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9th December 2015

Will Cameron’s claims over Syria be his undoing?

Joel Kelly asks whether Cameron’s claim that there are 70,000 moderate opposition fighters in Syria will be his fatal undoing

In 2003, a dossier was published in which Tony Blair had referred to Saddam Hussein, claiming “his military planning allows for some of the WMD [weapons of mass destruction] to be ready within 45 minutes of an order to use them.” The threat this had posed to British troops stationed in Cyprus, was one of the imperatives which had been put forward in the Labour government’s argument for the removal of the Ba’athists.

Later, it was revealed to be a spurious and possibly deliberately overstated claim—this ‘dodgy dossier’ became a black mark on Blair’s entire justification for military action. The Leader of the Opposition at the time, Michael Howard, had even asked for Blair to resign.

However, it was merely a small component in Blair’s larger argument, in which he had only mentioned twice in the House of Commons. He focused mainly on a moral criticism of Hussein, and on the legal justification which he had believed was given by ‘UN Security Resolution 1441’, giving Iraq “a final opportunity to comply with its disarmament obligations”.

By contrast, David Cameron’s plan in Syria has pretentions towards pure pragmatism—albeit, with severely moralistic underpinnings. He has emphasised the very real security risk posed by the so-called IS (Daesh), and the existence of 70,000 troops on the ground who can be coordinated with Western air assaults in order to roll back the pseudo-Caliphate. Although an accurate aggregate estimate of the total number of anti-Daesh and anti-Assad troops, this bloc includes amongst its ranks, the very extremists whom we seek to defeat in Syria. There are also many smaller factions who are not inclined to go beyond protecting their own localities, such as the Kurds.

If not a direct lie, the 70,000 troops claim is one of equal disingenuity to the one which had been made by the New Labour government, concerning the expediency of Hussein’s command over WMD. However, unlike Blair’s ‘45 minutes’ claim, the ’70,000 troops’ are a central part of the government’s argument. This will fundamentally undermine their Syria strategy, which was approved by the House of Commons on Wednesday 2nd December—by a majority of 174.

It is imperative to the mission that we coordinate with troops on the ground in Syria. As Iraq has shown, the military capabilities of Western air forces can be instrumental in taking land back from Daesh, such as what had happened in Sinjar last month. However, local allies on the ground who can secure the control of cleared land, do the bulk of the work.

We are lucky in Iraq to have credible allied ground forces—such as the Yazidi militia, the Kurdish Peshmerga, and the Iraq army itself. However, our operations to defeat the Daesh in Iraq will lend indirect support to those militias fighting the Sunni extremists in the name of Shi’a Islam, and will help to turn part of the country into a sphere of Iranian influence. These militias have so far been responsible for crimes akin to the worst of Daesh’s violations, and their activities will deepen the Sunni-Shia schism which motivates the rhetoric and actions of extremists on both sides.

The factional problems that we had faced in Iraq are even worse in Syria. Serious misgivings have been expressed on the allegiances, the cohesion, the integrity, and the competence of the 70,000 strong non-Daesh opposition—misgivings stemming from both within the MoD and the Conservative Party. The chairman of the Commons defence select committee, Julian Lewis, was one of the seven Conservative MPs who voted against the Governments plan. In his speech during the Commons debate, he claimed that in place of “dodgy dossiers, we now have bogus battalions.”

This is reinforced by a MoD (Military of Defence) source, who has claimed that the department had asked the Prime Minister to stop referring to this illusory army in his statements to the House of Commons, and called the 70,000 figure “misleading.”

It is shameful that the Prime Minister only admits now, that this group is less than unitary. He has reformulated this claim into a less inclusive form, saying that this group is made up of 20,000 Kurdish fighters, the rest being the Free Syrian Army. But what is the Free Syrian Army? A disparate group, allied with the Sunni extremist Islamic Front, whose core objective is to fight the Syrian government rather than the Daesh. Entire factions—and there are many—have been disbanded, such as the formerly US backed Harakat Hazzm, which had been broken up in March, with many of its members subsequently joining Al-Qaeda’s Syrian branch, the Al-Nusra Front.

The only alternative, Lewis and others conclude, is to support Assad. The German government has resolved to do this, albeit in a purely non-combative role. However, I am not entirely convinced this will work.

For one thing, it was Assad’s rule, and his mishandling of the situation in 2011, which had sparked this war in the first place. Why should he be trusted to take control of the situation once brought back into power? Also, once reinstated, he is likely to act as a primary conduit for both Russian and Iranian interests in the region. It is also worthy of mentioning that his forces are responsible for more civilian deaths than Daesh. Furthermore, he has used chemical weapons on civilian targets, challenging Lewis’ assertion that he is “the lesser of two evils”.

Clearly, there is no ground force in Syria from which we can expect a satisfactory result, which is what makes the idea of a unitary anti-Daesh and anti-Baathist force such an attractive one for the government.

In the absence of such a force, however, the government’s plan will come to nothing. In his likely failure to unite these ‘moderates’, Cameron will be undone in Syria. He has given those in the Opposition, who are unequivocally opposed to all intervention, an automatic talking point to reference in future criticisms of the government.

In the words of the MoD source: “It’s got 45 minutes written all over it.”

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