UK military operations in Syria and Iraq Contents

5UK strategy in the Middle East and the wider strategy against extremism

127.In his statement to the House on 24 May 2016, the Secretary of State for Defence set out the UK’s strategy to counter DAESH. The military aspect of the strategy was clear: airstrikes in Iraq and Syria alongside training and capacity-building in the Iraqi Security Forces.182 However, he acknowledged that DAESH could not be defeated by military operations alone and that a wider strategy would be necessary. Such a strategy would have four pillars:

Although comprehensive, it is concerning that the Secretary of State did not include countering the finance of DAESH as a key pillar of the strategy.

128.In written evidence, the Ministry of Defence readily acknowledged that airstrikes alone would not defeat DAESH and that partners on the ground were a vital component of the campaign:

Airstrikes are only one component in a military strategy which must be accompanied by a political solution to deliver long-term peace and security to the region. In Iraq, Prime Minister Abadi’s government provides a partner with whom the Coalition can work politically and militarily. The situation in Syria is more complex, with a multi-faceted civil war underway and a government which has lost all legitimacy, with which we cannot cooperate.187

129.Dr Ashraf and Major General Shaw argued that while DAESH’s physical ‘caliphate’ could be destroyed “relatively easily”, the problem lay in the availability of suitable ground forces:

In Iraq, the Army and recognised paramilitary forces such as the Peshmerga, can be given the necessary increased support to capture and hold territory…In Syria the issue of ground troops is more politically sensitive. The current reliance on the supposedly moderate rebels is problematic for a number of reasons.…Western ground troops could provide the most militarily effective force to take ground. They would not find it easy to maintain the population’s support for holding it for more than a few days.188

130.Tom Hardie-Forsyth agreed, telling us that “the best boots on the ground are local boots on the ground, properly supported by us”.189 There are few historical examples of aerial bombardment alone producing decisive results, apart from the atomic bombing of Japan. During the 2 December 2015 debate on Syria in the House of Commons, former Foreign Secretary Rt Hon Dame Margaret Beckett MP reminded the House that:

There are those, not opposed in principle to action, who doubt the efficacy of what is proposed: Coalition action which rests almost wholly on bombing, they say, will have little effect. Well, tell that to the Kosovans, and do not forget that if there had not been any bombing in Kosovo perhaps 1 million Albanian Muslim refugees would be seeking refuge in Europe.190

131.In oral evidence, the Secretary of State drew on lessons learnt from previous interventions to conclude that local ground forces were vital to the success of the strategy:

I think we have learned that when you are dealing with insurgency and terrorism, in the end it has to be done by local forces. Simply putting Western boots or British boots on the ground is not the total answer, as we have learned fairly painfully in successive wars.191

Lieutenant General Carleton-Smith recalled the Afghan campaign as an example:

We also determined that to get to the root of the problem, we had insufficient boots on the ground and, therefore, that the key metric was mass, but then discovered that mass was subordinate to legitimacy. If there were reservations locally about one’s very presence, one was not necessarily a net contributor. We deduced from that that we needed an indigenous proxy—a legitimate element—with which to engage. It is easier in the countries where that exists, and it is that much more difficult in countries where one has to create it.192

The potential for the failure of the current strategy

The pace of the strategy and political reform

132.The Coalition’s reliance on local partners simultaneously to carry out ground operations and political reforms has raised concerns in terms of both pace and effectiveness. As Michael Eisenstadt explained:

The bottom line is—I think it needs to be stressed—our strategy is contingent on the politics of our allies, and ultimately our ability to convert battlefield success to political accomplishments depends on our allies.193

133.When we visited Iraq, a number of our interlocutors said that the progress of the military campaign was outweighing the progress of the political campaign. This view was reinforced in later evidence sessions. Richard Atwood argued that military operations should be “slowed to give a chance for the political strategy to catch up”. He explained:

