The atrocious murder of David Haines puts the United Kingdom and in particular Prime Minister David Cameron front and center in the evolving battle against ISIS. It’s not as though he is short of work, with a referendum in Scotland this week and a problematic relationship with the European Union among current elections next year dominating a crowded schedule.
But the PM must now mobilize the British public for another campaign in Iraq, mindful that the last one was widely opposed.
Revulsion at the beheading of three hostages will likely provide a bedrock of support. There are a wide variety of options including: surveillance and support operations, limited airstrikes against ISIS positions in Iraq, extending those airstrikes to ISIS targets in Syria or even inserting Special Forces in support of the Syrian resistance, Iraqi Kurds or the Iraqi military.
Cameron has been forthright about his government’s determination to take down ISIS, saying at the weekend: “Step by step we will drive back, dismantle and ultimately destroy ISIL [also used as an acronym for the group] and what it stands for. We will do so in a calm, deliberate way but with an iron determination.”
He added: “We will do everything in our power to hunt down these murderers and ensure they face justice, however long it takes.”
“Ultimately” and “However long it takes” imply an indefinite campaign.
Implying the UK would join in air strikes, British Defense Minister Michael Fallon has told Royal Air Force personnel involved in surveillance flights: “There may well now be in the next few weeks and months other ways that we may need to help save life and protect people.”
And that’s just one element of this strategy. Cameron has been expansive about prodding the Iraqi government toward being more inclusive, saying it “badly needs to get itself together so it can represent all of the country.” He is in favor of arming the Kurds, which in itself may be at odds with the aim of a unified Iraq, about mobilizing Arab states as part of a broad coalition to squeeze ISIS and about revitalizing moderate rebel groups in Syria.
The means and the goals of this multi-faceted campaign are yet to be fleshed out. In the words of his spokesman last week, “In terms of specific decisions about participation in further action, we are not at the stage of taking those decisions.”
For example, Cameron has been cautious about whether air strikes might be extended to Syria. Cameron maintains that “President [Bashar al-]Assad has committed war crimes on his own people and is therefore illegitimate.” But other parties in Britain are wary of air strikes in Syria, regarding them as dubious in international law. And many commentators believe some sort of understanding or accommodation with the Assad regime is an essential condition of effective action against ISIS strongholds in Raqqa and Idlib provinces.