The politics of fighting ISIS in Syria

810px-Jeremy_Corbyn_No_More_War_cropOn Saturday the Labour Party will announce its new leader. Either it will choose to slide quietly into electoral oblivion, or it will appoint Jeremy Corbyn and blast its way there backwards and on fire.

Whatever the outcome, the vote should quickly affect British foreign policy. Assuming, as most observers appear to be assuming (though look where that got us at the time of the general election) that Corbyn wins, David Cameron will have a serious political choice to make.

Cameron has already signalled his belief that Britain should do more to combat ISIS in Syria. It was always strategically eccentric to fight ISIS in one part of its territory and not the other part. Ed Miliband insisted that Britain’s contribution be kept to Iraq for two reasons.

Miliband’s first reason was quite good. In Iraq Britain has allies on the ground in the form of the Iraqi government and its armed forces. In Syria it has no viable allies. It is not about to start siding with Bashar al-Assad. Intervening in what is essentially a civil war is dangerous enough. Doing it when you know only who you are fighting against and not who you are fighting for is foolhardy.

Miliband’s second reason was less good. Technically any British strikes on ISIS  in Syria would violate Syrian sovereignty. That is not the case for actions in Iraq, because the recognised Iraqi government has asked for British assistance. There is, however, no recognised Syrian government. Britain has withdrawn recognition from the Assad regime, joining France and the US as permanent UN Security Council members in recognising the Syrian National Council as the legitimate Syrian government. The SNC, however, has little power on the ground, meaning in practice there is no-one for Britain to gain permission from. Even if there was, the process would be nonsensical. For one thing, though ISIS may not be recognised as the legitimate, de jure ruler of the territory it holds, it does exercise de facto control over large swathes of both Syria and Iraq. Strikes on ISIS in Syria are not, in other words, strikes on Syria. They are strikes on the so-called Islamic State, at least as things are currently arranged on the ground. Britain in any event is legally permitted to attack ISIS in Syria as part of its efforts to help Iraq defend itself. ISIS is based in Syria, and it is using Syria to launch attacks in Iraq. Sovereignty is important, but it does not require states to stand by and do nothing when they are attacked from a neighbouring territory.

Cameron went didn’t accept Miliband’s restriction because he agreed with his reasoning, however. He accepted it because he needed Labour Party votes. There is no government less able to win a parliamentary vote on military action than a weak Conservative government. Conservative MPs tend to support the use of force instinctively. Most backed the invasion of Iraq in 2003, for example. Labour MPs, by contrast, tend to oppose military solutions to international problems, and Liberal Democrats and Scottish Nationalists even more so. Every major party contains some MPs who refuse to sanction military action under any circumstances, including a three-line whip (Jeremy Corbyn is a prominent Labour example). Cameron learned in August 2013 when MPs vetoed his proposal to launch airstrikes against the Assad regime that he needed opposition support to win a vote on military action. That was why he acceded to Miliband’s request and restricted British action to Iraq.

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In recent weeks the revelation that an RAF drone carried out a missile strike on ISIS figures of British extraction near Raqqa in Syria has underlined the difficulty of maintaining a clear distinction between operations against ISIS on either side of the Sykes-Picot line. Against that backdrop, and in the face of rising concerns about the massive flows of refugees fleeing the Syrian conflict, the government has begun to lay the groundwork for a further parliamentary vote on Syria. Miliband’s better objection remains a concern. There is still no viable alternative to Assad or ISIS in Syria. The best that further Western intervention can hope for is to create the space for an alternative to develop. The government appears to calculate that this possibility is worth a small British military commitment.

From a political perspective, however, getting parliament to approve an extension will be both tricky and potentially useful for David Cameron. Assuming Corbyn becomes Labour leader, Cameron knows he will not be able to negotiate official opposition support for military action under any circumstances. At the same time, it is less clear Corbyn will be able to avoid rebellions of his own. Miliband held his party together over Assad. A number of his back-bench MPs spoke up in favour of intervention in 2013, but none voted with the government. If Cameron asks them to choose between disobeying one of their party’s most consistent parliamentary rebels and failing to act against ISIS, however, that discipline might not hold. It will give the government an early opportunity to paint Corbyn as an out-of-touch extremist, and to divide him from his parliamentary party, much of which already sees him that way.

The problem with this approach is that it might not work. Corbyn might succeed. Cameron might lose another vote on military action. He knows he will need some opposition votes. There will always be Conservatives who rebel on matters of military intervention, who prefer a ‘small-c’ conservative stance. If he can divide Labour he will get both the policy he thinks is right and the political victory. But if he cannot, if somehow Labour holds together, he will take a hit himself.

That is why it will be very interesting to see which way Cameron goes. He seems convinced that Britain should do more to fight ISIS, including by acting in Syria. He could score a clear political victory in the process. But there is no guarantee he will succeed, and he will suffer a major blow should he lose. He may decide discretion is the better part of valour. Or he may decide to roll the dice. We will find out soon enough.

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