The British government’s focus on “fire-fighting” the threat posed by Islamic State in Syria and Iraq risks allowing other jihadist groups to spring up in the region and beyond, MPs have warned.
Since December 2015, British military forces have carried out 550 airstrikes against Islamic State in Iraq, and a further 65 against the group in Syria, resulting in some success in terms of retaking land from the jihadist force.
But a report released today by the House of Commons Defence Committee has criticised the government’s overall strategy in the region, questioning whether it is sufficiently flexible to account for the changing nature of the Middle Eastern conflict.
Although Islamic State’s main base of operations is currently Iraq and Syria, the report notes that the group may evolve in time into a network of smaller groups with bases in Africa as well as across the Middle East. If it does, the current military strategy will not be adequate.
“The UK and Coalition’s strategy to counter DAESH [Islamic State] is predominately focused on Iraq and Syria; and relies on the removal of territory from DAESH in order to eliminate it. That is a necessary, but not sufficient, strategy,” the MPs have said.
“If DAESH transforms itself into an international movement or a network of affiliates—like al-Qaeda before it—which can survive the loss of territory, the UK Government approach will need to adapt. For example, if DAESH is defeated in the Middle East but then grows strong in Africa, the current strategy will require major revision.”
In addition, other groups, such as Jabhat al-Nusra in the Middle East, and al-Qaeda in the Islamic Maghreb (AQIM), Boko Haram, and al-Shabaab in Africa may increase in influence as Islamic State decreases.
Dr Julian Lewis MP, Chair of the Defence Committee, stated: “Whilst substantial progress in eliminating DAESH [Islamic State] is clearly being achieved in Iraq, the situation in Syria is far more complex. Assuming DAESH is squeezed out of both countries, we have to focus too on what happens next – both in other countries to which DAESH may migrate, and in Syria especially where there is no shortage of other Islamist groups, just as dangerous, which are planning to take control.”
The Committee has recommended that the government monitor the threat posed by groups such as al-Nusra, noting: “The danger posed by an organisation which has been one of al-Qaeda’s most successful affiliates may well be limited to Syria at present but the potential for it to carry out terrorist attacks globally may increasingly become a reality.”
And it has suggested that the government consider “exactly how it intends to help ensure that political reform is achieved,” warning that a failure to enact political reform may “undermine the military progress to date”, leaving the coalition in a situation where Islamic State has been removed “only for it to be replaced by other groups posing similar or even greater threats”,
A Government spokesman said: “The UK is at the forefront of efforts to defeat Daesh in Iraq and Syria. We have conducted over 1,000 airstrikes, which is second only to the US in both countries, and have helped train more than 25,000 Iraqi forces. As a result, Daesh is losing territory in Iraq and Syria.
“Daesh can’t be defeated by military means alone, which is why our strategy tackles its finances, propaganda, flow of foreign fighters and evolving terrorist threat.
“We’re supporting the Iraqi government to deliver stabilisation, reconciliation and reform, and are working with international partners and the UN towards a political settlement in Syria.”