We will have “no boots on the ground” in Syria – that is the great mantra governments in Washington and London are repeating at almost every possible occasion. Even when American and British military action against Syria was imminent in September 2013 so as to punish Bashar al-Assad’s regime for the use of chemical weapons, Barack Obama and David Cameron made clear that putting “boots on the ground” was not up for discussion.
Just last week, in his speech at West Point, Obama felt compelled to tell the world again that he had “made a decision that we should not put American troops” into Syria and that he believed “that is the right decision.” Nobody disagrees, not even the Syrian opposition. They may be demanding more anti-tank and anti-aircraft guns, they may even welcome Western air support, but they certainly don’t want American or British soldiers to take on the Assad regime on their behalf.
But there may come a time when all this insistence of “no boots on the ground” no longer matters. There may come a time when Obama and Cameron (or their successors) send their uniformed men and women into Syria after all – or at least vote in the UN Security Council that other nations should send theirs. When these “boots”, wherever they may come from, are placed “on the ground” in Syria, it will not be to fight Assad. That remains – and will most likely remain – out of the question. Instead, it will be to keep the peace, to stabilise Syria and to make sure that a political settlement can be implemented.
The war in Syria will end with a political solution, no side can win a military victory. Obama and Cameron repeat that fact almost more frequently than their “no boots” mantra. In fact, there is wide-spread agreement within the international community that a political settlement is the only way to end the nightmare of the Syrian people.
Let us cast our minds forward and imagine a scenario where such a political settlement has actually been reached. The regime and the opposition sign a document, the newspapers print pictures of handshakes. But what next? Syria is in ruins. Aleppo, Homs, Damascus’ suburbs – everything has been reduced to rubble after years of barrel bombs, shelling and gunfire. Millions of Syrians are displaced, everyone has experienced monumental loss and is irrevocably scarred for life, physically or mentally. And there are inevitably some groups, probably the radical Islamists, that are not done yet, that want to keep killing and destroying.
This future Syria will need serious state-building and some kind of peacekeeping force to provide the necessary security. America and Britain will not have to shoulder this task alone; that is the responsibility of the UN – Russia, the EU, the Arab League, perhaps even Iran will need to help. But it may not be enough to deploy a few thousand Blue Helmet troops from India, Nepal, Indonesia or Spain as in the UN’s ongoing peacekeeping mission in Lebanon. This is not to disparage the quality of these troops or their achievements. But if groups like al-Qaeda’s affiliate in Syria, al-Nusra, or the even more extreme Islamic State of Iraq and the Levant (ISIS) linger on, American and British soldiers may have to step up.
American and British militaries are the only ones with the necessary training, equipment and experience to battle an opponent like ISIS. They did it successfully during the surge in Iraq in 2007-08 when they fought al-Qaeda, ISIS’s predecessor, into a corner. The Iraqi case should also be a warning. Since American and British troops have left Iraq, radical Islamists have experienced their own little surge. ISIS currently controls parts of Fallujah and Ramadi and suicide bombers terrorise the people of Baghdad. The Iraqi military, although trained by America and Britain and outfitted with Apache helicopters, drones and hellfire missiles, has made little progress against the extremists.
There will be “no boots on the ground” – this mantra will hold true as long as the war rages in Syria. But when the agony of the Syrian people finally ends and a political solution to the conflict is reached, it may become untenable. A UN peacekeeping mission may be needed to help rebuild the country and American and British soldiers may have to do the heavy lifting, to once again take up the battle with radical Islamists. We should be ready.