Here we go again. Cameron’s latest declaration from the NATO summit is clearly hinting his intention of joining the US on air strikes against ISIS positions in Syria as well as in Iraq. This stance is legalised by claiming that the Iraqi government has called for these strikes, which is true, and that president Assad’s rejection of any such strikes is overruled by the fact that his war crimes disqualify him from being regarded as the legitimate ruler of Syria. The threat of the gruesome murder of the British aid worker is adding to the pressure on Cameron to take action, but after the previous Western interventions in Afghanistan, Iraq and Libya have all led to internal insurgencies, instability and chaos, there needs to be a far clearer set of objectives than merely doing something, anything. What exactly are those objectives?
No war can be won from from the air alone without the very substantial support of allies on the ground, and this seems hard to credit on the scale required. Turkey and Iran are likely to assist Western efforts, but whether they will deploy sufficient ground forces to achieve a decisive pushback against ISIS is another question. The Arab countries – Saudi Arabia, Qatar and the Gulf states will probably offer funding and security coordination, but not much else. Jordan possesses advance intelligence and special forces assets which might help Western air strikes, but again is unlikely to supply significant military support on the ground. All the main EU countries – Britain, Germany, France and Italy – have been arming the Kurds, but the peshmerga are unlikely to operate far from their home base. It is therefore difficult to see how a coalition of the willing can take effect on the ground on the scale required.
There is also the key question of what exactly the objective is in Syria. Now that ISIS has eliminated most of the Syrian Free Army opposing Assad, the destruction of ISIS in Syria, which anyway seems a distant prospect at the moment, would leave Assad more entrenched than ever. Is that what the US and UK want? Certainly Turkey, Qatar and Saudi will be demanding the overthrow of Assad as part of the package for participation in Western efforts, and it would seem a strange result to leave Assad, who is now ruled out as the legitimate ruler of Syria, virtually unchallenged. But following through a successful reversal against ISIS in Syria, even if that proves possible, by launching a full-scale assault on Syrian military forces seems highly improbable given the war-aversion in both the US and the UK after experience of Iraq and Afghanistan. And even beyond that, where is the consensus of forces that would be left in Syria if both Assad and ISIS were removed from the scene?
So what exactly are our objectives?