With the Iraqi administration expected to formally ask the UK for military assistance later today, and most in Westminster now anticipating Parliament to be recalled on Friday in order to approve Coalition Government plans to join US and French allies bombing Isil targets in Iraq, the die appears to be cast on what could well be a long and difficult campaign ahead to rid Iraq of a dangerous militant organisation that nobody wants.
We may assume that Parliament will at this stage only be asked only to support air strikes in Iraq and maybe to provide equipment and further training for Iraqi soldiers. Neither can there be any suggestion of a request to Parliament that the UK should follow the US on its decision to also bomb Isil targets in Syria. We may expect that when Parliament is recalled there will be many raised voices calling for British soldiers to be sent in as well but these calls will for the time being be ignored.
From a political standpoint what the Government will propose in terms of joining our two major allies in making air attacks in Iraq is likely to receive all party support. And while many MP’s will look for signs of future willingness on the part of the Government to send ground troops in at some point, I do not believe that there can be any question of the UK taking a lead on that particular front. With regard to any eventual British involvement in Syria, there would need to be legitimacy of a United Nations Security Council resolution before the UK could even begin to consider whether such a move could be appropriate.
While the Isil regime can and I am sure will be significantly weakened by air attack it can hardly be defeated by this method alone. A specific danger is not only that Isil could, as we witnessed with other militant organisations such as al-Qaeda, go underground. Equally dangerous is the possibility that Isil could disperse over a very much wider area and perhaps even cross borders into Turkey, Iran and possibly Jordan. Escalation of this conflict cannot be ruled out, and although we may not realise it now, defeating Isil and other factions that might follow in its wake could well, as I think David Cameron has already suggested, take a generation.
While it is of course tempting to suggest that the only way to defeat Isil is by having a combination of air power attack and troops on the ground, there can at this stage be no question of Britain sending combat soldiers in unless and until other Arab states are prepared to do the same. I may be in a minority in taking such a view and I do fully recognise the threat that Isil poses is not just to the Middle East region but to all of us in the west as well. Clearly we cannot close our eyes to the threat that Isil presents to the peace and stability across the whole Middle East region, but I do share the view of President Obama that sorting out the many problems in the region is not a job for the west alone.
Arab states must then be prepared in my view to help rid the region of Isil, and while I applaud David Cameron’s remarks last night that ‘this is not a fight you can opt out of’ we do need to do a lot more in diplomatic terms to encourage a coalition of Arab states to support the conflict with Isil by putting their own troops in. For the UK to put troops on the ground in Iraq may look like a sensible solution to some but the political risks would be high. Whilst such a move should never be ruled out now is not the time for the UK to be involved in anything other than precision air attack.
This afternoon Prime Minister, David Cameron will meet with Iraqi president Haider Abadi for the first time. Mr Cameron will also address the United Nations in New York and later meet with Iran president, Hassan Rouhani, which will be the first such meeting between a British Prime Minister and a leader of Iran since the Iranian revolution in 1979. The thawing of relations with Iran is welcome and the possible sharing of views on defeating Isil may well draw Iran closer toward providing a greater level of support in the fight that probably lies ahead.
Other Arab State allies such as Saudi Arabia who still fear Iran, will continue to look on the improving relations between western governments and Iran with mistrust and it will be for Mr. Cameron to ensure that no damage is done to our existing relations. To that end it may be worth Mr. Cameron considering another visit to Saudi Arabia along with other states in the region such as the UAE, Kuwait, Oman, Qatar, Bahrain and possibly Jordan as well.
It is, assuming a formal request is made for help, right that the Coalition Government should join the US and France in air attacks on Isil compounds and equipment in Iraq and as it always is, the Royal Air Force is ready. With six Panavia Tornado GR4 jets already believed to be on station at RAF Akrotiri in Cyprus along with Voyager air to air tanking capability, the RC-135W Air Seeker intelligence and surveillance platform plus other transport and logistics support a well-planned and coordinated campaign of precision bombing attack will soon start.
As it was in both Gulf Wars, in Libya and in Afghanistan today, it is once again the venerable Tornado GR4 that will be called upon to conduct the new mission over Iraq. I have on many previous occasions stressed my deep seated concern about premature withdrawal of the Tornado force. Under current planning the current three squadrons of Tornado will soon fall to two. Given the increased level of geo-political tension and the high level of air to ground precision attack requirement it seems ridiculous that we will soon be standing down yet another squadron of Tornado jets ahead of our ability to deploy new fast jet capability capable of undertaking a similar level of mission. Given the worsening level of geo-political tensions and high level of use over the past five years, I might also add that we need to considerably speed up our process of re-ordering precision weapons and indeed, dramatically increase our stockpile.
CHW (24th September 2014)
Howard Wheeldon FRAeS
Tel: 07710 779785