By Alastair Sloan
David Cameron's decision this week to allow Parliament a vote on extending air strikes from Iraq into Syria was not a reaction to the Paris attacks, though the timing may feel that way. No, the real reason for Cameron's passion for military action dates back to his failed bid to intervene against Assad in 2013. Back then UK's standing in the international community dropped dramatically after Cameron's unprecedented and mortifying defeat, which collapsed international will to act against Assad early on in the revolution. His excuse was that he had been backstabbed by his political opponents acting outside the national interest, but international allies have been suspicious of his abilities ever since.
This collapse in confidence hasn't spelled Britain's fall from the top table however. The rise of the Islamic State last year presented a clear opportunity for Cameron to prove that the UK could still step up in times of need. Yet when the US-led Coalition was formed in September, Cameron's performance didn't go far enough. Air strikes in Iraq were approved, but not in Syria – across a border the Islamic State didn't recognise. The UK would supply reconnaissance support only, leaving allies to fly the strike missions.
Doubts therefore remained among the UK's allies. Under pressure but uncertain if he would win a second vote, Cameron wisely decided to hold off a vote until after the May elections. An unexpected but slim Parliamentary majority put him in a strong position, but the election of a wildcard anti-imperialist Labour leader Jeremy Corbyn shook Cameron's nerve. Then came the horrific Paris attacks and the legal mandate of a UN resolution.
But what Cameron is now doing is strategically wrong. Simply for the sake of supporting our Western allies - the prime minister wants Britain to legitimise a failing strategy which is only exacerbating the wider Syrian civil war. US-led coalition bombers have been running out of targets for months, as ISIS take cover, and have only killed two thousand ISIS fighters to date. Meanwhile the group is able to recruit faster than anyone predicted, preying on or inspiring disaffected young Muslims from all over the world at unprecedented rates, which rapidly increased once airstrikes began. The people of Raqqa, living under ISIS, have even appealed to Cameron not to risk so many civilian lives for no material gain, saying it will be civilians that suffer, not ISIS.
While finally presenting his much-anticipated proposal last week, Cameron unexpectedly announced the UK had found 70,000 moderate rebels with whom the RAF would be co-ordinating strikes. How this number was reached, and what counts as a “moderate rebel,” remain unknown, as does the level of co-ordination that Cameron has already agreed with them, or how much he really knows about their ability and intentions. The UK's intelligence networks, currently run out of MI6's office in Amman, are grievously stretched. Foreign journalists – often a key source of information - have fled Syria. Aid workers, another standard source of information, are increasingly unavailable. Meanwhile the Foreign Office has suffered huge cuts – meaning record lows in embassy staff and intelligence gathering abilities.
Cameron may be smart enough to know all this – to know that airstrikes won't make a difference, that the rebel alliance is overblown and little understood, that the plan will never make a meaningful impact on Islamic State capabilities. He re-assures us that a political solution is in the offing – but the signs are not positive. Only a major compromise between the Gulf and Turkey-backed Sunni rebels and Iranian and Russian-backed President Assad will ever bring peace – yet neither side is yet ready to back down. If the war continues, the instability within which extremists groups thrive will only sprout more radical groups for us to fight.
On Monday, the UAE formally announced they were ready to commit ground troops to "fight jihadists." Like the Saudis, Abu Dhabi officials have been pushing for an international deployment for months. Belgium has just said similar. Whether they will come good on these promises will rely on what more powerful countries decide to do. The French are so angry and afraid they would have already deployed troops if they could only have achieved a better international coalition . At present – there is limited but increasing appetite across the West for action, but a change in President might mean the Americans eventually support such an escalation, especially if ISIS are able to carry out an attack as spectacular as Paris on American soil. Russia and Iran would no doubt strengthen Assad in response to any increased Western deployment. All the red lights are flashing. Cameron should be speaking out against the dangers posed by these airstrikes, not blindly supporting them. Instead he remains myopic in his pursuit of what would merely be a symbolic but costly gesture. Instead the prime minister should remember our ultimate obligation isn't blindly bending to our allies, but to maintaining global peace and stability. Simply following the crowd won't achieve that.
Alastair Sloan writes columns about international affairs and human rights for Al Jazeera, Middle East Monitor and The Daily Star in Lebanon. He also contributes to The Guardian and The New Statesman about British politics. Follow him on Twitter.
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