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Britain in Syria: No Plans, No Strategy, Only Phantom Allies

The Government is failing to implement its policy of making war on Isis in Syria which it was supposed to have launched nine months ago after rancorous debate.

A report by the House of Commons Defence Committee published on Wednesday says that there have been only 65 UK air raids in Syria during this period, compared to 550 in Iraq. Some 31 of these were in the first two months of the air campaign, since when the number has fallen to between three and seven air strikes a month

Drawing attention to the small number of British air attacks in Syria, Dr Julian Lewis, the chairman of the committee, asked in an interview with The Independent why “we had the great debate and vote on beginning military action in Syria when the number of air strikes there are so minute.” He added that, despite the committee’s best efforts, it had been unable to get the Government to identify the 70,000 armed moderates who are meant to be Britain’s local partners on the ground in Syria.

The muddled British political and military strategy in Syria was exemplified last Saturday when British aircraft took part in an air strike that mistakenly killed 62 Syrian army soldiers who were apparently fighting Isis near the besieged provincial capital of Deir Ezzor in eastern Syria. The British government has maintained that the Syrian army is not fighting Isis, but was seeking to crush moderate rebels opposed to Isis and the forces of President Bashar al-Assad.

The committee said the failure of the Ministry of Defence to provide it with a full analysis of UK air strikes in Syria may “undermine the Government’s assertion that the bombing campaign in Syria is in support of credible moderate ground forces”.

Several witnesses leading the air campaign told the committee that there was a big distinction between British air action in Iraq, which is in support of the Iraqi government, and in Syria, where it is unclear whom British air strikes are meant to help. The question the report makes by implication is: that if such moderate forces are more than a myth – and Dr Lewis refers to them as “phantoms” – why have we not supported more vigorously with air strikes?

Asked about difference between UK air action in Syria and Iraq, Lieutenant General Mark Carleton-Smith, Deputy Chief of Defence Staff (Military Strategy and Operations) said that in Syria the UK was “marginally engaged, from the air only, across a much less homogenous battlefield, where the identification of the multifaceted parties, agencies and militias is much more difficult to determine.”

The report is the most rigorous and best-informed attempt to determine the nature of the political and military battlefield in which the UK is engaged in Iraq and Syria. It seeks to get to the bottom of what British forces are supposed to be doing in the war and how far these aims are attainable. It focuses on the lack of a coherent political strategy and, in particular, on the lack of allies on the ground in Syria. It notes that not only have there been very few British air attacks and that “only a minority of the 65 UK air strikes in Syria appear to be in support of opposition forces on the ground.”

In Iraq, enemy forces constitute 55 per cent of the targets, whereas in Syria they were 35 per cent up to the end of May, since when they have risen to 40 per cent, mostly around Manbij in northern Aleppo province where the Kurdish-dominated Syrian Democratic Forces captured the city after a long siege.

Having ruled out acting in concert with the Assad government, whose displacement is a centrepiece of British policy, British military action in theory presupposes the existence of a powerful “third force” on the ground in Syria. The report says that “despite extensive correspondence with the Ministry of Defence, the committee was unable to obtain the Government’s list of which groups the UK was supporting in Syria.” It concludes that the real reason why the UK air operation in Syria is so small, despite rhetorical comparisons with resisting Hitler during last year’s Commons debate, is “mainly the lack of partners on the ground, other than Kurdish forces.”

The Government’s explanation on why it cannot reveal the identity of the potent but invisible Syrian armed moderates is that this information would help the Assad government. But Dr Lewis and the report strongly suggest that the very limited nature of the British air campaign is a tacit admission that no such force exists on the ground in Syria which British air strikes might assist. But the existence of such a moderate body is a necessity if both Isis and Assad are to be removed simultaneously.

In the light of this, the report is sceptical about government goals in Syria which “are not only to defeat Daesh [Isis], but also to help bring into being a government which will be neither authoritarian and repressive, on the one hand, nor Islamist and extreme on the other.” It says that these aims cannot be achieved by military means alone.

The report is much happier about the UK military role in Iraq where the UK is heavily involved in training. It says that “over a third of troops trained by the [US-led] Coalition have received this training from US military personnel.” Nevertheless, though the report does not address this, the successes of the Iraqi Army and the Kurdish Peshmerga have mainly been as mopping up forces aided by the devastating fire power of the coalition air armada without which their performance is much less impressive.

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Patrick Cockburn is the author of  The Rise of Islamic State: ISIS and the New Sunni Revolution.

January 22, 2019
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