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Returning to the Shadows: Intelligence and the vote on air strikes in Syria

Written by Rory Cormac.

We have been here before. As MPs file through the lobby to vote on air strikes against ISIS in Syria, they could be forgiven a sense of déjà vu.

Prior to the 2003 invasion of Iraq and on the principle of military intervention in Syria – against Assad this time – MPs were asked for approval.

In both cases secret intelligence played a key role. Claims about Saddam Hussein’s apparent Weapons of Mass Destruction are notorious and cast a heavy shadow. Intelligence was also vital in the 2013 Syria debate – in assessing whether or not Assad had launched a brutal chemical attack and breached one of President Obama’s “red lines”. David Cameron was desperate to learn the lessons from Tony Blair’s mistakes a decade earlier.

Intelligence is also crucial now. But it is being overlooked in favour of emotional, short-term and symbolic arguments in favour of air strikes. The debate is being driven by the desire to stand by France and the need to be seen to “do something” in the aftermath of the Paris attacks. Meanwhile the Labour Opposition seems more interested in attacking its leader, Jeremy Corbyn, than interrogating the rationale underpinning the case for war.

Cameron has, however, been criticised for lacking a strategy in his use of air power. Many have agreed that air power alone cannot be effective against ISIS. In response, the prime minister has pointed to 70,000 moderate rebels read to assist the West. They are being presented as an integral part of a more holistic – and thought-through – strategy.

This raises key questions: who are these rebels? Do they really exist? Can they really be trusted? Will they be there when we need them?

The dramatic number alone has raised eyebrows, with many dismissing the number as fantasy.  So where did the prime minister get it? It seems from the Joint Intelligence Committee; Britain’s top level all source intelligence assessment body. This is nothing new. Prime ministers have been drawing on JIC intelligence since Churchill during the Second World War.

What is interesting though is that Cameron seems to have departed from recent precedent. This is a crucial intelligence assessment on which his argument for war partly hinges. But unlike in 2013 (and Blair before him), Cameron has decided not to publish the intelligence for use in the parliamentary debate. This seems strange given that it supports his position in the face of doubters.

Why then, bucking recent trends, has the JIC stayed in the shadows this time around?

First, the committee, and its intelligence, remains tainted in the eyes of some by the so-called “dodgy dossier” and the 45 minute claim.

Second, Cameron may have felt stung by the Syria debate of 2013. Intelligence rarely deals in certainties and publishing JIC material two years ago risked setting the burden of proof too high. MPs remained unconvinced by inevitable caveats and assessments of “highly likely”.

Third, the JIC has a new chairman, the formidable Charles Farr. His predecessor Jon Day debated at length whether to allow Cameron to release JIC material in 2013 and this is a big test for Farr on the first day in his new job. One thing is obvious though, Farr will not allow policymakers to marginalise his committee or abuse and manipulate its intelligence reports as has happened in the past.

Perhaps the intelligence community and the prime minister alike have concluded that secret intelligence should remain just that. Secret.

Rory Cormac is an Assistant Professor of International Relations. Image credit: CC by Defence Images/Flickr

Published inConflict & Security

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