It is time for a radical change in counter terrorism strategy by the West. Bombing Syria alone is not enough, even though the UK Parliament voted for air strikes.
We live in volatile times. Against a backdrop of global tensions, from the Ukraine to the South China Seas, we have witnessed the rise of a greater threat to the West – the extremist ideology of IS. This ideology is expansionist, aggressive and rejects everything nations such as Britain hold dear — from democracy to free speech, from women’s rights to freedom of religion. The vote to begin air strikes in Syria, by 397 votes to 223, is a good beginning in countering IS — It underlines the urgency of the threat. That being said, it arguably isn’t enough. British and Western ground troops will be needed to support our allies on the ground. Only ground troops can expedite victory in Syria. The decision for air strikes only represents a first step to victory in a long war.
For all the mistakes that were made in Iraq, it was wrong of the UK not to intervene in Syria earlier, as the horrific Paris attacks demonstrated. Leaving the situation to sort itself out is no longer an option. The rationale for airstrikes in Syria is that continued inaction would be immoral as well as counterproductive in terms of our own security. With this decision the UK has taken a concrete step toward helping to weaken IS. Each successful strike disperses terrorists, eliminates leaders and disrupts their operations. This will slowly weaken the terrorist organisation. However, history has shown that no enemy has been truly beaten by air strikes alone. From the Nazis to Saddam Hussein to the Taliban, it was the robust use of soldiers on the ground that finally destroyed them. It also makes it easier for the RAF to avoid civilian casualties if there are men on the ground to designate targets.
It is entirely understandable that we are all weary of war, having seen a lot of it since 9/11. But doing nothing will leave Britain faced with a determined enemy that is willing to execute terrorist attacks in Europe. The decision by President Obama to pull US troops out of Iraq early in 2011 proved to be costly. It left an unready and poorly trained Iraqi Army to cope with a growing Sunni insurgency which gradually morphed into IS. Nation building and institutional development – what Iraq and now Syria need – are tasks that take decades. This requires the kind of security that can only be provided by competent ground troops as well as air power.
Putting more ground troops in Iraq in 2006 was an effective strategy. Before 2006 the US occupation of Iraq faced serious challenges, from insurgency and terrorism to rampant criminality. It is less well remembered that the second Bush administration successfully corrected the mistakes of the first. President GW Bush Jr sent in 30,000 extra US troops to Baghdad and other parts of Iraq in late 2006. This helped to substantially decrease the effect of an insurgency led by al-Qaeda. The combination of greater numbers of American troops with an uprising of Iraqi Sunni nationalists was successful. Suicide bombings, roadside bombs and shootings began to tail off. Time and space had been bought to facilitate political development. Above all it helped reduce the suffering of the Iraqi people. In much the same way, an intelligent ground intervention in Syria can reduce the tragic suffering of the Syrian people, who have already lost hundreds of thousands of lives while others are fleeing in their millions. British troops could co-operate with the Kurds and other allies to destroy IS quickly in Syria.
The alternative is the nightmare scenario of an ambitious IS gradually expanding into the Persian Gulf and South Asia, dragging powers like Iran, Saudi Arabia, China and India into an already global conflict. Above all, the oil fields of Saudi Arabia, and the nuclear weapons of Pakistan will then be in reach for the most dangerous extremist organisation on Earth.
Having said that, I do not believe that air strikes and potential ground action alone will defeat the threat behind the ideology that justifies killing human beings in the name of religion. Military action is only part of a complex long term solution.