UK airstrikes into Syria: will it be a game changer?

By Muneeb Siddiqui

The UK government passed a bill on December 2nd authorizing the extension of airstrikes against ISIS (D’aesh) into Syria. The government’s motion to enter the American led coalition depended heavily on the argument that Britain could be D’aesh’s next target. While the bill passed with an overwhelming majority, by a margin of 174, the British public remains divided. During the course of the debate till voting day, public opinion in support of airstrikes in Syria had dropped drastically with only 44% approving the measure on December 3rd. 

In light of the current stalemate between US led coalition forces and D’aesh militants, a campaign that is now in its second year, British involvement into the war is unlikely to make much difference.  While coalition forces have had a few victories against D’aesh, the militant group has also gained territory over the past year.

US led airstrikes in Syria

The US government with its Arab allies began its campaign to push out D’aesh in September 2014 mainly in the Kurdish regions in northeast Syria. For the first time President Obama had ordered direct attacks against the militant group in Syria since D’aesh became formally known in 2013. The battle against D’aesh has led to mixed results leading to a widely accepted stalemate.

Fig.1 - ISIS controlled areas (in grey) mapped for June 24th 2014

Fig.1 - ISIS controlled areas (in grey) mapped for June 24th 2014

US airstrikes in combination with local forces on the ground have had several victories. The Kurdish city of Tal Abyad held by D’aesh since November 2014 was recaptured by local Kurdish forces in June of the following year, with cover provided by US airstrikes. This dealt a significant blow to D’aesh, which used the city as crucial route for its oil supply to Raqqa, a city considered to be D’aesh’s command center. 

Another city reclaimed was Kobani in January 2015. A Kurdish stronghold, much of Kobani was under D’aesh control since September 2014 (fig 2). A massive offensive by local Turkish forces including the Kurdish militia People’s Protection Unit (YPG), backed by US airstrikes helped pushed D’aesh out. 

Fig. 2 – ISIS controlled areas (in grey) mapped for November 20th 2014

Fig. 2 – ISIS controlled areas (in grey) mapped for November 20th 2014

Unfortunately holding on to areas liberated has not proven easy. Soon after recapturing Tal Abyad, repeated attacks were carried out by D’aesh in the month of July. In retaliation for lost territory in Tal Abyad, D’aesh launched another assault on Kobani that left 200 people dead, mainly civilians over just 2 days. This was labeled as one of the greatest massacres since the start of the civil war.  In addition to that, although D’aesh may have retreated from some territory, it has gained others (fig.3). 

Fig. 3 – ISIS controlled areas (in grey) mapped for November 16th 2015

Fig. 3 – ISIS controlled areas (in grey) mapped for November 16th 2015

Palmyra, a UNESCO heritage site, was captured in May 2015. D’aesh was successful in capturing the airport, intelligence HQ and the Syrian Observatory for Human Rights. Crucial oil and gas fields are located in the region as well. 

Will UK airstrikes help? The way forward

As a tit for tat between US backed forces and D’aesh continues, additional airstrikes are unlikely to make a significant difference. Several coalition victories against D’aesh have been overshadowed by the territories gained by the militant group.

Most western governments, including the UK accept that fully defeating D’aesh may require ground troops in the future. That prospect is dreaded by many considering previous failed attempts in Libya and Iraq. 

With the US and Russia coalitions on opposite sides of the war, tackling the threat of D’aesh will continue to prove difficult. Permanent peace is likely to require a political settlement involving all legitimate domestic and foreign stakeholders. The Syrian transition plan discussed in Vienna can serve as a useful blueprint to achieve lasting peace. However, the inclusion of Syrian voices remains to be minute and merits attention.

A widespread consensus within Syrian civil society while admitting to legitimate grievances of all affected parties has the potential to isolate groups like D’aesh which continues to complicate the conflict further.