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)
A recent rise in tension between Spain and Britain over Gibraltar is a cause for concern, although the dispute is very unlikely to escalate into a military conflict. Spain and the UK are both part of the EU and NATO and anyone with a grain of common sense can see that it is in both countries interest to remain firm allies. There are many shared interests, not least the approx 800,000 British ex-pats living in Spain. (More than 25 times the population of Gibraltar). There is plenty of online hysteria on both sides but Foreign Secretary William Hague appears to be keeping the dispute in perspective while putting the British case. There is a careful balance to be struck between the use of forces to make a point and their presence actually escalating a dispute. The UK must stand firmly behind the wishes of its citizens in overseas territories but avoid rash actions which will simply harden opinion. As a general principle, diplomatic efforts backed by strength are most effective. It is good to remember that a lack of British political conviction and inadequate forces led to the invasion of the Falklands by Argentina. Both Gibraltar and Falkland Islands also represent test-cases for the international community’s support for the rule of law & self-determination (which has a strong precedent). US support for the wishes of the Falkland Islanders is luke-warm at present and it will be instructive to see how much international recognition Gibraltar’s plight receives.
Escalting Spanish harassment
While the UK economy is hardly in the best of health, the Spanish government is reeling under the weight of corruption scandals and a disastrous economic situation caused partly by an insane property boom. With around 26% unemployment and mounting domestic problems, like Argentina in 1982, whipping up nationalist fervour and focussing on grievances with a foreign power provide a convenient distraction. Some even suggest that the Spanish politicians don’t really want Gibraltar, just use the issue as a vote-winner. Spanish vessels have routinely been flouting the law by fishing in British Gibraltar territorial waters (A tiny area extending just 3 miles off the coast) for the past 2 years or more, often aided by Spanish Guardia Civil police boats and even Spanish Navy vessels. This behaviour is completely unreasonable, given the hundreds of square miles of Spanish territorial waters close by. Most seriously, Spanish police fired rubber bullets at a jet skier in Gibraltar waters. Hundreds of Spanish and Gibraltarian workers cross the border in both directions for work each day – an arrangement that has economic benefits for both sides. Spain has been deliberately causing delays at the border and threatening to make charges for crossing (illegal under EU border agreements) and close its airspace to Gibraltar-bound flights.
Looking at a map one might think it is quite logical for Spain to claim Gibraltar, a tiny speck of land just 2.6 sq miles at the southernmost end of the country. The rights and wrongs of how the colony came to be owned by Britain are distant history but Spain permanently ceded the territory in the treaty of Utrecht in 1713. Like the Falkland Islands, the most important factor today regarding ownership of the territory are the wishes of the residents. Gibraltarians voted overwhelmingly by a 98% vote in 2003 to remain part of the UK and remain proud of their British citizenship and welcome the Royal Navy with open arms. Any Spanish claims to Gibraltar based on geography are totally undermined by their ownership of two very similar territories in North Africa; Ceuta and Melilla which have ethnically Spanish populations but are adjacent to Morocco. Spain has also not improved relations with the UK by selling 20 Mirage F1 fighter bombers to Argentina, elderly aircraft but an increased threat to the security of the Falkland Islands.
A strategic gateway
Of course Gibraltar represents more than just a couple of square miles of land, it has a strategic position as the gateway to the Mediterranean Sea and the Suez Canal beyond. In times past it was a key Royal Navy base, bustling with warships on their way to duties policing an empire covering half the globe. It was also the lynchpin of the allied victories in the Mediterranean during Word War II. Until 1983 there was a Royal Dockyard capable of major warship refits but as the RN has declined, so has its footprint in Gibraltar. However it still remains a natural stopping off point for warships on the way to the main RN operating areas of the Med, the Indian Ocean and Persian Gulf. Refuelling, victualling and some maintenance can be undertaken while sailors for generations have appreciated a great run ashore on ‘the rock’ – ‘a British town in the sun’. The Straits of Gibraltar is one of the great “choke points” of the world’s oceans that international shipping must navigate. Any disruption to the free flow of shipping here would have a devastating impact on the UK economy.
