The Spectator on 26th November published the ‘full text and audio: Corbyn’s seven questions to Cameron on Syria’ and Cameron’s response. These are some of my thoughts on the exchange:
1: Does the Prime Minister believe that extending air strikes to Syria will make a significant military impact on the ground, which has so far seen Isil gain, as well as lose territory?
David Cameron: It is worth listening to our closest allies, the Americans and the French, who want us to take part … because of the capabilities we bring … yes, we would make a military difference.
Cameron says that UK involvement would make a significant military difference but he does not say what that difference would be. Corbyn’s point is probably that given the combined air power of the Americans and the French the addition of British air power would not, in fact, be militarily significant but that British involvement would help maintain a façade of legitimacy.
2: Is the Prime Minister’s view that the campaign … can be successful without ground forces? If not, does he believe Kurdish forces or the Free Syrian Army would be in a position to take back territory?
DC: There are obviously many who want to play down the existence and the role of the Free Syrian Army. Our information and intelligence is that at least 70,000 moderate Sunni forces are able to help.
Neither Corbyn’s question nor Cameron’s answer acknowledges that the Syrian Arab Army and its Russian, Iranian and Hezbollah allies constitute the most effective force currently fighting Daesh. Neither the Kurds, who have been attacked by NATO member Turkey nor the FSA, which many commentators say does not exist in any effective form, has been shown to be in a position to take territory from Daesh and hold that territory. Cameron’s reference to ‘at least 70,000 moderate Sunni forces’ should be considered at best vague and unverified. That he refers to ‘Sunni forces’ should set alarm bells ringing for anyone hoping for the maintenance of a secular, non-sectarian state after the defeat of Daesh.
3: Without credible or acceptable ground forces, is not the logic of an intensified air campaign mission creep … Can the Prime Minister rule out British ground forces?
DC: Let me give an assurance that we are not deploying British combat forces, and we are not going to deploy British combat forces … western boots on the ground would be counter-productive.
It is not credible for Cameron to rule out the use of ground forces in any military campaign should conditions (or our American allies) require it. Corbyn is right to point out that an effective air campaign requires coordination with ground forces. The US led alliance does not have currently have credible ground forces the Russia led alliance does in the form of the Syrian Arab Army.
4: Does the Prime Minister believe that UN Security Council Resolution 2249 gives clear and unambiguous authorisation for UK air strikes? What co-ordinated action has there been … to cut off funding, oil revenues and armed supplies from Isil?
DC: The fourth question was whether the UN resolution is unambiguous. I believe it is. The Right Honourable gentleman rightly asked what else the UN was doing on sanctions, embargoes and squeezing the finances of Isil. There was a resolution back in February.
Cameron answers Corbyn’s question on whether UNSCR 2249 “gives clear and unambiguous authorisation for UK air strikes” by saying that he believes that 2249 is unambiguous thus introducing a certain ambiguity into his own answer. A relevant paragraph of the resolution says that the Council:
“Calls upon Member States that have the capacity to do so to take all necessary measures, in compliance with international law, in particular with the United Nations Charter, as well as international human rights, refugee and humanitarian law, on the territory under the control of ISIL also known as Da’esh, in Syria and Iraq, to redouble and coordinate their efforts to prevent and suppress terrorist acts committed specifically by ISIL also known as Da’esh as well as ANF, and all other individuals, groups, undertakings, and entities associated with Al-Qaida, and other terrorist groups, as designated by the United Nations Security Council, and as may further be agreed by the International Syria Support Group (ISSG) and endorsed by the UN Security Council, pursuant to the statement of the International Syria Support Group (ISSG) of 14 November, and to eradicate the safe haven they have established over significant parts of Iraq and Syria;”
There is an interesting discussion of the resolution here: http://www.ejiltalk.org/the-constructive-ambiguity-of-the-security-councils-isis-resolution/
The second part of Corbyn’s question did not receive anything like an adequate answer from Cameron. Saying that the UN passed a resolution in February is hardly an answer to a question about ‘coordinated action’ to cut off funding for Daesh. Cutting of funding to Daesh must be considered an essential part of defeating the organisation not only in Syria but internationally. When President Putin notes that he has “provided examples based on our data on the financing of different Islamic State (IS, formerly ISIS/ISIL) units by private individuals.” and continues that “This money, as we have established, comes from 40 countries and, there are some of the G20 members among them,” ( https://www.rt.com/news/322305-isis-financed-40-countries/)” we must understand that Daesh is or is backed by an international network that must be identified and dismantled in order to both defeat Daesh and prevent its rebirth under some other guise.
5: How does the Prime Minister think extension of UK bombing would contribute to a negotiated political settlement of the Syrian civil war, widely believed to be the only way to ensure defeat of Isil?
DC: The existence of Isil, or Daesh as many call it, with its so-called caliphate, is to deny the territorial integrity of both Iraq and Syria, so we cannot have a future Syria with the existence of this caliphate.
Whoa! I agree with Cameron on this. Talking about a ‘civil war’ in Syria is a misnomer. Daesh is a foreign funded entity that needs to be eliminated and the same can be said of some other so called ‘rebel groups’. Certainly the Syrian government and their legitimate opposition need to have a dialogue and need to put their arguments to the Syrian people in free and fair elections as the alternative to armed conflict but groups that persist in fighting the Syrian people and their government are clearly not amenable to dialogue. I welcome Cameron’s support for the territorial integrity of Syria but I don’t see that this squares with his wish to violate the same territorial integrity by taking military action in that country without the explicit consent of its legitimate government.
6: What assessment has the Prime Minister been given about the likely impact of British air strikes on the threat of terrorist attacks in Britain … on civilian casualties (in Syria) and the wider Syrian refugee crisis?
DC: We are already at the very highest level we could be when it comes to threats from Isil. In a year and three months of action … in Iraq, there have been no reports of civilian casualties. We have some of the most accurate weapons known to man.
I can’t comment on what has or has not happened in Iraq but I do know that the situation there is different because the US led coalition is acting with the consent and cooperation of the Iraqi government and people.
7: In light of the record of western military intervention in recent years, does the Prime Minister accept UK bombing could risk more of what President Obama called ‘unintended consequences’?
DC: We can have a bigger debate, I am sure, about the action we have had to take around the world. We have to recognise, in my view, that this poisonous narrative of Islamist extremism is a battle for our generation.
Corbyn is quite right to question the record of western military intervention. It has clearly led to disastrous consequences for the people of Iraq and Libya and it is a matter of record that the west and its regional allies have been responsible for supporting armed opposition to the Syrian government including opposition that morphed into or merged with Daesh. Western military intervention must be considered suspect in either its competence or its motivation or in both.