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Friday 17 July 2015

Discussing UK policy on ISIS and Syria

By Kellie Strom

Clive Lewis, the new Labour MP for Norwich South, hosted an event last Wednesday at the House of Commons: a discussion with Professor Paul Rogers on UK policy towards ISIS, on whether the UK should expand air strikes against ISIS into Syria, and on what alternative strategies might be of use in fighting ISIS.

Paul Rogers is Global Security Consultant to the Oxford Research Group and Professor of Peace Studies at Bradford University.

A reaction to the Tunisia massacre?

The essence of Paul Rogers’ argument was contained in this written briefing which he provided to the meeting. My notes from the meeting are not comprehensive, and not verbatim.

In his talk, Professor Rogers said that he saw the UK government intent to extend air strikes into Syria as a reaction to the Tunisia attack, and that he believed it would be ineffective or counterproductive in combating ISIS. (Note however that prior to the election Conservative ministers declared their wish to expand strikes into Syria.) He described the air war against ISIS to date as more intense than is generally realised, with high numbers killed by Coalition airstrikes, though he said there was no clear information on the proportion of people killed that were civilians or that were paramilitaries.

Saddam’s men

He gave a neatly concise history of ISIS, emphasising two aspects of its leadership: One, that core paramilitary elements are drawn from Iraqis who fought Western special forces in 2004-8, a period of intense effort by the US and UK to defeat Al Qaeda in Iraq with as many as 300 night raids per month at peak; Two, that technocrats in the leadership are veterans of Saddam Hussein’s dictatorship, former Iraqi Ba’athists able to run areas occupied by ISIS efficiently and effectively. These fighting and management skills are uniquely combined in ISIS with extreme religiosity.

ISIS is acting as a state entity even if no states recognise it, Prof. Rogers said. If ISIS is to thrive however, it needs more overseas recruits. ISIS propagandists gain recruits by promoting themselves as guardians of Islam under attack by crusaders, and therefore, Paul Rogers argued, ISIS wants and needs war with the West in order to grow, and so the West should avoid fighting ISIS directly.

Saying that there were no easy alternatives, Paul Rogers outlined three approaches to help contain ISIS: increasing aid as the large scale humanitarian disaster will lead to more anger and radicalisation; working for stability in Libya and for less repression in Egypt as these two countries are targets for ISIS, and disorder and repression help ISIS; diplomacy with Iran encouraging it to both make a deal with Saudi Arabia over Syria and also to reach out to Sunnis in Iraq.

Paul Rogers was optimistic that the Iran nuclear deal could allow diplomatic progress on Syria and Iraq. He described Syria as a double proxy war, naming the various foreign powers with an interest in the fight.

Questions from the audience

At this point Clive Lewis invited questions from the audience.

James Gordon, a Labour peer, asked about Saudi Arabia, describing its actions in Syria as negative to date in funding extremism, and wondering whether the threat of ISIS might bring it to take a more positive role.

Paul Rogers responded that ISIS doesn’t depend on outside funding, but on taxation of economic activity in territory it occupies. He agreed that Saudi funding for religious projects internationally formed a major part of the conditions allowing Al Qaeda and other groups to rise, but argued that people tend to forget the importance of the perceived threat of the Iranian Revolution in driving Saudi Arabia’s actions.

Nazir Ahmed, a non-affiliated peer, asked about reports of an ISIS presence in Pakistan, and talked of visiting Baghdad both under Saddam Hussein and more recently, and being told by Sunni leaders on his most recent trip of persecution by Shia militia being as bad as anything done by ISIS.

Paul Rogers said that the ISIS presence in that region was more clearly in Afghanistan, and that there was some tension between pan-nationalist ISIS and more locally focused Taliban. He thought it was possible some ISIS elements involved in Afghanistan would shelter in Karachi to avoid US counter-terror operations. He wondered if Pakistan might be exaggerating an ISIS presence to attract US support.

Paul Rogers strongly agreed with Lord Ahmed on the importance of dealing with sectarian abuse of Sunnis in Iraq.

Empowering local governance

Lord Hylton, a crossbench peer, described a recent trip to Jazira canton and spoke of being impressed by the local governance being conducted in cooperation between different ethnic groups. He believed the key to defeating ISIS was empowering local governance. Lord Hylton was the first speaker in the discussion to make any mention of the wishes of Syrians. He also spoke of the success of the campaign against ISIS in Kobani.

Paul Rogers declared himself in favour of local paths to good government as a way of combating ISIS, saying there were many local initiatives though he wasn’t aware of the situation in Jazira.

Richard Benyon MP, a Conservative member of the Defence Committee, referred to an earlier briefing by RUSI where it had been argued that holding territory would make ISIS vulnerable to a ground war fought by states in the region. The RUSI suggestion was that a regional coalition of land forces could break up the territory held by ISIS and thereby defeat it. He also referred to the Syria-Iraq border as a line drawn by a Frenchman and an Englishman, and suggested that it was illogical to limit UK action by that line when ISIS freely disregarded it.

