BOSTON — As the Obama administation steps up its war against militants from the Islamic State (also known as ISIL), the United Kingdom once again joins the US as a key ally. In late September, the British committed to conducting airstrikes against the Islamic State, and will also join a US-led effort to build up the moderate Free Syrian Army, in its fight to topple Syrian President Bashar al-Assad.
After completing talks with Secretary of State John Kerry last week in Washington, British Foreign Secretary Philip Hammond answered questions for journalists from GlobalPost and the Christian Science Monitor. Below is the transcript of the interview.
The interview has been lightly edited for clarity by GlobalPost.
How do you foresee the defeat of ISIL?
It comes about by a multi-strand approach. Of course there’s a military component. ISIL has to be defeated militarily. But we will defeat them militarily by cutting off the flow of resources they receive —that’s external financing, foreign fighters, logistic materiel, it’s their ability to access the oil markets with oil they control.
We will defeat them by challenging and undermining their ideology, because you can’t bomb an ideology out of existence, you have to challenge it and argue it out of existence. And we will defeat it in Iraq by good governance, by showing that the Abadi government will introduce generally inclusive government that recognizes the claim of Iraq’s minorities, the Sunni and the Kurds, not to mention others, the Christians and Yazidis to share in the country’s wealth and a degree of autonomy in their areas —all things that the government has committed to, but it now has to deliver on.
And in the military domain, the airstrikes are important and will continue, and have degraded ISIL’s capabilities, destroyed military infrastructure, destroyed their ability to access oil revenues to a significant extent, but have also, perhaps more importantly forced them to change tactics. And that’s what continuous air attack does. It doesn’t necessarily destroy your military capability, but it forces you to move away from a formed units conventional military approach to something more like the structure of a terrorist organization, and that is important because one of the defining characteristics of ISIL’s pitch is that it’s not a terrorist organization it’s a state, it’s taking and holding territory, it’s running civil government, it’s organizing public services. Attack from the air degrades its ability to do all of those things.
But in the end it will need ground forces to beat it back and destroy it. They will have to come, in the case of Iraq from the Kurdish Peshmerga and the Iraqi security forces, which will require a degree of retraining, reorganization and new doctrine and tactics following the years of attrition under [former Iraqi Prime Minister Nouri al-Maliki]. And in the case of Syria [it] will have to come from the Free Syrian Army, the moderate opposition forces, which will be built on the back of the $500 million Congress has appropriated for the training, paying and equipping Syrian fighters. That middle word is crucially important: getting these fighting groups away from being ad-hoc groups of enthusiasts or idealists to a regular paid service where people do their training, put on a uniform, accept a discipline, and get a paycheck at the end of the month is a crucially important step forward. But it’s not going to happen overnight. As Secretary Kerry has said it’s going to take months and years, not days and weeks.
On Syria, you’ve said the UK has not ruled out getting involved in the air campaign. Is that correct?
Yes, that’s correct. We haven’t ruled that out. We’ve sought the endorsement of Parliament to our decision to become involved in Iraq, and we’ve had a very strong parliamentary endorsement. We told Parliament that if we judged at any time that we needed to become involved in Syria, that there was a military logic to Britain becoming involvement in Syria, that we would go back to Parliament and seek parliamentary endorsement of that decision.
What would be the legal basis for the UK’s intervention in Syria?
Collective self defense. Same as the US’s legal basis. Collective self defense in support of Iraq. Iraq has written to us and told us collectively that it is threatened by an external threat coming from the territory of Syria, which it believes the Syrian government is unable or unwilling to control, that is under article 51 of the UN Charter.
So you would not be declaring war on Syria, you’d just be bombing within their country?
Absolutely not. That’s exactly right. We’re not doing anything at the moment, but if we were it would be suppressing the threat to the state of Iraq emanating from the territory of Syria, that the Syrian regime is unable or unwilling to control.
You would be taking out one of Assad’s enemies, while you’re on record as saying that Assad must go. There’s a contradiction here. Perhaps you could speak to that?
I could do that in a phrase that I’m afraid I use rather laboriously now, but in this part of the world it is not the case that my enemy’s enemy is my friend. My enemy’s enemy is somebody I’m going to get later, after I’ve got my enemy. That’s where we are. We cannot treat Assad as a friend simply because he’s an enemy of ISIL. We have to deal with ISIL because ISIL is the enemy. But in time we also have to deal with Assad because Assad is the enemy.
How will you do that?
By training a Free Syrian Army so that the balance on the ground in Syria tips to the point where the sensible elements in the regime sue for a political solution, to avoid what happened in Iraq, where the institutions of government were dismantled. I don’t think anyone wants to go there in Syria.
