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Published on September 25th, 2014 | by Charles Fleetham
Image ©

"Tony Blair WEF 2008 cropped" by Copyright World Economic Forum ( Remy Steinegger - World Economic Forum Annual Meeting Davos 2008. Licensed under Creative Commons Attribution-Share Alike 2.0 via Wikimedia Commons

Striking Out in Vain?

It has been reported that Parliament is days from being recalled so a vote can be made on whether the UK should join the US and France in air strikes against the Islamic State (IS) in Iraq and Syria. Former Prime Minister Tony Blair chose this moment to once again wade into UK politics, to argue that air strikes could only contain the Islamic State (IS) – not defeat it. Whilst, Mr. Blair most likely felt forced to comment due to his sordid history with Iraq, it was perhaps not the most popular intervention by the disgraced Middle East Peace Envoy. As much as I hate to agree with Mr. Blair, he has a good point.

As I previously wrote in an article discussing British involvement in Iraq I personally see air strikes in Iraq as futile without action being extended to Syria. IS jihadists can always retreat from their ongoing battle in Iraq to their strongholds in Syria. Thus, I can only welcome the decision by the United States to target IS positions in Syria and Iraq. However, without support from ground troops how can we prevent IS from simply rebuilding after strikes end? In this regard we must look at Iraq and Syria as perhaps two separate theatres of war, with our allies in these states having different levels of stability and trust.

In Iraq we have a strong and stable ally in the Kurdish Regional Government (KRG). The Kurds have been the one ethnic group who have strongly benefited from the 2003 invasion of Iraq, gaining semi-autonomy from the central government in Iraq as well as increased revenues from oil in the region. The KRG has invested wisely, with many European businesses choosing to use the Kurdish region as their Iraqi headquarters due to the stability and infrastructure provided. The Peshmerga, the Kurdish militia, has proven itself competent and perhaps most importantly – the Peshmerga have been mostly immune to the risk of turning coat and joining IS. In this regard we must consider using the Peshmerga as our available ground forces in the region, funnelling funding and weapons to the KRG rather than just to the central government in Baghdad. The Peshmerga have already proven that they are able to work with US intelligence, fighting to take control of the Mosul Dam under protective cover of US air strikes. I believe that Britain has no need of sending ground troops to Iraq once more, rather we can attempt to work hand in hand with regional actors already in place; providing them with weapons, training and funds to fight IS on the ground whilst we fight them in the air.

In Syria the situation is unfortunately much different. With the Syrian Civil War ongoing for years we have already placed ourselves on the opposing side to the Assad Government. In the opposition we have a divided Syrian National Coalition (SNC) supposedly in ‘command’ of the Free Syrian Army (FSA). I use the term command loosely here as the FSA more or less acts independently, but politically belongs to same side as the SNC. Whilst arms have been delivered by Arab States to the FSA, most likely with encouragement and funding coming from sources in the West, divisions of the FSA have led to individual brigades choosing to swap sides and join IS. The Syrian Kurds in the North-East of the country have had to rely repeatedly on support from their allies in Iraq, and even now are under renewed attack from IS. The Syrian Kurds do not have the same infrastructure or experienced militia as the KRG in Iraq. In my opinion whilst they remain our best bet in Syria, they will not be up to the task of taking down IS in the war torn nation. Yet ground troops coming from Britain is simply not a possibility in the case of Syria. It would never be sanctioned by the UN, nor would we be invited in by President Bashir al’Assad.

So we come to a problem. Mr. Blair, despite playing into his reputation of warmonger, has made a valid point. Ground troops are needed to defeat IS. We can hope to use the Kurdish forces in Iraq as a tool for this, but in Syria this is simply not the case. Perhaps in the ideal scenario we will see the KRG working alongside Iraqi troops and Western air strikes to push IS out of Iraq. Then with continued Western support the KRG will reinforce the Syrian Kurds, with a new Syrian campaign beginning. The likelihood of this is low; it would be a massive military endeavour and would require long term financial and military support from the US, Britain and our allies. It would also necessitate a level of cooperation from the Assad Government, an agreement that Government troops would not attack Kurdish troops and vice versa whilst the mutual enemy was dealt with. Yet with the civil war continuing, no Kurdish campaign could stamp out the extremist group permanently.

Should we join our allies in air strikes against the IS? Yes. The extremist movement is a threat to our national security and have, with the tragic beheading of David Haines, already struck a blow against our society. Should we use ground troops in Iraq or Syria? No. We have regional allies who we can arm, train and finance to do the dirty work for us. This may be a horrible way to put it, but it is true. We have strong reasons to believe we can defeat IS in Iraq. The same cannot be said for Syria. IS will continue to survive as long as the civil war persists, there is just no system in place within the country to adequately address the group. So, in the end all we can hope for is to eliminate IS from Iraq and contain them in Syria until the civil war ends.

Please note that all blog posts do not represent the views of Catch21 but only of the individual writers. We also aim to be factually accurate and balanced across all content taken as a whole.

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About the Author

Charlie is a graduate from the University of Kent, having achieved a Bachelor's degree in War Studies, and a Master's degree in International Conflict Analysis. He has recently concluded a research internship with the conflict resolution non-government organisation the Next Century Foundation, and is also a regular contributor to the political blog the Institute of Opinion.

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