David Cameron is preparing the way for a vote on extending British air strikes from Iraq to Syria. Fine as far as it goes; this could make inroads into Islamic State, and there are good military and humanitarian reasons why Britain should take the risk.
But what then? To intervene to defeat one group without a plan for the future is a recipe for disaster, as the Chilcot report on Britain’s failures in Iraq will no doubt eventually show. Crispin Blunt, the chairman of the Commons foreign affairs committee, has remarked acidly that it “is not as inappropriate as it seems,” that British airstrikes stop at the Iraq-Syrian border “as the coherence of our present policy also stops there.”
Four years after the Syrian civil war erupted, Britain still cannot answer the most basic question: who does it want to win? It did once have an answer—the rebels of the Free Syrian Army, who back the loose coalition recognised as the opposition by the United States and Europe. But despite millions of dollars of support from the US and others, and informal backing from Turkey, Saudi Arabia, and Qatar, they have got nowhere.
At least, you might say, Britain knows who it most wants to lose—Islamic State. The US, UK and France all say that defeating IS extremists is the priority—although for four years they have also said that Assad must go. Yet Assad’s survival, and the European refugee crisis, may force them to choose which enemy is worse. That could push them into a U-turn dramatic even in a region which eventually extracts realpolitik from the most idealistic governments. Austrian and Spanish ministers have now broken the taboo by saying that dealing with Assad may be the price of any plausible plan to reduce the fighting.
In Syria, western governments are spoilt for choice of enemies. Assad’s regime has…