What needs to happen is that Assad needs to go. The moderate opposition and the regime minus Assad need to sit down and discuss a political solution that leads to free and fair elections in Syria.
The moderate opposition, the Syrian National Coalition have made clear that they are not seeking to dismantle the state or the institutions of the state, they are not seeking to exclude from participation in the new Syria the Alawite leadership or the Alawite or the Alawite element of the population. It has to be a genuinely inclusive solution, it is prepared to put behind it the horrific experience of the last three years.
An article in the New York Times today alleges that airstrikes on the Islamic State is enabling the Assad regime to take a stronger approach against other rebel groups. can you respond, please?
I understand the challenge, and of course it’s something that we’ve got to watch very carefully. But I don’t think that it’s a major concern at the moment. The Assad forces are not as strong or as closely under the control of the regime as perhaps it seems from the outside. The Assad regime is now heavily dependent on militias that act semi-autonomously. I think it’s overly simplistic to think of a regime in Damascus making a strategic military judgment, pulling a lever and diverting forces from one thing to another. I think the situation on the ground is a lot more fragmented, a lot more chaotic than that. And actually the number of formal Syrian army forces that the regime is able to deploy as opposed to Syrian army units that the regime won’t deploy because it has fears around their loyalty —I think it’s a relatively limited number.
So it’s not an issue for the moment, but I readily accept that it’s something we’re going to have to keep an eye on.
The solution is to step up the pace of training and equipping of Free Syrian Army fighters, to keep the pressure on the regime. The US announcement [of $500 million in support] is a major morale boost to the Free Syrian army, and will in time tip the balance. We’re going to play a major role alongside the US in doing that training, we’re scoping with the US now how can best plug into the US led effort there.
You mentioned earlier that ground troops are essential to the effort. In the past decade the US spent about $25 billion trying to build up the iraqi military, and yet in the face of the Islamic State it melted away. What is the hope that we can make these ground forces into something effective — on the fly as we conduct air strikes against ISIL?
The Iraqi army is basically a well-equipped, reasonably strong in numbers force, but it has been undermined by the blatant divineness, sectarianism of the Maliki regime. Imposing officers that were appointed for political affiliation rather than military capability, a blatantly sectarian approach in the use of the army, a total alienation of the Sunni population from the Iraqi security forces. And that has to be reversed. So you are right in the sense that we’re going to have to do this on the fly.
The only forces on the ground outside the northern areas where the Peshmerga are present are the Iraqi security forces. So they are going to have to be kept in line and supported to deliver military capability, even while we take units out, retrain them, restructure them and plug them back in again. That’s an urgent requirement, and [General] John Allen I know is focused —if there’s a man I know who knows how to do this, and do it in the Iraqi context, he’s the man. He’s now very much focused on how we’re going to deliver on this challenge of using the current Iraqi army both to hold the line and provide the nucleus of a retrained, restructured force.
The Iraqi government is committed to raising a national guard, which is locally based and therefore de facto single-community based. There are pros and cons to that, but the reality is getting a Sunni force raised quickly is quite an important part of building the new Iraq, and we’ve already got the Peshmerga, the Kurdish force.
How much difference have you seen with Abadi over the Malaki government?
A huge difference. Malaki was an outrageous, in your face, blatant sectarian, with no pretense of running a single nation for the benefit of all its people.
Abadi gets it. He talks the right game, but 80 percent of the ministers in his government were in the Maliki government. The skeptics have reason to be skeptical. Let’s be constructive, but certainly let’s not be naive about the degree of commitment that necessarily be shown. I think Abadi’s heart is in the right place. Whether all of his colleagues in government will be as enthusiastic, we’ll need to wait and see.
But they’re the only game in town, so we have to back them.
What levers can you pull to try to push more effort in terms of sending the message, we are inclusive —the kind of thing that will, in theory, give the Iraqi army reason to fight for the country?
I think having ISIL 30 miles away from your capital city is a pretty big wakeup call, and there is no doubt that the US airstrikes have prevented what could have been a disastrous meltdown for the Iraqis. It’s not for me to say how the Pentagon, John Allen and the White House play this, but I wouldn’t let them forget that they are only there sitting in their palace, or whatever they sit in, on sufferance. That they have to deliver now on this program, because it will be impossible for the US, for the UK, France, any democratic government to maintain the kind of support that’s now been committed if the government on ground isn’t working toward a sustainable solution.
