On July 17, 2015, a Freedom of Information request from London-based pressure group Reprieve revealed that the British military had conducted airstrikes against ISIS in Syria. This revelation was embarrassing for David Cameron's Conservative government as the airstrikes occurred without approval from Westminster. The British Parliament had denied Cameron the right to intervene militarily in Syria after the discovery of Bashar Al-Assad's alleged chemical weapons use in the summer of 2013.
Even though Reprieve's request caused considerable controversy in Britain, the revelation is less surprising when placed in the broader context of the Syrian conflict and Britain's expanded involvement in the Middle East. British military activities in the region have escalated markedly in recent years with the primary trigger being the rise of ISIS. Britain's more assertive Middle East policy and expansion of its anti-ISIS campaign to Syria can be explained by security imperatives stemming from the June 2015 terror attacks in Tunisia and the burgeoning Syrian refugee crisis. As the ISIS threat continues to grow, the probable long-term outcome is mission creep, as airstrikes alone will likely prove insufficient to defeat ISIS. A prolonged period of ISIS suffering extensive casualties but not materially weakening could co-opt sceptical Conservatives and even some Labour Party members into accepting the limited deployment of British ground troops in a support role for the RAF.
Quantifying Britain's Expanded Military Involvement in Iraq and Syria
On September 26, 2014, Cameron received overwhelming parliamentary approval for airstrikes to target ISIS in northern Iraq (524 votes in favour versus just 43 against). Three months into the anti-ISIS campaign on December 13, 2014, British Defence Secretary Michael Fallon announced that the UK would deploy hundreds of new troops in Iraq in 2015. By this point, the United Kingdom had launched the second-most airstrikes of any NATO country after the United States, and five times as many airstrikes as France. The GCHQ, the UK's intelligence and security organization, also played an essential role in the coalition's efforts to attack ISIS positions in Iraq.
In Syria, the situation differed markedly, as the United States dominated the anti-ISIS campaign. Even though the Obama administration's Iraq-first strategy meant that its commitment to combatting ISIS in Syria was of secondary importance, the unwillingness of European countries to conduct air strikes in Syria exaggerated America's leadership role. As of September 27, 2015, the US launched 2438 airstrikes, compared to just 132 from other coalition partners. This measly effort can be attributed to the reluctance of European actors to convert harsh rhetoric into a coherent stance on how to handle Assad, and the absence of reliable ground support in Syria to complement airstrikes.
Britain's expansion of its involvement against ISIS in Syria is therefore a significant change in policy. It also appears to be a durable shift, as the Reprieve scandal has not deterred the Conservative government from pursuing a possible vote on anti-ISIS measures in Syria in the fall parliamentary session.
As Eastern Syria remains ISIS's largest stronghold, Britain has softened its position on Assad. Cameron stated on September 27, that Assad could be a participant in Syria's transition away from civil war, though he calibrated that statement by insisting that he should be held responsible for his war crimes. This major shift highlights Britain's recognition of changing security developments in Syria, an assessment mirrored by other NATO countries like Germany and Turkey.
The Security Imperatives Underlying Britain's Assertive Middle East Strategy
While anti-ISIS operations conducted by Britain and the United States are motivated by a common alarm at the security threat posed by the terror organization, the timing of Britain's escalation is intriguing. While the United States began bombing ISIS targets in September 2014, Britain's escalation coincided with the deaths of 30 British tourists at a Tunisian beach in June.
Britain's decision to expand its anti-ISIS mission in the wake of the Tunisia attack has not been universally supported. Neil Quilliam, a Middle East expert at Chatham House, recently told Al Jazeera that this retaliatory action could be construed as a sign of weakness. In his exact words: 'If the UK was willing on the back of Tunisia - and this is how it would be viewed - to extend its operations in Syria distinctly against ISIL, but not the Assad regime, it means that you lose any remaining credibility that you may have had [in the region].' Additionally, severe cuts in welfare and defence spending in the UK might make an escalation of the conflict against ISIS difficult. In order to wage war effectively on ISIS both in Iraq and in Syria, the UK would need to step up its military presence.
Britain's desire to stem the refugee crisis has prompted it take more assertive action in the Syrian conflict. Other European countries are increasingly willing to follow Britain's lead in Syria. France launched airstrikes in Syria on September 27. But Britain's main European partners disagree with Cameron on strategy and commitment levels. French president Francois Hollande remains firmly committed to Assad's complete ouster from Syrian politics. Germany is also unlikely to involve itself significantly in the anti-ISIS campaign, as a German military intervention in Syria would likely backfire politically on Angela Merkel.
The Conservative government's unwillingness to incorporate Syrian refugees is closely related to Britain's newfound emphasis on stability in Syria. Official data released in late August showed that Britain has resettled only 216 Syrian refugees through its government program. Even though an additional 5,000 refugees have been taken in through independent asylum applications and Britain has agreed to take in 20,000 Syrian refugees over 5 years, Cameron's efforts have been viewed as inadequate by many British and international observers. British efforts also pale in comparison to the much larger resettlements carried out by Germany and Sweden. The rising tide of anti-immigration sentiment in Britain combined with the UK's continued population growth, means that refugee resettlement is not a signature cause for Cameron. Therefore, Britain is keen to demonstrate to the international community that it is actively involved in Syria, but it is focusing its efforts on the military dimension rather than on humanitarian aid.
The Politics Behind Britain's Expanded Involvement in Syria
The choice of whether or not to expand British military involvement in Syria has generated significant partisan divisions in the United Kingdom. During the recent Labour Party leadership campaign, the prevailing message was that the Labour Party would not support Cameron's airstrikes in Syria unless he could prove their legality and strategic usefulness. New Labour leader Jeremy Corbyn has expressed strong rhetorical support for a political solution in Syria and has also argued for a looser immigration policy.
The ambiguous rhetoric emanating from Britain's opposition parties is good news for Cameron, as it suggests that his main political rivals may lack a coherent Syria strategy. Corbyn has refused to state how many refugees he would take in compared to Cameron. Labour strategists have also discussed the creation of UN safe havens in Syria maintained by no-fly zones and peacekeepers. But this peacekeeping approach contradicts the hardline anti-ISIS stance interim Labour leader Harriett Harman promoted last month. Senior Labour Party officials recently told BBC that the party's view on the Syrian crisis had likely not changed since the election of the anti-war Corbyn.
Inconsistent rhetoric has been problematic for other opposition parties too. The Scottish National Party (SNP) leader Nicola Sturgeon apparently backtracked on its calls for increased refugee intake, by implying that Scotland was not willing to welcome a mass influx of Syrians.
Due to Cameron's parliamentary majority and the disunity of the opposition, the Conservative approach of British military escalation in Syria will likely be implemented. But the impact of these military activities is unclear. UK-Russia bilateral relations remain hostile, because of the Ukraine crisis and the chain of events since the 2006 murder of Alexander Litvinenko on British soil. Cameron's vacillations on whether Assad has a place in post-civil war Syria do not bode well for potential security cooperation with Russia against ISIS. The ambiguity of Cameron's position on Assad could also complicate relations with the United States, and needs to be clarified as soon as possible. Britain has a golden opportunity to be a decisive player in resolving the Syrian conflict and combatting ISIS, but it needs to ensure that partisan divisions and contradictory strategies do not render its efforts irrelevant in the grand scheme.
This article was co-authored by Joshua Cova, MPhil student in European Politics and Society at St. Antony's College, University of Oxford.