Islamic State: 'No clear-cut strategy' in fight against jihadists

By Nick Childs
World affairs correspondent, BBC News

  • Published
Three US F-18E Super Hornet planesImage source, Reuters
Image caption,
Air strikes began in August and US and British officials insist they have in part halted some IS advances

In some ways, the latest House of Commons Defence Committee report on the campaign against so-called Islamic State in Iraq and Syria echoes the criticism that has dogged the overall US-led effort from the start: that there is no clear-cut strategy.

Both the US and British governments, of course, dispute this.

Beyond that, the MPs say Britain can and should be doing more than what the report describes as the "striking modest" contribution so far - a small force of Tornado bombers and Reaper drones, and a few trainers and advisers on the ground.

The MPs insists that they are not advocating conventional Western combat forces on the ground.

But they suggest Britain could step up its contribution to the air campaign, and perhaps use more special forces.

They also want more effort from Britain to develop its own analysis and strategy, rather than just "sign-up" to the American campaign.

Image source, AFP/Getty Images
Image caption,
The UK's role in fighting Islamic State extremists was described as strikingly modest in the report

In addition, they want Britain to respond to Iraqi requests for more training, including to counter Improvised Explosive Devices (IEDs).

And they suggest that there should be more use of particular British expertise and experience in the region, to help with analysis and planning, to restructure the Iraqi Kurdish forces who are taking on IS fighters, and to contribute more on the diplomatic front in the region.

'Difficult challenge'

In some ways, none of this is dramatic stuff. And the government would argue that it is weighing up further British contributions now.

And yet the doubts and criticisms remain.

In part that is because everybody agrees that this is a very difficult challenge to confront.

The MPs contrast what they see as the level of political rhetoric on the threat posed by IS with the level of effort being put in now to combating, but also how limited that is relative to the scale of the military campaign last time.

But in Washington and London, officials argue that this is a different kind of enemy this time, and that they have learned the lessons of last time.

Hence, for example, a campaign of air strikes that is not on the same scale as previous ones.

Image source, Reuters
Image caption,
An explosion following an air strike is seen in western Kobani neighbourhood in November 2014

There is also an insistence that the air campaign is only a small part of the equation.

And there is general agreement that Western combat boots on the ground are not a good idea.

It is acknowledged that that is partly because of deep public and political reluctance in the West.

Key players

The key elements are getting Iraqi, Kurdish, and moderate Syrian opposition forces into shape to take on IS fighters themselves.

The support of key regional players is seen as vital. And, ultimately, there must be political change in Iraq and Syria to choke off IS support.

Washington talks about 60 or so countries across the globe being involved in the anti-IS coalition in some way or another - for example, in trying to choke off IS funding.

But the key players are a much smaller group, including those involved directly in military action.

Air strikes began in August - the Americans joined by Britain, France, and a handful of other Western countries in Iraq, and by Jordan and a number of Gulf Arab state in Syria.

US and British officials insist that they have in part halted and even reversed some IS advances.

But the key question now in Washington, London, and other capitals, is what more to do to help rebuild the weak Iraqi, Kurdish, and moderate Syrian opposition forces - how much support, for how long, and how many Western personnel will be needed?

Then there will have to be the political change in Iraq and Syria.

Some doubt whether these parts of the jigsaw can be put together.

There is the suspicion of "mission creep".

Then there are the strains within the coalition - with Turkey, for example, and between some Arab members of the coalition.

And Iran is a key player, but not - as far as the Americans are concerned - part of the coalition.

All this is why there remain these question marks over whether there is a clear anti-IS strategy that is realistic and workable.