We root the rise of Islamic State in the recent history of Iraq and Syria—particularly Iraq. We go back to the Iraq invasion and the policies adopted in the aftermath of that invasion that left many Sunnis marginalised. But as important as that […] was the aftermath of the awakening […] in which many Sunni tribesmen rose up against al-Qaeda with the expectation that they would receive a greater stake in the Iraqi state. That did not happen, as many of you know, during Prime Minister Nouri al-Maliki’s second term.194

He stressed the importance of having “a clear plan to avoid reprisals afterwards”, together with a strategy for what would follow any victory over DAESH in terms of governance and security. Whilst he recognised the importance of military operations as part of the strategy for Iraq and Syria, he was concerned that the political strategy was not keeping up with the military strategy.195

134.Dominic Wilson also recognised that this was not happening:

The military campaign is being successful, but arguably the politics and the stabilisation effort more generally are lagging some way behind.196

When we asked the Secretary of State, he agreed that military progress had to be matched by a political process, citing this as being the primary lesson from the Libya campaign.197 He gave examples of the work the Government was doing to improve the situation in Iraq:

We are looking to see what we can do to help the economy of Iraq, which has obviously suffered quite significantly from the drop in the oil price. The Chancellor discussed a package of assistance through the World Bank when he was at the G7 last week, and we continue to urge political reform in Baghdad. Our diplomats have played an important role in trying to bring Baghdad and Irbil closer together and to encourage the return of the Kurdish MPs to Baghdad. We continue to emphasise to Prime Minister Abadi that this is not going to last unless he can properly bind in the tribes of Anbar and unless he can provide a degree of reassurance to the Sunni population that they are not going to be exposed again to any of the kind of malevolence that they experienced under the previous regime.198

Concerns about human rights abuses by UK-supported forces

135.There have been concerns raised about Western-supported actors on the ground in both Syria and Iraq. In February 2015, a report by Human Rights Watch suggested the Kurdish Regional Government was trying to incorporate areas into Kurdish autonomous territory by refusing access to displaced Arabs whilst allowing Kurds to return and, in some cases occupying the homes of Arabs who had left as a result of the fighting.199 Patrick Cockburn referenced a recent report of the Iraqi Army committing human rights abuses by detaining over a thousand young men in inadequate facilities.200 The detention of thousands of minority Sunnis imprisoned on blanket terrorism charges and held for years without trial was a motivation behind protests that broke out in Anbar more than three years ago.201

136.When questioned about the potential human rights abuses by UK-trained and supported forces, the Secretary of State and Lieutenant General Carleton-Smith emphasised that any UK-trained troops received formal training in international humanitarian law and the Law of Armed Conflict.202 We were also told that any allegations of human rights abuses were investigated and that, if they were well-founded, “the Coalition removes material support provided to those organisations”.203

137.There are also concerns about human rights abuses by groups in Syria. Amnesty International have reported that the YPG have engaged in the use of child soldiers, forced displacement, demolition of homes, and the seizure and destruction of property: “In some cases, entire villages have been demolished, apparently in retaliation for the perceived support of their Arab or Turkmen residents for the group that calls itself the Islamic State (IS) or other non-state armed groups”.204

The danger posed by military success without political reform

138.At the start of the inquiry, Dr Afzal Ashraf warned us that:

We need to see this conflict in the wider context of governance and political systems. I recognise that that is straying way beyond the Chairman’s remit, but, certainly to understand our military strategy, that is the wider context that we must be thinking in terms of.205

The importance of good governance was also raised by Colonel (retd) Hamish de Bretton Gordon who hoped that, once the military aspect had produced peace on the ground, the UK Government would “start to build the local governance”.206 Dr Khatib agreed, telling the Committee that the UK could

play an important role in military coordination, supporting civil society in Syria and supporting local governance initiatives. This is much needed. Regardless of what the solution looks like, supporting local governance is important for holding the country together.207

