My Lords, I do not favour extending our strategic bombing campaign to Syria. I am well apprised of the logic that declares that if we should be bombing ISIL in Iraq, we should also be bombing it in Syria, but my conclusion is that we should be bombing it in neither. There are better ways of defeating ISIL.
Bombing is a blunt and heavy-handed way of attacking the enemy. It causes grave collateral damage. It not only damages the military environment, but kills civilians and destroys their livelihoods. The civilian population in the areas controlled by ISIL should not be mistaken for the jihadists. They may be fellow travellers of ISIL, or they may have opportunistically allied themselves to the dominant power within their domain, but they should not be counted with the enemy. If they are to suffer heavy aerial bombardment, the likelihood is that they will become aggrieved and overtly hostile to the bombers. This is not the outcome we should wish for. If ISIL were to be obliterated by an irresistible force—it is doubtful that an aerial bombardment could amount to this—there would be a vacuum, which would serve only to attract further corruption and turmoil. We know this from repeated experience.
How, then, should ISIL be defeated? I propose that it should be corralled and starved of resources. ISIL is still managing to profit from the abundant oil in the region. It continues to import arms and munitions to supplement those it has captured from the Iraqi forces, which were a bequest of the Americans. It is this porosity that allows ISIL to flourish and it must be stopped. If this could be achieved, ISIL could be reduced to a small rump and the failure of its monstrous ambitions would be clear for all to see. The hard tissue surrounding the infection would be allowed to last for as long as the infection lasts, but one could be assured that, eventually, it would dissolve.
How should this outcome be achieved? Apart from taking the measures to stem the flows that I have described, we should provide enhanced logistic support to the native forces resisting ISIL. The support need not be confined to the materiel of warfare. We should also provide a modicum of personnel to be embedded in the native forces. We might remember how this was done during the First World War, when we effectively supported Arab insurgents who were intent on defeating a foreign hegemony. We might also remember some of the lessons from our colonial history. A notable example already alluded to is the defeat of the communist insurgents in the Malaysian peninsula in the 1950s, for which Field Marshal Gerald Templer deserves credit. Had the Americans heeded the lessons from that campaign, the war in Vietnam might have had a very different outcome. Instead, they resorted to strategic bombing as a means of defeating the enemy.
Such lessons as those of the Vietnam War are hard to learn and they are quickly forgotten. The Russians ought to have learned similar lessons from their incursions in Afghanistan and Chechnya, but they have not. The presence of the Russians in Syria is now a complicating factor that has to be addressed. We need to co-operate with them to remove Assad, but in a way that implies at least a partial preservation of their interests. Embarking on a bombing campaign parallel to theirs will hardly assist this objective.