Report

America’s Wingman Returns to the Fight

Britain approves airstrikes in Syria as fury over the Paris attacks jolts more countries into stepping up their fight against the Islamic State.

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Prime Minister David Cameron sought Wednesday to reclaim Britain’s role as America’s wingman in the war on terror, securing parliamentary approval over a fragmented Labour Party for the United Kingdom to join the U.S.-led air assault against the Islamic State in Syria.

The decision marked an important political victory for Cameron, who was humiliated more than two years ago for failing to win enough domestic support to launch airstrikes and punish Syrian President Bashar al-Assad for using deadly chemical weapons against his own people in the country’s civil war.

The conservative British leader’s case for war gained ground in the weeks following the Islamic State’s claim of responsibility for the Nov. 13 terror attacks in Paris that killed 130. It also came as U.S. Secretary of State John Kerry urged NATO members to increase their military commitments to the fight against the Islamic extremists.

“We should answer the call from our allies,” Cameron said at the opening of Parliament’s hours-long debate on the use of force in Syria. He noted that the extremist group’s execution of British hostages in Syria, and its plots to commit “atrocity after atrocity” on the streets in Britain demanded a military response.

“We face a fundamental threat to our security,” Cameron said, claiming that British authorities have thwarted at least seven terror plots against U.K. citizens. “The question is this: Do we work with our allies to degrade and destroy this threat? And do we go after these terrorists in their heartlands from where they are plotting to kill British people, or do we sit back and wait for them to attack us?”

Following the 397 to 223 vote in Parliament, President Barack Obama praised Britain, saying it has been one of America’s “most valued partners in fighting ISIL.” 

We look forward to having British forces flying with the coalition over Syria, and will work to integrate them into our Coalition Air Tasking Orders as quickly as possible,” he said.

It was the most assertive response by a Western government since France stepped up its airstrikes against the Islamic State last month.

On Friday, the German Parliament, or Bundestag, is set to decide whether to embrace Berlin’s plans for a ramped-up noncombat role in the fight against the Islamic State, which is also known as ISIS, ISIL and Daesh.

Germany is planning to deploy as many as six Tornado reconnaissance jets to collect intelligence on Islamic State activities in Syria, and to supply a frigate to protect France’s nuclear-powered Charles de Gaulle aircraft carrier, according to a German official. The overall effort will require an additional force of up to 1,200 German troops and sailors.

World powers are seeking to move closer to an international agreement on a political transition in Syria.

Saudi Arabia is organizing a conference of Syrian opposition leaders in Riyadh in the coming weeks aimed at unifying the group’s overall message. On Tuesday, U.S. Ambassador to the United Nations Samantha Power was cautiously upbeat, telling reporters at U.N. headquarters that “we have not seen this kind of momentum around the diplomatic and political track in a very long time, and arguably ever.” On the same day, U.S. Deputy Secretary of State Tony Blinken told a Washington forum hosted by Foreign Policy that that the chances of crafting a political transition in Syria were better than “at any time during this crisis.”

And Russian Foreign Ministry spokeswoman Maria Zakharova told the Associated Press that Moscow is more determined than ever to reach a consensus on a list of “terrorist” groups in Syria before the next round of talks, tentatively expected to take place later this month in Vienna or London.

At NATO headquarters in Brussels, Kerry praised Cameron for selling the war to a skeptical British audience.

“I called on every NATO ally to step up support in the fight against Daesh, striking at the organization’s core in Syria and Iraq,” Kerry said in a Wednesday press conference. He cited an unspecified number of other NATO members that are also poised to bolster military efforts against the Islamic State.

But Kerry stopped short of outlining specific commitments from member nations that have yet to gain final approval from their capitals. He said new contributions wouldn’t necessarily include ground troops or direct fighting; rather, countries could supply medical facilities, refueling services, and intelligence gathering — an easy out for nations that do not want to be drawn directly into combat.

“There are many things that countries can do,” he said.

Kerry also held the door open to Russia broadening its cooperation against the Islamic State in Syria. Moscow can be an “extremely constructive and important player in reaching a solution to this current crisis,” Kerry said. “And I think the world would welcome that kind of cooperative effort.”