President Obama was very clear before the Abadi government was formed that he wouldn’t intervene more generally —I think the initial intervention was to protect the Kurds —that he wouldn’t intervene more generally until there was a credible government to intervene in support of. And they have to keep being reminded of that. They’ll need lots of support from the international community —technical support, training support, military advice and equipment, and possibly financial support if they can’t get enough of their oil out, although at the moment they’re doing okay. I think the government of Abadi absolutely understands that if Iraq is on its own, it can get into a very bad place very quickly.
There’s been a lot of criticism in the United States of the Turkish positon, and of course they have a complicated game to play with their Kurdish population. But as a NATO ally, what can you reasonably expect Turkey to do going forward?
Well the Turks have put forward a plan —first of all they have been constrained by their own hostage situation which is now resolved, so there was a strong sense that Turkey was standing on the sideline waiting to join the game. They have now made very clear in words that they are ready to join the game, they want to join the game and they expect to join the game. They have put forward a plan which is not new, they have been talking about it for several months, involving the creation of a no-fly zone buffer, safe areas, and General Allen is in Ankara [Thursday Oct. 9] and he’s visiting one or two other capitals in the region before coming back here.
So this is very much a plan in evolution, as Secretary Kerry said [Thursday morning] as we did the doorstep at the wind turbine center. This coalition was only put together a couple weeks ago. We are still finding our feet, working out who’s going to do what, who’s going to take action where. The Turks were behind the curve anyway because they didn’t get involved until a bit later because of the hostage situation. So working out exactly how Turkey is going to make its contribution, recognizing all the sensitivities around Kurdish areas on both sides of the border, is not going to be done overnight. There’s a lot of people out there saying, why don’t the Turks just go and defend Kobani —my understanding is that the PKK and the PYD who are in Kobani have said that they don’t want the Turks in there. It’s my enemy’s enemy thing again. To nice tidy Western minds who think of things in black and white —there’s them and there’s us —the situation is much more complex on the ground, and working out different roles that different parties can play so that it can all be harmonious is going to be complex.
Turkey has military bases where the US would normally fly out of, to carry out exactly these types of airstrikes, but they haven’t gotten permission to do so. I don’t know whether the UK would use those airbases or not. I imagine you’d use Cyprus?
Well we have used Cyprus. To use Cyprus is an unsinkable air craft carrier.
So Turkey is not so important for the UK?
I can’t make the military judgment of whether you were offered a base further forward, but with all the disadvantages of using an expeditionary base rather than operating from what is effectively a home base. I can’t ask for the Americans either, you’d have ask [Defense Secretary] Chuck Hagel why they're operating from the Gulf rather than from Incirlik.
But in your initial scenario of how ISIL is defeated, Turkey didn’t figure in. Is it not a critical link?
We think this has got to be done by Iraqi forces in Iraq and Syrian forces in Syria.
Western boots on the ground —even local, regional boots on the ground in any significant numbers in a combat role, because of the complexities and tensions is always going to be difficult, is always going to lead to potentially as many problems as it solves.
Turkey being western in this sense?
Well, Turkey not exactly being Western, but Turkey has all sorts of historic complexities in its relations with countries and groups in the region.
This is far better resolved internally, and the program we have in place assumes that that is how it will be done, with Iraqi security forces and Peshmerga and newly raised Iraqi National Guard units in Iraq, and with a regenerated Free Syrian Army in Syria, based on the very substantial US program.
Do you see a role for Iran? What sort of role do you think might be helpful or appropriate in fighting ISIL?
Well, it’s certainly helpful to have Iran’s tacit approval of the action that is going on. I don’t think we would welcome direct Iranian involvement, it would be yet another complicating factor to the extent that the important thing in Iraq is to emphasize Iraq as a nation, not a series of religious factions. Having Shia Iran waving in makes it rather less likely to envisage the Sunni population would feel that that government is something they could rally around.
Going back to training the Free Syrian Army, there’s been this discussion of, how do you know who you’re really working with? What measures can be taken to make sure you’re targeting the right people and not working with people who might head down a different path from the US and the UK?
Well there will have to be a screening process, and there will be a proper training process, and there will be a paid regime. So these people will be employees. We’re not talking about training a bunch of freelancers who go off on their pickup trucks and then we never see them again. They’re going to be working in formed and organized Free Syrian Army units. They’ll be getting a paycheck at the end of the month.
Whose employees will they be?
The Free Syrian Army’s, or a sub-unit of it. There will be a number of groups under the Free Syrian Army umbrella.
So there’s enough structure there?
It needs reinforcing, but there’s enough structure there. But of course the reality of the world: as soon as you start paying people regularly you have a structure.
