When MPs vote this week on Syria, they will have to decide whether intervention is right in principle. But there is another question: Will air strikes actually make a difference? As a defence and security contractor who has spent much of the last few years in Libya, I have serious doubts whether anything can be achieved without boots on the ground.
The combined use of all the countries’ air forces alone will never eradicate ISIS anywhere without a coordinated ground effort. Putin understands this: Russia is making airstrikes while letting Assad's Syrian Army mop up on the ground. By contrast, Cameron’s proposed involvement seems pointless and meaningless. He wants to act from behind, with a relatively insignificant number of aircraft compared to America, Russia and France. With such a small contribution, Britain's level of RAF involvement will not dramatically alter the damage imposed on Isis.
One assumes there is a level of coordination between the UK and US under Operation Inherent Resolve: Britain is already contributing eight jets and an unknown quantity of drones to the campaign against Isis in Iraq. Meanwhile, a small number of British SAS forces are conducting Operation Shader to destroy Isis munitions and equipment in northeast Syria. But the Russians, thanks to their support for the Assad regime, are not invited.
This lack of unity is a major flaw in the plan. Cameron has appealed to the UN resolution advocating ‘all necessary measures’ against Isis; but the UN Security Council has not unanimously agreed to action – China is prominently absent. Until the UNSC acts together, we will see political squabbles breaking out, like Turkey’s shooting-down of the Russian jet fighter. The next fighter to be shot down could be American or British. What then? If Britain wants to be more involved in Syria, Downing Street might be better off looking to the diplomatic process.
A fairly disturbing part of Cameron's rationale to Parliament is his assertion that there are 70,000 ‘friendly’ rebels ready to fight Isis and Assad's forces. This estimation is just silly. For one thing, as Senator Lindsey Graham noted earlier this year, ‘The concept of training an army that will be subject to slaughter by two enemies, not one, is militarily unsound.’ We are not talking about a single organization united by ‘moderate’ convictions, but about many diverse groups with varying loyalties – which may change. Even if we accept Cameron’s numbers, 70,000 men under no command structure and without the equipment to communicate with one another, scattered across the country, cannot possibly represent a fighting force to combat anybody.
If Cameron really wants to participate, he ought to push for a worldwide united effort with ground troops – even if it means deploying mercenaries, as successfully utilized against Boko Haram during Nigeria’s elections. But the UK’s involvement in Syria's crowded skies would achieve little if anything. If MPs have any sense, they will once again tell the PM ‘No’.