Concerns about maintaining broad international participation against ISIS spiked after Ankara last week shot down a Russian warplane that entered Turkey’s airspace, the first time a NATO member downed a Russian jet since the 1950s. The United States has worked quickly to lower tensions in the dispute, offering notably measured support for Ankara while urging both sides to engage in dialogue.

On Wednesday, prospects for closer cooperation with Russia encountered fresh strains with NATO’s decision to invite Montenegro to the alliance. That defied Moscow’s long-held complaint that expanding NATO’s footprint into the Balkans is “irresponsible” and would erode trust between Russia and Western powers.

NATO Secretary General Jens Stoltenberg called Montenegro’s inclusion “the beginning of a very beautiful alliance.” In an angry response, Russian presidential spokesman Dmitry Peskov warned that NATO’s “continued eastward expansion … cannot but result in retaliatory actions from the East, i.e., from the Russian side, in terms of ensuring security and supporting the parity of interests.”

In the past, Britain’s inability to secure parliamentary support for military operations with the United States has raised questions about London’s reliability as an ally. Skepticism over combat has lingered in Britain since the U.S.-led overthrow of Saddam Hussein — without U.N. Security Council authorization — based on the false pretext that the late Iraqi strongman was building an arsenal of weapons of mass destruction.

Britain’s military prowess also has been diminished by defense cuts; the army alone is projected to be pared down to as little as 50,000 troops over the next four years. Labour leader Jeremy Corbyn, an anti-war proponent who is proving unpopular with key factions in his own party, denounced Cameron’s military plans Wednesday before the House of Commons as a “reckless and half-baked intervention,” and an “ill-fated twist in the never-ending war on terror.”

Critics also have questioned whether Britain and other members of the coalition of more than 60 nations against the Islamic State have the legal authority to intervene militarily in Syria, given that Assad has not asked them for help.

British officials claim the United Nations’ charter, which allows member states to use force in self-defense, provides sufficient legal basis as long as the Islamic State continues to plot against or attack U.K. interests. They also point to a French-drafted U.N. Security Council resolution that calls on member states to use “all necessary measures” to eradicate ISIS’s safe havens in Syria.

But Corbyn countered that resolution — which was not adopted under Chapter 7 of the U.N. Charter, which is traditionally used to authorize the use of force — “does not give clear and unambiguous authorization for U.K. bombing in Syria.”

“The irony is that whereas Tony Blair thought he could swing the U.N. round to the invasion of Iraq in 2003, Cameron has had to wait for France to push through an opaque Security Council resolution on Syria to justify going to war,” said Richard Gowan, a senior policy fellow at the European Council on Foreign Relations.

“You can exploit diplomatic ambiguities to launch pretty serious military action,” Gowan said.

Despite London’s earlier reluctance to strike the Islamic State in Syria, the British Royal Air Force has already joined the U.S. air assaults in Iraq, where Baghdad has invited both nations to defend it as the extremists have expanded their reach.

Already, RAF Tornado GR4 surveillance jets and armed Reaper drones conduct daily flights over Iraq, gathering intelligence for coalition strikes and providing close air support for Iraqi ground units. While Britain has carried out some limited air operations inside Syria, Cameron has waited to call for a parliamentary vote for the broader mission until he was certain he would prevail.

“The impact of the Paris attack is quite significant, both in terms of demonstrating to the general public the reality of the ISIL threat and showing solidarity with the French,” said Malcolm Chalmers, a director of U.K. defense policy at the Royal United Services Institute. “And I think for the vast majority of political leaders, the alliance with the United States continues to be important.”

Chalmers said it was easy to overstate the strain between Washington and London, noting the relationship has weathered divergences on key security issues, from the Vietnam War to the U.S. invasion of Grenada, which Margaret Thatcher vigorously opposed.

In Syria, the U.K. is also providing the U.S.-led coalition with nonlethal military support, including reconnaissance, refueling, and command and control to identify targets, “which American and French planes are hitting.”

“We’re just not providing the last piece of the puzzle,” Chalmers said. That’s about to change.  

Photo credit: Ed Johnson/ForeignPolicy

Colum Lynch is a senior staff writer at Foreign Policy. Twitter: @columlynch

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