UK’s Foreign Affairs Select Committee (FASC) released a report on 3 November saying there needs to be a comprehensive, coordinated diplomatic and military strategy to tackle and defeat the ISIS and resolve the wider Syrian civil war and decide the future of President Bashar al Assad.
Crispin Blunt, MP and Chair of the FASC told The Sunday Guardian, “The arming and training of Syrian opposition groups was a blind alley allowing more extremist Islamist groups including ISIS to take ground. The international community needs a coherent strategy on Syria which we don’t yet have. The Russian intervention has made it clear that Russia is prepared to back the continuation of the current Syrian government in some form. We need a dialogue and process for the international community that includes the Kurds and Islamic inclined factions that are prepared to settle and produce an agreement.”
Concerned about a Labour and Conservative consensus, the report has influenced Prime Minister David Cameron to rethink the House of Commons vote on extending UK’s military operations into Syria, although he remains committed to the defeat of ISIS in Iraq and in Syria.
The report identifies three risks of extending airstrikes into Syria:
1. The UK risks reputational damage if the legal basis for airstrikes in Syria is unclear. International law allows the use of force in three circumstances: invitation, UN Security Council authorisation, and self-defence. Humanitarian intervention, as was used by the government to justify intervention in Kosovo in 1999, is emerging as a fourth justification, but is not yet fully established. The reality is that the Assad regime has not invited airstrikes by the Coalition. The impasse between the West and Russia over Syria make consensus over authorising military action unlikely and Coalition members who are taking action in Syria are doing so on the basis of collective self-defence of Iraq.
2. Although in military terms the FASC believes extending airstrikes into Syria would be welcomed by Coalition allies, some said that it would not have anything other than a marginal effect as it would be likely not to involve extra aircraft. It would simply re-focus existing assets and the ability to conduct airstrikes would not have a decisive effect. It was noted that the UK was already contributing valuable surveillance in Syria.
3. The situation in Syria is complicated by the multiple international actors involved. Many observers now consider it a proxy war as much as an internal conflict. These include Russia and Iran (on the Assad side); Turkey, Saudi Arabia and Qatar are known to have given support to opposition groups; and the US is on the sides of different parts of the opposition which has created a “multi-layered conflict”. FASC witnesses described how these actors have conflicting strategic interests, and are prolonging and exacerbating the conflict. There are few reliable counterparts on the ground. Witnesses described a chaotic and complicated political and military scene. Four years later there are thousands of fighting forces in various coalitions and umbrella organisations, with unclear aspirations and shifting alliances. The FASC was told that there was interchange between the many groups, as fighters from groups as diverse as Al Nusra and the Free Syrian Army were now joining ISIS and that there was “genuine bad blood” between them all. All witnesses agreed that radical Islamist forces now dominate the fighting groups, including those linked to Al Qaeda such as Al Nusra and Al Sham.
FASC witnesses suggested that participating in military action against ISIS in Syria would compromise the UK’s diplomatic capability and capacity to put pressure on its national and international partners to create a route to a solution to the inter-related problems of ISIS and the Syrian civil war. It is considered that the UK’s provision of humanitarian assistance to Syrian refugees has further strengthened UK’s diplomatic position and moral authority for such negotiations.
Crispin Blunt, an ex-army officer, is concerned that the situation might be an endless insurgency as in Afghanistan. He believes it is in Russia and Iran’s interest to agree to a deal. He notes that Turkey, Saudi Arabia, America and Jordan all have their “clients” and can exercise their leverage to defeat the ISIS. Blunt believes the reality is a proper engagement with Russia, that a contact group of political directors to include Russia, America, Turkey, Saudi Arabia, Egypt, Iran, Jordan, UK and the EU is an urgent priority.
In June Crispin Blunt was elected by the House of Commons to chair the Foreign Affairs Select committee. Blunt was elected on a mandate to examine: UK’s Libyan intervention and subsequent collapse and the UK’s future policy option; UK’s role in the fight against ISIS; political Islam; the cost and benefits of EU memberships and the importance of Britain’s role in the world; Britain’s relationship with Russia.