Isis: after Tunisia, is it time for UK to back airstrikes in Syria?

Jul 2, 2015

Defence Secretary Michael Fallon says it is 'illogical' that UK targets Islamic State in Iraq but not Syria

Safin Hamed/AFP

MPs will today debate whether the UK should carry out airstrikes against Islamic State in Syria in response to the Tunisia beach massacre.

Defence Secretary Michael Fallon is expected to make a case for the UK to expand its role in the war against extremists after around 30 Britons were killed in Sousse last week.

Nearly two years have passed since MPs vetoed taking military action against Syrian President Bashar al-Assad's regime following a chemical weapons attack.

In September last year, parliament supported military action against IS in Iraq, but the prime minister did not propose airstrikes in Syria and promised that any future proposal to do so would be subject to a separate vote.

Fallon said this week that it is "illogical" that British airstrikes can target extremists in Iraq but not across the border in Syria. "It is a new Parliament and I think new Members of Parliament will want to think very carefully about how we best deal with Isil, and the illogicality of Isil not respecting the borderlines," he told the Daily Telegraph.

Following last week's terror attack, Labour sources told The Times that they would not rule out supporting airstrikes in Syria. "The target is Isis and not Assad," one insider told the newspaper. "We would need the government to come forward and tell us what they want to do. We are all aware of the size of the challenge."

A spokeswoman for David Cameron said "a lot has happened" since the last vote on military action in Syria. "The Prime Minister has been clear on the need for us to be crushing Isil in both Iraq and Syria," she said.

The debate comes amid claims that the United States has blocked attempts by its Middle East allies to fly heavy weapons directly to the Kurds in Iraq. Allies in the Gulf are said to be frustrated by the demand from Iraqi authorities and their American backers to channel all weapons through Baghdad.

Isis: who are they and how can they be stopped?

1 July

The massacre in Tunisia, said to be the worst terrorist attack on Britons since the 7 July bombings in 2005, has rekindled the debate of how Islamic State can be stopped and whether the UK should launch air strikes against the group in Syria.

Seifeddine Rezgui, a gunman with links to Islamic State, killed a total of 38 people on a beach resort near Sousse on Friday, with 30 of the victims expected to be confirmed as British.

Writing in the Daily Telegraph, Cameron said that "unshakeable resolve" and a "full-spectrum response" was needed to tackle Islamist extremism.

Police and security services must be given the tools to tackle online propaganda and terrorism must be dealt with "at its source" in places such as Syria, Iraq and Libya by supporting governments to tackle political instability, said the Prime Minister.

British aircraft are involved in airstrikes over Iraq, airborne intelligence assets are assisting other countries over Syria and the UK is working with the UN, EU and US to support the formation of a Government of National Accord in Libya, he said.

But, Cameron added, "perhaps the most important thing", is confronting the "poisonous ideology" of extremism and standing up for the values of peace, democracy, tolerance and freedom.

Matthew d'Ancona in The Guardian describes this as the first "real test" of Cameron's convictions, "undiluted" by his former Liberal Democrat Coalition partners.

He points out that Rezgui's busy use of Facebook has again raised the fate of the draft communications data bill, or "snooper's charter" as its critics describe it.

"Thwarted by Nick Clegg, Cameron vowed to bring the proposals back if he won a majority," says d'Ancona. "The question now is whether he can persuade the liberty-loving 'Runnymede Tories', notably David Davis, that compulsory bulk data collection and retention is justified by the jihadis' nimble use of technology."

Meanwhile, Colonel Richard Kemp, the former commander of UK forces in Afghanistan, has told the Daily Express that SAS troops should be moved to Syria, Libya and Iraq to fight the jihadists and allied airstrikes should increase ten-fold.

"The gloves must come off. It has to be brutal and harsh," he said. "There will be casualties but politicians will have to accept that."

Joseph Willits, an official with the Council for Arab-British Understanding, told The Independent that airstrikes have the ability to "take out elements of Isis's leadership and dent some of their ambitions" but they will not be effective unless communities are incentivised to reject the militants and see an "alternative and improved" future.

"The battle to eject Isis needs to be taken to the ground, not through boots and tanks," he said, "but by empowering those that currently either like or tolerate Isis."

