EXCLUSIVE TO THE MIDDLE EAST MAGAZINE. Airstrikes on Syria: In or Out? The UK decides. By Adel Darwish

housesBritish Prime Minister David Cameron’s proposal to extend airstrikes against the Islamic State Terror group ( or ISIL – Islamic State in Iraq and Levant ) from Iraq into Syria is expected to be passed by the House of Commons tomorrow (2/12/15), after Labour leader Jeremy Corbyn gave his MPs a free vote. But the Tory government motion will have a much slimmer majority, with many questions marks as to whether this is part of a long term strategy or just a tactical move.
On Monday, the Cameron camp wasn’t even sure whether the Prime Minister (below) would put the matter to parliament, as numbers didn’t appear to add up.

David-Cameron-ref Some 16 of his MPs were against the motion (down from 35 a week earlier) and about 10 remained undecided. Meanwhile Labour leader Corbyn was hinting he would whip his MPs into the ‘No’ lobby, thereby making it impossible for the government to secure a majority vote.
However, after a shadow cabinet rebellion that would have split the party, Mr Corbyn opted for the free vote.
The question is, do we, in the United States-led western alliance have a strategy, or are we just reacting to events in an ad-hoc fashion?
Within minutes of Labour announcing it would be a free-vote the Russian television news programme Russia Today (RT), was the first network to send camera crews to the Houses of Parliament to sound out Westminster hacks and parliamentarians.
The network, which toes Moscow’s line had its three services (English, Russian and Arabic) at the ready with the news well before the others. A situation which reflects exactly what The Middle East found when the Russians started their campaign in Syria: Moscow was implementing a well prepared, long term strategy, while the American-led western alliance was simply reacting to the Russian move.

Corbyn-Labour-330575Labour leader Jeremy Corbyn (left), after agreeing to his Shadow Cabinet opposition that there should be no official party opposition to extending the bombing campaign into Syria, was welcomed by Russian comentators on RT.

The lack of strategy could not be more apparent than it is in the Tory government’s loud condemnation – which often sounded like Cold War propaganda – of President Vladimir Putin’s air campaign against ISIL, which was welcomed in the Arab world, while being viewed with suspicion in the West.
Although it makes military sense to extended the RAF bombing campaign to Syria where IS HQ (based in Reqqa) and its strong support are located, Mr Cameron’s reasoning –presented to the Commons last week – had some major holes, which prevented him from convincing scores of government backbench MPs as well as a majority of Labour ones.

Military experts, spooks, western diplomats and politicians in the region agree that Mr Cameron needs to work on his tactics to develop a coherent strategy if he is to succeed in degrading then destroying IS – who few would doubt poses a greater danger to Britain, her allies and the West in general, than any other threat . He must also convince the Commons to vote for his motion with a handsome majority.
A majority of some 400 supported the initial RAF raids in Iraq; while a majority of 263 backed Tony Blair’s controversial 2003 invasion of Iraq.

Recent figures showed a marked change – about 10 Tory MPs said they would not vote with Mr Cameron, neither would any Scottish MP or any LibDems representative.
Meanwhile, the eight DUP members from Northern Ireland agreed to join the government in the ‘Yes’ Lobby.
About 50 Labour MPs, led by Shadow foreign secretary Hilary Benn said they would also vote with Mr Cameron’s Tory government.

This would give Mr Cameron between 375-385 votes, a majority of 50-60 – not exactly the kind of authority a Prime Minister needs to take the nation to war. But he only has himself to blame for lack of strategy.
And if it hadn’t been for the attacks on Paris two weeks ago – ordered and planned by IS – he would not have received anything like the existing levels of support for a stronger direct British involvement.

Like Tony Blair standing “shoulder to shoulder” with America after the 2011 Al-Qaeda attacks, on the US, Mr Cameron was among the first to offer Britain’s full support to the French, believing that similar attacks could – and many security specialists do not rule it out – also take place in London. Also the UK has a defence pact with the French, including use of their aircraft-carriers since Britain’s will not be operational for some time.
The shooting down by Turkish fighters of a Russian bomber helped accelerate the French initiative to form an anti-terror grand-alliance, including Moscow.

French president François Hollande (below), when meeting with his Russian counterpart in recent days, might not have gained 100% supportFrance_French_president_Francois_Hollande_11414for what he set out to achieve but nevertheless, he came back with an agreement that Russian raids – so far more effective than the those of the western alliance – would focus only on the terrorists. President Hollande also dropped demands to remove Syria’s President Assad. French Foreign Minister Laurent Fabius said what several retired British generals also believe, that since IS cannot be defeated by air raids alone, hope lies with the main force on the ground, which is the Syrian state army. A de facto recognition of the need to coordinate with the Assad regime, since it poses no threat to the West.
MPs sceptical of the plans say Prime Minister Cameron failed to detail the rules of engagement for the RAF once inside Syrian airspace, especially after the shooting down of the Russian jet.
Air Vice marshal Sir John Walker, former chief of defence intelligence, questioned the effectiveness of RAF campaign. Sir John said at least 24 Tornado Ground attack fighter-bombers were needed to do an effective job in Syria alone, while the RAF currently deploys only eight and firmly believes the additional two Tornados and two Typhoons to be added to the squadron will not be enough.
There is a universal agreement that without ground force any air campaign to destroy the Islamic state will be meaningless. This is Mr Cameron’s true Achilles heel, especially with Iraq and Afghanistan still fresh in the public memory.

Mr Cameron said there are over 70,000 “moderate” opposition fighters who need support by air strikes in their fight against IS.
However, it is difficult to know how to take the Prime Minister’s figure seriously.
If the figure includes the Kurds, then they are only interested in protecting their own areas of Kurdistan. Iraqi Kurds – the majority of the force and the most organised – will stop at the borders and not cross to Syria. They do not want to open up another front against Turkey, which continues to launch attacks on the Syrian Kurds (mainly PKK), the most effective force against ISIL in Syria. Unfortunately, Turkey and Washington continue to list the PKK as terrorist group.

Meanwhile, Mr Cameron’s other factions number over 90 separate entities. The strongest of these are jabahat al-Nusrat, an off shoot of Al-Qaeda and an Islamo-Fascist group almost as nasty as IS.
A Free Syrian opposition spokeswoman told the BBC News their priority was to topple Assad before tackling Islamic state. Like most of the opposition groups there is no way they would change their plans to fight on the same side of Assad’s army.
When The Middle East asked a high ranking British intelligence officer where Mr Cameron got his figure of 70,000 fighters, his reply was no more accurate than a Devon farmer wetting a finger to the air to determine the forthcoming weather, at best inconclusive and at worst plain misguided.

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