The principal strategic objective in the war on terror has been a failure. Ever since 9/11, the aim has been to deny terrorists sanctuary. That, after all, is why the United States and Britain went into Afghanistan — troops were sent in only after the Taliban refused to hand over the al-Qaeda leadership and shut down the terrorist training camps. But now, a large terrorist enclave exists in the very heart of the Middle East.
President Obama’s reaction to this massive strategic failure has been lack-lustre. His main concern is to stress that, while air strikes will continue, US ground troops will not be deployed to defeat Islamic State in either Syria or Iraq. Britain’s response is even feebler; to bomb Isis but only on the Iraqi side of the border. The result is that the RAF cannot hit the city from which last week’s Paris attacks appear to have been planned.
David Cameron is now trying to change this policy and will present the case for extending strikes to Syria to Parliament in the next few weeks. Yet he isn’t confident enough to timetable a vote yet. With Jeremy Corbyn determined to whip Labour MPs to oppose even air strikes, any vote will be tight and he can’t afford to lose a second Commons vote on a matter of war and peace.
Instead, he will respond to the Foreign Affairs Select Committee report opposing military action in Syria. No. 10 believes that this will be an opportunity for MPs to declare that they would back a motion permitting British forces to strike Isis in Syria. The hope is that this will pave the way for a Commons vote on the issue before Christmas.
France, meanwhile, is hitting Isis in both Syria and Iraq, but only from the air. The last few months have shown that while air strikes can contain Isis, they cannot defeat it.
This is all is a spectacular failure of western leadership and President Obama must take much of the blame. Determined to avoid repeating the mistakes of his predecessor, he is making mistakes of his own that will have terrible consequences for decades to come.
This presents an opportunity for Vladimir Putin. To date, the Russian leader’s Syrian intervention has had little to do with defeating Isis; Moscow feared that the Assad regime was about to fall and its initial military attacks were aimed at other rebel groups. But as Putin is now winning the concessions he wanted on the future of Syria, the situation is changing. ‘The Russians are going to have to approve the successor regime. That’s just a fact. We have to be realistic about that,’ one Cameron confidant concedes. Another British government source says any new Syrian government will have to accept Russia developing its naval base and listening posts there.
Putin will now become more involved in the fight against Isis. Tellingly, it was this week that Moscow confirmed that its civilian airliner had indeed been brought down by a terrorist attack in Egypt. This was the precursor to a string of Russian strikes on Raqqa, the headquarters of Isis.
So how far is Putin prepared to go? At the UN General Assembly in September, he enjoyed posing as the leader who was really taking the war to Isis. With Obama determined not to commit ground forces, one wonders if Putin, who already has tanks in Syria, might see a chance for his troops to take Raqqa. This would be the most potent demonstration of Russian relevance and influence since the end of the Cold War. It would enable him to claim, however absurdly, that Russia is now the defender of civilisation against extremism.
Just a few weeks ago, the Americans were convinced that Moscow had bitten off more than it could chew in Syria. Now it is clear that Putin’s intervention has secured Russia’s Mediterranean base in the country and given it an effective veto over any new Syrian government.
One of Putin’s other great strategic aims is to drive a wedge between eastern and western Europe. He was greatly helped by Angela Merkel’s disastrous handling of the refugee crisis. Not only did she incite more people to flee to Europe with an ill-advised declaration that all Syrian refugees were welcome, she then used qualified majority voting to force eastern European countries to take refugees against their will. A backlash is already under way and the new Polish government has indicated that it won’t honour the EU agreement.
Merkel has imperilled her standing at home too. In private, British diplomats now believe there is little chance of her standing in the 2017 German elections. Some ministers, however, think her position is even worse than that. One observes: ‘She is in decline. It may well be terminal’ and warns she might not even make it to those elections.
The draining of Merkel’s political capital has implications for Cameron’s EU renegotiation. It had been assumed that she would play a key role in persuading other EU states to accept his demands. Now she might not be politically strong enough to do that, even if she wanted to. Certainly, it is hard to see her persuading the new Polish government to agree to Cameron’s demand that EU migrants can’t claim benefits or tax credits until they have been here for four years.
The Paris attacks are a reminder of the sheer scale of the terror threat. Dealing with Islamist extremism is the security challenge of this generation, but it is a challenge that Western governments are currently failing to meet. If we really are serious about defeating Islamist extremism, then we must — as a first step — be prepared to will the means to drive Islamic State out of both Syria and Iraq.
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