The Isis advance across northern Iraq last summer – and its subsequent declaration of a calaphate – took the world by surprise, but it was a crisis that had been brewing for several years. Here's how the group now calling itself Islamic State grew out of the chaos and sectarian hatred unleashed at the end of the Iraq war.

What's the difference between Isis and the Islamic State?

Isis, or the Islamic State of Iraq and Syria, was regarded by the west as a terrorist organisation even before it began its murderous rampage across the Middle East. Initially called Al-Qaeda in Iraq, it became Isis or Isil in 2013, and then Islamic State after it claimed to have established a caliphate at the end of last summer.

It has played a prominent role in Syria's civil war with the chaos enabling it to develop a reputation as one of the most extreme groups operating in the region, reports the New York Times.

However, its insistence on strict Sharia law and its focus on establishing a state rather than toppling President Bashar al-Assad have alienated the group from the larger rebel movement. Its influence was curtailed last year when opposition groups ousted it from Idlib and Aleppo, two areas where it had been most active. It has also been repelled from Kobane, near the Turkish border, and come under attack in the Iraqi city of Tikrit, but it still controls large swathes of territory. Most recently it appears to have captured the city of Ramadi, just 70m west of Baghdad.

Reports from cities where Isis has taken control are bleak, with public executions, beheadings, kidnap, amputations, torture and beatings among tactics used to maintain control. Isis has long targeted journalists and activists, and has been known to use suicide attacks and land mines against its opposition.

A group or a geographical state?

After the fall of Mosul last summer, some terrorism experts suggested that the militant group's claim to statehood was no idle boast. The Washington Post said Islamic State "effectively governs a nation-size tract of territory that stretches from the eastern edge of the Syrian city of Aleppo to Fallujah in western Iraq – and now also includes the northern Iraqi city of Mosul". Although the borders of the territory it controls has ebbed and flowed since then, its power has not been substantially diminished. The group views itself as its own state with administrative buildings, courts, street signs and even its own newspaper. Douglas Ollivant, of the New America Foundation, who advised the Obama and Bush administrations on Iraq, says it has "all the trappings of a state, just not an internationally recognised one". 

What does Islamic State want?

Having established a caliphate, Islamic State now believes that it is the duty of all Muslims to emigrate to it and renounce their citizenship of any other nation. It regards any form of government other than its own as anathema to Islam. According to Graeme Wood, Islamic State's leadership believe they are on course for an apocalyptic battle with their enemies, from which they will emerge victorious. They foretell, he writes in The Atlantic, "that the armies of Rome [usually interpreted as any Christian or non-Islamic force] will mass to meet the armies of Islam in northern Syria; and that Islam’s final showdown with an anti-Messiah will occur in Jerusalem after a period of renewed Islamic conquest." As such, Islamic State supporters actively welcome the prospect of western intervention, which they believe will hasten their own final victory.

Is it genuinely Islamic?

Islamic State claims to be the sole representative of true followers of Islam and has executed large numbers of Muslims whose understanding of the Koran differs from their own narrow interpretation. Barack Obama and David Cameron have both described the group as "unislamic" and surveys have found very little support for the group among western Muslims. But Wood argues that the religious foundation of the group should not be overlooked. "The reality is that the Islamic State is Islamic," he writes. "Very Islamic. ... Muslims can reject the Islamic State; nearly all do. But pretending that it isn't actually a religious, millenarian group, with theology that must be understood to be combatted, has already led the United States to underestimate it and back foolish schemes to counter it."  

Is Islamic State part of al-Qaeda?

Isis began as an al-Qaeda offshoot but was officially rejected by the group last year. Al-Qaeda has reportedly complained that Isis is too brutal and that its focus on establishing a caliphate has distracted from the push in Syria to topple President Assad. The rejection means al-Qaeda's representation in Iraq is now limited, while Islamic State poses a significant challenge to Prime Minister Haider al-Abadi's control over the country.

Who leads Islamic State?

Abu Bakr al-Baghdadi, head of Islamic State, is now deemed one of the most powerful jihadi leaders in the world. He took over as leader of al-Qaeda in Iraq in 2010 after its former leaders were killed in an attack by US and Iraqi troops, reports The Independent. Following the fate of his predecessors, he reportedly insists on extreme secrecy, sometimes wearing a mask as disguise. Baghdadi, also known as Abu Dua, is believed to be in his early 40s, with degrees in Islamic Studies, including poetry, history and genealogy. Born in Samarra, a largely Sunni city north of Baghdad, he was later held prisoner by the Americans in Bocca Camp in southern Iraq between 2005 and 2009.

