Iraq: what Britain isn't saying about its airstrikes on Islamic State

This week, the British government announced it will extend its involvement in US-led airstrikes in Iraq against Islamic State until March 2017.

What the government did not explain, in its statement by Defence Minister Michael Fallon extending the service life of Tornado jets, were larger issues: namely, how the renewed airstrikes would contribute to the defeat of the militants in Iraq, let alone neighbouring Syria or the other countries in which Islamic State operates.

Of course, Fallon said during his trip to Baghdad that the air campaign against Islamic State was making progress, while he cited statistics such as the Royal Air Force’s contribution of 30 per cent of the coalition’s surveillance missions, in addition to bombing raids (he did not note that the British share in all aerial sorties is less than 5 per cent).

Fallon also declared that the aerial operations had helped ‘Iraqi forces push back ISIL from the Kurdish region and out of key towns such as Tikrit and Baiji’.

The missing statements

Here’s what the Defence Secretary did not mention:

Islamic State may have suffered defeats such as its withdrawal from the city of Tikrit, northwest of Baghdad, and its retreat in much of Iraqi Kurdistan. However, it has expanded its position in Anbar Province in western Iraq, after capturing the provincial capital Ramadi this spring and holding the city of Fallujah. The militants are still firmly in control of their main centre of Mosul, Iraq’s second-largest city, and are carrying out attacks in and near Baghdad.

Even the suggestions about Baiji, near one of Iraq’s three oil refineries, are questionable – fighting continues in the city, including a car bomb attack on Iraqi forces last week that killed at least 11 people and wounded another 21.

The victories that the Defence Secretary cited raise other issues. The advance on Tikrit depended upon the involvement of Shia militias, many of whom work with Iranian commanders. British and US ground forces played no part in the campaign.

There are growing difficulties beyond the fight with Islamic State. As Fallon visited the country, thousands of people were demonstrating in Iraqi cities, including Baghdad. With the catalyst of sharp cuts in power amid 50-degree weather, they are protesting mismanagement and corruption in the government.

An unacknowledged reality

A fundamental rule of war is that success depends on an army as well as an air force. Fallon’s ignorance of that tenet was deliberate: he could not say that London does not have a reliable partner on the ground.

Iraqi armed forces crumbled before Islamic State’s offensives in 2014, and they failed again when they lost Ramadi. Counter-attacks have depended upon the Shia militias, but their involvement raises the spectre of long-term ‘sectarian’ conflict and the problem of local support in areas with a largely Sunni population. Co-operation with Iran is problematic, even amid a pending deal over Tehran’s nuclear programme, because of rivalries with Tehran elsewhere in the Middle East.

Significantly, the greatest success in Iraq against Islamic State has come in Iraqi Kurdistan, where Kurdish peshmerga have used aerial support to push back the militants over the past year. Yet even that possibility was too sensitive for Fallon to mention in Baghdad – the relationship between the Iraqi government and the regional Iraqi Kurdistan administration is far from smooth.

In February, a parliamentary committee said in a lengthy report on British actions against the Islamic State: ‘We were shocked by the inability or unwillingness of any of the service chiefs to provide a clear and articulate statement of the UK’s objectives or plan in Iraq.’

Fallon’s statement referred to limited steps taken after that report, such as an extra 125 British personnel to train Iraqi forces.

An unacknowledged country: Syria

Islamic State has suffered a series of defeats in northern and eastern Syria since January. It failed to take the Kurdish centre of Kobane in January after a four-month offensive. Since then, Kurdish forces – assisted by units of the Free Syrian Army as well as US-led airstrikes – have pushed back Islamic State west of the Euphrates River, taken a 90-kilometre belt of territory along the Turkish border, and moved south on the militants’ centre of the city of Raqqa.

Although Islamic State succeeded in the capture of the historic city of Palmyra in central Syria, it failed to claim Hasakah in the north-east once Kurdish forces as well as regime troops defended the area.

As with Iraq, the lesson is that airstrikes can weaken Islamic State as local forces battle the militants on the ground. But, while the US in effect recognised this with de facto assistance to the Kurds, Washington has firmly refused to co-operate with the Syrian rebels who are fighting both Islamic State and the Assad regime.

Fallon never mentioned Syria in his statement this week because his government has excluded itself from any role, even in aerial intervention. The parliamentary rejection of British involvement in a response to the Assad regime’s chemical weapons attacks of August 2013 is still a straitjacket on the government and on Whitehall: the committee report of February, which nominally covers both Iraq and Syria, makes almost no reference to the latter country in its recommendations.

After a gunman killed 38 people – including 30 Britons – on holiday in Tunisia in July, Prime Minister David Cameron tested the political waters with a statement on US television: ‘I want Britain to do more. Be in no doubt, we’re committed to working with you to destroy the caliphate in both countries.’ However, after a brief flutter in the media, there was no follow-up by his government.

Statements without a strategy

In April 2013, before the Islamic State seized territory in Iraq and Syria, well-placed British officials told me of their frustration with ministers. They were being asked for plans to ‘do something’ about the Syrian conflict, but with no idea of an overall strategy. Their sense was that the government was far from happy with the Assad regime but did not know how to confront it.

The same can be said of the rise of Islamic State’s threat. With a coherent strategy ruled out by the lack of a ground ally, the British government – and, indeed, the US – can only make a series of statements about operations with no foreseeable end.

Look for Fallon’s speech and the extension of the airstrikes to be repeated by him, or a successor, this time next year.

Professor Scott Lucas
Professor of International Politics,
University of Birmingham and editor of EA WorldView