Paul Rogers was sceptical that holding territory made ISIS vulnerable, and made a comparison with the Taliban. He said the Taliban were poor administrators and therefore had a weak hold on resentful populations by 2001. ISIS by contrast were effective and brutal administrators and would therefore be much harder to dislodge.

He agreed that conducting raids on just one side of the border was somewhat illogical.

Failure to act against Assad helped ISIS grow

The next question came from Muhydin Lazikani of the Syrian National Council. He suggested that in ignoring Assad who is barrel bombing Syrian cities, the West is repeating the error made in 2013 when failure to act against Assad gave ISIS the space to grow.

Paul Rogers replied that he believed the UK would not attack Assad, that the UK and US didn’t want Assad to be removed, though they wouldn’t say so publicly. He said Assad had blamed terrorists for the protests in 2011 before there ever were any terrorists, and that despite Assad being responsible for enabling the rise of ISIS, Western states were falling for the Assad line on terrorism.

Something has to be done about Assad, Paul Rogers said, but his only proposal was a diplomatic initiative with Iran and Saudi Arabia.

Rob Henderson of World Vision UK then talked of the need to bring humanitarian issues more into the military debate.

Paul Rogers agreed, linking Tunisia’s status as a major source of foreign fighters for ISIS with its very high level of unemployment. He took the view that although ISIS had a religious character, economic exclusion was a key factor in the growth of insurgencies. In response to a final question from Clive Lewis, Professor Rogers said he believed we were seeing not a clash of civilisations, but an age of insurgencies.


The open inquisitiveness of Clive Lewis and his guests was good to see. The limited scope of the discussion corresponded to the limits of the wider discussion of ISIS and Syria in UK politics; there is an urgent need to examine these limits and understand how they impede the development of the UK’s response.

Much of the discussion was more focused on Iraq than Syria, with little analysis of the particular circumstances within Syria and how they differ from Iraq. There was no discussion that I remember of the aims or aspirations of Syrians, pro or anti regime, prior to Lord Hylton’s question. There was no discussion of Assad’s responsibility in the rise of ISIS outside of Muhydin Lazikani’s question and Paul Rogers’ response to it.

It would be useful if this event could be followed by an effort to bring more Syrian voices to the ears of UK MPs.

The proxy war versus the Syrian war

The emphasis on negotiations between regional powers was worrying to my mind. Seeing Syria as a proxy war between regional and global powers should not be allowed to obscure the origin and continuing core of the conflict, namely the rejection of Assad’s rule by a great part of the Syrian nation, and his large-scale use of violence to retain power.

The revolt against Assad has been sustained not just by armed rebels, but also by the medical workers who have braved the terror of Assad’s air raids in underground hospitals, the Syria Civil Defence rescuers who have lost 92 volunteers in saving the lives of thousands of victims of barrel bomb attacks, the activists who have continued to report casualties and gather evidence of war crimes across the country, and the many more unarmed Syrians struggling in different ways to hold their society together long enough to see the end of Assad. These people should not be forgotten in any explanation of the conflict.

There may be a danger that the view of Syria’s borders being the product of a historic agreement between France and Britain becomes used as a justification for a new carve-up by regional powers with little regard for Syrian opinion.

To the extent that the Syrian-Iraqi border has been swept away, it hasn’t been by the will of Syrians but by the force of an invading army: ISIS. Nor should Iran’s interests be seen as representative of any great section of Syrian society. Iran’s interest is in preserving supply-lines to its Lebanese proxy force Hezbollah, and for that it doesn’t need to drive ISIS out of northern Syria—indeed the presence of ISIS in the north is useful to Iran in justifying its deployment of forces elsewhere in Syria.

The problem through Syrian eyes

All politics is local, and the UK political view of Syria will unavoidably be through the lens of UK interests, but a lasting defeat of ISIS in Syria depends ultimately on Syrians, and therefore the challenge for UK politicians is to look at the problem through Syrian eyes.

ISIS is an invading force in Syria. As Paul Rogers explained, its leadership is primarily Iraqi, and primarily descended from veterans of Saddam Hussein’s dictatorship and the Al Qaeda in Iraq fighters they allied with from at least 2003 on. Its foot soldiers are overwhelmingly foreign fighters, the better to ensure their loyalty to ISIS rather than to local Syrian communities. There is however a historic connection with Syria in the history of ISIS: In 2003-2011, its precursor Al Qaeda in Iraq was supported by the Assad regime which facilitated the flow of foreign fighters to Iraq and helped organise bombings in Iraq.

ISIS therefore has a history of forming part of Assad’s strategy to block the emergence in neighbouring Iraq of a democratic alternative to his despotism. ISIS can be seen to now be continuing that role for the Assad regime in Syria. The balance between cooperation and competition in the relationship between Assad and ISIS is disputed, but there is much evidence that Assad’s air force has deliberately aided the expansion of ISIS in Syria.