139.Dr Neil Quilliam also thought this was an area where the UK could have a real impact, noting that “DFID does a good job of this in and around some of the rebel-held areas in Syria, but also elsewhere around the region. It is lending support to local governance structures, bringing political authority to a much more local level”.208 Richard Atwood was concerned that this was not happening in Iraq where territory had been retaken but security and governance issues had failed to be addressed—resulting in the military strategy beginning to outpace the political strategy.209

140.The danger posed by the success of the military aspect of the strategy without the accompanying political reform was emphasised on several occasions. Major General Shaw told us:

The whole significance of the air campaign is what it does to the political campaign. […] Military action has to be judged by its effects on the politics. If this is just a gesture to cover up our absence of political progress […] this is failure.210

141.Dr Quilliam stated that the military defeat of DAESH in Iraq may address the international side of the organisation, but:

The more local, Iraqi side of it—the former Ba’ath—can just melt away into the ether and wait. It is that longevity, that waiting game. If the West goes in, helps to rebuild, has a Marshall Plan and supports local governing structures, that may help to mitigate the symptoms returning that will allow DAESH to return, but that’s going to require a long-term investment and commitment.211

He explained that without a long-term commitment DAESH would be able to play a waiting game: “We can hide out here. We can return and take our ground again”.212

142.Dr Khatib addressed the Syrian aspect, explaining why improvement in the political process was vital:

As the Iraq situation shows, the only meaningful way to fight DAESH is if you have buy-in from the local population. If Assad prevails and he alienates people even more by eliminating the opposition and empowering DAESH, where is he going to get the locals needed in order to fight DAESH? This is not going to happen. So the only meaningful way for any regime or Government in Syria to fight extremism is to engage the local population, especially the Sunni population. If this population has been pushed to embrace DAESH or it is still resentful against the regime, you are not going to succeed…The only long-term way is to have engagement from the local population. So what Assad is doing—the strategy he has been using—may only work in the short term, but it carries the seeds for long-term instability of a more complex kind.213

143.The Secretary of State shared these concerns. He told us:

To some extent you can combat the terrorism and push the insurgency back and defeat it militarily, but that is not going to be lasting unless you get a political settlement that genuinely has the trust and support of the local people where that insurgency was.214

144.The argument that it must be a local force—not a Western one—which takes and holds territory has been borne out by previous experiences of intervention. Such a strategy (western air power and local ground troops) is reliant on political progress alongside military achievement. Whilst the progress in the military campaign to counter DAESH is beginning to gain momentum, the same cannot be said for the progress of political reform. A lack of political reform in Iraq, let alone Syria, may well undermine the military progress to date, removing the threat of DAESH only for it to be replaced by other groups posing similar or even greater threats.

145.The Government must set out exactly how it intends to help ensure that political reform is achieved and what action it is planning to take to keep it in step with the military campaign.

UK strategy in the Middle East

146.In evidence to us, Lieutenant General (retd) Sir Simon Mayall also criticised the lack of a UK Government strategy on the Gulf:

We have talked about a Gulf strategy for ages. Some of it is high-level political messaging and some of it would be that these are parts of the world where British military engagement is hugely effective—the Sandhurst bit and the exercises bit—let alone the fact that they are the base for all our operations in Iraq. I just think it is such an easy thing for the British Government to lend their weight to people in that region who feel under threat from Persia, under threat from Shi’as, under threat from anarchy, under threat from ISIS and under threat from al-Qaeda. It would be easy just to say, “No, no. We value your security. We also believe that your long-term stability requires you to diversify your economy and address women’s rights and your human rights record.” We all know the more nervous you feel, the more you roll up like an armadillo. To my mind, the best way to get the sort of reforms in the Gulf that we believe are really important for long-term stability, and about which they are criticised daily in some of the papers, is to give them the security that they can continue to advance on their reform while we continue to defend them against the contagion of ISIS or the IRGC.215

