The Daily Star
Friday, August 22 2014
By Michael Glackin
Is British Prime Minister David Cameron really making the case for the return of British armed forces to Iraq? The short answer is no. Indeed, bearing in mind the United Kingdom’s ignominious retreat from Basra in 2007, when the army was forced to negotiate a safe exit with insurgents, one wonders why he even bothered attempting to make the case in the first place.
In case you missed it, last week Cameron penned an article for a Sunday newspaper in which he warned of the threat posed to the West by the Islamic State, formerly the Islamic State of Iraq and Greater Syria. Cameron insisted that the West could not ignore the Islamic State’s “caliphate,” which could lead to a “terrorist state on the shores of the Mediterranean.”
Cameron also warned that the Islamic State could terrorize Britain’s streets. The seriousness of this proposition was underlined this week by the group’s beheading of American journalist James Foley. The killing appeared to have been carried out by a man with a London accent.
Ratcheting up the Churchillian rhetoric, Cameron continued: “We are in the middle of a generational struggle against a poisonous and extremist ideology, which I believe we will be fighting for the rest of my political lifetime.”
Two thoughts sprang to mind. First, Cameron’s “political lifetime” could arguably be measured in months as the clock ticks down to next year’s election in May, whereas the lifetime of the Islamic State, or whatever it metamorphoses into, is unfortunately likely to be measured in years.
Secondly, the last time Cameron sounded the clarion call to military action in the Middle East, against Syria 12 months ago, he was forced to back down after he was resoundingly defeated by a parliamentary vote he needlessly insisted on calling.
Indeed, fear of a revolt among parliamentarians is probably why a day after Cameron’s article appeared, he bizarrely backtracked on most of what he appeared to be favoring. From fighting the Islamic State “for the rest of my political lifetime” Cameron insisted that “Britain is not going to get involved in another war in Iraq. We are not going to be putting boots on the ground. We are not going to be sending in the British army.”
The upshot is that, once again, British policy in the Middle East remains about as clear as mud.
Quite what prompted Cameron to wade into this particular global crisis is a mystery. For months he had appeared happy to ignore the steady advance of the Islamic State, just as he has ignored the escalating crisis in Ukraine and bloody conflicts in the Gaza Strip, Libya, Nigeria and elsewhere.
Having watched the Islamic State put people of all religious denominations to the sword across Syria and Iraq, Cameron’s call to arms merely fueled the conspiracy theories of those in the region who, not entirely inaccurately, argue that the West is more interested in protecting Iraqi oil fields than Iraqis.
The area controlled by the Kurds, whom the United States is currently helping militarily against the Islamic State, accounts for almost a third of Iraq’s oil reserves.
However, the odds on British military involvement in Iraq are long. Although British Defense Secretary Michael Fallon confirmed RAF Tornado jets were carrying out surveillance flights over Islamic State positions in an operation he said would last for “weeks and months,” the RAF has played no part in the recent U.S. airstrikes across northern Iraq.
Against that backdrop, it is hard not to conclude that the saber rattling from Cameron at the weekend was aimed at a domestic audience. The black flag of the Islamic State was hoisted over an east London housing estate a few days before Cameron’s article, while leaflets urging people to join the group have even been handed out on the streets of the capital. In his article Cameron warned that anyone pulling similar stunts would be arrested.
Strong words that actually amount to nothing reflect a wider ambivalence within the British electorate about the Middle East. Voters are asking why the rich Arab Gulf states are not doing more to defeat the Islamic State. For example, what remains of the Iraqi military is operating without U.S. air cover, which is being exclusively used to help the Kurds. Yet Saudi Arabia and the United Arab Emirates are proud possessors of advanced combat aircraft, from the F-15 and the F-16 to the Typhoon.
Cameron alluded to this sentiment in his article. He wrote that the U.K. would lead a diplomatic process to tackle the Islamic State that would include the Gulf monarchies and “perhaps even ... Iran.”
But against this is the fact that current U.S. policy, which Cameron and other Western leaders are falling behind, is firmly centered on the Kurds. U.S. firepower has so far been entirely focused on supporting the peshmerga.
Arming the Kurds directly, notably bypassing the new government in Baghdad, clearly boosts Kurdish separatism. Up to now the West has sought to contain the Kurdish desires, mindful both of the impact of Iraq’s fragmentation and the repercussions an independent Kurdistan would have on Turkey and Iran, which have their own large Kurdish minorities.
Moreover, the Kurds will not defeat the Islamic State. Their sole goal is to remove the group from their region in Iraq. This hardly solves the problem of a “terrorist state on the shores of the Mediterranean.”
And while Cameron and Obama are reconciled to a Hobson’s Choice over Iran in terms of Iraq, reconciling a strategy for dealing with the Islamic State in Syria is more problematical.
Would the U.S. launch airstrikes to protect Aleppo or Damascus from the Islamic State? If so would that mark the beginning of recognition that President Bashar Assad of Syria is the lesser of two evils? It would certainly suit Iran, though definitely not Saudi Arabia.
Consequently far from making a case for British involvement in Iraq, Cameron’s doublespeak actually sums up the reality that the West still lacks a coherent long-term approach to Syria and Iraq, or to Islamist extremism. Cameron should remember the adage that sometimes it is better to say nothing and be thought a fool rather than open your mouth and prove it beyond doubt.
Michael Glackin, is former managing editor of Beirut based newspaper THE DAILY STAR. A version of this article appeared in the print edition of The Daily Star on August 22, 2014, on page 7.