The scale and viciousness of the Islamic State project to reorder the world is becoming clearer every day. It has torn a gaping hole in the fabric of two Middle Eastern countries, dealt terrible blows to the economy and stability of others in that region, and threatens the integrity and the physical safety of European nations as well. There can be no quarrel, therefore, with David Cameron’s characterisation of the danger represented by Isis, in his response to the Commons foreign affairs committee on the issue of whether or not Britain should join the air campaign in Syria. Isis is a formidable enemy, it has attacked us and our allies, will attack again unless stopped, and the response to it must include a military element.
Indeed it already does for us in Iraq. The question of whether it should do so in Syria is at one level a detail, concerning an additional minor military contribution in a conflict in which the United Kingdom is already engaged. But at another level this is far from a detail, because the need to decide on it rightly compels a review of where we stand on the fight against Isis, how well or ill we think it is being managed, mainly by the United States, and what our governments collectively should be doing to maximise the chances of success. It raises the question, in other words, of whether there is a plan worthy of the name.
Without a plan, critics will say, military action on its own makes little sense, and may well make things worse. In Iraq and Afghanistan there was either no plan or a bad plan, and both are still suffering the consequences, one of which has been the emergence of Isis. Syria is not like either of those countries. It is much worse. In Iraq and Afghanistan some saw what should have been done early on in the day, but never got a hearing from ignorant politicians and narrowly focused soldiers. In Syria there were certainly people who deplored the way the United States threw away diplomatic leverage by coming out unequivocally at an early stage against Assad, at a point when his hands were not so bloodied and he might have been persuaded into some kind of settlement with his enemies. But that opportunity, if it existed, is now far in the past. If there are seers now who know exactly what to do in Syria they are not very visible.
Furthermore in both earlier instances the consequence of action was occupation by a coalition that faced few external rivals. No such occupation is possible or desirable in Syria, and western countries are now far from being the only big deciders, with many other players complicating the situation. A plan is more likely to emerge from the interaction, inherently unpredictable, between powers with very different agendas than from one capital, however powerful. Yet one capital, Washington, should be pushing harder than it has done until now. The prime minister is more optimistic about the prospects for diplomatic consensus than the facts so far warrant. Consensus needs a leader. France is making a big effort, but only America has the weight – just – to have a chance of creating the right atmosphere.
Some of the arguments in the prime minister’s statement are weak and some propositions verge on dishonesty. He says, for instance, that there are “about 70,000 Syrian opposition fighters on the ground who do not belong to extremist groups”. Experts on Syria have in the past found such claims unfounded. He told the Commons that British airstrikes in Syria would make Britain safer. That may be true in a long view that envisages the shrinkage and final disappearance of Isis territory, but it is almost certainly not true in the short term. An overt commitment of this kind would push Britain up the Isis strike list, as seems to have been the case with Russia and France in recent weeks.
Mr Cameron should have more openly acknowledged this than he does. It is his way to glide past difficulties. But while his statement has defects, it also sets forward some plausible arguments. There is still time for further discussion. We will not get guarantees that things will not go wrong, but we might get more clarity, as well as consideration of possible safeguards, like making bombing subject to periodic parliamentary renewal. The Labour party, with the shadow cabinet split, is clearly especially in need of time to arrive not at a party position, which seems beyond it, but at a place where its MPs can make their decisions without plunging the party into chaos. What we now need is debate, short but serious, to make the costs and the uncertainties clearer to the British public.