147.This apparent lack of an integrated strategy is concerning given the high emphasis placed since 2010 on the formulation and determination of national security strategy and regional strategies. The 2010 SDSR explicitly promised to improve coordination and focus by: “producing integrated strategies though a Foreign and Commonwealth-led process for key countries and regions”.216 The 2011 Building Stability Overseas Strategy undertook to create a Steering Group which would “carry out systematic reviews of UK activity in Watchlist countries to ensure that our overall approach to building stability is realistic, appropriately resourced, fully integrated and draws on the greatest possible support from international partners”217 and to “produce integrated UK strategies for key countries and regions.”218 Furthermore, the 2010 National Security Strategy promised to:

Focus and integrate diplomatic, intelligence, defence and other capabilities on preventing the threat of international military crises, while retaining the ability to respond should they nevertheless materialise.219

The 2015 combined NSS and SDSR undertook to establish new policy-making and delivery Joint Units in 2016, including:

a Gulf Strategy Unit, hosted by the Cabinet Office, to co-ordinate UK engagement within the Gulf in order to deliver the NSC’s long-term strategy and maximise benefits to the UK.220

148.In evidence, the Secretary of State outlined the strategic importance of the Middle East and North Africa, emphasising the partnerships in the region which allow the UK Government to combat crime, terrorism and the challenge of migration. He also stressed the importance of secure energy supplies and the security of trade routes to the UK, citing the need for stability in the region as the primary reason that the UK has maintained a policy of defence engagement. He told us that:

The end state is a situation in the Middle East where these countries are stable again and we can rely on the trade routes, the energy supplies and the partnerships we need to keep this country safe, and in which elected and legitimate Governments are able to provide a future for their people that does not involve them emigrating.221

149.The long-term strategy articulated by the Secretary of State—a stable, secure, democratic Middle East—is laudable, but it remains to be seen how the Government expects to achieve this. It is far from clear that the forces unleashed in the Arab uprisings are capable of transition, at this stage of societal development, into the sort of pluralist and tolerant democratic systems that conform to Western ideals. We recommend that the Government should deliver on its undertaking to develop a realistic strategy for the Gulf and should set out how it intends to work with partners, allies and international organisations to promote stability in the Middle East.


150.There are legitimate concerns that have been raised about the overall strategy to counter DAESH. There is potential for DAESH to be defeated territorially only for them (or another group) to continue to pose a threat to stability in the Middle East and the West in general. The importance of stability in the Middle East is clear. If the International Coalition (and therefore the UK) finds itself reduced to a binary choice between an Assad-style dictatorship or a revolutionary Islamist alternative, there will need to be a hard-headed evaluation of which of the unpalatable prospects poses the lesser threat to our national interests.

182 HC Deb, 24 May 2016, col. 411

183 HC Deb, 24 May 2016, col. 411

184 HC Deb, 24 May 2016, col. 412

185 HC Deb, 24 May 2016, col. 412

186 HC Deb, 24 May 2016, col. 412

187 Ministry of Defence (UMO0006)

188 Dr Afzal Ashraf and Major General (retd) Jonathon Shaw (UMO0008)

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190 HC Deb, 2 Dec 2015, col. 363

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199 Human Rights Watch, Iraqi Kurdistan: Arabs Displaced, Cordoned Off, Detained, 25 February 2015

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201 ‘Maliki’s Anbar Blunder’, Foreign Policy, 15 January 2014

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216 HM Government, Securing Britain in an Age of Uncertainty: The Strategic Defence and Security Review, Cm 7948, October 2010, p66

217 Ministry of Defence, Building Stability Overseas Strategy, July 2011, p20

218 Ministry of Defence, Building Stability Overseas Strategy, July 2011, p24

219 HM Government, Securing Britain in an Age of Uncertainty: The Strategic Defence and Security Review, Cm 7948, October 2010, p34

220 HM Government, National Security Strategy and Strategic Defence and Security Review 2015, Cm 9161, November 2015, p84

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16 September 2016