Drew Smith

Interested in International Security, Terrorism and Geopolitics. Constantly on the look out for my next travel adventure.

Limiting air strikes to Iraq might be nonsensical, but we should be making the case for boots on the ground instead

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.



One comment on “Limiting air strikes to Iraq might be nonsensical, but we should be making the case for boots on the ground instead

  1. Tom Ginger
    August 1, 2015


    I am certainly inclined to agree that British air power cannot do much to tip this war in either direction on its own. Our decision, whichever way it goes in the autumn, will not have any immediate or drastic operational effect. However I think you might underestimate the strategic importance of such a decision. The geo-political impact of a British parliamentary vote on Syria has already been demonstrated. The infectious lack of moral backbone that the Western world exhibited in 2013, when Assad crossed the infamous chemical red line, was partly caused by the British parliament’s unshakable dislike of anything Blair-esque. Another such vote in Parliament, this time offering a more assertive message, might shake our European brethren into similar action. France for one would not have Britain show a more militaristic stance in what used to be its backyard, and the Dutch, Danish, Belgians and Italians may not be too far behind. Even Turkey could be given the political opening to come closer into the Coalition-fold; a final step it has failed to take at the time of writing.
    Before long the single act of parliamentary bravery taken by HMG could have far reaching effects; bringing a more flexible operational punch to the fight in the Levant. Such flexibility, with all assets able to move between Iraq and Syria, will be especially necessary this autumn when the USS Theodore Roosevelt leaves the Arabian Gulf and deprives the war of about one third of its current Fast Jet combat air power. Operationally therefore a British vote in favour of a more flexible, more united air weapon could indeed have an outsized impact. It would of course have to be won first.

    On the notion of men and women on the ground I am again in tentative agreement, but more with your thinking and not the suggestion. Wars are won on the ground, and air power lacks utility when it is not coordinated with the surface effort or the ground commander’s intent. What you suggest, closer integration at the tactical or even sub-tactical level, would certainly grease the wheels of the integration necessary for Close Air Support. However, this belies the real issue in the war against ISIL. The air and land efforts are disjointed: partly because each faction on the ground has a different intent, partly because the Coalition and Iraqi Security Forces (ISF) do not work for the same commander.
    On the issue of factionalism, the PMF, the ISF, Sunni tribes and YPG/Peshmerga all have different strategic objectives. The PMF work for Iran and Hezbollah, or at least are heavily influenced and supplied by them. They do not necessarily work for or with the ISF and their main aim is to ensure continued Shia influence in Baghdad, not wipe out ISIL. The ISF is on the one hand concerned with restoring the nations borders, but on the other must ensure regime survival, and not cede more land to the enemy. The Sunni tribes of Anbar fight for their homes and for peace, they are not concerned with who provides that, in fact they share some beliefs with ISIL; their loyalty is questionable. Finally the Kurds, the most reliable and professional of the Coalitions allies, now fight a defensive war, and are little concerned with gaining territory other than to ensure a buffer against ISIL. The Kurds also consider the ISF to be a possible future threat, and are unlikely to cooperate to the full extent possible.
    Such a confused picture on the ground is not conducive to a coordinated land campaign, without which air power suffers unduly. This is made significantly worse when there is no joint commander, or joint planning. When air and land do not work towards the same goals, and when the former simply becomes the weapon caddy of the latter air power’s influence is significantly reduced. Lessons in the Israeli-Arab wars, Second World War North Africa, and Desert Strom tell of both the benefits of joint up thinking and the deficiencies when it is lacking.

    So Andrew, after all my waffle, I agree with you; the war-winning element of this conflict is a change to the circumstances on the ground. I doubt though that the great operational effect you are hoping for is to be found at the level of tactical integration. I also doubt the British public’s metal for such a potentially escalatory approach. Solutions? I do not have a campaign plan up my sleeve unfortunately. However, with the CIA reporting that ISIL is no weaker than it was a year ago when the Coalition began its air strikes, I do not believe our current ‘plan’ is either conceptually or operationally sound enough to win the war. An integrated campaign is what is necessary on the ground, only a joint force concept will deliver such a campaign.

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