Edward Spiers: MPs weigh up case for war in a complex world

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FOLLOWING the aerial attacks by a US-led coalition upon bases held by the “Islamic State” (IS or ISIL) in Syria and the Khorasan cell, a little-known al-Qaida off-shoot, David Cameron declared that the war against IS is “a fight you cannot opt out of”.

Speaking after the beheading of David Haines and the US journalists James Foley and Steven Sotloff, the Prime Minister informed the US TV channel NBC that IS was planning terror attacks upon Britain, Europe and the United States. “These people want to kill us. They’ve got us in their sights,” he insisted.

He has duly requested the recall of Parliament to debate the issue, and clearly hopes to avoid a repetition of the humiliating defeat of August 29, 2013 over a motion that might have led to British participation in the bombing of President Bashar Assad’s forces.

MPs will doubtless share the popular outrage over the atrocities committed by IS, its sickening (if highly effective from its point of view) use of social media and its widespread attacks upon “non-believers”, including some 130,000 Kurds recently driven over the Turkish border.

They may agree that Britain has to take an active part in the new “coalition of the willing”, forged by the Obama administration. In so doing, some may raise questions over the political, legal, strategic and diplomatic issues involved.

Politically, while there may be more popular support for British engagement in 2014 than there was last year, opinion polls indicate that the scars over the wars in Iraq and Afghanistan have not healed, and that popular support for a new bombing campaign is more lukewarm than it is in the United States.

So strong is US support for Obama’s pledge to “destroy and degrade” IS through bombing, without placing American boots on the ground, that the president launched the attacks upon Syria on Monday without any authorisation from the US Congress or from the UN Security Council.

As he merely informed Assad’s regime that he was about to bomb Syria, as distinct from seeking its permission as he did in Iraq, the legality of bombing Syria was far from clear. There was no justification in self defence as IS had not attacked the United States, and the US could only claim “anticipatory self defence” in respect of the intelligence claims about an imminent attack from the Khorasan cell.

Our MPs may console themselves that they are only voting to start bombing in Iraq where Haider al-Aradi, the Iraqi prime minister, has invited Britain to do so.

They may also consider IS as a peculiarly barbaric and destabilising movement, and that the legitimacy of confronting it has been confirmed by the willingness of Jordan, Saudi Arabia, the United Arab Emirates, Bahrain and Qatar to join the US in bombing IS targets.

However legitimate the intervention, it may still be worth considering whether Obama’s strategy is likely to achieve its aims.

Since July, the US has delivered 194 aerial strikes upon IS in Iraq, thwarting its drive into the Kurdish areas in the north, assisting in the recapture of the Mosul dam, and resisting an advance on the Haditha dam.

Yet the ground operations of the Iraqi army have achieved relatively little, failing in assaults upon Tikrit and Fallujah, and, on Monday, the Iraqi government conceded that IS militants had overrun a camp in Anbar province, where 800 Iraqi soldiers had been trapped, reportedly killing 300 of them.

At least the US has advisers in Iraq to assist its army; it has none in Syria, where the supposedly “moderate” Free Syrian Army has been riddled with corruption, incompetence and dissent.

The Kurdish Front might have been worth backing in northern Syria but its links with the PKK, the Kurdish terror group in Turkey, mean that neither Washington nor Ankara can support it.

Obama’s currently plans to 
train 5,000 “moderate” Syrian rebels in Saudi Arabia and Jordan over the next year but how they could operate against Assad’s army and the 30,000 IS zealots baffles two former US Secretaries of Defence, Bob Gates and Leon Panetta.

They agree with General Mark Dempsey, the chairman of the Joint Chiefs of Staff, that the US may have to consider inserting ground forces in the future.

So far President Obama has adamantly opposed this option but the only alternative might be to press either Turkey or Iran to intervene in Syria and/or Iraq, options that could have major international consequences.

Despite all these uncertainties, and the prospect of another 
long war in the Middle East, 
our MPs may decide that Britain, having identified a direct threat from IS, cannot rely on other countries to defend our 
interests.

Another rejection of the case for war, in other words, would be diplomatically disastrous.

Edward M Spiers is a professor of strategic studies at the University of Leeds.