The extension of offensive British military operations to Syria Contents

4Conclusion: A coherent strategy?

31.An apparent principle of the Government’s current approach is to separate the question of the Syrian civil war from the question of the threat from ISIL. The planned action apparently focuses exclusively on the latter. In September 2015, Foreign Secretary Philip Hammond told us:

If we seek Parliament’s approval to engage in targeting ISIL forces in Syria, it will be as an adjunct to the operation we are already carrying out in Iraq. It will not be in order to play a role in the Syrian civil war. These are two different issues. Of course, ISIL is involved in both. [..]I do not envisage that we would want British air strikes to get involved in complex three-way fights in north-western Syria where regime forces and other Syrian forces are involved.70

32.We asked the Foreign Secretary whether ISIL could be defeated without a resolution to the civil war. He told us that it could: “If we are able to attack ISIL across its theatre of operation, from northern Syria, through eastern Syria, into Iraq, it is possible to defeat ISIL in that theatre, as a separate issue from the broader Syrian civil war.”71 However, where the Government appeared to see merit in drawing a line between what it considers to be separate issues, our witnesses complained about a lack of joined-up strategy to tackle closely interlinked crises. That point was made by witnesses who agreed with the extension of airstrikes. For example, Sir Simon Mayall, stated that “I would like to see it, as I think we all would, linked to a much firmer strategic set of policy assumptions and a plan - political, diplomatic, humanitarian, as well as military.”72 That argument was also advanced by witnesses who opposed airstrikes. For example, Dr Rim Turkmani called for the UK and others to “go back to the drawing board” and create a new strategy based on “legitimate state building”, because ISIL “lives on” the chaos caused by the collapse of state control in Syria.73

33.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. We agree with the Prime Minister that defeating the ideology that underlies ISIL may be the work of decades. We believe that the defeat of ISIL itself means the conventional military defeat and elimination of the so-called caliphate so that no territory would be controlled and administered in the name of a caliphate in Syria and Iraq. 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. In the absence of such a strategy, taking action to meet the desire to do something is still incoherent.

34.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. There was consensus among our witnesses that the UK should use its diplomatic weight to exert pressure on the parties in the conflict, and their international sponsors. We note that many more of our witnesses called on the UK to lead a renewed diplomatic initiative rather than conduct airstrikes. Several considered that the Russian intervention had opened up a new opportunity to bring parties to the negotiating table. This appears to be happening now, and we note talks in Vienna on 30 October 2015 which now include Iran.74 The Foreign Secretary told us that to relent in its pressure on Assad would act as a “recruiting sergeant” for ISIL.75 We are not persuaded that talks involving all parties would be any more of an incentive for people to join ISIL than allowing the continuation of the chaos and conflict.

70 Oral evidence taken on 9 September 2015, HC 381, Q 63

71 Oral evidence taken on 9 September 2015, HC 381, Q 35

72 Q 56

73 Q 133

74 See, for example, “Syria’s external protagonists search for ‘course out of hell”, Financial Times, 29 October 2015; “After a U.S. Shift, Iran Has a Seat at Talks on War in Syria”, The New York Times, 28 October 2015

75 Oral evidence taken on 9 September 2015, HC 381, Q 38; see also HC Deb 7 September 2015, c33 [Prime Minister]

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Prepared 2 November 2015