I used to wait for my Mum to pick me up from primary school next to a British soldier deployed to Belfast as part of Operation Banner. The British Army have been continuously deployed on offensive duty ever since, and with the RAF currently bombing Syria, a new country can be added to the list of British overseas involvement during my lifetime (the others being Iraq, Bosnia and Herzegovina, Iraq again, the Federal Republic of Yugoslavia, Sierra Leone, Afghanistan and Iraq for a third time and fourth time).
The arguments for British involvement in the run-up to Parliamentary authorisation ranged across national security, our duties as an ally and the ability of British involvement to make a difference in the battle against IS/Daesh. I don’t want to quibble on details like the unique technical capabilities that the RAF possess, the number of IS-inspired attacks that have already been foiled or the number of moderate Syrians that may be able carry the fight on the ground, but I think the main issue that has not been resolved in this debate is the outcome that British military action aims to achieve.
The US and a range of its Western and Middle Eastern allies have been bombing Syria since September 2014. According to Airwars, these forces have launched nearly 3,000 airstrikes on Syria (and that is not including the contribution made by Russian bombers). This has clearly not had much effect in terms of defeating IS or ending the Syrian civil war. Adding some British bombs to the mix will hardly make the vital difference, and Cameron has today admitted that the campaign will not be over any time soon.
To argue against the extension of UK operations to Syria is not the same as saying outside military force can never achieve tangible effects in a conflict. The end of the war in Bosnia and Herzegovina (BiH) shows that airstrikes can indeed play in role in bringing peace: BUT only when they are part of a concerted diplomatic effort with a definitive idea about what peace would look like, which those doing the bombing are willing to back-up with ground troops to enforce the peace, and when the parties to the conflict are willing to accept a peace deal enforced by outsiders. Unfortunately, none of these conditions appear to exist in the Syrian case.
The maintenance of BiH as a single state, within its 1992 borders but divided into a Serb and a Muslim-Croat entity was (and remains) controversial, but it was a clear and enforceable vision about what a post-war BiH would look like. The US administration were willing to commit the troops needed to enforce such a deal and, as this would entail replacing the 40,000 UN peacekeepers with 60,00 NATO troops, it could not be portrayed as a foreign invasion. The US was willing to negotiate with Milosevic, Izetbegovic and Tudjman, despite the blood on their hands, and with the dynamics of the war shifting against the Serbs throughout 1995, Milosevic was willing to side-line the Bosnian Serb leadership and moderate his initial war aims.
The complexity of the situation in Syria, with so many different factions with competing war aims, supported by so many foreign governments with their own competing war aims, makes the likelihood of a bombing campaign prefiguring the kind of comprehensive peace deal signed at Dayton and ratified in Paris twenty years ago appear highly unlikely. The NATO airstrikes against the Serbs in 1995 lasted one month. The US has been bombing IS for 15 months. With the chances of airpower decisively shifting the balance or provide the impetus for a negotiated peace being so remote, the question we are left is this: what will this latest British overseas military involvement achieve, other than millions of pounds spent, infrastructure destroyed, lives lost, and a political solution to the Syrian war no closer?