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Britain Edges Closer to Military Action Against IS

  • Henry Ridgwell

British Prime Minister David Cameron speaks during a United Nations Security Council meeting, Sept. 24, 2014, at U.N. headquarters in New York.

British Prime Minister David Cameron speaks during a United Nations Security Council meeting, Sept. 24, 2014, at U.N. headquarters in New York.

British Prime Minister David Cameron has recalled parliament so lawmakers can debate taking military action against Islamic State militants in Iraq and Syria. Despite being Washington’s closest ally in Afghanistan and Iraq, Britain has stopped short of joining the coalition of countries carrying out airstrikes, led by the United States. British lawmakers will debate the issue Friday.

Islamic State forces have pushed up to the Turkey-Syria border. Syrian refugees and Turkish soldiers watched from a hillside as Kurdish forces battled the militants for control of two villages just over the frontier. Local villager Halil Aslan witnessed the battle.

“Islamic State tanks and vehicles entered Boban village,” he says. “They shelled the place with tanks and mortars," said Aslan.

U.S.-led airstrikes on Islamic State positions in Syria and Iraq continued Wednesday. Britain has yet to join the coalition conducting combat operations. In contrast, France, and several Gulf Arab states, have carried out airstrikes.

Speaking Tuesday, British Prime Minister David Cameron said Islamic State poses a "clear threat" to his country.

“So this is a fight you cannot opt out of. These people want to kill us. They have got us in their sights and we have to put together this coalition... to make sure that we ultimately destroy this evil organization," said Cameron.

Matching those words with actions may be difficult.

A year ago, British lawmakers voted against taking military action against Syrian President Bashar al-Assad after he used chemical weapons on civilians. That defeat continues to haunt the British government, says the president of the policy group Royal United Services Institute in Qatar, Michael Stephens.

“The fallout from the vote on Syria was extremely detrimental to our regional position. And I think we were suffering from a bit of an Iraq war hangover, and that has still carried on into 2014," said Stephens.

Stephens says the British public is still wary of getting involved in another conflict - but that is changing after the beheading of British aid worker David Haines, and threats to the lives of two other British hostages.

“Making people more angry, and more likely to support a military intervention against ISIS," he said.

The West has yet to answer the central question of what happens next, says Craig Larkin of Kings College London.

“While ISIS might be deterred, and there will be a step back from territorial gains, they cannot be fought like a conventional army. There is going to be a further requirement for feet on the ground by Western forces," said Larkin.

The United States and its allies want local forces to take on ISIS on the ground. In Iraq, the national army and the Kurdish Peshmerga can fill that role. In Syria, it is far from clear, says Michael Stephens.

“If the prime minister cannot accurately give a long-term strategy about who we are going to work with after ISIS is gone then I do not think it is going to go very far," he said.

Prime Minister Cameron discussed the coalition against Islamic State Wednesday with Iranian President Hassan Rouhani at the United Nations in New York - the first meeting of British and Iranian leaders in 35 years. On Friday, he will try to convince lawmakers that Britain should be part of that coalition.

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