A version of this article was published at The Independent.
Yesterday, the British House of Commons voted 397 to 223 to extend airstrikes against the Islamic State (ISIS) into Syria from Iraq. After the vote in August 2013 against military action to punish Syrian dictator Bashar al-Assad for the massive poison gas attack outside Damascus that killed 1,500 people in a few hours, this is undoubtedly a sign of a recovery in confidence of Britain’s international role, but it is only the beginning.
The main argument in favour of the government motion was simply that there was no good reason to oppose it. The U.K. was already striking at ISIS in Iraq, and given that ISIS has abolished the Iraq-Syria border—and ISIS’s most valuable resources were on the Syrian “side”—it made no sense to restrict which parts of ISIS’s statelet Britain would attack. Conservative MP Bernard Jenkin’s description of the extension of airstrikes into Syria as “a minor tactical correction” was exactly right. While the effects will not be momentous, the decision does have practical implications. Prime Minister David Cameron gave an example during the debate of Syrian moderate rebels battling ISIS only eight minutes away from British jets, but Britain being unable to help them, and the rebels having to wait forty minutes for help to arrive from America.
The strikes, however, are only really a correction to an absurd status quo. President Barack Obama has defined the mission as one to “degrade and ultimately destroy” ISIS, and airstrikes in Syria are only one of five components necessary to meet that goal, as I recently laid out at length in a strategy paper for The Henry Jackson Society.
In the Prime Minister’s written response to Parliamentary questions about his strategy for Syria, he noted that to work with Assad would “make matters worse” because Assad is one of ISIS’s “greatest recruiting sergeants”. This is correct, but it is now of primary importance that the British government and the U.S.-led anti-ISIS Coalition as a whole make Assad’s ouster a central feature of their stated political objectives. The defeat of ISIS requires the enlistment of Sunni Arab forces, and that can only happen if they are confident that ISIS will not be replaced by radical sectarian forces of the Assad regime or Iran, which is in control of the Assad regime and which has deployed tens of thousands of Shi’a jihadists into Syria.
Limiting Iran’s power more broadly in Syria is crucial to defeating ISIS. Iran and ISIS are symbiotic, feeding off one-another by committing atrocities against the other’s political constituency against which they can claim to be the only protectors. The appearance of the Coalition siding with Assad/Iran by only bombing Sunni radicals and even bombing non-transnationalist insurgent groups, while doing nothing as Iran moves tens of thousands of European- and U.S.-designated Shi’ite terrorists into Syria, is deeply damaging, helping ISIS to present itself as the guardian of the Sunnis. It also ignores that Iran is a far larger global terrorist threat, including having established an alliance with al-Qaeda in 1992.
Designating more of Iran’s proxy Shi’ite militias as terrorist organizations would be strategically beneficial in showing Sunni Arabs that the Coalition was even-handed in its counter-terrorism policy; it would complicate (at least politically) Russia’s assistance in the cross-border movement of these forces; and it would lay the legal groundwork to interdict by force the movement of men and material by and to Iran’s terrorist assets if the Coalition chose to do so.
Sunni Arab forces are needed to defeat ISIS because it is in Sunni Arab areas that ISIS has its caliphate. Much propaganda has been spread by Assad, Iran, and Russia that there are no moderate Syrian rebels left, but this is simply untrue. The entire rebellion is at war with ISIS and there are about 75,000 moderate rebels whom the Coalition could work with, plus a further 25,000 not-so-moderate rebels who are also fighting ISIS. (Al-Qaeda and pro-al-Qaeda forces amount to 15,000 at the most.) While the Pentagon’s train-and-equip program failed, as it was bound to do since it was only directed against ISIS, and gets a lot of media attention, this ignores the more than 40,000 moderate rebels who have been vetted by the CIA and supplied with lethal weaponry, virtually none of which has gone astray. If the moderate rebels forces had something to fight for—namely the promise of self-rule, protected from ISIS and Iran—and were given the appropriate resources they could be mobilized to defeat these two Western enemies. The Sunni Arab tribes also remain astonishingly unengaged, though when the West defeated ISIS’s predecessor in Iraq it was exactly by aligning with these tribes to help them provide local security.
Finally, it is necessary not to over-rely on Kurdish forces. The Kurds have proven very adept at protecting Kurdish-majority zones from ISIS, but many commentators have extended this fact to declare that the Kurds are our only reliable ally in Syria. Leaving aside the political authoritarianism and ethnic engineering of the PYD, the party in control of the Syrian Kurdish armed units, the PYD has been able to clear ISIS from less than one province in a year with the backing of Coalition airstrikes. In early 2014, the rebellion, without any air support, expelled ISIS from positions in seven provinces, two of which ISIS remains wholly absent from and two of which ISIS is still largely absent from. Organically rooted, local forces are needed to sustainably hold territory from which ISIS is removed. If Kurds stayed in occupation of Arab territory it would produce a backlash similar to Iran’s militias that would redound to ISIS’s benefit as Sunni Arabs fear sectarian domination more than ISIS.
The use of force in Syria is integral to a political solution, but if the strikes against ISIS in Syria are not accompanied by a serious effort to build up the moderate opposition to apply enough pressure to force the Assad regime from office in a political settlement then it will be worse than useless. The Kurds cannot and will not shoulder the task of liberating areas outside their own, and an alliance with Assad and Iran is actively counterproductive. As long as Assad survives, so does ISIS. The Obama administration’s ruling out directly targeting Assad and the Iranian forces propping him up complicates this, as does Russia’s intervention. The rebellion, however, provides the lever to checkmate the dictator and to release the non-criminal elements of his army and security services to form a transitional government with the rebels that can sweep the Takfiri Caliphate from the map and in time stabilize Syria.