[SEE: More Magical Thinking in Syria ]
UK policy in Syria has been hampered by “wishful thinking”, says a former top military adviser in the Middle East.
Lt Gen Sir Simon Mayall said the UK had underestimated the staying power of President Bashar al-Assad.
In an interview with BBC Newsnight, he painted a picture of a UK being in a strategic muddle over Syria and described Russia’s intervention as “hugely significant”.
On Iraq, he described the UK’s commitment as “frankly inadequate”.
The general’s remarks, in his first interview since stepping down, reflect wider frustration among senior officers about the lack of a coherent strategic approach to the Middle East, and risk-aversion among political leaders in the UK as well as the United States.
Meanwhile, the Home Office says a scheme providing funding for councils to “assist” with the costs of helping Syrian refugees for 12 months is to be extended.
Lt Gen Mayall spent much of his career in the Arab world – including as deputy commanding general of coalition forces in Iraq 2006-2007, and Defence Senior Adviser Middle East 2011-2015.
It has emerged recently that during discussions in 2012 of possible plans to hit Syrian President Bashar al-Assad’s forces, General David Richards, now Lord Richards, chief of the general staff asked rhetorically whether the prime minister was sure Britain was about to bomb the right people.
Lt Gen Mayall says he argued at that time, “that the Assad regime would fight to the last”, but that policy makers had got caught up in the excitement of the Arab spring and hoped the Syrian leader would be swiftly overthrown.
The Russians, he believes were, “in many ways more realistic about the staying power of Assad”.
Russian President Vladimir Putin has argued in recent weeks that his country’s operation in Syria is designed to prevent the type of state implosion that took place in Libya after Nato’s intervention there in 2011.
The British general’s remarks show there is some sympathy for this objective among senior officers in the West, particularly after Western experiences there, in Iraq following the 2003 invasion, and in Afghanistan.
Iraq response ‘inadequate’
Following the collapse of resistance to the Islamic State militant group in northern Iraq 15 months ago, the US and its allies committed to rebuilding 12 brigades. But the results have been disappointing and earlier this summer Iraq’s forces suffered another blow with the loss of the western city of Ramadi.
Many British officers were dismayed that the government would commit only a few dozen personnel to the effort to retrain Kurdish and Iraqi forces – fewer than Australia, Canada, Italy and Spain.
Lt Gen Mayall argues also that the model was wrong, with the foreign advisers not willing to lead the newly trained units into battle, something that could have, “massively increased” British leverage at a time when Iran was getting more involved in that battle.
“If we genuinely want to stop this and reverse it,” he says of Islamic State’s advance, “we are going to have to do more than have high-flown rhetoric because this is a really seriously dangerous situation on the ground… and our response frankly is inadequate for the scale of the problem that we’ve got.”
As for plans for UK forces to take part in the setting up of a safe area and no-fly zone in Syria, Russia’s actions are causing them to be reassessed. “It’s very difficult for Britain to do it independently,” he believes.
“A bigger question is does the United States aspire to a meaningful role out there and it may be that the Russian intervention is something that genuinely at last forces some really clear thinking.”