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We Asked an Expert What Britain's Bombing of Syria Will Actually Achieve

Though the UK's decision to launch airstrikes in Syria was hotly debated and met with protests, it's a largely symbolic move.

Image via Chris Bethell

This article originally appeared on VICE UK.

On Wednesday, after a marathon 11-hour debate, MPs in the House of Commons voted in favor of joining military action in Syria. Hours after the vote, RAF warplanes were in the skies above Syria, targeting ISIS-held oilfields in the east of Syria with the aim of destroying the terror group's financial infrastructure.

Now that Britain is a part of the coalition currently bombing ISIS in Syria (including the USA, France, the UAE, Jordan, Saudi Arabia, and Bahrain), British planes will take part in joint air operations that target ISIS's infrastructure around strongholds such as the city of Raqqa.

A political shitstorm accompanied Wednesday's debate, amidst allegations that Cameron described Labour leader Jeremy Corbyn as a "terrorist sympathizer" to a private meeting of the right-wing backbench 1922 Committee, leaving him looking about as statesman-like as David Brent. Jeremy Corbyn, meanwhile, was left bruised by the vote. His opposition to airstrikes was well known, but 66 Labour MPs rebelled against him after a pro-bombing speech from Shadow Foreign Secretary Hilary Benn which was either hugely rousing, or disingenuous bullshit, depending on your perspective. Outside the House of Commons, anti-war protesters made their feelings known by staging a die-in.

To find out whether Britain's decision to bomb ISIS in the hope of bringing peace to the region will solve everything, or is a seriously bad idea, we spoke to Ghadi Sary, a Syria expert with foreign affairs think tank Chatham House, to get his take on what British air strikes might actually mean.

VICE: Can you tell us what Britain joining the anti-ISIS coalition will achieve?
Ghadi Sary: Britain's involvement is important on a moral level, because Britain should be seen to be cooperating with its allies, whether it's France or the US. The problem is that airstrikes are not successful without a force on the ground. For example, in Iraq the US-led airstrikes have been backed by the Kurdish Peshmerga, which has been able to recapture territory. In Syria, however, the rebels are already over-stretched, and they're less capable of doing that on their own. They've not had proper training and support, and because their calls for air strikes have been ignored for the last four years, they might be reluctant to move to places like Raqqa, in the center of the country, where the airstrikes would be concentrated.

There's been a lot of talk about how many moderate rebels there are, and even if they're really moderate. Would airstrikes help them?
The Free Syrian Army (FSA) was originally made up of civilians who took up arms when Assad cracked down on peaceful protestors, alongside army deserters who ran away with their weapons. But because of the lack of structure and command they've split into more than a hundred factions across Syria, and in some situations the rebels are dependent on more radical groups for logistics and support. So it's not an army of 70,000 men united in a fight against Assad; it's 70,000 men divided into many factions with competing aims.

A lot of people are concerned that air strikes would just pave the way for British ground troops in Syria. Is this "mission creep" likely?
What Cameron has promised today in Parliament is airplanes and money pretty much. But he's leaving further details of British involvement open—not specifying how far it could go. The main thing to avoid, if we don't want to escalate the Syrian quagmire, is to have a partner on the ground, and it's worth pointing out that Cameron's said he knows the 70,000 fighters aren't ideal.

Why aren't they ideal?
These are 70,000 men who've picked up weapons against Assad and aren't jihadis or foreign fighters. They do exist. But many of them are simply defending their homes. They may not be willing to go and fight somewhere else. There's a big difference between saying there's 70,000 individuals who are moderate and fighting ISIS, and saying there's an army of 70,000 men who are willing to advance. If that existed we wouldn't need airstrikes at all.

Will Britain's involvement even change anything, given that the US is already leading the airstrikes?
The airstrikes are already happening, and as this is a tag-team operation, Britain's involvement won't make a huge difference. Whatever targets the coalition had planned to attack would still have been struck—it's just the question of whether it's US or British planes in the air.

Is there a chance that this could encourage ISIS to commit terrorist attacks in Britain?
Britain has already been in the crosshairs of ISIS since we started launching raids against them in Iraq. But because of the nature of this vote, there's a possibility that ISIS could use it as an opportunity to show they're able to hit hard when they want to. The vote itself could actually cause that, because just the act of having a debate is what ISIS hates—democracy in action.

And what about in Syria—is there a risk the airstrikes will make the situation worse?
It's hard to imagine a scenario worse than what Raqqa's going through. There is a possibility that civilians could be caught in the airstrikes. Another possibility is that what happened in Libya happens in Syria, which is that air strikes clear out one group and then another moves in. Let's not forget that there are groups like al Qaeda in Syria who are also standing by and willing to move in.

Is there an alternative to airstrikes?
One effective way of tackling ISIS would be to target their sources of revenue. Following the trail of where their money comes from and where it goes. Because often when you follow the money, you also find the networks that facilitate the transfer of jihadi fighters. We also need to revive the Vienna peace talks, and help support the Syrian opposition from a political point of view. We've got to remember that the Syrian opposition wasn't allowed to practice politics for 40 years by the Assad regime. We need to aid them to envision a democratic Syria for all.

It sounds like a really messy, complicated situation. Can we actually drive ISIS out of Syria?
It's really tough. We all want to see the suffering of the Syrian people end, and we want to see ISIS out of Syria, but at the same time we know that's not going to work just from bombing.

There's something missing in the equation, and that has been the structure that will replace ISIS, because ISIS has filled that power void. And we still have failed to agree on what is going to fill that void. Until we do that, ISIS will continue to prosper.

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