Mr Fallon has told us that he is seeking to win over more MPs to the idea that the UK should join in bombing ISIL in Syria. He tells us it makes no sense for us to bomb ISIL in Iraq, but not to bomb them if they step over the border into Syria.
There are of course two ways of dealing with this apparent anomaly. We could decide to bomb them in both places as he wishes, or we could decide to bomb them in neither. At some point war in Iraq and Syria has to give way to a peace settlement. At some point people have to lay down their arms and turn to the much maligned arts of politics to seek a way of living together. When that happens in Syria a thug government has to talk to terrorist opponents, and the potential moderates have to find their voices and voting support in order to offer some solutions that are more palatable.
There are reasons why the UK has not rushed to bomb in Syria as well as in Iraq. Mr Fallon has to recall that when the government last wanted Parliament to vote to support bombing, it was to support bombing against Assad in the name of his opponents. I refused to do so then not because I have any love of Assad’s brutal regime, but because I could not see a friendly democratic opposition who could rise up, win the war and offer a peaceful transition to better government. I was worried that harming Assad more could either give opportunity to extremists to take over, or might just prolong the war and bloodshed further.
Iraq and Syria are different, not least because the Iraqi government has asked us to help them by bombing ISIL, whereas Assad does not. The UK sees the Iraqi government as different in kind from the government of Syria. Legally the case is easier for Iraq than for Syria. Politically and morally the UK government is happier to help the government of Iraq than the government of Syria.
In other ways they are similar. Both countries contain entrenched warring factions. Both have terrorist problems not just from ISIL but also from groups like Al Qaeda and Jabhat al Nusra. Both are split between Sunni and Shia groups. Both have Kurdish areas where the people want an independent state.
The best the UK could offer might be to seek to lead a very difficult initiative to get the forces and factions on the ground and the great and regional powers circling the two conflicts to sit down and discuss borders, systems of government, and who is best equipped to lead. Russia’s intervention is clearly trying to move the forces in Assad’s favour in Syria, not something the west welcomes. The longer the west delays in seeking a negotiated solution, the worse the position on the ground may become.