British Prime Minister David Cameron released the National Security Strategy and Strategic Defence and Security Review, the first since 2010, on Monday and responded to the Foreign Affairs Select Committee (FASC) report on military intervention in Syria on Thursday. All this against the background of the Paris attack and the Russian jet brought down by Turkey. The Review indicates where UK’s allegiances and emphasis are.
One of the main takeaways from the Review is that the Air Force and intelligence services are the top beneficiaries from increased budgets. The Air force will receive £12billion largely for fighter jets, while GCHQ, MI5 and MI6 will receive 1,900 more intelligence and security staff. Two new 5,000 strong rapid-reaction brigades will be added to the Army.
The Review perceives international terrorism, extremism and cyber-warfare as severe threats to instability. A cyber-attack will be treated as seriously as a conventional attack and UK will defend as necessary; £1.9billion will be invested over five years to protect UK’s sovereign capabilities in cyberspace.
UK will extend defence and security relationships with France and Germany and will work with France to develop an Unmanned Combat Air Systems programme and collaborate on complex weapons. France remains an important partner for UK on nuclear matters and policy. UK supports Germany’s bid to become a permanent member of an expanded United Nations Security Council.
The UK will also continue to work with “vital partners”, such as NATO, EU, Saudi Arabia and France. The UK regards relations with the Gulf Cooperation Council states (Bahrain, Kuwait, Oman, Qatar, Saudi Arabia, and the United Arab Emirates) as vital for working towards sustainable, long-term regional stability and addressing direct threats to the UK from terrorism, extremism and organised crime, and for energy security. In addition to the new naval base in Bahrain, HMS Juffair, UK will establish a new British Defence Staff in the Middle East.
UK also plans to strengthen security partnerships in the Middle East, especially in the Gulf, Africa and Asia Pacific, and with China, India, Brazil and Mexico. PMs Cameron and Narendra Modi have agreed to have biennial meetings to deepen the bilateral partnership on diplomatic, defence, security and an EU-India Free Trade Agreement. UK reiterates its strong support for India to become a member of an extended UNSC.
The plan is to increase the network of counter-terrorism and counter-extremism experts in the Middle East, North Africa, South Asia and Sub-Saharan Africa. The UK will extend deep country expertise to wider areas by acquiring language ability in Mandarin and Arabic. NATO is at the heart of British defence policy, and the Warsaw Summit in 2016 will further strengthen NATO against current threats. UK will strongly encourage all allies to deliver on their Wales defence investment pledge, to support more coherent and interoperable NATO partnerships. UK will continue to support a robust alliance response, including in solidarity with Turkey, to threats from any direction.
UK will extend expertise on Russia, and notwithstanding UK-Russian differences (and illegal behaviour in Crimea/destabilising activities in Ukraine), UK will seek ways of cooperating and engaging with Russia on global security issues, such as ISIS.
The defeat of ISIS is a long-term objective, which involves airstrikes in Iraq, undermining ISIS funding streams, curbing the flow of foreign fighters and working with the Iraqi government. Cameron’s government supports those with a moderate and unified vision for Syria. In 2016, the UK plans to host an international conference on Syria to support refugees and host communities with a focus on education and jobs.
UK will also develop a better understanding between government and the financial sector to tackle serious and organised crime: cyber/child exploitation and abuse/illegal firearms/organised immigration crime/drug trafficking/fraud, money laundering, bribery and corruption.
The UK remains the epicentre for cross-border banking, accounting for 17% of the total global value of international bank lending and 41% of global foreign exchange trading. Substantial funds from crime around the world are laundered through London, including in the UK’s foreign exchange, turnover for which is reported to be $2.7 trillion in London Daily. New measures will make UK a more hostile place for those seeking to move, hide or use the proceeds of crime and corruption or to evade sanctions. Enhanced cooperation with the private sector, harnessing the capabilities in the banking, legal and accountancy sector will build on the work of the Joint Money Laundering Intelligence Taskforce to publish a comprehensive action plan to tackle money laundering and to address the gaps in the UK’s current response. In 2016 the UK will host a global anti-corruption summit.
