Why were the British so apparently hesitant about joining the fight against Islamic State? The British House of Commons voted overwhelmingly on Sept. 26 to join the American-led air campaign against Islamic State in Iraq. But the motion did not authorize action against targets in Syria.
Prime Minister David Cameron made it clear to the House that the government had no intention of sending British ground forces to Iraq other than in an advisory or training capacity. Except in a humanitarian crisis calling for an immediate response, Parliament would, he declared, be consulted before any action was taken against targets in Syria.
British involvement is limited at this stage to the use in combat missions over Iraq of six Tornado aircraft stationed at the British base in Cyprus.
The British decision to take part followed a formal request from the Iraqi prime minister to Cameron in New York and is thus in accordance with United Nations legal requirements.
The United States had obtained the backing of Sunni-majority Arab states, including Saudi Arabia, for the air campaign, which it is leading against Islamic State in Iraq and in Syria. France, the Netherlands and Denmark also decided to participate before the British agreed to back the allied efforts.
The British delay in deciding and its limited participation so far has shocked some people in Britain who would like Britain to play a leading role in the fight against Islamic State and demonstrate that it is still the U.S.’s most trustworthy ally in Europe. But Prime Minister Cameron has had to be cautious for both political and practical reasons.
British public opinion has been shocked by the barbaric behavior of Islamic State forces in Iraq and Syria, and was appalled by the beheading of three hostages, two American and one British. There are real fears that two more British hostages may face a similar fate.
While the British government will not let these fears deter it from military action, they reinforced the government’s desire not to take action that might further jeopardize the men’s lives, and to ensure that decisions are made strictly in accordance with international law.
British hesitancy also reflects the widespread feeling in Britain that the United Kingdom should never again become involved in another war in the Middle East.
Not many people in Britain today would be prepared to defend Britain’s participation in the second Iraq war, in which Prime Minister Tony Blair gave active and enthusiastic support for the U.S. invasion under the leadership of President George W. Bush against the regime of Saddam Hussein. Blair is still hated by some people on the political right and the left in Britain.
There is also widespread skepticism about the utility of intervention by Western forces in Middle Eastern states. Many accept that British involvement in the NATO campaign in Afghanistan was unavoidable and necessary in the national interest, but many also doubt whether the eventual outcome will appear to have justified the casualties suffered by British forces.
There is considerable doubt about the wisdom of intervening in what is often seen as an internecine battle between two Islamic sects, the Sunnis and the Shiites. Few non-Muslims understand the differences and don’t want to take sides in what they see as a religious quarrel. British involvement in the civil war in Libya helped to remove a tyrant, but has left the country in chaos and without effective government.
Public opinion is divided over Syria. The Assad regime is abhorred and its use of chemical weapons universally condemned, but the opposition forces are seen as divided, the dominant force being the barbaric Islamic State.
Intervention from the outside might, it is feared, only make matters worse. Refugees from Syria in Turkey and Jordan constitute a humanitarian disaster. Much more must be done for them, but there are doubts about whether outside intervention in Syria would help them.
There is also much skepticism about the limited value and effectiveness of airstrikes against Islamic State. Such attacks may destroy some heavy weapons that Islamic State forces captured from the demoralized and badly led Iraqi army, but they will not win over Islamic State supporters especially if the attacks kill more civilians than active fighters.
A further factor in the British delay was the defeat that the government suffered last year when it put a motion to the House calling for the use of air power against the Syrian regime over its use of chemical weapons. The prime minister’s opponents comprised not only the bulk of the Labour Party opposition but also some of the more isolationist Conservative back-benchers.
Cameron was determined this time to make certain of support from the Labour Party, but it would have been difficult to get the party’s agreement until it had held its annual conference. That meant waiting until Sept. 26 — before Parliament could be summoned back from its summer recess.
Ed Milliband, the Labour Party leader, apparently could not be convinced that action should also be taken against targets in Syria unless there was a specific U.N. Security Council resolution authorizing such action. This is unrealistic in view of a likely Russian veto.
While few British politicians and officials will admit that this is a factor, one consideration was that Britain’s armed forces, which have been reduced by cuts in defense expenditures, have been under strain.
All of the above considerations delayed the outcome, leaving the impression with some foreign observers that Britain is no longer a leader in action against organizations that blatantly flout human rights the way Islamic State has done. I hope this impression is mistaken and that Britain will assume a leading role in providing humanitarian assistance to succor the flood of refugees, and will do more to counter jihadist propaganda and recruitment.
Hugh Cortazzi served as Britain’s ambassador to Japan from 1980-1984.