This is a quick post about the more obvious reasons UK involvement with military intervention in Syria is a bad idea. The world has been sickened by the use of chemical weapons on 21st August and this brutal civil war has already been slaughtering civilians for sometime. There is an understandable pressure to “just do something” to stop this evil but Britain would do far better to learn from our recent mistakes, exercise caution, pursue diplomatic channels and focus direct action on humanitarian support, not least for the huge refugee crisis created by the conflict. The UK should not be tempted to use it’s rather limited forces for the following reasons: (most reasons are also applicable to the United States).
- We have no common cause with either side in the conflict. We do obviously not want to support Assad’s murderous regime backed by Russia, Iran and Hezbollah but more importantly we do not want to assist rebels some of which have with links to Al-Qaeda who want to create a militant Islamist state. This is not a simple case of ‘goodies’ and ‘baddies’ and there are also sectarian issues we don’t even fully understand. We cannot even be sure the chemical attack was carried out by the regime – it could be a desperate ploy by rebels to produce exactly this response.
- Whatever level of action we take, whether it’s firing off a few Tomahawk missiles or sending in troops it will result in further civilian deaths. Although we may aim at ‘military’ targets there is always ‘collateral damage’ in fact the regime may even force civilians into military installations as ‘human shields’. Will the long-suffering people of Syria welcome yet more ordnance raining down on their country, however carefully targeted?
- The most obvious lessons from the tragedies in Iraq and Afghanistan is that we should not get involved in a war without a planned exit strategy and a realistic hope of post conflict nation-building that serves both the people of Syria and long-term regional stability – a very tall order.
- We will not be thanked. Our motives for involvement maybe honourable – to protect the civilian population and end the conflict but the Arab world and probably most Syrians won’t see it that way. To them it will be another Western invader melding in their affairs and seeking to gain more influence and power in the region. We will probably emerge even more hated and despised – further western interference in the Middle East is also another recruiting cry for terrorists.
- We may trigger a much wider conflict. After the “Arab Spring” of 2011, the Middle East is already very unstable. Like all cynical Arab leaders under pressure, Syria is threatening to attack Israel in the event of western intervention. How far the conflict would then spread beyond the borders of Syria is hard to say.
- We are broke and over-stretched. We face a large national deficit and another military intervention, even if it proves to be as ‘simple’ as Libya will cost £ Billions we cannot afford. After lengthy engagements in Afghanistan and Iraq our forces need time to recuperate and restructure. (Laughably the 2010 defence review promised “no new conflicts before 2015″. Rather like reducing your house insurance on the basis you don’t plan to be burgled in the next 5 years). Further fanning the flames of conflict in the Middle East is also likely to push up oil prices further impeding the economic recovery.
- It is not in our national strategic interest. Apart from the humanitarian concern and desire to stop the war, there is no direct benefit to getting involved. To be pragmatic, in Iraq part of the reason we were involved was to safeguard oil supplies. In Afghanistan we were supposedly confronting terrorists who threatened the UK. In Syria we may even end up assisting those with similar ideology to those same terrorist groups.
- Syria is a properly armed nation. Syria is not like Libya or Afghanistan. Although it has virtually no navy, the country is well defended with modern weaponry, up-to-date air defences, mobile missile batteries, a large army with heavy armour and of course, a large stockpile of chemical weapons. Going to war with such a nation should not be done lightly.
- We risk serious conflict with Russia. Stuck in his ‘Cold War’ mentality, President Putin sees Syria as a ‘client state’ and key to their influence in the region. They maintain a small naval base at Tartus and want to keep Assad in power. The Russians are the main obstacle to diplomatic progress at the UN and don’t care about the sufferings of the Syrian people so long as they keep their foothold. They will not be happy with Western intervention and have a significant naval presence in the Mediterranean. Whether Russian forces would actually fire on Western forces is not something we want to put to the test.
- Defence cuts mean any UK military contribution would be ‘token’ rather than decisive. (see below).
UK military options
Obviously to have much effect, any military action in Syria would need to be led by the US with the UK as a very junior partner (Sound familiar?). So what could the UK bring to this ‘party’? Not much.
Since 2000, submarine-launched cruise missile strikes have been the initial way conflicts involving the UK have begun, usually against air defence and command facilites. Despite being one of the most effective and relevant weapons, we only have submarine-launched Tomahawks available. Our tiny submarine force allows 1, probably 2 SSNs deployed in the area. We have been saying for the last 5 years that government should be prioritising fitting of this most potent and critical weapon to the Type 45 destroyers. We need to invest in a large stockpile of Tomahawks and a diverse range of firing platforms. If the cost of fitting them to Type 45s is too much then mounting them onto the decks of an RFA or merchant ship might even be a cheaper temporary alternative.
Despite the Cougar 13 task group being conveniently positioned in the Eastern Mediterranean, it has limited potency. HMS Illustrious carries only helicopters and, thanks to axing of the Harriers has little offensive power other than to support an amphibious operation. Even if we still had Harriers, their lack of stand-off missiles would involve very dangerous conventional bombing in the face of effective air defences. The Cougar task group is really optimised for a small amphibious operation or maybe a civilian evacuation, rather than striking inland. If we were mad enough to send in troops, an Amphibious operation on Syria’s 100 miles of crowded coastline would be near-suicidal, never mind than Syria has mobile coastal anti-ship missiles .
It would seem that the Cypriot government is apparently lukewarm about allowing British aircraft to be deployed to RAF Akatori to launch strikes on Syria. This again demonstrates the limitation of land-based airpower, often being dependent on permission from unreliable foreign states to get near the scene of the action. The restoration of RN carrier strike capability around 2020 can’t come fast enough. Maybe like in Libya, we will be treated to the ridiculous circus of small numbers of in-flight refuelled RAF aircraft making 5,000 mile round-trips from the UK to launch Storm Shadow missiles.
Dave please don’t do it!
- Navy ready to launch first strike on Syria (Telegraph)
- UK Gathers Warplanes, Military Hardware In Cyprus Base Near Syria (eurasiareview.com)
- Expert expects Syria attack from ships, not Cyprus base (famagusta-gazette.com)
- Syria, 2013 – Iraq, 2003: Along The Same Lines (voiceofrussia.com)
- Hague threatens to bypass UN Security Council – Irish Times (irishtimes.com)
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