The Review gives a clue to the British Prime Minister’s response to the FASC report, which questioned the intervention in Syria and the coherent strategy that might follow. David Cameron is now intent on tackling ISIS in Syria, as he believes he is doing in Iraq. He claims that 30% of ISIS’ territory has been regained. He is actively proposing extending UK’s military campaign against ISIS to Syria. This decision is brought on by the severe threat level to UK’s national security and his government’s duty to protect its citizens. He has said, “It is wrong for the United Kingdom to sub-contract its security to other countries, and to expect the aircrews of other nations to carry the burdens and the risks of striking ISIL in Syria to stop terrorism here in Britain.”
The UK has advanced military capabilities that bring a qualitative edge above those deployed by most other coalition partners. There is now also a legal basis for military action against ISIS in Syria. The UNSC Resolution 2249 of 20 November 2015 made a unanimous determination that ISIS “constitutes a global and unprecedented threat to international peace and security” and called upon Member States to take “all necessary measures... to prevent and suppress terrorist acts committed specifically by ISIS... and to eradicate the safe haven they have established over significant parts of Iraq and Syria.”
Moreover, Cameron has faith in the Vienna process’ political talks that could secure a transition to an inclusive government in Syria. He believes there is a moderate opposition in the Free Syrian Army who will benefit by increased coalition airstrikes. The UK assessment is that there are about 70,000 Syrian opposition fighters on the ground who do not belong to extremist groups. Cameron said several times “To be clear: our objective is to degrade ISIL, and to disrupt the threat it poses to the UK. It would not be to attack the Syrian regime.”
When questioned after his response he repeated that this would not be a mission to eliminate Syrian President Bashar Assad.
Cameron claimed that during the last 12 months, Britain’s police and security services have disrupted seven terrorist plots in the UK; all seven were either linked to ISIS or inspired by ISIS propaganda. There were 299 arrests in the UK up to 31 March 2015 for terrorism-related offences. Radicalisation is rife: the youngest terrorist ever was convicted last month, a 15-year-old boy sentenced to life imprisonment and a 17-year-old from West Yorkshire became the youngest ever UK suicide bomber, blowing himself up in Iraq. Cameron said ISIS’ caliphate target was destabilising Jordan, Libya, Afghanistan, Yemen and Nigeria. These and the impending doom make Cameron want to act with alacrity to mitigate the impact of ISIS.
Cameron is not proposing to “ally” the UK with President Assad, as he holds the Syrian regime, in part, responsible for the current refugee crisis.
The establishment of the International Syria Support Group, which met for the second time in Vienna on 14 November, has brought together all the major international players — Iran, Saudi Arabia, Russia, the US, France and Turkey — on a common vision of what is needed to end the war. It is anticipated that working with Russia and Iran will build the consensus that will allow for a more effective and coordinated international campaign against ISIS. The aim is an orderly political transition that would preserve the Syrian state structures but deliver a new Syrian government with which the international community could cooperate fully against ISIS, as they do with the Government of Iraq. An ambitious time frame is set for political negotiations to begin by the end of the year; a transitional government in place within six months; and a new Constitution and free and fair elections within 18 months.
In addition to military strikes the coalition effort is working to cut off ISIS’ finances; stop the recruitment of foreign fighters and counter ISIS’ propaganda and its perversion of Islam. A new counter-ISIS communications centre has been established in London to combat the ISIS ideology and online presence.
The reaction from UK Parliamentarians was varied. Most were in support of Cameron’s decision, some questioned Turkey’s alliances and objectives, many said the FSA ragbag army was not sufficient against ISIS, some doubted the FSA as a moderate force, some wanted to know what more the US was going to contribute and others wanted to know more about UK’s intended engagement with Russia. When it was suggested there may be a demand for “boots on the ground” Cameron said that may be a “radicaliser”. Cameron said he would not have a vote on this unless he was sure of a positive outcome for increased strikes in Syria.
Jeremy Corbyn, leader of the opposition wrote in The Independent on why he could not support Cameron’s proposals. He said “I do not believe that the Prime Minister today made a convincing case that extending UK bombing to Syria would meet that crucial test (of strengthening UK security) …in particular the Prime Minister did not set out a coherent strategy, coordinated through the United Nations, for the defeat of ISIS”.
A vote could be expected as early as next week.