David Cameron’s calculated gamble in Syria

David Cameron’s calculated gamble in Syria

In deciding to extend the aerial campaign against Islamic State across the Iraqi-Syrian border, David Cameron’s government has thrown its weight behind the US-led strategy of containment. The hope is that the intensification of the campaign to degrade Islamic State will avert rather than catalyse ‘another Paris’.

On 2 December, members of the British parliament voted 397-223 in favour of launching strikes against Islamic State in Syria. A matter of hours after the motion passed, British jets struck IS-held oil facilities in eastern Syria.

In doing so, the United Kingdom became the sixth country to have targeted the self-declared caliphate on both sides of the now-defunct Iraqi-Syrian border, following the precedent set by the United States, Canada, Australia, France, and Jordan.

British participation in Syria has so far been relatively muted, especially when compared to its far more frequent activity in Iraq where it operates with the consent of a democratically elected government. It is likely that the desire to allay widespread public misgivings about British involvement in another Middle Eastern conflict has influenced this tentative approach, though the lack of readily available friendly troops on the ground in Syria is another obvious obstacle.

British sorties in Iraq are largely conducted in support of and in co-ordination with Iraqi and Kurdish ground forces. But deep into IS-controlled territory in the Syrian provinces of Raqqa or Deir-ez-Zor, where British planes have struck in recent days, no such allied force is present.

Weighing the costs

More significantly, very little has changed in terms of the material British contribution to the broader anti-IS coalition. Since the commencement of airstrikes in Syria, the Royal Air Force’s task force in the region has only been strengthened by the addition of two Typhoon jets to support the eight Tornado aircraft already operating in Iraqi skies.

A further four Typhoons and two Tornados are expected to deploy to RAF bases in Cyprus, bringing the total number of fixed-wing British aircraft in the region to 16. In contrast, France has around 38 jets at its disposal in the Levant, and the United States more than 150.

Britain’s involvement is therefore far more of a symbolic commitment than a financial or logistical one; a policy those opposed to British involvement have argued is dangerously misguided given the potential consequences of military action in another predominantly Muslim Middle Eastern country.

As critics maintain, intervention is likely to be met with strong opposition from many global Muslim communities, could provoke a violent backlash from extremists, provides yet another grievance that could fuel radicalisation, and plays directly into Islamic State’s narrative of a West that is at war with Islam.

Islamic State claims not to recognise the distinction between Syria and Iraq, and it was the group’s symbolic and literal erasing of the borders drawn by the Sykes-Picot treaty followed by the group’s rebranding from Islamic State of Iraq and al-Sham to the less geographically bounded and far more ambitious Islamic State that gained them worldwide notoriety in the summer of 2014. However, for many Islamic State members and sympathisers, this remains a theoretical rather than practical viewpoint.

In what has been depicted as a terrorist incident by much of the British media, a lone assailant armed with a blade attacked commuters at Leytonstone station on the London Underground on December 5, reportedly proclaiming the assault was ‘for Syria’. Likewise, survivors of the Bataclan massacre in Paris also reported the attackers having framed the mass killing as a response to French policy in Syria.

Understanding the risks

Significantly, all three of the gunmen who killed 89 people in the Bataclan had trained and fought with jihadists in Syria, as had both of the suicide bombers who detonated explosive vests outside the Stade de France. The technical and organisational expertise gained on Syrian battlefields appears to have played a decisive role in the grim effectiveness of the Paris attack.

Britain’s extension of its anti-IS campaign into Syria is a recognition that as long as IS remain untouched beyond the Iraqi border, the likelihood of the movement of this kind of expertise back into Europe and the West remains high.

In intensifying the campaign to contain Islamic State, David Cameron is taking a calculated gamble. Given the immense symbolic value that airstrikes in Syria have for jihadi propagandists, ideologues, and sympathisers, the strategic benefit is limited given the relatively small British contribution to the coalition.

Yet the British government’s decision to disregard the border it drew a hundred years ago is no token gesture of solidarity, and in doing so Cameron has underlined his belief that the ideology that conceived and the expertise that enabled the Paris attacks must be combated within Islamic State’s receding borders rather than in European theatres or train stations.

Categories: International, Security