War with Isis: Britain must learn from past mistakes before joining the civil war in Syria

In Basra and Helmand province the outcome for Britain was humiliation limited only by the size of the forces engaged

Britain is moving towards taking part in the war in Syria without much idea of what is happening in that complicated and very dangerous country. 

This is in keeping with the careless spirit in which Britain became involved in small wars in and around Basra in Iraq after 2003 and in Helmand province in Afghanistan after 2006. In both cases, the outcome was humiliating failure limited only by the small size of the forces engaged. What were designed as attempts to prove to the Americans that Britain was an important military ally managed to achieve just the opposite result. 

Isis fighters at the Tabqa airbase in Raqqa province after capturing it from the Syrian government in 2014

Britain is capable of deploying only a few aircraft over Syria, but military intervention there may still have a significant effect on life in Britain. The reason is that Isis always responds to any attack on itself by targeting civilians in the country or community it holds responsible. When the victims were Iraqi Shia, who were blown to pieces in their thousands as they stood in market places or bus queues or went on pilgrimages, the world paid little attention, but events in Paris this month differ little from what has happened in Iraq since 2003. 

What is different today is that since the “Islamic State” was declared after Isis captured Mosul in 2014, this form of systematic urban terrorism has been backed by the resources of a monstrous but well-organised state. When the Syrian Kurds inflicted a series of defeats on Isis earlier this year, the group retaliated by sending upwards of 100 of its fighters on a suicide mission to the city of Kobani, where they slaughtered some 220 Kurdish men, women and children. 

In July, in the Shia town of Khan Bani Saad in Diyala province, north-east of Baghdad, Isis exploded a lorry packed with explosives in a street where people were celebrating the end of Ramadan, killing 115 of them. This was almost the same number as died in Paris on 13 November, but the event was scarcely reported outside Iraq. 

Urban terrorism carried out by suicide squads distantly directed from the self-styled caliphate has only got going outside Iraq and Syria over the past year. Some of the attacks are just the same as before, such as that by two suicide bombers who killed 102 people attending a demonstration for peace in Ankara on 10 October. What is ominous about this most recent wave of mass killings abroad is their frequency – Ankara, Sinai, Beirut, Baghdad and Paris.

Second, there is a trend towards greater sophistication in planning, such as the bomb smuggled aboard a Russian plane at Sharm el-Sheikh that killed 224 passengers and crew on 31 October. The multiple attacks in Paris also showed careful organisation in terms of getting together and equipping, without alerting the authorities, a large group of like-minded Isis supporters willing to die. 

Syria: Russian Air Force bombers strike IS positions

Conviction that British air strikes will almost inevitably lead to retaliatory action by Isis against British civilians should not determine British policy. But it should compel careful thought about what is the aim of British actions and how best it should be achieved. Yet, serious though the consequences of intervention may be for Britain, the approach of the British Government remains curiously amateur and ill-informed, its understanding of the situation in Syria and Iraq distorted by propaganda and wishful thinking. This is very much what happened previously, with disastrous consequences in Iraq and Afghanistan. 

Air strikes are only really decisive on the battlefield when conducted with a well-organised military partner on the ground. In Syria, the largest single military force is the Syrian army, yet the US has avoided carrying out air strikes against Isis while it is fighting the army. Washington feared that if it did so, it would be accused of keeping President Bashar al-Assad in power – so when Isis columns attacked Palmyra in eastern Syria in May, they could do so without being subjected to US air attack. Unsurprisingly, Isis captured Palmyra, ritually murdered surviving Syrian soldiers, and advanced to within a few miles of the M5, the main Syrian north-south road. 

Syrian army soldiers in Damascus,

US and British officials have in the past justified this policy of keeping the Syrian armed forces at arm’s length, by claiming that the army is not fighting Isis, though this is untrue. In August 2014, Isis fought and defeated the Syrian army in the east of the country, overrunning bases, such as Tabqa military airbase in Raqqa province where at least 345 Isis fighters and 170 Syrian army soldiers were killed in ferocious fighting before Tabqa fell with 160 Syrian soldiers captured and later executed. 

If Isis is really going to be destroyed, it is difficult to see how the US and UK can avoid having some degree of co-operation with the Syrian army. Exhausted and battle-weary earlier in the year after losing battles at Palmyra and in Idlib province in the north, its morale has recovered now that it has Russian air cover. The shock of the Paris massacre has made such co-operation much more palatable and, for the moment, has muted the revival of Cold War rivalries.

The former chief of defence staff Sir David Richards made the point this week when he pointed out that British policy in Syria is somehow to fight Isis and the Assad government at the same time in a two-front war. He said: “The real issue is can you use the one army [in Syria] that is reasonably competent, which is President Assad’s army?” 

He recommends ceasefires in other parts of Syria, enabling “Assad’s army and Hezbollah and their Iranian backers and others to turn their attention to Isis”. 

Soldiers are often more clear-sighted than politicians about who has real power on the ground and who is only pretending to have power. General Richards said there would have to be an agreement with Moscow because “Russia is, whether we like it or not, a leading part of this”. The same is true of Iran which has been orchestrating armed opposition to Isis in both Syria and Iraq, but which is denounced by the US, Britain, France and Sunni states as an unwelcome interloper in Syrian and Iraqi affairs. But in Iraq, the largest and most committed combat force resisting Isis are the Shia paramilitaries who are partly under Iranian influence. Hitherto, the US and Britain have not given them air support when fighting Isis and have instead tried to revive the Iraqi army which has never recovered from its defeats in northern Iraq in 2014. 

While in Syria, the Western powers look to a largely mythical third force of “moderates”, policy in Iraq supposes that the Sunni tribes will rise up against the fundamentalists, repeating what happened in 2006-07. But Isis is much more powerful than al-Qaeda in Iraq was at that time and has moved quickly to quell any tribal uprising, executing no fewer than 864 members of one Sunni tribe, the Albu Nimr, who sought to resist it. All wars produce their ration of propaganda, but a great weakness of Western involvement in Iraq, Afghanistan, Libya and Syria is that leaders have tended to believe their own slogans and based policies upon them. This is particularly true of Britain, where governments have neither admitted to mistakes nor, more importantly, learned from them. 

David Cameron has continued to speak of the Syrian war as if it is the same popular uprising seen in 2011, though it is demonstrably a civil war with large sections of the population committed to one side or the other. He reportedly upbraided President Putin for not attacking Isis at the very moment when the Syrian army supported by Russian air strikes was driving back Isis fighters and relieving Kweiris military airbase east of Aleppo, where Isis had been besieging 2,000 Syrian soldiers for over a year. 

 Russia’s actions in Syria have diverted attention from the greater involvement of Iran, Hezbollah and the Shia militias from Iraq in the war. It has been evident for several years that the Shia in this part of the Middle East see the defeat of Assad as a threat to their sect as a whole. They were never going to allow him to fall or be forced to negotiate his departure by pressure from Sunni rebels backed by the main Sunni states. 

The explanation for the disastrously contradictory Western policy towards Isis and the Syrian war is a quite genuine dilemma. Extreme Sunni movements such as al-Qaeda, Isis and the like, draw their ideology and get part of their support from the Sunni states in the Middle East and beyond. Hampering and at times crippling the Western effort to crush Isis and its al-Qaeda equivalents is a determination not to do so at the expense of good relations with such states: Saudi Arabia, the Gulf monarchies and Turkey. It is a complicated political and military chess board in Syria and one that Britain should not play without a deeper knowledge of the game.