What to look for in David Cameron’s Syria statement

UK Ministry of Defence CC BY-SA 2.0

David Cameron will make a statement later about the prospect of further British military intervention against ISIL in Syria. He will aim to respond to an excellent report by the House of Commons Foreign Affairs Committee, which concluded extending RAF operations against ISIL from Iraq would be a bad idea. It remains unclear whether Cameron can possibly secure parliamentary support for what he wants to do. Much rides on whether Jeremy Corbyn allows his MPs a free vote, and if not on how many are willing to defy a leader apparently growing in popularity with Labour members even as he loses ground with the electorate as a whole.


Cameron can do nothing about the politics with his statement. But he can shape the policy ground. The FAC report shifted the balance of opinion in parliament decisively against further intervention. But the Paris attacks last week have move things back the other way. We can expect to hear a great deal about domestic security, as indeed was the case with yesterday’s Autumn Statement. We will also hear about legality, where the arguments seem increasingly sound. Cameron will need also to say something about how three key policy areas will work together to defeat ISIL and bring stability in Syria. He will need to say something about Britain’s humanitarian approach, about its efforts to build a diplomatic consensus and about the military plan.


On legality, there was already a case to be made that Britain could legally act in Syria as part of its ongoing mandate to assist the Iraqi government in defending itself. ISIL uses territory in Syria to attack Iraq. Iraq has a right to self-defence. It has a right to request support from outside states and they have a right to provide it. But the picture is a little more complicated. My colleague Janina Dill said in a talk at Cumberland Lodge over the weekend that states do not actually have a right to self-defence against non-state actors like ISIL. That complicates things. The situation is further complicated by the fact that no state holds either de facto or de jure sovereignty over Syria. The Assad regime is no longer universally recognized as the legitimate representative of the Syrian people. Britain recognized the Syrian National Coalition in that role in 2012. ISIL itself holds effective control over the territory it occupies. Fighting it would look in many ways very much like fighting a state, admittedly an unusually aggressive one. Normally Security Council approval would resolve this sort of impasse. Helpfully, the Council passed UNSCR 2249 on Saturday calling on all states able to do so to use “all necessary measures”, code for military force, against ISIL. Unhelpfully, SCR 2249 was not passed under Chapter VII of the UN Charter, meaning it is not mandatory. Some international lawyers will argue this reduces its legal force. Between Iraq’s right to self-defence, Britain’s responsibility to protect Syrian civilians and the Security Council stance, however, there is probably enough legal grounding for Cameron to proceed safely.


Cameron will need also however to say first of all how any further British action will help Syrian civilians, providing not just national security but human security. This is a matter of morality. Helping people suffering is the right thing for a powerful state to do. But it is also a matter of strategy. ISIL claims that it offers something the West does not, that it cares about and stands up for Muslims while the West lets them drown or sit destitute behind border fences. That narrative must be overthrown. Britain already provides a good deal of support for Syrian refugees on the country’s borders. It needs to make protecting the population its primary goal. That is the right thing to do, but it will also deny ISIL the role it claims of champion to the victims of Western imperialism, and Assad.

Second, Cameron will need to allay concerns about the diplomatic situation. We have seen considerable progress in recent months as ISIL’s efforts to start a fight with every permanent member of the Security Council have borne fruit. Russia and the West now recognize they have a common enemy, whereas before they squabbled over the future of Assad and so failed to act. They will need to bring Iran and Saudi Arabia onside, too. British ministers have already conceded that Assad’s removal should be a goal of not a prerequisite for a political settlement. Russia, meanwhile, has confirmed Assad’s survival in office is not a primary Russian goal, though it still opposes externally-imposed regime change. What is needed now is a good enough diplomatic coalition, based on shared interests and a shared willingness to compromise. That can then be parlayed into a peace process once ISIL falls, one based on humanitarian protection, reconciliation and political transition under UN auspices. It will be a hard ask. But recent weeks suggest the great powers now recognize failing to work together will be worse.


Third, Cameron will need to set out a credible military plan. That means more than just bombing, not least because it is difficult to achieve much through bombing while prioritizing humanitarian protection. Someone will have to take and hold Syrian territory. There are three, and only three, viable options. First, the West can tacitly accept the restoration of Assad regime control over the country. Even after years of civil war, the regime’s forces remain the largest and most well-organized in the field. They are probably not in a position to defeat ISIL without further training, weapons and special forces support. They are also tainted by the regime’s considerable atrocities against civilians. Second, the West could try to cobble together an effective fighting force from the thousands of small militias currently at work in the country. This would avoid having to deal directly with Assad. But it will be hard to sort the good guys from the bad in a warzone where very few have done nothing wrong. And the practical difficulties, as the US has found, will be enormous. Third, the West can put ‘boots on the ground’. That would work, at least to defeat ISIL. But it would need to be a huge undertaking. It might well mean a full-scale counterinsurgency campaign. Using the standard US army COIN manual ratio of one soldier for each 40-50 civilians, for a country of 17 million people that would require a minimum deployment of 425,000 troops. That is not going to happen. This is where Cameron will most clearly have his work cut out, making the case that the sort of military contribution Britain is actually willing and able to make will have a significant material impact on the ground.


It is far from clear whether Cameron will win support even if he makes each of these arguments. But if he fails, he will struggle. The polls are on his side. But the polls were against Blair over Iraq and (at least in some cases) Cameron himself over Libya. MPs do not vote according to polls; if they did, Britain would be bombing Syria now. Today’s statement will see Cameron set out the detail of his case. It is up to MPs to decide if it will work.


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