David Cameron’s Damned-if-You-Do Islamic State Strategy

The British prime minister wants to wade deeper into the war in Syria. But will that really help keep the U.K. safe?


Amid the carnage and the horror of the Nov. 13 attacks on Paris, British Prime Minister David Cameron could, if he were so minded, reflect on one small consolation. His country was the lucky one. The horrors visited upon Paris could have easily occurred in London, as they have before.

“It is urgent that Europe wakes up, organizes itself, and defends itself against the terrorist threat,” said Bernard Cazeneuve, the French interior minister. But in London, where the intelligence services continue to think a terrorist attack more likely than not, politicians gave thanks for the eternal presence of Britain’s oldest line of defense: the English Channel.

Abdelhamid Abaaoud, believed to be the architect of the coordinated attacks in Paris, had been able to travel from Syria to Paris without, it appears, drawing the attention of the French, or any other, intelligence agencies.

The 20-plus miles of water separating the United Kingdom from the European continent is not, on its own, enough to guarantee safety — but it undoubtedly helps. Britain, of course, opted out of signing the Schengen Agreement that melted Europe’s internal borders — but as those borders are now being hastily reconstructed, it becomes hard to avoid the thought that the present crisis is just the latest manifestation of a wider, deeper, and more prolonged crisis of European self-confidence.

From Berlin to London via Stockholm and Brussels, prime ministers and presidents found themselves caught between two competing policy preferences: On the one hand, they acknowledged the need for a greater humanitarian response, but, on the other hand, they were only too aware that there was no obvious or easy way of determining the identity of those people trying to make their way to Europe. Most were only seeking sanctuary; some, it now seems clear, had a different agenda.

In Britain, Cameron’s response to the refugee crisis was pilloried and condemned as a heartless piece of pandering to his own right-wing supporters. Britain, he said, would only take a relative handful of refugees and — far from offering a welcome hand to Syrians fleeing their war-wrecked country — British ministers spoke of the “moral hazard” of permitting migrants to come and settle in the United Kingdom. Privileging those asylum-seekers who, at the very least, had the wherewithal to pay to get to Europe risked encouraging others to make a desperate journey fraught with danger, they argued.

But as the scale of the crisis became apparent, Cameron was pressured into making a larger, more generous, response. Britain would, he said, offer to resettle as many as 20,000 Syrian refugees by 2020. That’s a tiny number when compared to the 200,000 such refugees accepted by Sweden this year alone, but a notable increase on the mere hundreds that had previously been offered sanctuary in Britain.

Crucially, however, London does not intend to open its doors to refugees who have already made it to Europe. Britain would instead select its intake from those stranded in refugee camps in Lebanon, Turkey, and elsewhere in the region — much like the U.S. resettlement process. That way, ministers promised, the U.K. would be able to verify the claims made by the refugees themselves and, just as importantly, carry out security checks. That increasingly seems like a prudent strategy, not least since public support for admitting any Syrian refugees has fallen since the attacks in Paris.

Even so, the first 100 Syrian refugees to arrive in the U.K., touching down in Scotland two weeks ago, have been, on the whole, welcomed to their new homes. The contrast between the British experience and the hysterical reaction from the governors of U.S. states faced with the prospect of offering sanctuary to a relative handful of refugees could hardly have been more evident.

If Cameron’s cautious response to the refugee crisis was belatedly given some substance, the same might be said of his response to the Parisian atrocities, too. Paris and London may be ancient rivals, but their rivalry is rooted in a deeply planted respect. Each knows it is more like the other than like any other capital. France and Britain remain the only European nuclear powers and the only non-American Western countries capable of projecting significant force beyond their borders. They are rivals but also cousins.

And as the carnage on the streets of Paris unfolded, most people in Britain appreciated that this kind of attack could have just as easily hit them. It was all but impossible to avoid the thought that “there but for the grace of God” went the United Kingdom. Paris today; possibly London next time.

As it happened, England and France were due to meet for a friendly soccer match just days after the Paris attacks. Despite suggestions the game should be canceled, it went ahead, prefaced by a remarkable sight and sound: The whole stadium, French and English alike, sang “La Marseillaise.” Such sentiments are easily dismissed as being trite, but this felt like something different: a moment of cross-channel solidarity as real as it was unavoidably raw.

