Cameron's non-interventionist policy against IS is a potential disaster

By Chris Schofield

Barack Obama recently ordered the fourth round of air strikes against the Islamic State, which began last week in a frantic attempt to prevent the predicted genocide of 40,000 Yazidis and other minorities. These refugees had fled in desperation to the arid slopes of Mount Sinjar, fearing extermination at the hands of extremist fighters carrying the haunting black flag of ISIL. Also high on the President’s agenda was the protection of vulnerable US intelligence personnel and other military assets currently stationed in northern Iraq.

The targeted strikes by the US Navy came too late, however, to prevent the mass slaughter of over 500 Yazidis, with horrific accounts emerging of women and children being buried alive by ISIL militants and a further 300 Yazidi women reportedly kidnapped into slavery. This is in addition to the barbarous actions of ISIL militants across Iraq and Syria in the past weeks during their sweeping territorial gains made in a rapid advance southwards, which at times brought them uncomfortably close to Baghdad.

Obama has been clear that the US military is not willing to perform the role of a substitute Iraqi air force and has declared outright that “there is not going to be an American military solution to this problem.” With the mass surrender of Iraqi security forces to ISIL in June, however, it remains difficult to see how the country can fend off the advances of the Islamic State without external military assistance.

Across the Atlantic, David Cameron has publicly announced that the UK will only commit to a limited humanitarian role, assisting persecuted minorities via a handful of RAF aid drops to exposed Yazidis still trapped on Mount Sinjar. Alarmingly, both the Prime Minister and his Foreign Secretary Philip Hammond have made the unprecedented decision to rule out any military action in Iraq.
This is despite having recognised the grave threat that an expanding Islamic State poses to both civilians across the Levant and to the geo-strategic interests and security of Britons. As prominent analysts like Ian Bremmer have noted, there is now more reason to confront ISIL than there ever was to remove Saddam Hussein from power in 2003.

It begs the important question as to why Cameron has chosen to refuse the use of UK combat forces in what is perhaps the most pivotal change in the political landscape of the region since Sykes-Picot.
There are a number of possible explanations:

1.) Cameron has underestimated the threat
This is possible but unlikely. Since their sweeping advance across Iraq in late June, ISIL have been incredibly effective militarily. With years of hardened experience fighting Assad’s forces in Syria and after the seizure of US-supplied Iraqi military assets, the Islamic State represents a potent challenge to Iraqi state security forces and Kurdish peshmerga fighters. It is unlikely that British intelligence had not briefed the Prime Minister on the risks of ISIL making huge strategic gains, such as the seizure of the Mosul Dam last week and its profitable capture of Iraqi oil-fields (revenues from which are returning $100 million to the Islamic State every month). Aware of these grave threats, as well as the jihadists’ wish to exterminate minorities and even “to attack us here at home”, Cameron knows that the severity of the crisis can not now be neglected by Britain.

2.) Public opinion
So why not attempt to halt ISIL’s advances with targeted military action? The last thing the Prime Minister wants in the run-up to a general election is dead British troops returning from an all-too familiar war-zone. After years of prolonged conflict in both Afghanistan and Iraq, the electorate is reluctant to face the costs of yet another Middle Eastern war, with no clear objectives or foreseeable ending. However, Cameron’s decision to join a NATO intervention in Libya in 2011 was not met with the wave of public criticism one might expect — British voters supported the military action by 45% to 36%.

The option of dramatically slowing ISIL without putting British boots on the ground is very much an attainable objective, as Cameron knows and as the effective air campaign against Gaddafi’s forces demonstrated. Such a limited response would also minimise the risk to British personnel — ISIL as of yet have no operational air assets.

3.) Parliament
If the Prime Minister had decided that action against ISIL would be electorally permissible, his next obstacle would be convincing MPs. Cameron would likely seek cross-party approval for any combat operations in Iraq, knowing the risks of bypassing the legislature when sending young men and women to fight abroad. However, last summer he erroneously conflated Labour’s demand for UN evidence before potential action in Syria with a lack of parliamentary support for military intervention altogether. This experience might be critical in dissuading Cameron from going through the process of recalling parliament from recess and securing cross-bench support all over again.

4.) The US is already doing it for us, so why bother?
A more likely reason for ruling out military action against ISIL is Cameron’s knowledge that Obama will do so anyway. In times of fiscal restraint and with just months to go before an election, why run all the risks cited above if the US will stop the Islamic State for us? Because Obama is not stupid. The US has in recent years ramped up its rhetoric about Europe needing to do its part in securing global stability. For decades, America has all but guaranteed the security of European states, at a hugely disproportionate cost.

The President knows that as long as British interests are at stake in Iraq — be it from disrupted economic and resource flows or domestic terrorism — then the country should play its part in securing them. Cameron may be playing a game of ‘how much can we get away with not doing’, but he also knows the anger felt across the pond at a seemingly lacklustre commitment to international security in Europe. The pressure on European leaders from the White House to commit operationally in Iraq is likely to be significant.

5.) The UK lacks the military capacity
Even if Cameron did understand the threat posed by ISIL, decided he could weather public opinion, muster support from MPs and agreed that Britain has a global responsibility to play its part in Iraq, he may have simply doubted that the UK has the military capacity. In an era of defence cuts and stretched resources, Britain is no longer seen as the world power it once was. Indeed, as the former Chief of the General Staff has warned, we could not even reclaim the Falklands were they to be invaded again, due to lack of military assets and dwindling personnel numbers.

But as stated above, the current repertoire of action available to Cameron in Iraq is wide. His deployment on Monday of Tornado jets to the region signals a ramped-up effort to involve British forces. Though strictly for “surveillance” purposes and reserved for the humanitarian purpose of assisting other aircraft with aid-drops, these jets can easily be armed for ground attack, as they were in Libya. The targeted use of these assets against ISIL forces are likely what President Obama hopes his European allies will commit to.

There is no immediate solution to the crisis unfolding in Iraq and beyond. Western military action will not eradicate ISIL and will certainly not solve the age-old problem of divisive sectarianism and arbitrary colonial borders. Targeted air strikes can, however, slow the advance of militants where they pose a deadly threat to civilians.

The reasoning behind Cameron’s outright refusal to engage in combat operations against the Islamic State is thus unclear, and if lived up to, will likely be remembered as an extremely irresponsible foreign policy decision in the face of a grave security threat.

What is clear is that both the US and UK will regret leaving the fight against ISIL to the hollowed-out Iraqi military. The strategic landscape could be radically altered, either by a crushing ISIL victory in Iraq or by the military intervention of other regional stakeholders such as Iran.

In the meantime, thousands of Iraqis, Syrians and Kurds will continue to be displaced or massacred by the horrific onslaught of ISIL and their agenda of annihilation.

Chris Schofield studies International Relations at Exeter University.  This post first appeared on "Medium".


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