In terms of there being a flow of recruits, again, payment of regular wages is going to be crucially important in recruiting the kind of people we want. These will not necessarily be people who are fanatically committed, they will be people who are prepared to fight, train, learn the trade, who believe in the cause of a democratic Syria, but also people who want to earn a wage and feed their families, which is a perfectly respectable ambition for people to have.
Is this likely to work better than it has, say, in Afghanistan? And can you comment on the size and strength of the free syrian army? [Globalpost] detects from our correspondents that a lot of former Free Syrian Army soldiers have fled abroad at this point.
The size of the Free Syrian Army, I think we currently estimate 25,000? [Aide: I think there’s quite a wide range.] Yes, around 20,000 to 25,000.
So more or less the same troop strength as ISIL?
Well, we slightly differ with our US colleagues on estimates of ISIL strength. The UK estimates are closer to 10,000. US estimates are above 20,000 or 25,000, up even towards 30,000. But with a big range of error. A lot of it depends on definition.
How will this [training] work?
They will be taken out of country for training, given training…
To Iraq presumably?
I think there are a number of options in the region, but to countries in the region, where they can be trained and returned to a fighting role in Syria.
It’s not going to happen overnight. We’re probably talking about three or four months to get the first batch through the system and back in, and that might be two, three, four thousand, that sort of number. But I think the target is to be able to train about 15,000 a year, which is not vast numbers but it’s enough to make a significant difference.
And most importantly, by training them, disciplining them and paying them, you would expect to find that, you put 15,000 in you’ve still got the better part of 15,000 there a year later, rather people just melting away.
By the way, I have to pick up on your Afghanistan reference: Do I hope it will work better than it did in Afghanistan?
No I don’t expect it to work better than it did in Afghanistan, I think that Afghanistan is a good example of how you can train up an army from scratch. Different circumstances, but you’ve got [total security forces] of 352,000 in Afghanistan, which does a pretty good job, can plan and execute its own operations, runs its own logistics, very rarely needs any help from ISAF partners. If we could get to anything remotely like that in Syria we wouldn’t have a problem, frankly.
We’re not talking about anything on the scale of the Afghan national security forces, we’re talking about, maybe after three years building up a force that might be 50,000 strong.
And remember, in the Syrian National Convention’s own words, it is not seeking to defeat the regime, it is seeking to bring the regime to a political compromise, that’s their objective. They’re not trying to storm Damascus and kill everybody.
It sounds a bit more like arming the Mujahideen in the Afghan civil war than building up the afghan national army.
You mentioned that once people start getting paid it creates a structure. Funding this army is a long term investment. How dedicated can we be to the free Syrian army, which presumably does not have a future as an arm of the Syrian government, assuming things succeed.
I would expect it to be integrated into the Syrian national army, as part of a future democratic Syria, and there are plenty of examples around the world of organized liberation armies, post transition of power, being integrated into the traditional national security forces structure. That would be the preferred route.
How long are Britain and the US committed to seeing out the ongoing funding [of the Free Syrian Army] until they have a new paymaster?
We’ll there’s $500 million committed so far, that will do quite a lot. You will have read the stories saying —and I cannot validate —that ISIL fighters get paid somewhere between $300 and $600 a month. I have no reason to believe that economic conditions in Syria will be much different. So, at that sort of level the wage bill for a force building up to 50,000 is not going to break the bank.
The risk is that you’re prolonging a civil war for years to come. The Assad regime and the Alawites see the Sunni opposition —now you’ll say there are moderates and islamists —they see things in a very black and white sense: If they take over, we’re doomed, we will all be slaughtered in the streets.
There’s no reason to draw that assumption. The SNC is messaging very hard that that’s not its purpose. Its purpose is to sit down with members of the current governing class, governing regime, whatever you want to call them, and cut a deal to create a transitional government and move Syria to open elections in which the Alawite community will continue to play a role, it won’t have the dominant role that it has now, but it will have to be under a constitution that assures them that they will not be victims of a retribution that they would never sign up for, that would cause them to fight to the death.
What happened in Iraq, with the de-Baathification strategy is a pretty powerful to anyone who wants to look at it to think hard about the relative merits of retribution versus constructive approach to the future.
The president of the Syrian National Coalition, [Hadi Al-Bahra] is a pretty impressive guy, not impressive in the sense that he’s a great orator or that sort of thing, but he’s a technocrat, an engineer or something —some kind of professional person who has committed himself to this role, and he is very clear about what the Syrian National Coalition’s role is, and it will not fight the election, that’s in its constitution. It will seek to get Syria to the point of an election, but it will not fight it. It contains within it many groups that will contest an election, but it will not contest the election itself.