objective will have to be revised.

There are three facts that we have to face. ISIL recognises no international borders. It wants to impose its self-determined caliphate. If our enemy does not recognise borders but we do, we are constraining our response. Attacking ISIL from the air just above Iraq is dealing with half a problem and not a whole problem. Of course, operating in Syrian airspace is a major problem – not a legal problem but a practical one.

That is why last month I ventured to suggest that we might have to have some form of dialogue with the Assad regime to enable us to do that. However, if there is no appetite for that, air strikes in Syrian airspace may have to be confined to the use of unmanned aerial vehicles. The US has correctly concluded that carrying the fight against ISIL into Syrian airspace is right; we may yet come to the same conclusion.

Secondly, issues such as the ones that we are currently facing are ultimately settled on the ground. That is the environment in which we live: we live neither in the air nor on the sea. Therefore, within a proper political framework that addresses the legitimate needs of both the Iraqi and the Syrian people, ISIL must be defeated on the ground, albeit supported from the air. I have no wish to see British or American ground combat units committed to this operation, but I am quite clear that ISIL must be defeated on the ground.

For now, we must fully support those who are fighting on the ground: the Iraqi army, the Peshmerga and probably the Free Syrian Army – an opposition group in which we can now have greater confidence, given that ISIL has broken away and revealed its true colours. To do this, we may need to send more equipment and training teams to the region and possibly demonstrate our mutual support to threatened states such as Jordan while deploying units there for exercises or training, if invited.

Time is not on our side. We have been slow to take action; momentum is still with ISIL. On the diplomatic, political and military fronts, we must catch up and we must overtake, making it quite clear around the world that this kind of barbaric activity has no place in the 21st century, whether in the name of religion, politics or economic gain.

• Lord Dannatt is a former Chief of the General Staff at the Ministry of Defence who spoke in the Parliamentary debate on military action in Iraq. This

is an edited version.