Liam Stott looks into Britain’s indecisive response to the recent IS threat.
The significant territorial gains achieved by the Islamic State militant group (IS) in recent weeks has resulted in a colossal and tragic humanitarian crisis in Iraq, with the UN estimating that as many as 1.2 million civilians have been internally displaced. There have been reports of horrifying atrocities committed by IS against minority groups including Christians and Yazidis, forcing tens of thousands of refugees towards either Irbil or Baghdad.
The escalating situation has forced the US to respond, both with humanitarian aid and air strikes, while the British involvement has only recently been extended beyond relief efforts into intelligence gathering for US missions and Kurdish forces. There has been a notable shift in Britain’s military role as a result of Islamic State’s advances, and any unforeseen developments have the potential to lead to ‘mission creep’, and thus alter the British government’s loosely defined strategy.
According to the Prime Minister David Cameron, the British government would ‘use all the assets that we have’, including ‘aid and our military prowess’ to defeat IS, although the PM was adamant that there would be ‘no boots on the ground’. The Prime Minister’s statement is obviously one designed to reassure public opinion, especially when the US led invasion of Iraq in 2003 is still poignant in the minds of the electorate.
It still remains unclear as to how far the government is willing to utilise Britain’s ‘military prowess’, especially when unforeseen events have a habit of overtaking any original strategy. Writing in The Sunday Telegraph, the Prime Minister stated, ‘Yes let’s help with aid, but let’s not get any more involved’; a clearly defined strategy that barely lasted a day following the Defence Secretary’s visit to RAF Akrotiri in Cyprus.
During his visit, the Defence Secretary Michael Fallon informed military personnel that the UK’s role in Iraq had expanded beyond the original humanitarian mission to include surveillance of Islamic State forces. If anything, this demonstrates how an unstable situation on the ground, over which we have no control, can unexpectedly intensify and end up dragging us deeper into the conflict.
In recent days RAF Tornado bombers and advanced River Joint surveillance aircraft have flown reconnaissance missions deep into Iraq, relaying information of IS movements to US aircraft and Kurdish forces. At this present moment the RAF is not involved in any combat operations, although with the military hardware in place and the recent shift in political language, it is not impossible to imagine that Britain’s military role in Iraq could potentially change to more direct intervention, including the possibility of air strikes.
In his visit to RAF Akrotiri, Mr Fallon also told military personnel that ‘there may well be in the next few weeks and months other ways that we may need to help save lives [and] protect people’. The Prime Minister went further to state, he sees this crisis as ‘a generational struggle against a poisonous and extremist ideology’, which could bring terror to the streets of Britain unless ‘urgent action’ is taken to defeat it. The ambiguity of both statements is therefore an indication that the British government’s strategy in Iraq remains far from clear, with decisions for further intervention being influenced by events on the ground.
Obviously any escalation in military action would require the consent of Parliament, although the current political language, coupled with the volatile situation within Iraq, leaves the door wide open to the possibility of direct intervention.
By Liam Stott
[Image Credit: Julie Jordan Scott]