The pocket-size ‘Gibraltar Squadron’
Although RN warships, submarines and RFAs frequently visit Gibraltar (recently averaging around 25 vessels per year) there are no major vessels based there. The RN’s permanent presence amounts to 21 personnel, two 24-ton fast patrol boats HMS Scimitar and Sabre and 3 Pacific 24 RHIBs. This small force (together with the Royal Gibraltar Police boat Sir William Jackson) is being kept very busy doing a difficult job by constant Spanish incursions. This little fleet is ideal for patrolling the territorial waters and dealing with fishing boats, as well as providing force protection to visiting warships. However this is not a significant naval force and many are calling for an RN Frigate to be based there. The sorry state of the RN surface fleet, down to just 13 Frigates makes this highly improbable. Although it would be a potent statement, it would not be intelligent use of slender resources especially when a serious shooting war with Spain is not going to happen. It would also be questionable to deploy a vessel designed to operate in the open ocean for defence of waters around a harbour. The weakened state of the RN cannot have been lost on Spain which ironically still retains fixed-wing naval aviation with British-designed Harriers while the RN’s sole carrier will arrive with nothing but helicopters.
Penny Mourdant, MP for Portsmouth is actively lobbying government to build two Offshore Patrol Vessels (OPVs) partly to keep the BAE Portsmouth shipyard in work but also to boost RN hull numbers. Although outside the very tight MoD core budget, if the Government were to agree to this common sense proposal, then basing one of the OPVs in Gibraltar should be given serious consideration. Not only would it provide a more substantial symbol of UK commitment to the territory, but the OPV could conduct useful maritime security patrols in the Western Mediterranean and work with NATO vessels in the region. With a similar arrangement to HMS Clyde in the Falklands, the costs would be manageable with crews rotated every six months or so and repairs carried out locally so the ship does not have to return to the UK. Unfortunately even if the OPVs are ordered it would be at least 3 years before they could be in service. The folly of continual cuts to the RN is now clearly exposed as government has left itself so few options. In the short-term maybe one of the RNs 15 minehunters could be sent but these specialist vessels are already at full stretch with 3 permanently forward-deployed in the increasingly-important Gulf region. Another stop-gap alternative could be an ex-merchant ship conversion.
At the time of writing the 3rd annual Cougar exercise involving the grandly-named UK’s “Response Force Task Group” (RFTG) is about to arrive in the Med with 3 vessels to visit Gibraltar. This is a long-planned, routine visit and the arrival of the ships is not a direct response to Spanish provocations. Although it’s ‘business as usual’ and no cause for Spanish excitement, the arrival of RN ships is always a boost to the morale of Gibraltarians who feel somewhat under siege. While these visits are welcome, these ships will of course sail after a few days. As part of Cougar13, HMS Illustrious is scheduled to visit NATO naval base at Rota in Spain and it will be interesting to see what welcome she receives.
Gibraltar will remain an important base for the Royal Navy and a useful staging post for global deployments. More importantly the interests of the people of Gibraltar would best be supported by strong diplomatic efforts and a more visible naval presence.
- Online coverage of Exercise Cougar 13 collated here (Storify)
- Gibraltar: Earth, Air, Water and Spanish Fire. (Conservative Companion)
- Gibraltar will be ‘delighted’ to welcome Royal Navy (Portsmouth News)
- Royal Navy warships to visit Gibraltar amid diplomatic row (Daily Telegraph)
- Navy ‘can’t do a lot’ about Gibraltar (Portsmouth News)
- The spectre of Scottish independence – implications for the Royal Navy
- HMS Alliance to be re-commissioned into active service with the Royal Navy
- The case for building a British hospital ship
- Happy 350th birthday Royal Marines, but mind the gap
- Review: the Royal Navy 2013 – 2015
- Maritime Media Awards 2013: Securing the Seaways
- Mercy mission to the Philippines – in the finest traditions of the Royal Navy