Members of UK’s Defence Select Committee (DSC) have recently returned from two excursions — the first to Saudi Arabia and Iraq, and the second to Lebanon and Jordan. The purpose of a Select Committee is to identify a topic within its scope and to examine how the government is operating in the selected area, in this case Syria and Iraq, with a related sub enquiry into Russia’s operations and intentions. The enquiry encompasses Daesh in Iraq, Libya, Kenya and Mali, the effectiveness of airstrikes, the training of ground troops and countering IEDs in Iraq. Following the visit, oral evidences from Michael Fallon, Secretary of State for Defence, and others will be given in Parliament, resulting in a report to Prime Minister David Cameron in a couple of months’ time. Presently, the DSC is evaluating UK’s four concurrent strategies to defeat Daesh: weakening the ideology especially through electronic media, degrading the financial systems, striking at the command structure and tactical warfare. The DSC has already concluded that the latter is the least effective since the reclamation of Ramadi has seen the city 85% destroyed and to take Mosul or Raqqa would require a battle on the scale of WWII.
The primary concern at the moment is the dam at Mosul, one of the largest reservoirs of water in the world, currently in Coalition hands and being repaired by Italian contractors. If Daesh were to destroy this dam, both Mosul and Baghdad would be beneath 15-20 metres of water. Around 10 million people would be affected with possibly 3-4 million casualties. Conundrums present themselves as Russia has played a clever game of realpolitik in siding with President Bashar al-Assad and succeeding pro-tem in a cessation of hostilities, raising the question of at what stage “is my enemies’ enemy my friend” and if or at what stage might UK weaken sanctions against Russia, considering all the intertwined issues. One of these issues is Turkey, which has conflated the Peshmerga, backed by UK, into their toxic Kurd adversary. Turkey has invaded Northern Iraq and if the same happened in Northern Syria there is a strong chance Turkey would come to an undesirable head to head with President Putin, who would undoubtedly defend the Kurds. Or if another accident occurred, such as in January when a Russian jet apparently trespassed into Turkish airspace and was shot down by Turkish forces purportedly in self-defence. In such an event, no apologies would be sufficient and Russia would certainly retaliate, calling for a Nato Article 5 situation, whereby Nato would be called to support Turkey. However, if Turkey advanced unprovoked and offensively into Northern Syria, Article 5 would not apply.
With the next Syrian election scheduled for 13 April, it is speculated that Assad will win and it is presumed that his future will ultimately be decided by Putin. But this does not necessarily mean an end to the wider conflict of the Middle East. The explosive jigsaw of Daesh, Sunni, Shia militant, Russian, Saudi, Kurdish, Iranian, Turkish, Israeli and Palestinian interests make the Balkan conflict look relatively innocent. Bill Perry, Secretary of Defense during the Bill Clinton administration, has already warned that the risk of a nuclear war.
The big question that remains is what Putin’s next agenda is. Tiny Russian coastal territory of Kaliningrad, which borders EU members Poland and Lithuania, is coming under scrutiny. Russia has recently positioned troops, military hardware, possibly even Iskander missiles, making Kaliningrad one of the most militarised regions in the world.
This potential threat to European cities is arousing suspicion in Westminster, Brussels and Washington.