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Britain broadens the anti-ISIS coalition in Syria

Hours after British lawmakers voted Wednesday to join the international air campaign against ISIS in Syria, Royal Air Force jets struck targets there in hopes of crippling the flow of funds to the group from the sale of smuggled oil. The vote in Parliament represented a major victory for British Prime Minister David Cameron, who had warned that Britain could no longer afford to sit back and wait for another attack on its soil like the ones that killed 130 people in Paris last month. It's unclear how much Britain's entry into the war in Syria will alter the military balance on the ground. But the move is likely to have significant political impact by presenting Britain as a member of a united front against ISIS in the coalition of major Western powers that now includes the U.S., France and Germany.

Britain has been part of the coalition fighting ISIS in Iraq for years, but until Wednesday its military was not authorized to conduct operations across the border in neighboring Syria. Mr. Cameron argued that it made no sense to constrain Britain's options based on a border that ISIS, which occupies large swaths of territory in both Syria and Iraq, never respected itself. He brushed aside the arguments of opposition Labor Party leader Jeremy Corbyn that Britain's entry into Syria lacked a clear strategy for victory and that it was likely to produce more civilian casualties without decisively defeating ISIS.

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That argument clearly resonated with the 223 members of Parliament who voted against the policy despite the overwhelming majority of 397 who voted to approve it. Mr. Corbyn pointed out that historically airstrikes have been most effective when carried out in coordination with troops on the ground who can move in to occupy and hold territory captured from the enemy. But in Syria there is no effective fighting force on the ground to do that, he said, despite U.S. and British claims that task can be accomplished by moderate Syrian rebel groups and Kurdish peshmerga militias armed by the West. Given that all the major powers have repeatedly refused to commit substantial ground forces to the conflict, Mr. Corbyn warned the most likely result of an expanded air campaign would only be to deepen the current military stalemate and increase the prospect of an endless war in the region.

Until this week, most British voters and their representatives appear to have agreed with him. But the mood changed following the Nov. 13 Paris shootings, claimed by ISIS, which showed the group was capable of extending its reach to organize attacks against European targets far from its sanctuaries in the Middle East and North Africa. The attacks in Belgium a few weeks later only confirmed fears that the continent was under threat and pushed public opinion toward support for a stepped up military campaign aimed at taking the war to ISIS' doorstep.

Mr. Cameron's majority in the parliamentary vote may also have been swelled by memories of Britain's refusal in 2013 to join the U.S. and French bombing campaign aimed at punishing the government of Syrian President Bashar Assad for using chemical weapons against its own people. Though the threat of airstrikes was ultimately suspended when Syria accepted a Russian proposal to voluntarily give up its chemical weapons stocks, the episode also revealed deep disagreements among the Western coalition calling for Mr. Assad's ouster that left the impression in some circles that Britain couldn't always be counted on as a reliable partner in the war against terror.

Wednesday's vote in Parliament has dispelled those fears, at least for the moment. But whether Britain's entry into Syria will hasten an end to that country's five-year civil war remains in doubt. Mr. Cameron, like President Obama, is right to insist that the conflict will only end as a result of a combination of sustained diplomatic and military pressure, but that neither is sufficient to achieve that goal on its own. That caveat is worth keeping in mind in the coming months as this unpredictable and bloody conflict plays out.

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