Cameron rules out British ground troops in case for Syria airstrikes

© Paul Hanna
Prime Minister David Cameron has made his case for extending UK airstrikes against Islamic State (IS, formerly ISIS/ISIL) from Iraq into Syria. He has ruled out using British ground troops and claims disagreements with Russia are 'narrowing.'

The PM has published his arguments for war in response to a Foreign Affairs Committee (FAC) report, which raised key questions that must be addressed before the UK takes military action.

Cameron argued UK involvement in coalition airstrikes involving the US, France, Turkey and “Arab allies” would “mean greater military effect against ISIL” and speed up progress towards a “better future” for Syria.

MPs grilled the PM on his proposals, with several questioning his claim there are 70,000 moderate Sunni soldiers on the ground in Syria who will manage the territory gained through airstrikes. Veteran Labour MP Dennis Skinner passionately urged the House to “keep out.

Cameron described the battle against “poisonous Islamism” as the “battle of our generation” and said he has thought through the consequences of military action in Syria.

The PM said the UK would work to secure a political transition and put diplomatic pressure on Russia to end its attacks on moderate Syrian forces.

Cameron argues military intervention will be legal because UN Security Council Resolution 2249 calls on member states to take “all necessary measures” to “eradicate the safe haven” IS has established in Syria and Iraq.

He said airstrikes in Syria have the support of key regional players Turkey and Jordan, and that Saudi Arabia, Iraq, Iran and Russia are all members of the International Syria Support Group, which encourages a political strategy to end the Syrian war.

Cameron said the overall military objective of the airstrikes would be to “degrade” IS, so that it no longer presents a terrorist threat to Britain or a regional threat to Syria, Iraq and neighboring states.
He said the military campaign would be one “strand” of its strategy, which includes cutting off the group’s finances and challenging its ideology.

The PM said Britain’s airborne Intelligence, Surveillance and Reconnaissance (ISR) capabilities are “second to none.” The UK is therefore in a position to bring unique technologies to the war, such as the Brimstone missile that even the US doesn’t have.

On the crucial issue of who will hold ground captured from IS, Cameron appears to have learned lessons from Britain’s involvement in the Iraq war, arguing for a more sensitive approach to local religious groups.

The PM said only moderate Sunni Arabs can retake traditionally Sunni Arab areas such as Raqqa. He went on to praise the Syrian Kurds for the stable management of their territories.

Russia disagreements 'narrowing'

Cameron said the area of disagreement between Western countries and the Russians is “narrowing.”

He said the difference is that Russia is still attacking moderate forces in Syria that the West believes could be part of a future Syrian government.

The PM said discussions with Russia are continuing. He thinks the attack on a Russian Metrojet flight last month will hammer home the message that the real enemy is Islamic State.

Cameron rules out ground troops

Cameron ruled out the use of ground troops if MPs vote for an intervention, calling such a move “counterproductive.”

The PM was responding to Labour leader Jeremy Corbyn, who challenged him to rule out ‘boots on the ground’ in any extended military action against IS in Syria.

He said there are 70,000 moderate Syrian troops on the ground, who can help the war effort against IS.

Dr Julian Lewis MP said the 70,000 figure “is a revelation to me.”

Cameron said this was not his figure, but the “considered view” of the Joint Intelligence Committee (JIC).

Asked by Corbyn if UK involvement would make much difference in the campaign against IS, Cameron said the US and France want Britain to get involved and that they believe it would make a difference.

Post-war reconstruction

The Scottish National Party (SNP) will not vote for airstrikes unless Cameron answers several key questions about the military campaign and post-war construction plan.

Angus Robertson MP accused the PM of wanting Britain to “launch a bombing campaign without an effective ground support in place and without a reconstruction plan.”

He asked Cameron: “How will the UK secure peace on the ground in Syria? Which ground forces will (not can) take hold and administer territories?”

Cameron said Britain can help forces on the ground in Syria to regain territory.

“The true arrival of ground forces awaits the arrival of a new government in Syria,” Cameron said, but argued the coalition can’t wait for this to happen.

Robertson also asked: “How much does the PM anticipate the total cost of reconstruction will be?”

Cameron said the UK is willing to commit £1 billion to reconstruction in Syria following the war.

'Swiss-style democracy'

Former Tory Chancellor Kenneth Clarke said the PM has made a “compelling case” for airstrikes, but asked whether the government accepted that it might have to settle for something other than a liberal democracy in post-war Syria.

The PM responded by saying Syrian leader Bashar Assad will play no part in the county’s future after the civil war. However, he accepted this will not lead to a “Swiss-style democracy” in Syria.

'No-bomb-zones'

Liberal Democrat leader Tim Farron asked the PM why his case for airstrikes against IS did not consider ‘safe zones’ or ‘no-bomb zones’ to protect civilians on the ground.

The PM said no-bomb zones have to be enforced and in many cases have to be enforced by ground troops, something he does not want to commit to.

Farron went on to question what role Saudi Arabia, Qatar and other Gulf states will play in the conflict.

Cameron said they have been helping to fund the moderate Syrian opposition, which in his view needs to play a part in the future of the country.

Regional players

Dennis Skinner MP asked the PM to acknowledge that Turkey is buying oil from IS. Cameron replied that Turkey has taken action to stop oil smuggling, but should do more.

Sarah Wollaston MP said she will back Cameron, but asked what assurances he can give to UK forces supporting Kurds on the ground that they won’t be bombed by Russia.

The PM said this is the remaining disagreement between Britain and Russia. He claimed Moscow has so far caused more damage to moderate Syrian rebels than IS, but said there are signs this is changing.

Asked about the need for dialogue between Saudi Arabia and Iran, Cameron said such communication is crucial to providing the backdrop to a political solution. He added the UK has to make sure potential conflict between Sunni and Shia nations does not overtake the common enemy of extremism.