ISIS can be defeated in Syria, but not by Assad

The key to defeating ISIS in Syria, rather than merely harrying them from the air, lies with Syrians who want to be free of this foreign force just as they want to be free of the Assad regime. It is worth remembering that many Syrians regard the Assad regime as also becoming a foreign force, dependent as it is on Lebanese Hezbollah, the Iranian Quds Force, and press-ganged Afghan mercenaries supplied by Iran.

Events of the past 18 months have already demonstrated that Syrian rebels of the FSA along with Kurdish forces are capable of defeating ISIS, even more so with Western help, while Assad is either unwilling or unable to hold ISIS back. As ISIS are more Iraqi than Syrian, there would actually seem to be a more immediate path to success in driving them back in Syria than in much of Iraq.

It is to be hoped that the recent arrival in Syria of the first–very few—graduates of the US train and equip program will bring direct cooperation between the FSA and the US-led Coalition’s air campaign. That train-and-equip project, which the UK has now joined, has been hampered by the US insistence that its graduates only fight ISIS and not Assad; but while ISIS must be defeated, for Syrians Assad is still the greater threat as he and his Iranian and Hezbollah allies are killing very many more Syrian civilians than ISIS.

The NFZ-shaped hole in UK strategy

Syria Solidarity UK supports calls for a no-fly zone in Syria because it is the single most effective measure the UK can take to protect Syrian civilians. Syrian civil society groups, non-violent activists, civil defence volunteers, and medical workers, have all called for action to stop Assad’s barrel bombs.

Last month 81 NGOs including Amnesty International, CARE International, Human Rights Watch, International Rescue Committee, Save the Children, and The Helen Bamber Foundation, called on the UN Security Council to impose consequences for violations of UN Security Council Resolution 2139. That resolution, passed in February 2014, demanded an end to bombardment of civilian areas, including barrel bombing.

There are however other reasons beyond humanitarian principle for the UK to take action to stop Assad’s barrel bombs.

UK aid spending in the region has a strategic purpose beyond humanitarianism: it seeks to contain the effects of the conflict, and to preserve influence with allies in the region. But there is a limit to what aid can achieve without addressing the cause of the crisis. Assad’s bombing of civilian areas is a key factor driving refugees to flee. With 1,000 refugees now arriving in Greece every day, most of them Syrians, it is clear that UK allies in the region can no longer contain the problem even with massive aid spending there by the UK and others. Stopping Assad’s bombers would be a major step in reducing refugee flows and aiding UK allies.

In the fight against ISIS the UK needs to stop the barrel bombs because:
  1.  Assad’s air force has deliberately aided the advance of ISIS by targeting rebels who are fighting ISIS.
  2. The bombing of civilian areas makes it harder for civil society groups to organise, making them more vulnerable to extremist takeover. Defending rebel areas against ISIS requires good local governance; Assad’s air raids deliberately make this harder for the opposition to achieve.
  3. Effective targeting of ISIS by UK aircraft requires good intelligence from the ground, but leaving Syrians at the mercy of Assad’s bombers works against gaining the necessary trust and cooperation of Syrians in the fight against ISIS.
  4. Allowing the continuation of large scale slaughter of Syrians by Assad serves ISIS propaganda. For the RAF to share airspace with Assad’s barrel bombers without acting to stop them would make that picture even worse.
The UK has the military capacity to ground Assad’s air force. The UK would not need to maintain a lengthy patrolled no-fly zone as seen in Bosnia-Herzegovina and Iraq in the 1990s. Instead the UK could use a ‘deter and retaliate’ approach by first issuing a clear ultimatum to the Assad regime to stop bombing, and then responding to any further regime bombing by strikes against regime air bases rather than by trying to intercept the violating aircraft.

Missile strikes against regime air bases would be cheaper and safer—both for civilians on the ground and for the enforcing military’s personnel—than a patrolled no-fly zone as they wouldn’t require the destruction of Assad’s remaining air defences.


ISIS’s strategy of terror, an interview with journalist Christoph Reuter.

Could the Iran Deal Lead to a Syria Deal? By Hassan Hassan.

Islamic State: time to recognise a failing strategy, by David Kilcullen.

A response to the House of Commons debate on Britain and International Security, 2 July 2015, by Syria Solidarity Movement UK.

Ongoing chemical weapons attacks and bombing of civilians by the Syrian Air Force: A call for action, by Syria Solidarity Movement UK.

The No-Fly Zone Debate, with articles by Syria Civil Defence head Raed al Saleh, foreign and security policy specialist Bente Scheller, aid agency CEO Barry Andrews, and more.

NGOs unite in urging UN Security Council to take urgent action to stop civilian attacks in Syria, a list of 81 NGOs calling for action to end barrel bombs.