Tim Collins in London
There is a strong likelihood that within weeks the British parliament will vote on whether to join the bombing campaign in Syria against the murderous militant group Isil.
The last vote in parliament in 2013 was strongly against bombing Syria, but, crucially, this was for bombing Bashar al-Assad’s regime. The next vote may be to bomb effectively in support of Assad against a greater evil. Ironically, this bombing would also be in support, among others, of a group wholly owned by the Iranian Revolutionary Guard, namely Hizbollah.
There was a new twist last week from the Russians. With active support for Assad, they seek to defeat the rebellion against him – and that means hitting Britain’s allies, too. In conjunction with Assad and the Iranians, the Russians hope to force the West into defeating the threat to both of Iran’s proxies, the Iraqi government and Assad’s regime. And that means destroying the US-trained Free Syrian Army, as well as the Kurds – who the UK are arming and training. Add to that the Turkish imperative to bomb the Kurds and one is left wondering: who is fighting Isil?
In all this chaos, Vladimir Putin is trying to grab the steering wheel. The reality is that today Assad’s people are still killing more Syrians than Isil – but it is a close-run thing.
It is also clear from intelligence that the US air campaign against the terrorist group has been causing it to change. While Iraqi Ba’athists remain in firm control and their officers command the majority of the military capability made up of lowly Sunni Arab tribal fighters, their degradation has meant foreign fighters are rising to command appointments and influential posts. These people are increasingly unpalatable to the vast majority of the Sunni tribes who populate Isil territory.
Although the majority of the Isil fighters are Sunni Arab tribal fighters, they are increasingly reluctantly so. Trapped between the Assad Shia regime and the Shia-dominated Iraqi regime, they are effectively stateless. This is a direct result of the invasion of Iraq in 2003. This was a situation that was bound to cause strife. It has handed Isil a constituency. They have driven out the Christians, Yazidis and Druze as well as other minorities, to strengthen their grip.
Now we need a diplomatic effort in tandem with bombing to wrest that constituency back. The Sunni Arabs of the region need a glimmer of light at the end of the tunnel, something to hope for if they are ever to rise up against Isil. The minorities need to believe they won’t be slaughtered if they return. The bottom line is that we need to give Syrian and Iraqi Sunni Arabs (as well as Christians, Kurds and Yazidis and others) a homeland free from the control of Iran and its proxies and rid of Isil – a safe place to return to. Hope for jobs, education and dignity. None of that is in Russia or Iran’s plan. It must be the war aim of the West.
That means carving out a new Arab homeland that is free from external control. Such an entity must take account of the needs of Turkey, Jordan and Saudi Arabia as well as the Russians, Iran and the Iranian proxies. This plan must be forced through for a just peace.
But will bombing help? There is no doubt we must degrade Isil’s military capability and we must eliminate those who are targeting the UK directly. But I believe that we must tackle Isil as part of a wider campaign to solve the bigger crisis, and to aid our allies – the Free Syrians and the Kurds. We must address the crisis that is generating the refugee wave and which is at the heart of the regional instability.
The starting point is that British MPs must vote to support a campaign to bomb Isil. But we need to also work with our allies to help conceive and then create an entity to fill the vacuum that will be created when Isil collapses and when Assad and the Iraqi rump is safe behind Iranian lines. That requires strong British influence and leadership from the UK and PM David Cameron.