Interested in International Security, Terrorism and Geopolitics. Constantly on the look out for my next travel adventure.
Nobody is proposing deploying the British Army to Iraq, and I am not about to start. Many of the toxic conditions that led to the spillage of so much blood and treasure after the ousting of Saddam Hussein remain constant and acute. It would be insanity not to expect similar costly repercussions from such a folly. Lessons, one hopes, have been learned.
Britain’s Defence Secretary, Michael Fallon, with muted parliamentary approval has sought to extend the UK’s bombing campaign against Isis into Syria. Isis doesn’t recognise Sykes’ and Picot’s 1916 territorial delineations – and moves troops and materiel freely across the erstwhile border. Moreover, British reconnaissance aircraft and drones already soar above Syria, and allies, such as Canada and the U.S, are already in both theatres.
While the expansion of the UK contribution in the air is clearly warranted, strategically this would struggle to exceed mere tokenism. The UK is limited in the number of additional aircraft that it can contribute and such a move would require a parliamentary vote fraught with uncertainty – the Prime Minister hardly yearns for a repeat of the Syria-vote debacle of the last parliament, which his government lost.
Efforts in parliament should instead be focused on securing a green light to expand the role of UK special forces – such as the SAS – on the ground, in Iraq. The intelligence picture is improving – the American raid in Al-Amr, Syria earlier this year that took out Isis leader Abu Sayyaf is clear evidence of this – but coalition aircraft are still returning to base too often with their payload intact. Target identification is proving the halt on progress.
To remedy this, special forces could be embedded within units in the Iraqi Army and perhaps, more controversially, deployed within carefully selected Shia militias, known as ‘Popular Mobilization Units.’ These soldiers would not have a predominantly fighting role, but would instead act as a conduit between front-line indigenous fighters and coalition aircraft, relaying real-time, credible battlefield intelligence for our airborne assets to exploit. The model here is Kobani, where Syrian Kurdish fighters proved their mettle and, decisively, that they could work closely with U.S air support to break the siege on their enclave, killing over a thousand black-clad militants in the process.
It is widely accepted that the destruction of Isis’s former incarnation, Al-Qaeda in Iraq, brought about after the infamous ‘surge’ of American troops, was greatly aided by British and American Military Transition Teams (MiTTS) changing tact and embedding with Iraqi units for the first time. This shored up professionalism and, crucially, gave Iraqi forces access to coalition intelligence and air support, enabling them to roll back the Sunni insurgency and check the creeping insidious influence of the Sadrist militias.
Throughout its colonial history Britain was rarely able to afford enough forces of its own to fight its wars, instead relying on the recruitment, integration and deployment of local levies. Today, a lack of appetite and political will hobbles the prospect of western troops facing off against Isis fighters in the streets of Ramadi, Mosul or Fallujah. Then, as now, bringing Britain’s considerable capabilities to bear requires our assets closer to the action; working with local ground forces and providing valuable ground-level situation reports for the RAF and our partners to capitalise on.
The public will take persuading, but rather than expending political capital on a strategically inconsequential expansion into the Syrian theatre, the case should instead be made that embedding British soldiers in Iraqi units on the front line will help to defeat Isis.
It will be a hard sell, but waiting and explaining why it took for events to force our hand to take decisive action, as has been the case recently with Turkey, will be an even harder sell still.