Several sources in the Middle East claim that Baghdadi was seriously wounded in an airstrike and that his second-in-command Abu Alaa Afri took over as temporary leader. However, the Pentagon continues to deny that Baghdadi is injured. 

The group's leadership is almost exclusively made up of Iraqis, but it has gained thousands of volunteers from across the Middle East and the West. US intelligence officials believe there are around 31,000 Isis militants, with two thirds comprising foreign fighters. Kurdish leaders claim the figure is much higher at around 200,000.

How is Islamic State funded?

The group made money through oil smuggling in Syria, racketeering and kidnappings, as well as donations from private jihadi networks in the Gulf, says the Financial Times. The militants have seized oilfields in Syria's Deir Ezzor province, made alliances with tribes to extract oil and were believed to be extorting taxes of up to $8m a month from businesses in Mosul before its takeover. After it seized Mosul last year, the group looted hundreds of millions of dollars from the city's banks, making it the richest terrorist group in the world. The FT says the group has issued annual reports since 2012 detailing its numerical "successes", including bombings, assassinations and new recruits, with the apparent aim of demonstrating its record to potential donors. The group claimed nearly 10,000 operations in Iraq in 2013 alone, with 1,000 assassinations and 4,000 improvised explosive devices planted.

Can Islamic State be stopped?

Experts believe that without intervention Isis will head south toward Iraq's capital city Baghdad. The US and other allies began carrying out airstrikes against Isis targets last year, enabling Kurdish forces on the ground to recapture territory from the militants. US officials claim that more than 10,000 Islamic State militants have been killed in the nine months of the coalition's bombing campaign. Iraqi forces, aided by Shi'ite militia, also took control of the northern city of Tikrit earlier this year.

But the militants' recent capture of Ramadi has been described as a "crushing setback" for opponents. The Times says Isis has developed an "unstoppable suicide bomb tactic" using waves of captured US armoured vehicles packed with explosives to break down layers of defences. US-based security company The Soufan Group said more than 30 such vehicles were used to seize Ramadi. There is "little defence" against a multi-ton car bomb and "none" against several of them operating at the same time, said the group. 

Water has also become the latest weapon in Islamic State's arsenal, says The Independent. Militants have closed the gates of a dam in western Iraq, putting the southern provinces at risk of drought and redirecting the flow of the Euphrates River to give them better access to government fighters on the southern bank. 

Nevertheless, the Pentagon continues to level bomb factories with airstrikes and has rushed anti-tank missiles to Iraq in the hope of stopping further waves of armoured suicide lorry bombs. Opponents of Islamic State may also be able to exploit one vulnerability. Unlike al-Qaeda, which can disappear into underground cells while remaining a threat, Islamic State depends on holding territory to maintain its claim on legitimacy. If its fighters are pushed back from the land they hold, its status as a caliphate is eroded.

However, former CIA director David Petraeus has warned that the Iran-backed Shi'ite militias helping to fend off Isis could pose a larger threat to stability in Iraq in the longer term. In a region dogged by sectarian tensions, Shi'ite militias were accused of committing atrocities against Sunni civilians while fighting the Sunni extremists earlier this year. "Thus, they have, to a degree, been both part of Iraq's salvation but also the most serious threat to the all-important effort of once again getting the Sunni Arab population in Iraq to feel that it has a stake in the success of Iraq rather than a stake in its failure," Petraeus told the Washington Post.

Will the UK back airstrikes in Syria?

Nearly two years have passed since MPs vetoed taking military action in Syria. Although the vote in August 2013 was about action against Syrian President Bashar al-Assad's regime, the strength of opposition deterred Cameron from proposing air strikes in the country once Islamic State started to pose a serious threat. In September last year, parliament supported military action against IS in Iraq, but the prime minister did not propose air strikes in Syria and promised that any future proposal to do so would be subject to a separate vote.

But following the Tunisian terror attack, Labour sources have told The Times that they would not rule out supporting air strikes in Syria. "The target is Isis and not Assad," one insider told the newspaper. "We would need the government to come forward and tell us what they want to do. We are all aware of the size of the challenge." Downing Street has not ruled out the idea, with Cameron declaring that IS must be "crushed" in Syria as well as Iraq earlier this week.

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