The ghosts of Britain’s past experiences of Syria and Iraq hang over Prime Minister David Cameron’s response to the threat posed by Islamic State.
Stung by a historic parliamentary defeat over Syria last year as the U.K. still smarts from the last Iraq war, Cameron is in no rush to press for any move to combat the Islamist militant group that would require another vote. Nine months before a U.K. general election, that also applies to any U.S. calls for military backing with air strikes or more.
“These sorts of decisions are going to be influenced by how well things have gone in the past,” Justin Fisher, a professor of politics at Brunel University London, said in an interview. “Military action isn’t on the agenda, Britain is not involved in military activity and is unlikely to be at the moment.”
President Barack Obama is seeking support as he decides whether to extend air strikes against Islamic State in Iraq to military action against targets in Syria. Obama told reporters in Washington yesterday that Secretary of State John Kerry will travel to the region to help build a coalition and a strategy for defeating the group.
For Cameron, joining in any action against Islamic State could require a vote. Last year he was forced to abandon plans for strikes against the Syrian government over the use of chemical weapons, after becoming the first prime minister in at least 150 years to lose a parliamentary vote on military action.
“He will be making a statement to Parliament on Monday, and he’ll want to take the mood of the House at that point,” Keith Simpson, a Conservative lawmaker, said in a telephone interview. “Colleagues are torn in two directions: they’ve been horrified by the continuing massacres, but there’s the long shadow of Iraq.”
Simpson said that “unless there’s a great crisis,” he didn’t expect any announcement before the North Atlantic Treaty Organization summit that begins on Sept. 4 in Newport, Wales.
The U.K. wants to look at what role NATO can take in tackling extremists and supplying the Kurds with weapons, according to a government official who asked not to be named because the discussions are private.
Cameron and his ministers have repeatedly pledged “no boots on the ground” in the fight against Islamic State. They have been more reticent on the question of air strikes. While so far Royal Air Force Tornado jets have only been used for surveillance, Defence Secretary Philip Hammond said Aug. 18 simply that there were “no plans” for strikes.
“There’s been no request for us to deliver air strikes,” Cameron’s office said yesterday in a statement. “This isn’t something under discussion at the moment. Our focus remains on supporting the Iraq government and Kurdish force so that they can counter the threat posed by Islamic State.”
The events of 12 months ago feature prominently in government thinking. When Cameron recalled Parliament to approve air strikes against Syria on Aug. 29 last year, the vote had initially seemed straightforward. He failed to foresee the doubts about action both on his own Conservative side and the possibility that Ed Miliband’s opposition Labour Party would vote against it, a decision announced on the morning of the debate.
“The big thing last time was Labour switching,” said Philip Cowley, professor of parliamentary government at Nottingham University. “This time Cameron would want absolutely copper-bottomed cross-party support before he went ahead.”
Labour’s foreign affairs spokesman, Douglas Alexander, said on Aug. 9 the government was right not to propose military action, and urged “diplomatic and humanitarian” steps. On Aug. 22 he proposed a regional conference to agree a strategy for battling Islamic State. Last year it was only on the day of the vote that the party agreed its position, after Miliband met his lawmakers.
Simpson, the Conservative lawmaker, put it more simply. “The prime minister will be leery about trusting Ed Miliband,” he said.