Visiting Paris last week, Cameron declared, “Nous sommes solidaires avec vous,” vowing that it was now “clear that the world is coming together to tackle this evil terrorist threat.” Hitherto, British planes have played only a limited role in the coalition against the Islamic State, being restricted to operations in northern Iraq. Cameron now intends to ask the House of Commons for permission to extend those bombing raids into Islamic State-controlled territory in Syria.

The ghosts of Iraq still loiter around the Palace of Westminster, however, and many MPs remain wary of a fresh military involvement in the Middle East. As in Washington, few voices are heard calling for “boots on the ground” — but, likewise, few MPs are confident an aerial assault on the Islamic State is necessarily sufficient. As ever, the questions of war aims and exit strategies haunt the government’s plans to submit a proposal for action before Parliament.

But if there is disquiet in his own party, Cameron can console himself with the thought that the opposition is hopelessly divided. Jeremy Corbyn, the new leader of the Labour Party, hails from the far left and was, until September, chairman of a vociferously anti-war pressure group that supports trying George W. Bush and Tony Blair for war crimes at the International Criminal Court in The Hague. Corbyn’s party is helplessly divided on the wisdom of extending Britain’s involvement in the struggle against the Islamic State from Iraq to Syria. The Labour leader is opposed, but many of his colleagues are not. Faced with the prospect of a significant parliamentary rebellion, Corbyn has allowed his party a free vote on a resolution authorizing the use of force.

That makes it more likely than not that the Royal Air Force will join its French and American counterparts in the skies above Syria — though the endgame of British involvement is uncertain and realistic prospects of success all but unmeasurable. Even supporters of military action, however, have seen their optimism tempered by the bitter realities of war in the 21st century. We have been here before, often enough.

Cameron’s suggestion that military action is needed to increase domestic security is a risky one, not least since Britain is already considered a target — to the extent that the security services claim to have thwarted no fewer than seven large-scale terrorist plots in the last 12 months. A higher-profile role in the international struggle against the Islamic State seems likely, at least in the short-term, to increase the risk of a domestic attack more than it will diminish it.

The vexingly complex reality is that Britain, like France, faces two different but related problems. In the first place, the Islamic State offers a training ground for would-be jihadis and acts as a petri dish for the cultivation of anti-Western extremism. And yet, like other European countries, the prime threat to national security comes from domestic jihadis — not the Islamic State. Britons returning from Syria are more likely to pose a severe threat than Syrian refugees seeking sanctuary from the charnel house their country has become.

It may be that attacking the Islamic State further inflames already impressionable minds open to extremism, but Cameron’s bet — and it is a gamble — is that squeezing the Islamic State must, eventually, reduce its appeal to British citizens tempted by the idea of jihad. At the very least, he hopes, they can be denied the opportunity to learn their trade in the Middle East itself. Failing that, they should know that a trip to Syria is a journey made with a one-way ticket.

In terms of domestic security, however, Britain’s difficulties are found at home just as surely as they are located overseas. Several hundred British Muslims are believed to have traveled to Syria to fight for the Islamic State. Stemming that flow in the first place and then, should they return to the U.K., keeping them under surveillance is a more pressing long-term dilemma than stanching the flood of refugees fleeing Syria.

As ever, however, what is possible in politics depends, at least in part, on what the public will accept. Those decrying Britain’s apparently tardy and half-hearted response to the Syrian refugee crisis ignored the fact that there was little popular enthusiasm for doing more. This was so even when pitiful images of dead children washed up on a Turkish beach dominated the newspapers.

In September, just 36 percent of Britons, according to one poll, supported admitting significantly more refugees, while 27 percent favored accepting “fewer or no refugees.” After Paris, just one in five Britons favors a larger resettlement program, while 49 percent support much sharper restrictions on the number of refugees admitted to Britain.

Throughout it all, Cameron faces this excruciating paradox: Measures taken overseas might heighten the domestic threat, but failing to act now against the Islamic State cannot alleviate or minimize that threat either. Not least since, as has become all too clear, it already exists and is considered sufficiently serious to have Britain’s security services on a permanent state of high alert.

All of which means that Cameron has grounds to think that even when you’re lucky, the search for attractive options may yet prove a fruitless one.


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