The U.S., together with five Arab states, launched military strikes against the Islamic State (ISIS) positions in Syria – with the U.S.’s European allies largely watching from the sidelines.
Roughly one year ago, the U.K. and France debated hotly over whether to strike Syria. The United Kingdom subsequently voted against intervention in Syria.
On Wednesday British Prime Minister David Cameron spoke before the U.N. General Assembly, saying he would seek parliamentary approval to strike ISIS in Iraq, but not within Syrian territory.
Where does Europe stand now, and how will that dynamic play into the fight? We discussed that with Julian Barnes Dacey, senior policy fellow at the European Council on Foreign Relations (ECFR).
Syria Deeply: How do the U.K. and France see these strikes?
Dacey: In the U.K., despite the willingness of some members of government to get actively involved in the military strikes in Syria, the government is very wary of parliamentary opposition to the strikes, having experienced parliamentary opposition to airstrikes on Syria last year following the chemical weapons attacks. Unless they are certain of cross-party political support for the steps, they won’t take it forward. They won’t even put it to a vote in Parliament, wary that it will weaken them politically.
What we will see in the U.K. is perhaps stronger support to get involved militarily, but that will only materialize if you get the Labour party coming in to support the Conservative party, which isn’t out of the question given that this is being framed as a counterterrorism exercise. There is a great prospect of parliamentary support for that, compared to the strikes against Assad last year.
France said they won’t get involved because they are wary that, as the campaign is currently framed, it will only favor Assad. Like a number of regional states, the French have been calling for wider action that actually targets the Assad regime and looks to regime change. If anything, the French have been more aggressively forward leaning than any other Western country on Syria, including the U.S.
France is reluctant to get involved in a campaign that is largely seen as restricted to targeting the Islamic State and not Assad. If you see deeper U.S. intervention and escalation down the line, which I imagine is likely to happen, I could envision a scenario where the French get involved in support militarily.
Syria Deeply: What is likely to be Europe’s role against ISIS going forward?
Dacey: The thrust of the campaign will be military, and that is going to be led by the U.S. with regional allies. Given that the strategy is airstrikes with attempting to build up local forces, Europe is not going to have a central role.
There could be some level of support in terms of some level of airstrike intelligence sharing, but no one is going to be leaning heavily on the Europeans in the broader battle, whether in Iraq or Syria. In Iraq, you do see French airstrike support, arms provision to the Kurds, humanitarian support and intelligence sharing, but not at a level that will significantly impact the development of the conflict.
Syria Deeply: What are the risks of limited strikes against ISIS, as the U.S. has pursued them?
Dacey: The biggest risk is that, given Obama’s desire to go in on a limited basis, they don’t have a significant impact in weakening ISIS, but instead further alienate Sunni public support in Syria, thereby entrenching ISIS’s position on the ground and mobilizing deeper support for the group in a counterproductive way.
A lot of parties are approaching the military campaign with competing objectives and ambitions. While President Obama’s prime focus is the containment and degrading of the ISIS, his regional allies, particularly Saudi Arabia, as well as Syrian rebels on the ground, are more preoccupied with ensuring that Assad is defeated. So long as you have these competing objectives and ambitions, it it’s clearly going to imperil the coherence of the mission.
The regime and ISIS are looking to leverage Western military action for their own game. Both of them want to use the U.S. to cement their own positions.
Assad envisions a scenario down the line whereby the U.S. starts coordinating with them, even if they aren’t doing so at the moment.