Fighting Isis: David Cameron should not delude himself about the limits of Western power in the Middle East


Monday 13 July 2015 00:10

The Government has been agitating for a gear change in terms of our military role in the Middle East long before David Cameron announced that defence strategy would now focus more clearly on countering Isis. A consensus has grown that, insofar as air attacks are having any effect on its advance, confining strikes to Iraq is illogical when Iraq is not Isis’s operational hub. The Defence Minister, Michael Fallon, clarified this shift on 2 July when he said it was clear that Isis had to be defeated in both Syria and Iraq because it was “organised and directed and administered from Syria”.

Politically, this is an opportune moment for Mr Cameron to push for that change. The last time he asked Parliament for a free hand in Syria in August 2013, Ed Miliband stopped him humiliatingly in his tracks. Two years on, Mr Miliband is gone, Labour is locked in a leadership battle and Labour’s acting leader, Harriet Harman, has already promised to look kindly on new proposals to counter Isis.

Public opinion has also moved on, especially since the terrorist attack in Tunisia, from overwhelming fear of “mission creep” to a muddled feeling that “something must be done”. That would normally elicit shrill expressions of alarm from defence circles about Britain becoming militarily overextended and about the risk of “our boys” paying a price for ministers’ grandiose plans, but this time those voices are likely to remain silent. The military establishment has been mollified by the Chancellor’s announcement in the Budget committing Britain to spending 2 per cent of GDP on defence, so, if the Government wants payback in terms of support for a Syrian venture, it is likely to get it.

The real danger now is that, as divisions fade over Syria at home, a hubristic notion takes root that more comprehensive air attacks on Isis will resolve matters fundamentally, to our benefit, on the ground.

Air strikes may indeed stop Isis from capturing certain towns, help the Kurds and boost the more moderate enemies of the Syrian government of Bashar al-Assad. The problem is that an obsessive faith in the transforming power of air strikes may also prevent governments throughout the West from accepting the fact that the map of the Middle East has changed forever. Whatever reverses Isis now experiences on the ground in the coming months, the likelihood of it disappearing as a result of anything that we throw at it is practically nil.

Like it or not, Isis has become a fact on the ground, a rather large fact, whose existence manifestly depends on the complicity if not tacit support of millions of people. It would be an error if we deluded ourselves into thinking that dropping more bombs on more places can rewind the clock by four years, miraculously recreate the old Anglo-French boundaries of 1919 – which Isis has effectively abolished – and re-establish the old Iraqi and Syrian states.

It would also be a mistake if this new concentration on Isis and on Syria led to neglect of dangers in other regions. Nato’s eastern flank with Russia is long, exposed and undermanned and Russia’s attitude to its former dominions in the Baltic states remains frankly malevolent.

The Mediterranean demands ever-greater attention as the south-north refugee flow across it increases exponentially. The South Atlantic is another problem area, given the mercurial temperament of the Argentinian government and its attitude towards the Falklands.

Focusing on Isis may play well with the public mood but, if it results in the neglect of everything else, it will be less of a strategy than it sounds.

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