For some months, the Government has indicated that it might seek to bring before the House proposals to extend into Syria participation by British aircraft in airstrikes as part of the Global Coalition to counter ISIL. At present, the UK is participating in airstrikes against ISIL targets in Iraq but provides only surveillance and intelligence air support in Syria. This report is to inform the Government, and the House, of key issues that we think must be addressed in considering any proposal to extend British airstrikes against ISIL into Syria.
We considered the possible benefits of extending airstrikes into Syria, noting that our witnesses told us that the move would be welcomed by our allies in the Coalition and the region as a sign of commitment to the fight against ISIL. However, our evidence suggested that there were five major areas of risk to consider:
Legal basis: Questions about the legality of the UK’s earlier interventions in the Middle East have dogged its actions for over a decade, and the UK risks further reputational damage if the legal basis for airstrikes in Syria is not clear. The most clear legal basis would be a United Nations Security Council resolution authorising military action, but the Government’s case appears likely to rest more on the collective self-defence of Iraq.
Military challenges: While our witnesses believed that a decision to extend airstrikes into Syria would be welcomed by Coalition allies, they did not consider that it would have anything other than a marginal effect. The UK accounts for a small percentage of airstrikes in Iraq and it was assumed that the total number of assets would remain steady but be used across a wider area. We were told that airstrikes would be unlikely to be effective without reliable allies on the ground to assist with targeting and to move in and take areas that had been attacked, and these would not be easy to find.
Political situation: The fact that there are few reliable counterparts on the ground is a reflection of the extraordinary complexity of the situation on the ground in Syria. Our witnesses described a chaotic and complicated political and military scene. After over four years of civil war, there are thousands of fighting forces in various coalitions and umbrella organisations, with unclear aspirations and shifting alliances. The complex nature of the situation makes it hard to guess the consequences of tackling just ISIL, or to predict what group would take their territory if they were defeated.
International actors: The situation in Syria is complicated still further by the multiple international actors involved on ground, to the extent that many observers now consider the civil war a proxy war as much as an internal conflict. These include Russia and Iran (on the Assad side), Turkey, Saudi Arabia, and Qatar, and the US (on the sides of various different parts of the opposition), creating what one witness called a “multi-layered conflict”. The much more substantial Russian intervention on the side of the Assad regime that started at the end of September 2015 has complicated even further any proposed action in Syria by the UK.
Diplomatic capacity: Several of our witnesses suggested that by participating in military action against ISIL in Syria, the UK would actually compromise its diplomatic capability and its capacity to put pressure on its national and international partners to create a route to a solution to the inter-related problems of ISIL and the Syrian civil war.
In the face of a humanitarian and security catastrophe, there is a powerful sense that something must be done in Syria. We agree that it is a key British national interest to defeat ISIL and we consider this to be a necessary goal for the UK. However, we believe that there should be no extension of British military action into Syria unless there is a coherent international strategy that has a realistic chance of defeating ISIL and of ending the civil war in Syria. We consider that the focus on the extension of airstrikes against ISIL in Syria is a distraction from the much bigger and more important task of finding a resolution to the conflict in Syria and thereby removing one of the main facilitators of ISIL’s rise. We were not persuaded by the Government’s attempts to treat ISIL in Syria and the broader Syrian civil war as separate issues, and note that our witnesses called for a more joined-up strategy to tackle closely interlinked crises.
Finally, we set out seven points on which the Government should provide further explanation before asking the House to approve a motion authorising military action. We are not yet persuaded that it is possible for the Government to provide a satisfactory explanation of these points at present. Until it can, we recommend that it does not bring to the House a motion seeking the extension of British military action to Syria.
Prepared 2 November 2015