Britain could - but won’t - fight ISIS in Syria, analysts say

ISIS militants pass by a convoy in Tel Abyad town, northeast Syria (File photo: AP)

As Britain’s Queen Elizabeth II read her annual speech at the opening of Parliament this week, it fast became apparent that Prime Minister David Cameron would not be using his new-found strength leading a majority Conservative government to revisit the issue of military intervention in Syria any time soon.

And that was echoed by a Downing Street spokeswoman who told Al Arabiya News: “There haven’t been any new announcements [regarding the situation in Syria] post the election and the position remains unchanged.”

The UK Parliament first rejected Cameron’s proposed action against President Bashar al-Assad’s regime during a vote in August 2013. In a devastating blow to his authority, the prime minister lost the government motion by 272 votes to 285.

At the time, Cameron’s response was to say that he would respect the decision. Back then, Cameron had to work with a coalition parliament made up of lawmakers from his own Conservative party and the Liberal Democrats.

But three years later, the situation has changed both in Syria and at home in Britain. The threat to the people of Syria and neighboring countries is now considered to be posed by the Islamic State of Iraq and Syria (ISIS) militant group, rather than Assad, and Cameron now steers a majority government - albeit a slim one.

A vote is not needed

With hundreds of people joining ISIS from Britain - and Islamist militants now ruling over half of Syria - it would be feasible for Cameron to revisit the possibility of joining the U.S. in its campaign of air strikes over the country, experts say.

UK expert Kit Nicholl of the security analyst firm IHS said: “At the time of the approval of military action against the Islamic State in Iraq, Cameron said he believed military action in Syria would be lawful on the grounds of intervening to prevent a humanitarian disaster and protecting neighboring Iraq from attacks being launched from Syria.

“If the situation were to deteriorate further in Syria, it’s likely that Cameron would put a vote to the Commons which, in all likelihood, would sanction military action. MPs voted by 524 to 43 to back action in Iraq.”

But Nicholl said that the vote was not necessarily needed for action to take place, if wanted.

The capture of Ramadi and Palmyra wouldn’t have been prevented by having British planes flying over Syria

Chris Doyle, director of CAABU

He explained: “Strictly speaking, the government does not have to seek the approval of MPs to commence military action, but it has become customary to do so since this first happened over the Iraq war in 2003. Air strikes in Libya, for instance, began before a Commons vote because there was said to be an imminent threat of large-scale loss of life in Benghazi.

“If a time-sensitive situation of that nature were to present itself, Cameron would be likely to act before seeking the approval of MPs. This is again likely to be limited to airstrikes and the contribution is likely to be modest, as it has been in Iraq.”

‘Drumbeat of terrorism in the UK’

In October last year, the Guardian newspaper reported that at least five Britons were traveling to Iraq and Syria to join ISIS every day.

London’s Metropolitan Police Commissioner Bernard Hogan-Howe told the newspaper at the time that the figure was a minimum estimate and the “drum-beat of terrorism in the UK” was now “faster and more intense.”

He added: “There may be many more who set out to travel to another country and meandered over to Syria and Iraq in a way that is not always possible to spot when you have failed states and leaky borders.”

In June 2014, UK daily The Independent revealed that at least 1,500 Britons were believed to have been recruited to join the war in Iraq and Syria - raising concerns that many radicalized youths would likely return to the UK and launch attacks, the report added.

Chris Doyle, director of the Council for Arab-British Understanding (CAABU) said that Britain could become involved with action in Syria but that such an act was unlikely.

“It’s certainly possible and they did not rule out that they could extend military operations into Syria. That is conceivable. Though I would be wary of suggesting they would go much further than that,” he said.

No appetite for boots on the ground

“I think there is very little public appetite in Britain to get too heavily involved in Syria and certainly on the issue of committing infamous boots on the ground.”

Doyle said that although the deployment of military trainers was “conceivable,” he added: “But none of this is going to make a huge difference. Syria is already under U.S. aerial bombardment, in terms of ISIS positions, and it seems that if anything what they are lacking is hard intelligence about targets to hit that are clearly identifiable that are non-civilian.

“So the real issue is whether the anti-ISIS coalition is going to revisit the entire strategy of what they are doing because the capture of Ramadi and Palmyra wouldn’t have been prevented by having British planes flying over Syria.”

He said he believed that the situation with ISIS needed a “roots and branch rethink about how they are going to deal with an organization that has demonstrated that it is not just going to melt away.”

He added: “It has long term staying power, it has long term ambitions. And clearly has the financial and military muscle to bring that about. ISIS is certainly defeatable, but it can only be done if a suitably well thought out coherent strategy – we haven’t seen that yet.”

The problem was, he said, that presently “many people are joining ISIS or willing to accept ISIS because they provide security, they provide services at a time of huge uncertainty and insecurity. That equation has to be changed.”

European focus & a call with Putin

Despite the ongoing and arguably worsening situation in Syria, the likelihood of any British involvement in the fight in Syria is unlikely. As Downing Street said in its one-line statement to Al Arabiya News, there are currently no plans to change the current position.

And with Prime Minister Cameron’s time now taken up with his mission to change Britain’s relationship with the European Union - ahead of a UK in-out referendum - his foreign policy priorities are likely to have changed, said IHS analyst Adrian Rogstad.

“I don’t think Cameron is likely to push to increase UK engagement against the Islamic State into Syria from Iraq,” Rogstad told Al Arabiya News. “Cameron’s current number one foreign policy priority is renegotiating the terms of the UK’s EU membership before his planned ‘in-out’ referendum in 2016 or 2017.”

“This is likely to take the majority of his attention in the coming years. However, if increased engagement was requested forcefully by the U.S. and voted on by parliament, it would stand a much greater chance of approval now than in September last year, when Cameron did not push for action in Syria as there was not majority support in parliament.”

Whether Britain’s inaction on the Syrian conflict will continue could largely depend on negotiations with Russia.

A Downing Street spokeswoman told Al Arabiya News that in a recent half-hour phone call between Prime Minister Cameron and Russian President Vladimir Putin, the two leaders agreed that “it is in the interest of both the UK and Russia to help find a solution to the civil war in Syria and particularly to stop the rise of [ISIS].”

“They agreed that their national security advisers should meet to restart talks on the Syrian conflict. The Prime Minister reiterated his belief that President Assad could not be part of the solution in Syria. And they agreed that both countries should continue talks with the moderate Syrian opposition as part of this effort.”

For now it seems that the British will not be flying any missions against ISIS beyond Iraq, with the Conservative-led government’s fight against extremism taking place within Britain’s borders.


 

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Last Update: 20:28 KSA 23:28 - GMT 20:28
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