UK Airstrikes in Syria Irrelevant Militarily, but Create ‘Political Symbolism’

British public opinion on the nation’s military involvement in another Middle East conflict is split, like the parliament itself.

On Thursday the Royal Air Force for the first time hit ISIS targets in the east of Syria, just hours after the British parliament voted 397-223 in favor of joining the U.S.-led military operation against the terrorist group. Valdai club experts have commented on the military and political significance of this move.

Richard Sakwa, Professor of Russian and European Politics at the University of Kent at Canterbury, believes that Britain’s role in the US-led airstrikes will not become a game changer in Syria. “British participation in strategic terms is largely irrelevant, but it does have a certain political symbolism, above all for the Conservative government as well as a token of solidarity with allies who have recently come under terrorist attack,” he said.

He was echoed by Konstantin Makienko, Deputy Director of the Moscow-based Centre for Analysis of Strategies and Technologies, who said the British decision to send military aircraft to Syria was a powerful political signal, but had no military importance. “The emergence of eight [strike aircraft] Tornadoes will not change anything in military terms”, he told in a telephone conversation.

Asked if the British military was ready for coordination with the Russian Air Force which have carrying out airstrikes against ISIS targets in Syria since September 30 following a request from Syrian President Bashar al-Assad, Sakwa said this was unlikely at this stage and noted that Russia’s participation in the campaign was barely mentioned in the debate in the House of Commons on December 2. “The UK is a loyal American ally, and only when the US position changes, will the British position adapt. There are already ‘deconflicting’ arrangements in place, and these are essential to avoid an accidental collision. Of course, coordination and cooperation would render the whole campaign more effective,” he said.

“The UK will commit a maximum of about 16 planes to the bombing campaign, but without coordination with troops on the ground engagement is not going to make that much of a difference,” Sakwa went on to say.

Makienko was even more categorical about possible coordination of actions between Britain and Russia. “There will be no coordination, only sharing information to prevent midair collision at best. I am sure neither they nor we will share targeting data. Britons have never shared anything with us,” he said.

British public opinion on the nation’s military involvement in another Middle East conflict is split, like the parliament itself, Sakwa said. “Sixty-six Labour MPs voted to support British engagement in the bombing campaign in Syria, and over a dozen Conservative MPs voted against. In a panel discussion organized by the BBC on the day of the vote, opinion split equally between 8 for and 8 against,” he explained.

Earlier this week, British Prime Minister David Cameron published a 36-page dossier detailing a series of arguments as to why it was militarily, legally and morally right to launch air strikes against ISIS in Syria.

Cameron said the defeat of ISIS was only possible through "partners on the ground", implying the fighters in opposition to Syria’s internationally recognized government. According to him, the strikes would relieve pressure on 70,000 fighters ready to take on ISIS. The Times reported Friday this figure caused concern among British defense officials as an overestimate which can come back to haunt him, becoming the government's "dodgy dossier".
Views expressed are of individual Members and Contributors, rather than the Club's, unless explicitly stated otherwise.